The Bear by Rick Bass

BOMB 64 Summer 1998
Bombcover 64 1024X1024
64 Bass Body

As Helen was dying, she dreamed that a man had been spying on her, lusting for her old body. She would have the dream almost every night. It was a troubling image, though it also had strange moments of pleasure.

One morning when she awoke after such a dream she found nose and pawprints against her windows where a black bear had been standing up, trying to peer in. She told no one of the dream, and, lonely, began setting out food for the bear, putting it on a platter at the picnic table behind her store, preparing a place-setting for the bear like a child making a tea party for an imaginary guest; though it was not imaginary at all, for each morning when she awakened and went first thing to the window, the food was gone, taken neatly from the plate, and she found herself lying awake at night listening and waiting for the bear—straining to hear the clink of the china cup and saucer as he lapped from his bowl of milk—but he was always stealthy, and never came until he heard the rasp of her snores, with his arrival noticed therefore only by her dreams; and she would awaken earlier and earlier each morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but always failing, and marveling yet at the resilience of hope, and longing, beneath even a skin as ancient as hers.

 

Heat came in a way that people of the valley could never have imagined, back in the whiteness of winter. The heat summoned as many colors as had the spring, though some days late in the afternoon there was a bit of a haze or tarnish to the edges of color. Hawks and eagles soared above on the steady convective currents of breath rising from the stone skin, stone lungs of the mountains.

Helen’s son-in-law, Wallis, had decided to go ahead and drill his oil well in the valley while Helen was still living, anxious to find out if his map was correct, and reasoning that if he waited on her to die first—in order to spare her the sorrow of seeing the valley developed in that manner—she might decide to live forever, to spite him, and to keep him from drilling the well, so that he would never know if his map was accurate.

Some days, with his work largely done, Wallis would lie spread on his back across one of the pale sun-hot slabs, and absorb the radiant heat below, as well as that from above. He would lie there as if he had the oil pinned—knowing that he had it pinned—and that any day they would know the answer.

The heat was so different from any he had known. It was more intimate, and briefer. There was no cooling sweat—nothing but dry heat turning the skin papery.

The rhythm of it was entirely different, too. Back in Texas, the heat had fed on itself, and on the Gulf’s sea-mass, climbing through the day toward a crest that did not usually occur until shortly before dark, and as such, the echo or shadow of that crest fell over into the night, slicing down into what otherwise would have been the night’s coolness.

This heat, however, had a more gentle swell—not like tall breaker waves crashing at the shore, but like waves farther out at sea. Some mornings there was still a shimmering frost, but the sun, rising so early—clear of the horizon by 5:00 AM—would brush away that silver-velvet and climb quickly, steadily toward a crest around one or two o’clock—but then just as steadily, it would descend, cooling in the same trajectory with which it has risen.

Such steadiness, day after day, seemed to imbue a power, and a peace. Wallis wondered if some landscapes were violent, while others gave peace. He knew it didn’t matter—that his business, his attention, needed to rest below, where there were no emotions of man, and never had been—but lying there stretched out on the rocks, it was hard to pretend that he still had the same allegiance to that cold world below. It was hard to pretend that he was doing anything other now than worshipping the sun, and the earth, and his brief place caught between the two. He held his guilt about drilling the well a little longer, then released it. Drilling for oil was what he did. It wasn’t his fault that Helen was dying. His guilt thinned and then disappeared as if driven by the warm breezes.

 

The hot summer beckoned fire. The valley trembled with the ceaseless echo of rig-clatter. Wallis’s wife, Mel—Helen’s daughter—decided she didn’t want the well drilled either—unlike Helen, she changed her mind—but it was too late, the bit was grinding below ten thousand feet, gnawing blindly at ancient rock, traveling deeper back in time each day, and the investors had been a sold deal. A contract had been executed. There could be no turning back.

 

Some nights the bear did not come to Helen’s offerings. Other nights it came but did not eat what she had left on the table—the scraps of some small meal she had been unable to finish—a bowl of oatmeal, a dry biscuit—and so she found herself cooking for the bear, though the effort tired her.

In the daytime, when she was feeling up to it, she would go into the woods searching for him—hoping to sneak up on him in the heat of the day while he napped, as he had been sneaking on her in the night. She would find his enormous scats everywhere, and his tracks any place there was a little dampness; and she could smell him, too, though she never could see him. She never got close enough to him to surprise him; he always heard or smelled her coming, and would slip away silently on his big padded feet, stepping from stone to stone to avoid crunching twigs or leaving new tracks.

Sometimes Helen could take only ten or 12 steps before she ran out of breath, and she would have to sit down quickly and rest. If she breathed in too deeply, breathed as hard as she wanted, she ran the risk of starting up the bleeding again. But if she didn’t try to breathe deep, she couldn’t get the air she needed, and she would pass out, which happened with increasing frequency.

So she would sit and wait, breathing trembly and just-right, poised as if balanced atop a high fence; and when the fluttering in her throat and the pain in her chest had passed, she would light a cigarette, and would sit there smoking it, amazed that she had lived so long—knowing that there had been some mistake somewhere, some broken cog or gear-tooth somewhere that had allowed her to make it this far.

Occasionally she would pass out as she smoked the cigarette, the smoke robbing the oxygen from her blood and brain, and she would topple over on her side, where the cigarette would start a small fire in the dry grass and leaves. The flames would run quickly for a short distance, burning up whatever tinder-dry material they could reach, casting sometimes for ten or 15 feet before encountering some patch of green, still-lush vegetation, which slowed the flames to a creep; and in her unconsciousness, Helen would take in the scent of burning grass, and would relax, would know peace: and in so doing, her lungs would open up and her muscles would begin carrying oxygen again.

She would sit up and stare out at the blackened, smoldering ring around her—her clothes and hair scorched, sometimes—and at the bright ball of the sun above—and she would not always be convinced, in those first few moments, that she had not already passed on into some other place in which time disappeared. Perhaps it is not the flesh that is not mortal, she would think, but time. Perhaps time moves in cycles—is born, lives, then dies—while the physical materials are constant, like some residue of time’s passage.

The thought would invariably make her feel small and strangely unclean, and insignificant: as if she were merely the spoor of some mindless thing. Her breath would try to leave her again.

 

One day the geese got up from the river and left. There was an excitement in their leaving, all through the day; but that night, there was a loneliness, and residents of the valley gathered at the bar to shore one another up, and to make brave jokes about the coming winter. It was the finest time of year—the days suspended in hazy gold light, the daytime temperatures mild, the nights starry and crisp—the leaves turning color, and the scent of woodsmoke pleasing in the air, and the cabinets in all homes filling with bounty—but for those who had lived through it in the past—the sweetest time of year—it was burnished with the knowledge, the forethought, of its brevity, and of the coming price to be paid yet again. The departure of the geese was the first indicator of that marker coming due: the approach of the awful, silent, immense winter.

Artie came up to Wallis that night and set a beer before him.

“How’s Helen?” Artie asked. Mel was across the street at Helen’s, seeing if she needed anything.

“Not good,” Wallis said.

“I can’t believe she’s leaving,” Artie said.

Mel and Helen came in the door—Helen rallying, a good night, leaning on Mel’s arm, and immediately, all bittersweetness left the room, all sense of abandonment, as they realized Helen had outlasted the geese one more year.

Later that evening, Mel and Wallis carried Helen back across the street. Helen fell asleep during the walk across the street, but woke once more inside her own home, and insisted on fussing about in the kitchen and preparing a dinner for the bear, who had not been back for three nights in a row. She scrambled some eggs and mixed pancake batter—at first Wallis thought she was cooking for them—but then when she had the pancakes made, she spread huckleberry jam on them, and set them on two plates—again, Mel and Wallis thought she had prepared the meal for them—and told them that they would have to leave now, or the bear would not come.

Neither of them knew what to say—feeling the edges of a sorrow that was nearly infinite, believing that Helen’s mind was being taken from them before the earth took her body.

They watched her carry the plates of steaming food out into the night; watched her sit down at the picnic table and light two candles, which wavered in the breeze: watched her wrap the elk hide around her and hunch forward, nodding off, settling in to wait.

“We can’t leave her out there on a night this cold,” Mel said. “It would finish her off.”

“She’s got to go sometime,” Wallis said.

“We can’t,” Mel said.

The candles wavered wilder in the breeze; one tipped over and snuffed out. They had thought she was asleep, and were about to go back out and get her, but she lifted her head, picked up the fallen candle, and re-lit it, and then sat there, waiting, while the candle flames fluttered.

The bear—a big one, black as the starry night itself—appeared so gradually, so slowly—blackness appearing from out of blackness—that at first they did not understand what they were seeing: the bear moving so carefully, so stealthily, as to seem like a man in the costume of a bear. Helen had drifted back into sleep for a moment, but she awakened when she felt the bear settle his heft so gently onto the table-seat across from her.

The bear watched Helen intently for long moments, perfectly motionless, so that now it seemed like a stuffed bear—Mel and Wallis could see that beneath the elk hide Helen was shivering, and whether with fear or cold, they could not tell—and then slowly, the bear lowered his head to the plate and began to eat.

With her hands trembling, Helen took up her fork and picked at her own food.

The bear finished his—a few crumbles of egg fell from his mouth, and cautiously, he licked them from the table—and Helen blew out the candles and pushed her plate across the table, for the bear to eat too, which he did.

When it had finished, it looked at her a moment longer—woman and bear illumined in blue starlight; the bear’s damp eyes and nose gleaming, and its claws shining at the table like silverware—and Mel whispered, “We should go,” as the bear turned and climbed down from the table and went back off into the darkness, flowing.

Mel and Wallis were out the front door and walking down the dusty road by the time Helen gathered the candles and empty plates and came back inside.

“I don’t know if we should have seen that or not,” Mel said. “I know she’ll never tell us about it.”

“Well, we saw it,” Wallis said.

“I almost wish we hadn’t,” Mel said.

“I know what you mean,” Wallis said.

They slept tight in each other’s arms that night.

 

The well was almost finished. Helen looked awful: as if it were her old body through which the drill bit was gnawing, rather than the stony shell of the valley. As if she could barely stand it any more. Some days she looked so awful that it was as if she had already died, and that it was now only some phenomena, or habit, that kept her moving around. When she coughed, which was often, bright plumes of blood leapt from her throat, crimson in the autumn light. Her legs shook, knocked and rattled; she barely had strength to hold herself up.

One night Mel and Wallis were sitting out on the porch drinking a beer. It was dusk, and they could hear the drill and ordinary sounds of the second-shift of rig workers in their camp down by the river: the tinny rattling of pots, the low murmur of voices.

Then there was the blast of a shotgun, followed by an animal moaning and squalling—Wallis thought at first one of the workers had shot himself—but across the road then, he saw the shape of a black bear, Helen’s big bear, running awkwardly through the brush, dragging a bloody hind leg and roaring. A man shouted, “I got ’im!” and ran behind the bear with a gun, too excited to reload and shoot again.

The bear went right through the workers’ camp. It ran through their midst, through their cooking fire, knocking over skillets and pans, and straight down the dock and out into the river.

The bear did not linger in the river, but kept swimming, his broad head striking a hard and resolute V through the dark water of nightfall.

Wallis had thought and hoped it would end there. But even as the ashes were settling from where the bear had run through the fire, the men were dragging their canoes and driftboats into the water, and they set out paddling after the bear. One of the men pulled an iron surveyor’s rod out of the sand, more of a pike than a rod—it was six feet long, like a spear, but solid iron—it weighed 40 pounds—and he rode in the bow of one of the driftboats, while another man paddled.

The men who were left behind on shore cheered.

For a few moments it looked like the bear might make it. He was about halfway across even before the men launched their boats; but the bear was tiring, and the men were eager, and the distance closed so quickly, so surely, that it almost seemed as if there had never been any choice: that the bear had all its life been destined and charted to come to this point, this place in time. Wallis found himself wishing the bear would dive, like a duck or an otter, to escape them in that manner.

The bear kept swimming. The men circled him with the boats; forced him to swim in circles. They slapped at him with paddles; sometimes they would hit him, and the sound of the flat wood across his skull carried across the water. There was no way for Wallis not to feel, each time, as if they were striking him. Mel and Wallis shouted at them to leave the bear alone, but now the man with the pike moved in closer, the pike raised high in both hands as a man might harpoon a whale, or perhaps as men had surrounded mastodons and mammoths, in this same country, only a few thousand years ago. The first blow drove the bear underwater. The pike struck him in his thick neck, and the sound of it—deeper and different from the paddles—reverberated not through the air, but underwater, and through the water: perhaps to the sea.

For a long time the bear did not come up, and the men began to curse, thinking they had lost it—they all stood up in their boats, waiting—and finally the bear surfaced, fought his way back to the top as if summoned, and the man with the pike wasted no time, struck him again almost immediately, and this time the pike’s tip penetrated the bear, rode down between his shoulder blades and lodged at a depth sufficient, Wallis gauged, to have reached his heart, and Wallis turned away, sickened.

The bear sank quickly now, despite the men’s attempts to hold on to the heavy pike; and there was a ring in the water, a wake in the center of their boats, where the bear had been, and then nothing, only calm water.

The men did not know how to react at first. They felt loss and loneliness, but then it was as if they reached some consensus, as if they had had some communication between themselves without speaking, and they began to cheer, a little half-heartedly at first, but then with real enthusiasm, as if having bluffed themselves into believing, even in their own hearts, that loss was instead victory, and Wallis thought, I brought this.

 

The well pierced its objective early in September. The leaves were blowing gold from the limbs of the trees, in the high country already, aspen and cottonwood, along with the red-brown leaves of the alder falling like scraps of dried hide. The old oil, the hidden oil, was not there—Wallis had been mistaken, a two-million dollar mistake; Mel was relieved—but Helen had already died three days earlier; as if, for all her integrity, she had still lacked the final courage, or perhaps simply the endurance—if there is any difference between the two—to wait until the end, and see the thing through.

All for naught, for naught, Mel understood now. She went to put flowers on her mother’s fresh grave. There were a few stray fires burning in the high country, though already the valley was receiving its first frost. Wallis tried to console her, but Mel had been preparing for it for so long, and Helen had been so old, and in such discomfort, that the absence of those things, age and pain, was almost consolation enough; and she in turn tried to bolster Wallis’s confidence, the huge error of his map.

The rig workers had packed up their camp and left the valley. Mel slept the exhausted sleep of the after-grieving, almost of hibernation most nights, though one moonless night later into the month, as the first snow was falling, she sat upright in bed as if with a sudden message, sudden realization only just now achieved, and new grief came in over old grief, and she said, “We could have loved her more.”

As Helen was dying, she dreamed that a man had been spying on her, lusting for her old body. She would have the dream almost every night. It was a troubling image, though it also had strange moments of pleasure.

One morning when she awoke after such a dream she found nose and pawprints against her windows where a black bear had been standing up, trying to peer in. She told no one of the dream, and, lonely, began setting out food for the bear, putting it on a platter at the picnic table behind her store, preparing a place-setting for the bear like a child making a tea party for an imaginary guest; though it was not imaginary at all, for each morning when she awakened and went first thing to the window, the food was gone, taken neatly from the plate, and she found herself lying awake at night listening and waiting for the bear—straining to hear the clink of the china cup and saucer as he lapped from his bowl of milk—but he was always stealthy, and never came until he heard the rasp of her snores, with his arrival noticed therefore only by her dreams; and she would awaken earlier and earlier each morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but always failing, and marveling yet at the resilience of hope, and longing, beneath even a skin as ancient as hers.

 

Heat came in a way that people of the valley could never have imagined, back in the whiteness of winter. The heat summoned as many colors as had the spring, though some days late in the afternoon there was a bit of a haze or tarnish to the edges of color. Hawks and eagles soared above on the steady convective currents of breath rising from the stone skin, stone lungs of the mountains.

Helen’s son-in-law, Wallis, had decided to go ahead and drill his oil well in the valley while Helen was still living, anxious to find out if his map was correct, and reasoning that if he waited on her to die first—in order to spare her the sorrow of seeing the valley developed in that manner—she might decide to live forever, to spite him, and to keep him from drilling the well, so that he would never know if his map was accurate.

Some days, with his work largely done, Wallis would lie spread on his back across one of the pale sun-hot slabs, and absorb the radiant heat below, as well as that from above. He would lie there as if he had the oil pinned—knowing that he had it pinned—and that any day they would know the answer.

The heat was so different from any he had known. It was more intimate, and briefer. There was no cooling sweat—nothing but dry heat turning the skin papery.

The rhythm of it was entirely different, too. Back in Texas, the heat had fed on itself, and on the Gulf’s sea-mass, climbing through the day toward a crest that did not usually occur until shortly before dark, and as such, the echo or shadow of that crest fell over into the night, slicing down into what otherwise would have been the night’s coolness.

This heat, however, had a more gentle swell—not like tall breaker waves crashing at the shore, but like waves farther out at sea. Some mornings there was still a shimmering frost, but the sun, rising so early—clear of the horizon by 5:00 AM—would brush away that silver-velvet and climb quickly, steadily toward a crest around one or two o’clock—but then just as steadily, it would descend, cooling in the same trajectory with which it has risen.

Such steadiness, day after day, seemed to imbue a power, and a peace. Wallis wondered if some landscapes were violent, while others gave peace. He knew it didn’t matter—that his business, his attention, needed to rest below, where there were no emotions of man, and never had been—but lying there stretched out on the rocks, it was hard to pretend that he still had the same allegiance to that cold world below. It was hard to pretend that he was doing anything other now than worshipping the sun, and the earth, and his brief place caught between the two. He held his guilt about drilling the well a little longer, then released it. Drilling for oil was what he did. It wasn’t his fault that Helen was dying. His guilt thinned and then disappeared as if driven by the warm breezes.

 

The hot summer beckoned fire. The valley trembled with the ceaseless echo of rig-clatter. Wallis’s wife, Mel—Helen’s daughter—decided she didn’t want the well drilled either—unlike Helen, she changed her mind—but it was too late, the bit was grinding below ten thousand feet, gnawing blindly at ancient rock, traveling deeper back in time each day, and the investors had been a sold deal. A contract had been executed. There could be no turning back.

 

Some nights the bear did not come to Helen’s offerings. Other nights it came but did not eat what she had left on the table—the scraps of some small meal she had been unable to finish—a bowl of oatmeal, a dry biscuit—and so she found herself cooking for the bear, though the effort tired her.

In the daytime, when she was feeling up to it, she would go into the woods searching for him—hoping to sneak up on him in the heat of the day while he napped, as he had been sneaking on her in the night. She would find his enormous scats everywhere, and his tracks any place there was a little dampness; and she could smell him, too, though she never could see him. She never got close enough to him to surprise him; he always heard or smelled her coming, and would slip away silently on his big padded feet, stepping from stone to stone to avoid crunching twigs or leaving new tracks.

Sometimes Helen could take only ten or 12 steps before she ran out of breath, and she would have to sit down quickly and rest. If she breathed in too deeply, breathed as hard as she wanted, she ran the risk of starting up the bleeding again. But if she didn’t try to breathe deep, she couldn’t get the air she needed, and she would pass out, which happened with increasing frequency.

So she would sit and wait, breathing trembly and just-right, poised as if balanced atop a high fence; and when the fluttering in her throat and the pain in her chest had passed, she would light a cigarette, and would sit there smoking it, amazed that she had lived so long—knowing that there had been some mistake somewhere, some broken cog or gear-tooth somewhere that had allowed her to make it this far.

Occasionally she would pass out as she smoked the cigarette, the smoke robbing the oxygen from her blood and brain, and she would topple over on her side, where the cigarette would start a small fire in the dry grass and leaves. The flames would run quickly for a short distance, burning up whatever tinder-dry material they could reach, casting sometimes for ten or 15 feet before encountering some patch of green, still-lush vegetation, which slowed the flames to a creep; and in her unconsciousness, Helen would take in the scent of burning grass, and would relax, would know peace: and in so doing, her lungs would open up and her muscles would begin carrying oxygen again.

She would sit up and stare out at the blackened, smoldering ring around her—her clothes and hair scorched, sometimes—and at the bright ball of the sun above—and she would not always be convinced, in those first few moments, that she had not already passed on into some other place in which time disappeared. Perhaps it is not the flesh that is not mortal, she would think, but time. Perhaps time moves in cycles—is born, lives, then dies—while the physical materials are constant, like some residue of time’s passage.

The thought would invariably make her feel small and strangely unclean, and insignificant: as if she were merely the spoor of some mindless thing. Her breath would try to leave her again.

 

One day the geese got up from the river and left. There was an excitement in their leaving, all through the day; but that night, there was a loneliness, and residents of the valley gathered at the bar to shore one another up, and to make brave jokes about the coming winter. It was the finest time of year—the days suspended in hazy gold light, the daytime temperatures mild, the nights starry and crisp—the leaves turning color, and the scent of woodsmoke pleasing in the air, and the cabinets in all homes filling with bounty—but for those who had lived through it in the past—the sweetest time of year—it was burnished with the knowledge, the forethought, of its brevity, and of the coming price to be paid yet again. The departure of the geese was the first indicator of that marker coming due: the approach of the awful, silent, immense winter.

Artie came up to Wallis that night and set a beer before him.

“How’s Helen?” Artie asked. Mel was across the street at Helen’s, seeing if she needed anything.

“Not good,” Wallis said.

“I can’t believe she’s leaving,” Artie said.

Mel and Helen came in the door—Helen rallying, a good night, leaning on Mel’s arm, and immediately, all bittersweetness left the room, all sense of abandonment, as they realized Helen had outlasted the geese one more year.

Later that evening, Mel and Wallis carried Helen back across the street. Helen fell asleep during the walk across the street, but woke once more inside her own home, and insisted on fussing about in the kitchen and preparing a dinner for the bear, who had not been back for three nights in a row. She scrambled some eggs and mixed pancake batter—at first Wallis thought she was cooking for them—but then when she had the pancakes made, she spread huckleberry jam on them, and set them on two plates—again, Mel and Wallis thought she had prepared the meal for them—and told them that they would have to leave now, or the bear would not come.

Neither of them knew what to say—feeling the edges of a sorrow that was nearly infinite, believing that Helen’s mind was being taken from them before the earth took her body.

They watched her carry the plates of steaming food out into the night; watched her sit down at the picnic table and light two candles, which wavered in the breeze: watched her wrap the elk hide around her and hunch forward, nodding off, settling in to wait.

“We can’t leave her out there on a night this cold,” Mel said. “It would finish her off.”

“She’s got to go sometime,” Wallis said.

“We can’t,” Mel said.

The candles wavered wilder in the breeze; one tipped over and snuffed out. They had thought she was asleep, and were about to go back out and get her, but she lifted her head, picked up the fallen candle, and re-lit it, and then sat there, waiting, while the candle flames fluttered.

The bear—a big one, black as the starry night itself—appeared so gradually, so slowly—blackness appearing from out of blackness—that at first they did not understand what they were seeing: the bear moving so carefully, so stealthily, as to seem like a man in the costume of a bear. Helen had drifted back into sleep for a moment, but she awakened when she felt the bear settle his heft so gently onto the table-seat across from her.

The bear watched Helen intently for long moments, perfectly motionless, so that now it seemed like a stuffed bear—Mel and Wallis could see that beneath the elk hide Helen was shivering, and whether with fear or cold, they could not tell—and then slowly, the bear lowered his head to the plate and began to eat.

With her hands trembling, Helen took up her fork and picked at her own food.

The bear finished his—a few crumbles of egg fell from his mouth, and cautiously, he licked them from the table—and Helen blew out the candles and pushed her plate across the table, for the bear to eat too, which he did.

When it had finished, it looked at her a moment longer—woman and bear illumined in blue starlight; the bear’s damp eyes and nose gleaming, and its claws shining at the table like silverware—and Mel whispered, “We should go,” as the bear turned and climbed down from the table and went back off into the darkness, flowing.

Mel and Wallis were out the front door and walking down the dusty road by the time Helen gathered the candles and empty plates and came back inside.

“I don’t know if we should have seen that or not,” Mel said. “I know she’ll never tell us about it.”

“Well, we saw it,” Wallis said.

“I almost wish we hadn’t,” Mel said.

“I know what you mean,” Wallis said.

They slept tight in each other’s arms that night.

 

The well was almost finished. Helen looked awful: as if it were her old body through which the drill bit was gnawing, rather than the stony shell of the valley. As if she could barely stand it any more. Some days she looked so awful that it was as if she had already died, and that it was now only some phenomena, or habit, that kept her moving around. When she coughed, which was often, bright plumes of blood leapt from her throat, crimson in the autumn light. Her legs shook, knocked and rattled; she barely had strength to hold herself up.

One night Mel and Wallis were sitting out on the porch drinking a beer. It was dusk, and they could hear the drill and ordinary sounds of the second-shift of rig workers in their camp down by the river: the tinny rattling of pots, the low murmur of voices.

Then there was the blast of a shotgun, followed by an animal moaning and squalling—Wallis thought at first one of the workers had shot himself—but across the road then, he saw the shape of a black bear, Helen’s big bear, running awkwardly through the brush, dragging a bloody hind leg and roaring. A man shouted, “I got ’im!” and ran behind the bear with a gun, too excited to reload and shoot again.

The bear went right through the workers’ camp. It ran through their midst, through their cooking fire, knocking over skillets and pans, and straight down the dock and out into the river.

The bear did not linger in the river, but kept swimming, his broad head striking a hard and resolute V through the dark water of nightfall.

Wallis had thought and hoped it would end there. But even as the ashes were settling from where the bear had run through the fire, the men were dragging their canoes and driftboats into the water, and they set out paddling after the bear. One of the men pulled an iron surveyor’s rod out of the sand, more of a pike than a rod—it was six feet long, like a spear, but solid iron—it weighed 40 pounds—and he rode in the bow of one of the driftboats, while another man paddled.

The men who were left behind on shore cheered.

For a few moments it looked like the bear might make it. He was about halfway across even before the men launched their boats; but the bear was tiring, and the men were eager, and the distance closed so quickly, so surely, that it almost seemed as if there had never been any choice: that the bear had all its life been destined and charted to come to this point, this place in time. Wallis found himself wishing the bear would dive, like a duck or an otter, to escape them in that manner.

The bear kept swimming. The men circled him with the boats; forced him to swim in circles. They slapped at him with paddles; sometimes they would hit him, and the sound of the flat wood across his skull carried across the water. There was no way for Wallis not to feel, each time, as if they were striking him. Mel and Wallis shouted at them to leave the bear alone, but now the man with the pike moved in closer, the pike raised high in both hands as a man might harpoon a whale, or perhaps as men had surrounded mastodons and mammoths, in this same country, only a few thousand years ago. The first blow drove the bear underwater. The pike struck him in his thick neck, and the sound of it—deeper and different from the paddles—reverberated not through the air, but underwater, and through the water: perhaps to the sea.

For a long time the bear did not come up, and the men began to curse, thinking they had lost it—they all stood up in their boats, waiting—and finally the bear surfaced, fought his way back to the top as if summoned, and the man with the pike wasted no time, struck him again almost immediately, and this time the pike’s tip penetrated the bear, rode down between his shoulder blades and lodged at a depth sufficient, Wallis gauged, to have reached his heart, and Wallis turned away, sickened.

The bear sank quickly now, despite the men’s attempts to hold on to the heavy pike; and there was a ring in the water, a wake in the center of their boats, where the bear had been, and then nothing, only calm water.

The men did not know how to react at first. They felt loss and loneliness, but then it was as if they reached some consensus, as if they had had some communication between themselves without speaking, and they began to cheer, a little half-heartedly at first, but then with real enthusiasm, as if having bluffed themselves into believing, even in their own hearts, that loss was instead victory, and Wallis thought, I brought this.

 

The well pierced its objective early in September. The leaves were blowing gold from the limbs of the trees, in the high country already, aspen and cottonwood, along with the red-brown leaves of the alder falling like scraps of dried hide. The old oil, the hidden oil, was not there—Wallis had been mistaken, a two-million dollar mistake; Mel was relieved—but Helen had already died three days earlier; as if, for all her integrity, she had still lacked the final courage, or perhaps simply the endurance—if there is any difference between the two—to wait until the end, and see the thing through.

All for naught, for naught, Mel understood now. She went to put flowers on her mother’s fresh grave. There were a few stray fires burning in the high country, though already the valley was receiving its first frost. Wallis tried to console her, but Mel had been preparing for it for so long, and Helen had been so old, and in such discomfort, that the absence of those things, age and pain, was almost consolation enough; and she in turn tried to bolster Wallis’s confidence, the huge error of his map.

The rig workers had packed up their camp and left the valley. Mel slept the exhausted sleep of the after-grieving, almost of hibernation most nights, though one moonless night later into the month, as the first snow was falling, she sat upright in bed as if with a sudden message, sudden realization only just now achieved, and new grief came in over old grief, and she said, “We could have loved her more.”

—Rick Bass is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Sky, the Stars, the WildernessThe Book of YaakIn the Loyal MountainsThe Lost Grizzlies; and Winter.Where the Sea Used to Be will be published by Houghton Mifflin.

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Originally published in

BOMB 64, Summer 1998

Featuring interviews with Tracey Moffatt, Aharon Appelfeld, Eric Kraft, Maurice Berger, Patricia Williams, Richard Powers, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesus “Chucho” Valdes, and Lou Reed. 

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