In autumn 2014 I found myself in a pickup truck on an overgrown forest road in northern Primorye with a biologist and a hunter; it was long after dark and we were far from where we needed to be. I knew of a cabin nearby, on the bank of the Maksimovka River, where we could get a few hours of sleep before continuing on. The biologist was behind the wheel and I advised him that we head that way.
It was well past midnight when we opened the cabin door to reveal a cold, single room. The biologist started the wood stove for heat and dinner while the hunter found an empty bucket and headed into the darkness toward the sound of the river for water. The stove resisted an easy light as the firewood was freshly cut and still full of moisture; it hissed in protest and burned grudgingly. Eventually the biologist coaxed a pot of water to boil and began to cook rice. Next, he dripped some oil into a pan and added a sliced onion.
The hunter meanwhile removed an unlabeled tin from his backpack and sunk his knife into its yielding surface. With a ratcheting motion he revealed the can’s contents: cooked meat of some kind, which he said was bear. When the rice was nearly ready, the hunter shook the bear meat into the pan of caramelized onion with a few brisk flicks of his wrist. I asked him where he acquired the meat. He replied that a brown bear had repeatedly raided some apiaries near Ternei, smashing hives and causing a nuisance, and he had been tasked with shooting the offending beast. The biologist then added that he’d examined the bear carcass for trichinosis—the parasitic disease that can cause one’s eyes to bleed—and noted that he’d never seen a more infected animal than that one.
I scrutinized the biologist’s face for traces of humor but saw none. He sensed my consternation and offered reassurance: the meat had been cooked very thoroughly. Yes, he conceded, it was chock full of trichina worm larvae, but they were all certainly now dead and thus harmless. He paused then said that if nothing else, the larvae provided extra protein.
We started to eat. After a few minutes it was clear where the biologist’s thoughts still lay. He put down his fork, looked across the table at the hunter, and marveled again with a clear tenor of pride at the incredible number of worm larvae that single bear had contained. The hunter nodded and grunted agreement but did not look up from his portion of the bear-rice-worm medley.
We emptied our bowls in a protracted silence.