—Look, I’m not saying you didn’t catch the fish. You caught the fish.
—Got that right. Me, my claws, my jaws. Jaws that’ll snap you in half.
—Look, that kind of talk? I thought we agreed, that’s over.
—Come on. It’s nature, just like you taught me, like word for word from the poem. “Nature red in tooth and claw!”
—Right, the poem. I’m almost sorry I taught you. I mean, the idea was, first I’d teach you, then you’d knock it off. That kind of talk, the old dog—eat—dog…
—Except I’m the dog!
—I’m the nature. The animal. There’s just two of us left, these days, and I’m the one with fang and claw.
—Look, I’m not saying different. You animal, good! Fish, jaw, snap —good! But these days, you know that’s not going to help us any.
—Yeah, yeah, yeah.
—These days, animal and human have got to work together. Back to back, at the howling center of a world in ruins.
—Is that poetry again? Teaching me to talk again? This whole language thing, I swear, sometimes it makes a guy just want to jam a fish in his mouth.
—Look, all I’m asking is my share. We agreed we’ve got to share, these days.
—Yeah, so you keep saying, but meantime you’re wearing the hoodie. The hoodie, the coat, the whole ensemble. Your stunning winter ensemble!
—Oh, here we go.
—Full length for total comfort. All natural, and all that beautiful fur, now what do you call that? Where’s that from?
—Please, do we have go through this? I’m all you’ve got, the last man on earth, and honestly I think I might faint if I don’t get some protein, and still we have to go through this? Before I get so much as a bite, I’ve got to justify all the old ways of old world. Everything that got us into this mess in the first place.
—Aww. Listen to the man, the moaning, the whining. You know, that could be my Mama there, keeping your head warm?
—Oh, and of course it’s your Mom.
—Yeah, and before you cut her damn skin off, I bet she did some moaning and whining.
—Look, my friend. My last friend on earth. Mine and everyone else’s, come to think. How about you let me have one of the eyeballs?
—So now we’re bargaining? And how’d she do with that, my Mama, bargaining? I bet she tried.
—Just one eyeball. The protein in those, I used to know the figure…
—I’m sure there’s some story about it, something else she had to offer, my Mama Bear.
—Then there’s the brains, talk about protein. God socked that stuff away right where we need it the most. Brains, eyes —though come to think, there’s the liver too. A sort of built—in recycling plant.
—Yeah, yeah, yeah.
—Liver takes your trash, then converts it to…
—Some kind of story about it, I said —isn’t there?
—Oh, groan. A story, right. Enough with the nutritional science, let’s have a story. Let’s hear how she gave up her coat so that you might live.
—Come on. No way. My own big furry Mama?
—Maybe you’d prefer it in poetry? “Ring out wild bells, to the wild sky…”
—Don’t you be sayin’ nothing bad ’bout my Mama.
—Nothing bad. The female of the species, she laid down her life! The coat was just a throw—in. Now scoop out some of those brains for me, a good claw—full.
—Coming right up, a hearty scoop —but I wonder. Am I getting this right? You’re saying you didn’t kill her?
—Kill her? Oh, yum! Look, I tried to save her! Mmm, like meat pudding…
—You tried to save her and still you ended up with her coat?
—Look, that’s how it goes in stories. The big reveal, the moment you least expect. You might’ve learned the language but you haven’t learned stories. This was a poor mama—bear out in the woods trying to give birth.
—Birth? As in having a baby? A baby bear?
—Trying to. Oh yeah, an eyeball!
—Out in the woods, a mama—bear having a baby, and she let you close?
—Mmm, goes down like a cherry soaked in brandy! Now, my friend, I just told you: the poor girl was in trouble.
—Come on. I’d never do nothin’ to hurt my Mama.
—A difficult birth, man. The fetus crossways, you know? Maybe you don’t want to know. But if I hadn’t come along, you’d never have seen the Northern Lights. You’d never have been more than a gleam in her eye. Her dying eye.
—So you were like, Dr. Nanook, Wilderness Obstetrician?
—A backwoods tundra ursine Caesarian. It was the only way. It was save the Mama or save the baby, and that poor, struggling she—bear, she begged me. Save my baby, please! Save the boy! Oh man, is that liver?
—Come on, easy there, slowly. Okay. Okay, except, let me lick your chin…
—Oh, sweet. Protein, then tongue! But come to think, that’s the last thing your Mama ever did. She gave you a good licking, all up and down. Even while she, you know. Massive hemorrhaging, maybe you don’t want to know. Still, she got her little boy all squeaky—clean and then she told me I should have her coat. With her dying breath she told me. One righteous she—bear.
—Yeah, righteous, totally.
—Totally. Without that, I wouldn’t have a story.
—Story with a moral.
—And that’s why I wear the hoodie.
—Give the man props. The fish was tasty, but this man at my back, he earned every bite. Even if it turns out to be the last piece of meat in the Arctic.
—Hey now. Look, if it is the last, then the way we shared it, that’s just like your Mama would’ve wanted.
—Except, wait, I’m starting to wonder. As the animal, I wonder —don’t we have litters? A mama bear, doesn’t she have a litter, like three or four at a time?
—Oh, here we go. Look, I don’t even know if the coat’s female!
—Yeah, yeah, yeah.
—This coat could’ve come off the baddest bad boy of the Frozen North!
—Come on. I only just learned to talk, and next thing I know, you’re getting aggravated when I don’t understand a story. Not to mention that we could’ve just eaten our last fish.
—Well if it is the last meal, we ought at least to let it settle.
—Smart mouth. You’ve always got your smart line of talk. But here we are at the howling center, and maybe we just ate the last meat in the world, the ruins of the world, and I’ve still got the claws, and the jaws, and snap snap snap…
—Oh, groan. Me animal, claws and jaws! Look, that’s the old model. That’s the Original Bear, back before you learned to talk. But then you learned, didn’t you? And if you learned to talk, you can learn a new diet. Fruits and vegetables.
—Yeah, and isn’t that just the nicest, most righteous story!
—The oceans may run out of fish, but there’s no end to sharing and stories.
—After artwork by Katelyn McBurney
Watch John Domini read “Fish Story, Hoodie Howl,” with Lettie Prell: