Girl had found the boxes of books from the storeroom to be a treasure trove. Bear had long forgotten they were there, although he, too, had plundered their wealth when he was a boy, then discarded them when he reached his late teens.
Girl was distinctly older than that but found that reading them let her pretend she was a child again, and rediscover a time when life seemed simpler, fresher, and more promising. As such, she plunged into them with a greater delight than the stories themselves might have warranted.
For her, they were a way she could try to reclaim part of her life, to relive it, and draw parts of it back from the awful reality it had become.
Bear was glad she was delighted – although he had to admit that Girl with a book wasn’t much company. Still, when he nudged her, she would lie on her stomach on the floor, her chin in her hands, or on her back, holding the book in the air above her, and read aloud to him.
He missed reading. One of the many things he missed being a Bear. And it was lovely to have her read. She conveyed all of her own delights as she read.
But she couldn’t read aloud all the time – plus it diluted her joy as it slowed her progress through favored stories – old friends she was revisiting.
So, Bear would go out on the porch and sit, communing with the mountains. Or he would slump inside on the rag rug, watching the Girl read, a gentle smile playing over his face.
Then, one morning, as she was reading Treasure Island, by Robert Lewis Stevenson, she suddenly stopped, sat upright, and said, “Bear, why didn’t you read these books? You enjoy it when I read them to you!”
Bear raised his head off the floor and said, “Well, there are actually two reasons. The first is that I had forgotten that those books were even there.
“But the other reason is that I can’t read.”
Girl’s head turned sharply towards him. “I’m sorry?”
Bear dropped his head and turned away.
“I can’t read, Girl. I can see the pages of the book and I can see black marks – but I can’t figure out what they mean. Even when I already know what the words say, I can’t recognize them. It’s as if they are in an alphabet I’ve never seen before.”
Girl sat stock still, staring at Bear. How could it be that her…hero, this person who meant so much to her, who was so much to her, could not read? She knew he must have done at one point. But why not now?
“Why?” she barked, far more abruptly than she realized she should have done.
Bear turned his head away and returned it to the floor.
Girl got up, walked over to Bear, sat on the floor next to him, and leaned against him.
“I’m sorry, Bear. That must have sounded…nasty. I didn’t mean to.”
She leaned against him, and rubbed her face against his fur, then sat up, but continued to smooth his fur with her hand, stroking him gently.
“Bear, you could read when you were a human, right?”
Bear grunted, which she took as agreement.
Girl was silent. Finally, Bear lifted his head and said, “I’ve been trying for...forever to read that peanut butter jar over there.” He lifted his muzzle and nodded at a corner of the room.
Girl looked and saw a glass jar lying in a corner that she had never noticed before. She got up, went over, and picked it up. It did, indeed, say “Peanut Butter” and gave a brand name.
She slowly walked it back to where Bear was once again lying and sat down next to him. She held it out to him, and said, “What do you see?”
Bear stared briefly at the jar, then turned away. “Gobble-de-gook,” he said. “Nothing.”
Girl put the jar down beside her, away from Bear. Then she picked it up again and looked for the “Best by” date. It was many years in the past.
She put it down, and almost said something about the date – then stopped, realizing that it might be something else he didn’t want to talk about and that one bad thing at a time was enough.
“I’ll read to you Bear, as much as you like. Promise.”
He lifted his head and put his muzzle on her leg. “You’re a lovely lady, Girl. And I am so lucky to have met you.”
He lifted his head again and laid it back on the floor. “But I’m used to it. Please – read for your own enjoyment. I enjoy that.”
Girl sat, stroking Bear’s fur, tears forming in her eyes.
But she realized that her being sad would not help Bear.
And she found herself feeling strangely…vulnerable. Bear could do anything. He had saved her at least three times. He kept her alive against all odds. He had risked his own life for her, yet, she could do nothing for him.
Then a thought occurred to her.
“Bear,” she said softly.
He lifted his head, “Girl.”
She grabbed his muzzle, pulled it towards her, and kissed him on the mouth – what would have been his lips – then waited.
He started chuckling. “You thought you could turn me back into a prince again, didn’t you?”
She sat looking at him, crestfallen…then started to giggle. “Yeah, I guess I did.” And she started to laugh.
Bear started laughing, too. “But you see…the problem is, I never was a prince, so you couldn’t turn me back!”
Girl started giggling even harder, as did the Bear. Soon, the two friends were rolling on the floor, helplessly holding their sides, laughing.
Finally, a long time later, they stopped and lay, huddled together on the floor, happily exhausted.
“I do love you, Bear.”
“Me too,” said Bear.