Once Something Happened Here



This afternoon I drove out to the old resort without telling your grandmother. She would not have wanted me to drive, but I did anyway. I parked where the lodge had stood and opened the truck doors, let the air settle onto my legs, let the light slip below the line of the spruce, and did not awake until the mosquitoes began bothering my neck. I knew I had stayed too long, but still I did not rush to turn the ignition. I moved slowly, thought slowly, tried to think of something to tell your grandmother.

I needn’t have worried. Now that I’ve returned, you are here.

You do not know it, but your grandmother is happy. She peels the apples, and as you roll the dough, her shoulders soften. I have not seen her like this for quite some time. Even in the mornings when she returns from her walks to tell me about the squirrels and birds, something hangs about her. She pours a glass of water and sits at the kitchen table, complaining about her feet. I tell her not to walk so far if it bothers her feet, but she doesn’t listen.

Your grandmother won’t tell you this, but we are thinking of moving. The Lutheran society has opened a new home near the lake—near the old mansions there. It’s brick with a rose garden that they bury in the winter. You should see them go on about it—two feet of dirt covering the tops of the plants, all wrapped in burlap. They have a gardener from the university come out and take care of it. sometimes students. The day we visited we saw them working in their yellow jackets. We watched for a while through the window facing the lake. You can hear the waves from the rooms and the food there isn’t bad. It’s not like the one your uncle went to. Here, the walls are painted nice colors. The staff is cheerful.

You lift the rolled dough from the counter and lay it in the dish. You cut the excess from the edges, pull the scraps into thin pieces and drop them into your mouth like the jellied worms you ate when you were younger. It was beautiful, you say, and even though I’ve just come in, I know you are talking about the trip you took with your boyfriend. How you went up to the old place, showed him the few cabins still up there, the trees growing close to the posts and the leaves rotting the roof from the outside inward. I can imagine you taking him through the old paths, thickened now with bunchberry and beaked hazel, the wind bothering the aspen, that flutter of leaves.

   It felt so haunted, Grandma, but we loved it. And the wind! The whole world swayed! It was like something passing through. Air masses. Or spirits. I just seemed to belong there, you know? I couldn’t help but wish you’d never moved.

You brush at your bangs with the back of your hand, leave flour on your forehead. your grandmother pours the sugar onto the apples. She slowly measures the cinnamon and puts the spoon on the counter. I can see you revising your history—pretending you grew up there, came to visit us perhaps on weekends or for months at a time over the summer. Your grandmother can see it too. She’s smiling at you, moving the bracelet around her wrist, holding her lips together in tight lines.

   We sat on a log and watched the water for the longest time. You should have seen all the water spiders flitting across the surface. It was perfect.

When you close your eyes your grandmother looks at me. she is thinking about your uncle, your father, and it’s as if you’ve given her a sharp rock—asked her to hold it. She has, because of you, but still it pricks her, leaves lines like scratches from thistle on the palms of her hands. I don’t know why your father showed you the place when he did last summer. After your uncle’s death. Or maybe I do know why. how quiet he was at the funeral, his mouth like your grandmother’s mouth now, his left foot shaking through the service. Your grandmother touched him on the knee but it did not stop. and then he left, taking you with him, to the old resort. The two of you spent three hours out there. Your grandmother was worried, though I think she knew where he went and why he went there. She kept making excuses, though: telling us how upset he had been when she told him. He was in Nebraska then, returning from California, the trailer full of grapes. your father who always sounds different on the roads—in control—began talking nonsense. something about the birds there hovering over the just-harvested corn fields. How they didn’t seem to move, but rather seemed suspended, a diorama of sorts or a mobile. How he knew something had happened and maybe that was it.

At the funeral, when, three hours later, you and your father finally returned, he looked drunk. For a moment I thought he was your uncle: your uncle after we moved from the resort to the city, after he left and then returned again to go to those meetings and collapse into bed. It scared me for a moment—the resemblance. I never thought the two looked alike: your father sharp boned and tan like your grandmother, your uncle more like me. But there he was, your father and also your uncle, closing the door of the truck and standing in the gravel as if he had completed something. And you, next to him, as if something had been found. Your face glowed and we could all see the way your heart was lifting. You, who’d always asked so many questions, about to ask so many more.

And you are. You are asking more. you showed your boyfriend the place and now you won’t stop talking. the two of you camped at one of those state forest sites with just the few pull-in slots and the wooden outhouse. You say the two of you lay on the top of your boyfriend’s car and watched the stars. You say the sky pressed down like a blanket or lifted you up and you were suspended there. And then the trees rustled. Shadows moved in the dark night, and you liked the shiftiness of it, the quiet.

You’ve always liked those sorts of movies—the ones where animals leave scat in yards and hunters slip after them. Your grandmother was angry when I let you watch the one with the bear. you were young then— wouldn’t go anywhere without your blanket and liked hiding behind the back of the couch. I don’t remember why it was you couldn’t sleep, but I had the television on. you came out of your father’s old bedroom, climbed on my lap, watched the movie where the bear killed the cows. Your grandmother tried to turn it off before the farmers found them—all the cows in the grass, on their sides, stomachs missing as if a crane had taken a scoop from their sides. and then you wouldn’t sleep—not at our house or your own. you kept vigil you said, and who knows how you learned the word. You sat cross- legged on the bed waiting for the bears, not because you were scared but because you had something to say.

   A bear, you tell us now these many years later. A bear came that night, out of the darkness. We were lying on the roof of the car, watching the stars, when it lumbered onto the paths by the campground. It stood for the longest time by the entrance to the park, right in the middle of the road. Its eyes were so bright in the alder. Like embers.

You laugh, recalling it, and tell us you laughed then, too. It just stood there, sniffing the air! And then Sean started pounding the roof of the car, as if that would scare it. But all the bear did was lie down in the road!

   It lay down in the road?

   Yes! Can you believe it?

You smile wide enough to reveal the small scar by your lip, but still I can’t envision the bear lying down. as if it were a sort of dog, or as if it were watching you. I don’t know why you like to think that—the world always watching you, the birds and the air passing through the aspen intentionally blowing on the back of your neck.

Your grandmother cuts in and asks if you had food at the campsite, out on the tables. Did you have bear canisters like they sell now, or did you bear-bag it?

Oh, it wasn’t after anything, you say, as if that were obvious. This mysticism you’ve developed since you came back with your father. This sense that something belongs to you—wants to tell you stories.

So you are asking, now, for stories. For stories your father won’t share, stories about bears. And it bothers your grandmother. The oven with the apple pies beeps and she opens the door, holding her face in the heat and her hand on her lower back. Syrup and apple bubble through the slits you’ve cut in the dough, and she almost drops the pie as she takes it out. She has put the wrong oven mitt on her hand, the one with the worn thumb, so that heat from the tin burns through the cotton.

Your grandmother, who doesn’t swear, does now. she tosses the pie onto the oven and drops the mitt onto the floor. you are surprised. you’ve stopped talking. you pick up the mitt and ask what’s wrong.

How silly of me, she says, her thumb under water. I should have remembered.

And now you are staring at me. Your eyes like your father’s when he was younger, when we first bought the resort. Open and expectant and maybe even scared. You hold the mitt, pull a loose thread near the cuff. Grandpa, you say, touching my arm.

I don’t know why but I flinch. What can I do?

There were always bears at the resort. Every spring they’d move south and east from the forests to the small cities, looking for food. They’d head near the landfill and paw through everyone’s garbage. They’d eat old bread, gnaw on used soup bones. They were shaggy then, hungry, it being spring. sometimes the snow would have melted by then, but often it stayed in the shadows until June, and we’d find their paw prints on the north slopes of hills. Those on the outskirts of Duluth and two harbors hated it. They kept guns on their porches. Listened for barking dogs in the night. Usually the bears wouldn’t bother us, but sometimes there’d be an aggressive one. one that would move through the streets on garbage days, find the canisters lining the curb. It still happens today—we hear about them in the news, sometimes making it all the way down to St. Paul. But it happened more often then. If you were bored, all you’d have to do is go to the dump. Your father did all the time then, he and your uncle. Weekdays when there wasn’t much to do and no one was staying in the cabins, the two of them would take the truck to the dump. They’d park near the back, away from the highway and the lights on the building. They’d sit there silent, the truck off, until their breath came out in fog and they heard the rustling outside. And then they’d flick the headlights, like you would rabbits or deer. And there’d be the bears, climbing the landfill, pawing through garbage. I don’t know…boys that age need something to do.

And? you say, the mitt still in your hands, your grandmother at the sink, her thumb under water. You are waiting for more. Where does it come from, this need for more? What makes you think there is more? I almost ask if your father took you there, to the landfill. Perhaps he drove there that day last year, after your uncle’s funeral. Perhaps he said something about bears, something that makes you curious now, like a mosquito bite you can’t help scratching. You are grown and think the bear in the park had something to say to you, some message to pass on. You think it’s important or mystical, and perhaps it’s natural. You want some tie to this place, to the soil up there and the trees and the old cabins with their rotting roofs. Some bit of proof like the picture you found last summer—my father on the docks with the other ore punchers. His thin mustache, hunched shoulders, and the steam rising from the rail yards. It fascinated you: a history of people who weren’t always moving like your father. Ordinary people who’d come here and stayed.

Your Grandmother refuses to put ice on her thumb. she’s turned on the hot water, pressed the cap to the bottom of the drain, squirted soap into the sink.

   I’ll take care of the dishes, you say, but she doesn’t let you.

She takes the rag and washes the sides of the knives. You grab a hand towel from the handle of the oven and rub the back of your calf with your left foot.

You mention wanting to move back up there. You will be through with school soon and want to settle in the woods, in a cabin. I don’t remember what your boyfriend does, what he’s studying—if he could find work up here, or would even want to. all those condos they’re building on the shore, the large windows facing the lake and the blue paint made to look like it’s peeling. When we lived there, there was only one grocery store. Your father and uncle would drive down to get the week’s supplies. Visitors from Chicago hated the drive—35 mph around the bends, two lanes from duluth to Grand Marais. Now it’s four lanes from St. Paul to two harbors. If you want, you get here in two hours, two more to the resort. Parking lots near the waterfalls fill with campers and RVs. Sometimes I think you’re your father, inside out. he, always moving around. you, wanting to stay put. But he loved that place once. He and your uncle. I know they did. Even towards the end, when your uncle started disappearing into the woods, leaving your father to skin the fish for the businessmen. Even then, when your father complained about the lack of windows, the scales cutting his fingers, the blade getting dull. He loved it. You could tell.

   Did you like the resort, Grandma? you ask. What did you do there? You wipe the last glass from dinner. The damp cloth squeaks as you stuff it inside and twist, so you twist it even harder. When you pull the towel out    it is wrinkled. You hold the glass up to the light and squint, peering through it. Which do you like more? The resort or this house here?

Oh, I don’t know. She is drying her hands with the embroidered towel. she is staring at the near-empty feeder hanging on the other side of the window. New neighbors moved in next door with their dog and small kids. It annoys her, the yard: all those toys, the dirt dug near the fence.

   If I were you, I’d have wanted to stay at the resort.

Your grandmother pulls out a new knife and cuts the pie. Steam rises from the slices. The knife moves smooth as a wake. Yes. I suppose.

There were more bears than usual that summer. Well, maybe not more bears. Just bigger bears. or, rather, one bigger bear. Two hundred pounds heavier than all the others, it grew restless at the dump, began bothering people in town. It killed someone’s dog and broke a car window, becoming a big enough nuisance to get itself killed. Well before hunting season, the sheriff said we could destroy it.

The bear was a pain. Your grandmother handled most of the visitors, but they all knew about it. So many evenings they asked where to find it—all those men coming up from the cities with their guns, rumbling down the dirt road and asking for cabins. Not the regulars—the men needing to get away—but a different sort. People who asked about sightings before asking about rent. Had we seen it around? Had it been through our dumpsters? Your uncle never wanted to tell them anything. He was seventeen then, your father twelve. Your grandmother had to cuff your uncle on the head when he lied: what bear?, he’d ask as the men stood there with their guns, the hunting jackets they bought in the Duluth on the way up.

We didn’t know it then, but he wanted to kill the bear himself. He’d even discussed it with your father. each day he took the fish carcasses from the fish house after your father had finished, slid them from the table into a bucket, called for the dog. He took the canoe deep into the lakes, portaging here and there, sliding into the muck and silence of it. We didn’t know until later, but he was leaving offerings in three downed trees, the insides of them eaten out by bacteria and fungi. He’d slop the fish carcasses into the empty caverns of the trunks, tell the dog to stay by the canoe. He’d watch the woods and the brush for signs of the bear, for paw prints and scratches on the bark. Two or three times a week he’d go to those three trees, filling the bowls for the bear. Waiting, I suppose, for it to get accustomed to the free fish. When he led the visitors through the lakes, he never took them to that side, the north side. Instead, he kept them south and west, where the mosquitoes were worse. They’d come back sweaty, red-faced, and scratching. Quite the wilderness out there, they’d say as they swallowed your grandmother’s stew, sopping the broth with bread.

I think they liked the chase of it. your uncle did too. He liked taking them out there, away from his traps. The men saw moose every once in a while, especially near Brule Bay. They’d come back glowing like you, glowing with the story, the sighting, and perhaps they forgot enough about the bear. Seeing a moose satisfied the expense of the guns and orange jackets.

Your grandmother doesn’t want to hear anymore. She has left the kitchen—has said she needs to shower before bed. You stare after her and it’s as if you want to apologize, but something stops you. you want to know more. You don’t understand why she’s silent— why we sometimes sit in the evenings on the porch, drinking hot toddies, watching the lights from barges on the lake.

I don’t know what else to give you. Your eyes are dark like your father’s, and in them I see the coat of that bear, glistening from the winter. Not dull like you would expect but that deep brown. You think we are moving somewhere, you and I, heading toward the end of some story. But again I tell you, I don’t know what to give you.

Out on the porch, the stars are small tonight, cold. You have followed me softly, holding the door behind you until it clicks closed. You and your stories.

Water whines through the pipes—your grand- mother in the shower. she is pulling the shower cap over her hair, wetting the hand cloth. she has folded her nightgown on the lid of the toilet. she has opened the canister of cream for her face. she holds a hand beneath the faucet, waits for water to warm. she knows, even from there, what I am saying.

And here you are—still young enough for oil to shine on your nose. You lean against the banister, hold your face to the wind. My eyes water from the sting of it, but you do not squint. you brush leaves off of the plastic chairs. You sit down.

Once I found your father and uncle arguing. Your uncle had the canoe in the lake, the dog already at the bow, staring forwards, tail flapping. Your father wanted to go with, but your uncle wouldn’t let him, and when your uncle kicked off, your father threw stones. They hit the aluminum of the canoe, making tin-like rings. your uncle didn’t even turn his head—just kept paddling— and when he had passed the bend, your father stopped throwing stones and instead began skipping them.

Your father was always quiet. Even more so after your uncle’s troubles, but before as well. He’d skip the stones and skin the fish, play fetch with the dog and stand in doorways. I’d always find him spying. your uncle would be off with the dog and the canoe, but your father would tramp through the woods and watch the businessmen fish on sawbill. He’d finger the license plates of their cars, clean the headlights with the bottoms of his t-shirts. Maybe it started then—him always wanting to be going. Maybe not. It’s hard to say with these things. But that summer your father was extra quiet—always following your uncle around until your uncle had enough of it, furrowing his eyebrows as he skinned the fish.

Your father would follow the guests, too. he’d watch them from behind trees as they fished, offer to take them to the best bays in the lakes. They put up with it—not like now. Now tourists want kayak tours on Lake superior. They want dry sweatsuits and twelve-pound walleye.

That summer your father befriended a boy from Des Moines. I can’t remember the boy’s name—he hadn’t been there before—but that year he came with his father. The boy was peculiar. Thick glasses. Always looking at the trees. He carried an old canvas backpack everywhere. We never knew what was in it. Your father tried to peek a lot—he’d poke a stick into the flap when the boy wasn’t looking. But the boy would spot him and move the backpack to his other hip.

One day I took the two of them fishing at Echo Lake. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of your uncle’s spots. Your father wanted to go there, I remember. If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone there, but I didn’t know. We took the canoe, the boy in the middle, your father up front. The boy spent the whole time looking at the leaves in the trees; your father at the shore, the fallen trunks.

Near the north shore your father began to sit straighter. He slowed the canoe with a sweep-stroke, making it turn, and I remember yelling at him—something about the rocks in the lake there and the way the canoe bottom scraped against a boulder.

We pulled to the bank near a point, one side shallow and the other deep and cool, and got out. We’d brought poles and a small tin of leeches. The boys were joking, pushing each other near the water. The kid from Des Moines took his backpack off, leaned it against a tree, and we settled into the fishing. But your father never really paid attention. I remember that well—he kept glancing at the brush and jumping at small noises. He’d always been that way. observant, your grandmother said. Flighty, I always thought.

We caught a smallmouth bass and a perch. The lake was calm, only small ripples. and then the boy shrieked—pointed to the bank, fifty yards west, where the bear stood. I remember how large it was, how ugly—its fur mottled looking, off-color, a raw patch on its side as if it had scratched itself too long on a tree. At first it rambled along the shore, slowly coming near us, but then it picked a scent and looked up. They don’t do that usually. I remember how odd it was—how slow— the look up, the shake, the lunge. It ran, though not fast like it could have. More drunk-looking than anything, slapping at the ground and clacking its teeth. A giant, shaggy thing, blustery in its lunging. But of course the boy screamed and ran toward the canoe. He shouldn’t have. You know that. But what did he know?

So we followed him—your father and I. We jumped into the canoe, pushed off, paddled to the middle, fifty yards from the shore, and watched the bear make its way to where we’d been fishing. It lumbered to the water, opening its mouth in a throaty moan. It scooped the bass from the net in the water, sniffed at the boy’s backpack.

The boy from the city was silent by then, shaking, his hands clamped to the gunwales of the canoe. Stop rocking, I told him, but he didn’t stop. And your father? Your father just watched, his head cocked to the side, as if he was smirking. And maybe he was. Because your uncle appeared then, out of the brush just behind the bear. Appeared with the gun he’d purchased the previous winter. His movements were smooth, soundless, and at first I didn’t recognize him—just saw a faint shadow, a seventeen-year-old in cut-offs, out of the corner of my eye.

But when your uncle lifted the gun and aimed at the bear, your father stood and hollered. Not like the boy had screamed—scared and unseemly—but angry. An odd yell—a yell like buckshot in the fall and ducks taking off in torrents.

Your uncle missed his shot. The bullet hit a stone, ricocheting into the brush. The bear stood on his haunches, moaned, and then ran to the west, back toward the forest. And this is what I remember most: the way your uncle glared at your father then, his face smooth as the sky with is shallow blues, his bangs slick against his forehead. It chilled me. The boy was still screaming, your father was still yelling, and the canoe rocked from side to side, letting in water. I tried to tell them all to calm down, to shut up, but they didn’t. The canoe rocked, the lake slipped in, and still your uncle and father glared at each other, their eyes like fishing line when you’ve just hooked a northern. Your uncle’s face turning pale and hard.

It could have been funny, but only the boy noticed the missing backpack—the strap somehow looped around the bear’s shoulder when it lumbered away. It’s inconceivable, really. And I wish I had seen it. But instead, your father and I watched your uncle. He pointed the gun at the lake, pulled the trigger, let the bullet create a line of ripples nine feet from our canoe. And then he held the gun like a baseball bat, reared back, and swung at a tree.

I won’t ask, but I would like to know what your father showed you there, after your uncle’s funeral. Did he take you out on the lakes or just point out the foundation of the old lodge, the few standing cabins? Did the two of you walk around the overgrown paths, pushing through the tamarack and bunchberry? What was your father like, back at the resort? Did he seem at home there? Did you watch him like you are watching me now? As if, any moment, I will open my hands, hand you a knife, a stone, a gun?

Your grandmother is hiding. she’s in the kitchen, scrubbing the stove. The television drones from the living room and she keeps peeking out through the blinds, frowning. She opens the door and asks if we’re coming in, if we’re getting cold, but you say no. You should have brought a heavier coat. Your knees knock together and even though you slide your hands beneath your thighs I can see how they tremble.

   The day after we saw the bear, you tell me, we hiked along the trail. I led and Sean followed. Halfway through the hike, a storm came from the west and the wind picked up. The poplars bent so far that the leaves nearly touched the ground. It was so loud. I thought the sky was moaning. And then the rain came. We could hardly keep going with all the mud. We were sinking into the path and the rain kept pouring down our noses and cheeks.

You pause and look toward the lake, toward the sky. I can imagine it—you standing there, hands spread, the rain dripping from the straps of your pack, your heart a part of the thunder.

   And when it stopped, Grandpa, and I saw that we were surrounded by snapped trees and broken twigs, it looked like there were bears everywhere—lurking inside old tree trunks, sleeping beneath the brush. Sean told me to slow down, but something drew me forward on that trail. Something was calling to me.  

And now you are lost in yourself. Bears, you whisper. Everywhere bears. And I remember how young you are.

This is what happened. The boy bragged to his father about the bear taking his backpack and said nothing more. For two hours that evening, I yelled at your uncle. I took away his gun. But still your uncle left for the woods, searching for the bear. And when someone else killed it—some guy from Missouri who had it flown to duluth to be stuffed—your uncle stayed in his room for a day.

The bear is supposedly in some museum now—one of those historical society buildings, probably some old church. Your father mentioned it, at your uncle’s funeral. I’m not sure he’d ever gone, though, and I can’t remember the city.

You are disappointed. You are sitting here with me looking out towards the lake. A barge moves to the north, its lights slow on the water. And I don’t know what to make of your disappointment—as if you expected this to be a tragedy. As if you wanted the bear you saw in the woods to be the same bear—to be your uncle, or your father, its black fur glinting in the moon. Maybe, then, it would walk up to your car and stare at you and your boyfriend—not eat your food but paw the fly of the tent, leave footprints on the gravel. Some sense that you are being watched.

But it’s not a tragedy. Nothing happened. The bear took the backpack, some other hunter shot the bear, and the boy left, followed six months later by your uncle. Not because of the bear, though. Not because of the bear.

Jennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in recent issues of Potomac Review, Water Stone Review, Third Coast, Poetry East, and South Dakota Review, among others. She grew up in Minnesota and is currently a PhD student at Binghamton University, where she specializes in creative writing and place studies.