It was a lovely day in the Rockies. Bear and Girl had broken their fast, and were sitting in their favorite places on the porch, watching the mountains age. There was a light breeze, and a leaf blew onto Girl's lap, where she sat on the rocking chair, with her feet on the seat, her knees up high, and her chin resting on them.
She smiled, picked up the leaf, and looked at it.
"Bear," she said.
His head swiveled towards her, "Girl?"
"Look at this leaf. It's beautiful!"
It was red and had wondrously articulated veins running through it.
She turned it to the front and saw a shiny bright red texture.
"It's a maple leaf, Girl. You know – like the one on the flag?"
She giggled, and it made her seem like a little girl – which, in many ways, she was.
"They didn't do a very good job of drawing it. This is far more beautiful, Bear!"
Bear stood up and lumbered over to where she sat to look at it.
She held it up to his gaze and turned it slowly so he could see both sides.
"Hunh," he said. "I guess it's time,” he said cryptically. “We need to go see someone, Girl. Would you rather walk, or ride?"
She dropped her forehead down so it rested on his. "May I ride, please, Bear?"
Bear smiled. "Of course, Girl. Climb aboard."
She scrambled off the rocking chair, and onto Bear's broad back, her legs straddling him, her legs barely making it over the sides.
Bear lumbered down the steps and headed off in a direction they'd not gone before.
They started singing as they went, songs from campfires, and arias from operas, then finally fell silent.
Girl's face broke into a grin, she squeezed Bear's middle with her legs, stretching up and shouting, "AH…E-AH-E…AHHH!" and thumping her chest with her fists.
Bear rumbled his laugh. "What are you, Tarzan?"
Girl swung down so her face was next to Bear's while she clung to his fur.
"No, ME JANE!"
Bear laughed, and picked up speed – "So what does that make me? Hathi the elephant?"
"No, Bear…that's The Jungle Book! Different author, different story. Silly!"
Bear's laugh rumbled again, "Oh, exCUSE me!"
The banter kept flying back and forth until finally, Bear stopped by a great Oak tree.
He lifted his muzzle and howled. "AAHHHRRROOO!" then pawed the bark of the tree.
There was a long pause where nothing seemed to happen, then a quavery, educated voice said, "What is it now, Bear?"
Bear looked up, Girl looked up – and a Great Horned Owl looked back down at them, its face seemingly suspended out from the trunk of the tree
"Owl, this is Girl. Girl, this is Owl."
Owl blinked, then said, "Bear…this is…most irregular. Are you sure you know what you're doing?
Bear's laugh rumbled again, "Not really. No more than usual."
"Oh, well…in that case. Wait there."
There was a scrabbling noise, then a whiffling sound, and the enormous Owl glided gently down to the ground, landing some ways away from Bear.
Owl was half Girl's height – large for a bird – but this was no ordinary bird. This was Owl, the wisest resident of the Forest. He stalked awkwardly around Girl, his head turning and twisting as he circumambulated her.
"Hmmm…," he said. "This is a strange one. How did you get it, Bear?"
Bear chuckled deep in his chest. "I found her by the side of the human road."
Owl's eye fastened on Bear. "Really? So, they threw her out, did they?"
Bear shook his great head. "No, Owl. She escaped from them."
Owl's head swiveled back toward Girl. "Well, perhaps she is cleverer than she seems, then."
He stalked around her again, then stopped by Bear, peering up at him.
"Bear…is she…quite safe, do you think?"
Bear chuckled even more loudly. "Yes, Owl. She is quite safe. And quite lovely. You'll see."
Owl's head swiveled towards the Girl, then back towards Bear. "Well,” was all he said.
He closed his eyes, and Girl began to wonder if he had fallen asleep.
Finally, he opened his eyes. "Yes, Bear, you are right. She has escaped from them. And they were particularly nasty towards her – rather as they are towards many of us." He regarded Girl and blinked his great eyes. "She has been hurt by them. And she needs healing."
Owl closed his eyes again, but this time Girl felt as if she were being examined…deeply.
Finally, Owl opened his eyes and turned toward Bear. "I think she should see Porcupine."
And he hopped off, opened his great wings, and flew away.
Bear ducked his head, walked over to Girl, and said, "As I had hoped. Porcupine is our healer. But she is very shy, and would never have seen you if Owl hadn't said you should."
Girl was puzzled, but she trusted Bear, so kept her peace.
"Come now, Girl. Get on my back. We have a ways to go, and it is getting late."
Girl climbed on Bear's back, grasped two handfuls of fur, and Bear began first to walk, then to trot, and finally to run through the forest.
This caused a commotion. Animals poked their heads out, and chittered, calling to Bear, who ignored them.
They went on and on…until finally Bear, his chest heaving, began to slow to a trot, then to a walk…
…and finally stopped by an old, dead tree.
Beside it was a rotting log. Bear rapped on the log three times, then cautiously backed away, making sure that Girl stayed on his back.
At first, nothing seemed to be happening. Then there was a rustling sound, and shortly after that, Porcupine emerged, spines bristling, from the log, blinking into the light.
"Who is it, and what do you want this time? Can't an old woman get any sleep? If this is the chipmunks again, here to complain about their paws, I will BITE them!"
Bear chuckles again, "No, Porcupine, it's me, Bear."
Porcupine stopped, blinked in a way that told Girl the old girl couldn't see very well, then sniffed.
"You're not alone, Bear. How dare you bring a human with you!" and she began to withdraw into her rotting log again.
"Wait, Madam Porcupine. Owl said you needed to heal her. She escaped from the Humans."
Porcupine stopped and blinked at them as if trying to focus. "Escaped, you say?"
"Yes, Madam P. But they damaged her."
Porcupine started forward. "Those…savages! They have hurt so many of my children. How dare they – even to their own kind!"
She stopped short of Bear. "Let me smell her closely, Bear, so that I may know her."
Bear turned to Girl, and said, "It's okay, Girl. Slide down and stand still. She won't hurt you."
Porcupine sniffed again, "Hurt her? I should say not! Are WE savages? Hunh!" And she sneezed dismissively.
Porcupine waddled around Girl, her quills rattling inches from Girl's flesh. Any one of them brushing her would have wounded her – but none so much as grazed her flesh.
Finally, after Porcupine had made a full circuit, she stopped, nose pointing up towards Girl's face.
"My dear…wait, I can't call you a…human," Porcupine's tone implied that to do so would be a dire insult. "What shall I call you, child?"
Bear cleared his throat, "Call her Girl, Madam P."
"Girl," Porcupine mused, "Yes, that will do. My dear Girl, they have been quite brutal to you, haven't they? Awful creatures, stinking things with no manners!"
She sneezed again as if to discharge their smell from her nose. Then she stood for a long while as if thinking. Girl held her breath and held quite still.
Finally, Porcupine gave a deep sigh, and said, "Girl, I will give you one of my quills. Will you take it?"
Girl glanced back at Bear, who was carefully still, giving no sign.
"Madam Porcupine, I would gratefully accept anything you gave me, with thanks."
Porcupine looked up, squinting, at Bear, "Well, at least she has breeding, I'll give her that."
Turning back to Girl, she said, "Now, Girl, very cautiously, put your hand forward and find the quill that is closest to my left ear. It will not sting you."
Girl leaned forward very slowly, looking carefully, and found what she thought was the appropriate quill.
She pointed at it. "This one, Madam?"
Porcupine sneezed again, "I can't see my own ear, dear. You will have to choose. Choose wisely, Girl."
Girl thought and looked again very carefully. "Yes, I believe it is this one," and she carefully tapped it with her finger, causing it to move slightly.
Porcupine shivered, and all the quills on her back shook. "Yes, my dear. Carefully grasp it in two paws and extract it from my head."
Girl carefully put two fingers on the 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 gave no sign.
Girl pulled up her shirt, 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 permeate her.
'Ohhh…" 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 took Girl into her room. He removed her boots and socks, then gently placed her in bed, pulling the blanket up over her.
He stepped back a pace, and looked at her, breathing quietly, her face smooth and seemingly at peace.
"Madam was right, Girl," Bear said quietly, "You are unique."
He regarded her for a moment longer, then turned and went out to the rag rug, walked around it, collapsed with a sigh, and went to sleep.