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October 10, 2019 Nonfiction


Marlene Olin

Bears photo

This is our twenty-seventh summer in Jackson Hole. Our cabin’s ringed by pine and fir trees, wild grasses and columbine. In the distance, the Tetons launch straight up--punching a hole in the sky. 

Our life out west is everything our life back home isn’t.  While it’s hot and humid in Miami, here in Wyoming we snuggle in sweaters. In Miami, we live in a gated community. Here, the locals keep their doors unlocked. People keep their keys in their cars.

If life were fair, we’d revel in the respite. Enjoy the weather! Smell the air! But like a tattered suitcase, our troubles follow us. New problems surface. Old worries stick. A vacation, after all, is just geography.

Last week two bears paid us a visit. Our home is built into the mountainside, the layers tiered like a cake. I’m writing at my desk on the top floor while my daughter is two floors down. Rachel’s thirty-nine and on the autism spectrum. Since her cellphone works in Miami, she assumes that that it also works here. So instead of yelling, instead of running up the stairs, she calls me. Her voice sputters in starts and stops.

You should come here, she says. Quick.

But only every other word breaks through. What? I say. What?

There’s a bear, a cute little bear. I think he’s hungry. He’s reaching for the door knob, Mom. I think he wants to come in.

I make my way down the staircase phone in hand. The reception is dying in and out, her voice fading, the words ballooning. Bear. Hungry. Please. Please. Please.

First, I look in the TV room. But even though the picture’s on, the room’s empty. Now I’m walking from room to room, my heart flip-flopping in my chest, searching the dining room, the kitchen. And then I see it. The living room has floor-to-ceiling windows, the picture-perfect view. A meadow of lupine. A grove of aspens.  And waddling in our stream, around thirty yards away, is a brown sow the size of a car.

Don’t move, I shout to the phone, to the walls, to the stratosphere! Don’t move!

Now I’m traveling down down down, taking the stairs two at a time, following the sound of a dog’s growl. And when I finally get to the ground floor, I find my daughter and her yellow lab nose to nose with a pair of glass doors. On the other side of the glass is a small brown bear. A pretty smart bear. A bear trying to figure out the door handle.

He’s looking for food, Mom. Sob. Sob. He really wants food.

If life were fair, I’d carry all the answers in my pocket. And when a crisis came, one by one I’d pull them out. Rachel, the family nature lover, is weeping. She’s an autism success story. A college graduate. A competent employee. But she’s sensitive to a fault.  If there’s a bug inside the house, she’ll carry it outside. A bouquet of cut flowers is like a death. 

It’s easy to see why she’s upset. This bear’s not much bigger than the dog. And boy does he look hungry. This is not a roly poly kind of bear. This bear is not Corduroy. Or Winnie. Or Paddington. When he stands up to bang on the door, he looks thin and rangy. He’s like a five-year-old in a fur suit. 

In a flash, my maternal instincts kick in. I speak softly, slowly, calmly. I tell Rachel that the animal’s not alone. That Mama’s right around the corner. And on no uncertain terms is she to open up the door. 

Meanwhile I’m clutching the cellphone. It’s our modern-day version of a lifeline, our go-to in a hitch. But since I’m in the middle of the fricking forest, I still don’t have a signal. Not one lousy bar. In order to get a signal, I need to walk upstairs, open the front door, and proceed uphill around twenty feet.

Is this Game and Fish? 

Meanwhile Mama Bear is splashing in the stream.

Game and Fish? We’ve got two bears here.  I spit out the address and give the man my name. Then he asks me a series of questions. No, I haven’t fed them. Yes, my garbage is inside. By the time we finish our conversation, the bears are ambling away, the baby skip-hopping, the Mama bear waddling as she walks.

If life were fair, there’d be a happy ending to this story. Instead we’re both tortured and exhilarated. The days slog by. Every time we hear a leaf rustle or a branch break, we glance outside. We are hoping against hope that our two friends return. But then what would we do?

If life were fair, the episode would be tucked into our memory banks, filed under Exciting Experiences, and promptly forgotten. But it’s the things that stay unresolved that loop in your head, the what-ifs, the maybes, the should-have-beens.

We read the local paper. A big, big mistake. Since there’s not much crime in Jackson Hole, animal confrontations make the news. Each headline is worse than the next. Fed Bear Put Down. Bruin Shot in Standoff. Sow Leaves Orphan Cub. Though the authorities try to relocate, the damage is usually done. Bears addicted to people food lose their natural fears.

My finger quickly traces the words from one paragraph to the next. Around thirty miles away, a bear climbed on top of a picnic table while a stunned family skedaddled.  A sow was found walking the highway near a popular resort. 

If life were fair, the bears would be unharmed. Instead we would punish the careless people who fed them. Or left them scraps. Or refused to use bearproof bins.

So Rachel and I wait. And while we wait we plant. Blackberries. Huckleberries. Raspberries. A veritable ursine smorgasbord. Who knows if the bears will ever return?  If life were fair, they will. 

image: Aaron Burch