Ghost of spirit bear, p.1
Ghost of Spirit Bear, p.1
B E N M I K A E L S E N
This book is dedicated to all the readers
of Touching Spirit Bear who not only read the words
with their eyes, but felt the story with their hearts.
About the Author
Also By Ben Mikaelsen
About the Publisher
Every part of a Circle
Is both a beginning and an end.
And in a Circle
Everything is one.
(A REMOTE ISLAND IN SOUTHEAST ALASKA)
COLE MATTHEWS’S PAROLE officer, Garvey, met him at the cabin door carrying a crowbar.
“What’s that for?” Cole asked, eyeing him.
“To tear down this cabin.”
“You’re not tearing down my cabin!” Cole challenged. “I built this thing.”
“You’re right, I’m not—you are,” Garvey said, shoving the crowbar into Cole’s hands, “the way you destroyed the first one that was built for you.”
“You’re never going to let me forget my mistakes, are you?” Cole said.
“I hope you never forget anything that happened out here on the island,” Garvey answered. “You built this cabin to protect yourself. Has it done that?”
“Yeah, but maybe somebody else could use it.”
“Building this cabin helped build your character,” Garvey said. “Maybe the next person needs to build his character, too. It’s your responsibility to leave this Earth the way you found it. You should know better than anybody that you are part of the Circle—if you diminish anything around you, you diminish yourself. Land needs to heal the same as people.”
“How does tearing down a cabin heal the land?”
“This cabin isn’t a part of nature like the trees and animals. Even without you, the world heals itself by rotting the wood floors and rusting the nails. Winds pry apart the walls, and eventually moss covers the roof.”
“It’s such a waste,” Cole persisted.
“Only to you. The Earth wants back space where she can grow her grasses and feed her creatures again. Animals are afraid of this cabin.”
“How about our totems?” Cole asked, pointing to the poles he and his friend Peter had planted on the shore above the high-tide line. The images they had carved during their isolation here on the island now faced proudly toward the ocean.
“The totems can stay—animals don’t fear them.”
Cole sighed. “Why can’t we just burn the cabin?”
Garvey shook his head. “That causes pollution. It’ll take years for the Earth to grow back vegetation where you burned down the first cabin—you killed the microorganisms in the soil.”
Reluctantly Cole pried a wall panel loose. It didn’t do any good to argue with the Tlingit elder. Things were either right or wrong. Garvey thought everything in life affected everything else in the universe. To him, it was all about choices and consequences. You didn’t pick your nose without it having some cosmic effect.
Cole glanced down the shoreline to where his friend Peter was loading the lantern, cooking gear, sleeping bags, and other provisions into the aluminum skiff.
“You built it, so you tear it down,” Garvey said. “Don’t be looking to Peter for help.”
“I was just looking,” Cole said.
Garvey pointed. “Anything that won’t rot—plastic, glass, old shingles, tar paper—you’ll take back to Drake and bury in the dump. Pull all the nails out and carry the planks deep into the forest, where they can once again become part of the land. By this time next year they will have rotted away. Mother Earth takes back quickly what’s hers.”
For two hours Cole worked. Peter and Garvey finished loading supplies, then sat on the rocks by the shoreline talking to each other. When the cabin was removed, Garvey walked over to the ground where it had stood and roughed up the dirt with a shovel. Then he spread leaves and pine needles over the disturbed soil. “Again this place has helped to heal,” he said, closing his eyes. His lips moved silently. When he finished, he turned to Cole. “Take Peter upstream before we leave. I want you both to soak in the pond and carry the ancestor rocks one more time. It will need to last you a lifetime.”
Cole called Peter to join him.
“I’m bringing the at.óow,” Peter said, referring to the woven blanket Cole had given him. The handmade blanket with its bright red and blue totem images was the same blanket Garvey had given Cole to prove his trust when he first set foot on the island. Before that, it had been passed down through many generations of Tlingit elders.
With the at.óow wrapped around his shoulders, Peter followed Cole as they hiked along the stream. Every few steps, Peter stumbled. Once he fell but refused help getting back up. “You w-w-won’t always be around to help me,” he stuttered.
Cole slowed his walk.
When they reached the quiet pond, they took off their clothes and waded in without hesitation. No longer did the icy water take Cole’s breath away—now he welcomed the piercing chill. Sitting on underwater rocks, he and Peter closed their eyes and breathed in. With each deep breath, Cole imagined himself becoming invisible, not to someone’s sight, but quiet enough to fit into all that was around him—the landscape, the air, and the universe—a part of the Circle that Garvey always spoke of. Soon a squirrel chased another across a nearby stump. Fish swam within inches of Cole’s legs, and birdcalls filled the air. These were things he never noticed when his mind was busy.
Cole allowed his thoughts to drift. The world was filled with different forces. Good ones—like animals, nature, and healing—had shaped him here. And then there was his old life back in Minnesota with his parents arguing every night. He remembered his father drinking and stomping around the house, a wild glare in his eyes, whiskey strong on his breath, and a belt hanging as a whip from his tight fist.
School hadn’t been any better with all the bullies. The only way to survive was to fight back. Cole remembered drinking and trying drugs. His parents, who worked all the time, hadn’t cared. They probably wouldn’t have noticed if he had become an alien.
For excitement, Cole began stealing and getting into trouble with the law. One day, Peter Driscal had ratted on him for breaking into a hardware store, so Cole beat him up and smashed his head against the sidewalk. That brain injury now caused Peter to stutter, stumble, and walk leaning forward.
Cole’s parents had refused to post bail when assault and robbery charges were filed. Even now, Cole wondered what would have happened if Garvey hadn’t intervened. It was the Tlingit parole officer who had suggested an alternative called Circle Justice.
Instead of jail, Cole was offered a year’s banishment on this remote Alaskan island. The isolation was to be a vision quest of sorts, a search into himself to try to rehabilitate his heart and soul. It was here that a white Spirit Bear had attacked and nearly killed him. It was here that he had angrily burned down the cabin that had been built for his survival. But it was also here that he had finally reached out and gently touched the Spirit Bear, finding beauty in life and finding his place in the Circle.
The year had been hard. After his recovery, Cole had been allowed to return to the island on one c
Cole breathed deeper and slowed his heartbeat as his thoughts drifted with the breeze that ruffled the pond. Gradually he forgot that he was a five feet, ten inch troubled teenager from Minneapolis. With each breath, he melted into the landscape around him. He felt no dimension, and he felt no more and no less important than the rock he sat on or the eagle that circled overhead. At moments like this, he knew what Garvey had meant when he had talked about being a part of the Circle. Cole felt himself drifting with the clouds, a part of the wind that rustled through the trees.
He didn’t know how long he had soaked when he finally opened his eyes. He felt a presence and slowly turned his head. Not fifty feet away stood the big white Spirit Bear, staring at him, its thick coat of bushy hair shimmering in the breeze. The bear stood proudly, its eyes passive but aware.
Beside Cole, Peter already sat staring, mesmerized by the huge white creature. The bear must have sensed they were watching him. It turned and vanished effortlessly into the underbrush. “I’m going to miss seeing him,” Peter whispered.
They sat in silence for a long moment before wading ashore. “Let’s carry the ancestor rocks now,” Cole murmured, as he dried himself and dressed. To speak out loud in the forests seemed disrespectful to nature.
Soon they finished dressing. They picked up the large ancestor rocks that they had carried so many times before. Cole carried his with his left arm—his right arm was too weak from his injuries. As he climbed, he thought of the generations of ancestors who had gone before him to bring his life to where it was at this moment. He resolved to make his life count for something when he got back to Minneapolis so that the lives of his ancestors would not be wasted by his stupidity.
At the top of the hill, Cole and Peter set their stones on the ground and gave them a shove. As the rocks tumbled down the slope, Cole imagined all the frustrations and anger in his life rolling away. Then, in total silence, he followed Peter back to camp.
Garvey was waiting patiently for them beside the boat. “How did it go?” he asked.
“We s-s-saw the Spirit Bear,” Peter stuttered.
“He came right to the pond,” Cole added.
Garvey smiled. “That’s good.”
“It’s kind of sad knowing we’ll never see him again,” Cole said.
“You’ll always see him,” Garvey said.
“Not in Minneapolis,” Peter argued.
“Yes, you’ll always find the Spirit Bear if you look.”
(TWO WEEKS LATER)
WALKING TO SCHOOL the first morning was strange and different. On the island, Cole had hiked the rocky path to the pond each morning at daybreak. Around him had been the sounds of seagulls calling, the screech of owls, and twigs snapping in the underbrush. The pungent smell of pine trees, salt water, and rotting seaweed had filled the air. Sometimes the chuffing sound of killer whales broke the stillness as they breached. And always Cole had felt the hidden eyes of the Spirit Bear calmly watching him from deep in the trees.
Here, walking on a smooth sidewalk in the city, Cole smelled car exhaust. He heard dogs barking, a garbage truck loading trash, and the traffic going by. A siren screamed in the distance. He missed the Spirit Bear. The city felt like some foreign planet. Cole wanted to cover his ears and close his eyes to it all. He didn’t fit into this world.
Cole noticed his reflection in the window of a parked car as he walked. He had grown taller and thinner on the island. His skin was weathered and rough, and his muscles had become strong and lean. His old clothes no longer fit him, but he felt uncomfortable in his new ones.
As he neared the school, Cole hugged his injured right arm against his waist and tried not to limp. If he let the arm hang, it swung awkwardly because of the bone and muscle damage. He dared not let his injuries show. Around the bullies, he’d be like a wounded rabbit with wolves.
Cole blinked back his feelings of fear and frustration. On the island he had learned to control his emotions. He had learned from Garvey and another Tlingit elder, Edwin, that he could never fully get rid of anger because it was a memory. But he had also learned to focus on the good. A good day wasn’t a day without clouds but rather a day when one focused on finding the sunlight behind the clouds.
Cole wondered if he could keep that same focus back here in the city. The very moment he stepped onto the plane heading for Minneapolis that concern had begun eating at his gut. What would happen when the island was simply a memory and the Spirit Bear was only a ghost from his past? What would happen when he returned to the bullies and gangs? The students would remember only the old angry Cole who once prowled the hallways looking for fights. And maybe that old angry Cole still existed, a monster who would one day return without warning.
As he approached the school, the knot tightened in Cole’s throat and kept him from swallowing. A statue of the Minneapolis Central bulldog mascot seemed to snarl at him from its familiar pedestal on the front lawn. The dog had one leg broken off and one ear missing. Cole remembered spraying graffiti on the marble pedestal himself. Now it was tagged with gang symbols, some that Cole no longer recognized. Looking at the ratty bulldog made his memory of the proud and magical white Spirit Bear seem like a distant dream.
Groups of kids hung around outside the school, shoving and slapping at one another and shouting names. Most wore baggy pants and T-shirts. Some wore bandannas or jackets with gang colors. Already candy wrappers and soda cans littered the lawn.
Cole recognized some of the kids, but they seemed like strangers. The cliques and gangs had already begun gathering: the preppies, the jocks, the Goths, the red groups and blue groups, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and a dozen more. Each group eyed the others with disdain and distrust.
Cole felt like he was outside a fishbowl looking in. None of it made sense anymore. He had been fifteen and in tenth grade when he had beaten up Peter. Now he was coming back at seventeen but only starting eleventh grade because of the classes he’d missed. He felt a lifetime older.
Cole noticed one plain-looking white girl with long straight brown hair approaching the school.
“Hey, slut!” shouted a girl sitting on the steps near the door.
The girl kept walking, looking down at the sidewalk.
“Look who’s calling who a slut!” shouted one of the jocks.
“Shut up, jack—!” the girl yelled back.
“Shut up yourself, b—!” the boy answered.
Suddenly Cole wanted to scream, Stop it! Everybody just shut up! Garvey’s words came back to him: “Diminish anything around you and you diminish yourself.” Did these kids know they were destroying themselves with every word?
Students who recognized Cole turned and stared openly. His pulse quickened and his face warmed when he heard their whispers. In the past, he would have challenged any kid who dared to stare. Now he drew in a deep breath and lowered his eyes, afraid of what he might do if confronted.
A familiar voice interrupted Cole’s thoughts. “Hey, you,” Peter called, hurrying over in his stumbling gait. “H-h-how are ya?”
“Good. How are you doing?”
The smile left Peter’s face. “Two kids have called me a retard already. I wish we were still on the island. I want to go back and soak in the pond.”
Cole studied his friend’s troubled face. The beating and the brain injury had left Peter superemotional. Sometimes he laughed and cried at the same time. Cole remembered Peter’s first nights on the island, waking up screaming as if he were still being attacked. With time, his fears had calmed, but Cole worried that those haunted thoughts would return here in the city.
Cole knew he was responsible for Peter’s injuries, but he also knew he had helped him. After Peter attempted suicide the second time, Cole had suggested that the fearful boy visit the island. H
At first, Peter’s parents had refused, but in desperation they finally agreed under the condition that Garvey accompany the two boys to help protect their son.
On the island, Cole had struggled hard to help Peter discover that he, too, was a part of something much larger than himself, like a strand woven into a blanket or a brushstroke in a picture. Peter learned to be aware of but not to focus on his own self.
Standing now on the school grounds watching the other students, emotions welled up in Cole. A thought kept haunting him: Maybe the monster that Peter once feared still existed.
In each class, Cole picked a desk near the back, trying not to be noticed. During lunch, he sat alone, eating slowly, chewing, tasting, and appreciating each mouthful before he swallowed. Kids around him stuffed food into their faces, arguing and complaining.
“These hamburgers suck!” one girl grumbled.
“So do the french fries,” another student added.
Cole watched kids dump tray after tray of half-eaten food into the garbage can. He wondered how everybody would behave if they had almost starved on an island. What if they had been forced to eat vomit, insects, and mice just to stay alive, as he had? What if they, too, had touched the Spirit Bear?
An assembly was called for the last period. Cole couldn’t find Peter, so he sat alone in the bleachers, ignoring the shouting and shoving. The teachers bunched together against the wall under the mural of the vicious bulldog mascot. They visited with one another and ignored the students.
On the gym floor, a short, neatly dressed woman stepped up to the podium and tapped the microphone. “Okay, listen up everyone! I’m Ms. Kennedy, the new principal,” she said in a monotone, as if her voice were a recording.
“Hey, witch, you listen up!” a student screamed back.
The woman pulled the microphone closer. “Welcome! I’m Ms. Kennedy, your new principal. I’ve called this assembly to welcome you back to Minneapolis Central High, home of the proud Bulldogs. I appreciate your being here.”