Girl carefully put two fingers on the porcupine quill she had selected and gently pulled on it.
It didn't move at first, then slowly, like from a bottle of molasses, came free.
Girl held it up.
"I have it, Madam. Now what?"
"Why scratch your tummy with it dear. It will sting a bit – but it will heal you. Over time."
Girl turned and looked at Bear, but he indicated nothing.
Girl pulled her shirt up, baring her firm stomach, and ran the quill over it.
A red welt appeared, and it stung…for a moment.
But very quickly, the welt started to fade – and Girl felt a sense of euphoria suffuse her being.
“Ohhhh…" she said and began to fall backward.
Bear quickly caught her and placed her gently on the ground.
Girl smiled up at him. "Bear," was all she said, as she raised her hand and rubbed his muzzle.
Bear smiled down at her. "Yes, Bear."
Bear looked up at Porcupine. "My lady, thank you. You have been gracious and kind. We will not trouble you again."
"Oh, fiddlesticks, Bear. You always bring the most interesting ones to me. And they always need my help – and your care."
She waddled over to him and raised her front paw. "This one especially needs you. Take good care of her, Bear. She is…"
Porcupine hunted for the word in her aged brain, "…unique."
Then she turned and waddled back to the log. There was a scraping sound, and she slowly disappeared into it.
Bear gently lifted the now-sleeping Girl onto his back, and carefully trotted back to the cabin.
Climbing the steps, he went into her room. He removed her boots and socks, then gently placed her in her bed, pulling the blanket up over her.
He stepped back a pace, and looked at her, sleeping peacefully, and breathing quietly.
"Madam was right, Girl," Bear said quietly, "You are unique."
He regarded her quietly for a moment longer, then turned and went out to the rag rug, walked around it, collapsed with a sigh, and went to sleep.
The next morning, Bear woke up and blinked. It wasn’t quite light outside, and the cabin was quiet. As silently as he could he stood up and padded into Girl’s room. She was sleeping peacefully, and her face was calm, even serene.
Bear smiled, then went into the kitchen, and prepared some fruit and honey – all of it sourced from near the cabin. He had not raided the beehive but asked the bees if he and Girl might have some, and as he had asked politely, they were happy to oblige.
He laid it out on the table, awaiting only their patroness when Bear heard something. He stopped, unsure of what he was hearing, then turned and started padding towards Girl’s room.
Gently, he pushed the door open and was shocked to find Girl, curled up in a ball, weeping. No; sobbing uncontrollably.
Bear, puzzled, padded across to the bed. “Girl! What’s wrong Girl?”
She was unable to speak, she was weeping so hard, her face a mask of pain and anguish.
Bear put his front paws on the bed and nudged her with his muzzle. She moved violently, and turned away from him, “Leave me alone! I’m terrible, I’m awful, I’m…human!” She screamed the last word in a horrible, rasping, screeching voice.
Bear dropped back down onto the floor, unsure what to do, afraid to leave Girl alone, but well out of his depth. Finally, he sat back on his haunches and waited, reasoning that she could not cry forever and would run down eventually.
And she did – although it was a long time in coming.
Finally, she rolled over, her head upside-down, hanging off the bed, eyes red, staring at Bear. “Oh, God, Bear! Why have we been so horrible? WHY ARE HUMANS SO …” She had balled her fists, her face turned bright red – then she collapsed, exhausted, and went limp.
Bear moved over to her, sat up, and picked her up. She was a rag doll in his arms as if she had no bones at all. He stood on his hind legs, and carried her out to the porch, opening the door with his right rear paw, then cautiously placed her in her rocking chair, arranging her so the chair would support her, and not allow her to slip to the ground.
He turned his back to her, pushed up against the chair so that he blocked her from spilling forward out of the chair, listened, and waited.
Finally, he heard a despairing sigh. A hand came out and started to stroke his fur. “You’re well rid of being human, Bear; well rid. We are…despicable! I see that now – and I’m part of it.”
Bear moved so that he was facing sideways, half towards her, half towards the mountains, unsure what to say. “I…I take it that it was Madam Porcupine’s quill that did this?”
Girl, shook her head, her eyes red and full of sorrow. “No. All it did was to open my eyes to the world around me, the world I have so long been blind to.” She bowed her head, “It…it showed me that I am human.”
Bear looked at her, waiting to see if she would go on, then eventually nodded, “Yes, you are. Let he – or she – who is without sin cast the first stone. You are not without sin. No one is.
“Porcupine eats grubs – which are other animals. I eat fish, elk, small mammals – and if I could get them, seals. Owl eats field mice and small birds. There is sin enough for all.”
But Girl was shaking her head. “Not so. You – and Porcupine, and Owl, and Skreeee! and the others take what they need. We humans take what we want whether we need it or not. We…are so…greedy, Bear.” And she sighed.
She was sitting up now, her chin on her knees, hugging them to her, her face red and swollen.
Bear regarded her, thinking. Finally, he said, “In the Book of Judges is the story of Gideon. The Midianites were looting the land, and taking the crops, leaving the people of Israel in despair for their future. Gideon was seeking to escape, I believe, when an angel of the Lord appeared to him, and said, ‘Hail, thou might man of valor, the Lord is with you!’”
Bear grinned sheepishly, “I may be getting this wrong. I’m going by memory, okay?”
He drew himself up and continued, “But Gideon said, ‘If the Lord is with us, why? Why do the Midianites kill our people and burn our land?’
“The angel looked at him with burning eyes, and said, “Go! Go in this thy power, and save thy people.’ And vanished.”
Bear stopped, and Girl waited.
Finally, she said, her mouth cracking into a ghost of a grin, “I don’t get it.”
Bear shrugged, “Neither do it, but I learned it in Sunday School, and now seemed as good a time to use it as any.”
Girl threw back her head and laughed, caught by surprise.
She was still exhausted from her earlier ordeal, so quickly stopped, then looked at Bear with fondness. “Bear? You have another meaning, don’t you.”
Bear nodded his great head. “Yes. The world is as it is, Girl. But you have the power to do something about it.” And he stopped.
Girl looked at him, waiting. Yet, when he said nothing more, she lifted her head off her hands and said, “Me? I’m nothing. I’m nobody. I…I can’t even go home.”
Bear raised his head to her level, so his eyes were boring into hers, and said, “‘Go, in this thy power, and save thy people.’
“Girl, you cannot change the past. It is done. But the future – that you can change. How much you change it – that is up to you. But I know this, from everything you have told me: you have put more into the world than you have taken out of it. You have touched the people around you with grace. You have lifted people up and blessed them with your thoughts and your presence. You have shed goodness where you have gone. And you have asked for nothing but acceptance and a measure of respect.
“Yet, the world has given you the back of its hand in return, sometimes literally. It is no wonder you are frightened, and feel alone and neglected.
“You are…there’s no other word for it…wonderful. Full of wonders. Girl, in the time you have been with me, you have healed wounds I didn’t know I had. You have befriended animals who fear and loathe humans – something I did not think possible. They accept you as an animal – and that is an astonishing accomplishment.
“And you did the same among the people with whom you lived, even though you yourself were being beaten down, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, by cruel and ugly people.
“I know you are familiar with the term – the human term – namasté. It means ‘I salute the light within you.’
“Of the people I have known, your light is among the brightest I have ever seen. You don’t see it because it is always there with you, so it vanishes into the background and becomes invisible. But you are grace-ful: full of grace. And you bestow that grace on those around you.
“Girl, I have told you before that you are beautiful, and each and every time you have disputed that fact. But your beauty shows not only upon your face, it shines through your words, your actions – your very being. That is why the animals accept you.”
Bear looked deep into the troubled eyes before him and saw continued disbelief. He shook his ponderous head. “You still don’t believe me. So – ask the animals. Any of them. Ask them if they trust you if they accept you. Animals do not lie – it’s not within their natures. Ask them.”
So, in the days that followed, wherever the two friends went, Girl would ask, “Do you trust me? Do you like me?” And the animals, few of whom could speak as Bear or Owl or Porcupine could, would look at her strangely, then run towards her, and climb up her arm to nuzzle her hair, or rub themselves along her legs, or fly around her and land on her head, tickling her scalp with their claws, or lick her with their rough tongues – which made her giggle.
Eventually, she accepted what Bear had said.
But not quite.
“Bear?” she said one evening, as they lay on the rag rug before the fire.
Bear lifted his head. “Girl.”
“I will accept that I’m not…bad. For a human.”
Bear looked at her, then huffed, “Hunh” and laid his head back down on the rug.
“Girls,” he said, dismissively, and closed his eyes.