I found the bear one fall day as clouds slouched up the valley, pushed by an incoming storm. Crows flapped in the alders and before I could reason the oddness of so many, the dog was off and tearing into whatever was there below the trees.
I shouldn’t say I found the bear. I’d already heard rumors and wondered why I no longer found giant piles of scat everywhere like I had all summer. Scat filled with dark pits from the wild cherry trees that lined the trail. I found scat along the banks of the river near the swimming hole, and near the house. Scat on the driveway and under the apple trees. Huge mounds that slowly became more apple than cherry. But I never saw the bear.
Others did. Neighbors saw him in their backyards. Watched him eat their apples or walk through their gardens. they found torn apart bee hives and dug up carrots. We picked most of our apples as quick as they ripened and the bear got only the last few wormy ones. It could have been worse, he could have easily gotten the best of them. Or the peaches.
It started to be a thing to brag about – who the bear visited – who saw him or didn’t and how many times. Then the conversation turned. The bear had gone missing. Maybe he wandered back into the forest. Some wondered if maybe he got shot. It was too early for hibernation and though we didn’t necessarily oppose the hunting and though we didn’t necessarily say this too loud, many hoped this bear’s fate would be different.
Then someone found the bear and word went round of his existence in the woods along the trail near the pond. That’s where I found him, in the salmon and blackberry bushes and ferns, a yellow rope round his left paw. Just past the slough where I watched a heron and missed the crows congregating. The carcass was easy to overlook really, hidden. It was the dark wings flapping that got my attention, that and the dog barking and snuffling about in the brush.
That the bear had been shot was not so surprising, it was the lack of care. When the hunters I knew were asked, they said, this is not hunting. This is something else. The way the skin was seemingly tore off and everything else left behind – head, paws, meat. The way they tied a rope round and drug what was left of his shimmering black almost obsidian self into the brush.
I’ve read that long ago hunters cut away the cartilage beneath a bears tongue and buried it as a precaution against the bear’s spirit following them. I’ve read of the bad fortune that can befall a person or an entire tribe if the rules aren’t respected. I’ve read of the Finnish and Sammi and Russian reverence for bears and of tribes that do not hunt, kill or eat bear meat so human like is the skeleton under the fur.
I wondered if the spirit of this bear rested or roamed.
I went into the bushes for the dog. There I saw closer the long grace of torso, the tufts of matted fur on the bear’s paws. I smelled the pungent rot rising. And the claws, the long, white curve of them ending in point, fascinated. Even these weren’t enough for protection, though they could tear a human apart. Maybe the bear gave himself over – let himself be taken in the way hunters once believed and some still do, that a hunter does not so much take as is given.
I pulled the dog from the bear, got him back on the trail and leashed and wondered who would do this and why and how would I ever protect myself if a bear with all that power couldn’t stop such killing.
The ground froze soon after and then snow. I’ll admit here I coveted the claws and when I returned after the snow melted, I thought maybe they would be there and if they were I would take them. Not that I deserved them. They were gone though, most everything was gone, scavenged or decomposed. All I could find were a few pieces of coarse black hair and small bits of bone. Nothing more to indicate the bear had been here, lain here, died. Nothing much to show he’d came to visit us here along the banks of the river, near the pond with the herons, in our orchards and gardens, so very near the heart of our living.