There was a moment of excitement when they crossed the border. It all wore off hours ago. Bang! Phil winced as his old Ford wagon hit another hole in the gravel road. He backed off a little on the gas, staring ahead for the next one, his hands tight on the wheel. They were going too fast. The Jeep ahead kept on going, throwing up a thick cloud of dust. He let the jeep pull ahead a few hundred meters, then brought the wagon up to speed again. The men in the Jeep had the only map, and he didn't want to end up at some God-forsaken dead end if he got too far behind.
Fourteen hours. The last two on winding gravel. Brett Pearson and Pat McCafferty were up ahead in the jeep, leading the way. Pat organized this canoe trip just a month ago. Phil remembered the meeting where old Ben Somers brought up the Sharprock...
A patch of washboard road appeared as the wagon reached the crest of a steep hill. Phil gritted his teeth and stabbed at the brake as the wagon bounced over. Miles Anderson, his companion in the passenger seat, reached up and pulled on the nylon strap that ran from window to window - the strap that held down their canoe. He turned to Phil and nodded. As their eyes met, both men might have remarked that they didn't look very good, but years of living with women taught them to keep their comments to themselves. Phil nodded, then turned his tired eyes back to the dull gravel road.
Somers - Ben Somers. Somers was old now - too old to go on any trips. He often drove the school bus that the club used to shuttle canoes and people from launch to take out. If the group camped at the end of the trip, Ben would stay and usually there was a story he would tell. Somers was all right. It would have been good to know him when he was younger.
Phil remembered the meeting when Ben brought up the Sharprock River. Actually it was just after the meeting. Brett Pearson had finished his presentation about an "expedition" that he led last September. As usual, Brett's presentations left you with the feeling that the outfitters were all crooks, the pilots were chicken, the natives were conniving and apart from the storm / rapids / moose attack - the trip was rather boring. When Brett was done, Ben Somers started talking. Evidently he and his old wife went driving through Ontario, met some interesting people...
The Jeep was stopping now, and Phil pulled up behind. Pat was out, a map in his left hand, a compass in his right. He walked out away from the cars while Brett lit up a cigarette and leaned on a fender. They were out of the clear cut area now, and stunted jack pine and poplar made an impenetrable barrier on either side of the road. There was no wind, and the air seemed thick and heavy. Clouds covered the sky and the smell of rain was in the air. Phil swatted a mosquito on his neck and rolled his window up. The men climbed into the Jeep and Brett punched the gas, sending a shower of gravel that rattled on the grill of the Ford.
Somers had started talking, but Brett cut him off. That's how it happened. Ben mentioned that he met some people - a town near some river. Brett heard the word "river" and launched into a talk about another of his river "expeditions." Ben shut up then, but later he took Pat McCafferty aside and talked to him for about half an hour. Pat suggested the Sharprock trip at the next meeting and Brett quickly became the leader. It all seemed pretty exciting back then. It didn't feel that way now.
Forty minutes later they saw the cabin.
The cabin was old, built from logs and chinked with oakum. A plywood shack with fake red fire-brick siding was next to it, obviously added well after the cabin was crafted. There was a widening in the road beyond the shack, and Phil thought he could see trailers and a few trucks back there. A curious wooden sign said "Paquette's Bar" and there was an ax stuck into the top of the sign. Brett had the Jeep pulled over and was stretching and smiling as he talked to McCafferty. Phil pulled up behind, hitting a final rock that seemed to grow out of the hard gravel. He hadn't noticed before, but there was a boy, a young boy standing next to the bar sign. He was looking at the men, looking intently at them. He suddenly smiled and ran down the road toward the trailers. Miles, Phil's passenger and canoeing partner for the trip, was checking the straps and ropes that held the canoe down.
Phil automatically pulled his camera out of the wagon and motioned for Brett and Pat to stand in front of the sign. He was part of this trip because he could take good pictures. As he lined up a shot, he wondered if that was the only reason he'd been invited.
The cabin was old. Thrown up long ago when men rushed in to find gold, it was briefly a prospector's winter cabin. When promising core samples were found, it became a company office for a while. Three courses of logs were added - the prospector was short and didn't believe in wasting energy. The search for gold didn't pan out and the men moved on. For quite a few years, the cabin stood empty. A lumber company moved in and widened the road. Soon after, old Bill Paquette pried open the door and chased out the mice. He laid fresh paper on the roof and nailed together a bar near the long wall opposite the door.
The door opened now, and Brett entered, a broad smile on his bearded face, laughing loudly, waving his arm as he acted out some joke or story for his companions behind him. He stopped and squinted in the dim light, finally focused on the bar, and slid onto a middle stool. He was a man very sure of himself, a big man, not older than thirty. He relaxed, waiting, as though a performance for his benefit was about to begin. Pat followed him in quietly, the smile from his partner's joke slowly fading as he took the next stool.
Phil entered now, somber faced and tired. He was a shorter, younger man, with brown, scholarly eyes framed in wire rimmed glasses. His beard was short and well trimmed. His new gore-tex rain suit rustled as he walked to the bar and pulled up a stool that had seen better days. Miles pulled up next to him, too tired to laugh or even listen to Brett's jokes. He twisted in his stool, looking first left then right at the furnishings on the wall. He had seen such objects in theme restaurants back in the cities to the south. The snowshoes, the rusted and waxed traps hanging from pegs, an old tea tin wedged near the roof... He might perhaps be surprised to know that Paquette was simply too lazy to remove the old junk that was already hanging there when he moved into the shack. Miles turned around and planted an elbow on the bar. He rested his chin on a closed fist, slowly stroking his dark brown beard with the back of his hand. Behind the men, behind the dirty pane of a small window, a pair of dark eyes watched calmly, observing the visitors as an artist might study a model.
Paquette now entered, walking slowly across the room.
"What's yer pleasure, gentlemen?" Paquette's voice was smooth, his manner relaxed. He was lean, with broad shoulders and he limped heavily, his right ankle not moving at all as he walked up to face the four men. He had thick, white hair, cut well and short. A gnarly hand dusted the bar with a stained towel and moved one of the old, tin ashtrays in front of the big man. Taking his cue, Brett pulled a cigarette from a pack in his front pocket. Another pocket produced a wooden match. He lighted the match with one hand, flicking a thumbnail across the head, almost like a magician. No doubt this was a well practiced maneuver, intended to impress the less dexterous.
"A nice cold Molson's would sure hit the spot." The big man pulled hard on his cigarette then blew out a cloud of blue smoke.
"Molson's, please," said Phil. The other men nodded.
Paquette reached under the bar and produced four bottles. He popped the tops and placed them in front of the men.
The bottles were quickly drained and the men were working on the next round when the door again opened. Outside it was nearly dark, unusual so early for this high latitude. The room filled quickly and the four visitors were somewhat surprised at the sudden influx of patrons. They perhaps forgot for a moment that the road that brought them here was, after all, a logging road. There were one hundred and nine kilometers of rough gravel to the nearest town. For the men that ran the heavy equipment used to harvest the pulp trees Paquette's cabin was no worse than the bar in Neepa at the end of the road.
A wide doorway led to the fire-brick shack attached to the cabin, making one large room. There were a few crude tables out on the floor, and they filled quickly with a rough and tired crowd. Perhaps twelve people were now in the room, but it was surprisingly quiet. Paquette was busy now, moving quickly to bring up beer, brandy or tea. The boy was back, and he shuttled trays from the bar to the tables.
The door opened. Phil noticed a change in the room and turned around, a curious look on his face.
A woman entered, a slender woman, mature but not yet old, her hair long and straight and dark as midnight. Her eyes were downcast and modest as she quietly turned to close the door, holding it so that it would make no noise. Her feet were wrapped in soft moccasins, and made no sound as she stepped to the side of the room. She wore the same rough, dirty clothing that the loggers wore, making the moccasins seem out of place. Over her soiled flannel man's shirt was a vest of dark, smoke softened leather. The vest was trimmed with lynx fur and decorated with fine stitches, a pattern foreign to this northern land, or perhaps foreign to this time. The boy came forward with a chair. He placed it in a darkened corner, near a small table. The woman nodded to the boy, and sat gracefully on the chair. Paquette now brought a candle, placing it and a small teapot near the woman. With no change of her somber expression, she produced a swatch of leather from a scrimshaw bag and began to stitch. As Phil turned back to the bar, he heard a soft voice. It was coming from the dark corner, from the strange woman. She was not speaking, but humming quietly.
"That's a nice Jeep you got there fellows." Paquette gestured at the small dust covered window behind the men where Brett's Cherokee was visible in the fading light.
"Been to some rough places with that baby," said Brett as he snubbed out his cigarette. "Name's Brett. This here's my partner Pat. That's Phil and Miles over there. Hey! wake up guys!" Brett glanced around the room. "Didn't expect to find a tavern out here. Nice place."
A man behind Brett laughed. "It's a dump!" Several others agreed loudly. "But Paquette, he's always close by. Sometimes it's a trailer, sometimes even a tent, and sometimes a dump like this. But his beer is cold, and his brandy comes in a bottle, not a jar!"
Phil turned and looked at the men laughing. He glanced at Paquette, saw him smiling, bringing out deep wrinkles in his rough leathery face.
Paquette resumed his conversation. "Your canoe seems to have met quite a few rocks. You guys must get out on some rough water."
"I've done some rough rivers, that's fer sure." Brett took out another cigarette as he finished speaking. He seemed to forget his partners as he lit up and launched into a recital of the trips he led to wild rivers in the southern part of the province. Phil listened with half an ear, resting his chin on his hand again. Brett droned on, telling the story about the strainer that almost killed him. It was a good story, but it happened to Gene Fredrickson, not to Brett Pearson. Gene mentioned it two years ago at the canoe show in Madison. Then there was the story about the night paddle where Brett went through Flambeau falls. That happened to John Mies during a canoe race. Brett got careless when he drank, and sometimes forgot that his companions knew the truth about his stories. He actually didn't care if they knew or didn't know. "People are stupid, and they like a good story, so it might as well be about me." That's what he said when Phil caught him at it last fall. Phil looked around the room. The loggers seemed to be lapping it up, looking keenly at Brett at he spoke. Maybe Brett was right, maybe people were stupid. Phil considered himself pretty sharp, and was sure that he could tell a tall tale from something that had really happened. Brett, however, was on a roll and Phil knew that any attempt to divert the conversation would put him in a foul mood.
After about ten minutes, Phil glanced around the room again, peering into the dim light. The woman in the corner, her face barely discernible in the candlelight, seemed oblivious to all but her stitching. The men at the tables seemed to watch Brett carefully as he recited his deeds, as though they were sizing him up, measuring his words, deciding what type of man he was. They had known boastful men before, some that could actually do the things they bragged about. Perhaps this was such a man, perhaps not. Paquette stood by, his head tilted up, mouth half open, his right hand on the bar. The hand was pushing down, easing the load on the leg with the stiff ankle, easing a pain that did not show at all on the old, weathered face. He stood smiling, gaping and nodding as Brett rattled on.
Presently, Brett seemed to finish, and Paquette reached down and produced four more bottles.
"You'll have a less exciting trip on the Salumo," he remarked. "That's a long carry just before Rosenberry, but other than that you should have no trouble."
"We're not doing the Salumo." There was a note of irritation in Brett's voice, as though Paquette had offered milk to a drinking man. "We're running the Sharprock to Cache, then taking the Whitefish to Ta-va-se."
"You're taking the Sharprock?" Paquette took a step back. Now Phil saw pain flash for a moment as the bad leg came down, saw Paquette’s jaw tighten momentarily until the other leg took the weight.
"It's been run before," said Brett. "In fact I talked with one of our club members that ran it early in June, about ten years ago. The water's high now, we should be fine."
Paquette said nothing. He nodded uncertainly, then turned away. Brett took a pull on his beer. The issue seemed to be settled, but one of the canoeists watched Paquette carefully.
"Is there something wrong?" Phil spoke quietly, his voice breaking the silence that descended on the group of logging men.
"No, no nothing's wrong..." Paquette did not turn as he spoke.
"Have you heard something? Was there some trouble? Maybe at the rapids.."
"We can handle the rapids at the bend." Brett was annoyed now. "Old Somers went through. The rapids will be no problem."
Paquette did not turn.
Phil turned around on his stool to look at the men behind him. Some were stone-faced, others quickly looked away. The silence of the men was getting uncomfortable. He saw a flash of lightning light up the dirty window near the door. From the corner of the room there still came the faint humming, some other primitive melody. There was something odd in the melody and the rhythm, something ancient, or foreign, almost hypnotic. The song sounded old, very old. Perhaps the beer was starting to affect him, but he felt as though he wasn't quite where he was just a few minutes ago. He turned his head slightly and looked at the woman in the dark corner. He imagined this woman's ancestors had always worn the furs of wild animals, that her grandmother sat just so, sewing and humming a melody that was passed on and on through the generations, just as the song of the loon is passed on and on through the wilderness night... Now the low rumble of thunder swept over the land, then echoed back into the sky. Phil turned around quickly.
"Mr. Paquette, if there's some reason we shouldn't go down the Sharprock, I wish you would tell us. It would be the devil of a trip up current if we can't get through."
Paquette turned slowly and sighed. "You'll probably be fine." His eyes weren't looking at the men as he spoke, but past them. "There's been some talk in Neepa. There's probably nothing to it."
Phil looked at Paquette. Paquette did not speak.
"Hrrumph" One of the men in the room cleared his throat, but he did not speak.
They know something, thought Phil, they all know something, but they're not talking.
"Mister Paquette, do you know something?"
Paquette seemed to think for a moment, then lowered his head and walked around the bar. He picked up a stool, really an old wooden chair. Paquette had nailed pieces of scrap lumber to the legs to make them longer. He dropped the stool near the canoeists and sat down heavily.
"Happened last fall. Two fellows came up for a moose. One was from Kenora, the other was his friend from Chicago. They had a big aluminum eighteen footer. The plan was to run down the Sharprock, go through the portage, bag a moose in the shallows, then take the channel to the big lake.
"The older fellow thinks he heard a dog barking just before they landed on the portage in the small channel. Hard to be sure, he said, what with the noise of the water. The portage starts on a big flat rock, out in the open. It's the only decent landing. I've been there, but that was seven, eight years ago. You have to walk on the rock for a ways to get into the real shore. Then you run into some muck before the path goes up a hill and across another flat rock on top. Not many people go through there, so it's pretty bushy with a lot of trees to step over."
Paquette was tracing the path with a finger on the bar, as though he were drawing a map.
"The younger guy went ahead with the canoe, and the old fellow was just coming over the hill with a pack. Says he heard a big bang, as though his partner had dropped the canoe. Then he heard his partner yelling. He dropped the pack and was about to run down to help when a bear came out in the clearing, growling at him. He remembers that the trees looked mighty thin up there on the bare rock. The bear started walking toward him and he didn't have time to get his gun unhooked from the pack. Says he backed away slowly, yelling and raising his arms but the bear kept coming. Says that he heard another yell, but it didn't sound like his partner. Sounded like some foreign word." Now Paquette was scratching the gray hair over his right ear.
"He ended up backing right out to the landing. Their food pack was there, and a paddle. Says he picked up the paddle and decided to make a stand. It was either that or jump into the water. The bear came out and just stood there, growling and snapping. He heard another yell, then the bear turned around and walked away." Paquette looked at Brett.
"Now that older guy had guts, if it happened the way he told it. Says he took the paddle and went right back through the muck and up the hill. His pack was there, but all pulled apart. Pulled apart but not shredded like a bear would have done. Says he started to feel pretty spooky about then. He found his partner at the bottom of the hill. He was under the canoe. Said he pulled it on top of him when a bear came at him. Had to keep rocking it from side to side so the bear couldn't get him. The older guy says they took out their guns and stayed close together. He says he was worried to leave the canoe, but the both of them went back for the food pack. They didn't have any trouble after that. Paquette looked at the four canoeists. "Anyway, that's what the guy told me."
An old man in coveralls now stood up and approached the bar. He was a tall man, with a large frame, but thin and sallow faced, as though he had lost weight. Gray whiskers stuck out from his chin and tufts of gray hair grew out of his over-sized ears. His eyes looked ahead, not at the four bearded canoeists but past them, past the bar.
"My son had trouble there." The old man reached out with a two-fingered hand that was all knuckles and bone. He touched Phil's shoulder and stood there, looking at each man in turn. "My son took his wife and my brother up the Sharprock just six weeks ago. He and my brother wanted to fish, and she likes to take pictures." Paquette got up, pulled a bottle from a shelf behind the bar and poured a shot of brandy for the old man. He took it gratefully, quickly downing half of it before he continued.
"They weren't going through the portage, but she wanted to take some pictures out on the lower ledge. You can walk right out into the falls there." He emptied the shot glass, took a quick glance at Paquette. Paquette didn't seem to notice.
"Jed - Jed's my son - Jed says it was the strangest thing. They was just standing there and a bear came out and went for my brother. They all backed away, but he just kept snapping and growling. My brother walked off to the right and the bear followed him. He walked back to the landing and the bear started after him again. Jed, he grabbed some stones and started yelling and pitchin' stones at it. The bear walked right past him - kept going after my brother. He finally had to swim out into the river. Jed and Lynda - Lynda's his wife - they walked right past the bear, got in the motorboat and picked him out of the water. Jed thinks the bear didn't care a tinker's dam about him or Lynda. It was my brother he was after." The sallow faced man looked again at Paquette. Paquette glanced quickly at the woman in the corner. She nodded, very slightly, and Paquette poured another shot of brandy. The old man picked it up and held it close to his chest, as though he were hiding a poker hand.
"There's something strange up there on the falls. Bear ought not to act that way, growling at some and not at others. Something strange, that's all I have to say." He nodded at Paquette, then at the dark-haired woman, then slowly walked back to a table, being very careful not to spill his shot.
"So what's this all about?” said Brett. “Is there some crazy bear at the portage? Why doesn't someone just shoot it?"
Paquette did not face the men as he spoke.
"People think there's a man behind all this. Some crazy devil that tells the bears to kill people. They say he might be one of those people that hates police or the government." Paquette picked up his bar rag and wiped the already clean bar in front of the canoeists. "Paul Sikora - Paul runs a line north of here each winter - Paul said he saw what looked like a man up there. Says the man was dressed real funny. Says he was holding a pole, poking the bears, throwing sticks at them, making them growl and click, yelling some foreign words. Paul says he got the hell out of there. Says he didn't want anything to do with a crazy man."
Paquette walked out into the room and peered through the gloomy light at the tables. He turned around and faced the canoeists.
"Some of the old natives say that the land by the falls is special, that no one should live there. They think there's some mani-something there, and the bears are his guards." Paquette took a deep breath and blew it out. "I don't know - It all sounds crazy, but too many people had bear trouble on that portage. There's something strange out there. I'm staying away until the police or the ministry people go in and shoot whatever it is that's making it happen."
"What rubbish!" The voice came from the dark corner, from the odd woman. Her words were final and absolute, a pronouncement spoken as a judge would. The faces in the room turned, and a dozen eyes watched callused hands that still stitched, moving confidently in the dim light, needing no guidance to complete their work.
"Always it's like this, you men and your stories. You talk to no one, learn nothing. Then you come here and the beer loosens your tongue. But no man here talks to a sober man. It's no wonder that you know so little."
Now dark eyes peered back from the corner. Several of the hard loggers looked down at the floor. A thin faced man in coveralls clasped his hands around his cup, as if to warm fingers that have suddenly gone cold.
"Now you have heard about this bear-man of the Sharprock. There’s been some trouble. Some have been frightened. Some are angry. You are worried about this man. What might he do? Does he really command the bear, make it do what he wants?" Outside the cabin, a gust of wind blew and a branch from a nearby poplar tree brushed and scraped on a window. The dark haired woman continued.
"Yes, yes it's a man. A man, not a devil. You're wise if you watch out for this man. He can be dangerous. He's clever. But if you knew him you wouldn't be afraid. I know this man, I've talked to his sister."
The woman turned in her chair, placing the stitching on the table. Her eyes searched and found a young man across the room.
"You, Jodin, do you talk to your mother when you visit her in town?"
"I, - I, well, when I.." the young voice from the other side of the room stammered.
"You watch as she fixes your torn pants, watch as she feeds you, but you never talk to her, never learn anything. She too knows of this man. Most women in town know his story. And the old people, they too listen and know what is true and what is nonsense."
The dark haired woman now picked up the cheap nickel plated teapot and poured tea into her cup. She placed the pot behind the candle, where it reflected the flame, sending out streaks of light that danced on the table and on the wall, just as a campfire flickers into the darkness of dense forest.
"You should learn about this man before you make a devil of him with your talk. If you know his story, you'll have nothing to fear, and you'll stop spreading rumors." Her eyes peered out at Brett. "And you that travel by canoe, if you have courage and wisdom you can go down the Sharprock, and come to no harm."
Brett sniggered at this, but softly. Of course he had courage. Did this queer little woman not just hear what he had talked about for the past twenty minutes? These people seemed a superstitious lot. Bear-man? What nonsense. His partners seemed to be drinking it all in. Brett nudged Pat with an elbow, smiled when he turned.
"What does this bear-man do? Does he climb trees? Does he steal food?" Brett smiled, but just with his mouth, not with his eyes. He gesturing with his hand, waving his bottle of beer as he spoke. Phil thought he saw a flash of anger in the woman's eyes, but her words were calm when she replied.
"He lives on the high ground where the river turns. He has patent land there, and a cabin he made long ago. He is old, yah, he is old, this one. He's old and confused. Old people forget where they are, but they remember things long ago. That's when this man should be feared, when he remembers things from the past. There is much that is best forgotten, but some, they cannot forget."
The woman now fell silent. She picked up her stitching and resumed her work. It was several seconds before the men realized that she would speak no more.
Brett turned back to the bar and lit another cigarette. There was murmuring at the tables behind the men, then quiet. Phil looked at his partners. He looked at the woman in the corner. She just kept on stitching. He looked to Paquette. Paquette said nothing.
"Please, tell me about this man." Phil spoke softly, directly to the woman. "Tell me what you have heard. We don't want any trouble." He looked at the other men in the room. Several nodded in agreement. He turned to Brett. "Come on. If he's crazy, we ought to find out about him so you can handle him." Phil understood their leader well.
"Fine, fine. Lets hear about this guy, but first I'd like another beer." The big man sounded bored. A story that would mention him not at all was certain to be boring.
The woman looked up, glanced at the men in the bar, glanced at Paquette. Paquette nodded.
"I will tell you about this bear-man. I have heard his story many times. His story is also the story of his sister, Zora. She too is old, and old people tell their stories often.
"The man on the river is John Lynch. His real name is Yenesek. He is a Slav, this one. Perhaps you know about these Slavs eh? Long ago, they came from Russia, from cold river land. It is no surprise to find a Slav here in Ontario. Maybe you know what happened to the Slavs during the war?"
The dark haired woman stared at the four canoeists. Their expressions remained dull.
"John's father was a Croatian and his mother was a Serb. You wonder about this? This was not unusual, for Serb to marry Croat. Not unusual, but dangerous when war comes and all people take sides. John was 10 years old when war came to Yugoslavia. There were many armies that fought there. Germans, of course. Italians, and Ustashi - Italian rebels that killed Serbs. There were Chetniks - Serbian troopers that fought the rebels, and Partisans that fought with the allies. Zora did not know these things. She remembers only soldiers, hungry soldiers, tired, dirty soldiers.
"There are many lonely roads in the old country. Many places where partisans could kill German soldiers as they passed. When that happened, the Germans would burn the nearest village. Sometimes all men over fifteen years were taken out to a field and shot. Zora said that all people knew this. She could see that her parents were afraid.
"One day Yenesek's father told him to care for his mother and sister. Then he left to fight somewhere. Maybe he joined Mikhailovich – the Yugoslav army, or maybe he joined the Partisans.”
The woman now peered into the darkness, back into the fire brick room. She gestured with her hand as she spoke.
"Maybe he ran into you, Stanley. Weren't you in Italy back then? Didn’t you cross into Croatia? All you ever talk about is the Italian women you met. Didn't you ever get out and shoot at something?"
A grizzled old man near the window raised his head and smiled. The story-teller smiled back. She took a sip of tea, and the smile slowly faded. There was a touch of sadness in her eyes as she spoke again.
"They never saw their father again. But that is not Zora's great sadness. Two years ago, I found out what happened to John and Zora. It was in December, and Zora drank too much, and she remembered, and she told us.
"It was near Christmas in 1942 when men came into her village. These were ragged men, rough, bearded fighters, troopers gone bad. They were hungry and they were tired. The people in the village had little food, and the men became angry. John and his sister Zora were with their mother when the men pounded on their door. Zora said that John was only ten years old, but he was the man of the house. His father told him this. It was he that opened the door. Zora remembers that they were all so scared that they were shaking.
The door opened and a terrible man entered, a scowl on his face, yelling to companions behind him, waving his arm and pointing with a rifle. He stopped just inside the door, squinting in the dim light of the small room until he spotted a chair near the fire. He drew a pistol from under his coat, then sat in the chair, yelling orders to the men behind him. He was a big man, who seemed very sure of himself. Three soldiers followed him in. They too were scared of the big man, and glanced at him frequently as he waved his pistol and barked orders. The soldiers pushed John aside and walked to the fire. Zora and her mother stood behind John and watched as one of the men broke up their father's chair and fed it into the flames. The big, bearded man pulled a cigar from his coat pocket. He motioned to one of his soldiers. The soldier quickly found a match and lit the leaders' cigar. Here was a man that needed people to know that he was important, even if the people were only a frightened woman and two small children."
"The big man, the leader, he had a large jagged scar that reached from the corner of his mouth to his left eye.”
The woman touched her head, tracing out the scar as if she herself had seen it.
"It was not healed, and it gave his face a terrible, angry look. He yelled at their mother. They were very afraid. John's mother began to make a meal for the men. Zora remembers the terrible stench that filled the room as the men became warm. One of the men seemed to be wounded, and he huddled near the fire, shaking and cursing. His leader helped him not at all, seemed not to care about his pain.
"As the men ate, John and Zora's mother whispered to them, told them what to do. She would send them to their room to sleep, but they were to sneak out and wait. Their father was always afraid of fire, and had cut a hole in their cabin for the children to escape. They must wait in the forest - make no sound.
"Zora remembers waiting for a long time. She and her brother were shivering in the cold. Their mother came suddenly. They must run, she said, the men were coming. They ran into the forest. She remembers that as the men came closer they were terrified. Their mother led them down a steep hill, and suddenly they were in front of a small cave.
"Their mother turned to John. 'Quickly, into the cave!' John started to crawl in and Zora was behind him. Suddenly her brother backed out.
'Mother,' he said, 'a bear sleeps in the cave. I can smell her.' Zora says she will not forget the frightened look on her mother's face. The men were getting closer. Her mother was frantic. There was no other hiding place. Zora remembers that their mother suddenly became calm, and crouched down next to her. She spoke to John.
'Yenesek, listen to me.' She looked right at John. He was scared and shaking. 'Yenesek, don't be so silly.' His mother smiled at him and tweaked his nose. Zora remembers her words.
‘The bear will not harm you. You are a very special boy, Yenesek. I never told you before, but now you must know. Bears cannot harm you, because they know that you are special. They must do what you tell them. Do you understand?' Zora remembers her brother nodding. 'You must whisper softly to the bear, tell this bear that you are Yenesek. The bear must do what you say. Do you hear me?' Zora remembers her brother nodded. 'This bear is very tired, so whisper and tell her to keep sleeping. Your father spoke many times with the bears and walked with them often. Some day I will tell you all about it, but now you must go into the cave.' She kissed him and then she kissed Zora, then gently prodded them in.
'Always take care of your sister, Yenesek. Always. I will be back soon.’
"Zora remembers that she clung to her brother's feet as he crawled into the cave. They could both smell the bear, could even hear it breathing softly. It was terribly cold, but it got warmer inside. They stopped near the entrance, not daring to go further.
"Outside they heard footsteps and cursing. Someone came near the cave, and John pulled his sister further in. She could actually feel the fur of the bear. It felt warm. The man was just outside the cave now. He would surely find them.
“Suddenly he ran away. Then there was no sound.
"She remembers that they waited for a long time. Their mother did not return. She grew sleepy. The cave was warm, and she huddled next to her brother. She remembers hearing him as she was falling asleep. He was whispering to the bear, a quiet whisper that only she could hear, only she and the bear...”
Paquette's bar was dead quiet. Some of the men were looking down at the floor. Even Brett seemed subdued, his cigarette threatening to burn his fingers as he stared into the flickering candle. The dark haired woman looked away for a moment, seemed to regain her composure, then resumed her story.
"Zora would not tell us how they found their mother. She was dead, of course. There were many dead that winter, but this was their mother. She remembers that they wrapped her up and stayed close to her. They were hungry, they were cold, but they felt nothing." The story-teller looked up and blinked her eyes as she spoke.
"It was a gypsy that found them and took them into the forest. He was old, this gypsy, and his people were all gone. Perhaps his own children were dead. For three years they lived in the forest. John and his sister learned to snare, learned to find plants that could be eaten. They also learned to steal from the armies that swept back and forth through the country. Mostly they saw no one, but always they were hiding. Always they watched from the hills, for enemies were all around. They trusted no one. John and his sister were not a burden to the old man. They worked hard and did not complain when there was no food. Their parents had taught them well."
The storyteller pointed across the room.
"You, George should remember this when your child is born."
A sleepy red haired man had been cradling his head on his hand. He raised it now, surprised that he was suddenly involved in the story.
The storyteller smiled. "Yah, of course you don't know. Even your Julia is not sure, but her sister is, and her sister talks to Jodin's mother." She smiled again as the red haired man looked even more confused.
"Maybe this will be your last year so far away in the woods. You are good with machines. Mr. McKraven is getting very old. Perhaps you could run his shop in Neepa, maybe even own it some day. It is something to think about."
A gust of wind blew through the trees outside Paquette's cabin. The wind found some hole where the oakum had fallen out and the candle flickered. At the bar, Paquette pointed at Phil's nearly empty bottle. Phil shook his head. Brett appeared to be bored and was engaged in picking dirt out of the sole of his boot with a small pen knife.
The story-teller gestured to the boy. He stepped forward with a small wooden box and placed it on the bar. Paquette brought out a dog eared ledger and rummaged in his cash box for a pencil. Now men were getting up and walking to the box, fumbling for bills and coins as they came. Each seemed to study the four visitors as they passed, looking carefully from one to the other.
"Are you closing, Mr. Paquette?" Phil was puzzled. Although it was dark outside, it was still only nine o'clock.
"No, it's not that. It gets pretty boring around here, as you can imagine. The men like to wager, and I get to hold the money. We'll be done in a minute."
"What's the wager?" Brett was suddenly interested in his surroundings.
"Oh, usually the ball game from Winnipeg. Years ago we used to bet on the number of trucks that we could load during the week. We don’t do that anymore - too tempting for someone to slow down the works." Paquette was writing now as the men placed their bets.
Phil walked to the door and stepped outside. The wind was blowing cool now, and clouds to the northwest reflected a last hint of sunset, casting a dim, eerie twilight over the land. As he stood, swaying slightly from all the beer, he tried to imagine himself ten years old. Somewhere to the west, another rumble of thunder rolled down from the sky. The forest seemed sinister now, and more than once he turned his head to make sure he saw the light from Paquette's cabin.
Making his way back, he was suddenly struck by the loneliness of this place. Only with great effort was there a clearing here. All around was wilderness, thick trees, broken and twisted, difficult to walk through. He knew that there would be swamp here too, moss covered bog where a man could suddenly step into a hole and sink up to his armpits.
This was a lonely, isolated place - good to visit, but not for months, not for years. He couldn't imagine what these people would do to keep their spirits up. What would they do for entertainment, for a little excitement? He couldn’t imagine. He loved this land, he would always come back to be here, but now, as darkness was falling, he shivered. Quickly he walked toward the door. Lightning again flashed in the western sky. Maybe there would be rain tonight. All eyes seemed to be looking at him as he re-entered the cabin, almost as if he was being studied or examined. His partner, Brett, was engaged in an animated baseball conversation with Paquette.
"...its the size of 'em that sets the limit. Sure the strike zone's smaller, but they just don't have the power..." Brett was poking his forefinger on the bar as he spoke. He seemed to notice the gathering silence around him. He looked behind as his partner entered, then turned to the woman in the corner.
"It sounds like this guy John had a rough time during the big one." Brett seemed a bit more sympathetic, as he spoke. "Lots of guys got shell shocked or caught that post traumatic stress syndrome thing. Is that what this guy's got?"
"No, I don't think that's it." The dark haired woman looked down slightly and shook her head as she spoke.
"Well, what happened to him? How did he end up in the middle of nowhere? Did the woods drive him crazy?"
"No, This one is at home in the woods. I don't think he could ever live anywhere else." The story-teller dropped her hands into her lap. "I will tell you what I know, then you will understand." She sought out the boy again. "Run and see if my windows are shut, I think rain may come soon." The boy nodded and quietly left.
"After the war, John worked cutting wood for the reconstruction. He worked the wood the old way, the way your father did." She pointed at a burley, long faced man who was turned around on his stool, elbows resting on the bar behind him. The man nodded, he had heard many times about the old way.
"It was the old Gypsy that found a way to get them out of Yugoslavia. He found a sponsor for his rescued family, a Serb in Gary, Indiana would take them in, make sure they had work.
"Zora remembers this Serb. He was a barber by trade. He was a good man, but much taken to drink. He tried to teach her brother to be a barber, probably because he was getting shaky and scaring his customers. John was no good at it, and he hated it. Zora found that she was a good barber, although it was very unusual for a woman to be in that business. Zora says she was plain, so mostly the men didn't care, nor did their wives, except those that were even more plain." Several of the men in the bar smiled.
"John worked in the steel mills, where most of the Slavs ended up. He joined a fraternal union. There were picnics and good friends. He found that he had a talent for training animals, and earned extra money training German shepherd dogs. Life was good for him and his sister.
"They were in Gary three years. Then one morning in May, trouble came again. I can tell you, I think, because no one will care anymore. It all happened a long time ago. Zora does not talk of the trouble, just as she doesn't talk about her mother. But that evening, when she drank too much, she told us...
"There was some trouble with a customer."
The story-teller's voice changed now. There was an edge to her words, a challenge, as though she spoke from behind a cocked pistol.
"This customer was a big, powerful man. He looked like a Chetnik who decided to come out of the hills, rough and unshaven. In fact it was a shave and haircut that he wanted.
"He had an odd scar on his face, a jagged mark that reached from the corner of his mouth to his left eye..." The story-teller again touched her head, tracing out the scar. She turned to put more tea into her cup, remarking in an off-hand manner now as she poured. "He wasn't satisfied with his shave, but he didn't complain very long."
Phil stared stupidly for a few seconds, then, unconsciously his hand went to his neck. He caught himself doing it, and immediately began to scratch his chin, as if he had an itch.
The story-teller sipped her tea. "They had to run, of course. All over the world such things were happening. People from the old country would move into a town, and soon there would be murder. The police never knew why. It did not make sense to them, and they did not like that.
"Perhaps living with the old gypsy, hearing old stories about revenge, perhaps that is why Zora did what she did. Maybe it was her Serbian blood. The Serbians have an old saying - 'I am Serbian, I am living fire!' Perhaps the fire caught Zora. Or perhaps she only did what all of us might do, if our hand held the razor. But these things do not matter to police and judges. They only knew that a man was dead. They didn't see a dead Chetnik, only a dead man. John and Zora ran.
"It happened that John and Zora knew a man named Eddie. Eddie was a craftsman, a pattern maker. You know about pattern making?" The story teller looked at the canoeists. Their expressions changed not at all. Several of the older loggers nodded. They remembered this craft, making wooden patterns for machines.
"For some reason, Eddie used his skill with wood to make a canoe. Zora remembers that it was beautiful, with ribs of bent oak. Eddie told no one why he made the canoe. He liked to fish, but always he used a motorboat. Zora thinks that Eddie saw that a canoe would be needed. She thinks that some spirit, or some angel, was helping her and her brother, and that the spirit used Eddie to make the canoe.
"Perhaps you don't believe these things?" The story-teller looked at each of the canoeists. None of the men spoke, but Phil felt uneasy as the woman looked at him. "Yah, I understand. I've lived in your cities. There is too much light, too much talking. It's easy to be lost there, to not see what is true." The story-teller continued.
"John thought of Canada. They would hide in the woods, just like they did during the war. For that they needed Eddie's canoe. He gave it to them without questions. There was an old truck owned by the dog club, and John had a key. They left in the middle of the night.
"Now they were frightened. Zora says that they drove only at night, and not on the main road. Often they were lost, and once she went to a farmer in Minnesota to ask directions. He was suspicious, as many farmers are, and Zora was sure that he knew about her crime and would call the police. Of course, he knew nothing, but all that day she made John hide the truck deep in the woods.
"They came across to Canada at Lake of the Woods. It was dark that night, there was no moon yet. Zora said that she was very frightened, and very sorry. Because of her they were in a strange land, and their future was again as dark as the night when their mother died. John's plan was to follow the western shore, in case the wind came up. When they heard a motor, they steered farther out into the lake. It was probably only a night fisherman, but Zora was too afraid to take a chance at being seen.
"The wind did come up that night, and it was not long before they had to turn the canoe. They could either go into the wind or turn to the open water and run northeast. They turned to run, and soon the shore was only a faint line on the horizon. Zora told me she will never forget that first night. As they got farther from shore, the waves got larger and larger. At first they could not see the water, and a wave would overtake the canoe and spill water over the sides. She tried to bail the water out, but she only had a small cup, and most of the water seemed to go to John's end of the boat. They had no life jackets, nothing that would float. The canoe was of wood, but there were no compartments in the front and back, nothing extra to help it float. Neither Zora or John knew how to swim.
"They tried to let the canoe drift, sitting on the bottom and holding the sides. They almost went over, and wave after wave seemed to spill into the boat. They kept paddling. After what seemed like hours, the moon came out and they could see the waves, could steer around the big ones."
The story-teller looked at the bearded canoeists. They were leaning forward now, their eyes keen, their heads turned to hear each word. The canoe was their sport, their passion, and she could sense that they too had known wild open lakes, the power of the wind, perhaps even dark night water. She also had known these things, and they in turn sensed her excitement as she continued.
"It was still dark when they saw land, an island in the middle of the lake. The shoreline was rough with broken trees and rocks. Zora could hear the water crashing on the rocks. She remembers dropping her paddle into the canoe and holding tight to the sides. As a huge wave lifted them, she looked over her shoulder at her brother. She saw him bending the paddle, stroking hard and deep. The first wave lifted the canoe high in the water, and as they rushed forward, she looked into the moonlight and saw her brother smile.
"That night John built a fire, and they huddled close to it, drying their soggy clothes, shivering when the wind blew. They propped up the canoe to windward of the fire, and were able to finally sleep. It was the first day of their long journey, a trip of over five hundred kilometers."
Rain started falling, tapping on the paper roof of the cabin, making clear streaks on the dirty window. The boy entered quickly and looked to the story-teller. He nodded and she smiled. The rain quickly became heavy and noisy as it fell. The story-teller rose and walked to the bar, gesturing with her finger at the boy. Quickly the chair and table were moved, and she was soon seated again. Phil looked at her closely now. Surely she was Metis - of mixed blood, but of what mixture he did not know. Her hands were not only callused, but two fingers were flattened and ugly, as though they had once been smashed and had healed badly. Her skin was dark and there were fine lines near her eyes. Phil saw a small waxy spot on her narrow nose, and another larger one on her cheek. Was this some type of scar, maybe from frostbite? But now her eyes looked up at the canoeists, and they only saw her story once again, the sadness, the fear, the excitement.
"John and his sister were still very young back then. They traveled north the hard way, staying away from motor boats, from cabins, from any people. As the weeks passed, they became brown from the sun, and ragged. People started to avoid them. Out on the water, boats would turn away. At a distance, the tourist fishermen were sure that John and Zora were natives. They must have thought that the two lived in Canada. They met other people, poor people that shared and did not ask questions. You perhaps have seen people like this." The story-teller looked at the big bearded canoeist. Brett's eyes widened slightly. "You mentioned the Gull River - some of these people live there. Yah? They surely saw you as you passed, but these people don't talk to strangers." The story-teller looked down at her hands.
"Zora found that the traveling people liked her stories. At night, when there was a fire to drive away the mosquito or the cold, Zora would tell stories that she had learned from the old Gypsy. She had learned many stories, stories of ghosts, stories of war, stories of all of the things people do to each other. This was Zora's true profession, and it was much valued by the people of this land. So Zora told her stories, and in exchange, she learned about the land ahead, about people that would welcome the friend of a friend. Eddie's canoe went north...
"It was late in July when they reached the Sharprock. Zora said that they saw few airplanes, and John thought that was good. They didn't have a map, only the words of an old Cree that had shared their camp a few days ago. Even he did not know very much about the river.
"You know how to get through the bend." She looked up at Brett and Pat. "You have a map, you have the advice of others that went through this river. Zora and John had nothing. The river divides before the bend. The current is gentle, and most would take the channel where most water flows. That is what Zora and John did. But that is a bad mistake. The wind was blowing hard from the southwest, and they didn't hear the falls until they were in fast water. Zora's paddle hit a rock and she almost lost it. The canoe slammed into another rock, then slid down a chute and took on water. She thought they would die. They were swept around the bend, and then Zora saw the bears. There were two of them on the eastern shore, and the canoe was headed right for them. Ahead were the falls. Zora remembers the roaring sound, the cloud of swirling mist over the water. She remembers her brother shouting at her, telling her to paddle. There was a chance. A large flat rock divided the current again, and a small stream flowed toward the shore. Somehow John steered them into this stream and a few seconds later the canoe landed. Zora remembers that they were going too fast. She does not remember them landing.
"Zora told me how she woke up. Her head hurt terribly. She showed me." The story-teller held her hand to her left temple and made a painful face. "She tried to move, but she was badly hurt, there was too much pain. She was lying on the rocks, just out of the water. She could hear the roar of the falls, but she could hear something else. She heard her brother. He was talking. She remembers turning her head, remembers how it throbbed when she moved it. She saw her brother standing by the water. Near him was a bear, and there were other bears walking the shore. Her brother was looking at the bear, looking and talking to it.
"John and Zora came to know that they landed on a very special place, a very odd place. There's a deep eddy upstream from the landing. It's full of fish. Every once in a while, a fish swims or gets chased into the current. A large flat rock divides the water, and some of it streams onto the shore. Fish are caught in the current, swept onto the shore, and fall into a shallow pool. The outlet of the pool is blocked with large rocks, and often branches and smaller rocks plug up the holes. The water can get through, but the fish cannot. They are trapped in the shallow water, and the bears know this. Always there are fish to be eaten at the falls, and always there are bears to eat them."
"Three ribs were broken on the canoe and Zora hurt when she breathed, so she had broken ribs too. Zora and John stayed there, and dried fish, and somehow made it through the first winter. They found work after that. Usually together in a camp where the pay was low and the work hard and no one asked questions. Always they returned to the river. After many years Zora got married and John was alone. They were safe now, and John bought his little piece of land. But always there were bears near the shore, waiting for the fish to come. And Zora says that her brother talked often to these bears, and never was afraid. He remembered what his mother had told him, that night when she died. He still believed that he was special, that the bears would obey him.”
The story-teller looked up at the rough group of logging men.
"This is your Bear-Man, this is your devil, the one you fear."
The story-teller looked directly at the canoeists. "He believes it to this day. And he is still there, living near the falls, talking to the bears that walk the path you must walk when you portage." But now he is old. Now he’s confused. He sometimes does not know if he's here in Ontario, or back in the hills of Yugoslavia. And he fears, yah he fears. He fears the Chetniks that will come again. He fears and hates, and his bears, they too hate."
Pat spoke now. "So you're telling me that this old guy, this John Yankovic guy has trained bears up there, that he sic's em on people?"
"Yes, I think that's what's happening." The story-teller looked sad. Yes, but only certain strangers." The story-teller turned to the men in the room. "Carl, what does your brother look like?" The dark haired woman looked across the room at the sallow faced old man with the bony fingers.
A tipsy man near the bar turned around. "He looks like Carl, but not so ugly!" A round of laughter burst from the men in the bar. The story-teller ignored them.
"Carl, when was the last time your brother had a shave?"
"You know he doesn't shave." The old man's voice was slightly slurred now.
"And Bill," she turned to Paquette - "what did the two moose hunters look like?"
"Do you mean did they have beards? Yeah, both of them had beards."
"And Chetniks, Chetniks had beards." The story-teller's voice dropped now, as though she spoke of a great sadness. "The men that came into John's village when he was a boy, the men that killed his mother, the men that he feared as he hid with the Gypsy in the hills, these men were Chetniks, and they were proud of their beards."
The story-teller looked at the four canoeists. "And now the bear-man is old. He is very old. And when he looks down on the portage from his cabin on the hill, he doesn't think very well. He doesn't think, but he remembers. He doesn't see hunters, or fishermen, or canoeists. He sees Chetniks, troopers gone bad. He's ready for them. His bears are ready for them."
"This guy - he thinks people with beards are chet necks? What the hell is a chet neck?" Brett's voice was also a bit slurred now. A glance at the bottles lined up on the bar offered some explanation for his poor elocution.
The story-teller was impatient. "It doesn't matter. The only thing that matters to you and your friends here is that John and his bears are not going to like the looks of you."
"Why didn't anyone call the police about this guy?" Phil spoke quietly, but his voice was tinged with concern. "It sounds like he might get someone killed. He ought to go to a hospital or, or facility of some kind."
The story-teller looked at Phil. "I'm afraid that you're right. Perhaps soon he must come out of the woods. His sister is still alive, and she would like him to live with her in town." She looked down at the floor. "Zora knows that John must come out, but she knows that this will be hard for him. He does not trust easily, and probably does not understand that he is getting senile."
"But for you and your friends," she now pointed at Phil, "you must get rid of your whiskers before you leave. Then you can pass through the portage with no trouble."
"I should shave off my beard?" Brett straightened up in his stool now. "Shave off my beard because of some crazy man? I don't think so!"
There was murmuring among the men in the room. Some were animated now, nodding their heads, glancing at their companions and smiling. Others seemed worried and concerned.
"I've told you the story of the bear-man. You can do whatever you want. But once you land on the portage, it will be too late to take my advice. Keep your beards if you want. Perhaps you will have trouble, or perhaps Zora's brother will have a good day and see only canoeists, not murdering soldiers. It's up to you." The story-teller now stood and gathered up her stitching. "If you change your mind, come to the brown trailer in the morning. We have a very good barber, and you can get your shave and be off on your trip." She walked to the door, and quietly opened it. The boy followed her, looking back at the four canoeists as he closed the door. The rain was barely falling now.
For another hour the four men sat in the cabin. There was much talk about the crazy man at the falls. Some were sure that he was dangerous, others scoffed at the story. Brett finally announced that he thought the story-teller, the woman with the dark hair, he thought she must be crazy, repeating such a strange tale. All of the men fell silent after that. None would agree with him, and Phil sensed that the evening was over.
They drove the Jeep and the wagon out to the edge of the clearing, and working under their headlights, quickly pitched the tent. For an hour the men awakened frequently and braved the mosquitoes to relieve themselves on the jumbled stumps at the edge of the clearing. Finally they dropped into a deep sleep. It had been a long day.
The second storm came late in the night, from beyond the distant horizon. It came first with a flash of light. The light penetrated the thin nylon tent, the thin eyelids of the four men, the thin veneer of civilized thought that rests lightly on men that visit the wilderness. Then thunder came rolling, gathering strength, gathering the loneliness of the dark swampland, the desolation of broken, stunted trees, the emptiness of cold, deep water. It crashed suddenly like a giant hammer that shook the earth and shook the small frightened boy that lived deep in the tightened belly of each sleeping man. The men awoke, the eyes opened, but each moved not at all. The wind came now and blew the tall trees together so that a creaking, knocking sound mixed with the rattling voice of the poplar, with the powerful hissing of the pines.
Flash! Each man counted the seconds. Was the storm coming closer or would it pass? It was coming. The only hiding place was the feigned indifference that each man now assumed. Bang! The thunder struck down at the quivering earth. Storm? What storm? Slept like a baby. Each rehearsed the lines he would perform when his companions awoke in the morning.
The fatigue of the long day before, the numbing alcohol, they were gone now, and each man could think clearly. Brett Pearson suddenly remembered.
It was a night like this night. Loud thunder, bright lightning. He was very young then. He remembered. He shared a room with his younger brother. They both looked at each other, but like his companions lying next to him now, they did not speak.
The telephone rang that night, and he heard his father, then his mother talking to someone. Lights went on, then his mother entered the boy's room. His parents had to leave. Brett heard his father go down the stairs to the basement. He would get the clothes line, use it for something. Brett should watch his brother, he was the man of the house. His mother and father had to help Grandma. The boys could leave the light on, but they should try to sleep.
Brett remembered. Their grandpa was sick. He stopped talking. They didn't visit their grandma very much. He remembered. He remembered waking up, and his father was still gone. His grandma was sleeping with his mother. Grandma was hurt. She fell down. She was sad. Brett's father was with grandpa. There was sadness and fear in the house. Something was wrong with his grandpa. He remembered. Alzheimer's. His grandpa got it.
Flash! Boom! Closer that time. He remembered.
Phil too remembered. There was thunder like this that night on Barker road, back when he was in high school. Chris Losee, and Mike Hanson and Jeff Quinn were there. Chris had his father's Oldsmobile convertible, the one with the Rocket 88 engine. Chris had heard about Barker road, how it was out in the sticks, how it was straight. They went there and Chris floored the big Olds. Ninety, one hundred, one hundred and ten - the car started to float as the trees whizzed by. Phil remembered the same sick feeling in his stomach as his companions joked and whooped.
They made it to the end, and Chris said they would try it again. Phil said no. His friends let the "chicken" out and made two more runs. They did not crash that night. Phil swore he wouldn't be chicken again. He remembered. He remembered that Chris was dead now. His car went off the road one night. No one knew why, but they wondered. Maybe a deer jumped out in front of him, or maybe he fell asleep. Phil never told anyone about the night on Barker road. Chris was dead now. Thunder growled at the night, off in the distance...
First light comes early in the high latitudes. The loons seem to sense each change, from cloudy to clear, from windy to calm, from night to morning. They called out now, a low, haunting lament that carried through the forest to the clearing. Phil's eyes opened.
Quietly he dressed and fumbled for his glasses in the net loft hanging from the tent poles. He gently tapped on the mosquito screen to dislodge as many bugs as he could, then opened it slightly and slipped out. There was no sun yet, only a pale red glow to the northeast. No wind rustled the poplars now. Deep tracks of heavy equipment criss-crossed the clearing, and were filled with water from the heavy rain last night. As he came out of the woods, he glanced at the cluster of trailers on the other side of the clearing. The trailers were green, but one was brown, A light was shining from the windows of the brown trailer. He could see someone moving inside. He would go there.
There were five other trailers clustered together near the widest part of the road. Two seemed to be connected together, and smoke was coming from the chimney on one of the two. Another thin column of smoke trickled from a sheet metal chimney in the corner of the brown trailer. As Phil approached, he heard crunching gravel behind him. It was Miles, his canoeing partner. He too was coming to the brown trailer.
The trailer was old and worn. A seam had opened near the roof, and it seemed that pine pitch had been used to seal it back up again. The outside was dirty and neglected. Phil supposed that in a land of snow and cold, few people would pause to admire the outside of any building. Miles was with him now, and they knocked on the flimsy door.
The small boy opened the door and smiled at the bedraggled canoeists as they entered. The trailer inside was remarkably clean, and embroidered curtains covered the windows on the other side. There was a small round table and a few wooden chairs. The boy spoke in a quiet, shy voice.
"Did you come for your shave?"
"Yes, I want a shave." Phil smiled down at the young host and slid into a wooden chair. The boy looked at Miles.
"I'll have one too." The men smelled coffee. The boy disappeared and soon was back with two metal mugs. He placed them before the men. The boy disappeared. The men heard murmuring from the room in the back of the trailer.
There was another "stool" in the middle of the room - a wooden chair with planks nailed to the legs to make them longer. The boy returned with a deep metal tray, and gestured to Miles. He must sit in the stool. Quickly, as though he had done it many times before, the young boy prepared Miles for his shave. Phil was amused at how far the boy had to reach to complete each step. It seemed a big job for so little a man.
He looked around the trailer. There were carved wooden plates hanging on the long wall, and pictures. Most were of the boy, formal portraits, one obviously a school picture. There was another, some award with a picture. It was the story-teller, the dark haired woman. She was standing, dressed in a white uniform. There were people gathered around her, old people, walkers, wheel chairs... Something, something …appreciation… Phil couldn't read it from his chair. He turned to the boy and smiled.
"Is the barber nearby?"
As if in answer, the door opened and a tall, wiry woman appeared. She seemed very old. Her face was turned slightly, so Phil saw only her profile. There was a scar or indentation on her left temple, some deformity or injury that had healed badly. This woman also had a waxy patch of thin skin on her cheek. Part of her scalp had no hair, and the spot was ill concealed by the mixture of gray and brown wavy hair that covered it. Large blue veins stood out on her hand and the hand held a straight razor that was opened slightly. Soft moccasins covered her feet, laced up over dirty men's trousers. She walked over to Phil's partner and immediately began to remove his beard. Phil watched.
It only took a minute for him to notice that the old woman held her head in an unusual way. She seemed to look straight ahead, rather than down at her work. Her hands moved deftly though, her strokes with the razor were smooth and exact, much like the stitches of the story-teller the night before. Miles relaxed as the old woman held his face and gently turned him this way and that. Within a few minutes she was finished, and she called out to the boy.
The boy dug a towel from the tray and carefully placed it on Miles face. The old woman called to the boy again.
"I'm over here."
"You stay there while I make this sharp"
The woman then pulled up a leather strap attached to the chair and sharpened the razor, making it sing against the leather. The boy removed the towel from Miles face and he returned to his chair.
"Who is next?" The old woman turned to face the chairs against the wall. She turned and Phil could see her eyes, framed in a face hardened by the outdoors. Eyes that looked, then smiled, but saw not at all. She stood with the razor, waiting.
Phil stood up and without thinking, walked to the stool. His mind raced, searching frantically for a reason to walk away, but he could think of nothing. Now the boy placed a towel on his face. Johnny. Yenesek. A coincidence? And this woman - Zora found that she was a good barber. Zora the barber, the throat cutter! He could hear the razor sing on the leather again. The lather - he was ready. Phil swallowed hard. The razor touched him and started to move.
"How are you this morning?" Phil tried to keep his voice under control, tried not to look at the old hand that held the razor.
"We are fine." The old woman felt for Phil's ear as she spoke, then made another stroke with the razor. "You are the canoeists? Johnny said you would come, that you wanted a shave before your trip."
Afraid to turn his head even a little, Phil rolled his eyes to look at young Johnny. The boy smiled at him.
"We were at Mr. Paquette's bar last night." The cords stood out on Phil's neck as the razor touched his throat. The razor stopped.
"Please, it will be all right." The old woman touched his throat, stroking it slightly. "You worry because I can't see well. Don't worry, I do this a long time yah. So you drank with our friends. And up so early. Good for you. It's the one that wakes up to work that is the man, not the one that drinks the most."
"There was a woman there, she told a story..."
"That was Anna. The men love her stories so." Now the razor stroked his throat, smooth and easy.
"You are Zora, aren't you?" Phil spoke softly, keeping his eyes on the razor.
"Zora? No. I am Anna's mother, and this is my grandson, Johnny." She turned to the boy now. "Go, go and get more towels ready. The others will come soon." The boy quickly walked through the cheap, narrow door that led to the back of the trailer.
"Do you know a woman named Zora? Maybe in Neepa?"
The old woman pushed gently on Phil's head, tilting it slightly to the right.
"No, there is no Zora in town. Benjamin, his wife is Zora, but they only came to visit. Yah, she was Zora, but we have no Zora in town. Do you look for someone?"
"Benjamin - Ben Somers?"
"Yah, Benjamin. Do you know Benjamin?"
"Ben is in our canoe club. I see him sometimes at our meetings. His wife, Ben's wife - her name is Zora? I didn't know that."
"Yah. Zora. She is good cook that one. My Anna, she has many recipes from Zora. Our men work hard and like their food. Anna, she always tries new things."
Phil's brow wrinkled up as he tried to think. It wasn't making sense. Zora is Ben's wife, the old woman is a barber, but she's not Zora...
"Please" the old hands stroked Phil's chin. "Please be still. I will be done soon yah."
The razor moved swiftly now. Phil thought that the woman didn't trust him to keep still.
"Your daughter - Anna, she told us a story about the bear man."
"A naked man?"
"No, no. A bear man. A man that..." Phil's voice trailed off. It was all starting to sound pretty stupid, like a story built up from bits and pieces of the truth. The old hands now stroked his face, checking for spots that might have been missed. Above his face, the ceiling suddenly lit up. A ray of light from the morning sun reflected and lit up the trailer, lighting up the pictures on the wall, the face of the old woman, the young boy Johnny standing now with a towel. The wrinkles on Phil's forehead relaxed. The old woman sensed the light too and turned her clouded eyes to the east. It was good to work, to be useful. This would be a good day. She deftly finished the shave and called to her grandson. Phil rose from his chair.
"What is the charge for our shave?" Phil seemed very relaxed now, almost slightly amused.
"A shave is ten dollars" It was the young boy that spoke. He too was happy. Twenty dollars! He would go to town with his grandma next week. He must be good until then.
The canoeist reached into his pocket, again looking at the pictures in the small room, lighted now by the morning sun.
The boy's school career was well documented. He looked again at the picture with the story-teller. It was an award, but not something done by a printer. The frame was very old, perhaps borrowed from some old photo that was no longer important. Yes it was the woman - Anna - each arm on the shoulder of an old man. The men in the picture were tough old characters, refusing to smile. One crippled man on the left obviously could not stand, but forced himself to do so, his arm straight and stiff on the arm of a wheel chair next to him, his left hand holding the branch of a small tree.
"The men of the west terrace express their
appreciation to their Scheherazade
Scheherazade - the woman that saved herself by telling stories. Phil looked closely again at the picture. These guys were old, old. The picture was signed by the men, and the signatures were very shakey. He knew that it was unusual to see men in a nursing home. Often there were twenty women to each man. The men just died quicker. These men must be in a soldiers home - maybe a veteran's hospital. She would have talked to them, learned their stories, learned things that they would not want people to forget.
"We aren't much to talk about, all by ourselves, but put our stories together and we're had one hellava life." Phil muttered as he looked out the window at the morning sun.
"What's that you say, Phil?"
Phil smiled, then laughed. He turned to his partner and slapped him on the back.
"You sure look a hellava lot better partner!" Miles was somewhat startled but glad that the tension was gone. He thought about the trip ahead. They would launch into Rockshell lake, not far from the clearing. He couldn't wait to get started.
As the men approached the tent, they could see their bearded partners emerge and squint in the sunlight. They could hear Brett talking to Pat.
"Boy, I slept like a baby last night." He stood behind Phil's station wagon, pulling up his pants while he spoke. Pat McCafferty was still waking up, looking around stupidly for some lost object. Brett looked up when Phil opened the back of the wagon. He immediately noticed their lack of facial hair.
"Why looka here!" The big man smirked as he buckled his belt and walked around the tent. "Two more victims for the Bear Man!" Phil and Miles said nothing. They opened up the tent and started to stuff their sleeping bags, roll up their pads. They were packing when the young boy - Johnny - came running across the clearing.
"You can come to breakfast after your shave. You don't need money. Over there." The boy pointed to the two trailers connected together. Brett started to speak, but the boy was already running away.
"Get a shave, and they feed you for free. Sounds like a good deal." Phil pushed down on his oversized pack, stuffing in the last of his gear.
"I don't think so." said the big man.
Pat was looking at his two shaven companions now. His brain starting to work. Bear ought not to act that way, growling at some and not at others. His hand went now to his thickly grizzled chin.
Phil turned to Brett.
"I don't blame you, Brett, for not going. I didn't know that the barber here is old Zora - the one that cut the throat of the Chetnik. She's blind, too. Shaves you by feel. Not for the faint hearted." Phil slapped Miles on the back again, but left his hand on his partner's back, as though to restrain him.
"Miles and I kept our mouths shut. We figured that the quicker we got out of there, the better. If you go, don't ask her any questions, don't remind her of the past. Nice shave, though." Phil smiled and rubbed his chin.
"You're probably right, anyway. I'm sure that I won't have any bear trouble on the portage. Let's get us some breakfast, partner" The two men walked away. Phil started whistling.
Pat watched the two men leave. He won't have any trouble, but what about me? His face got a worried look now. Zora! the barber was Zora, the throat cutter!
"Will we go? Maybe this Zora barber is crazy too."
"You aren't afraid of some old woman, are you?" Brett never seemed to pass up a chance to rub something in.
A wonderful smell was drifting across the rough gravel as the two men walked up to the cook house. They heard the clatter of dishes and the shuffling of feet on the wooden floor, the low murmur of morning conversation. It all stopped as the two men walked into the room.
Paquette was there, dressed in worn coveralls and boots, a thick red flannel shirt. He smiled and waved at the two men. it seemed that half of the men in the room were glad to see the canoeists. They were smiling and waving. The other half seemed disappointed - mouths were clenched tightly shut and faces turned away. Phil chuckled as he waved back at Paquette. The men like to wager...
It took a minute before the men in the room realized that only two canoeists would have breakfast. The scowling half suddenly became animated, started talking to their companions. The men couldn't see the clearing, couldn't see the brown trailer through the high window in the dining room. They turned to look anyway. There was tension in the room. The morning was still interesting. There were two large doors that led to each section of trailer. Phil looked through the doors and saw Anna - Anna the cook, dressed in her white uniform. She was very busy. The men were hungry.
Miles saw the loggers helping themselves to coffee from a large urn in the corner. He motioned to Phil, and the two men went to fill their mugs. They were about to make their second trip when they heard a shout.
The door was open now, and Brett entered, a confused look on his clean shaven face, his eyes moving back and forth across the room. He stopped and turned around, as if needing reassurance from his companion behind him. When he turned back, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Phil. He was cracking a smile as Miles snapped a picture of the beardless trio. The loggers smiled too - the winners smiled. The losers were scowling again.
Phil turned his head and looked into the kitchen. The story-teller was looking out at the room of men. She saw Phil looking at her. Phil smiled at her, raised his hand to his forehead - a quick salute to Scheherazade. This would be a good day...
copyright 2000 – James A. Hegyi – email@example.com – http://www.canoestories.com/