It had been neither man nor bear’s intention to meet in the way they did – each taken entirely by surprise, each stripped of things neither was prepared to return to the harsh and lonely landscape upon which they’d fought so long to survive. They became one in this way, in their mutual grief, briefly.
It happened during the first few days of the early thaw that spread across the craggy mountainside in the way that a hand moves across the face of its beloved, transforming what had once been impenetrable and steely into something that offered to soften into itself once more, tentatively at first, and then with all the rushing force of a home-bound river. It was why the man and his dog had come here to the waterfall pools, because the water had at last reawakened from its icy pause and because the fish had too.
The man, as he almost always did, had been imagining the woman. She was always with him in this way. She was in the long, dark flickering shadows cast upon the rough cabin walls by an evening flame; she was in the cold, bright glittering reflections projected onto virgin snow by the morning sun. It had been three years since he had last seen her in the flesh, golden and radiant and flaunting a smile like daybreak, three years since her letter had been hastened into his wide-opened hands, sending him up the mountain in watchful wait.
“One week,” it had read. “I end my engagement in one week. Wait for me,” it had said.
And so he had waited. It went unnoticed when he had gathered his few belongings from the sour-smelling cave that was his drunken uncle’s house, extracting from under the loose floorboard in the spare bedroom the last of his savings from a summer spent working on the neighboring farms in the village. And it went unnoticed when he spent a quarter of those savings on a month’s worth of provisions and supplies that would carry him and his runaway-lover through the mountain pass and down to the next village over, and then the next, and the next, until they reached what they had only ever heard described in stories and never seen for themselves: the sea.
The man, still a boy yet, had known exactly the spot where he was to meet her in one week’s time. They had already worn a footpath to it, the two of them, up through the swaying wild wheatgrasses, across the humming sage-brush fields into the cool red spruce forest, and all the way over to the largest pine tree on that side of creation. It was under that pine that they had made a habit of confessing themselves in unrestrained youthful fervor, cursing and aching over the bitterness of lives that had seemed set against their fateful union, and filling themselves with the glittering dreams of a world far beyond the rigid constraints of the gray and cautious village. They had become one in this way, in their mutual hope.
But born into a respectable family of privilege, it had been arranged for the young beauty to marry a similarly well-off gentleman who, with his politically-oriented mind and reputably stable demeanor, offered much for her parents to cast faith in – never mind that he was notoriously far too slow to smile and took little pleasure in the frivolity of mountainside rambles. The object of her heart’s true adoration had arrived only a few years prior, clad in nothing but filthily charred rags, desperate and wild-eyed, having come to stay with his only living relative, his uncle, after the chimney fire had cornered and swallowed the last of those he called family. She had observed him from afar the day he wandered into town alone, bewildered and stumbling, and had wanted to believe that she had recognized something of herself in his expression.
The man remembered his first day in town as if the sun had still not yet set on it. He remembered the way she had first looked upon him with that unwavering stare, laden with curiosity and pity and something else he could not quite name, something akin to a plea. And when his uncle (if only to expel him from the house) had forced him to attend the village’s only school, a musty one-room classroom, she gravitated toward him the way that canyon rivers gravitate toward the ocean – naturally and without question. She had claimed him in this way, and he, having lost everything to the flames, was more than grateful to be claimed. In this way, as the pair grew older, they were not only raised by the elders and the teachers and the pines of the village, but also by each other.
“I feel like a songbird imprisoned within a steel-wire cage,” she’d confided in him one late summer day under the great pine. “Except when I’m with you,” she had added, her eyes, wistful and searching, rising to meet his, her smile, both shattering and mending, offering to him a sense of belonging he now only ever felt in her presence. He had kissed her then, for hours on hours, until the looming clouds, dark and restless overhead, drove them back to the village where, now that their schooling had reached an end, their lives were largely spent apart.
And so the young man, ardently devoted to their mutual cause to flee the stifling village and restart their lives, had solidified the plan to commence their seaward journey. When he finally received her secret letter of acceptance, that long-awaited announcement of her decision to disappoint both her parents and fiancé for the sake of unassailable love, his heart had swelled with childlike giddiness and anticipation. But she never arrived to their spot under the pine tree on that craggy mountainside, not on the seventh day like her letter had promised, and not on the eighth, nor the ninth.
The man, camped beneath the sheltering pine, paced to and fro in anxious misery, sure that she had not forgotten him – convinced that only tragedy would have prevented her from arriving on time. It was this lingering fear piercing his abdomen that drove him back down the mountain in what would be his final descent to the village. He did not see her there, but he heard the rumors carried through the whispers of the townspeople whose spirits were roused at the passive activity of having something new to speculate on, to form firm opinions about, and to relay to their spouses with sickly delight. Marriage, the murmurs had said, she had suddenly hastened her marriage to the gentleman. No one knew why, but they each had their theories: she had needed his money straight away, or she was carrying his child, or the most wounding of them all, she must be madly in love.
It was enough to bring the man in to his knees in the town square in a dusty cloud of wretched disappointment. He felt as though he were the center of some great misunderstanding in which his first mistake had been placing his trust in a woman who he had thought to be compassionate and true. The red hot spear of betrayal ripped through the skin of his chest; the scalding anger seeped into his pulse, sunk to his fingertips in a shaky disbelief, and flooded his throat with a choking despair. He hadn’t the will to remain in the village, yet he also could not imagine travelling seaward without her. In this way, he was caught between two worlds that, in an instant, had each become desolate and meaningless.
But he also knew he could not survive the wilderness alone. And so, in his strange stupor, he dragged his feet to the house of the man who bred and sold English Pointers, spent the last of his meager savings on the pup with the brownest and longest ears, and stumbled back up mountainside with the stunned dog cradled in his lead-heavy arms. Despite the murmurs of the townspeople and despite the fresh seeds of mistrust that had been planted within him, threatening to crack through the foundation of everything that he thought himself to be, all he heard was her voice on the breeze whispering, wait for me, wait for me.
And so he retreated to the spot that she had been destined to meet him, directly under the largest pine tree on that side of creation. After the passing of several more weeks, using what few tools he’d brought from the village and the scattered logs he’d found throughout the forest, he was able to construct for himself and his dog a small rugged cabin beneath the tree.
As the man labored over logs narrow enough to manage on his own, the puppy learned to chase what ran out from under them – mice, snakes, chipmunks, and once, a young fox. Weeks passed before the pup ever caught his first prey – a slower than average field mouse – but when he did, he paraded it around the camp and the sweat-drenched man while it screeched unharmed from his jaws. And when the man patted his brown head in praise and the dog dropped the still-live mouse from the distraction, the mouse ran and the dog did not pursue it again, but instead pawed at his master’s hands in hopes of more head-pats.
The man never heard from the woman in those three years. Though he had been taken by surprise once, early on, when he thought he saw the woman stumbling toward the cabin in the early morning fog, only for his spirits to be swiped away when the shrouded figure slowly took the shape of his uncle.
“I tho’ I’d find you up here boy,” his uncle belched, scratching his coarse matted hair as he leaned back to examine the makeshift cabin, his feet working with diligence to steady his swollen body as it swayed to and fro over the rocks. He reeked of sour milk and cheap whiskey. The pup barked. “Heard some boy was up here.” His body lurched forward before catching itself. “The fuck do you think you’re doing?”
The man did not answer.
“You think you’ll survive a winter up here, boy?” he waved his hands, gesturing to the wide expanse. “You think your little girlfriend is coming for you?” His voice rose. “Don’t think I don’t know about her. Thought you could keep secrets in a town like this?” He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “But hear this boy, and hear it now. She ain’t coming for you, not now and not ever. Want to know why she married that highfalutin dandy? Well seems she never loved you much after all, seeing as now she’s fat an’ happy with all his money and his child!”
The man could not speak.
“Well. Have it your way then,” his uncle said, taking his nephew’s silence for stubbornness. “Cain’t say I never tried to help you.” He shrugged and started toward the trail that would lead him teetering back to the village and down into the pubs. “Just come down ‘fore you starve to death boy, fool way to die.”
“Why did you come?” the man shouted at his uncle’s back when he was almost out sight.
“Your mother would have hated me if I didn’t!” He yelled back. Then, as if at his own private joke, he guffawed into the morning air until, just as quickly as it started, his laughter was seized by a coughing fit.
The young man frozen as his uncle’s slurred words began to settle around him like dust. Had he been only a muse to her? He remembered the way she would read to him for entire afternoons under the great pine tree, his head resting upon her lap as her singsong voice gave life to the glorious adventures of sailors, fishermen, and pirates, all the while the mountain wheatgrasses swaying around them.
He remembered the hitch in her voice as she read aloud her favorite story, the one with the woman in the lighthouse and her husband-sailor lost out at sea. He thought of the way she would always look up at the end and sigh softly to herself. “Doesn’t it sound so enticing, the ocean? Wouldn’t you very much like to go?” She would look down into his eyes, which only ever saw hers, and wait for the answer she knew would come.
“Only with you,” he would say. She would break into a smile then, running her slender fingers through his dark hair and tucking the long strands behind his ears. He would then close his eyes as she weaved the story of their lives together into the spaces beyond their reach.
“And we’ll live in the lighthouse together, won’t we? No one lost at sea. Just us, but with different names, safe and free from it all . . .”
No, there had to be more to it, the man thought to himself.
There were no more visitors from the village after that. The man survived the lonely mountainside with no one else but his long-eared dog, who, now fully grown and trotting alongside him in contented companionship, had been a worthwhile investment.
There had been others who had prolonged his life in his dealings with the uncompromising wilderness, like the weathered old ramblers who traveled through with enough ammunition to trade for furs, or the long-haired natives who had taken pity on him that first winter and gifted him a lifesaving bear-skin coat. And of course there were the fallen spruces of the dark forest that allowed him to fill the cabin’s fireplace and warm it with a flame just generous enough to return the life to his aching bones and transform his days’ kills into humble meals. And when sometimes in those flames he imagined the smoke-filled faces of his family drowning in fire, his dog would lift his curious brows, trot across the space from his pine needle bed, nestle his wet snout in the open hands of the man, and catch the tears that fell into them.
The mountain certainly would have claimed the man years ago, whether it had been by the jaws of the wild-eyed coyotes, the atrophy of his starving insides, or the bullet of his own musket rifle, had it not been for that faithful dog. It was the dog who truly sustained the man, who would press his warm bony body up against his master’s in the chill of the night, promptly greet him with urgent brown eyes at the break of dawn, and heartily exchange with him throughout the day those toothy grins of understanding. “Any day now,” the man would say as they emerged from the cabin each morning together, each rising to the thrills and the threats of survival, and hunting, all day long, for their very lives.
It was why the encounter with the bear had been so dreadful.
The man and his dog, having caught the first few small fish of the season, had been prepared to retire from the day in companionable peace – all set to return to the log cabin in which they would share their hot fish dinner over the crackling flame that held their lives together. As the man struggled over his tattered fishing net, the dog would splash his nose in and out of the water as if he were a young cub learning how to fish for the first time. He would paw the water, tilt his head, curl his upper lip, snap his jaws at the silhouettes, and then wag his tail like a shrug every time he missed. With a watery snort, he’d cast his admiring eyes to the man to see if he’d been watching – it was enough to inspire the man to smile. The man and his dog had become one in this way, in their mutual affection.
However, they could not have known that a mother bear and her two brown cubs were, just as man and dog were descending from the pools, now lumbering up to the very same waterfalls to fish for their own evening meals. There was no time to prepare for such thundering collision of those primitive entities: both man and the bear had rounded around the same rocky outcropping at the very same moment, each briefly frozen in space, eyes locked in sharp in sudden awareness; each faced with an immediate decision, and while one was faster to his musket rifle, he was not fast enough.
Neither man, nor bear, nor dog could have known that there was also a woman and her three-year-old child on the mountain that day, far below, trudging hand-in-hand through the humming sage-brush toward the great pine, who together heard the explosive encounter unfold somewhere far above the trail they walked.
It was not the first time that the mother had started up the hillside, though she had never quite reached the pine before eventually turning back, unable to confront what may or may not be awaiting her there. She could not have borne it, were he still waiting. Yet she could not have borne it, were he not.
The first time was just weeks after she had intended to join the man in their furtive escape, when the echoes of the traders still drifted through the town about a cabin and a young man who inhabited it. But by then, she had already made her decision to commit to the security of the gentleman, and her belly, now beginning to swell from deep within her, would have betrayed her. How could she have explained to him what she herself had only just begun to understand, the lengths a mother will go to protect her young from the wild and the unknown?
And so that day was like any other spring day, when she would ascend the mountain in half-earnest, only to turn back again when the doubts would cloud her vision like fog and drive her back to the assured warmth of her shared home with her husband. But unlike the other days, she would later wish that she had never brought the child with her, who would now be haunted with nightmares of the roaring wilderness for years to come.
Eyes wide with terror, mother and child heard the raspy throats of the startled ravens morph into the manic screams of a wild and desperate man, his shouts ricocheting off the rocky crags in a blood-curdling echo; they heard the guttural and primal snarl of some feral and enraged mountain-beast unleashing its fury, heard the frantic and shrieking barks of a too-loyal dog suddenly cease in a sickening half-howl, and heard, finally, the thunderous explosion of the musket rifle preceding the haunting, billowing stillness.
The woman, struck with horror and panicked for their lives, snatched into her arms the child who had begun to scream through choking and bursting sobs, and barreled back down the mountain to the village from which she’d risen. She cursed herself madly for her own cowardice, knowing that her strength would never be enough to rise to the call that she knew would always pierce her dampened heart yet ever remain just out of reach.
When the man returned to his cabin that evening, burdened with tear and blood-stained features and the stunned acceptance that he was more alone than he’d ever been, he began to pack what few belongings he owned into a knapsack, dully recommitting to a seaward journey he’d long since paused for a woman who he knew, in his heart, was long since gone.
His knuckles were red-raw from where they’d scraped against the half-frozen soil when he’d dug out a depression of earth just large enough to settle his dog’s limp and mangled body within. There he patted the dog’s still-warm haunches one last time, snuggled his face into the smooth part of his chest where the blood had not yet spread, and wailed into his hands until darkness settled in around him.
Neither man nor bear had intended to meet in such a way.
It’s the reason why, as the man came upon the letter which had never left his bedside nor memory since it had entered his wide-opened hands, he crumpled it and threw it into the fireplace to be consumed by the last flame he would ever light on that mountainside. It’s the reason why, as if in offering of itself, a long-eared dog no longer graced the now-abandoned cabin, whose callused paws once left muddy prints on its cool earthen floor rather than bloody tracks on the wild and thrashing jaw of a threatened bear. And it’s the reason why, for months, two young cubs roamed these hills alone, searching for something they could no longer assign a face to, until they too were claimed by something faceless and roaming.
Biographical Note: Carolyn Hogg is a third-year Creative Writing student at Penn State Behrend in Erie, Pennsylvania. Having taken a break from college to both travel and reassess her life’s direction, she has recently returned home to Pennsylvania where she is learning what it means to be a writer. Carolyn intends to earn her bachelor’s degree, attend grad school, and one day, reassume her travels.