A Prayer for the Predator by Sarama Teague
Lake Oroville and the Sutter Buttes from the picnic table; Berry Creek, CA
Photo Courtesy of Sarama Teague
We stood at the top of the Peak, our name for the hill that jutted over the northeast corner of California’s Sacramento valley. The sun was setting fiercely behind us, but I noticed nearly none of it, only the way the orange light glinted on the shotgun in Bruce’s hands. He stood silent; his eyes burning. I waited nervously for a sign of reassurance, hoped for his grim mouth to crack a glimmer of a smile. I had yet to learn his shining white teeth were not always a sign of affection.
Surrounding us was 130 acres of Sierra Nevada Mountain with Bruce’s name on it. It was a rugged parcel of land: sharp hills windswept with dust, chaparral, and rocks. White quartz tumbled from the hillsides, red with iron. In the summer the sun baked us and the wind blew us dusty and dry. The plants that grew there were hardy and drought-resistant. Knotty thickets of Manzanita drove taproots deep in the hard soil; spires of Ponderosa Pine reached for the sky; Incense Cedar grew singly with stout trunks. The beauty on the mountain was wild and austere, much like the bear, who clung desperately to a tree on the other side of the old mining road.
The California Black bear population is divided into three regional sub-populations: North Coast/Cascade, Sierra, and Central West/Southwestern. This was a Sierra bear. Forty percent of the state’s Black bear population resides here in the Sierra Nevada, in the region stretching from Plumas County south to Kern, where it is estimated there is about one bear for every square mile. The population has currently been increasing since the 1980s, when poaching, road kills, and hunting dwindled the Black bear population down to levels almost too low to self perpetuate. But as bear numbers rise, humans continue to encroach on their territory, converting bear habitat into housing developments and sites of industry.
We were one of thousands to move to this mountain ridge over the last half century. Once sparsely populated, there were now people all over these hills. Their houses were buried in the trees, but their fences showed clearly. We, ourselves, had plenty of fence but no house. We made our bedroom in a tent and slept in a clearing of Manzanita. In the morning we walked the old mining road to the outdoor kitchen, where we boiled water and beans together to make “cowboy coffee”.
One spring morning, on our walk to the outdoor kitchen, we came upon a steaming pile of bear poop splat in the middle of the old mining road. “She’s claiming the road as hers,” Bruce had pronounced with a gritted jaw. Unhappy with this demonstration, he shoveled the bear scat away. The road however was hers. Creatures of habit, bears will walk the same paths through the forest for generations, forming veritable bear highways. Bears that live longer than three years—the median age before they are killed (often by hunters)—will not only walk the same paths, but will step in the same footprints each time, wearing grooves into the earth. Passing generations of bears have worn actual staircases into hillsides. However, no matter how long the Bear had been traveling the old mining road, we had a piece of paper saying we lived there now.
For bears living in human-dominated environments, most of their adult mortality occurs at the hand of humans. Bears are notorious for their appetite; in the stomach contents of various dead bears, biologists from California’s Department of Fish and Game have noted finding a full-length garden hose, a whole intact cantaloupe, and even an entire yellow jacket’s nest. The bear’s hearty appetite, coupled with loss of viable bear habitat, fuels ever more violence between humans and bears. Once the Bear discovered our ice chests, we were in constant competition for food. We buried the ice chests, tied them shut, tethered them to trees, but the Black bear is an intelligent, curious creature and all our attempts proved futile. That summer, the light-fingered Bear ate nearly 100 pounds of ground beef, countless bricks of bacon, blocks of cheddar cheese, a few hundred eggs, gallons of milk, and several pounds of dog food—bears are especially hungry in the summer, foraging for as much food as possible in preparation for the coming winter.
That year the winter came and drove us from those 130 acres in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to 1,300 square feet inside humming electrical walls. It would have been Bruce’s second winter on the property and perhaps he wasn’t looking forward to another season of digging the tent out from snow. The rains were bad enough. Perhaps it was my complaints when I had to pee in the middle of the night and would have to venture into wet blustery gales. However, Bruce was a hard headed man and I thought he loved that property, loved it as much as he loved himself and would never let it go. But he did. That December, we rented a house in town, trading tents and fires under star-encrusted skies for beds and hot water heaters under a painted white ceiling. “This will be better for us,” he had said. “You’ll see.” But I missed waking in the sunrise; I missed our outdoor shower sheltered in the sprawling oak; and most of all, I missed when Bruce would sing to me, in his deep sweet rumble, under the Manzanita trees.
In the new Habitat Under the Painted Ceiling, there was now an inside to separate us from the outside; walls and surfaces that divided and confined. There were floors to sweep and mop, shelves to dust, and glass through which I could view the outside it separated me from, and which needed constant cleaning. On the mountain, all the outside had been my home. I spent my mornings hiking rugged red hills to a picnic table situated in a grove of trees. From there I contemplated a glorious view of man-made Lake Oroville, built to generate the lifeblood of civilization, electricity. Miles behind the lake, rising like a surprise out of the flat plain, were the Sutter Buttes, the world’s smallest mountain range. I studied every crag etched in miniature from my vantage point some 70 miles distant.
Now I spent my mornings hiking the hall from the bedroom to the kitchen, where I contemplated the water spots left on the glasses I unloaded from the dishwasher. I studied the peaks of our neighbor’s rooftop through the bay window as I stacked dishes in the cupboards. Like the Natives fabled to have traded their land for glass beads, we had traded the outside for a place to put stuff. And there was no end to the stuff we had.
A lot of this stuff had accumulated on the bay window, and most of it was Bruce’s. I had been asking him to clean it for weeks, careful to pose my requests sweetly and humbly. Each time he had smiled and said yes, yes he would, and then proceeded not to do it. So one evening, after the dinner dishes were washed, I cleaned the bay window myself.
It took over an hour, during which time Bruce seemed not to notice. He sat comfortably at the kitchen table, speaking at great length to our friend Jeremy, who listened with reverent concentration. Like most, Jeremy held Bruce in high regard, considering him to be a “Man Who Accomplished”. Jeremy had been our house guest for most of the summer and was planning on leaving shortly. Deep inside I wanted to go with him. I wanted very much to leave the Habitat Under the Painted Ceiling and be free.
When I finished, I was very pleased with the clean uncluttered window, and seeking recognition, I declared during a lull in Bruce’s sermonizing, “Look how beautiful the bay window looks!” I laid my hand on his shoulder and it felt wooden, like a doll’s. In the most non-accusatory voice I could muster, I said, “Let’s work together at making sure the window stays clean, my love.”
Bruce nodded and smiled at me with shining white teeth. Pleased, I bustled out of the kitchen, my steady footprints wearing grooves in the hall to the bedroom. Captain, the stinky old hound dog, followed behind me, his nails click-clacking on the laminate floors. Captain was Bruce’s dog, but he loved me and insisted on following me everywhere. He was my devoted protector.
On the mountain, Captain never let me stray from sight. He was a wise, dependable dog. Unlike the five other dogs that lived with us, Captain never wasted time barking at squirrels and shadows. When we heard Captain barking, we knew he was barking at the Bear. We were woke many nights by his feverish howls. At night, Bruce kept the loaded shotgun at the foot of the tent.
“That’s to protect us from the Bear,” he said in response to my skeptical look. Guns made me nervous.
“But what’s to keep us safe from the shotgun?” I asked.
He showed me the engaged safety. “See this switch? This gun is safe until I flip it.”
But the Bear never disturbed us while we slept. She was more interested in eating our food than she was in eating us. We however, disturbed the Bear in her bed a few times. Bears like to sleep in the edges of a forest; this meant the Bear made her daily bed somewhere not far from the old mining road and was much closer to us than we knew. It is in forest edges where the densest protective cover grows and where turbulent winds and updrafts tend to occur. These winds help to deter olfactory-predators, like dogs, who have difficulty tracking a scent when they cross from one habitat type to another. Despite all this, one late morning, my foolish and fearless Scottish Terrier limped into camp, bleeding from where the Bear bit him on his rump. Had the Bear been a grizzly, extinct in California since 1900, my dog Teddy might not have survived. But lucky for both of us, the Black bear is a gentler, less aggressive creature, and only bit Teddy to defend herself. His wounds healed in a couple weeks, but he must have harbored a grudge because it was Teddy who led the final charge against the Bear.
We had a few guests on the mountain that day: a gold miner, a gas station attendant, a logger, and a neighboring rancher. Early that evening, they sat in camp chairs around the waiting fire-pit, chatting and swallowing their stress away with their beer. I was busy gathering kindling and when Teddy slipped away from the clearing and ran into the forest, I ignored it. There were many jackrabbits and squirrels he loved to chase. When Teddy started barking, I ignored that too. At first. Then I noticed the nervousness in the demeanor of the other dogs and their hesitation in joining Teddy, when usually they loved nothing more than to pursue a racing jackrabbit.
“What’s Teddy chasing?” I said to the rest of the group. And then we heard it: the sound of a 250 pound bear running for her life, barreling through thickets, steamrolling over any bushes and shrubs in her way. It was a massive noise that filled the forest, but underneath I thought I heard the sound of her frantic breath, rising and falling with her beating heart.
“The Bear!” everyone shouted in unison, tumbling over their chairs, jostling for a view.
“Arf arf arf!” barked my little dog, hot on the Bear’s stampeding heels.
“Whoah!” “Holy shit!” “Can you believe it?” “Go Teddy!” came from the mouths of the awestruck humans.
All except me, who screamed, “No Teddy no! Come back!”
Seeming to find encouragement in this, the other dogs ran into the forest to chase the Bear too. The logger, rancher, and gold-miner, and gas station attendant scrambled to follow, straining to witness the chase. Everyone but Bruce, who had disappeared somewhere in the furor.
He would return on one of the four-wheelers used to navigate the property; arriving in a roaring cloud of dust, the shotgun slung over his back.
In our Habitat Under the Painted Ceiling, the shotgun had a new home on the top shelf of the bedroom closet. The barrel’s eye presided over me as hung up the laundry; its rust-brown finish glinting in the incandescent lights. A shudder went through the house, a sound I faintly registered as the closing of the kitchen door. Footsteps echoed down the hall and Captain recognized their tone before I did, warning me with wild eyes. There was a creak of the door, and Bruce filled the threshold with his powerful six foot three frame. I could hear his breath, rising and falling with his beating heart.
He regarded me for an impassive moment and shutting the door behind him, strode over to me in three forceful steps. Captain jumped up from his curled spot on the floor and retreated behind the bed. Bruce bent down to peer in my face, and his teeth were shining indeed. “Who the hell do you think you are?” he asked. His voice was quiet but his eyes were burning cold.
“What?” I replied in neutral tones. It was always best to begin confrontations with a direct, but non-aggressive stance.
His handsome face twisted into a sharp sneer. “What?” he mimicked in a cruel snarl. Because Jeremy was just down the hall, his voice was restrained, bursting at the seams of a whisper. “As if you don’t know. You prance so innocently into that kitchen and insult me and emasculate me in front of my friend. And you do it in such a sweet little voice, I have to just stand there and take it.” He glared at me in fury. “You’re a little smart ass bitch, and this is my house. I will not allow you to threaten my place in my house.”
Indignation began to rise in my chest. “What are you talking about?”
“The FUCKING WINDOW SILL!!!” he exploded and we both took an abashed look at the closed door. In a hushed tone, he mocked my requests to clean the window. “Oh Bruce, please, won’t you clean up your mess. It would mean ever so much to me. Oh it’s so hard for my lazy ass to clean up those few items; only you can do it.”
My heart beat wildly behind my folded arms. I tried to keep my face still as he paced in front of me, stinging me with spiteful and malicious barbs, berating me for insolence and laziness. His anger radiated in throbbing black waves, charging the room with pulsing poison. I knew if I argued or defended myself, I would only exacerbate his wrath, and would be yelled at further. I had learned to sit quietly through these attacks, in hopes they’d end soon. But that night, I felt this tactic would not work. At that moment, he was especially ferocious, and very, very close.
I tried to leave, but he blocked me at every pass, battering me with his booming voice—Jeremy’s presence in the kitchen forgotten. His hand clenched around my wrist and drew me to his red raging face; the vein on his forehead throbbed in a bulging beat. Captain slipped under the bed, his tail tucked between his legs. He roared, “You don’t respect me at all, you fucking bitch,” and shoved me into the closet, into the row of clothes hanging under the shotgun.
My sternum hurt only a bit where he pushed me, but what really blazed in my chest was the realization that Bruce had actually wanted to hit me. He had never hit me before, but I suddenly recognized in his eyes a primitive and beasteous desire to assert his dominance. It was a look I had seen once before, that day on the Peak, the Bear in the tree.
Black bears come in array of colors, ranging from black to cinnamon. Our bear was light brown and an average representation of her species, standing at about three and a half feet tall when on all four legs, and weighing approximately 250 to 300 pounds. Some males, however, can be much larger, reaching over 500 pounds. Despite their large mass, Black bears are strong tree climbers and can sprint upwards of thirty miles per hour.
With six barking dogs on her trail, the Bear soon tired and climbed halfway up a towering Ponderosa Pine; her fur heaving with breath, her brown eyes shining implacably. Teddy stood sentry at the bottom of the tree, trapping the Bear at the top. The logger, miner, gas station attendant, and rancher praised my dog for his tenacity, characteristic of his breed. “That’s a good hunting dog, little Teddy.”
Bruce and I faced each other at the Peak. The shotgun rested in his hands. He said nothing, only gazed upon me with furrowed eyes.
I broke the silence, asking, “Does this have to happen? Aren’t there any other options?”
He looked away and remained quiet, his eyes cast to the ground. Finally he spoke, his voice low, halting, and hoarse.
“That bear is a predator. It bit your dog. It could get one of us next. That is bear is a threat and this is my land. I will not allow a danger on my land.”
Lies, lies, and I knew it, but he lifted his eyes from the ground, and I did not argue with the look I saw in them.
Trapped between Bruce and the Painted Ceiling, I was very aware that if he hit me I would not get back up. He was strong, especially when fueled by rage. I was afraid but I knew to show it would be my downfall: fear betrays weakness and weakness invites attack. The best defense with any predator is to make yourself as big and loud as you can. I had to defend myself. I drew myself up big and tall like a bear. “I am not going to speak to you when you’re like this. Give me my space. Do NOT disrespect me right now!” I announced and pushed him away.
He moved to stand sentry at the hall door, but I marched past. The master bedroom had a patio door to the deck and he followed after me as I strode towards it purposely. I did not run, for running incites a chase and I could not outrun Bruce. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to leave. He reached for the knob, but my hand closed around it first and I burst through the doorway. In a voice summoned deep from my belly, I bellowed, “LEAVE! ME! ALONE!” and slammed the door. This was certainly an act of aggression on my part, and was more than I had ever before dared. He did not follow but howled in frustration as I stepped past the serene swimming pool, the crescent moon shimmering on the softly waving surface. I brushed by the fruiting tomato plants, whose heavy branches were ripening red under the hot summer sun; picked my way carefully through the crawling cantaloupe vines tangled with melons. I slipped through the garden gate and then I ran.
Captain observed in silence from the front window; behind him I glimpsed Jeremy watching a movie on the blaring TV. I scurried past, darting through the shadows in a low crouch, until I reached the trees and shrubs lining the edge of the yard. Hidden in the protective cover, I walked swiftly to the old fig tree. I clambered up the tree trunk until I cleared the six foot picket fence and then used its branches to guide my descent down to the other side.
The house next door had been vacant for some time. Still, I was technically trespassing, and I approached the dark front porch uncertainly, darting tree to tree in case passing headlights should illuminate my figure.
On the other side of the fence, the front door banged open, piercing the darkness like a gunshot and I jumped. I heard Bruce’s purposeful steps grinding across our gravel driveway and I dove into the shadows of the empty house, certain Bruce knew exactly where I was and was coming to find me. It suddenly occurred to me that I had picked a very foolish and obvious hiding spot. Bruce was a skilled hunter and natural athlete; he could be incredibly quick and lethally quiet. I waited, listening furiously for his approach.
I sat alone at the top of the Peak, waiting to hear something. The silence crept by slowly. The sun was just setting on the mountain, and though I stared at it, I saw nothing. The sight of the Bear clinging to the tree, where I knew she would never escape and be free, clenched my insides like a desperate fist and I could not bear to watch.
When the shots finally rang they were heard on the mountain for miles, but I believe I was the only one who heard her die: a long low keen that reverberated through the trees, swept up the Peak and over the edge, warming my cheek like breath as she passed.
Huddled in a shadowed corner of cold cement, I remembered that warm breeze on my cheek and clapped my hand to its memory like one drowning person grabbing at another. Oh please, lend me your strength. I thought about her final moments, and wondered what she felt clinging to the tree, watching Bruce approach in his steady stride, the gun glinting in the dying orange sun. I wondered how long that mountain had been her home and I wondered how long the Habitat Under the Painted Ceiling would be mine. I wondered how long I could survive.
w a i t e d,
prayer for the predator.
Sarama Teague, in her short story “A Prayer for The Predator” writes “Like the Natives fabled to have traded their land for glass beads, we had traded the outside for a place to put stuff.” She is culturally, ecologically and socially aware, of the trade off afforded by the American Way.
Teague weave together the narratives of triumph and perseverance, alongside anecdotes of humor and interpersonal tribulation. The details she provides are localized, bringing the descriptions of nonhuman nature to the forefront.
Sarama Teague was born in Wisconsin, is currently living in Humboldt, California and has a canine companion named Teddy. She’s writes passionately, with a raw, uncensored voice. She has appeared in The Times Standard, “Promote Voting Not Tyranny,” and is a graduate of Humboldt State University.
Michael Ray De Los Angeles