Excerpt from Bearsaga

I

*

They say his mother fed him on bear’s milk as she went through the terminal stage of tuberculosis. No doubt about it: once every two years, when the conditions are right, the black she-bear drops a litter, and for five months she nurses her two or three cubs. One more infant at her breast wouldn’t make her run dry. But no one could say how a woman who had just given birth, consumptive to boot, managed to draw milk from a six-hundred-pound sow and be left unscathed. Not a single scratch. These were lean times for everyone, they say, while the bears, on the other hand, abounded in the woods, glutted and fat. Believe what you like. In any case, a mother whose breasts are empty and knows she’s a goner won’t be too picky, and builds up her resolve. It’s true. Under similar circumstances, the weathervane’s been known to beat back the wind. But to go rummaging through the belly fur of a mother bear as she stepped out of her winter quarters with a yawn and two woolly balls of fur rolling by her sides and tumbling between her paws. To elbow newborn cubs out of the way to make room for her own: a pink, hairless little man…no, there’s no way Simon the Halfbreed could have suckled milk from a bear, as it’s been told; he must have been fed by one of those few, kindhearted wet-nurses untouched by the Spanish flu or the times of tuberculosis. Anyway, even the most fanatical hunter would never kill his nurse, anyone could tell you that. That’s a whole different matter. For this outlaw, the law of blood was the same as any other. A law is a law. Simon was born outside.

Raised at the edge of the woods, beyond the reach of the parish, a bastard child of an unknown father and an unworthy mother, he was orphaned at birth, and had grown up on the margins. Even beyond the four or five villages that dotted the River. He made his home (though such a word rang false in the ears of a homeless man) high up, near the headwaters, where the river is still called a stream–namely, River’s Stream. It was there that Simon had dug in the foundation beams of his cabin. It was there that he had grown up. At fifteen, he was six feet tall, his full size. He would grow no more. He’d achieved his autonomy and freedom as well. He broke out in a wide-faced, ear-to-ear grin whenever Ozite had told him so. His wild, independent streak took root during his days in diapers, practically. As for his freedom, well, he’d conquered that bit by bit, like a stretch of land. But Halfbreed’s land was the woods.

In the woods, freedom loses its meaning. Too many ties. Too much ivy, too much bramble, too many wild animals, great and small, the masters of the forest. He who enters their territory is the true savage. On their own terrain, in the middle of the forest, all animals are tame. He was young when he made this discovery, and he was so overwhelmed by the feeling that he could not keep it to himself. Yet neither the hunters from the coves and bays, nor those from the hills, could ever understand. Loup-Joseph simply laughed. With a rifle on his shoulder, a hunting cap over his forehead, and chewing tobacco in his cheek, a hunter who enters the woods knows how to distinguish the wild from the tame, and knows his rights. He knows that moose and deer keep their hooves sharp. Even a half-ton male bear? Well, let’s say five or six hundred pounds. Before his rifle was confiscated, Loup-Joseph had bagged one for himself. Then there was Full Gallop. Zéphire, too. What’s there to say? A hunter’s a hunter. Simon had nothing against that. He simply claimed that the bear was at home in his woods, just as Zéphire was at home on his own land, where the covered bridge reigned. That the hunt began the very moment either man or beast crossed into the other’s territory. Loup-Joseph laughed even louder. At the rate things were going, they’d soon be seeing the bear adjusting his rifle, taking aim at a four-legged Simon, with his tail in the air and his fur standing on end.

Ozite was the only one who understood. And she told the bear hunter the story of the greatest fright of her life.

She had just given birth to her youngest child. She had gone into the woods to gather twigs and wood chips. Four or five years earlier she had taken in a spring cub she found circling its mother’s carcass, crying in agony. Ozite covered the rotting carrion with moss and dry leaves, and led the baby bear back home. At first she left him on his own, so that he might run free through the yard or take in fresh air in the vegetable garden; however, the neighbors soon feared for their cats and dogs. So she finally tied him to a post behind the house, yet left him plenty of rope. The bear continued to play with the children and cats and dogs, as though he, too, had been born in the barn or the granary. When Ozite wandered into the woods, she would untie him and take him along so that he would not be severed from his roots and could have some freedom of choice. One day he’ll stay here, she told herself. But always he came home. That morning, however, just getting back on her feet after childbirth, she went into the forest alone, trusting the bear to watch over the cradle.

“Keep the flies away,” she gestured, “and don’t let the pony or the calves out; I’ll be back before long.”

Before long. Long enough to reach the clearing and find herself nose to nose with her bear, who must have gotten loose, made his way across the peat bog, and caught up with her. She was a tolerant young woman, this Ozite, and always fair. But prompt. And when it came to teaching someone a lesson, she wasn’t one to mince words. After training seven children, a dozen foals, a few bulls, and two husbands, she had learned to rule with an iron fist. And so she tore a long alder switch from the ground.

“So you think I won’t notice something like this!” she said to the bear.

And then wham! right across the snout. Ozite knew everybody’s weak spot, whether it was man or beast. The animal rose on his hind paws to his full height and let loose a horrible growl. Ozite’s eyelids quivered slightly but she stood her ground.

“Go ahead and growl, but you’ll learn, scaredy-pants. It’s up to you. If you’re gonna live like a tamed animal, then you’ll obey–that’s the rule. If not, well, you can take it or leave it.”

She looked straight into the bear’s eyes, standing so close their bodies touched. She watched as he lowered his front paws, turned away from her, and in three quick bounds disappeared into the brush. He made his choice. He left her. She threw her bundle of twigs onto the deadfall and hurried home because of the newborn, with a weight on her heart as heavy as lead. She would have preferred to see him choose freedom under other circumstances, not after a punishment. Well, that’s what she would have preferred. Though she proposed this choice to him every day, nonetheless she would have preferred…. The thought of the little one returned to her and she quickened her pace. She pushed open the gate, crossed the yard, and found the bear at the foot of the bassinet, chasing away the flies and keeping the calves and foal at a safe distance.

At that moment Ozite was extremely frightened, a fright she had not felt an hour before, standing smack in the middle of the forest, chastising a completely wild adult bear. She wiped off her neck, and as she wrapped her arms around the animal, whispered in his ear, “I do believe I just met one of your cousins out there. I’d even say he was one of your twins.”

Forty years later, Ozite would still chuckle when she told this story.

Forty years later was twenty years ago. Ozite was practically a centenarian. Her last-born had had the time to grow up, live his life, and pass on. What difference does it make if a hundred-year-old woman has brought seven children into the world? She still lives out her last days as lonely as a motherless child. Alone as Halfbreed.

“When’ll it be? When’re you gonna make your decision?” Ozite snaps once more from beneath the layers of wool, cotton, flannel, and flannelette that kept her secrets safe and her body warm to the core. “A man your age has the right to settle down without askin’ no one’s permission.”

No one–that was for sure. Halfbreed wouldn’t have known whom to ask to know if he should turn left or right in life. So he left his destiny to the whims of the moon and the winds, and entrusted his education to his instincts alone. Now past thirty, the outlaw was just as free and penniless as he was at birth, owning nothing but owing as much, knowing no ancestors, progeny, or relatives. But there was one relative, in fact: Marguerite, a distant cousin on his mother’s side. Halfbreed could trace his mother’s side only. And so little of it. From so distant. No one could count the degrees of separation between his mother and Marguerite anymore, especially in a land that was, after all, so close to their common origins. His nickname, Halfbreed, was something he earned from his nose, his manners, and his unknown paternal origins.

“Don’t go dirtying your name with that of your cousin,” Full Gallop rudely inferred to him one day while Loup-Joseph and the others looked on with mocking stares.

Halfbreed said nothing, but began to think. On her father’s and two grandmothers’ sides, Marguerite was off limits to practically every hunter from the five branches of the River, including Loup-Joseph and Full Gallop. So why should Simon be the only one to call her cousin? Simon, the man without family, the outlaw, the universal orphan; they were slapping him with the one bit of family he most surely did not want. Precisely because he wanted her. He wanted Marguerite.

He had wanted Marguerite.

“You still gonna fetch me those August apples sometime this year?”

Sometime this year. Like every year. Halfbreed had never failed Ozite, his closest neighbor. His only neighbor. If she wants her apples, she’ll get them. Over one hill, across three or four fallowed fields, a stream, a covered bridge, and he’d come out on Goose Hill, on Zéphire Léger’s land. Like every other year, he’d crawl on his belly till he reached the rail fence, work his way over to the orchard, and pick the fattest apples on the ground, all under the watchful eye of Zéphire, who kept his mouth shut and would not answer when his wife wanted to know who was there. Halfbreed could ask for them, of course. He could say they were for Ozite, the centenarian. But that meant lowering himself. The apples would just go to waste, like the rhubarb in the spring and the pumpkins in the fall. Nature would take them back. Ozite had the right to make use of them before nature got them. This was the wild man’s way of thinking. He had never thought as would the priest or Gilbert, the county deputy. Gilbert would have said, “Go ahead and ask, Simon, no one will refuse.” But Simon had never been one to beg. Nature was the only one he would ever ask anything from, and to nature he always gave back one hundred percent, as was only fair. Just as Ozite would never fail to return to nature the August apples that would stick to the bottom of the pot, as they had each year since she’d turned eighty.

“When’ll it be? When’re you gonna make your decision?” the old woman repeats.

Halfbreed turns away and looks off into the distance. Off, in the direction of the mound, where twelve years ago…

She had had a boy by some fellow from the States; that’s what people had said at the time. Not married, oh, no! Why would she have gone to see the priest with her protruding belly? The stranger didn’t come to stay. But Halfbreed knew that this was not true, that Marguerite had never met any fellow from the States. Or any sailor from a Norwegian steamer docked in port, for that matter. A hunter. One of the hunters from one of the villages nestled between the mounds, or deep within a cove at the mouth of the River. No, not a stranger. The man who had seduced Marguerite and fathered her child was a frequent visitor to Halfbreed’s woods; it was someone who hunted on his land and trapped the same game he did. Every day, Simon had to walk the same paths and breathe in the odor the traitor left behind. For twelve years. She didn’t have that child with any sailor or with some guy from the States. For days, Simon shut himself up in Ozite’s barn, neither sleeping nor eating. The old lady had tried to make him at least drink something. And he drank. Drank himself silly. Had drunk ever since. And there wasn’t a thing Ozite could do about it anymore. “If only I’d known! If only I’d known!” she would say over and over, flogging her back with her dishrag.

Marguerite died in childbirth, just like Simon’s mother–Simon, the man also known as Halfbreed. But his mother had coughed even more, or so he’d been told, and had spat up blood. Not Marguerite. She just let go. Left in Ozite’s arms a boy without a family name. Only when the bell had tolled six times did Halfbreed come out of the barn. He had counted them, and so he knew it was for a woman. If the death was a woman…. Ozite nodded yes. Then he lapped the booze all down, to the very last drop hanging from the neck of the very last bottle, to the point of delirium tremens–that’s right, Latin! He babbled on in Latin, Greek, and Chinese, in a splendidly garbled chatter, like that heard only in the woods in spring. He started down the path that linked Ozite’s buildings to the road, placing one foot directly in front of the other like a tightrope walker, keeping his balance, arms spread wide like a Christ on the cross, toes clutching an invisible wire, his rheumy eyes yellow and unwavering. He reckoned that if he could proceed like this, he would make it to the end of the world in five or six days, without ever stumbling, stopping only to piss, walking straight to the edge, the final edge of the globe, and there, in a breathtaking dive, would raise his cap to those remaining behind, and plummet headlong into the void. The others caught up with him between Goose Hill and Treasure Cove and brought him back to his straw mattress, to finish off a delirium tremens that skipped dangerously from the Latin and more and more came to resemble a plain old sickening binge.

“When’ll it be? When’re you gonna make your decision?” repeats Ozite, who, on the eve of her hundredth year, feels she has every right to start babbling. “One of these days, I’ll end up kicking the bucket. Even if I can still stand up straight as an oak, one day I’ll end up breaking in two. When that day comes, don’t even try to glue me back together, it’ll be good enough to throw me in the ground with all my separate pieces.”

She looks up at Halfbreed: “And you take care of the little one, Simon, you’re his closest relative.”

Halfbreed wishes he could look away into the distance, but the edge of the woods has brought the horizon practically to his feet. And out of nowhere, he announces to Ozite that a total eclipse of the sun has been predicted for the not-too-distant future.

This bitch! If last July’s drought had come without warning, hardening the earth and doing great damage to the harvest, what now could be expected from an eclipse on the way? Halfbreed wants to tell her that the eclipse is predicted only for the coming spring; but the centenarian, who has a different vision of time and trusts no one, wonders if she should fill her cellar and granary and insulate her windows.

Turning toward the woods, she wrinkles her nose and screws up her eyes. “Don’t you smell something?”

And she dashes over to the well to check the water level.

Though life may be short…

*

II

*

It’s a pity the earth is so round and the horizon so near. Especially in the forest, where roots, for want of space, are forced to tread on others’ ground. Just have a look at those branches that tangle in the slightest wind, mussed and muddled in a tight snarl of maple, aspen, or poplar! Even at noonday, the sun barely filters through to the undergrowth, and when it does, it’s only indirectly. Under such conditions, how then could you expect condensation to rise, the crust to dry, the ground not to rot? How can you expect a cat to find its kittens?

But cats have no business being there.

For the thousand reasons already mentioned, the forest is not a kingdom for the groomed, declawed, neutered, pedigreed, straitlaced, shaved, clipped, or even to those born through artificial insemination. It is neither a meeting place nor a breeding ground for domestic animals. Let the kennels, barnyards, and pigeon coops be warned. It takes a fierce Candlemas sun to wake up the groundhog, and even then, the rays must be so ridiculously coy and secretive that he won’t take fright at his own shadow and go running back to his hole. It takes the cold winds of night and the hot winds of day to make the maples gush. It takes so many combined forces of nature for feet to grow on amphibians and wings on birds that many species have simply given up, exhausted from centuries and millennia of waiting. They have all come and gone, adding their primitive carcasses to the humus, where already stumps, leaves, and ripe fruits lie rotting.

It takes strength, cunning, courage, and a formidable appetite. Plus two or three especially sharpened senses.

Black Ghost lumbers ahead in silent aplomb. He lays his seven hundred pounds on a bed of moss–hardly leaving an impression–while lifting the sole of his crepelike foot to avoid stepping on an innocent yellow butterfly, wriggling on the forest floor. The butterfly flutters up and lights on the bear’s head in a show of gratitude. Don’t mention it, ol’ boy, I know you’ll return the favor. Halfbreed nicknamed the twelve-year-old, seven-hundred-pound bear “Black Ghost,” and the name took hold with everyone from the area of the main hills that dot the river, and was eventually adopted by Black Ghost’s own tribe. He proceeds into the heart of the forest along the trail he blazed at the start of spring that none other than a bear could know or recognize as a trail. It was barely a track; let’s just say it was a zigzagged line slithering between oaks and aspens, crossing the scrub, skirting around springs, and, like a viaduct, passing over burrows, lairs, and ant hills in a curvy, hooked, and serpentine route linking the two extremities of Black Ghost’s uncontested territory. He marked every birch–for the birch is his tree–and left any other, lesser species–the willow, the beech, the larch, and the spruce–to the deer, the moose, or even to the chief of the neighboring bear tribe. Anyone may claw the bark off any aspen that quakes with the slightest breeze; he’d just better not dare lay paw or plume to the trunk of the white birch, Black Ghost’s coat of arms.

He moves straight ahead without a glance–what good are eyes to someone with the most trusty nose and the keenest ears in the forest?–and tries to identify the acrid smell, a mix of resin and chickens. An aroma of fresh meat floats around his head. Then he hears the blue jay’s strident cry: Watch out, bears! Watch out, bears!

He gets up on his hind paws, standing taller than six feet, and swings his head around in wide circles, flaring his nostrils. Letting out a growl that shakes all the nests in his domain, he wakes up the thousand burrows, setting the forest aquiver and loosing a wellspring of insects like water from a fountain. In a single leap that would impress even a desert gazelle, Black Ghost races off. He dashes straight to the center of the clan, where the spring newborns are rolling and tumbling between the paws of the females, where young bears of the last season are learning to clamber up and down trees, under the mocking gaze of bears two or three years older.

Black Ghost’s unexpected arrival scares the little ones and freezes the older ones in their tracks. Old Bearagenarian looks up, though the ancestor refuses to budge this time, until someone explains to her what’s gone wrong.

C’mon, Grandma, can’t you smell?

Of course she can smell, who does he think he’s talking to? She can smell the apple vomit, the fir resin, and a faint smell of something burning in the distance: she wants to know why there’s such a commotion.

Black Ghost plants himself in the middle of the clan, takes a moment to study the winds and, judging by the odor and crackling, gauges their approximate distance from the center of the fire. He extends his sense of smell to the south, east, and northwest branches of the River, where the humans live. Surely they would try to turn back the fire. In his own way, the bear thinks that they must not flee the frying pan to leap into the fire.

Stick close together and follow me.

And so Black Ghost drives on, disappearing into the heart of the forest, surrounded by harried females, each fettered with two or three spring cubs, and with the rest of the clan in tow, from cubs born during the last three or four springs to brothers, sisters, and younger, subordinate cousins, all of whom unconditionally accepted his authority the day he defeated his main rival, the great Loner, who had vanished without a trace and had not been seen since. Of course, trailing far behind, bringing up the tail of the column, is the old sow known as Bearagenarian, the ancestor of the whole clan. True to form, she stops short and refuses to go any further, struggling amid five or six unruly brats who circle her like flies and try to make her move faster.

Quick, Grandma, the flames are coming as fast as an elk.

Ah! That old elk! Call him Moose, like everyone else.

And then she no longer sees anything.

Of course no one can see a thing. The bear is the last animal of the forest to perceive the world by sight, the only sense nature has admittedly denied him. He’s not completely blind, though–don’t get the wrong idea and go laughing at him right under his nose. In any case, it’s not recommended to do anything under his nose, ever, for his nose takes the place of his eyes and all else: not only will he hear you, but he will smell your smile and tell you to beware. Not that he’s touchy; let’s just say he’s proud and prudent.

In addition to being myopic from birth, or rather from nature, Bearagenarian has been hard of hearing for a season or two. This is a more serious matter. For, second to his muzzle, a bear’s major organ is his ear. The whole tribe already hears the warning calls of the blue jay as well as the crackle and hiss of the fire, which is gobbling up conifers in great gulps on both sides of at least three branches of the River. Not Bearagenarian. She can’t hear a thing. But she can smell. This time she smells. And this time, it’s not the apples, flower pistils, or even young hares who poke their heads through their holes to get a whiff of something in the air, before sliding, fresh and squirming, right into the bears’ gut. She smells the scorched bark and prepares to make her hop–the bear’s unique hop, which brings the animal folk of the scrub to their feet, with cries of fearful admiration. Even young spring fawns. She gets ready, picks her whole body up off her round behind, takes aim, and ka-boom!… crashes her muzzle into the trunk of a three-hundred-year-old oak. Despite the seriousness and urgency of the moment–and with all due respect, Grandma dear–her offspring can’t hold back their laughter. And, not knowing how to laugh, she, too, breaks out in a gleeful growl.

That, Lady Mother, is no way to start off a day!

Black Ghost turns around and comes back to sniff the old sow, assessing the damage and organizing help. With his muzzle he nudges four of his five- and six-year-old sons forward, born during the great drought and during the flood (for in the forest, years follow without bearing much resemblance to one another). Born under such different conditions, these young bears have developed diametrically opposed defenses: the first attracted to water, the latter to dry land. Black Ghost instinctively knows that by placing the righties on the left, and the lefties on the right, he would get two pairs to box in Bearagenarian so tightly there would be no risk of her falling.

It’s okay like that?

It’s okay, it’s okay.

Then she spits.

And then the chief takes up his place at the head of the parading column.

In ordinary times, the major species keep their distance from one another, more or less scrupulously respecting the others’ territory. The age of conquest was over–had been since prehistoric times–with the result being the elimination of certain lesser, bulky, or decadent species; the subjugation of thousands of others who were weaker or in full mutation; and with a tacit yet firm modus vivendi between the two great powers along the west, north, and north-northwest branches of the River, namely the bear and the moose. In ordinary times, no bear in his right mind would be caught clawing an aspen or a birch in forbidden territory; yet no greater would be the chance of finding a moose, even one weighing half a ton, and crowned with a fourteen-point rack of antlers, within the territory marked off by Black Ghost. Not if he’s got all his faculties. With animals as with men, it’s each one for him- or herself, but with animals especially, it’s also a question of looking out for one’s own turf.

In ordinary times.

Yet in times of catastrophe, one takes off in a state of panic, without stopping to think, and trusting one’s instincts alone (the only thing animals can rely upon). At such a time, there’s no hemming and hawing or respect for laws. The first and foremost law is to run for your life. And if survival happens to mean taking the path across an occupied zone, then it’s too bad for the occupant, who, in any case, has already invaded his neighbor’s territory.

So that’s how the great wave of bears swept through the lands of the wolves, the coyotes, and then the stags. Then, thrust by the power of the wind, set foot into moose territory. Just to be safe, Black Ghost stops spitting and lets it be known to his subjects, especially the females, that they must keep their snouts shut. This is the moment for the seven-hundred-pound male, standing six feet tall from head to tail, to justify his reputation as a silent animal, one worthy of his tribal nickname, Black Ghost. He must make his silhouette blend in with the forest’s shadowy foliage and fly above the ground without snapping twigs or getting caught in brambles: therein lies the bear’s secret. With the fire hot on his trail, he must cross into the forbidden zone. This is no time to look up at the acorns or wild apples hanging overhead, or to go sniffing around for holes in the ground, buried beneath piles of dead leaves.

Run away, Black Ghost. Don’t stop. Run away and don’t look back. Don’t stop to breathe or to prick up your ears; trust only your instincts. Once it rains, there’ll be time to fill your lungs with air and count your little ones. This rain may be late in coming, even though it’s greatly needed, so don’t count on it right away. Above the leaves, the sky is clear; you can feel it by the rays passing through the canopy of pines; don’t count on it, even if it ends up falling: the air is too heavy to believe it’s not saturated, not barring the fact that it’s heavy with soot and smoke, one never knows. It’s sickening. The little ones are nervous. They risk scattering into the underbrush at the slightest distraction. Their nostrils are stung by the overpowering odor. And the noise. The crackling. It reminds them of the thumping in the woods when the deer are in heat. They’re afraid. It’s their first forest fire. They’ve got everything to learn. The poor cubs!

Without warning, Black Ghost comes to an abrupt halt. The procession disbands, and the little ones tumble into the paws of their portly elders, who topple and fall over one another. They get back up and search for a signal. All the muzzles move in arabesques, following the direction of the wind. They snort, spit, and rumble. Black Ghost lets loose a growl so enormous it carries to the very last bear, who happens to be a female, Bearagenarian, literally shouldered by four of her great-great-great-grandsons, who want nothing more than to move. The chief, in his fashion, gestures to all of them to stand still; it is time to decipher, appraise, and identify a sound of a different nature that has just been added to the crackle of the flames.

I thought I’d recognized them, too. Just what we need!

Hunters!

All the beasts huddle into compact round heaps and get ready to hop. They stay put, however, when they hear yet another growl from Black Ghost, who, given the situation, cares little where sleeping dogs may lie. No one move. Stay where you are. The chief is going to inspect the dangerous areas and will find another way out.

As he ambles ahead with lithe, muffled steps, he approaches the sound epicenter, where a rising cacophony of nervous, clamoring voices blend with the hiss of a wind of flames. A whiff of black soot has infiltrated his snout, and for the first time, the bear is surprised to be cursing his sense of smell, which only yesterday placed him head and shoulders above the greatest carnivores and ruminants. He feels humiliated, lowers his head, and pinches his nostrils shut.

He didn’t smell it. Never before had Black Ghost come within three trees of a hunter without identifying him. With his eyes. For the first time in his life, his eyes spotted the enemy before his ears or snout.

He is ashamed. As his first reflex, the Bear rises to his full height to face the man, and towers above him by at least a head. He knows that with a single swipe he can skin half his chest. But the man is not alone; behind him he is hiding a small child. Black Ghost has just heard him breathe. Plus, the man is a hunter, armed with his rifle. Not just any hunter. It’s Halfbreed. The Bear has recognized him. And in less time than it would take Black Ghost to strike, Halfbreed could bring up his weapon, aim, and fire. Both man and beast are riveted to their spot, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The bear could scare off his adversary with a growl and at the same time would warn his family of the danger. To speak in this fashion, however, risks awakening the wrong reflexes in a hunter impeded by a small child. Make no foolhardy gestures, Bear, don’t take any useless risks; weigh every movement, nice and easy. In any case, you don’t have fifty-six choices; neither does the man, for that matter. The wind has risen and swirls so madly that its direction can no longer be gauged. No more time to lose. The whole clan will be passing this way; the cubs must already be going crazy, and the females will lose their minds. Turn around, don’t get excited, nice and slow, to tell the man that this battle won’t be fought, that the hour is too serious and the stakes too high for the species, and for the forest. We’ll put this off for another time. Don’t make any calculations, old boy, don’t even try to think; just constrict your body, get set, and with one single bound, get out of his field of vision and his rifle’s range.

The man, unmoving, whistles his admiration. His fingers loosen and let the rifle barrel slide down beside his leg. Then he turns to the child, who has not moved either but looks as green as a July apple.

“You’ve just met the king of the bears. And that’s as good as saying the king of the woods. He’s called Black Ghost. Remember him. Not many hunters will ever get to see him this close.”

Black Ghost has rejoined his tribe, which was starting to worry and wonder if their chief would return. Time has no measure for him, except at the hour of hunger and fear. In the face of danger, the beast, too, feels time come to a stop, roll around his body, and press against his loins. For bears, instants are counted in stomach spasms and heart palpitations. Thump-thump, thump-thump…the beating against the ribs warns the bear of a threat at hand and injects an extra dose of adrenaline under his fur. Black Ghost has returned just in time; in his stead, they were getting ready to engage in all sorts of foolhardy acts.

The worst mistake is to go charging into the hunters’ domain. Trust neither your ears nor your muzzle today, little ones: the forest fire has mixed up the rules. The day when the bear saves his skin using his eyes is the day when everything is turned upside down and he must reinvent his instincts. Take a new direction. Turn around and retrace your steps to the River.

Wait! Where you takin’ us this time? Didn’t we just come from there? Didn’t we just come from there? Bearagenarian repeats, over and over, refusing, even in the very heart of a forest fire, to stop babbling, as though it were the most sacred right left to any creature her age.

Ozite, who is nearly one hundred, could say that she has outgrown the age of politeness and convention, which demand that she collect her ideas together in a single sentence and spit out the very gist of her thoughts on the first try, the better to hold everyone else’s attention. But she’s past the age where she needs to be mannerly. Bearagenarian, at twenty-six, has the same rights. You try to find a bunch of twenty-six-year-old bears! Twenty-six suns, three hundred twelve moons! Like Ozite, Bearagenarian enjoys certain privileges. Starting with the right to babble.

Don’t tell me we’re going back where we came from!

Oh, yes, old girl, oh, yes, indeed! But by another path. Black Ghost has so decided. And Black Ghost knows what he’s doing. Even though he’s your son…

Him? My son? Are you sure? Didn’t I have him by one of my kids? That would make him my grandson, if I can still count, and if my memory is still good. But the memory of a bear who’s twenty-six years old…buries things, like skin. Well, tell him then to come here an’ tell me who it is he came from.

But with all due respect, lady-mother, Black Ghost does not think this is the proper time to dig up the roots of his family tree. There he goes, growling, turning about, and putting the tight line in order so that it may start off on yet another migration: Set your sights on the River, keep your muzzle to the ground, take the mounds at an angle, and remember to climb up, instead of hopping over them. Jump fast but don’t lose your head, don’t think about anything…. The bears obey and don’t think about anything. And with their battered nostrils they seek out the saving odor of water.

Water! Water! On this day, there is not a single beast in the forest who does not dream of being a fish: already the fox sees himself as an eel; the wolf, a shark; the deer, a flying fish; the hare, a trout; and the porcupine, a crab or shrimp. Poor porcupine! For once, his quills do him no good! He has no chance in this race and, seeing hares and fawns flying over his head, he senses he will be the first victim. Nonetheless, he continues to huff and puff, placing one paw in front of the other and bristling his ridiculous quills in the direction of the blazing wind, which engulfs him.

The entire undergrowth is in motion and, without thinking, drives deep into the forest or scatters in every direction, rather than risk leaving the woods. They squawk and squall, bell and yell, yelp and squeal in a mad, disorderly rush, with stags stepping over coyotes and hares dashing between wolves’ paws. No more laws, no more rules, no more respect for anything. Run for your life! More power to he who can save his family! Black Ghost drags his clan through the flight. For a moment he flees next to a stag with enormous antlers who casts a conciliatory, almost mocking eye his way. Today, brother Bear, our paws are our salvation.

Paws, gills, and wings. After the fish, luck has favored the birds. Not insects, butterflies, or the small feathered friends of the woods, but the great birds of prey. And still, they must fly high and fast. There’s no time to play with fire, which will singe the beak of the raven too pressed to take advantage of the calamity. On the ground and in the air, the whole forest is shaken, looking everywhere for refuge. Everywhere, that is, but among humans.

On that score, Black Ghost is among the clearest and most categorical: In the hour of natural disasters, fear neither horns, nor claws, nor teeth. Don’t throw yourself into the fire for fear of the wolf. Yet stay far from arrows and rifles.

He has just been warned that already five or six little ones have been lost in the escape. Their mothers are obstinate about going back for them. Then there’s the old lady, with all her talk of fainting, grumbling on in her own little language that she’d much prefer a peaceful death than to continue at this insane pace; that this is no life for her; that she is way too old to run like this; that fires always end up eating their own tail, just like scorpions; that she’s seen plenty of others; and finally she’s simply had enough–enough, she says! Black Ghost grumbles under his breath and sends his trusted adjutant Doughbear back to round up the females and warn his mother that the River is straight ahead, less than twenty or thirty bounds away. Suddenly nervous, he wonders if Bearagenarian can still swim.

Stop! With one of his well-known gestures, Black Ghost orders the clan to slow their step to a careful, measured pace. Get down on your belly and crawl on the ground like the weasel and the lynx. Absolute silence. We’re on forbidden territory. The bears lift their heads and, through nearsighted eyes, make out the shadow of a great big wooden cabin. But already their nostrils have trembled, their ears have picked up the lapping sound of water as it licks the stones and posts. The River! And the covered bridge!

Ohhh!

Several spring cubs, survivors of the race, marvel and swoon. What a great frame! How safe it must be inside that! Without waiting for the signal, heedless of danger–and orders–they take off in the direction of this royal cavern as though it were a fortified castle. The mothers follow. Then the males. Black Ghost has been outflanked. He no longer has a choice. Discipline has fallen by the wayside. In any case, the cubs’ instinct was without a doubt the most solid thing they could count on. Provided that the hunters were not awaiting the beasts at the exit of the tunnel. Then a second thought occurs to Black Ghost: Why the exit? Why shouldn’t they just squeeze against the wall inside the closed bridge, as if in a winter den, waiting for the wind to shift?

No, Grandma, not underneath. Go back inside, inside the covered bridge.

Hey, hey! Let go, will you! Leave me be! This is no life, you know, this nonstop pandemonium. Just let me freshen up a bit. And don’t push me, you hear? Have you ever seen anything like this circle of fools!

Nothing of the kind had ever been seen, oh, Bearagenarian was right about that. Only yesterday all these animal species–dozens of them, from stocks as far-flung and diverse as the fox and the lynx–could not stand each other; now here they were, piling into the tunnel of the covered bridge. A bridge of wood, topped with a roof for protection against frost and banks of snow. Men know how to build things correctly. But today, others will have their turn. We’re not there looking for protection from snows, but from flames and from men. They are all there: the felines, the cervidae, the carnivores, the rodents, the herbivores, the long-eared, the stub-tailed, the stocking-pawed, the hairless, the dappled, and the bears. Side by side, brushing elbows, they sniff each other out and watch closely. It’s not the time to cast the evil eye. Because just outside the hunters are maneuvering an enormous hose into place that’s spitting river water onto the fire.

Black Ghost feels a female trying to push him aside to clear a path; she, in turn, is being pushed by one of her old “boyfriends,” who must have smelled something fishy. Black Ghost swings his head around and, in the light of the entryway, recognizes the fourteen-point crown of antlers cutting a profile against the gray sky.

The Moose, the king of the forest!

He comes forward on dancing feet, cutting a path between stone martens, does, woodchucks, and badgers, who press up against the walls of the bridge. His hooves ring against the floor and his antlers snag on the rafters. Black Ghost feels everyone’s eyes upon him. Will this be the time and place for a confrontation? Will they each be crazy enough not to respect the unspoken truce and risk bringing the attention of the men down upon their clans? From all directions, eyes turn in their sockets and gazes meet, as muzzles sniff around; the Moose has already lowered its head, pointing it threateningly at the chest of the Bear, who has risen on his hind legs and stands like a giant of antiquity, claws bared and ready to take a swipe. Suddenly, however, he freezes, and at the same time the Moose pricks up his ears. An unrelenting series of knocks pound against the archway at the entry to the bridge. It smells like man. It even smells like Zéphire Léger, the Bear thinks, recalling the many times he’d spotted him in his hiding place, deep in the heart of the brush, without Zéphire knowing a thing. He’d never even think about cutting down the bridge, I’d never believe that! Be calm, everybody. Nobody move. Everyone, just play dead. Black Ghost hears voices mixing with Zéphire’s and recognizes the “goddammits” and–good God, yes!–Loup-Joseph’s and Full Gallop’s odors. Better just stay put. Even the Moose admits it’s not a good time to air domestic differences or settle racial quarrels. Not the moment to establish supremacy. In any case, neither the Moose nor the Bear would think of staking a claim to the covered bridge. After all, it’s really a makeshift shelter for everyone, except for the bats. Black Ghost watches as the moose returns to where he came from, passing through a blade of light filtering through the planks in the vaults, streaking his back with a bright stripe.

When the last cussing from the last loudmouthed fireman had been extinguished, way beyond the southern branch of the River, Black Ghost spat, grunted, and moved his head from left to right to let his family know that the bulk of the danger posed by man was gone and that the only threat remaining was that of the fire. The bears, like every other woodland species, had to resign themselves to let it take more fur and feathers before the storm broke out.

If only the sky were not so low, and the horizon so near…. All the animals of the forest, fleeing the flames, dream of reaching the end of the world before nightfall.

Bios

Antonine Maillet

Antonine Maillet was born in Bouctouche, New Brunswick, in 1929. After completing her master’s thesis on Gabrielle Roy, she went to Paris to pursue her studies on François Rabelais. Her sympathy for the poor is best illustrated in La Sagouine (1971), a monologue for the stage, told from the point of view of an elderly cleaning woman. Although Mme. Maillet’s prose is in standard French, it is deeply enriched by Acadian, a dialect spoken in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. She is best known for her novel Pélagie-la-Charrette, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1979 and earned her the distinction of being the first non-European to receive the honor. She lives in Montreal.

David L. Koral

David Koral has translated Death from the Woods (2000) and Death from the Snows (2001) by Brigitte Aubert, and Memories of Cuba by François Missen and Olivier Beytout (1998). His other translations have appeared in Beacons and Exchanges. He has contributed to Cover magazine, EastVillageRadio.com, and The Jewish Week.

L'Oursiade. Copyright (c) Leméac, 1990. English translation copyright (c) David L. Koral, 2014.