Friday, August 26, 2016

Wild Encounter by Graham Mercer

When I was about five my Aunty May took me to the theatre to see Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I came away with a doomed infatuation for Goldilocks (I was short-sighted and from the stalls, in her short skirt and stage make-up, she must have looked like Degas’ Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers, minus the flowers) and with a longing to see a bear. A real bear. In the wild.


Original Photograph by Guerin Nicolas
Which is why, half a century on, I am leaving The Garden of Heaven, our houseboat, soon after daybreak and crossing Srinigar’s Dal Lake in a shikara. With my Pakistani wife Anjum, our friend Patricia and a young Kashmiri, Farouk.

Farouk is one of those men, not uncommon in India, who attach themselves to you as serendipitously as dandelion seeds on the summer breeze. He is good-looking in a swarthy way, with the effortless, glib-tongued charm often associated with Irishmen but that attains its apogee in the Kashmiri male. He is our self-appointed Mr. Fixit. I had told him that we wanted to go to nearby Dachigam National Park. To see a bear.

Why anyone would want to leave a comfortable houseboat just after dawn to see a bear is beyond him. But he sits back resignedly under the canopy of the shikara, picking his teeth with his thumbnail. A fine rain is falling, stippling the still waters and whispering among the leaves of the lotus gardens. Behind us the peaks of the Pir Panjal are shawled in cloud but across the lake to the east, where we are heading, the snows on the Himalayas shine with an opalescent pallor.

We alight by the Boulevard where a taxi, summoned by Farouk, awaits. It looks incapable of driving beyond the Boulevard let alone into the Himalayan foothills. But this is Kashmir and Patricia, who has a soft spot for Farouk (and for clapped out old taxis), smiles with feigned impertinence as Farouk opens the rear door for us.

We squeeze in. Farouk sits next to the driver, whom he introduces as Kiran. “It means 'ray of sunshine'." Anjum tells us. I examine Kiran’s raddled, hatchet-faced features in his rear-view mirror as he draws on the stub of a cigarette with the intensity of a man about to face the firing squad. Anything less like a ray of sunshine is hard to imagine. And no wonder. What taxi driver, at this hour on a showery Srinigar morning, would want to ferry two firangi and an unconventional Pakistani lady into the Himalayas to look for bears?

The car’s engine hawks and splutters into life and we shimmy down the Boulevard. As we pass the Shalimar Gardens, pride of Emperor Shah Jehan, Farouk says, “Shalimar Gardens” with the joie de vivre of a Southern Rail guard announcing Clapham Junction. If he is hoping that we will change our minds and go there instead he is to be disappointed.

Soon we enter the Dachigam Valley and climb into the foothills. Our arrival at the national park coincides with that of the sun. Kiran stops so that Farouk can pay our dues. Farouk returns with a middle-aged park ranger. “Ali Mohammed”, he announces. “He will guide us.” Ali Mohammed squeezes into the back and we drive on.

The metalled road soon ends and Kiran stops again. “Road finish”, says Ali Mohammed. “Now we proceed on foots.” Farouk and Kiran exchange looks of suppressed alarm but Ali Mohammed eases himself out and Patricia and Anjum and I follow.

Farouk and Kiran remain seated, gazing apprehensively up the dirt track. They have heard about black bears. And this isn’t all, for Ali Mohammed, seeing Anjum’s sandals, says “Madam, you must wear prapper shoes. The farrest is full of wipers.”

Anjum, being Anjum, says that vipers don’t bother her. Farouk, being Farouk, exchanges further meaningful glances with Kiran before confessing that their shoes also are far from “prapper” and that he and Kiran will stay behind “to look after the car”. Patricia snorts and chides him for being “a wimp” but Ali Mohammed is moving off and we hurry after him.

The woodlands are beguiling. After the rain they exhale a mouldering, mushroomy decadence, through which the fragrance of wild jasmine trails like an invisible wisp of smoke from an incense stick. Among the ferns that sweep between the oaks, chestnuts, walnuts and wild cherries springs a plenitude of other flowers. Many in the Vale of Kashmir believe in fairies and here, in these enchanting and enchanted foothills, who wouldn’t?

The crack of a breaking branch snaps us out of our trance. “Black bear!” whispers Ali Mohammed. Gesturing for us to follow he slips silently into the forest. Heedless of vipers we hurry after him. When we catch up, breathless in the mountain air, he is standing beneath a huge oak, staring into the middle distance. “Bear is gone”, he says. “He is hearing us coming.”

“But look!” he says, pointing through the trees. We look, and see not a bear but a group of watchful, grey-brown deer. They remind me of the red deer hinds I have seen in Scotland. And then, in a flurry of hooves, the deer are gone. “Hangul”, says Ali Mohammed.

We are thrilled. We have seen the hinds of the Hangul, the rare Kashmir Stag. And more. We have seen this prepossessing valley, inhaled its very breath, marvelled at its forests and its flowers. High in the oak above us a golden oriole is pouring out its melancholy, fluting call. And its heart. We are content.

Pleased that we are pleased, Ali Mohammed leads us off downhill. We go with good grace, counting our blessings. Anjum, happy when I am happy, strides ahead. Patricia, alone with her thoughts, is behind her. Ali Mohammed and I bring up the rear, he apologising for not having shown us a bear, I insisting that it doesn’t matter.

Then there is a cry and a serrated, explosive snarl, like the momentary bite of a chainsaw ripping into teak. Anjum is running back towards me. Patricia stands transfixed. Where Anjum would have been is a bear. Standing upright, big and black and menacing. I catch a glimpse of a cub scurrying into the undergrowth.

There is no time for fear. No time to reflect upon things I have recently read: that the Himalayan Black Bear is "a savage animal, sometimes attacking without provocation, and inflicting horrible wounds…some victims having the scalp torn from the head...” That the she-bear, especially with cubs, is more dangerous than the male. That such a bear can “break the neck of a full-grown water buffalo”. That “you should never get closer to a black bear than the length of a football field”.

But Anjum’s cry was inspired by excitement, not fear. “Look! Look!” she is shouting, as if I cannot see a bear from fifteen paces. The silky blackness of the fur, the buff-coloured chevron across the breast, the great round face with its tiny eyes and prominent ears and its gaping jaws…

And then, like the deer, she too is gone. And time remembers to tick and hearts to beat. And I stand consumed with joy. I have seen a bear.

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Graham Mercer was born and brought up south Lancashire, England. He spent nine years in Royal Navy before becoming an elementary teacher. Mercer lived and taught for 34 years in Tanzania, East Africa where he met his Pakistani wife, Anjum. Now they live in north Cheshire, England. Interests include wildlife, writing, travel, reading, photography, cricket, the company of young people.


Judge's Comment: One of the many strengths of this story is the minimalistic characterization: the 'fixer', Farouk, is the type who clings to you 'as serendipitously as dandelion seeds in the summer breeze', and the driver, Kiran, smokes 'with the intensity of a man about to face a firing squad'. Great humour, great suspense, and the ending could not be more satisfying, nor more economically stated.