Issue 3:2 | Fiction | Dale Neal
“Yonaguska, they’re coming.”
I shake off my slumber in the shade
whenever I hear George Teesataskie growl my name. The man always gives me a
growl when he spies his white customers coming to the curve where my pen is
set. They are slowing, seeing the signs that Teesataskie has planted as bait
along the black path, debating whether it really is the LAST CHANCE to see the
SILVER BEAR of the SMOKIES. Teesataskie says the whites drive their metal
houses in vast herds to these mountains in summer to see full-blood Indians
like himself and wild bears like me.
myself from the bed of pine boughs, shaking the fine needles from my fur in
anticipation of these gawky creatures.
house walks off the black path, and a pair of little white ones bound out of
the opening in its ribs. Chattering like silly squirrels, they sport feathers
and red smears over their flat faces. I am glad that Teesataskie placed bars on
the pen to keep these unpredictable creatures at a safe distance. Still, the
little ones try to prod my sides with tiny spears that tickle. I have learned
to enjoy this and the other antics. I rise and clap my paws in delight when the
taller ones make lightning flashes from the small boxes they hold to their
do I hold my nose against the stench of their hairless bodies, covered with the
hides they shed at will. I can woof and shake my fur, noting how intelligently
they mimic me. The little ones even try to growl in my tongue, but are soon
chattering again in their birdlike voices.
Teesataskie a handful of the green leaves and polished round stones they value
so highly. My sides hurt from all my woofing. Even Teesataskie can hardly
contain himself as the metal house walks away on its round legs.
what I mean, Yonaguska,” he growls. “Aren’t the whites the funniest creatures
you’ve ever seen?”
a man shit in his house?” I roar out the joke we share between us and roll on
my back across the pine boughs in my pen.
I dream of the high places, of a tree tall as a mountain, streaming honey like a waterfall, when a jangle of bells interrupts my nap. I open one eye, cock one ear.
Cigarstore,” Teesataskie mutters in his own tongue.
called Bob Bushyhead walks up the path in the chief’s costume he parades in
down at his canvas teepee. His brown paunch rolls out of his beaded vest and
hangs over his leather loincloth. Fringed leggings cover his bowed limbs.
Turkey feathers dyed to look like eagle droop from the back of his head. He
waddles along like a drowned bird.
George. Thought I take a look at this Silver Bear of yours.”
Teesataskie nods, but crosses his arms warily.
“Where’d you trap him? Not giving away your secrets, eh George?”
Bushyhead rattles my pen, pressing his swarthy faces between the bars. “Why he must be what six, seven foot snout to ass. A real brute when he rears up. Come on you sumbitch, stand up!”
He circles, the bells jangling on his skinny ankles, feathers flapping down his back. “Too tough to eat, but he’d make a good rug for sale down at the trading post. What you say, George? I’ll help you skin em out and split it with you.”
I close my
eyes, but keep my ears perked. Much of their language still escapes me after
all my time with Teesataskie, but I can smell lies and see what their words
speaks not a word, but I can smell the anger sweating on his chest.
”Think about it, George, just think about it,” speaks Bushyhead. “Tourist season ain’t forever, but you still got to feed your Silver Bear this winter.” He jangles away.
I open my eyes and watch Teesataskie shaking Bushyhead’s sly words from his ears, like pesky gnats. “Shithead,” he says.
This business of language is strange. I never thought I would talk with a two-legged man or even care to until the winter past when I could not sleep.
The wind is sharp in winter, drifting the snow high against the tree trunks on the ridge, yet my eyes simply will not close for the dreaming season. After a time tossing, I leave my den and go for a walk, trying to move drowsy blood from my belly back into my legs again.
Halfway down the ridge, I cross the trail made by a two-legs, the telltale shuffle breaking the snowfall’s crust. A strong odor lingers in the air, stinging my nose, the unmistakable spoor of a man passing, but there is no hint of the fear a man carries into the woods when he comes with a weapon to kill. This man smells different.
I sniff the odor again, trying to sense its essence, its meaning. I glance over my shoulder toward the warmth of my den, but I am not there, dreaming this dream. The blood is awake now, running hard in my legs. Overhead, a spruce bough tosses its blanket of snow and falls back asleep. Perhaps it is the wind who sets my path for me. I head downwind to satisfy a curiosity as sharp as any hunger.
I track the broken snow down the slope to the stream that lives in the cove. Soon I spy the man crouched on an outcropping of rock by the water, shivering as he tries to drink from his cupped hands from a deep pool. His loose hide hangs torn and baggy about his thin frame. His face and limbs are raked with red scratches from his struggles through thickets and brambles. A man is evidently ignorant of the soft words that ask permission of thorns to pass unharmed. Still he is lucky. Winter in the high places is not easily forgiving of those without such knowledge.
Much to my
surprise, this man squeaks like a frightened rabbit when at last he sees my
reflection in the water, peering over his shoulder. But he lacks the rabbit’s
agility as he lurches away and falls headlong into the water.
I sit back
on my haunches, waiting to learn whether a man swims or drowns in water. I
watch his head go under, then bob up to the surface. Spitting water, he makes a
gurgling sound, much like my very name. “Yonaguska,” I believe he says.
So against all that is natural for men and bears, I lift him to safety, the human who called my name.
tremble and his tongue slurs when I drag him to my den, holding his neck
between my teeth, not so tenderly as the bobcat carrying her young, but as
eager as the magpie with a shiny trinket to feather his nest. This man has
given me the first word of a new tongue, and I am greedy to hear more.
Teesataskie that season, sharing the warmth of my den, as I growl into his pink
ear the secret words of my tribe.
is simple and low. I speak like the thunder rumbling in the distant hills in
winter that warns of deep snows within ten days. At night, I walk by the stream
who lives in the cove and speak to the water when I am hungry. In its white
rush over the broken rocks, the water will pause to tell me where my feast
awaits me. I wade the cold current until I come to the pool where the trout
float in the moonlight. I raise the finned sleepers from their bed and eat.
Teesataskie grows stronger in his thin body and learns to growl in my tongue.
and I will woof and clap over the story of how I found him. We don’t know which
of us was the more frightened or surprised. He admits he first thought I was a
vision brought on by the bottle he’d drank up before he wandering into my
He begins to tell me many strange things about his kind. A man stands no taller than a bear, yet he is not content to pass quietly through the forest. He must shave the trees from the mountains, to make the land as naked as his hide. He trips out the innards of the hills, leaving the bones scattered about, looking for what. Teesataskie says the white variety are stranger than most two-legs. He believes they are pursued by an awful creature called Time, who they must always rush to save or beat, he is never sure which. Like the wind that blows down their black paths, Teesastaskie says Time blows just ahead or behind every white man he’s ever met. And in its honor, they wear ornaments on their skinny wrists to reassure them when is now.
If I am
curious, perhaps I should see for myself, Teesataskie tells me. He can build me
an observation post, a place, where I can safely view the habits of these
“Come back with me, Yonaguska,” he growls softly into my ear. “I will show you such wonders.”
is he really alive?”
get too close.”
doesn’t he sing like they do at Disney World?”
I am trying
to sleep, but the high human voices keep buzzing in my ears worse than the
green flies that gather at my pen. I am bored with these two-legs who come day
after day to gawk. They really know so few tricks, but they always roll the
hard sweets between the bars of my pen and the salty rounds I cannot resist.
a dumb old bear. You can’t even sing, chants the silly little creature. My
Teddy is smarter than you, you dumb old bear.”
circles behind the little one, and its small stench makes my nose twitch. It
has not developed the oily film that covers a grown man like the slime on a
rock fished from the water. Any creature can smell a man coming from afar,
hears his loud crash through the tender woods.
human stench aside, the little one has another smell, more pleasing, of the
sweet things it has fed upon today. With traces and crumbs about its little
mouth, the little one waggles something before my eyes, teasing me with the
sweetness. Perhaps this is a present. I ease my paw through the bars, opening
my claws just so. The little one makes its mistake and waves the sweet too
snatch my paw back, the little two-legs lets out a howl: “Mommy! Mommy!” The
screaming kid runs to burrow its blunt head against the belly of its mother.
Unlike a sow-bear, the human has only two teats, but I smell the heat of her
Pawing over the little one’s gift, I discover it is not food after all, but an odd-looking cub. I bat the body, but the creature seems dead. I have batted about unattended cubs in the high places, but never one as puny as this. Deformed, with no claws, only stumps for legs.
Teesataskie yells at me over the screams and cries of the female and her blubbering
little one. Their eyes are wide and their mouths open in a new trick I have not
see before. How truly expressive, yet pitiful, are a human’s eyes.
cub again and its head rolls free, trailing a fine dust over the dirt. I sniff
its body, no scent of flesh or blood or even the human food I’m craving. I try
licking the fur but its hide comes off in strips on my tongue. When I snatch
the body in my jaws and give it a good shake, the hind legs fly off, spilling
the white dust everywhere. I drop the corpse and nose it over. It has no eyes,
only dull round stones hooked into its soft skull.
The squalling two-legs depart after Teesataskie returns the green leaves and polished stones they have given him. He stands perplexed by my cage. He holds out his empty palms. I can still smell the green leaves staining his hands.
I shrug my hairy shoulders. I did it a favor. It would never have lasted past winter. I spit the cub’s remains through the bars. I still want something sweet.
DO NOT FEED
THE BEAR. My claw traces the strange inscription that Teesataskie has pinned on
the bars of my pen.
ones still roll an occasional sweet through the bars. I find sticky candies and
oily chips clinging to the matted fur of my belly along with dead pine needles.
From the shade of my pen, I watch the waves of heat shimmering off the black
path, the sun glittering off the bright flecks of mica. I pant. The water is
stale in my bowl and mosquitoes swim their eggs in the warm puddle. I am grown
fat as if for winter’s sleep.
Teesataskie has not growled to me in days, nor bothered with me.
My paws are
not confused by the new latch Teesataskie has added to the door. At night,
after Teesataskie sleeps, I open the door to my pen and amble out into the
night. I walk by the river. Lights glance over the shallows from the moving
houses of the two-legs, banded together for the night in a cleared field. The
humans are curled asleep inside each, like seeds in a husk cold as the moon.
I ask the
river for my meal, but the water does not pause to speak to me. I ask again,
louder, but the water pretends not to hear. I roar, but the river is deaf and
does not understand the pangs in my belly.
here are sluggish, floating by the human’s strange droppings in the river bed.
But the changing breeze brings me a scent of food discarded by the human camp.
I ford the water, keeping my nose in the wind, following the wafting trail.
A glare of
light, a miniature moon humming at the top of a branchless tree, shining down
on three hard cans where the smell lives. I step out of the shadows into the
glare of light and nose over one of the containers, spilling a feast of
half-eaten foodstuffs, bones of chicken, glittering foil wraps of grease,
wrappers of melted sweets, cans of syrupy drink that taste more of metal than
honey. I push my snout into the feast, inhale, engorge.
in the night. Lights swarm through the air, target my hide. Humans hatch out of
their silver nests, screaming: “Bear! Bear! Bear!”
toward the shadows. And a thunderclap comes out of the clear night, and a swarm
of bees sting my backside. I run down the bank and splash through the river.
Back in the safety of my pen, I close the door, my sides still heaving. My fur is wet and cold. My backside is bleeding. The lights keep swarming and moving up the black path toward me, the humans chanting and huffing. I hear Teesataskie at the head. “Look now, Wait a sec. Come on now. See here. He’s tame. I swear.”
Then the sharp
lights are stabbing through the bars, into my eyes, I back away but they have
me pinned. They poke sticks at me and, I hear a clicking sound. A man stares
down a long hard hollow rod, closes one eye, his hands cocked around the wooden
”Bear’s a damn menace. Nearly took that kid’s arm off the other day with the teddy bear.”
the boy stinks, don’t he?”
bear’s bad for business.”
he’s tame, he knows me, I’ll prove it.”
rolls up his sleeve, reveals the tattoo of green eagles on his blue veined arm.
He pulls the bottle form beneath his shirt. I close my eyes.
ya go, Yonaguska.” My nose twitches. The smell, the real smell nearly
overpowers me, the sweet comb from a sourwood. The golden ooze he’s dipped his
hand in. I lick at his fingers, showing no shame before these two-legs.
The bear knows me.”
As I lick
up his forearm, wrapping my tongue around his wrist to get every drop of honey,
the sweet taste suddenly give way in my mouth to a foul taste. I am drinking
the whiskey from his skin, the sweat of his man’s flesh and the sour decay of
human film that separates Teesataskie like any two-legs from the world of the
here, boys, I’ve got him eating from my hand.”
deep in my gullet, the man’s hand turns to a fist in my throat. The awful taste
is gagging me. I try to call his name, but my jaws snap shut.
screams. The sound is not the soft growl I taught him, nor the high pitched
human chatter. His is the scream of any animal caught in the night, the
meaningless yowl of any furred creature who sees death. A new taste in my mouth,
heavy and bitter, blood between my teeth.
through the door. Only Bushyhead stands in the way, his eyes wide and white,
the gun in his hands. My language has failed me, but the taste of blood is
instructive. The gun he would kill me with is not as quick as my paw. I rake
away that look on his face with one sweep of my claws.
into the shadows and the rhododendron spread their branches to welcome me into
the dark. At the river bank, I spit out the pieces of Teesataskie’s flesh
between my teeth. I scratch my claws clean of Bushyhead’s blood in the sand. I
wade into the water and wash the hateful smell of man from my hide, the current
pulling free the knots and tangles of my fur matted from too-long days.
rides on the water as I wade upstream over the great rocks, the cascades and
ripples, past the trout that sleep here. As I walk up into the night, into the
high places, a small drop of water rides inside the rim of my ear, whispering
to me. The water tells me I have forgotten how many legs I was given to walk
this earth with. I know this time to listen and not to speak.