Written by Mickey Hunt – After his mother chased him away, Bernie enjoyed a simple life off the grid, but acorns, berries and grubs grew boring and harder to find, and they didn’t always suit his digestion. Then winter struck and froze his butt. Also, he thought he’d eventually find company in the wild, but others who shared his freegan, opportunivore ways shunned him. Ran from him, in fact. Were afraid and thought him loony.
So, Bernie finally quit living in the forest.
Toward the end of the following fall, rather than endure another hungry, lonely winter, he moved into town, the edge of town. He hid during the day in a dry culvert and worked the dumpsters and garbage cans at night. This wasn’t bad, in comparison to the forest. The food – including rich proteins of ripened meat and concentrated carbohydrates of aged bread – made him delirious. They were high-powered drugs commanding fervent devotion and risk taking.
One evening long after sundown, he discovered a bag of black oil sunflower seeds under a deck. Just what he needed to build up body weight. An outdoor light bulb flashed on and Bernie grabbed the heavy bag and dragged it to a dark band of trees. He ripped a hole out and licked up a mouthful of seeds.
“Is it a bear, dear?” a woman’s voice from the house asked.
“I can’t be sure,” a man answered.
A blinding corona moved closer. Damned human wasn’t afraid, and it scared Bernie. He abandoned the birdseed, rushed away quick, and jumped onto a tree trunk. The guy was trotting toward him with a heavy stick, and Bernie shimmied up as fast as he could, barely escaping an arcing swing. Bernie climbed as high as he dared and looked down. When the man shone the flashlight on him, Bernie chomped his teeth and huffed, but the threats weren’t convincing. If only he could keep from crapping and peeing, and whining, but his true instincts overwhelmed his intentions.
“That’s disgusting. Come down, you crazy idiot,” the man said. “I’m not really going to hurt you.”
Bernie climbed higher.
“Please yourself, you fool. But you’d better be gone by morning.”
“Shouldn’t we bring the bird feed into the basement?” the woman asked. Bernie waited a solid hour before he dared to slide down the tree. He slunk back to his culvert resolved to be more cautious. Someplace in his fuzzy brain, Bernie felt how unfair it was when human pressures compromised the natural habitat.
By the next night, Bernie’s stomach growled and groaned, overwhelming his resolution to be more careful. He padded along his regular trails until he entered a new territory, determined to raid the first food resource he unearthed. Suddenly he caught a soothing, buttery aroma that awoke in him a primal craving. He felt the exact places it touched his olfactory cells. He knew the precise neural regions within his cranium that the sense affected, and it set his mouth watering, saliva dripping down his chin. He seemed to float toward the origin of the fragrance and soon arrived at a tall white box within a fenced enclosure, a box amid clusters of battered, duct-taped boxes.
Ahhh, of course. Beehives.
Bernie sat down for moment. He had to figure this out because honeybees sting. Honeybees sting bears. Stings hurt. But bears eat honey, and bears eat bee brood because it’s high in fat and protein. There’s a house nearby. Fence. Danger. But bee brood sweetened with honey, seasoned by pollen, along with piney scents of propolis. Hunger. Bears don’t mind bee stings so much. They have thick black fur. It’s worth it.
So, he waded through the fence, which scratched and tingled, a disagreeable burning tingle that made his mind vibrate. Standing on his hind legs he shoved a beehive. It didn’t move. He shoved harder and started it rocking. When it toppled and busted with a crunch, bees swarmed out and stung him everywhere they found flesh. Bernie screamed and rolled on the ground, but he craved the brood, so he dug into the comb where he thought brood might be. Bees even stung him inside his mouth, but he kept eating. It tasted heavenly, and he pushed the pain back somehow.
Until a metallic clacking and another ominous light warned him.
Bernie felt the buckshot at the same instant he heard the explosion. He roared and swatted where the lead pellets pierced his neck. He tore through the fence and ran blindly, his eyes swelling shut. Then he charged into a thicket and slammed into a tree trunk, hitting it head-on and collapsing onto the ground.
As his ember of consciousness chilled and faded, an inner voice whispered, “It’s unfair. Always unfair.”
A beam of light worked right and left until it illuminated the blood trail. It proceeded until the glistening red dribbles stopped, and then the light worked right and left again until it arrived where Bernie lay in a heap. The light froze on his face.
“Oh my Lord,” the beekeeper said, and sank to his knees.
When paramedics arrived they found Bernie dead from loss of blood and anaphylactic shock. They grimaced at his matted hair, skin blackened with ground-in dirt, and a stench like that of rotted skunk. The dark rags clinging to his starved frame were stiff with grease.
“You’re in trouble, sir,” the deputy sheriff said to the beekeeper. “You’ve got a right to defend your life and property, but you have no business firing a gun at night toward an unidentified target.”
The beekeeper pleaded through eyes tearful from remorse. “Bears are destroying my bees. They attack every night, and electric fences aren’t reliable. I can’t make my living anymore.”
“Tell the magistrate.”
“But, I thought for sure he was a bear.”
“No doubt you did,” the deputy said, fastening handcuffs on the beekeeper. “Looks like Bernie Wells believed he was a bear, too.”
Mickey Hunt is a beekeeper who has a lot of experience with black bears where he lives east of Asheville. Readers may learn more about his work at chaoticterrainpress.blogspot.com. “Bernie” was first published in Issue 9 (April 2016) of the UK-based “post environmentalist” anthology, Dark Mountain.