Bogdan Suceavă was born in Curtea de Argeș, Romania, in 1969. He has published five novels and two books of short stories, and was Romania’s featured author at the latest New Literature from Europe (NLE) Festival in New York City. He also enjoys a career as a mathematician, with a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and presently teaches Mathematics at California State University, Fullerton.
The following piece is from his short story collection Empire of Belated Generals and Other Stories, published (in Romanian) by Dacia Press. It is not available in English.
If you haven’t yet heard it, we can also recommend this great full-length Trafika Europe audio interview with Bogdan Suceavă, recorded at the NLE Festival. And our latest quarterly issue, Trafika Europe 8 – Romanian Holiday, is packed with exciting new literature from Romania – we invite you to visit it free online.
Lab Bears by Bogdan Suceavă
translated from Romanian by Mona Momescu
You must remember the passion for hunting that sent pleasure thrills down the spine of Romania’s former president. It happened in the time when the blood of all living souls had a different price. In that time, the president himself began to worry that in the mountains of our motherland animal life may become extinct. Looking out from his office window, watching the old Cretzulescu Church in the plaza – without actually seeing it – he felt something in the ancestral order had been irremediably tainted, and the entire universe was sloping down the path of disorder to a realm where nobody could tell hunter from hunted.
Ioan Marchitan, a shepherd from the Evil Vale village, was the first to announce that a huge creature, incomparable to any animal known to man, had attacked his sheep and killed five of them. Even this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, as everyone knows that bears attack sheep flocks frequently; but this bear was completely white, like the ones in the illustrations found in the children’s book Fram, the Polar Bear. People interrogated the shepherd further, as they wanted to prove him as a liar, and many looked him dead in the eye and told him that he had seen polar bears in their mountains because he was paralyzed with terror. Only one of the old wives in the village believed him. She advised him to nick his cornel-wood hatchet in three places with a clasp knife and to pour spell-casting water over it, as the old and wise men used to do to receive the gift of hunting wild animals.
Then a white bear appeared in a grove where a bunch of klutzy tourists from Bucharest had camped for a picnic. This bear was sweet-tempered; it ate fruit preserves, licked a kid on the cheeks, munched on Camelia biscuits and purred like a kitten when four people rubbed its belly. Of course this bear was as huge as the first one, a polar bear unseen before in the Carpathians, having drifted here along a strange wind. Within a week, five other apparitions scattered any possible doubt: after all, there are polar bears in these mountains. They were seen near the hydro-electric power plant, right next to the timber exploitation; they appeared on the Măgura hills, then in the village called Secaturi – more a ghost village than a real one, close to the Dragoslava military base.
Everyone agreed, they had all seen a bear about six feet tall. Raised on its hind feet, it reached about 12 feet, people said. The earth trembled under its paws, while its behavior baffled them, as it shifted from infinite tenderness to absolute cruelty. Those mountains had not witnessed such terrible ferociousness since Genesis day one. When the bear went hunting and ripped through the flocks, it killed far more than it needed to eat. After these killing rampages, everything looked like after a war.
For a long time, people believed that the mysterious apparition may have been an escaped circus or zoo animal until, one evening, the blind old wife from the village of Evil Vale shared with the others what only she could see clearly: “It’s not about only one bear, there’s a lot of them. They haven’t accidentally drifted here, they are meant to bring life back to these mountains.”
This happened during the sad history of the Chernobyl accident, a couple of years after the deforestations in the Red Forest and after edelweiss disappeared from the Moldoveanu Mountain.
Much later, people would find out about the genetic experiment run at a biological station in Siberia, where brown Carpathian bears mated with polar bears, and their offspring were left free in the wild for a behavioral study and for adaptation. But nature is trickier than we imagine. Shortly after they had been first glimpsed, rumor had it that white bears had ripped a man apart and then visited a house and killed all living souls there, from hen to man, in broad daylight.
But the President forbade bear hunting. People were asked to remain calm and trust the professionalism of the Special Forces, sent to defend men and bears, as the precious lives of these strange animals had cost a considerable amount of money. When winter came, people said they had counted eleven bears that never hibernated; the bears attacked when struck by hunger, forgetting the tenderness of summer days, groves and friendly tourists.
The first bear to fall prey to hunters was killed by Ioan Marchitan, in his own backyard, at nighttime. The investigation revealed that the predator had attacked the shepherd from behind, and had been hit only once, in the head, with his cornel-wood hatchet, cut in three places – a hatchet that did not weigh more than two pounds. Ioan Marchitan was not arrested, because his story sounded like all tall hunting tales, and there was no evidence to support it. The bear skin, which he would have loved as a shepherd’s mantle, was kept as evidence, and the shepherd had to sign a declaration by which he acknowledged that there wasn’t such an animal as white bears, and he had never seen one in person.
News of the first white bear’s death must have triggered the big royal hunting, organized according to the so-called European protocol, unchanged since the days of Philip II of Spain. The President was constantly asking about the fate of the white bears. He couldn’t wait to face one of the gigantic creatures and play the great Philip II at hunting. Philip had hunted four such huge bears in the Bavarian forests in one single day. Hunting a bear brought 4,000 points in the world’s greatest master hunters competition, with the condition that the lethal shot should hit an animal grown in the wilderness and in natural circumstances. Before what was intended as a historic hunt, two other white bears fell prey to villagers, under suspicious circumstances, never clarified. Later on, in mid-January, people found one of the bears frozen on the Măgura hill, with glassy eyes; it looked forlorn, like a sparrow lost in a labyrinth of biting frost.
After the great hunt, only a huge and lonesome female bear survived; although she looked impressive, she seemed somehow fragile. She was the last white bear and, against odds and in spite of the winter, she did not behave like a wild animal. She took refuge in a sheep cot, up in the mountains. At first everybody was scared, but when they realized she was as tender as she was huge, they left her to her endeavors, as all last survivors deserve. She quickly learned how to drink milk with the sheep dogs; she learned how not to step on newborn lambs and crush them. Dogs cuddled in her fur and kept her from the cold; rams sniffed at her, not knowing what to make of that sky-tall creature that nevertheless smelled like a female. During the last frosty night of the winter, nature proved that those bears that neither hibernated nor lived in accordance with any of the nature’s rhythms, those bears that came into this world as a species unknown to Noah’s Ark, those bears suffered from the cold. The story about the death of the last descendant of the Carpathian polar bears is true: she died from cold, under the tender eyes of newborn lambs that sniffed at the frosted air for the first time in their lives; she died right when the shadow of prince Philip II of Spain lost its way and was straying in the mountains.
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