I met the bear hunter the night my mother died. I was a hospice care worker myself, though not in the facility where my mother spent her last months—I couldn’t have borne that. I knew some of the doctors and staff at her hospice, though, and professional courtesies meant my mother was taken care of especially well. There wasn’t much to be done for her, except to keep her pain medication flowing, and wait. She’d started with lung cancer years before, gone through rounds of treatment and remission with diminishing returns, and now it was just a matter of time until the bear came for her.
I wasn’t supposed to step over the taped yellow line on the floor—it’s not safe, when they’re this close to the end—but I darted in anyway, kissed her hot cheek, and adjusted her morphine drip. Then I retreated to the far corner of the room, and waited.
The bear came within minutes. I’d seen it many times before, of course—cops, soldiers, and health-care workers are the ones who have the most direct experience with the bear. Most people only ever see it on television or in photographs… until they encounter it personally, of course.
The bear made a snuffling, irritated grumbling noise as it approached. Its huge, shambling form appeared in the doorway, and shoved through into the room. If the doorway is too small, or sealed, the bear walks through walls—nothing bars its approach. The bear is big—bigger than you expect, every time. It stinks of damp fur and something earthy and musky. The scientists say it appears to be a male cave bear, Ursus spelaeus, and it’s about nine feet long from nose to tail and nearly six feet high at the shoulder. Its fur is mostly brownish, but its blunt muzzle is gray, and when its jaw drops open, it’s filled with teeth. I’d sat by fourteen deathbeds, so I’d looked into that mouth fourteen times: one tooth near the front was broken, and the others were yellowed.
All the other cave bears have been extinct for twenty-four thousand years, but this bear, of course, is eternal. Approximately a hundred and five humans die every minute, so I knew the bear was in a hundred other places on Earth, too, doing the same thing to different people.
The bear drew near to my mother’s bedside, and rose up. Its head nearly brushed the ceiling tiles. The bear roared, and then fell onto her, swiping across her chest with one huge paw and leaving a red ruin of claw marks, and then taking the customary bite from her shoulder. (I thought wildly about how children leave out cookies for Santa Claus, and in the morning, there’s always a bite out of one cookie, to prove that Santa came. The difference is, Santa Claus is an imaginary supernatural creature, and the bear is an indisputably real one.)
Its work done, the cave bear turned and shambled away. My mother was dead, of course. The bear appears for everyone at the moment of death, and rises up, and roars, and takes its swipe, and its bite, and then shambles away, vanishing soon after. The bear doesn’t actually kill anyone itself… unless someone tries to interfere with it. Desperate, grief-stricken loved ones sometimes try to stop the bear’s approach—they shoot it sometimes, even—and the bear just comes along implacably, rises up, swats them, and bites them, before doing the same to its intended victims. Hence the yellow tape, marking out a safe zone around the deathbed.
The new janitor—he’d only been there three or four months—stepped into the doorway, head bowed respectfully, hands closed around the shaft of his mop. “It’s gone. Disappeared into the wall, like it does. I’m sorry for your loss.” He was probably twice my age, maybe in his middle fifties, but he was broad-shouldered where I was slight, and big, weathered, and grizzled. He looked like a drill sergeant, or the boss of a cattle ranch.
I nodded numbly. “I guess I should call someone. Get… all this… the process… started.” I went to my mother, with tears in my eyes, and covered her with a sheet. Blood from her chest wound seeped into the cloth. Why did death have to be so ugly? Why couldn’t lives ever end in peace?
“Some people think it’s strange, how the bear doesn’t come for crows,” the janitor said.
I lifted my head and frowned at him. It was true—the bear attended the deaths of every human; most species of apes, octopuses, and squid; and all dolphins and elephants. What did crows have to do with anything? “What?”
“Crows,” he said. “A lot of people wonder why the bear doesn’t come for them. Crows are intelligent, too—as smart as the other species the bear comes for, in some ways. My theory is, it’s not about intelligence. It’s about whether or not you can apprehend your own mortality. If you can fear your own death before it happens, the bear comes for you. I don’t think crows can do that, intelligent as they are—they understand your mortality, because that’s where their next meal comes from, but not their own.”
Sometimes old men ramble. “My mother just died. Please… let me be with her for a minute.”
“Of course. I’m sorry. But when you’re done, if you want to talk to me… we could help each other.”
Patience is very important in my job, but I was losing mine. “Help each other with what?”
“I’m not usually a janitor,” he said. “I just took this job so I could see the bear up close a few times. I’m a hunter.” He paused. “Next week I’m going on a bear hunt, and I’m going to kill death. You should come with me. Please accept my condolences.” He walked off down the hall.
I shook my head. I thought the janitor—the hunter—was insane. Maybe he was… but he wasn’t in the way I thought.
There’s a bar near the hospice—quiet, on the nice side of divey, just the kind of place you need at the end of a long day waiting for the bear. The hunter sat down on the stool beside me. “I’ve tracked the bear to its lair, is the thing,” he said. “It took years, but I have its location down to a few square miles.”
I blinked at him. I was two whiskeys deep, and into my third. “What?”
He was patient, too—that’s as important in hunters as it is in hospice care. “The bear. It always returns to the same place, after it leaves a body. I’ve watched hundreds of hours of footage of its progress. It usually disappears after fifty or a hundred yards, but it’s always going in the same direction, toward the same destination.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’ve seen it, fourteen times, up close, in a few different places. Sometimes it goes left, sometimes it goes right—there’s no one direction.”
He pulled over a napkin and unclicked a pen. “Yes, it goes in different directions, depending on where it starts, and what the terrain is like. But, look. If you’re out running errands, and you go to a store on the north side of town, you go south to get home.” He drew an arrow down from the top of the napkin toward the center. “If you’re on the east side, you go west.” Another arrow, from right to left. “On the south side, you go north, on the west side, you go east.” Two more slashed lines tipped with Vs pointing inward. “Someone watching you would say you went in all different directions… but those directions all converge on a single point.” He drew a circle at the spot where the arrow-points met in the middle. “Your home.”
I wanted to be drunker than I was. “You’re saying the bear has a home?”
“It does. I’ve watched the bear when it leaves a death site. If it’s in the United States, the bear always goes east, usually northeast, before it vanishes. In Africa, it goes north. In Asia, it goes west.”
“And in Europe?” I said.
He smiled, and it lit up his worn face. “Ah, that’s the thing. Sometimes east, sometimes west, sometimes north, sometimes south.” He sketched more arrows, smaller ones, in between the big ones. “The lines all converge in central Europe. That was the habitat of cave bears before they went extinct, so it makes sense that’s where the bear comes from.”
“The bear isn’t from anywhere,” I said. “It’s a god. Or a, what’s it called, a psychopomp, sending the dead… wherever they go next.” I’d taken an Introduction to Thanatology course during my two years at college before Mom got sick, and I remembered that much.
The hunter was unbothered by my skepticism. “Yes. It’s those things, too. But it’s also a cave bear. I’ve narrowed down its location to a part of northern Romania. I’m going after it. I was planning to go alone, but I could use some help.”
I shook my head. “Why me?”
“You know medical stuff, first aid. That could be helpful. I heard you talking to one of the care workers about how you go spelunking sometimes. Cave bears live in caves. And, well… you just watched the bear take a bite out of your own mother. Wouldn’t you like to get revenge?”
Getting revenge on the bear seemed like an absurd idea—the bear wasn’t personal, it was universal. Scientists said it was an external manifestation of a natural process. The bear took a bite out of everyone, whether they slipped on icy steps or burned in a car crash or drowned in a bathtub or dropped dead of a sudden heart attack or brain embolism. (Those last had to be the worst, because the bear would appear and start walking toward you, even though you felt fine, and you’d know your death was imminent.) Wanting revenge on the bear was like wanting revenge on a blood clot or a cave-in or a tornado.
Which was what made it so strange that I did want revenge.
But I said, “I have a life, a job, I can’t go to, what, Romania, to go into some cave?” I didn’t have much of a life—I’d put that on hold while I nursed Mom through her last couple of years. I did have a job… but the idea of watching the bear come for more of my patients, people I’d gotten to know, seemed abhorrent. I had bills, though. Lots of bills. Dying isn’t cheap, and the funeral was going to wipe out my savings and max out my credit cards. I couldn’t go on a mythic quest with a deicidal janitor.
Until he said, “I’ll pay all your travel expenses, and give you ten thousand dollars up front, followed by another ten if we successfully kill the bear.”
I thought his plan was ridiculous, but his check cleared, so we went to Romania.
He didn’t need me for first aid or spelunking expertise—not really. I thought he just wanted someone to talk to, and to help carry his stuff, and maybe just to witness his dedication to his mission. We bought a pickup truck and went rambling around the countryside near the Apuseni Mountains. It’s a beautiful country, not the spooky gothic nightmare I’d naively expected—lots of cultivated fields, rolling hills, and green forests, not so much ruined castles, red-eyed wolves, and vampire bats.
Our second day there we visited Chișcău, home of a cave system where nearly a hundred and fifty cave bear skeletons were discovered back in the 1970s. There were a handful of bear cultists in their creepy headdresses outside, protesting the transformation of a “sacred place” into a museum, but halfheartedly—the place had been open for years, after all.
We toured the cave, which included some intact skeletons on display. It was a limestone cavern, full of fantastic stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, columns, and areas of flowstone—a cathedral of twisted rock, all well lit and with marked pathways. The hunter looked around like a bank robber casing a target.
Afterward, in the nearby hotel, we sat on the bed and discussed our next steps. I’d mentally classified this as a vacation to a foreign land with a mildly tedious travel companion, but he was all about the mission. “It would be easier if we had some sapient creatures to kill,” he said. “We could see which way the bear went, and that would help us triangulate the location of the lair better.”
I stared at him. “We aren’t going to murder anyone.”
He shrugged. “I was thinking squid, not humans, but you’re right. We’ll stick to the research materials. I’m just so close….”
We had local newspaper pictures and crime scene photos featuring the bear—I don’t know how he got the latter—and we drove around and looked at the locations from the photos, comparing geographical details, guessing at trajectories, and figuring out which way the bear had gone from each site. Drawing arrows, pointing to an unknown destination.
At one point, driving along a dirt road to check out another site, the hunter sang, “We’re going on a bear hunt….”
I smiled. “I haven’t heard that song since I was a little kid at camp. But the version we sang was ‘lion hunt.’”
“I don’t have anything against lions,” he said. “I used to sing that song to my daughter, when she was young.”
“You have a daughter?” He’d never mentioned family. I’d assumed he was as alone as I was… maybe more so.
“I did. Have a daughter.” His face was perfectly expressionless. He turned the radio up loud, even though it was mostly static. That was the closest I ever came to having a personal conversation with him, and the closest I came to understanding him, too, I think.
We spiraled in, closer and closer, toward some unknown center… and, finally, after hiking for forty minutes off the side of an unmarked dirt road, we found a cave mouth in a hillside, hidden by trees, dark in the afternoon shadows.
I shivered, looking at the maw in the rock. It suddenly occurred to me that the hunter might have brought me as a sort of human compass—he could shoot me, and see if the bear emerged from that cave, took a bite out of me, and then shambled back inside. That would confirm the location for sure. The space between my shoulder blades itched as I waited for a bullet—
The hunter slapped me on the shoulder. “Shall we go in?”
I was in charge of the spelunking gear: ropes, helmets, headlamps, batteries, all that. The hunter was in charge of the weapons. I’m not a gun guy, but he had a big rifle—he said it could stop a rhino—and a couple of large-caliber handguns, plus ammunition, and more knives than were probably necessary.
We began our descent. This wasn’t a tourist cave, of course—there were drifts of soggy leaves to kick through in the entrance, narrow places where we had to squeeze sideways, choices of branches to explore, dead ends to backtrack from. The hunter would occasionally stop, touch the rock, mutter to himself. Looking for signs? I didn’t see fur, or scat, and the stone wouldn’t take tracks… but I did sometimes I think I caught a whiff of the bear’s wet-fur stench, and it was enough to make this seem less like a futile quest and more like a dangerous one. What would happen if we did track death itself to its lair?
I pressed on. I’d been given ten thousand dollars, and I’d given my word in return. But I asked the question.
“What happens if we kill death?” the hunter repeated, following me as we made our way carefully down a steeply slanted slide of rock. “That’s what we’ll find out. Maybe people won’t die anymore. Or maybe they’ll just die, of whatever killed them, without that final indignity, without the fear of seeing a monster approach, without the chance of bystanders dying because they rushed to help someone, and those good impulses got them killed when they got between the bear and its victim. Maybe murderers won’t be able to hide the evidence of their crimes by stabbing people right where the bear swipes or bites them. Maybe families will be traumatized just a little bit less. Have you ever seen a child die? Seen what a small body looks like, when the bear is done?”
I shook my head mutely. I didn’t look back at him, partly because I had to watch my footing, partly because I didn’t want to see the intensity on his face that I heard in his voice.
“No one should ever have to see that again,” he said.
The cave changed. The transformation was gradual, but first the distant drip of water faded, and then the limestone walls became streaked by some darker rock, and eventually the limestone vanished entirely, and black stone was all that surrounded us. The cavern slowly opened up around us, the walls receding, and the ceiling, and the cave floor became strangely level, and covered in a gritty, gray sand. The hunter stopped and picked up a handful of the sand, and when the light of his headlamp played over it, there were little pearlescent grains intermixed.
I wanted to shout, to hear my voice echo and reassure myself that there were walls around me, and a ceiling, somewhere, but the idea of making so much noise in this sepulchral place seemed like a violation of natural law.
“We’re close,” the hunter said. “Can you feel it? This is different. We’re not in the cavern anymore. We’ve left our world.”
I opened my mouth—to argue, to advise retreat, to request clarification—and then heard a distant roar.
Though the sound was faint, I knew I’d heard it before. Fourteen times in person. Countless times on television. It was the roar the bear made before it took its swipe at and bite of the dead.
The hunter set off, moving quickly, taking the lead now, and I followed the bouncing beam of his headlamp across the desert.
We seemed to walk for a long time—for miles—and periodically we’d hear that roar, and the hunter would adjust this trajectory toward it. I puffed, and sweated, and gasped, and then almost crashed into the hunter when he stood still.
We stood just outside a circle of stones, perhaps thirty paces across. There were eight of the monoliths, or ten, or thirteen—I kept losing count, something I blamed on my exhaustion, so I didn’t have to consider other explanations—each about twelve feet tall, each made of the same black rock as the now distant cave walls, each spaced several feet from the next.
The bear circled inside the monoliths, like an animal pacing in a cage. It would take a few steps, rear up, roar, swipe, and bite at nothing, then lower itself and shuffle another few steps before rearing up, roaring, swiping, and biting again. Around and around, invariable, endless. We stared at it for a long time, and it never altered its course, or took any notice of us, even when the hunter moved closer.
“I don’t think it’s even aware of us,” he said. “It’s like it’s caught in a loop.”
I nodded. “Is this really the bear? Is the one—the ones—we see up in the world some kind of… projection, of this one?”
“We are in a place of real things now, and not a place of shadows,” the hunter said. It was the sort of statement that sounded profound, but I wasn’t sure it made sense. “I’m going to kill it.”
“What if the bear can’t die?”
“Everything can die.” The hunter lowered his rifle to the ground, then drew one of his handguns. He stepped toward the circle of stones, but didn’t enter it, perhaps sensing, as I did, that there was something strange about the space within—something even stranger than this barren underworld all around us.
When the bear rose up, and roared, and lowered itself next to the hunter, he lifted his arms, aimed the gun between two of the monoliths, and shot the bear in the head.
I honestly didn’t expect anything to happen. I’d seen the bear shot before. I’d seen it stabbed, speared, bombed, electrocuted, and set on fire. The bear was invulnerable. The bear didn’t even notice attacks, unless a person got in its way. It just shambled on, unscathed.
This time the bear’s head snapped to the side, with a spray of blood and bone and brain and fur, and then fell over, motionless. The hunter turned toward me, a triumphant grin on his face—
And then he flickered. The bear was gone, its immensity of dead meat vanished. Now the hunter was inside the stone circle, and he took a few steps, raised his gun, and fired into the darkness. Then he looked around and grinned, triumphant, for a moment, before lowering the gun, shambling a few steps around the circle, raising the gun, and doing it all again.
I called to him, softly, and then loudly. I stepped toward the circle, but didn’t dare enter. Eventually the hunter came back around to the place where I was standing, and raised the gun, and pointed it at me.
I fled, leaving his guns and gear behind, racing through the desert. I reached the limestone caverns far more quickly than I should have, based on how long the descent had taken us, and in less than an hour I emerged, gasping and streaked with dust and tears, into a cold night in Romania.
There was a TV in the room we’d rented, and though I didn’t speak the language, I understood what was happening in the terrified faces of the newscasters and the jittery footage they displayed.
Now, when someone died, the bear didn’t come. Instead, a man came, dressed in filthy khaki. He pointed a handgun, and shot the victims in the head. At first, people thought the gunman was a mortal attacker, and the police fired back at him. The hunter would turn, and shoot them down as well, before smiling like he’d just won a victory, and moving on, vanishing after fifty or a hundred yards. I read news reports in English on my phone. The authorities were baffled. No one recognized this new avatar of death. No one understood how he’d replaced the bear.
In practice, the change in avatars didn’t make much difference, but in terms of psychological impact, this was a horrible and traumatizing development. Having someone who looked human walk up to you, and shoot you in the head—leaving a bullet hole and a huge exit wound—was more horrible than having a bear take a bite out of you, and not just because the bear was more familiar. The horror came from seeing someone who looked like you, like a person, come bearing your death. People were devastated, numb, terrified, overwhelmed. I felt all those things, too.
The first bank robbery with a perpetrator dressed like the hunter happened the next day. The tellers and staff all fled, and the impostor helped himself to the contents of the cash drawers and strolled away. Everyone kept their distance, because everyone knew better than to interfere with death. There were a spate of copycats, some successful, some not—a few encounters with imposters ended in gunplay with the police, and then the real hunter would appear, smiling and shooting, shooting and smiling.
There were pictures online of children crying. The hunter looked like some of their fathers, after all, a little bit. Enough to make him even more terrifying than a nine-foot-long cave bear.
I stayed in my room, ate granola and drank water, and read, trying to understand.
Eventually I found an interview with a thanatologist who said this change was not unprecedented. “There is evidence—long disputed, but suddenly more plausible—that death did not always manifest in the form of a bear,” she said. “In some of the earliest human artworks, there are depictions of a terror bird, the apex predator of the Cenozoic era, standing over the dead, and tearing at corpses. Terror birds have been extinct for nearly two million years, long before the evolution of Neanderthals or Homo sapiens—so how could such a bird have appeared in their artwork, drawn on their cave walls, unless they saw it? At some point, the cave bear supplanted the terror bird. And now… it has been supplanted by a man.”
The interviewer asked her what it all meant, and she said she had no idea, but people should read her book….
I understood. Tens of thousands of years ago, the bear must have wandered into that particular cave, stumbled onto the underworld, killed the terror bird, and taken its place. Terror birds were from South America, weren’t they? Maybe there were other caves, or sinkholes, or hollow trees all over the world that led eventually to that desert. Maybe someone, a race of intelligent beings that predated humankind, had built that circle of stones, to somehow contain death. Maybe things would be worse without the stones. I didn’t know, and didn’t think reading any book would tell me. Even in all my ignorance, I knew more than anyone else alive about the true nature of death. But what should I do with that knowledge?
I turned off my phone and the television, and stared at the ceiling. I thought about the little I understood of the hunter’s motivations. He’d wanted to make death less terrifying, less traumatic, but now he was death, striding into homes and hospitals and classrooms with a gun, smiling at the moment of termination. That wasn’t what he’d wanted. It wasn’t what I wanted, either.
The language barrier was a problem, but I had thousands of dollars of the hunter’s money, and money is a universal language, if not quite as universal as death. It took a few days, but I got the supplies I needed, and returned to the cave.
The descent took just as long as before. I didn’t catch whiffs of wet fur anymore. Instead, I occasionally smelled sour sweat and damp canvas and gun smoke: the hunter’s scents. I made my way down, through the dark, to the desert. There was no roar to guide me now, but there were gunshots, sharp cracks, at regular intervals.
In time I found the circle of stones, and the hunter pacing inside, trapped in a loop of murder, transformed into the thing he’d hoped to kill. He’d hoped to bring peace, and instead, he’d become a bringer of terror.
It didn’t take me long to prepare the syringe, full of a massive overdose of morphine. I thought about the last time—the only time—I’d helped shepherd someone over the border from pain into peace in a similar way, and how that peace had been marred by the arrival of the bear, and its slash, and its bite. I could fix that. I could change the nature of death.
I rehearsed my movements in my mind: I would step toward the stones, and inject the morphine into the hunter as he passed. As he fell, I would catch him, and cradle him, and murmur reassurances as his life slipped away. I would ease his passage.
And all over the world, a hundred times a minute, I would appear again, with a needle full of sweet oblivion. People’s final moments would be spent drifting away on a cloud of painlessness, with me, or some time-locked version of me, murmuring in their ears: “It’s okay. You’ll be okay.”
The hunter passed close by, and I stepped forward to meet him.
Tim Pratt is the author of more than 20 novels, most recently the Axiom space opera trilogy and multiverse adventure Doors of Sleep. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt
“Sometimes You Get the Bear” first appeared on the author’s Patreon.