GAEN MURPHREE writer
WORK-IN-PROGRESS: "A Simple Man"
A play about our ecological crisis, the destructive power of greed, and the returning POW who became Francis of Assisi
My current project as we approach 2026, the 800th anniversary of Francis's death
In one of the play's final scenes, a female polar bear tells a harrowing tale of loss and survival. Here's an excerpt:
POLAR BEAR MOM:
I keep thinking about the first time I saw the sun.
My mother was so strong, so sure of herself, so powerful. She was my world. And the whole world smelled like her. Like milk and fur. And the whole world was snug and small and dark — just big enough for the three of us. Then she just broke through. This wall — hard as a rock, heavy as a boulder. She broke through, and out we climbed, and there was this dazzling light. She had changed the world. It wasn’t snug and small and dark. It was blue and white and bright and endless. So endless it kinda made my head spin, so I stuck right to her.
Then my brother knocked me over, and I chewed his face and knocked him over, and he tackled me, and I chased him down a hillside, and we slipped in the snow —on purpose — and slid down head first. And then — for the very first time — we sniffed the wind.
“Seals,” my mother said. “Out there on the ice.” She was hungry. We followed right after her.
My mother taught me how to walk the world. And it was so good. Hard. My brother died one summer. Hard but good. She showed us how to travel the ice road, how to keep moving, when to walk, when to paddle, when to jump, when to stop. How to sniff the wind and read the universe. Where to find the seals. And how to outwit them.
She’d say, “They are fast in the water. On the ice we are faster. We are always more cunning.”
That first spring, as the sun rose higher and higher and stayed longer and longer, we watched her pound on the ice, smash into the snow lairs, and flip the pups out like juicy sausages.
We know sausages.
That first summer, as the sun clung fast to the heavens and the shadows melted, we watched her stalk in the leads. She’d spot a seal basking in the sun, slip silently into the water and paddle without a sound, dive under the ice, then spring up and grab that seal and shake it by the throat. And we’d come running.
It was so hard to keep still. Sometimes the seal spotted us in some noisy game. She’d roar and cuff us, and we’d trot along after.
And that first winter, when the sun slipped down beneath the ice and dark swallowed the sky , she taught us to wait patiently at the breathing holes — it seemed like forever.
Even in the lean time, when the sun sticks fast, when the ice roads melt, when the dazzling light grows hotter even as it sinks closer, closer to the horizon, in the lean time when Hunger stalks us she kept us moving, finding ice, finding seals. She taught us how to escape Hunger. How to to elude his sharp claws.
“Remember,” she said. “They are fast in the sea. On the ice we are faster. We are always more cunning.”
And so it went. Spring to spring to spring. Winter to summer. We followed the ice road. My mother was so strong. So sure of herself. So powerful. She kept us safe and fed and sheltered. We walked the world. And it was so good. Hard. My brother died. Hard but good. She hunted. We ate. I learned. And one day that vast world of sky and sea and snow and ice felt as snug as my nursery den.
She stops not wanting to continue her story. But she must tell it.
My cub was a full circle of the sun. A yearling. Still young but large enough for her age. Still young but strong enough for a yearling. Still young but sturdy as yearlings go.
We stood on the shore — It was the lean time. The sun stuck fast in the sky. We stood on the shore and stared. The world was no longer endless blue and white and bright and dazzling. It was gray. The ice road had melted. There was nothing but sea. No matter how far we looked. Waves and no road.
Hunger scented us on the wind. Hunger slipped into the leads silently and began to stalk us. Hunger dove deep enough to spring up suddenly and tear the life from our throats.
I sniffed the wind, searching for carrion — a rotting whale washed ashore, another bear’s kill left unfinished.
I did stupid things. Things my mother never taught me.
I scattered a pod of walrus sunning on a rock. A whole pod. I chased caribou. I climbed a cliff. Birds pelted me. We broke into eggs nestled in the grass. We ate kelp. I stalked a duck.
And I kept thinking about the first time I saw the sun and how my mother taught me. They are fast in the sea. On the ice we are faster. We are always more cunning.
So we set off to find the ice. We plunged into the vast gray sea. We started swimming.
My cub was strong for her age. The sea was calm. And we kept swimming. But there was no ice.
We swam north. And the current pressed hard against us going west — the way the ice goes. But there was no ice.
My cub was strong for her age. Sturdy as yearlings go. But she got tired and bleated and tried to rest against me as I swam. And we kept swimming. But there was no ice.
The sun stayed stuck in the sky. It dipped at twilight. I lost count how many times. Gulls wheeled overhead. And there was no ice. And death scented her. Started stalking her across the water. She swam slower and slower. And the waves kept washing over her. Her arms got tired,. And I said, “Keep swimming.” But there was no ice.
She was strong and sturdy as yearlings go. But the cold sea sapped her strength and her arms stopped moving and she starting sinking. And the sea took her and dragged her down.
She was strong. But not strong enough
She was older but not old enough.
She was sturdy but a yearling bear is nothing against the sea.
More twilights passed. More than I could count. I kept swimming. And I found the ice.
My mother was so strong. So sure of herself. So powerful. She changed the world. Even in the lean time she kept me fed.
I just lay there on the ice begging death to stalk me too, to take me by the throat and drag me down.
My mother knew the best places. She taught me how to travel the ice road. How to scent the seals, how to stalk, how to wait patiently at the breathing holes, how to pound the seal lairs open in the spring sun. She showed me how to walk the world. And it was so good.
The light narrows & holds on the mother bear.
A Simple Man, a play in progress, Copyright 2022