Pursued by a Bear
By Hannah Wolf Bowen
27 June 2005
Some days Joss wished for more than scars. A missing limb, a mangled face. Bones crushed to powder and grit. The bear had only slashed claws along his face and arm, sunk her teeth deep in his shoulder, and then gone. This single bite, this vanishing act—this made no sense at all.
He was there, later, when they took the last bear from the wild. He followed her until she fell, tranquilizer dart bright against her shaggy coat. He watched the rangers winch her dead-weight body into the cage. He stood with right hand grasping left wrist, tracing the map of scars.
He waited while they measured her bite, took DNA samples from saliva and fur. "Yep," Gary told him in the end. "That's your bear."
"I know," he said.
"You want to touch her while she's out?"
Joss could feel her heavy coat from where he stood, could hear the huffing of her breath. Jaws closed on collarbone and the blood began to flow. His hands grew sticky and hot. He had to look to be sure they were clean.
Some days, Joss wished for more than scars, and some days he wished she'd killed him. Those days he tried not to think at all. Other days he could almost forget, and then he would reach out a hand and catch sight of his arm—she'd be there beside him once more.
He had always known it could happen and thought it would be because he would make a mistake. Sneak too close in pursuit of a picture. Walk too far in the wrong direction or cook dinner one night too close to his tent. Forget once too often to call a warning: "Hey, bear!"
He had to assume that she'd been conditioned not to see humans as something to fear, that the wild had finally grown too tame and the city pushed in too close. But in his heart, he believed she had known what she did.
She'd taken his measure before she had charged. Gazes locked across the meadow, across what should have been safe distance. She wasn't the first bear he'd caught with that old heavy camera, not even the twentieth: more in those days than anyone else. She shouldn't have even known he was there.
But she'd turned and stared across the meadow, reared for a moment to snuffle the air. He'd felt no shock when she'd charged, no stunned sorry feeling of "not like this."
No way to outrun the bear. No way to fight her back. Camera swung at her muzzle and she'd bowled him over, driven him down into leaf mold. He had once pressed his face into a bearskin rug and breathed deep the scent, but there was no breathing now with her weight on his chest, her paws huge and heavy at the arm he'd flung up to shield his face. One ragged bite, one quick dog-like shake, pain filtered through shock to mere pressure.
And then she'd gone. It was only afterward that he'd thought back and studied the attack's every moment, the furnace of her breath and the chalkboard scrape of tooth on bone. At the time, on the ground, he'd thought only of the miles back to the truck and had he told Gary his route?
Joss never dreamed of the attack, but that night in the hospital bed and every night after, he dreamed of the bear. Together they plucked berries from bushes and fast-running salmon from faster streams. Together they watched as cubs grew strong. Together they found themselves alone, no other bears left in the park and the land less wild every day. In winter, their dreams were the strangest of all.
He hadn't been prepared for the celebrity of being chewed on by the bear, for the stares of people he passed on the street. There was less scarring than he'd expected, rough-edged lines that curled beneath his shirt, others that tugged barely at his mouth and the corner of one eye. But the news had covered the attack and those who cared all knew his face: the ones clamoring to make the parks safe, the ones clamoring to leave them alone.
Sometimes a girl would reach out as she passed, fingers light against his throat. Sometimes a man would study his face, ask, "Joss? Joss Arthur?" and he'd nod and admit it: "Yes." The brave ones asked to see the scars.
"She chose you," one lovely girl said. "She knew that you'd remember her." But he'd left his camera lying there, and whatever they wanted, he was human, not bear.
Gary came over for dinner on Thursdays, even after the attack when Joss couldn't lift his arm and startled at each breath of air that could have been breath of bear. At first Gary had been one of many, all the park rangers and wildlife experts who'd wanted to show their willingness to help a friend.
But Joss had no errands they could run and no wish for long rambling conversation, least of all about the attack. Only Gary had endured the silences, the staring out windows and at the blank walls. Gary knew in a way the others couldn't: his bear had taken a bullet and died beside his wife and his son. And so they had dinner on Thursday nights, sharing the silence and sometimes words.
The night after they caught the last bear, Joss asked, "What happens to her now?"
"Tests," Gary said. "All the usual. Try to figure out why she did what she did."
"Does it matter? She's the only one left. If someone fed her, if I was in her space, if she was rabid . . . what's the point?"
Gary grinned. "Rabies would matter. Not that we could tell, with you."
"Grr." He paused. "The one that got Helen and James."
Gary didn't look up—determinedly didn't look up from his dinner. "Twinkies. In his stomach. And peanut butter. Conditioned. Pretty classic case."
"They'll kill her," Joss said, and Gary nodded.
"They will." Too dangerous a bear for the zoos. No place for her anywhere else.
Silverware on plate clicked into silence. Joss chewed and swallowed hard. "Is it wilderness," he asked, "if it doesn't have bears?"
The first time that Joss went back to the woods—fresh from the hospital, not bleeding but still raw—everyone had offered to go along, to help. He'd thanked them all and turned them down.
He packed his bag as before. He included his old camera in its new case, one without bear-claw scratch into the leather.
He sat in the truck, hands on the wheel and keys in the ignition. He rolled the driver's-side window down and flinched at each breeze that rattled branches overhead. She was still out there then, and his boots never left the old worn floorboards. Twice, he unlocked the door, once pushed it open an inch and saw something move in the trees, a sway of underbrush in the wind. He slammed the door. He turned the key to start.
Gary worked at the ranger station, handing out permits and checking certifications: CPR and swimming and basic fitness, fire safety and GPS use. He walked with a limp on that old broken leg to lean in the window of Joss's truck. "How'd it go?"
Silence thickened the air, the space between words. Joss glanced at Gary, then followed his gaze to the brief cargo space behind his seat, rubble of first aid kit, duct tape and screwdriver, the vague dark stains that wouldn't come out where he'd bled into the truck while trying to stop up the holes from her teeth. He'd made it back to the trailhead all right, and then almost back to the road before there was too much blood lost, too weak to shift gears with savaged arm, truck stalled out with its bumper against a tree. He heard later that Gary had spent the first surgery at home in the driveway with a hose, trying to scrub away the stains.
Some days Joss convinced himself that he could never have been attacked. The odds against made it seem absurd and he'd walked—not without fear, but with understanding, with the knowledge that he could control his fate. Not the bear; there was no commanding the bear. But he'd been comfortable with acceptable risk and it was acceptable to know that stupid people died. He'd known his surroundings. He'd known his limits. He'd known how to keep his balance, living with bears.
It wasn't me, he kept wanting to say. It wasn't, not really. He knew now that there was no such thing as safe. One of the girls who touched his scars asked, "Aren't you glad you got so close?" He stood from the table abruptly and left. When he dreamed, though, that was different. That was a closeness he could understand, a closeness he'd felt through camera and lens, through touching a tuft of winter coat shed on the rough bark of a tree. Every night he thought questions to himself before he slept, the things he'd want to ask the bear. Do you remember? Do you know?
But he dreamed the way he'd been before: separate but the same as bear, comfortable in her space and with her in his. He moved without looking where he would place his foot, acted without thinking, easy in his skin. She didn't have to let him there and sometimes she reminded him, flashing tooth or vanishing from sight, leaving him shaken and alone. But that was a different sort of alone. Then, she'd known that he was there, and she'd allowed it.
If she heard his questions, she gave no answer, shuffling instead to the next tree to scratch her itchy shedding coat. And this was all right, he thought. It was all right to be so at home in a place.
She was no one, some anonymous girl—in college, maybe, or just out. He didn't think she had given her name, or maybe she had and he'd forgotten it. He didn't think he'd given his. The ones who did this sort of thing belonged to groups with names like Friends of the Wild or the Church of the Cougar. She hadn't needed his name, only his scars.
Her own body was tattooed in abstract symbols that must have held some significance. The one over her heart was stylized but clear: bull moose with spreading antlers that swept into trees on either side. She took Joss's hand to the dark-inked body, said it was the first of the killer beasts that she'd seen in the wild.
"The first?" he echoed and she flushed.
"The only one, so far."
Joss had been born in moose country, after the push to make the parks friendlier had begun but before it had gone very far. He remembered trotting after his parents down the trail, learning to be still and silent, meeting his first moose in winter on cross-country skis.
"Killer," he said. "Stupid name. Moose aren't killers."
She touched his shoulder carefully, fingertip brush light as a breeze, warm as a breath. Joss twitched and pushed her hand away. "Bears aren't either. They're just bears."
She looked like she wanted to argue, narrowed eyes and lifted chin, and she could if she wanted. "It's not a bad thing," she began.
"It doesn't matter," he said, losing battle and all. "It just isn't true."
The thing about Gary was that he didn't have to talk, that he could stand in the safelight glow and darkroom chemical bite watching to see what developed and never say a word, and that when he did speak it was because it mattered, even when only, "Which ones are these?"
"Downtown. Just something I tried." Joss turned his back to the photos and leaned against the table, wet under his palm where some fixer had splashed. "Did you want more bears?"
Gary shook his head. "I've seen enough bears."
"Good," he said. "Won't see any more." More sharply than he'd meant, but he couldn't regret it—anger was a feeling at least, the first time in months he'd felt other than cold. "It isn't fair."
Gary paused, silent in the red light that made it impossible to read his expression, to read anything but slow-developing image of old empty building. He said quietly, "It isn't. And it's not their fault. We're in too far—they're just doing what they do. But we can't go back, not now."
"You helped them do it."
"I watched a bear kill my wife, kill my son. What was I supposed to do?"
"People'll always find ways to get killed—" Joss clamped his jaw shut, bit back the words and turned, chemical slosh as he moved the picture. "You knew better," he said at last. "It wasn't the bear."
Gary sighed. "Joss. It's never been the bear."
He wasn't the first to have been attacked while doing everything right. He would be the last, and he didn't want that distinction. The girl and her friends would say the bear had been striking a blow for her kind, for the wild, futile but gallant nonetheless. Gary would say the bear had just been a bear and that sometimes bears did inexplicable things, and that this world had no place for inexplicable things. But the wild hadn't been wild for a long time and no one could tell Joss how to live with that.
After a while he put the camera away and left it there. Every picture he took was of something outside him. He pushed the darkroom door open to the light. The bear still shuffled through his dreams, and he still woke alone.
Joss hadn't been to the zoo in years. He'd gone as a child, on school trips, to see the last great elephant or new baby seal. But the exhibits were designed for the comfort of everyone concerned: observation spots arranged for the best possible view, one-way glass and other tricks so the animals wouldn't know they were being watched, wouldn't watch back.
Joss liked watching bears be bears, but this was something else. As far as the zoo bears were concerned, he didn't exist. On the worst days, he wondered, too. He had some mild interest in the other creatures, the big-eared foxes and the hawks, the deer like long-legged, lovely rats. Gary nursed a fascination with insects, mostly, Joss thought, because none of the plans to get rid of them had ever quite worked out. "You could drop a nuke on those guys," Gary said, half disgust, half admiration, "and they'd crawl away better than they were before."
You couldn't bomb a bear, Joss thought, or you could, but it would be a silly thing to do. You didn't have to. Easier to take over their homes and when they tried to change, to put bullets in their skulls. Gary left him by the polar bears and wandered off in search of scorpions.
Whatever the zoo did, it was never quite right for the polar bears. Joss thought they knew the difference in this climate-controlled habitat, these sheets of ice. There were never storms in this place, and if there were no seals to hunt, neither did the bears go hungry. The keepers said they had adjusted for these things, but Joss thought the bears were smarter than that. They were overfed, and bored.
"Aren't they gorgeous?" someone to his left asked, and he glanced to see that girl, the tattooed girl, the one who hadn't given her name. Quick, he looked away again, but she hadn't flinched, only waited, expectant, and held out a hand. "I'm Mara. I don't think I said."
"No." He shook her hand. "You didn't." And muttered his own name after a moment when she gave no quarter.
"So what do you think," she said, "of polar bears?"
"I like them," Joss said, "when they know that they're bears."
Mara gazed back out at the habitat, at its mounds of yellow-white fluff shambling slowly about. "I wouldn't have thought you'd come to zoos. Thought it'd be beneath you."
Joss felt suddenly, sharply ashamed. "I like the foxes," he said. "I like seeing things I wouldn't have seen otherwise."
"Here." He stood, turning his back on the bears. "Over here—look."
She looked, and laughed, and wandered to see as well the meerkats and their other neighbors, creatures not quite like anything else. "But probably," she said, "if you knew fennec foxes, you'd know that these aren't like wild ones either." She cleared her throat with a cough. "You must think we're awfully silly."
Joss said nothing for a moment, then shrugged. "Yeah."
"Yeah. Well. We are. It's just—it's like zoos. You're as close as I'm going to get to a bear."
"It shouldn't be that way," he said.
She nodded. "But it is."
"Are you glad," she asked over popcorn, watching the seals, "that you got so close?" Joss wanted to deny it, to shake his head, but these bears would never know him and this wasn't wilderness, and neither was the empty park.
"I wish it hadn't happened," he said. "Or—I wish it had been worse."
Mara watched him as he spoke, steady gaze, more clear than he'd ever have expected. "Yeah," she said. "I guess you would."
To be known—just to be seen. To feel again, to know in his bones, that he belonged in this world. Mara was homesick, he thought, for a place she'd never been; Gary for a place he didn't want to go. The dreaming bear knew where she was, and knew by her place there who she was. She shouldn't have known he was there, but she had. That night they stood in that meadow again. The bear—his bear—across their meadow. On three legs, one paw in the air, then lowered it and looked at him. Waiting. Sunlight faint pressure on his skin. Feet rooted in the ground.