dust settling

My heart stutters a step as I pull up next to a dusty Subaru on a remote, dead end logging road. My mind immediately begins to rifle through horrifying imagined news headlines. The dust I kicked up as I came in hangs in the air in clouds; the August air is hot and stagnant. Taking a deep breath, I steel myself and open my car door, committing to my investigation of this strange presence. I slip into my predator’s skin, willing confidence into my gait as I stalk toward the car. On the passenger seat there is a well-loved Washington hiking book and a blue beach towel. As I prowl around the car to the driver’s side, I spot the only set of footprints in the powdery road—he is alone. There are kayak stickers on the rear window and I decide that he must be an outdoor enthusiast who has come to find the picturesque but little-known waterfall nearby. I suddenly conjure up a much friendlier image of this person than those that had flashed through my mind when I first saw the strange car. Despite these more benign pictures, my remaining suspicions force me to grab my hunting bow from the back of my car and secure my bear spray and knife before setting out to follow the stranger’s tracks into the woods. He meanders as if lost or searching but the dirt is so dry this time of year that I follow him easily for a while before finally spotting him. I imagine that he caught my movement the second I dropped the stillness and began moving more abruptly and casually in his direction in my attempt to appear non-threatening. The look of surprise told me that he also rifled through some imagined news headlines as he tried to make sense of what had just emerged from the wood. I watched him grapple with the unlikely human before him, searching for a place to put her; short, dressed entirely in ghileaf, carrying a lethal looking bow with a hot pink arrow casually nocked in one hand, as she smiled brightly and said, “Hi! Are you lost?” His expression was incredulous, his mouth actually gaping open. He stammered for a moment, searching for words, and then to his credit, he responded, “Are YOU lost?” I smiled, “Not at all but I am not the one who just walked in a big circle. Are you looking for the water fall?” He let out a breath, clearly relieved that we might share a common purpose and said “Yes, I thought I was getting close.” I traded my bow hand, stowing my arrow in my quiver, and said “Nope. Not even a little bit. Come with me, I’ll show you.”  I started off in the opposite direction but stopped after a few steps and looked back to see him still standing there dumbstruck and hesitant, assessing me with suspicion. I delighted as I saw the shadows of a million damning news headlines flash through his mind just as they had for me. In the end he relented and dutifully followed me across the field and down to the waterfall. We were quiet but I stayed with him as he took in the view. As we made our way back to the cars, he finally spoke, expressing his concern about leaving me out in the middle of nowhere to hunt bears of all things. All alone. I smiled kindly and reassured him that I would be just fine. I could tell he was sincere and even as he drove away I saw him hesitate one more time, in indecision as to whether he could truly leave this strange female there but in the end, I watched his car disappear into the dust on the dirt road and I took comfort in the clouds he left behind; evidence that would mark the passage of time from his departure. Sighing in relief, I dropped my bow in the back of my car, uncinched my weapons belt, and tossed it irreverently onto the seat. Stretching my arms towards the sky, I sighed heavily, finally able to relax now that I was solitary once more. I ambled across the road and into the sun-drenched field.  The sun was hanging low in the late afternoon and the grass shone like gold. I smiled at the birds calling to one another and squinted up at an eagle soaring high above, letting the peace of the space sink into my bones and sing a song in my blood. The blue sky, fluffy clouds, streaming sunlight snapped into surreal clarity as an abrupt cough rang out from behind me, calling me back from my peaceful moment and causing my heart to clatter down a flight of stairs. All of my security, my bow, my knife, my bear mace, were out of reach. I had foolishly determined that with the departure of the stranger, the danger had passed, I had abandoned them for convenience, just to be unencumbered for a few stolen moments. Resignedly, I slowly turned, ready to face what I was certain was a human who had outsmarted me and knew it. Instead my breath whooshed from my lungs and the pounding of my heart slowed as I instead took in a huge bear, with a glimmering black coat and eyes of coal that were fixed on me as he tilted his nose to the sky and took in deep, noisy sniffs. He was reading my story through my scent with each deep inhale. My breath turned ragged as the bear bared and snapped its teeth, once, twice, three times. I glanced towards my open car door, a paltry 25 feet away and then back to the bear making his assessment of me. Weighing my options, I decided to force liquid titanium into my veins and roll the dice so taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and took a long and slow-like-molasses step towards my car. The bear shifted his weight, re-evaluating my size, as I held breath and rooted myself in place. Once he stilled, I moved again, taking another long, painfully slow step towards my car. Every muscle in my body was as taut as my bow string and the tension was beginning to burn. So close. It was so close. The bear did not move, just continued to watch me, trying to determine what I was doing in this place reminding me of the kayaker. I could see him trying to weigh the danger that I posed. I was not sure what decision the bear would come to but I could clearly see that he was coming to a conclusion as the tension in his body coiled up like a spring about to launch. It happened so fast. We had both felt it, some decision from each side snapping into place, spurring us into action. Losing all self-control, I had whirled and leaped for my car, just as the bear had spun and exploded in the opposite direction, disappearing back into the brush as if he had never been there. From the safety of my car, I watched the clouds of sparkling dust he had kicked up in his retreat drift back to the ground.

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