The Bear — 1st Draft
By Franco Cignelli
The clouds parted and in the centre was blue sky. He glimpsed at it for only a millisecond as it was swallowed once more. The rain continued to fall. He stood there in the middle of the dirt road in a green t-shirt and dark blue jeans.
His clothes were heavy but he continued back to the cottage. Moments earlier, he was made frozen by the appearance of a black bear. It darted out suddenly, on a long stretch of road; on either side was farmland. From above it appeared as though he was trapped in a fjord, lined on either side by deep, lush forests. Only cottage owners, who on weekends made the long pilgrimage from the city to their lakefront properties, used the road.
This was a weekday. He lived alone at the cottage, after a long winter in the city. During the early afternoons, he enjoyed the five-kilometer walk from his front door to the end of the road because it was, he thought, a clean, brisk march that warranted inspection.
At times, he would cross paths with neighbours, and they would nod their heads at each other and carry on, but this was rare, and people around these parts kept mostly to themselves. This day was no different. He was out for a walk, before the rain began to fall, with his cigarettes.
The morning had been muggy, and when he started out there was not a cloud in the sky. Now he is shaking from the chill brought on by the rain as he moves briskly towards home. Maybe it is because of the bear. Never before had a dangerous animal confronted him so quickly. He was midway on the road when like a shot the bear appeared from the shrubs.
When it reached the gravel near the ditch, it looked up at the rain and then, they made eye contact. He could not help but notice the bear’s wet fur, jet black. He had read somewhere once about what to do if one encountered a black bear, who were common in these parts of Ontario.
He was supposed to make himself appear bigger. He was supposed to scream at the top of his lungs. On the other hand, maybe he was to sing at the top of his lungs. In years prior, when out on the road he thought about how he would react if he came face-to-face with one of these wild creatures. At night, when on the porch smoking he could hear the coyotes croon.
He had visions of himself running away, of trying to jump a fence towards one of the farms, and at times, he saw himself desperately climbing a tree as the bear, or coyotes, mercilessly dragged him down. In any case, he did none of these things, for he was in shock. Usually when the bear activity in the area is higher than usual, the neighbours are on alert and warn one another.
Sometimes they call the rangers at the Balsam Provincial Park nearby to help locate and trap a particularly worrisome bear and relocate it. Seeing as he kept mostly to himself he had not thought of asking any of his neighbours on one of those weekends they were up. It is funny what one sees in times like these. His mother’s flaxen hair, as it drifted in a summer breeze. His father’s calloused hands, as they chopped wood. Inside this moment, there are things he would now like to know.
Things he had not bothered to ask before. Like his ring size, his mother’s ring size, the hour that he was born. “My dad’s middle name, your favourite song,” he whispered, as droplets of rain fell from his lips.
He wondered what the bear thought of him, if anything, as they locked eyes. It was standing now, on four legs, calm, gently turning its head from side to side, silently observing its surroundings, before slowly walking back into the forest. He watched as it returned to nature, restlessly passing through the flora, until it disappeared from his view.
His legs began to move again, forward, back home. He passed no one so could not explain what it was that he had experienced. The rain continued, blurring the path ahead and he could see, on the property near the bend in the road, some wild turkeys who upon hearing his footsteps ran and then flew away.
His mind focused on the Buenos Aires sun, the impenetrable heat of a time long ago when he was happy. Maybe it is more adequate to say that he was content. Watching from his balcony as all those poor bastards went to work while he slept.
Eventually he reached his front door, the porch protecting him from the pellets that grew stronger, a thunderous rapture could be heard in a distance. A spark of lightning illuminated the darkened sky in the colour of a deep red grapefruit. He thought about the bear. He wondered if the bear thought about him. Maybe unlike him the bear was alone, but not lonely.
He opened his door to calamity. During his walk, which had lasted almost two hours, a large animal, maybe the bear had found its way into his cottage and rummaged through his belongings, causing great damage. The chestnut pantry was wide open, pillaged. On the ground lay the remnants of chocolate chip cookies, peanuts, marshmallows, uncooked pasta, and jars of tomato sauce, syrup, honey and spices. The doors that lead to Balsam Lake were wide open, and the sheer white drapes were pulled to the floor. The bear, wet from the rain, mopped the innards of the home with its fur.
Frightened that he was not alone, he moved quietly. To his left the kitchen, on his right, the bedroom. Despite the rain, the place was bright; a chill ran through his bones as he poked his head into the bedroom. A sigh of relief, it was empty. The bear entered and exited from the same two doors. He stepped onto the back porch and peeked down the steps to the grass where he observed large paw prints in the garden soil, the peonies spoilt, ripped from their roots.
Once more, he walked into the rain and down the stairs for closer inspection. There, before him was once a vegetable garden, plucked clean. He knelt down onto the soggy grass and looked up, back into the home and wept. Could this have been the same bear he had encountered on his walk? It seemed unlikely, but possible.
Suddenly he heard a thrashing and a moan. It sounded like that from an injured animal. It was coming from the boathouse. Like a shot, he ran back inside to grab his hunting gun and with it, made his way through the rain to the sound of the pain. There lying on its side was a young deer, its guts spewn on the ground, its eyes wide open, and its legs jerking, at times galloping in mid-air in an attempt to escape, to return to normal.
The bear, he thought, must have found the doe snacking on the vegetable garden, in a sneak attack strangled her, and dragged her to the side of the boathouse where it could enjoy its meal without disturbance. Only the bear had not finished the job.
Fighting his tears, he comforted the deer, who upon seeing him became calm. He stroked her head gently and whispered, “It will soon be over. It’s okay, it’s okay.” Then he stood, cocked his gun, pointed it at the doe’s head, and for one long pause he looked into her eyes. She was not afraid; she was prepared. She knew in that moment mercy was coming. However, he could not ignore how this doe’s end came from such violence. First the merciless bear, and now, a shot to the head that would bring with it more carnage.
A bolt rang out in the air, and the smoke from the barrel of the gun penetrated the raindrops. It was done. Her body winced, and then became still. Brain matter began to ooze from the hole, skull bone crowned her head like shattered glass.
Once, years ago, he had been watching a documentary about an elephant family in Africa. In one scene, a pride of lions infiltrated their camp, isolated a young elephant, and began to eat away at its innards while it was still awake. The filmmaker managed to capture the child as its eyes fluttered while each lion took turns devouring its soul.
It was an unforgettable image, and here before him, he felt as though he had re-lived a nightmare, only that now it was his nightmare. More appropriately, the doe’s nightmare. He pulled up a chair from the boathouse and sat next to the doe; he was now undisturbed by the rain, drenched, his gun by his side, he turned his view to the lake.
Death is the last final act, he thought. The doe would no longer wake to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Even here, the rain purifies the air, cleans it, so that life can grow and sustain itself. Therefore, he too, one day, would no longer breathe to carry out one more day, and he wondered, in that moment, if it would be peaceful, or like the doe, violent. Perhaps a sudden car accident, his body cutting through the windshield like a knife. He could see in this moment his lifeless body, bloodied; his clothes tattered, lying in the ditch for the bear to feed on.
“Hellllooooooo……” Startled from his thoughts, he saw on the dirt driveway a woman, covered by a navy green rain poncho.
“Hello,” she continued, “Is everything alright?” She was elderly, one of the residents down the road, maybe three houses down. He dug the handle of his gun into the grass and used it to help him up on his two feet before tossing it next to a shed. Moving slowly he came into view of his neighbour. “Oh my,” she said gently, as she set her eyes on the destroyed garden. “What do we have here?”
“A doe,” he replied, his voice steady. “But that’s not all of it.” He motioned her to come closer to him and then pointed to the corpse. “Seems there was a struggle. The bear didn’t finish the job, so I did.”
She looked up at him, her eyes wide, “dear God, are you okay?”
“A little jumpy, but nothing I can’t handle.”
She placed her hand on his soaken jacket. Her face, finely wrinkled, was serene. “There have been bear sightings in the area this year, but this is something else.” She turned away to walk towards the garden and he followed her. “I can help you clean this up.”
“No, thank you, it’s quite alright. I’ll contact the park ranger up the road to come collect the body. I can clean the rest myself. It’s not a problem.”
She wasn’t listening, instead she was compelled to climb the steps to the porch and into the house. “Oh dear, he even got into your home!”
“The bear will have to be located and killed; it’s too dangerous to be left alive.”
“I never saw the bear,” he lied. “Can’t go killing every bear you see. Just have to be vigilant, that’s all.”
“Well,” she sighed. “If you need anything, let me know.”
“I will.” She stood at the entrance of his home and slumped her shoulders forward. “Would you like me to walk you back?”
“That would be sweet of you,” she replied. “I’m a little disturbed to be frank with you. I’ve lived on this road for close to 50 years and nothing like this has ever happened. Once, when I was younger, a bear appeared on our lawn, while I was planting, but just as quickly as he arrived, he left, through the marsh opposite the road.”
“Did you make eye contact with it?”
“No. I remember being so afraid that I hopped into my car and locked the doors. No one believed that it had happened, and after a while, I began to think I had imagined it.”
“Most likely you hadn’t.” He guided her towards the dirt road, her hand rested in his crooked arm, and they walked back to her cherry coloured front door.
“Thank you. You take care, and again, do not hesitate to contact me. I had such a fright hearing that gun shot. This isn’t hunting territory.”
“Well I’m sorry if I scared you. You can only imagine how I felt!” They laughed awkwardly before he returned to his house. Once there he showered, changed into dry clothes, called the park ranger who upon arriving had all the necessary tools to dispose of the corpse. By then the sun had begun to peek from the clouds, and the rain had ceased.
It was now early evening and he sat on his dock overlooking the lake. It was as clear as glass with a ripple here or there when the wind picked up. Tomorrow he would return to his boring life, this period of adventure a spec on the great void of his experiences.
“You fucking bastard!” He was a child again; his father hovered over him, pummeling him with his belt. “I told you to go to sleep.”
The visions came to him in moments of deep reflection. That of his father, domineering, strict, coming down on him with brute force. A time when life was less free, when he was suffocated by arbitrary rules that were inflicted on him through fear.
It’s what led him to Buenos Aires, in his youth, fresh from high school, in search of adventure, of something new, outside the confines of his youth.
In the summer, the Buenos Aires sun is oppressive and constant. There are few clouds, the sun and heat merciless. When clouds come to bring refuge, it is not for long. True, Buenos Aires is bright and alluring, but the pictures on postcards tell only part of the story. Of course, he was a foreigner; with his ginger complexion, he was not accustomed to this regular, unrelenting heat, but as he walked his foreboding was replaced with delight. Here, at the remembrance of porteños on the café patios, sipping their coffee and reading the day’s newspapers, he smiled widely.
In this memory he reaches the avenue where the shop owners are busy at work, their garden hose in hand, washing the tiled sidewalks from the dirt and dust that had fallen from the evening prior and into the early morning. They do this relentlessly, every morning, even in droughts, when it hasn’t rained for months.
Like him, he saw a desperation in the people. A hope for a brighter future. These bright streets of the barrio Belgrano are in dark contrast to the slums that exist mere kilometers away. Each foreigner he knew had been a victim of a crime, a pickpocket, a mugging, a robbery; there certainly is a desperation here, and unfortunately, those that come to bask in Argentina’s majestic qualities are often targeted.
He resided in Belgrano, a residential neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. There are more tipuana tipu, or La Tipa trees in this barrio than any other residential area in the world. Growing thirty metres in height and twenty metres wide, Tipuanas are well known for their use as shade. They appear from the heavens as a mercy from the blistering sun on hot days, a place within a concrete city to take comfort.
In March, Buenos Aires is enraptured, taken hostage by the final weeks of summer. Porteños look for pools throughout the city to escape the heat. Few apartment buildings have rooftop pools, and usually they are quite small — incapable of withstanding big groups. And in Argentina big groups are common.
The memories flood, while out on Avenida Cabildo he focuses on the leaves crackling in the breeze. It’s difficult to appreciate though, as the metropolis goes about its day, the cars soaring by, belching exhaust fumes, polluting the already thick air, the noise deafening. He breathes in the mouth watering smells of the delicatessens, the bakeries enticing his sweet tooth. He ignores these temptations, making his way to Barrancas de Belgrano, swiftly cutting through more quiet side streets. He is aware of the people, the carefully tiled sidewalks, and the moaning tree trunks breaking free from underneath, cracking.
Traversing one’s way through the streets of Buenos Aires is an adventure. The city is organized in 100-metre blocks, that run north-south, east and west. In stark contrast with Toronto, Buenos Aires’ foundation was not built on a perfect grid. Streets bend and curve at random and riding the city buses, which is an ideal mode of transportation, involves requesting a stop to get off. One must depend on their memory of street locations if they are to find their way. City streets are named after important historical figures and geographical locations. It is not uncommon to pass homes with plaques commemorating the death or disappearance of an individual during the Dirty War. Here they may have lived, or studied before they vanished from the Earth.
The tiles that adorn the sidewalks are tiny pieces of individual ceramic art. They are 4 by 8 inches of cut squares, carefully put into place, vulnerable to breaking easily, and they do, often, and in large quantities. Yet they provide an allure to the city, enveloping the culture around them, whispering the forgotten stories of the many unobserved experiences.
The fruit and vegetable stands are remarkable sights; he stops from time to time to snap a photograph to capture their vibrant colours. As he approaches the park he’s again exposed to the sun. A young male photographer and his equally young olive-skinned female model occupy the pavilion, where many locals congregate. From this view, Barrancas de Belgrano slopes down to reveal a view of Barrio Chino and the Belgrano R railway station. This area teams with individuals, coming and going. From here, he carefully descends to an open patch of grass where he discovers a father and son playing soccer. The boy is no more than six years old, the man in his late thirties. Like most porteños they are gorgeous, undisturbed by the heat and the sun that glistened above. Dark, olive skin, a mane of black hair, they are shirtless, blissfully enjoying their morning. Nearby he finds a large tree to sit under, carefully selecting a shaded spot where he stretches out, on his back, and closes his eyes.
But the noise. So hard to focus, so many memories fluttering through his mind. He opened his eyes to look up as the leaves swayed above. He targeted one leaf in particular and smiled. “I’m alive.”
Turning his attention to the young father and his son, he was transfixed, in awe of their beauty. The father kicked the ball and often the boy would miss, chasing after it and returning to his father who was clearly, deeply, madly in love with his son. The love of this parent for his child swelled the air; made all love pale in comparison. The world was a utopia, enraptured by this love affair.
What must it be like for a parent to watch as their children develop into fully realized beings? What must it be like for a juvenile, with each experience being the first, discovering the planet, and all its magic, How pure, innocent, enviable.
Too many times, he has allowed these moments and thoughts to do him in. Adults often forget to look at the world with such childlike wonder. Somewhere along the way adults stop being curious. They are made bitter by experiences that they cease to imagine anything beyond their narrow prisms.
As he sits on his dock he continues with this memory, an early morning, he looks at this child and sees heaps of possibilities, nurtured by this loving parental figure who will open the world to him without reservation. He observes the father’s unfiltered love, with no embarrassment, no shame or regret. How his bleeding heart weeps, embarrassingly visible to all; how easy it is to see and how difficult it must be not to be warmed by it. If only people would take the time to look.
Like a flash, he was present once more, as the night deepened and the lake stayed still. Quiet. At peace. If he had indeed encountered the bear, perhaps then he would again. Maybe none of this was a coincidence; perhaps it was all part of a cosmic plan. Shaking his head, he nixed this sentimental way of thinking. There was something about this though, that warranted inspection.
The sun glinted off his pint and struck him in the eye. He grimaced, recovered, stood up and smiled. He determined that more adventures were in his future.