This is William Kotzwinkle. And this is the true story of how my novel The Bear Went over the Mountain came to be written. First let me introduce into my narrative Elizabeth Gundy, a novelist noted for her careful and beautiful prose style as well as her keen sense of humor which she will need as this tale unfolds. I am her husband, which has also put demands on her sense of humor.
Elizabeth Gundy and I, growing tired of the hectic life in New York City, bought an old farmhouse in a remote Northwoods wilderness although we hadn’t the slightest idea how you survived in such a place. In proof of this, shortly after moving into our old farm house it burned to the ground. We had been in the nearby little town, happily shopping for supplies and we returned to find a smoking hole where our farmhouse had been. This was in the days before computers, if you can imagine such a thing. Our manuscripts had been written on those ancient devices called typewriters. And so when our manuscripts went up in flames, they were lost forever. Our words were smoke and ashes, a proper sacrifice some might say, but not one we wanted to repeat.
So after building a new house, every time we left it to go shopping, we made sure that even if our house burned down our manuscripts would be safe. We put the manuscripts in the apple orchard, far from the house. I put mine in a briefcase and for reasons about which I was never quite clear Elizabeth Gundy put hers in an artist’s portfolio – a large square thing with a handle and zippers to protect her beautiful prose. She placed it carefully under an apple tree. It was the fall of the year and the tree was filled with apples. There were apples on the ground. And there were large bear turds on the ground, for bears have a fondness for apples.
And one day when we came back from happily shopping in the little town, Elizabeth’s portfolio was not under the apple tree where she’d left it. It was gone. She was stunned. Her finished novel was in that portfolio, ready to be sent to her agent. The carbon copy was also in there. There was no other copy. She began to moan beneath the apple tree. I immediately set off to get help.
During that first year we often needed help because, as I said, we knew nothing about living in a remote wilderness. Our help always came from lumberjacks living several miles away. Ted and Royce would dig us out of a snow bank or whatever other ridiculous situation a pair of writers from New York City could get themselves into. At first they looked upon us as strange beings, but soon they found us a source of great amusement because we always got everything wrong. Except writing books. That we knew how to do and about that they had nothing to say.
In fact, they had little to say about anything, preferring action to words. Ted and Royce were quiet men. When they weren’t working in the woods they sat around the stove in their kitchen, smoking and staring out the window. And on that fateful day, as they were staring out the window I came into view. I entered and announced, “I think an animal has taken Elizabeth’s portfolio.”
They stood up without a word, put on their caps, and headed toward their truck. Whatever had happened to Elizabeth’s portfolio, they were prepared to deal with it and words weren’t necessary or even possible because the word portfolio wasn’t in their vocabulary. But action was called for, and when it came to action they were experts.
We drove back across the ridge from their house to ours and parked beside the apple orchard. Ted, who was an expert tracker, examined the ground. Elizabeth Gundy looked at him, anticipating as always some brilliant solution to our problem. He looked at her and said, “A bear took it.”
She looked at him open mouthed, staggered by the information. To which he added, “The bear could be miles away by now.”
She let out a scream which could be heard miles away were there anyone there to hear it. But it died on the empty air and she fell to the ground sobbing. A year of her work, all of that careful beautiful prose, had been stolen by a bear. She imagined, as did I, the bear’s jaws around the handle of the portfolio, carrying it across a distant stream and heading back to an unknown den.
Ted gave the order to Royce and me. “Spread out and search.” To Elizabeth Gundy, he said, “You stay here.” He didn’t trust her to run frantically through the woods. In his childhood he’d run through the woods, fallen, and poked his eye out on a stick. But as the Chinese say, he was a one eyed man who is able to see.
Elizabeth Gundy stayed in the orchard, sobbing. And we spread out, searching.
I remember thinking, why did we leave New York City? What did we think we were doing? We don’t belong here, a bear has stolen Elizabeth’s novel. I searched the ground, tossing leaves and branches around, but I knew nothing about tracking. I was out of my depth and simply rearranging the forest floor.
And then I heard Royce shouting through the trees: “What color is that there porflio?” He couldn’t pronounce it but he’d found it. Yet there was a question in his mind. Might there be a number of missing porflios? In a variety of colors? He wanted to be sure he had the right porflio.
We ran through the woods toward him, Elizabeth Gundy, Ted, and I. And there was Royce proudly displaying a porflio. It was covered with claw marks and tooth marks. “He’s been chewing on it. He wanted to see if there was something to eat.”
Yes, there were the marks of a bear trying to open a porfolio.
Years later, it occurred to me: what if the bear had succeeded in opening the portfolio, begun to read it, and said to himself, “This isn’t bad.” And set off with it to New York City, to find an agent and a publisher.