“Bear in a Warm December”
by Ethan Fleisher. copyright 2017, Taiga Quarto
It came in from the southwestern swing of the Laurentian in the dead of winter. Why, who knows. The bear was starving and delusional but no one could know that. For how does one ask a thing of the wild, how is your temper today? Every day the temper changes. The moods are not few and recalled like in the world of man. They cannot be placed within the range of our constitutions, and cannot be set to some parallel of our humors, fears, or joys.
Benjamin Cardam met the bear on Sand Hill Lake while taking photographs. He watched it come around the shoreline from the south and it stopped to drink, dipping its coal-black muzzle into the waters and drinking among crumpled, pale lilies that bobbed in the little ripples. Like mute observers, enduring any consequence of that which they witnessed. Then it turned its big head up and he swore that it looked directly at him.
He was standing on a bank of shale, and he took one step back uneasily. He was not afraid of bears, but it was mid-December and this queer fact alone turned his blood cold. So wary he watched it and it watched him, from the far end of the kettle hole. The two beings taking in the world of each the other. Two candles sizing themselves in their race to extinguish. Then the bear looked to the forest it turned and went off over the crumbled and thin frames of so many laid white-barked trees, the scattered bones of some folkloric woods giant lost to modernity. Then it disappeared.
Cardam had a Nikon resting against his breast and he thought that would have made a helluva picture, and simultaneously he realized that he was trembling. Embarrassed at his own unsettling, he started back up out of the coulee away from the shore and back towards the gravel road where his truck was parked.
He was new to photography but all his life he had lived for art. The thrill of the theater. The satisfaction of a beloved painting. He was particularly fond of Bankse and the rebel visual artists. In the written word he tended to spread his hero worship among the outlaw visionaries as well: S. Thompson, Aldous Huxley (what art lover could truly love art without first devouring Heaven and Hell?, the dissection of the heart of art’s vision, and no other?), and to get him started on music. Oh he could never end. Music was the blood in his veins and his blood pumped to all good rhythm.
His wife had purchased the camera for him for their tenth anniversary and this was the first time he had taken it out for real use. It was a sharp piece of machinery. Very expensive, completely cutting edge. He clutched it to him absently with one hand and used the other to push away saplings and grip others to steady and right himself while he climbed the steep drop back up the ridge. He reached the crest and wiped off his pants and checked the camera for the hundredth time. It was safe and unblemished.
The truck was just beyond through the trees. Parked on the shoulder of a gravel road called Snake Trail. He pushed through the last few jagged rows of pines, and rounded the driver’s door. He plunged his fist in his pocket, feeling violently for his keys. He could plainly hear the snapping of branches, the heavy plodding of footsteps.
He turned on his heel and down the road fifty yards was the bear.
Standing not far from where it had found the clear. Those small, obsidian eyes locked on his. Taking in his weakness maybe.
His heart began to storm and his fingers went cold immediately. His hearing acquired a function in some ways analogous to tunnel vision. He thought that this was bad. Very bad. He remembered what every old timer had told him about meeting a bear in the woods: you wave your hands around, appear big. Scare it off, intimidate the animal. Bears spook easy and it usually doesn’t take much to send them running. So he raised his arms over his head and waved them back and forth and in a halfway threatening inflection he called to the bear, “Go home, bear. Get. Go home bear.”
The bear actually cocked its head. But it did not move. He yelled again. But the bear had a look in its eye so much like that of a curious family dog, and this frightened the photographer deeply, so he walked briskly to the driver’s side of the truck, unlocked the door, swung it open fast and hard and jammed himself inside and slammed the door again. He turned back to look at the beast through the rear window.
“Jesus Christ,” he said aloud to himself. The bear just stared. So much like a dog. It did not seem to be aggressive, he thought. It could have attacked. It left me alone. He looked down at the camera and back out at the bear. He could do it. He could get the perfect shot.
He swung the door wide and as he did he raised the camera to his face. He pivoted toward the bear and when he was peering at the viewfinder he realized that the bear was no longer in the road. It had vanished again, just like that.
At least it had gathered its senses to run away. There seemed to be less danger in the still-frame capturing of the animal as it was fleeing.
When a minute ago he had been shaken to the core by the thought of this bear, now he thought only of the brave, beautiful soul of the true artist, and the danger that lie in its wake with every moment. He thought of the Beatles after the death of John Lennon and how they had continued to play through the fear of their own assassinations. Lennon was a martyr of otherworldly proportions, he surmised. There would be no art in this world if fear had found how.
He came to the place where the bear had been, and stood directly on top of the bear’s footprints as if to fuse himself with the urges or desires of beast through some kind of actinic ritual. He searched. The tracks led into the wood. He followed them without hesitation.
The firs were pitchy and smelled like terpenes. The cologne of the North. The branches slapped hard at his chest as he pushed through them and he feared that the momentary blindness they caused as they swung and blocked his vision could cost him his life. But abruptly he was by them and into a thin fen invisible from the road. Above the spruce like some toddler mountain range loomed a great tiphill, the color of rust or dried blood. Beyond, not far, a crystal lake where once tarried several hundred taconite miners. Around him the hushing dance of big bluestem, the naked maple and gleaming birch, branches restless. Diamond-drop sheen, melting snow. In that meadow it stood. On the other side, not thirty yards away, halfway hidden in the verdure. It snorted and he could see the visible plumes of breath from its nostrils. The obsidian eyes.
He brought the camera to his face with jelly arms, but suddenly everything was panoptic. He could not seem to perceive the bear in the viewfinder, and in the darkness of the tree line it had somehow camouflaged itself. “Goddammit,” he said out loud and when he finally had a shot of the bear that was clear and lucid, the beast was coming right for him. At an alarming speed. Its bony, powerful haunches bulged and churned beneath its skin. The bear was thin. Something like terror in that inhuman visage. All of this in the blink of an eye.
And when the bear stood with its great paws extended, he had the camera honed in so well that as it came down and struck him to the ground he actually managed to snap a photo of the bear’s left eye.
He landed hard, sprawled upon his back, and knocked the wind out of him entirely. His eyes were squeezed closed, and when he opened them, the animal’s body eclipsed the pale light. But it did not kill him. It relaxed onto all fours, and sauntered to his right and seemed to be preoccupied with something. He looked. It was staring at the camera.
My God, he thought. My God. For in his hyper-augmented vision, refitted by primal fear, he could see somehow the camera had landed right side-up, displaying the photo just captured: the bear’s own eye.
It hit him harder than the bear had: the divine art of it all, like his very life leading to this moment, and now this moment included, had been the eschatological gathering of the greatest piece of art God had ever dreamed. And all life was art. Art did not mimic life, life mimicked art. As he beheld the bear looking deeply into its own eye’s fathoms he knew something else: that man had been that bear once too, a beast, mute to its own real desires, until he had stared into his reflection the first time. It was all different after that. For in man’s ability to recognize himself all else proceeds. He sees that he is not the universe alone but the universe beholding the man. The man is nothing and the grasping of that nothing is the fulfillment of his being, when he becomes The Artist, and he begins climbing the modes towards heaven.
It is amazing, he thought. The world between the bear and that camera has been altered so fundamentally by the bear’s rendering of itself that I can feel it. I can really feel it. It was all so obvious. That if every deft carnivore could see its own heart in a mirror it would cease to be as it was before. It would know love.
But then the bear jerked its head back violently from the camera, breaking the lassitude of Cardam’s ascension, glaring at the screen as if the image were the tiny window from which its duplicate self- jailed, invisible- peered through. It seemed to be enraged suddenly by the notion. It flung the camera away with one great thrust of its paw and turned.
“Please,” Cardam said. He made a move to stand but the bear swung one mighty paw and the paw came down on the back of his neck and nearly decapitated him. The spinal cord was severed in the blow and Cardam was dead instantly.
A group of college freshmen found the body while hiking, twenty-four hours later. They had spotted the weak LED glow of the camera, still eking out dim light. One of them asked the first responders when they arrived if she could get a copy of the picture after they had taken the camera in for analysis. The man’s face got all screwed up. He said, “What in the hell for?”
“It’s the bear’s eye,” she said. “That ate the man. The bear. It’s eye.”
“Yes, I know that. Why would you want such a thing?”
“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
illustration by Ethan Fleisher. Ethan Fleisher is the author of the novels This Is Where Things Play and Brother Spheres, available on Amazon and bookstores near you