I awoke to the ground beneath me, covered in a thick blanket of pine needles and leaves. On top of me, wrapped around me was a large, massive body. Incredibly heavy. I could not take a deep breath, but was warm despite my lack of clothing.
A long, slow inhale drew cool air across the back of my neck. Following a pause, an equally long but warm exhale told me my captor was not human, for the scent of animal filled my nostrils. When I attempted to turn onto my side, the weight of the body on mine was too much, and I was held fast.
I opened my eyes to see a beam of sunlight across the forest floor, just a few feet in front of me. I also recognized the massive, black paw of a bear.
“Bear?” I said.
I did not receive an answer, but heard snoring.
“Bear? Is that you?”
“Bear! Wake up!” I yelled as loud as I could, given the limited capacity of my lungs under such a mass.
“What? Oh! Oh my! Is that– are you, are you beneath me?” I heard from behind my head.
“Yes, it’s me. You are on top of me Bear. Please, get off.”
“I am so sorry. I meant only to keep you warm, for a few hours. But it seems I fell to sleep.”
He rolled off of me and the warmth of his body on mine was replaced by the warmth of the sun. I rolled onto my back and opened my eyes. I was facing the sky overhead, blue and unencumbered by clouds of any kind. Bear was to my side, stretching, yawning, his massive teeth white at the tips but stained toward the base. I thought he should brush his teeth more often, laughed inside at the thought, and then my situation came back to me.
Bear was blinking his eyes, slowly waking, head resting on paws extended. My backpack was at his side.
I called to him again, “Bear?”
He opened his eyes fully and stared at me, “Yes.”
I rolled slowly onto my side, the pain in my head and neck still present. Seated, with my legs bent before me, I reached up to feel the dried blood on my neck, a scab already formed over the punctures and scrapes. Fear and anger surged with the memory of the previous night, outrage at the betrayal by those I thought were my friends. I had taken the Coyote in. Two years prior I had befriended the Bear. Yet, in the end, he did nothing when the mountain lion attacked.
“You are angry with me, I know,” Bear said, his eyes fixed on mine at first, then he looked down to the ground. He must have read the emotion in my face.
“Did you know, all along, what would happen to me?”
“Yes. I knew,” he said calmly. Any sense of humor in my otherwise, usually quite clever friend was lost.
“You knew? And you did not stop the lion? You did nothing!?”
“I did nothing … or I did all I could, depending upon your point of view.”
“My point of view? Are you kidding me?!” I was angry now, leaning forward despite the pain. I continued, “I was naked. I still am! I had been running barefoot, chasing the coyote for, for I have no idea how many miles. Without clothing, food, or—only to have a mountain lion bite my throat until I bled and passed out. I— I thought I was dead!”
“Lion promised me he would not let it come to that,” Bear said in a calm, matter-of-fact tone.
I started to sob, for the full experience rushed through me again. Exhaustion. Hunger. Fear. Letting go. Calm. All mixed into a single, instant memory. I jumped to my feet, wanting to run, but as soon as I was standing the trees above me spun wildly, the sky suddenly to my left and then my right and—I fell again. My knees and palms pressed into the earth, my back arched, tears and spittle falling onto the dry needles beneath me. My stomach heaved, but without food or water, nothing was produced.
The sound of my own pain was replaced with that of the stream. I looked up from my position. The tiny waves formed and collapsed again, just a few feet in front of me. I crawled forward on hands and knees until my fingers and palms were cooled by the water on the shallow shore. I leaned forward and drank, nearly falling into the water for the rush of cold caused my vision to go dark.
I sat back onto the bank. The bear snorted and walked toward me. In his mouth he carried my backpack.
“Coyote. He brought this for you, while we slept.”
“Coyote,” I repeated, shaking my head.
He took one step closer and carefully set the pack at my feet, then turned and walked away. I reached down, without making eye contact, and slowly pulled onto my body my underwear, pants, shirt, socks and shoes. My feet remained incredibly sore, such that I considered that barefoot might be less painful than shoes. The jacket was comforting for its warmth and sense of security. Yet, I felt oddly disconnected from these things, as though they belonged in a museum for who I once was.
I removed the food from my backpack, tearing bread and cheese with my hands and teeth. I was shaking, nearly in tears again, more from lack of nutrition than the emotions this time. The apple was cool and refreshing.
I tossed one apple to where Bear was seated. I heard it hit the ground and roll, but I did not look up. The sound of the bear eating the apple was quickly replaced by the sound of footfall. He was standing again, by my side.
My trust had been broken. I no longer felt safe in his presence. I shied away, leaning to one side.
He said, “We should go.”
“Why should I go anywhere with you?”
Bear simply looked back.
“I did this for you.”
“Yes, for you.”
I rose to both feet, the sugars in the apple and fat in the cheese granting me some strength and focus, the ability to stand again. The bottom of my feet yet burned, even against the relatively soft weave of the thick socks.
“You, you asked the mountain lion to attack me—for me?”
“In a way, yes.”
I raised my hand to my neck again, some of the dried blood flaking and falling onto my fingers. Shaking my head I said, “I— I don’t understand.”
“When we first met, I showed you my world, from ridge top to valley bottom. That world is growing smaller and more confined, with the increased number of your kind. In that place I am afraid for my future, the future of what we call home—”
I interrupted him, “You wanted for me to feel your fear?”
“No. I wanted for you to feel your own fear … and then let it go. You have to let it go, as I have, to be free.”
I took a deep breath, held it for a moment and looked over his shoulder, to the blue of the horizon between the pines, the sun overhead, and back to his massive paws pressed into the forest floor. I forced my eyes to rise to meet his. In that moment, I realized that what he had shared with me was real, what Coyote and Lion had taken and given back to me again was now a part of who I had become.
“Then I should thank you, it seems, for what you have done for me,” I said, partly in sarcasm, partly in truth.
He did not respond, but lowered his face and walked forward until his breath warmed the back of my hand.
Yet feeling resentment, I retrieved my backpack from the forest floor, and turned to walk side-by-side with the bear. We followed the trail back, toward where this adventure had begun. I recognized sections where I had run behind Coyote. I recalled the freedom of that run, the lightness I felt. I recall no longer concerned with what lay behind, rather only what lay ahead.
I regained my comfort with bear, but truly, I regained confidence in me. At my suggestion, Bear and I explored side valleys and walked along high ridges. We talked little, for there was not much to be said. As we moved, two or three times I heard a branch break or a stone kick loose not far away. Coyote I assumed, following, listening, yet the trickster even in the shadows.
Bear asked, “Did you ever find the woman, the one you had lost?”
I laughed, remembering our first conversation long ago, “Yes, I have.” I paused to enjoy the comfort I felt in those words, “We have built a new friendship.”
“Ah! Very good! I hope I can meet her, soon.”
We walked a bit further, when he said, “I would like to introduce you to someone important to me.”
I heard branches break underfoot again, and from the shadow of a fir emerged a massive bear. I could not help but step back, pressing against Bear without awareness of my action. Nudging me forward, Bear laughed, “It’s ok. This is my companion, my mate I told you about when we first met.”
I took two hesitant steps forward. She was massive, much taller than my friend such that I felt I was looking nearly straight ahead. She also approached me, and pressed her snout into my hand. But then she rose up, without her paws leaving the ground, and our noses touched, hers moist and cool. Her wide face and head, much larger than my own, pulled back and she exhaled. I could smell her breath, neither sweet nor foul, but alive.
Bear walked around me and stood at her side. They greeted each other with noses and paws, and what sounded to me like grunts and moans. Coyote emerged from the same shadow. She-Bear nodded in his direction. He turned toward me, his jowl pulled back in an attempted human smile, “Adiós mi amigo. Espero verlos pronto.” Then he was gone, quickly, without a sound.
Bear said, “This is where we again part ways, for now.”
“I have need to start a family. It is time, for me.”
I turned to his companion, “It was good to meet you. Perhaps we will cross paths again.”
“I would like that very much,” she said, “Until then.”
Bear nudged my hand once again. I rubbed his head and ears and he buried his muzzle in my stomach.
He and his companion then turned, without a second glance, and walked back from where we had come.
I watched them until their earthen color blended with the forest floor, tree trunks and underbrush such that only their gradual motion enabled me to detect them from their surroundings. I tightened the straps of my pack, turned, and continued along the ridge and down a rocky out-cropping.
A few hours later, just as the sun was meeting the horizon and the blue sky was tinted with purple, I could see the cabin in the distance. The temperature dropped quickly and a light breeze picked up. I arrived to the back door just as the last natural light faded. No longer could I see distinct color in the path before me.
I opened the door, stepped in, and was home.
This story concludes with The Gathering