Friday, January 4, 2013

Bear Sign

By William Van Poyck

Before my son became a man I took him on a black bear hunt in a still-wild part of the Florida panhandle. He disliked hunting, hated guns.

Despite my best efforts my son possessed hands busy in the way of senseless delinquency, feet swift to heed trouble’s call. His latest arrest resulted in expulsion from the military academy. Before that, following his expulsion from public school, was a Christian academy — he lasted two weeks there. His actions bore the familiar scent of an indomitable will, (the psychiatrist used more clinical terms), and though I loved him I was determined to crush it. I could not help myself. It was all that I knew.

The day before, I had struck my son, not for the first time. On this occasion he did not cry out or recoil, but took the blow fully in the face, eyes glaring, countenance infrangible, while the slap echoed up like a melancholy refrain. In renewed anger I set to breaking his wild spirit, lashing out with closed fist and mind. He absorbed it all, stripe for stripe, blow for blow, until all that remained was my urgent breath laboring vainly for a lost cause. I hated myself for it. My son set his face with the determination of Magellan seeking the edge of the world, and in that singular moment I discerned a mighty move of his spirit, far away from me, toward I knew not what. It was then that I accepted that something definitive had to be done.

Rising early the following morning I took my son out into the autumn air and with measured steps escorted him through patches of scrub palmettos framed by moss-draped live oaks. The eager hounds pulled on their long leather leashes, urging us forward. Only their busy noses, occasionally offering up a muted snort or snuffle, broke the stillness. We both carried shotguns.

We moved in exquisite isolation, Indian file, deep into the dark woods. Puffs of condensed air clung to our faces with each exhale, like gentle kisses from a reluctantly parting lover. In the mocking silence of pursed lips we trudged across the dry leaf litter, each stride rising up like a silent accusation challenging the fragile bridge connecting our hearts. The apparent solitude allowed me to feel the contours of the bitterness that lay between us, to sense his naked spirit of rebellion. He was much like me. I suddenly recalled an image of his mother, before her mind unraveled, playing with him on a freshly made bed. He was all giggles, plump limbs and cornflower-blue eyes, displaying the unfettered enthusiasm of a precocious toddler, gliding from laughter to childish prayer with the naturalness of one still able to inhabit both worlds.

I stepped on a stout twig and the dry snap filled my ears, hurling me back to that night. I again heard that single, muffled gunshot, when we both instinctively knew, and I recalled how, in the heartbeat it took us to exchange glances he raced me to the bedroom door. I suppressed the memories, of her shattered face, all crimson and alabaster, and of his keening howl, like a travailing spirit. I yanked hard on the dogs’ leashes.

As the mounting sun prodded the shadows until they yielded to the new day we struck the game trail. Bears, I knew, came that way. There, I released the hounds.

A thirty-minute forced march, jacketed in mute tension, carried us to a junction of game trail and creek where, I suspected, any bear would flee. We could barely hear the dogs. Posting my son on a low, sandy hillock, I checked his shotgun, cautioned him to silence and retired to cover the flank. An approaching bear would be silhouetted coming over the rise before us. Jacking a shell into the chamber, I squatted with my back to a towering blue gum eucalyptus and waited. From my camouflaged position I could see my son, wearing bright hunting orange, but he could not see me.

The distant cacophony of the baying dogs rose and fell. They were trailing bear, and headed our way. I clicked off the safety. An opinionated scrub jay occupying a pine tree cocked its turquoise head, inspecting me closely, then cawed out in urgent warning.

I studied my son’s profile, seeing in it my own, the shared perplexity of growing up motherless, that familiar, terrible stubbornness given shape by dire necessity. I saw his mother’s eyes, flecked golden-brown, imbued with the same soft sadness of an unfelt life. Looking down I saw my own hands, strong, proud, unremitting. I saw my father’s hands, too, hard, callous, impatient. I squeezed the shotgun’s stock, feeling the checkered grip press its pattern into my palm. A sudden sadness washed over me, and though not a religious man I was overcome by an irresistible urge to reason with God over my son’s fate. Driven by an unmistakable certainty that victory depended more on praying than fighting I closed my eyes and bowed my head, struggling to compose a plea. Finally, of its own accord my heart opened in fervent supplication and I choked out an earnest prayer. I cried out with the desperation of Abraham, turning my son’s fate over to God. Tears streamed down my face as I begged God for some sign that my plea was heard. A whip-poor-will’s lonely call beckoned me to look up.

At that precise moment a small bear cub darted out of the bushes, tumbling, stumbling, looking back over its shoulder in wide-eyed terror. It scrambled through the low brush to within ten feet of me. The cub trembled, casting its eyes about wildly, bleating pitifully. Just then the barking dogs bounded into the clearing. The cub ran toward me and pushed its head between my legs, squalling a muffled cry of despair. I lifted the tiny thing to my chest, away from the leaping dogs with their frenzied, gnashing teeth. At that moment, as I spun about, I felt that the very hounds of hell could not tear away from me that defenseless, motherless cub which had so blindly placed its trust in me.

It was then that the strangest thing happened. Time itself seemed to stand still as I was telescoped upward, seemingly through the top of my head, and the earth in all its fullness fell away. At the speed of thought I was hurtled high into the uttermost heavens. All about me was a pure, radiant white light, more brilliant than anything possible on earth, yet soft and pleasing to the eyes. I felt no fear, only a sense of waiting, as if for an appointment. Then, I felt something strive with my heart with the fervor of Jacob wrestling with the angel until suddenly a great weight was lifted away and a most profound sense of peace filled me completely, as water rushes to fill a vacuum. Never had I felt, nor even imagined, such overwhelming, unconditional love. The most wonderful celestial music filled my being, stunning me with notes and tones of such divine perfection that I was humbled in awe at being privileged to experience them. The very cosmos itself sang out in joy in a language of such beauty that its utterance on earth is most certainly a physical impossibility — and yet, I knew, it was my true native tongue.

My spirit itself was opened up and pure knowledge, pure wisdom, from the ever-flowing stream of life itself, flowed through me. I was shown that time is an illusionary construct by which we measure our progress and that all life, every atom, every living cell, every creature, past, present and future, is forever interconnected by an ineffable, inviolable bond that we know as love. It is, I was shown, the one absolute, universal law, the first cause. I knew with absolute certainty that I was home and I wanted nothing more than to stay forever in the presence of that light, for to be absent from it is to be absent from all that is all.

Yet, in the next moment I was back under that eucalyptus tree, cradling the now-purring cub, sunlight streaming upon my face. The dogs had slunk away and were cowering in big-eyed wonder. My son ran up, his expression questioning. I dropped my shotgun, set the cub down and hugged my son, weeping freely and without shame.

I cannot fully explain or understand what happened in that clearing and I am left certain only of one thing, that the truth of that day so burned itself into my bones that it changed me utterly. I never hunted again, nor did I ever again strike my son. Instead, I took pen in hand to set down what I saw and heard, determined fully to record the experience before time’s sure passage could dim the memory and make me doubt it ever occurred.


(Please note this story is a work of fiction)

Bill Van Poyck

William Van Poyck  #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street, 
Raiford, FL 32026-1160

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