The fence and the bear

(A short piece of fiction I wrote in Colorado in the summer of 2014 after a hike along the fenceline behind the cabin — where I kept seeing bears. It’s told from the perspective of an old rancher reflecting on the end of his life.)

I was just about back to the truck when I saw the bear. But she’d already seen me, I realized that pretty quick. I’d been up along the ridgeline fixing fence most of the day. Big storm had took down some trees, and of course near every one of them had to fall across that fence. So it wasn’t just fence work, it was chainsaw work. You have to cut up that dead tree before you can even think about fixing the posts and hanging new wire.

I started at the farthest corner of the ranch, which was the ridge. I like to work my way back, that way every new post you set, you’re eight feet closer to home. I’d fixed a good four or five sections before it started getting dark and I figured it was time to pack it in and get some supper. Millie usually packs me a sandwich but she wasn’t feeling well that day and I just grabbed a couple of apples and some crackers on the way out. And that’s not much when you’re setting fence posts, no sir.

Like I said, I could see my truck when the bear saw me. I’ve seen plenty of bears up in the mountains, and even shot a few during the season before it started setting heavy on my mind and I decided deer were plenty good for hunting.

Every other time, the bear would scoot off into the woods the second it caught my scent. This one, she didn’t do that. She was a big girl, with a russet coat going tawny at the shoulders. I could see her shoulder muscles rippling her coat as she ran. She came right at me, didn’t hesitate for a second.

I’ve thought on that a lot. Why did she come after me? Only thing I can figure is she had a cub somewhere close and I got between them. Never saw a cub, but that’s all I can figure.

Point is, I dropped my tools and ran. I tried to use the barbed wire as a shield. Bears can’t see barbed wire too well, and I figured that would give me time. I just needed five seconds and I’d have enough of a lead to beat that bear back to the truck.

But she headed to the spot where a spruce had fallen on the fence and she tightroped that deadwood right to me. I had my hunting knife out by then, a nice bone-handled 8-incher the kids gave me two Christmases ago. But the bear was quicker, and she took out my throat with a paw swipe neat as you please. I didn’t even feel nothing to tell you the truth, I was too shocked seeing my blood spraying out of me like someone nicked a garden hose.

I tried to scream, of course I did. When you know you’re dying, all you really want to do is let out the biggest, longest scream your lungs can handle. But that’s quite a trick when you got no voicebox left.

That’s what bothers me still. What gets to me is how that bear stole that final scream from me. Hell, I would have been happy with a short little yell, a yip, anything.

Because what I didn’t know before that moment – how could I? how could anyone who’s still breathing? — is that it’s not just the fear of knowing you’re about to die. No sir. Sure, that’s a big part of it. But in those last couple seconds, I needed to be heard, one last time, on God’s green earth.

My daddy liked to say everything has an echo. He was a more thoughtful man than people gave him credit for, and he liked that phrase a lot. He’d say it with a look that meant he was giving me wisdom, the edges of his mouth tucked down a little. And of course I’d try to put on a real serious face, like boys do when they try to stand taller than they are, and act like I knew just exactly what he was saying to me. But I didn’t, not really. Not until the day I died.

Out there on the mountain on my knees, I understood. I wanted to scream because I wanted that echo. I wanted to hear my voice bounce off of something solid, kind of a confirmation that the world heard my last sound, is the only way I can put it. It sounds kind of silly saying it now, wanting something so… what’s the word I’m looking for? Fleeting? Yes, something so fleeting. But in that moment, it felt like if I could let out one last sound, it might leave a final little fingerprint on the world. Silly, I know.

But once you get to this side, you understand that your whole life was like that echo. Just a short little yelp of humanity that bounces off whatever’s close – your family, your friends, the surfaces of wherever you live – then fades out pretty quick. Then it’s over, and that’s that.

That was the last thought that crossed my mind, best I can remember. I’d like to say I thought about my wife, my kids, the whole sweep of my life, like you hear about from people who tiptoe up to the edge and then come back. But I guess I have more of my daddy in me than I thought, and what I thought about was that echo.

You get to reflect later, is what I’m saying. And I’ve done that, plenty of it. And I feel blessed to be a lot more at peace with how my life played out than a lot of souls around here. None of the I-wish-I-dids and I-could-have-beens that bounce around this place like small town gossip and are worth just as much. It’s done, I want to tell them, and done is done.

But you want to hear something funny? I can’t talk here either. You bring your wounds with you, the ones you can see and the ones you can’t.

Goddam bear.

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