by Sherry Simpson
I saw the bear first. I turned from the ocean’s calm edge toward the dusky blue of Reid Glacier, and there it was, striding over the spit in the honeyed evening light, stiff green stalks of beach rye parting against its flanks. The bear was coming toward us. It was looking at us.
“There’s a bear,” I said. My voice was low. My husband was standing by the kayak and turned around to look. I did not know what else to say.
The bear kept coming. It was not so large as brown bears go, but it was large enough. Its amber pelt shaded into dark chocolate on its face and legs. Its head was low and its eyes small and intent, shining against the light. The bear was looking at us. To have a bear look at you and yet continue walking toward you means life is quite different from what you imagined.
“Hey bear,” I called, raising my arms and waving. This is what you do at these times. Let the bear know you are there. Pretend to be larger than you are. Give the bear a chance to move away once it recognizes your presence. Speak in friendly but firm tones. “Hey bear, what’s going on?” I said in a friendly way, and then I added, firmly, “We don’t want any trouble.”
The bear did not pause. It walked deliberately in its pigeon-toed way across the cobbles, and now it was close enough that its intentions seemed to surge before it like a wave. Without meaning to, I stepped backward into the water. Cold seeped through my rubber boots. A person is not supposed to run away from bears. Anyway, there was
nowhere to run, unless we skittered along the shore, crying out to the sky like sanderlings or oystercatchers.
Once that summer I went home to Fairbanks, after solstice, when the pendulum of the sun swings lower in the sky. Grass raged in the dim yard, and wild roses and fireweed pressed close to the cabin. I could not tell what he had been doing while I had been away walking uninhabited shores, and floating rivers as wide as prairies, and sleeping beside unnamed mountains. One night in bed, thinking of all I’d been learning without him, I said, You’re a speed bump in my life. It may have been the cruelest thing I’ve ever said. He looked at me and said, I love you with all of my heart. Why isn’t that enough? I couldn’t say, but I knew the failure was in me, in wanting to make him something he was not and never would be.
Twenty feet away, the bear stopped and turned sideways to show us how big it was. It yawned. That glittering eye, sharp and knowing, did not leave us. Only a few times in your life are you asked to surrender completely to a moment. We could not have been more humble before this bear. Our hands were empty. The ocean was behind us. The bear was before us. Whatever happened next was entirely up to the bear.
It paced back and forth for a few minutes, popping its teeth. We promised that we were just leaving, and when the tone of my voice edged into shrillness, it seemed to become more agitated. I calmed myself, reminded the bear that it was in charge. It shambled up the beach and nudged our gear, sniffed the food, and then kept walking until it reached the brush. It lofted itself onto its hind legs and beat at the alders with its paws, thrashing the leaves, and then it dropped to the ground and ripped at grass with its teeth. I had been afraid to look at its mouth, afraid to imagine it closing around my skull, tearing at my flesh. “You’re beautiful,” I said, in fear and gratitude, and I sang. I sang “Amazing Grace,” just the first verse because that’s all I know, and I sang it again louder as we crept around the beach and gathered our belongings so we could leave, so we could float on the water and watch the bear graze along the shoreline and for the first time notice the way it glowed in the fading sun.
I came to know him when he roomed with my high school sweetheart. Our courtship was accidental, secretive, conducted almost entirely by vibrations—albums played meaningfully late at night, e.e. cummings poems left at his bedroom door, the hesitant chords I fingered on the fine guitar he gave me. Only once did we discuss what to do next, by way of tossing a Frisbee back and forth in a meadow. I was 17, he was 19. We did not say we loved each other. We never kissed. I drank five rum and cherry Cokes and broke up with my boyfriend. Within two weeks we’d moved in together. Sometimes, in the nights that followed, the mattress tipped off the bed beneath us, and at breakfast our new roommate asked us if we ever slept. At our wedding five years later, in my parents’ back yard on the Mendenhall River, he sang a song he had written for us. I kept my name, but still we liked to say the words: My husband. My wife.
He has always slept beautifully, easily, lashes dark against his clear skin, lips pressed together sweetly, black beard planing the smooth contours of his face. This distant peacefulness seemed like a rebuke, a way of refusing me, as I lay awake in the tent’s faint light. Over and over I’d said, Weren’t we brave? Wasn’t that amazing? but I wanted him to notice how brave I’d been, how amazing I was, this new me who understood what to do, who did not panic or run away, who knew how to kayak and read charts and sing to bears. Now and then I lifted my head to peer along the beach. I was waiting. The only campsite we could find was a mile from the spit. And in the morning, as he dropped the tent and I stood at tideline soaking in the water’s bright calm, the bear walked out of the brush, looking at us once again, and I could not even feel surprised.
The bear followed him as he moved down the beach toward me, carrying a can of pepper spray. We stood side by side. Again the bear stopped yards away. Again it yawned and drooled and popped its jaws. I picked up a rock. Do bears remember people? After a few minutes, the bear turned up the beach. It walked across our tent, sniffed the kayaks, and then stood and boxed some tree branches before falling to all fours and wandering back into the morning light.
I wasn’t certain I wanted children. He knew he didn’t. He convinced a doctor to give him a vasectomy when he was 21, that’s how sure he was. I went to college and he continued working in music stores. One day, a student in microbiology class brought her newborn girl to school. She held the baby to her bare breast to soothe it, and something in me turned. I did not have the words to explain this feeling. Instead I told him the names of our children, after surgery or adoption or whatever. He nodded because he did not have the words to tell me no.
It’s not necessary to talk about the drinking. Except to say we loved each other despite our silences. To say that now and then we talked about whether there was a problem but sometimes I myself bought him fifths of excellent whiskey. To say how quiet it could be in our house, that golden bottle on the floor between us as he read within his pool of light, and I within mine.
Later you’re afraid, when you think of all the things that can go wrong, when you understand how everything can change in a moment, just like that.
Mostly we thought of ourselves as happy, or at least not unhappy, but sometimes at night I rose from bed and slipped into my clothes and left. Nothing seemed to wake him. He could not sense my absence in his dreams. I drove for hours. I enjoyed weeping as I drove, searching for the saddest AM songs I could find. When I returned, he was always sleeping still. He would wake in the morning and never know I had gone.
Once, when I had been experiencing fainting spells, we sat in a neurologist’s office as the doctor asked him about any weaknesses or lapses he might have noticed. Does she ever get a blank look on her face, stare off into space? the doctor wondered, pencil poised. We looked at each other and burst into laughter. He has spent so much of our marriage calling my name twice, searching for my eyeglasses and keys, quizzing me about where I might have left the car. As for me, I unzip what he has prematurely closed—his briefcases, his suitcases, even my bags and coats and wallets, all the things he cinches tight so nothing dangles or falls out.
The counselor instructed us to list things we loved about each other, and things we didn’t like, and things we’d never said before. She told me she had known plenty of mothers who wondered how happy their lives would be without children. Once she stifled a yawn as I talked. After a few weeks she said, I don’t usually tell people things like this, but I have a good feeling about you two. I think you’ll make it. For years, I thought about her comment the way I read my horoscope each morning: hopefully, doubtfully.
We paddled hard away from the beach, away from that bear. In the bow I turned my head so he could hear me. I wanted to talk about what might have happened if I had been sitting with my back to the bear when it had appeared over the spit, if we had still been in our tent when it emerged from the brush. “It didn’t happen that way,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.” He doesn’t like imagining the worst. At camp, on the gray silt of a glacial outwash, we ate dinner with our backs to the water, scanning the rocky slopes for movement. We did not speak. Growlers and bergy bits rolled in the fjord, and calving ice echoed against the granite cliffs. Cold radiated from the water, the ground, the shadows. There were no trees or brush, so we built a fire from Presto logs we’d wedged into the kayak bow. That basin was a hard place to be, rasped bare by receding ice. There was no place to camp where bears would not be. We knew that before we came.
Married friends divorced. Unmarried friends split up. Reconciliation is what we claimed, over and over, for those twenty-three years gone by. And how proud we were of this, how much we’d relinquished for each other, how much we’d surrendered. After he quit drinking, he took my hands one day and said that if I wanted children, we would somehow make them or find them, and that’s when I could let go of those shadowy babies and look elsewhere for what could bind me to this world. When I asked him to make this trip to Glacier Bay with me, to do this one thing for me, he could not say No, thanks, and I could not say Never mind, this isn’t what I’m asking for anyway.
We fought. Probably I started it. I huddled on a stone by the fire and wept and shouted, and he stood on the other side of the artificial flames and looked at me with fury and bewilderment. We said all the things people say when they have slept together naked every night and awakened together every morning knowing what they know, having forgiven each other over and over and still able to find more that needs forgiving. You always. You never. Why can’t you? Why didn’t you? They scraped us clean, those words, stripped us into weary silence.
Whenever I thought of leaving, I’d remember a winter afternoon when he leaned over the chair in which I sat reading and circled me with his arms. I dropped my book and looked at our hands, mine cupped within his. I love you, he whispered against the back of my neck, and as he spoke, a blue-green vein in my wrist pulsed with all that hot blood moving just beneath the surface, that faithful tide sweeping toward my heart each moment.
Now we knew all the possibilities, and still we could not have expected to stoop from the tent the third morning and see two young brown bears shuffling along the tide line toward us. Part of me wanted to remain silent and see if the bears would pass by. But we moved up the slope and out of their path, and when they drew near we called, “Hey, bears! Do you see us? Here we are!” They rose to their hind legs and peered at us before they dropped and began loping uphill, rumps jogging, glancing over their shoulders now and then as they moved among the boulders. “About time a bear ran away,” he muttered.
I felt kindly toward those bears. They had re-established my faith in what bears are and what we are, and how we all should believe in the plain truth of each other.
In that moment like no other moment between us, I look away from his dark and knowing eyes. It’s too much, what’s he giving me, all those good and painful years behind us, all those years of love and loss to come.
That night and the next we slept without a tent on a rocky knoll. The tide slipped through the gulch, splitting the knobby fist from the mainland and islanding us. We could not see the glacier just beyond, but chill gusts and the crack of avalanching ice swept over us. We built a fire on platters of shale and watched seals swim in the quivering sea below. The sky thinned into indigo. High above, seagulls floated with wingtips grazing stars.
Such a relief to be still and quiet, to lie there open to the world and returned to ourselves. I slept with a hand tucked into his sleeping bag, one palm pressed against that steady warmth. In the morning, we sat and watched the clear light fill the stony basin, grateful that for once there was nothing more to say.
Sometimes we talk about that raw place, quartered by stone, ocean, sky, and ice, where every creature must remain true to its own essential nature to survive. Once I told him that for a frightening time, I did not love him. I’ve never stopped loving you, is all he said. Perhaps I had forgotten what endures. Ice cracks, but glaciers flow onward. The earth trembles, but mountains stand. Tides rise and tides fall, but the ocean persists. Fidelity is what saved us, I suppose. Most likely fidelity will rescue us again.
That bear still walks those shores, you know. It refuses to surrender even a slim margin of territory. Of course, it does not know how to be anything but itself, its bold and willful self. I think sometimes about that dark shape as it approaches, about its level and knowing look, and I think how all we can do is yield to its awful beauty and say, Hey, bear. I see you, too