Ursine Wave

September 20, 2010

I’m sitting opposite a bear at an outdoor table of a café in Eureka, Montana. The bear asks me how business is. I tell her that business is good.

Good business is terrifying.

There’s a group of demonstrators gathering on the other side of the street. Some of them are holding placards. Some of the placards are relevant.

On the whole though, I can’t say they’re very original. A C+ effort at best. “God Hates Bestial Drug Smugglers,” is the most common one. “Canandian Drug-Bitches Go Home,” is taxonomically inaccurate. “God Hates Fags” doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but the demonstrators appear to have had a lot of them made up, so they decided to take them along anyway.

Some of the demonstrators are getting restless. They start checking their watches. It’s a Monday morning, so at least some of them have to go to work.

I don’t wear a watch anymore.

Bears are always late.

Ursula, many bears are called Ursula, apologises for her colleaugue not having arrived yet. I tell her that it’s no matter to me. I’m used to bears.

After hundreds of years of inserting themselves into human society, bears underwent rapid cladogenesis in the late 21st Century. One branch of the species remained wedded to the forests of Britsh Columbia and Colorado, to the open plains of Iowa and Kansas. Naturally they’re all dead now.

Another branch lost their fear of humans. They also gained the ability to saw through the padlocks on bins, unscrew the iron-bars from windows, and get past the child-locks on cars. They developed a sophisticated, if not au niveau humain, culture, structured around an, in hindsight unstable, economy of theft and pillage.

A concerted human effort to crack down on the threat posed by their growing tribes was made. (There were serious fears of a conquering ursine wave overwhelming the United States and revenging itself for our long history of careless genocide towards their ancestors. The more panic-proned pro-Americans seriously feared an alliance between the bears and the Green People’s Republic of Canada. They imagined the states being carved up, with the industrial areas taught French and appended to Quebec, and the vast agri-corp plains reclaimed for a forest nation.)

But with the imposition of a inter-species police state on the entire Mid-West, the bears had to find a new, (barely) legal economic niche if they were to preserve their race. Fortunately, held over from the old days were vast international laneways of wilderness preserve that had been designed to allow migratory animals to survive the annexation of their habitats by humans. Birds, bovines, and crucially bears could use these stretches of wilderness running from Canada to Mexico to move themselves from one seasonal feeding ground to another, unhindered by human activity. Some of the cleverer bears realised that they could also use these reserves to courier vast quantities of marijuana south from Canada into a desperate seller’s market.

Which is where I come in.

Bears themselves are not big dope-fiends. The difference in metabolism and brain structure between the two species is such that the drug really only causes them rashes and persistent diarrhoea. (Though we’re apparently missing something on the order of a pagan orgy when we eat honey. Ursula thinks that you actually need to have been stung by a dying hive of bees to experience it, but she hasn’t convinced me to try yet). They have no internal market for the drug, and they find it difficult to form connections directly in the relevant circles.

The solution is to sell to major, established, human crime-networks. They had fairly substantial contacts left over from when they were still working mostly in burglary and they needed to fence a lot of stolen goods. (Bears are smart enough to know that stealing one MacBook Pro will feed you better than raiding ten distinct fridges).

But the trouble is that though they evolved intelligence, bears did not evolve a vocal apparatus equivalent to that of humans. Their own languages are a complex mix of a limited number of vocalisations, combined with a very intricate system of body-signs and variations in odour. These things all actually exist in human language as well (when a woman smells of fresh roses, she’s telling you you’re going to have a good day), but in contrast to the bears we developed the vocalisations largely at the expense of other forms of communication (Ursula tells me that she and her partner are still only at the two roses and some fresh hay, stage of their relationship. When I asked her about pheremones she told she wasn’t that kind of bear.)

So humans naturally can’t understand most of what bears say to one another. The feeling of incomprehension is mutual. Ursula tells me the bear ‘word’ for human-language is “the-sound-of-a-caught-salmon-who-is-not-quite-dead-yet-vainly-flapping-around-in-a-shallow-pool.” A solution to the dilemma was devised at a secret international conference in 2122, which took place in Chicago between the representatives of the ursine nation and the American underworld. With the help of unnamed linguists driven by professional curiousity, and the finest minds inter-species crime can make, a special language was created to facilitate communication.

The language, known as Transursine, or Крğйххь, forms a unique family of languages known as ‘dual-languages.’ A dual-language is actually two languages which must both be spoken during any conversation held therein. One is called Transursine Mensch, or Крğйххь Водд, and as the name suggests, it is the language designed to be speakable with a human set of vocal chords. The other is Transursine Bär, or Крğйххь Йххь, designed to be spoken by bears. Bär represents the most complicated set of sounds a bear can make vocally (which is near the absolute minimum needed to formulate a complete language), while Mensch is a vastly simplified, guttural version of human speech, to which the ursine mind is sufficiently sensitive to allow conversation.

I learnt the language when I ran away from home and went to live in Colorado with my brother, a nature-enthousiast and FBI-Most-Wanted-List manufacturer of pornography. (There is no legal age of consent for bears). I’m not sure that I’d say I ever drifted into a life of crime. Translating is not really crime. But it does pay obscenely well to take a few bags of hemp into my car every couple of days and pass on a small number of orders to Ursula’s associates.

Speaking of Ursula’s associates a vast, certainly male, bear is padding down the main street, blithely ignoring the placard-wielding demonstrators. The demonstrators appear not to know quite what to do. On the one hand a lynch-mob is a lynch-mob. On the other hand, I wonder if there isn’t some grizzly in Ursula’s friend.

“Грохх йххь,” Ursula confirms. Most intelligent bears evolved from black bears, but there was some inter-breeding before the pre-intelligent species died out. My brother might have had something to do with that.

The грохх йххь, the grotzch bär, I would say, approaches our table unhindered. “Bär dutzch guttu machh,” I greet him. He appears to understand and responds, “Водд дей просфйррğ.” Many bears learn a few basic greetings, as well as the phrase “Йххь фреи жй креи корож зеп. Шйш дей кроххь!” (“Bears are civilised beings. I’m not going to chase you down to eat you!”) in case they meet any hikers as they go about their daily lives.

“I would offer you a chair,” I say to him through Ursula, “but I’m afraid they don’t cater to our kind of clientele here very well.”

“Yes,” he answers with the slow deliberation that comes through long translation. “But the manager here is good. He doesn’t make a fuss about my work. I do not mind about formalities.

“To business.”

“To business,” I agree.

“The cargo is a large one today,” he leans as he tells me, a gesture which commands my attention in a way no human could do, “there are twenty of my family camped by the Tobacco River one and a half miles from the border. There you will drive and pick up the bags. We will stay and rest for a while. Then we will begin our return with your orders.”

“Should I ask him how many days?” Ursula adds to her translation.

“It’s fine,” I tell her, “I know he’ll leave when he leaves. Tell him that if he’s brought his cubs he should take his time. I saw a hive not far from where his family is a couple of days ago. They should be old enough to learn how to forage for honey by now.

“My employer also asked that you pass on the message to your suppliers that he needs a greater supply. He’s willing to increase his price by twenty dollars per bag if your end can increase the delivery rate by fifty-bags a week within the month.”

“We’ll do what we can,” he responds. At that I thank him and leave for my car. He and Ursula stay to discuss the trip, a conversation for which I would be a crowd. There is no human translation for what the bears see in the wild.

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