HE HAD TO BEND A LITTLE TO SEE WHAT SHE'D SEEN. In the distance, beneath the lower branches of the pine trees, the meadow formed a lush rectangle, as green and luminous as moss. He closed his eyes and saw the bear there; imagined Gwen's camera click. She would have stood still in the forest, safe at this distance, focusing the lens on the bear as he rose on his hind legs to reach a clump of berries growing at the meadow's edge.
The bear might have moved slowly toward the trees, and Gwen tensed, surprised when he entered the woods, close enough for her to see the muscles on his back as he lifted his snout to a branch. She would have stayed quiet, and slipped behind a tree, a hand on its craggy bark as she peered around it, still feeling safe. Feeling lucky to see a bear up close.
Something alerted the animal to her presence. Had the wind carried her scent to the clearing?
Wind has a peculiar timbre as it passes through a pine wood, deep like an oboe. To Jim the sound seemed ominous. He zipped his jacket against it and walked on to the spot the sheriff had shown him that first day.
He leaned down to pick off the tiny burrs left on his socks and noticed a dead branch at his feet; then many branches, strewn across the forest floor after a week of heavy gales.
Jim instantly knew: A branch had fallen from high up in a tree, landing next to her with a thud and a rustle. The bear turned toward Gwen. She panicked. Gwen would have known she'd stayed too long, the knowledge flickering across her face as she backed away. But the bear had seen her, and ambled casually into the trees. She lost her composure and began to run.
It must have happened this way.
The brochure said the town of Olagam was named for a bear in an Indian legend. Now, bears are uncommon this far north on the peninsula, Jim read on, where the tourists come in April and stay until the splendor of autumn has passed. Though there is plenty of space for solitude, the villages are always bustling, and a slice of the area's famous cherry pie within easy reach.
And the road, thought Jim, though it seems far from here, is only a quarter-mile away.
On the way back to the car, Jim treaded carefully over the weather-whitened pine roots that erupted from the forest floor. He forced himself to walk—not run—as he passed the cabin Gwen had rented. He tossed his pack and the rifle onto the passenger seat of the car. Once inside he felt no relief; nor did it arrive as he parked in the lot behind his hotel, nor when Jim stepped out onto the sidewalk and saw that the shops were still open and busy. Wooden easels held menus. Tables of picked-over pottery lined the sidewalks. He inhaled the scent of pressed apples and cinnamon.
Two teenage girls bumped into him as they pushed out the door of the mercantile. They wore green and white aprons over their tank tops; their hands already digging in purses for cigarettes.
"Sorry," one of them said. She smiled. The smell of cider seemed to be coming from her mouth.
Inside the mercantile Jim found the emptiest aisle and stood looking at the display of carved gourds and nature books. Artists of the Peninsula. The Life of John Muir. Wood Carving. He chose two of the least-challenging books, made mostly of pictures, to read later in his room while he waited for the next day to come.
Jim felt the shopkeeper's eyes on him and dreaded her closeness as she shuffled over. A damp shock of blonde hair fell over her forehead and he felt sweat on his own. It was hot inside and away from the lake breeze, the last of summer held captive inside the store.
"I'm sorry to hear about your wife—" the shopkeeper began.
"Thanks," he quickly said, praying she'd stop and feeling his face flush with the effort. Jim wondered if everyone in the small community knew who he was and why he was there. That meant they'd known Gwen.
The shopkeeper hovered. "We haven't had an incident like this in twenty years. We just can't figure out …" Her voice trailed off.
Jim had no answers for her, and no strength for a guess.
"She came into the store a lot. And the thing is, she liked those best," she said pointing at a free-standing rack to his left.
Bears. Shelves filled with tiny bears. And on the top tier, Olagam himself.
"Do you know the story?" she asked.
Jim shook his head.
"Well, in the legend," she said, clearing her throat, "in the legend Olagam was a good bear. He helped people."
Jim looked up.
"He guided them through the forests," she said, moving the little wooden figurine so it was centered on the shelf.
"I'll take it," said Jim.
The shopkeeper rolled Olagam in brown paper and put him in a small green bag with straw handles.
"No charge," she said quietly, and handed Jim the bag.
When Jim returned to his room he tossed the rifle on the bed, and reached for a can of oil on the nightstand. The instructions for cleaning and polishing the weapon were copied on a single sheet of paper, along with crude drawings of the gun's parts. He pulled the plastic cap from the spout and shook some oil onto a rag. There was nothing else to do.
Outside his window, cars turned on their lights as they rounded the curve in front of the harbor. The bay was full of sailboats docked for the evening. A small group of tourists paused for a look as the sun dipped over the edge of the water.
What the hell is the matter with you? was the last question he'd asked her. It had taken Gwen two days to return his message. She was on vacation without him, because Jim didn't want to be in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. She'd talked him into going with her once. The solitude was too much for him, her pleasure in this place a foreign and baffling thing. She gathered firewood, took pictures. And at night, Gwen slept like an infant while Jim lay awake, staring into the darkness. He punished her by leaving a day early.I've got better things to do, he'd said, and left Gwen standing on the dirt road in a pair of old shorts and messy hair, watching him drive away.
From then on, she traveled to Olagam alone.
Now Jim was ashamed, and he couldn't stop imagining her last minutes. Even in his room, with his eyes open, Jim saw her as she left the path, one of many paths that began at a cabin and wound through the pines to the cliffs and down to the lake below.
Gwen knew how treacherous it was to move quickly on root-bound ground and would have fought to keep herself from falling. Gwen had a slight build, but she was healthy and fast. It wouldn't have mattered, not there. With his eyes open, Jim watched as the bear picked up speed.
He turned on the television.
It had been two weeks, the hotel clerk reminded Jim on his way out that morning. Jim paid her and returned to the woods where he would sit or stand, rifle in hand, as he had done each day he'd been in Olagam before exhaustion forced him back to town.
It was difficult for him to focus. Jim couldn't stop sweating even as the breeze turned cooler. The crackle of a twig would cause him to stand up too quickly and bang the rifle butt against a tree.
Jim's eyes darted through some nearby brush that moved as if pushed by a low blowing wind. His heart pounded. Jim raised and cocked the gun, putting his hands where he thought they should go, pointing, pulling the trigger.
The eyes of a raccoon, badly injured but still alive, met his. As fast as Jim could manage he shot again. His hands shook. Had Gwen been there, she would have cried.
Gwen, who in his mind was still in the forest, running, panting, her face blank with fear, eyes piercing the ground as she ran, desperate not to fall, unable to look up to find a branch low enough to climb.
The bear grunted out his breath as massive legs propelled him forward. The bear was sure of his footing, used to running on roots and rocks. He gave Gwen a playful swat that knocked the breath out of her. On the ground, Gwen froze, felt his heart and breath and muscles as he sniffed, drooled on her skin. His giant claw fell, ripping her clothes as if they were made of paper. Impossibly strong, he rolled her through the trees toward the water. The last swing belted Gwen across the trunk of a pine that hung in a curve over the cliff edge, its roots clutching at the nearby rocks. Below her tender, dangling ankle the surf pounded the rocky shore.
The ferocious roar of waves filled Jim's ears, made his knees clutch. It was what Gwen had heard.
When Gwen was limp the bear had gone. She hadn't been badly cut. She hadn't been bitten. Gwen was as pale and beautiful as she had always been.
Jim heard the click of a camera and turned away from the cliff edge, pushing his way through the trees with his hands and feet until he was outside the woods, where the afternoon was still bright. Clouds, low slung and white, made shadows on the road as they passed on the way toward town and away from a raccoon struggling to pick itself up from a bed of pine needles, a bullet searing its middle.
Jim drove until he came to the lake where he and Gwen had stood watching the sun set. Gwen's idea. She'd taken pictures of the water. Jim told her it was pointless.
"There are a hundred postcards in the shops with the same picture on them, and probably better."
"But I didn't take those," she'd said quietly.
Jim got out of the car and pushed himself toward the shoreline. There was no one on the beach to watch him crouch awkwardly to keep from falling down the grassy hill. He took off his shoes, rolled his pant legs, and stepped into the shallow water. His footprint looked dark and heavy as the wave receded.
How they had ignored each other, even as age began to lap at their feet. They'd made a habit of it, for days, or weeks, and the weeks had become a decade.
Jim saw her in snapshots, all of them old: Gwen in a summer dress, waiting for a bus in the city, Gwen raking leaves in the yard of their first house. And then came a great vacuum in which there were no more pictures, between then and today when all of it was suddenly past, and there was only her body, bruised and tangled in the wind-carved trunk of a tree, her last day spoiled and with no chance for anything anymore. Jim knew nothing of Gwen now except the parts he'd broken, with word or deed or just contempt, long before the bear had broken her neck.
He picked up his shoes and made his way back up the hill toward the car.
On the car seat next to Jim was the green bag, the name of the mercantile in white script along its front. He closed his fingers around the lump of brown paper and pulled it from the bag.
He unwrapped the figurine, unfolding each crease of the paper as he rolled it in his palm.
Olagam, said an etching on the base. The bear's demeanor was benign; his mouth open, as if to speak instead of roar; nose lifted as if sniffing at a breeze. Thin, scruffy lines created fur that covered his body, except for a pronounced, almost feminine, mound between its legs. Jim slid his thumb tenderly over the smooth, polished finish.
At the end of the block, a sign pointed toward the freeway; in the rearview mirror the road wound back around the lake and toward the woods, toward the cabin. Jim rested his head on the steering wheel, holding the bear tightly in his hand.