Bear had settled onto the rag rug in the great room and was starting to drift off to sleep when he thought he heard something, so perked his ears up.
There it was again.
He lifted his head and turned it towards Girl's room, and this time heard it clearly.
He lumbered up and padded quietly down the hall to her room’s door, then stood and listened.
The sounds were intermittent. It almost sounded as if she were talking to someone.
Then her voice got louder and more strained.
Bear pushed the door open softly with his nose and padded into the gloom.
He could see that her bedclothes were twisted, and her covers were only partially over her
She turned her head away and mumbled something that sounded anguished.
Her head turned back towards him, and he could see her eyes were closed – but her face was twisted up and almost scared.
She started speaking more loudly. "No. NO. I didn't. I wouldn't! NOO! Please don’t! Please!"
Bear moved to her shoulder and started to speak into her ear.
"It's okay, Girl. Bear is here. No one can touch you now. No one can hurt you."
Her head turned towards his voice. "Bear?" she said, almost puzzled. "You're here?"
"Yes, Girl. I'm here. No one can hurt you when I'm here. You know that."
"Yes, Bear. I know that."
Her face started to smooth, and her body moved to a more comfortable position.
Her breathing started to even out, and gradually slowed.
Bear stayed where he was, then lowered his muzzle onto her stomach.
Her left hand came up and landed gently on his head, stroking his fur.
Her eyes opened, just a slit. "Bear?"
"Shhh…it's okay, Girl. I'm here."
Her mouth moved into a smile, "Bear’s here. No one can hurt me now."
And she fell back asleep, quiet and calm.
Bear stayed there for a long time, then, when her hand slid down to her side, he lifted his muzzle, curled up on the floor next to her bed, and finally went to sleep.
Bear didn't say anything the next morning, and Girl didn't seem to remember what had happened. She merely seemed surprised when she woke up to find Bear asleep next to her bed. She shrugged and thought no more about it.
Later that day, the two friends were lounging around in the great room, while flames leaped in the fireplace.
“What’s it like being a bear?” Girl finally worked up the courage to ask.
Bear lifted his head from the rag rug to look at her. “About like you’d expect,” he replied.
“Well, that doesn’t tell me a lot!” the Girl said indignantly.
Bear chuckled. “Maybe it wasn’t supposed to.”
Girl turned and put her bare feet up on his back, with her head on the floor towards the fire that was warming them against the evening’s chill. It also gave her the opportunity to look Bear in the eyes, which she couldn’t do when she was leaning her back against him. “You’re really a man, aren’t you?” She dared.
Bear opened one eye and looked at her, “No, I’m really a bear. Or didn’t you notice?” He shut his eye again.
“Bear…” she began, exasperated.
He heaved a sigh. “Okay, I wasn’t born a bear. I had to work up to it. Think of it as a promotion.” He chuckled deep in his throat.
Girl looked at him, but he kept his eyes resolutely closed. “Bear…?”
He opened both eyes. “If you want to ask something, ask it, okay? But stop pecking away at me. It’s irritating, all right?” He stared at her.
“Bear, you were born a man, but you’re not one now. What happened?”
“There. Was that so hard?” he sighed. “None of your business.” And he closed his eyes again.
She wriggled on the ground, digging her heels into his back.
His eyes flew open, “WHAT?”
She giggled. “I’m sorry, Bear, but I’m incurably curious. I didn’t mean to…irritate…you.”
“Well, you know what they say about curiosity and cats?”
“Yes, but I’m not a cat!”
Bear snorted. “And a good thing, too. Cats are barely worth the effort to catch and eat! Mountain lions, I mean, not house cats.”
The two were silent for a time, Girl wondering if he was kidding about eating mountain lions, and Bear hoping she would stop this line of questioning.
Finally, he said, “Would you like to meet one of my friends tomorrow?”
Girl gave him a severe look. “You…have…friends? That’s hard to believe.”
Bear rolled over, far enough away from her that her feet fell with a smack! to the ground. “Ow! That was a mean trick!”
“Did I invite you to put your smelly feet on my nice, clean fur?”
She looked at him and giggled again. “Okay, yes; I’d like to meet one of your friends. Who is it?”
“She’s a hawk.”
Girl sat up, “You mean, like a bird?”
Bear sighed, “Yes, I mean, like, a bird.”
“Can she talk?”
Bear snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. Animals can’t talk. Except humans, of course. And whales. Porpoises, certain kinds of…”
“Okay, okay, I get it. Humans think they’re different.”
Bear raised his head, “Oh no, humans are different. Very different.”
Girl looked surprised. “In what way? I mean, how do you mean they’re different?”
Bear looked at her for a long time. “They destroy things they don’t need immediately. They kill for no good reason. They assume that they have the right to take anything they want as long as they’re stronger than the animal…or person…they want to take it from. They…”
“Stop!” Girl, closed her eyes. “Okay, I get it.” She sighed. “I’d like to say you’re wrong, but…I’ve been on the wrong end of that equation, and I know you’re right.”
She swallowed, then looked at Bear again. “Being a bear has given you a very different outlook on things, hasn’t it? I’ll bet it’s unique…if we could just get someone to listen to you.”
Bear snorted again, but kept his eyes closed.
He lifted his head. “Girl?”
“Please don’t be mad at me. I…I’m struggling with this stuff. I’m not used to being able to talk to animals. Or at least, an animal. And I can understand why you’d be mad at humans. So please, tell me about your hawk.”
Bear put his head down on his paws again but this time kept his eyes on her.
“She’s not my hawk. She’s nobody’s hawk.” His mouth quirked up. “But she is my friend. I’ll introduce you tomorrow.”
He heaved a deep sigh. “Now can I get some sleep?”
Girl got up, kissed Bear on the head, ruffled his fur, and said, “Of course. Good night, Bear. And thank you for last night, as well as many, many things.” Then she walked off to the bedroom but left the door open.
Bear quirked one eye and saw her outline as she changed out of her clothes and into a night dress. He heaved another deep sigh, this one seemingly sad, not mad, then went to sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast and chores were done, Girl met Bear on the front porch in her Adventure Girl outfit – hiking boots, tartan shirt, jeans, day pack with trail mix, and canteen.
Bear nodded, then walked off the porch, picked up the dead carcass of some kind of furry animal, perhaps a rabbit, in his mouth, and led the way off into the woods.
Girl almost said something, then stopped herself. She knew he ate game, but wondered why he was carrying this obviously fresh-killed mammal in his mouth.
After a while, the trail led to the base of a cliff. Bear dropped the kill, then sat back and looked up at the sky.
“What are we looking for?” Girl asked.
“A red-tailed hawk named Skrreeee!” Bear said.
Girl almost said something, then just nodded, and looked up.
High overhead, she saw some kind of raptor circling lazily, and pointed it out to Bear. “Is that her?” she asked.
Bear twisted his head to look, then shrugged. “Could be. Hard to tell at this distance. Let me try calling.”
He lifted his snout and gave forth with a loud, but high-pitched, yowl, startling Girl, who burst out laughing.
Immediately, the bird changed direction and started twirling toward them.
“Guess so,” said Bear. He picked up the dead mammal, and tossed it clear, then backed away from it.
The bird, spying the mammal, came diving in towards it, landing on it with a thump!
Perching possessively on the carrion, the red-tailed hawk turned its neck, regarding the two other animals, then fluffed its feathers and wings, and readied itself as if to take off again.
“No, it’s okay, Skrreee! She’s a friend – and she’s with me.”
The hawk quirked its neck the other way, fixing an eye on Girl, then settled down, and began to tear into the carcass, ripping up gobbets of the meat, and swallowing them whole.
Bear and Girl sat waiting, the Girl cross-legged, while Bear sat back on his rear.
Finally, when the hawk had finished feeding, it hopped off the carcass towards Bear, ruffling its feathers, then settling down, its cruel beak pointed at them, and its big eyes staring at them, blinking only every once in a while.
“Skrreee! this is Girl. Girl, this is my friend Skrreee!”
Girl ducked her head, and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ma’am.”
The hawk quirked its neck to stare at her, then back at Bear, looking as if it were querying what the heck Bear thought he was doing.
Bear chuckled deep in his throat. “I know. I mean – a human right? Who would have thought it?
“But she’s okay…for a human. And a girl.”
Girl swatted him, and he chuckled, but Skrreee! hopped into the air, as if unsettled by the act of violence.
“No, it’s okay, Skrreee! that’s a sign of affection among some humans. And yes, they are strange, no question.”
Girl looked at the two other animals, wondering what to say to a hawk, even a red-tailed one. “So, uh, how did you two meet?”
Bear turned to Skrreee! “Shall I?” The hawk flapped its wings once.
Bear turned to face Girl. “I was down fishing in the river, farther down from where we were yesterday, and I saw something splashing in the water. Turned out to be Skrreee! although I didn’t know her at the time. She had swooped down to pick up what she thought was a fish and nabbed it, but it turned out to be the plastic rings for a beer six-pack that someone had thrown into the river. It was stuck on a rock, and she had gotten her leg twisted in it.
“Skrreee! was unable to free her leg, and would have either died of exhaustion, or some other predator would have gotten her.
“She panicked when she saw me coming and tried to beat my head with her wings. I managed to persevere and pulled the rings free of the rock they were stuck on, then grabbed her legs so she didn’t fly away with the damn thing still stuck to her. And although she raked at me with her talons, I managed to avoid the worst of it, pulled the ring off of her leg, then held her up and threw her into the air.
“She flew up and away, ‘way high up, then circled, flew over my head, and settled in a nearby tree. She started screeching at me, and after a while, I started to understand her.
“She told me there was a man trapped in the water, as she had been, not far from there, and did I want to kill it for supper? She was repaying me, see.
“I had her lead me to the man – and damn me if we didn’t get much the same reaction as I’d had from Skrreee! The man started waving and shouting at me as if to scare me off. I walked over to the bank opposite where he was and sat down, just looking at him. His leg was trapped between a log and a rock – literally between a rock and a hard place – and his canoe was overturned and had floated a ways down the river.
“I sat down, and watched him flail away for a while until he gave up and settled down, and sat, awkwardly, panting from pain and exertion, his body at an awkward angle because of his trapped leg.
“Then I spoke to him, which I knew would freak him out.
“’Looks like you could use some help there.’
“His jaw dropped, and he looked for a moment as if he were going to faint.
“’I know it seems unlikely, but I really am a talking polar bear. And no, you’re not losing your mind.’
“He stared at me for a long time, then said, ‘Have ya come fer me?’
“I laughed, which seemed to unnerve him even more, then said, ‘Well, I did come because my friend the hawk’ and I nodded towards Skrreee! ‘…said you were stuck. I came to see if I could help. Would you like my help?’
“He just stared at me some more, then gulped, and finally nodded, ‘I don’t see as how I got anythin’ to lose, so…yes, please, hep me.’
“I swear he spoke like that. So, I waded out to where he was, and he flinched away from me. I looked over the problem, then reached down, and lifted the log, which was wedged against his leg by the water pushing against it. That freed his leg, and he pushed himself back and fell into the water.
“His leg must have been hurt worse than he expected because he floundered in the water. I threw the log towards the shore, then waded in and grabbed him around the waist, then hauled him up to the river bank.
“When I placed him on the bank, he just sat there, panting, for a while, then said, ‘So, you ain’t gonna eat me, ere ya?’
“I chuckled again, and said, ‘No, I’m allergic to humans. They give me a tummy ache.’ And I rubbed my belly.
“He threw back his head and laughed. ‘Don’t blame you a bit. I have a hard time stomaching most folks myself.’ Then he stuck his hand out, ‘I’m Riley. I do odd jobs and deliveries ’round here. Pleased ta know ya!’
“I put my paw out and very gently shook his hand.
“Well, I helped him get back to his truck, and fortunately it was his left ankle that had been bruised, so he was able to drive home. But he came back two days later with five pounds of bacon, and sat there, calling for me, until I showed up.
“‘Wanted to thank ya fer what ya did fer me. Doc says I was a damn fool fer being out here alone, but nothin’s broke, so no harm done. If’n I can do somethin’ fer you, you ask it, okay?’
“I took the bacon thankfully then said, ‘Can I order stuff, human stuff, through you, so can you bring it up here?’
“Well, he looked at me strangely all over again, then nodded and said, ‘Yep, I kin do that.’
“’And don’t tell anyone, okay?’ I added.
“He laughed, ‘Trust me fer that! I tried to tell Doc, and he was convinced I had me a concussion. Didn’t believe a blind word I tried to tell him. No, yer secret’s safe with me – I don’t want nobody to lock me up in no looney bin!’
Bear chuckled again. “And that’s how I get human supplies.”
Bear sat back and looked at the Girl, waiting for a reaction.
She giggled, then looked thoughtful. “But where do you get the money to order stuff?”