“Big Black Bear”

big black bear 01

Author’s note: In early 2012, reeling from three D’s (divorce, depression, and debt), I tried to jumpstart my fiction by committing myself to writing three short pieces a week. It could be haiku or flash fiction or prose poem, but I had to start & finish three things a week. It didn’t last a month. This came out of that period. I still like the dreamlike little thing. It’s autobiographical, true, but I also like that I still don’t know completely what the story is doing.

As it happens, I’ve actually seen a black bear in the wild, way too closely for comfort.

The story starts after the jump.


Big Black Bear” by Walter Biggins
Protected under a Creative Commons License 4.0

In those days, David’s divorce, that big black bear, followed him everywhere. Gamy and huffing, it intruded on him at parties, growling in a corner as David tried to chat up a woman; shaking off tree bark and pollen as he read his morning paper and drank his coffee. The bear talked to him, even when he tried to sleep. At work one Monday, sludgy on weak coffee and powdered milk, David heard the bear speak up.

“You know they probably monitor your internet viewing,” it said.

David was scrolling through gossipy recaps of TV shows he didn’t even watch, featuring celebrities he didn’t care about.

“You could at least pretend you were looking at work-related stuff,” said the bear, “instead of pictures of Miami Dolphins cheerleaders. Open a new tab, for Christ’s sakes.”

David sighed.

“I understand, though,” said the bear. “That’s the closest thing to pussy you’ve seen in a year.”

David threw a pencil at the bear. He missed, and it clattered against the sheetrock.

“David?” Laura said. “Are you all right?”

Laura, his boss, stood in his office doorway, frowning at the pencil as if it were a rotting fish, something the bear would have gobbled up, no problem. David looked at the rotting fish, as if it might give him something to say, something that would explain his throwing a pencil that missed his supervisor’s head by only two feet or so.

The bear chuckled, a low chuffing snort that stunk up the office.

After work, while David bought cigarettes at the cornerstore nearest his apartment, the bear said he needed an adventure, to spread its wings, but would you mind storing all my honey, berries, and extra pillows while I’m gone? It smeared its twig-bestrewn paws all over David, in a way that it probably intended to show affection.

“We’re going on an adventure, then?” said David. These were the first words he had ever spoken back to his divorce.

“There is no ‘we,’” said the bear. “I need to sort myself out.”

But David knew the bear couldn’t sort itself out without David feeding it. It was a domesticated bear. And the bear’s daily perfume—the oily musk of fishskin, stripped pinewood, the sour-sweet aftermath of fruit rinds—would leave David’s apartment if the bear left, and he didn’t know if he could bear the loss.

So, that night, David made a harness out of tears and memories, and tied it to the bear while it slept. Then he packed some clothes, some granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, honey, and a camping pillow.

The next morning, the bear woke to find David strapped onto its back. The bear tried to shake him off but couldn’t. He roared. David yawned in response. The bear whined. David said, “Let’s go.”

So, they crossed Old Canton Road, and bounded into the wilderness. The city melted behind them in a matter of blocks. David didn’t know where the city and its honking cars went but they found themselves quickly in a pine forest, and soon the forest was so thick that they could not see the sky. The day was pitch black by 11am. They found a cave, and a nearby creek leaping with gar and trout. The bear hunted in the creek, spearing it like a needle diving in and out of embroidery. The bear gutted and cleaned trout with his claws. David watched him at it, and tried to replicate its motion with his Williams-Sonoma breadknife. They stuffed the fish with blueberries, slathered honey and fresh-picked rosemary over the filets, and cooked them over a fire. They told each other ghost stories of blind dates and marriage.

They slept. David woke the next morning, stubbly but refreshed. The bear didn’t. So, he wandered out, and tried to fish and pick berries. He came back, and the bear was still sleeping. So he went to sleep, too. The next morning, David woke. The bear didn’t. He pressed his palm to the bear’s nostrils—hot, sticky breath flared out, musty like a rain-damaged book. So David went exploring, following the creek all the way to Rankin County. He came back, and the bear still slept, snoring soft and low. Some of its hair had fallen out, making a furry ring around it. David slept and David woke. His beard was growing, grey slipped in with the black. The bear slept.

Two weeks into it, David’s feet were callused from traipsing up and down the state, and his sneakers fell away in strips one fall morning. He no longer cared. A month, maybe two, after that, he discovered that he was an passable fly fisherman. He could feed himself and the bear, if the bear ever ate, which it didn’t, because all it did was sleep. David’s chest hair burst through his collared shirt. His beard was full, and full of dead leaves. David spent days climbing trees, learning to build tents with deadwood and brush. He scraped himself up pretty badly. He fell a lot. He went hungry a lot. He got the runs a lot, and from that he learned which plants were okay to eat and which were best left alone. His legs got fuzzy like silkworms.

The bear slept, its snoring resonating through the pines.

One afternoon, David knew it was time to go home. So he wove a basket from grass and wedding photos, filled it with trout and berries and a honeycomb for good luck. He laid the basket by the bear’s nose, and gave the bear a long hug, filling his nostrils with musk and warmth. Then, he switched on a compass in his head that he hadn’t known was there, and headed out. He knew it was the right way, two days later, when he realized that the bear’s perfume was still strong on him. Maybe it always would be, he thought. Maybe David would always emit an odor that would make a few people turn their heads in mild disgust. Maybe, David thought, he would be okay with it, that it was just the price of learning to fish, and to clean fish, and to appreciate the aroma and taste of good, fresh berries.

-30-

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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