THIS IS A SMALL STORY, inhumanly cruel, and it ends with a terrible howl. It takes place in a dark forest on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the Russian Far East, an inhospitable place known for exploding volcanoes, mosquitoes that swarm like hornets, and, most fearsome, bears. The story itself contains a cosmonaut, more grizzlies than almost anywhere on earth, a criminally amused wife, and the unimaginable horror that befell its narrator, a pitiable soul named Poor Me.
So. Let's get it over with.
I'd come to Kamchatka to connect with the Russian mafia, who had, in their ever-inspiring entrepreneurial spirit, begun stealing entire rivers, netting wild salmon, and shipping illegal caviar back to Moscow. My wife had come along; she was obsessed with catching one of Kamchatka's legendary monster trout, something in the 20-plus-pound range. Which she would do, a bona fide Grade Two worst-case scenario: too much bragging.
We had an idle day before our expedition launched into the distant wild, so we piled into our fixer's pickup and drove an hour north of Petropavlosk, the capital, to a national park at the base of a Mount Fuji–like volcano. The road ended at a cluster of dachas next to a frothing river. The park headquarters, clearly marked on our map, did not exist, and the park itself, on the far side of the river, was what it had always been—a vast, dense spruce-and-birch forest, accessed by a shabby cable-and-plank footbridge.
"Let's cross over and go for a hike," I suggested, and my wife said sure and our fixer, Rinat, said absolutely not. "We will absolutely be eaten by bears," Rinat declared, and settled into the truck to await the eventual recovery of our chewed-upon corpses.
Because this story also contains a six-ounce can of pepper spray stuffed into the left front pocket of my jeans, I felt it was not irrational to be respectfully nonchalant about the bears.
My wife and I clambered across the rickety bridge and followed a primitive road leading deep into the sun-dappled forest. We hiked ahead, alone in the woods, enjoying the solitude, until suddenly a rusty blue Soviet-era van pulled alongside us. The driver, a lean, blond-haired man, wagged his head at us, frowning, and said something in Russian. His wife and teenage son nodded gravely.
"We don't speak Russian," I said, and the man switched to English. "Go back," he said. "Are you crazy? The bears will absolutely eat you. You cannot walk here without big gun, eh?"
"It's OK," I said. "I have pepper spray."
"You have pepper spray?" he snorted. "What for? To make bear cry before he absolutely eat you? Turn back now."
Ten minutes later we came upon them again, parked in a glade, each carrying a carbine and a bucket. Again, a lecture from the driver. Then he sighed and said, OK, as long as you are here, come with us. They were headed up to a meadow to pick berries.
"From this place," the driver said, "you have excellent nice good view of volcano." I asked him where he'd learned English, and he revealed that he was a cosmonaut on vacation with his family.
We followed them through the woods to a raging river spanned by a fallen tree, its wet trunk just wide enough to walk across, slowly, carefully, single file. My wife looked at the whitewater rapids below the log and said she wasn't doing it. The cosmonaut said, "Come on, just up the top of bank you can see volcano." I told my wife I'd be right back. But the opposite bank led to a treeless plateau overgrown with brush so high it was impossible to see anything at all. Just ten more minutes, said the cosmonaut, but I knew I couldn't abandon my defenseless wife, so I headed back down the steep bank.
As soon as I took a couple of steps out onto the log, I lost my balance and instinctively crouched to steady myself. I have a permanent visual image of what happened next—my wife waiting on the bank, her quizzical expression turning to wide-eyed, jaw-dropping astonishment as she watched me, poised above the river, rear up from my crouch in a roar, digging frantically into my pocket, pulling out an object that resembled a smoke grenade, and hurling it into the rapids.
Bending over to regain my balance, I had triggered the can of pepper spray, its aerosol blast locked into an open position aimed directly at my crotch. Imagine a tiny jet engine in your boxer shorts. Imagine that engine throttled up to its white-hot afterburn. How to minister to such a grievous, potentially life-altering injury, how to relieve the suffering? Only the kindest, most selfless nurse would have a clue.
When I finally stopped howling, my wife had trouble keeping a straight face, eyeing my wincing, bowlegged gait back through the forest. Perhaps something about watching a guy self-immolate his nuts brings out the mirth in women. I felt like I had just ridden a rhino bare-assed for 30 miles. My wife kept reminding me that the afterscent of pepper spray, once its stinging properties have faded, is a bear attractant, smelling much like an order from Taco Bell.
That would be one overcooked burrito with a side of huevos fritos.