The Bear yawned and stretched, then walked out into the sunlight. He thought it was about time to patrol his territory, marking it out, and making sure other carnivores weren’t taking liberties. That Mama brown bear seemed particularly to like trying to nudge her boundaries over onto his, but he guessed that was because she had two littlies to worry about now.
So, Bear started ambling along, enjoying the day, checking that his markings were still fresh, and that the local fauna were suitably deferential. It was a lovely day, and he was relishing it – except for the usual pit, the loneliness that he carried with him always. That.
He sighed, then turned his mind back to the present.
He came to the human road, and stopped, as he usually did, to look up and down it. He did that partially to see if there was any traffic to worry about – even a three-meter, 700-kilogram polar bear would get beat up if he was hit by a two-tonne SUV – but also on the off-chance that he might recognize someone driving by.
But, as usual, the packed dirt and gravel road was devoid of traffic. And even when he had seen a vehicle driving by, he hadn’t recognized anyone in them. Somehow, hope was harder to take than despair. He had lived solely with despair at first, and that had been hard. But now to have to live with hope – sometimes it almost broke him.
Sighing again because there were no vehicles in sight, nor any sound of any. He started to amble across the road, aiming to climb the ridge to one of his favorite lookouts.
He was halfway across when he heard a low groan. He stopped, trying to locate it, but was unable to do so. He swiveled his head back and forth, looking now to try to find the source of that sound. It had been a human voice, a woman’s. Although he stood stock still, the sound didn’t reoccur.
He was sure he hadn’t imagined it. He did imagine things, sometimes, but not sounds, not moans like that. He turned and paced slowly up one side of the road for twenty or thirty meters, heading north, looking off the road into the steep ditch on the side, but saw nothing.
He turned about, walked to the other side, and paced back southwards, looking in the other ditch, planning on going as far the other way.
He smelled her before he saw her, and eventually found her, rolled far off the highway, down the ditch, and hidden by grasses that had grown up since the Spring mowing. Being careful of the slippery, sloping verge, he stalked, pace by pace, to where he smelled her, and finally caught sight of her.
She was lying as if thrown from a great height, arms and legs akimbo, head tossed to one side. Her eyes were closed.
He padded more quickly to her side, and pressed his ear to her torso, listening to her heartbeat. It was fast, but regular. She was dressed warmly – but not warmly enough for overnight in the Canadian Rockies.
He sat, and pulled her gently towards him, then gathered her in his arms and lifted her up, clambering back up the verge onto the road. He could walk upright if necessary, but walking on four legs in this body was far more efficient. He shifted her onto his back, and dropped his forepaws down, settled her weight carefully across his shoulders, then started to walk slowly back towards his cabin on four paws.
He had gone about forty meters into the woods when he heard a vehicle engine. Whoever it was, was driving slowly south along the road. He wondered if they were looking for her, and almost went back to see if they were there to help her.
Yet, somehow, the thought of conversing with humans made him feel tired. He had tried it, and it almost never worked out well. It raised too many questions, some of which he couldn’t answer, and some of which he didn’t want to answer. Worse, sometimes the humans came back, and tried to capture him. He imagined they wanted to sell him to some kind of freak show as a talking bear.
So, although he paused, and considered going back, he decided not to. At least, not yet. He could always contrive to get the girl back to her people through his only human contact, the delivery guy. But later.
For now, he turned and headed back to the cabin.
When he got there, he opened the door, walked in, and gently set the Girl down on the rag rug in front of the fireplace. Now, for the first time, her took a good look at her.
She was older, perhaps in her 50s or 60s, but still trim and very attractive. She had bruises on her face and neck, her clothing was torn in places, and her expression looked as if she was…terrified.
Bear huffed, as if thinking, then shrugged, and gently lifted her in his arms, carried her into the bedroom, and laid her on the bed, drawing the sheet and blanket over her. He stood back on his hind legs, shook his head, and said, “Poor kid. I wonder what happened to you?”
He returned to the living room, built up the fire, then settled down in front of it, watched the flames leap until his eyes closed, and his breathing was smooth and even.
Sometime later, the Girl woke, sat up, and carefully shook her head. It hurt, which didn’t surprise her at all. She got gingerly out of bed, left the bedroom, and limped around, looking for the bathroom. She found it in the expected place – at the end of the hall – finished up, then started to hobble slowly back to the bedroom.
She got partway there, then stopped when she was passing the living room. She stood staring at the room, still partially lit by the remnants of the fire. There, on the floor, was an enormous polar bear, sleeping. Its chest rose and fell as it breathed.
She stood there for a long time, mouth open, until finally, the Bear, sensing something, opened its eyes and looked at her without moving its head from the rug. She knew she should be scared. Polar bears are apex predators and have no qualms about eating humans when they can catch them. But for some reason, she was not afraid.
The Bear lifted his huge head, looked at her with startlingly blue eyes, then said, in a deep voice, “Get some rest, Girl. You look like you could use it. We’ll talk in the morning.” He lowered his head back to the rug, regarded her for a while, then closed his eyes, and restarted his deep breathing.
The Girl was not sure whether she was dreaming or not, but searched her heart, and felt no fear. Quite the contrary, she felt safe for the first time in as long as she could remember.
She limped back to the bedroom, climbed cautiously back to bed, pulled the covers up, and slept peacefully for the first time in years.
The next morning, when she woke, she lay in bed unmoving for a moment, wondering where she was – and how she had gotten there. She sat up, gingerly, and felt the familiar bruises that would make her day painful, then looked around.
She was in a small bedroom of a rustic, log house. There was a window with wavy glass, beyond which was an astonishing view of up-thrust craggy mountains, the Canadian Rockies, she guessed.
She turned back to the room. The floor was wood, apparently polished by long-use, and a single, simple, wooden chair. There was a painting in the room, brownish, with a small farmhouse off to the left, a river meandering by it, and the sun setting behind the barn. It seemed somehow melancholy.
Gingerly, she turned to get out of bed and winced. It seemed as if everything hurt, starting with her head. She slid her feet to the floor, and cautiously stood up. At least the bottom of her feet didn’t hurt!
She stood, then had to put one hand down to steady herself. Finally, she was able to stand, and tried walking. She found as long as she didn’t think about it too much, she could hobble her way forward.
She retraced the steps to the bathroom, made use of its facilities, including a fresh, clean towel hanging on the rail – the only one – then replaced it, opened the door, and with some trepidation, hobbled back to the entry of the living room.
It was empty, and the fire banked.
She noticed that the front door was open, so she walked very carefully over and looked outside.
There, seated on the porch floor, looking up at the mountains, was an enormous polar bear. She swallowed hard, then said, feeling foolish, “Goo…good morning, Bear.”
His massive head swiveled towards her, and his mouth split in what she could only interpret as a grin. “Well, there you are! I was wondering if I’d picked up sleeping beauty! Good morning!”
She blinked, and said, “So…I wasn’t dreaming. You talk.”
He nodded. “And so do you.”
“Ho…how do you…I mean, why…uh…”
He nodded again. “It is a puzzle, isn’t it? Now, how are you feeling this morning?”
She stared at him – for there was no doubt that Bear was a him – then said, “Uh…I’m…I’m fine. Well, not really. I ache all over, especially my head.”
“I’m not surprised. There’s some aspirin in the medicine cabinet if I remember properly. Why don’t you see if that helps?”
She looked at him, staring into those impossibly blue eyes, then said, apropos of nothing, “Don’t polar bears have brown eyes?”
He nodded again. “Yes, they do.” And fell silent.
She stood for a moment, then shrugged, turned, and slowly hobbled back to the bathroom. She found the aspirin, took three with water from the clean cup that sat there, then hobbled back to the front door.
“Have a seat, pilgrim.” The Bear nodded at a big, wooden rocking chair that looked as if it were left over not from the last century, but from the century before that.
She gingerly lowered herself onto the rocking chair and found it surprisingly comfortable – which would account for why it had been preserved for so long. Without realizing it, she started rocking gently back and forth, and her body found comfort in the motion.
They sat silently for quite some time. The Bear seemed content to let the time flow around them, and the Girl was unsure what to say, or how to say it.
Finally, she said, “I…I owe you my thanks. You saved my life.”
The Bear nodded again, and said simply, “You’re welcome.”
She had been hoping he would say something more – anything – but when he didn’t continue, she said, “Where did you find me? I don’t remember anything about it.”
He sighed, moved slightly, then settled down, and said, “I found you by the human road. You were well off the side, down almost into the ditch. You looked like a broken doll, and were unconscious. I brought you back here and put you to bed. You didn’t seem to be bleeding, and nothing appeared to be broken, so I thought sleep was the best thing for you.”
The Bear hesitated, then said, “Shortly after I picked you up, a vehicle came cruising slowly south along the road, as if they were looking for something. I almost walked back to ask if you were theirs.”
The Girl looked shocked, “No! I’m not! I’m trying to get away from him…from them!’ She gulped, “Oh, thank God you didn’t let them know where I was!”
The Bear gazed at her for some time. She found his gaze disconcerting, and eventually turned away from it, but said nothing more.
“If I were the prying kind, I’d guess you were trying to escape from an abusive husband. Fortunately, I’m not that kind of bear.” And he chuckled deep in his chest.
She looked at him in astonishment. “How…do you know about these things? If it comes to that, how are you even talking?”
The Bear looked down, then smiled back up at her, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” then stopped.
She glanced down, “Um…it’s a little late for that.” And she giggled, then blushed.
He looked down at himself, “Yeah, fur doesn’t quite cover it, does it?” And he chuckled.
The Girl decided that if Bear didn’t want to talk about it – which he clearly didn’t – then she would be impolite at best, and more likely foolish to pursue the matter. She turned and looked out over the mountains.
“It’s a gorgeous view.”
She looked at him, surprised.
He gave that deep chuckle again. “Family heirloom. The cottage, that is, not the mountains.”
The Girl continued to rock back and forth, and found it easing her mind as well as her body. “Your family?” She made it more of an almost-question than a question-proper, as if not wanting to push it if he didn’t wish to answer.
“Yes, you know those people who have to take you in, whether they want to or not? Them.” He chuckled again.
After a while of contemplating the mountains, she cleared her throat, and said, “Uh…I’m sorry to ask, but do you have any food? I didn’t get to eat much yesterday.”
She looked down. “And I’m not sure when or how I’ll be able to pay you back.”
The Bear looked at her and gave her what she would later interpret as a gentle smile. “You already have, my dear lady, you already have.”
He got up and padded softly into the cabin. “Follow me.”
He led her into the kitchen area of the great room, and hooked open the refrigerator. “Mostly fish and fruit in here, I’m afraid, but up there…” and he tossed his head towards a series of cupboards, “…you’ll find canned and packaged goods. All kinds of things, including, I think, some oatmeal. And there’s some brown sugar in an old peanut butter jar that’s probably still good. Help yourself. I’ve already eaten.”
And he padded slowly back to the porch.
She rummaged around, made herself a large bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar and canned peaches, some coffee lightened with some tinned evaporated milk. She flaked some of the fish – trout? – onto some slices of tinned bread, and put everything on a tray, then carried it out to the porch, setting it down carefully on the small table there.
“Can I get or make anything for you, Bear?” she asked. “I should have asked before, but I was so hungry I didn’t think of it. Sorry.”
The Bear sniffed the coffee wistfully, then shook its head, “No, I’m good – but thank you for asking.” He chuckled. “It’s a nice thought, but the normal way that a human will feed a polar bear is…well, kind of final. For the human.”
She had a big mouthful of oatmeal in her mouth, and almost spit-laughed it out, but put her hand to her mouth, choking it down. “Don’t do that!” she laughed, wiping the edges of her mouth and nose with the back of her hand after she had swallowed.
He sat, smiling at her for a time, then said, “You have a nice laugh.”
She smiled back at him, “So do you – even if you have a nasty sense of humor!”
He got up, and said, “I’m going for a walk. Would you like to come?”
She consulted her body, then shook her head. “No, alas, I’m too beat up. I’ll just stay here and enjoy your – your family heirloom.”
He nodded acknowledgement, then loped across the meadow in front of the cabin, and disappeared into the woods.
The Girl rocked steadily for a while, then gradually slowed, stopped and was still. Her head lolled to one side. She slept.
When she woke up again, she was lying on an old, leather sofa in the great room of the cabin with a soft blanket over her. She stretched, then winced, and saw the Bear snoring on the rug.
She lay there and watched him – and as before, he must have felt something, for he opened his eyes and looked at her.
“May I ask you a question?” she said.
“You just did.”
She grimaced, “Okay, may I ask you two questions?”
This time she snorted. “God! Would you believe it? A smart-ass Bear! Okay, may I ask you four questions?”
The Bear shook his head, “No, that would be pushing things, don’t you think?”
“But…” she started to say, then heard his deep chuckle. “OH! You can be so infuriating!”
The chuckle deepened into a laugh. “Go ahead. Ask.”
“How is it you can talk, Bear?”
He stared at her for some time, then turned away and said, “Magic.”
She snorted. “I don’t believe in magic.”
“Oh, good, but you believe in talking bears?”
She stopped. “I don’t know…what to believe.”
The Bear sat up, and shifted his weight to his rear haunches. “Do you believe your own senses?”
“Yeesss…” she said cautiously.
“Then perhaps you have an explanation for how you are talking to a Bear that doesn’t involve magic, or you being crazy?”
She flopped over onto her back and looked up at the ceiling, and tried to think. She felt as if she might still be slightly concussed, but tried to focus. “Well…” she began.
“Uh-huh?” the Bear encouraged.
“…enhanced cortical activity…vocal chord replacement…um…” she trailed off.
“Have you ever heard of Clarke’s Laws?” the Bear asked after she’d been silent for a while.
She turned to look at him. “No. You mean, like Clark Kent?”
The Bear shook his head, “No, like Arthur C. Clarke. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, in fact. Knighted by Queen Elizabeth for contributions to literature and science. Famous science and science fiction writer. Invented the concept of the communications satellite, among other things.”
“Okay, I think I’ve heard of him.”
The Bear shook his head, “Kids today.” He took a deep sigh. “Well, Clarke is given credit for coining three laws, all of which are self-evidently true.”
“Okay…”, she said, waiting for the punchline.
“Clarke’s Third Law is: ‘A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’”
She looked up at the ceiling, and repeated, “A sufficiently advanced…technology…”
She looked back at him, “Right. Right! Of course, it has to be! A telephone would be considered magic to, oh, I dunno, a Roman, and a smartphone would be considered magic to the, um, the Wright Brothers! A sufficiently advanced…”
“Not sure about that last one. The Wright Brothers were pretty savvy dudes…as was their sister, by the way.”
“Okay, I was just using that as an example, so pick whomever you want, I don’t care.”
“So…you would agree that magic exists?”
That stopped her, and she thought for a while. “No…not quite the way you mean it. Or I mean it. Or…whatever. When you say ‘magic’, I think you mean ‘supernatural’, or outside the laws of physics as we know them.”
The Bear considered for a moment, then said, “Show me a law of physics. Point to it.”
The Girl sat up, looked around, then picked up the pillow her head had been resting on, held it up over the floor, and dropped it.
The Bear quirked an eyebrow at her, but said nothing.
“There!” the Girl said, “The Law of Gravity!”
The Bear shook his head. “No, that’s a pillow…that’s now getting dirty on the floor. Where’s this ‘Law of Gravity’? Show it to me.”
The Girl waved her hand, “I just showed you! The pillow fell because of the Law of Gravity!”
“Are you sure? Perhaps the pillow just liked the floor enough to want to be close to it.”
She gawked at him. “But…” She shook her head.
“Your ‘Law of Gravity’ is actually just a bunch of observations grouped together. Since you let go of a pillow yesterday and it fell, you expect that if you let go of a pillow today, it will fall again, right?”
The Girl nodded, “Right.”
“But what you label a law might just be coincidence, mightn’t it?”
She thought for a minute, then shook her head, “No! I mean, we have explanations for why the pillow falls, so…it’s science, not magic.”
“So, if you have explanations for why things happen, then they’re science, not magic, is that it?”
She paused for a minute, then nodded slowly, “Yes…I guess.”
“Then talking bears are magic?”
“Right! No, wait…” she shook her head, then regretted it. “Ow!” She put her hand to her head. “No fair! You…cheated!”
He huffed, which she interpreted as a laugh. “Right. So, you just lost an argument with a talking bear, and it was only because he cheated.”
She opened her mouth, and couldn’t think of a thing to say, so closed it.
She sat up and looked at him again. “You…you’re really a man aren’t you?”
Bear looked away, then turned back. “Is your head still bothering you?”
She looked at him, and realized he didn’t want to talk about this. “Uh…yes, it is. But only when I shake it like a maraca.” She giggled. “Then you can hear my brains rattling around!”
Bear huffed again. “Yeah, I can hear them from here!”
“Oh! Not nice, Bear, not nice!” And she giggled again.
“So, you should have some lunch. Sorry – you know what’s in the pantry, so help yourself, okay?”
She threw back the blanket, and swung her legs over the side of the sofa. “Okay.” She stood up, then flopped back down. “OH! Not as steady as I thought.”
Bear chuckled. “Take it slow, Girl, take it slow.” He stood up. “I’m going out to rustle up some lunch. Probably some fish. Wanna come?”
She shook her head. “I think I’d better stay here until I’m…better.”
Bear nodded his head. “Yes, I think so. Have some lunch, then have a nap. I’ll be back presently. Go gently.” And he turned and walked into the woods.