The Bear by Ellis Shuman

A 65-year-old man was killed by a bear in the Rhodope Mountains on Friday. The victim was in the woods collecting firewood when he was attacked, villagers said. More than 200 wild bears roam the forests in the Smolyan District, but this was the first reported case of a bear attacking a human.

“The bears are starving,” explained the mayor of the village.

“They may be starving, but that doesn’t mean we should be served as their dinner!” complained one of the terrified villagers.

 “He killed a cow last year,” cried another.

“He’s a killer bear!”

“There’s no need to get alarmed,” cautioned the mayor. “The appropriate authorities have been contacted and they assured me they will deal with the problem.”

The appropriate authority was Anton Monev, head of the Regional Police Directorate. Anton called me shortly after being notified of the incident. He urged me to come, saying I could join him the next morning when he went to hunt down the bear.

Anton’s phone call came as a surprise, as we hadn’t spoken for some time. I welcomed his invitation and canceled plans to meet friends for drinks that evening. I got in my car and sped south from Sofia toward the Rhodopes, a non-stop drive of some 240 kilometers. I arrived late at night and found Anton waiting for me with a bottle of rakia on his table.

“The villagers fear for their lives,” Anton said as he poured my drink. I raised my glass to toast him, but he turned away, as if lost in thought. After a minute he spoke again of the villagers. “Some of them are afraid to leave their homes. Rightfully so.”

“Surely the bear would never enter the village,” I said, wondering if this was true. “Has anyone actually seen the creature?”

“There have been sightings.” Anton turned his kitchen chair around and straddled it. “But I’m not convinced the reports are real,” he said. “You know how villagers are.”

In the office, my colleagues had spoken about the residents of this particular village. They were simple folk, many of whom had never traveled farther than Smolyan, the regional center. A few had been to Sofia, but none had ever left Bulgaria. The village is situated not far from the Greek border. Long ago, shepherds would herd their flocks back and forth over an unfenced mountain pass. These days they kept their animals closer to home.

There was nothing, really, that differentiated this village from any other. The younger generation had abandoned it in pursuit of jobs and a better life in Sofia, or possibly outside the country. The remaining residents, several of them nonagenarians, tended their gardens, cared for their cows and goats, and kept a wary distance from marauding bears.

Until now, anyway.

“Let me tell you about our bears,” Anton said, as if he was the proud owner of one of them. “The brown bear is a protected species, of course. It’s a huge animal, but shy. Bears usually do everything they can to avoid people. That is why there are so few sightings. The bear senses the presence of a human and retreats. More dangerous would be meeting a mother bear protecting its cub. They can be quite aggressive,” he said, brushing lint off the sleeve of his dark blue police uniform.

“A short time ago in a village to the east, a bear broke into a barnyard and killed a sheep,” Anton continued, putting out one cigarette and lighting another. “When the remaining flock fled into the farmer’s barn, they trampled each other and many of them suffocated to death. This attack against a man? Bears only attack when provoked, when someone intrudes on their territory. That must be the reason it killed the villager,” he concluded, offering me another glass of rakia, which I declined. “We’ll find it soon enough. You need to get some sleep. We’ll set out early.”

Anton was divorced, like me. He had three children and they lived with his ex-wife in Plovdiv. I didn’t know how much contact Anton kept with them as he didn’t discuss his family with me. In fact, we barely talked these days, and never about personal matters. My wife and I split up after a two-year childless and loveless marriage. I lived a quiet bachelor’s life in Sofia with only the pressures of my job to keep me occupied. Long days, challenging assignments, but I enjoyed it. I rarely traveled to the Rhodopes, hadn’t visited in Smolyan in some time. But Anton was my brother and we should see each other more often. How could I not jump at his call?

I slept soundly, not bothered by the lumpy mattress which once belonged to my nephew. I awoke in the predawn darkness to the tempting smell of dark coffee. Still rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I stumbled into the kitchen. Anton handed me the coffee but remained standing while I sat down for a light breakfast.

“It will rain today,” he informed me, staring out the window. This morning Anton wore civilian clothes—gray polyester jacket; soiled beige slacks with an abundance of pockets; an orange ball hat; and thick-soled boots. In my jeans and flannel shirt I felt like an amateur unprepared for the morning’s outing. I was nervous but eager to get started.

We drove into the foothills, the road winding through bucolic forest. Morning mist blanketed the rolling hills; a fog lay in the distant valley. We passed through the silent village, its old-style houses spotting the hillsides. The clang of cowbells in the meadows was the only sign of life at this early hour. Above, the sky darkened with ominous clouds and a cold wind picked up when we parked near a copse of trees. The first drops of rain struck as we walked towards the woods.

I repositioned my backpack and followed Anton along a well-defined dirt path. The carbine rifle slung over his shoulder seemed as if it came from a much simpler era, long ago. Anton had served in the military, but I doubted this was the weapon he had used back then. Anton knew this territory well and he marched ahead in a confident stride. I was not in shape, having given up my gym membership when I became too lazy to care about my health. As we walked deeper into the woodland, I panted and hurried to catch up.

We pushed forward for about twenty minutes and then came to a sudden halt. Anton raised his hand, alerting me to potential danger. When we heard nothing but the wind and the splash of raindrops on the ground, he turned to face me.

“It was nearby that they found the corpse. The man was likely dead before his body was mauled. Mutilated, almost beyond recognition. No mistaking it as a bear attack. There were tracks, bloody pawprints. That’s where we’ll go,” he said, pointing ahead.

Gruesome details, to be sure, but also critical clues to where we might find the bear. Anton acted as if he knew what he was doing, but I wondered. Had he previously hunted bear, or any other wildlife for that matter? I didn’t picture my brother as a hunter. I questioned his decision to come alone, just the two of us, rather than assemble a larger posse of police. Maybe we should have brought a dog along to track the bear by its scent. Anton hadn’t given me a chance to discuss our plans. So typical of how he related to me.

When we were kids, I followed Anton blindly everywhere he went. My brother was my idol; he served as an example of what I should do, what clothes I should wear, what type of music I should listen to. His words were gospel to my ears and I would do whatever he asked. But he didn’t pay much attention to me, barely took notice of me as his sibling.

When we went hiking in the mountains, Anton would race ahead, excited to climb the next hill, eager to see what awaited us in the next valley. I lagged behind, often daydreaming instead of focusing on the hike. Anton only agreed to bring me with him at the insistence of our parents. My participation slowed him down.

When I became a teenager and Anton left for his short military service, I realized that he had never treated me as an equal. He related to me as a babysitter would care for a child. He acted selfishly, disregarding my preferences and opinions. He never gave me the respect I deserved. I had lived in his shadow for years, never meeting his expectations. Anton always looked down at me, I thought. This bothered me greatly, more now than before.

I brushed aside the bushes, their leaves damp and clingy. Despite attempts to avoid the dirty puddles, my shoes were soon mud-caked; my soaks were soaked. I stumbled, nearly losing my balance on the slippery rocks. Overhead, the canopy of branches offered some protection, but the steady downpour drenched me and my wet clothing clung to my skin.

We made our way through dense thicket and wild undergrowth. I barely noticed the scenery, couldn’t identify the flora if my life depended on it. Growing up, Anton had been a student of the natural sciences while I was drawn to literature and history. The natural world was foreign to me and truthfully didn’t interest me all that much. Even so, hunting down a bear in the mountains was an adventure I couldn’t refuse. And, I would make the most of it.

“Bears eat forest fruits,” Anton had told me the previous night. “Berries, walnuts, hazelnuts. They raid beehives, but they can also eat meat. Once they taste meat, they grow accustomed to it. As a result, they stalk and hunt other animals, wild and domestic. And villagers, apparently.”

I heard thunder in the distance and the rain came down stronger. The trail climbed a steep slope and I regarded my surroundings. I closed my eyes for a moment, taking in the full experience of being in thick woods with rain splattering me from above. The wind. The forest in the rain. The morning mist. The sounds of nature. The sense of being alone in the wilderness.

When I looked around, I didn’t see Anton. He had continued without me. Just like him not to care if I kept up with his pace. He must have stuck to the main path, I assumed, and not veered off to a much narrower one circling the trees. He must have marched straight up the next hill. The logical direction, I told myself. I didn’t dare to call out as Anton had warned me to keep quiet. I adjusted my backpack and hurried forward.

I trudged onward, the uneven path frequently disappearing under a coat of pine needles and fallen twigs. At times I spotted footprints, blurred by rainfall, and assumed they were Anton’s. Or possibly they were those of the villager? The route was increasingly harder to make out because of the overgrown shrubbery. It wasn’t cold, but I shivered under my wet shirt. After a short while, I sat down on a stump to catch my breath. I looked up at the trees, their leaves battered by the rain. At my feet I watched as heavy drops splattered in the puddles, streaming away in muddy rivulets. What the hell was I doing here? Was I a fool to tag along with my brother on this wild goose chase? Maybe I should turn back? Or maybe not. I was totally lost.

And then I heard something.

A rustle in the undergrowth, branches shoved aside. Steam rising from the thick vegetation. I squinted, trying to see what lurked among the bushes. Between the leaves, patches of dark brown matted fur became partially visible.

I yanked the pack off my shoulder, unzipped the largest pocket and reached inside, fumbling with my nervousness. When I heard additional noises up the path, I spun around and gasped.

The bear emerged from the shrubs, grunting and sniffing, its flanks swaying back and forth. From a distance, I couldn’t tell if the creature’s beady eyes were focused on me or if it had picked up my scent, but one thing was certain. The animal was heading my way.

I froze, trying to remember what I was supposed to do. Stare the bear in the eyes; stand in place; drop to the ground with my hands over my head and play dead; or shout at the top of my lungs? My mind blanked. Rain streamed down my face, clouding my vision. The bear huffed, approached me steadily. Still, I didn’t move. It shifted its weight and snarled, baring its jagged teeth. Drool oozed from its enormous mouth. Then it lowered its head and shook the wetness from its massive body. Its eyes fixed on me; its ears flattened as if ready to charge at the slightest provocation.

Anton was at my side. I glanced at him and met his eyes. There was a something in the way he looked at me, but I couldn’t determine exactly what it was. A sense of pride, of accomplishment, of success? Or was it more than that? I watched as he aimed his carbine at the animal. Wait! I grabbed his shoulder and pleaded with him. One shot from his gun and the bear would be done for, but I needed to get my own shot.

I raised my camera—my prized Canon EOS 5D Mark IV—and adjusted the lens. The rain would disturb the shot, I knew, and the shadows wouldn’t make for the best composition. I didn’t have time to wait for better lighting. This was the moment.

Before Anton squeezed the trigger, before I pressed my shutter button, I realized this was the first time my brother and I had done anything together since we were boys. The years had pulled us apart, sent us off in different directions, but the most unlikely event had brought us together again. A bear hunt! Each of us tracking down a wild animal on the loose for a completely different reason. Anton—to protect the elderly residents of a Rhodope village. And me—to take photos that could very well find their place on the pages of one of Bulgaria’s prominent tabloids. A real scoop. A photojournalist’s dream come true!

After all these years of estrangement, I felt something hard to describe in words. It was more than an appreciation for Anton’s invitation to share this hunt, to be with him at this pivotal moment. More than thankfulness for including me on a riveting adventure. It was a sense of being his equal at last. It moved me deeply because this is what I had seen when I looked into his eyes. He felt it too. I was recognized for what I was. His brother.

And then the bear lunged at us.

Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair.  

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