By Arn Mayzl, translated by Sophia Shoulson
Believe it or not, I first came across this short story several months ago—long before it became so germane. “The White Bear” is the eponymous first story in Arn Mayzl’s 1927 anthology titled Der vayser ber un andere dertseylungen (The White Bear and Other Stories). Arn Mayzl, or Aaron Meisel, was born in the Minsk region of Belorussia in 1890. He immigrated to the United States in 1911, where he became a teacher for the Workmen’s Circle schools and, along with publishing several of his own books, contributed writing to numerous periodicals, including Morgn-frayhayt and Der hamer.
I happened upon The White Bear and Other Stories while sorting recent donations to the Yiddish Book Center, and I set it aside for the simple reason that I have always loved bears—polar bears in particular. I assumed, albeit with no evidence to support this theory, that the story would be a fable intended for children. When I finally got around to reading the story in my first week of telecommuting, I discovered I was wrong.
Fabulist but not a fable, “The White Bear” is as bleak and cold as the ice floe on which it takes place. Isolated and utterly alone, the bear is caught in an apparently unending cycle of restlessness, unease, and despair. But, somehow, in this current period of near-universal unease and restlessness, with despair waiting around every corner, I found a kind of catharsis in seeing through the bear’s eyes, breathing the icy air through the bear’s nose, and, eventually, making my own escape on the bear’s legs.
In the original Yiddish, the bear is not female—but I am, so now she is, too.
And the white bear grew lonesome in her frozen kingdom of ice.
For years on end she had made her home in the sharp crags of the ice floe. She would sit motionless, her downy tail tucked beneath her, her sleepy eyes blinking into the blinding whiteness all around: white fields, white horizon, white, frozen seas into which nothing but her gaze could venture. And in the midst of this world the craggy glacier loomed boldly, hurling itself skyward, laced with frost. In the blinding midday hours she would shake off the fluffy snowflakes, sparkling in the blue-green colors, ever steely and snowy against the light of the sun at its zenith￼.
Often, in the evening hours, a marvel occurred: the sun, setting in the west, would suddenly flare up, ember-like, the color of blood. The sphere of the sun, enlarged and swollen, would seem to burst like a ruptured, fiery wound, inflaming the wisps of cloud before it, snowy fields glowing in the hazy redness. The piles of snow strewn hither and thither would sparkle and fracture with a gleeful, reddish glow. But little by little, the sun would sink further and further westward, the fires going out, and everything would once more become white and still.
The white bear would lie motionless and, with a sharp inhale, turn her attention to the stillness of the white, white world. It seemed to her that the stillness itself had a snow-blindingly white hue. Once the daylight had faded completely from the whiteness, the world would ￼be flooded in a sea of the clamors and roars of the wild, startling the snowy land all around. The frost creaked and groaned occasionally, a whale would splash through the frothy, icy slush, and every once and a while an iceberg slid down from a towering glacier, plunging into the dense sea, its hollow, frosty sigh echoing for miles around. But after a while, all would become still again, taut as a drawn bowstring, as if nothing had ever happened . . .
The bear would curl up, taking in the white stillness while her thoughts churned within: who had brought her to this frozen prison of an ice floe? What was the meaning of the stillness that surrounded her? What was the meaning of her own unease? Should she unleash her restlessness, or should she suppress it within her? Sometimes, she stood up on her hind paws, stretched out her neck and let out a long, wild, preternatural roar. Her roars would become ever wilder, more menacing. More than anything, the white bear wanted to hear that same scream of pain from every other ice floe, folding together into a single, raging shriek, tearing through the white, uneasy stillness of the fields of broken ice, crushing into pieces that hardened, frozen world . . .
Her restlessness permeated everything, surging higher and higher during the interminable winter nights. The vaulted, starry sky was distant and cold. Frosty snow crystals swirled in the open air, glittering against the deathly pallor of the sky and the ice fields. The white bear would notice that the rush of blood within her seemed to stiffen and slow. She’d imagine herself queen of this cold eternity, and her frozen prison of a throne was, itself, that eternity. The frigid, interminable winter nights had frozen movement and time into icicles in order to strengthen the throne of the eternal ruler of this white, motionless world . . .
Suddenly, brilliant arcs and bows of the Northern Lights would begin to appear on the edge of the sky. Above the smoky, hazy clouds, far out near the horizon the lacy fabric of the aurora shimmered, overflowing with incandescent beams of light, awash with transparent green hues. Rays of light interspersed with arches of color spread all along the horizon like a thin web of silken threads, braided into a colorful curtain hanging from the heavens. A curtain of the coldest brightest light, wrapped in a pale yellow, wove through narrow violet-gold fringes, sparkling and glittering in the deep grayness of the surrounding clouds.
Then the white bear might raise herself up to her full height, a front paw pressed firmly against her furry belly, her head stretched out, stretched so far that her muscles began to quiver, and take in the brilliant, fiery heavens. It seemed to her that invisible hands were now beginning to pull apart the celestial curtains. Behind it they revealed a new, as-yet-unseen world. Kaleidoscopic radiance singing with azure notes in reddish gold and violet tones. The frozen prison of the ice floe would cower in fear and, with a crash, collapse altogether. The snowy fields would shed their white mantles in triumph, new life bursting forth from beneath them! Colorful and vital, happy and playful, full of noise and movement.
But slowly, the Northern Lights would be extinguished. The white bear fell back upon her snowy pillow and curled up. Once again, the white light, the frozen timelessness, the frozen, icy throne in the midst of the frozen, icy world. She would squint her eyes, lay down and think: “This is how it is, and this is how it will be. The ice floe persists, the snow is endless. Those bright marvels are false and deceptive. They appear and disappear. They glitter for a moment, igniting with them impossible hopes, only to be extinguished once more, as if they never existed.” She would lay like this for a long time, nudging the snow around and licking the flakes off her front paws with her long tongue, a ferocious longing aflame in her boiling blood.
Suddenly, in a moment like this, a blizzard would appear with seemingly fanatic haste, the wind howling from all sides, unfurling sheets of heavy￼ clouds across the sky. Then, like a madman, it stormed across the fields, bellowing, churning up snow dust, maniacally announcing the arrival of a barbarous, haunted world. The empty, frozen void between the earth and sky would fill with a dark, dense grayness, layer after layer of snowflakes. They’d swim slowly through the slippery air: dead, heavy, and aimless until the wind seized them, twisting them, whirling them around with a piercing whistle, throwing them to the white ground with a laugh.
The white sheets of snow would pour forth without end. The white bear might burrow into her fur, straining her burning, snow-blinded eyes, glaring all around stubbornly, but with a fierce despair. The mountains of snow would grow higher and higher, becoming a frozen wall that would soon reach the gloomy gray skies. And the wind would pile up heaps of snow on all sides, humming mischievously because it was the only free thing in this eternally frozen land of ice. It could come and go. Everything else was endless, white and endless. A vicious dread would overcome the white bear, her blood boiling with a fervent desire to blast through the maelstrom and run far away. Through the blinding whiteness of the blizzard, through the mountains and along distant trails, far from her solitude, from her colorless melancholy, from the dead stillness, from her frozen kingdom of ice, and into another world.
And one day, on just such a stormy night of pandemonium, the white bear did not resist: she leapt up, unthinking, from her lonely ice floe and let herself run—chased, suddenly, by her fear and pain into the wide, wide world . . .
Sophia Shoulson is the 2019–2020 Richard S. Herman Fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, where she has worked in bibliography for the past two years. Sophia graduated from Wesleyan University in 2018 and is an alumna of the Center’s 2017 Steiner Summer Yiddish Program. At Wesleyan, she double majored in German studies and Wesleyan’s interdisciplinary College of Letters, and she completed a senior thesis on the Yiddish folklore collected by Y. L. Cahan and Shmuel Lehman. Sophia discovered Yiddish by roundabout way of a Jewish day school education followed by her German studies and a semester abroad in Hamburg. She didn’t begin to study Yiddish formally until the summer of 2017, but has been making up for lost time ever since.