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Bear Country Blues


At first the bears were standoffish, not rude exactly, but distant, reserved, protective of their privacy. Ray had been warned about feeding them, but that was far from his mind anyway. In fact, he was largely unaware of the bears for the first couple of weeks, just trying to make a go of it, to get the cabin in shape, keep himself supplied with food and fuel. The nearest store was an hour away, half of that along a rutted jeep trail, passable only by the burliest vehicles with plenty of clearance. A heavy chain and padlock closed that trail off from the hard road. Ray didn't have a vehicle, anyway. He had taken a bus out from the city carrying his stuff, which he piled up on the front porch of the general store. It had taken three trips to get it downstairs from his apartment to the cab that took him to the bus station, and it took four trips to carry it all from the store to the cabin.

The bears, for their part, were aware of him as soon as he made that first trip up the path, carrying a large, odd-shaped case in one hand and awkwardly towing a suitcase on wheels, last year's leaves crunching under his feet. They knew something about the sort of people who came to the woods to live: survivalists, loners, refugees from the industrial world, often people who were broken in some way. Hunters they could recognize, too, but rarely did hunters actually move out into the woods; they just came for the day or, occasionally, a couple of days. And Ray, the bears could clearly see, wasn't a hunter or a survivalist—he didn't have the equipment and he didn't have the skills. The bears watched his lumbering treks up and down the trail with amusement and grudging compassion. They preferred that humans stay out of the woods, but it had long been clear to them that this was not a reasonable expectation, so they liked to know what sort of people had come to live near them. Ray seemed a good sort. That first night, after he'd finally carried everything inside, he'd simply disappeared. No lights shone from his windows; no smoke came from the chimney. But the next morning he'd opened up all the doors and windows of the cabin and spent most of the day sweeping, dusting, straightening the place out. He whistled as he unpacked the grocery bags of canned goods, and they liked that. They actually feared for him when they watched him chop wood, so careless and clumsy was he with the axe.

That second evening, after he'd eaten his supper of beans and rice cooked on a Coleman stove, Ray came out on the front porch with a cup of hot tea and his guitar. He took it out of its hard case, tuned it up, and began to play a song that he'd been working on ever since he'd watched his apartment building recede through the window of the bus:

I could stay and wait for you, baby,
But I know you ain't coming back.
My days have all turned gray,
And my nights are solid black.

So, I'm leaving, babe,
leaving the town where you left me
I know you won't come looking,
but if you do, you won't find me.

The nights were cold at first, but as the trees began to leaf out and the sunsets turned from gray to purple and red, the cabin seemed to hold the warmth of the afternoon sun well into the dark hours. The short gray evenings grew longer, and Ray would build his fire later and later. Before long, even if the fire had gone out by morning, which it nearly always did, he still woke comfortable in his bed, the dawn now a warm gold instead of the cold silver it had been when he'd first arrived. His ability to do his daily chores improved, and he gained fluidity and confidence, in only a few weeks time looking, if not like a seasoned veteran of rural life, at least not like a danger to himself. After eating his supper, he would sit out on the porch with his guitar and the bears would listen from beyond the edge of the clearing, just out of sight, though sometimes he sensed that he wasn't alone.

He began to explore the surrounding woods, finding the scat of a large animal on his first hike, though he couldn't identify it. I knew somebody was out there listening to me play, he thought. It was some time, however, before he saw them. He'd dug out his harmonicas that evening, placed the rack around his neck, clamped one into it, and started to pick out his usual slow blues. No sooner had he begun to wail a little on the harmonica than he saw movement in the bushes. Then across an open space he saw what he thought was a huge dog, a Rottweiler, maybe, almost black with a brown muzzle. It scared him, the idea of a wild dog in his woods, and he instantly stopped playing. He stood up and walked to the railing, and he saw the animal again, this time moving more slowly, ambling off into the depth of the forest, and he realized it was no dog.

Ray's place was less than half an afternoon's walk from the bears' den, well within the territory they called their own. They'd spend their days foraging, feasting on willow catkins and new leaves until the catkins dried and the leaves turned bitter. By then they'd located the best rotting logs for grubs and ant larvae, and they watched for the first berries to appear. The woods were filling up with birdsong, and in the evenings with Ray's music. The bears adjusted their rounds to pass by the cabin at about the time he'd play, gradually becoming more casual about letting themselves be seen. The first time he caught a glimpse of the second, larger bear, he decided they were a pair and gave them names: Ursula and Bruno. He'd watch for them as he tuned up, peering into the bushes at the edge of the clearing around his cabin, and missing them on the occasional evenings when he didn't see at least some sign of their presence. And so the weeks went by, the days growing longer and the nights shorter, Ray adjusting to life in the woods, the bears adjusting to having him as their neighbor.

Ray was not a fisherman, but one of his friends had pressed a rod, reel, and a fancy box full of flies on him. "There's some little creeks back in there, and they're bound to have some brook trout in them," the friend had said. "I tied these flies special for these conditions." Now, in the green light of an early summer afternoon, Ray was trying to remember what his friend had shown him. Sneak up on the pool. Get the fly to float from the head of the pool to the tail. If nothing happens after a few tries, just move further upstream. It took a few tries before he got his fly into the water at all, but after losing several in the bushes, nearly falling into the first pool and thrashing the second with a hard slap of line, he watched the tiny tuft of feathers land softly on the surface of the water and float gently with the current. Splat. Something hit it, and he yanked back on the rod, snatching the fish—probably no more than six inches long—right out of the water and flinging it behind him into the woods. When he retrieved his line the fish was gone, and though he searched among the leaves, he never found it.

The bears had been watching from a discrete distance as he stumbled awkwardly over the slippery rocks, confirming their estimation of him as an outsider and pathetic woodsman. He sloshed right through the fishiest water, heading further up the narrow stream until he found one more pool. The smooth surface shone black under the canopy of leaves, and Ray took his time. He crouched down a little way below the pool, moved his rod slowly through its arc in a test swing, and made a perfect cast. The fly touched down in the foam where a low waterfall poured into the pool from above. Then there was a splash, a flash of green tail, and the line went taut. Ray lifted the rod gently and felt the quiver of the living fish on the other end. Easy, he told himself, easy. The line moved about the pool, following the path of the fish, invisible below the surface, and it was like being connected to more than just a fish—it was like being hooked into the life force of the forest itself. He carefully worked the fish over to the bank and lifted it from the water. About nine inches long, its back was mazy with dark lines, its sides marked with lovely red and pale blue spots, and its dark fins were lined with white on their leading edges. He took it into his hand to get the hook out of its mouth, and it felt as smooth as satin. The hook was nowhere to be seen. He followed the line into the fish's mouth and, feeling uncomfortable, shoved his finger deep down its throat, trying to dislodge the hook, but to no avail. Impatient, he pulled on the line. The fish, which had been wriggling in his hand, shuddered and lay still. He felt something tear and then saw blood run from the gills. You're supposed to cut the line when they swallow the hook, he remembered, and fumbled for his pocketknife. When he put the fish back in the water, hoping against hope it would flick its tail and swim away, it turned belly up and floated downstream, a white dead thing.

Ray looked around and saw that the light was beginning to fail. He picked up the rod and headed back downstream, looking for familiar landmarks, wondering how far he had come in the course of the long afternoon, moving from pool to pool. He had killed two fish, both due to carelessness and inexperience. He stumbled into a hole, caught himself, then nearly fell the other way. The color had gone out of the woods; the gray of evening would soon melt into the black of night. He wasn't sure he'd make it back to the cabin before dark, but he had to be careful. He picked his way slowly along, staying to the creek, watching for the path that would take him back to his cabin, not sure he'd recognize it. The sky turned pink and gold, underlit by the sun that was already out of sight. As he looked up at the fish-scale pattern of clouds, his foot hit a slippery rock and shot out from under him. He flailed his arms, tried to catch himself, clawed at the air as he went down, landed briefly on his butt, slipped further and cracked his head…hard. He registered the impact, then all motion stopped and the last light seeped out of everything.

He came to with a terrible pain in the back of his head. It took him a moment to remember what had happened, figure out where he was. He had fallen in the creek bed, but as his eyes began to focus he saw that he wasn't there now. A broad expanse of starlit sky was visible above him. He lay flat on his back in the clearing in front of his cabin.

He crawled painfully up the steps and made his way into his bed without taking off his wet clothes. In the morning he found himself scuffed and bruised all over his body, his shirt nearly shredded at the shoulders and sleeves, but except for the serious lump on the back of his head, he had no other significant injuries.

That evening, having put the fishing gear away and promising himself he wouldn't try that again, Ray stood at the edge of his porch with his guitar in hand.

"I guess I've got to thank you," he said aloud, pitching his voice toward the opening in the bushes where he'd seen the bears. "So I've put you in my song." Then he sat down, with the guitar on his knee and sang the new verse he'd written that afternoon:

Living with the bears, now baby,
Up in the woods so far away,
And you know I'm never lonely,
No matter what those bears might say.

Yeah, I'm gone now, babe,
Left that town where you left me,
I know you won't come looking,
But if you do, you won't find me.

As the summer passed, the little glade in front of Ray's cabin was frequently visited by rabbits, who lazily chewed the tufts of wild grass. Raccoons got into his garbage one night, and after that he was careful to close the lid tightly and weight it with a heavy log. Ray would awaken in the morning to the chatter of chickadees and the singing of robins and cardinals; often at night he would hear the call and response of barred owls. And every evening he would sit out on the porch and play his guitar and harmonica, mixing old songs with new, ballads with folk songs, but always working his way back to the blues. One afternoon while walking in the woods he came upon a tiny glass bottle, like an old prescription bottle. It fit perfectly over his pinky. That night he tried it out as a slide, and at the new sound coming from his guitar, the bears once again let themselves be seen, Ursula, as before, less shy than Bruno, who never came fully out into the open. So the weeks went by, long dry days, warm evenings of fireflies, Ray's guitar and harmonica, and the accompaniment of the crickets and cicadas. Acorn season came, though it was not much of a crop, and the bears, foraging farther and wider as the woods dried up, still came to their spot just outside Ray's clearing nearly every evening, listened to him play, and waited for rain.

Early in the fall, Ray was walking a high steep trail where he could see the panorama of turning leaves, the forest from above a subtle palate of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns. He sat on a rocky overlook and unpacked his lunch of tuna fish and crackers. Below him the autumnal forest stretched out, and above pearly cloud formations roiled and swirled into constantly changing shapes, occasionally lit by pink and gold flashes of internal lightning. The rain first came in fat heavy drops, and Ray was soaked to the skin before he made it halfway back to his cabin. The trail turned muddy, and he slipped and fell several times before he finally scurried up the stairs onto his porch, chilled to the bone. He stripped down, built a fire, and crawled into bed, where he remained for the rest of the day.

The rain continued, heavy, soaking rain that filled the creeks and carved deep into their dry banks. Some of the oldest trees, their support carved out from under them, fell across the rushing brown water. Ray kept his fire going, waking up in the night to stoke it, until he ran out of dry wood. Then he nearly froze. He forced himself to go out into the rain and haul a stock of firewood up onto the porch, but it was soaked through and he couldn't get it to burn. Over the next few days, he opened the door from time to time to watch the rain fall and listen to the sound of the wind in the thrashing leaves. He tried to read, but often ended up falling asleep, curling up tight under all the blankets he had.

The bears lounged in their cave, looking out through the curtain of falling rain and thinking of juicy berries and fat hazelnuts and beginning to grow sleepy. It would be a hard winter, they knew, and the man in the cabin wouldn't make it without them to watch out for him. When the rains let up, they watched Ray's place closely, hopeful for signs that he would be heading back to the world of men soon, but they saw just the opposite. He was spending more and more of his day cutting wood, piling it up on the porch now, clearly stocking up for winter. He made an effort at chinking the cabin, and even climbed up on the roof to nail down a couple of loose shingles, very nearly falling off.

It was Ursula who made the first move. One night, after the light inside the cabin had gone out, she charged through Ray's clearing and took a swipe at the garbage can, flinging it up against the cabin with a noise that carried through the woods like an explosion.

The next day Ray cleaned up the mess, dug a deep hole, and buried the garbage. The can was bent almost in half, and bore the marks of Ursula's claws, two of which had actually torn through it. Ray banged it back into rough shape with a rock, scrubbed it out, and took it inside the cabin. But he showed no signs of leaving.

A week or so later, while Ray was out walking, the bears broke into the house, trashing the Coleman stove, shredding Ray's bags of rice and dried beans, punching holes in his can of cooking oil, breaking his lantern. The next day he headed down the path, the suitcase on wheels in tow. The bears were relieved until they saw him coming back a couple of hours later, the suitcase now overflowing with new supplies.

The first frost came, the days dawning with a sparkle of silver, the nights growing longer and colder. The bears felt the great sleep coming on. They gorged when they could on nuts and late crab apples. And they kept watching Ray. When he hadn't left by the first snowfall, they knew something drastic had to be done.

Ray sat on the porch in the late morning sun, a cup of hot tea by his side. The night had been bitterly cold, and though he'd stoked the fire before he went to bed, he'd awakened shivering, curling up under the blankets and taking a long time to get out of bed. Now, though the sun shone brightly, the air burned his nostrils, cold as dry ice. About an inch of snow lay on the ground in front of the cabin. Tree branches were tufted with white. Only under the thick pines was the leafy forest floor visible. Ray was trying to make a song out the beautiful scene when he heard a muffled shuffling in the woods. He immediately thought it was Ursula making her rounds, but she seemed not to be passing the cabin, but approaching, coming nearer and nearer. The dry branches of the once green bushes at the edge of the clearing parted, and there was Bruno, looking right at him. Ray had glimpsed Bruno before, noting that he was larger than Ursula; now he could see just how much larger. No one would ever mistake Bruno for a Rottweiler as he had Ursula when he first caught sight of her. Bruno was massive, his shoulders broad, his body deep as an oil barrel, and he was coming straight toward the cabin. Ray froze in his chair, having thought many times about what he would do if he ran into the bears in the woods, but totally unprepared to meet them on his front porch. Bruno reached the steps, and then stood up on his hind legs and bared his teeth in a snarl. He was huge, taller than Ray, and probably weighed at least three-hundred-and-fifty pounds. Ray stood up, too. He was more confused than afraid, but he was still very afraid. "I thought you were my friend," he said, as if he expected the bear to respond.

Bruno looked at him. The man just wasn't going to leave. Bruno bounded up the steps and cuffed Ray on the shoulder, sending him flying across the porch and into a chair, which broke under him. Bruno, on all fours again, walked over to the chair and grabbed one of Ray's legs in his teeth. Ray felt the teeth tear through his boot and pierce his ankle. The bear dragged him down the stairs and into the clearing. Ray caught a movement out of the corner of his eye—it was Ursula coming toward him. Bruno had let go, and Ray rolled over and up onto his hands and knees, then wrapped his arms around his chest, tucked his head down as far as he could, and huddled in the fetal position, expecting now to be mauled by both bears. But what happened was not what he expected. Bruno cuffed him again, knocking him over, and each bear grabbed an ankle in its jaws and started dragging Ray toward the jeep trail. Ursula's bite was firm, but it didn't break through the leather uppers of his boot. Bruno's jaws held him harder, and he felt a tearing and agonizing crunch in his right ankle. Pain shot all the way up his leg, passed in a terrible wave through his loins. He shuddered and passed out. Over the next half hour or so, he drifted in and out of consciousness as he felt himself being dragged roughly down the path, until the bears left him at the padlocked chain a few feet from the paved county road, where, shivering and aching all over, he managed to signal a passing car before going into shock.

When the bears woke up, grumpy and sore, they immediately saw signs the winter had been rough; the woods were full of downed and shattered trees. Hard, brittle snow still lay beneath the pines. Ursula had given birth to a cub during the great sleep, and she had to look after it, so it was Bruno whose circuit of their territory first took him past Ray's place. A tree had fallen into the side of the cabin, breaking some windows, and the lock on the front door had been jimmied, the door left wide open. The place had been cleaned out, but there was no way of knowing whether Ray had come back to get his gear or someone else had taken it. There was no sign of Ray for many weeks, but then, as the days were growing longer, the dawns turning from silver to gold, the evenings from gray to purple and red, a truck came lurching up the old trail. A comfortable, woodsy-looking man had driven Ray and all his gear right to the door. The two men unloaded the truck, Ray looking even more awkward than he had the year before, when the bears had watched him drag his suitcase up the path. The two men studied the broken lockset and window and then got back into the truck. Later Bruno and Ursula and their little cub watched as Ray made his way up the path alone. If bears wept, Ursula would have wept to see him hobble up that long path with his cane. He spent most of the afternoon inside the cabin, and they could smell first the smoke of his fire, and later the aroma of his dinner. It was almost dark by the time he came out onto the porch with his cup of hot tea and his guitar. He took a long time settling his injured leg into a comfortable position, cradling the guitar now between his legs instead of just resting it on one. Then he tuned up and started to play a slow blues, and after working on the tune a bit, he began to sing:

The city's fine for winter
To stay home and keep warm,
But when the winter's over
I head out on my own.

Going to the country, babe,
Live free among the birds and bears.
I know you won't come looking,
But if you do, you'll find me there.

A round black furry animal about the size of a raccoon tumbled out from the bushes into the clearing. Then Ursula came out and picked it up by the scruff of its neck and carried it back into the cover of the brush. Bruno was there, too, Ray was sure, staying out of sight, but keeping his eye on Ursula and the cub. And keeping an eye on Ray.