Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Bear

 

 

 

That fall of 1948, Etzel followed the trouty waters to the only North country he admitted to know. People knew, though. And he knew people knew. He was German even with his softened tongue. He liked alcohol and that softened him too. And the people around him softened when he offered it. A flask of the good stuff, a gun, and a sharp knife. Key items on his person along with his fishing pole and tackle.

He could catch a big fish out of a little stream. Mama fish gleaming with belly fat, he’d throw back to populate. Guiding the hook from her bony jaw, he’d watch the never closing eye flick in the oxygen. Brookies, the loveliest and tastiest—hardest to return. But then he called himself a long-term fisherman. He felt the luck come back to him one brilliant scale at a time.

Two hours north of Eau Claire. Whole way he bumped on the backroads. Holzeinschlaege roads that slapped him hard in the rear and wrecked suspensions. And he was sorry to subject his Ford F series truck to all the ruts.

Now standing up to his knees in cold water, he snagged a stench. Musk like he couldn’t believe. He thought it was a black bear come to steal his catch. Got him nervous. He froze mid-stream. “Aber was sonst? Wouldn’t help.” he thought.

 A flag of color. He saw it was a man. He tensed for a fight. More worried than if it were a bear, vulnerable as the fish on his line. He hadn’t seen anyone in days.

“What you catchin?” the stranger asked.

“Think I got a brown on. Little guy.”

The stranger watched Etzel reel in a cigar-sized brown. Etzel wet his hand, cupped the fish, and pulled the hook free before releasing it. He felt the stranger eying him, aware of the slick stones underfoot.

“You fish?” Etzel asked.

“Nah, out hunting bear with a couple friends. Gotta get ‘em when they in full winter fat, lumbering off to find a lair,” he pressed one dense finger against a nostril and blew. Then attended to the other. Etzel broke a worm in half, threaded it onto the hook, then cast.

“You ever hunt bear?” the stranger asked.

“No,” said Etzel.

“Got a gun on you?”

Etzel stopped jigging and stared where the line slit stream, his toes and shins numb. His brain felt cold too.

“Yeah,” Etzel said, “Remington 30.”

“Mauser design, yup, good solid rifle,” the stranger agreed with his choice.

Etzel jigged again, calming his mind. Opening himself to another stranger, “What’re you using on bear?”

“Marlin 336,” he held out his arms with the new rifle. The wooden stock gleamed.

“What round is that?” asked Etzel.

“.45 government.”  The stranger spit out a line of brown. “Want to then?”

“Want to, what?”

“Hunt bear?” asked the stranger.

From experience, Etzel knew yes was the ticket inside most curious places. He had learned from the camps, never say nichts. ‘Nichts’ got a man nothing. He didn’t ponder. He was being welcomed to the Northwoods.

“Sure.”

“Good. You know that old roadhouse, called Top Hat? I’ll meet you there and give you directions. I’d shake your hand and say my name’s Randy, but then you’re in that damn, cold water and I’m on this here bank. See you ‘bout nine tonight.”

“Sure. Name’s Etzel.”

“Yeah, I thought you were a kraut,” Randy laughed and turned back into the woods.

Etzel didn’t know the bar, but felt he could find it. He had that knack. Either way he hunted or didn’t hunt bear; it was all the same to him.

After a fish dinner over his campfire, Etzel met Randy at a wreck of a bar, which was hard to miss. Dirt floors. Peanut shells cracked with every step. More people without front teeth than with ‘em type a bar. Bear hunting would be a snap compared to surviving this place.

He bellied up to the bar and ordered a Leinie’s. The bar back tried small talk: how it was a sad year what with Babe Ruth dying. But a thick stink grabbed Etzel before a thicker arm and hand.

“I knew you’d come, Kraut. Meet Screwy Louie.”

Randy swung him around to meet the lean face of his friend.

“Hey, Etzel.”

Ja?” Louie grinned meanly. One eye froze while the other tracked around Etzel’s face.

Louie caught him struggling with his fixed eye, “Doc said they run out a green, so I’m a rainbow, right?”

Tapping the eye with his dirty nail, he laughed, “Little glass fixture. Cost me more than my truck even without the right color. But I know how women are and I ain’t havin’ a pink, wet hole in my face. Course could use that somewhere else, huh?”

His laugh was sour and he elbowed Etzel to follow him, which Etzel did. Warum nicht? These characters welcomed him more than scrubbed and rubbed down goodies back on the farm.

“Shot much?” Etzel asked.

“I can shoot at anything. Bear’s only thing big enough for me to hit.”

“Louie couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn after that ole stick in his eye. But he’s been working with me and Deborah. Sometimes he gets the target,” Randy slugged his drink.

“Oh, I can hit things that matter.”

Louie’s arm went out to illustrate his joke and Etzel quickly avoided the jab. He pretended he had the urge to stand and drink.

“Ahh here’s my Deborah,” Randy slid his arm around a shit brickhouse of woman.

“Deb,” she grabbed Etzel’s hand and crushed a bit before positing her weight on the stool beside him. Randy was on her massaging her neck and arms.

If Etzel were alone, he’d have mistaken Deb for a man. Except just then she pulled off her hat and red, silk poured down her back. He’d never seen such hair. Randy twisted it round his hands like a bloody snake swallowing him whole. Etzel understood, might have fought to get his own hands inside.

“Never seen that color of hair,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s from my grammie, but sure as hell didn’t get her body. This is all Daddy’s,” she squeezed her hips, laughing.

“Oh yes it is Daddy’s,” said Randy and grabbed more of her.

“So how’s a kraut like you end up here without getting shot?” she asked.

“Well that’s my own secret,” Etzel sipped, “But I like to say a pick-up truck full of pickled pigs’ feet and an old, Norwegian lady gave me America.”

“Don’t hurt none to have a rifle, eh?” Louie laughed, but they ignored him.

“Norske, huh. Can you tell I got Berserker in my blood?” asked Deb as she sipped her drink.

“Should a’ been named Lena,” said Randy.

“And you’d be my Ole,” she giggled into her drink and Randy had his hands on her again. Etzel sat on his stool and tried to look busy with his beer. Louie leered at his other side.

“He can’t be an Ole. He’s too much a randy ole goat,” said Louie. He punched Etzel’s arm, so he coughed on his beer.

After Louie ordered whiskeys, the night got fuzzy.

Sicker than a dying bear the next morning, Etzel knew tracking plans had been discussed, but he couldn’t remember details. He lay for what seemed like a long while. As he watched the frosted ceiling, he just saw that red hair and staring glass eye. And oh his eyeballs ached with receding booze. He wasn’t sure how he’d reached his tent or managed to squeeze inside his bag. He saw flicks of that woman and her man removing his boots, stuffing him inside. He checked for his wallet and found a note inside with directions scrawled in a looser version of his writing.

The black sky opened to red and blue when he unzipped the tent. Etzel wished he’d overslept, gagging at being upright. He paused a moment to swallow bile, then staggered to the stream. His face and hands seized in the frigid water, but it helped his thinking. He wiped his neck and face again.  Then drank. Food made him heave. He grabbed his pack, his gun and Bowie knife, hoofing it with his directions.

Randy, Deb, and Louie sat on stumps, guns on their knees—waiting for Etzel. Deb handed him black coffee. He gulped it down. Caffeine cleared the dogs from his eyes. Then they smeared his coat with musk. The smell nearly laid him on the ground.

“Thought Krauts could hold their booze,” Deb scratched out, her hair braided down her big back.

“Guess Berserkers have their morning,” Etzel spit to avoid puking.

Deb offered him a fill up. Etzel swallowed the hot liquid, hoping it would soothe his stomach.

“I’m with you,” said Louie. He paused like he might add a joke but couldn’t bring it out. Too hungover.

“See Deb, this is why I love ya,” said Randy, “you drink like me.”

Randy directed the hunters to their spots after showing Etzel the claw marks on trees, “Big fella been coming through. Keep your eyes open, Kraut.” Etzel looked up to where the grooves ran through the balsam bark. If he weren’t so woozy, he’d have run his thumb over the wide-spread trails, and imagined the paws. He’d always liked the tracking part of hunting or fishing. Looking for the creatures that left traces of their life. But this was different than deer hunting, the scoured trees purposeful, not furtive. The animal big, powerful, bright. His brain felt like it was in the middle of a c-clamp. Someone kept screwing it and screwing it tighter.

“’Bout eight feet, I’d say,” said Randy.

No dogs. ‘Ruined the sport,’ said Deb. And Etzel was glad of that. Even hungover, he was sufficiently beissamen to know he didn’t want a pile of dog guts or a mauled bear.

They split off in different directions. As he crouched under balsam fir branches, Etzel worried he might shoot one of them instead of a bear. Or One-eyed Louie might shoot him. He hid and wondered if this was an elaborate game to kill the Deutscher. They could leave his body in these woods. No one would care except his mother in Oldendorf. She wouldn’t know. Maybe the old Norske lady he worked for would send out a notice when he didn’t return to milk her cows. The people kept hidden. So did the bears.

About an hour in, he was asleep. He kept at least two of Randy’s instructions: stay quiet and downwind. While he slept, a dainty lady bear tip toed below, snuffed where there must have been bait earlier, and then waltzed out. He woke and adjusted the binoculars just as she scratched a tree on her way out. He wouldn’t shoot such a small sow. Not worth the work of skinning. No shots followed her as she walked through the other’s line of fire. The others must have felt the same. Let her make more if she wasn’t already pregnant.

Etzel dozed again, dreamt of his life back in Germany before the war. He wrote a letter in his head to his little brother, an apology for stranding him. When he had escaped, he knew they might not see one another again. It was something he swallowed. Now he felt the guilt. It would stay with him until he died.

He startled awake. A big son-of-a-gun, ein Ungeheuer. Without thought, he lifted his rifle. The old beast of a black bear shone brown in the sun—looked half-grizzly. He shot without squaring up—missed. Another shot. Another miss. He mumbled, “Scheisse.” Not shocked by his aim, but the fact he shot at a bear bigger than any man. Brain and fingers trembled. Lucky he didn’t maim the huge creature. It took several breaths for the world to settle and Etzel within it.

Crack. A shot fired from Louie. Etzel was sure of it since the bear loped in Louie’s direction. A bellow like a man’s voice, but lower and massive enough to loose the tree under his hands. And now quiet, except for cracking brush. Another gunshot, then a scream. It took Etzel a moment to realize it was human, not the bear. Randy. He was sure. The next in line. He would not let his mind slide back to Germany, his mother and brother who he had left to another bear.

He followed the shrieks, through the cracked branches of pine and maple. Snagged fur, puddled blood. Rifle in front. He’d shot moving targets before. He could do it. He could, he muttered, though his muscles shouted no, stop here, hide. Screwy Louie nowhere near his post.

Etzel tracked the tufts, the dark pools, fresh scat. Then an opening in the woods. A meadow. He froze on the periphery.

Before him: the bear reared up like a man. Back muscles bulged beneath fur. Paws larger than a man’s head. He realized a man was behind the bear, hardly visible. Fighting it off with a knife. Knife versus claws and teeth. Etzel wanted to shoot, but he couldn’t find an angle. He remembered to look for the vital organs. Aim for the middle of the chest. Hit the lungs, heart, or kidney. Randy’s head was too close to the furred body. Randy had said: don’t track an injured bear unless it’s mortally injured. Nothing more dangerous than an injured bear. Louie must have miscalculated his shot.

Bear and man, danced. They grunted and howled at one another with a slow-time one-step, two-step. A blow from a knife. A blow from a paw. A roar. Nothing but the two. Louie finally beside Etzel, took aim. No one spoke. Etzel wondered why he and Louie weren’t fighting with their knives, honed blades. Etzel aimed. Again he couldn’t find a spot. He scoped and breathed as shallow as possible, but the gun moved on each exhale.

And then Deb blew in, a red scream of force and love. Bowie blade in paw. A bear of a woman.  What a woman. She stabbed between the bear’s ribs, pulled free as it reared away. She leapt from the great paws, which fumbled as they flung out toward her. She stabbed again and again. Randy thrust from the other side. The bear howled. Perhaps it was Randy, Etzel unsure anymore. Deb in the mix with her blowing red hair. Prancing back and back with the knife. The bear stumbling now. Then a blast and crack, more metal inside the furred body.

“I think I got ‘im,” Louie said.

Gott,” Etzel said.

“I hope I got ‘im,” Louie said as the bear fell. Randy fell back, and Deb fell to her knees beside him.

“Lucky you didn’t take off her head,” Etzel said.

“I know,” Louie said. Then he vomited and spat. Wiped his mouth.

“Must be a god after all,” Louie said.

But Etzel wasn’t so sure. Randy was red as Deb’s hair. Her hands covered in bear blood. Louie strode over to the downed bear and shot and shot and shot again. The hide a mess. Blasts reverberated in his brain.

When Etzel told this story to his granddaughter, he couldn’t remember if Randy survived. He couldn’t remember if he left after Louie’s rounds. Couldn’t remember the Berserker Deb wrapping Randy in her hair or was it her shirt. Ill is what he remembered. Hatred is what he remembered. He couldn’t remember the extent of Randy’s wounds though he could still see the gaping, clawed flesh. The woman deftly hiding them.

Fishing is what he taught his granddaughter even though he couldn’t speak with her mother, her grandmother. Never good with women.

He said, “Now this is trouty water. Look at the structure in that hole. Cast there.” And she did.

Etzel would never hunt bear again—too much like hunting man.

Elise Gregory's poems have appeared in Stoneboat, Rock & Sling, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Cider Press Review, Women Art's Quarterly, Mom Egg Review and elsewhere. Her second chapbook was released this spring from Dancing Girl Press. All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood, which she co-edited and compiled, was published by Sage Hill Press in Spring 2016: www.allwecanhold.com