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Friday, December 17, 2010

The God Hunter

The God Hunter


Robert Bodey, PhD, was growing weary of theology. He had been teaching it for twenty-five years and he was bored. So he gained weight. His usually impeccable apartment became a shambles. He avoided returning to it for as long as possible after work because he felt lonely in it - there was only the furniture, a small TV, and wall after wall of huge books with German titles stamped on their spines, all now in disarray. He stopped changing the sheets on his bed too. They became itchy and grey with granules of dirt.
Robert Bodey was not married. He had planned to get a PhD and he had gotten a PhD. He had planned to get a position at a university teaching theology and he had gotten a position at a university teaching theology. But he had not planned to get a marriage, so he did not have one of those. He was a bachelor. At fifty-five he frequented an inexpensive Chinese restaurant for his meals or ate Hamburger Helper and Rice-a-roni out of the pots he cooked them in.
After a year in this depressed state he decided to have a physician he knew look him over. The doctor didn’t even bother to use his stethoscope.
“You’re fat,” the doctor said. “You look like one of the pyramids of Egypt. I want you to find a dog for yourself and get out every morning for some exercise.”
Bodey reflected and decided to get two dogs. He chose them from the other side of the glass pane while both of the puppies were sleeping - he concluded from this that they were a quiet breed of dog. They turned his apartment into a racetrack and then, with unabated energy, a wrestling ring. He proceeded to take his first walk immediately, following the doctor’s orders with commendable alacrity, nursing a vain hope of tiring the two puppies out.
Bodey lived in a small apartment block just off campus. The university owned hundreds of acres of forested land which it had not yet developed and this land was interlaced with trails. People walked on them, jogged on them, cycled on them. Bodey turned his two puppies loose on them and strolled behind them at a moderate pace. The puppies would race ahead, peer about for Bodey’s triangular hulk and elfish legs, run back to him, jump on him, then race ahead once more. Bodey spent an hour in this fashion every day and in time, surprising himself, he came to enjoy it. And the puppies brought life into his apartment also, made it something of a home. After six months Bodey did begin to lose weight, found he could breathe better, and he began to laugh when he lectured, which startled his students, who thought he was choking.
Despite all these physical and psychological improvements, however, the puppies were unable to do anything about Bodey’s general malaise towards his teaching career. The new red and yellow hardbacked tomes in his office, sent gratis by various publishers, remained unopened. He no longer revised his lecture notes from one semester to the next. He eventually came to the point where he seriously began to consider some kind of dramatic exit from the whole farce, as he had come to view it. Perhaps crying STRAW! in the middle of a lecture on God’s self-revelation to the human race, walking out, plugging the toilets in the washrooms with pages from his theology books, and then resigning. He actually decided on this particular course of action, set the date five months in advance, and stolidly awaited its arrival. In the meantime, he continued to walk his puppies, who were now truly dogs, and to look at the green of the trees as he briskly strode past them down one trail after another.
Two weeks after he had made the decision to end his career as a theologian, a woman with a black Labrador Retriever stopped to chat with him on a trail. She admired his two dogs.
“Are these Malamutes?” she asked.
“Yes,” answered Bodey, who wasn’t sure what she meant.
“They have a beautiful wild look to them.”
“They do, don’t they?”
“Did you know there were coyotes in these woods here?”
“Pardon me?”
“Coyotes. A whole pack of them. They’ve been here for years.”
“Coyotes?” exclaimed Bodey. “Coyotes in the middle of the third largest city in the country? That’s hard to believe.”
The woman shrugged. “Well, they’re here. Miles and miles of forest for them. I saw the pack once. That would be two years ago now.”
“You couldn’t have been mistaken?” probed Bodey. “You’re sure you weren’t seeing a German Shepherd or something?”
The woman laughed at him. “Oh, no. These weren’t German Shepherds. They have quite a different look to them. Quite a different way of moving. Very wild. Feral. You can’t mistake them for somebody’s pet.”
After this surprising conversation, Bodey took it upon himself to casually ask other dog owners he met on the trails if they had heard of the coyotes. Some of them had, some of them didn’t know what he was talking about, and a few claimed they had seen them with their own eyes. Their sightings tended to be brief, perhaps only a glimpse of a lean figure loping through swordferns, but one or two declared the coyotes had shadowed them, quietly keeping pace with them and their dogs. Coyotes were killers, a man said. A bitch would lure a dog into the woods where another coyote, her partner, would get in behind the dog, hamstring it, and then both would gobble it up. The man warned Bodey to keep his dogs on a leash if he ever saw anything suspicious, and then remarked on the coyotes’s sinister amber eyes. “A lot like the wolf,” the man assured him. Others spoke of the beauty of the coyotes, their wonderful coats and their huge bushy tails, their sleek forms and the grace with which they moved through the rain forest. “They’re very shy, very timid,” these persons explained to Bodey. “Not at all like the wolf.”
Bodey sensed a growing desire within him to see these coyotes for himself. Some of the curiosity, he knew, had to do with the fact that, like most city-dwellers, the only wild animals he had ever seen had been behind bars, which hardly made them wild, or they had been making fools of themselves in national or provinicial parks, begging for white bread and potato chips. How many times did you see a wild animal in its natural environment? He was aware that people who lived in the midst of coyotes and bears and wolves all their lives, ranchers and farmers up north, for instance, could get so used to seeing them they practically ignored the creatures - unless they viewed them as intruders and nuisances that threatened their livestock and needed to be poisoned, trapped or shot. But Bodey was in a state of almost childlike wonder, wanting to see a wild animal, to look into its eyes without wire or gun between it and him, with no desire on his part to do anything but gaze and perhaps - he only mentioned this to his dogs - talk to it.
Accordingly, he began to gather information from those who had seen the coyotes about where they had seen them and at what time of day. When some of them wanted to know why and he told them he hoped to see the coyotes for himself, a few smiled and encouraged him, but others said, “You don’t want to see them. They’ll give you the creeps. The bunch of them will circle around you. We don’t understand enough about coyotes to know what they’d do to a person if they got him alone.”
Bodey could not deny having a few garish daydreams of sprawling in a thicket with his throat torn open while he watched a coyote chew on his leg and thigh, but the excitement of the quest was overpowering. He went to all the locations in the forest where people claimed they had seen the coyotes and he went at every different time of day imaginable. He even went at night once, a flashlight in his pocket, when the calls of the birds and the creaking of the tree limbs made him think of films he’d seen about Vietnam.
When he had no luck, he went to the university library and read up on coyotes’ habits. Apparently, he would have a better chance of catching a sight of them just before dawn. So he began leaping out of bed at five every morning and hauling his bewildered dogs out onto the trails, his eyes scanning the trees around him, his ears alert to the slightest rustling sound. Once, after a rain, he thought the sound of fat raindrops plopping off the trees into the undergrowth was the padding of coyote paws through the ferns. Another time he followed a set of wolfish tracks down a muddy, skinny trail that led off a larger one into the densest sections of the forest. He tripped over roots, hauled his body over huge cedar deadfalls, soaked his feet in black puddles, scraped his face on thorns. At the end of the path the tracks stopped under the paws of a Siberian Husky which had stopped to urinate against a tree while its master lit a cigarette.
Despite the fact that he heard nothing and saw nothing, Bodey kept hoping, though his earlier zest faded. He stopped getting up at five. The strong leashes he had purchased for the dogs in preparation for the encounter with the coyotes he frequently left behind in the apartment. As the months passed, he thought less of the coyotes and more of his disillusionment with his profession. The only times of day he looked forward to now were his hours with his dogs and the moment he turned off the light to go to sleep. He returned the books on coyotes he had assembled back to the university library and he did not renew them. Everyone who mentioned sighting the coyotes was talking about an experience they had had two or three years before. Bodey reasoned that the pack had moved on, had stolen past the city limits to the mountains where they belonged.
Two days before his planned dramatic resignation, the clocks went ahead one hour because of daylight saving time. Bodey dutifully reset the hands of his wristwatch and alarm clock and went to bed thinking of how he would fling the word STRAW! at those serious men and women scratching their notes about God into their binders of foolscap. He rehearsed the moment again and again, lost consciousness, dreamed about nothing. He got up at six, dressed, and took the dogs on the trails.
It had been raining, but the sky was a light spring grey, not the grim charcoal of the winter months, and the silver light brightened the green around him. He did not feel much like walking and wanted to get it over with, hurrying the dogs along, becoming impatient with them if they dawdled too long in a particular pool or at a particular odour. His pace slowed and his head went down as he thought about his Monday morning lecture. Just to get it over and done with and to get out, never to look back. Why had he ever wanted to study theology in the first place? The lifeless abstractions, the predictable conclusions, the vague and drawn-out analyses of the divine. Perhaps he could get a job at the post office.
An old man with an iron-colored mustache, black beret, brown walking stick, and two large German Shepherds came briskly up the path towards him.
“Morning,” grunted Bodey.
“A big noise in the bush,” the old man said. “I think there are coyotes back in there.”
Bodey grunted again. A tree falling. Birds. Most likely a squirrel or racoon. Bodey passed on with his dogs and his eyes reverted to the dirt and stones just ahead of the toes of his shoes.
The cry startled him. He knew immediately what it was not. it was not a dog. The cry came again, around a swerve in the trail, partly a bark, partly a wail. Bodey stopped to listen. Again it came, louder and closer. The dogs milled about his feet, confused, whining. Then there were two cries, answering each other, high, with a dying twist to them. An instant later and there was a powerful burst of yipping and howling. My God, thought Bodey, my God. He began to run. The dogs ran with him.
Each half-minute or so he stopped running, listened, gauged his distance from the sounds. After a couple of minutes he was right on top of the cries, they were breaking out of the forest off to his left. The leashes were in his pocket. Fumbling with the catches, he snapped them onto the dogs’ collars. They plunged into the woods, stumbling over branches and moss-covered stumps. Far from the trail, Bodey stopped again, his heart bumping against his chest, his breath loud, a pant leg ripped open. A cry shot at him from a clump of pine twenty feet away. He squinted, strained to see, knew it was there, saw only pine needles and thin, grey tree trunks. The dogs hurled themselves forward, almost tearing their leashes free from his tight grip. They ran behind him, leaped forward again, so that the leashes bound themselves around Bodey’s legs and he fell, his mouth filling with dirt and chips of rotten cedar. He untangled himself and got up and spat. The calls came from farther away. They were leaving.
Bodey cried out, tried to imitate the call, yipped, howled, fought to put a quaver in his voice. A cry responded to his. He howled again, his dogs churning up the moss at his feet, twisting him around with their leashes, pawing at the air. Yowls and barks were fired back at Bodey from the woods. The dogs jumped ahead and Bodey fell backwards into a deadfall. The broken end of a branch punctured his shoulder. Another cry, still farther away, a note at the end of it, as if it were asking a question, hanging there in the green and in the polished silver. Bodey struggled up, howled, had both leashes in one fist, began to run deeper into the woods. Wails answered him from behind a distant cedar stump as wide and high as a small hill. He and the dogs blundered towards it. When they reached the monstrous stump, there was nothing, but the dogs sniffed it vigorously and Bodey felt eyes on him, thought he saw a face and ears, no, only another stump, stood as still as he could, praying, squinting, wanting. Nothing. There were no more cries.
He and the dogs found their way out of the forest, got back on one of the main trails. He unfastened the dogs’ leashes and they raced off into the bars of yellow light, the sun wedging its way in-between two clouds. Right away they met a man with a springer spaniel.
“Coyotes,” Bodey panted. “Did you hear the coyotes?”
“No,” the man replied.
“Back there in the woods. They were almost singing to each other.”
The man called to his spaniel: “Come on, Tina, come on, girl. Nice meeting you.”
The man moved along the trail. But Bodey had to talk. He met a woman and a man with their collie. He forced himself to observe the usual amenities. Then he told them he had been right on top of the coyotes, that they had been howling all around him.
“You know,” responded the man, “I heard them two or three years ago. But I haven’t heard them since.”
“Just over there.” Bodey gestured. “Just off that trail. Calling and yipping.”
“Well, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting. I would have thought they’d have moved on by now.”
The three of them listened but heard only the stirring of branches, a robin. The couple smiled at Bodey.
“We’ll push on,” they said. “Nice talking to you.”
Bodey was out early the next morning, and the next, but heard nothing, saw nothing. He walked off the trails, stumbled through the bush with his dogs on leash. He sat quietly near huge stumps and waited. The light would break and fall on his shoulders and head.
He continued to mention what had happened to the other dog owners he met on the trail. Some listened and said nothing. Others changed the subject. Once he spoke about it at a faculty meeting and a colleague of his puffed at his pipe and snorted, “Coyotes? Coyotes in the middle of the third largest city in the country? That’s hard to believe.” Another laughed. “Well, you know, I’ve seen them. I’ve seen them back there. That was years ago. But it’s a lot different when you get a look at them. They’re kind of scrawny creatures, actually.”
Bodey did not leave the university. He did throw out most of his notes and extensively revised all his lectures. He often spoke extemporaneously, sometimes rambled. It was impossible to get rid of him because of his tenure. His classes dwindled. Students claimed they saw him wandering, apparently aimlessly, through the woods with his two dogs and they chuckled. The story even went around that he had been seen walking through the trees and howling like a wolf or coyote.
Yet a nucleus of students became devoted to him, attending all his lectures, asking questions, producing thoughtful and penetrating essays. One young woman came up with an award-winning thesis, astonishing the faculty. How did Bodey’s meanderings and mumbo-jumbo, they demanded, inspire such leanness of prose, such blazing insight, such astounding intimacy with the divine? “As if,” one professor remarked, “the lot of them had gone on a hike with the Almighty.”
Bodey made no comments to anyone, did not involve himself in any of the controversy or faculty intrigue. He went back and forth along obscure trails that curled in and out of the rain forest, his dogs leaping ahead, he striding behind, stopping to listen, pausing to squint through the bristling green, often leaving the trail and struggling to make his own path through branches and swordfern and rot. These explorations became the very stuff of his life, and you would find him sitting on a stump with his hands just under his nose, eyes focused straight ahead, for all the world like something that had grown up out of the rain forest itself, palms together, thinking God knows what.

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