The White Bear

The first snow was quietly falling. Light was fading, and darkness was rolling over Finland, painting the forests and lakes in shades of gray. Trees were half naked, their fallen leaves scattered on the ground around them. The brisk smell of winter was already in the air. Pekka was putting more wood into the fireplace. The log cabin he’d inherited from his father didn’t have much insulation, and it could get extremely cold on a night like this. He stoked up the fire, set the rake on the hearth and stood still for a moment, watching the flickering flames. He shut the metallic hatch with a heavy clink and turned around. The familiar figure on the opposite wall caught his eye. It was a brown bear’s head. Its mouth was stretched open in a silent roar, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth. Pekka had shot it a few years before and hung it high on the wall. Many a night he’d sat in the room drinking homemade vodka with a hunting buddy from the village, admiring the majestic head looking down at them. He’d told the story about how he tracked the animal, how it was standing on its back paws only a few feet from him when he shot it three times; one shot in the belly, one in the chest, and the last one between the eyes.

Pekka closed his eyes and hung his head down. He took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his thin, grey hair. He lifted his head in determination, grabbed a chair that was nearest to him and set it directly under the bear head. He climbed on the chair, and was now on the same height as the dead beast. He looked into its eyes, now replaced with black marbles. Pekka stroke the fur gently. He rested his forehead against the bear’s nose and let out the repressed words:

‘I’m sorry.’

Pekka came down from the chair and went to collect some tools from the shed. He came back with a shovel, a screwdriver and roll of plastic bags. He took the head down, put it in a bag and dug a hole out in the yard, next to the shed. He buried the head and set a big stone on the heap of ground. As soon as it was finished, small flakes of snow started covering it, forming a thin, white layer. Pekka stood next to the grave for a while, smiling alone in the darkness. He knew there was one more thing to do before starting. He went into the shed, took all four of his guns, went down to the lake and threw them in the water, one by one. Each splash lifted Pekka’s spirit more, and he walked back to the house feeling lighter than ever. He sat down at the kitchen table, took his notebook that was used mainly for keeping stock of reindeer skins, and began writing.

For Ukko

My name is Pekka Einari Suominen, and I live in Hämylä, more or less in the centre of Finland. Some of the local folk claim it is in the absolute centre of the country, but I’m not one to comment. I reckon it don’t matter where the place is on the map, the map’s too big for a fellow like myself. I have never been anywhere anyways.

I was born in a wee cottage down the main road, well, the only proper road in this neck of the woods. My poor mother had such trouble giving birth to me that she died. She passed away as soon as I got out; they say it was my big head that made her tear and bleed as she did. I sure do wish I didn’t have a big head like this, and I could have had a mum looking after me and my old man. Her name was Helmi. I’ve got three pictures of her, all black and white, and not many stories. Ukko didn’t like to talk about her.

My old man never liked me much, I think. He passed only a few years ago, at the age of 86. He lived with me in this cabin ‘till the age of 79, but then he started shaking so badly he had to move to a nursing home in Oulu, 100 miles away. Parkinson’s, the doctors said. He was such a strong man before the illness; it took the life out of him. He was used to hunting, skinning, chopping wood, fishing, all sorts. When he started shaking, he couldn’t do any of those things anymore, and never did find new things to do. Well, he did have a television in the home, and did nothing but stared at the box for the last five years of his life.

I really liked going to school as a lad. Reading and writing were my favourite subjects; I was the best in class. My old man had problems with reading, he said the letters wouldn’t stand still, that they kept moving around and he’d get confused. He got angry when talking about books, so I mainly read in the evenings after bedtime. My favourites were adventure books and superhero comics, and I used to make up my own stories as well. I wrote a bunch of stories where there was a school boy with some kind of superpowers, and he always fought robbers or monsters or pirates, and always saved the day. Nowadays I borrow all sorts of books from the village library, although the supply isn’t that great.

After primary school I wanted to go to college in Oulu, but Ukko said it was too far away. He needed me for the hunting business. So I stayed here, hunting and selling reindeer and bear meat and skins, and have been here ever since.

I’ve never known anything but hunting. Since I can remember, Ukko took two rifles with us when he walked me to school, so that we could shoot anything and everything bigger than a field mouse on the way. Sometimes we’d leave them lying there; rabbits, foxes, squirrels, and sometimes the old man would bag them and take them back home to be stuffed. Capercailzies were particularly grand to catch. They made such flashy decoration for the cabin, with their black tail feathers spread wide open and the bright red make-up shining over their eyes. I learned to shoot before I learned to read.

I go hunting around four times a week. The rest of the time I skin animals, stuff animals, prepare and box meat and go to Kalle Alavuo’s place to chew the rag and drink homemade vodka. Twice a month I deliver all my skins, meat and stuffed beasts to him and he sells them on. When they’ve been sold and some money comes in, I visit Kalle again, and we drink some of that vodka he makes. Sometimes, although not that often, Kalle comes hunting with me. He’s not a very good shot, but I don’t mind the company.

Four days ago, on Tuesday, I started the day like any other: made some porridge, drank a cup of coffee and checked the traps around the yard. There was a mouse in one of the traps, and I had a hard time pulling it off cause of the early-morning frost. I ripped it off, threw it in the woods and set the trap again.

It was a hunting day. I put on my hunting gear: a proper military camouflage outfit, water-tight hiking shoes and a big, light rucksack full of supplies. I prepared myself for a few days’ journey; bears are the hardest to track down, they can smell you miles away. I like to take all sorts of little things to nibble on: nuts, berries, crispbread, chocolate, apples, bananas, rice cakes. Then of course a few jars of soup to be heated on the cooker. The heaviest thing to carry is the water; you need a lot of it if you track for days. Then you need a tent, a sleeping bag, a map, a compass, a lighter or two, and a knife. Lastly, I packed bullets and a gun, and headed off into the woods.

It’s autumn, so bears are getting ready to hibernate. It’s the best time to catch them because they’re all full-bellied and groggy, getting ready to sleep. I knew there were a lot of other hunters around, some with licences, some without, trying to kill sleepy bears before they’d dive into their caves for the winter. I decided to head northeast, away from any roads or houses, and away from the competition. The problem with this route was that after killing a bear, I wouldn’t have a road nearby, which meant that I couldn’t get a pick-up to come and carry the bear to the cabin. I’d have to walk back to the village to get a few pairs of hands and a big cart, and we’d have to drag it through the undergrowth and up and down hills, hoping that maggots and blowflies wouldn’t get to it before us. Another problem with the route was that I’d never been far that way, but I had a compass and a lifetime of experience.

The first day was easy. I must have walked roughly 15 miles, stopping only two times to eat, before pitching the tent and making a little fire late in the evening. I hadn’t seen any clear signs of bears all day, but I was certain I’d get luckier soon. I went to sleep feeling physically tired, but my head was fresh and clear, full of oxygen and forest atmosphere, and the familiar excitement of hunting.

The second day I continued on with my journey before the sun had fully risen. The forest looked magical. I felt so loud and clumsy in the delicate quietness of waking nature. All the tree branches and fallen leaves seemed to shine dimly, and a thin veil of mist stood still all around me. I couldn’t see very far, but I didn’t mind. I felt protected by the magical fog.

After a few hours of trekking in the increasing daylight, at last I saw some signs of a bear. A few trees had been scratched, or torn more like, and there was a handsome pile of bear shit. This is the only part of tracking I don’t like: I stuck my finger in the poo to check how warm it was. It wasn’t hot, but it hadn’t gotten cold yet, either. The lingering warmth of the excrement confirmed my hopes: the animal was near.

I could see more signs of the big beast; broken braches, stomped undergrowth and even a clear footprint. My heartbeat was getting faster, and my ears were red with attention. I took the gun, loaded it and started following the trail. It felt like the bear was behind every rock and every tree, watching my every move. I was very aware it would have sniffed me out long ago, and I kept my gun firmly in my hands in accordance with this knowledge.

I must have been so concentrated in my surroundings that for just a few seconds I didn’t look where I was going. There was a steep descent, about my height, leading to the foot of a huge tree. Before I realised what had happened, I was lying on the ground at the bottom of the slope with pain shooting from the back of my head. The rucksack under me made my back arch extremely uncomfortably. I wiggled my way out of the backpack’s hold and let my body fall on the ground again. I took a deep breath and, even with the throbbing pain in my head, I thought I must have made a pretty stupid sight and laughed.

It didn’t take me long to remember that right before falling on my arse and hitting my head I’d established that there was most likely a huge brown bear nearby. This made me come to pretty quickly, and I was going to get up when I noticed my foot was stuck in the roots. At first this didn’t alarm me, but as I tried to pull the leg out, it became clear that it was tightly held by roots and rocks. I haven’t a clue how I go it there so tight, perhaps some stones shifted as my foot broke through the ground and it moved them into a tighter formation. I tried pulling it harder and harder, but it wouldn’t move. When I pulled with all my strength and all my body, roaring like a beast, I felt as though my foot was being ripped out of my leg.

I gave up after some more pulling and pushing and kicking and shouting. Sweat was stinging my eyes and I was breathing like I’d just run a marathon. Nothing worked. I lay there for a while, thinking. Not that there was much else I could’ve done. I had food and water, which meant that I wouldn’t starve to death just yet. But what about in a few days? No one I knew ever came this way. It would take a miracle for someone to find a man in this vast wilderness. I considered shouting, but knew that no one would hear. I thought to myself, is this how I’m gonna go? Trapped here, like an animal, waiting to starve or be eaten.

Suddenly, I heard a twig snap. My eyes flashed wide open. It was getting darker, but it was still bright enough for me to see quite far. The sound had come from somewhere behind the tree my foot was stuck under, but I couldn’t distinguish how far it had been. I stretched my neck to see further, but saw nothing. All nature was standing in complete silence, not even a tiny breeze was disturbing the picture. It seemed as though the forest was holding its breath, waiting.

Then I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In slow motion, a huge bear stepped out from behind some trees only a dozen feet from me. It stood on a small hill and looked at me. It was exactly like any bear I’ve seen, except it was ghostly white. For a moment I thought it was a polar bear, but it definitely didn’t look like the ones I’ve seen in books or on television. No, it was a white brown bear. The big, black eyes were staring at me, and its fur was glowing dimly in the darkening light of the forest. It’s come to get me, I thought.

I turned to see where my gun was, but to my horror I saw it lying on top of the slope behind me. I desperately pulled on my leg, but even with adrenaline whooshing in my veins, I couldn’t get it out, and the foot stayed in the grip of the ground. I turned back and saw the bear was moving towards me. I grabbed my bag and with shaking hands dug out the knife. I turned to the bear holding the knife in the air.

The enormous animal was walking straight at me, eyes shining and drool dripping from its powerful jaws. Huge nostrils were sniffing the air, leading the way towards me; a wounded, trapped animal.

‘Stop!’ I screamed in panic, pointing it with the knife, which compared to the approaching bear might as well been a stick.

The white monster was now running at me and I was certain this was my end. The ground was going up and down with its steps as it grew bigger and bigger in my eyes. I couldn’t look away. I was still holding the knife. It was almost on top of me when it suddenly got up on its back legs and roared. Its mouth was high above me, but I could smell the foul breath and feel spit falling on my face. The white beast was so close I could’ve stuck the knife in its paw, but I was frozen. All I could do was stare and cry.

The bear stood there for what felt like ten minutes. I was rigid with terror, holding my last defiant weapon of defence in the air, tears falling from my eyes. The bear took a step back, came back down on its four legs and looked at me. It sniffed my outstretched hand and to my shock I realised I wasn’t holding the knife anymore. I closed my eyes and thought:

‘This is it! I’ve killed so many of them, so many bears, this is revenge! The ghost is gonna get me! This is the end! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!’

For the first time since I was a lad tears were streaming down my cheeks. I was shaking all over, slowly coming to life again, and started desperately tugging the foot in the hole. I put my arms over my head and all I had left was the hope that it would kill me quickly.

But nothing happened. I was frozen still in a tight bundle, barely conscious, sobbing like a child. I was like that for a long while, until I slowly started realising the bear hadn’t touched me. I was alive. For some miracle, the bear had spared my life. It hadn’t even had a taste to see if I was worth eating. I stopped crying, carefully opened my eyes and listened.

There was breathing and rustling right behind me, and I slowly lifted my head. It was dark now, but I could see the bear pawing something on the ground, sniffing and nibbling on it. In the dark the animal looked more like a brown bear. It was massive; it looked so much bigger alive and moving than the way I’m used to seeing them. The bear shifted a little, and I saw that it was my backpack it was playing with. It had smelled the food.

I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been this close to a bear before, alive that is. It kept an eye on me, but didn’t seem that bothered anymore. The bag was keeping it busy. I knew I had to get out of there, before the bear would have dug out all the food and would want some desert. I refocused my attention on the leg.

I’ve experienced some pain in my life; I’ve been in fights, my old man used to punish me for being naughty not infrequently, and I have a mighty scar across my chest as a reminder of how painful a fall from a tree can be when there happens to be a stub of a branch sticking out on the way down. But the pain I felt when three days ago, in the middle of uninhabited wilderness with an enormous white bear munching on nuts and chocolate next to me, I had to dislocate my own ankle to get my foot out of the ground, that pain was something new. Your muscles and reflexes tell you not to pull, but your logic and sense tell you it’s the only way to survive, and you do it. Imagine taking a big sledgehammer, and with all your strength smashing your own foot with it. After the ankle popped out of its socket and my foot shooted out of the ground, I passed out.

When I opened my eyes I saw stars. Treetops pointed to the skies in the moonlight, and I was so happy to be able to see it. It was beautiful. As I gradually came back to reality, the pain in my foot started growing. I became aware of the stiffening cold in my limbs, and began to shiver. I sat up in agony and saw my foot. It was lying at the end of my leg, sideways, on the ground. The shoe had fallen off.

I looked around and spotted my rucksack a few feet away. There was no bear in sight, but it was so dark I couldn’t see far. I had to rely on my ears. After sitting there for a moment, listening to the silence, I got moving. I dragged my wounded body to the rucksack, collected all the scattered supplies and put them back in. The bear had eaten most of my food and broken all of the water bottles but one. I took my scarf and tied up my lifeless, floppy foot. This made me scream with pain, but after it was done, my foot was in a tight package and every move I made didn’t cause agonising pain. I headed off in the direction I’d come from. I knew the chances of me getting lost in the dark were high, but I had no choice but to try. With a determination to survive, I began crawling up the slope I’d fallen down only a few hours earlier.

At the top of the slope my hand touched something cold and hard. I turned my eyes to it; it was my gun. I was about to grab it, but stopped. It suddenly felt wrong. The gun looked ugly. After all the times I’d shot one, all the times I’d killed with one, I suddenly felt like it was wrong to take it. Like it meant something if I took it now. The white bear had spared my life. I had never spared any lives that had happened to be in my sight. The bear had every right to kill me, but it didn’t. I left the gun lying there, got up on one foot and began the strenuous manoeuvre of jumping on one leg. My foot hurt, but I felt alive. I felt like a man who had looked into his heart and found a slightly different man that he never knew was there. I liked that man.

Slowly, as I was fighting my way through the forest, the sun began to rise. I checked my compass and estimated on the map where I thought I was, based on the last pencil mark I’d made a few minutes before falling down and getting stuck, and figured out a direction. I was exhausted and in pain, but a kind of primeval fire in my chest kept me going. Every now and then I fell down and had to crawl through the thickest growth and up and down the steepest hills. Braches were scratching my face, leaves were getting in my mouth and at times I could barely see where I was going.

I continued on all day, taking short breaks. I ate some bread and nuts, checked my position on the map and then kept going in the direction of the nearest road. When night fell, I set up camp and collapsed in the quickly whipped up tent and went straight to sleep.

I didn’t sleep for long. The pain kept waking me up and after tossing and turning in a cold sweat for a while, I decided to just keep going in the dark. I crawled out of the tent and stood up on one leg. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and I gasped in horror. The white bear was sitting opposite the tent.

It greeted me with a grunt. For a fleeting moment I thought: ‘Why did I leave that gun again?’ My first reaction was to run, but that wasn’t a real possibility. The bear would catch me in seconds. It didn’t look as gigantic as it had earlier, but it still cut a grand, pale figure in the twilight. It was leaning to its side, half sitting. After seeing that it wasn’t aggressive, I calmed down, slightly.

Without any sudden moves, I sat down. I came up with an idea. Very slowly, I reached back into the tent, grabbed my rucksack and took out a bag of cashews. All the while the bear was sitting still, sniffing the air and looking at me. I threw a handful of nuts on the ground in front of it. The sudden movement made it stand up, but before I knew it, it had hoovered up the nuts and was standing closer to me, waiting for more. I threw more, and it ate all of them. I took some more in my hand again, but now the bear was so close that as soon as I had them in my hand, the bear’s big, wet nose was sniffing it. I opened my palm, and the animal’s warm, slimy tongue swept all the nuts into its mouth.

The white bear sat down in front of me, got comfortable and slowly ate everything I had. After my bag was empty of food it kept sniffing my hands. I tried to show him they were empty. I let him put his nose in my rucksack to prove there was no more food. It was still hungry, and it started sniffing my body. It began from my feet, moved up to my legs and my stomach, and ended up sniffing my face. The stream of air from its nose tickled my face and neck and I was squirming, trying not to laugh or touch him. Finally, it blew a royal amount of slime on my face, grunted and turned away. With lazy steps the white bear walked into the dark woods. Before it completely disappeared, it turned to look at me, popped its head up as if to say ‘Later!’ and then, it was gone.

Like in a strange dream, I packed for the last time on this journey and continued with my jumping and crawling. At the end of the following day, which was yesterday, I finally reached the road, just as I was about to run out of water, and got picked up by a local man. At this point I was going a little mad from dehydration and exhaustion, and don’t remember what happened very clearly. I think the driver said I looked a state and tried to inquire what had happened. What I do know is that he took me straight to the hospital, where they drugged me up and popped my foot back into place. They kept me there overnight, and this morning sent me back home with a plaster cast and crutches. I reckon those pills they gave me to take every four hours keep the pain away good enough; I don’t need any walking sticks.

Earlier today, Kalle rang to ask how I was doing. I didn’t have it in me to explain everything. He told me he had some interesting news. Some tourist hunter had shot a fine rarity further away down the big road. An albino bear, he said, Kalle sure had never heard of anything like it. It was a brown bear, but with white fur and strange looking eyes. No one had ever seen anything like it, boy, the shooter must be as proud as a peacock.

I hung up. It felt like someone had punched me in the guts. I bashed my fist on the table. Fucking tourists. They’d killed him, with no mercy, no respect. The ghost had shown me mercy. It was my fault it was near that road, it had followed me there. That moment I knew it. I didn’t have it in me anymore. I would never shoot again.

I don’t know what I’ll do now. I’ve always liked reading and writing, maybe I’ll go to Oulu College, if they’ll take a grown man. Maybe I’ll go to some town and get a regular job in a shop, or an office. Maybe I’ll even find myself a lady. All I know is I want to get away from here, find something new.

Pekka looked out of the window, still holding the pen in his hand. The forest was pitch-black. In the centre of the yard a lamp illuminated a shiny, white circle. The freshly fallen snow already had a rabbit trail running across it.

Pekka took a deep breath. He looked down at the notebook and turned back to the first page. He drew a line across the words ‘For Ukko’ and replaced them with:

For my friend, the White Bear

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