Hunting for the Idol of Escape

As freshmen in high school Brent and Trevor made up a religion. They started worshipping the Fishbear. That was their code word for the woods—but a specific version of the woods—a version that they held like a holy grail between them. At the time it seemed like they could have called their secret anything and it wouldn’t matter; only later did the Fishbear turn out to be real.

The experiment began before they hardly knew each other. In September of ninth grade, when everyone else was busy making friends, both Trevor and Brent got in the habit of making the long walk across the high school parking lot alone to get McDonalds for lunch. They recognized one another because they passed on the walk every day. Yet an affinity was lacking: Trevor was working hard at acknowledging no one or thing. He wanted to look like he was there because people made him be there—at school, on earth, wherever—otherwise he’d be doing something more interesting. Trevor wanted to look as begrudging as possible, a loner for being sane in a crazy world. Brent, meanwhile, was equally solitary but unguarded and reckless. He tended to think out loud, to comment on the shoes or hair or other students, and his laughter could be wild and unprovoked. First impressions said Trevor wanted nothing to do with him.

That changed quickly. “Do you have any guns?” Brent asked one day. He’d stopped in front of the booth where Trevor slouched, both his hands around a fountain drink, backpack taking up the other seat. Perhaps any other sentence would have repelled Trevor. But he intuited the reason behind it with uncharacteristic generosity: every day Trevor wore the same camoflauge polar-fleece, one that his dad bought him the autumn before. And even though he only went hunting once that year—and he hated it, too, waking up early and not seeing anything except other hunters and dogging at his dad’s heels, getting hissed at for not being quiet enough—Trevor asked for a gun that Christmas. And he was going to keep on asking, year after year, until it worked… so no he didn’t officially own a gun, but he wanted one really bad and he’d get one eventually, and he answered with a lie that was fast, simple and believable.
“Just a twenty-two. But my dad has a twelve-gauge, and a thirty-ought-six…” And the two of them were off.

That initial conversation might’ve looked like one big bluff: both boys said they owned a gun, then went on to find out that the other didn’t. But it was the functional kind of lying that struck deeper truths; while the words said one thing their talking established something else. By the end they were in definite agreement that the gun was a tool that turned the boring world into another realm, that the woods were a mythical place of legends and violence, and if they were going to make that real they needed to keep twisting their words toward something slippery and secretive. They might even need a god.

*

Two weeks later Trevor’s mom drove him out to Brent’s house so he could spend the night. It was awkward at first: Trevor didn’t know how to act, but soon he found that he could simply follow Brent’s lead. The two boys ended up crammed in Brent’s old tree fort with a couple army surplus blankets. They drank cans of Sunkist and peed off the railing and didn’t brush their teeth. At nightfall they stood looking toward the dark edge of the forest.
“That’s where the Fishbear comes out,” Brent said.
“Cool,” said Trevor. “What’s that?”
“I’ll show you.” Brent slid out of the cottonwood barefoot. The dew on the grass was almost freezing. When he saw that Trevor was following him, Brent took off running and dissolved into the obscure wall of timber.
Trevor reached the threshhold of dwindling light a minute behind him. He stopped there to listen for his new friend but the woods were dead quiet. He walked forward until it almost gave him vertigo. Slowly he backed up until his spine met the bole of a big tree. The piney smell took him back to the hunting trip with his dad, moments when he stood perfectly still and his toes were cold and he’d look up at the dark branches tangled in the sky and know that he was right where he was supposed to be. It felt like anything could happen in places like that.

Then he heard something. Something was stalking up on him, so black in the darkness and so slow Trevor’s eyes played tricks on him as he tried to focus on its molten shape. It swelled with color then seized into reverberating patterns. It looked the way the sun did when he stared at it through his eyelids. He tried to make the apparition fit the word: Fishbear. Then the shape broke and charged and knocked Trevor to the ground.

A speechless battle ensued. Brent was stronger and ground Trevor’s cheek into the duff. But then something happened. Trevor had his knee on the side of Brent’s neck and Brent was choking. One second they were frozen like that, bleeding here and there, breathing wildly. Then the deep forest tightened in on them with a silent scream and they sprinted back to the treefort and fell asleep.

The next morning, before Trevor’s mom came to pick him up, they headed back up into the woods and together wrestled the biggest possible rocks free from the hillside. Rocks that picked up terrific speed and popped up and down on their paths downhill, tearing chunks from the sides of great doug firs. When they succeeded in toppling an old stob that burst open into a hornet nest, and went running back again to Brent’s house, each getting stung twice, Brent breathlessly declared that the Fishbear was pleased.

*

Brent got to come up with all the rules of the Fishbear. He had to go to church every week so he was the one that understood how religion worked. Meanwhile Trevor, whose parents never told him anything about God, was an intense kid who loved make-believe long before he got into his new obsession with fantasy and science fiction series that ran dozens of books long, so it was easy for him to keep up. It also helped that, by its very nature, worshipping the Fishbear didn’t have a lot of hard and fast rules.

Since Brent wasn’t a subtle person his conception of the Fishbear was like his work of art. The Fishbear was something that flowed down creeks from high places that you couldn’t see from any road. It was both pervasive, infused in the water systems, but also possessed definite location, somewhere higher or further or elsewhere, roving the woods and impossible to tie down. It was an outgrowth of beauty yet a medium of violence, a believable confluence of life and death. The ever-elusive Fishbear sanctioned spontaneous acts, swells of conviction, and all the kinds of fool’s errands that come to mind in the young and antsy and aimless. When Trevor’s parents somehow got ahold of the name they held it against him: he was “too old to be playing pretend.” They didn’t, however, manage to make the Fishbear any less powerful: just more crucial as a secret, more potent as an antithesis to the rest of the world.

By spring Brent had his driver’s license. This was the early 90s and you only needed to be fourteen and a half years old. As a present his dad got the old Toyota hatchback running that had been sitting in their back field. Brent stocked the trunk with things he found in the garage: a case of fifty Top Ramen packets, old clothes and hunting boots, a pot and a pan and an ax, cassette tapes. He and Trevor started camping out every weekend and the car accumulated a tent without stakes or stuff sack, hunks of firewood, a small stockpile of stolen beer, some cool-looking rocks. A Montana Gazetteer lived in the foot well of the passenger seat, its binding shattered, steadily exfoliating its outer pages under Trevor’s feet: it was a matter of pride not to consult the thing. Lastly, from a Woodstock ’69 cassette, Mountain’s “Theme From An Imaginary Western” became their anthem, churning along backroads as placid as a dirge.

*

Finally it was summer. Trevor’s mom found him a job mowing lawns for one of her friends from work, and Brent was going to be helping at his dad’s construction site. But there was a week after school got out when neither of them had to do anything and they decided to go on an epic camping trip.

It would be an adventure, as always, to find the Fishbear. Absolutely no maps and all on dirt roads. If they crossed a paved road, or drove on one, they would have to hold their breath because the Fishbear hated pavement. This was easy to do almost all the way across the valley, but just before they could get to the mountains they popped out on the highway.
“Here we go,” said Brent, and took a huge breath. Trevor hardly had time. He was fighting a panic within moments while Brent was still holding strong—then came the pangs of a headache and bugging eyes and claustrophobia like he would have to jump out of the car. Brent was still accelerating and searching for a turn. Suddenly he swerved off into the ditch. The car didn’t roll but it was so rough that Trevor’s head bounced off the window and hit the roof. The next car on the highway slowed down and stared, expecting an accident. But laughing, arms draped out open windows, Brent and Trevor kept bumping along until the next turn where they could wave it all away.

*

Every journey toward the Fishbear had to take a new road, that was another rule. It was a neverending job, as Brent liked to say, tracking down a savior. Brent started driving up a familiar canyon and then took a steep switchback that brought them onto a dry bench. Further on, the bench steepened into timber, and mountains lay beyond that. But before they could get anywhere there was a gate: three strands of barbed wire stapled to a post, the kind you can usually pass by unhooking the post from a wire loop. This one had a chain with a lock on it. Both of them got out to stare at it. “They’re trying to stop us,” Brent said, and walked back to the car. He returned carrying a tool that Trevor hadn’t seen before: an oversized pair of pliers with a thick parrot beak. “Bolt cutters,” was all he said.

The gate opened onto a rowdy ranch road, a two track that narrowed to the wheel base of an ATV, and the Toyota wasn’t liking it. Yet Brent was insistent and announced that on this trip he would be taking the car to the limit. The limit, in this case, was not another hundred feet. They got so high-centered that they had to abandon it there. Brent threw everything they might need out of the trunk to lay in damp grass: far too much to carry. Trevor just looked up at the mountain. His dad’s .22 dangled from one arm.
“We can’t go into those woods yet,” Brent told him. His voice was different now that they were closing in on the Fishbear. He also didn’t talk nearly as much but Trevor was happy with the silence. He liked being on a mission: he felt focused. They dropped to their knees and began packing whatever they could in what bags they could find. When they started walking, they stuck to the cow pasture, Brent snipping the top strands of any fences they had to cross. He walked with the outsized loppers in one hand and his other arm cradling a lumpy duffel bag that hung heavily off one shoulder, tipping his entire silhouette. “Be on the lookout for caves,” he warned.

Trevor kept the .22 cradled in the crook of an arm. A little daypack held small essentials: Top Ramen packets, ski jacket, a book. In his other arm bounced a sleeping bag, a heavy rectangular Coleman number that packed like a jellyroll, and he abandoned it after a couple hundred yards. “I’ll sleep in my jacket,” he said, but Brent didn’t hear or care. Little sounds to either side were making Trevor jump. He worried about some cowboy riding up on them, some jerk like Brent’s dad. At the same time it seemed impossible. It seemed like they were really out there now and the Fishbear was protecting them. Brent chanted: something from church it sounded like. And then, what if the Fishbear was a boss, Trevor wondered, like the bosses in video games? He held the rifle closer. You had to battle him to death on a mountain top, and when you killed him all his underlings dropped away… all the stupid shit in the world died with him? Suddenly the gun fired. Without a look back Brent took off running and disappeared behind a tree.

*

Trevor couldn’t find Brent. In the forest now, he walked and walked and the hill got steeper. When he found a snow bank, he scraped away the dirty top layer with bugs and pine needles and ate from the coarse insides that were almost glowing white. Finally he had to stop walking. He had to take a nap and he felt sick.

It was late afternoon when Trevor woke. He couldn’t remember any dreams, yet he felt emboldened. The open air had cleared him out and town didn’t seem very real anymore. A light rain fell in the openings between trees. He was unfolding a page of the Gazetteer that he’d snuck into his back pocket when he noticed that his rifle and backpack were missing. He started walking again and a game trail appeared almost under his feet. Great boulders cropped up, some laying flush as pavement with the pine needles, some hunkered like apes half as tall as the lodgepole pines.

Rounding a corner he found Brent, sitting cross-legged, pointing the gun at him. Trevor broke into a run. Brent fired once but didn’t come close to hitting him. Trevor felt light and fluid: maybe Brent had the gun and the backpack and the duffle, but he had the map, and suddenly he knew what he needed to do. Tarn Lake: the highest one, that’s where he’d find the Fishbear. He was good at reading a map. He’d keep heading west, and cross over one ridge to the south, and then he couldn’t miss it. The Fishbear was making more and more sense: it was a big game and Trevor realized he was going to win. He hurried on, and stumbled, he got turned around in the trees. The sun went down and the sun came up. It was something to feel like he barely survived.

*

Two mornings later Trevor came to. He laid in an open patch melted free from a great expanse of snow. Sunlight broke harsh upon his cheeks. Tarn Lake, glinting with little waves, sat within a ring of stunted trees. The Fishbear stood in front of him and Brent slept nearby.
“I thought you’d leave,” Trevor said to the Fishbear, who was looking off into space. It was a faraway look that could have been omniscient or it could have been oblivious. “You can eat him if you want to,” Trevor said, motioning at Brent. But the Fishbear only brought his gaze onto Trevor. He appeared neither pleased nor powerful. It was not a menacing look, but it filled Trevor with dread and he quickly looked away.
“So now you found me,” the Fishbear said. “You two boys are the first ones.” The branches stirred with a wind that didn’t make any noise. “And why do you think that is?” Trevor felt like it was a mean thing to say. It was unfair. As he got mad he hunched his shoulders away from the immortal. “You know I can’t help you,” the Fishbear finally said.

Moments earlier he’d been shivering; now Trevor felt his entire body flush with heat. If someone had asked him before if he wanted to find the Fishbear, he would’ve said yes, but the truth is he never thought about it. Now that he knew the Fishbear was real it was the worst thing in the world.

To find him was a joke, he thought, a joke that they played on themselves. They’d put their hope into finding something far away and meaningless and horrible and now here it was. What was the point? Whatever the thing in front of him was was crazy and stupid. Now it was time to close his eyes and make it go away. But the Fishbear spoke first—and helplessly, Trevor looked him in the eyes.

“Go tell them about me,” he said, and his mouth stretched into a smile that could have been kindly or sarcastic, the corners disappearing into ravaged cheeks. “Tell them you found the Fishbear. Tell them whatever you want. Lie if you think they’ll believe you, or tell them the truth. It doesn’t matter.” His fishtail was cracked and spongy and smelled like rot. It lay as dead as excrement behind him. “At least you know how to find me, right? You know what I am. That’s your secret. Whether you like it or not.”
“We just made you up!”
“That doesn’t change anything,” the Fishbear said. Then he limped away.

Trevor sat down, held his head, and tried as hard as he could to forget what the Fishbear looked like. Eventually there were only words left in his mind: a man that walks on bear legs, and drags a big black fishtail the size of his body. The Fishbear’s face looked like an uncle he couldn’t remember meeting. The one with the big beard, who died somewhere in Alaska but his mom would never tell him how, who now existed in only one picture that Trevor had ever seen.

Brent woke with a loud gasp like a child released from a bad dream. He gazed around, looking sheepish, but mostly like he wanted to be friends again. The gun and backpack and things were all gone. “That was friggin’ crazy!” he said, then yawned.
“The Fishbear,” Trevor began in confusion, but Brent cut him off.
“Yeah…” He made a dopey smile. “We can’t tell anybody, though.”
Suddenly Trevor felt very alone. Because Brent didn’t know. He couldn’t know. He had escaped, and now he was free to go home and keep making things up without ever caring what came of it.
Trevor looked around him with a start. Tarn Lake was still flashing, spectacular and cold, but everything else was miles and miles away.