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The Married Lives of Grizzly Bears
By David Bernard
Genre: Fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

David Bernard

The grizzly stood fifty feet away. Or was it a brown bear? Ted couldn't remember. The guide had explained the difference, but Ted was preoccupied, watching the blonde beast munch on grass. It was the size of a compact car, and its wispy hair floated in the cold breeze that funneled down from the mountains. But its muscles were not wispy. Its arms went taut with each step. Its legs swayed under its weight. So Ted was having trouble keeping track of what, exactly, the bears were called; what plants they ate; when the salmon run began; when the first snow typically fell; and what their napping spots--excavated by claws--were named. He knew that at any moment, without reason (for wild animals were without reason), it could charge. And the only thing standing between the bear and Ted's delicious innards were the two guides (who were also their pilots), flares strapped to their hips. Not even guns. Not even bear spray. Not even a crossbow, or a machete, or a musket force-fed with gunpowder. Just two flares, the same ones you'd find in a car's emergency kit. If nothing else, the bright red flames would make it easier to locate what was left of their mauled corpses.

Ted rotated the binoculars' focusing ring and sharpened his view of the bear's wet snout. The sow lowered her head and tore up some goose tongue at the root. She chewed and continued to ignore the nearby humans. The pilots had encouraged the customers to taste the goose tongue. It tasted like grass, as far as Ted was concerned. Sheila, his wife, didn't try it, since it had been plucked from the dirty ground and had not been washed. Ted tapped Sheila on the shoulder and motioned at her with the binoculars. She took them and put them to her eyes.

"Wow," she said. And really, what more was there to say? They sat in an open field, only a hundred yards from the beach and their planes, bordered on three sides by mountains. It was beautiful. And it was wild, unprotected by fences, shock collars, or sharpshooters with sniper rifles. Surprisingly, the only safety advice the pilots had dispensed (Ted had paid attention to that part) was that the guests should, under no circumstances, run. Running triggered the beasts' instincts, compelling them to pursue. And a man could not run faster than a bear, as he was also the slower climber and weaker fisherman. Instead, they were supposed to hold their ground and say, "Hey, bear," as if the bears would respond only if their species were correctly identified. Luckily there was no documented case of a bear attack on a group this large. But maybe that was because every time bears attacked a party of ten or more, they made sure that each tiny particle of bone and tendon had been fully masticated. And it wasn't like statistics existed since the beginning of time. Sure, there hadn't been any recent bear attacks on large groups of humans, but what about a few hundred years ago? A few thousand? What if ancient men had forgotten to carve bloody pictograms into the walls of caves to warn future generations?

The she-bear shook her muscles, probably to scare off a family of mosquitoes buzzing around her shoulders. The guides had explained that she was a young one, still growing. But Ted stiffened at the movement. His bowels clenched. There was an area of his brain that he couldn't shut off, that he couldn't reason into submission. And this section of gray matter was screaming its throat raw, pleading with Ted to turn around and hightail it back to the plane.

Ted was afraid of the bears but calm about the flight to their habitat. Sheila was the opposite. She had been terrified while airborne. Every time the tiny plane wobbled its way through turbulence, she gripped his thigh. He felt secure in the plane, a six-seater. He and Sheila were of average height and weight, and even they had barely fit into their seats, their knees jutting into their chins, their arms constantly overlapping and repositioning. Ted held his breath while the pilot closed the door. He didn't exhale again until the latch clicked. He felt like a balled-up t-shirt squeezed into a suitcase, a frantic traveler kneeling on top of him and closing the zipper one inch at a time.

            After they had taken off, Ted pressed his forehead to the window--flimsy and plastic like cling wrap--lest he miss a second of the view. The mountains were flecked with what remained of the winter's snowfall. The small patches of ice fed into streams, which fed into waterfalls, which in turn fed into the bay. The grass on the hills was green for only a few months each year, and at this point, it was at its greenest. He saw a similar view every day from their deck, but this was different. Maybe it was the altitude affecting his perception. Maybe he was dehydrated, as he hadn't had a thing to drink all morning, ensuring that he wouldn't have to pee during the forty-five minute flight. Maybe it was the luck of venturing off on a clear, sunny day, the first in weeks. Maybe it was Sheila's hand, gripping his thigh, an intimate touch rarely practiced in public. Though with Sheila's eyes closed during most of the flight, Ted realized that she could have been resting her hand on a ham hock and wouldn't have known the difference.

            During unexpected dips in elevation, when Ted's growling stomach fluttered near the top of his ribcage and jostled against unidentified organs, Sheila's hands did things that were anything but sensual. He'd likely have a bruise in the morning. If he were wearing shorts, her fingernails would have tracked tiny lines up and down his thighs. He attempted to soothe his wife by reassuring her with calming, manly tones. Also, he assumed she would be dazzled, and therefore distracted, by the impressive manner in which he photographed the scenery one-handed.

But here, now, in front of a grizzly, Sheila's smile was immense. Didn't she know that she was more likely to be eaten by this animal than perish in a plane crash? A twig cracked and splintered behind them. Ted turned to verify that a stealthy bear hadn't flanked their position, creeping up from the beach while they were focused on their cameras and phone screens. It was just Bill. Every time Bill spoke, in the guise of asking a question, he mentioned a previously enjoyed exotic vacation. So far, Ted knew that Bill had stepped foot on at least four continents and had traversed Europe by rail.

"This is incredible," Sheila said. She whispered directly into Ted's ear, taking the guides' advice about noise a bit too seriously, perhaps.

"I know," Ted said. Sheila shuffled their positions so that she could take a portrait of them with the bear in frame. Their shoulders overlapped. Their heads, cold in the wind, touched and thawed. They smiled and assumed the selfie pose.

"Now, Jason," Bill said, his volume tuned to a man who had suffered hearing damage. "We were in California last summer, and we saw some bears. Were they grizzlies?"

"Probably not," Jason said. He was the older pilot and the owner of the tour company.

"Because they looked like grizzlies. Same color. Sure they weren't?"

"Anything's possible. Sometimes black bears look a little blonde."

"Cause we were on the A.T. once, that's what they call they Appalachian Trail down there, and we saw a black bear, and it was really black. Like black black."

Jason said nothing.

"And the ones in California weren't that black." How come no one else saw this guy for who he was? Ted knew the type. He had done everything you had done. And if he hadn't, he'd done something more impressive. Bill's camera lens was longer than Ted's forearm. He had some sort of hiking pole attachment to help keep the thing steady during telephoto shots. Ted was glad that Bill and his wife, whose camera lens was at least a foot shorter than her husband's, weren't on his plane. Their equipment would need its own seat.

"Like I said," Jason explained, "color can vary." Bill had already moved his attention back to his camera, fiddling with settings, and beeping with each touch of the buttons. How could he be such a jerk? An honest-to-god grizzly bear was, at most, twenty yards away, and Bill was thumbing through the pictures he'd just taken. Bill's wife--Ted couldn't remember her name--was looking over his shoulder and telling him how his pictures were better than hers. Maybe it was because he had the longer lens. Ted wouldn't be surprised if Bill spent twice as much on his camera, only to burden his wife with a handicap. Why couldn't they savor the view with their own eyes? Sure, Ted was taking pictures too, but every so often you had to enjoy the moment without a bunch of microchips standing between you and nature.

"All right," Jason whispered. "Let's go find some big ones." Ted laughed, assuming this was a joke. Wasn't this one big enough? The ten customers and two pilots filed into a line and walked parallel to the beach, moving farther from the safety of their planes. They tramped over uneven floodplains where paw prints had left great divots in the mud. Ted stepped inside one, both of his boots fitting within the boundaries of a single paw.  The preserved indentations would have elicited shrieks of-take your pick-delight or terror, if they were standing just about anywhere else on earth. Passersby would have captured the images on their phones. Yet here, no one even pointed them out. They'd already seen a few, and really, how different could one paw print look from another? Ted imagined the bears sitting around a tic-tac-toe grid of inky human fingerprints in a police station and thinking the same thing: "You seen one set of human prints," said a bear, "you seen ‘em all." Ted imagined one of the gargantuan paws investigating his body, rummaging through his backpack, knocking him into unconsciousness.

Scott, the second pilot, a guy in his mid-thirties, stopped the caravan and instructed everyone to gather around. A tuft of grizzly hair had snagged on an alder, and he passed around the show-and-tell specimen. People took it and rubbed it between their fingers. Ted skipped his turn, not because he wasn't curious, but because it felt unmanly to partake. He should have already known what grizzly hair felt like. He should have known the average weight of a dressed bear carcass. He should have slept one night under the stars, warmed by a sleeping bag of grizzly fur.

Once everyone had asked their questions, and Bill had pulled two ostrich feathers from a chain around his neck and forced everyone to touch those, the group began moving again. Ted turned around to orient himself. The planes were no longer visible, but Ted took note of their direction, just in case. The guides kept the bay to their left and the bears' habitat to their right. Ted didn't know how well bears could swim, but he certainly wouldn't ask the question and risk sounding like an idiot. The ground was uneven with mounds of dead grass, leftover from the previous season. Hollow, beige stalks of last year's pushki--taller than Ted--cracked and shattered as they passed through them.

"Want some almonds?" Ted asked.

"Llunch already?" Sheila said. It took all of Ted's concentration, but he was able to unzip a small portion of his backpack, dig his hand inside, and fish out a Ziploc bag of roasted almonds, all without breaking rank.

"Water?" Ted said.

"Sure. Thanks." Ted performed another acrobatic twisting of limbs and felt around for the water bottle. He extricated it, tugging hard to get it free of the zipper's teeth. He unscrewed the cap and brought the bottle halfway to his lips before remembering that he'd offered it to Sheila. He handed it to her, and she drank.

A roar sounded behind them. Ted turned, expecting to see a drenched grizzly emerging from the bay, fur sparkling with saltwater. Finally he spotted an incoming airplane, descending toward the beach. It was another tour company. The sound was just its engine.

A few clouds, dainty like cotton balls, dotted the sky above the north ridge of the mountain. Sheila stopped to remove her sweater, and Ted stayed behind with her. Static electricity loudly protested when she ripped the outer layer from her t-shirt. It sculpted her hair, twisting it upward. Ted caught a glimpse of her bare stomach and couldn't believe the whiteness of her skin. That's what they got for living in Alaska. Not much opportunity for sunbathing. He suddenly became jealous and hoped no one else had seen her midriff. All of this danger must be summoning his inner caveman. Sheila tied the sweater around her waist, clapped twice, and followed the crowd. Ted allowed her to lead the way.

A year ago on their honeymoon, a drunken man had approached them and babbled something in German. He thrust his dirty hands at them. It was dark, and the moonlit Zurich alleyway felt ominous. Ted had instinctively removed himself from the situation. The only problem was that he had left Sheila momentarily behind. It had taken a few days, and numerous train rides across sweeping vistas, before she forgave him. Or, at least, until she said she had forgiven him. Ted knew the difference between real forgiveness and a mutual agreement to avoid a subject. He had worked hard in the months since to be more considerate toward her. Today, especially, he was proud of himself. When they had boarded the plane, he held the door open and boosted Sheila into her seat. He held her hand when they were in the air and squeezed it--not too hard, not too soft--to reassure her. Now, as they forded a river, the ice-cold snowmelt nearly breaching their hip waders, he offered an arm. She braced against him and braved the swift current. He felt useful. He felt like a man. Was this the modern equivalent of slaying a wild beast with his bare hands to feed his family?

They stepped over more scat. It was fresh, cylindrical, the diameter of a Coke can. As with the paw prints, after the guides had pointed out the first pile, and an enterprising tourist had discovered a second specimen, no one informed the rest of the group anymore. However, they still nodded to each other, confirming that they had indeed seen the bear shit.

"Are these turds?" someone said. Maybe she hadn't been paying attention earlier. Or maybe she was a brown-noser.

"It's scat," Jason said. "Still pretty fresh."

The turd-finder lifted a stick from the ground and poked the scat. She looked pleased with herself. If only all scientific discoveries could be confirmed by jabbing something with a pointy object.

The group turned right, trudged up a small hill, and came upon an open meadow. And there, suddenly, was a blonde bear sitting in a field, grass up to her haunches. She was bigger than the first, a pickup truck of an animal. Ted could see every detail of her without consulting his binoculars. Jason explained that she was a sow. He'd named her Honey, because of the color of her fur, and he'd seen her numerous times over the past decade. She sniffed in their general direction, before returning to her afternoon snack of goose tongue.

They stayed single file and moved closer, remaining just on the ridge overlooking the meadow. Ted was considering when to break the silence rule and remind everyone that they were getting quite close to a giant fucking grizzly bear. But then Jason motioned for them to stop about ten yards away, keeping them on top of the ridge and looking down at their subject. The bear seemed content to remain right where she was. The ground was muddy, so some tourists sat on overturned raincoats. Others kneeled, protecting themselves from the filth with their hip waders, all ten toes pointing back toward the beach. Ted tried kneeling, but it put too much stress on his ankles. So he sat in the mud.

"You'll get dirty," Sheila said.

"I'm wearing Carhartts," Ted said. "We can wash them."

"Might stain."

"Carrot sticks?" Ted hoped this diversion would end the discussion. He held aloft a Tupperware tub of cut vegetables: carrots, red peppers, cucumbers, and celery.

"Not now," Sheila said. And she was right to wait because another bear was approaching the female. He was dark brown, his fur matted as though he had recently woken from a nap. Jason explained that it was a boar and that his intentions were amorous. A few customers said, "Awwwwww," drawing out the word like a string of saltwater taffy. Why was it that Americans were horrified by the thought of their fellow human beings procreating, but they couldn't get enough of every other creature's coital behavior? Ted had never seen grizzlies having sex, but he imagined ripped fur, blood, pointy teeth, and very little cuddling.

The sow ignored the boar. He roamed in front of her, keeping his distance.

A streak of motion shot through Ted's peripheral vision. He nearly fell over in an effort to avoid what turned out to be a golden-crowned sparrow. The bird settled on a nearby willow branch and sang its song, three descending notes that seemed mocking in tone.

"Weather couldn't be any better than this," Bill said. "We were on the western shore of Kaua'i last spring," he said, pronouncing the Hawaiian island with the correct, if pretentious, three syllables, "and that might have been a little clearer. Remember that, honey?" His wife, mostly obscured by her camera, nodded.

"Try to keep it down, Bill," Jason said. The sow rested on her hind end. She twisted her head from side to side. And then she extended her right paw, as if anticipating a high five. People laughed. They snapped more photos. A large man, kneeling next to his young daughter, pointed an iPad at the bears. With the giant shiny device poised in front of his face, it was more like he was playing a video game than taking pictures. Ted wondered what Ansel Adams could have created if his viewfinder had been 10 inches wide.

"Almonds?" Ted said. "Water?"

"Watch the bears," Sheila said.

Honey rose and stood on all fours. She kept eating. Jason explained that as the bears awaited the salmon run and a never-ending buffet of ripe berries, they had to maintain their weight by eating grass almost exclusively. And because they were giant animals, they needed to consume great quantities of it.

The unnamed boar was drawing closer to Honey. He seemed to army crawl on his belly. He growled with an inquisitive rise in pitch and paced in an arc, his claws sinking into the dirt with each step, despite his attempted daintiness.

"Would you look at that?" Bill said.  Since that was exactly what everyone was already doing, Ted once again devoted a small amount of mental energy to wishing that Bill, in the event of a horrible accident, would be the group member who didn't survive. Bill raised the obscenely large camera to his eye and clicked the shutter repeatedly.

The boar continued his sly advance. Honey ignored him.

"Still have the carrots out?" Sheila said.

"Yeah," Ted said. He looked down for a second to locate the carrots, as he had already put the Tupperware container in his backpack.

And then he heard a low growl. The boar was standing on his hind legs. His mouth was open. His tongue was pink and human-like, apart from its size. His teeth, perfect killing machines honed by millennia of evolution, were unsheathed. Sheila reached over and grabbed Ted's leg. Then the boar lowered his front legs and rushed forward. Honey immediately turned and also ran, both bears heading straight toward the  spectators.

In the same instant, Ted lost control of his body. He abandoned his wife and his backpack, and he ran. Moving down the hill was effortless, the elevation guiding him. He stopped and turned where the ground flattened near the beach. His heart was a bass drum in his chest. The nearby waves were deafening.

Ted could see the two guides from behind, sentinels at the top of the hill. They had also stood. They waived their arms above their heads and shouted, "Hey, bear." Ted couldn't see what had become of the bears because the hill now blocked his view.

"I thought we weren't supposed to run," Bill said.

"We weren't," Sheila said.

"I didn't run, Daddy," said the little girl.  She looked about six. No one addressed Ted directly, but they turned to look at him. It was as if he himself were now the attraction everyone had paid to see.

"Great job, everybody," Jason said, indicating by his tone that "everybody" failed to include one of those bodies.

"That's what we were talking about earlier," Scott said. "Wanted to make sure the bears knew we were here. They can get distracted."

His fellow tourists were looking at him down there, alone. Sheila was the first to break eye contact. She reached her hand into Ted's backpack, brought out the carrots that Ted had failed to produce, lifted the lid of the Tupperware container, and snapped a carrot stick between her teeth. She lifted the binoculars from the strap around her neck and gazed out at the bears that Ted couldn't see. The others followed suit. He turned away from the group and saw the bay out in front of him, separated by a brief stretch of wild land. He heard a collective sound of awe--Shiela's voice somewhere in the mix--as if Honey had just given birth. "Whoa!" someone said. And as the tourists crept closer to get a better look, they disappeared from Ted's view. He was missing all of it.

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