The coyote called out, “You’re late, amigo!”
The bear looked up and saw me, ignoring the coyote’s implication, “Ah. It is good to see you again.” Looking at me from head to toe he added, “All of you.” I remembered the bear had a good sense of humor.
I wanted to run to him, to wrap my arms around him, but remembered this was not a petting zoo, and C.S. Lewis did not pen this story. The bear walked directly to me, his eyes at the height of my chest. His breath was warm on my skin. He looked down to the coyote and said, “I see you have been to your tricks again, bringing this human here without his clothing.”
The coyote looked down, and for the first time since I had met him, he was without words to respond.
I didn’t know what he meant by ‘tricks’ but responded to the bear, “It is good to see you again, also.”
“It has been two full turns of the seasons, and then some,” he responded.
“Yes. It has,” I responded. I was disappointed, hoping for a stronger reunion. We had shared much when we first met, and yet now, he seemed as though he had forgotten, or no longer cared.
“Much has changed. Much is the same.”
Coyote looked over his shoulder, to the bear, and then to the forest which surrounded us.
Bear said, “You appear nervous Coyote.”
Coyote did not respond, at first, but took a step back and turned, looking down the trail. He glanced over this shoulder at us and said, with some concern, “Tenemos que ir ahora.”
“Where are we going now?” I asked?
Coyote responded, “You’ll see. Soon, you’ll see.”
I looked to the bear for more information, assurance, but received none.
Coyote trotted away at a fairly brisk pace. For this, I was thankful for the chill of the late afternoon was affecting me. I warmed again, with the movement, but without food knew I would soon be chilled again. We followed a game trail, Coyote in front and Bear behind me. The fairy tale nature of this venture occurred to me from time to time. I found myself hoping we would stumble upon other humans, hiking or sitting along side a campfire. I pictured myself jogging by, my animal companions on either side of me. But we encountered no one. Surely, the keen senses of either of them would detect another animal long before any encounter.
We continued for another hour in the ravine alongside the stream. I stopped to drink, my body reacting to the exertion of the day. I was dehydrated, my mouth dry, my head a little too warm. I lowered myself and took the chance of contracting an illness, as no stream in the lower forty eight States was without parasites in the past fifty years. But it would be several days before I would show signs. By then, I would be back to the comfort of the cabin.
My energy returned to me. My feet were submerged in the cold, shallow water of the bank. I recalled those times when as children my brother and I would dare each other to submerge our hands in cold water, to see who could tolerate it the longest. I looked up from the stream and noticed a beam of sunshine just in front of me, wide enough to warm my bare skin.
I stood and moved a few feet upstream. Over my shoulder I could see Coyote and Bear waiting for me on the trail. Coyote was sitting. Bear remained standing. They were not conversing, or at least, not in a manner I could see or hear. Once I had warmed myself, I moved toward them saying, “I am excited to have you as my companions today. This adventure is, is beyond my imagination. But it is getting late. I need to head back to my bag, my clothes, if not the cabin before too long.” I felt uneasy, not wanting to undermine the efforts of my hosts, for they were intent upon showing me something important to them. They just stared at me. I continued, “I, I don’t mean to be rude. I really want to continue. But I am naked,” I laughed uneasily, “I won’t be able to spend the night out here, not like this,” pointing to my body. “Do you think maybe we could–”
Both the Coyote and Bear lowered their heads just as I heard the faint crack of a branch breaking behind me and without pause, another. I spun ’round to see what was approaching when I was knocked to the ground, the weight of something tremendous fully upon me. My face hit the ground without my hands breaking the fall. I felt pine needles and small stones embed themselves in the skin of my right cheek, forehead, and shoulder. Whatever was on top of me was incredibly strong, it’s body covered in fur which now pressed against my skin.
I tried to roll out from beneath its weight, struggling to regain my feet but I could barely move. I called out, “Bear! Please–” and then the hot breath of a powerful jaw engulfed my neck, both front and back. The teeth pierced my skin and I felt the warmth of my own blood. The teeth were perfectly placed to crush my airway, to suffocate me. I could not call out. I could no longer breathe.
My eyes filled with tears. Not for the pain, but for the fear that I felt inside. Fear of what would happen next. Fear of my life ending so unexpectedly. Fear of the unknown.
Then I felt anger. I felt cheated by Coyote whom I had helped—or had he needed help at all? The trickster. My friend the bear, he knew too. He knew this was where I was being led. What did I do to deserve this? Why?! I opened and closed my eyes rapidly to beat away the tears. I saw Bear and Coyote as they were before, heads bowed, watching. The did not come to my side. They had not even moved.
My right arm was pinned beneath me. My left arm outstretch, fingers opening and closing autonomously. I wondered why they did that for they no longer felt a part of me. Then I saw the paw, shifted to just inches from my nose. The claws were extended. The mountain lion relaxed and the weight on my back increased. The last bit of air in my lungs was forced out. I noticed the claws no longer dug at the dirt with the same intensity.
Many years ago, before I headed into the back country of Denali National Park, Alaska I had read a book about bear attacks. I would be alone there for two weeks, several days at a time without seeing another human. I wanted to better understand the behavior of bears. I learned as much about how humans behave when confronted with something so powerful as their own death. Those who could walked away, ran, or fought back. Some screamed for help until it came or they were overcome. Some survived. Some did not, the story told by those who found the remains.
One woman remained still while the bear scratched at her skull, the sound of its teeth echoing in her head over and over again. She lived. I never understood why she didn’t fight back … until this day. I thought of all the ways to respond. I recalled with rapid clarity all the things I was suppose to do. But my entire body was immobilized as much by the presence of this creature as by the power of his teeth, jaw, and claws. I gave in.
As when I was a child, I lost all sense of time. One moment was an hour. That hour was an entire day. And that day was without comparison to any other I had lived before. I had run with a Coyote. I had been reunited with my companion the Bear. I had played my part in the game, and I played it well.
I could see neither Bear nor Coyote nor the paw in front of me for my vision was gone. I heard Coyote bark and then howl. Bear shuffled his feet and snorted. The breath of Lion above me remained warm, even soothing.
Slowly, the voices in my head became silent. The chatter was gone. No concern for deadlines. No worry for finances. No confusion over relationships with friends and family. I was free of language, my thoughts replaced with emotion. While I had in what seemed like hours before grieved for the loss of all that I considered—I no longer heard any sounds. Even the warmth of Lion’s breath was gone. I was taken by a sense of calm like none I had ever experienced. I felt honored to be given the life I had lived, to experience something so incredible.
I smiled. Then I was done.
This story continues with Part V