The bear invited me go for a walk to the river, about twenty minutes away on foot. I had taken that road once before in the early spring to see the snipes, but then I had worn protective clothing; now it was hot, and for the first time since the ‘incident’ I would be clad in normal clothes that exposed the skin, and carrying lunch to boot. It would be a bit of a trek, somewhere between a hike and a stroll.
The bear was a massive full-grown male who had just moved into apartment 305, three doors down the hall from me. As a gesture of good will, he had treated the three of us who remained in the building to ‘moving-in noodles’ and distributed packets of postcards, a level of formality you don’t see often nowadays. He sure wants people to like him, I thought, but then you probably have to do that if you’re a bear.
When he stopped by my apartment with the noodles, we discovered that we might not be complete strangers after all.
‘You don’t happen to be from X town, do you?’ he asked when he saw my name on the door. Yes, I replied, I certainly am. It turned out that a person who had been a huge help to him when he was in the evacuation center there during the ‘incident’ had an uncle, one of the town officials, whose last name matched mine. When we traced the connection a bit further, we arrived at the conclusion that this official and my father might be second cousins. A flimsy tie to be sure, but the bear appeared deeply moved nonetheless, waxing eloquently about the ‘karmic bond’ it established between us. From the way he handled the moving-in etiquette to his manner of speech, he certainly seemed to be an old-fashioned type of bear.
And so the bear and I headed down the road on our stroll-hike. I don’t know a whole lot about the animal kingdom so I couldn’t tell if he was an Asiatic black bear, a brown bear, or a Malayan sun bear. I thought of asking him, but it seemed too rude. Nor did I know his name. When I asked what I should call him, he thought for a moment and then, after checking to be sure that no other bears were nearby, said: ‘For the moment I am without a name, and since there are no other bears here I don’t think I really need one. I prefer to be addressed as “you”, but please imagine it written in Chinese characters, not phonetically. Actually, though, you can call me anything you like – I won’t mind.’
Yes, this was a most old-fashioned bear. Not to mention rather finicky about trivial points of logic.
The road to the river ran though a strip of land that had once been rice fields. Almost all the paddies had been turned up during the process of decontamination, however, and now the earth lay in glistening piles. Despite the heat, all the workers we saw were encased in protective suits and masks with waders that extended to their waists. For several years after the ‘incident’, entry to this area had been absolutely forbidden and the deep cracks in the road left untouched, but recently the road had been freshly paved. Although Ground Zero was close by, a surprising number of cars passed us. They slowed to a crawl as they approached and made a wide circle around us. Not a soul passed on foot.
‘Maybe they’re keeping a distance because we’re not wearing protective suits,’ I said. The bear gave a noncommittal grunt. ‘I took special care to avoid too much radiation the first half of this year, so my total amount of accumulated radiation indicates I can still afford some exposure. And SPEEDI (the System for Prediction of Environmental Dose Information) predicts we won’t have a lot of wind in this region.’
The bear responded to my apparent excuses with a shrug. The only sound was the rhythmic crunch of his paws on the pavement.
I asked if he was hot.
‘No, I’m fine. Walking on asphalt is a bit tiring, but I’ll be OK. The river’s not that far. Thank you for your concern. It’s kind of you to . . . Of course if you are hot we can walk on the shoulder. My body is much larger than yours so my maximum permissible dose is much higher, which means it should be all right for me to go without shoes where the radiation levels are higher. It’ll be cooler for you than this hot pavement. Shall we move?’
He went on in this vein, a picture of solicitude. I was wearing a big hat and can handle heat well anyway, so I said no, but in fact it may have been he who wanted to move off the pavement. We walked on silently.
Eventually we heard in the distance the faint sound of rushing water. As we walked it grew louder until, at last, we reached the river. I had expected to find no one there, but two men were standing by the water’s edge. Before the ‘incident’, this had been a lively place where people swam and fished, and families brought their children. Now, however, there were no children left anywhere in the area.
I set down my bag and started mopping my face with a towel. The bear’s tongue was hanging out, and he was panting slightly. As we stood there, the two men came up to us. Both were wearing protective suits. One had long gloves that reached his elbows, while the other sported sunglasses.
‘It’s a bear, isn’t it,’ said Sunglasses.
‘I envy bears,’ put in Long Gloves.
‘Bears can handle Strontium. Plutonium, too.’
‘What do you expect? They’re bears.’
‘So that’s why. Because they’re bears.’
‘Yeah, because they’re bears.’
They went back and forth like this a few more times. Sunglasses stole a glance at my face, but he avoided looking at the bear directly. Long Gloves occasionally ran his hands over the bear’s belly and tugged at his fur. Finally they said, ‘Because he’s a bear’ one last time, turned their backs, and wandered off.
‘Good grief,’ the bear said after they had gone. ‘I guess they meant well.’
I didn’t say anything.
‘You know, my maximum permissible dose may be a bit higher than humans, but that doesn’t mean I’m resistant to Strontium and Plutonium. Oh well, how can you expect them to know?’
Before I had a chance to reply, the bear walked quickly to the river’s edge.
Tiny fish were darting back and forth in the water. The cool of the river felt good on my face. Looking more closely, I could see that each fish was swimming in a narrowly circumscribed area, first upstream, then downstream, as if bound by a long and narrow rectangular space. Those bounds marked its turf. The bear was studying the water also. But was he seeing the same things that I was? Perhaps the world beneath the water was different when seen through the eyes of a bear.
Suddenly, there was a great splash as the bear leaped into the river. When he had sloshed halfway across he stopped, plunged his right paw into the current, and pulled out a fish. It was about three times the size of the tiny fish we had seen swimming along the banks.
‘Bet you were surprised,’ the bear said when he had returned. ‘My legs just moved on their own. Good sized one, isn’t it?’
The bear held the fish up for me to see. Its fins sparkled in the sunlight. The two men from before were pointing in our direction and saying something to each other. The bear beamed triumphantly.
‘They eat the moss that grows on the river bottom,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, a lot of Cesium collects there, too.’
The bear opened his bag, pulled out a cloth bundle and withdrew a small knife and a cutting board. Deftly he cut open the fish and gutted it, and washed it with water from a plastic bottle he had brought for the occasion. Then he sprinkled it liberally with coarse salt and laid it on a large leaf.
‘If we turn it over every so often it’ll be ready to eat by the time we get back home,’ he said. ‘But even if you don’t eat it, it’ll be a nice reminder of our trip together.’
This bear really thinks of everything, I thought admiringly.
We spread a cloth on a bench and sat there looking at the river and eating the lunches we had packed. The bear had notched a stick of French bread and inserted pâté and radishes into the openings; while I had rice balls with pickled plums in the middle. For dessert we had one orange each. It was a leisurely meal.
‘Might I have your orange peel?’ he said after we had finished. I gave it to him, and he turned his back and gobbled it down.
The bear went to flip the fish over, then carefully washed the knife, cutting board and cups with water from the bottle. After drying them, he extracted a large towel from his bag and handed it to me.
‘Please use this when you take your nap. It has only been two hours since we started, and the radioactivity is low, but all the same . . . I’m off to take a little walk. Would you like me to sing you a lullaby before I go?’ he asked earnestly.
I told him I was quite capable of falling asleep without a lullaby. He was clearly disappointed, but a moment later he was headed upstream on his walk.
When I awoke the shadows of the trees had lengthened and the bear was sleeping on the bench beside mine. No towel was covering his body, and he was snoring faintly. Apart from us, the place was deserted. The two men were nowhere to be seen. I laid the towel on the bear and went to turn over the salted fish. There were three fish now where only one had been before.
What a fine outing!’ the bear said, standing before apartment 305. He pulled a Geiger counter out of his bag and ran it over first my body, then his own. I heard the familiar beeping. ‘I hope we have occasion to do it again.’
I nodded. When I tried to thank him for the salted fish and everything else, though, he waved it off.
‘Not at all,’ he answered.
‘OK then . . .’ I said, turning to leave.
‘Well,’ he hesitated shyly.
I waited for him to go on, but he just stood there fidgeting. He was a truly massive bear. A gurgling sound came from deep in his throat. When he was talking, his voice sounded entirely human, but when he hemmed and hawed like this, or when he laughed, he sounded like a real bear.
‘Would you mind if we hugged?’ he finally asked. ‘Where I come from, that’s what we do when we say goodbye to someone we feel close to. If you don’t like the idea, of course, then we don’t have to.’
I consented. The fact bears don’t take baths meant there would probably be more radiation on his body. But it had been my decision from the start to remain in this part of the country, so I could hardly be squeamish.
The bear took a step forward, spread his arms wide, and embraced my shoulders. Then he pressed his cheek against mine. I could smell the odour of bear. He moved his other cheek to mine and squeezed me firmly again. His body was cooler than I had expected.
‘I had a truly wonderful time. I feel as though I have returned from a voyage to some faraway place. May the Bear God bestow his blessings on you. Oh yes, and salted fish doesn’t keep very well, so if you choose not to eat it be sure to throw it out tomorrow.’
Back in my apartment, I placed the wrapped salted fish atop the shoebox in my entrance and went in to take a shower. I carefully washed and rinsed my hair and body, then sat down to write in my diary before going to bed. As I do every night, I recorded my estimate of the radiation I had received that day: thirty micro-sieverts on the surface of my body, and nineteen micro-sieverts of internally received radiation. For the year to date, 2900 micro-sieverts of external radiation, and 1780 micro-sieverts of internal radiation. I tried picturing what the bear god looked like, but it was beyond my imagination. All in all, it had been a pretty good day.