The cabins invited solitude, introspection, thoughtfulness, creativity. More than a writing workshop, this was a temporary retreat, somewhere to hide, somewhere to cut themselves off from the all-consuming demands of society and family. Yes, somewhere to retreat…
The location was sandwiched between the Shenandoah and George Washington National Parks. Idyllic quiet for meditation and creation. Trees, birds, weekend cabins… and the occasional bear.
The twenty-five apprentice writers had been warned of the bear’s presence in the area by the workshop’s hosts. Over the years many from the Richmond area, and from further afar, had built weekend cabins in the area. The combination of human presence, albeit occasional, and dense forestation had stimulated the interest of the local wildlife. The latter was not really a problem, as long as the visitors followed the common-sense rules. First and foremost was food. Leftovers they were to humans; an easy treat to Ursus americanus. A calorific catch compared with what was available in nature. No hunting involved. No expensive energy expended. With the long winter on the horizon, it was never too late to start hoarding fat reserves, after all practice makes perfect, and human throwaways always tasted sweet.
One wag from the workshop had even christened it Yoga Bear, given the inclusion of right-brain meditation techniques into the retreat’s program. Fear, respect, for one of nature’s most persistent predators had not been a consideration for most. This was Disneyland with real animals, after all. A chance to commune with successful authors and learn their secrets. The added potential encounter of the Ursus kind, mental images of a porkpie hat-wearing cartoon bear, muzzle streaked with honey and cake crumbs, only served to stimulate ‘little gray cells’.
Day one, the check-in and welcome wine and cheese, went well. Bonhomie triumphed and a gentle atmosphere settled throughout the group. The meet and greet was an interesting sounding board for both the organizers and the attendees. That incontrollable pursuit, that irresistible peccadillo indulged by humans during first-time encounters with their fellows ran rampant, though unvoiced. Labelling. Attaching generic adjectives. Pigeonholing. Classification. Characterization, as the new authors would call it.
The Pasty-faced man, overweight, overloud, became The Bore. Always capitalized in their minds. No one aware of the massive heart attack and the redirected life plan that had brought him here in the hope of removing the stress from his life and sidestepping another cardiac event.
The rake-thin girl with the bird-like stare and fixation on jogging; Birdy. The head-shaven, solidly built, thirty-something guy who spoke so quietly you had to lean in to hear, abrasive personality, not a good mixer; Mr. Clean, because of his passing resemblance to the advertising meme. And so on.
An innocent game… for some.
Day two saw the start of the work schedule.
And the first death.
One of the early-risers, Birdy, found the mangled corpse just off a path used for her daybreak jog. The buzzing flies had alerted her to the partly hidden scene. Back in her native New York, the morning jog in Central Park only offered danger from a twisted ankle, or an errant mugger. Here, some other predator had done a number on a fellow attendee.
The State cops and Park Rangers were mystified. Yoga bear had never exhibited this behaviour before. What had happened, how the aspiring author had met such a violent demise while others slept tranquilly not far away, was a mystery. There had been no screams, yells, sounds of danger from beneath the morning mist trapped in the treetops. Just blood-soaked earth, gore, disfigurement and tracks. Lots of tracks. Claw marks on trees, the ground, and, above all, on the body.
Had the scribbler thought to gain some twisted firsthand insight for his writing by dragging ripe fruit behind him on a string (a Park Ranger’s theory)? Had it merely been a case of wrong time, wrong place, wrong bear, as the cops speculated? Misadventure was the favorite . A lesson to be learned for the remaining retreat participants.
A vote was called, taken; the workshop would continue. The writers, led by the vehement argument of the quietly-spoken stocky guy at the back, opted not to deny themselves their workshop even for the unfortunate death of their co-attendee. They had found an oasis far from the mundane, the incomprehension, the interruptions, the exigent world outside. This attempt, by Yoga, to impose the harsh here-and-now, to drag them from their musings, would not be tolerated!
The bear, the death, the unfortunate incident as it rapidly became called, was fodder now. Some feverishly jotted grisly details in notebooks for future use. Others, more mercenary, went back to their rooms to pen stories of maulings beneath massive trunks, their imaginations supplying the macabre minutiae their notebooks lacked.
Day three, the second in the program, brought another body.
Another attendee, crumpled in death on one of the pathways between the cabins after a headcount showed a missing quill. A chance encounter with Yoga, or merely suspicious rustlings within the treeline? No one alive could know. It was The Bore, generating more interest in death than in life.
The same cops and Rangers turned out. An attendant Medical Examiner spoke of a massive coronary. Evidence in the form of a medical alert card on this, the oldest member of the workshop, attested to a couple of prior visits to the ER earlier this year. Meds, discovered in his cabin, backing up the theory. Something, perhaps happenstance, had led to the demise of another workshop member’s ambitions to use writing as a calming influence in his lifestyle. Unfulfilled expectations, not a phrase for a death certificate.
However, as the State cops remarked, two deaths in as many days was cause for concern. And closer observation. The grizzly may have been responsible for the first of these, and might have contributed to the second. The worry was Yoga targeting people, not typical for the species, but not unheard of if cubs were involved. The Park Rangers stated, as far as they knew, Yoga, the name had stuck, was a male, so a lethal maternal instinct was not in play. They agreed to up their patrols in the area though and suggested the workshop be cancelled.
Sturdy-man again led the protests. Misadventure and chance were logic’s worst enemies. The organizers conferred and decided to continue. Precautions were taken. All outdoor activities were transferred to the safety of the largest cabin, and strolls, jogs, walks and anything external to four walls was discouraged. In a sense, the workshop had become a retreat of a different sort.
Day four. The last, planned full day of the long weekend.
Another absence amongst the aspiring.
All gathered in the largest cabin and awaited the cops and Rangers. The missing woman, her confessed dreams filled with best sellers populating bookshelves for the millions of Young Adult fans she hoped to find, was the youngest of the group. A macabre equilibrium, evidenced when her corpse was found floating in a large uncovered water tank behind a distant cabin. No signs of foul play. No bear claws embedding the body. True, a few scrapes on nearby trees and Yoga was once more an Ursus of Interest.
Drowned. The verdict was quick in coming. Why she had been in the tank, fully clothed, in the first place was left for active imaginations to throw out theories. A refuge perhaps from an unintended encounter with nature. A slip on the slime coating the bottom. A foul footing following fright, fearful of becoming another victim of Yoga’s wrath. Happenstance. Coincidence. Enemy action. Ian Fleming would have a field day with this one. Or was this an Agatha Christie unveiling in the Virginian woodlands. Too much of a cliché for the cops.
The organizers were adamant. The bear had won. The workshop would close its doors after a final group meeting.
“This last session will bring a close to the workshop,” announced Organizer Judith. “We will hold a three-minute silence for the loss of our fellow writers, then wait for the State Troopers to escort us to our respective cabins to retrieve our belongings. Fiona, do you have anything to add?”
She sat down, her place before the gathering assumed by their celebrity author guest .
“I had intended to talk about ‘the Writer’s Journey’ today. How our passage through life, our gathering of experience could fuel our work. It’s strange, looking at what has happened these last few days. Judith and I were remarking how the three who perished had shown such great promise in their writing, as well as that natural stubbornness needed to turn talent into a successful profession. They were possibly the most obvious candidates to get the most from the workshop…”
“…and yet they’re dead! Where does that leave the rest of us?” Harsh words from the stocky man, Mr. Clean, seated in the back row of the large room.
“Jarrod, it is Jarrod, isn’t it? Well, we are all survivors, I guess. What happened… it could have been any of us…”
A deep thudding from the solid wooden door caused all to jump.
Judith rose and peeked through the curtained window before opening the door to the State Troopers.
“Is everyone here?” demanded the senior officer.
A quick glance around the room.
“Yes, why? Has something happened?”
“The Park Rangers have just contacted us. They have found Yoga, the bear. It had been trapped and killed at least a week ago. Its paws had been hacked off…”
Fiona was the first to articulate a conclusion.
“So if Yoga was out of the picture… the deaths…”
“Exactly,” said the senior cop.
* * *
The Writer’s Journey, almost two years later. Ha! he thought. Now that was a cliché if ever there was one. Almost as bad as too many adverbs. Survival of the fittest, that would be more accurate. Cancel the competition, the potential threats. That’s how to be a winner. His new hobby had presented a great challenge. Too many minds, too many words. How could he compete? Easy. His writer’s journey. Remove the opposition as early as he could. Use the creativity of the writer’s mind to plot an outcome, shifting suspicion onto a third party. He had envisioned network news interviews as one of the shocked survivors, a solid launch to his new career. Not that the old one, that of the psychopathic serial killer, had been entirely forgotten. No, it just had a new focus.
The stocky man suppressed a smile.
“And who should I dedicate this to?” He looked up at the expectant face of the owlish woman standing before the desk.
“Janine. Can you put ‘with all my love’?” A giggle.
He morphed a grimace into a grin.
“Ooh. That’s an unusual pen.”
Jarrod looked at the instrument in his hand, his fingertips caressing the bone.
“Yes, it is. I had it specially made. Use it at all my book signings now. It’s something of a good luck charm. It was a bear claw…”