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     The burly young man slouched his way along the narrow path through the forest, to where the great bear lay, at the base of a tall, broad oak, and sat down, curling up against the bear’s shaggy fur.

      The great bear grunted, and said, “What do you want, child? Why do you seek me?”

     “Because you are warm, and you have huge arms that can hold me in a great embrace, as you once did.”

“That is true,” said the Great Bear, turning to the short hairless creature resting against it, “but then, I could also eat you.”

     “You said you wouldn’t.”

     “I could knock your head off with one blow.”

     “But you won’t.”

     “I could leave you here and never care about you again.”

     “But you won’t.”

     “Won’t I?” Said Great Bear. “I am not human like you. Don’t you remember, that I am a bear?”

     “And yet, you have shown me so much kindness over the years.”

     “That is true. But that was my choice. I do not follow your rules. I hunt, and dig, and eat; I protect my cubs even if it means my death. I am a bear. I think and I move like a bear. Why couldn’t I just up and kill you?”

     “Besides the fact that you haven’t already?”

     “I could tire of you.”

     “But you haven’t. How many years has it been? Three? Four? Five?”

 

The bear looked up to the sun shining through the thick branches. “I do not count the years.”

     “That is true. But you have done so much for me, in all that time. You have helped me survive. You have seen me go from near death to life.  You have always been there for me, even while you protest, again and again, that you are a dangerous bear in a dangerous place. For all you say, you have wanted to help me.”

     Great Bear grunted. “You have been here many times, yes. And you have listened to me. Each time I give aid, it is because I enjoy having a human around who listens to me.”

     “What do the rest do?”

     “Bang pots and yell, mostly. I’m not sure if they’re trying to protect themselves or their precious food, but either way, I feel unfairly rejected.”

     “You’re the one who says you can kill me on a whim.”

     “That is true. Still, when they bring out the red stinging mist – ”

     “They call it pepper spray.”

     “When they bring out the red stinging mist, they are not listening to me. You, on the other hand, are good to have around. I think, if I were to swipe your head

off – ”

     “There you go again!”

     Great Bear turned, and glared at him. “Don’t interrupt. As I was saying, if I were to swipe your head off – which I have contemplated many times – I would miss you.”

     “How often do you contemplate?”

     “I didn’t used to. Before I met you. Strange, now that I think about it. Before I met you, I was Great Bear, but bear is mostly what I was. Only to dig, and forage, and gather honeycombs and stare at the rising moon – that was all I was. But now? Now I wonder. Most animals don’t wonder. My own children don’t wonder. They just do. You, child of the world of humans, have become a part of me. Damn you!” She reared up, throwing the young man off her, and clawed at the trunk of the tree, her head lost within the tangle of the lower branches. “You’ve changed me! You gave me wonder and contemplation, and now I am not what I was!”

     “Nor am I,” said the young man, standing. “For you have changed me. You taught me to dig, and to hunt, and to climb trees. You taught me to sleep at noon and move at dusk. You showed me the forest. There was a time when I

thought I wouldn’t be able to survive in either world, human or wild – you gave me the chance to do either, when I might have been left with nothing.”

     “Did I now?” Great Bear lowered herself to all fours. “Have we mixed, then?”

     “All those who admire each other do.”

     “Flatterer,” she said. “But you never answered my question. What is it you want?”

     “Perhaps just to sit here, with you, like we used to.”

     “Before you left this place.”

     “Aye.”

     “To sit together like we used to. But you grew old, cub. I cannot care for you much longer. Bear cubs grow old quickly, and go out into the world. You grew old, and went out into the world. You are no longer a cub.”

     “That is true.”

     “You must find your own food.”

     “As I have done.”

     “You must find your own mate.”

     “He’s out there somewhere.” The young man looked down the path.

     “Then what can I do for you, now?” The bear shook her head. “What’s left?”

The young man turned back to the bear, and said, “Just – don’t let me forget this place. Don’t let me forget the forest, or what you did for me. I will wander among other bears, and other peoples. Send the word to them, however you can. If ever I misbehave around the bears, make sure they keep me in line.”

     “Surely that is up to you,” said the bear, “you being a responsible adult now.”

     “I may grow complacent, and forget.”

     “As do we all. Do not forget me, then. For my part, though I wander and lumber on, back into bearhood, and I stop wondering, and only dig and hunt again – I will not forget you. And we may meet again, when you are old, and I am grizzled. We may meet again.”

     “I await the day,” he said.

She reared up, and gathered him in her arms, and held him there for a while.

Then she sank down, and lumbered off into the trees. In a few moments, she was out of sight.

...

 

A scrawny boy, barely into his growing years, sat at the base of a tree, weeping silently.

He heard a padding and a crashing in the underbrush, and there before him stood a great bear.

“What is this?” said the bear. “A hairless thing with skinny limbs and bright eyes. A human. How strange.”

“What is this?” said the boy, between his sobs. “A bear speaks. How strange.”

“What is this?” said the bear. “A human talks back to me. I could eat you, little cub.” It bared its teeth.

“But will you?” The boy looked up, into that gaping mouth.

The bear closed its jaws.“Perhaps not today.”

     “Shall I come back tomorrow, to be eaten?” He looked down.

     “Do that,” said Great Bear, “and perhaps I will not eat you.”

     “I could stay away forever,” said the boy, looking up. “I could run and hide and never give myself up, and then you wouldn’t be able to eat me anyway.”

     “And will you?”

     “I am too weary even to look for a hiding place.”

“Well then,” said the bear, “I suppose I shall see you here tomorrow.”

     “It’s a date.”

...

 

The sinewy boy stood in front of a mighty oak tree. It had fallen in the storm, taking a smaller tree with it. Above their resting place, there was a great gap in the canopy, open to the blue sky. A few clouds scudded overhead in the soft wind, too small to block the light of day.

     As he stood there, tears came to his eyes.

     The Great Bear padded up silently beside him, and said, “I can smell your tears, and your grief. Why do you cry?”

     “This was the largest tree in the forest,” said the boy. “The oldest tree, maybe.”

     “So?”

     “It was also the tree where we met.”

     “So?”

“So, it’s just sentimental, you know? I saw this tree nearly as often as I saw you. I’ve made bread from its myriad acorns, learned to climb trees in its huge branches. And now it’s gone.”

     “So?”

     “What do you mean, so? It meant a lot to me!”

     “Trees fall all the time. They grow old, and they wither and die.”

     “I know. But did this one have to? I’ve known it for so long. Years.”

     “Years?...You measure years. You want to hold on to things. How strange. Why hold on to things when they can be lost so easily?”

     “You protect your cubs.”

     “To the death. And then they grow tall and strong and fat, and I let them go. And I forget them. They have their own lives to lead.”

     “But this tree isn’t just gone,” said the boy. “It’s dead. I’ll never see it again.”

     “Oh, I don’t think so. You may see it again, even it's gone.”

“What do you mean?” He gestured to the tree. “It’s fallen. No more soil, no more rain to nourish it. I can’t put it back. It’s kaput.”

     “Look,” said the great bear, and nodded to the new clearing.

     Green plants were growing there, tall and lush in the sunlight. The boy looked closer. There were tiny sprouts surrounding the trunk.

     “The tree’s death has opened up the sky,” said the bear. “It has let sunlight in. Now green young stems will grow here, bushes and flowers and waving grass. Deer and rabbits and berries will grow here, and I shall feast. Death will become life, and more life then before. Look.” She nodded to the trunk. A tiny mouse ran out of a hole in the rotting wood. “Mice and bark beetles and termites, ants and worms and grubs, will crawl through the wood, and turn it into dirt, over the years. There is more life within the wood than before. Look.” She nodded to oak seedlings that had already sprouted. “New trees will grow here, and in time they will become mighty, and block out the light, and this place will become barren again. But for now, it is as it must be. Forests huge and old and dark have little light within then, and so they have no bushes, few birds, little food. I cannot go there. This place, here, has sunlight. It is like the borders of the forest, only within the forest. I depend on such borderlands, and meadows like these. It is all good.”

     “That…is true.”

     “Do you not forage in the same places?” said Great Bear.

     “I do,” said the boy. “Such places always have more birds and more berries, now that I think about it. I never wondered why.”

     “Boundaries,” said the bear. “Meeting places. One wave strikes another, and then there are four waves, then eight.  I wonder why I didn’t think of that before.”

     “Perhaps you are set in your ways,” said the boy, “however wise they may be. Humans change all the time.”

     “You would do well to set yourself solidly in good habits,” said the bear.

     “I’m human,” said the boy, “not a bear. I am more capricious, more greedy and grasping, more quick to take advantage.”

     “Are you not a bear? How, then, were you able to speak to me, that first time we met?”

You spoke to me first.”

     “That is true.”

...

 

The sinewy boy stood before the great river.

     It was shrunk to a thin trickle. Fish lay in the dust, stinking.

     Great Bear was in the dust, eating what fish she could, nosing them all and leaving those that were too rotten.

     “Aren’t you worried?” said the boy.

     “About what?” the bear raised her head to stare at the boy.

     “This drought,” said the boy. “This famine. The trees are brown and the land is barren. Even the humans in the city are having trouble finding food.”    

     “Well,” said the bear, looking to the brown crowns of the trees, “some of my cubs will die. Perhaps I will die. But my family will do its best to survive the lean times, as they always have, and I do now.”

     “But aren’t you angry?”

     “About what?”

Global warming.”

     “You keep going on about that. What good is it to be angry?” She sat in the dust, picking a fish apart.

     “Because humans did this,” said the boy, gesturing to the trees. “They choked the sky and they felled the trees, filled in the rivers, stopped up the rivers, and rent the mountains.”

     “And you think the warming of late is their fault?”

     “Yes.”

     “They did all the things you mentioned,” said the bear, “but warming happens and cooling happens. Without warming we’d be stuck in an ice age still – that was a terrible time, let me tell you. In such turnings, who adapts survives, and who does not adapt, perishes, and this has been the way of the world since the world was made.”

     “But this is worse than before!”

     “Maybe.”

     “Can’t you get at least a little worried?”

     “I wonder,” said the bear, “how are your people, your humans, adapting?”

“I don’t know. Some of them try to. Some of them refuse. Some of them make their habits worse. Some of them make their habits worse out of spite.”

     “Then they will perish.”

     “But – ”

     “The wind and the water swirl on, and hear no objections. If your people do not adapt, they will dwindle, perhaps to perish. That is final.”

     “But – ”

     “Cries of mercy are lost in the roar of the ripping wind and the crashing wave,” said the bear.  “That is final.”

     The boy raised a finger, as if to make a point, but the bear wandered off without a word.

...

 

     The strapping boy stood before a fallen tree, in the deep snow. The sun was getting low in the winter sky, and the deep blue shadows of the bare forest were deepening.

     The boy wiped the sweat from his brow, put his axe down, and surveyed his handiwork.

The great bear came padding through the snow, faster, running. Roaring. She swept at the boy, and knocked him down.

     “What?” he said. “What did I do?” He started to reach for his axe, then stopped.

     “I didn’t want you to fell any trees!” said the bear, rearing up. “You’ve been told to behave, or else you die! You oaf! What have you done?”

     “I thought you wanted the canopy opened,” said the boy.

     “That doesn’t mean you do it!” said the bear. “You’re just supposed to let it happen on its own! This forest is not yours to destroy!”

     “I wasn’t going to destroy it,” said the boy, “I just wanted this one tree.”

     “For what? Firewood?”

     “I thought of building a shelter,” said the boy. “Maybe a tiny cabin.”

     “Home isn’t good enough?”

     “It took me enough effort to get back into there, and its peace is becoming increasingly unstable.”

      The bear sank to the ground. “I showed you how to dig a warm cave. Isn’t that good enough?”

     “I guess I’m just wanting windows,” said the boy. “Some luxury in this place.”

     “Windows? Luxury? I know neither of these words. I won’t let you build a cabin. What do you think would happen if everybody built a cabin in these woods, out of wood from these woods?”

     “No more woods?”

     “No more woods.” She looked at the axe. “As has happened time and again.” She turned her head, and gazed off into the distance. “You are human. Can you not stick to the city?”

     “The city? Of all the people you could say that to, you choose the one who’s been exiled from the city in the first place! I tolerate the city. I do not love it.”

     “It is where humans do the least damage.”

     “And my home? With all that’s happened there?”

     “How long will you run from your problem? You have come to me for aid and comfort. But I cannot solve your greatest problem. That’s up to you.”

     “But –”

     “Go home, cub, and determine if your home is truly lost to you. Then come back to me.”

“But – ”

“ Go home, cub, or I will not hide this axe for you, and I will bring down the wrath of the other bears upon you.”

     “Fine.”

     “And if you fell trees in this place again, I will kill you myself.”

     “You never make good on those threats.”

     “Do you want to find out? I have covered for you enough. Go.”

     “I’m going,” said the boy. He scampered through the snow.

...

 

     The strapping boy stood between the thick, wet leaves, looking out at the dusty clearing that baked in the sunlight.

     Large yellow machines idled, amidst the holes where stumps had been. It had been a rainy spring, but this clearing was dry today, full of cracked earth where damp leaves had been. It was dead.

     Great Bear stood beside.

     “This is your forest,” whispered the boy.

     “No it isn’t,” said the bear. “I just live here. Can’t say I own the place. Nobody can.”

     “Well, these people are trying to say so,” said the boy. “Why don’t you do something about it?”

     Great Bear huffed, and said, “There’s nothing I can do.” She turned, and lumbered away. Soon she was out of sight.

     “I – what?” Said the boy. “I don’t understand you! You say you’ll kill me for cutting down one tree, and then you just let these people chop down a whole clearing? What’s the matter with –”

     “What’s all this racket?” said a burly man, brushing the leaves aside. “Hey!” He turned to the work crew. “It’s that kid the police are looking for! Catch him!”

     “Oh, just leave me alone,” said the boy, and he scrambled up a tree. “You can’t cut down trees fast enough to catch me!

     He ran to the end of a large branch, leapt to another tree, and soon was lost to his shouting pursuers.

...

 

 

Great Bear: Part 2 —>

 

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