by Marc Séguin
“You are one crazy bitch!” I’d screamed from the George River shoreline. Just before the bear attacked. It wasn’t the first time I’d told her and it wouldn’t be the last. I’d taken my time getting there and I’d gotten there by loving her with everything I had. The words were out, necessary, in a voice made hoarse by breathlessness.
She hadn’t replied, but her blazing eyes held me in their gaze. Then she turned her back on me.
I knew I’d gone too far. Past the line we’d drawn. A fraction of a second of regret. Probably a little guilt. Still some satisfaction at having said it so forcefully. I had hurt her, drawn blood. The kind that seeps out slowly.
Enough to slow her down.
I was no match for her. Despite her fatigue, she would go farther. She was already doing triathlons when we’d met at twenty, while we were at medical school in Montreal.
Our relationship was manic-depressive and beautiful. A codependency. There hadn’t been any passion between us for a long time.
She was half-Inuit on her mother’s side. Three years after our relationship began, we’d “gone down” the George River to Ungava. Five hundred and sixty-three kilometres of water, chutes, rapids and wildlife. A river that runs to the North. In her mother tongue, it means “river with no trees.” Alice was the one who had insisted, saying “My grandmother often said that when we’re old, all we have left is our memories. Come on, let’s go make some for ourselves.” I had been easy to convince. A man in love. And because my great-grandfather had been a gold prospector in the Klondike, in Dawson, at the beginning of the 20th century: I had always wanted to see the tundra. Until then, it had been only a dream.
On the next-to-last day of the trip, at Helen’s Falls, about thirty kilometres from Ungava Bay with its waters made salty by the sea, at night a polar bear had shredded our tent and almost torn off Alice’s left forearm. As we did every night, we’d arranged the protective electrical wire around our shelter, but that night the bear must have been ravenous. As the ice pack is melting, animals are moving farther south to find food. We awoke in a panic, driven by urgency and instinct.
She said dryly, without yelling as she struggled, “Kill it.” Then the bear’s huge jaw closed on her arm and it dragged her over the pebbled ground. Unceremoniously. She dragged her feet in an effort to delay its escape.
I found the flashlight, grabbed and loaded the very-small-calibre gun that the Inuit guide had recommended “just in case” and used the halo of light to follow traces of blood over the river rock. In August, the water level is at its lowest point.
The animal, thirty metres away, was retreating calmly, Alice’s head now held in its maw. I saw the bear’s eyes glowing like firebrands. Alice’s eyes looked at me with more questioning than pain. I approached with caution. The bear was also looking at me, as concerned as she was. We were fighting for the same prize. I could have curtailed her suffering, delivered her from it completely. I pressed the rifle barrel directly against the head and fired without counting the shots. Silence followed. Our breaths. And the bear’s last.
“Quick, the satellite phone!” she ordered me.
Several minutes after its death, the collapsed hulk was still bleeding. Its black blood continued to spread for a long time, leaching into the spaces between the stones. I directed the light onto the inert form thousands of times just to make sure that it was quite dead, still and forever dead, all the while talking to Alice to reassure her and hoping that at any moment I would hear the sound of a helicopter in the sky, over the noise of the waterfalls.
In the distance, day was dawning. With one hand, Alice removed the string from the hood of her sweatshirt to make a tourniquet. “Give me the water, I’m thirsty. And I want to get the blood off.” The bear’s teeth in her skull had set coals ablaze. It was as if someone had poured boiling oil on her head. “But I’m going to make it,” she said. “They just have to listen to what I tell them to do.”
We cling to the romantic idea that the polar bear is white. In reality, it is yellow.
Fifty-three minutes of waiting. Then a forty-minute flight to the emergency room at the hospital in Kuujjuaq. That was three years ago. She would bear only esthetic consequences of the attack. Together, she and I had taken care of her; I had sewn her back together. A few weeks later, she had the word DESPEREDATA tattooed over the sutures on her left arm. I was unaware at the time that I would one day return to work at that hospital, to escape us.
Alice managed to awaken the violence in me. Not in the practical sense of the word. But in the sense of real violence. The kind that presides over birth. Human. The kind that lies dormant. I always wanted to thank her for that. Especially at those times when I pushed her away. Because she had this way of touching what was most raw. I loved her deeply. Before I detested her. And then loved her again, for another few years.
On the day we broke up, she was wearing a black sweater that was virtually transparent. Long after the bear. Her pullover, open at the back. I slammed the door of our apartment in Queens and left with the intention of never seeing her again. With the idea of leaving everything behind. I fled to the rugged North. A wounded animal. I asked for a position in Kuujjuaq. At the very hospital where she’d been treated. Since I was overqualified and they didn’t need me as a surgeon, I agreed to handle the emergency room and the day clinic, telling them that I had this need for nature. In the dead of winter. I needed the cold and the endless night.