The Story of Keesh by Jack London
KEESH lived long ago on the rim of the polar sea, was head man of
his village through many and prosperous years, and died full of
honors with his name on the lips of men. So long ago did he live
that only the old men remember his name, his name and the tale,
which they got from the old men before them, and which the old men
to come will tell to their children and their children's children
down to the end of time. And the winter darkness, when the north
gales make their long sweep across the ice-pack, and the air is
filled with flying white, and no man may venture forth, is the
chosen time for the telling of how Keesh, from the poorest IGLOO in
the village, rose to power and place over them all.
He was a bright boy, so the tale runs, healthy and strong, and he
had seen thirteen suns, in their way of reckoning time. For each
winter the sun leaves the land in darkness, and the next year a new
sun returns so that they may be warm again and look upon one
another's faces. The father of Keesh had been a very brave man,
but he had met his death in a time of famine, when he sought to
save the lives of his people by taking the life of a great polar
bear. In his eagerness he came to close grapples with the bear,
and his bones were crushed; but the bear had much meat on him and
the people were saved. Keesh was his only son, and after that
Keesh lived alone with his mother. But the people are prone to
forget, and they forgot the deed of his father; and he being but a
boy, and his mother only a woman, they, too, were swiftly
forgotten, and ere long came to live in the meanest of all the
It was at a council, one night, in the big IGLOO of Klosh-Kwan, the
chief, that Keesh showed the blood that ran in his veins and the
manhood that stiffened his back. With the dignity of an elder, he
rose to his feet, and waited for silence amid the babble of voices.
"It is true that meat be apportioned me and mine," he said. "But
it is ofttimes old and tough, this meat, and, moreover, it has an
unusual quantity of bones."
The hunters, grizzled and gray, and lusty and young, were aghast.
The like had never been known before. A child, that talked like a
grown man, and said harsh things to their very faces!
But steadily and with seriousness, Keesh went on. "For that I know
my father, Bok, was a great hunter, I speak these words. It is
said that Bok brought home more meat than any of the two best
hunters, that with his own hands he attended to the division of it,
that with his own eyes he saw to it that the least old woman and
the last old man received fair share."
"Na! Na!" the men cried. "Put the child out!" "Send him off to
bed!" "He is no man that he should talk to men and graybeards!"
He waited calmly till the uproar died down.
"Thou hast a wife, Ugh-Gluk," he said, "and for her dost thou
speak. And thou, too, Massuk, a mother also, and for them dost
thou speak. My mother has no one, save me; wherefore I speak. As
I say, though Bok be dead because he hunted over-keenly, it is just
that I, who am his son, and that Ikeega, who is my mother and was
his wife, should have meat in plenty so long as there be meat in
plenty in the tribe. I, Keesh, the son of Bok, have spoken."
He sat down, his ears keenly alert to the flood of protest and
indignation his words had created.
"That a boy should speak in council!" old Ugh-Gluk was mumbling.
"Shall the babes in arms tell us men the things we shall do?"
Massuk demanded in a loud voice. "Am I a man that I should be made
a mock by every child that cries for meat?"
The anger boiled a white heat. They ordered him to bed, threatened
that he should have no meat at all, and promised him sore beatings
for his presumption. Keesh's eyes began to flash, and the blood to
pound darkly under his skin. In the midst of the abuse he sprang
to his feet.
"Hear me, ye men!" he cried. "Never shall I speak in the council
again, never again till the men come to me and say, 'It is well,
Keesh, that thou shouldst speak, it is well and it is our wish.'
Take this now, ye men, for my last word. Bok, my father, was a
great hunter. I, too, his son, shall go and hunt the meat that I
eat. And be it known, now, that the division of that which I kill
shall be fair. And no widow nor weak one shall cry in the night
because there is no meat, when the strong men are groaning in great
pain for that they have eaten overmuch. And in the days to come
there shall be shame upon the strong men who have eaten overmuch.
I, Keesh, have said it!"
Jeers and scornful laughter followed him out of the IGLOO, but his
jaw was set and he went his way, looking neither to right nor left.
The next day he went forth along the shore-line where the ice and
the land met together. Those who saw him go noted that he carried
his bow, with a goodly supply of bone-barbed arrows, and that
across his shoulder was his father's big hunting-spear. And there
was laughter, and much talk, at the event. It was an unprecedented
occurrence. Never did boys of his tender age go forth to hunt,
much less to hunt alone. Also were there shaking of heads and
prophetic mutterings, and the women looked pityingly at Ikeega, and
her face was grave and sad.
"He will be back ere long," they said cheeringly.
"Let him go; it will teach him a lesson," the hunters said. "And
he will come back shortly, and he will be meek and soft of speech
in the days to follow."
But a day passed, and a second, and on the third a wild gale blew,
and there was no Keesh. Ikeega tore her hair and put soot of the
seal-oil on her face in token of her grief; and the women assailed
the men with bitter words in that they had mistreated the boy and
sent him to his death; and the men made no answer, preparing to go
in search of the body when the storm abated.
Early next morning, however, Keesh strode into the village. But he
came not shamefacedly. Across his shoulders he bore a burden of
fresh-killed meat. And there was importance in his step and
arrogance in his speech.
"Go, ye men, with the dogs and sledges, and take my trail for the
better part of a day's travel," he said. "There is much meat on
the ice - a she-bear and two half-grown cubs."
Ikeega was overcome with joy, but he received her demonstrations in
manlike fashion, saying: "Come, Ikeega, let us eat. And after
that I shall sleep, for I am weary."
And he passed into their IGLOO and ate profoundly, and after that
slept for twenty running hours.
There was much doubt at first, much doubt and discussion. The
killing of a polar bear is very dangerous, but thrice dangerous is
it, and three times thrice, to kill a mother bear with her cubs.
The men could not bring themselves to believe that the boy Keesh,
single-handed, had accomplished so great a marvel. But the women
spoke of the fresh-killed meat he had brought on his back, and this
was an overwhelming argument against their unbelief. So they
finally departed, grumbling greatly that in all probability, if the
thing were so, he had neglected to cut up the carcasses. Now in
the north it is very necessary that this should be done as soon as
a kill is made. If not, the meat freezes so solidly as to turn the
edge of the sharpest knife, and a three-hundred-pound bear, frozen
stiff, is no easy thing to put upon a sled and haul over the rough
ice. But arrived at the spot, they found not only the kill, which
they had doubted, but that Keesh had quartered the beasts in true
hunter fashion, and removed the entrails.
Thus began the mystery of Keesh, a mystery that deepened and
deepened with the passing of the days. His very next trip he
killed a young bear, nearly full-grown, and on the trip following,
a large male bear and his mate. He was ordinarily gone from three
to four days, though it was nothing unusual for him to stay away a
week at a time on the ice-field. Always he declined company on
these expeditions, and the people marvelled. "How does he do it?"
they demanded of one another. "Never does he take a dog with him,
and dogs are of such great help, too."
"Why dost thou hunt only bear?" Klosh-Kwan once ventured to ask
And Keesh made fitting answer. "It is well known that there is
more meat on the bear," he said.
But there was also talk of witchcraft in the village. "He hunts
with evil spirits," some of the people contended, "wherefore his
hunting is rewarded. How else can it be, save that he hunts with
"Mayhap they be not evil, but good, these spirits," others said.
"It is known that his father was a mighty hunter. May not his
father hunt with him so that he may attain excellence and patience
and understanding? Who knows?"
None the less, his success continued, and the less skilful hunters
were often kept busy hauling in his meat. And in the division of
it he was just. As his father had done before him, he saw to it
that the least old woman and the last old man received a fair
portion, keeping no more for himself than his needs required. And
because of this, and of his merit as a hunter, he was looked upon
with respect, and even awe; and there was talk of making him chief
after old Klosh-Kwan. Because of the things he had done, they
looked for him to appear again in the council, but he never came,
and they were ashamed to ask.
"I am minded to build me an IGLOO," he said one day to Klosh-Kwan
and a number of the hunters. "It shall be a large IGLOO, wherein
Ikeega and I can dwell in comfort."
"Ay," they nodded gravely.
"But I have no time. My business is hunting, and it takes all my
time. So it is but just that the men and women of the village who
eat my meat should build me my IGLOO."
And the IGLOO was built accordingly, on a generous scale which
exceeded even the dwelling of Klosh-Kwan. Keesh and his mother
moved into it, and it was the first prosperity she had enjoyed
since the death of Bok. Nor was material prosperity alone hers,
for, because of her wonderful son and the position he had given
her, she came to he looked upon as the first woman in all the
village; and the women were given to visiting her, to asking her
advice, and to quoting her wisdom when arguments arose among
themselves or with the men.
But it was the mystery of Keesh's marvellous hunting that took
chief place in all their minds. And one day Ugh-Gluk taxed him
with witchcraft to his face.
"It is charged," Ugh-Gluk said ominously, "that thou dealest with
evil spirits, wherefore thy hunting is rewarded."
"Is not the meat good?" Keesh made answer. "Has one in the village
yet to fall sick from the eating of it? How dost thou know that
witchcraft be concerned? Or dost thou guess, in the dark, merely
because of the envy that consumes thee?"
And Ugh-Gluk withdrew discomfited, the women laughing at him as he
walked away. But in the council one night, after long
deliberation, it was determined to put spies on his track when he
went forth to hunt, so that his methods might be learned. So, on
his next trip, Bim and Bawn, two young men, and of hunters the
craftiest, followed after him, taking care not to be seen. After
five days they returned, their eyes bulging and their tongues a-
tremble to tell what they had seen. The council was hastily called
in Klosh-Kwan's dwelling, and Bim took up the tale.
"Brothers! As commanded, we journeyed on the trail of Keesh, and
cunningly we journeyed, so that he might not know. And midway of
the first day he picked up with a great he-bear. It was a very
"None greater," Bawn corroborated, and went on himself. "Yet was
the bear not inclined to fight, for he turned away and made off
slowly over the ice. This we saw from the rocks of the shore, and
the bear came toward us, and after him came Keesh, very much
unafraid. And he shouted harsh words after the bear, and waved his
arms about, and made much noise. Then did the bear grow angry, and
rise up on his hind legs, and growl. But Keesh walked right up to
"Ay," Bim continued the story. "Right up to the bear Keesh walked.
And the bear took after him, and Keesh ran away. But as he ran he
dropped a little round ball on the ice. And the bear stopped and
smelled of it, then swallowed it up. And Keesh continued to run
away and drop little round balls, and the bear continued to swallow
Exclamations and cries of doubt were being made, and Ugh-Gluk
expressed open unbelief.
"With our own eyes we saw it," Bim affirmed.
And Bawn - "Ay, with our own eyes. And this continued until the
bear stood suddenly upright and cried aloud in pain, and thrashed
his fore paws madly about. And Keesh continued to make off over
the ice to a safe distance. But the bear gave him no notice, being
occupied with the misfortune the little round balls had wrought
"Ay, within him," Bim interrupted. "For he did claw at himself,
and leap about over the ice like a playful puppy, save from the way
he growled and squealed it was plain it was not play but pain.
Never did I see such a sight!"
"Nay, never was such a sight seen," Bawn took up the strain. "And
furthermore, it was such a large bear."
"Witchcraft," Ugh-Gluk suggested.
"I know not," Bawn replied. "I tell only of what my eyes beheld.
And after a while the bear grew weak and tired, for he was very
heavy and he had jumped about with exceeding violence, and he went
off along the shore-ice, shaking his head slowly from side to side
and sitting down ever and again to squeal and cry. And Keesh
followed after the bear, and we followed after Keesh, and for that
day and three days more we followed. The bear grew weak, and never
ceased crying from his pain."
"It was a charm!" Ugh-Gluk exclaimed. "Surely it was a charm!"
"It may well be."
And Bim relieved Bawn. "The bear wandered, now this way and now
that, doubling back and forth and crossing his trail in circles, so
that at the end he was near where Keesh had first come upon him.
By this time he was quite sick, the bear, and could crawl no
farther, so Keesh came up close and speared him to death."
"And then?" Klosh-Kwan demanded.
"Then we left Keesh skinning the bear, and came running that the
news of the killing might be told."
And in the afternoon of that day the women hauled in the meat of
the bear while the men sat in council assembled. When Keesh
arrived a messenger was sent to him, bidding him come to the
council. But he sent reply, saying that he was hungry and tired;
also that his IGLOO was large and comfortable and could hold many
And curiosity was so strong on the men that the whole council,
Klosh-Kwan to the fore, rose up and went to the IGLOO of Keesh. He
was eating, but he received them with respect and seated them
according to their rank. Ikeega was proud and embarrassed by
turns, but Keesh was quite composed.
Klosh-Kwan recited the information brought by Bim and Bawn, and at
its close said in a stern voice: "So explanation is wanted, O
Keesh, of thy manner of hunting. Is there witchcraft in it?"
Keesh looked up and smiled. "Nay, O Klosh-Kwan. It is not for a
boy to know aught of witches, and of witches I know nothing. I
have but devised a means whereby I may kill the ice-bear with ease,
that is all. It be headcraft, not witchcraft."
"And may any man?"
There was a long silence. The men looked in one another's faces,
and Keesh went on eating.
"And . . . and . . . and wilt thou tell us, O Keesh?" Klosh-Kwan
finally asked in a tremulous voice.
"Yea, I will tell thee." Keesh finished sucking a marrow-bone and
rose to his feet. "It is quite simple. Behold!"
He picked up a thin strip of whalebone and showed it to them. The
ends were sharp as needle-points. The strip he coiled carefully,
till it disappeared in his hand. Then, suddenly releasing it, it
sprang straight again. He picked up a piece of blubber.
"So," he said, "one takes a small chunk of blubber, thus, and thus
makes it hollow. Then into the hollow goes the whalebone, so,
tightly coiled, and another piece of blubber is fitted over the
whale-bone. After that it is put outside where it freezes into a
little round ball. The bear swallows the little round ball, the
blubber melts, the whalebone with its sharp ends stands out
straight, the bear gets sick, and when the bear is very sick, why,
you kill him with a spear. It is quite simple."
And Ugh-Gluk said "Oh!" and Klosh-Kwan said "Ah!" And each said
something after his own manner, and all understood.
And this is the story of Keesh, who lived long ago on the rim of
the polar sea. Because he exercised headcraft and not witchcraft,
he rose from the meanest IGLOO to be head man of his village, and
through all the years that he lived, it is related, his tribe was
prosperous, and neither widow nor weak one cried aloud in the night
because there was no meat.