On the Other Side of This River

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A short story by Ralph C. Perrine

On the other side of this river, years ago, an old trapper lived in a great gloomy forest where tall ancient oaks spread giant twisted boughs out to form a vast interlocking canopy of green cathedrals. In the shade of each cathedral, large families of dogwoods and redbuds and wild cherry trees blossomed in a thick fragrant understory. Trilliums and ferns peeked out between mossy tree roots. Long tables of may apples spread across the forest floor, interrupted by sunny spots here and there piled high with briar patches. In the old days, these briars used to grow blackberries as big as a child’s fist. Which of course, is why in late summer the bears were never far away, constantly keeping watch over their blackberries.

Legend has it, before the settlers came, a long trail once meandered through this forest. Each year it got narrower, crowded by flourishing wild plants and new seedlings. The verdant growth narrowed the trail and broke it into sections that became more and more separated as the plants and trees took over.

Occasionally some wanderer or hunter might come across one of these sections – now not more than a few inches wide – and follow it a short ways only to find it suddenly end. It was easy to get lost in these woods. If the person turned back the other way, they soon found that the trail continued a short ways and then again, abruptly ended, with no apparent connection or destination. If the person wandered too close to the blackberries, two or three large bears would materialize and escort the person back to the river.

Over time, strange tales began to emerge, as to the origins of these short trails that seemed to go nowhere. There were stories of people getting lost and encountering mischievous little creatures.

Children from the town use to come out exploring, fishing and playing near this river. The old trapper would often be there and he’d wave and say hi.

Occasionally the old trapper would lead the children across the stepping stones for a brief visit to the other side of the river. He always warned them about the short trails and the mischief in these woods. They liked the old trapper because he showed them how to make things out of twigs, and bark and other things you can find in the forest. He would guide them to a tiny creek that fed into the river and show them how to make flutter mills – tiny little water wheels made from sticks and bark, tied together with cords of river grass or small vines. He showed them how to press two forked sticks down into the shallow creek and them position the tiny water wheel so it’s axle rested on the two forked branches. They would push the little forked branches down a little lower into the mud so the tips of the water wheel were just touching the flowing water. When it was the right height, the little water wheel would start turning slowly then spinning faster and faster with the current. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

But their favorite activity was making bugbears. The old trapper showed them how you could take a pinecone, and turn it into a fantastic little creature: how to put little twigs and ferns and other things into the pinecone to give it legs, antlers, spines, and other details. No two were ever the same. The kids loved making bugbears. Some called them bear bugs or bugaboos.

But the old trapper noticed that the children never took them home. “You can take them home with you, if you want” he always said. But they never did.

One day he decided to take one home to his cabin in the woods, and put it on the stone mantle over his fireplace.

That night while he was sleeping, he suddenly woke up. He thought he heard scratching noises out near the fireplace. He figured it might be a mouse or a possum, and went back to sleep.

Next morning had his usual breakfast of coffee, sausage, eggs and grits.

That’s when he noticed that the bugbear wasn’t on the mantle!

He found it standing by the front door, like a little dog that wanted to go outside.

“That’s strange!” He muttered, and put it back over on the stone mantle.

The next night he was awoken again with those scratching noises. He didn’t want to get out of bed to find out what it was, so he just lay there listening until it stopped.

The next morning, he had breakfast, and then sure enough he found the bugbear standing by the door again. “What other earth!” he said, and put it back on the mantle.

This continued and he kind of got used to it. Every night he heard scratching noises. Every morning he would find the bugbear near the front door, and put it back on the mantle!

Until one day…

He came to the dead-end of one of the short trails and found a tree that had been gashed by lighting. It looked as though the large woodpeckers living in these woods had started poking at the scar left by lightning, and gradually torn away great deal of tree bark. The exposed wood was starting to turn a weathered gray, the tree was slowly dying.

And then he heard what he first thought was just the breeze, then he realized that a whisper was being carried on the breeze. Then he heard some slightly louder words, on the whisper that was carried on the breeze. He thought it sounded like the hoarse whispered words of an old woman’s voice. As he listened he started to hear the words more clearly.

And these were the words that he heard:

The tracks in the mud on the river bank
The shapes on the shell of the box turtle
The words in the web of the writing spider

He looked around as he heard the words, searching the leafy haunt for a face or even the eyes that must be looking at him. But he saw nothing. A few moments later a large snaggle-toothed bear lifted its shaggy head up from the middle of a briar patch and looked at him. He could hear only the sound of his own heart pounding. He slowly backed away and when he was a good safe distance from where he’d seen the bear, he turned around and retraced his way back to the river.

As he went he thought about the words that he’d heard:

The tracks in the mud on the river bank
The shapes on the shell of the box turtle

The words in the web of the writing spider

When he reached the river, he remembered the first line

The tracks in the mud on the river bank

It made him stop to look at the mud on the river bank. He saw a mix of little footprints from possums, muskrats and raccoons, crossing each other in the mud.

He couldn’t believe it but he saw the word:

r E M E M b E r

Three little feet had made three Es in one direction, and then two more little feet had made two little M’s. There were partial tracks that made a little b and two little “r”s …all perfectly placed – well, not so perfect as in a magazine but close enough to make a very readable word. It was unmistakable.

r E M E M b E r

“Remember what?” he murmured to himself as he crossed the river on the stepping stones.

He thought about it all the way home as the sun went down. After a quiet supper he went out and sat on his rickety old rocking chair on his rickety old front porch for a long time, listening to the whippoorwills and yawning big lungfulls of humid night air. Up through the pine trees rose the pale moon surrounded by a silvery hued rainbow. The whippoorwills stopped and the monotony of the crickets and katydids made him doze off. He fell into a deep sleep, and dreamt of what he’d seen that day. He dreamt the snaggle toothed bear was whispering in his ear:

The tracks in the mud on the river bank
The shapes on the shell of the box turtle
The words in the web of the writing spider

The bear turned into an old woman – and then back into a bear again!

He awoke from his dream an hour before dawn, because a hoot owl had perched at the peak of his tin roof and kept calling out, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” It made him hungry.

He got up out of his rocking chair and stood up stretching and looking at the brightening sky in the east. Just as he was about to turn to go inside, he noticed a little turtle in the grass near the porch steps. It was a box turtle with a green shell divided up into little squares. In each square was little faded yellow shape. He was groggy still, but thought that the whispering voice in the woods had said something about a turtle shell.

The shapes on the shell of the box turtle

He went down the steps to the turtle in the grass for a closer look at its shell.

In one square it had a shape that definitely looked like a fat W
The next square had one that looked like an H
The next square very clearly had an A
The next one a T

W H A T

The tracks in the mud on the river bank had said “

r E M E M b E r

Now this turtle shell said WHAT.

r E M E M b E R   W H A T

He forgot all about breakfast and ran to the river. He stepped across the stepping stones and looked at the muddy bank. There were more footprints there now, but he quickly found the word

r E M E M b E R

But then he found it again over here. And here. Everywhere he looked, he read the words “Remember!”, “Remember!”.

Growing terrified, he ran into the woods this way and that until he crossed the narrow trail. He followed it to the gashed tree, and once again he heard the whispers on the breeze:

The tracks in the mud on the river bank
The shapes on the shell of the box turtle
The words in the web of the writing spider

A little further away the old snaggletoothed bear raised her shaggy head again. This time in a different place. He had the thought that she might be blind. Something about her demeanor made it seem that maybe she couldn’t see. She didn’t look directly at him, but she did seem to know he was there.

He decided to take a chance and ask the bear a question.

“Are you the one whispering on the breeze?”

“Of course I am!” snapped the bear, just like that, in the same whisper.

And with that he turned and ran away. “I must be hearing things and seeing things!” he told himself as he tore through the woods.

As he came to a little clearing, a blaze of morning sun shone through the clouds and lit up the grasses and meadow flowers. At the edge of the clearing in the branches of a young tree he saw a large spider web sparkling with dew. In the middle was a large black and yellow spider with long legs. Down the center of the web was a word in the cursive letters that the writing spiders always use.

He could see the words so clearly

You Took

And he tried to piece together the words he’d seen in the river bank and on the turtle shell and now here in the web.

r E M E M b E r   W H A T  You Took

He thought for a minute. “What did I take?” He realized this could only mean one thing. He ran all the way back to his cabin, went inside to the fireplace, and grabbed something off his mantle and ran back out headed for the forest. It was the pine cone with little sticks for legs and little ferns and other things for wings and horns and eyes. The bugbear.

He carried it down to the river, across the stepping stones, and down the little trail to the tree with the gash in it. He set it down at the foot of the tree, and went back to his cabin.

That night he slept soundly.

The next morning he crossed the stepping stones and went down the short trail to the tree with the gash. The bugbear was gone. He listed to see if he could hear the whispering voices. But all he could hear was the wood thrush singing its melody from the shady forest. And sure enough, from a great tangle of blackberries, the old snaggle-toothed bear raised her head, turned and looked at him, chewing on a big mouthful of blackberries, and looking very messy.

She looked at him for a long time with peaceful eyes, chewing on the blackberries.

And then he was pretty sure that she winked it him! He nodded to her, and turned and walked back to his cabin, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

So when you’re out camping or walking in the woods, it’s likely that you may see one of these bugbears. You might even try to make one.

But you may not want to take it home.

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