Excerpt from Gentle Author
Later in the day Sun Cheng showed up. Most locals knew him, which included the authorities, who universally liked the Chinese. They never missed an opportunity to exchange good-natured repartee with the man from Manchuria. But not this time, for one glance in his direction told the corporal otherwise. Banter seemed inappropriate under the circumstances, the man facing him seemed at the end of his tether. Officer Sillery, who knew Cheng for years, had never seen him so distraught. He was known throughout the town as Rosy Sun. When others huddled morosely in a fierce snowstorm, Cheng hailed them with a laugh and friendly words. Should people grumble on account of record-breaking cold snaps, he reminded them of the summer, just around the corner to be sure, when the land will be ablaze with profuse vegetation again. Yes, Sun Cheng always had a smile on his face, and friendly words on his lips. Even in oven-like heat, rendered unbearable by swarms of biting insects, he remained sanguine.
But not now, far from it. He bore no resemblance to a harbinger of good tidings. He impressed the corporal as someone in the grip of the horrors.
“What’s up, Sun Cheng, have you seen a ghost?”
“They are not coming down.”
“Who isn’t coming down?” Sillery queried.
“The men on the lookout haven’t come down for two days and nights,” Cheng groaned.
Corporal Sillery, though considerable younger than Cheng, struck up an avuncular tone:
“Easy now, old boy, have a nip or two.”
“No, no time, come quickly, it’s cold.”
Sillery needed not to be reminded of it. One glance at the ice-covered windows told him more than words. Corporal Sillery asked many questions to which few answers were forthcoming. Sun Cheng, reputed to be blessed with a sunny, calm disposition, made little sense; in fact, he was incoherent.
The policeman felt disinclined to walk three miles, in deep snow to boot, on someone’s behest, who appeared to be unnerved. Stirred by Cheng’s insistence, however, he decided to go. Corporal Sillery was a stalwart, judged by any yardstick, but the stubborn cold had sapped his strength. Probing as he might, Cheng could not be drawn out. Beyond the refrain:
“We must hurry, corporal,” he hardly said another word.
What took place at the lonely windswept outpost, remained a riddle now as before. The policeman put on warm clothes, slung a camera around his neck, then bid Cheng to come along. But the fellow didn’t stir; he glanced from the officer to a rifle leaning in the corner.
“The rifle, corporal, you need a rifle,” Sun Cheng urged.
“What for? the bears are gone.”
The man from Manchuria shook his head slowly but emphatically:
“I tell you, Mr Sillery, a gun is needed.”
Corporal Sillery observed the man standing opposite him closer. Although he had encountered him often in the past five years, he barely could place the distraught fellow. Sun Cheng came up to Churchill as an employee of Nanook Resources. His job consisted of maintaining the camp at the Button Bay promontory year round, plus be a factotum to the small crew from June to November. Nanook Resources were engaged by the Canadian Government to document the behaviour of polar bears in their natural habitation.
“It’s a waste of money,” quite a few locals averred.
“A chimerical scheme,” people in the know called it with condescending chuckles.
Understandably so in view of an annoying reality: When the bears come on land in the early summer, they are haunted by visitors from every corner of the globe. These tourists, thrill seekers and whisky swillers, gape at the huge beasts from enclosed vehicles. It surely gives the lie to assertions that they are being observed in their wonted environment. Added the fact that these bears practically live near the local garbage dump, through which they rummage, draws the frame around the whole picture.
“Natural habitat? Don’t make us laugh,” the old-timers say.
Sun Cheng, being light-footed, walked several strides ahead of the policeman. Crossing the Churchill River at the narrowest point where it empties into the Hudson Bay, proved to be a chore; for corporal Sillery in any case. To be sure the narrow passage was frozen solid, yet the heavy blanket of snow, aggravated by drifts, caused the stocky policeman a great deal of trouble. Irritated, no less embarrassed, he bid Cheng, who nimbly skipped ahead, to slow down. Then he admonished:
“This better be worth my while.”
It was. When they arrived at the spot, the corporal refused to trust his eyes. What he saw made him gasp. The ground surrounding the observation tower resembled a battlefield; it looked as if a massacre without quarter had taken place.
“I’ll be hanged,” corporal Sillery exclaimed.
Indeed, a charnel yard’s aspect could not have been more gruesome than the sight that faced him. Blood and gore soaked the tamped down snow, bones were strewn around in all directions. He dared not think the unthinkable. Unconsciously he cast an inquiring glance at Cheng. Amid the sepulchral silence the corporal panted:
“Cheng, what happened?”
The Manchurian wordlessly shrugged his shoulders. Stung to the soul, the policeman pointed at the shambles ahead:
“This – this blood and gore, does it stem from…?”
Sun Cheng, baffled for an instant, sported a knowing grin; he understood.
“No, no, it’s from the bears. They fought with teeth and claws for several days and nights,” he averred.
Corporal Sillery frowned, it made little sense to the man who was stationed east and
west, north and south above the sixtieth parallel. Besides, in all the years he had spent in Churchill he seldom, if ever, saw these huge beasts fight in earnest. No doubt, they cherish mock frays, but lacerating each other to the extend of drawing blood, copiously to boot, judging by appearances, the corporal found unusual.
Out on a promontory were old army barracks, unused for decades, which in part served Nanook Resources as temporary quarters. The observation tower, set back from the bay and the camp, overlooked a wide area. The little structure, sitting on two sturdy piles, resembled a large hunter’s perch, totally enclosed with windows all around. Steel bars, traversing between the piles, functioned as a ladder. The bears’ movement and their behaviour could be monitored from the raised hut.
Officer Sillery approached the lookout with utmost circumspection, contrary to Sun Cheng who showed no inclination to slow down. He turned around several times and beckoned the policeman to make haste. The corporal ignored Cheng’s impatient signals; he proceeded like a hunter who sneaked up on a dangerous prey. While instinctively clasping his rifle, whose safety lock he pushed aside, he tiptoed forward. When he caught up with Cheng, he inquired with a measure of incredulity:
“Did I hear you say there are men up there?”
The curt reply made the officer grimace in annoyance. Cheng’s taciturnity started to nibble at his forbearance. The fellow usually talked like an oracle, but for some reason he was closed as a clam today. While they stood there staring at each other, amid the great white silence and bone-splitting chill, daylight waned rapidly. Corporal Sillery felt the tentacles of apprehension moving up his spine. He never before felt so alone; an ardent desire for company other than Cheng overwhelmed him. Nearby Churchill, across the narrow channel, seemed worlds away, beyond reach in fact. He felt plagued by a predicament. Darkness descended rapidly, thus rendering an investigation difficult, if not impossible. He felt an urge to turn back without making further inquiries. Yet a glance at the smirking Cheng set him right. He could have sworn to see sneering imps in the Manchurian’s eyes. Was he mocking him, trying to lure him into a trap? Hardly, the police officer decided, as he called the Manchurian’s irenic disposition to mind. But, nevertheless, keeping one’s eyes open can do no harm he thought. In any case his intrinsic sense of duty gained the upper hand.