At Such High Temps

Fiction by Jennifer Fliss

We’re looking at a field of charred tree trunks. Ghostly, blackened tall things reach into the sky trying to find the light. They’re not all dead, though some have fallen. Many have fallen, but quite a few are still standing.

“The lodgepole pine needs fire,” the guide says. “At searing temperatures, the cones burst and spread their seeds.” On a vintage yellow bus at Yellowstone, we’re being serenaded with the dulcet tones of practiced facts. Beside me, Charlie holds my hand, but he’s not holding it in his, he’s holding it down, to the bench, trapping it.

This trip is a do-over. On the other side, we’ll be different. I’m pregnant. Charlie promised he’d be better, that the lamp had just glanced off my shoulder; he’d meant to hit the wall. The lamp was ugly anyway, he’d said as he held my chin tight. Not like you.

As we disembark the bus, Charlie points. “What about that trail?”

“Closed,” the guide says. Fluttering tape crosses the trailhead.

“Bears. I think I saw it on the website,” I say.

“They’re more scared of us than we are of them.”

“I can’t run.” I put my hand on my belly.

“I have bear spray.”

He drags me along and for a half-mile, it is beautiful. The pines line the trail like guardians. Beyond the burnt ones are lively green hopeful lodgepole pines and Douglas fir and others I can’t name. Wisps of clouds undulate across the sky. This basin contains a few geothermal features: a dormant geyser, a rust-colored pool. We stop at a mudpot bubbling liquid clay; sulfur burns my nose.

“What if I pushed you?” Charlie feints but makes me wobble. I clench my teeth.

After a switchback, a carcass comes into view. It’s tremendous, exposed bone and leaking entrails, viscous strands of animal smelling like sharpies. I almost vomit. The sky is still blue blue and my heart is ricocheting off its container.

“Elk,” I say. “Let’s go.”

A rustling from up ahead. I seize Charlie.

“Wuss,” Charlie says as a bear steps onto the trail. Humped back, claws like sharpened chopsticks, the grizzly stands to full height.

Charlie grabs the bear spray, pulls the safety.

“Good boy,” I say, staring into its amber eyes, pleading. I think I can see my reflection in them. He’s taller, skinnier than I thought he’d be. Hungry. The bear’s chest is heaving like mine. We stay that way for a moment. The bear is beautiful. Majestic.

Two cubs amble up to the bear and she pushes them back.

“Mama bear,” I say in recognition and take a small step backwards. Another. The bears don’t move.

“Come on,” I say to Charlie. “Maybe you won’t even have to-”

But it’s too late, Charlie charges and sprays the mother grizzly, the cubs too.

I shout but quicken my backwards steps down trail as I watch a tangle of limbs under snorts from exertion, and Charlie’s screams above it all. I’m not sure where the bear begins or Charlie ends.

I want to pull him away, but it would be futile; I know who will win.

I will tell my daughter this story and posit Charlie as a hero. I will not tell her how, after, they had to put the mama bear down. She will already know the depth of a mother’s love, no need to sully the memory of a father she never knew or the pain that kind of heat still could bring.

Jennifer Fliss

Jennifer Fliss (she/her) is a Seattle-based writer whose collection, The Predatory Animal Ball came out in 2021. Her forthcoming collection, As If She Had a Say comes out in 2023 with Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Books. Her writing has appeared in F(r)iction, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,