bear

She pulled into the picnic area in her faded red VW Jetta. Long, gray-blonde hair cascaded softly over her ears as she leaned over the steering wheel and sighed. With a bony finger, she whisked away a tear tickling her cheek.

Finally, too exhausted to listen any more to the worn Harry Chapin CD or let loose with a full-blown cry, she shut off the engine and got out.

Cold crisp air struck her in the face. Hers was the only car in the parking lot off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Down below, stretched the sleepy farms and villages of Shenandoah Valley. The stark beauty of this late fall morning didn’t escape her. It almost made her yearn – that ever optimistic yearning of childhood – for tomorrow.

But there would be no tomorrow. Not now. Not ever. 

Never again!

Swallowing, she leaned into the car and laid the note she’d written on the dash.

No, better not.

She pulled it off the dash and carefully placed it, upside down, on the passenger seat. That way, a park ranger wouldn’t be prematurely alerted.

Her blue jeans hung too loosely from narrow hips as she staggered to the trunk and pulled out the small, green backpack she’d readied the night before from the motel in Front Royal, Virginia. She knew its contents intimately, briefly holding it tight like an old friend, before shouldering the burden.

Black crows – or were they ravens? – used to an endless stream of summer handouts, cawed from the near-leafless trees. Beyond a stand of pine, lazily grazed three deer. She scrutinized the trees more carefully, suddenly remembering past trips here with her husband – The bastard! – years past when black bear somehow knew the law protected them.

Why the hell didn’t the law protect me?

Then she remembered that by now most bear had begun hibernating, or had left the deserted camping areas for the greener pastures below.

A Dodge minivan passed, a woman smiling and waving to her from behind the wheel. She waved back, waited, and then slipped into the forest. The trees enveloped her like a cold cocoon, the dry leaves beneath her feet crackling with each step. The cawing birds pursued, hopping and flying from tree to tree above her.

Despite the cool musty breeze, beads of sweat soon ran down her face and pasted her shirt to the backpack. Old, heavily sedated pains began gnawing in her knees and back. She noticed new bird songs, recognizing some, like a chickadee calling its own name. A squirrel scampered up a leafless spreading oak, stopping on a thick branch before turning its gray face to her, squawking in tempo with the twitching of its bushy tail.

"Who are you? Who are you? Go away! Go away!" it seemed to say.

Soon, several other squirrels echoed their discontent over her presence. She inhaled deeply before continuing, startling a chipmunk that had sat on its hind legs. It scurried into the hollow of a fallen pine. The cold small sun above added a visual edge to the forest sounds. She sat on the chipmunk’s fallen tree, hooked her palm into the backpack’s strap and let it slip to her feet. The sound, as she un-zippered the pack, stirred a memory behind a memory.

Her husband zippered up the tent during their wilderness honeymoon in Hawaii. There, that night, they had planned the rest of their lives. He’d sweetly said, "All your hurts are finished. We start a new chapter. Hell no, honey..." and he’d kissed her deep and warm. "We start a new book."

Bitterly, she pulled out the fifth of vodka from her pack, again startling the chipmunk who’d poked its little head out of a hole not far from her. Its muffled squeaks almost caused her to smile. And brought her attention back to the hundreds of other woodland sounds. Leaves rustling, cawing, squawking, thumping. Even the slow, thermometric chirping of crickets. On and on, as if to say, "No! No! No!" Despite them all, she unscrewed the cap, brought the bottle’s mouth to her lips and quickly swallowed with a violent snap of her head.

Instantly, soothing warmth radiated outward from the pit of her stomach, burning away crusty hurts. A ray of sunlight illuminated the white cap of her prescription bottle.

Soon. Very soon...

Several crows suddenly jumped off their tree perches, then re-alighted, carrying on with their near-aggressive cawing. Then she understood. They’d heard it first. The thin sound of approaching tires on pavement. Then came the struggling engine sound. Then it passed.

That too triggered a memory. Both of them drunk, a year after Hawaii, they’d had their umpteenth argument. This time, not only had he struck her in retaliation to her disagreement, he'd cracked her skull when he'd swung the briefcase into her head. He'd obviously thought she couldn’t hear as he had leaned down to look at the blood oozing from her ear and stupidly test for a pulse on the wrong part of her wrist. She’d had a post-traumatic dissociative reaction, a therapist later explained, when she'd found herself unable to move on the floor but being aware of everything as if from a distance. "That’s how you protected yourself," the gentle therapist had said. "You learned it as a kid when your parents drank and fought."

In that dissociated state, she had heard hubby mumble, "Bitch." Then heard his hurried footsteps as he had drunkenly gathered some things and stumbled out their house, until finally she'd heard the sound of the tires on pavement fading into the distance. Until hours later the police had come to the door, not for her, but to tell her of the fatal accident one town over.

The alcohol had now settled. She rose, shouldered the pack, and walked deeper into the forest. Soon, she crested some sort of rocky peak. Thick spiny juniper stretched out before her between glacier-scoured boulders. Above, a hawk screeched. Squirrels skirted the rocky clearing, chattering from a dense grove of storm-stunted pine. The sun had now gone lower into the southwest horizon.

As she entered the moss-carpeted pine thicket, the crows suddenly manifested again. She didn’t care. Each step she’d taken had left behind more of a troubled world. And here she was...

Yes, here I am.

She unfurled the wool blanket from her pack and laid it out over her mattress of moss. Before laying down, she drank deeply from her bottle. Cool, she thought, I’m not coughing the shit up my nose.

Moments or hours passed. The forest symphony seemed distant somehow; not even vodka could really anesthetize the hurts that lay deepest.

Prince Valiant.

She groggily pulled out the bottle of Valium and began to swallow.

Fragments of her life floated by. Growing up in Chicago in the early seventies. The weird juxtaposing of strict Catholic nuns teaching, and peer who challenged Catholic guilt. Smoking in the girls room. Kissing and petting in church. An alcoholic mother, a father murdered, a stepfather who crept into her room. Going to college, dropping acid, then dropping out. Going to an Ashram, then dropping out. A first husband, who hit. A second husband, who hit. The miscarriage. Then the hysterectomy. Then, decades later, a third husband, who'd nearly killed her before crashing drunk dead into a tree.

I’m not afraid to die.

Even as the bear approached, methodically overturning dead-fall in the moss in its search for grubs, she felt no fear. Even as the bear rose on its hind quarters – death staring down at her – she slipped deeper into a far-away place.

Even as darkness and cold invaded deep into her, she felt only warmth and light. Now it was she who clawed through rotted dead-fall, seeking those delicious white grubs that slept there through the winter. A thousand scents in the cool breeze vied for her attention. Sounds she’d barely heard before rang clearly in her ears. Except for the wafting stench of human emotions from the valley below, she thrilled at the freedom she smelled. Even long after the sun had set, she could clearly see the forest for the trees. The tiny voices of creatures beneath leaves or even underground spoke clearly. The slow drone of an airplane overhead grated harshly on her hearing.

She was no longer human, nor exactly a bear either...

...An ancient voice seemed to call from the distance.

"Yes?" she grumbled, moving lazily toward the voice.

It wasn’t until starlight differentiated this presence from the forest that she reared up on hind legs and screamed angrily.

"Hush," said the animal, its scent now traced with a fleeting moment of fear.

But an old compassion once thought extinguished was the stronger scent. She quieted down. The presence approached with cautious incremental steps until it hovered before her, speaking soothing words all the time.

"Don’t be alarmed. I will not hurt you. All the spirits have gathered. The forest, you, and I have blended. This is so rare. Don’t be afraid. I will now gently reach out to touch you. Do not be frightened... Yes, now isn’t that better?"

She grumbled a little at the female's touch but like her words, her touch evoked only a long lost sense of well-being. And she finally remembered where she’d first felt it. At a visit to her uncle’s reservation in the upper Michigan peninsula. 

On that first night, wolves in the deep snowy forest all around howled. An elder she'd barely met, walked out, feet crunching in the snow, to where she stood transfixed in the little clearing under a full moon between her uncle's cabin and the woods. He stood tall and silent next to her, vaporous breath slowly rising, with now only one wolf howling, on and on. When their eyes met, he simply said, "I think big mama wants to say hello." The howling had ceased. And in the next moment, a huge black wolf was standing only 20 feet from them. It had made no noise in the snow. The last thing she remembered about it all was when she met the wolf's gaze.

Having now touched her, the feminine presence realized instantly this one's entire life. It took every bit of her willpower not to scream out in empathic awe and hurt.

"Dear," she said gently, "can you take me back to the body?"

Despite her deep reluctance, she led her to the body lying so quietly on the wool blanket.

There she began the ancient ceremony, but without lighting a sacred fire or even lighting her pipe for fear of frightening the possessed bear...

...When she woke up, strong feminine eyes stared down on her. The morning sun had not yet painted the tree tops red, but wisps of clouds high above a frame of pine boughs glowed with those brilliant hues that set the soul free.

"Good morning, Liz," she said. "How do you feel?"

Liz perused the woman's olive federal game warden uniform, her holstered weapon, until her eyes focused on the intricate weave of braided hair and beads resting on strong shoulders. "Who are you?"

"Well, my Cherokee momma calls me Crazy Tree. The Department of the Interior calls me Sergeant Blackwater. Sheryl Blackwater. Take your pick."

Sheryl's brown eyes twinkled within a bronze, handsomely beautiful face, and Liz blushed. She wondered Sheryl's age for a moment, until the fact that she had not died came to light. "You found my note in the car?"

Sheryl smiled back wrily.

"But how? How do you know my name? I’ve no ID on me."

"Liz," she said through strong straight teeth, "I have two... no, make that three... callings in life. The first answers to my highest spirit; the one that I learned from my parents and elders to be a spiritual connection among my tribe. A medicine woman. My spirit was called out tonight to the forest. A bear spirit called to me. Desperately wanted her body back. Didn’t really think it was in ‘the way of the forest’ for you to so easily have pushed her out of it."

Liz puzzled over that, remembering through a fog, the bear. Her strongest memories of yesterday had been leaving the hotel room, then the drive up the mountains, then changing her mind about the note’s location in the car. And her last clear recollection was of recklessly slurping down the first gulp of vodka. She bit her lips hard at that, and then winced.

Sheryl reached down with a large callused hand to softly touch Liz's forehead. "Hey, this is real, honey. Don’t bite too hard. Wouldn’t want me to invoke my other calling, would you?"

Liz squinted her eyes quizzically.

"My role as a park ranger," she said seriously. "There’s laws in these hills Washington wants me to enforce. Gotta protect folk from doin' harm to others ... 'n themselves."

Sheryl's sudden dialect was meant to disarm Liz. It worked. She smiled.

"That’s better. Here’s what I suggest, Liz. I take you back to my federally subsidized log cabin, feed you. But first, let’s get your car so’s none of my compadres find it or your note."

"Then what?"

"Then I’ll tell you about my third calling in life."

"Yeah?" she asked, worried.

Sheryl smiled "All my life I’ve looked for you."

"What?! Me?"

"Honey, it takes one powerful spirit to so easily slip inside a reluctant bear." She grew serious, truly serious. "It’ll take strong medicine to heal your scars." Sheryl then drew nearer, all seriousness gone. "But strong medicine I got.  And my momma and her sisters have even better"

Liz couldn’t help herself, and she closed the gap into Sheryl's open arms and embracing bosom.

Liz laughed. Laughed harder than since she was seven and had seen something hilarious on the Beverly Hillbillies. "Well, I am part Chippewa, up in Michigan," she hiccuped. And now she was sobbing deep relief into Sheryl's hair, already feeling that medicine just from the endearing scent of her.

Sheryl ran a comforting hand through Liz's hair, finally settling and massaging her head. "So, you chose to freak a bear instead of a wolf," she whispered, gently kissing an ear lobe.  "We'll have to find a new name for you."

The embrace grew powerful as a bear's, as though one and forever...

Bent Lorentzen

Bent Lorentzen

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