Thursday, December 18, 2014

Brave little bears

A short story, part fiction, with some bits of truth

“Get that out of your mouth!”

She looked up from the deer’s carcass, blood smeared from nose to chin, a chunk of meat clenched in her teeth. Her breath steamed into the cold winter air.

“Why?” she asked, pulling the stringy, dripping thing from her mouth. She stretched it between her two hands, straining to pull the single piece of flesh apart. "It's real chewy."

“It’s not cooked,” he said, setting his rifle in the notch of a tree.

“Bears don’t cook deers when they eat them.”

“Well, you’re not a bear.”

“I am! Rawr!”

He plucked the dripping gobbet from her hand and whipped it away into the forest, and she jumped about him growling and swiping with rigidly hooked fingers. Finally, she kicked him in the shin.

“I AM a bear.”

“Fine. But someday you’re going to be a grown woman and grown women do not eat raw meat with their bare hands.”

“Grown women have bear hands?” She eagerly made claws again.

“Not exactly,” he said, and then sighed at her crestfallen expression. He squatted on his heels and beckoned her. “Come here, little bear.”

He wiped her face with several handfuls of snow, an effort that deteriorated into a small-scale battle and left him sprawled on his back in a snow drift. She glared at him defiantly, wiping her cheeks furiously with the backs of her sleeves. He glared back as he struggled to rise, but couldn’t maintain his ire as he overbalanced and fell sideways back into the drift. He heard giggling as he struggled to extricate himself.

“Alright, get over here and help your old man!” 

In the resulting tug-of-war, the tiny giggler offered marginal assistance, but he maneuvered so she would believe she was doing most of the work. By the time he was on his feet, they were both breathing hard. He said something about her muscles, and she beamed up at him, eyes bright, cheeks rosy, and drops of blood spattering her coat. 

"How did it taste?" he asked.

"Not my favorite. I think I would like Rhinoceros better."

"I'm sure. Do me a favor, would you? The next time there's a dead animal on the ground, don't put any of it in your mouth."
* * *

His steps plunged into the snow, over and over again. For a while the girl had shouted directions to him from the sled, but now she was silent, and the only sounds were his rhythmic steps and the constant crunch of the sled over the snow. At a clearing in the trees he paused and let the sled come to a stop. He shrugged the rope from his shoulder and stretched, staring out over the valley below.

“What’s out there?” the girl asked. She didn't move from her spot, nestled in a bundle of blankets, the deer’s body stretched out beside her.

“Civilization,” he said.

"What's that?"

"Well, it's lots of people all crowded on top of each other, trying to figure out ways to live together."

“What kind of people?”

“All the kinds.”

At the foot of their mountain, settlements were sparse, but in the distance he could just make out the lights of the city winking on, one by one.

“The lights are pretty,” she said.

“Yep,” he said. “It’s good to watch sunsets.”

“Not the sunset.” She stabbed a finger out from beneath her blankets. “Those little lights. Where the people are.”

He grunted, and circled the sled, checking to make sure all the straps were secure, that the carcass was still wrapped sufficiently and not trailing blood in the snow. He pulled the blankets a little more securely around the girl. Wiped her nose with a blanket edge.

“Why don’t you like people?” she said.

“I like you. You’re a person,” he said. “Some of the time, anyway.”

“And mom’s a person,” she said. 

“See? I like people,” he said.

"But you don't like going out there. Where people are on top of each other."

"Well, I don't mind meeting a person like a bear or a moose in the woods. It’s nice to see them from a distance. Maybe you get close enough to wave. But you put a lot on the line when you get too close.”

She thought about that. He bent to retrieve the rope and looped it over his shoulder.

"I would get close to a bear. Because I'm brave," she said.

"Yes, you are," he said. "But then it's my job to protect you, and make sure you don't get too close. To keep you safe." 

He paused.

"The truth is, sometimes it's me I'm keeping safe. Your dad is a man who likes to stay on his mountain."
“I like your mountain. But I want to go down there,” she said. “I think I might like it, too.”

“I went down there once, when I was younger," he said. "It’s where I met your mother.”

“But then you came back up here.”


"Well, I would go down there, and nobody would scare me. Because I would be a grown woman. Maybe even bigger than you!"

She climbed off the sled, shedding the blankets. She stamped her feet and clapped her mittened hands together, a four-year-old’s version of calisthenics .

“I can walk the rest of the way,” she said. “I’m am getting big, you know.”

“I know.” She tramped in huge steps around the sled and towards the cabin, which was just visible through the trees, the glow from its windows a tiny beacon of comfort and warmth.

He glanced again out over the valley. And then smiled, as he heard in the distance a small voice shout “Rawr! I’m a bear!”