The picture of Elizabeth with the baby leopard in her lap was probably his favorite. There was such tenderness about the way her hair hung down over the little cat’s whiskers. Mike carried it with him all the time and now, down here, getting ready for the wedding of his niece, he felt good knowing it was in his wallet. The non-profit organization Elizabeth worked for in lower Manhattan was entering its busy season and as much as he would have loved to have her here to meet his family, he understood why she couldn’t come. Next time, she had promised, and he knew that she meant it.
Mike really didn’t fit in too much with his sister’s clan. He had moved away from their small town as soon as he could, but Chelsea had stayed behind. Like everyone out this way, she had married young. Now his older sister had a daughter getting married even though he was barely out of university. He would never forgo a family obligation, but it didn’t take long for the redneck life style to wear thin on him. He had met his future nephew at a dinner Chelsea had hosted. He had met the whole family, actually, and they were all the same. They talked the same, got teary-eyed about the same things. Nice enough people but predictably parochial. Every house had a flag fluttering from the porch and you could count on every bookstand having a well-worn Bible. There wasn’t one decent restaurant in town, probably because no one ate at restaurants. Everyone was more likely to meet at the church, which stood oppressively in the center of town. Mike knew that more than a few days of it would start to drive him crazy.
He had driven to the pre-wedding stag with his brother-in-law Jeremy. It was scheduled to take place at Gus McCormick’s place. Gus had a big BBQ and mosquito lights and a beer fridge and everyone was excited. The small talked Mike attempted with Jeremy on the ride over was strained, and Mike was relieved that McCormick’s place was close by. He got out of the truck and stood surveying the back yard. The grass was cut in a huge swath around a pit that had a pig, head and all roasting over the flames. It turned Mike’s stomach a little to see the carcass hanging over the fire, but his instincts told him not to disclose his discomfort. Gus saw Jeremy and walked over to greet him. Mike shook Gus’s hand when it was offered, pointedly not noticing the missing fingers on the hand that was thrust towards him. Jeremy gave a brief introduction and then, almost as though he was glad to separate himself from his wife’s brother, he hurried towards the roasting pig.
"So this is your place, eh? Nice property." Mike tried.
"Been in the family for a ways back. Thanks. Here have a drink."
Mike took it and following Gus’s lead he tossed it back in one gulp. He was thankful for the darkness as his eyes filled with tears and he felt a burning in his throat. He muffled his cough and again tried to make small talk with Gus.
"Do you see much in the way of wildlife out here? My fiance back in New York is begging me to get some pictures."
Gus looked at him for a moment and then smiled. "What kind of wildlife does she like? Here, have another drink."
Mike braced himself and again tossed it back in one gulp. This one burned less and Mike began talking as soon as he’d swallowed.
"Oh, she loves them all. She was sort of cross with me for not getting a picture of the moose I saw coming in from the airport. Ran right alongside my rental for about 10 seconds. It was really something."
Gus studied him for a moment. "Maybe she ought to be glad you’re still here to tell about it."
Mike felt his confidence growing. "Oh, I can handle a car pretty well. I drive in Manhattan after all." he said laughing.
Gus smiled and then turned and shouted to his son, "You wanna start getting that hog finished up here so everyone can get to eating." He looked back at Mike. "What are you twitching for?"
"Oh, damn mosquitos are having a feast."
"Well, come down here. I got something that’ll keep them off. Keep your glass and grab that bottle as you come."
The two men walked down a few stairs that led to Gus’s back door.
Mike hadn’t been aware he had been twitching. In fact he was becoming less aware of everything.
He tripped on the last step down to Gus’s basement but saved his drink. While he couldn’t be sure, he felt like he garnered a little bit of respect from the old man for that feat of agility. His eyes were just getting accustomed to the darkness when Gus flicked the switch. Mike heard himself gasp. There were rows of animals heads stuck on boards hanging from the walls.
"What the hell?"
"Huh?" Gus said. "What’s that you said?"
"Why the hell have you got all these animal heads on the wall?
"Oh, I hunt in my spare time. There used to be a demand for them. Not so much any more. Anyhow, I kind of feel like I’m disrespecting them if I throw ’em out." He continued looking in his cupboards.
"Disrespecting? You’ve killed them and cut off their heads to use as trophies and you’re worried about disrespecting them? That ship already sailed, I’d say."
Gus seemed unperturbed as he offered Mike a small spray bottle. "I never had much interest in it but I had some clients up north that seemed to get a kick out of having them. I imagine some of those fellas bragged about bagging ’em themselves. Whatever. Anyway, a number of years back they stopped calling. And so I still got a bunch. You want one for your girlfriend?"
Mike ignored the bottle Gus held. "She is my fiance and I would no more bring her a dead animal head…she would be disgusted, and frankly so am I."
Gus studied him for a minute and then chuckled. "I imagine I just seen why the bottom fell out my market." He laughed. "Have another drink, Mike. It’ll help settle your nerves some."
"My nerves are fine, Gus. I don’t know what would make you think it is okay to take innocent wildlife and kill it for your pleasure."
"It isn’t always for pleasure, Mike. Sometimes it’s just something you have to look after. Fact is, we’re organizing a hunt next week once your niece’s wedding is over. Wanna come?"
"No!" Mike bristled. After the silence got uncomfortable, Mike reluctantly asked "What are you hunting?"
"Oh, there’s a big male grizzly coming in pretty close to the backyards. Some town folks got feeding it when it was young and now it’s getting too brave."
"Why do you have to kill it? It was here before you, you know."
"Well, not really. I’ve been living here for close to seventy years and we’re guessing that bear is only coming five."
"I mean bears generally. They were here before you, or us or…whatever."
"Might be so." Gus demurred.
"Okay, so like, I don’t understand why or how you can hate like that." Mike was slurring his words now.
"Who says I hate the bear? I don’t have to hate the bear. I just have to know the bear."
"Well I know the bear too!" Mike said angrily. "He’s out there minding his own business and you guys are going to go out on some drunken party and kill him for no reason. It really makes me sick. I don’t know why you won’t just leave it alone."
Gus poured him another drink.
"Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, Mike. You wanna hear mine?"
Mike drank down the contents of his glass, shrugged and watched dully as Gus refilled it. If the mosquitoes were still biting, he was no longer capable of noticing.
"You know how sometimes you look at things that have happened and they only start to make sense to you once its over? You stand back and follow it from beginning to end and then you can sort of untangle it. Maybe even understand it on some level. That’s not how it is with bears. You see, because it’s a bear, you can always count on the bear doing what bears do. You don’t actually have to wait until the end and look back on it or untangle it. You can understand it just on account of the fact that it’s a bear. Bears do what bears do."
Mike was really drunk now. "Like they crap in the woods, right?" He started laughing at his own joke.
"Yep. There’s that too." Gus smiled as he watched Mike. "You know, you’re kind of like a bear right now too."
"See that bucket over in the corner…why don’t you go stand next to it," Gus suggested. Mike was too drunk to argue.
"Good. Now I’ll see you back out by the pit. You stay there and do what city folks do." He chuckled as he heard Mike retching uncontrollably into the bucket.
The next morning Mike’s sister knocked gently on his door.
"You okay?" She asked.
Mike groaned. His head felt swollen and he was sure his eyes were bruised. He attempted to gin up a cheerful tone and answered that he would be down shortly. As he tried to walk softly down the stairs he heard Jeremy laugh.
"Rule number one is never try to keep up with Gus."
Chelsea shook her head. "Jeremy, I don’t know why you didn’t keep an eye on Mike. He was your guest."
"It’s all fine. I’m fine." Mike insisted. "Has anyone seen my phone?"
"It’s in your jacket, I think. It was ringing a bit this morning but I wasn’t sure how to answer it."
Mike shook his head. Figures, he thought.
He listened to his message and it was Elizabeth. She was worried he hadn’t called last night. Mike was a bit ashamed. He couldn’t remember much from last night and if it weren’t for the pounding in his head, he would almost be able to convince himself that it had never happened. At least when he got through to her he would be able to tell her that he stood up to the old trophy hunter. He knew she would be proud of him for that.
He waited as the phone rang into New York. Somehow being out in the boonies gave him a different perspective on how amazing it was that he could be standing here in his sister’s house and yet talk to Elizabeth as though she were right next to him.
The phone rang through to her voicemail and Mike smiled unconsciously as he heard her voice again. She was in meetings for the day so he would have to wait to talk to her later.
"You gonna have lunch with us, Mike?" his sister asked.
"No. You know, sis, I think I’ll just go for a walk. Clear my head a bit."
He heard Jeremy snort but he ignored it.
He went upstairs and grabbed his camera. Then he set out, determined to get a few pictures for Elizabeth.
He walked along the path in the woods behind his sister’s house. The leaves were changing colors now that September had arrived and it reminded him of a painting somehow. He was barely one hundred yards into the forest before he saw a deer. It matched the background almost perfectly and Mike felt pretty lucky that he had noticed it at all. He drew his camera up very slowly and got off at least five shots before the deer leaped back into the woods. Elizabeth will love that, he thought to himself.
He continued walking although the path got a little narrower. He got some shots of rabbits, chipmunks and a beautiful cardinal. But then as he came around the corner he stopped dead in his tracks. In a clearing about two hundred feet from where he stood was the bear. The bear was reaching his paw into a log and seemed oblivious to anything else. Mike stared in awe. It was huge, shaggy and lumbering. He could hear the snuffling sounds as the giant creature investigated the rotted wood.
Very carefully, Mike raised his camera. He snapped incessantly, capturing the bear lying on his back and rolling the log with his paws. At one point the bear stood up on his hind legs and looked towards him, casting about with his nose. Mike was sure the bear had seen him and for a moment he felt a primal terror. But the bear dropped back down to all fours and went back to his log.
Although Mike couldn’t be sure, he felt he had watched the bear for about ten minutes before the huge shaggy mass left the clearing and disappeared into the forest.
Mike was elated and his exhilaration was such that he barely noticed his pounding headache anymore. He knew Elizabeth would be thrilled when she saw the pictures.
As he walked back toward his sister’s house he reflected on his adventure. Gus had said the bear was so dangerous, and yet he and the bear had just shared an experience, a moment in time. The further he walked the more convinced he was that the bear had seen him and his confidence grew. Mike sensed that the bear had recognized that he wasn’t a threat, which was why they had had this wonderful interaction. He planned to use this ammunition to shut down the likes of Gus, Jeremy and all the other hunters.
He could see his sister’s house from the path but stopped one last time to take a picture of the cardinal. He only noticed it because of the loud squawking the bird was making. Mike raised his camera but the bird flew up to a higher branch still squawking hysterically.
Mike heard a rustling behind him and turned to see what had caused the noise. Charging out of the underbrush onto the path was the bear. The speed at which he covered the distance was stunning. There was no time to run, or to climb or to even grab a stick to defend himself. Mike just watched as the bear launched himself, both front legs stretching wide and reaching, coming towards him.
The impact sent Mike to the ground and he felt his head become encased in the bear’s mouth. Somehow Mike rolled away as he felt the bear’s teeth tear at his scalp. The massive claws ripped through his jacket and blood started seeping through his shirt. He couldn’t believe that he would die this way.
Mike struggled under the weight of the huge bear, but it was futile. He could only smell the bear and the bear smelled like death.
Two shots rang out and the bear slumped. Mike felt someone grab his arm and pull him out from under the bear.
"You still alive?"
Mike couldn’t see, but he recognized the voice right away.
‘How did you know I was here, Gus?" Mike gasped.
"I was dropping something off to Jeremy and Chelsea said you’d gone out the back for a walk. I just thought I’d best come out and see how you and the bear were getting along."
Gus used a strip of Mike’s shirt to wrap his head and staunch the bleeding. "You okay to walk out of here?"
"Yeah." Mike started rambling incoherently. "But I don’t get it Gus. I didn’t do anything to provoke it. I just took pictures and then I left it. I didn’t threaten it. Hell, I was walking away from it. Damn it."
Mike grew angrier as the blood from his torn scalp continued to drip into his eye.
"Well now, Mike. Remember what I was telling you. Bears do what bears do. There’s people like that in this world too. You can provoke ’em just by existing. Give me your arm and let’s get you out of here."
An ambulance arrived within minutes and Mike was placed inside. His thoughts turned to Elizabeth.
"Can you call her? Please. Just don’t tell her about this. Say anything. Just make it up. Gone out with the guys…anything. Just don’t tell her this or she’ll just worry herself sick."
He felt himself growing faint as the ambulance doors closed.
Mike missed the wedding completely. He had lost quite a bit of blood and it was determined that he should stay in the hospital for a couple of days. By Monday he was itching to leave and he was eager to talk to Elizabeth.
His sister picked him up at the hospital early Tuesday morning. Mike’s first question was if anyone had called Elizabeth.
"I gave Jeremy the number. He called her that night. It’s okay. He didn’t say anything about you being in the hospital so you don’t have to worry."
Mike could barely wait to get back to his sister’s so he could call Elizabeth himself. He went upstairs and got his phone. There was a message from her. He clicked the keys until he could access his voice mail. It was Elizabeth but she was angrier than he had ever heard her before.
"Hunting? You went hunting? Why would you do that? Why would you tell me all this time that you feel like I do and then you betray me by going hunting. I couldn’t believe it when Jeremy said it, Mike. I think we have to talk when you get back home. I’m really not sure how we can go forward." He could hear her crying as she hung up and he started yelling at the phone telling her that it wasn’t true.
It was just before nine and he dialed quickly, hoping he could catch her before she got to her office.
"Damn it," he cursed. "The connection isn’t working. What are the bloody odds?"
He went downstairs. He would try his sister’s phone and if he saw Jeremy he would demand to know why he had told Elizabeth such a ridiculous story.
As he walked into the living room he could hear his sister crying. Mike stared in silent disbelief at the small TV set on the Formica wall unit. He didn’t even notice the old fashioned knobs that were needed to turn the channels, even though it had struck him as so funny when he saw it a few days ago. He felt something intense, but as yet unfocused, stirring deep inside him. He was silent as his sister organized everyone into a semi-circle right in front of the TV. Mike joined hands with his family and recited words to a prayer that he was surprised he could remember.
As the second tower fell, he knew that when he found Elizabeth, he would have to tell her about the bear.
The End
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