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Book Excerpt: Aftermath of a Bear Attack
We tend think of fatal bear attacks as singular acts of violence—rare but horrific collisions between mankind and nature that make the news and then fade from view. For those left behind, however, the consequences linger forever. John W. Evans was just 29 years old when his wife Katie was mauled and killed by a predatory bear in the Carpathian Mountains, leaving him guilt-stricken and bewildered by the sudden loss. He explores that grief in his haunting new memoir, Young Widower, out this month from University of Nebraska Press. In this excerpt, Evans recreates the events from that fateful night in the forest.
Maybe the bear had been there for a while, and they did not see it until that moment: the now-lit path, wide across the ridge, coming into focus. Katie’s flashlight reflecting brighter on the far rocks as she turned the crank. She stood like that a moment, testing the charge, looking in every direction for the trail. A mountaintop.
Maybe the bear was migrating with the season, seeking out less encroached-upon spaces, guarding the path for its cubs. Seasonal construction crossing this path put the bear on edge, making it more cautious but also wilder, wary. Hunters crossed here; and tourists with cameras who threw rocks; cars and state vehicles and construction trucks; the long gondola whirring when there was no wind. The buildings all year now shook with noise and lights. At night the windows dimmed and went silent. Here was the safest place and time to cross this ridge and perhaps the next ridge; to make a wide circle of other bears; to be alone; to move down across the forest, toward the streams, to fish and forage.
Katie put on her pack. Her ankle was swelling now; it would soon be stiff. They walked the trail single-file, cautiously, stepping carefully up and down the rocks, making little noise to announce their presence. So perhaps they surprised each other. The bear ambling toward them, doglike, taking its time, careful about the surrounding darkness. The hikers securing their footing and saying nothing in the last light. The bear must have seemed enormous: three and four times the size of bears at a zoo, outsized but also vibrant, so plain in its terror. The claws retracted. The snout closed.
How far away was it? Ten feet? Twenty? No one seemed to know. Katie’s mind flashed options, calculating the intervening time and 12 space. Three or four seconds. Did the bear really see them? Did the bear care that they were there? She thought, We can run, but she knew they could not outpace it. She thought to open the pack and find the pepper spray. Was there enough time? The pepper spray was zipped into a pouch inside the top pocket. If she dropped the pack and dug inside of it, then she might call attention to herself and distract the bear. It might charge. Of course, anything she did could provoke the bear. There was a space between them still; that was important. And maybe the bear had not yet seen them.
Katie was easily the most fit, the one who knew and loved nature. She looked to the two hikers behind her. How quickly did the surprise turn to terror? Was it in an instant? Was the understanding of their danger, and their mortality, obvious? Or, did they laugh at first? Were they shocked and overwhelmed? A f—ing bear! Was that shock held in check by reason and optimism? There were three of them and only one bear. Could they, together, scare it off and escape the situation?
Katie looked at Sara, then the Romanian. No one did anything. They stood there, stock-still, and the bear approached.
How long had it been now? A few seconds? Katie took off her pack and threw it as far as she could in the other direction. Sara did the same thing. If the bear was hungry, it might follow the packs. The outer pouches were filled with candy, water, granola bars, dried fruit. They had only managed to toss the packs three or four feet, but it might give them enough time. They walked as a group, slowly and backward, shading just right, to open a distance between themselves, the bear, and the packs. If the bear followed, Katie told Sara, then it might still become distracted. It might break off its pursuit to find food. It might lose interest.
Did she imagine then they would all survive? Was she hopeful for it? The hill inclined toward the path, then the water. Bears were faster but perhaps not as sure-footed as humans. Could they make it to the rocks at the stream? Should they arm themselves with rocks and sticks? The pepper spray was in the pack, but perhaps with a few rocks and a little luck they could grab it.
Or perhaps this was the foolish option. The bear was large, heavy, resolute. It could charge at any moment. Why was Katie making these decisions? The bear continued forward, slow and deliberate. Katie said they should all play dead, so they rolled onto the ground and covered their heads. At what strange angles to the ground they must have held their bodies. How terrifying, that waiting in the dark for the attack to either begin or not begin, and thinking still, this might pass. They might survive all of this, if they only remained still and waited.
The bear pawed first at Sara and the Romanian, not Katie. It swiped at their heads, tore at their scalps and legs, pushed into their backs. They were injured and afraid but not yet hysterical. They continued to play dead.
They submitted to the bear, but the bear did not choose them.
Who was the first person to think of it? That one or two of them might survive if only one of them didn’t? That they did not have to outrun the bear, or defeat it, or discourage it. Perhaps they thought of it like this: the odds are on someone’s side. Individually, whoever ran first had only to get clear and back to the trail. If the bear did not follow, then it would be the other person who abandoned the victim. They had only to surrender the idea of the group, and wasn’t the bear doing that already, focusing now on Katie, leaving them be? How long should they wait like that? Didn’t each minute they stayed only increase the odds that the bear might turn back to them and take a second look? Could they turn away from this last part of themselves? They did not have to want to do it. It could appear suddenly in their minds, a surprise, a well-reasoned and complete idea for which they had no agency. Fortune. Distraction. Survival.
Who worked out the math, the timing, the imperfect logistics, until running became the only real option? Who lay there, waiting to try it? How long did they wait? It seemed an eternity, this waiting, but it had only been a few minutes since they stood at the kilometer marker with the rest of the group, taking pictures. Hadn’t the other group abandoned them there? The victims were here, while the survivors had gone ahead to the hostel to sleep for the night. Did anyone notice their absence? Hadn’t they missed their window to catch up?
They must have heard a voice yelling Katie’s name, then their own. Perhaps they recognized it. Should they respond to it? Did their voices risk unsettling the balance of disinterest and safety? Still, they were all alive. The bear seemed now more menacing than curious. It seemed to wait for something.
And then Katie’s voice yelled back, sudden and louder than the wind on the ridge, clear and insistent.
Don’t come closer. Find a gun. Get back quickly.
Katie had spoken. She had broken the silence.
The voice was gone now. A window of time was closing. Did any of them really believe that help would arrive in time? Now there was no longer obligation, only panic and its acceleration, and Katie, unable to move, laying stock-still on the ground, following the rules, still playing dead and waiting. She whispered to the others to leave, to go get help and come back. She watched them leave, and in the silence that followed, she understood she was now brave and selfless, heroic and elect, and that these were judgments that could come only after the fact of her death, in the witness of those who survived to speak of it.
I must tell this last part even if I do not know it. I have to think through how she made this decision and what happened afterward, even if I cannot know.
Katie lay on the ground, waiting. She made her body into a ball so that the bear could only strike obliquely. She covered her face and waited. She would not have felt optimistic or hopeful for herself, and she would not have felt good for the people she had rescued. Her mind did not work this way. There would be no pleasure, only a sense of obligation flashing once across her mind, to say she had done the right thing by the people she loved. She had saved them. Or, better still, she had given them the chance to save themselves. However they cowered from it and tried to refuse it, or say it was a matter of circumstance and timing and luck, always just below their complicated reasoning, their absence of guilt and refusal to explain, was the irrefutable fact of their witness. Katie had given them permission to leave. She asked them to do it.
In that moment, perhaps, Katie imagined her own death without consequence. She waited for it. Through the fear, the pain, and then the absence of pain. Long enough for her friends to get clear. Patient for what she knew now was the end. She heard the voices, closer, then further away. Then, no voices. No sound, no presence, no sense of self. Only the object of her body waiting to be received. Her mind becoming one part of that body, calling for help until it could not make words, only sounds, locating itself in the surrounding darkness. Then the mind, separate of that darkness.
It was roughly twenty minutes from the moment the two hikers left the hill until Katie’s death, but in this last moment, she was not present. She could not be. The mind cannot organize so much pain and fear and suffering and also withstand it. This is the last, great lie of the surviving witness, and from everything I could find to read about trauma after Katie’s death, it is also true. Katie’s pupils opened to receive the last light coming across the ridge. She saw nothing. Not the stars or the grass or the bear, or the bear leaving and everyone arriving, slowly and too late, to claim her.
Young Widower: A Memoir by John W. Evans, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2014 by John W. Evans.