Bad Survivalist: Margaret Redmond Whitehead
Bear, Flower, Ferryman
For a long time that morning, the bear occupied herself with a cardboard box. Its walls were plushy and wet—soaked from the night’s rain—but rigid enough that it held its shape. It was on its side, with both ends open, creating a tunnel that was just barely too small for a bear to pass through.
The Ferry Man ate a jerky stick while he walked through the long green tunnel. He only used that term in his head—the long green tunnel—and he resented that he used it even there. He’d heard other people say it; other people use those words when referring to the Trail. He didn’t like taking on their jargon, their nicknames, their jokes. He didn’t want to think like they all thought, as one herd. He didn’t like his trail name, the Ferry Man, but he couldn’t give it back. Even if he didn’t like them, there were certain rules of the road.
Cars whipped by on the road. The bear, near to the highway but safe within the trees, ignored them. They were fast. Sometimes there was the crass, jagged rip of a motorcycle or unbear-like roar of a truck. Sometimes the bear shook her ears at them. When she did, flies scattered, floated around her like a halo, and then came down again to bounce off the sticky hairs inside her ears. She ignored the flies, too.
It wasn’t so much the term “long green tunnel” as the people the Ferry Man had heard it from. This shit was like high school, but worse. Within the first hundred miles, folks had buddied up and linked up and soon there were little cliques all over the place. Sure he’d come here to make friends, but, jee-zuz, he wanted actual friends, you know, not fucking camp pals. People didn’t get him right away, anyway. He had to let them take time. They had to ask him questions. Then they’d see he was all right. They’d see he had some pretty smart ideas. He listened to good music. He had good gear—not too expensive but not stupid trashy stuff. But none of the conversations he’d had lasted that long. It had all seemed mutual: He wanted to hike extra miles that day to get ahead, or they wanted to hang back to go skinny dipping in a stream, and by the time he met that person again they were with someone else, palling it up. Buddy-buddy. All that shit.
So the Ferry Man (he wasn’t yet; he was Trevor, call me Rev) thought OK, whatever, I’ll be the solo guy. There’s always room for a lone wolf. And he knew how to rock the look. He cut off conversations short or went silent sometimes. He knew this prompted interesting guesses about him. It was a brutal nub of satisfaction.
The morning had been misty, the air all light rain, which, with the strong light from the sky made for some of the best pictures all trail. Minnie slowed down to snap photos so often that the friends she’d been hiking with—her trail family, they called themselves—went on without her. They said they’d save space for her tent at the next campsite. She hung back and took pictures of butterflies in the bright, glittery mist.
The phone had a weak battery, and she squandered it every day on taking pictures and sending them to her kids. She’d paid for Guthook, the trail app, but didn’t use it, and rarely opened up Instagram. Instead, Minnie’s phone created a perfect portal from herself to her three-and-six-year-olds. It was like a tunnel carved into a mountain, made for the passenger trains her six-year-old spent half the day pawing at. Minnie could put a picture—a rocky vista! A bright green toad! Herself with a huge ice cream cone!—inside the caboose of the train, and send it straight through the mountain. On the other side, two pairs of grimy hands seized their other mother’s phone and left smears across the screen as they zoomed in and out and in. As long as she sent those images through that tunnel, she felt absolved of not missing them.
Minus that photo-transmitting tunnel, she allowed herself the tiny, protected thrill of being someone else.
The bear didn’t like the road, for its noise and fast cars, but it was a place well worth the trouble. There was a lot of trash here; things to eat; easy foraging. Paper bags with bits of food in them. The sweet, mealy stalks of hardy fruits. Canvas bags—these frustratingly encased with small metal teeth and tabs, often tedious to pry open—filled with full meals. Sometimes rotting meat, which she did not touch.
There were berries on the bushes, and other small insects and morsels to enjoy, further back in the forest, but those took more work than the roadside smorgasbord. Here the bear could rummage and munch.
One morning, chewing jerky, the Ferry Man hiked for six miles through black flies in the Smoky Mountains with a girl who hummed show tunes the whole time and he thought, this is the start of something. He could see them doing the friend thing. Being a real pair. Then, at lunch, while the girl hummed the rapping portions of Hamilton, they came upon an overlook draped with bare, tanning bodies. “Daisy Chain!” one of the bodies cried, and the Ferry Man’s humming companion squealed a hello and dropped her bag. Daisy Chain joined the sunbathers, peeling off her tank top and lowering herself onto the hot rock slab, and the Ferry Man walked on. This time he didn’t bother to say catch you later in the long green tunnel. That was a brutal betrayal.
Later, the Ferry Man was secretly satisfied when he heard that Daisy Chain was gone. He was foggy on the details, due to keeping largely to himself; it was unclear where she was “gone” from: the Trail? The state? This lifetime? For a stint, or permanently? He didn’t know. All he knew was it had something to do with a bear.
The bear’s interest in the refrigerator box might have been called play. She wasn’t urgently hungry, and had already eaten chunks of fried meat from a bit nearer to the road. She was curious about the box: a curiosity that seemed both well-founded and not too risky. It held her attention for many, many minutes.
She stuck her nose into the damp darkness of the box. The air was clean and moist. She snorted and shook her head.
She circled the box. Sometimes she circled it in one direction and sometimes in the other direction.
Minnie picked up bits of litter when she saw them, and carried them in her pocket until she reached a trash can. In her pocket today was a frayed audio cord and a smashed bit of cardboard.
From the trail, she spotted a cluster of twigs in a dense, leafy section of brush. She stepped closer to it, her footsteps cracking sticks on the spongy ground, and stood on a mushy fallen log to peer inside the nest. Her nose brushed the tight weave of its wall. She raised her phone, carefully, and hovered it above the nest. She couldn’t see what was in the lens, but tapped in rapid sequence where the shutter button should have been. As she shifted her weight onto her other foot, the decomposing log beneath her gave way. Minnie lost her balance. The phone fell into the nest.
Then—like a total mindfuck—in Virginia the script flipped. Injuries started popping up like dandelions. People left the trail in droves to rest ankles and knees. Hikers showed up he’d never even seen before. Flip-floppers appeared, fresh-smelling and shamefully perky. Hikers got back on the trail after an injury took them off weeks ago. It was like staying on at fucking summer camp when a new session started. Before the Ferry Man knew what was happening, the cliques had re-shuffled. They dispersed in poofs like pigeons on the fucking sidewalk, and then floated down again, alighting in new groupings. And he’d missed the memo. He was the pigeon who landed by himself in an oily puddle.
The bear used the hard, flat top part of her head to nudge the side of the refrigerator box. She inspected and mouthed its flaps, but didn’t like them.
She stuck her nose into the box again. With a deep sniff, the kind that rattled air through her nasal passageways, she pushed her entire head in. Then she snorted, a sound closer to a sneeze. She took her head out of the box.
She let loose an indistinguishable cry. Then, trying to find a coherent word, she hoarse-whispered-shouted, “Shit! Shit!”
Her foot snapped a stick in half against the ground.
Minnie’s fingers reached back into the nest for the phone. Her face in a cartoonish grimace—if someone came and saw her now, they would know that she would know this was poor form, and they would know that she knew to regret it—she fumbled for the phone. Seizing its rubber-coated sides, she yanked it back out of the nest. As her fingers left the woven bowl, she thought she felt something against her bare knuckle: a cool, hard, surface, maybe. Or a mist-damp scrap of fluff.
With an involuntary shudder, Minnie rushed back to the trail. Sweat spread across her back, and she remembered—this strange thing she remembered less and less as time went on—that on her back was a backpack half her size. Before slipping her phone back into her pocket, she checked to see whether she’d gotten anything. The shutter had clicked, but the picture was a blur. She couldn’t tell if anything was there.
For a little while, the bear lost interest in the box.
On a day when the only interesting thing that had happened was crossing the Mason-Dixon line, the Ferry Man reached a rotting shelter. Someone asked his name. He said he was Rev.
“Is it short for Reverend?” a woman asked.
That was when he knew he had to have a trail name. No one got this far without one. Someone else was supposed to give it to you, like a bestowed gift, but he was halfway through and no one had been so generous. Worse, he’d gotten an idea in his head, a name he called himself, and he’d started to want it. He’d started to think about naming himself. Introducing himself with the name he wanted. No one would fucking know because he didn’t talk to anyone. No one had bothered to look beneath the surface.
The bear looked under the box. She did this by lifting it up, with her left front paw, from its base. It was very light and soft. She could lift full tree trunks like this; she could lift boulders. There was nothing underneath. She sniffed around the edges. It was new to this area, but it already smelled like the forest.
Minnie walked on. The section of trail was wooded but tedious, layered with road crossings and pointless twists and turns. She swatted compulsively at the backs of her knuckles—the bit of her that she swore had touched something in the nest. She walked quickly, hoping to catch up to her trail family, a ragtag Gen Z crew of four who treated her like the kid sister. They called her Daisy Chain for the headband she wore that her children had picked out at R.E.I., which was green and stamped with bright daisies: their floppy white petals, their yellow centers.
He stood there, like an idiot, holding his walking stick, and glanced down at it. He wanted to tell them that he was the asshole who was going to outlive all their sorry lives. He’d come up with this whole metaphor for his aloneness, from Greek mythology, so on-point it revved him up. But now that he was on the spot—now that someone asked—he couldn’t remember it. He totally blanked on the name of the guy who paddled other souls into Hell. “I’m the Ferry Man,” he said in a shot at description.
“Oh, like—” started a young woman, but then she stopped and looked unsure she wanted to say more. It was his own damn fault. He’d blanked on the guy’s name. And he’d said it without thinking about how you were supposed to say it. He’d said it like two words, ferry man, not ferryman. Shit. Now he couldn’t be out this whole trip. It’d be too on-the-nose.
“Oh I see it,” said an old man at the picnic table. “Like in Venice. Ferrying around the canals.”
“Like Charon,” the Ferry Man said. There was the name he wanted. “In Hades.”
“Dark,” said the young woman. Then, interest slipping away from him, she asked the group, “Anyone see Daisy Chain today?”
“She’s doing a night hike, then zeroing out at that hostel with the pizza,” someone said. “We’ll catch up with her Sunday.”
“Shit,” a man said. “She’s got my charge box.”
Tentatively, the bear put her head back into the box. She stepped forward; one massive paw crushed the soft cardboard flap against the ground, pressing it into the earth. A perfect carpet. She moved her other foot forward, a cautious offensive. The air inside the box was wet and fresh. She stepped and stepped inside, inside the not-quite-bear-sized tunnel, until the crest of her hips pushed the box’s ceiling up into a damp rounded cape.
Coming up onto another road, a rustling noise came from Minnie’s right, deeper into the woods, but still near the road. She tried to see through the layered stems of young trees but her eyes couldn’t match any motion to the sound. Then she saw, slowly, almost as though her eyes had to adjust to see it, a large, rocking, square.
Minnie stepped off trail to get a better look. The leaves shifted, paper beneath her feet. When she saw the bear stuck inside the refrigerator box, she reached for her phone. She tried to move so slowly that it wouldn’t even notice her. Her finger, poised above the touchscreen shutter, quivered.
A coil of panic, instinctive claustrophobia, sprang open in the bear’s bones. She didn’t know whether she should shuffle backwards in retreat, or crash forwards out of the box, towards the forest light.
Margaret Redmond Whitehead’s work has appeared in publications including The Atavist Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Millions, and Transition. She was a 2017 Literary Journalism Fellow at the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and a 2018 Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Fellow in Nonfiction. Read more at MargRedWhite.com or find her on Twitter @margredwhite.