Thomas woke up thrashing. Terrified. His heart pounded as he tried to pin the source of his alarm. There was a rustling outside the front door. A big rustling. Pots and pans and glass bottles clashed together violently and something hit the front door. There was a monster outside.
Giant nostrils snorted angrily and Thomas was fully alert to the presence of a grizzly bear. He listened in terror as its giant paws warped the aluminum of his sled.
“Get up, Thomas! What the hell are you lying there for?!” The old man stood over him and struck a match, the smell of its sulfur was especially strong. Thomas scrambled to unzip his bedroll and reached for the magnum by his pillow. The fireplace was dark and cold.
Thomas swung his feet to the floor and he stepped inside of his open boots. The bear’s hot breaths grew louder and Thomas knew it was crossing from the woodpile to his cache of instant meals.
“He’s early,” Thomas whispered. “Real early.”
“It doesn’t matter what he is as long as he’s here. You really left all that food on the ground?” The old man’s harsh voice sliced the darkness.
“I didn’t want it to spoil in the trees.”
“I guess your miracle today is having finally done something half right.” The tin cans smashed together as the bear gave them a mighty swipe.
“He’s real excited. He’s been awake for a while.” Thomas crept towards the door with his magnum cocked. “Probably got stirred up or confused with the heat.”
“Stirred up by you shooting at damn foxes, maybe. Don’t know why you’re hesitating to pull the trigger now and not then.”
“I don’t want to piss him off. I don’t want him to know I’m here.”
“He’s known where you’ve been for a week!” Thomas flinched at his father’s volume. “He knows where you are now and probably the exact number of steps it would take to close the distance and make a meal out of your sorry brains!”
“Okay.” Thomas continued to whisper.
“Okay?!” Thomas crouched down and looked for a window he knew wasn’t there. “The only thing he doesn’t know is whether you mean business or not. Cover your sissy ears and pull the damn trigger already! I saw a hundred guys like you die in Nam!”
Thomas pointed the gun up the chimney, leaned his right ear into his shoulder and plugged up his left, and pulled the trigger. The sound exploded like a thunderbolt that struck twice as its echo quickly returned from the hills. The magnum trembled in his shaking hands.
Thomas poked his gun and his head outside. The snow covered ground glowed faintly in the otherwise total darkness, and the sound of the bear’s frustrated sniffing turned Thomas’s intestines into jelly. He flipped on his headlamp and saw it, high on its heels, smelling the air.
“He’s still deciding what to do.” His father spoke into his ear. “He’s smart but he’s hungry. Help him make up his mind.” Thomas pushed on the door and stretched his arm and the magnum out into the cold. He aimed above the bear to avoid hitting it but close enough for the giant slug to cut the air by its head. Another thunderbolt cracked through the tundra and the bear sauntered away, shaking its head and gnashing its dripping teeth.
The front yard was in turmoil. Tin cans were badly dented and scattered across the yard. Snow clung to logs and continued to fall from the sky. Pots of prepared food and clumps of rice and fish littered the scene of dirty snow and claw marks. The bear’s footprints were everywhere and the dank odor of its breath still hung in the air.
Thomas went back inside and fastened the magnum holster to his hip. Two shots left.
“Only two?” His father struck another match.
“It was supposed to be for emergencies! How many bears can you possibly shoot in one winter?”
“That depends on how many fish you leave lying around the house! That bear is coming back, you know. He’s having a hard winter.”
Thomas loaded a cartridge in his rifle and leaned it on the wall by the front door. It would be better for making noise than the precious stopping power of his magnum. His fireplace was cold and soaking in the snowmelt that dripped from the ceiling. He stacked a teepee fire with the remaining dry sticks from inside, but all of the grass bundles were outside and soaking in snow.
“Fire is the only thing that’ll keep that bear from eating you in your sleep. You should have shot him, you know.”
“I was scared to.”
“Everyone is scared. It takes a real man to piss his pants and fight anyway.”
Thomas ran out the front door and bent over, searching through the snow for grass bundles to start a fire. A flash of panic sent him running back to the door, where he swept the area with his flashlight, magnum at the ready. He could feel its eyes on him from every direction. Mortal danger had found him, and the only salvation lied in the light of a fire. He prayed for the beatific, equalizing, forgiving snow to go away. His eyes darted around in desperation for something to burn. The earth was dark.
The snowfall increased then and the details of his front yard became thick and grainy. He looked in every direction for movement or the horrible reflection of two animal eyes popping out of the darkness and running towards him. He only found three bundles of grass, all covered in snow, and ran back inside. On his hands and knees he pushed them beneath the teepee of sticks and began striking flint.
Sparks flew and illuminated the darkness with blinding bursts of light. He struck it again and again but the grass was still too wet to catch. Back at the doorway, staring out at the endless sea of white, he suddenly found it difficult to breathe. The bear was coming back any second, only it wouldn’t be returning for frozen fish. It would be coming for him.
“Now you knock that off!” He father flicked his cigarette butt and it burst into sparks as it hit the wall next to Thomas. “You’re close! Now think, Boy! All you need is a little lucifer! There is a light in here someplace and you know where it is! You’ve just got to breathe and let it in!”
Thomas stood there and watched the snow fill up the bear tracks. He was scared and alone. He didn’t mean to be so scared. He clutched his magnum and thought there was enough firepower if the bear came back. Maybe.
“Definitely!” His father sat down at the table and took a drink. “You just have to shoot the goddamn thing!”
Thomas couldn’t let the bear surprise him again. If the bear came back he would be okay because he wouldn’t be surprised and he had firepower. Fire power.
“There it is,” said his father as Thomas bolted to his hunting gear. He rummaged through it until he held a small, heavy box in his hand. Inside of it was eleven cartridges of ammunition for his Winchester. He checked the yard again and moved the wet grass bundles from the fireplace to the table. He unscrewed the bullet off of six cartridges and poured their contents over the bundles. Then he shook and massaged the gunpowder deep into the grass fibers and returned them to the fireplace.
He placed them back under the teepee, stretched his arms far away from his face, turned his head, and struck the flint. A bright white and violet flame burst and blinded him as he lost his balance. The flash slowly cleared from his retinas and the fumes of sulfuric relief rushed into his lungs. The grass burned and shot hot flames into the small pieces of wood. He looked around for more wood to burn, but found only three more small sticks; only enough to warm coffee and to start the logs that he left outside.
“That’s my boy!” His father shouted from the table. “Did he cut up some extra logs for the next dumb suckers that have to hold up in this cabin? No! He thought only of himself, and now it’s himself who he has let down.”
“Move!” Thomas shouted and made two great strides to his father’s chair. The old man wrinkled his forehead as he stood up and swayed. Thomas gripped the chair from behind and smashed it with all his force against the wall. Splinters and the fresh scent of broken wood filled the air. The wood from the chair burned quickly and easily, but it would not last long. He quickly splintered his bed with his axe and began feeding it to the small fire.
Thomas checked the yard again. The snow fell hard and textures in the clouds revealed themselves as day slowly began to break. A hot enough fire would melt the snowflakes before they touched it, and the thought of starting one a few feet from his front door made him feel safe. He looked down the path, focused his vision for any symptom of movement, and rushed outside.
He sifted through the snow and chucked the logs he could find through the doorway into his cabin. The rustle of his clothing, the crunch of his boots in the snow, the pop of wood burning inside; all of it was mistaken for the sound of a giant grizzly whose hot mouth was about to wrap around the back of his neck. If he could make it to the end of this last snowfall he could soon be in The Spike with his friends drinking beer and talking about how he escaped a crazed grizzly bear.
The edge of the tarp near his front door stuck up through the snow and he pulled with great effort to move it and expose the ground. He ripped away the tarp from the canopy ceiling and drug the giant pitch of wood into the yard. He cut away its supporting legs with one quick sweep of his hunting knife and placed them beneath its pitch to keep it upright. He scooped up some hot coals with his shovel and carried them outside. Over the course of a minute he went back and forth transferring burning pieces to beneath the canopy outside his front door.
“Got to protect you from the angels,” Thomas said to his new fire, blowing softly on its coals as the snow fell at a sharper angle and the wind picked up speed. A blizzard was descending upon Denali.
Shapeless clouds unleashed a relentless assault of winter. The fire outside was hot enough to survive only a few minutes more. He wished he could talk to the storm, to reason with it, to provide a compelling case for why it should take a rest and continue another time. The top of the canopy was beginning to steam. He dusted snow off two of his split logs and placed them over the fire outside.
“You’re wasting your wood!” His father smoked in the doorway.
“If I have a fire going when this storm is over it might save my life!”
Thomas surveyed his home, took a long look at the table he had spent countless hours with, the shape and spirit of which had become like a close friend, and smashed it to pieces. Flames finally ate through the wood of his canopy outside and a giant blaze leapt into the sky. The bonfire was as alive as he was, perhaps more so, bright and waving in the wind as the snow hissed and sizzled in its belly. Thomas fed it everything: the rest of his bookshelf, his pantry, his outhouse chair, his table, and the entire canopy. He felt safe at last.
Hours passed. Thomas was hungry because he had panicked through breakfast and destroyed furniture and started fires all through lunch. He drug the sled and the supplies he could find into his cabin and took an inventory. The grass bundles were all buried in the snow. Almost everything was damaged. The sled was badly bent and he spent the better part of an hour trying to hammer it straight with the blunt side of his axe.
Only five of his six premade meals were recovered. Fortunately, they were so frozen that very little had fallen out when the bear sent them flying. He reorganized his sled and sighed deeply as he added to his luggage the bag of lentil beans from the empty cauldron. His tarps had been torn through, so he triple-covered his sled to keep everything on it as dry as possible. He ate all of the meat in his pockets and folded them inside out to try and evacuate the smell.
The dramatic flair of a struck match popped and snarled in the quiet air.
“You have been cooking in the same jacket for six months, Boy. You are going to smell like a fish barbecue no matter what you do. Especially to the bruins.”
“At least I’m doing something.” Thomas took off his jacket and waved it over the smoke of his fireplace.
“What you should have done is prepared like an adult. Like a man! Not some kid with an axe to grind. Authority doesn’t mean arbitrary control! It means knowledge, skill, survival! If authorities share their knowledge, they are trying to bring you to the top of the hierarchy. If they do not, they are tyrants and should be shot. But you! You see tyranny in every form of advice. You feel so oppressed by people who want you to live and succeed that you’d rather die and fail just to spite them.”
“I have to discover it on my own! That’s the only way I can know if I have any light in me! Otherwise I am as dull as everybody else who lives in the clouds.”
“Explain it to the devil when you see him! You want to find out on your own if going into the Denali wilderness alone and without experience or a distress beacon is a bad idea? Where’s your learning curve? You don’t go walking into the battlefield to learn on your own unless you want to end up with half an ass and a breathing tube. You listen to your superiors, who earned their place as your authority with grit and guts and by listening to their superiors. The clouds are a better place to live than six feet underground any day! You don’t go into the wilderness alone to reinvent the human being unless you think you’re goddamn Moses!”
The sky continued to fall as the forest went dark again. As soon as he had eaten, Thomas realized that keeping the outside fire going through the night would be impossible, and he sat on the floor looking out his front door and felt profound emptiness. He had burned it all. From his pocket he retrieved the picture he had torn from the magazine, was appalled that he had forgotten about it when he emptied his bullets to make fire, and burned it in the fireplace. When nighttime settled in, the fire all but dead, he stacked his empty coffee cans a few feet from the front door and placed the whiskey bottles in a row before the front stoop.
Thomas removed some nails from above the fireplace and pinned a few small branches across the door.
“That ain’t gonna stop shit! God I hope nobody has ever listened to you!” Thomas tried to relax the painful cramps in his shoulders.
“At least I’ll hear the shit coming. This is the last night.”
“Don’t rush it! Just keep listening! Yeah, there’s a bear out there. But not two. He comes back; you blow him away. Then you’re alone again in your own dangerous, stupid company.”
Thomas cooked as many lentil beans as he could eat. He sat on the ground while he watched the water and beans boil and practiced pulling his magnum from its holster and pointing it towards the door. He ate several small portions as the evening went on, adding what was left of the powdered eggs to each cup until he had eaten them all. The brown bag the eggs had come in burned brightly in his fireplace and he felt his last prayer ascend with the flames.
The wall of the chimney was still wet and moisture soaked the dirt floor. Thomas placed his sled behind his sleeping gear and arranged his supplies in such a way as to support his back as he sat and leaned against it. He positioned cuts of wood and his rifle near himself and propped his body up so that he was facing the door. The bison skin flickered in the firelight, hanging perfectly still from the nails he pounded into it so long ago. A real eternity. When the fire began to swoon and the image of the skin began to fade, he would stir the fire and add more logs until the hue and detail of the skin became clear again.
He stared at it as the food and the heat began to silence his body. He stared and imagined the bear walking through it and being effortlessly shot.
Once, he opened his eyes and the room was dark. He sprung to wakefulness and grabbed his magnum, listened very carefully, and then put more logs on the fire. As the flames rose his eyes drooped and he fought the bear with knife and nail in the twilight of his dreams.
About the author:
Karsten is a world traveler, veteran, and outdoor enthusiast who has
traversed the mountains of Japan, the Ozarks, and the Colorado Rockies.