“I’m sorry I shouted at you, Bear.”
“I’m sorry you shouted at me, too, Girl.”
She chuckled, crossing her arms on her chest, and leaning back on him.
The two friends sat there, staring at the fire, and listening to the rain pounding on the roof overhead.
They were at peace. Even with each other – for once.
It was a lovely feeling, for both of them.
The next day was a quiet one. They didn’t want to venture too far out because everything was wet. Brushing against a bush left Girl’s clothes soaking wet in patches, and Bear’s fur wet in clumps. After a very short walk they decided to spend the day indoors, which they did – Girl continuing work on her jigsaw puzzle, and Bear…well, Bear did what Bear did. Mostly out on the porch, just sitting.
After several hours, as things started to dry out, Bear got up and wandered off into the bush. Girl knew better than to ask where he was going – he was foraging for food – never a simple task. His bulk was so great that he needed a lot of food every day, and most of the time, he contented himself with fish.
But he confided in her that fish wasn’t enough. Polar bears usually get a great deal of fat as part of their nutrition – although not as much in the summer months, when the temperatures were high – and fish were mostly pretty lean. And in summer months, it was often a matter of staying cool enough, of keeping his body temperature down. On such days, Bear would often disappear and come back wringing wet, having swum in the lake, or lay in one of the rushing rivers that surrounded them.
And from time to time, he went on a serious hunt, for big food, not just top-up fish. Often this was elk, which were plentiful in the Rockies, but it could be almost anything that Bear could catch. And he was an excellent hunter, possessing both the natural patience and canny cunning of a polar bear, but also the knowledge and intelligence of a human.
Today was a big hunt day. Bear hadn’t said as much, but she could tell by his grouchiness that he was feeling especially hungry. So, when he went padding off into the woods, at a higher-than-usual pace, Girl guessed he was going for a big meal.
She never asked because she knew that she would be squeamish about what he caught – and yet, she knew his metabolism didn’t give him any choice in the matter. Both friends instinctively knew it was a subject best not discussed.
So, when Bear came wandering slowly back into the meadow, and Girl, who was sitting on the rocker on the porch, saw him, she could tell by his gait, and by the extra weight of his stomach, that he had caught and eaten something big.
He hardly spoke to her, but wandered into the great room of the cabin, and collapsed onto the rag rug in the center. Shortly thereafter, he was asleep, snoring like a…well, like a bear.
She smiled to herself, happy that he was getting what he needed, then continued to sit on the rocker, by herself for the first time in quite some time.
She found that being on her own was a very different experience from “just sitting” with Bear. At first, it seemed the same, but as time went on, she felt like she was hearing things she didn’t when he was with her.
She could hear crickets – at least, she thought they were crickets – but there was a background sound, too, a kind of roaring, that surprised and confused her. She didn’t know what to make of it, where it was coming from, or why it was happening. If she turned her head to try to locate it, it was unchanged. It was almost as if it was everywhere.
Finally, after puzzling about it, she gave up and just accepted it.
Many hours later, Bear padded slowly onto the porch and slumped down in his accustomed place at the end, yawning – and undoubtedly still digesting whatever he had eaten. The two friends sat in quiet companionship for an unmeasured time, until Girl felt that perhaps she could risk talking to a possibly grouchy Bear.
He yawned, “Yes, Girl.”
“What is that sound I’m hearing?”
His head swiveled towards her. “What sound?”
“I…I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s like a high-pitched roaring sound, kind of like the sound of ocean breakers rolling in, but constant, not rhythmic.”
Bear thought for a moment. “Which direction is it coming from?” he asked.
“That’s part of the problem – it doesn’t seem to be coming from anywhere. No matter where I turn my head, it’s always the same.”
Bear chuckled, and Girl suddenly felt as if she was going to be shown up as being a fool.
“Well, I could talk about the background radiation of the cosmos, as discovered by Wilson and Penzias in…was it 1964? But that really wouldn’t help very much. The truth is, Girl, is that it’s all in your head.”
She looked at him crossly. “You’re trying to say I’m imagining it,” she stated flatly.
Bear chuckled again, then said, “Nope. I mean it is literally in your head. Let me tell you a story.”
“Is it a true story?” she asked.
“How would I know? I’m only a Bear! And besides, ‘What is Truth’ anyway?” He chuckled even harder. He was clearly enjoying this.
“Once upon a time, there was an elderly couple that lived in Chicago in a flat next to the El – the elevated trains that…”
“I know what the El is, Bear,” she said peevishly.
He chuckled again, which annoyed her even more.
“Well, every night at 3:47 a.m. a train would come rumbling through, making an ungodly racket – and they always slept right through it they were so used to it.
“Then they retired, and bought a lovely cottage on a lake in the middle of nowhere, congratulating each other on what a quiet setting it was.
“Then, the first night, at precisely 3:47, when everything was completely silent, the man sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted, ‘What the heck was THAT?’”
Bear sat and waited, chuckling.
Finally, Girl said, “Oh…kay…so what you’re telling me is that it’s what I’m not hearing that I’m hearing – or something like that. Is that right?”
Bear nodded. “Have you ever had a ringing in your ears after being in a noisy environment?”
Girl nodded, “Of course.”
“Well, that’s what you’re hearing – the accumulated ringing in your ears of all the years of living in a noisy environment – and now living in a quiet one. Your ears are trying to rid themselves – ringing if you will – from all the crappy sounds you unwittingly pollute them with living in the city.”
Girl rocked back and forth on the chair. “But why is it so loud?”
Bear chuckled yet again, “It’s not. That’s the ringing sound of your ears trying to get back to a zero state. If you will, it’s the sounds of silence!”
Girl thought for a while, looking at Bear and rocking, then said, “Hunh. Well, all I can say is that quietness is awfully damn noisy!”
Bear chuckled again – annoying her – then trotted down the steps and wandered off into the woods.
She was waiting for him when he returned. She was feeling happier. Peace – now that she knew what it was – was bringing her to a state of contentment that she found quite appealing. She even wriggled in her seat at the sensation.
So, when he appeared again and seemed to be humming, which was always a good sign, she was feeling happy that he was back. Not wanting to spoil his mood, she smiled at him and waved.
He looked at her, and smiled, “Well, hello there! You’re looking cheerful!”
“I’m always pleased to see my favorite Bear,” she dimpled.
Bear looked around behind him, “Why? Has Winnie the Pooh showed up or something?”
“Oh, stop it,” she said, laughing.
Bear heaved himself up onto the porch, walked slowly over to Girl, and laid his muzzle on her lap. “Or did you mean...someone else?” he asked quietly. She rubbed the fur on his nuzzle, then leaned down and kissed it.
“Silly old Bear. You know I mean you.”
“Silly – young – girl, yeah, I do.”
The two friends stayed like that for a while, then Bear lifted his snout and said, “Would you like to meet my friend, Bartholomew?”
Girl said, “Sure! I mean, I’m amazed that you have friends, but...”
Bear barked, a short, sharp sound that caught Girl by surprise. She jumped and shrieked. “Oh! BEAR!”
He chuckled, “Don’t get smart with me, young lady! Come on,” and he turned and walked down off the porch.
“Wait!” she called, “I need my boots. I can’t go barefoot!”
“Why not,” he asked, “I am.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and tried – unsuccessfully – to blow a raspberry at him.
“My, my! Talented, aren’t you?” he chuckled.
She ducked back inside, and came out a few minutes later, tucking her shirt into her waist, then brushing her hair out of her face.
“Oh, you don’t need to get all gussied up for Bartholomew. He really won’t care what you look like, trust me.”
“Bear, I care what I look like, okay? Now, let’s go find this friend of yours – if he really exists, that is.”
Bear chuckled deep within his chest, then turned and started lumbering toward the woods. Girl jogged until she caught up, then walked next to him, her hand smoothing the fur on his back.
They ambled through the forest on what Bear called a “real track” as opposed to a “human track,” as if humans didn’t really know what they were doing in the mountains – which she suspected was true.
They chatted about what they saw – how some leaves were turning brown around the edges on the deciduous trees, how the days were getting a little shorter, what a lovely breeze there was today, what it was like in the mountains in winter – “Beautiful, but really cold – at least for humans,” was Bear’s comment – and much besides.
Finally, they came to a rather scrubby part of the forest. They were walking by a marsh, complete with cattails, scummy, algae-covered water, and the call of frogs. Girl commented that the ground was getting squishy underfoot, and wondered if it didn’t bother Bear.
“Nope feels kinda nice. Not many pedicure artists around here to take care of my feet, you know.”
Girl thought for a moment, then said, “Bear, I don’t know anything about bear claws, but if you’d like me to give you a pedicure, and can tell me what feels good, I’ll try.”
Bear stopped, swung his head up to look at her, smiled, and said, “Well now, that’s right neighborly of you. I accept – later. But we’re almost at Bartholomew’s place now.” He kept walking.
Not long after, they came to a rock face with what looked like a cave. “Now we wait,” Bear said, and sat down, “It won’t be long.”
Girl found a small rock and perched on it. She hoped it wouldn’t be too long, as the rock was a bit pointy, and she wasn’t quite able to sit comfortably on it.
Shortly after that, Bear said, “Okay, here they come!”
Girl stood up, rubbing her bum, but said, “They?”
Suddenly, a cloud of bats emerged from the cave mouth and started swooping up from into the sky, like a plume of smoke. The Girl shrieked again, then put her hand to her mouth. “Your friend is a bat?” she asked.
He looked at her, “Sure. I’ll bet they’re better friends than a lot of the people you know!” Then he turned back towards the cloud of flying mammals and gave a loud moaning sound.
Immediately, as if flipping a switch, one of the bats turned sharply away from the cloud and moved with surprising speed right at Bear’s head. Bear sat with a quiet grin on his face as the bat swung around, looping past his head repeatedly, getting close in, then far out, then back again.
Then it started to do the same with Girl. She gave a sharp yip and pulled her hands in close around her head and hair.
“He won’t bite will he?” she asked Bear.
“Hmmm...well, let’s see...” Bear got up and walked around the Girl, sniffing. “Well, you sure don’t look like an insect, and you don’t smell like an insect...and I’m pretty sure that, screaming like that, you don’t sound like an insect, so...I’d say the odds were pretty good that he won’t bite you.
“But you never know...” he added with a deep chuckle.
Girl stood up straight, dropping her balled fists to her side, “OH! You’re so infuriating!”
Bear hung his head, laughing deep within his chest, and said, “It’s a gift,” then continued chuckling.
Finally, having looped around the pair several times, Bartholomew came to lite on Bear’s head, opened his mouth, and appeared to say something. Girl thought she might have heard a very high-pitched sound, but it could easily have been her imagination.
Bear’s eyes rolled up towards the top of his head, looking very comical as he did so, and said, “Hi, Bartholomew. Yes, this strange-looking creature is a friend of mine, and yes, I know I have strange tastes in friends, but she’s mostly harmless. Her name is Girl, but you can call her...Girl.” And he chuckled again.
Girl walked closer to Bear and looked carefully at the palm-sized dark creature perched on Bear’s head while staying about a meter away. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Bartholomew.” She wondered if she should hold out her hand or something, but decided it might look threatening so didn’t.
The bat launched itself into the air and flew around her several times again, then landed on her shoulder. Girl gave a quick yip, then clamped her mouth closed again, and tried to hold herself steady. Bartholomew opened his mouth again, and this time, Girl was sure she heard something, but it was so high-pitched that she could only just hear it. The bat launched itself off her shoulder, circled several times, and landed on Bear’s head again.
“Hey, he likes you! And he didn’t even take a bite!”
Girl scowled at Bear, but said, “So, how did you two meet? I mean, how much does a Bear have in common with a bat?”
Bear looked at her, “Well, for one thing, we’re both Mother Nature’s creatures.”
Girl waited, then said, “Yes, that’s true.”
Bear twisted his head to look at her askew, and said, “You’re not believing in Mother Nature, are you? The Person, I mean, not the idea.”
Girl hesitated, “Bear, I’m not sure I believe in talking bears – and I’m talking to one!” She sighed, “If you say she’s a friend of yours, I will believe in her.”
Bear nodded, “So, she can be taught! Good!”
He turned his eyes up to look at Bartholomew again, “I found Bartholomew trapped in some bushes a while back. He had been flying near them, flew threw a spider’s web, ripping it apart, but it deflected him into the branches of a sticker bush, and he was caught there. I happened to be nearby, heard the thrashing, and went to investigate.
“When I saw him, he was a wee little thing, not the robust adult you see before you now, but a tiny little beastie. I was able to use my claws to free him – although I did get a couple of prickles, ouch! – and he finally was able to fly free.
“He flew up high and far, circled for a while, then flew back, buzzing around me, and finally landing on my head.”
Bear chuckled again, then said, “He said he could show me where there were some particularly delicious mosquitoes if I wanted some. I declined with thanks and said they were a little out of my weight class. But we got to chatting.
“He’s a whiz at all kinds of bugs, although bats have their own names for them. They even have a name for humans – although I won’t repeat it in polite company – but he said I was a different kind of bear, and he was pleased to meet me, and what kind of insect did I like to eat?”
“Well, I finally convinced him I didn’t eat insects, which he thought was weird, but finally accepted, and we got to talking about other stuff.”
The bat started working its mouth and moving its wings slowly back and forth. Bear cocked his head as if listening to something Girl couldn’t hear. Then, in a flash, Bartholomew was gone.
Bear got up, stretched by dropping his forequarters down, arching his back, then smacked his jaws together, and said, “Well, we’d better be getting back.
“Bartholomew said he thinks this winter is going to be harsh. He explained that the insects were getting panicky, but that it was awfully early for them to be doing that – but that the last time they did, we had a particularly nasty winter.”
Bear heaved a deep sigh, “Just what we need. A hard winter. Oh, well. Not much we can do about that just now. But I’d better start laying in some supplies, I guess. I’m glad we came to see him.” And he turned and started to walk back the way they had come.
After a moment’s hesitation, Girl turned and caught up with him. “Bear?”
“Do you really believe a bat knows how hard the winter is going to be?”
He turned to look at her, “But he didn’t. He said the insects were getting panicky. And, yes, before you ask, I do believe he is probably right. You would be surprised at how carefully attuned to the seasons animals are. Humans used to be, but...well, science is all very well and good, but it means humans aren’t listening to themselves or to Mother Nature anymore.”
The two friends walked along silently for a time, then Bear said, “Go ahead. Ask the question you’re dying to ask. I know you will eventually.”
Girl hesitated, then said, “Did you really mean what you said about...Mother Nature being a person?”
Bear stopped, sat, and turned to look at her. “Okay, now listen to me, Girl, and listen carefully. Mother Nature is not a ‘person,’ she is a ‘Person.’ And you must speak of, and to Her, with respect, understand me?”
Girl wasn’t quite sure what to do but realized that, for once, Bear was completely serious. Finally, she nodded, and said, “I promise Bear.”
“Good. Now, it’s starting to get dark, so let’s get back to the cottage.”
But Girl spent most of the trip wondering about this...Person...Bear called Mother Nature.
The next day, after arising from her bed and cleaning up, Girl headed out to the porch to see if Bear had returned from his morning forage – and found that he had.
“Good morning, Girl,” he said when he heard her walk through the door. “And how are you this morning?”
“Oh, I’m light-to-variable with a chance of showers. How about you?”
Bear’s head swiveled to look at her. “Not quite as much of a smart-ass today, but otherwise good, thanks. I think we’d better stick close to the cabin today.”
Girl considered, then said, “Sure, no problem, but how come?”
“Skrreee! flew by to say that there were hunters in the area. Since it isn’t hunting season yet, I’m guessing they’re looking for your ex, the troll – and whatever happened to him.”
Girl paused, and her heart skipped a beat. “He had four brothers. They will certainly come looking for him. Did, uh, she say how many of them there were?”
Bear blinked, “More than one. Skrreee! doesn’t really have much of a grasp of numbers. But I wish you’d told me about his brothers. I had thought there’d be a search party, but that they would chalk it up to an accident and let it go. Brothers, though, might decide they wanted more of an explanation than that and might search longer and harder.”
He turned and looked off into the distance, obviously thinking. “I’d better lay in some food for me. Do you have enough to get by for the next week or so?”
Girl thought, then said, “I’d better go check,” and turned and walked back into the cabin.
Bear heard cupboards opening and closing, then the fridge, and shortly thereafter, Girl returned. “I can get by for a week – although I’ll run out of milk, even the shelf-life stuff – and could stretch it to perhaps ten days if I have to. After that, I’ll be back to oatmeal, peanut butter, and canned goods, which we can stretch for much longer. How long do you think we might need to hunker down?”
Bear stared at her for a while, then said, “It’s more complicated than that. Come and sit down, kid. We need to talk.”
Girl walked slowly to her rocking chair and sat down. “Any discussion that starts with ‘We need to talk,’ ain’t gonna be good. So, go ahead; hit me.”
“I told you before we need to get you back down into civilization. Winter is no place for a human in the Rockies. And there’s a deadline, too – they close the roads at the end of September, and even Riley doesn’t come up here after that. So, no food, no transport – and lots of bitterly cold weather.”
Bear slapped his side, and said, “I’m built for it, but you…no, you’re just a dainty, hot-house flower, kid.”
Girl’s eyes started to fill. “Bear, this is the first place in decades I’ve felt safe, where I’ve felt at home! Please don’t make me go, please!”
Bear took a big breath and sighed. “Girl, you have no idea how much I want you to stay. I’ve been so terribly lonely. Yes, I have animal friends, only a few of whom you’ve met, but it’s not the same. And you are a joy and a delight, someone I am glad to know for your own sake.
“But it’s not a matter of choice, don’t you see? You have to leave. You would not survive here in the winter. It’s just too dangerous – and not just because of the winter. If the troll’s brothers are looking around here, they may be looking for you, too. For both of us, really.
“I know you’ve been comfortable here – at least, I’ve tried to make you comfortable…”
“Yes, I’ve been very comfortable here, Bear. It’s been home, a home I’ve never really had before. Thank you,” Girl said, tears now rolling down her cheeks.
“…but it’s only been a temporary respite, a safe haven in a time of storm. But you must leave. You see that, don’t you?”
Girl nodded glumly, “Yes, I know. I don’t like it, but I know.
“But, Bear, where will I go?”
Bear looked at her. “You must have had some plan before you tried to escape from the troll.”
She nodded, “Yes, I have sisters. But I can’t live with them. And I had made plans for if I escaped – for when I escaped…but…,” and her voice died away.
Bear shook his head, “Then you can start there. And I suspect that once you tell your sisters what your life was like, you’ll be able to stay with them while you figure out what you want to do from there. I doubt they’ll throw you out after three or four days, Girl. Even if you are a brat.”
Girl was looking sad, then her head jerked up. “OHH!! You’re so…annoying!”
Then she smiled at him through her tears. “You got me again, didn’t you?”
He chuckled, “Yup. Just keeps gettin’ easier all the time!”
Then his smile collapsed and he looked off at the mountains again.
She looked at him for a long time, while he studiously ignored her.
“If I agree…to go, will you tell me…about what happened?”
Bear’s head swiveled towards her, and he looked at her for a long time. Then his eyes closed, and he sighed. “Yes, okay. I’ll tell you. But not yet.”
Girl nodded. “Me, too. Not yet.”
Bear heaved himself up and loped off into the woods. She knew he was going to forage for food – but she also knew that wasn’t his main reason for leaving.
She shook her head sadly. Did this really have to end?