By Lori Covington
Copyright 2015 Lori Covington
Spring came on gradually, with a slight sweetening of air and a tender crispness in the snow that left his boots damp after a few minutes’ walk. The edges of streams were still framed in icy shards, but the frozen centers had broken into blocks of pale blue and green, dark water rippling underneath a glassy frieze. Soon the deep, soft snow would be mere traces in the shadows; white violets and fiddleheads would add green leaf to the dark mulch of rotted needles under the pine trees.
Yuri forced his steps into a quickness that he didn’t feel: it seemed that the past winter had settled in his joints; in his very bones. Suddenly he felt his thirty-five years as a burden. Striding the snowy path, he told himself this was just the after-winter blues: too much liquor and too little exercise. What he needed was a few days of non-stop activity. And this was just the way to get it.
Turning away from the stream, he followed the trail he had walked most of the day. Slender trees either broken or bearing massive scars were his markers, and he paused again to pull a tuft of silver-brown fur from a split branch. Choosing a mutilated tree, he stopped for lunch. He sat facing a clawed and graven trunk, spreading a swatch of plastic tarp on the wet ground, pulling a waxed paper bag from his leather knapsack. Unscrewing the top of his battered tin canteen, he sipped the cheap vodka appreciatively, opening the waxed paper envelope to extract a thick sandwich of sausage and cheese. He kept his eyes on the path, a series of birch trees scarred by the diurnal travels of a very large, female bear.
A game warden in the Russian woods for fifteen years, Yuri knew this bear; he knew what she was capable of. She had demolished a shed the men had built for garbage three years ago, when they had first moved camp to this part of the forest. With eight-inch claws and the single slap of a giant paw, she had torn the door from its hinges, upending the trash cans with the casual strength of a child playing with a beach ball. She had uprooted saplings and left the large, sandy print of her paws across the very doorstep of their bunkhouse after an especially hard downpour. She killed and devoured caribou with carnivorous grace and thoroughness. The men stayed out of her way, and she did as she pleased in these, her woods.
But her days of freedom were at an end. She had crossed over the line; from wild animal to threat to society. The playful, unconcerned part of her nature had run into the protective feelings of man for his property. She had gone too far this time.
This time, she had opened the top of a Mercedes like it was a beer can, ripping open the leather upholstery and tearing it into strips like a fisherman eating jerky. She had devoured the sun visors and bashed off the side-view mirrors. Her claws dug deep grooves in the elegant paint, scarring the steel underneath. She had ruined the magnificent automobile with a completeness that was breathtaking.
The fact that the state department official had been warned not to leave food in his car was immaterial in the face of such outrageous destruction. The half-ham and the carton of eggs, a gift from local farmers, only whetted the animal’s appetite: the leather seats of the Mercedes made an adequate entree.
The petty official was maddened by his loss: it had taken a decade of graft and one hell of a shipping bill to secure that car. Sputtering with rage, Gregor Ivanovitch allowed himself to be driven back to the airport in a forest ranger jeep. Within hours after his arrival in the Home Office, the game wardens received a brusque telephone call, followed up a week later by a terse memo ordering the destruction of a dangerous animal. The bear must die: Yuri would be her executioner.
Yuri was not a tender-hearted fool: he understood the reasons for killing animals that imposed themselves on polite society. Since becoming a game warden, he had thrown off his city upbringing, embracing an outdoor lifestyle that included hunting deer and rabbits, fishing, culling the herds of caribou that roamed the forest and occasionally grew too numerous to fit in the delicate balance of a fragile ecosystem. But he felt bad about this bear. Game wardens are sometimes called upon to kill dangerous animals and he had done his duty in that respect, understanding that man and nature will sometimes conflict, that man had to take the upper hand. Dangerous animals had no place where people needed to roam.
He had come to believe that animals, like man, had their social outcasts; their murderers and mischief-makers. Some wolves needed killing because they killed for fun, just as some men did. Foxes could not live where chickens were raised; that made sense. But this was different: the fact that the bear had ruined a near-priceless car doomed her because of the money involved, but no one had actually been hurt. If Gregor had driven a Yugo that day, it would have been an unfortunate accident, but probably not one involving a living sacrifice. The official must be placated, though. It was an embarrassment to the entire department, the whole state of forestry throughout the Northern Boreal, said Yuri’s supervisor, in a second, loud and aggressive telephone call from his office in St. Petersburg.
But she was a good bear, one of the finest. Large for a female, plenty of fat, a wonderful fisher and a prolific breeder, her cubs were always healthy and strong. The Russian bear, thanks to acid rain and radiation and overbuilding and under-budgeting had declined to the point that the figure of a bear was little more than an archaic symbol--a worn-out flag. But in these woods, to the game wardens and the forestry guys and even the Home Office statisticians, bears still meant something. Each new batch of cubs was watched, reported on, rejoiced over. When the runts died despite the fostering and bottle-feeding efforts of the conservation folk, there was very real grief. It seemed wrong to kill a bear who so easily produced a litter each year. Yuri ate his sandwich mechanically but his eyes were sad.
Later, he followed her tracks to an old den: it seemed she made rounds of all her old spots on a regular basis, in the navigatory way of one who owns several homes. Yuri stuck his head into the limestone cave and sniffed the ursine smell, something caught between month-old coffee grounds and elephant dung. Casting the light from his torch into the hollowed-out spot, he could see claw marks dragging five feet down on the plaster-smooth walls. He turned back towards the weak sun and froze in place, but just for a moment. He was being watched.
He walked toward her, holding out his hand in greeting. “What a surprise to see someone else out here!” he called jovially, trying to hide his discomfort, and she smiled shyly in return. Her grasp was warm but light as if she couldn’t decide whether to stay or flee. Yuri looked at her curiously: he rarely saw people this deep in the woods unless they were fishermen or poachers. She wasn’t carrying tackle and her soft hands were not those of a poacher.
Her eyes were green in some lights and gray in others. Her hair was long and silky and chestnut brown. She was tall for a woman and her face was the alabaster oval of an Orthodox Madonna. She wore jeans and a wool sweater and boots. Yuri saw all this in shy glances, for as at home as he was in the forest, he was his parents’ only son and hadn’t had much experience with women. “Are you lost?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“No”, she replied in a soft, low voice. “I just thought it a nice day for a walk, before the snow melts...”
“Do you live in the town?” Yuri asked, then blushed, feeling awkward. “Stupid,” he thought to himself. “It’s none of your business where she lives.”
But she didn’t seem to mind. “I live a few kilometers from here,” she answered. “It isn’t far.” And she looked at him with a curiosity that was new to him: women didn’t usually notice him unless they needed a tire changed or someone to carry a package. She seemed to be evaluating him, but he couldn’t imagine what for. She was fascinated by something in his face, and he wondered if he had mustard on his chin. There was a long pause, during which he started to blush. As his face reddened, he started to panic, recalling times in childhood when unrelieved embarrassment brought him to tears. He had to say something.
“Maybe I should walk you back to the main road before it gets much later,” he said, relieved to think of something and suddenly conscious of the fact that the already-low sun was dipping sleepily towards the ground. But before he could go on, there was a crashing in the undergrowth behind him and several pheasants flung themselves skyward, crying in panic. When he turned around, she was gone.
Yuri walked all day tracing out the bear’s path and returned to camp that night without having located his quarry. His mind was unquiet on two levels, for he couldn’t imagine where the elusive woman had gone or why she left without saying anything to him. He was hurt and confused, but she had fled as though the pheasants had startled her into flight herself. He had searched for the woman through the dying day, leaving the trail to investigate deer paths and wildlife trails leading to the creek. Only when small pellets of wet snow started to blow, stinging his face into soreness, had he given up and turned back, cursing the darkness that confused his path, arriving back at camp hours past dark.
“Yuri!” cried Ondrej, coming towards him in the gloom. “We were just getting ready to start a search for you! Did you get her? Why are you so late?
“Get who?” asked Yuri, starting guiltily.
“What do you mean, get who? Your bear that you love so much no one else can kill her! Did you find her?”
“No”, he said a little curtly. “Umm, Ondrej, do we have anyone new in camp?”
“Course not, who would we have? We’ll double our staff in a few weeks, when spring gets rolling, but right now it’s the same old, ugly faces you’ve seen all winter long. Come on, you’ve been alone in the forest too long. Let’s have some of that horrible stew Misha made and a lot of tea and maybe a nip of vodka, just to keep the cold out, eh? And tomorrow, you’ll find your she-bear.” Ondrej laughed and threw a strong arm around Yuri’s neck.
A forestry camp is not unlike a small military unit; isolated, specialized with its own language and rules. Very masculine, with beards ranging from scruffy to full (depending on the tenure of the bearded one). Days packed with hard labor and nights filled with drinking and loud song and the omnipresent smell of wet and dirty wool socks, that is life in the camp. Yet there is also a delicacy of feeling amongst men, too fragile for discussion, too present to ignore. Ondrej, no brute, knew something was bothering Yuri, but there was no way he could acknowledge the bewildered look, the ineffectual sadness on the other man’s face. So he poured the vodka and told jokes and laughed loudly while Yuri loosened up from the combined warmth of the woodstove, the liquor and the unspoken affection of someone he’d known since childhood.
“You’ll get her tomorrow,” said Alex, aiming a light punch at Yuri’s arm as he left the group drinking around the stove and ambled towards his bunk.
“Sure you will,” said the new cook, Misha. His first week in camp, he was still smarting under the comments of the others about his tasteless soups, his lumpen breads and the terrible flatulence engendered by the majority of his meat dishes. Yuri looked up at him and pitied Misha, with his slightly crossed eyes and too-young face. He wasn’t even shaving yet. “I’ll get her, Misha,” Yuri said kindly, “and you’ll make the most delicious bear stew we ever had.”
“I’ll roast her all day with potatoes and leeks,” said Misha, with the faraway look of an artist.
“And we’ll fart all month long,” said a sleepy voice from one of the upper bunks hidden in the gloom of the long cabin. A burst of laughter followed the quip and Misha reddened angrily.
“Aw, give the kid a break,” yelled Yuri. “I don’t see any of you cooking like my grandmother, God bless her soul. Mish’ never saw a stove until we conned him into coming out here. You get to bed, kid and tomorrow I’ll show you how to make my grandmother’s barley soup.” Misha sighed and climbed into his bunk, furthest from the stove.
At last it was just two men sitting by the stove, resting their feet on the large, tiled bench of the hearth. Ondrej turned off the joking and bestowed a serious look on Yuri. “So what really happened today?” he asked. Yuri told him. Ondrej whistled.
“A mysterious girl in the woods,” he commented blandly, but his eyes shone.
“Maybe she was a ghost.”
“A ghost in jeans?”
“Maybe she was just a figment of your imagination.”
“Sure. I’m a real imaginative guy.”
“Guess she just skipped off into the woods and ran on home.”
“I guess.” Suddenly, Yuri felt very tired. His feet were cold where his thick wool socks pressed their damp scratchiness against his ankles. His back hurt. “I’m going to bed,” he said wearily. “It’s gonna be a long day tomorrow.”
Ondrej grinned up at him. A notorious insomniac, he usually sat up with the fire until nearly dawn, then grabbed a couple of hours of sleep while everyone else was just waking up. His eyes were always hollowed and circled by dark rings that belied his cheerful nature. Years before, he told Yuri that he didn’t sleep at night because when he was eight, he woke up to find his uncle “doing things to him”.
“To hell with sleep,” he had declared, “Who needs it?”
Yuri remembered that when he heard the story (late, after a night of drinking in the local tavern near the factory where they’d worked in their teens), he had proposed beating up the uncle, who still lived nearby. But Ondrej shook his head. “There’s no point,” he said. “I told him then if he ever tried that again, I’d kill him. I was little, but think he believed me.”
Yuri yawned again. It seemed like too much trouble to brush his teeth and change clothes when he’d have to do it all again in the morning. He wanted to stay and talk with Ondrej some more about that beautiful woman, but he knew he’d just look silly. “All right,” he said, “I guess I’d better come back with a bearskin tomorrow.”
“Or claw marks where it counts,” chortled Ondrej. He opened to door to the woodstove, pushed in a sizeable chunk, poured himself another drink and picked up his book. “Goodnight, darling,” he said in English, and chuckled to himself at the way the foreign words felt in his mouth.
Yuri’s dreams were disturbed. He was fording a river on a silver-gray horse, the current swift and nearly up to the belly of his mount. They had just made it to shore when the bear bounded out of the brush and with a roar, ripped open the horse’s belly. The guts of the horse, emeralds and rubies and amethysts poured onto the ground. Yuri stood in the middle of the gems and trickled them through his fingers. A Mercedes drove up and a green-eyed woman said, “Get in, but mind the upholstery.” He smelled wild mint and burning birch leaves.
He woke to a steely dawn, feeling the cold through his very center. He’d forgotten to wear his watch cap to bed and had lost all his heat through his head. He traipsed out to the toilet, then grabbed his towel and made it into the shower before anyone else was up. Cold, cold water. Usually the cold showers didn’t bother him, made him feel manly and exhilarated. But today the icy water just depressed him, making him feel helpless. He scrubbed himself hard with the piney soap and forced himself to stand under the downpour until all thoughts of being warm left him. Quitting the shower, he saw Ondrej tossing wood into the firebox of the homemade sauna they’d built together three years ago.
“Now that is a great idea!” he said, and filled the pail with some of that cold spring water. By the time it had billowed into plentiful steam, he was sitting on a cedar plank in the sauna, filled with heat. Already the icy shower was a dim memory.
He marveled at the urgency of the body – the miraculously beneficial effect of a few degrees’ increase in temperature, a bowl of oatmeal, a glass of strong, hot tea. He wondered how many crimes were the direct effects of simple human need: the cumulative effect of another cold night, another hungry day. Ondrej slouched beside him, disdaining even a towel. His flesh wrinkled only slightly where his flat belly met his thighs. They inhaled the cedar-scented steam and sat with closed eyes like a couple of old men on a sunny park bench.
After a heavy breakfast of scrambled eggs, thick slices of buttered toast, cheese, jam and coffee like hot tar, the men went their separate ways. Four men were working across the lake, felling timber. A couple were clearing a trail of stones tumbled up from the icy earth over the winter. Ondrej, one of the more seasoned employees, was conducting a study of the native wild plants, cataloging every living thing floral and faunal, within a carefully marked area. Yuri resumed his bear- hunt.
This time he passed the scarred trees barely looking at them, for the day before he had learned the route with his whole body. He moved quickly for a man his size, lithe after the sauna, feeling strong with a hearty breakfast inside him. Early-season black flies rose in clouds, but the combination of pine soap and last night’s vodka sweating through his pores stayed them.
He walked on fast, thinking hard. He still didn’t want to kill that bear, but he decided to find her and then see what he would see. Maybe he wouldn’t have to kill her: maybe he could drug her and have her trucked to some other part of the forest. Further north, that was it. If he saw her today, he would just observe her trail: tomorrow he would open the drug cabinet and bring along the tranquilizer gun. He tried not to think of the obvious objections to his new idea, namely concerns of cost. He’d think about that later, he promised himself – after he found the bear.
He passed the old den and continued on the trail, which rose sharply up to climb a treeless ridge. He was breathing hard but he wanted to make it to the top before he rested. Suddenly he stopped. In front of him was the woman. She was turned away from him, staring down into the valley where the tin roofs of the bunkhouse and the kitchen glinted in the weak sun. Her lips were tight, but her hair shone. He saw her face lift slightly just before she whirled around to face him and the thought crossed his mind that it was almost as though she smelled him. She gave him a hard look, but then she smiled when she recognized him.
“Still walking before the snow melts?” he asked, feeling as usual, slightly foolish. He wanted to ask her where she had gone the day before, but he didn’t want her to know that he minded. He was pretty sure he shouldn’t have minded as much as he did.
“Walking, thinking,” she answered. “What is that place down there?”
“It’s the forestry camp where I work,” he answered, happy to be able to provide an answer so readily, so easily. He had a feeling he wouldn’t always be able to satisfy this woman with simple answers. She looked over the ridge again, and frowned a little.
“What is it that you do?” she asked.
“Well,” he said, “We do lots of things, but I guess the general idea is that we take care of this area of forest and of everything in it.”
“And how many of you are there?” she asked. He got the feeling all at once that she wasn’t just making conversation. She had a reason for asking.
“There are eight of us there now,” he said. “When summer comes, we’ll hire eight more for the season.”
“Eight,” she said musingly. “Eight men living in the woods for the whole winter with no one else around, no town, no family. That must be very strange...”
Yuri set his pack down and sat on a rock. He pulled a piece of sorrel and chewed on it briefly. “It probably would be strange,” he answered, “but we’ve all known each other for years. Some of us grew up together. I have two cousins and a brother-in-law in that camp. And my best friend too. It’s like living with brothers. And we’re pretty self-contained: the guys in St. Petersburg leave most of the decisions up to us. If a guy can’t get along with the others, he never gets invited back to work, so it’s a comfortable set-up.”
“I see,” she said, and coming towards him, she laid her hand on his shoulder. “You must work very hard,” she said, giving his tricep a little squeeze. “You’re so...strong.”
Yuri blushed. Russian women were never so forthright, and he wasn’t sure how to respond to what was definitely a pass from a beautiful girl. He wasn’t ready for this. He didn’t know whether to take her in his arms or to ignore what seemed to be happening until he felt more sure of himself. The woman looked him in the eye, then took her hand away and sat down beside him. Relief and disappointment warred within him, but he hoped his face was still and unconcerned.
“I like you, you know,” she said quietly, and she smiled.
“I like you too, umm,” he said.
“Call me Lina”.
They met every day after that. Yuri never understood how she found him, and even in the relatively remote eastern section of the forest, she appeared each day an hour or two before twilight. When he asked her anything beyond the most general things about herself, she just shook her head. He sensed that too much curiosity on his part would cause her to run away as she had that first day, so he stifled his questions, which appeared instead in his dreams. One night he dreamed they were running together on the wide trail through the forest, running scared from something bad that was always just behind them. They came to the place where the forest clears, just across from the railroad tracks, and a train rolled up noisily, huffing black smoke. The door slid open and he reached for her hand, but she was no longer there.
He told her about his dream, and asked her what it meant. She just laughed. “A big, grown-up man like you, wondering about your dreams! I’ll tell you what it means: it means you’ve been eating sausage sandwiches before bed.” And she teased him until he realized she would not speak to him about his dreams.
She was open to the sort of questions strangers might share on a short bus trip, so he knew her favorite color (the pale blue of oxygen trapped in river ice – she pointed it out to him), her preference of tea to vodka, her uncanny knowledge of botany. He didn’t know where she came from or whether she was married (he’d asked her and she’d pretended not to hear). He tried not to care, but he did anyway.
She remained mysterious, but he talked like a dam had broken inside him. He told her of his parents, sharing a frugal retirement and cups of weak tea in a small apartment in Leningrad, his terrible shyness that made school a torture for him, his love for nature. He told her about his current project, hunting a bear that had seemingly disappeared, and how he didn’t feel right about the decision to kill the animal. He talked and she listened, and he fell in love.
Yuri still walked miles and looked cursorily for his quarry, but he met Lina every day, and his time at work took on the feel of strolls with a sweetheart. One day he pushed aside his fears and took her in his arms. The next day they made love on a carpet of reindeer moss and then dashed into the screaming-cold creek where they splashed and yelled like teenagers. She was beautiful naked, an Art Nouveau statue, slender and proud. He stared at her until she dashed water in his face. He wiped the water from his eyes and grinned. He couldn’t believe she had chosen him.
The days lengthened and the ground warmed, sending up new crops of mushrooms in fairy rings and along the roughened trunks of fallen trees. The trillium put out ghostly flowers on thin stalks, and thimbleberries made bright red patches in the light green foliage. Yuri was no longer thinking of the bear hunt as a project to complete in a few hours or even days. The path existed, the signs existed, he even found fresh tracks by the still pools where the young trout lay. But there was no bear to be found. It was almost as if the animal knew his schedule, for he found marks in trees oozing fresh sap and the blood of small animals on the ground where she had fed.
There had been cubs this spring; he saw the smaller tracks and places where they had gnawed the vegetation in their play. But he couldn’t find the bear. He wanted to drop it: to help the others with the new smokehouse, to clear trails, to do the good things that mattered. But orders from the Home Office were loud and clear: find the bear, or start looking for a new line of work. He worried they might send him back to the city, to the foul-smelling factories, the bleak streets. But he felt guilty about wasting his time, so he cut back the hunting to two days a week and helped the other men with the work of running the camp. He tracked and schemed and laid in wait. But he was starting to feel like he was chasing a ghost.
The late autumn sky turned the clouds to silver moiré, advancing the promise of snow. Silver birch trunks fluttered Irish pennants of bark in a light breeze and the darker trunks of elms marked the ground like the strokes of ink on a Chinese screen. The woods were silent, the birds gone south, animals either grazing or aslumber. The only sounds were the faraway, flying-kite flaps of loose birch bark and the muted rivulets of a stream. Gray, viscous, the water moved like gelatine across ancient, rounded stones. Yuri stood on a boulder and looked down into the stream bed, seeing the black of his boots reflected in the still pool that hollowed out the ground just underneath the giant stone. A good place for trout, he thought, in some other season, some other time of day.
He wondered if he would see Lina today: she had been a little less attentive lately, and had taken to appearing every other day. She seemed to have something important on her mind, but when he asked if anything was bothering her, she just smiled and shook her head.
Yuri returned to the camp after a day’s trek, fully twenty-five miles. He carried a sack full of morels from a pine grove halfway up the dark mountain that sent a half-dozen tumbling streams to the ice-bound valleys some two hundred miles away. The hawks were hunting, screaming overhead with distinctive, dying shrieks. Along a deep creek, he watched a gyrfalcon make a shallow dive, scooping up pewter-colored fish in a deadly, downturned beak.
His bag also held a large piece of rock quartz as clear as a diamond. He would send it to town and have his buddy cut it into a smooth crystal. He’d make a present of it to Lina. He was vaguely conscious of the ache in his legs, but the stand of incense cedar released a heady perfume into the breeze. Soon, he’d be warming his damp feet in front of the giant kitchen stove while Misha sautéed wild mushrooms in pale, salty butter. He inhaled deeply and grinned. Days like this reminded him of why he’d chosen life in the woods over a white-painted office in the city.
But his contentment faded when he saw the battered government-issue Jeep parked in front of the bunkhouse. Ondrej came out of the greenhouse and motioned him aside.
“It’s that idiot Gregor,” he muttered. “He’s pissed off because they told him you still haven’t found his bear. He’s demanding the hide and it’s gonna be the bear’s or yours. What’s taking you so long, anyway?”
Yuri shrugged. “Can’t find the damn thing,” he complained, his conscience pricking him a little. “Looks like she picked up and moved away.”
“No way is Gregor going for that story,” said Ondrej. “He’s talked to HQ about putting another man on the case.” He grabbed Yuri’s arm for emphasis. “His sister’s married to the Assistant to the Head of Forestry. You’d better come up with a story and a bear or you’ll be working indoors next month.”
Yuri clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You worry too much,” he said jovially, and he walked into the bunkhouse. But he was worried too.
“Gregor,” he said heartily, shaking the man by the hand. “I was just saying to the guys yesterday, ‘when is Gregor Ivanovitch coming up to help me hunt that bear?”
The force of Yuri’s handshake spilt the lager Gregor was drinking, but the smile on the forester’s face was pleasant and dumb. He really looked glad to see Gregor, who went from feeling righteous and indignant to puzzled and a little frightened. Did this mountain of a man really expect him, a willow-slim, soft-handed white-collar manager to help him chase down and kill a deadly animal? An animal that could and did, eat an entire car? He wanted to take it for a joke, but looking at the big man’s pleased expression, he found he couldn’t take it as anything besides an invitation. He nodded, choking on his lager. He fervently hoped that tomorrow he would break an ankle early on, or perhaps wake up with scarlet fever.
The other men took their cue from Yuri, acting like it was the most normal thing in the world for Gregor to avenge himself on the animal that had ruined his beautiful car. They joined in with tips on bear behavior that nearly caused Gregor (whose anger at the bear was fading into something like respectful terror) to faint.
“Remember?” said Alex, winking deftly at Yuri, “Remember that tourist who went off camping by himself a couple of years ago? He’d hiked up Kilimanjaro, gone on safari in Africa. Told me his sleeping bag cost a thousand dollars U.S., can you believe that?” He looked at Gregor to make sure he was attending. “Yep, that guy thought he was going to have a relaxing vacation between adventures. German, wasn’t he? Maybe he was Dutch. Well, by the time we found him, he was just a head and some assorted bits in a sleeping bag. I think his family decided to bury him in it: it was easier than getting him out.”
Gregor was pale; so was Misha, who didn’t know Alex had invented the whole story. Soon the other men joined in with horror tales gleaned from a hundred sources, all of which they swore had happened in these very woods. Misha disappeared, and in a half-hour he rang the supper bell.
Misha had spent his day in fierce concentration, and the outcome of his work was a marvelous meal. They dined superbly on roast pork loin and potatoes, baked apples and onions. After the rich meal they drank heavily, pouring glass after glass of potent liquor into their guest’s glass. At last they poured the little man himself (snoring hugely and muttering about bears and guns) into a bunk and returned to their usual seats around the woodstove.
“So, what’s your plan?” asked Misha, after bashfully receiving compliments on the blueberry cobbler. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Not sure,” said Yuri.
“Maybe he’ll be too hung-over to go,” ventured another man.
“No, he’ll go,” said Yuri. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
“Even if they’re puking their guts up and trying to run away,” supplied someone else.
Yuri stretched and smoked his cigarette. “The way I see it,” he said, “Gregor’s never really been out in the woods before. He’s a city boy. I figure, if he hikes with me about ten miles tomorrow, he’ll get some idea of what he’s asking us to do. Maybe he'll change his mind. He’s not an unreasonable man: he’s just a little ignorant. I feel my job is to educate our friend Gregor."
“I thought you’d have got her by now, that big, ole bear,” said Misha, starting to slur his words as the heat and the vodka worked on his slim frame. “I thought, ‘that ole Yuri, he’ll bring her back in a day.’”
Yuri rubbed his face, unashamed. “I guess I should have,” he admitted, “but it seems like I can’t find her.”
Ondrej yawned. “Well, I’m off to bed, bear or no bear,” he said. “I stumbled on a whole new kind of cress today and tomorrow I’ve got to map it out. It’s all along the western edge of Rabbit Foot Creek, for at least a half-mile, maybe more. Just this once, I think I’ll turn in first.” He shook hands all around, saluted Misha and tramped off to his bunk.
Yuri woke before it was light, hearing Misha groan as he hoisted himself out of his bunk to light the first fire and prepare breakfast. He remembered Gregor’s presence, and his head told him that he had drunk his fair share of vodka the night before. Rolling out of his bunk, he pulled on his heavy boots and made the chilly trek to the toilet.
Washing his face and hands in the cookhouse sink, he coached Misha on the preparation of soured-milk biscuits and sliced several hunks off the gigantic ham that hung in a salted burlap bag from the eaves just inside the kitchen. Having done his good deed in helping with breakfast, he swigged down two cups of thick coffee, ate three piping-hot biscuits, oiled and loaded two rifles, then packed a knapsack with a dart gun and a vial of PCP. Then he went to wake Gregor.
“Gregor!” he whispered in the sleeping man’s ear. The force of his voice sent the man bolt upright; then he clutched at his head and moaned. He looked awful. Yuri chuckled and slapped him lightly on the back, nearly catapulting him to the floor.
“Whoa, old man,” he said, helping the smaller man back into a vertical position. “We don’t want to wake the others, you know.”
“What, what time is it?” asked Gregor in the low voice of pain.
“Four-thirty,” said Yuri, “So we’d better get moving. No time for breakfast!”
Gregor looked stunned, but he lifted himself from his bunk and pulled his denims on over his black-market L.L. Bean long johns. He stumbled through the snow to the toilet and returned, rubbing his cold hands. In five minutes, they were gloved, booted and armed. For good measure, Yuri was bringing fur traps to set. He packed them in a knapsack and helped Gregor adjust its straps. The little man looked even frailer with the large canvas bag weighted to his shoulders. They started off, Yuri merry, Gregor silent; on what would be a ten-mile trek through the snow.
Yuri set the last of the traps. By morning there would be a marten or an ermine in it: the freshly thawed caribou strip virtually guaranteed it. The sun was slipping in its lazy arc, and Yuri’s beard was thick with frost. He pushed the bar back, and stood up slowly, rubbing his back. Gregor had disappeared, he assumed, to take a piss. He was surprised at the little man’s capacity for misery: in the course of a single day, he had slipped on an icy patch and ripped his trousers, stepped blindly into a not-quite frozen pool of water, and badly scratched his face on the branch of a balsam fir. Yuri grinned, but he stopped grinning at the sound of a gunshot. It blasted forth, echoing off the slate walls of the opposite riverbank.
“Oh shit,” he said, certain that Gregor had managed to shoot himself. He called out, “Gregor!” and ran in the direction of the shot. Gregor stumbled out from the side trail. His face was ashen: he wasn’t carrying a gun.
“What the hell!” started Yuri.
“The bear,” Gregor whispered, falling as he spoke. He lay at Yuri’s feet, a bundle of imported clothing shredded and bleeding at the shoulder. His pack was gone and his injured arm angled oddly from under him. Yuri stooped to pick him up, then glanced up at a stealthy movement a dozen yards away.
The giant grey bear stood watching him: her gaze was steady and weirdly familiar. He grasped his gun, but she didn’t charge him; nor did she turn and run as bears usually do. Instead, she backed slowly away from him. Yuri was at a loss: he could have shot if she had chosen to either attack or flee, but as things stood, it seemed wrong to fire while those strangely conscious eyes were fixed on his. The bear backed away until she was out of his sight.
On the ground, Gregor was coming around. He groaned and tried to sit up. Yuri saw that his arm was deeply scratched, but not nearly as mangled as it might have been. The bear must have just caught him a glancing swipe as he ran.
Yuri helped the moaning man to get up and supported him on the long trek back to camp. He and Misha stripped off the torn shirt, washed the wounds and bandaged them. Gregor bore up well, wincing only when Misha poured iodine over the welts.
“You’re a lucky man,” Yuri said. “She could have taken your arm right off. Were you running?”
Gregor answered, passing his good hand over his eyes as if to obscure the memory,
“That’s what’s so strange. I didn’t run. I had put down my gun to tie my bootlace. I never even saw her until she was practically on top of me. I thought I was a dead man: I froze!”
“She could have ripped your throat out, and this is all she did to you?”
“I swear,” said Gregor, his voice shaking, “She looked at me for a long moment. It was like she was deciding what to do with me. Then she reached out her paw and slapped me with it. I fired as I fell, and when I got up, she was backing into the woods. She was watching me!”
Misha shook his head and poured three vodkas. “Either you’re luckier than any man alive, or that was no bear,” he said thoughtfully.
“Of course it was a bear!” cried Yuri. “Look at that arm!”
“My grandma used to tell us stories,” said Misha. “About people who turned into animals; seals and foxes and bears and stuff. And animals that turned into people too...You know, curses, retribution, that kind of thing. Grandma had a million stories.”
“Is that the grandma who’s in the Alzheimer’s home just now?” said Yuri, knocking back his drink and smacking the shot glass on the table for a refill.
“She wasn’t always like that,” said Misha. “There’s a lot of weird things our old people know about that we don’t understand, that’s all I’m saying.” He poured another round.
“Something about that bear was strange,” said Gregor. “Very strange.”
Yuri was feeling strange himself. Why, he asked himself, hadn’t he told the others about seeing her after she clawed Gregor? Why was he so uncomfortable with this conversation? Why did that bear look at him and back away? Why didn’t she kill Gregor with one swing of a heavy paw instead of merely giving him a couple of scratches and a story to tell his grandchildren? It was almost as though she had been...careful. He shivered.
“I guess you’ll be going back to town tomorrow,” he said to Gregor. “Get that arm looked at.”
“Oh, no,” said Gregor, heaving himself from the wooden chair with his one good arm. “I’ll be fine. Tomorrow, we’re going bear-hunting.”
Misha’s supper wasn’t nearly as fine as the previous night’s, but it was deliciously hearty. Misha was getting the hang of it, the other men told him in rough compliments and jokes. Beans and ham, spring onions from Ondrej’s tiny greenhouse adjacent to the sauna, rough bread from barley, with the texture of uncured concrete. Everyone had seconds: the conversation centered on Gregor who had become one of the crowd not only because of his near-brush with death that day, but because he refused to go home until he killed that bear. He refused a sling too, stating that he’d need both his arms on the morrow.
His adventure had flipped a switch in him, transforming the pale bureaucrat into someone bolder and rougher in speech and manner. His eyes sparkled with unacknowledged fever and shock, his face was red from stalking through the bitter cold. A day’s stubble turned his wan skin dark, and when the other men alluded to the pain he must feel in his wounded shoulder, he just laughed. It was as if his close call had brought out the man he could be, brash and likable. The other men warmed to him as people do with someone on a quest.
Yuri felt depressed. This was an outcome he had never expected. Gregor insisted that tomorrow they would track that bear again and get her this time. She was dangerous, he said, and he felt like it was his fault, creating a dangerous animal by tempting her with the delicacies he’d left in his car some months before. Now she had shown herself to be dangerous to human beings too, and it was time to put a stop to it before someone got killed.
The other men agreed, shaking their heads. It was common knowledge that once a bear started attacking people, it would continue until it was killed. They liked Gregor for his tenacity and for taking some responsibility in the matter. They finished the night with the usual drinking, singing and arm-wrestling between two lumberjacks known throughout the northern camps for their brute strength. Ondrej and Yuri played a game of chess, but Yuri was preoccupied and Ondrej beat him soundly.
One by one the others left the fire. Yuri felt restless and stepped outside to the toilet. When he was returning, someone was standing in the moonlight on the path to the bunkhouse. It was Lina.
“Well!” he said, too surprised to continue.
“I wanted to see you tonight,” said Lina, taking his hand. “I wanted to see where you live.”
“I’m glad,” he said. “Why don’t we go into the kitchen? I can make up the fire and we’ll have some tea.”
Over steaming mugs of tea she abruptly announced, “I’m leaving.”
Yuri put his cup down so hard it sloshed over onto the knotty pine table. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I mean, are you going home to visit your parents?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly,” she replied.
“When are you coming back?’ he asked, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Not sure,” she said, looking at some invisible thing over his head.
“Is it something I did?” he asked. “Because if I did something, you just tell me, and I’ll...”
She smiled and put a hand to his lips. “No,” she said, “You’re perfect. I’ve loved our time together.”
Yuri took a deep breath. “Look, Lina,” he said, grabbing her hand, “I know we haven’t known each other long and all that, and I’m just a forester and God knows you could do better, but I love you and I want to marry you and you can’t just up and leave just like that...” His speech petered out and the poetry and the strength of his feelings, were in his eyes if not in his words.
I’ve got to go, Yuri,” said Lina. “It’s a matter of life and death.”
“What do you mean?”
“Someone’s after me, Yuri.”
“Who is it? How did he find you here? Tell me who it is and I’ll protect you. You can live here in camp with all of us to guard you. We can build you your own room. If that guy comes anywhere near, I’ll kill him for you.” Yuri was gabbling so he didn’t hear her the first time, her voice so soft and her head bowed.
“What did you say?” he asked, leaning closer, looking into those shaded eyes. “What was that, Lina?”
“The man who’s after me, Yuri. It’s you.”
He was confused. He had just proposed, and most women (he thought) like to be proposed to even if they don’t want to accept. It appeals to their pride, their vanity to know that some poor bastard was so desperate he would willingly put his whole life on the line for them. But Lina was different; she wasn’t interested in conquering men or playing head games; she was just a free spirit. He thought about what life would be like for a woman in a lumber camp, stuck all day in the kitchen, nothing to do, no other women to see. Lina couldn’t live that way.
He had read about women like her, women for whom marriage, a home, family, were nothing more than chains on their ankles. The bad ones went crazy and shot their husbands; drowned their babies in the sink. The good ones wasted away into depression, grew bizarre cancers, died. He thought of his mother, who had endured poverty, the loss of her family, the death of her dreams after marrying his father, a man of little means and no imagination. Lina would never be his because his love was a trap. But still he had to try.
“I won’t tie you down, you know,” he said, and reached for her other hand. “I don’t want to force you into loving me; you can come and go as you please. I’ll protect you, and maybe you’ll let me love you... just a little.”
She shook her head, but she still held his hands. “You’ve got it all wrong,” she said. He could feel the pulse in her wrist where it laid along his large palm. She said nothing else.
“I don’t get it,” he said miserably. This was what women were really like, he thought, devious, mischievous, never coming right out with things and driving you crazy. Even Lina, he had trusted her, but she was just like the rest of them. “Don’t go,” he said miserably.
She kissed him then with a breath of wild mint, and stroked his face with her warm hand. “I’m sorry,” she said: her eyes were like wet leaves. He sat at the table and watched as she went to the door.
“Wait – Will I see you again?” he called, jumping from his chair.
“Maybe, tomorrow,” she said, and put her hand on the door’s latch. Opening it, she smiled dimly at him and vanished into the darkness.
The next morning, Yuri awoke to find Gregor standing beside his bunk with a steaming mug of coffee in each hand.
“Brought you some,” he explained, handing Yuri a cup.
“How’s the arm?”
“Sore, but not too bad,” said Gregor, flexing it and wincing a little.
“We don’t have to go today you know,” said Yuri, an evanescent hope glimmering. Maybe Gregor would opt out. He didn’t want to go to the woods with Gregor today.
“We do have to go,” Gregor answered seriously. “I came here for a reason, and now I have an even better one for staying.”
“If you’re sure,” said Yuri, draining his cup and swinging his legs heavily out of bed.
“I am sure,” said Gregor.
They walked the same route as the day before, Yuri stopping at each trap and removing the animals caught in the night. Two minks, coats supple and the color of chocolate and a stone marten, all dead by the time he arrived. The stone marten had chewed through half its paw before succumbing. It was a nice haul: the pelts would buy his mother a good wool coat and a pair of thick mittens for winter. He patted the furry corpses absentmindedly and placed them gently into his knapsack. They walked single file along the narrow path, Gregor striding determinedly through the snow, Yuri plodding along behind.
They came upon her without any warning. She was standing in a clearing at the head of a small meadow. The late-day sun glinted off her broad shoulders and shanks. Two small cubs gambolled in the snow, swatting each other and growling in mock rage. She looked up, moved in front of the cubs, and stayed there, a massive boulder in their path. A rumbling sound came from her throat. Yuri felt her eyes searching his face, and felt unafraid. He would reach slowly into his pack and draw out the sedative dart. He could get the mother first, and then tranquilize the cubs, who wouldn’t know what was going on and wouldn’t leave their mother, giving him time to reload. He reached into his knapsack, then realized that Gregor had taken aim beside him.
He shouted, “Gregor, no!” as the shot burst from the other man’s rifle. The bear was knocked backwards, took three steps towards them and fell beneath the naked limbs of an ancient birch tree. Her mouth yawned open, sending a dying bellow into the still air. Silvery fur gleamed in the last weak rays of the lingering sun.
“I got her!” cried Gregor, grabbing Yuri and nearly falling into him. His arm, torn by the weapon’s recoil, bled through its bandages, but he didn’t feel it. He tugged at Yuri to see his prize, the great animal he had laid low. Yuri turned away, weeping desperately into the blowing snow. A partridge escaped the nearby underbrush with beating wings. The cubs cried like wordless children.
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About the author:
Lori Covington has been writing professionally for 15 years. She has a BA in psychology, a Master's in counselling and a couple of diplomas in art. She studies mindfulness and positive psychology, and is particularly interested in health and well-being, the connection between mind, body and spirit, and the many ways we can work together to relieve suffering of humankind, animals and the planet. We're all interconnected, you see!
Read other titles by Lori Covington:
Impossible Desire (Regency Romance) under the pen name of Beatrice Bechonne
Escape from Draconia: Mikki Madigan's First Adventure (Girls' Adventure)
Leaving Loneliness (A practical how-to that gives sufferers of loneliness a short list of life-transforming steps to a happier life.)
Banish Poverty from Your Life (A short and simple list of actions that help people move away from poverty.)
Beating Poverty: A How-to for Have-nots (A full-length book to help people positively address the impact of poverty on their lives.)
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