This is not my best story—far from it, in fact—but, for a long time, it was one of my favorites. After years of writing horror, sci-fi, and fantasy (with an occasional try at moody hipster fiction), I wrote this—a southern story. And I loved it. After this novel, I started writing almost exclusively southern lit and, on the rare occasions I still write, it’s usually set in the south and usually about working class characters.
In spite of how much I love(d) this story, I’ve never found a publisher for it. And, looking back at it, I see many flaws in it but I’m going to post it here simply because it is the story that completely changed the way I write.
The White Bear
By Lee Wright
The White Bear was a grizzly. I want to be clear about that. Some folks still claim it was a polar bear that escaped from a zoo or a circus, but the White Bear was seen in the Winnepesaukah Valley long before circuses and such ever toured the Appalachians.
I first saw the White Bear back in June of 1979. I had just turned ten and was being treated to my first squirrel hunting expedition by my father and his friend Lester Kegg. We spent the weekend in a cabin on a little piece of White Bear Mountain that Kegg had inherited from his grandfather. The tiny, two-room house wasn’t much more than a shack really but, at the time, I thought it was damn near Shangri-La. Army surplus cots, secondhand furniture and a fungus-ridden bathroom gave the place a real manly feel—something I was just beginning to appreciate.
We sat at a folding table, shirts off, playing blackjack and poker for real pennies. Dad and Kegg smoked off-brand cigarettes and drank PBR. I had a Dr. Pepper and a bag of chips.
Those nights at the cabin were just about the only time you could see my dad with his shirt off. He wasn’t proud of his tattoos (“Scars of a misspent youth,” he called them) and Mom hated them so, even at home, he tended to wear sleeves. But, up at the cabin, things were different. Besides, Kegg had at least twice as many tattoos as Dad.
Earlier in the evening, just before dinner, I had emulated their tattoos with crude blue Bic artwork. Dad and Kegg had a good laugh until they noticed that I had copied Dad’s burning cross and was working on a copy of Kegg’s man hanging from a tree. Kegg and Dad exchanged an odd look then Dad made me wash off the artwork in the cold water of the bathroom sink. “Your mother’ll shit if she sees that,” Kegg said.
My arms were freshly scrubbed before the burgers came off the charcoal grill and the azure sky had faded to late summer bronze by the time I’d lost the last of my pennies to Kegg’s queen-high flush. I couldn’t talk dad into staking me to another hand so I grabbed another bottle of Dr. Pepper from the fridge, headed to the couch, and tuned in the Braves game on the old AM transistor radio Kegg kept on the old, battered footlocker that served as a coffee table.
The Braves were at Candlestick that night so the game started late and, true to form, so did the Braves. Unexcited by Atlanta’s lackluster performance, by the fifth inning, I was stretched out on the old orange and green sofa with a Spider-Man comic book rising and falling gently on my bare chest.
And then I was walking through the woods. The full moon was dim, shrouded by clouds, but the terrain was familiar. The three of us had covered the same piece of ground that very afternoon while hunting squirrels, Kegg and Dad with their Springfield rifles, me with my Daisy BB gun. Bushes rustled behind me and I spun toward the sound. A dark, vaguely humanoid mass that smelled like wet, rotting carpet towered above me. Silhouetted against the gauzy full moon, it emitted a low rumbling growl—a sound like a mineshaft cave-in as heard from the surface. I took a step backward but a heavy white arm arced through the dank air and swept me off my feet. I landed hard on my back in a thicket of thorns several feet away. I could smell blackberries crushed by my fall. I tried to crawl away but the thorns had a death grip on my jeans and tee shirt. The thing’s shadow moved over me and I heard that rumbling growl again, louder this time. A scream rattled in my throat but wouldn’t come out. The bear moved in for the kill. With all my might, I tore away from the thorns as the thing reached for me.
I lurched off the sofa and choked back a scream. The lights in the room were on. That meant Dad and Kegg were still awake and I was suddenly embarrassed by my childish reaction to the nightmare.
I looked toward the card table. Dad sat stiffly in his chair, his expression as grim as the time he told mom the factory had cut back on its employees and he had been laid off. Then I saw Kegg. He stood just across the coffee table from me. His hand was on the volume knob and no sound came from the speaker.
Kegg looked over his shoulder. The large box fan that sat on the windowsill spun steadily behind him, the blades blurred into a solid, dirty, metal circle. He turned back toward Dad, and jerked his head toward the fan. Dad nodded, got up, went over and flipped the switch to turn it off. The motor’s whine faded to a growl then to a sputtering whimper. It took nearly a full minute for the rusted metal blades to wind down. The oppressive heat slipped through the windows and under the door to cover us like a shroud.
I opened my mouth to ask a question but Dad put his index finger to his lips.
Kegg crossed the room to the fireplace where the two Springfields and my Daisy sat propped against the wall. But, instead of getting the rifles, he reached above the mantle and gently took down the big .10 gauge Remington. When he jacked the first round into the chamber, I winced.
Kegg looked at my dad. Dad shrugged then nodded once. Kegg took a deep breath and slowly opened the front door. He raised the shotgun, swept the darkness beyond then stepped out onto the sagging front porch, and looked both ways.
“Close the door, Carl,” he said.
Dad closed the door and came to stand beside me. Neither of us spoke. I heard Kegg’s footsteps on the porch then there was only the sound of the cicadas.
When Kegg finally fired his gun, I gasped—maybe even yelped—and very nearly pissed myself. I held my breath until we heard the sound of human feet on the porch again.
Dad left my side and opened the door. Kegg stood framed against a field of velvety black, his broad, shirtless back to us. Walking backward, gun still pointed forward, he entered the room. Dad closed and bolted the door.
“You get it?” I asked, not knowing what it was.
“I was just firin’ into the air, trying to scare it off,” Kegg said softly as he put the shotgun back in its rack above the mantle. “If the stories I’ve heard are true, that thing can’t be killed.”
“If the stories are true,” Dad said, his voice just as low as Kegg’s, “I don’t think it can be scared either.”
“What was it?” I was whispering, my voice dry and cracked, but the sound seemed loud in the still air.
Kegg looked at my dad and started to answer but Dad said, “Bear. Grizzly, probably, judging from the sound.”
I sighed, relieved. The woods up there were full of bears. Most people in Winnepesaukah County considered bears more of a nuisance than a threat. In my short life I’d probably already seen a half dozen or so in the wild—though most of them had been the smaller black bears, not grizzlies. But, if it was just a bear, why had Dad and Kegg looked so worried? I glanced down at the dirty rug beneath Kegg’s feet. It had once been a black bear of considerable size. Now it looked as if it had come out on the wrong end of an encounter with a cartoon steamroller. Only its head and paws retained their original size. “A bear like that one?” I asked.
Kegg laughed. My dad shook his head and smiled.
“No. Not like that one, Bud,” Kegg said. “Not like any bear you’ve ever seen before in your life. Or are likely to see, for that matter.”
Kegg turned the fan back on and took another beer from the fridge. The air began to stir but it would be a good while before the temperature dropped from stifling to simply uncomfortable.
“You ever hear of Chuck, the White Bear?” Kegg asked.
I thought about it for a moment. “Is he the one this mountain is named after?”
“His name’s Chuck?”
“It’s actually some long-ass Cherokee name,” Kegg explained. “Chuckatwokatall or Chuckatokeekee or somethin’ like that but people round here ain’t so good with Indian names so we mostly just call him Chuck. They say his Indian name means Ghost Bear.”
“Kegg,” Dad said tilting his head to the right and eyeing his friend sternly, “This ain’t a story for a little boy.”
“But I’m not a little boy!” I protested. “You said so yourself when you told mom you was taking me squirrel hunting!”
Kegg smiled at my dad. “Kid’s got you there, Carl,” he said.
Dad shook his head. “I don’t know. Story like that’s liable to give him nightmares. His mamma’d kill me if I get him all screwed up in the head before he even gets to junior high.” He paused and scratched behind his right ear. “But, if he really wants to hear it…” Dad waved a brawny, callused hand dismissively. “I’ll let you deal with his mother when he wakes up crying in the middle of the night.”
Kegg nodded. “No problem,” he said, “since I’ll be in bed with her, anyhow.” He finished the sentence with a broad, gap-toothed smile.
Dad glared at Kegg and cut his eyes sharply to me then back to Kegg. Kegg quickly and sincerely told Dad he was sorry while I tried hard to pretend I didn’t understand the joke.
Kegg suppressed a smile. “So, I guess you want me to go on and tell it then?”
Dad nodded. “I’ll just correct your mistakes.”
“If I wanted my mistakes corrected,” Kegg said sourly, “I’d a brought Peggy.”
Kegg sat on the footlocker. “Let’s see…” He scratched his stubble covered chin with a dirty fingernail and looked upward, squinting as if cue cards were affixed to the ceiling.
“It all started back in the old days,” he said at last, “back when there weren’t no one but Cherokee Indians here in the Winnepesaukah Valley.”
I sat on the sofa, pulled one of the misshapen cushions over me, and clutched it firmly. Kegg didn’t seem to notice. There was a soft thumping ripple as dad shuffled the cards behind me. I glanced quickly back at him. He was dealing a hand of Solitaire. Along with reading the sports page and smoking cigarettes, playing Solitaire was one of Dad’s great hobbies.
“Like I said, the Indians had a name for him that most white folks don’t remember or, more likely, ain’t allowed to remember on account o’ Ol’ Chief Settin’ Sun’s Curse but, that’s another story for another day.”
He stopped, coughed and continued. “They called Ol’ Chuck the Ghost Bear because Indian legend had it that he couldn’t be killed. Either he was really, really old or he was a ghost. I s’pect he was just old but you know Indians’ll believe most anything.”
I didn’t know that—I didn’t even know any Indians—but I nodded anyway.
“Anyway, Chuck was ‘bout as old as the Winnepesaukah Valley itself, I reckon. They say that, when the Cherokee’s ancestors first tried to settle this land a thousand years ago, the bear killed all of ‘em. It took a very old and very wise medicine man to work a deal with the spirits.”
Kegg fished cigarette out of its pack and lit it with a match he struck on his thumbnail. I watched with envy while rubbing the fading blister on my own thumb—a painful reminder of a not-quite-failed experiment with that same trick.
Kegg blew smoke at the ceiling and continued. “The medicine man’s deal with the Spirits of the Valley said that two times as year…”
He paused and scratched his head. He looked at my dad and asked. “Carl, what do you call it when the days are real long?”
“Work,” Dad replied.
“No, I mean, in the summer, on the longest day and in the winter on the longest night. There’s a name for that.”
“Solstice!” I blurted proudly. “You’re talking about the summer solstice and winter solstice.”
I looked back at dad. He lifted his head from his cards, took the cigarette from his mouth and smiled at me. He nodded slightly and I nodded back.
“Yeah,” Kegg said. “The summer and winter solstices.”
“Anyhow, each year on the summer and winter solstices, the Indians had to send one person out to a special holy place. In the winter they sent a young brave and, in the summer, they sent a virgin squaw. There was an altar, just above what we now call Duggan’s Bluff.” Kegg stopped and looked at me. “You know where that is, right?”
I nodded and pointed in what I thought to be the general direction of the road and said, “Yeah. It’s above the lake. It’s where the old fort is. Dad’s taken me there a lot. It’s a really neat place.”
“I reckon it was a pretty neat place back then, too,” Kegg said. “I mean, picture yourself standin’ up there lookin’ down at the Valley and seeing nothing but trees, grass, water and teepees.”
“Cherokees didn’t live in teepees,” I said. “They build log cabins like the Pilgrims.”
Kegg looked at my dad. I looked at my dad. Dad nodded. Kegg shrugged and continued.
“You gotta picture it,” he implored. “Close your eyes and imagine yourself up there, lookin’ down at the valley, the way it must have looked then before civilization dirtied it all up.”
My eyes were frozen wide open yet I could picture it. In my mind’s eye, I clearly saw the peaceful and magnificent Winnepesaukah Valley stretched out half a mile below me, unspoiled by the White Man. I heard a hawk circling frighteningly close in the deep blue sky. I could almost smell the scent of history carried on the ancient winds that swirled around the bluff.
“They’d take them up there and have a big party with a lot of dancin’, singin’, drinkin’ and smokin’ of the peace pipe,” Kegg said. “Then, after that was all done, they’d all go back down to their teepees—,” Kegg caught the mistake and quickly corrected himself, “I mean log cabins.”
I smiled and nodded.
“I’m learnin’,” he said.
Dad grinned around his cigarette.
“Anyway,” Kegg continued, “They’d all go back down to their homes in the valley, around the edge of the lake ‘cept for the one that was chosen to face the White Bear.”
He paused and sat on the old wooden crate that served as a coffee table.
“So, now, it’s the middle of the night and this Indian boy or Indian girl—not much older than you are now—is up there, all alone, at the top of Duggan’s Bluff. And then, what they had to do was go up on this altar and take this horn and blow on it, like this.” Kegg put his hands to his mouth and made a loud, bellowing sound that would have probably attracted a bull moose had there been any in that part of the country.
I laughed and he made the sound again.
“You know what the horn was for, Bud?” Kegg asked.
“To call the White Bear?”
Kegg nodded solemnly. “That’s right. It was to call Chuck.”
“You know,” Dad said, “the story’d be a might scarier if you didn’t keep callin’ him Chuck. How scary can anything named Chuck be?”
“Damnit, Carl, you’re screwin’ up the natural flow of my story,” Kegg said testily. “A story’s gotta have a flow to it. Don’t you watch TV?”
“Just get on with it,” Dad said. He waited a second then added, “And stop callin’ him Chuck, for Christ’s sake.”
Kegg nodded, shrugged and turned back to me, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “So now the horn had been blown and the bear was comin’. The Indian had to sit on the altar and wait… And wait… And wait.” Kegg paused for effect then said, his voice almost a whisper, “And then…” Another long pause. “There would be a rustling in the trees.”
I inhaled sharply, “The White Bear?”
Kegg nodded. His eyes were locked on mine. “The White Bear.”
I realized I had been holding my breath so I exhaled and looked deep into Kegg’s dark eyes. That’s where the story was now: In his eyes.
“You can imagine the terror of the poor Indian stuck up there on the bluff with the White Bear comin’ through the bushes toward him.”
Imagine the terror? I could feel the terror! My heart was pounding, my mouth was dry and my palms were sweaty. I was on the bluff, standing there alone in the dead of winter waiting for a bear with a name no White Man could pronounce.
“The bear never came right out, though,” Kegg said. “‘Cause Ol’ Chuck, he liked to make ‘em wait. But, eventually, just when the young Indian was just startin’ to think that, maybe he wasn’t to the bear’s likin’, here he came.” Keg stood up, the cigarette clamped between his teeth. His arms were extended and he started to growl.
My stomach tightened and the hairs on the back of my neck snapped to attention. Even my feet tensed, waiting for the final word from the brain that the fleeing should commence.
Kegg growled again.
“He stands at least fifteen foot tall and his eyes are as red as coals in a campfire,” Kegg said, his voice still a throaty growl, “and there was nowhere the poor Indian could run. Nowhere. Nothin’ but thick woods and the White Bear in front of ‘im and nothin’ but a suicide drop into the lake behind ‘im.”
There was a long moment of silence, then Kegg sat down and puffed on his cigarette. I think he might have been smiling, though, if he was, it was not a smile of happiness or humor.
“So the White Bear ate the Indians?” I asked, my voice timid, shaking a little.
Kegg shrugged. “Who knows? He definitely drug them off some’rs, but nobody to this day knows where. We only know they never came back and no trace of them was ever found. No blood, no bones, nothing.”
I swallowed hard.
As an afterthought, Kegg added, “Twisted Foot, that fat ol’ squaw that used to have the Indian knickknack store down at Mudpeak told me that her mamma told her that after the Indians had been sacrificed, their ghosts would walk the mountains at night with the White Bear to keep all non-Cherokees out of the valley while the Winnepesaukah tribe slept.”
“But they did get in,” I said. “Didn’t they? When Colonel Duggan kicked Chief Setting Sun’s butt?”
I looked at my dad. He was frowning very slightly and I didn’t think it had anything to do with the game of solitaire. Later, as I grew older, wiser and more cynical, I would discover that much (if not most) of what I had been taught in school about the county’s history was rife with inaccuracies, prejudices and outright fabrications. I suspect that Dad, being something of a history buff, already knew that, but he was never one to openly challenge conventional wisdom, even when he knew the conventional wisdom was foolishly inaccurate.
Kegg nodded. “Yeah, kid. They did. That’s part of the story, too.”
He lit another cigarette. “Chief Settin’ Sun was a great warrior. He and his ancestors had kept the White Man out of the Winnepesaukah Valley for a thousand years. Then, ‘round about 1839, Colonel Douglas Duggan led an army of White Men into the Valley. Duggan’s job was to round up all the Indians who refused to quietly and politely go west to live with the others on reservations.”
“You mean on the Trail of Tears,” I said.
He nodded again. “That’s a good name for it, too. And everyone knew it. See, these Indians, the Cherokees, were smarter than most White Men allowed.”
I knew, from years of listening to southerners speak, that allowed usually meant thought rather than the more common permitted; however, looking back on it, I think Kegg might have actually meant both.
“So the ones who had escaped the great Indian roundup gathered here in the Winnepesaukah Valley,” he continued. “Under the leadership of Ol’ Chief Settin’ Sun, they were prepared to defend the valley—to the death if necessary.”
He paused for a long moment then asked, “You know what happened then?”
“Colonel Duggan led his Calvary and a thousand soldiers through the pass into the Valley and fought a great battle,” I said. “When it was over, all the Indians that survived were sent west to live on the reservations.”
“That what they told you in school?” Kegg asked. “They told you there were survivors?”
Kegg sighed heavily. “Yeah, I guess they wouldn’t wanna tell you the truth. Might make our forefathers look bad.”
He took a long drag off his cigarette then held it in front of him and watched the smoke curling up from the ash-laden tip.
“I’m gonna tell you all about it,” he said. “All Americans deserve to know the truth, I think.”
I nodded. That seemed like a good philosophy.
“There weren’t any Indian survivors of that battle,” Kegg said, his voice strangely broken and somewhat quieter. “Duggan had his men kill ‘em all. Every last one. And they didn’t just kill the warriors neither. They killed women and children and old people. And, with many of the women, they…”
He looked over at my dad again, almost nervously this time. Dad was eyeing him strongly. Dad shook his head very slightly and Kegg nodded almost imperceptibly in response.
“They did some other really bad things…” He paused again then added. “To the women I mean.”
I wanted to ask Kegg exactly what he meant by that, but I understood from Dad’s warning look that it was one of those horrible things little boys didn’t need to hear, because it just might make them grow up wanting to do it themselves.
“Anyway,” Kegg said, forcing a more even tone into his voice, “Duggan and his soldiers did some very bad things to the Indians. Things no one should ever be proud of. There was simply no reason to do what they did. It was just meanness I reckon. Or maybe they was just young and foolish and followin’ someone they believed in. I don’t know.”
I hated sermons, especially uninvited ones that occurred in the middle of a story. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and promised myself then and there that, if ever had to tell a story, I’d stick to the point and let the listener figure out for himself what was right and wrong.
Kegg saw me fidget and he got the hint.
He continued. “Duggan’s men slaughtered all of the Indians in the Valley. Those that survived the first wave, climbed this very mountain to the place we now call Duggan’s Bluff.”
He took a comforting drag on his cigarette. “That bluff was supposedly the holiest of all places to the Cherokees in the valley. It was not only where they made their sacrifices to the White Bear, it was also where there they had their funeral services, war councils and stuff like that. Up in the hills behind it, is where they buried their dead.” He smiled. “Hell, this very house is probably sittin’ on an old Indian burial mound right now.”
Kegg finished his cigarette and crushed it out in the ash tray. “So, when Duggan and his men were sure nobody was left alive in the valley, they climbed the mountain and went to Duggan’s Bluff.”
He took another cigarette from the pack and tapped it against his open palm a few times. After it was lit, he said, “But all they found up there was a bunch of dead Indians. Ol’ Chief Settin’ Sun had made them all commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the White Man. Only the Ol’ Chief himself was left. He stood on a large stump at the edge of the bluff, his back to Duggan and the advancin’ troops, his right hand stretched out ahead of him, to the west, toward the settin’ sun he was named after.”
Kegg stood and acted out the scene, the old footlocker taking the place of the stump. “And they say he was chantin’ some Indian mumbo jumbo voodoo stuff.” Kegg began to chant, making up vowel heavy nonsense that sounded like Indians in the movies.
I giggled a bit.
Kegg stopped chanting, lowered his arms and looked down at me with a very serious expression. “Colonel Duggan and his men thought it was funny, too. They started laughin’. They didn’t know it was an Indian voodoo curse he was puttin’ on ‘em and on all their descendants for a thousand seasons.”
Kegg stepped down off the table and sat on the arm of his chair. “Colonel Duggan raised his pistol to fire. I s’pect he lined up on the back of the Chief’s head.” Kegg imitated Duggan with his index finger. He even closed one eye as he sighted on his imaginary target. “But, before he could fire, Ol’ Chief Settin’ Sun jumped right off that stump and dove into the lake, nearly half a mile below.”
My eyes were wide, my mouth was open. I knew this part of the story but I had never heard it told with such passion before.
“Some of Duggan’s soldiers that were still down in the valley said that, when Ol’ Settin’ Sun hit, he didn’t even make a splash or nary a ripple. He just cut right through the water like a…” Kegg paused and looked at my dad. Dad shrugged. Kegg shrugged and turned back to me with a slightly sheepish grin. “Anyway, the thing is, he didn’t make a splash.”
I believed him. Somehow, it seemed possible.
Kegg sank back into the chair and puffed on his cigarette. “Now everybody knows a fall like that’ll kill a man sure as shootin’, but there are those who say that Ol’ Chief Settin’ Sun ain’t really dead.”
“Then what happened to him?” I asked.
“The same thing that happened to the Indians that were sacrificed to the White Bear,” Kegg replied.
“You mean he became a ghost to help Chuck keep White Men out of the Valley?”
Kegg tilted his head to one side and wrinkled his heavily creased face. “Not exactly.”
He took another long drag on his cigarette then leaned toward me and asked, “You know what the last thing was Ol’ Chief Settin’ Sun said before he jumped off that stump into the lake? The one word he yelled at the top of lungs just before he dove to his death?”
I did know that. Everyone knew that. “Winnepesaukah.”
Kegg nodded. “Winnepesaukah. Know what that means?”
I shook my head.
“That’s just it,” Kegg said. “Nobody alive today does. Least not no White Man.”
He leaned back in his chair and took the cigarette from his mouth. He studied the tip for a moment then said. “Some people say it was a curse. Some people say it was a prayer. Some people say it didn’t mean nothin’.” He put the cigarette back between his lips. “Whatever the word meant, it was remembered and, by-and-by, it came to be the name the White Man used for the Valley itself.”
I waited for more but Kegg said nothing for a long while. He simply smoked and stared at the ceiling, lost in thought. Finally, he added, “Accordin’ to the stories I’ve heard, Ol’ Chief Settin’ Sun gathered up all the other Indian ghosts and they all became one with Chuck. They went inside the soul of the White Bear so he would never die and never forget what happened to the Indians in his Valley.” Kegg let the sentence trail off into ominous silence.
“Accordin’ to the Indians, that’s why he’s still out there,” Kegg said at last. “That’s why he can’t be killed. That’s why he still hates White People.”
“But that was a long time ago,” I said. “None of those White People are still alive. Why would he hate us? What did we ever do to him?”
Kegg leaned back and shrugged. “That’s just the way things are, Bud.”
I looked at dad. He frowned and nodded.
“Sometimes,” Kegg said, “you got to pay for things you didn’t do.”
“Is that one of those things I’ll understand when I’m older?” I asked Kegg.
He shook his head. “Son, I hope you never understand that.”
I was thinking about this when Kegg announced, “I gotta take a dump,” effectively dissipating whatever magic remained in the room.
When Kegg was in the bathroom, out of earshot, I asked Dad, “Do you believe what Mr. Kegg just told me? All that stuff about Chuck being a ghost.”
Dad crushed out his cigarette on the card table and shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter, son. There’s stories and there’s facts. Sometimes, you get one with the other sometimes they don’t never come together at all. The thing to remember is that, some stories are more important than facts. Either one can be a weapon or a tool. It’s what you do with them that matters.”
Sometime later that night, I awoke in darkness with an uncomfortably full bladder. From the other room, I could hear the distinct, roaring snorts that were the hallmarks of my father in a state of deep sleep. The huge fan whirred steadily and, beyond its metallic barrier, I could hear the songs of White Bear Mountain’s night creatures. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, the way my dad had taught me, then I slipped off the couch, careful not to trip over the rough edged coffee table, and made my way toward the bathroom, in the corner near the fan.
I had drunk more than my fair share of Dr. Peppers that evening so I was in for a fairly long piss. As I stood before the toilet, swaying slightly the way you will when only instinct is keeping you awake and upright, I looked up to the narrow window above the tank. The window was a thin rectangle with grimy glass and no screen. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I was not alone.
Beyond the old glass, a pair of fiery red eyes stared at me from a stationary bank of fog that was very nearly invisible in the thick, moon-cast shadows of the drooping eaves.
I took two steps backward not caring that the diminishing yellow stream’s trajectory was altered for the worse. As warm liquid splashed against my bare feet, I held my breath and tried to force my eyes to close but they would not respond. The thing growled, rumbling, low and ominous. The ground seemed to tremble beneath me as the sound magnified, swelling to encompass the whole of the available air in the tiny room. I opened my mouth but my throat clenched tight, stifling the scream. The red eyes blinked then raced upward and the muzzle was in the window. Fangs the size of hunting knives flashed in the narrow rectangle. Then there was only sky. The growl faded and bushes rattled as the beast receded into the night from which he had come.
I stood there for a long moment, paralyzed with fear yet exploding with curiosity. I had seen what few White Men had seen and lived to tell about. It took some time for the adrenaline rush to subside. When it did, I sat on the toilet, my underwear around my trembling knees. I wanted to get up and follow the bear into the black night, to find the secret lair with the dusty bones of countless young men and women, but I was just a boy and boys must sleep. So, still sitting on the toilet, I slept.
Thunder woke me. Standing quickly, I pulled up my shorts and turned to look at the window above me. Rain swept under the shallow eaves to tap arhythmically against the glass.
Back on the sofa, I lay staring at the nearest window, watching the lightning and waiting for the return of the creature that would surely kill me to repay an ancient debt. But, by dawn, he had not returned so I slept and, being an ordinary boy, dreamt of ordinary bears and ordinary men.
When I related this encounter to my friends the following week, the story was received with much awe and admiration; however, in high school, my girlfriend, Jessica, laughed at the tale. She declared it a dream. I had simply fallen asleep in the bathroom, Karin explained, and dreamt the whole terrifying encounter because of the ideas planted in my head by Kegg. The growl was the rumble of thunder in the valley and the eyes were lightning, some smaller, more harmless creature or, worse yet, only a product of my eternally overactive imagination.
After that, I never told the story again until now, even though I saw the bear on at least five separate occasions. Sure, each sighting was little more than a flash of white in the dark of the forest but I knew what he was and what he wanted. And I knew that I was safe.
With more than three decades between that first encounter and the present, I’ve begun to suspect that, maybe, the legend of the White Bear was simply a ghost story told by old men to frighten, to entertain, or even to educate a little boy. But I guess that doesn’t really matter. Whether fact or fiction, if I am to truthfully relate who I am and where I came from, then this story must be told along with all the others that form the mosaic of my life. So I tell you now what I did not understand then: One hot summer night when I was a kid, for a moment, I looked into the eyes of the White Bear of Winnepesaukah County, Georgia and I saw his soul. I saw Old Chief Setting Sun and all the other Cherokees imprisoned there. I saw the hate, the fear and the passion. I waded at the edge of an ancient, bottomless pool and I did not drown. I wrestled with the past and, being young, I won.
© 2012 Lee Wright
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