"Well, I figured bears are big and clumsy, right? So I could outrun him, I thought. But then he started gaining on me, and I realized I had made a big mistake. I kept running and running into the woods, and he kept getting closer and closer, and I can almost feel his breath on the back of my neck when I spot this tree that has a couple of low branches that I could grab if I jumped high enough, which is what I did. I managed to get up to a higher branch just as the bear made a swipe at my feet -- his claws snagged one of my shoes and pulled it off. I kept on climbing until I was about at the top of the tree."
"What did the bear do next?"
"He kept trying to jump up, but it was pretty clear he couldn't climb the tree. One time he grabbed one of the lower branches, and it broke off. I was sure glad I wasn't on it when that happened! Then he went round and round the tree, and he clawed at the trunk. I had visions of him shredding my leg the way he shredded that bark." Johnny shivered slightly and knocked back the rest of the whiskey, then tossed the empty bottle in the direction of the trash barrel near the bench. It banged off the rim and landed in the sand with a soft thunk.
"So you stayed up in the tree until the bear left?" I got up to pick up the bottle and dropped it into the nearly empty barrel, making an echoing, clanging noise.
Johnny winced. "Ooh, that's loud," he said. Then he leaned back on the bench. "Yeah, I stayed up in that tree until the bear left, and then some. He stuck around for hours, and then he left, and then he came back a while later, and then he left for a longer while, but he came back again. Finally he was gone for a good long while, and I climbed down from the tree. Hurt my foot too, the one that didn't have a shoe on it.
"So then I realize I'm lost. It's midnight, and I don't remember what direction I was running to get where I was. I'm looking up to see if I can see any stars, find my way that way. Done that before, lots of times out at sea. But I can't see the sky because the trees are too thick. So then I think, well, you're supposed to find north because that's the mossy side of the trees, right? You can't do that at sea, but you can do it in the woods!"
"So you found north and started heading west?"
"No such luck. These trees had moss all around, on all sides. Either north was every direction, or this was a part of the world where the old rule didn't work. I couldn't even tell whether maybe the moss was a little thicker on one side of the trees, because it was really dark. There wasn't any moon, and those trees were so darn thick there wasn't even any starlight to speak of. There's all this noise, though, bugs buzzing and little things squeaking and hissing and clicking, and some birds, maybe they were owls, making these sudden whooshing sounds right over my head." Johnny was now shaking, even though the damp breeze off the ocean wasn't all that cold; he moved closer to me on the bench. "And I was still worried about that bear, whether he would come back again."
"So did you just start walking, or what?"
"Oh, no, I remember being told that if you're lost, you're a lot easier to find if you stay put. Not that anyone was searching for me that I knew of. But I figured I might be able to see better when the sun came up anyway. So I got back up in that tree, not so high up; I was too tired to climb unless the bear came back, and I waited for the sun to come up. It seemed like forever, and when it finally got light, I still couldn't see the sun because the sky was sort of overcast. But I was able to get a vague idea of where east was since it was a little brighter that way, so I headed west.
"I got to the shore about noon. It wasn't where I started from, so there was no sign of my boat or the dinghy. I had no clue whether I was north or south of them. My foot was really hurting by then -- there were all sorts of rocks and sticks that I stepped on. I thought about taking off my other shoe so I'd be hurting equally on both sides, but then I realized that would be silly. I just wasn't thinking straight any more. I'd had so little sleep, and I hadn't had any food in more than a day. I decided to look for something to eat."
"At least you should have been able to find some berries to eat or something."
"Well, there were plenty of berry bushes, all right. But that damn bear had beat me to them. He only left a couple of berries here and there. Not enough to even take the edge off." Johnny straightened up on the bench and put his hand on my shoulder. "Hey, that reminds me, I'm hungry. Let's get a bite to eat."
"With what money?" I asked. "Didn't we just spend what we had left on that whiskey?"
"I know a place they'll let me run a tab." Johnny stood up, wavering only slightly, and offered me a hand, which I took. I found my head was feeling a bit fuzzy as I stood up, and we ended up leaning on each other as we walked down the path to a taco stand that was still open. We took seats at one of the flimsy metal tables in front, and Johnny waved to the man behind the counter. "Hey, Esteban, let's have a dozen of your fish tacos!"
"You know, Johnny, you didn't pay me yet for the ones you had last time," Esteban said, nevertheless pulling out tortillas and beginning to fill them. "I see you're working on another mark, though, with your stories. It's a wonder how you do that -- tell 'em stories and get 'em to feed you." I had to suppress a smile at that remark. Maybe Johnny got other people to pay his way in exchange for being entertained, but I was broke. No need to let Esteban know that, of course.
Esteban brought out the tacos and two bottles of beer. Johnny and I tore into our tacos, and I enjoyed the nutty taste of the very fresh corn tortillas and the savory chunks of seafood with just the right amount of tangy salsa. "Ah, that hits the spot," Johnny said. "Now, where was I?"
"On the shore, discovering that Mister Bear had eaten all the berries."
"Oh, yes." He took a swig of beer. "I tried to think what else I might do for food. Like, maybe I could try fishing, if I could find something to use for a line and hook. I was looking around when I realized there were mushrooms all over the place. Now, I'm not an expert, but I was hungry. I didn't know how to tell which ones are poisonous, but I figured if I ate just a little bit of one kind, and that was OK, then I'd eat only that kind until I ran out and had to try another kind."
"And if the first mushroom wasn't OK?"
"I didn't want to think about that, except to hope that if I only had a little bit, it wouldn't be too bad. So anyhow, I ate a few bites of one, a big, flat one, and it was delicious. I couldn't help myself, I ate the whole thing. But I didn't seem to be getting sick, so I had another and another. Then I got thirsty." Johnny chugged the rest of his beer and signaled to Esteban for another. "I realized that there was a whole lot of seawater out there, but I hadn't seen any sources of fresh. I made a choice -- I hoped my boat was north, and I went that way looking for a stream.
"It was late afternoon by the time I found one, and I was really getting desperate. You'd think if mushrooms grow in damp places, they'd be full of moisture, but the ones I ate just really sucked all the water out of my mouth. So when I finally got to that stream, I just laid down on the ground and stuck my head in. It was cold, but man, it was good.
"Then I got up, and I realized there must have been something in those mushrooms after all, because otherwise, I knew I couldn't possibly be seeing what I was seeing. There was that little guy again, and he was standing right across the stream from me. 'Now ye're wishin' ye'd given me that ride, aren't ye?' he says. I'd forgotten all about that. He says, 'If ye'd given me a ride, I would have made ye rich. But ye didn't, and ye must pay the price.'
"I says, 'What price?' and he says, 'I kept your boat from going anywhere, and I sent that bear after you, and I'm still not done wi' ye yet.' Then he disappears again, and this time I could swear I saw a puff of smoke. I even thought it smelled perfumey, like baby powder. At this point I'm really regretting those mushrooms. I'm seeing things and hearing things and even smelling things. I went to where the guy had been standing and looked for any sign of him, you know, footprints and stuff, but there was nothing. At that point, I'd about convinced myself that he hadn't really been there in the first place and I'd just imagined everything."
"But the leprechaun was actually real, wasn't he?" I finished up my beer, and Johnny signaled Esteban for a fresh one for me and another for himself.
"Oh, he was real, all right," Johnny said. "Those mushrooms weren't doing anything to me at all. I just didn't know that yet.