NEA Literature Fellowships

Max Watman

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2008 - Prose)

From the non-fiction piece "Exit, Pursued by Bear"

Shooting a denning bear is illegal. One may, however, shoot a bear on the run out of its den. And that, we figured, was exactly what was about to happen. We had even been told, with a nudge and a wink, that the discharge of a firearm or a good poke with a stick would usually get a bear moving. It is not in a man's nature to poke a sleeping bear with a stick. Coming upon a bear den, one does not start looking around for sharp twigs, believe me.

We looked at the den for a long moment. We were quiet and still, but buzzing with the excitement and grinning ear to ear. With a shrug, we moved one cautious step closer. We stopped, waiting for the huff or steamed breath, or the low growl. Another step. Closer still. We were standing in the den. There was no bear.

It wasn't a deep den, just a comfy bowl. Boars den in this way. They don't need the shelter for a cub, so they simply curl up and get comfortable. Whatever disappointment I felt didn't last. We both exclaimed: "Look!" There were tracks leaving the den, and they were very fresh. The paw print in the bottom of the track was still moist where the heat of the bear melted the snow.

My heart rushed and my breath came quick. There it was, the fix, the adrenaline and cortisol coursing through my blood, fresh glucose hitting my brain, the brilliant feeling of full focus and expanded attention. This was the real, prehistoric thing. The bear was running from us. Ten feet from the den, a tree had fallen, and the root mass was an exposed tangle of icy roots, covered with snow, taller than me, seven feet at least. The bear had gone right for it - a good first obstacle for his pursuers - and left long scratch marks where he'd uncovered the dirt with his claws and torn the fleshy roots where he'd scrabbled up over it.

We lunged after him.

He was no longer moseying, no longer brushing against laurels or stopping to nibble leaves. He was smashing through the woods. I could imagine him, belly low to the ground, skimming the top of the snow as he stretched out. His shoulders rippling, a four-inch layer of good winter fat hauled at breakneck speed through the close-set woods by the stringy, blood rich, purposeful muscles of a wild animal. He would be snuffling the snow as he ran, sniffing the wind for hints as to what dangers pursued him.

We came to a sapling he had barreled through and smashed into pieces. Bright oval leaves were scattered on the snow, blasted from their shoots. The twig was freshly severed, bits of young, thin bark were strewn across the snow.

The bear did not pause, there were no double steps, no weight shifts. There was no movement but forward movement. There was only progress, escape.

Max Watman is working on a book about small scale distilling, licit and illicit. He is the author of Race Day: A Spot on the Rail with Max Watman. He is the horse racing correspondent for the New York Sun, and has written widely on books, music, food, and drink. For six years, he wrote the semi-annual Fiction Chronicle - an omnibus review - for The New Criterion.

He was raised in the mountains of Virginia and after many collegial adventures earned a BA at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and an MFA from Columbia University. Watman has worked as a cook, a farmer, a silversmith, a tutor, a greenskeeper, and a warehouseman. For a short time he taught girl scouts how to milk goats.

Photo courtesy of the author 

Author's Statement

It's difficult convincing yourself to write a novel with the wolf at the door. Writing is my only income and I am the father of a young boy who needs shoes and tricycles and hot dogs. A break from worry is a tremendous gift, and I am grateful for it. Furthermore, I work alone, and only the worst writer never doubts the merit of what he puts down. This fellowship is an approbation. The NEA delivered not only time and freedom, but also encouragement. I look forward to bringing the novel up to the front of the stove.