Bears Discover Fire Summary

Terry Bisson

Bears Discover Fire

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Bears Discover Fire Summary

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“Bears Discover Fire,” a science-fiction short story by Terry Bisson, first appeared in the August 1990 issue of Issac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. It won a Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1990 and a Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1991. In 2015, it was adapted into a thesis film by Ben Leonberg, an MFA student at Columbia University.

The narrator of the story is a middle-aged man named Bobby, who is returning from a visit to his mother’s house on a Sunday evening. Bobby’s brother, Wallace, and his nephew, Wallace, Jr., are in the car with him when the vehicle gets a flat tire. Bobby is forced to pull over on a deserted stretch of the highway to fix the flat.

Bobby nearly has the tire changed when he realizes that the flashlight Wallace, Jr. is holding for him is dead. However, there is light coming from two bears who are watching them from the tree line, each of which is holding a burning torch. The bears watch the small group as Wallace finishes changing the tire. As they are driving away, Wallace observes that bears have discovered fire.

A few days later, Bobby goes to visit his mother in the nursing home. She has heard on the news that bears have discovered fire; Bobby tells her that the bears don’t hibernate in the winter anymore because they can keep fires burning in their caves. Bobby’s mother is mildly surprised by the news, but, like most of the characters, does not seem shocked by the bears’ discovery.

Soon after, Wallace Jr. comes to stay with Bobby for a few weeks while his father, a minister, attends a prosperity retreat. Bobby teaches Wallace, Jr. how to do some simple car repairs. Wallace, Jr. says that he wants to go into the woods to see the bears with their fires. News of the bears has been spreading around the country, and bears that have discovered fire have been spotted throughout the southeastern United States. There are a number of scientific theories, but no conclusive evidence about the phenomenon.

Wallace, Jr. expresses a desire to shoot one of the bears with his .22 rifle, and Bobby explains why it would be wrong for them to do that.

A few days later, Bobby agrees to take Wallace, Jr. to see the bears, and the two set out together. They climb down into the thick undergrowth of the highway median where people rarely go. Almost at once, they find bear tracks in the mud, and a short distance away they find the remains of a campfire. Bobby uses some coals to restart the fire, stacks some firewood for the bears, and then continues on his way. Though Bobby feels that they are being watched, they do not see any bears.

Bobby receives a call from the nursing home. At first, he thinks his mother is dead. However, the nurse is actually calling to inform him that his mother has run away and no one can find her. Bobby drives to the nursing home, but can’t find any clues save that his mother has taken her tobacco with her, which he takes as a sign that she doesn’t intend to come back. When he arrives home, Wallace, Jr. reminds him that his mother used to often talk about running away, which Bobby used to dismiss as senile ramblings.

Suddenly, Bobby remembers his mother’s interest in the bears. He leaves the house, crosses the interstate, and enters the median where the bears make their fires. Wallace, Jr. follows him. They find a group of bears sitting around a fire. One is tending it, while the others are simply watching the flames. Bobby’s mother is sitting with them, and she invites Bobby and Wallace, Jr. to join her.

Bobby tries to talk to her, but his mother stops him since it would be rude to talk around the bears that cannot speak. They sit in silence, observing the bears. Bobby notices that only a couple of them know how to tend the fire, but they are happy to let the others sit and share it. The three humans fall asleep sitting by the fire, and during the night, Bobby’s mother passes away.

In the morning, Wallace, who has just returned from his retreat, finds them there. The bears have retreated into the forest. State troopers arrive to take away the mother’s corpse, and several of them scatter the wood from the bears’ fire. After they leave, Bobby goes back to collect fresh wood for the bears.

After the funeral, he returns to fire at night, joining the group of bears again, but he is nervous without his mother there to act as an intermediary. He takes a handful of the berries that the bears like to eat and places them on his mother’s grave as a tribute.