<— Great Bear
The strapping young lad crept silently through the forest, and saw the great bear, at the edge of a clearing. He sat down, leaning against her broad back.
“Hello, human,” said the bear.
“They caught me.”
“Who caught you?”
“The police.” He sighed.
He sighed again. ‘The people whose job it is to catch other humans, and put them in prison.”
“A dark cave that they don’t let you leave.”
“Do they do this randomly?” said the bear. “Do they just go around grabbing anyone they dislike?”
“They don’t – okay, they’re supposed to catch only the people who break laws. All sorts of complicated rules there are, about how to handle lawbreakers and how to catch them, and the like, and even if the police don’t always follow all those rules, or even half of them, the rules are still there.”
“Strange,” said the bear. “I never throw lawbreakers into caves. I just kill them and move on.”
“What sort of lawbreakers do you have?” The boy raised his eyebrow. “I know I’m supposed to follow The Rules, but I figured those were specially designed for a human in the woods.”
“They are,” said the bear, “because everyone else in this place does only what they need to, for the most part. They do what they have to in order to survive, and there is that order.”
“And yet,” said the boy, looking down the path, “you don’t even try to maintain that order, do you – you just let things happen. You let the clear-cutting happen.”
“I figure that will sort itself out.”
“So what laws, as they apply to the beasts of the forest, do you actually enforce?”
“Just one.” The bear growled.
“We forbid – I forbid the eating of humans.”
“Not the killing of humans – the eating of humans. What is the difference? The poor sap is dead either way.”
“Aye, dead, and what of the reaction when other humans find out? If it’s just a killing, they say, ‘oh, that’s a tragedy, shouldn’t have provoked the dumb beast, shouldn’t have approached the cubs’, and so on.” She shook her head. “Your people are, usually, content to leave the matter there, surmising that whatever happened, the responsible animal acted in self-defense. As I usually do.”
“But when humans are eaten?”
“When humans are eaten…there’s the problem. You humans are sweet meat, you are. Tasty, and easy to munch on. Soft, and lacking in tooth and claw – of one sort, at any rate. So when a bear, or a wolf, or a cat, or a boar, kills and eats a human, they develop a taste for humans. They go after humans. They seek them out. They provoke the encounter. Maybe they provoked the first encounter, seeking meat and happening upon one of the soft hairless apes that are all over the place these days. Maybe they knew they could snap a human’s neck easily, if they were getting too old to bring down a bigger animal, or had lost a few teeth and couldn’t pierce thick hide.
“So these rogues, these man-eaters, as I hear you call them, they keep killing humans. And the humans get mad. They come in force, with their traps and their dogs and their stinging fire, and they kill us. They try to get rid of us. No more cats, no more wolves, no more boar. No more bear.
“We bears, along with the wolves, gained that reputation and never lost it. And it was deserved, back then. Bears and wolves used to eat humans all the time, especially when famine took the deer and the rabbits from us.”
“What happened?” said the boy.
“The bold ones of us were all killed. Many of our peaceful folk were killed as well, just to make things safe for oncoming humans. I had to repopulate the forest almost by myself.”
“So that’s why you wouldn’t deal with the men around the machines?”
“It would have been me provoking the encounter, yes. I’ve had enough of reprisals. Your people would shoot me and my children.” Great Bear sighed. “I want to believe that such a war has ended.”
“So you just let humans nibble this forest away?” The boy stood. “You don’t try to change things?”
“I should ask you the same question.”
The boy paced around. “And if I try, they get mad and they drive me away, or they refuse to listen and call me a tree-hugging weirdo. And if I destroy their metal things – ”
“What metal things?”
“The big yellow trucks, the ones what were pouring out smoke and rumbling. Those things.”
The bear lifted her head, and said, “What do they use them for?”
“You know what they use them for. They use them to clear swathes of land for building, and dig great holes, and move tons of earth, and so on.”
“Tons of earth…” said the bear. “Tons. Large moving metal things that move large amounts of things. Tell me, how were your cities built? Did you use those machines, or was it entirely by hand?”
“Depends on the age of the city,” said the boy, “but for all the newer ones, we used the big yellow machines.”
“Ah,” said the bear, “good. Cities. Places to store all the humans so they won’t come bothering me here. There is some value to these yellow machines after all.”
“I can’t believe you’re siding with the machines! And the people who use them!” The boy threw up his hands. “Are you going to tell me I ought to come in and chop all this down, in order to expand the city?”
The bear chuckled. “I might,” she said, “just to spite you. Since you’re getting all worked up about this machinery business. Who are you blaming? The machines? Or the people working them?”
“What difference does that make?”
“You humans, ” said the bear, “you make all these tools to make life easier. You design the tools. You use the tools, in whatever ways you see fit. Yet here you are, young lad, blaming the tools for everything their masters do. If it was shovels and axes and blasting powder and hammers, instead of large yellow rumbling things, you would still be getting angry, because the forest would be suffering either way, aye? You would still be yelling at me for doing nothing.”
The boy sighed. “But the yellow machines make all this build-up so easy, compared to years past. So it’s happening faster. And one of us refuses to do anything, and the other can’t, because – ”
“Because he spends so much time here, with me, in the forest, that he doesn’t interact with people enough, he doesn’t try to gain their respect, so when he has to convince them they won’t listen.”
The boy’s face turned red. “That hurt.”
“Is it not true?”
“It is. They see me as the weird forest kid.”
“You do spend too much time here.”
“And now I have a record as a [Delinquent|law-breaker because the police caught me for being a runaway and a borderline truant – ”
“A true ant? You look more like a human. Is there something you’ve not been telling me?” The bear rolled away from the boy, and faced him, fixing him with a steady gaze.
“No, no, Truant means I skip school all the time.”
“You spend too much time here.”
“That is true. But I solved – okay, I resolved my problem.”
“How so?” said the bear. “Which problem?”
“My parents,” said the boy.
“You reconciled with them?”
“They threw me out for good.”
“That doesn’t sound like resolution.” The bear sat up on her haunches, and looked down at the boy. “That sounds like more conflict, and pain. That’s not resolution.”
“No,” said the boy, looking down, “but it is final. They said I was old enough, said I could be legally disowned – ”
“Severed from legal ties with my family. Expelled. Thrown out. Separated forever.”
“Oh,” said the bear. “So you’re going to spend more time here.”
“Maybe,” said the boy. “I may choose otherwise, though. I’d rather walk far and wide, now that I can. I figure, if my parents don’t want to treat me as their own child – ”
“You treat the forest as your home.”
“That’s been a necessity for a while, hasn’t it? But that’s not why they kicked me out. I mean, I tried to face up to them, to tell them I was their son, a member of their family, you know, family is the building block of society, and all that. And I brought my boyfriend home and made myself clear on that point, that I wasn’t going to change. Next thing I knew we were both out on the lawn.”
“Sounds like a touchy subject,” said Bear. “Maybe you were a little abrupt. Maybe you could have sat them down and tried to break it to them in a reasonable – ”
“I tried that years ago,” said the boy. “It didn’t work.”
“Oh.” The bear grunted. “That was when I met you the first time?”
“Might have been. Tell me, how long do you give your cubs before they’re ready to leave?”
“A couple winters. That’s usually how long it takes before I know they’re grown and can take care of themselves.”
“Ah,” said the boy, “there’s the rub. When you met me, do you think I could have taken care of myself?”
The bear snorted. “You couldn’t even catch a rabbit.”
“What happened to me happens to a lot of gay kids. They get kicked out before they can take care of themselves.”
“That sounds…odd.” The bear grunted. “Why? Do they all do terrible things, these gay children, to merit expulsion?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy, standing up, “do you think being gay is terrible?”
“I’m not sure I know what the word means. Are gay children all criminals? Are they all ruffians? Does the word describe a class of people who band together and break laws?” She looked him dead in the eye. “Ruffian! What have you been up to?”
“No, no,” said the boy, “it just means human males who mate with human males, and females with females.”
“OH,” said the bear. “That.” She shook her head. “You remind me, again, of how strange humans are.”
“Don’t you go insulting me too!” He stamped his foot. “I’ve had quite enough of that already!”
“No, I mean why limit yourself like that?”
“My limit yourself to men?”
“Because I have no interest in doing otherwise.”
“But you could – ”
“You are beginning to sound like my parents.”
“Fine,” said bear. “Fine! I won’t press you. You just do as you like and be all human and…whatever.”
“What,” said the boy, “You want me to be a bear, is that it?”
“I confess there were some times in which I thought you would be better off as a bear.”
“You mean, besides the times when you thought of eating me?”
“I think, by now, you realize I was kidding.”
“I had no idea bears joked,” said the boy. “Anyway, I think I’ll take my leave now. See the wider world. Roam over hill and dale. And all that.”
“Over hill and dale!” said Bear, rising to all fours. “So soon? Do you think you’re ready? I am loath to let you go. You are still a child, to me. Still unwise.”
“I may gain wisdom on the road,” said the boy.
“So you believe the same way as your parents, that you’re ready to go?”
“I…” He looked up to the branches. “It’s not the same thing. I believe I’m ready to go because I want to see the world. They think I’m ready to go because they want to be rid of me. I like my reason better.”
“And what will you do?”
The boy looked down the trail. “I suppose I’ll find that out too.”
“I will miss you,” said the Great Bear. She stood upon her hind legs, and gathered him in her arms, and said, “I hope you see other bears, of whatever sort. And I hope you find fortune, wherever you go. My blessing will follow you, among the bears you meet, and they will respect you. Not enough to save you from injury, if you cross them, but they will treat you as they should. Go now.”
She let him go. He went, and upon dropping below a hill, he was out of sight.
The sinewy boy sat in the shade of a tall pine tree, weeping silently.
Great Bear lumbered up to him, and nosed him gently. She sniffed. “I smell grief,” she said, “and fear, and anger. What is the trouble?”
“He dumped me,” said the boy, through his tears.
“Dumped? As in, dropped you in the dirt, or onto a pile of rocks, so as to get rid of you?”
“In a – in a manner of speaking. That’s what it feels like, yeah. Like I just fell onto a pile of rocks and my back is broken.”
“Oh,” said bear, “What terrible thing has he done to you?”
“He left me. Said he didn’t like me anymore.”
“Left,” said bear, sitting on her haunches beside the boy, “is that all? People leave me all the time. Sometimes I never see them again.”
“Yeah, but – do they get your hopes up and say they really like you -- as in really really like -- and keep a really big secret between you that everyone would hate you for if it got out -- and then when it does get out -- they leave you, saying that everyone was right, you two were weird and gross?”
“Well, there you have it.”
The bear settled down around the boy, encircling him in her mass of shaggy fur, and within it he almost disappeared. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about,” said Bear, “but I am sure that you’ve been hurt. And while I still think, sometimes, that I could kill you, I won’t. Not you.”
“Well,” said the boy, “I suppose that’s some comfort. But why would you want to kill me in the first place?”
“Because the other bears want me to,” said Bear. “They figure I ought to get rid of you while it’s still possible, before you come and ruin everything. Some of them say I should eat you, because you are soft and have no claws, nor fur, nor fangs, nor sharp sticks and stinging fire, as we have known of old. I tell them, what, and bring down the wrath of this child’s parents?”
“Not my parents,” said the boy. “They wouldn’t care.”
“But I care,” said the bear. “Much as I can.”
“Why?” said the boy. “Why do you hold me here? Why do you teach me how to find food, and to keep warm, and survive?”
“Because you listen, I suppose. You pay me attention. Were you to stop listening, I might forget my forbearance. It is a selfish love.”
“I suppose that will have to do,” said the boy. “Let us talk more of the wild woods, then, and let me learn, and we can forget our troubles. Let us talk of nuts, and roots, and winter.”
“Very well.” The bear stood. “If you follow me, I shall take you to some caves that are full of delicious grubs. Just in case you are very hungry.”
She set off. The boy followed close behind.
The burly boy, nearly a man now, sat before a campfire, turning a side of meat on a spit over the flames.
The Great Bear appeared before him, on the other side of the campfire.
“What is this?” She said. “Flame? In this woods? Dear me, boy, have you forgotten what I have taught you?”
“It is good to see you again,” said the boy. “It is good to know you are still kicking.”
“I am tough and old,” said the bear. “I do not fall easily. Now, answer my question.” She growled.
“I suppose I have picked up some bad habits on my travels,” said the boy. “As I wandered, I tasted cooked meat often. I found it pleasing, I suppose, although I do miss the taste of raw meat sometimes. But the cooked meat filled me better than the raw could, and I discovered it difficult to go back to what I had known. As for this night, I needed light, and heat, for the stars provide none.”
The bear swept a paw, throwing a mass of dirt onto the fire. It went out with a hiss, throwing the space into darkness, lit only by embers, barely more light than the stars.
And the stars had even less light than they usually did. There was a glow on the horizon that drowned most of them.
In the darkness, the bear settled down around the boy, obscuring him in her thick fur, and said, “I will keep you warm this night. For I have missed you.”
“As you said you would,” said the boy, leaning back against her hide. “And I have missed you. Tell me – have you yet found anyone else who listens to you?”
“Alas, no,” said the bear. “Perhaps your circumstances when we met, desperate as they were, are rare. Or, considering the number of orphaned human children I have seen in my years, less rare than I realized – now that I think of it.”
The boy sat up. “How often do you encounter such children?”
“Every now and then.”
“What do you do to them?”
“Formerly? Gave them a little food and left them alone. Now? Give them a bit of warmth, a little courage, perhaps, although none can hear me well enough to heed my advice.”
“What made you change? Was it me?”
“No. Maybe? I do not recall how many years ago it was that we met.” She looked up to the stars.
“Only a handful, I’d say.”
“Maybe centuries, the way I feel sometimes. So I don’t know if it was you who caused the change, or if you’re benefitting from it. Hm. I’ve long been concerned with how the humans think of me. I give the children aid and comfort, so that when they go back to their own people – so that they can go back to their own people. and sometimes, I walk alongside them for the whole way, if they are still scared, especially the infants – a few infants are abandoned before they can even walk, and I deposit them on doorsteps – if I can get to them before the other bears do – what was I saying? My reputation. So that the children will believe I am not as harmful as the tales say.”
“Even though you could be, if you chose. Very easily.” The boy leaned back against the bear.
“Right,” said Bear. “I want people to like me, so that I and my children don’t get shot at.”
“Even though you keep going on about how you could swipe my head off?”
“I will stop saying that.”
“Sure you will.” The boy stretched, and yawned. “Have you gone looking for those who would listen?”
“Far and wide. I have wondered, often, why no one listens. Is it only fear? Goodness knows there were precious few in the old days who would listen to me. Now there are more people who think they can…”
“They’re hearing something else. Never me.”
“You must have really missed me.”
Great Bear grunted. “I said it once. Did you not believe me then?”
“I never said I didn’t.” The boy yawned again.
“Hm. Well, what have you been up to, when you were gone from me? Where did you wander?”
The boy looked up at the dark branches overhead. “I took my hide up north, where the snowy wind blows, and there are more bears. I thought they might listen to me. They said I wasn’t fully-grown, in human terms, and what was I doing wandering around, thinking I knew what I was doing. Those were the ones who stayed near me.”
“And the rest?”
“I wonder why. You smell like a bear, I’ll give you that.”
“You said, didn’t you, that all the bold beasts had been killed? That leaves the timid ones.”
“Not all of them. Did I say that? Surely the north would have the last remaining bears that feared no humans.”
“I stayed away from the polar bears.”
“Hm.” Great Bear shifted, and said, “What else did you do?”
“Interacted with humans.”
“I worked for them. Odd things here and there. Odd jobs.”
“Ah, yes, the concept you explained to me. You took a ‘job’ to earn ‘money.’ How did that work out? What did you do?”
“Well enough. I dug stuff. Chopped wood.”
“Chopped wood!” The bear growled.
“Cut, I mean. The trees were already felled. There was nothing I could do.”
“You dared involve yourself with that business?”
“It was not your woods,” said the boy, “and not your place to tell me what to do, not while I was worlds away from you. I took your advice and never became a lumberjack, but I felt no shame in cutting wood that was already felled.”
The bear grunted. “Fine. I’ll let you live, since you make such a good argument. What else did you do?”
“I became a park ranger at Mount McKinley.”
“Ah,” said the bear, “So you did take my advice. Only, where is this mount McKinley? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Tallest mountain in the land,” said the boy, “way up in the northwest, where there are still lands that humans never set foot in.”
“Oh, that place,” said the bear. “I’ve heard of that place. All the bears I know call it Denali.”
“It’s called Mount McKinley.”
“Not by bears.”
“Bears don’t count.”
Great Bear rolled away from him, and roared, “what do you mean, bears don’t count! You’ve been with me for a hundred winters, how could you say such things? How do we not count?”
“First of all,” said the boy, “it’s only been five or six years by my count. Secondly, the people who named the mountain don’t listen to you. Or anyone, really – but they wouldn’t be able to hear your objections. That’s how you don’t count.”
“I’ll accept that,” said the bear, and settled down around the boy again. “So you survived, despite being young and untested and unfinished. What did you become?”
“Stronger? I guess? I helped build, I helped destroy, I carried, I threw down, I raised up, threw down, threw up, toughened up. I grew strong in the north, in the cold.” He flexed a muscle. “I became more stony than before. I hardened.”
“You became more of a bear.”
“In a sense.”
“So you remembered me?”
“That is good.”
They lay there, in the darkness, as the last smoke from the fire floated toward the heavens. The year’s last crickets chirped slowly, lowly, their voices fading as the year faded. Wind rattled the bare branches, and shivered the trees, but the boy and the bear were, having each other, warm.
A scrawny boy lay in front of a crude tangle of rope. He was too weak to cry.
The Great Bear crashed through the underbrush, and nosed the boy, who did not look up.
“Goodness,” she said, “A whole day and you have not left this forest!”
“How…how did you know?”
“I have smelt you, here and there, as you wandered. I have heard your loud footfalls. And what is this rope?”
“A rabbit snare.”
“Really?” she nosed it. “It doesn’t look like one.”
“That’s because it was only supposed to be a rabbit snare. It didn’t turn out that way.”
“Why did you not go home, and find food, and shelter? Do not humans have both, in abundances we bears cannot fathom?”
“They don’t want me there.”
“Why, what have you done?”
“Nothing! All I said was…maybe you wouldn’t understand.” He struggled to sit up. The bear took his shirt in her jaws, and lifted him to a sitting position against a tree. The boy continued, “let’s just say I’m not interested in the type of mate they want me to pursue.”
“How do you mean?”
The boy looked down. “I…don’t want to tell you.”
“They wished you to mate with the strongest,” said the bear, “or the fastest, or the fattest, or the one with the shiniest coat?”
“No! Humans don’t work like…okay, some people work like that, but those pairings don’t always end well. No, I don’t want to tell you my reasons.”
“But you do wish to eat.”
“And you don’t want me to eat you.”
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “It would be easier than living.” He slumped. “It’s not like anyone would miss me. I’ve got no friends, no close relatives. Nobody to stick around for.”
“That is not true,” said the bear.
“Oh?” said the boy. “How do you know?”
“Because I would miss you,” said the bear. It sniffed him. “You smell of fear, but also of curiosity. You say you wish to die, but part of you clearly wants to live. I am compelled to see you live.
“So I shall teach you to gather roots and berries, and honeycombs, and to climb, and to walk silently. Is that what you wish?”
“I don’t have much choice, do I?” The boy smiled. “If I say no, you could swipe my head off.”
“Let us begin,” said Great Bear, and she grabbed the boy by his shirt again, swung him onto her back, and lumbered forward.
The sinewy boy landed with a heavy thump upon the forest floor, beneath the tall tree, and howled in pain.
“Goodness, child,” said Great Bear, “the way you scream, I should think you were a baby bird. Is it that difficult to gather honeycombs?”
“I cannot do it!” said the boy. “I cannot use your method. I cannot bear the stinging the way you can. I am not so desirous of honey that I would endure the bees the way you would have me do! I don’t know how you stand it. Do you like honey that much?”
“Not to the extent that some bears do,” said the bear. “I prefer the bee grubs that are in the combs.”
“So you’re making me gather this honeycomb because...”
“Because I want you to be able to get honey on your own without pestering me, for once.”
“Point taken.” The boy looked away. “Why can’t I just smoke the bees out?”
The Great Bear roared. “Fire? In this forest? Not on my watch! I will not have such a destructive tool under these boughs! Besides, it’s been a dry season. We can’t take the risks, especially not for the sake of such a trivial thing as honey.” She snorted. “What would smoke do anyway?”
“The bees fill up with honey because they think their home is in danger, and they can’t sting.”
“And how do you know this?”
“The farmers tell me.”
“You spoke with humans?”
“I have to have some interaction with humans”, said the boy. “I can’t turn into some feral child.”
“But now the farmers know of you,” said the bear, “and word will spread and people will come looking for you. They will come tramping through these with nets and chains, seeking the wild boy.”
“Do you think I’m in here all the time?” said the boy. “I still go to school, when I feel like it. I still haunt the library. They can find me there.”
“Library? What is a library?”
“The place where they store human writings. I don’t want to become completely wild. I want to learn human things as well as bear things.”
“Even though, a while ago, you only wanted to learn bear things. You’ve changed.”
The boy sighed, and sat up. “I was more petulant, back then, and in greater pain. The world of humans held little wonder for me, back then, compared to what you put before my eyes.”
“Now I wonder about my standing among humans. I wonder how I can walk among them, for that is what I wish to do. I still try to come home, sometimes, and most of the time they let me in.”
The bear lay down. “So you are not wild, now, only free,” she said.
“For the price of losing my standing among humans,” said the boy, as he lay against her shaggy hide.
“And what good is that anyway, eh? When you have me?”
“ Well, there’s the fact that I wind up speaking bear around certain people, when I ought to be talking human, and if I growl at the wrong people they could hurt me. Humans don’t like growling. And I smell of the forest, which gets me thrown out the library sometimes. And, most importantly, I won’t be able to get a good job, if any.”
“What’s a job?”
“It’s a…it’s work in exchange for money.”
“Objects that everyone agrees have the same value as an item they’re traded for. Like, if you give me twenty of these otherwise-useless silver disks, I’ll give you ten cooked rabbits. Or whatever.”
“I can get ten rabbits on my own easily enough.”
“Yeah,” said the boy, “but not everyone can. Some people are crippled, or born lame, or whatever, and they can’t spend all their time hunting like we two – even I fell like I spend too much time hunting and not enough in school. And anyway, what if it’s not ten rabbits? What if it’s a hundred? Or the metal needed for a rabbit enclosure?”
“I find both concepts alien,” said Bear, “for I never need more than two rabbits, nor would I cage my prey.”
“Fine. What if it’s a thousand bee grubs?”
“Oh,” said Bear, “now there’s an idea.”
“Or what if it’s a hundred roots, or something. What if I want a house?”
Bear snorted. “You have this forest.”
“What if I want a series of underground tunnels that go far and wide?”
“Such a human ambition, to build higher than the trees and dig deeper than the moles.”
“What if I want to pay for a scientific study that tries to find out why all the trees in an area are dying?”
“Surely I would be able to tell you the answer.”
“What if it’s not something you would know?”
“Like what? Try me.”
The boy looked up for a minute, then said, “Do you know what a rhizome is?”
“Sounds like a type of bug.”
“It’s the water-absorbing part of a root.”
“Well,” said Bear, “now I know.”
“My point,” said the boy, “is that without graduating from school I can’t get a job to get money to do things in the human world – leastways, not a job anyone would want. Nobody would hire me for the more interesting work, like going out to do scientific studies, if I didn’t have some kind of certification saying I had completed my schooling.”
“So,” said bear, “You regret the time you spent here?”
“A little, yeah. Do you regret spending time with me?”
The bear huffed. “It’s not as if I had anything better to do. You never got in my way when I was feeding.”
“But you never had any children, not that I could see. Didn’t you want to participate in mating season?”
“Some years I do. Some years I choose not to. There are enough bears in these woods that they don’t need me to make any more. Fortunately for you – You would have had to stay far away from me, if I’d birthed any cubs. I can’t imagine I’d trust even you around them. When I have cubs, I defend them to the death, and that death doesn’t have to be mine.”
“Such is what bears are famous for,” said the boy, “the defense of their cubs. I kind of wish my own parents had been the same way.”
“Well, you have an actual bear instead. Isn’t that something.”
“Yeah,” said the boy, looking around, “that is something all right. But it’s not as if I can take you with me when I ask for work. That wouldn’t be fair, to get a job because my guardian went up to the boss and said ROOAAARR!”
“I only protect my cubs, I don’t catch their food for them,” said Bear. “But I can teach them how to hunt. I wonder…what jobs are open to you, do you think?”
“I don’t know…at this rate? Berry-picker, dung-shoveler, lumberjack –”
“What’s a lumberjack?”
“Someone who goes into the woods and cuts down trees to earn money.”
The bear roared. “You will not become a lumberjack!”
“I didn’t say I wanted to,” said the boy, holding up his hands. “I’m just saying, the stuff that’s available for me is whatever’s dangerous and full of people who won’t be missed. Migrants and maligned folk and the like.
“ I wanted to become a park ranger, but I’d need to graduate from school like I said. Shame, too – I bet I could walk the woods better than any of them. But that route’s closed.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said Bear. “You could swipe a ranger’s uniform and fill in for them, lead people around on trails.”
The boy chuckled. “Become an unofficial ranger, is that it? Maybe I’ll do that. I can protect the pic-a-nic baskets from bears.”
“The what now?”
The scrawny boy sat coiled in front of a big oak tree.
Two bears sat before him. They leaned closed, and sniffed. The boy shivered.
“I say we leave him,’ said the smaller of the two. “He’s human. He smells of the city, in many layers. He does not belong here.”
“Do we not accept stray cubs?” said the greater of the bears. “Do we not protect the lost children from the cold?” She turned to the forest. “Let the males be the cub-killers. We will protect our children.”
“But he is not ours,” said the lesser bear. “He is not a bear. He is human. He could ruin this place.”
The greater bear turned to the lesser, and said, “How?”
“The usual way,” said the lesser bear, “you know, humans see us here and call this place unsafe, and they come in with nets and guns and we have to retreat, and keep retreating.”
“That will not happen with this one,” said the greater bear.
“How can you be certain?” The lesser bear sniffed the boy again. “Hang on…he smells of you. What have you been up to?” She stared the greater bear in the face, and growled.
“I have been teaching him the ways of this place,” said the greater bear.
“Please don’t kill me,” said the boy.
“I have been teaching him,” said the greater bear, “and he has been learning. He is a promising student.”
“And you mean to let him stay?” Lesser Bear began pacing around the clearing. “You mean to let him leave the paths, dig in the dirt, scrabble for food like we do, instead of putting him back in a place where he’ll have food and helter? Humans are not hardy like us. They are soft things, and they build their shells around them to compensate, like caddis-fly larvae or hermit crabs. He will not survive here.”
“Humans were once hardy like us,” said the greater bear. “That was before they moved into their shells, and became weaker for it. Remember when they could chase us down over many a mile? We had thought only we and the wolves could run for so long. Do you remember, the day when we were proved wrong?”
“This one shows much promise.”
“You would keep him from his family?”
“They don’t want me,” said the boy.
“Nonsense,” said the smaller bear. “Human parents are not like frogs or snakes. They are mammals. They always want to care for their children.”
“They kicked me out,” said the boy. “They told me not to come back. They said they hated me.”
There was a long silence.
“Every time,” said the smaller bear. “Every time I think I have humans figured out, they surprise me. They jog everywhere, unlike most other animals. Then they stop jogging everywhere and build their shells of wood and clay, except these shells have holes in them, for some reason. Then they stick all the shells together in one place. Then they dig for stones, leaving great rents in the earth, and they build even bigger shells. Then they want to come back to the forest, exclaiming how beautiful and gentle the thing is that they left behind, forgetting that they left it because it’s not all gentle. Now they’re abandoning their young as a snake would! Are we going to see more of this, now, human babies being left in the woods to shift for themselves?”
“I believe this is an anomaly,” said the greater bear. “At least, I hope so. This behavior does not seem beneficial to the survival of the species – humans are not born ready to take on the world, far from it.”
“Hm,” said the smaller bear. “I am moved to pity, then.”
“There is another thing,” said the greater bear.
“When was the last time any human was able to listen and speak to us?”
“I…Oh. You are right. That is odd. Most don’t bother. Last one was Grizzly Adams, although he turned out to be a real piece of work…what about that Treadwell fellow, though?”
“Doesn’t count,” said the greater bear. “He was only hearing what he wanted to hear.”
“Poor mister Treadwell,” said the smaller bear. “Never really listened, did he?”
“And the grizzlies are hardly as forgiving as we,” said the greater bear.
“I never said I was forgiving!” said Lesser Bear. “Only pitying.” She leaned in close to the boy, sniffed again, and turned to greater bear, saying, “I will not forgive infractions.” She snorted. “If he does not behave, I will kill him, and I will kill you.”
“But you will let me
“I will stay out of
your way,” said the lesser bear. With that, she lumbered off.
The boy uncoiled, and
let out a long breath.
“So,” said the Great
Bear, “you will be allowed to
“Why couldn’t you have
just roared at her?” said the boy. “Why did you have to argue?”
“Why should I have to
roar?” said the bear. “My arguments were valid. And, to tell you the truth, I
didn’t fully understand why I chose to defend you until I had to. It’s better
for me to know, so that s less easy for me to change my mind and decide to
swipe your head off. You’d better hope I don’t change my mind.”
sure hope so.”
“I have the instinct to
kill you,” said the bear. She huffed. “But its not very strong, and it’s only
because you look as small as a rabbit to me. I have a stronger inclination to
sharpen my claws on a tree trunk, but I don’t go around doing that all the
time. I am more inclined to teach you what I know.”
“That’s a good thing,”
said the boy.
“Besides which, Smaller
Bear is a dear friend of mine, and almost as old as me. If I fought her I’d
lose a companion of many years, and turn all my children against me.”
“I kinda figured,” said
the boy. “How old are you?”
Great bear grabbed the
boy’s shirt in her teeth, and swung him onto her back. “Time,” she said, “to
learn of catching fish and squirrels.”
“How old are you?”
“Time,” said the bear,
“to learn of gathering plants, and storing up for winter, and sleeping the cold
“You haven’t answered
“Ah,” said the bear,
“you have much to learn.”
“Are you kidding?" Said the boy. "I know everything. What else do I need to learn?”
wandered off into the forest.