The river rolls in troughs and waves, a buoyant, undulating rhythm. Upstream, icy rapids dissipate into eddies that breathe and the last of the Jesus bugs leave wakes upon the surface. A salmon pits its strength against the current. Firm. Quicksilver arc into the eddy, into a darkness that is home.
“Long day,” she thinks; “And now. Him.” She shakes her head, “What I wouldn’t do for an empty mind.” She begins to stretch, long and lean. Thunder cracks, splits the sky; she feels its echo in the crack of her back as she stretches toward her toes. Cat’s feet on the skylight, or rain, soft sounds at first, “Spa music, for real.” She breathes with the rhythm of calm. Another thunderclap and the power goes. No matter. Her eyes are closed. The gutters fill and spill as the rain comes down in waves. She pauses, enticed, eyeing the darkness obscured by a panting windowpane. The door beckons. She opens it and smells: all the life gone wet. She hears the elixir. Tastes the hunger. Fearlessly into the rain and darkness. Gone.
Colors are gone and nights are icy cold. The bear is hungry. Tired. He heads for the river, looking for fish, but the banks of the shallow river are already iced. Not in the mood for effort and likely failure. Maybe the hunters have left scraps of gutted elk. No, no smell of carrion. He heads for the campground. BBQ chips. Still-moist watermelon, ants and yellowjackets be damned. A sound–one there, another there. He turns towards the first, exposing his brawn to the second. The tranquilizer dart penetrates deep tissue with a decisive bite, “This,” the man thinks; “Bites.” He holds his head in his hands and ponders being new to this side of the razor wire. He sighs. Launches a tobacco-flavored spit-bullet onto the floor. Stares at it. His thoughts tethered to cement blocks; “Fuck this looking for a job in this shithole town.” He’s tired. Tired of rejections, tired of putting on the happy face, tired of waiting ‘till he can put the happy face away. Too tired for a brilliant idea’s energy.
When he hears the knock on the door, he doesn’t get up. But then: it’s probably her, “Hey,” she says, pauses; “You look pretty rough.”
“Thanks,” he says, looking away from her. “You could have stopped at pretty, you know.”
“C’mon. Let’s go for a drive. Get you out of this pit of despair.” She looks behind him into the room. “You know,” she says, “I could have stopped at pit.” They drive, their tail-lights the center of the vanishing point. Past the “For Lease” signs in vacant stores, past the picket fences protecting homes with no one in them, past the last dumpster in the broken-bottle graveyard, and take up the pace of the train, moving, uninterrupted, out of town.
What the windows see: late autumn bean fields, yellow-brown, drying in the dying light.
She glances at him, but can’t read his face. She says: “These beans get shipped to Mexico. Did you know that? The workers come from Mexico; the beans go to Mexico. Go figure. Why not grow their own beans and give the people reasons, like a job, to stay in Mexico?” He isn’t listening. He’s thinking of that movie, that Thelma and Louise, driving off a cliff. Of buffalo, chased by Indians off a cliff into air, crash-landing in mutilated piles at the bottom. He is thinking of it, that cliff, and what it would feel like to be airborne.
The water’s surface in the slanted light gives the sky’s persistent gaze a bounce-back mirror. Face-to-face with its own self, the existential crisis does not end with the onset of its night eyes brooding over dark water. The formidable waters, the icy air, quicksilver salmon flexing muscle…time to spawn.
The bear lifts his paw, cuffs his own ear. He can’t get up. His pungent virility leaves the air gasping for breath. No scent of earth or damp or carrion. This is not his den. He is penned. This is his dream: a biped, he rises, spittle flying as he shakes his head, unleashes teeth too long vegetarian, and spikes the salmon in flight, airborne with its power to go upstream. Rip the belly open and feast. Indifferent to the head with eyes open, tail twitching, spawning on moist sand. Ravenous.
The blow to the prisoner’s back makes him stumble, cough. “Move it, I said!” As if he wasn’t. Back to the dank cell and a darkened mind. He sits on the floor with fire in his belly, perhaps the prison food. He thinks of her, of Mexican beans, of her, driving into the night, the night of his ungodly stupidity, of her. Ravished.
What he’d told her: “I have no problem with skin on skin, you know what I mean? No fear. Once in? They tell me I’m the best ever. I just…I’m trapped. By my own mind. And, with three years gone, where do I start?”
“A massage,” she’d suggested; “Full body, deep tissue. You’ve been in hibernation. Make your body hungry again.”
Appetite is not the problem, he’d thought. But the massage table? Tame restrained stimulation. Called to the table, instinct to eat denied. Might as well stay in hibernation. Someone touching me is not the same as the something of fire and ice. Fire and ice, “Think of it this way,” he’d told her. “I’m standing on a precipice. Falling would be fine. Exhilarating, liberating. No fear of what that would feel like. Thing is, I want to take that step, over the edge.”
“If not a fear of falling, then a fear of what? You’re a scenic view–you know that, right? But with a fence around you and a sign that says, No Trespassing. Yeah. Fenced in. There are reasons for that. Trespass here,” she had said, exposing the firm meat of her breasts and the white of her belly; “No laws, no fences here.” The pupil of her eyes black ice.
He anticipated it. Rain. Jolting, ice-cold, absolute. Wished he was waterproof. Knew that he wasn’t.
He’d felt the reverberations within, a predator, too long incarcerated. Ravenous, untethered. Over the precipice free-fall of fire and ice. Beastly carnivore, he feasted, indifferent to her beating pulse, unmoved by liquid spilt from gaping eyes. Crash-landing. Silence. Cement. A cell-bound chill his bones well recall. Penned. Skimming the wall beside him, a spider. He smashes it with the palm of his hand. Licks the carcass gone.
Nothing lives. This is the bear’s dream: the salmon lies on the bank of the river, belly slashed, black pupil askance at preoccupied sky, tail weakly twitching. A raven stops mid-flight deciding, descending with eyes beady black on succulent fish eye. The raven’s blackness fed, it retreats to the sky, oblivious to fresh eggs on tumbled-rock soil.
The bear sees a palpitation of water ladle the roe into a nestling pool. The eddy soothes the ravaged remains. Settling in the darkness among her roe, the salmon gives herself like a nurse log, to raise her roe tenacious, hungry for the return upstream.
Heidi Juel is a Professor of English at Austin Community College (Texas). She teaches survey courses in American Literature and two Honors courses: Magical Realism, and Native North America.