At the dinner table on the porch, wasps are swarming around our food. Mom cuts a small piece of pork chop and puts it on the table near her plate. The wasps immediately mob it and Mom starts whacking them with a fly swatter, squashing their bodies and flicking them off the table. The unsettling sound makes us all jump each time.
Dad starts to talk about bears and what to do during bear attacks. I throw in what little knowledge I have about the subject, gleaned solely from the Internet and various offhand comments made by my hillbilly cousins over the years. Mom puts in her two-cents’ worth. Mary-Jo remains silent while we talk, with a sphinx-like half-smile on her face. She has spent her entire life here in the mountains of Northern California. In the 1970s and 80s she worked as a forest ranger, and now she, her husband and five sons make a living by taking hunters deep into the Marble Mountain wilderness with mule trains. She doesn’t tell us if we’re right or wrong, just listens silently with her sly smile.
Mom and Dad describe the “troublesome bear” in town which Sam, who lives in a tall wooden house across from the post office, shot last summer. My opinion of Sam immediately falls a notch or two after hearing this. Then Mom tells us about her “spiritual experience” with a bear last summer, which she assumes was the “yearling” of the female bear Sam shot. Last summer Mom was sleeping on the porch and heard a rustling in the nearby bushes, so she sat up and looked, and there was a young bear standing there gazing at her in the moonlight. They stared at each other for a long time. Mom says she got shivers because the bear was looking at her so peacefully. She whispered to the bear: “I’m so sorry about your mom” (the bear shot by Sam). The baby bear quietly turned away and went back into the wild tangle of blackberry brambles, wild plum trees and chicory below our house.
Mary-Jo finally says something. “Only you would do that, Casey.”
“I would too,” I remark defiantly.
Then Dad says, “That was surely the bear trapped soon afterwards by Albert.”
“What happened?” I ask.
Dad describes how Albert, who lives in an old wooden shack down the road from our house, had a bear rummaging through his garbage every night, so he put a bear trap out for it. But his big, white, fluffy, stupid dog got trapped in it again and again. Then finally one morning Albert went to the trap and there was the bear. Albert wanted to shoot it but didn’t, since he was afraid the bullet would ricochet back at him from the cage’s wires. At least that’s what he told Dad. Then Albert said to Dad, “Wanna see the gun I was goin’ to shoot the bear with?” And Albert showed him an absurdly huge gun. Dad shows us with his hands far apart: it was extremely long and heavy, with massive cartridges, normal cartridges are like this (he shows us with his hands) but Albert’s were like this (he moves his hands wide apart), a gun absurdly huge to be keeping at home.
Albert showed my dad this weapon ostensibly to make it clear what he’d been planning to do with the bear; he was stopped, he claimed, only by the fear that the bullet would get him, too, by bouncing off the cage. That fear led him to call the bear-catcher, a Native American from the Fisheries and Game Department, who came with a huge cage.
“Do you remember seeing the bear in that cage down in front of the post office?” Dad asks, turning to my mom. Mom does, in fact, remember it. The bear had looked terrible in that cage. It had defecated, it was standing in its own feces, it was filthy, it was throwing itself at the bars, ripping its paws to shreds, bleeding all over the place.
“It was certainly the baby of the mother bear Sam shot – the one that stared at me in the moonlight,” Mom adds. She went up to the bear-catcher who was standing next to the cage that day down in the center of town, in front of the post office, and said, “So, are you going to release that bear, or is it a stew-pot bear?”
The man looked at her suspiciously, perhaps wondering if she was some kind of environmentalist-hippie, so she added conspiratorially, “Don’t worry, you can tell me, I can take the truth, I used to make bear stews myself.”
The man laconically drawled, “Stew-pot.”
My heart begins to ache thinking of the young orphaned bear standing in the moonlight, and his eventual fate, and the fates of all the bears around here, when Mary-Jo remarks sharply: “You gotta shoot those bears when they get troublesome on your land.”
I say, “It’s the bears’ land too.”
Mary-Jo gives me a long, hard stare. Then she takes a sip from her frosted beer mug. The wooden table shudders again beneath Mom’s wasp swatter.
Scotia Gilroy is a writer and translator from Vancouver, Canada. She has been living in Kraków, Poland, for over a decade, where she works for numerous publishing houses and cultural institutions as a translator of Polish literature. Her work has been published by Asymptote, B O D Y Literary Journal, Widma, Tablet, Panel Magazine, Reflex Fiction, Comma Press and Indiana University Press. She divides her time between Europe and the off-grid wilderness of Northern California.