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Death of Bear

(In the novel, Thirteen Moons, Bear is a Cherokee chief and the adopted father of the narrator, Will Cooper.)

Bear died in the Planting Moon, during the waxing of it. Nothing dramatic precipitated his passing. No clash with Nature or sudden revelatory conflict against his fellowman. He was just old and worn out. We piled quilts and pelts around him in the townhouse and kept the fire built high, for he was chilled the entire time.

Bear had always been very good with people about to die. He held their hands, looked them in the face, and did not lie to them. He'd say, You're in bad shape. Awful bad shape. Not doing a bit good, are you? And it comforted them. They looked at him like he was the only one who knew even a little what they were going through. I, on the other hand, was useless at those times. I stood with my hands in my pockets and had almost nothing to say for fear that I would make some faint acknowledgment of the shadow of death glooming the room. Like we all might otherwise be exempt from it if none of us said any one of its horrible names.

During those final days, Bear didn't say much, but he often held his hands up to the firelight and studied them, their fronts and their backs, turning them, spreading the fingers and clenching knotty fists. At the time, I wondered what he was thinking. Did he wish to grab something? A knife handle or rifle grip or a soft breast? Maybe a gesture expressing one last wish of possession. Something to hold.

I don't wonder at all these days. I know he was looking at the swollen knuckle joints, the veins thick as night crawlers under the creped skin of his handbacks, fingernails broad and luminous as the insides of mussel shells, the polished skin of his palms marked deep with intersecting lines like the rivers and roads and boundaries of a map to an unknown territory. Bear was thinking that, taken all together, his hands looked exactly like the hands of his father.

Now, I hold my hands up to the electric bulb and think those same things. The bright new light, unknown to all past history, is not flattering. Not flattering at all. It glares grim. The pupils of one's eyes clench in the face of it. The future will not favor the old. We need shadows. Candlelight, moonbeams, embers….

It has been stated more than once in print that Bear's body was buried in a secret location. Not true. The grave simply no longer exists. Bear had chosen a shelf of land down by the river as his gravesite. I helped stack smooth stones over the blanket-wrapped body. The grave stood for only a few years, and then spring floods broke it apart and scoured the shelf of land bare. The stones were all scattered and his bones washed away. So now he is gone entirely from the physical world he loved so powerfully.

- Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons (Random House, 2006), pp. 339-340.

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