In 1910, when I was just a boy, Grandfather took me to the woods to hear the truth.
He sat me down in the sacred circle, a small clearing amidst towering pines where fireflies streaked the humid backwoods air with jubilee, and we prayed—prayed for the spirits to tell us their stories. My Grandfather was not a religious man by any modern measure. He was a Choctaw holy-man from Onward Mississippi, and when his people slowly began to disappear, by force or willingly, he stayed and watched a most curious kind of creature populate the remnants of a once great nation.
In front of a roaring fire he sat, meticulously laying out each gift as if first picking out the corner pieces of a jigsaw puzzle before turning his attention to the middle.
“Jerusalem oak,” he whispered to me, “for the ole that are hiding. Chicory and dandelion root for Bohpoli.” He cupped his hand and leaned down to where I sat on the ground. “To keep him awake. Tobacco and jerky for Neela.”
It was for Neela, in particular, that Grandfather had prayed to appear, as it had been many years since the two of them talked. The pitch of his prayer peaked with a shrill edge that cut across the pine trees just as the cool breeze belted, freeing dry needles from the clutches of sappy branches. When his prayer was over, the fire grew. It reached out to me like a solar flare, blue and tranquil and filled with the fabric of time. Grandfather smiled. “Ole is always the first to arrive,” he said.
The aroma of boiling lemongrass turned my attention from the nebulous ether that tickled at my cheekbones, and out of the vast darkness of the forest peered a thousand milky-white eyes, casting shifty glances at Grandfather’s gifts. From a thousand eyes to a single set of pebbles, Ole tiptoed out of the shadows. He stood only two feet tall and his maw hung down like moss from a willow tree. He was wrapped in tangled flora and when he spoke his voice was like wind against dry grass, stone against earth, and twigs snapping beneath bare feet.
“Where would you have me sit, old man?” He vanished and reappeared on the top of Grandfather’s right shoulder. “Together?” He vanished again and reappeared on the other side of the fire, directly across from us, on the top of one of four large stones that served as seating in the sacred circle. “Or apart?” He closed his eyes and waxed a most mischievous grin as he waited for Grandfather’s answer.
“No tricks tonight, Ole,” Grandfather said. “I’ve called you here to bear witness to the truth. After all, you’re everywhere, seen everything.” Ole snatched his gift, whiffed it violently and sat with snub legs hanging on the stone to Grandfather’s right.
“Agreed,” said Ole. “You probably saved the good seat for Neela, anyways.”
And the fire heaved again, swiveling my gaze to the left as if redirected by a most maternal caress. Shadow cast by the play of firelight against the stone seat to my left began to grow and expand like a spilled bucket of pitch.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Grandfather. “Bohpoli is a healer, but you cannot see his true form. It is he who took me to the woods as a child to learn the ways of medicine.”
“Does this one need teaching?” asked the formless void. The aroma of burning sage poured forth from what I assumed was its mouth, a small pocket of empty space where shadow did not enter. Grandfather pulled me closer to where he sat, his grip covering the entirety of my shoulder.
“This one is my kin,” said Grandfather. “I prefer he stays with me tonight. It was many days we spent in the trees when you took me as a child, and I do not think my family could bear his absence for so long.” Although I did not feel the threat of being stolen in the night, for I found a strange solace in the presence of the spirit, I trusted that Grandfather knew more of this world than I. So I slid closer to Grandfather’s moccasins as Bohpoli pushed past me. He took his gift and returned to the stone on my left, the scent of jasmine wafting after him.
The sound of fleeing birds echoed from the tops of the trees, and the ground shook, and my throat tightened, and the firelight transformed into red and orange embers that plastered themselves against the black sky like a second set of constellations. Grandfather stood as the great black bear lumbered to her seat across from us. She stood above the stone for a moment, wobbling and heaving as if the journey from the spirit world had taken much out of her. Ole and Bohpoli shunned her, turning away from her just enough to still see my Grandfather’s face while hiding their own.
“It is good to see you old friend,” said Grandfather. The rough stucco and stubble of his face seemed to smoothen as he looked into the bear’s eyes. He was ageless in that moment. Neela nodded shyly, shook dry needles from her coat and sat down with the grace of a gliding glacier.
“Has enough time passed?” said Grandfather.
“Yes, it has,” she sighed.
Neela looked down at me and waved. I had never seen our totem, the great black bear of the western people. I felt the wisdom of a thousand years in her smile as she folded her paws and began to speak words that flowed like the great river to the east.
“Eight years ago, the Rosyman made his way to Onward. He cut a swath of skinned bears across the countryside, so deep and wide that I feared our kind would never recover.” Ole sniggered and Grandfather shot him a scowl. “He did not come alone. Men that had made their living from the skin of our kind accompanied him with their metal jaws and dogs and guides. They moved across the land on carts that creaked and teetered on wooden wheels, and when they came to this very place they settled and built a camp fit for an army of curious creatures. I only watched from the swamps and pools as they laughed amongst themselves, exchanging stories of conquest and ruin while the other beasts, crow and deer and rabbit, whispered to each other about the meaning of their visit. But I knew—knew the sheen and spoil of rotten flesh left to fester under the sun. I prayed to Nanapesa, the Great Spirit, to send me guidance, and crow came down from the pines to answer my prayer.”
“You will die, Neela,” he said to me. “The Rosyman will take your life.”
I gasped at the words. Confused, I looked to Grandfather and asked, “Who is this Rosyman? Did he succeed in killing Neela?”
He frowned beneath the brim of his dusty blue hat, a remnant of the Great War. “Let Neela tell her story,” he said, and waved her on.
“I saw him too,” said Bohpoli. “I gathered the children to me, and also the herbs and medicines I gathered. I feared for the forest,” he said. Grandfather nodded and looked to Ole.
“Were you witness to this?” he asked.
“I was,” yawned Ole. “The forest burned with fear and I scattered to warn every last one of them. ‘The dark one will come if you feed him,’ that’s what I said. And feed him they did, only Neela did not flinch.” He smiled, half joy and half embarrassment, and quickly turned his face away from her.
“I easily avoided the metal jaws,” said Neela, “for they were made from the hands of men and stuck out in the woods like a reflection of sunlight on glass. None knew the forest as I knew it, and with the help of Kashehotapalo, the deer-man that leads the hunt astray, I hid from the Rosyman for many days. But I could not hide from his hounds.”
“They found me near a watering hole and surrounded me; their dull, simple teeth snapping at my haunches. I swiped at them, gashing wounds across their thin, frail skeletons while the sound of heavy feet on mud and leaf encroached. I stood and raised my voice on high, the thundering ripple shaking bone and casting fear into the eyes of my pursuers. And when I came down, my hand met the skull of one of the hounds, crushing it beneath my weight like a pinecone. I thought that crow’s words had been wrong; that he had brought me news meant for another’s ears; that I would not lose my life. Until, a searing heat shot up the back of my head, and I fell.”
Grandfather’s face trembled. His breath was short and it seemed that he huffed and shuddered to fight back tears that had swelled up for many years.
Neela’s demeanor darkened. The brilliant, thick quilt of black fur that she proudly displayed began to thin and ashen. She went on.
“When I awoke I was tied to the trunk of a willow tree, and men shouted and blew on horns, raising their rifles to the sky. The remaining hounds whimpered, sniffing at the crimson streak that poured down my head and pooled in clots upon my tattered coat. Crow perched above me and cawed. From the bowels of the forest, haughty and proud, the Rosyman approached.”
“What did he look like?” I said.
“He wasn’t very tall. The garbs he wore were earthen shades of tweed and leather that flapped and splayed in the wind. And as he approached me he seemed puffed-up beyond the actual size of a man his height. His face was like a magnolia, freckled with red blotches that surfaced on portly cheeks. Light reflected off the center of his belt and along the straps of ammunition that crisscrossed his barreled chest. A black kerchief was tied tightly around his neck, gathering sweat and salt below a bushy brown mustache that flattened with each flare of his pulsating nostrils. He wore knee-high, black boots and a tan, wide-brimmed hat that covered his gaze.”
“The cheers around me died as he approached. The men pulled the ropes that bound me tighter, and the Rosyman knelt down. His eyes were bloodshot medallions that slowly simmered behind wire-rimmed spectacles. He handed his rifle to one of the men, pulled a long knife from his waist side and inspected me like a piece of merchandise. I felt the spirit of madness inside of him.”
“Were you frightened?” I asked.
“She was not,” interrupted Ole. “In all my years, I’ve never seen such courage.”
“I was prepared,” said Neela. “Prepared to meet the Great Spirit. Impa Shilup, the soul-eater, had taken hold of the Rosyman—taken hold of all the curious creatures that day. I was only one of many to lose their lives when the Rosyman came to Onward.”
“They did not think the herbs and flowers to be prizes,” said Bohpoli. “I wasted my time gathering them to me. I could have helped the black bear that day, but I was afraid.” Ole and Bohpoli shifted in their seats, turning to look upon Neela, who was now bleeding from her shoulder blades. I think they were ashamed that they had not done more to help her. But Grandfather smiled as Neela bled. There was something in her transformation, during her story, which made Grandfather excited; like the last mile of a lifelong journey. Neela continued.
“The Rosyman found me unfit for the slaughter. He wanted a fight, wanted to wrestle with something much larger than himself. I was exhausted, bleeding and bound to a tree. As much as Impa Shilup held sway over the Rosyman’s hands, he did not penetrate that part of him that begged to be seen as sportsmanlike. The Rosyman shrugged and walked back to where he first had entered the forest. I never saw him again.”
I was confused. Crow had brought the message of death from the Great Spirit and that was something that could not be changed. I wanted answers; I wanted to know what happened to the Rosyman; I wanted to know why Neela was bleeding. What was the point of the story? I remained silent as Ole and Bohpoli slowly vanished into the darkness. Grandfather yanked on my shoulder, urging me to rise. I stood and stared at Neela.
“After the Rosyman left, his men killed me. They drove their knives into my back and my head until I became cold. I heard their cheers and horns no longer as the Great Spirit took me into the sky. And that is the truth about the time the Rosyman came to Onward.”
The fire went out.
Not long after Grandfather took me to the woods to hear the truth, he disappeared. His body had been racked with disease, and his mind haunted by the encroaching migration that pushed him, and his people, aside like useless pawns on a red and white board. Grandmother told me that he woke up early one morning, gathered tobacco and jerky, kissed her on the forehead and limped into the forest. She never saw him again. Many people said that Grandfather was a skin walker; that he tilled the soil by day and walked among the animals at night, disguised as a great black bear that hunted men. I’m not sure any of that is true.
I like to think that he walked into the forest and prayed a final breath—that Neela greeted him with open arms and the two of them embraced in the darkness, becoming one, becoming many.
It was not until much later that I found out that the Rosyman was not a made-up character. He was the president of the United States, and his visit to Onward Mississippi was a fact. He had visited to talk about a dispute between state lines, or a coal shortage, or something to that effect, and since he was so fond of the hunt he just decided to kill some bears. After he left, news of his sportsmanlike conduct reached the capital and a man from the Washington Post drew up a ripe cartoon depicting his empathy toward a small, cuddly, black bear tied to a tree. It was Neela. By the time I met her, as a child, she was certainly nothing like the cub in that cartoon; and neither was the Rosyman a jolly chief. I guess it takes the truth a little longer to travel than stories written on paper.
A general store owner from New York saw that cartoon and thought that he could make a pretty penny using the Rosyman’s name, Teddy. He stuffed a plush, brown bear—completely wrong color—and stuck some eyes in it and called it ‘Teddy’s Bear.’ His bears sold faster than he could make them, and by the time I was in high school there was not a home in all of Mississippi that didn’t own a teddy bear. Children fell asleep clutching to the great black bear totem of the Choctaw people, completely unaware of its origin or the pain behind its discovery.
I have grandchildren of my own now. Fifty years later, the story that Neela told me as a child still bounces and rattles around in my mind. Plenty of times I’ve taken my grandchildren to the woods and called out for the spirits to tell their stories. But the children laugh, the circle is broken—pocked with garbage and barbeque pits—and the trees are sparse like the hair on rabbit’s whiskers. They prefer to sit inside and watch snowy screens that tell tales about other people that prefer to sit inside. The forest no longer speaks. I’m not certain if men and women are meant to explore the world the way the Rosyman did: conquering things bigger than themselves, taking skin, pitching tents and using up all the magic that’s left.
There will come a time when all who have witnessed the truth are gone, and all that I will know will be passed down to me through echoes and ripples that collect shallow weight along the way. Grandfather gave me a gift, a glimpse into the past, if only for a moment. And I have never yearned for that eternal, blue flame as much as I do now. Still, I wait for crow to bring me news.
S.H. Mansouri is a former biologist and writer of all things fiction. You can find more of his work at Acidic Fiction, The Manor House Show, The Dead Oaks Podcast and Cirsova Magazine. You can follow his work on twitter @ShawnMansouri or at shmansouriblog.wordpress.com where he blogs about his writing.
Image by B+ Fouzy