This is a story not of ghosts, but of monsters and magic.
Downtown Knoxville has a secret under its streets: a honeycomb of caves and tunnels. Out of one of the caves, they say, a monster comes sometimes, on the darkest nights, and roams down Gay Street, in the business district. This monster is in the shape of one of our black bears–which do sometimes wander into the city limits–but nobody ever saw a black bear as big as this: he’s said to walk upright and stand over fifteen feet tall–taller than the biggest grizzly, let alone black bear, that ever lived.
Other times, not a bear, but an old, old Cherokee man is seen, walking that same street: a small man, clad only in a loincloth.
There’s a legend that accounts for them both.
Call them explorers, call them fiddlefooted–call one of them, in fact, Daniel Boone–but back in the day they were called long hunters: men who would go out to hunt game, find themselves in new territory, and stay away from their homes for three, four or even more years, hunting and scouting, and sometimes returning to lead settlers to the new lands.
Sometime in the late 1700s, one such hunter–whose name no one remembers–found himself in the wilderness around what was then White’s Fork and is now Knoxville. It was just around this time of year; autumn drifting inexorably toward winter–and soon, he would need to find a place to stay put and warm until spring. On this particular day, he was stalking a deer through the woods when he was distracted by a bear.
Bearskins made wonderful warm robes, and the long hunter, knowing he would need one soon, forgot the deer and followed the bear.
This bear was wise to the ways of hunters and their guns, and it led him on a long chase through the woods, always just out of reach of a clear shot. The hunter found himself falling farther back as the bear turned and began to run along the muddy banks of the Tennessee River, leaving clear tracks.
The hunter sat down and rested on a rock, drank some water and ate some dried meat from his pack, then resumed following the bear’s tracks. A little way upriver, they turned away from the river and headed toward a bluff, disappearing into a large cave that ran back into the bluff for quite a long way; the hunter could see about fifty feet into the cave, but the bear wasn’t in sight. He couldn’t even see eyeshine.
Still peering into the cave, he was startled when an old, old Cherokee man stepped out from behind a large rock by the entrance. He was shorter than the hunter, very thin, and wore nothing but a loincloth. His hair was white and hung below his waist, and he had the oddest pale eyes the hunter had ever seen.
The old man had a staff made of hickory in one hand. He tapped the ground at the hunter’s feet and asked, in perfect English, Do you seek Brother Bear, white man?
The hunter, still shaken by the old man’s sudden appearance, stuttered yes.
He’s in there, the old man said, pointing into the cave with his staff. He’s waiting for you.
Did you see him go in? the hunter asked suspiciously. It was dawning on him that there was something almightily strange about this whole business.
The ancient Cherokee said only, He’s waiting for you.
Just then, there came from the cave the mighty roar of a bear. It was of course magnified by the cave walls, but in his nervous state the hunter only registered that by the sound of it there was a bear in the cave–a much, much bigger one than the one he had been following.
The old man raised an eyebrow. This is his ground, and he will defend it and himself. Are you going in after him?
The hunter may not ever have read Shakespeare’s immortal the better part of valor is discretion, but he knew the concept.
Not today, he said decidedly, and walked away.
He turned back when another roar came from the cave, not as bloodcurdling as the last but still scary. The old man was still standing at the mouth of the cave, watching him, his pale eyes bright with mockery.
The hunter walked a ways away, then turned and hunkered down behind a bush, looking back toward the cave. He still had the feeling something wasn’t right about this whole situation.
The old man was still standing there, but the air around him was changing: shimmering, sparkling as the old man’s figure began to shift. It grew wider and taller and lost its human shape altogether–
to be replaced by a gigantic black bear, taller than the cave’s entrance and wide as–
The hunter couldn’t think what that bear’s chest was wide as. He only knew he was seeing Cherokee magic at work.
The giant bear stood on its hind legs and gave a roar that echoed for miles.
After a moment or two, a much smaller bear–the one the hunter had been chasing before this strange encounter–came out of the cave. It seemed as overawed by the great bear as was the hunter. The huge bear roared again, and the small one, sensing that the hunter was no longer close by, slowly disappeared into the woods.
The hunter thought about following it, but only for a moment–
for the great bear turned its head, looked directly at the spot where the hunter still hunkered behind his puny bush protection, and gave a final roar that sounded like words. . .
The hunter left the area. He may even have gone home and settled down as a farmer.
Shaman or shapeshifter, the old man and his counterpart, the most enormous black bear anyone has ever seen, are said to walk the Knoxville night even now.
I’d stay out of either’s way, myself.
The legend of Brother Bear is told in the great Charles Edwin Price’s 1999 book Mysterious Knoxville.
Today my Vols will, most likely, get an almighty wallopin’ at the hands of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, but they’re playing at Neyland, hence I chose a Knoxville story.
And with that said–GO VOLS!!!!