The sow was sleeping on a day-bed in brush. She didn’t rouse when the helicopter “whopping” grew louder. They often came and went from the little Valier airport next to Lake Francis. A momentary overwhelming sensation like a blow, thrashing, and then oblivion. She never heard the shouting among the people who came cautiously to confirm her death or the machinery that loaded her up to be driven to a wildlife “morgue” in Great Falls. The first thing “processed”, to use a CSI term, would be her radio collar.
Her dreams had been about sheep, recycling the obsession with sheep that first took hold of her the previous summer. She had recently been bred by a big boar who pushed her away from the mountains, out onto the prairie, but that’s where she wanted to go anyway. For a bear, sex wasn’t a big deal and she didn’t think about it once it was over. If it weren’t for her molecular patterning, she’d never allow it. Everything in her life was centered on food, not sex. She didn’t like being around other bears, except her cubs. There was never enough food and she hated sharing.
Obsession drove one place into her mind, mapping the ecstasy of killing and eating as much as she wanted onto her mammal brain. We all remember exceptional meals, neurologists know that brains constantly map the world and note intense experiences where something significant happened: this bear noted an attack on sheep where she went into a frenzy of killing while her cubs gobbled remains.
The crimson stinging velvet of oozing blood. The groaning distension of swollen viscera. Wool, torn into floating wisps or soaked so that it clung to surfaces. Moaning and strange bleats replaced the constant blatting and blatting because sheep are always hungry, too. The satisfaction of finally biting through wool and skin to the bloody flesh, the crunching bones, the organs packed with acid tastes of secretion and digestion. The pleasure of swatting a lamb with her huge paw so that it flew away in a struggling arc, too helpless to live.
The intensity of that still gripping her body in the repetition of memory almost overwhelmed the confusion of being darted and transported by the dangerous strange metal and human forces that had put that irritating collar on her neck. She couldn’t summon her prodigious strength to overwhelm them, but they only added to the intensity of her recent dreams, shattered them but failed to snuff the place memory of sense overload, joy of destruction mixing adrenaline with blood of the prey.
She didn’t like the west side of the Rockies. The sun was in the wrong place, when there WAS sun, because it was wet and hot, smoky, the wrong kind of vegetation. The mountains blocked the way back so she went north, then found a river. She knew how to follow a river and that got her back onto the prairie. That meant her inner compass took her to a familiar place — this time nothing about food but about denning.
The winter was warm and her obsessive dream clung to her as she roused now and then. The snowpack was not as deep as usual, so that light, and even sounds, sifted in through the drift over the den entrance. She woke early, famished and irritated by the also-waking cubs. With rage she burst through the snow and started down the mountain with the still sleep-stiffened cubs stumbling along as best they could.
Arousal brought the obsession back. She couldn’t think of anything else. The vegetation that usually cleared her gut tract wasn’t there — too early for it. The land was drier than usual, the little rivulets that fed into larger streams were smaller and fewer. And yet the sky was overcast, should have carried rain in the gray clouds. Gradually her muscles gained power and control, but she wasn’t herself until the big boar took her from behind. Then her internal chemistry shifted while the fertilized ova within took hold on the wall of her womb and triggered a familiar cycle.
Again she thought of those sheep. She remembered the way from her high den down along the river to Lake Francis. It was really a dammed impoundment for irrigating the fields. As far back as she remembered, this prairie had been farmed in an industrial method, the little farmsteads giving way to huge machines and long, wheeled pipes feeding pressurized arcs of water. The modest houses were moved into town or bulldozed or they burned, so that no one went there anymore and the lines of trees, windbreak shrubs, woodlots, and unwatered yards made good places for a bear to hole up. Or maybe the small half-collapsed outbuildings still had a bit of roof.
Bears, so large and dangerous, have two defenses, the opposite sides of the coin. On the one hand, they were terrifying and other beings tended to melt away quietly or just run for it. On the other hand, constant fighting was a drain on energy and it was a more clever plan to stay invisible, to watch, to keep a running band of sensations something like radio telemetry. Instead of batteries, it ran on memories, the song of the landscape controlling the drumbeat of hunger, hunger, hunger.
The ground in places held rhizomes and roots that satisfied the need to gnaw and crush. Great ivory claws broke the land and brought edible lumps to the surface. Lying on her belly in the sun that finally came, chewing up camas roots leisurely was a fulfilling pleasure. But always in the bear’s brain was the intoxicating intensity, the addiction, to sheep.
Return was inevitable. And fatal.
The cubs without a mother were too old to whimper, but they made noises in their throats and didn’t like being separated from each other. At night they went into the town and walked the dusty streets. They went among the tin buildings and found they could lick grain from the labyrinth around them. Dogs barked at them, but the dogs were always barking. No one paid attention. Until they began to see paw prints and droppings.