Some bears are real, and there is no doubt; but you can’t have real bears all the time. Other times you need your bears to be not real. Oh, they work in the imagination, which is not such a bad sin, not like a lie, and then you can have them every day.
Every day my friend Sunshine the dog and I go for a walk. Sometimes it is more like a hike. We wander in the woods all directions. Most often we turn up the logging road, which goes up Pinnacle Mountain, and walk along the hillside behind my house on a path we have worn in the woods. Whichever where we go there are never any houses to pass, or hardly ever do we run into anyone. The woods are thick all around, especially the swath directly behind my land that was logged over five years ago. Sunshine and I have kept the path open simply through years of passing through. But brush has gripped the woods, though I am beginning to observe above the brush fine, straight saplings with leafy boughs trembling in the wind and soaking up the sun. Especially on this piece of woods, as we start up the hillside, we have heard sudden thumps, with the crashing aside of the brush. Often ground dwelling birds explode from the cover with a sudden startling rush that makes you hitch a step. And at this time in late September the brush is the best yard for deer. They are hard to see in their leafy darkness, easier to hear, as they also depart in a rustling rush that disquiets the heart. But lately we have heard a mysterious padding and a throaty grumble before the swift explosion of turned aside brush. Sunshine appears almost calm at the throaty grumble. I shudder; did I really hear that? Wouldn’t Sunshine be disturbed? Must be another bird, or an illusion. We proceed on our way.
One day we had walked along the logging road about a half mile. To the left on the hillside down to the stream is less dense woods. This woods had been logged just last summer, and no time yet for brush to fill in. My neighbor had got permission to clean up in there for firewood. In the clear spaces where the cutting was, black shapes were wandering up the hillside toward me. I stopped dead, breathless. They were about a hundred feet ahead when they sashayed onto the logging road. A bear’s walk is a loose amble that covers space surprisingly swiftly. One of them lifted onto his rear legs, raising himself, the black shadow of a nightmare. Sunshine glanced at me; a short, thin whine, a sharp turning of the head as if to suggest maybe we should depart. The one bear examined us leisurely, the other headed for the hills in a rush. Eventually, the both of them cleared out. Sunshine and I turned around and went home.
Next day I called my neighbor, Andy. He lives on the corner of the logging road and Kittridge Brook Road before the Rocky Hill, and behind his house is a yard about an acre he keeps mowed short like a lawn. During the summer the whole family takes a turn on the riding mower. I wondered if anyone had seen bears passing through at any time behind his house. It seemed to me likely. Besides, at the very least, since he has young children, he might find the information serviceable.
“Can’t you keep your animals to yourself?” I said.
“Humph,” he said, testily. “What animals? None I know of but two teenage girls.”
“Those two black bears.”
“What two bears?”
“The two I saw up on the logging road maybe a hundred yards past your house.”
Andy is a hunter, a snowmobiler, a four-wheeler, a motorcyclist and all those other assorted equipment outdoorsmen Mainers like to be. They are most fond of the outdoors in the presence of an internal combustion engine, and they will sit in a tree all hunting season waiting for a deer to pass by. Possibly he was already planning a 4-wheeler trip to a certain tree to stand in. It had been dry lately and the bears probably went down to the stream every day to drink. Deer season was yet two months, bear season started in a couple of days.
“One of them,” I explained, “took a good look, seemed quite interested, raised up, but the other one headed across the road and went into the trees.”
“Do you like that? I should look into it, I guess.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t seen them.”
Then we discussed family matters. His girls are high schoolers, the oldest just about to graduate.
When Patty, a professional gardener nearby, brought over some string bean vines for the goats, I warned her about the bears. But her garden is guarded by a chain-link fence. She hadn’t seen them either. She knows I take my walks with Sunshine, she said, “Bet she barked.” She was teasing. Sunshine is thirteen and dead to any notion of aggressiveness to a real bear. But I thought I might add, “I don’t know what sex they are. I’ll get under there and find out next chance I get.” A farmer won’t laugh out loud unless she is in the middle of other farmers who are laughing out loud. I am fond of those kinds of remarks, even when they don’t get a rise out of anybody. But my grandson thought it was funny, he burst out laughing. He’s always telling me, “Grandpa, you have the funniest stories!”
Of all the neighbors, the one most interested was Kathleen, the wife.
“I think you had better think about walking on the road,” she said.
As if a bear will care whether or not I am on a road.
But next time I walked, I walked a different way, a way that passes nearby a few houses, which are barely visible through the trees. I like to walk that way too, though one of the houses has dogs that make a racket. There is a field nestled in the woods. It slopes off to a pond and I have seen it on a snowy evening early in the winter when the pond was not yet iced over. It is bordered on all sides by majestic tall trees. In there the light is always right, a living light. That day the big flakes caught in the sweeping branches while what landed on the ground instantly vanished. Any bear would be happy to drink from that black pond at the end of the field in front of the trees. But I have yet to see a bear in that field. Maybe I will one day. Where I saw the bears, the real bears, was on the logging road. The light is not so good in there, and the woods have been recently logged over leaving them a shambles. Andy picks at the smallish downed logs useless to the loggers to increase his pile of firewood for the winter. In a few days we were walking that way again because I prefer not to meet up with anybody. Not much to it, but that’s where I had seen the real bears. And I haven’t seen them again since. Though I have heard a solid thump and crashing a couple of times.
But the unreal bears are interesting too. I see them in my thoughts every day. They cross the field fast in the lazy snow. The dogs are trailing close; it is Wednesday evening, the dogs have not been hunting since Saturday; they are barking eagerly, chasing close. One of the bears stops to battle, a black figure against the living light; the dogs instantly surround him. The other crashes into the tree line and is gone into darkness.