“—and you just walked away?!” Custer was thundering inside his cabin. We couldn’t make out Neo’s muffled responses, and couldn’t crowd any closer to the trailer to hear because Custer’s mercenaries had taken up corner positions, arrogantly standing there in their sunglasses with their rifles slung over their arms, all but daring us to get closer, so all we heard was Custer’s indignant retort: “It never occurred to me that I had the greatest strategic mind of an entire generation in my midst! as my second lieutenant no less! Look out, ghouls of the world! Admiral Neo says flank the enemy—by going all the way around to the other side of the goddamned world! How about this, Neo? What if we just flap our arms a little! and hope the butterfly effect makes a typhoon! or better yet a fucking sharknado!”
The convoy was fenced-in near the confluence of the river and the creek we’d explored, and here we stood by the water, watching for signs of the salmon that must even then have been making their way up to the creek. Lard Ass said he wanted to build a weir to catch them but we knew it wouldn’t happen, that there was no way we were going to stay, and yet the talk turned to the possibilities of a camp in this location, the abundance of fish, the big old-growth trees where we could have established tree huts, the polar bear as deterrent, as protection on the uphill side. But with the shouting in the camper, this talk was at best halfhearted. The other parties hadn’t returned yet; we all kept looking up the game trails, willing them back, for the advice, their help. Were we contemplating something, an attack? Not really. We hadn’t survived this long being rash and, even though we had the numbers, even though Jason and Chief and Neo and Ragnar were plenty formidable, there was no angle in provoking a firefight with trained killers, not when we could always simply agree to do whatever Custer demanded and—worst-case scenario—take whatever time we had to get as far away as possible and fortify a position in our defense. But still we kept looking up the trail, wishing Custer would relent and stop abusing poor Neo, let this fury subside.
“So that man was only lying?” the captain was suddenly shouting. “I don’t even know how you can look me in the eye after saying such an ignorant thing. Most of us wouldn’t even be alive today if we hadn’t followed at least one mysterious hint in a dream or walking into strange coincidences so saturated with meaning we can’t even look back on them without wondering Where’d all this hallucinatory mist come from? Oh, don’t look so confused! I’m not being opaque! You’re being dense! Yes, you know exactly what I mean! yes, Neo! yes, you do! or do you really believe truth has some special footing in terra firma that lies don’t? Think, man! however you got to it, by truth or by lie, weren’t that white bear’s pawprints every bit as real? as well the paws that made them? A bear, Neo! a white bear! And you propose it means nothing? Can you really be so thick to think it’s unrelated? Wormholes abound! I admit there were times in my own life when I didn’t walk through them when I had an inkling to do so.” With that, the door crashed open, and Custer shoved through. The lieutenant stepped down behind him, hat in hand, and looked over the tops of the guards’ heads at the rest of us. “But those frivolous wasteful times have passed! survival demands we do what the universe commands.”
Most people, having faced a tirade like that, would have emerged red-faced, browbeaten, hangdogged, but not Neo, who was perfectly comfortable riding whatever wave, even if it was anger.
He only shrugged: Oh well, as if to say, whatcha gonna do?
“You all think I’m nuts,” Custer called out as his mercenaries fell in line with him. “You’re wondering Why does Captain Custer insist on trusting what some dead marauder said? And you’re not wrong. Maybe I am nuts. But that white bear is still out there, so, please, any one of you, step forward now and tell me: do you know for a fact what lies or does not lie out there beyond this white bear? Of course you don’t know! And yet you’re probably all willing to just turn around and ignore the fact that you just found a polar bear in the middle of these woods, way down here at, what, 49 degrees latitude? you’re really just going to assume based on the logic of a dead world that there’s nothing worth looking into on the far side? Is any one of you so confident? so sure that the world is all so plain and simple?”
He looked around.
Not even Pippin said anything, though his mouth was moving.
“Huh?” Custer asked. “No? Didn’t think so. Now mount up.”
So, though it was nigh on dusk, we got our gear together again and started back toward the trail, and the strange thing I have to report is that we didn’t head back out dejectedly or mum in some silent protest; we were tired, sure, and not exactly satisfied by the stale crackers and anchovies Lard Ass scrounged for us, but there’d been something in what Custer said, some reason that I wouldn’t even call reason—not if reason is understood to be thought rooted in empirical evidence and formal logic, because what is logical about chasing after wormholes when at best they are metaphors for confused experience and lost time, a last-ditch effort to explain how one stumbled upon some awesome or awful phantasmagoria without any memory of selecting the path that got one there—but reason in the old sailor’s sense, a subconscious pact with the invisible tugs of the earth’s electromagnetic field or at least the sea’s invisible gyres; which, in other words, is to say what Custer said made more sense to us than we might have expected it to make, as if he’d hit on some secret with all his rantings about the white bear as portal toward nether dimensions of experience and even to this day a certain cold logic dictates that bears are bears, not portals or doors, not even symbols, because bears are only bears, and bears, even if they escape from zoos, may find a way to live in the wild, and that life, in and of itself, augurs nothing, and neither does witnessing that life, and yet if I am in a certain state of mind, or if the aurora borealis happens to be shifting green and white across the sky just as I happen to spy a moonlit snowshoe hare, all bets are off, because despite all the knowledge humankind acquired in our brief run as earth’s apex beings, we never did disprove the existence of that special kind of magic that seems to intoxicate all heroes and half-heroes and antiheroes and villains—that is, all doomed men—on their quests.
So it was that we went quietly up the hillside, up toward the darkening form of the mountain, with the creek to our left, and all the individual trees slowly bleeding together into one endless silhouette. A wind had kicked up and it blew down the slot between the far-off peaks, cold, quieting, bending the treetop silhouette so that it seemed almost like fingers coming down to grab us.
I’m sure deep down, below the intoxication of Custer’s power, we all had our private misgivings. Drawing nearer and nearer to … something … the tension radiated, thrummed along the line. But most of us remained silent. In part because we were wary of zombies. In part because we were stalking the bear. In part because we wanted to see what Custer imagined, to see what Custer was. And yet I say most of us remained silent because, as we advanced, one of us did start to speak again, that is, our strange little conscience, Pippin.
“We can’t kill the bear,” he started muttering again as it became obvious to him that there could be only one outcome with Custer and his mercenaries.
“We can’t kill the bear” started to punctuate his steps and ours.
Hushing him did no good. It grew louder and louder until it was competing with the wind, getting swallowed up in the blowing and creaking of the trees around us until Custer turned and spoke to one of the mercenaries and the mercenary came back and grabbed Pippin by his arm and told him to shut his mouth.
The walk continued as the darkness finally settled but just as quickly he started again and we all tried to stop him but he did not listen.
“We can’t kill the bear!” he called out like a bird into the wind.
Custer himself had taken the lead, peg-legging up the trail like a man possessed, but here he halted, and spun on his peg, and came back down the trail in a cantilevered kind of run and rushed down on Pippin in a fury, grabbing him by both arms and looking him square in the eye. He said nothing. He only held up one hand in front of the boy’s face, like a mesmerist trying to draw some demon out or extract his very aura. This move was what some in the soft sciences might have called “batshit crazy” and yet, to the captain’s credit, he did seem to realize this, patted the boy on the arms, and stepped back.
But Pippin was a strong-willed lad, even if he was slipping, which is to say he stared right back into Custer’s eyes and said it again, with all the subdued moral conviction of a young civil rights activist: “We. Can’t. Kill. The. Bear.”
Custer stepped back and motioned to his mercenaries—a little sadly, but motioned all the same—and then continued up the trail.
Two of them descended on us.
“We can’t kill the bear.”
“Tell me all about it, faggot,” one of the mercenaries said, taking Pippin’s arms.
“Hey!” Lard Ass said, placing his hand on the pistol in his shoulder holster. “Leave him be.”
The other trained his weapon on Lard Ass’s head.
“Do we have a problem here?”
“Cowards,” Jason said, his gun already aimed. “You think you are big men, but you are cowards.”
I looked over and saw Chief and Ragnar had their guns drawn as well. How they could be so quick I did not know, but it left Neo and me in the awkward position of being in the line of fire, morally on their side, but trapped in this No Man’s Land like negotiators.
The mercenaries said nothing, but only smirked, refusing to take the bait.
“We won’t let you hurt him,” Lard Ass said.
“They’re not going to hurt him,” Custer said, suddenly back upon us, his face glowing in the early moonlight. “Now lower your weapons or I’ll shoot you all myself for breach of contract.”
“You, too,” he added, turning to his own men. “But gag him. All this talking will not do.”
No one wanted to see Pippin gagged, but it seemed just reasonable enough of a compromise that no one interceded on his behalf, but only glared at the second mercenary as he took a rag from one of the pouches on his vest and started to shove it in Pippin’s mouth.
The other brought out a roll of duct tape and passed three lengths around the young man’s head and mouth.
“We can’t kill the bear” quickly became a muffled, throaty Eh an ih uh air.
We proceeded again up the trail. One of the mercenaries hustled back up ahead to walk with Custer; the other stayed with Pippin, escorting him by the arm. As we walked, I began to notice a strange transformation taking place. At first, Pippin fought the gag, murmuring his Eh an ih uh air over and over, like the creaking of a tree into the wind, but slowly it subsided; this was welcome, in that it meant we didn’t have to worry about him attracting whatever was out there in the woods but also that our consciences were eased for allowing it to happen and because now we didn’t have to worry about what would happen if these men moved to silence him, and so as Pippin walked on, he seemed not only to withdraw into himself but also to draw our concern for him into himself until he was stepping over rocks and roots with a heightened dignity, as if to prove to everyone who looked that he was more than what he could say, that his words could be stolen from his mouth, but that, even then, everyone knew he hadn’t stopped thinking them, that his mere thoughts had the power now to settle over us like a whole new atmosphere.
Eh an ih uh air.
Eh an ih uh air.
Eh an ih uh air.
Every so often something would crack off in the woods and we’d all take defensive positions along our line, imagining any number of macabre shadows lurching out of the woods or a white flash of fur that might be the last thing we saw; every so often something would splash in the creek to our left, a muskrat, a fish striking a bug or debris breaking the tension on the surface; every so often we would stop for no apparent reason, as if Custer was up ahead, taking point in the darkness, not proceeding by sight but feeling his way through this cavernous night, stopping to welcome death every time he felt a strange mystical blush or rush of some animal wind play across his whiskers; and, in this going, every so often Pippin would look to one or another of us and nod with calm eyes as if to say not to worry, because he remembered all this now, like he was some kind of mystic, and knew how all things unfolded, and nothing was out of place, not us, not him, not Custer, not whatever stalked or didn’t stalk us under cover of night.
Then word came back.
Up ahead. There.
We were downwind.
Our footsteps drowned out by the omnipresent rustling of the wind.
There it was, the bear, its white coat shining almost silver in the momentary moonlight, lounging almost beatifically in an eddy in the creek, hind feet kicked out, right forepaw holding its toes, looking into the water, distractedly watching something move around it in the pool.
There was something terribly lonely about the bear, about the way its dark eyes watched the water. It seemed almost small in the pool, a tiny, fragile thing. Whiling away her time. Lonely as anyone.
I remembered reading that polar bears and grizzly bears could mate and, in that moment, I would have liked nothing more than to see her brown mate return to her from an outing in the woods. Just imagining it made me want to cry. Even the most solitary beast needs those moments, quietly resting in the endless nothing, at once its center and its outermost point, when another being enters her space, wishing her no harm, even a little tenderness.
But logistically I saw the problem here immediately, saw what Custer must have seen through that lens of obsessed focus: there was no way to bypass the bear if we were going to press on to the headwaters and what stranger whiteness resided on the far side of this magical body?
The captain waved us forward into position.
I have since wondered why Custer’s mind told him this bear, possibly the last polar bear on earth, needed to die. If we were going to risk drawing attention by firing our guns anyway, why not just fire into the sky, scare the poor thing off and take some pot shots at the heavens as a bonus? But, then, preservation was never a logic of industry. The Majority Shareholders, the ones before The Collapse as after, never paid more than token attention to maintaining anything, even sustaining resources their own industry revolved around and required; if they’d had their way entirely, the oil barons would have wiped out every polar bear in the arctic just so their managers didn’t have to think about them, the coal companies any township that stood in the way of developing a seam, Walmart every family-owned shop that ever had a customer; hell, if they’d had their way, they would have produced nothing but only sucked every last bit of wealth and potential and energy out of the population and then done exactly what we were doing with the zombies—rendered our bodies for fuel.
Why were we all having to move into position? why did we all have to do this thing Custer wanted done so badly? We wanted nothing to do with this but only to pursue the goal of the contracts we thought we’d signed. To extract zombies! to render a scourge into something beneficial! to build a future! not to become mired in ruthless contractual “other duties as required”!
And yet there we were, all of us, seemingly complying, setting ourselves up as if to take our shots at this docile creature in its nighttime repose.
I am so ashamed to say this, but it wasn’t me who acted.
It’s like I wanted to know to what extreme we would take this, how far people might go in playing such passive roles.
No, it wasn’t me, and I will be ashamed about it until the day I die.
“Eh an ih uh air!” we all heard Pippin cry out through his gag.
Just as quickly, he was charging in his restraints—directly toward the bear.
The two security guards nearest us trained their weapons on Pippin.
“Eh an ih uh air!” Chief screamed.
He spun and shot the mercenary nearest him in the side of the head, turned and fired his rifle through the other’s neck.
The wounded man grabbed his neck with one hand, black blood boiling up between his fingers, and whirled to shoot Chief, but even before Chief could fire again, Jason peppered the man with several bullets from his Bushmaster and Lard Ass shot him once in the forehead with his 9 millimeter.
Pippin was still hurtling toward the creek, still screaming his Eh an ih uh airs, as the great white bear burst from the pool, whirled on its haunches, and disappeared into the woods on the far side.