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Visual Arts   Literature    Music    Dance   Theatre   Film & New Media

The Law is the Law

 

Pablo Urbanyi

 

Dear Alberto:

 

Despite the arbitrary dates, like the 21st of December, that we human beings circle in the calendar, winter has already arrived here. It's been a while since the last leaves fell from the trees, and in the parks there have been gigantic machines gathering them all up and disposing of them. In the backyards of this corner of the world too, people have been doing the same with the help of sophisticated lawnmowers equipped with all kinds of special devices.

 

The hills I can see from my window are already covered in snow. We've had some snow in the city too but it melted. It will be a few days yet before the thermometer stays below zero, but once it does and we get another snowfall, the capital of Canada will be shrouded in a white blanket until the end of the winter, April of next year, a blanket that will soon exhibit the dark stains of pollution and progress.

 

Perhaps I'm being too poetic.  When I start being poetic in prose I realize I'm doing something which nature did not intend me to do. God! How often in the solitude of winter, staring at the blank page in front of me, have I been visited by the muses! And like the foolish sinner that I am, instead of jotting down what they whispered to me, I made a grab for them and frightened them away.

The truth is that as winter approaches, and I think about adding it to the other winters I've known, I do get more and more melancholic. Since I can't pretend I'm a polar bear and lie down in some cave and hibernate, I'm alert to the way life rolls by, to our march into the future, to the oracular forecasts of the computer as it predicts the amount of snow that will fall, the record temperatures that will be broken, and on the basis of the statistics for previous years, the number of people who are likely to freeze to death. The oracle is sometimes wrong, but it's the fault of the whimsical climate, of the man who failed to take the necessary action, of the programmes who screwed up. The computer is still infallible.

 

I'm not particularly interested in now many people will freeze to death this winter, or drown next summer, or die the year after from cancer or AIDS or in traffic accidents. Maybe other people are ‑‑ the ones who stand to inherit or pick up the insurance money or fill the shoes of the dead, maybe the funeral parlour owners and the coffin makers. After all, a coffin which costs money to make and has been lying around too long waiting for a customer is money down the drain.

 

But there are some cases that statistics rarely take into account. Not all dead people are good and dead. The odd one may in fact be in excellent health. It only takes a miracle, an exceptional capacity to fend for oneself, or a survival manual from the CIA or the boy‑scouts to bring a person back to life.

 

Sure. If that happened to a person he could easily become famous, especially if he'd had some "interesting" adventures on the other side, and he'd soon be the model hero for future generations. Even if he wasn't perfect, you could always learn something from him even if it was only to do the opposite of what he did.

 

Just now I remember an unusual story. I don't know why it should come to mind now ‑‑ perhaps because there's a snowstorm in the air and I can smell it like other people smell rain, or maybe because I mentioned bears, or perhaps it's because in one of my childish dreams I've imagined myself as one of those heroes basking in the admiration of a crowd.  At any rate, it's quite a dramatic story which began with the onset of winter last year and ended with the arrival of spring. That spring passed by too but left behind a famous survivor.

 

I can never remember the names of places. The ones I heard on the T.V. reports escape me and the articles I read in the newspapers at the time only referred to "the case", in a legal sense more than anything. I do know that it happened in the north of Canada, somewhere to the east of the Rockies. The name Fort Nelson rings a vague bell, but it may just be an outpost that the Mounties had in the old days and which has now been converted into a museum. At any rate, the event took place in a remote, enchanted region, full of mountains, bears, lakes, ducks, rivers and trout.  A practically uninhabited place, and dangerous for anyone not familiar with that kind of terrain. Maybe I haven't got all the details exactly right, but I'll do my best to make them believable.

 

Andy Henderson was 38 years old and a perfectly normal man until he was catapulted to fame by the events I'm about to describe. He lived a happy life with his wife Jane and his three children Pete, John and Alice, in a cabin he had built himself. It was situated on a small plain about 50 miles from the town where he worked in the office of the town council.

 

He was a friendly man, well liked by his neighbours, the nearest of which lived three miles from his cabin and to whom he honked hello every morning and evening as he drove to work and returned home. He was a strong protestant and went to church every Sunday. He didn't drink or smoke and always got up early in the mornings. Without saying much about it or even remotely kicking up a fuss, he filled out his ballot slip every four or five years, and although the political party in power occasionally changed, the destiny of the country fortunately and with God's grace, remained the same. He was an attentive father, a faithful husband, a highly respected man, practically without defects (his neighbours and workmates confirmed this after his disappearance). His hobby was duck‑hunting which might well be considered a healthy distraction, one more virtue.

 

One Friday night at the beginning of December after supper was over, he congratulated his wife on her excellent apple pie (a dessert renowned throughout the area and of which Jane was justly proud), and said to her: "Sweetheart, the winter's late coming this year. If the weather's good tomorrow, I'm going out hunting for the last time." He turned to his eldest son Pete, who was 12 years old, and asked "Do you want to come with me?" "You bet!", was the enthusiastic reply.

With the promise that they would be back between 4 or 5 in the afternoon, which was the time when the shadows from the rockies would be gently creeping up over the cabin, they left early the next day, knowing that there was a long way to go to get to the lake where the ducks would be. It would take them 2 or 3 hours in Andy's splendid four‑wheel drive jeep, a vehicle capable of ploughing its way through up to three feet of snow.

 

By six that evening they were still not back. The most immediate and obvious reason was the snowstorm that had whipped up suddenly in the afternoon at about three. None of the neighbours could recall anything like it, least of all at that time of the year. Late investigations confirmed that this was in fact true, and that the storm broke every record in the book.

 

Jane was extremely worried and telephoned the Mounted Police. The office she spoke to had some experience of similar situations and was able to calm her down. There was no reason to jump to any conclusions. People had got lost before in snowstorms and had shown up later with a cheeky smile on their faces, as if they'd really rather enjoyed themselves. And anyway, nothing could be done at that time since the storm was still raging and the winds were blowing up to seventy miles an hour.

 

It snowed and blew throughout the night. Jane couldn't sleep and the other two children tossed and turned restlessly. When dawn finally came, it turned out to be a still day, and the brilliance of the sunshine belied the fact it was still 20 below zero. Jane didn't want to appear hysterical and waited until noon before she rang again.

 

The mountain roads were impassable. The mounties went into action with helicopters and skidoos. They found absolutely nothing ‑‑ not a trace of anybody, not even the jeep. This was hardly surprising since in some places the wind had produced snowdrifts six or eight feet deep.

 

To make matters worse, it snowed again the next night.  The search was resumed the following day and continued for two more weeks. At the end of that time the official verdict was that Andy Henderson and his son were missing but not presumed to be dead. However, nobody seriously believed that they had managed to survive.

 

The story received minimal coverage in the national press and television: a few shots of the rockies, Pete's empty desk at school, a quote from Jane saying her apple pie "would never be the same again", and a comment from the local constable who assured the interviewer that "everything possible had been done".

 

It was a sad Christmas that year for Jane and her two children, John and Alice. The neighbours rallied round wonderfully and phoned every day. The local priest came over to see Jane and urged her to go ahead as usual and make her apple pie since Christmas dinner wouldn't be the same without it.

 

The new year came and went, and with it, January, February and March. It was time to be practical and to accept that life had to continue. Mrs. Henderson set about making arrangements with the insurance company. There were some hitches: was Mr. Henderson actually dead? Was it certain he was dead? Jane's lawyer refused to give an inch. The insurance company was sympathetic and understanding and only asked for a little time to have the cheque made up. With the $500,000 due to them, neither Mrs. Henderson nor her children would have any future worries. The manager of the local funeral parlour even paid Jane a visit. Andy Henderson was a fine man. Apart from the life insurance policy he had, he'd also taken care of the arrangements for his final exit from this world. Everything was paid up. Jane could choose between a refund, a symbolic burial, or could wait for an appropriate period of time to see if the bodies showed up after the spring thaw. He wouldn't have mentioned it, but supposed it had already occurred to Jane: the wolves, the bones strewn about... How dreadful, Mrs. Henderson, how awful! Please don't cry.

 

April came and with it the thaw. Towards the end of the month there were only a few patches of snow left where the sun's rays couldn't reach, and in some places the first flowers of spring could be seen. And then out of the blue, a forest inspector's truck drew up outside the cabin one day and out stepped Andy, now sporting a beard, and Pete, carrying a shotgun. They both looked pale and worn out and their clothes were in tatters. Pete had grown taller.

 

Jane couldn't believe it.  She rushed out of the house and embraced her husband. They both fainted, Jane from sheer delight and Andy because he was on his last legs. They carried him back to the truck and the forest inspector drove them all to the hospital. Andy and his son were admitted to the emergency ward and a thorough examination of them began.

 

This time the news touched the entire nation's heart. Someone had come back from the place of no return. Those who had been given up for dead were alive again. It was a slap in the face for the pessimists. The Optimists' Club sent a note saying: "We never doubted your safe return for one moment", journalists invaded the hospital. On their way to the room where the hero and his heroic young son were being looked after, they bumped into the doctor in charge of their case. The doctor smiled at all the cameras as if resurrection were his speciality and said: "Yes, they are both very weak but otherwise in the best of health. I'm sure that once they've got a few hamburgers inside them, and of course a slice of that famous apple pie, they'll be as right as rain in a week". "Yes, you can see them but I would ask you not to tire them out".

 

And surrounded by cameras and tape‑recorders, guided by a glamorous journalist wearing headphones, Andy revealed the mystery of their miraculous survival:

 

"We had packed in hunting for the day. We got the ducks together and headed for the jeep." "How many?" "How many what?" "Ducks." "Oh, six." "Congratulations. Do go on." "It would have been about three o'clock when it began to snow. I wasn't particularly worried because I had a pretty good jeep and knew I could easily cover the 100 miles back even if it was snowing. But I told my son to hurry anyway. We got to the jeep and then something happened which had never happened before: it wouldn't start. I tried not to lose my head, and said to my son "Don't worry Pete!". "Were you worried Pete?" (the camera shifted to Pete). "No" (the camera went back to Andy). "I tried to fix the jeep but it was useless. What could I do? The snow was getting thicker and the wind was really blowing. Should we stay there and wait for the rescue team? I was worried we would freeze to death and decided we should make a move and try to get to the nearest road or at least head in the general direction of home. As long as we kept moving, we wouldn't freeze." "A good decision". "Off we went. The storm got steadily worse until we were sinking up to our thighs in snow. About an hour or an hour and a half later, I realized we were totally lost, and it was quite likely that we had been moving north instead of south". "What an awful situation! Didn't you die of fright". "No I didn't actually, as you can see. I was worried about a different kind of death". (At this point Andy fell silent, as if reflecting on something.) "Yes, yes, we can well imagine how you felt, but do go on. The people listening to this are hanging on your every word". "Well, the thing was not to stop until we found someone, which was highly unlikely, or at least until we found somewhere where we could take refuge. I must confess that I began to pray. Not for me, since I wasn't afraid of death and knew I was well insured, but for my son. And God answered my prayers. By this time it was pitch dark and we were freezing cold. Then all of a sudden, as if put there by God's own hand, we stumbled across a cabin. May be God just guided us to it. Anyway, my son Pete shouted:

 

"Daaad!", and we felt our way around until we found the door, which wasn't locked, and in we went." It was incredible, absolutely fantastic, a genuine miracle." "What was the cabin like?" "Well, it was just one room with two bunk beds, blankets, a stove, a small table with two or three chairs, some candles and matches, and a small supply of food. But we didn't find out about all this until the next day because it was pitch black and since I don't smoke, I wasn't carrying any matches. We just wrapped ourselves in the blankets and went to sleep. The next day...."  "Andy, they're asking me from studio control what happened to the ducks?" "Oh, we abandoned them and decided to keep "just the shotgun, the cartridges and a knife. With the shotgun we had a chance of survival. We finished the food in a week, and if the owner's watching all this, I'd like him to send me a bill so we can pay for what we took. So there we were, with no food left, waiting and watching for a rescue team." "And it never arrived! That must have been terrible." "Not really. We could make out the helicopters in the distance, but they just didn't see or hear us. We had to figure out again what we should do. It was getting colder and colder and there was nothing to eat. We had water enough, since we could melt the snow, so at least we weren't going to die of thirst. But what about eating? A thousand times I was on the point of just walking outside and freeing us from the clutches of destiny, from the hand of God. I was so mad that we were only one hundred miles from home and yet in the age of satellite communication and space travel, we had no way of sending a message. It was as if there had been some radical change and those one hundred miles had become a thousand light years." "Andy, studio control is telling me we're running out of time. Let's leave the philosophical reflections for later, shall we? Just tell us how you survived." "Thanks to the hand of God who can make manna rain down on the desert. In our case he didn't send us manna but food in the shape of a bear. It was a black bear, a female, one of the biggest I've ever seen. We were taking turns watching through the cabin window, and it was Pete who spotted her. He pointed to her and I looked over. She was a monster. She came lumbering up to the cabin. I loaded the shotgun. She kept getting closer and closer." (The journalist asking the questions responded to the drama of the scene being described by waving her arms spasmodically.) "She came up to the door and started sniffing around. I prayed to God she wouldn't pick up our scent. Then she pushed at the door and I let her have one round in the head and another in the stomach. The body weighed a ton." "How many pounds?" "Well, its hard to say, but I'd reckon at least eight hundred. We just couldn't manage to move the body inside, so before it froze we set about cutting it up." "Don't tell me, Andy. You survived on the frozen meat." "That's it. We left it outside and covered it with logs so the wolves wouldn't...". "Ah, there were wolves. How exciting! Listen, Andy, we have thirty seconds left. Can you tell us what bear meat tastes like?" "Well, it's kind of strong and ..." "Thank you, Andy." (The camera shifted to the journalist.) "Well, ladies and gentlemen. You have been listening to the tale of a miraculous survival, the like of which has rarely been heard before. The only other similar case involved a group of Latin Americans whose plane crashed in the Andes and who also survived on frozen meat. This is a coincidence that just goes to show ...".

 

There were, of course, other interviews and photos and stories in the papers. Pictures of Andy with his family sitting down to their first supper together at home, and of Pete holding the shotgun, and of the owner of the cabin handing Andy a receipt for the money he had paid him for the use of the cabin.

 

Andy was almost at the height of his glory, just about to sell the film rights to his story and to sign a lucrative contract with a book publisher who wanted him to write down all the ideas he had had during his five months of "exile". And then his fame and credibility began to crumble.

All the attention he got went to his head, and on more than one occasion when he was being interviewed he put his foot in it.  Not only did he repeat his comment about the age of satellite communication and space travel, but in a fit of religions fervour he also accused mankind (because of the problem he'd had with his jeep) of putting its trust in technology instead of God. In his view this was a sign of the rampant atheism of the modern age.

 

Maybe nothing would have happened. Maybe he could have gone on down that path and with the money from the film and the book, founded a new religious sect and come up with the full meaning of life which mankind was clearly ignorant of. I don't know. All I do know is that some of the comments he made about survival manuals, like the one when he said "Yes, Sir. I killed that bear with page 23", offended a good many members of wilderness organizations who simply wanted to know which manual he had consulted.

 

Nobody really understood that Andy Henderson had been put through a terrible ordeal. And that lack of understanding showed up in his unpopularity. The real bomb was thrown by the "Association for the Protection of Wild Life" and the "Organization for the Protection of Black Bears". Beyond their own members nobody at that time even knew they existed, but at Andy's expense they gained a certain notoriety. They banded together and launched a public campaign against him, accusing him of having murdered a defenceless black bear. This was considered to he a much more serious offence than killing any other kind of bear. At least that was the gist of the telegrams sent by a series of feminist organizations, expressing their solidarity with the campaign.

Killing a black bear, a species on the verge of extinction, studied in depth by naturalists, was a very serious offence. On the basis of the declarations made by Andy himself, it was evident that lying in wait until the bear went for the door and then firing at point blank range was proof of premeditated intent, sadism and cowardice.

 

The case went to court. Andy's defence was a dramatic one. "But what should I have done, for God's sake? Would it have been better if I have eaten my son or my own flesh?"  Nobody was convinced. There was too much circumstantial evidence against him. He had clearly not taken adequate precautions and had irresponsibly put his son's life at risk. The fact that his jeep had broken down was a normal occurrence. Such things happen. He had been negligent in not taking with him blankets, candles, chocolate, flares, and a walkie‑talkie. Why hadn't he taken the trouble to listen to the weather forecast? All this criticism of technology and he didn't even have a lousy compass with him! There was other damning evidence. How come he was hunting ducks out of season? If he went on so much about the fact that he didn't drink, how did he explain the bottle of brandy they found in the cabin? And the detail which clinched it all and that even Andy himself had to admit to: the innocent bear happened to be pregnant and undoubtedly (they are not studied for nothing) she had gone to the cabin to give birth to her cubs and thereby to guarantee the future of her species.

 

Andy Henderson lost the case and was ordered to pay a fine which was the equivalent in gold of the bear's weight.  With the rights to the film and the book, he could have probably paid up, but "politically" speaking, he had gone over to the other side and popular opinion had it that he was extremely unpopular. He was a political lead balloon, an investment to be avoided, and he never did get around to signing any contracts.

 

Poor Andy. He would have been better off eating his son. Mankind is mature and ready to accept pain and tragedy. There are plenty of precedents, such as the one concerning the plane crash in the Andes which the journalist had recalled and these would have made the situation understandable. I don't really know. Maybe it's just a problem of supply and demand. There are more than enough human beings but very few black bears. I suspect Andy would have been showered with understanding, sympathy and love, and everyone would have listened compassionately (with tears in their eyes) to the story of his suffering as, day by day, he gradually devoured his son. No priest would have refused to give him his blessing.

 

You may well have trouble understanding this story, Alberto. It's the most natural thing in the world for me. You see, this isn't Latin America here. The people in this country are serious, and political corpses here are good and dead. It's not like down there where every now and again they rise up from the grave and go for a stroll. On this continent neither the President of the United States nor the Prime Minister of Canada kills bears.

 

This is the English version of a short story entitled “La ley es la ley” which appeared in the Spanish collection Nacer de Nuevo, Ottawa: Girol Books, 1992.
Translated by Nigel Dennis

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