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W. Bruce Cameron

Emory's Gift

W. Bruce Cameron Emory's Gift
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Excerpt from book:

chapter ONE
 

“WHAT do I do if I’m in the woods and I run into a cougar?” I asked, starting off with one of his favorites.
“Cougar,” Dad responded, nodding.
My stomach tensed. It was my favorite game, not because I really thought I’d encounter a cougar or a wolverine or any of the other animals I’d ever mentioned but because of the way it engaged my father. When we first moved from suburban Kansas City to our home both high and deep in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, my father lectured me all the time about how the woods were full of predators, but the gravity of his instructions had been drained away after five years without incident, so that now we just ran through the list and he repeated his warnings in what had gone from conversation to ritual. He set his fork down on his plate, gathering his thoughts. I leaned forward eagerly, as if I’d never come up with “cougar” before.
My father wasn’t a big man. When he stood with other men he seemed to be on the shorter side of average, and his hands were small, though they worked well enough with wood to keep food on our table. Over the past two years he’d lost a few pounds and it didn’t look good on him; his neck seemed too small for his collar and his reddish brown hair was often unkempt.
“Nobody has seen a cougar in a long time, Charlie.”
“They’re out there, though,” I insisted. There were notices posted at the state campsite that warned hikers of mountain lions, aka cougars, aka pumas, aka panthers.
“They are out there,” my dad agreed. “But a cougar probably isn’t going to be after you,” he said. “Most times you see a cougar, it will be running away.”
“But if it’s not,” I insisted, my eyes pleading with him to stay in the game.
“But if it’s not.” He nodded.
I relaxed.
“Well, let’s see, how much do you weigh, now? Twenty pounds? Twenty-two?”
My father was teasing me. I made a fierce muscle, my biceps quivering in alarm as I forced it to make what meager appearance it could muster. I had blond hair like my mother and the same brown eyes as my dad. As I proudly regarded the small lump of sinew I called my biceps, I could see the nearly invisible blond hairs sticking up out of my tan skin.
“Eighty-five,” I announced.
Dad grinned. “You don’t weigh eighty-five pounds, Charlie.” Then the grin died, his eyes drifting toward the head of the table. There was a time when the woman who once sat there weighed a mere eighty-five pounds, when her weight was obsessively monitored and announced and analyzed, all for no ultimate good whatsoever. There was no doubt that this was what he was thinking as he looked at Mom’s empty chair.
“Cougar,” I reminded him.
He turned back to look at me. I still had his attention. “Well, a young cougar, one that isn’t good at hunting, he might think a bite-sized boy like you could make a tasty meal. When they first get kicked out of the den they’re hungry and wandering around, trying to find a territory they can call their own. Especially the males, they need a huge area. They don’t want to run into a person—humans used to shoot them on sight and sort of selected out the bold ones, so the only mountain lions left are descended from the timid ones. But they could be dangerous if they’re hungry enough, or if they feel threatened.”
“So if it’s hungry…,” I prompted.
“Okay, so if it’s hungry, the first thing is, don’t run. If you’re running, a cougar’s just a big cat. Ever see a cat jump on a string? It’s instinctive.”
“So stand still.”
“Right. Stand up big and tall. If you’ve got a stick nearby, hold it up over your head, but don’t throw it or point it. What you want is for that cougar to see you as a meal that’s going to cost him, put up a real fight.”
Dad said this last with less enthusiasm, tiring of the game already.
“Grizzly bear.” Please, Dad. Please keep playing.
“Oh.” Dad waved his hand. “You’re not going to see a grizzly around here, Charlie. Last one seen in this part of Idaho, had to be thirty years or more ago. They’re practically extinct in the lower forty-eight.”
“But still. If I saw one.”
My plaintive insistence carried a lot of despair that my father could have picked up on if he’d been paying attention. I was losing him. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to hold his attention for more than a few minutes at a time, anymore. I could’ve danced around directly in front of him, waving my hands, crying out, “Dad, look at me! Here I am,” and he’d somehow lose sight of me.
His gaze drifted back to the empty chair at the other end of the table.
“Dad?” Why don’t you love me? How can I get you to love me?
“Dad!”
His glance seemed a bit surprised, as if he couldn’t quite remember who I was.
“Grizzly bear? If I did see one.”
He sighed. “Charlie.”
“Grizzly,” I insisted.
He looked within himself, consulting his inner encyclopedia. “Thing about a grizzly is it probably isn’t looking to eat you. If it is, you’ll know because it’ll act like it doesn’t care you’re there. It won’t look at you, it’ll pretend it’s foraging, but every time you see it, it’s gotten closer. That kind of bear you treat just like a cougar; you talk loudly at it, you back away, you get yourself a weapon, and if it attacks, you fight. Go for its eyes. Let it know that as far as unplanned meals go, you’re not worth the bother.”
A wiser child would have quit the game right there, but I kept pressing: “What if I just run across one, by accident? One with cubs?”
“Mother grizzly is just like a black bear. She’s defensive; she just wants to protect her cubs. You back off; you try to get as much distance as you can from those cubs without running. If she attacks you, you curl up, protect your head and neck with your arms, and play dead. Lie there until she’s long gone.”
“What if it’s a male? Dad? What if it’s a male grizzly? What then?” A certain shrill desperation crept into my voice.
Dad didn’t hear me. He was looking at the end of the table, seeing his wife, maybe, or maybe just seeing the hole she’d left in his life when she died. I knew he’d be unresponsive now, a shell of himself, and that he wouldn’t see me, either, not even when I got up from the table to do the dishes. It was as if I didn’t exist.
When this happened, it felt like there were not one but three ghosts living in the house.
He said only two more words to me that night. I was in bed, lights out, lying there as silent as the house had been since dinner. My window was open a crack, cool mountain air flowing deliciously across my body. I heard my father ease out of the chair in the living room, snapping off the light next to where he had been reading. He came down the hall and stopped in the dark rectangle of shadow that was my open door: I felt him standing there, looking at me sprawled in a blanket of moonlight. “Tomato cages,” he said.
And then he was gone.
“I hate you, Dad,” I murmured into my pillow, the sound too quiet for even my own ears. I didn’t hate him, of course. He was my whole world.
Sometimes I allowed myself the horrible contemplation that maybe my father hated me. Maybe he knew what I had don

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