May 19 2010 11:43 pm

Pennsylvania black bear

I scoop them up all in my hand and cast them on the table like dice. They clink and clank like a wooden wind chime, a rain stick, an argument.  I’m some sort of Seneca medicine man hell-bent on divination.

The smell was overpowering when the wind swept down the steep valley and passed over us as we caught crayfish and built dams in the creek.  My grandfather played dumb. “I don’t know what the hell that smell is, but if you find something you let me know right away.”

It was 1992 and I was 13.  My friend Mike and I were spending another week at my grandfather’s house. It was a lot like summer camp but with fewer rules and more four wheelers.  He lived in north central Pennsylvania tucked back in the woods a mile off the road along a small, nameless creek that tumbled into the Clarion River from obscure headwaters high up on the Allegheny Plateau.  We shot BB guns and went fishing and rode in the back of the truck in lawn chairs.

There was one summer, after my grandmother died, when we subsisted entirely on ham and cabbage soup.  My grandfather made 20 gallons of the stuff.  “I don’t know anything about cooking for these damn kids,” he said to my mother.  We also ate a woodchuck one night.

You could see the dead bear from the kitchen window, a big black spot on the far bank of the creek.  It took us a couple days to finally stumble over it.  The carcass was flat but appeared to be breathing, pulsing up and down with maggots.

“Grandpa, grandpa we found it! It’s a bear!”

Handing us a knife and some tin snips he said, “Good.  Now you boys go cut the claws off.”

We were confident for once that our rudimentary microbiological knowledge was better than any Elk County folk wisdom.  We shouldn’t be playing around in a rotten bear.  That’s a sure way to catch a cold or something.

But we set to it nonetheless.  Tendon, ligament, bone and cartilage were resistant to our snips and knife.  Swimming in the fetid tissues we made slow progress as the claws yielded one by one, some with trailing knuckle and hair, others simply the curved obsidian nail.

My grandfather “accidentally” shot this bear one night the week before.  He was having a lot of trouble with the bears.  They were getting into his back porch and almost into his kitchen.  They tore down the screen door.  So one night, when he heard the bear, he rose from bed, grabbed a gun, that bear no more.

I knew my brother had the claws but I wasn’t sure why.  I want to make a necklace. To remind me of Pennsylvania.


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