The storm moved in and Lee thought of the orange drab brown yellow top of the stone bridge. He had just seen a bear warning sign at the trailhead and while resting every ten feet he thought of a black bear, a big one of about six feet tall, standing at the top of the bridge on its hind legs clawing at the lightning.
Kris walked ahead of him and waited for him to catch up. Storms caused terror in her and she tried to be patient with Lee below her, but sometimes urged him sharply to continue on. She looked at the undersides of the large pitch pines and the rhododendrons and the leaves of the umbrella trees. Lee just tried to get his legs working. The walk was a steady incline of a mile.
Just over forty years ago they had walked up to the natural rock bridge and Lee was relieved to see the parched looking stone at the top. Kris had reached the center of the bridge and was seized by vertigo at the expanse of hills, green summer leaves and the pines, the hard orange skull plate across of Lover’s Leap. The distance of the hills and hollows was dizzying.
As the old couple edged higher the leaves turned to show their pale flat undersides and they thought of returning to Ohio after the first trip. Their home had become unfamiliar. Making coffee was different. It felt contrived and no matter how many cups, it would never wake them. In the morning they looked around wondering where they were at, and sometimes it took all day to feel like they belonged. But at night, just before sleep, both knew that it was all a trick of the daylight. They were lost. The walls looked fake. So did the cars. And the people, they talked but they were only shapes of people, somewhat like cardboard.
Kris thought that it was the Gorge damning them because they had taken rocks from the trail those years ago. She carried hers, and the one Lee took, in her small pack. She believed not only the Indians had cursed them but the hills knew of their indiscretion. Lee thought similarly, except he envisioned Daniel Boone’s ghost – a toothless, white silvery long-bearded spirit – had imprisoned their souls deep within a cave that dripped with oil.
“There it is,” Kris said, and the old man walked on and saw the hard belly of the bridge. “Let’s get this over with.”
They walked up the narrow rock steps and through the narrow cut through the stone that Lee had bet fatasses would have trouble with.
Kris felt a change in her as soon as they started the trail and now said, “Do you feel anything?”
Lee’s legs were shaking as he made it up to the top of the bridge. He didn’t answer her because he was breathing hard from his mouth. But once he walked atop the smooth bridge and rested at the center, his breath slowed and he did feel something familiar in him that had been gone for years. He smelled the storm in the air and it was like childhood.
Kris handed the old man his stolen rock and she took her three out and said, quietly, “We’ve brought them back.”
Lee yelled, “We’ve brought them back!”
“We’ve brought them back!” Kris hollered louder.
“We’ve brought them back!” Kris hollered louder.
“Hey ya ya ya,” Lee chanted, “We brought them back!”
“Quit that,” Kris said and shouted loud, “We’ve brought them back!”
The storm clouds blew into each other and rose high in the air like chimney tops. The octogenarians had a clear vantage of seeing the weather collect and thicken into black mean shapes. Lee said, “Jesus,” and threw his rock because the shape looked to him like Daniel Boone with a rifle held over his head.
Kris had heard thunder and threw all of her rocks, hoping the Earth would feel them touch her sides as they fell far below.
But the storm did not hear or feel their reparations, rising long and dark.
“OK,” said Kris, staring at the cloud like it was a god. “Let’s try to make it to a shelter.”
Lee said, “I don’t think it worked at all.”
“Come on, Lee.” She started walking back to where they’d came.
“But it didn’t work,” he said. “For Christ’s sake, Boone is not happy. I could feel if he was.”
“I think this was all bullshit,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
Lightning lit up the air. Kris only saw it on Lee’s face and the old man began convulsing. His mouth was slightly open but he felt his jaw muscles hardening. They got so tight that tears came from his eyes.
Kris ran to him.
He said, “Water.”
She gave him the bottle and he chugged it down.
“Were you struck?”
Lee’s eyes looked like he had turned into a murderer. He shook his head.
“We must take the leap,” he said, and he took her hand.
Kris shouted and pulled from him but his hand was tight and he walked to the edge with her.
“We’re coming, Daniel,” he said.
Kris began kicking and pulled herself free and she fell onto the bridge top and looked back at Lee and saw he was staring at something behind her. The rain began to pour.
“Kris, don’t move.”
“What is wrong with you, Lee? Stop,” she said and got up quick and turned and there was a black bear five feet from her. She stopped still and then fell back and they both fell and rolled down a rock step and Kris grabbed onto a small tree to keep them from falling over the edge. She yelled for Lee to get up and he got up without groaning for the first time in several years. He helped Kris to her feet.
“Is it there?” she said.
Lee saw that the bear had moved closer with its head held high, staring at them from the top of the bridge. Kris saw it and did not speak. The bear’s black hair was starting to lay flat against it from being wetted by the rain. Lee threw a stick at it and Kris damned him for doing it. The sound of the lightning travelled through the hills and Lee walked toward the bear. The bear was lifting up and dropping its weight onto its front feet repeatedly. It looked like angry bouncing.
Kris shook her head like a disturbed child.
Lee said, “This is no bear. This is Daniel Boone,” and walked up to it with his arms held up like a bear. It was hard to see in the rain and he turned and looked out at the storm clouds over the darkened hills.
“A good storm with good power in it,” he said to the bear, and to Kris he said, “You see? I was right. It wasn’t the Earth or this park. Daniel had us. It was the old man all the time. Look, he is watching the storm.”
Kris stood there with her mouth gaped open. Lee turned and looked at the fast moving clouds and when it lightninged and thundered he lifted his arms and growled. The black bear heard the growl and slammed Lee to the ground with one arm. It was on top of the old man and circling like it was trying to grind him into the top of the stone bridge. Kris ran up and kicked the bear but it didn’t stop grinding. She jumped on its back and it made a hell of a nasty sound and let go of Lee and ran up the bridge with the old lady in its back. She fell off and the bear slowed to a stop and turned around and looked at her.
“Daniel!” said Lee, staggering toward them.
He held out a hand and helped Kris up, and he saw blood on her face before it was washed off by the rain. She saw his old face and a pink tear in his cheek and his discolored false teeth through it. But the blood on her sent him into a frenzy.
“Daniel!” he yelled. The bear was wobbling its way back toward them. Kris caught the old man’s hand and he lifted hers and kissed it.
As she watched her old man approach the bear, Kris didn’t feel the vertigo. The bear had taken that fear. The agoraphobia was gone too. She edged closer and heard Lee shout something before he hit the ground. The bear took off running back towards her and it shoved its chin into the hard orange rock and then it fell just past her. She ran to Lee and he was bleeding faster than the rain could take it from his neck. He held his mouth open.
“My wife,” he said.
“Mine,” she said.
And he said, “I’m thirsty. I could drink a horse.”
“I’m going to go down,” she said. “Wait here and I’ll be back.”
“No,” he said. “Stay here with me.”
“I have to go. You’re bleeding.”
“I know. You are too. But you have to do one more thing. It is essential.”
He opened his mouth and let it fill with rain.
And then he said, “Get Boone’s head.”
She thought he had gone into some sort of madness from lack of blood, and said, “Just wait here.”
“It must be done,” Lee said as she walked away.
The bear was in her path and it was breathing slow. She passed it on the way to the trailhead, stopped, hugged the trail sign, and walked back to the bear. She took the knife from her belt.
When she first tried to stick it in she was too gentle and the bear rolled a little. Then she reached farther back and drove the knife into the side of its neck. The bear made a sick babyish cry and she stopped a second and then grabbed a handful of its hair and worked the knife in. It was harder than cutting up a raw chuck steak. Once the meat and fat was cut through, the neck still would not separate.
The first kick only knocked the bear’s tongue out. She kicked it again and the head twisted around with the black eyes staring right at her. They flashed with the lightning and she kicked it again. The head rolled across the orange drab brown yellow stone.
Lee was pale and his eyes were closed and mouth wide open. The sound of his gagging filled Kris with joy. And he saw her with the bear’s head in her arms like a heavy bag of groceries with its face pointed away from her chest.
The old man made a grunting sound and then he said, “Daniel Boone,” and held out his arms. “Thank you, champ,” he said to Kris and hugged the head like a stuffed animal.
“Bring a pizza,” the old man said after she was gone. “Green olives,” he said while she walked fast away. “Sausage. Mushrooms. Bell peppers.” The rain was not slacking up. It poured with the lightning. “Oh, and no pepperoni this time. Make it salami. How’s that, Boone?” He patted the bear’s head and after a good drink of rain, he said, “Kentucky” and died.