"The Bear" - excerpt from The Inner Traveller by David Woodward
|David lives in Quebec.|
© 2009 David Woodward
Ragmar was nine (Moumia and Mpampas assumed, or pretended, that he was a year old when they found him; therefore, his first birthday was celebrated as his second - the same day they had found him, July 7) when Moumia gave him the knife. It was his birthday. They were on vacation at the great lake, where they had always spent their family holidays and celebrated his birthday. The biggest of all five, the lake was just like the ocean. Tremendous storms could crop at any minute. A great ship lay at the bottom, the result of an infamous wreck from such a storm. The spirit of the lake was alive with the souls of the dead who had gone down with the ship, the surrounding land a mystical experience for those who watched, and listened, and felt with their minds and hearts - the spirit of the land, water, and man uniting together. It held Ragmar tighter, closer than anything he’d ever experienced.
Mpampas loved the smell of the coniferous forest, the ruggedness of the rocky terrain, the open sky juxtaposed to the open water and the little rustic shack they stayed in. It was a heavenly spot for a wildlife biologist - lots of birds of prey, especially merlins. Moumia would have preferred more comfortable accommodations but Kasper loved that area. With no kids of their own all those years, she would often oblige her husband. In many ways, he became the child they had never had - that is, until Ragmar came along. Kasper’s pampering days came to a rather abrupt end when the boy arrived.
Despite Moumia’s misgivings about the rough land that suited her husband, she began to appreciate the wildness after seeing the land through a young boy’s eyes. She began to feel the special spirits which lived in the lake, in the forest, which descended from the sky and landed on the boulders below, spreading their angelic blood all over the rocks - what Mpampas referred to as the lifeline of the forest, of all landlocked life. Beatified lichen from space. Mpampas became a mystic every summer by the majestic lake. Secluded from the outside, no neighbours within miles, it brought out his spiritual nature. Moumia had always loved this side of him but failed to be touched by the majesty of the land herself. Now, with the boy, she began to feel the goose bumps that such a landscape could induce. She could feel the wild spirit all around. She imagined it could be God, but there was something else. Her senses had been awakened. From that point onward, the family celebrated its own wild spirit during the month of July as much as they did Ragmar’s anniversary.
Moumia especially loved to watch little Ragmar traipse aimlessly through the woods in search of little creatures. Not the kind of child to play like other children, she enjoyed observing his childlike curiosity at their vacation spot. Ragmar would pick up frogs, salamanders, beetles and dragonflies, and bring them back proudly to her. Mpampas would name them all for him - each and every species, using both the common names and the Latin ones. Ragmar listened intently, running each and every name through his racing mind. It was about this time, as well, that he had begun to acquire a different fascination of sorts. It was the same summer Moumia had given him the knife. Mpampas didn’t think it was a good idea but she had insisted.
“Maja, what does a boy his age need with a knife?”
“What do you mean a boy his age? He’s nine. What boy doesn’t want a knife?”
Kasper shook his head. “Exactly my point. He’s just a boy, no?”
“Look at how happy it has made him. He looks happy, no?” She pointed at the boulders around their shack. They were directly in front of the water. The other side wasn’t in sight, only water and sky as far as they could see all around them. “Look at the way he writes all our names on the rocks. It’s sweet. Besides . . .”
“I don’t see the point in such a thing.”
It was difficult to talk about. The names he carved were only his own, but Mpampas did not correct her on this. He knew the real reason she had given him the knife but he couldn’t broach this subject either. But he knew. The child was not altogether normal. How could they always be there for him? How could they prevent accidents from happening? They did not like to think in such a manner. They did not like to think of anything bad happening to that child, their child. If the truth were to be told, Mpampas did love that child more than he let on. It was there in his distance; it was there in every head shake, every mumble that did not go fully expressed; it was there in those tight round shoulders that would get tighter and tighter and rounder and rounder, more hunched over as the years went on. He carried his fears and worries and, yes, love in them.
“He needs it. You know he does,” said Moumia.
“Ah,” Mpampas mumbled, then walked away muttering something incoherent under his breath.
Moumia stayed behind in front of the shack and watched the sun go down over the superior lake. She didn’t tell her husband what she had seen earlier in the day.
Mpampas had been out very early that day. He didn’t wake his wife or the boy. He wanted to be on his own for a while. So he headed into the boreal forest. Sunrise was the best time for birding.
Moumia, assuming her husband had taken Ragmar on his morning hike, didn’t immediately realise that he was missing. When her husband came back for lunch, she discovered that the boy was indeed missing. They set out separately to find him, Mpampas going down towards the water in front and Moumia heading out back - to the forest.
It had only been a week since Ragmar had been given the knife. They saw him carve his name into the rocks; they saw his name everywhere that they went. It made them feel good seeing their son’s name about the lake. It reassured them somehow, especially Moumia. Since discovering the animals in the forest, he also liked to use his knife to dissect them. Mpampas was the first to show his son how to disassemble the insects they would collect, naming all the parts as they did so. He showed him how to trap them by smoking them while they foraged in the trees at night. As they fell to the ground, they collected them in tin cans, and then they dissected them and observed them under the microscope. Their lab consisted of a picnic table and a tarp overhead - where they also ate lunches and suppers, sometimes breakfasts, too. Moumia always complained that it was much too close to the the outhouse. It was the flies she found most offensive. She knew where the flies had been. Mpampas would laugh and say, “At least we know we are only eating our own shit.” Moumia would moan under her breath. Her husband, in some ways, had never really grown up.
Mpampas showed Ragmar the insects as divided into three main parts: the head, the thorax and the abdomen. He explained their functions. But his lessons went beyond the practical. He wanted to explain the theory behind them. He told Ragmar about the evolution of wings - the need for dispersing, exploring new territory, occupying open and unique niches, escaping predators, chasing prey, finding mates, their important role as pollinators - without them we’d all go hungry. With wings they could more easily get up and go to start new colonies in new lands. They weren’t limited in their movement. “They have no need for cars, buses, trains, or planes like us; they are more self-sufficient creatures, Ragmar. Remember that. Be self-sufficient, the most you can be, like an insect.” Mpampas wasn’t even certain that the boy was enjoying this lesson in biology. Ragmar barely looked at what he was doing while he explained his methodologies, his theories, his life lessons. In fact, he didn’t even think Ragmar was watching since he appeared to prefer playing with the semi-alive insects in the tin can. Mpampas was the real dissector.
Once, Ragmar pulled a praying mantis out of one of the cans. Mpampas was shocked. “What is that?” Mpampas asked. He knew what it was but had not expected one in that neck of the woods. “They don’t belong here. Besides, it is too early for them to be out. Where did you get that, Ragmar?” Ragmar shrugged. Mpampas took the lime-green insect from the boy but did not dissect this special specimen. He showed the boy how the head moved, almost like an owl. He told him about an old wives’ tale, about how when you’re lost and you see a mantis, you should go in the direction that the mantis is facing. It will lead you in the right direction; it will lead you home. “They are much revered in some cultures.” He told him about its slow, fluid movements, how it lies completely motionless waiting for its victim, then when it spots it, approaches by rocking back and forth rhythmically, mimicking the movement of the foliage. Finally, with a quick, sudden strike to the neck or head of its prey, it eats it alive. “Did you know, son, that the female eats the male after mating? She is very hungry after all that...” he laughed, “exercise.” Ragmar nodded most gravely as though he understood Mpampas’ unscientific rationale behind this particular and important trait. Mpampas stopped laughing and looked down at the boy, his adopted son, the only son he would ever have. He sighed. “You always amaze me, boy. You hear me, son?” he said, leaning down to his level as Ragmar continued to gaze at the praying mantis in his father’s crooked fingers. “You amaze the old man.” Ragmar kept his focus on the colourful insect which did not belong there, which did not belong there at that time. Later, they would both let it go, unharmed, placing it in a little shrub that was the same colour as the insect, thinking it would be well camouflaged. It would be a good place for a predator to hide. Mpampas did not know the name of the plant. He thought he knew all the plants and animals in that neck of the woods. He shook his big, square head and shrugged his small, round shoulders. He thought to himself, This boy is proof that I know very little in this big world. It is much bigger than I had thought. I have been an old, arrogant fool all these years.
It was Moumia who eventually found him. There were days, though, when she wished she hadn’t. He wasn’t far from the shack. The first thing she noticed was the scent - sour and putrid, not at all like the outhouse. It was as though someone had dumped the garbage out near the cabin. Perhaps an animal had gotten into their scraps, although they were very careful. They told Ragmar again and again to be very cautious. Always leave the garbage inside, in a tight container. There were a lot of bears in that part of the country. They frequently saw them roaming about. Their scat was everywhere. Mpampas would chase them assertively. It was the only time he moved with such swiftness. He knew a fed bear would inevitably be a dead bear.
Moumia had no idea what she was seeing at first. It didn’t seem real to her. Like a wild animal, Ragmar had seen her first. Perhaps he caught a scent of her as she approached from behind. When she got close enough, she saw tufts of black fur everywhere. It seemed to be on the young boy’s body, in his hair - in his mouth. Then, she saw the knife. It lay standing up, the handle sticking up into the air. It was on a dark mound of earth. Where did all the fur come from? She moved a little closer, approaching her son from the right. The midday sun suddenly shot through an opening in the canopy above as she did so. It was the first time the sun had exposed itself that day. If it hadn’t come out at that moment, she probably would have walked back to the cabin, not realising what the dark mound was.
Ragmar looked up innocently at her. He didn’t move. He kept his gaze on her, one of his few moments of prolonged eye contact. She knew something was different. The foul smell was all around them. There was garbage all over the ground. And under the garbage was the dark mound. But it was not the ground. It was a black bear. It wasn’t the biggest of bears, perhaps a yearling. Moumia didn’t know. Somehow the boy had gotten his knife into it. Whether the bear was already dead or not, she couldn’t tell. The garbage that lay strewn all about them was not garbage. It was the animal’s internal organs. Little Ragmar had just performed his first real dissection. Since Mpampas was not around, he had done it himself. He chose a mammal to be his first. He chose a black bear.
Moumia escorted her son back to the cabin. He didn’t protest. He took her hand for once.
When the sun had completely gone down and it was dark, Moumia went out back and buried the bear and all his internal parts. She did her best to cover all the foul smells; she opened the door to the outhouse, allowing their scents to permeate the area. (Thankfully, like his deteriorating hearing, Mpampas’ sense of smell was not what it used to be.) She went back inside the cabin where Mpampas was sleeping in his favourite country chair. A National Geographic lay open on his lap, his reading glasses were hidden in the folds of the magazine. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him. The boy, after all, had been her decision since the beginning. He was more her responsibility than his. She looked around the one room cabin for her son. She called out but he didn’t respond. His refusal to talk made their life difficult at times. There weren’t many places that one could hide in that small shack. She found him behind the old weathered chair that Mpampas was dozing in. He was playing with some red pieces of plastic. She had never seen them before. It was hard to tell what they were, exactly, because the fragments had been taken apart. It must have been some sort of toy. He didn’t usually play with toys. He was so intent in his actions that he didn’t look up. She watched him. Carefully, he looked around at all the pieces. He chose the ones he would need; then, with extreme precision, he put them delicately into their rightful place. He’s putting it back together, she thought. Moumia observed him the whole time he worked; he didn’t look up once. When he had finished, it was a car. It was the first time she had set eyes on it. Someone must have given it to him. He then looked up at nothing in particular with his big eyes - the ones that had won her over all those years before. “Do you remember when you used to speak?” she asked softly. He looked at Moumia for a fraction of a second then looked out the window into the night sky where a full moon was rising just above the horizon. Moumia felt a sudden chill in the room. She put on a sweater, shivering as she did so. She closed the open door. A thought entered her. Perhaps her little boy was trying to put the bear back together. Perhaps it had been killed by a bigger animal, a bigger bear, a wandering man, a lost soul.
Moumia took great pains to make sure that her husband got into bed, that Ragmar got ready for bed, and that the little cabin was all locked up. She didn’t want anyone to come in during the night. She didn’t want any drafty breezes to enter into their little sanctuary in the middle of nowhere. God knows who was really out there.
All work is copyrighted property of David Woodward.
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