SHE WAS SMALL FOR A BEAR
It was strange to him that his nights were so taken up with it. All winter he had dreamt of hunting bears over shifting geographies and times, stomping through frost and heather, tracking pawprints over windswept plateaus.
It was not so strange that he dreamt of hunting, because Gummi was a hired foxhunter for the municipality of Isafjordur. He hunted quite often and he was, in fact, an exceptionally accurate shot. No, the unusual part was the ever-present polar bear.
On his bedside table was a book on how to shoot large mammals in North America, a veritable laundry list of other beasts that could have preoccupied him. But it was still just the bear that passed through his sleep like the keyboards of aurora above his house in Isafjordur, like the kind of thing you cannot look away from. He could find no specific meaning above coincidence, or else what he did find was as vague as a future dealt from gas station tarot cards.
The cold current churned black and calamitous as it kissed her chin. There was no seal’s blood, no sea ice, no asylum from the scent of brine that had become her whole world. Time became a thing she had to carry. Hope became a burning thirst in the back of her throat. She had unlearned everything but the augmented essentials, the stroke, pull, paddle, kick that kept her head above the water.
She was just two years old and small for a bear, but in the middle of the Greenland Sea it is hard to be large. For at least a hundred miles she fought the frothing mountains and dropping valleys of a measureless tide, her paws punching a path through the water, her chest carving the point of the wake that followed. It was all she could do, because the business of dying was as much a mystery as the endless curve of ocean surrounding her.
The first signs of land came on a Monday. Between the heaving hills of water she could see floats of foraging puffins and razorbills. She snapped at the birds but the pointed arrow of her head sent them reeling, and she caught feathers where she wanted meat. There was a shoreline ahead, she knew even before she could see it, between the sea foam and the morning fog. When she lifted her nose she could smell the acrid stink of guano, the sun-soaked rot of wilting seaweed and the pumice mud of thawing mountains.
Fishermen spotted her from their boat off the shore of Honstrandir Nature Reserve in north west Iceland, in the cove of Haelavik at 9AM on May 2, 2011. She was resting on a strip of beach flanked by the steep, snow-striped mountain of Haelavikurbjarg. There was no mistaking the massive white shape of her, the swinging pendulum of her paws and the roman-nosed point of her bottleneck head.
Every few years a bear managed the distance between Greenland and Iceland. They would get caught on drift ice and carried south by the East Greenland Current, crossing the Denmark Strait into the clockwise flow of the North Icelandic Imminger that drags them east across the northern fjords. It is, however, a rare circumstance of current and climate that brings a bear to Hornstrandir. The last one in Haelavik came in 1321, and promptly killed 8 people—that fact was a matter of public record. When the fishermen saw her they could think only claws and blood and teeth, imagined in a second all the things she was capable of and called the police in Isafjordur.
When she heaved her body out of the sea, she was just 90 kilograms. It felt strange to hold herself up after spending so long held by water. Gulls mewled overhead, and foxes barked warnings from afar while the eider ducks shied up the shoreline, cooing amongst themselves. The glacier-tongued hills and rising arêtes looked familiar to her in a way, but the smell of them was foreign. Compared to Greenland, the Icelandic air was tepid, heavy with the tang of loam and punctured by the thrash of spring rain that had retreated to an upland fog.
It was hard enough to relearn the feel of earth, the steadiness of gravity, the absence of ice. But when she heard the putter of the boat engine, she knew there was only one way and it was forward, upward and out of sight. After coming this far she could not think of going back, could not even imagine how.
Gummi received two calls that morning: the first from the Chief of Police and the second from the owner of Borea Adventures, who was in the process of leading a ski group to the south side of the nature reserve, away from the bear. Over the urgent static they recited details of dreams they didn’t know he had dreamt, and he listened and nodded and took a mental inventory of what he would need to do the job they would surely ask of him. He was one of only a handful of people they could have called, and arguably the most qualified.
By Icelandic law you cannot kill a swimming bear, or even one floating on an iceberg. But there is no mercy for a bear on land, no room for them to dig beds out of the barren soil and feast on sunning seals. Because they are a terror of tooth and claw and pointed hunger, because the records have them rising out of tidal furies, slaying bystanders on the beach and—in one case—appearing behind black smoke and rising embers in the doorway of a blacksmith. Gummi was ready to do what needed to be done.
She turned inland, up the mountain where the whisper of wings cut the air above her and the bird cliff chorus echoed over the top. Hunger kicked her gut like an insult as she climbed further up, where she could smell the siren song of burst albumen and broken eggshell. There were clusters of fulmar nests in the adjacent ridge, but foxes had already raided the ones she could reach. Instead, she licked the bloody feathers of what remained and continued on without relief.
Gummi took a coastguard helicopter from the town of Isafjordur over Ísafjarðardjúp and Jökulfirðir before they reached the fingered fjords that lined the meat of the Hornstrandir Peninsula. From this vantage, they could see the fists of kelp-covered stone rising from the lace of breaking surf. They could see the clouds creeping low over the busted backs of tabletop mountains and the birds that scattered like debris beneath the din of the rotating blades.
What they could not see was the bear. By the time they reached Haelavik, she had taken to the fog like a ghost to the sheet. They decided to leave half of the group where she had last been spotted, while Gummi and a few others stayed in the helicopter to continue patrolling by air. Between that cove and the next, there was just one pass over the mountain, heading southeast before it wrapped around. If she had gone uphill, then that was the only path she could follow.
The thunder that came for her then was unlike anything she had ever heard. The wind whipped against her like the waves she had just escaped. She had made it over the mountain and almost to the beach when the deafening sound descended. She had to get back to the quiet sky and its veil of fog, away from the sound and the turning metal that might rip her apart. Her loping stride was quick across the gravel scree and greenery, quicker still across the snow, but the crucible of her ocean crossing had left her hollow, tired in a way she had never known.
The helicopter ripped its own passage through the fabric of the fog as they flew over. Gummi could not yet see the black nose that centered the swirling galaxy of fur, but he could remember the book on his bedside table, the diagram of soft lungs and heart half hidden behind hard scapula, a map of all the places on her body he should shoot.
She ran until she couldn’t, and then she would pause to catch her breath, to throw a glance back and up at the turning beast of metal and sound that dogged her like dreams in winter, its pursuit clearer than its purpose. Her mother had taught her how to eat from blubber to bone, how to wait and how to pounce, but she had never taught her fear. The bear did not know what to do with the clotting panic that hammered through her body in heaving breaths.
Against the rocking air, it wasn’t easy for Gummi to aim while the bear was still moving. But when she reached where the steep grass broke to gravel, she took a moment. Gummi took it too, and shouldered his gun. In his head he had the exact diagram, could imagine every organ in her chest that begged for pause.
She felt the cold before the burn. The bullet entered at her shoulder and followed the curve of bone in a clean ricochet that tore right out from the front of her shoulder blade. The stroke of red bled ragged into her fur. That shot did not kill her, but the next would. She tore at the air with gnashing teeth when the pain came just behind her arm and above the elbow. The spray of blood sent her running five and a half steps up the mountainside.
He couldn’t feel anything past the hot rush of adrenaline ringing in his ears. He saw the shot, knew it was true, and waited for the consequence to catch up with her thrashing body.
The collapse came like an afterthought, as if all the sinew and bone that roped her together had suddenly been loosed. Her body rolled back over the blood spotted grass until her chin and neck hooked upon an altar of speckled stone. And there she lay, draining, drowning open-eyed in the dirt, her forepaws crossed as if in prayer. Blood filled her mouth and for once it was full.
They carried her out belly up like a roast pig, like a monster finally pacified. Gummi helped, but he didn’t pose in the photos. He knew how the public would react, how they had already reacted 3 years ago when 2 bears washed ashore within weeks of each other and met the same fate. There was always an outcry, and a poignant but brief movement to change what foreigners saw as a barbaric reaction to their beloved totem of the north.
He wanted no part of it, could not explain to them how the blood that pooled in the rocks was a collection of dark winter dreams, how he had trained for that moment without meaning to. Gummi knew that to the east another bear had come ashore on a farm just last year to be shot and buried in secret, that his friend had found bear tracks on Drangajökull that went unaccounted for. Unlike his quarry, he had learned fear, learned how to chamber it in the barrel of a gun and send it screaming into the shadows that stretch long and black from the spotlights of the brave.
Despite the law, Gummi does not go into Hornstrandir unarmed. It does not matter to him that she was just 90 kilograms and 2 years old, it does not matter to him that when they cut open her belly to see what she had eaten they found only feathers. What matters is that she was there at all.