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The Bear

The Curse of the Wild

By John CoxPublished 22 days ago Updated 14 days ago 7 min read
Top Story - March 2024
28
The harder Zacharias stared, the more clearly he began to see the man hidden within the beast.

The bear sat in the shadows, its muzzle white with age and eyes filmy and blind. Zacharias stared at it with wonder and not a little fear. He had not known that anything could be so impossibly ancient in the Wild.

The forest, finally still, had led him to the mouth of the bear’s cave, for some unknown purpose. The buck that drove him there with impatient snorts and the push and prick of heavy antlers, stood motionless and silent behind him. Even the echo of bird song in the surrounding treetops had ended, the wood eerily still.

He had heard the stories from his earliest youth of a terrible secret hidden in the fastness of the forest. The old timers simply referred to it as the Wild, punctuating their warnings with stories of cannibal mountain men and the ghosts of lost souls haunting the swamp land in its dark and dismal center.

But one story stood out from all the others. The story of an uncommonly large bear. Some said the floor of the lair where it dwelt was so deeply covered in the litter of his victims’ bones, that when the bear moved into the light the sound of their rattling and crunching under its massive paws was the last thing any hunter ever heard who once imagined wearing its hide as a trophy.

It was the story that brought Zacharias to the Last Ditch, the nearest town to the Wild’s western border, his long rifle slung casually over his shoulder, a bedroll and pack on his back and a heavy Bowie knife hung from his belt. His first evening in town, he drank whisky in the Bear’s Lair Saloon, and listened to an old greybeard who slapped the bar for emphasis as he loudly exclaimed, “That bear can’t be killed.”

As he sloppily guzzled a tankard of beer, Zacharius rudely asked him, “Ever seen this bear, old man, or know anyone who ever did?”

The old man laughed and coughed, the beer dripping from his beard onto his paunch. “No one has ever lived to tell that tale, young greenhorn.”

“If no one has lived to tell it, how do you know the bear even exists?”

Scowling, the old man spit on the floor. “Many a man better than you has dared the Wild and not returned. If you weren’t so cock-sure, you’d go back to where you come from and forget about that demon bear.”

Zacharius arched an eyebrow before turning to the barkeep. “Where can I find a cheap room?”

The following morning Zacharias left before the sun crested the eastern horizon and entered the wood. The birds were already active, the air filled with their song, his long stride moving him easily down the wide and packed trail for the first few hours till the sun began to warm the cool, forest air.

But by mid-day the trail had narrowed to a foot path and his pace slowed, exposed roots and dead fall beginning to impede his progress. In the early afternoon he paused to take his first break, removing his boots and socks to inspect and rub his feet and then pulling a chunk of crusty bread and a couple strips of cured meat from his pack for a quick lunch. After changing to fresh socks and shaking out his boots before donning them, he continued up the trail.

He only stopped again once the sun dipped below the western horizon to break out his cooking gear and light a small fire to prepare his dinner. Once the fire died down, he unrolled his blanket on a thick bed of moss and wrapped himself against the chill, his rifle tightly gripped by his right hand in case it was needed in the night.

But in the morning when he awoke to gaze into the dim light of predawn, the ground beneath him seemed strangely hard and stony. Sitting carefully up he looked around for the moss, but it had disappeared. “Did I imagine it?” he muttered. That’s when he saw a one-eyed buck standing a few paces from him, with as large a set of antlers as he'd ever seen.

Even without the sun shining above him he could see the scars on the buck's neck and flanks from the battles he had fought to protect his harem. Zacharias found himself wondering if they were hiding nearby with their fawns, waiting for their lord and master to drive the intruder away. But the buck continued to gaze at the man on the ground as if it had nothing better to do.

Without taking his eyes of the beast, Zacharias’ hand slipped out of the blanket to reach for his rifle. But it was gone. The Bowie knife was missing as well. Getting carefully to his feet, he discovered his pack and all his food had also disappeared.

He needed that rifle if he wanted to hunt that bear, and he took furtive glances about his surroundings to see if he could locate it. But when the buck began to approach him with a lowered rack, Zacharias made a sudden dash toward the trail, but it cut him off with a single bound and prodded his belly with its antlers in the opposite direction.

Soon he was moving into the fastness of the Wild as the buck herded him deeper into the wood, the girth and height of the surrounding trees increasing with every terrified step, the leafy canopy above him darkening the forest floor till it was difficult to see where he stepped.

No matter how careful his footfalls, he tripped again and again on exposed roots as if a malevolent sentience lived among the great trees and tormented him for its own twisted pleasure. Then deep rumblings and groans began to sound around him as if the trees had found their voices and began to converse a few octaves below the buzzing whine of cicadas high above him.

His eyes now wide with terror, Zacharias thought that surely he was still asleep in his bedroll and this was a strange and terrible dream. He would soon wake up and feel the stock of his long rifle in his hand, and he would begin another day’s walk into the depths of the Wild in search of his quarry. But no matter how hard Zacharias pinched himself, the rumbling of the towering trees around him continued and the buck prodded him whenever he moved in a direction not in accordance with his heavy antlered guidance.

He walked in this manner for seeming hours, his surroundings never growing either lighter or darker, seemingly confirming with each missed step that he still slept. Eventually the noisy cicadas grew quiet and aside from the rumbling groans of the trees only a single bird sang, the haunting echoes of its flutelike voice leading him forward as the buck continued to prod him from behind.

And then everything stopped. The buck stood behind his prisoner, its antlers proudly raised, the only sound a soft breeze as it rustled the branches in the otherwise silent trees.

That's when Zacharias finally saw the bear as it sat in shadow at the mouth of its lair. Even sitting there in the weak light, he could see that the beast was massive. Zacharias felt naked without his rifle, but he was not convinced that it would have helped him even if he held it in his trembling hands.

But gazing at the blind bear Zacharias felt a chill raise the hairs on the back of his neck. Something was not right. In the moment it seemed more frightening than the rumbling voices of the trees or the buck who led him here.

The harder Zacharias stared, the more clearly he began to see the man hidden within the beast. And finally the bear spoke.

“What year is this?” he asked softly. But Zacharias stood rigid and mute with fear. When he failed to answer the bear continued to sit with such stillness that Zacharias began to believe he had only imagined it.

“What year is this?” the bear asked a little louder this time, in case the man was hard of hearing.

Zacharias rubbed his eyes and tried to shake the cobwebs out of his head as if a final effort to awaken from the strangeness of the dream. He finally squeaked, “Eighteen thirteen.”

“And the date?”

“July 15th,” he said with some confusion.

“One hundred years to the day,” the bear muttered wearily. “I was a man of thirty when I first entered the Wild.”

Zacharias stared at the bear with mouth agape.

“Take off your clothes,” the bear continued quietly, and the buck suddenly renewed his prodding in Zacharias’ back.

But he did not argue or attempt to even understand. He simply stripped until he stood naked in the waning light and discovered that a man stood before him where a moment before an ancient bear had sat.

Opening his mouth, a growl emerged from his throat, and he knew he was Zacharias no longer.

The man donned Zacharias clothes before muttering, “One hundred years.” Then he began to walk toward a distantly remembered home, leaving the terrified bear behind him in the fastness of the deep wood.

Short StoryFantasy
28

About the Creator

John Cox

Family man, grandfather, retired soldier and story teller with an edge.

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (24)

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  • angela hepworth10 days ago

    The title mildly traumatized me at first since my mind immediately went to part 4 of Faulkner’s short story that I could never understand, but omg what an amazing story this is!! You have such a way with words and it shows!

  • Ameer Bibi15 days ago

    Congratulations for top story 💐💐💐 an amazing story of attractive combo of words or emotions

  • JBaz16 days ago

    I forgot to say Congratulations

  • JBaz16 days ago

    Oh I do like this one. a fascinating tale with w great outcome

  • Gerard DiLeo16 days ago

    So beautifully written. No wonder it's TS. Congrats.

  • Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • LASZLO SLEZAK17 days ago

    congratulations

  • Anna 17 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!! Well deserved!🥳

  • Kendall Defoe 17 days ago

    This is a parable wrapped in fantasy... Well done, sir!👏

  • Cathy holmes17 days ago

    Oh wow. This is incredibly well written. And what a surprise that ending was. Great work, John. Congrats on the TS.

  • Christy Munson17 days ago

    Great art work, John!

  • Jennifer David17 days ago

    Wow wow wow!!!!!!!!!! This is fantastic!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Christy Munson17 days ago

    Like Dharr, I did not see that coming! Wowza wow! Great twist. Loved your story. Incredible moments throughout. Well done!

  • Whoaaaa! I did not see that coming! Imagine finding the bear, for the bear to speak, to transform into a man, to steal his clothes and leaving him there in a bear body. Lol. That was freaking awesomeeee!

  • D.K. Shepard21 days ago

    Excellent story, John! Your narration of all the action sequences is so strong and the eeriness of the scene leapt off the page! The ending was 👍👍

  • ROCK 22 days ago

    This woke me from my impending Sunday afternoon slumber; what a mind gripping tale!

  • L.C. Schäfer22 days ago

    Is this a challenge entry, it's bloody brilliant!

  • Rachel Deeming22 days ago

    That was bloody brilliant, John. Was it our chat about Faulkner yesterday that inspired it? Atmospheric, mysterious, threatening and the lead up to the climax was just wonderful. Great storytelling.

  • Hannah Moore22 days ago

    Excellent story. I wonder what the buck's situation is.

  • Anna 22 days ago

    Wow! I wouldn't have thought it will end that way... awesome story, well done!😊

  • Wow! Fantastic!

  • I didn't see that ending coming. Great work, as usual, John! Thanks for the 2 a.m. read that will give me something unusual to dream about.

  • Andrea Corwin 22 days ago

    Trading places. 💯 is a long time to humans but probably not to these characters. But… did the others mentioned by the old man die at the claws of the bear or did the 💯 begin anew with each? 🧐

  • Mysterious & haunting, without malevolence, only a desire to be done with it & leave someone else to deal. More great storytelling, John.

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