The bear story

bear

The bear had moved in for good, and there wasn’t anything Alice could do about it. Not like she wanted to, not anymore. The first week had been more difficult than she had anticipated, but after that things had slowly improved. The bear agreed, in his sure, heavy way, that this was home, this sharing a space together.
Home was never about the building. Walls and a roof didn’t make a building into a home, any more than books made a library. Plenty of people have felt more at home at work in a warehouse then where they paid their mortgage. It’s the people that make the difference after all.

Alice always felt that animals were more human than those who claim to be. Perhaps the utter guilelessness of them was the difference. Animals never had to prove who they were, never had to bother with such arbitrary things as status and striving. They never wore clothes, never owned cars, never had jobs. Their lives were free from all the distractions that humans had. Like children, they were given all they needed from Mother Earth and Father God. Like children, they learned at their own pace and trusted their senses. They slept when they were tired, ate when they were hungry. They never had to wonder or worry about such arbitrary and nebulous things as retirement funds or investment accounts. And as for in-laws? They never married, so that wasn’t an issue.

Alice had wanted to marry the bear as soon as he moved in, but he convinced her otherwise. He reminded her that marriage is a human invention, and therefore subject to failure. If you never got married, you’ll never have a risk of divorce. You are free to come and go. Doesn’t it mean more if your partner stays out of love rather than obligation? Every day they stay is a gift rather than a duty.

The bear had no name as far as Alice knew. She had asked and he’d not said. He didn’t talk like humans did, of course. He made his thoughts known in the way all creatures did in the beginning, with the spirit. He spoke with his whole being, resorting to sounds only as a last resort. Then they were usually snuffles and sighs and grunts. Only once had he growled, and that was when Alice had mistakenly opened a door onto his paw. After that they’d agreed to remove all of the doors inside the house. Doors just fostered separation and exclusion anyway. Plus, the knobs were hard to work with paws. The house had to work for both of them or it wouldn’t work at all.

The bear didn’t need a name, not really. He knew who he was. He was the only one Alice would be calling. Names meant very little when the group was small. She rarely had to call him anyway. He always knew in his slow sure way when she needed him. The same was not true for Alice, not yet. The bear often wanted to call her to look at an especially beautiful flower or sunset, but she was often so distracted by chores that she couldn’t hear him call to her heart. She spent a lot of time cleaning because wanted to keep the house just so. She forgot (or never knew) that the bear didn’t need to be impressed and nobody else who would come by would care.

Few people visited their home. Most of her family thought she was crazy for wanting to live with a bear. Her mother even talked about having her committed, but since she was an adult and seemed sane in all other respects, she let it drop, choosing to hold her judgment. She was prepared to shake her head and say “I told you so” while bandaging her daughter’s arms from the inevitable claw marks that surely would come, but they never did. Months went by and the bear and Alice got along like peanut butter and jelly, always together, and always good. Her mother still wasn’t one to concede the battle. Decades could’ve gone by and she still would not admit that perhaps Alice had chosen correctly. Little did she realize that Alice hadn’t done the choosing. The bear had. He knew Alice needed him as much as he needed her, knew that it wouldn’t be long before she’d hear him in her heart the way he heard her.

Their first meeting was as you’d expect. Bears aren’t normally sought after. Normally they are run from. Alice had decided to spend a week camping by herself in the Smoky Mountains. Her job wasn’t fulfilling, and she was estranged from her family in part because they felt she was wasting her talents. She decided week away to really listen was what she needed to get back on track.

Her family had paid for her college education, where she had studied veterinary science. But when she graduated and found a job at a local vet’s office as an assistant, she quickly learned that what you learned in the textbooks often doesn’t match with reality. It was far more visceral than she ever could have imagined. In her first week she saw more of animal’s insides than their outsides.

It wasn’t all physical. She’d always been a little empathic, able to feel how others were feeling even before they had words to express them. She was often able to help people before they even knew they needed it. Her friends liked her because they always felt at ease around her. She just made life easier. Meanwhile they never knew how much work this was for her.

When she was at the vet’s office, she was overwhelmed with the messages of hurt and pain that she received from the animals. She had not factored in that all of them would be constantly broadcasting their hurt and confusion and pain. It was an unrelenting onslaught, since even the healthy animals that were brought in just for a check-up or a shot were anxious and confused as to what was happening to them.

When she quit after a month, her family felt she was throwing away everything she had worked for. Worse, they felt she was throwing away everything they had paid for. They refused to support her any further, so she took a job selling perfume and cosmetics at the local mall to pay her bills until she could figure out what to do next.

It was not long after that that she went on her trip. While praying for guidance late one night around the campfire, she distinctly thought she heard a voice say “Take me in”. Usually she had perceived God’s voice as more of a feeling than actual words, but this was crystal-clear. It was so clear that she thought that perhaps it was an actual voice, so she looked around. Just outside the glow of the fire, she saw the distinctive gleam of eyes in the shadows. They were three feet from the ground, so she knew that it wasn’t an adult. She didn’t realize it was a bear until he stepped forward into the firelight and stared at her, saying again “Take me in”.

She ran, stumbling over tree roots and tent stakes to get away. She spent that night sleeping in the fetal position under a rhododendron bush about a mile away from her camp rather than risk being near that bear. Little did she realize but he had followed her at a slow walk, and watched over her all night as she slept to make sure that no other creature could approach her. Not all forest creatures welcomed humans into their midst.

She awoke with the dawn, stiff from rocks and roots pressing into her side. Her first thought was to give up on her quest and walk back to her car, but her keys were in her tent. She hoped that the bear hadn’t savaged her camp, shredding everything in a quest for food. She’d heard stories of bears that tore through everything in a quest for sausage or Snicker’s bars. The idea of rummaging through her ripped-up belongings to find her keys was not appealing, but she had no other choice.

When she finally returned she saw that everything was just as she’d left it. She had to use a hammer to re-secure the ropes from the tent pegs she’d tripped over on her midnight flight, but other than that, everything was the same. She started a small fire to cook her breakfast, and while drinking bitter coffee and eating oatmeal with blueberries she’d picked the day before, she heard the voice again. “Take me in”. She looked up with a start and saw the bear, but this time he was sitting twenty feet away, staring at her. This was enough distance that she felt she didn’t have to run. If she’d studied bears in college, she’d have known that no distance is a safe distance with bears. They may seem amiable and too large to run quickly, but looks are deceiving.

Alice stared at him (she assumed he was a he based on the sound of his voice in her head) and creaked out a tremulous “What?”

The bear repeated his request. “Take me in”.

“What? Why? Who are you?” Alice rambled on, picking up courage. She hadn’t had time to question that she was speaking with a bear. If she had, she would most likely have been silently staring at him, wondering if maybe her mind had finally cracked.

Over the course of half an hour the bear explained who he was and why he was speaking with her. He said things about being her protector, her teacher, her friend. He said he was her great-great-grandfather reincarnated. He said he had always known her and watched over her. He said that he could teach her to be the best veterinarian there ever was, or ever could be. He said that he would work with her, but first she had to let him into her life and into her heart and home.

They talked more over the course of the week she was at her campsite and worked out a plan. It was difficult for Alice to fully understand him but her natural empathic abilities went a long way. At the end of the week she went home, leaving the bear there, but she promised to return.

She quit her meaningless job as soon as she returned, not even bothering to go in to turn in her notice. She called the assistant manager at 7 on a Tuesday morning, waking him from his hangover from his one-person-party the night before. She told him that she had quit, and that was that. She hung up as he stuttered his questions at her, not believing. He’d never listened anyway.

She sold everything she had to make enough money to move to the woods and build a small cabin there for her and the bear. It was fortunate that she didn’t need much, because she didn’t have much. She traded out for much of what she needed by going to the Goodwill. Her worldly possessions transformed from frilly dresses to sturdy cotton clothes, the better to work in. Her CD collection became an axe and a saw so she could cut down trees to make a home.

The bear worked with her, pushing trees down, dragging logs over, lifting them up. After a month they were both tired but there was a roof over their heads. They had no furniture but they didn’t care. The work was so exhausting that they didn’t need a fluffy bed to rest in. They both slept deeply, curled up on the earthen floor of their new home, the bear curled protectively around Alice. She loved the musky, earthy smell of his fur and how it was somehow soft yet bristly at the same time. At times she could smell pine sap and warm summer sun in his fur, traces of his adventures while away from her.

They spent much time working together, he teaching her about all the ways of the animals. He filled in all of the knowledge she’d missed in her classes. He introduced her to all the animals in the forest and taught her how to speak with them – but more importantly how to listen. He told her that she didn’t have to wonder what was wrong when they came to her – they would tell her if she asked.

Yet still there was a wall between them. She had learned the language of the birds and the deer, of all the animals that flew or walked or slithered. Yet she was never fully able to hear the bear, not as well as the other animals. Perhaps he was too different, too tame. Perhaps he’d given up part of his wildness for his ability to live with her. Perhaps there was still too much of his human spirit in him, buried deep down in his bear heart, for her to hear him like she could hear others. He wasn’t quite a bear, yet he wasn’t quite a person, but both, and neither, and something more.

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The longest day of Theodore Smythe (a short story)

4

Theodore was tired, more tired than he had ever been. This had been the longest day he’d ever known. He wasn’t even sure what day it was, or what year. He’d only been alive for three years and two months. That was when Timmy had gotten him for his fifth birthday. Before that, he was just a stuffed doll, a bear. Once he had bonded with his child he became a Bear, a real being. Every year when Timmy’s birthday rolled around, Theodore had a birthday too. It was the day he became alive. They even made him his own cake, but smaller. It was decorated the same as Timmy’s.

This year there was no cake. There was a celebration of sorts, sure. But what with the rumors and the rations, it wasn’t possible to have such a luxury as a cake. Even candles had to be saved for more needful times. Lighting any of them, using them up, when the electricity was still working was wasteful, and the Smythe family knew it.

Slowly there had been less and less, with luxuries like sugar and beef first. They didn’t miss these things anyway. They were too expensive even when times were good. But flour, and oats? That was another matter. It was a few short months before it came to that, and by then there was no denying that war was upon them. They had to conserve what they had and make do to support their boys on the front lines. They needed the food more, to fight the Nazis who were three countries away. It wasn’t much to ask to have the war kept at bay. Trading a cake to have peace at home seemed like a fair trade.

But then the war came home to them.

It wasn’t fair. War, and still no cake. They still were sacrificing, still saving, still rationing, and still the war came, came right to their villages, to their streets, to their doorsteps. Uncle Albert in Shropshire called their neighbor to tell them to make their way to him any way they could. They hadn’t found the money for a phone since they moved to the city, and their neighbor Mr. Pete kindly passed along messages in exchange for Mama doing a little extra laundry on wash day. He’d not quite gotten the hang of it since his wife took ill with the dropsy two years back.

Mr. Smythe didn’t think there was much reason to hurry. He still had a job to go to after all, and Timmy had school to see to. He was getting along so well with his classmates this term, and getting such good grades in penmanship and music. Mama Smyth didn’t agree with his assessment, and said so by not saying anything. Her ‘no’ was simply the absence of a ‘yes’, as befitted a good wife to her understanding. Papa took her silence under advisement and read the newspaper more carefully, listened to the radio more closely, trying to see if there were currents under the words, perhaps telling him things were worse than the government was letting on. The slogan “Stay calm and carry on” was what tipped it. Something about it made every hair on his arms stand up. It was then that he knew they had to leave and go back home to their village of Clun as quickly as they could. Mama was relieved, but said that going calmly was best. Best not to look like they were fleeing. That might start a panic. Just make it look like they were going on holiday.

So they packed just a few things, just enough to fit into suitcases. It wouldn’t do to have too much on the train. It would call attention, and that was the last thing they wanted.

Theodore wasn’t around when they left. Perhaps he had been hiding in the pantry. Perhaps he had been exploring under the bed. Even though Mama and Papa appeared calm to everyone around them, in the house they were anything but. The day they decided to leave was the day they left. No time to make up stories or have people wonder. Mama had allotted just a scant thirty minutes to pack so they couldn’t over think it and try to bring too much. Timmy was so flustered he didn’t realize Theodore wasn’t with him until their train was outside the city gates. He fussed, sure, but Papa said they’d get him another bear. He said it in a low tone, quiet, almost but not quite gritting his teeth. Timmy had learned not to push harder when Papa spoke like this, so he gulped back his tears and distracted himself by looking at the scenery fly past his window.

It was three days later when Theodore woke to the sounds of the bomber planes. Normally, Timmy would find him at night to take him to bed with him, waking him up from his daytime slumber. Bears are awake at night. That is when they guard their young charges. But nobody in the house to wake him up meant Theodore had dozed on in a dreamless sleep, unaware of time passing.

Now he was awake, and lost. Now the city was in ruins. There were fires a few blocks over in the cathedral. The library in tatters. The school used for emergency shelter, not lessons. Now Theodore’s whole being ached with the need to find Timmy. He decided to rest his head against a building for just a little while.

Can’t go to sleep.
Can’t go to sleep.
Must find Timmy and keep him safe.

To sleep meant to fall into that dull dreamless nothing where it is so hard to return for a Bear. To sleep might mean to lose Timmy forever.

He would rest here for just a little while, but not lie down. To lie down would be the same as death, because life without Timmy was not acceptable. A bear once turned into a Bear could not go back into that dull unfeeling world of before.