Girl woke in the night, needing to get up and pee, but feeling as if the blanket had gotten particularly heavy on her legs. She started to get up, only to find Henry curled up next to her legs in the bed, with her original blanket drawn most of the way over him.
She carefully extricated herself from the bed, walked quietly to the bathroom, then returned – and found Henry occupying the top of the bed again.
She chuckled to herself, then shoved him down on the bed, wriggled herself into position, pulled her own blanket up over her and Henry’s apparently sleeping form, leaving one hand over the covers.
Henry lifted his head, licked her hand, sighed contently – and they both went to sleep.
Girl woke the next morning and realized from the position of the sunlight streaming into the cabin that she must have slept in. She stretched, yawned, and started to swing her legs out of bed – then realized that Henry wasn’t curled up on the bed.
She paused, then continued to get up, figuring she’d see him in the great room. She first went to the bathroom, then returned to her room, dressed, and walked out into the great room.
And found no one there, but the door to the porch was open. She walked out, grabbed the door jamb with one hand, and swung around, expecting to see Henry with Bear.
And saw neither. Feeling deflated, she plunked herself down on the rocking chair, and sat for a while, watching the day grow and come into flower. Sighing, she felt the wonder of it, all over again.
Finally, when neither of her friends appeared, she got up and went in to make herself some breakfast. She was quite liking oatmeal again, after years of forgetting about it, especially with nuts, raisins, and those Saskatoon berries when Bear could find some. She prepared the bowl, then took it out to the porch to eat it, pulling her sock-clad feet up onto the seat of the chair and balancing the bowl on her knees.
She was just finishing when she heard Bear’s whiffling sound, the sound that his large lungs made when he was walking towards her. She put her bowl down, stood up, and smiled at the white form moving through the meadow toward her.
He saw her, nodded his head, but kept coming, then stopped by the edge of the porch, right in front of her, looking up. “So, how are you today, sleepyhead?”
Her smile broadened, “I’m feeling really good, thanks, Bear. But Henry was missing when I woke up. Isn’t he with you?”
Bear gave a hearty huff that she interpreted as a laugh. “Nope. Henry goes without saying, as the saying goes: when and as he pleases. He’s mercurial, as you found out, and funny, and a good friend. But a bit of a trickster.”
Bear stepped his front paws onto the porch, so that his eyes were level with Girl’s. “He must really like you. He doesn’t normally tease someone as hard as he did you. And he slept with you. I don’t think I’ve seen him do that with anyone else. Especially not a human.”
Bear climbed the rest of the way up to the porch and took his accustomed spot on the end. “But then, you’re not like most humans.”
He swung his head to look at her again. “Since becoming a Bear, I’ve come to realize just how selfish and destructive humans are, as if they were the only ones living on this planet, and they could just take anything they wanted.”
He stopped for a moment, then looked out at the mountains and was silent for a time. “It makes me ashamed that I was a human,” then fell silent.
Girl held her breath, then decided she had nothing to lose. “Bear, how did you stop being human?”
He was silent, but Girl could hear his breath wheezing in and out of his chest – a sound she never normally heard.
Finally, he swivelled his head towards her. “It…hurts me to tell it, but I’ll try. I may have to stop, Girl, if that’s okay with you?”
She looked at him solemnly and nodded.
He looked back at the mountains, then took a big inhale and let it all out in a rush.
“Maddie and I – Maddie was my wife – were hiking hereabouts. We loved the mountains, and were good hikers. We also loved each other very much. She was the love of my life.”
He stopped then snorted. “That’s such an easy thing to say, and people say it all the time.” He heaved another sigh. “But it was true.”
Bear looked off to his right into the far distance, then back straight ahead at the mountains. “When we set off, the Ranger told us that there had been an unusual sighting – a huge, white bear. No one had gotten a good look at it, so they weren’t sure if it was an albino brown, black, or grizzly bear, or a polar bear that had somehow wandered this far south.
“They had searched for it diligently all Spring and Summer, but had never been able to find it. They occasionally found tracks, but the tracks seemed to vanish after a while, as if the bear had evaporated, leaving no tracks, leaving no trace.
“They’d tried to enlist the help of both the Western Plains Cree and the Dane-zaa peoples to track the animal. These were the descendants of the original humans to settle here perhaps 10,000 years ago. But when these First Nations people heard the story, they all refused to help, every one of them, and wouldn’t say why.
“We thought it was some kind of local legend, and dismissed it – although we took all of the usual precautions in bear country. This wasn’t our first rodeo.
“By the fourth day of our hike, we had forgotten all about the stories.
“Then we heard someone shouting, a man, in an angry voice. We carefully picked our way through the bush to the clearing where the sounds were coming from, and saw a white man hunter with a shotgun, pointed at an enormous white bear who was staring down the hunter, teeth bared, showing no fear. The white bear was standing over a bleeding brown bear, who was sheltering her cubs. And it wasn’t hunting season.
Maddie glanced at me, then pushed forward and ran into the clearing.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she yelled at the hunter.
I scrambled after her. There were two dangerous carnivores and a criminal with a shotgun, and I didn’t see any way she would be safe running into a mix like that.
I ran after her and tried to grab her, but she shook me off.
Both the white bear’s head and the shotgun swung toward her. She ignored both, and walked straight between the two, then turned and faced the hunter. The shotgun was now pointed directly at her chest. And this enormous white bear was breathing down her neck.
Maddie had always been incredibly brave, much braver than me, and also absolutely intolerant of wrongdoing. Now she was putting herself in harm’s way – literally – without knowing what was going on.
But she also had an innate sense of what was right, and she had decided that the man was wrong, the bear was right, and had acted on that.
“Look, lady, I don’t know who the hell you are, but you need to get out of the way. That’s a bear behind you, a big one, and you are going to get yourself torn to shreds.”
“And you were going to kill at least one of them, if not all of them, and I won’t let you.”
The hunter – a tall, gaunt man with a grizzled beard – laughed, and said, “I don’t rightly see how you gonna stop me. Now move!”
She stood there, resolute, and just shook her head, then reached up to grab the muzzle of the shotgun.
I saw the anger on his face, how his jaw clenched, and how the muscles in his wrist were tensing, so I jumped forward and pushed her out of the way – just as the shotgun went off.
Things got a bit hazy after that. I think the hunter turned and ran. I know Maddie dropped by my side, screaming.
But besides all that, it was as if I was outside myself looking at everything – and the white bear was with me.
Then I sensed another … well, Presence, a Woman. A very powerful Woman, and She was looking at both of us, shaking Her head. I knew Her, but I didn’t know how I knew Her.
“Oh, My children,” she said, shaking Her head, “Why do you do these things?” She looked at both the bear and me, then sighed. “And you are both mortally wounded. I cannot save either one of you – but perhaps I can save you both together.”
She looked at me. “Would you rather die, James, or would you like to live as a polar bear?”
Strangely, I felt no pain – and no fear. I was not afraid of death, nor of dying. I pondered for a time – I don’t know how long – then nodded, and said, “Life is a treasure. I would like to live – as a polar bear if I must.”
She turned to the white bear. “And Bear, would you rather live with this human, or die alone?”
The Bear was still for some time, then seemed to say, “Live,” he turned to me, “even with him.”
She nodded, then turned back to me. “This is most unusual, but I am prepared to do this because you both were willing to sacrifice yourself for another. And your wife, Maddie, was willing to sacrifice herself for a person who is not even your animal. This is rare, very rare. And commendable.”
“Very well. But you must leave at once. James, I’m sorry, but you must not speak with Maddie. She will think you are dead, and unfortunately, that is how it must be.”
Now I felt sad – but for her, not for me. Yet, I had no choice. I nodded.
She clapped her hands, very loudly, and I collapsed, feeling as if I had disappeared.
Only to feel myself getting up, pushing myself up on four legs with unaccustomed strength against surprising weight. I swivelled my head to look at Maddie, who looked odd, shocked, and unutterably sad.
I turned and lumbered away, gradually picking up speed, and finally disappearing into the brush. I rushed headlong, neither knowing nor caring where I went, until finally, exhausted, I stopped.
I slumped down, and would have cried – except I found I didn’t remember how.
Finally, I got up and started walking. I wasn’t sure why I was walking in the direction I was, but something led me. Eventually, I broke into a clearing, a meadow, and there in the center of the meadow was the cabin.
It was the cabin I had inherited from my Dad, who had inherited it from his Dad. But that cabin had been in the Appalachians, not the Canadian Rockies. Maddie and I had spent many summers there, and many weekends and vacations in other seasons, too.
Puzzled, and not a little scared, I walked cautiously towards it, padding up the steps, and pushed the door open.
As it swung open, I could see that it was Dad’s cabin – or mine, now that he was dead.
I was home. I didn’t know how, but I was home.