Old Ephraim: An Excerpt from The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas

The mechanism that relayed the visual majesty of a still panorama of mountain and valley, river and tree line, snow and sun, shadows unseen yet known and darkness invisible where life ate life and thought not, or where desert yielded scrub cactus and range, the living seen still or as the disappearance following on rapid bursts of movement, what relayed these for indescribable sensory bloom inside a man as majesty, this is what Tom Garvin sought with his meditations and was awarded for delineating fecklessly in prose poems.

Garvin’s specific and private precocity had always been intuiting and then knowing absolutely from his age of reason onwards that no single thought he managed to stitch independently was original to himself. His misfortune was that this awareness defeated all ability to derive pleasure from anything he wrote or material benefit from what he wrote that won him praise and easy employment. He wondered whether this insight or curse somehow was passed down to him as knowing an ancient landscape that relentlessly imposed its brute determinism on men, and knew that only bones remained of the others who had wondered the same.

Garvin knew and could never know that such a still, majestic landscape, witnessed by eagle, falcon, buzzard, hawk, and owl with like indifference removed by distance of time the sight of Old Ephraim near the Salmon River in what Garvin would know as southwestern Idaho awakening in early April back when mountain men outnumbered the traders they enriched, surviving in large part by knowing the natives and learning their techniques for survival, oblivious of the cataclysm they introduced and therefore largely under the delusion that they, also, were natives and so what came after was accretion of betrayal.

In some ways bears are like people; for instance, when they awaken some do so with a spark to immediate clarity of mind and sense, energy and high spirits, while others stumble about groggy for varying gropes of time. Old Ephraim, this particular Old Ephraim, was among the latter. In mid-April he woke, lay still for some hours before, moved by instinct, he rolled from his crevasse where the curve of erosion met the sharp of tectonic thrust onto the open verandah of the horizontal rock ledge, rolled further before his mind could strain for consequential thought, fell fifteen feet to a slope and rolled, tearing through saplings where a few years before a fire had briefly blown in geometrical spectacle burning a line of trees near where the slant of earth gave way to more monumental stone. His tumble was not unlike that of a funnel cloud’s in its distinct resultant path to where he slowed and finally thudded against the trunk of a stout, high pine with yet enough force to bring heaps of snow down upon his head and the ground around. And there he sat and remained sitting—one could easily imagine him pulling a bottle of whiskey from a pocket in his dense coat with the muted glee of a boozer upon yet further survival of dumb luck. He had yet to feel hunger, and what pain from scratches and the concuss caused by the impact against the tree he was oblivious to. In fact, come late September he might choose to hibernate in the same crevasse should he find himself still in the area for all the comedy mattered to him.

If nothing else, it can be assumed that in the attenuate coming to senses his hunger was a relief if compared to the frenzy of the previous year’s berry barren autumn hyperphagia. More than likely the hunger grew in stride with his mind, for he remained seated, back against the tree, to nap several hours, waking again to find night had blackened the scarcely recalled day. So he sat against the tree like a tavern regular undisturbed at his barstool hearing or not a soft humane Let yourself out, Cyrus. Thus Old Ephraim slowly rose barely ahead of the pace of the sun, instinct stumbling him generally downward and toward water.

The biological and zoological sciences have yet to yield definitive conclusions regarding the legendary poor eyesight of bears after decades of study, daring but to aver that they probably see somewhat better than was previously thought. This is probably true, the previous native wisdom having been derived from the particular indifference displayed by large, sated predators. Bears are not much concerned with activities of live creatures within their near vicinities (I refrain here from discussing mother bear and her cubs) when hunger is not at issue—in fact, it is not uncommon for a tired bear to drop to his side and sleep at will, day or night, on trail, in grass tall or short, in woods or on the plain.

By the time Old Ephraim’s senses had focused on food he had arrived at the bank of the middle fork of the Salmon River between the confluence with Big Creek and the Salmon itself. The water was spring high overflowing grassy banks, a good place for stranded fish to flop and flounder in blind-like effort to re-immerse. So Old Ephraim slow-loped the riverine for two or three miles, the focus and modest effort inducing a more live quotidian hunger by the time he reached a slow narrow feeder stream, barely fifteen feet across and so shallow that rock rose humped high and dry and jagged and dry. Here at this confluence, Old Ephraim stood erect on his hind feet, stretching slowly to his full height of almost precisely thirteen feet from pawsole to furred headcrown. Herenow the sun lit his fur, the color of dry wheat, but for a split stripe of black, a band down the center from head to something like a waist, where it spread like the wings of a mythic bird to blacken his ass and haunches. Old Ephraim’s territory was harsh to mankind and thus he had been spied by human eyes but once, just a few miles from where he now stood, nearer the Salmon, by a lucky mountain man name of Jenkins, who spread the too oft disbelieved for legend word of the bear he called Old Black Ass from camp to camp, trading post to trading post: “I’s a maybe a unner foot up hills down air win en I took me a good long gander to pooter in me skulls afor I sneak away like air bobbercat quiet so to memmer nere come backen this are win two hunner mile.” Only the size he claimed for Old Ephraim was subject to disbelief, and when called for by whiskey mockery, for Jenkins rightly “reckoner be thirteen foot ifn she stand, wich I yen no cline to wait fer.” The listener was rare who had not seen a large grizzly himself, say an eight to ten-footer standing, so Jenkins was simply categorized a tall tale teller and generally let be to speak.

As he stood looking down, Old Ephraim saw the vague outline or the perfect detail of a two-foot fish flange off from the river into the calm of the stream and begin a slow advance, as if in the relief of an unanticipated safety evident upstream. The bear followed, first along similarly grassy banks, but soon enough into the waterwind through forest, until the stream had narrowed to a bare nine feet, where at a sharp bend the water both raced and pooled, the pool a still depth aloof the rush of stream. And precisely here Old Ephraim found his feast of fish: trout, salmon, carp, cat, and, to begin with, the fish he had followed, stabbing the shovel-nosed sturgeon as it hesitated between stones, fins out flanked to either side, wherefrom it was veritably torn from life, impaled by scimitars of bone, the claws raking in sudden strike, fierce as the surreal thrust of a viper, the fish to his maw before Jenkins could have dropped his jaw had he been there.

Had he been there, Jenkins would have learned a thing or two about the food chain. For Old Ephraim, having found something like a perpetual food source, remained within about 100 yards of his feed pool. There were berries, wild strawberries, cherries, something like an apple tree even, but these would be bearing beginning in July. For now it was a bounty of fish, water and, as it so happened, no niggling parasites. Two otters regularly balleted in the stream, sometimes making a meal of the smaller fish in the pool, as did raccoons, a large family of them, sometimes as many as seventeen moving in a good few hours after Old Ephraim moved off. Other animals—deer, elk, skunk, muskrat, even an odd pod of buffalo—dropped by or passed on or both, but no movement outside of his own did Old Ephraim intake with interest. An observation of his life those days would make a man ponder on the nature of human pursuit, for if that ain’t what’s called living, nothing so pleasing has grace of life; but one would be remiss not to think on Old Ephraim’s satisfaction, physically evident yet as part of the natural scene itself perhaps not of access to the slanted rays of morning sun on the rippling stream, the gliding loops of the otters in the aflow, the delicacy of a raccoon’s dining upon a trout, holding the flopper astab yet no more hurried in his repast than a vulture at yon morning’s slaughterfield. What indeed did Ephraim make of the geometries of scarp, tree and endless space, asymmetries of slope, boulder, forest, illusion of order, illusion of nothingness, illusion of eternal content?

The cynic surely would grant this state paradisiacal, for soon its fall was arranged, born on an imprecise wind that didn’t so much as rustle the leaves of the tree under which Old Ephraim had just awoken. A turbid odor, a death odor, a new odor, rank hide, matted unembodied fur, unnatural—chemical—emanations, aswirl in a scarce wind, katabatic, live and bare as a raven-picked bone, an ant-swarmed bone, dry and pregnant with intrusion; he looked over his shoulder, sniffed, his swollen damp nostrils contracting and expanding like valves freshly torn from within a body in a blind seek. Noises compounded: a raindrop and more drops, and then rain, but a foot step and then more footsteps, and the harsh physicality of human voices, a phenomenon without rhythm or sense. Old Ephraim was fifty yards uphill from the stream that the three men were walking astride.

Not hide nor hare:

Ripen and rot ripen and rot these two feet are all you got n if uncle bob were here I curse your unborn may they be rabid badgers nibbling your rotting edges fierce fitzpacker ripen and rot uncle bob and circulatory issues one dead doctor and that joke those jokes I got circulatory issues he says and I says tell me what’s really wrong with me and he gets nervy and high talkin and circulatory issues you don’t like it and I interrupt and says circulatory issues are them what keeps moving around so you can’t ketch em and I said your telling me get a second opinion, well I’ll tell you what to say, I said doctor give me a second opinion, and here he gets nasty and I took him by the throat and said when I ask you one last time fer a second opinion you say, all right you smell bad too, and I shakes him til he says all right you smell bad too and I put a stop to his issues of circulation by squeezing his throat to the cy-cumfrance of raccoon’s pinkie, ripen rot stop not, foot rot til one day fitzpacker gets a snoot full a uncle bob who shoulda comed with me but some folk got their furrows dug and uncle bob had the two rivers said maybe we meet if ye takes the overland back er a whale boat puts to in norlins whin I’s there, not that he figgered my idea fer a dead muskrat, no, he liked it, said I was the only smartn in the fambly though I think it took only the sense of thinkin alone, cause ya got yer couple a rich and million poor and why, cause of failure but ifn you could make failure succeed you could be a failure and a rich man or at least get yerself in clean clothes on a bit a land lightning clarity claires kinby, o but I see I know in the ripenenrot a blandness will erupt or the Earth like an tempted sunrise and all white peeples ill long fer nation-states and fierce, bibly no meanin battles which in millions rush headlong to their sudden, caint be splained and terrfying deaths o fuck I’m not right in the head no more…no more of the ripe, the rot, the whatnot shitplot I summon Uncle Robert Robitaille from his bungboat polacre Missouri misry through my fancy fungals O Robert deliver me from this fitzpacker most foul fartsack smite—

THWACK! Fracked the fist of Fitzpacker backhand fast against the fraught face of Hector Robitaille (surely that’ll bring a nearby bruin to bear!).

“Gyup, ya shatpup! Ain it yar graynmoodah gone fixn yar ets issut?” THWAKK! “Gyon witya sloosecrappin bunghowsin shatpup!”, which though colorfully delivered lingo-wise was yet delivered with restraint of homicidal, for, and only for, he needed the body of the man sound enough to pull what he called a tran-sumddie, a triangular, makeshift wooden dragsled of white man make from Injun design which would soon be laden with inanimate, nay, hollow, beaver, and the soon meaning the better to be on the return through tribes of fisheaters and rootgrubbers, before the Blackfoot traipsed widely afield of winter’s hydie hide to make menace upon what white men could be captured and slaughtered, robbed and rapined, and, for the sport of it merely, what rootgrubbers and fisheaters could be caught in small defenseless groups and tortured, raped and slapped about.

Robitaille duly dressed rapidly amongst the needless funs of further gruff kicks that served only to delay the departure from the camp, observed with fatalistic remove by the third hidebound human, mountain man extraordinaire Jeffers Phoebles, who reckoned little but what he deemed of pragmatic import, such as that one or two days grueling final stomp would bring them to the cache of beaver the winter come sudden and final to force his secreting down the Salmon and two hours up an unmapped tributary and the appearance of a bear of a height greater than most pines hereabouts, standing still yet peering with what could be taken for intense interest at Fitzpacker and Robitaille from the distance of one thin and shallow stream.

Battering about Robitaille being more avocational, habitual, not to say, certainly not, needless or arbitrary, Fitzpacker’s peripherals were alert enough to take in the dark tree a mere seven feet distant registering its density of pine needle and anon the imposition of it where once it weren’t, such that in due time, time enough, he looked up to see Black Ass, taking in stomach, chest, legs, chest, head, yet failing to pause long enough to attempt deciphering the gaze of the bear, or bar, as he would later call it in the telling ad infinitum when he would bear-beat his chest to emphasize his clarity of thought as he whispered to Phoebles “Grab his gun,” meaning Robitaille’s, slowly now—yet forgetting his most noble original wordthoughts to the effect of “what doomriding banjaxery be this?”—and the bear cocked its head an inch or two leftward, away from Phoebles, who obeyed with cunning, “Tran-sumddie,” Fitzapacker ordering/Phoebles obeying, Robitaille by now on hands and knees looking up at the bear, taking in the bear, wondering at the bear, his physiology a husk and there a bear, “Nah slewly tie the foodstuffs, jist slewly take yer start in whin ah siz git we git, jist whisper git it,” “git it,” and quicker than a gentleman can say, “So seein death’s stalwart emplackabeel fetcher I kipt mah whets about me in panicky Phoebles I did calm,” Fitzpacker lurched down to embrace Robitaille, whom he lifted over his head and flung full flight across the brook into the broadest beam of the bruin, who upon this assault reacted with simple pawscrapes to shoulder and thigh, and having become angered some, and Robitaille rolling about on the ground before him, clappering into the stream, halted said man with a scalp scraper that flipped him onto land, lunged forward and swiped again, this time slicing his throat. Even Black Ass would not recall what noises he made, but they were fearsome bear moans, for Phoebles, having a bit of the humane in him and confident of being unseen, had stopped, crept back and watched the dénouement, a word he figured the French Canadian would appreciate epitaphically, from distant cover, not creeping off to join Fitzpacker until he had seen the throat slice and final paw slicing back flipping dismissal of the man by the bear, who tossed Robitaille headwards over feet and atwist so that he came to rest upstream and head up against stream. “Dayed no question,” was how he would put it.

Having vanquished his flying attacker, and being still of an inclination to devour fish rather than manmeat, Huge Ass, as one variant would later have it for the black mark extended beyond the rump in such a way as to emphasize those halves, followed, purely out of curiosity, the skittering, panicked duo a short ways, their tran-sumddie splintering to weightlessness as they clippered, until they were disappeared round a bend in the stream, the clanking clatter of their goods fading like a bird flying off and so of some degree of normalcy, whereupon he returned to his pool, clawed an eight pound trout and squatted to make his repast, likely not having forgotten the dying creature with blood gurgling and bubbling from his throat wound a mere five or six meters away on that opposite bank, his head anointed by serendipitous leaps of fresh water to bathe his torn scalp, which was attached like an unglued wig to the skull within which despair was delayed by delirium, and just above which an odd, let’s say stray, branch of rootleberries hung low and nearly to the very lips of that natural wound, his mouth.

To which tale Garvin when in secure solitude would cast such thoughts as O great-great-great-grandfather, indeed your notions were noteworthy, yet not novel, and your bravery nought but the naïve, the optimism a dupe’s, ye golden fool, your clearest longsight the mere premeditation borrowed from a distant age, the giftrickery of others and stronger, your true knowledge of currents of air and not the rootworks upon which so long so far you trod.

Of Uncle Bob, Garvin never heard, and what know bears not the worth of a fart post-lit.

Rick Harsch’s new novel, The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, is now available in a special edition run of 100 signed copies. At over 700 pages, the novel “is in part a story about what empire has wrought, and how over the recent two centuries the United States rose to global economic mastery and nuclear proliferate madhouse. But it is also an absurdist masterpiece and a metafictional epic rooted in American history (including the story of Hugh Glass, his journey along the Salmon River and the epic battle with Old Ephraim, a giant bear), and the impact of that history on our modern society (the movie by DiCaprio notwithstanding).” Order here.

Rick Harsch hit the literary scene in 1997 with his cult classic The Driftless Zone, which was followed by Billy Veriteand Sleep of the Aborigines (all by Steerforth Press) soon after to form The Driftless Trilogy. Harsch migrated to the Slovene coastal city of Izola in 2001, just as the Driftless books were published in French translation by a French publisher that went out of business a few years later. Rick is also the author of Arjun and the Good Snake (2011, Amalietti & Amalietti), Wandering Stone: the Streets of Old Izola (2017, Mandrac Press), Voices After Evelyn (2018, Maintenance Ends Press), Skulls of Istria (2018, River Boat Books), The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas (2019, River Boat Books) and Walk Like a Duck: A Season of Little League Baseball in Italy (2019, River Boat Books). Rick currently lives in Izola still with his wife and two children. 

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