She stood only about 100 yards from me, on the other side of the rushing creek, our eyes locked. The sounds of the forest couldn’t mask her breath, synchronized with mine, condensing with every exhale, as if we were both breathing fire.
My hatchet lay just three yards east of me, near the opening of my tent. The frost on it had just began to melt as I finished my morning routine, and in the 7am angle of the sun, she began to glisten. This was her shining moment every dawn, in which she would call my name, begging to be held, dying to be used. And so, the pure silence of our encounter was interrupted by my hatchet. Miraculously, she laid so as to perfectly reflect the rays at the bear’s face. It would be mere seconds before the light moved as the sun rose, but the bear didn’t know that. I fled to the nearest tree wide enough to hide behind. When I peeked around the birch to try to spot her again, she was gone. Her disappearance neither relieved me nor worried me. I tried to find a feeling, but years of living like this had taught me that indifference and unwavering vigilance is the only appropriate reaction.
I slowly made my way back to my tent, slid my hatchet into her holster, and began to pack up. If she were to come back now, she would find me at my most vulnerable, with the steep incline on one side, and the icy water on the other – I’d have no escape. It would be a violent and slow way for one of us to die, or us both.
All my past relationships began to cycle through my thoughts as I wished for everyone to know how much I love them. My parents, my siblings, my exes. I never wanted to be alone forever. I just needed to disappear as part of my routine. A sense of independence that could only be achieved through leaving life behind for a moment – a refresher. A seasonal shift. A molting. A rebirth.
Over the years, however, less and less people understood my need as it became more insatiable, and my escapes grew longer. As my peers aged, they became more stagnant, still. Meanwhile I felt I was moving faster and faster – not ahead, but in a different direction – like the snow-fed creek behind me. My last lover even had me convinced that I wanted kids, which I did, and I still do, but not in the traditional way. Not in a house in the suburbs. Not without escapes for me, and for them. But we lost our first before it was born, and I had to get out again. He couldn’t understand.
In the last seven months, I’ve called home six times to reassure everyone that I was safe and happy. Today, I would venture into the next town to resupply and make my seventh call. I thought about calling my love. Maybe we could try to find compromise again. I longed for his company. Just then my carabiner hit my hatchet and let out a bell toll that echoed throughout the ravine, as if the entire forest needed to wake.
I thanked my hatchet for the call, for being my guide, and for being my friend. My father was never much of an outdoorsman, but he built this hatchet by hand, and had gifted it to me on my 18th birthday. It was a graduation present my older sister could never appreciate, but my dad knew I would cherish it. So in the last nine years, this hatchet has been through everything with me. She has built dozens of shelters, hundreds of traps, and has even murdered a handful of animals. She has saved me a few times without my plea, like this morning when she blinded the grizzly bear. And as I reflected on my partner in crime in the woods, I heard her grunt.
My bag was packed and I was ready to head to the road, about a three-hour hike away, but as I stood and turned towards the source of the heart-stopping snarl, I saw her again, just ten yards in front of me, on my side of the creek. Once again, we locked eyes, only this time my hatchet alone could not save me. She whiffed around, trying to recognize me. I searched her body long and hard for weak points, and found none. I saw nothing extraordinary, until I came upon a small white spot of fur on her left front paw. The blood in my face drained and my skin grew pale as the birch surrounding us. She was the mother.
Just two weeks before, I trapped a juvenile grizzly with the same marking on his paw. In a fear-induced and empathetic rush, for his mother was surely nearby, I had to decide what to do. The trap wasn’t meant for animals as large as him, and were I to release him, he would’ve died from his injuries, if not attacked me. So, I slaughtered him with my hatchet, and took as much meat as I could carry, leaving everything else behind.
She tracked me, and she was alone. I must’ve killed her only cub. As she caught my scent and started to inch closer to me, my death white grip around my hatchet’s handle, I wished I could beg her for forgiveness and tell her I’ve lost a child as well, that I was a mother, too! I couldn’t throw my hatchet, my only weapon – it was too risky to take just one shot. I couldn’t reach for the useless bear spray attached to my bag without giving her time to get closer. So, I began to scream, which startled her for only a second, and she walked closer still. I couldn’t outrun her either. And I screamed louder, that I was sorry and only meant to put him out of his misery, as tears poured down my cheeks. She stood nearly seven feet tall on her hind legs and let out an empathetic roar, and struck me down with her claws. On top of me, she ripped into my flesh and tore my chest apart as I struck her with my hatchet. Blood was blinding me now, or maybe it was my face simply falling off. I felt only remorse. I couldn’t move anything but my arm holding the hatchet. I dug into her side and chest, and finally her face and neck, and she collapsed on my left side.
Blood was flowing out of my mouth, and I had to turn to so I wouldn’t choke, as if I had hope that I would survive. I couldn’t feel any part of my body, whether it was still attached or not. My hatchet was still in hand, and all I wanted was to leave my family and love a message, but I was pinned. With my finger, I wrote into the blood my hatchet was drenched in.
Sarah Miller: daughter, sister, lover, mother.
I could only hear him as he approached. I had the sense for the last few weeks that someone had been following me. My parents must’ve told him where I was headed. He was so close to finding me, and only finally did because of my screams. I tried to tell him that I was sorry, but my voice and emotions were muted. It was over.