No doubt about it. The bear was stalking her.
K.P. had been trying to ignore the bear for three days so she could finish her home-school class in Alaska History. The bear kept sneaking through the willow and alder forest to the edge of the yard from different directions at different times of the day.
It wasn’t much of a yard. It was a tiny cleared area around a 15-by-20-foot cabin surrounded by millions of acres of willow, alder and spruce. The bear was getting close. Too close to ignore any longer.
K.P. sighed and put down her pencil.
Mom had what she called an agreement with the bears. She wouldn’t bother them if they didn’t bother her. There had been a couple close calls, but the agreement had held for the twenty-five years she’d been living in the woods. The only exception Mom had told K.P. about happened a little over fifteen years ago, right after K.P. was born.
K.P. had been born in an old claw-foot bathtub filled with water taken from the unnamed creek that crossed the road a few miles toward town and heated on the woodstove they still used. Before they left, the midwives had dumped the birth water in the yard, right outside the cabin. Though well-intentioned and helpful, even necessary, this was not a smart move. Bears lived in the woods, especially in the area around the cabin, which some of the more excitable locals referred to as Predator Alley.
The blood in the birth water and K.P.’s crying had attracted a bear, and the bear had come right up to the cabin and started clawing at the door, trying to get in. If Mom was telling the story in the cabin, she would open the door and show everybody the weathered claw marks in the plywood siding and trim board over the door.
Mom would shout and bang pots and pans to scare the bear away, which made K.P. cry, which she did a lot anyway, being two days old. Between K.P. and the bear and the near-constant daylight of May in Alaska, Mom wasn’t getting any sleep or even a chance to relax.
It was getting late in the afternoon of the second day of K.P.’s life when the bear circled back to the edge of the trees. Mom opened the door, drew a bead on the bear, and shot it dead. No matter who she told the story to or where she told it, Mom always included these three details: she was naked when she shot the bear, she only had two bullets for her rifle, and the bear was old and sick looking.
Mom always sounded like she felt bad for the bear, sorry it was sick and old, sorry she’d had to shoot it. K.P. didn’t feel sorry for the old bear at all. She took it personally that the bear had been trying to eat her, even if she didn’t remember it.
K.P. left her school work and crept across the cabin to her thirty-aught-six. She checked the safety out of long habit and set the scope at minimum magnification for the short-range shot.
This bear, K.P. thought, making her way back to the table, is not old and sick. His coat is shiny and healthy, and he is definitely stalking me.
It bothered her that the bear wanted to eat her, which meant the bear had broken not-bothering part of the agreement.
The only problem K.P. had with shooting the bear was the work she would have to do afterward — gutting and cleaning and butchering, processing the meat, which there probably wasn’t room for in the propane freezer. And she’d need to find a place to dump the gut pile so it didn’t bring in another bear.
K.P. didn’t have a lot of use for bear meat. Dad loved to make chili with it, using red peppers her grandma sent up from New Mexico. Mom liked bear meat about any way, liked it so much she started rubbing her fingers together when she talked about it. But they weren’t around at the moment. Mom was gone scouting for sheep hunting in the fall, and Dad was offshore on the rig.
The nights had turned cool so if she got the hide off the bear and hung it in one of the four-wheeler sheds, she could put off the processing for a few days, invite some people over to help, and give them bear meat as thanks. She could probably trade Jenny bear meat for some home-canned vegetables.
As far as K.P. was concerned, the real prize was the bear fat. Nothing beats bear fat. Watching this bear watch the cabin she wished it was a later in the year, just before winter, so the bear had a thicker layer of fat on his body.
She wanted the fat to fry donuts. Fry up some hot, fresh donuts and spread Nutella on them and cry they tasted so good. Mom thought they were out of Nutella, but K.P. had hidden a jar in her room after the last supply run to Anchorage. She hadn’t been thinking about bear-fat donuts, she’d just been thinking ahead. Just like how she’d started thinking of the bear as a male as soon as she’d picked up her rifle, because that made it easier to think about shooting him.
The bear had taken a step or two back into the forest. He was in the shadows at the edge of the forest, almost out of sight, but K.P could still see him. He was a shape, a darker shadow in the trees. She tried to take her mind off the bear, hoping he’d relax and come out into the yard where she could see him and shoot him.
Was it forest if it was only willow and alder, even if they were twenty feet tall? It wasn’t just brush, that was for sure. Anybody who disagreed was welcome to come clear an acre or two so as to develop a more informed opinion.
Once upon a time, there had been half a dozen spruce trees, but they had been growing on the only piece of level ground where they could put the greenhouses, so the trees had come down.
You don’t need no shade trees in Alaska, Grampa liked to say, but K.P. missed the spruce. They were real trees. Willow and alder grew tall, but they grew so tangly they were almost spooky. It was almost like a jungle in there, and you could hardly see through the gloom, let alone walk through it. How the moose did it, she would never know.
I’ll use the mini excavator, K.P. thought, chain him to the bucket, hoist him up, then pull the wheeler trailer under him and when I open him up his guts will drop right into the trailer and I’ll haul them off, no problem. Maybe give them to J.A. to feed to his sled dogs. I’ll rinse the trailer out in the creek on the way home.
At that point K.P. realized the bear had vanished into the forest, leaving only stillness behind.
K.P. clicked the mouse to restart her lesson and picked up the pencil she’d been using to doodle her way through class and started a new doodle, thinking more about Nutella than whatever it was some school board wanted her to know about the history of the forty-ninth state.
Nobody was going to ask her, she knew, but if they did, she’d tell them there was a lot more history to be found in the old mine up the mountain from the cabin than in any textbook ever written. Heck, there was more history in the rusted-out hulk of the claw-footed bathtub she’d been born in. She looked up from the computer screen and looked out the window at the tub. It was no more than five steps outside the front door, half-sunken into the yard and wholly overgrown by rose hips and raspberries.
K.P. knew the bear would be back. She had her rifle next to her, a two-hundred grain round in the chamber, four more in the magazine, and a box of twenty on the window sill. And she was damn sure going to have her clothes on when she shot him.