Wally wiped the remains of his breakfast – pine martin and a handful of dried berries – from his lips with the back of his hand. Simple fare, but satisfying. He looked at the old man and said, “What is your name?” Normally this is one of the first things one asks a stranger. Wally wondered that it had taken so long to come to his lips.
“Walkaway,” the old man stated.
“No. I mean your real name.”
“Walkaway,” the old man repeated with what sounded like endless patience.
Wally mused some seconds. Walkaway. Does he want me to walk away? Or is he going to walk away? Or? This old guy never gives me anything to go on.
The old man dispelled the mystery, “My name is Walkaway. Some day, when you are older,” and he smiled in such a way that Wally chuckled, “I will tell you how my name came to be.” Then Walkaway lifted his face and his brows and said with mock import, “When the legends begin.”
They both laughed.
“Your name,” Walkaway announced, “is Little Bear.”
“I’d like that,” Wally said, “but my name is Wally Ursal.”
“Hmmm..,” Walkaway growled low and slow and deliberately. “Maybe down there,” pointing out the cave mouth and down the hill and across the ridges and
down to the oiled road and down the road to the Clark Fork River or the Missouri River, to the place where Civilization lay in her den, spawning absurdities, “but here,” and he patted the dirt between his sitting self and the fire, “in Indi’n Country, your name is Little Bear.
“Some day – soon I think – your name will be different. Up here. And maybe down there,” he pointed out the cave again.
“I’d like to be named Eagle. Maybe Golden Eagle. How’s that?”
Walkaway shook his head. “You see pretty good, but you are not an eagle. This I know. You do things. Mostly eat berries and small animals.” He smiled so widely that his long white teeth gleamed in the light of fire and open door. He laughed the gentle laugh of self-amusement. He opened his eyes and feigned a voice of mild amazement, “You will sleep aaall winter.” He drew the word ‘all’ out long and songlike.
Wally had to laugh.
“When it is time to see the big things, you will ask Eagle. But there will come times when the eagle will ask you things, too. The eagle will come to you and ask you about deep things. Dream things. The dark things of the West, Dreaming Bear, the Eagle will ask of you; the Bear Dreamer.”
He sat back. “Ha! What is this old man talking about? Your name is Swimmer! You are a frog. Looong legs and;” Walkaway made large circles around his eyes with his bony fingers, “big eyes.”
Wally laughed at this characterization of himself. He rocked back and laughed, his defenses left somewhere behind.
Walkaway arose and began to gather bags and baskets. He set several by the open flap of the cave. He looked down at the loose ends of a basket-in-process and made that long hum of consideration. “Huuuhh, somebody did not finish this basket.”
“Would you teach me?”
Walkaway turned to him and used his whole body to nod assent.
Wally said, “In college, we used to joke about basket-making as a useless art. An easy grade. And Underwater Basket-Weaving 101 is a particularly esoteric and useless art.”
Walkaway did not so much as glimmer with amusement. “Come,” he commanded.
Wally got up and the old man thrust three baskets and a leather bag at him. Wally, frowning, took them in foul attitude, not liking to be bossed around so dismissively.
He followed the sinewy old man down the hill, fuming impotently. Ah, but his mumbling displeasure quickly evaporated in the cool, clean, fresh air and warm sun.
Walkaway gestured to Wally when they reached the saddle below the treeline and led him to a seep-creek in a small drainage. Walkaway gestured at the dried berries clinging to the trees and brush and began to pick, fully ignoring Wally.
Wally stood watching the old man’s quick fingers darting and plucking. He looked at the brush. Berries? These aren’t berries. There is hardly anything here. Fat, yeah, like raisins. I wouldn’t pay a nickel for this crap. Besides, he could hardly see any. He stood behind the old man and watched. The old man seemed to be picking the only shrub with anything on it. They were sarviceberries, Wally knew that word. He had heard them called that by a sheepherder up in Darby. These sarviceberries were so dried up and wrinkled they made a prune look juicy.
Wally glanced into Walkaway’s basket and noticed a small pile beginning to grow. Well, if he can do it, I can do it. But he’s going to have to share this bush with me. He began to pick, feeling a competitive urge. He shot his hand into the small tree so quickly that he bumped into things.
The old man moved on.
Wally followed, but this time found his own shrub. He picked like mad, searching through the turning leaves to find the sparse fruits. He lost track of time for a while and found a nice pile of berries in his basket. He approached Walkaway and looked surreptitiously into the old man’s basket. He inhaled and exhaled with a puff and a quiet huh when he realized the old man had more than himself.
Walkaway sauntered to a wild rose bush and began to pick at the hips.
Anything edible, Wally thought, and resigned himself to picking what he thought were beaten up, reject berries so desiccated that he thought the birds had rejected them.
Later, trekking up a small shaded tributary of the tiny stream, Wally found a huckleberry bush whose berries were still succulent. He stuffed his mouth with the sweet, rich berries. These were like the fingertips of Heaven Itself. Dried berries for the basket, fat purple berries for the tongue and teeth and lips and hmmm. He closed his eyes and chewed. He let a sigh escape.
Echo? What the hell? Wally took a step to the left and leaned around the bush.
A blackbear with its hands full of berry branch and its mouth only somewhat selectively full of leaves and berries turned to look at him. Now he could hear the munching and harrumphing plainly. Could it have been perfectly in tune with his own?
Wally thought big black lab immediately as his eyes took in the little piggy eyes surrounded with nearly hairless hide and the snout and the single-minded attention on the food. They looked for a long peaceful second into one another’s eyes.
When Wally remembered his terror the bear spun and darted uphill, but Wally didn’t see this because he had spun and charged downhill, slipping and sliding on the damp moss, tussocks of grass, stones in the streambed, slick dead limbs, and fallen pine needles. The bear did not flee so far as Wally, being alert to the sound of the retreating young man. The bear turned around, tested the wind, listened, and sure that the other being had left, sat down to wait for a while.
This bear was Bear, of course, although he took it for granted. He knew every huckleberry bush in this drainage. He knew every rock in his territory. Although he was only three years old, all this knowledge had come to him through the morphogenic field of Bear. All the bears that spell Bear left their Ways to this bear. He would go upstream in a little while and work on the bushes up there, then he would drift back down to the place where the crazy one had been. Bear could eat a lot more.
Thinking not the least, Wally bounced, ricocheted, glanced, smacked into, recoiled from, and generally abused the countryside and his own hide in a blind escape. He seeded the hillside with berries enough to insure plentiful propagation.
Before he found Walkaway he remembered that one is supposed to climb a tree when pursued by a bear. The tree right in front of him at this point was a wolf pine, thick, short, with living branches within hand reach. Up he scampered. Up near the top of the tree it dawned on him that the trunk bent and waved and looked and felt about as brittle and juicy as pineapple. Only then did he stop and look down.
Walkaway stood at the bottom of the tree looking up with a sober expression and announced with the perfect ambiguity, “Little Bear.” Then the hint of a smile grew on his face, “This is a very good thing. You climb trees much better than you swim. Maybe your name is Climbs Trees,” and he scratched his head in a parody of confusion.
Wally climbed down the tree and dropped to the ground. He still panted. His hands sticky with pine sap. “I thought I heard him climbing up behind me. Did he run away?”
“There is only one bear here.”
Wally looked around nervously. “Is he watching?” Then he said, almost to himself, “I wish I weren’t…”
Wally looked up with a new curiosity on his face. “Hey, Walkaway, was that the Medicine Bear you talked about?”
“That one? Ho no. Not that one. That one is a youngster. He has not been two years by himself. He is getting fat. He is a good bear. He wants to be verrry fat.”
Wally yawned deeply. He had nearly caught his breath. He looked in the direction he imagined the bear to be. “I lost my berries.” A pause long enough for realization to pass, then Wally added, “and the baskets.”
“Huh,” Walkaway stated. “Maybe you can find those baskets. That parfleche. Go now. That bear, he is eating someplace else a while.”
Making a move to accompany Wally up the slope, Walkaway said, “Now. Come. If we are to eat in the snow time, we must pick berries.”
“Isn’t picking berries woman’s work? I mean, at least with the Indians.”
Walkaway made an exaggerated visual search of the drainage around them. “Huh, the women, they are not picking. Shall we wait?”
” … “
“Everyone must help to gather food. Winter is very long up here.”
“I think your cave is too high in the mountains for the winter.”
“This is true. It is also the best place for the young warrior to dream,” Walkaway said, indicating with his eyes that Wally was the young warrior. “We will travel through a very hard time. This will be the last winter we shall live in that cave.
“We need berries, meat, and wood.”
They worked the remainder of the day without incident. Wally found, after struggling with himself for a while, that he need not grow impatient while picking berries. He gave himself to the chore and found a serene satisfaction come alive within himself, as though he were meant by nature to employ himself thusly, as though he were a meditative gardener watching a small irrigation ditch slowly fill with water. Time seeped from the manipulative mind into the supportive mind and Wally strengthened.
In late afternoon the two men carried their harvest up the hill. The old man walked with short steps, his balance delicate, uncertain, yet he drifted over the ground and Wally often had to hurry to keep up. Déjà vu, Wally thought. The old man moves like a wisp of fog on a river.
Wally’s breathing deepened and he found himself panting again.
“You are not so good a runner, Little Bear.”
“I’m good enough. I outran that bear.”
“Huuuuh.” Said with a rising then falling and drawn-out inflection. That simple sound was redolent with question, consideration, and a gentle mocking humor. “You run like a cat; sudden and fast. But you do not run very far. You do not run like a man. A man can run from the time the sun comes up until the sun goes down. Run easy. Keep looking.”
“I don’t see much sense to that,” Wally scoffed lightly. “I am not interested in marathon running.”
“When you walk, you chew your thoughts,” the old man said. “When you run a long time, your thoughts, they begin to lag. This is a good thing.”
Wally had caught his breath and moved to continue up the trail. “I’ll think about that.” He passed the old man and set what he thought was a strong pace.
All the way to the cave flap the old man scuffed along just behind him. Breathing easily.
Several mornings later light crept into the cave grey and tentative. Wally watched Walkaway arise soundlessly and begin to make preparations he didn’t recognize.
Wally slipped into his jeans which were mostly clean, although he had not been terribly successful washing them in the stream down the hill. They were wearing in unusual places. What would he do when they were too worn to wear? He would study Walkaway.
With neither eagerness nor dread, Wally made ready to help Walkaway complete today’s preparations for winter.
They walked to the stream at the foot of the steep, rocky slope, then began to follow it downstream. Fifteen minutes or so later the small stream encountered another nearly head on. The two streams had carved a nice pool there and a respectable stream, but still jumpable, exited down a small drainage that began there.
Walkaway caught Wally’s eye, then deliberately turned and traveled downstream. Wally shrugged and followed.
Down on the streambank Walkaway signaled Wally to come see. Wally stood looking at the sand, gravel and clay. He could see nothing at first. Then Walkaway delineated a contour with the toe of his moccasin.
Wally saw it. “Holy shit! That’s huge! Is that a man’s track? Some naked guy… No, it’s too…”
“This four-legged makes a track like a man, sometimes.”
“You mean it’s a bear track?”
“This is so. And let me tell you what is put here for me to see.
“This track here, this track says today the Mother of All Bears walked by our lodge. I do not know this bear, but because I have found this track today, as we go to fish, I know this bear is a Medicine Bear.”
Wally held a frown as he regarded the bear track. He knelt for a closer look. Nothing special about this but its size. Whew. Either the old man is crazy, or ‘cultural’, or he’s teasing me. “What’s special about it?”
“This place. This time.” Then Walkaway continued downstream.
Fishing, Wally thought as he hurried to catch up with the old Indian. We don’t have equipment. The old guy has been living out here just too long. Probably counts every season as another year.
They had passed periodic tussocks of red willow beside the stream as they had walked. Now the willows were of a different sort; they grew everywhere, evenly spaced, tall and green.
Walkaway drew his knife and began to cut a thumb-thick willow. He cut it into two strong three-foot pieces.
Wally watched, troubled by his unknowing, but he wanted to help. “Do you want me to dig some worms or get some hellgrammites?”
Walkaway did not look up. “To feed the fish is good, but today it is better to catch the fish.”
“I don’t get it. I mean, how are you going to catch a fish without bait?”
Walkaway nodded knowingly and pointed at the knife on Wally’s belt. “Take your knife and help me cut me many more of these sticks.”
They had an impressive stack of limbed and pointed willow sticks when Walkaway signaled Wally to gather an armful and come with him.
The stream ran wide and shallow here, running over bright rock and gravel and sand that often nested in a matrix of clay. Imitating Walkaway, Wally helped build a willow fence across the stream, each willow nearly touching the willows beside it. They carefully saw to it that the hollow spaces in the water beneath the banks at the two ends of this fence were blocked. The stream backed up, but resumed its full flow when it climbed high enough on the willow fence.
Wally stepped back to regard their handiwork, but Walkaway urged him to gather another armload of willow sticks and follow him two long paces downstream.
At the downstream end of the gravel run the creek dropped to darker, slightly deeper water. The stream ran to a bed that meandered from side to side, making some good holes that are maybe 10 or 12 inches deep.
Up on the gravel Walkaway began to drive the sticks into the streambed. It did not take Wally long to see that Walkaway was building a V, the apex of which was pointed upstream. Wally grinned and pitched in. Within the hour they stood and regarded their work. The V was open at the apex just wide enough for a big fish to swim through.
“It’s like a crawdad trap,” Wally spoke in recognition, “built in two dimensions.”
Walkaway lifted his eyebrows and regarded Wally with a thoughtful look. Wally thought he saw recognition and some question in the look.
Together they stood, hands on hips, regarding the trap. A good thing, Wally thought, but what now? Come back tomorrow and check it?
“Now,” grinned Walkaway, as he gestured you wait here, “you will see how an old man catches fish.” With that the old man turned and walked downstream. In seconds he disappeared in the brush.
Wally sat and waited. His patience evaporated quickly. He stood and wandered around the bank, jumped over the stream several times, fidgeting with the sticks, then sat to wait.
Then he stood, every sense stretching downstream. Something. Something was tearing up the stream, working its way up the stream. Big. Quick. Noisy and clumsy. Eerie.
It must be the old man, Wally insisted. Or did it get the old man? The big Medicine Bear? The Big Medicine Bear fishing!
He poised on the edge of running when the first of the fish arrived. A big 9” cutthroat came up the bed, zigzagged between the willow walls, then darted through the apex.
Several smaller fish approached. More than half turned around and fled back downstream, but a few entered the trap.
Then a thin dark cloud of fish of every size darted back and forth in front of the trap. Many entered the capturing pool.
Walkaway came into view. A comic vision, he stomped and splashed and hit the water with a willow in each hand. Then he would put one of the willows into his teeth and holding the other with both hands, run to stem end through the water with a rip! rip! rip!
Taking the willow from his teeth, he would run the tips of the two willows under the opposite banks. The dripping Indian was enjoying himself greatly as he rampaged against the current. Ahead of him the water was alive with fish. The dark tide bottle-necked at the lower end of the trap mouth, but slowly poured upstream through the narrow opening.
Some smaller fish slipped-darted around the old man’s feet as he made the last few steps and began to work his two willows into the little opening. Wally jumped into the water and took one of the willows and worked it into the stony, sandy clay at Walkaway’s left shoulder.
They stood together and Wally looked into Walkaway’s eyes and thought, Now what?
The old man flashed the big grin and shouted, “Now we fish! We play bear!”
Wally understood and began to laugh as well. Still shaking with laughter he turned his back and removed his clothes. Following the old man’s example he stepped into the fish-dark pool and chased fish and threw fish on the bank with his bare hands.
They laughed as they threw up wide fans of water, as often without fish as with fish. The bank was covered with flopping trout and both men dripped and whooped as an errant slap of water hit the back of the neck or a naked back. Wally, making a heroic try for a 10-incher, slipped and fell with a whomp into the icy water and, after a strange quarter-second of eerie panic, came up laughing so hard tears came out of his eyes.
They were both tired when Walkaway said, “Enough for an old man.”
Sitting on the bank they studied the greatly depopulated pool.
“There are still a few big ones left,” Wally observed, perhaps a little hopefully, perhaps worried they would have to catch them.
“This is enough,” the old man said. “We must leave some for the next time.”
Wally studied his teacher. The old guy really knows some great stuff.
“My people did not eat so many fish. There are people, some say, that eat very many fish. But my people, not so many. But you and I, we will smoke these fish and have many to eat when the snow comes.”
They strung the fish on willow sticks, stuffed fish in an empty gut bag and spent the rest of the afternoon making trips to carry the catch up the steep path.