Touching Spirit Bear
This book is dedicated to Buffy,
a seven-hundred-pound black bear who
has become my own Spirit Bear.
He taught me to be gentle and
that I, too, am part of
Fall seven times, stand up eight.
Touching Spirit Bear
COLE MATTHEWS KNELT defiantly in the bow of the aluminum…
THE HEAVY LOAD of supplies caused the skiff to wallow…
COLE STARED SULLENLY into the fire, then let his gaze…
BY THE TIME Cole paused to catch his breath, he…
ONCE CLEAR OF the bay, Cole swam even harder. Misty…
COLE’S CLOTHES FELT damp and stiff when he picked them…
UNABLE TO FIND much dry wood on the ground, Cole…
WHEN COLE’S ADVANCE brought him within ten feet of the…
A CONSTANT RAIN and shrouded gray sky masked the passing…
AS COLE LAY thinking about the sparrows, pain surged back…
THE SPIRIT BEAR approached Cole with a slow lazy stride,…
A SHORT, SQUAT man poked his head inside Cole’s room.
Return to Spirit Bear
COLE HOBBLED SLOWLY but without help down the sidewalk leading…
I WAS MAD,” Cole said, glancing nervously around the Circle.
COLE’S PULSE QUICKENED as the island drifted into view. It…
BEFORE THEY WENT to sleep, Edwin showed Cole how to…
BY THE TIME Cole and Edwin returned to camp, Garvey…
AFTER RETURNING TO camp from his swim, Cole smeared lotion…
COLE’S HEART POUNDED. Had he just seen the Spirit Bear?
COLE DROVE HIMSELF hard after Edwin and Garvey left, staying…
AFTER EDWIN LEFT, Cole spent the rest of the afternoon…
TO BE INVISIBLE he had to clear his mind. That…
THE NEXT MORNING Cole went to the totem to carve…
COLE TOOK A deep breath. “I think Peter should come…
THAT EVENING COLE fixed his favorite meal for everyone. As…
COLE NEEDED NO second invitation into the cabin. Fumbling with…
AS SUMMER CAME to the North Country, group visits to…
Other Books by Ben Mikaelsen
Touching Spirit Bear
About the Publisher
TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR
COLE MATTHEWS KNELT defiantly in the bow of the aluminum skiff as he faced forward into a cold September wind. Worn steel handcuffs bit at his wrists each time the small craft slapped into another wave. Overhead, a gray-matted sky hung like a bad omen. Cole strained at the cuffs even though he had agreed to wear them until he was freed on the island to begin his banishment. Agreeing to spend a whole year alone in Southeast Alaska had been his only way of avoiding a jail cell in Minneapolis.
Two men accompanied Cole on this final leg of his journey. In the middle sat Garvey, the gravelly-voiced, wisecracking Indian parole officer from Minneapolis. Garvey said he was a Tlingit Indian, pronouncing Tlingit proudly with a clicking of his tongue as if saying “Klingkit.” He was built like a bulldog with lazy eyes. Cole didn’t trust Garvey. He didn’t trust anyone who wasn’t afraid of him. Garvey pretended to be a friend, but Cole knew he was nothing more than a paid baby-sitter. This week his job was escorting a violent juvenile offender first from Minneapolis to Seattle, then to Ketchikan, Alaska, where they boarded a big silver floatplane to the Tlingit village of Drake. Now they were headed for some island in the middle of nowhere.
In the rear of the skiff sat Edwin, a quiet, potbellied Tlingit elder who had helped arrange Cole’s banishment. He steered the boat casually, a faded blue T-shirt and baggy jeans his only protection against the wind. Deep-set eyes made it hard to tell what Edwin was thinking. He stared forward with a steely patience, like a wolf waiting. Cole didn’t trust him either.
It was Edwin who had built the shelter and made all the preparations on the island where Cole was to stay. When he first met Edwin in Drake, the gruff elder took one look and pointed a finger at him. “Go put your clothes on inside out,” he ordered.
“Get real, old man,” Cole answered.
“You’ll wear them reversed for the first two weeks of your banishment to show humility and shame,” Edwin said, his voice hard as stone. Then he turned and shuffled up the dock toward his old rusty pickup.
Cole hesitated, eyeing the departing elder.
“Just do it,” Garvey warned.
Still standing on the dock in front of everyone, Cole smirked as he undressed. He refused to turn his back as he slowly pulled each piece inside out—even his underwear. Villagers watched from the shore until he finished changing.
Bracing himself now against the heavy seas, Cole held that same smirk. His blue jeans, heavy wool shirt, and rain jacket chafed his skin, but it didn’t matter. He would have worn a cowbell around his neck if it had meant avoiding jail. He wasn’t a Tlingit Indian. He was an innocent-looking, baby-faced fifteen-year-old from Minneapolis who had been in trouble with the law half his life. Everyone thought he felt sorry for what he had done, and going to this island was his way of making things right.
Nothing could be further from the truth. To Cole, this was just another big game. With salt air biting at his face, he turned and glanced at Edwin. The elder eyed him back with a dull stare. Anger welled up inside Cole. He hated that stupid stare. Pretending to aim toward the waves, he spit so the wind would catch the thick saliva and carry it back.
The spit caught Edwin squarely and dragged across his faded shirt. Edwin casually lifted an oily rag from the bottom of the skiff and wiped away the slime, then tossed the rag back under his seat and again fixed his eyes on Cole.
Cole feigned surprise as if he had made a horrible mistake, then twisted at the handcuffs again. What was this old guy’s problem anyway? The elder acted fearless, but he had to be afraid of something. Everyone in the world was afraid of something.
Cole thought back to all the people at home who had tried to help him over the years. He hated their fake concern. They didn’t really care what happened to him. They were gutless—he could see it in their eyes. They were afraid, glad to be rid of him. They pretended to help only because they didn’t know what else to do.
For years, “help” had meant sending him to drug counseling and anger therapy sessions. Every few months, Cole found himself being referred to someone else. He discovered early on that “being referred” was the adult term for passing the buck. Already he had seen the inside of
a dozen police stations, been through as many counselors, a psychologist, several detention centers, and two residential treatment centers.
Each time he got into trouble, he was warned to shape up because this was his last chance. Even the day he left for the island, several of those who gathered to see him off, including his parents, had warned him, “Don’t screw up. This is your last chance.” Cole braced himself for the next big wave. Whatever happened, he could always count on having one more last chance.
Not that it really mattered. He had no intention of ever honoring the contract he agreed to during the Circle Justice meetings. As soon as they left him alone, this silly game would end. Circle Justice was a bunch of bull. They were crazy if they thought he was going to spend a whole year of his life like some animal, trapped on a remote Alaskan island.
Cole twisted at the handcuffs again. Last year at this time, he had never even heard of Circle Justice—he hadn’t heard of it until his latest arrest for breaking into a hardware store. After robbing the place, he had totally trashed it.
The police might not have caught him, but after a week passed, he bragged about the break-in at school. When someone ratted on him, the police questioned Cole. He denied the break-in, of course, and then he beat up the boy who had turned him in.
The kid, Peter Driscal, was a ninth grader Cole had picked on many times before just for the fun of it. Still, no one ratted on Cole Matthews without paying the price. That day, he caught up to Peter in the hallway at school. “You’re a dead man,” he warned the skinny red-haired boy, giving him a hard shove. He laughed when he saw fear in Peter’s eyes.
Later, after school, Cole cornered Peter outside in the parking lot. With anger that had been brewing all day, he attacked him and started hitting him hard in the face with his bare fists. Peter was no match, and soon Cole had pounded him bloody. A dozen students stood watching. When Peter tried to escape, he tripped and fell to the ground. Cole jumped on him again and started smashing his head against the sidewalk. It took six other students to finally pull him away. By then Peter was cowering on the blood-smeared sidewalk, sobbing. Cole laughed and spit at him even as he was held back. Nobody crossed Cole Matthews and got away with it.
Because of his vicious attack on Peter Driscal, Cole had been kept at a detention center while the courts decided what to do with him. His white-walled room was bare except for a bed with a gray blanket, a toilet without a cover, a shelf for clothes, a cement table, and a barred window facing onto the center group area. The place smelled like cleaning disinfectant.
Each night guards locked the room’s thick steel door. They called this detention space a room, but Cole knew it was really a jail cell. A room didn’t need a locked steel door. During the day, guards allowed Cole to go into the central group area with other juveniles if he wanted to. He could read, watch TV, or talk. They expected him to do schoolwork with a tutor that came each day. What a joke. This was no school, and he was no student. Cole did as little as absolutely possible, keeping to himself. The other detainees were a bunch of losers.
Cole figured he wouldn’t even be here if Peter Driscal had known how to fight back. Instead, Peter was hospitalized. Doctors’ reports warned he might suffer permanent damage. “Serves him right,” Cole mumbled when he was first told of Peter’s condition.
What angered Cole most after this latest arrest were his parents. In the past they had always come running with a lawyer, offering to pay damages and demanding his release. They had enough money and connections to move mountains. Besides, they had a reputation to protect. What parent wanted the world to know their son was a juvenile delinquent? All Cole did was pretend he was sorry for a few days till things blew over. But that was how it had been in the past, before his parents got divorced.
This time, he hadn’t been freed. He was told that because of his past record and the violence of this attack, he would be kept locked up while prosecutors filed a motion to transfer him to adult court. Even Nathaniel Blackwood, the high-priced criminal defense lawyer hired by his dad, told Cole he might be tried as an adult. If convicted, he’d be sent to prison.
Cole couldn’t believe his parents were letting this happen to him. What jerks! He hated his parents. His mom acted like a scared Barbie doll, always looking good but never fighting back or standing up to anyone. His dad was a bullheaded drinker with a temper. He figured everything was Cole’s fault. Why wasn’t his room clean? Why hadn’t he emptied the garbage? Why hadn’t he mowed the lawn? Why was he even alive?
“I never want to see your ugly faces again,” Cole shouted at the lawyer and his parents after finding out he wouldn’t be released. But still his parents tried to see him. Because of their divorce, they visited separately. That’s how much they thought about themselves and about him, Cole thought. They couldn’t even swallow their dumb pride and visit together.
During each visit, Cole relaxed on his bed and pretended to read a newspaper, completely ignoring them. He liked watching his parents, especially his dad, squirm and get frustrated. Some days his dad got so mad, he turned beet red and twitched because he couldn’t lay a finger on Cole with the guards watching.
Finally his parents quit trying to visit. Even Nathaniel Blackwood quit stopping by except when hearings and depositions required his presence. Cole didn’t like the lawyer. Blackwood was a stiff man and spoke artificially, as if he were addressing an audience through a microphone. Cole swore he wore starch on everything. Judging by how he walked, that included his underwear.
The only person who insisted on visiting regularly was Garvey, the stocky youth probation officer, who stopped by the detention center almost daily.
Cole couldn’t figure Garvey out. He knew the probation officer was super busy, so why did he visit so often? What was his angle? Everybody had an angle—something they wanted. Until Cole could figure out what Garvey wanted, he resented the visits—he didn’t need a friend or a baby-sitter.
During one visit, Garvey asked casually, “I know you’re in control, Champ, but would you ever consider applying for Circle Justice?”
“What’s Circle Justice?”
“It’s a healing form of justice practiced by native cultures for thousands of years.”
“I’m no Indian!” Cole said.
Garvey spoke patiently. “You don’t have to be Native American or First Nation. Anybody can love, forgive, and heal. Nobody has a corner on that market.”
“What’s in it for me?”
Garvey shook his head. “If you kill my cat, normally the police fine you and that’s it. We still hate each other, I still feel bad about my cat, and you’re angry because you have to pay a fine. In Circle Justice, you sign a healing contract. You might agree to help me pick out a new kitten and care for it as part of the sentencing.”
“Why would I want to take care of a dumb cat?”
“Because you’ve caused my cat and me harm. By doing something for me and for another cat, you help make things right again.”
“What if I don’t care about you and your dumb cat?”
“Then do it for yourself. You’re also a victim. Something terrible has happened to you to make you want to kill a poor small animal.”
Cole shrugged. “Feeding a dumb cat beats paying a fine.”
Garvey smiled and clapped Cole on the back. “You just don’t get it, do you, Champ?”
Cole ducked away from Garvey. He hated being called Champ. And he hated being touched. Nobody ever touched him except to hit him. That’s how it had been as long as he could remember.
“Circle Justice tries to heal, not punish,” Garvey explained. “Your lawyer might take you to a zoo to help you appreciate animals more. The prosecutor might have you watch a veterinarian operate for a day to realize the value of life. The judge might help you on the weekend to make birdhouses as repayment to the animal kingdom for something you destroyed. Even neighbors might help in some way.”
“They actually do this stuff here in Minneapolis?”
bsp; Garvey nodded. “It’s a new trial program. Other towns and cities are trying it, too.”
“Why go to so much trouble?”
“To heal. Justice should heal, not punish. If you kill my cat, you need to become more sensitive to animals. You and I need to be friends, and I need to forgive you to get over my anger. That’s Circle Justice. Everybody is a part of the healing, including people from the community—anybody who cares. But healing is much harder than standard punishment. Healing requires taking responsibility for your actions.”
Cole bit at his lip. “So would this get me out of going to jail?”
“It isn’t about avoiding jail,” Garvey said. “You go to jail angry, you stay angry. Go with love, that’s how you come back. This is all about how you do something, not what you do. Even jail can be positive if you go in with a good heart. I will say this, however. Usually the jail sentence, if there is one, is reduced under Circle Justice.”
That’s all Cole needed to hear. He knew what game to play. “How do I get into this Circle Justice stuff?” he asked innocently.
Garvey placed a hand on Cole’s shoulder. “I’ll get you an application,” he said, “but you’re the one who starts the process in your heart.” He tapped Cole’s chest. “If you don’t want change, this will never work.”
Cole forced himself not to pull away from Garvey’s hand. “I really do want change,” he said, using the innocent childish voice that had served him well countless times before.
Garvey nodded. “Okay, let’s see if you’re serious. I’ll help you with the application.”
After Garvey left the detention center that day, Cole jabbed his fist into the air. “Yes!” he exclaimed. The world was made up of suckers and fools, and today Garvey was at the top of the heap.
THE HEAVY LOAD of supplies caused the skiff to wallow through the waves. Cole examined the boxes filled with canned foods, clothes, bedroll, ax, cooking gear, heavy rain gear, rubber boots, and even schoolwork he was supposed to complete. He chuckled. Fat chance he’d ever do any schoolwork.