Poems by Christina Pacosz

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What Happened in August

by Christina Pacosz

From Canary Autumn 2009

Christina lives near the Kansas and Missouri Rivers below a limestone ridge in a highly-managed urban watershed.

A cold woosh of air from the north brings gray skies and rain today.

The merlin we saw perched on the power line between the cabin and the outhouse yesterday was back again this morning. I watched it hunt a rabbit hunched in a patch of fireweed, scant cover now the bloom is gone. The small falcon flew away, talons empty.

A thin squirrel was rummaging for cookout scraps on the back porch, peering in the window while I made a phone call. Food seems to be the imperative now and I regret another summer without a garden, but the mosquitoes deterred me. The wild berries I have picked are disappointingly bitter. We own no gun to hunt moose and no truck or chainsaw to gather wood. We call ourselves grasshoppers and laugh. Last night we spotted our first flock of geese heading south.The inexorable winter bearing down.

* * *

Last Sunday in Denali was magical. An overused adjective, but accurate for summing up the day's events. The details would branch into many stories, each one of us on the park bus strangers with tales to tell.

My story might go something like this:

After a careening drive down the steepest gravel road I have ever traveled, the bus tires inching perilously close to the crumbling edge of sheer cliffs, the relief of the river. Safety at last.

We halt to witness a pair of wolves fighting two grizzly bears over a caribou carcass. Up and down the bus, speculation as to who killed the caribou or made the lucky find favors the wolves, then the bears, and back again.

The wolves are definitely the losers now, though they do not slink far. One of the bears bests the other, who leaps up the cliff into the forest, scattering rock in its scramble to get away. The winner grapples with the caribou, a mock kill; its claws leave red gashes. Mine.

A red and black fox with a white-tipped tail moves in for the long wait. A flock of magpies settles in the trees.

The wolves are patient as rocks on the riverbank. The color of their fur and their utter stillness conspire against us, and we lose sight of them, only to fix them again in our binoculars and cameras, our technological eyes, and our naked ones, too. There is a conspiracy of stones and wolves against us. I am simultaneously enthralled and vexed by such lupine trickery.

The grizzly's bulk plows a wide furrow in the river; the yellow-eyed stare of the wolves must go. The pair retreats several yards, cringing, tails between their legs. The bear rushes them one more time, but canis lupus will not give up the vigil. The meat is there for the taking. The wait does not worry them; their lives are a long search for food. Or not. In the meantime, the sun is hot and so are the rocks.

One wolf sports a green radio collar. Adolph Murie's legacy at work in the ongoing scientific scrutiny of the current members of the East Fork wolf pack. The collar makes the wild appear tame, but this is not a domestic scrap; the backyard we are in is wild country.

I scan the distant flats where the river disappears in ribbons of silver and spot a sow and three cubs running behind her. Triplets! She's headed in the direction of blood and meat, and without hesitating swims the river. The cubs scramble to a large, flat rock near shore. Laughter at the picture of three little bears in a row is universal. The human mothers on the bus murmur approval of such strategy.

The sow lunges at the bear who thinks the caribou is his and their fight is loud and long. Blond fur rippling black, the grizzlies stand upright in the white rapids. The guttural roar of ursus horribilis is like something ripping deep inside the body of earth. The bears swing huge paws at each other, their stances reminiscent of human prizefighters in a ring.

We are instantly transformed into petitioners, whispering: Don't fight and Don't lose. Please for the mother whose children wait nearby. Fresh meat?

A hiker is coming down the path above it all, converging on this singular spot, at this particular time, and seeing the gestures of those below, halts. We are a strange tribe, but he is one of us and recognizes what our hands and bodies are trying to tell him: Go back. By then he hears the roaring himself and needs no warning. I wonder how far he must flee before the terrible sound stops.

One grizzly is the winner, of course. This is not a battle to the death, or any foolish romantics, but knowing how to use just enough power to win, or lose, and run away, no hard feelings. Something animals do and humans all too often do not.

The winner chases the loser onto the gravel bar where the wolves are sprawled. Without flexing a muscle, their posture proclaims, These bears are a rowdy lot.

After a quick nose nuzzle with each of her children, the sow pivots and swims the river at the swiftest spot. A collective sigh of relief sweeps the bus at this briefest of family reunions. The cubs do not follow, but watch intently as their mother fights the current. Before her paws touch bottom, she bats at the carcass, half-in, half-out of water. Hers now.

* * *

Despite the buzz of conversation, what we are seeing is not an episode of Wild Kingdom. Marlon Perkins will not narrate, though our bus driver bears some resemblance to the television host, and swears he's never seen anything like this in the twenty years he's worked the crowds and roads. It is not, even as he attempts to sum it up, The law of the jungle.

No, what we are watching is not television or the movies. And certainly not Saturday morning cartoons, though a few of the children are bored with the bears, the invisible wolves, and voice their desire for a TV to turn on. I mourn the death of imagination in them, for this glimpse of the mystery is an honor, a rare and precious gift. How else to say it?

The story will be told as adventure, comedy, tragedy, the drama milked for all it's worth. Isn't that our way?

Our arrogance.

* * *

The bus lurches off. This is a tour after all. We have lives to live elsewhere: our tents, motor homes, our waterless cabins, and expensive hotels. The story, the driver tells us, will go on for days in that bend of the East Fork.

What we were so blessed to witness at Denali is being written anew. Who has the carcass in its jaws now?

Has Wolf snatched a bite? Did Magpie dart from the trees to feed when Bear wasn't looking? Or is the flock still waiting patiently like the wolves? Did the Three Little Bears ever get a taste of Caribou, or has big Goldilocks gobbled it all? What about that Sly Fox? Did it finally manage to swallow even a morsel?

Where was Raven? Did he steal the show when he finally arrived?

* * *

Ice cold, turquoise water bathes battered caribou flesh.

Spruce, gray and stunted, shudder in the wind. Birch glint gold in the diminishing light of approaching winter.

The river waits for the bones.

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