Excerpt #94, Rocking-Chair Moon

Black Bear

At the main entrance to the campus
stands a life-size granite statue of a grizzly,
down on all fours, head angled
to cast a stony eye on visitors,
sizing us up for a future high-protein meal,
maybe, measuring the musculature
of our shoulders, the configurations
of our rib cages,
the plumpness of our limbs and rumps.

Its gaze seems to follow me as I stop
and linger and get acclimated
and wait for you to run back to the car,
where you—or possibly I—left
my schedule of appointments
with tour guides and departments
and instructors,

and as I stare down the bear,
I remember our fishing trip last fall
and you and I—weary mom,
wounded son—
fording the river in the dusk

and heading back down the narrow,
shadowy trail like a two-hump camel
with packs and float tubes and wet,
well-used fishing gear and
the nearly unbearable weight
of bereavement hanging from our
collective back like sodden,
hitchhiking moss
torn from overhead cedar boughs.

Not fifty yards from our start,
leading the way, I heard a low Woof!
from the thick growth of cedars and
underbrush to our right,
and an instant later a living boulder
—black—flashed across
our path three strides away.

I stopped.
You stopped.

It stopped, ten feet off the trail,
and turned, smoldering dark
against ferns and fir trunks,
and I saw the glint of its eyes,
I imagined the slick shine of its teeth.

Beneath the insistent pounding of my heart,
the silence of my held breath,
and the bear’s frozen (for now) stance,
I felt fright
creep between my shoulder blades,
not just fright that
I would soon become dinner,
but that if the big animal attacked
with its long teeth and longer claws,
I wouldn’t be able to protect you,
do Dad’s thing, do the right thing,
or worse, that I’d be the next to freeze,
do nothing.

I edged closer to you,
until I felt my gear nudge against yours,
and waited, waited, waited,
foolishly fingering my three-inch
pocket knife, and finally, silently,
the bear-shaped shadow moved,
into the brush, past a gnarled, gnomish,
outsized root, and disappeared in the gloom.

I took a breath, finally, and we started off
while I tried to think
of something funny to tell you,
some lighthearted icebreaker,
glancing back to assure myself that
we were still alone,
but all I could think to say was Cool
in a way that was supposed
to make you think I really meant it,
and you murmured agreement,
even though you didn’t sound sure,
even though I thought it might
be a while before either of us believed
our adventure in the woods was cool.

You arrive now, paper in your hand,
and look up at me, teasingly fingering
the stubble on my chin,
before we continue on,
taking a stone walkway across
close-cropped lawn,
between manicured maples and oaks,
and I imagine a dark shape hiding behind
the thickest of their trunks,
and a familiar fear returns, and I wonder:

Next autumn, when the leaves
on these trees are yellowing
and readying themselves
to fall into my path,
when I’m older and far from you
and still conjuring up images of bears
lurking in the shadows,
when the real beasts—the bogeymen—
of the forest arrive, will I be ready?

Will it be cool?

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