by Peter Arnds
To get away from it all, roam through the woods for a week, scale peaks, and let the sun dance on our skin, sit by the fireside at night and roast marshmallows on pointed sticks—it sounded like the perfect plan. Whisper of tree tops, star spangled nights, dips in ice cold creeks, the scent of resin and pine.
The supplies were perfectly rationed. All we needed was some beef jerky, and there it was, at the gas station just outside the National Park, right next to the magazines. One of them was entitled Bear Attack. It was a mistake to pick it up and leaf through it, for what I found was bone-chilling and put an dampener on the trip: Survival stories. Fatal stories. A guy gets attacked to the point that he can’t move anymore. Lies injured in some hole in the ground behind fallen trees, the bear returning again and again to snack on him, biting into his arms, shoulders, legs, hot breath upon the dying man, the sound of breaking bones, the smell of blood and piss, the pain, the ever increasing mind numbing pain. If you’re lucky you go unconscious and don’t wake up again.
In the words of one of the survivors: At short distances, bears are faster than horses. I was on the trail up in B.C., he says, when all of a sudden I see this huge stinking turd right in front of me. It’s the size of my forearm and still steaming. My heart stops and looking down the trail sure enough, there he is looking straight at me. I don’t know how he did it but he’s upon me in a split second. I just had enough time to fall to the ground and roll up like a fetus. Folded my hands in prayer over the back of my neck, knees pulled up so he wouldn’t dig around in my entrails, the piss just running out of me uncontrollably. He flips me around like a basketball, one, two, three times, then lets go and is gone. Believe me, I had never shit my pants like that.
I put down the mag and we headed up the trail.
“We should have invested in some bells, Adam.”
“To tie ‘em to our pants.”
“So the grizzlies can hear us from a distance.”
“Don’t worry so much. There are no grizzlies in Yosemite.”
My heart was beating hard, whether from exertion in 10,000-foot altitude or from sheer fear of the beast, I wasn’t sure. After all, it sat deep inside us all. Even in Adam—especially in Adam, first of all men. Despite his macho attitude.
We kept walking but then, all of a sudden, there he was, right in front of me, after bend of trail, unannounced and silently, just a few yards left between us. Gigantic and with long eyelashes, his black eyes looked down at me. It was too late to run, too late even to kneel and fall, fold up into a fetus with praying hands over back of neck. Never too late to pee. But would it deter him? But wait a minute: Grizzlies don’t look like that.
A deer! It was a fucking deer! Mythologically speaking, a girl. Her eyes were as large as figs, her lashes as long as fingers. Adam was right behind me, taking pictures.
We walked another five miles that day and pitched the tent in a hollow by a small lake dotted with island boulders. A well-protected spot. Or a death trap? I swam out to one of the rocks, not too chilly that water, the color of bourbon. Sitting on the dry glacially rounded granite rock in the middle of the pond in the middle of the High Rockies surrounded by perpendicular cliff faces I contemplated the situation:
There was no birdsong, but the sky was filled with that strange high-frequency, high-altitude whir, a sound more space than sound, produced by the immensity of the cosmic vault. It became a part of the great silence that wrapped and held us. A silence to magnify each tiny creature’s stir, each squirrel’s skip or warning whistle, to unbearable proportions. Or the breaking and crackling of brittle twigs as Adam fed the fire. In waning daylight we tore into beef jerky, roasted marshmallows impaled on natural skewers, blanketed white slices of toast with peanut butter and jelly. The ultimate American camping ritual.
I listened into the body of the night. It had been an exhausting trip so far. We had survived a car accident, a night in a Mexican jail, and John died, not unexpectedly but abruptly and quite violently. Adam was depressed, although he did not show it.
My senses sharpened to the nocturnal side of life, and my thoughts and worries wandered to our packs. This was bear country, so you didn’t keep your food in the tent or the bear would pay you a visit. If there were no lockers like at the campgrounds, all the food had to go inside the packs which need to be suspended in the middle between two trees, hanging from a rope high enough, twelve feet high at least, so the bear, getting on his hind legs, could not reach them.
But the trees turned out to be too flimsy. I had followed the instructions from the survival handbook, but on letting go of the packs the two trees leaned toward each other like a pair of lovers, gravity getting the better of them. I climbed up the spruces as high as I could and tied the packs around the thinning trunk.
Adam snored and I turned him on his side. The snoring stopped, his breathing became regular again, a word mumbled here and there. I listened into the body of the night: a pebble rolled down into our sleepy hollow by the pond, then two, then another one, bigger it seemed. Twigs were breaking, some small animal on nocturnal prowl, then all was quiet again.
John had died only a week ago. He and Adam were lovers a long time before John contracted the virus that eventually would have killed him if he had not killed himself first. Adam had not said much during the week that followed John’s death, but I knew his mind was dwelling on last images: the day we arrived at the clinic and found his bed freshly made. Our own reflection in the window, that gateway to another world—first it held, then shattered his last reflection.
Just before nightfall, fog shrouded the granite boulders in its middle to near invisibility. How would we find them in the dark, these questionable islands offering so little shelter, if push came to shove and we had to swim out there? Bears could swim, too. They climbed trees, at least ursus americanus, the black one, did. With ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly kind, you had to get up to 15 feet quicker than a squirrel, otherwise he got you before you reach safety. Then what? Sit on the tree for hours? Till the crack of dawn, and then through the day, what if he keeps waiting for you to come down? For how many days can you survive sitting on a tree eating pine needles, drinking … what? At what point do you come down again? Faster than horses at close range, each swipe with the paw a deadly slap. Faces cut and torn, bones beyond repair.
John had no alternative. The hospital psychiatrist told him he should confide in his parents, write to them and tell them about his disease. But he just couldn’t. Couldn’t tell his dad, who had no understanding for his lifestyle. He probably would have called it God’s revenge for living the way John did. Couldn’t tell him anything. No way left out. We met his father at the funeral. He told us that the cops came by his place and told him everything within the space of three sentences: Your son just died. He committed suicide. He had AIDS.
Faces cut and torn, bones broken beyond repair. Just walked right through the window, glass cutting deep, crawled out on roof and over to the ledge from where he let himself fall five floors deep, it broke his spine and then, five hours later, his lifeline.
Now something came crashing through the forest, branches breaking, boulders rolling, the grunt of the beast just above us.
How could one feel so intensely alone?
Adam was not waking up, his breathing steady and calm, deep sleep, while my pulse was racing, my heart pounding in my ears. I was sure whatever was coming through that forest could hear, smell the sweat of fear on me. More rocks are rolling into our camping hollow, one lands right next to the tent, only inches away from me. The crashing and breaking of wood continues for close to half an hour. It’s got to be a bear, what else could it be? Mountain lion? Raccoon? Too heavy for a raccoon.
Then I heard him, his deep guttural growl. It seemed to intensify, yes, for sure, that bear was climbing down to us. I smelled him, pungent smell of predator, he was right next to us now, down here in sleepy hollow, checking out the tent, wondering what edibles it contained, just a bigger bag to him than the ones he has just drained, insatiable beast feasting on the treasures of hikers trespassing on his turf, feeding, in the end, on us.
Adam, for Christ’s sake, wake up. There is a bear, wake up, but he just grunted and turned around, his back on me, mumbled something about a teddy bear, just a teddy bear.
What to do? Run away? But where? Into the lake? Climb a tree? These trees wouldn’t hold the likes of me, and they were like blades of grass to him. Play dead? Maybe the best idea. I tried to slow my breath, breathing gone, but he didn’t go away. He seemed to be standing right next to my side of the tent now, I felt his hot stinking breath, smelled the urine sticking to his fur. Biting smell of predator. Then the canvas was moving inward, his whole weight leaning into it, it tears, opened wide, a shadow fell upon us, a light shone upon us.
“Just went for a piss,” says Adam.
“Did you see anything out there?”
“Nada. That forest is like a grave.”
“You didn’t hear all that noise up where our packs are?”
Adam turned off the flashlight.
“You worry too much. There’s nothing out there. You must have been dreaming.”
He went right back to sleep. I kept looking at the watch, five a.m. The sun would rise soon.
With the first shades of gray on the canvas I carefully unzipped the tent door. Once again a thick fog lied upon the lake and swallowed up its granite islets. Carefully I ventured forth from the sleeping bag into the sleepy hollow and headed up the hill to see what was left of our supplies for the week.
Our packs looked like two berserk warriors slain under a Christmas tree, their entrails spilling from their bellies. I smelled banana. Upon inspecting the scenario I found Chiquita paste in our shirts and underwear. All the other food was gone. The Wonder bread, the jerky, even the toothpaste. The tuna cans were opened. And drained. Bear claws as can openers?
Returning to the tent I looked across the pond to the granite blocks in its middle. The fog hadn’t lifted yet, so I could’ve be wrong, but I was quite certain I was not. She crouched on the rock, leaning forward and put her hand into the water, scooping it up and bringing it up to her mouth. A twig cracked under my shoe. It made her jerk her head back and stare straight at me. I stood completely still. Was she a ghost? Was I dreaming again? She was huge and definitely female. For a moment I turned to the tent and whispered Adam’s name. Adam, come out. You have to see this. But on looking back she was gone.
Adam wasn’t up until the sun had chased away the fog from the pond. He inspected the mess. Let’s get out of here. Even the maps were damaged, whole mountain ranges erased from them.
We walked back the way we came. The forest was disenchanted, no deer waited round the bends of trail, and somehow I felt that we had failed. We—I—had not been able to become part of this nature.
“We had an encounter up there,” I told the ranger. “Whatever it was it took the tuna but left us the bananas.”
I described the area where we had camped. The two rangers looked at each other, it was a silent form of communication only known to them.
“What could it have been?” Adam asked them.
They looked at each other again in that shall we tell them or not kind of way.
“Probably just a young black bear,” said one of them.
We were both quiet driving down the mountain range on its Eastern side.
“They’re wrong,” I finally said. “It wasn’t a bear. I saw it this morning. In the middle of that pond. It was either a human who had lived in that wilderness for decades or a primate.”
“You mean one of those nine-feet tall apes that leave foot prints a child can take a bath in?”
“Precisely one of those.”
“How come it did not take the bananas then? It’s a monkey after all, isn’t it?”
“It’s a she,” I said. “And she was at least seven feet tall. There was something very gentle about her.”
Adam emitted a quick but somewhat skeptical laugh. “So she likes peanut butter sandwiches but without bananas. What an un-American Sasquatch.”
We got back to the desert that night and checked into a motel. The room was $85, terribly hot, but came with a hundred TV channels, some of which were nature programs.
Weeks later and after several spins in the laundry machine I sniffed one of my T-shirts. It still held a faint promise of banana.
About Peter Arnds
Peter Arnds directs the Literary Translation and Comparative Literature programs at Trinity College Dublin and has published creative work in Cyphers, A Dublin Literary Journal, and Dedalus Press. His translation of Patrick Boltshauser’s novel Stromschnellen appeared as ‘Rapids’ in Dalkey Archive Press in 2014. His book on wolves in literature is forthcoming in Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. Originally from Germany, Peter is a world traveller and has lived in places as exotic as Kansas and Kabul.