Bear Ballet

 

(for June Baily White)

 To the Sun Father the earth-surface girl was beautiful...As she stood, waist-deep in maidenhair fern, the sight of her licked fire through his marrow-bones. She had no need of feather or quill for her hair, not this girl; her hair was the same gloss as the raven's wing. Nor did she require anything but daylight to enhance the color of her skin  --Tunkashila, retold by Gerald Hausman

 

I see a buy-ur

Whey-ur

Thy-ur

--child's poem

 

            When Ace Darden invited me and DCP Chief Bill Kicklighter to go bear hunting on the east rim of the Okeefenokee, I wasn't hot on the idea. I'd rather hunt deer, who can't climb into the tree stand with you if wounded or aroused from the wrong side of the bed. I already had a bearskin rug, a grizzly I inherited from my departed friend Mike Roberts. I still haven't gotten around to laying that rug on the floor. It hunkers in a Queen Anne chair at the dining room table silently strumming its claws on the cherry finish, claws fully capable of raking a fat man to the marrow. So far the bear in my dining room had acted as a potent deterrent against bear hunting.

            "C'moan," said Kicklighter, "you can bring your camera. Sell the pictures to some wildlife outfit." Kicklighter is obliquely contimpteously of my journalistic career.

            "Well..."

            Ace is a senior projects engineer for safety and the DNR Hunter Safety Instructor for 1997. He graduated from the Naval Academy and survived over 200 flight missions over Viet Nam. "The missions were a matter of basic accounting," he grinned. "You just have to make sure your landings balance with your take-offs." His hunting buddy was Jerry Corbin, retired Merc utilities department super and retired General in the Army National Guard. In Race Pond we were to hook up with Jackie Carter, a former Marine seriously wounded in Viet Nam. I was going to be in good safe company, according to Kicklighter, a Marine Reserve Sergeant Major and a hunting safety instructor himself. I wasn't worried about getting shot or being thrown in jail. With all the military credentials I figured we'd be in pretty good shape under attack from any hostile military contingency. Except bears.

Kicklighter and I left after midnight to meet Ace and Jerry in Race Pond, Georgia. Kicklighter snored all the way to Waycross. When we got to the crossroad truck stop in Charlton County, he suggested I toss my sleeping bag in the bed of his pick-up and catch a couple hours shut-eye while he snoozed in the cab. "You too big to get comfortable in here," he explained.

            I tossed and turned, snuggling the spare, thinking of--well--bears, who became guardians of the woods when a beautiful Indian maiden was raped in a woodland spring by Father Sun. Shamed by her bloating belly, she was pitied by Mother Earth, transformed into a she-bear and put on the payroll as a guarding spirit, watching over those who are haplessly lost, those who embrace for the first time, and those who have parted for the last time---pretty much three sides of the same concupiscent trapezoid. Bear Woman's name must be said with gentleness and respect. Some say it with fear.

            When Maisy was two and a half, she'd ride the back of my neck along the creaking boardwalk through Chehaw Park Zoo, holding my hair. "Let's go see the bear, want to?" Maisy never remembered from time to time how big bears actually was. She could cover her Goldielocks Golden Book characters with her hands and her teddy bear was half her size, harmless with its little red tongue.

            As we rounded the final turn, the bear loomed from stereotypical and reminiscent collage into a real and gigantic omnivore, standing monolithic, omnipotent, maybe rubbing his shaggy ass on a tree. He'd look at her and roar and she'd snatch out little handfuls of temple hair and wet the back of my neck. Every time. "Let's hurry home now, daddy. I gotta go pottie."

            Teddy bears and Goldielock bears aren't really bears any more than Tony is a Bengal tiger. Casper and Freddy Cougert

            The night I came home with Mike's grizzly rug, my 18-year-old stepdaughter, Mary Catherine, was out for a little underage drinking with her girlfriends. I stuffed the bear in her canopy bed, tucking the satin comfort under the snarling chin. Around 2:00 a.m. Mary Cat eased in the driveway with headlights extinguished.  Her key slipped quietly into the front door as I propped on one elbow to listen.  The pine floors creaked softly beneath her bobbie socks. She slipped into her bedroom and snapped on the light. "MAA-MUHHH!" she cried as she jumped into the ceiling fan.

            When Indians killed a deer without asking forgiveness, they got smote with arthritis, but they were under no such obligation to a bear, whose spirits re-incorporated into a new bruin before the braves could get the dead one skint. Bears originated from a tribe who got disenchanted with the grunt and sweat of scratching out a living and who took to the wilderness to slurp honey and munch nuts. The bear was an anomaly to Indians, a four-leg critter that could stand upright on knees like a man, big medicine. Bears defied categories, pushed the envelope just as modern Georgia bear hunters do, anomalies themselves who look like a lynch mob or a posse and who, like all hunters, love bullshitting more than hunting. They enjoy only three weekends of bear hunting per year, six days, for which they buy permits, feed dogs, oil firearms and lease land. Ace's club, Trail Ridge, controls nine thousand acres, where there are lots of bear, a plentitude attributable to good game management and evidenced by electric fences around beehives. Sometimes you see a ravaged cornfield that looks like a backhoe went through, and once and a while a bear will take a fatted calf or decimate a chicken house. So, yeah, bears can be a nusence if you need bicameral justification, although my right brain tells me one healthy bear is worth any number of calves, cornfields and chicken shacks, but its been my experience most hunters, including myself, don't do a lot of thinking. Thinking is the surest way besides work to screw up life the way it was meant to be lived.

            We gather at the hunting club and start riding the roads, dog boxes loaded with yowling Plots, walkers, black-and-tans, big dogs with loose skin and sad brown eyes. Shy dogs, tails between aitchbone, bred in blood and bone to chase the thing that scares them most. It's just like men and dogs to run down and kill the thing they love the most, the thing that will kill them the quickest.

            The hunters hang heads from truck windows, looking for tracks, soft prints in the dust.   "You'd think something big as a bear would leave a remarkable track," I observe.

            "They don't," says Ace.           

            Eventually we find faint impressions that's judged suitable. Bear! They stop their 4x4's, squat, study, point, and stir the track with sticks. These prints seem made by toy bears filled with helium, airy bears, or with powder puffs. I don't believe quarter ton animals can trudge so softly. Ace selects a suitable track, Barking over crackling radios, the hunters gauge size and freshness before setting the dogs down, who take to the track, babble, strike and trail. AW-ROO, AW-ROOL, AR-AR-AR.

            Jackie leads the drivers, who follow the yowling hounds. In safety vests, the rest of us spread out, crimson splotches along the yellow powder road, ready to shoot at any bear that charges the line of scrimmage. Pick-ups speed back and fourth in columns of swirling dust, antennas lashing, changing positions to head off the drivers and dogs, shifting the line.

            "When a bear doubled back on Indians," Ace informed me. "They shinnied up saplings too small to support the bear."

            "Couldn't a bear just shake them out?" I ask. I picture an angry paw swatting a jack pine that hums like a tuning fork with a treed Indian clench-jawed and blurred as he prays to the Great Spirit the bear's got sense enough to know the sapling's too small to climb.

            "Life wasn't always easy for our aboriginal forebears," Ace concludes. For safety sake he makes me tote a .44 magnum revolver. In its shoulder holster, the grip nuzzles my armpit and the barrel pokes my hip.

            A cancerous Datsun pick-up with lacy rocker panels skids up in a cloud of boiling dust. A bearded face fills the window as the vehicle tilts on stressed springs. "Get fixed," says the ursine occupant, "this here's a likely place for the sum bitch to bust through, right there through them buttonwoods." The biceps hanging under the tumbleweed head is the size and color of a Talmadge ham. This guy looks as tough as anything likely to bust through the gallberries.

            "I better ride with you," I suggest, "stand in the back, be a look-out, balance your truck."

            "Naw, I moan scoot over and run out the line. You can look-out right here," he adds ominously, scratching off in a sooty backfire and a horizonal cyclone of dust, hunkering over the steering wheel to see through the windshield. It turns out he's not even a member of the hunting party.

            Three times the bear threatens my sector, and three times I cock my quivering .44. I can hear the dogs' timorous yips as the boar bear crashes through scrub pine and gallberries. Dogs sound surer of themselves chasing coons and rabbits. A-ROOPs degenerate into yeeks and muted bow-wows. I glance down the yellow road to see Kicklighter climb into the bed of his truck and rest his rifle across the cab. Beyond him Ace stands braced like the Ethan Allen minuteman, his sawed-off Marlin .444 crossing the "A" of braced thighs.

            My camera forgotten, I cock the pistol and glance around for a sapling, which was about all there is--pine saplings, scrub oaks and buttonwoods. My .44 magnum, an ordinary comfort in dark valleys, wilts or seems to, the long black barrel drooping like a melted Halloween candle packed in the attic. I feel a simultaneous weakness of sinew and knee as my courage dilutes. If he comes out here, I think, I'll dive in the ditch, ball up into an invisible lump of Realtree, tell the others I ducked to give them a shot. I see pinetops shaking as the bear yanks up trees by the roots. Here and there hounds yike as he bats them around like volleyballs, but again he turns, and moments later I hear a furious roar and shots.

            Jackie says the bear treed in a hardwood bottom, climbed a tupelo and stood upright on a limb before he shot him through the eye. The bullet must have buzzed around in his skull like a bumblebee before he turned loose and fell. "He sounded like a refrigerator coming out of that tree," Kicklighter says.

            A tandem file of grunting hunters drags the black bear by a chain choker around a paw the size of a catcher's mit, stretching the long arm as though he bodysurfs over the pine-row berms. His empty eye-socket is crusted with blood-blackened dust. He doesn't belong here in this pseudo-wilderness of hacked over flatwoods replanted into pulpwood slash for toilet tissue, tampon wrappers and computer paper. Bears should haunt the hushed gloom of virgin hardwoods of the Georgia Appalachians or the cathedral canopy of the Okeefenokee, holy places where transcendental webs run back through raw nature into something eternal. He's out of context here on the dirt road through the planted pines and gallberry bushes.

            We prop his tremendous head, slicing off his hanging tongue and turning his good eye to the camera. He's incongruous too in death like some banished Old Testament god fallen from the sky, not yet ignoble, still embued with inert power. We stand around in a mute reverence that makes us scratch and spit, maybe recalling the deadly ballet of bears and hunters since the opening act of the human comedy. Trying to commune with atrophied rudiments of the commitment our progenitors felt for a quarry fully capable of crushing skulls and shredding loincloth, feeling the hunter's sense of ironical love, without which there'd be no bears, no wilderness, pseudo or otherwise, nothing but McDonalds, Walmarts and Taco Bells to monument man's dimwitted dominion over nature.

            A pretty lady in cammo drives up with a little boy about the age Maisy was at Chehaw. He won't get in the picture, no way. He's heard about reanimating Bear-Spirits. The hunters have too. When they load Jackie's bear on the tailgate, his truck squats on leafspring haunches and residual air hisses from keg-sized lungs. They jump back as though scalded, scattering centrifugally. I drop my camera and scramble backwards up the bumper, hood, and windshield of Kicklighter's truck, printing crescent heel marks and kicking off a wiper arm as I ascend. The cab thunks in as I gain the summit and the abandoned bear rolls off Jackie's tailgate. From the cab I'm fixing to climb the radio antenna, it being the closest thing around to a sapling.

            "My damn! Get down off my truck," yells the Chief, who has himself jumped flatfooted to the far side of the ditch.

            Jackie weighs in his bear in at the check station at 355 pounds while the other drivers are divining with telemetry antenna dogs scattered all over Charlton County. On the way home, I nudge Kicklighter, trying to quiet his snorting enough to hear the radio.  He tilts back his head to see under the bill of his ball cap. He opens one eye, squinting the other.

            "Is that the way they catch convicts? You know, with dogs, perimeters and all?" I ask.

            He studies me. "Watch the road," he says.

            Since the bear hunt I've  been plagued by disturbing dreams and rheumatism contracted by unapoligetic deer hunting. Claire says I ignited my arthritis sleeping in Kicklighter's truck and that the dreams were sparked by subliminal guilt from stuffing Mike's bear in Mary Catherine's bed. In the dream I part the bushes and find myself face to face with a gigantic black bear. I draw my hawg-leg .44, which wilts flaccid as a lily, dripping harmless bullets. I pirouette, running pell mell in somnambulant leaps, arabesques du saulte (Katydid, help me with this term) , but the bear stays close behind. My neckbone contracts as his humid breath dews the backs of my ears. Suddenly, I'm enveloped in a hairy hug, forced into a belly-t--buttocks pas de deux to the music of growls, snorts, smacking lips and roars. Fingers interlaced with claws, we Tango  until my ursine partner slurps the back of my neck with an obscene, dark tongue the size of a calf liver. I scream as my head is engulfed, bear-kissed into slobbery darkness, face caged by yellow incisors. YAHHH

            "What's wrong with you?" yawns Claire. "You bicycled the covers into a wad and I'm cold."

            I'm moving Mike's bear rug," I announce, "maybe to the basement. I'm a little worried about what our friends will think, you know, us having a grizzly at the dining room table and all.”

            “Well, move it if you want to, but your friends don't."

            "Don't what?"

            "Well, you know."

            "What?"

             "Think."

(end)

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