Her Bear Husband

[img_assist|nid=831|title=Fern by BJ Burton © 2008|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=201]

“Of course I’ve been in the woods before.”

Lucia glanced around the visitor center to reassure herself that she looked just like everyone else there, then glared back across the counter at the skeptical park ranger. Until encountering him, she’d felt impervious in her new acquisitions: stiff hiking boots with heavy Vibram soles; cargo pants of a slippery, fast-drying fabric that made soft whispering noises as she walked; a rain jacket with a thin fleece lining. In preparation for her excursion, she’d also bought a 20-ounce sleeping bag that would bob atop an unwieldy pack, itself stuffed with a tiny tent – two-and-a-half pounds – a couple of changes of socks and underwear, and foil packets of freeze-dried dinners, their desiccated contents so devoid of texture and smell as to be guaranteed not to attract bears. Alone in the house she’d sublet for her temporary teaching job at a Montana college, she spent hours researching every item, checking off each against a long list of things various guidebooks insisted were essential. Then she went looking for them. Her new town’s business district comprised a scant four blocks. An espresso shop, windows hung hopefully with cheap, root-bound houseplants. Molvar’s Ladies Fashions, chipped mannequins draped in generously cut pantsuits. A newsstand, the daily headlines indecipherable: “Biggest One-Year Drop in Board Feet in Decades.” “Heap-Leach Boom Goes Bust.” “Coyote Depredations on Rise.” The last featuring a photo of a man in a cowboy hat, gesturing angrily toward the mangled body of a sheep at his booted feet, the blood a scarlet shock in the dun-hued scene.

A couple of pawnshops, and a bar – no, two – in each block, most of them along the railroad tracks that divided the town. The Mint, The Stockman, The Gandy Dancer. Red’s. Al’s. Burr Lively’s. And, not one, but three stores offering both hunting and camping gear – heavy on the former, windows a forest of camouflage clothing, including a saucy leaf-patterned bikini dangling from the antlers of a mounted elk head. But, from looks of the little plastic kayaks leaning against the doorframe, to the tents set up along the sidewalk in front of the stores, plenty of the latter, too. She would no more have set foot inside one of those stores than she would have walked through the door of Burr Lively’s, which nightly spilled a contingent of hard-faced men into the empty lot alongside it, where some slept until morning, only to list into the coffee shop at dawn, knocking back double espressos that they dosed from flasks stowed somewhere within their voluminous camouflage jackets that probably had come from the stores just down the street.

Lucia avoided them all, ordering her backpacking gear online, gasping at the total, and endured the quizzical expression of the FedEx man who delivered the outsize boxes for several days in a row.

The park ranger looked at her the same way, eyeballing the pack’s shiny fabric, the boots’ unmarred surface. Before she could even speak, he’d put the question to her.

“First time in the backcountry?”

He was tall, his starched khaki shirt and creased green uniform pants hanging loosely on a rangy frame. His hands, long fingers tapping impatience on the countertop, looked too large for picking at a computer keyboard, and she wondered who he’d pissed off to get stuck on desk duty, dealing with the likes of her. A Smokey the Bear hat sat on his desk, and she refrained from asking him to put it on so that she could take a photo and e-mail it to her friends at home with another sardonic note about her new life. Some of those notes also went to her lover.

Whose reply was always the same: “Come home.”

Home. Her alone in her apartment, him in Westchester County with his wife.

The ranger cleared his throat, awaiting details of her “backcountry” experience. Apparently that was what it was called here. Not – she’d noted his expression at her reply – “woods.” She made a mental note. She thought of long weekends at bed-and-breakfasts in the Adirondacks, youthful summers in Connecticut, strolls through the pleasant groves of elderly oaks and maples encircling sun-dappled glades.

“It’s my first time here,” she told the ranger, intending the words to convey vast experience elsewhere.

“You’re not hiking alone,” he said, not even bothering to make it a question.

“Of course not,” she snapped. Surely, there would be others on the trail.

He took a pamphlet from the holder on the counter, spread it open before her and recited from memory. After each sentence, he glanced up and looked directly into her eyes – his were grey – as if to emphasize the point.

“This is bear country. You don’t want to surprise a bear. Make noise while you hike. Clap, bang a couple of sticks together, sing.”

“Right,” she said, and forced a laugh. “My voice is terrible.”

He waited until she apologized. He resumed:

“If you’re camping in the backcountry –” His gaze traveled to her backpack. “We have campgrounds right here, you know,” he said. He pointed through the window toward a reef of Winnebago roofs visible above low trees. She was silent.

“Hang your food at least ten feet off the ground.”

She was pretty sure that, somewhere in her pack, she had some cord. It was on the checklist. Enough to hang the pack – how high again? And, how was she supposed to get it up there in the first place? Climb a tree? She nodded, trying to look bored.

“Don’t sleep in the clothes you cook in.”

These same instructions were in her books, but she was no more enlightened now as when she’d first read them. Was she supposed to hoist her clothes up into a tree along with the pack? She pictured herself standing naked, tossing her synthetic, fast-drying turtleneck and swishing cargo pants – boots, too? – up into the branches.

She nodded again, quickly.

“Don’t,” he said, and his voice changed, “go into the backcountry if you’ve got your period. Bears…their sense of smell is so keen …”

She couldn’t meet his eyes, but could feel him looking the question at her.

“Jesus,” she muttered. “No.”

“You’ll want to register at the trailhead,” he said, speaking briskly again. “Everyone in your party” –  She could look at him again, her level gaze boldly challenging the disbelief in his eyes – “and how many nights you, all of you, expect to be out. How many nights is that, by the way?”

“Three. Maybe four,” she said. She hadn’t come to Montana, she told herself, just to spend her weekends at the same sort of faculty parties that filled her time in New York. Even though they weren’t the same at all. She’d arrived at a barbecue the previous weekend with a chilled falanghina; had dressed carefully, in thin-soled mules, pale capris, and a black knitted-silk shell with a matching cardigan thrown over her shoulders, only to find herself silent and ridiculous among people in roomy cargo pants like the ones she’d since acquired, swigging beer straight from the bottles. Her narrow heels, perfectly suitable for sidewalks, dug into the lawn and she twisted an ankle. Someone steadied her, catching her elbow in a steely grip. Back home, health-club memberships were a given, but these people were lean in a way that differed from the meticulously toned forms hogging the treadmills and ellipticals at her gym. Sinewy, she thought. Muscles hardened and ropy, arms and calves nicked with small scars, tans that shamelessly bisected foreheads and arms, stopped at necklines. Lucia could only listen as they talked about rock-climbing and fly-fishing and float trips, whatever those were, shivering as the sun slipped behind the mountains, deepening the evening chill for which her flimsy sweater proved no match. She was determined to join the next such conversation. Hence, this excursion into the woods. Backcountry. Whatever.

The ranger was talking again, tracing trails on a map – “These get a lot of traffic on weekends, especially this one. You’re best off here. You can read a topo map, can’t you?”

She had such a map, its surface a spiderweb of dashed red trails superimposed atop a mass of thin black lines looping into whorls like so many fingerprints. She pointed to a trace of red somewhat apart from the rest. “What about this one?”

He shook his head.

“Too isolated,” he says. “Too high. Nobody goes up there this early in the summer. There’ll be snow. It’s for experienced hikers.” Again, his gaze swept her. She had left her hair loose that morning, and she knew the effect of the elbow-length russet waves, the luminous skin, the delicate features tiresomely described as pre-Raphaelite. She was used to men staring at her. But this man looked past that, scowling one last time at her obvious inexperience, and so she thanked him abruptly and turned her back and walked toward the door, awkward in her new boots.

He called after her.

“I’ll be heading up that way in a couple of days. Maybe I’ll check on you. What’s your name?”

She called it back over her shoulder and kept walking.

The SUV she rented for the semester had felt over-large in town, but here, when the asphalt road gave way to gravel and began to climb, she appreciated its power. She passed the trailhead he pointed out on the map and, on a whim, pulled into the crowded parking area. Just as he had told her, there was a post with a covered wooden tray containing a hikers’ log protected by a sheet of clear plastic. She added her name in large, bold letters; then, with a tight-lipped smile, that of her lover. Ex-lover, she reminded herself. She got back into the SUV, studied the map, and took a side road, amusing herself on the drive by wondering what would happen if she were to get lost. His name would be reported, too, finally linked publicly with hers. There would be newspaper stories, a brief flurry of publicity before he was revealed to be safe at home with his wife. The reverie, bitter and pleasurable as a citrus sorbet, carried her through the next thirty miles until she turned into another parking area, this one devoid of vehicles.

“Good,” she breathed. The solitude she had sought since leaving New York had eluded her as her new colleagues swarmed around her with invitations to coffee, dinner and more barbecues, trying to prevent the loneliness they insisted she must feel. “Lonely is what I need,” she wanted to say, but cringed at the Garbo-esque melodrama of the words. But it was exactly what she needed, she realized as she set off into the woods – this close to the road, did it count as backcountry? – slowly adjusting to the heavy boots, the unfamiliar weight on her back. The pines stood tall and straight, with segmented orange bark, their branches trailing skeins of dark, fringed moss. Light angled through the trees, glazing a carpet of dried needles. Slowly she found her stride, steps lengthening, arms swinging easily. She inhaled deeply, rounded a bend, and followed the trail onto a ledge that traced a granite wall. To her right, the rockface climbed up and up, nearly vertical. To her left, closer than she would have liked, the ground dropped away into a vast valley. Her gaze swept its breadth, soared to the corrugated peaks on the other side. She forced it downward with difficulty, and was rewarded with the sight of a string of lakes along the valley floor, their waters tinted jade with glacial silt. A turquoise thread of creek connected them with long, crooked stitches. When she let her breath out, she realized how long she had been holding it. She thanked someone, something. Her belief in God was provisional, but the grandeur demanded acknowledgment. Only after she traversed the ledge and followed the trail back into the trees did she realize she hadn’t thought about her lover in some time. A smile stretched her cheeks.

She camped that night by a small stream, its gurgle surprisingly loud. Her pack reposed in a fork in a tree at the far side of the clearing – not ten feet above the ground by any means, but it was the best she could do – her clothes tucked neatly inside. In the end, she had indeed stripped, foolishly looking over her shoulder as though there was anyone to see her, donning for nighttime the soft silk long-underwear pants and pullover that were among the guidebooks’ endless recommendations. It had taken her longer than she’d thought possible to set up the supposedly idiot-proof tent, to start the stove, to boil the scant cup of water necessary for her odd, freeze-dried dinner. Still, she slid into the slick sleeping bag, grateful for the lightweight pad beneath it that had seemed such an annoyance when she’d packed. Throughout the day, though, she’d marveled at the concrete-like consistency of the earth beneath her feet, and was happy for even the thin buffer offered by the pad. She lay awake for a few moments, pulling the tent flap aside to gasp at the nearness of the stars, noting the pleasant ache in her thighs and calves, smiling at her outsize sense of accomplishment for having achieved the simple tasks of the tent, the stove, the meal. She tried to slow her breathing. At home bedtime involved an elaborate ritual of a hot bath, a little cognac, earplugs, an herbal sleep mask. She rationed sleeping pills carefully, cutting them in half, and even as she wondered if she should have brought some with her into the woods, she fell asleep.

Morning brought a cottony grey light and a chill that shocked her. Her breath wreathed around her head as she dipped water from the icy creek for her breakfast. Hands stiff with cold, she repeated the previous evening’s struggles with her tiny backpacking stove, pumping its primer for what seemed like forever before the flame finally caught, too slowly warming the water for a meal that purported to be scrambled eggs, but tasted instead of colored Styrofoam. Already, she was planning for her next trip, thinking longingly how easy it would have been to pack slices of thick brown bread and packets of marmalade to squeeze upon it; maybe a frozen steak that would thaw in its baggie while she hiked, providing an evening meal with actual taste and texture. At least she had thought to bring strong coffee, and, for the evenings, little bottles of wine, and that small bit of foresight cheered her, even as the sun reappeared through the trees, burning away the fog. She felt quite pleased with herself as she fumbled with the collapsed tent and stuffed her sleeping back into its sack and set out upon the trail.

In that first hour, she rediscovered the long, easy stride of the previous day, but then the trail narrowed and began to climb, folding back on itself through a forest thick with spiky underbrush that caught repeatedly at her hair. Lucia stopped and slid the heavy pack from her shoulders, fumbling in it for a bandanna that she twisted around her hair. She tried combing through its snarls with her fingers, dislodging pine needles and bits of leaves, and finally gave up, shrugging into the pack again and stepping grimly back onto a trail quickly growing wearisome. At first, the rise was gradual, but then the switchbacks came more frequently, and Lucia’s calves and lungs competed in fiery protest. The trees grew thick overhead, blotting out the sun, a mercy, she thought, as sweat dampened her shirt. Gnats whined at her ears, fastening themselves to the corners of her eyes and mouth. She breathed noisily through her nose, suppressing the searing gasps that would only draw in the insects. Somewhere deep within the pack was the recommended repellant, but she feared that if she stopped, the bugs would set upon her even more fiercely in the time it would take to unearth it. She saw an opening in the trees and moved more quickly, shoving aside thin, supple branches. She released them too soon, and they lashed back across her face. She touched a finger to her stinging cheek, brought it away bright with a drop of blood. She smeared the back of her hand across her face, then swiped it across her eyes, damp with tears of frustration. It occurred to her that despite the ranger’s warning against hiking alone, she was glad no one was there to see her struggles, and then she barely had time to reflect upon the fact that she had not seen a single person in a day and a half when the bear ambled onto the trail in front of her and stopped.

She had stepped into a clearing, and the sun was high and strong above her. She felt it warm on her back, and a soft breeze bent the tops of the pines and dried the sweat on her shirt and she thought it was far too pretty a morning for what was about to happen. The bear didn’t move, and neither did she and so there was plenty of time for her to register the characteristics the ranger had listed for her – the dished face, the humped shoulders, the gingery fur.

“If you encounter one,” he’d said, “don’t look it in the eye. They see that as a challenge.”

But she couldn’t help it; the bear was looking directly at her, its eyes honeyed and liquid, and when it stood to peer down at her from a better vantage point, she realized it was male and that he was aroused (she would learn about the baculum only later). Oddly, the sight steadied her; she was familiar with this reaction and, unconsciously, she touched her hand to her hair, lifting it from her neck, the movement loosening the inexpertly tied bandanna so that it fell away and her hair flowed over her shoulders. 

The bear made a keening noise and fell heavily back down onto his forepaws and took a step toward her. She remembered how the ranger told her to play dead, and she crouched on the ground, wrapping her arms around her head (“Protect your neck, cover those big arteries.”) the way she did in elementary school when she and her classmates bent beneath their insubstantial wooden desks against the vaporizing powers of the atomic bombs.

Through slitted eyes she saw his claws arced against the earth of the trail just inches from her nose; registered the hot breath against her face. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt his snout, cool and dry, against her elbow and she braced for the clamp of jaw, the pierce of fang, but he merely nudged her arm away from her head and put his nose to her cheek. She felt it grow moist and thought she must be crying again, but realized it was his tongue, gently cleaning her face, lapping the length of the scratch, touching carefully to the corners of her eyes and lips, flicking away an errant gnat. Then he pressed his head tightly to hers and held it there a long minute as she breathed in his musky scent, withdrawing so quietly that it was some moments before she realized he was truly gone.

She stood slowly, unfolding her limbs as though they were strange to her. The sun drenched her in warmth, but she found herself shivering, noted the chattering noise that at first she thought was a woodpecker, but turned out to be her teeth. She turned slowly, a full circle, but saw nothing. Even the wind had died, and the trees stood like sculptures against the bowl of sky. She had an impulse to wonder if she’d imagined everything, but could not yield to it; there, heading back down the trail the way she had come, were prints sunk into the crumbly earth, big as soup plates, each preceded by a row of deep holes poked by those claws. She moved her mouth experimentally, touched her tongue to a hair caught in her lips, and when she pulled it away, she found it both shorter and thicker than her own, like a strand of copper wire. So it had happened. She rolled the hair between her fingers, then shoved it deep into one of the pockets of her cargo pants. From another pocket, she withdrew her cell phone, but it told her, as it had nearly from the moment she had entered the park, that she was out of range of any signal. Her legs trembled, but when she shoved one before her, it worked, and so she shoved the other, and eventually she discovered herself walking up the trail again. It seemed insane to head more deeply into the woods, but she didn’t dare return the way she’d come for fear of seeing the bear again. The trail described a twenty-eight-mile loop and she had already hiked nearly ten of those; two more nights would bring her back to the parking area. She wondered if the bear had really gone, or if it would return to stalk her; wondered if there were more bears ahead. She walked and cried, trying to push away the regret swelling within her for choosing such a lightly traveled route. She vowed to hike farther than she had planned each day so as to spend only a single night more on the trail. The thought cheered her, and she moved more quickly, hiking on legs grown rubbery until it was nearly dark, noticing little about her surroundings.

She stopped reluctantly where a beaver dam across a creek formed a small pond and, with hands shaking anew, raised her tent in the middle of the meadow, thinking it less likely that a bear would creep out of the trees toward her. She was hungry, but feared that even the tasteless, strangely textured substances within her freeze-dried packets would prove too much of a temptation, so she crawled into her sleeping bag and listened to her stomach rumbling. Improbably, she fell asleep just as abruptly as the night before, waking to the same grey fog that heralded the previous morning.

She was ravenous, and headachey from going so long without food. She disentangled herself from the sleeping bag, and with some apprehension, unzipped the tent and tentatively put her face to the opening. The first thing she saw were the fish, three trout, water beaded upon scales whose rainbow hues still shone bright, their perfection marred only by the puncture marks of the large claws. The second thing she noticed were the footprints across the dew-glistening meadow, the outsize depressions leading into the trees. The last thing she saw was the large circle of flattened grass not eight feet away. She crawled from the tent, stood slowly, then tiptoed barefoot to its center.  The grass beneath her feet was still warm. She curled her toes into it, contemplated the footprints, then turned to the trout. Her stomach lurched demandingly, and within minutes, she had inexpertly gutted them with her Swiss Army knife, scraped away their scales, and sliced them into ragged fillets. She hastily pumped the little stove into life, boiled water for coffee, then sautéed the trout fillets. It was awkward – she had neither butter nor oil and they stuck to the pan, so hot when she scraped them free that they burnt her tongue, but the flesh was moist and delicate and delicious, and she forced herself to slow down and savor it, alternating bites with gulps of coffee as the sun chased off the fog. An indignant beaver surfaced in the pond, saw her, slapped its tail against the glacier-green water and dived deep. In the trees at the edge of the clearing, a raven croaked and another flapped to join it, the pair of them clearly waiting for her scraps, and she rose and stretched and laughed aloud and told herself that she had gone crazy, truly out of her mind, if she what she imagined was happening was any kind of real at all.

Still, that night, her final one on the trail, she ostentatiously lingered overlong beside a creek, stripping off her shirt and bra and splashing icy water on her face and chest and under her arms, and she was not at all surprised to find the still-warm rabbit’s carcass beside the tent when she returned, its neck neatly broken by what appeared to be a single, decisive blow.

Skinning it took some doing, but she managed, and she simmered the pieces in some of her wine, and although she might have wished for some mushrooms, a little thyme and chervil, a quick grind of coarse pepper, and a dusting of flour just to bring the sauce together, still, it was a passable meal, better than passable, and after she ate half the rabbit, and finished most of the wine, she lay back in the grass and let the stars do their slow cartwheel overhead until she was nearly asleep. But before she crept into her tent, she took the uneaten pieces of rabbit, and put them on a rock some distance – but not a great distance – from the tent, and found a good-size stone with a hollow in it, and poured the last of the wine into the depression. Then, standing before her tent as the moon rose, she took off all of her clothes (“Don’t sleep in the clothes you cook in.”) piece by slow piece, and stood a long moment in the moonlight before dropping to her knees and easing into the tent.

Yet again, she slept deeply, but not so soundly that she was unaware of the warmth just on the other side of the tent wall, so close that she knew if she were to put her hand to the flimsy nylon shell and push just the slightest bit, she would feel a mound of muscle and the regular rise and fall of deep, yearning breaths.

In the morning, there was no trace of the wine and rabbit, but there were more trout, beside a heap of purple-black huckleberries. She ate them one by one, bursting them against her palate with her tongue, closing her eyes against the intensity of the flavor. When she opened them, he stood before her, fixing her with the same golden gaze. He waited patiently while she gathered her things, then walked beside her down the trail. At some point, she reached out and rested her hand upon his shoulder, absorbing the heat of the sun-warmed fur, pressing her fingers against him so as to sense the blood coursing just beneath the skin.

He hesitated when they approach the trailhead. But they had already come too far to turn back, and she looked at him and nodded, and so of course he came home with her, and that is how he became her bear husband.

Gwen Florio first worked in the West during the 1990s as a Denver-based national correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer. During her time at the Inquirer, she was also a member of Philadelphia?s Rittenhouse Writers Group. She has received two prose grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and a residency from the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming. Florio now lives in Missoula, MO, where she is city editor for the Missoulian newspaper. She is afraid of bears.

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