She’d been told the story before.
In 1908, a bear had appeared in the town. No one knew where it had come from. There were no mountains nearby. The nearest vestige of the Appalachians lay some ninety-five miles to the east. Past the town of Little Manheim, past Lebanon, Watertown, and Cookeville. How could a bear travel so many miles through so many townships, undetected and undisturbed?
At that time, the town had no name. It was a town of farmers and husbandmen and a few loggers. After the bear had first been spotted, it was the loggers who had helped calm everyone. Many of them had once worked for logging teams out east and claimed to have come across many bears during their times there. They assured folks that the bear was simply hungry, and that once it had rooted through some trash and found food it would leave them. Until then, they advised folks to stay in their homes.
The people followed this advice. Businesses in town closed for the week. On Sunday, the local churches cancelled services and shut their doors. No one could recall a time in their lives when that had ever happened.
A few more days passed, and the bear hadn’t left. People spotted it through their bedroom windows, lumbering across their lawns, its nose pressed to the ground and twitching for scent. The bear toppled fences and littered properties with fetid tracks of shit. It killed livestock: a nanny goat, a full-grown bull almost twice its size, two horses in the fields where they grazed.
Finally, the townspeople had enough. One morning, a group of men congregated in the town square. Her grandfather was one of them. Each man carried a rifle or a single-shot revolver, relics from the war, family heirlooms passed down.
“That bear don’t belong round here,” one of the men had said.
“Sure enough not,” her grandfather had said, or so he claimed he had said.
There were reports, though, of a lone man in the bunch who had protested, if only meekly. “The thing is just trying to survive is all. It don’t know its way of doing that is an offense to us.”
But the man was hushed by the others and disregarded.
The team of men walked a mile together and dispatched themselves in a grove of spindly, sick trees where the bear had last been seen. It was an hour before they finally came upon it, crouching against an outcropping, dozing in a swatch of sunlight.
They fired upon it, and the reports roused the bear from its sleep. The bear retaliated at first. It charged a couple of men and swiped at them with its big paws like a boxer. It dug a claw into her own grandfather’s chest and ripped away a sheet of his flesh until it nearly hung in a fold over his groin like a bloody curtain. It was during this portion of the telling that her grandfather liked to pause and lift the front of his shirt and display the tender parabola of scarred tissue that arched over his belly. He would smile as she groaned in disgust and fascination.
While another in the mob had tended to her grandfather, two men carrying nooses had flanked the bear on either side. They flung their nooses like lassos, hooking them around the bear’s neck and tying the free ends tight around a couple of ash trees.
The men all stepped back and, for a moment, watched the bear struggle to get free. It would lurch left, then right, then left again, each motion pulling the nooses tighter about its thick neck. It snorted steam like a locomotive. It beat and pawed the ground until its claws were shorn away with the effort and its blood darkened the soil. The men continued to watch. Some removed their hats.
“For a minute,” her grandfather would tell her, “I think all of us, all of us watched and wondered and even hoped if that damned brute could find some way to free hisself. It weren’t ‘til we heard a bone in its neck snap and saw the whites of its eyes that Mr. Durham raised his rifle and shot it through the heart.”
This Mr. Durham had brought along two of his geldings, saddled and yoked together. He undid the ends of the nooses from around the trunks of the ash trees and secured them about center ring on the yoke. Dragging the bear by its neck through the winter mud, the team of men and the two geldings marched in procession toward town.
When they’d reached the brick-paved square, a crowd was already gathered. The people cheered when the dead beast came into sight. Mr. Durham directed his horses to the center of the square. All dirtied, all exhausted, and breathing heavily, the men lined up behind their kill and took off their hats and bowed like vaudeville actors at the final curtain. The people continued to clap and whistle.
The stirring of the bear silenced them.
At first, the bear’s monumental head shifted slightly. Then, its eyes opened and began to loll about in their sockets. No one had ever heard the sound of such a beast moaning and weeping. Her grandfather would say, “It was a sound I don’t think none of us will ever forget.”
Hesitantly, Mr. Durham got out of line. He unhooked his revolver from its holster and straddled the bear’s head for a long moment. He kept his eyes fixed downward as if he were peering into a dark pit, considering what could be down there and how far of a fall it would be. Finally, Mr. Durham leveled the gun and fired. The entire crowd flinched at the sound. Then they became reverently quiet.
* * *
It wasn’t until twenty-five years later that a committee of the townspeople—some of who had lived through and remembered the incident—decided on a name for their little town. They called it Yona. In the Cherokee language, the word meant “bear.”
Colby Swift’s previous works have been featured in The Dead Mule, School of Southern Literature, and The Big Click Magazine. He lives and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee.