Non-Fiction - The AO Story Collective

Under the Buckeye Trees

Renate Jakupca
Bears in Berea? - David Jakupca said - Oh, yes, there are two varieties on this side of the Rocky River. The chief difference between them is that the one kind of bear is a few degrees blacker in color than the other kind. But when you meet a bear in the woods, unexpectedly, you seldom trouble yourself to find out what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary. Because, whatever kind of bear it is that you run across in this way, you only do one kind of running. And this is the fastest kind.

I remember the occasion that I came across a bear unexpectedly, and to this day I couldn't tell you what color black he was.....whether pitch, lamp or ivory black, even though I am an expert environmental artist and had all the time I needed for studying him! It happened about mid-day, when I was out from The ARK in Berea walking along the path that leads to Rocky River, looking for my dogs Rolfe, Thor and Tanya.
I thought the dogs might be down there because it is cool and shady by the river under those buckeye trees, and there is soft grass that is very pleasant to sit on. After I had looked for the dogs for about an hour in this manner, sitting up against a tree-trunk, it occurred to me that I could look for them just as well, or perhaps even better, if I lay down flat.
For almost every one in Berea knows that Rolfe isn't so small that you have got to get on to stilts and things to see him properly.

So I lay on my back, with my hat tilted over my face, and my legs stretched out, and when I closed my eyes slightly the tip of my boot, sticking up into the air, looked just like Big Rock.

Overhead a lonely hawk wheeled, circling slowly round and round without flapping his wings, and I knew that not even a puppy could pass in any part of the sky between the tip of my toe and that hawk without my observing it immediately. What was more, I could go on lying there under the buckeye trees and looking for the dogs like that all day, if necessary. As you know, I am not the sort of neighbor to loaf about when there is a yard work to be done.

The more I screwed up my eyes and gazed at the toe of my boot, the more it looked like Big Rock. By and by it seemed that it actually was Big Rock, and I could see the stones on top of it, and the bush trying to grow up its sides, and in my ears there was a far-off humming sound, like bees in an orchard on a still day. As I have said, it was all very pleasant.

Then a strange thing happened. It was as though a huge dark storm cloud, shaped like an animal's head, had settled on top of Big Rock. It seemed so funny that I wanted to laugh. But I didn't. Instead, I opened my eyes a little more and felt glad to think that I was only dreaming. Because otherwise I would have to believe that the black cloud on Big Rock was actually a bear, and that he was gazing at my boot. Again I wanted to laugh. But then, suddenly, I knew.

And I didn't feel so glad. For it was a bear, all right - a large-sized, hungry-looking bear, and he was sniffing suspiciously at my feet. I was uncomfortable. I knew that nothing I could do would ever convince that bear that my toe was Big Rock. He was not that sort of bear. I knew that without even knowing what color black he was. Instead, having finished with my feet, he started sniffing higher up. It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I wanted to get up and run for it. But I couldn't. My legs wouldn't work.

Every big game hunter I have come across has told me the same story about how, at one time or another, he has owed his escape from lions and tigers and bears and other wild animals to his cunning in lying down and pretending to be dead, so that the beast of prey loses interest in him and walks off. Now, as I lay there on the grass, with the bear trying to make up his mind about me, I understand why, in such a situation, the hunter doesn't move. It's simply that he can't move. That's all. It's not his cunning that keeps him down. It's his limp legs.

In the meantime, the bear had got up as far as my knees. He was studying my trousers very carefully, and I started getting embarrassed. My trousers were old and rather unfashionable. Also, they were spattered with paint because I had just finished painting The Minstral Boy for the Bermuda Maritime Museum, and I wore them for the whole time I was doing the painting. And possible for a few paintings before that. The bear stared at my spattered trouseres for quite a while, and my embarrassment grew. I felt I wanted to explain about the Bermuda painting. I didn't want the bear to get the impression that I, David Jakupca was the sort of man who didn't care about his personal appearance.

When the bear got as far as my shirt, however, I felt better. It was a good blue flannel shirt that I had bought only a few weeks ago from the Secound Mile shop in Berea, and I didn't care how many strange bears saw it. Nevertheless, I made up my mind that next time I want to lie on the grass under the buckeye trees, looking for Rolfe and the boys, I would first polish up my boots with motor oil, and I would put on my green hat with a feather that I only wear on special occasions. I could not permit the wild animals of the neighborhood to sneer at me.

But when the bear reached my face, I got frightened again. I knew he couldn't take exception to my shirt. But I wasn't so sure about my face. Those were terrible moments. I lay very still, afraid to open my eyes and afraid to breathe. Sniff-sniff, the huge creature went, and his breath
swept over my face in hot grasps. You hear of many frightening experiences that a man has in a life-time. I have also been in quite a few perilous situations. But if you want something to make you suddenly old and to turn your hair white in a few moments, there is nothing to beat a bear - especially when he is standing over you, with his jaws at your throat, trying to find a good place to bite.

The bear gave a deep growl, stepped right over my body, knocked off my hat, and growled again. I opend my eyes and saw the animal moving away clumsily. But my relief didn't last long. The bear didn't move far. Instead, he turned over and lay down next to me.

Yes, there on the grass, in the shade of the buckeye trees, the bear and I lay down together. The bear lay half-curled up, on his side, with his forelegs crossed, like a dog, and whenever I tried to move away he grunted. I am sure that in the whole history of the Western Reserve there have never been two stranger companions engaged in the thankless task of looking for strayed dogs.

Next day, in Berea at Gray's Candy Kitchen, which people used as a meeting place while waiting for the arrival of the daily motor mail truck from Cleveland, I told my story to the farmers and quarrymen of the neighborhood, while they were drinking coffee and caught up on the neighrborhood news.

"And how did you get away from that bear in the end?" Jilliy van Koos asked, trying to be funny, "I suppose you crawled through the grass and frightened the bear off by pretending to be a snake."

"No, I just got up and walked home," I said. "I remembered that Rolfe might have gone home the other way and strayed into your yard. I thought they would be safer with the bear."

"Did the bear tell you what he thought of the President's last speech in Washington on Iceality?" Frank Welman asked, and they all laughed.

I told my story over several times before the mail truck came with our letters at the post office, and although the dozen odd men and women present didn't say much while I was talking, I could see that they listened to me in the same way that they listened when young Walkin Willy talked. And everybody knew that Walkin Willy was the biggest character in the Berea area.

To make matters worse, young Walkin Williy was there, too, and when I got to the part of my story where the bear lay down beside me, Walkin Willy winked at me. You know that kind of wink. It was to let me know that there was now a new understanding between us, and that we could speak in the future as one tall story teller to another. I didn't like that.

"Look Fella's", I said in the end, "I know just what you are thinking. You don't believe me, and you don't want to say so." "But we do believe you," Walkin Willy interrupted me, "very wonderful things happen in the woods. I once had a twenty-foot rattlesnake that I named Hans. This snake was so attached to me that I couldn't go anywhere without him. He would even follow me to church on Sunday, and because he didn't care much for some of the sermons, he would wait for me outside under a tree. Not that Hans was irreligous. But he had a sensitive nature, and the strong line that the preachers took against the serpent in the Garden of Eden always made Hans feel awkward. Yet he didn't go and look for a buckeye tree to lie under, like your bear. He wasn't stand-offish in that way. An ordinary thorn-tree's shade was good enough for Hans. He knew he was only a rattler, and didn't try to give himself airs."

I didn't take any notice of young Walikin Willy's stupid lies, but the upshot of this whole affair was that I also began to have doubts about the existence of that bear. I recalled queer stories I had heard of human beings that could turn themselves into animals, and although I am not a superstitious man I could not shake off the feeling that it was a spook thing that had happened. But when, a few days later, a huge black bear had been seen from the roadside near the quarry, and then again by Suds McGuires on the way to Olmstead Falls, and again the gnomes complained about their honey tree near Nobottom Valley being raided, matters took a different turn.

A first people jested about this bear. They said it wasn't a real bear, but a black bear animal that had walked away out of my dream. They also said that the bear had come to Berea to have a look at young Walkin Willy's twenty-foot rattle snake. But afterwards, when they had found his tracks at several water-holes, they had no more doubt about the bear.

It was dangerous to walk about in the woods. Exciting times followed. There was a great deal of shooting at the bear and a great deal of running away from him. And the amount of running away reminded me of nothing so much as the First Indian War. The amount of musket and rifle fire I heard in the woods reminded me of nothing so much as the Second Indian War.
But always the bear escaped unharmed. Somehow, I felt sorry for him. The way he had first sniffed at me and then lain down beside me that day under the buckeye tree was a strange thing that I couldn't understand. I thought of the Bible, where it is written that the lion shall lie down with the lamb.

But I also wondered if I hadn't dreamt it all. The manner in which those things had befallen me was also unearthly. The bear began to take up a lot of my thoughts. And there was no man to whom I could talk about it who would be able to help me in any way. Even now, as I am telling you this story, I am expecting you to wink at me, like young Walkin Willy did.

Still, I can only tell you the things that happened as I saw them, and what the rest was about only the woods knows. It was some time before I again walked along the path from The ARK in Berea that leads to the river where the buckeye trees are. But I didn't lie down on the grass again. Because when I reached the place, I found that the bear had got there before me. He was lying almost on the same spot, half-curled up in the buckeye tree's shade, and his forepaws were folded as a dog's are, sometimes. But he lay very still. And even from the distance where I stood you didn't have to be an environmental artist to identify the color red splash on his breast where a Musket bullet had gone.

I stayed with the bear for awhile getting used to the fact that he was no more and in the process it seemed to me that the wind that always stirs in the valley blew very quietly and softly that afternoon. Yes, the wind blew very gently.

As it was getting late I knew I couldn't just leave him there by the river bank. I started to walk along the river path into the deeper forest. When I got to the Reap, I made the cut across Urth Island that started me towards the edge of Nobottom Valley. Along the side of the trail there, there is a glen with an opening into it that you don't see unless you know it's there. All year long people pass by this spot and never stop to see what is on the other side. I did exactly that a couple of times myself and would never have found it until Rolfe disappeared into it one day and I had to followed him. He was good at finding out things like that. Nothing ever got past him. He was special that way. In the glen is an ancient tribe of Natives that have lived there as long as Uncle Paulie can remember. They used to be settled up along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, but as the city grew, they got pushed out further and further until they finally ended up here. The village of these ole Cleveland Indians is where I was headed. I spoke with Chief Ojibway and mentioned about the bear lying by the riverbank under the buckeye trees. He thanked me for telling him about this bounty for his village. We said our good-bye's and I left taking the long slow way back to the ARK in Berea across Lonesome Pine Ridge.

By and by it came towards winter and the Christmas season. That day we finished a Sunday potluck dinner at the ARK in Berea and we had a few over-night visitors who were snuggling into their beds as the cold snowy night set in. As everyone else retired, I stayed up by the campfire alone because there are times when you need some peace and solitude to relax and enjoy life's small pleasures. Of course I am referring to the three s'mores I hid still roasting under a bed of ashes in the campfire.
Yes I was all alone except for Rolfe who had his nose inches from where the s'mores lay hidded. Nothing ever got past Rolfe, as I said he was special that way. I took a stick and uncovered one of the s'mores and knocked it out to cool.

It was then just outside the light of the campfire I thought I heard something moving and even Rolfe pulled his nose away from the s'more and was looking around. At these times in the woods at night you have to be very careful and cautious if you value your life and possessions, and I was taking no chances tonite. I bent down by the fire and picked up a long sturdy stick and quickly covered the last two s'mores with ashes. As just quick as that, appearing in the campfire light was my old neighbor, Chief Ojibway, he said he saw the fire far away and that a friend of mine had left something at his village for me and he that he had come to bring it over to me.
We talked for awhile about his wife and kids, and we had some hot mulled cider with wild cherry schnapps from the pot to warm ourselves. He left the package for me and I gave him Rolfe's s'more for him to enjoy and warm up on the long walk back to the village.

Later, when I unwrapped the package, I found it was the hide of the now infamous bear.
Only, in fact, it was in much better shape than when the bear had had it himself. It was washed shiny and clean, and the thorns and twigs were brushed out of it, the red slash on his breast had been cleaned off and the hole was sewn shut.

That’s the same bear hide that now hangs in the ARK in Berea, in a place of honor, so that everyone can see there were once bears in Berea.