Old Bear’s Children

Something different this week…a fable. I hope you enjoy it.


Old Bear’s Children

Once upon a time, there was a bear cub who lived in the deep woods. He loved his family, but he especially loved his den. So cozy and warm and good-smelling. He’d nestle down against his mama’s soft belly and take long naps, and he’d drift off to sleep while Mama stroked his fur. There’s a good cub, she’d croon, and then softly sing about Old Bear, one of their ancestors, who was a great and wise creature who watched over them all. In his younger days, Old Bear was quite the thing, snatching salmon from the stream, protecting the little ones from wolves, so powerful he could have his pick of mates. He chose Sonia, the most beautiful female in the land, but most of the others didn’t know she was so smart. She wanted him for her mate, and knew the competition would be stiff, but she also knew from watching the males of her family that she had to make his choice look like his idea. So she waited until the other females were engaged with taking care of the cubs and wandered off on her own. She spied him nearby and casually went about her way of collecting berries, until he drifted over. She held her tongue while he watched her, until he said, “Why do you paw so deep into the bushes when the outside ones are easier to pick?”

“Because those are the sweetest,” she said, and offered him one, and that was that.

They lived a long and happy life together, eating sweet berries and raising their cubs and collecting wisdom they would share with each new generation. They passed on the stories of how they met and how they lived and how they fought, when it was necessary.

The little bear cub wanted a life like that, when he was grown. He wanted a wise mate to share berries and salmon and stories with, to have his own cubs with, to grow old with. But he didn’t know that any of the females would choose him. He was born with a short front right paw. Most of the other cubs made fun of him, even the girl cubs, and that hurt the most. Mama often told him that it shouldn’t matter to the ones who loved him. That even though Old Bear was strong and protective, he wasn’t the most handsome of the bears and in fact one eye was smaller than the other which tended to make him squint.

“You’re not yet full-grown,” Mama would say, and suggested that the paw might yet catch up with the rest of him. It never did. “One day you’ll find a mate just for you,” she said. But that didn’t happen yet, either.

When he was finally grown, and he saw the others of his age group choose mates, he decided he had only one choice. Reluctantly he said goodbye to his mama and papa and sought out to start his adult life somewhere new. For a while he roamed, plucking sweet berries and catching salmon. He made his own den, tried to make it as good-smelling as the one he’d left, and it came close but it was never quite the same.

One day he was out hunting the best berries and heard a rustle in the bushes behind him.

He turned.

“You’re digging deep for berries,” she said. “You must have learned the ways of Old Bear.”

He froze, the berry in his mouth mashed against his tongue. Hiding his short paw the way he always did, not meeting her eye.

“Are you hurt?” she said, gesturing at his paw with her snout.

He shook his head. Something about her manner said “trust.”

So he did. She made a noise of comfort, so like his mama’s, deep in her throat.

“I’m missing three claws on my left paw from fighting off a wolf when I was small,” she said. The next noise sounded like a short laugh. “We can be a hunting team then, me with my better right and you with your left. It would make it easier to catch salmon.”

This sounded like a good idea to him. It was hard work catching salmon alone, and it might be nice to have a friend. Then he raised his snout to look her in the eye. And froze again.

“I know.” She sighed. “I tend to squint. Mama says it means I’m a descendent of Old Bear. Although with mama stories, it’s hard to know which are actually true and which are meant for comfort.”

His heart beat a little faster. “A true descendent of Old Bear surely would have the courage to fight off a wolf when just a cub.”

She fluttered her eyes at him, and something about the squint made that look kind of pretty. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“I do not,” he huffed. “I—”

Then she laughed again, and extended her partially declawed paw, and they ran off to the stream.

Thump

Cardinal_2I am a dreamer at heart. There. I’ve admitted it. I’ve tried to deny this for years, doing the practical things humans do, fretting about getting good grades and finding the right mate and how to keep a roof over my head and food on my table, marching in painfully uncomfortable lockstep with the other grownups. I put that uniform on when I need to—food and shelter are not to be sneezed at—but the wool itches and the vest constricts my breathing and let’s not talk about how the crotch rides up on those ridiculous trousers.

Right about the time I began to worry whether I’d let the uniform become a permanent part of my epithelial cells, sort of like a Simpsons character, this weird little cardinal started attacking my back deck.

Male Northern cardinals do this sort of thing, I’ve heard. They are territorial, especially during brooding season, and when they see their own reflections in shiny things like windows and car mirrors, they think it’s a rival bird and attack. Over and over and over again.

We named him Napoleon.

I did the things people suggested to make him not see his reflection. Decals on the windows, dangling distracting strips of things from the glass…everything short of covering the sliders with white sheets, which the spouse nixed. I’d rather have a thumping cardinal than a husband grumbly that the lack of natural light coming into the house might kill his cacti. And his mood.

Eight months later, well past normal brooding season, he’s still flinging his winter-fluffed body into my windows. But in the beginning, my little dreaming heart wanted to tell stories and make meaning out of it.

My first flight into the nature of his arrival was that he had come to teach me something. About perseverance, perhaps. Or how to survive getting hit on the head over and over and over again, a common way of life for freelancers and indie authors.

Thump.

Next I entertained the possibility that the meaning was a little more subtle and archetypical. He represented something. A message from a friend, sent on a wing and a prayer, perhaps. (I apologize for that. No, I don’t.)

Thump. Thump.

Then I attempted communing with him. While waiting for my coffee to brew in the mornings, I’d inch up to the window, watching the proud set of his banged-up beak, the determination in his shining black eyes. He liked the sound of my voice, or at least did not fly away from it. At this point, Husband considered that I might need professional help, or a hobby, but I ignored him. Instead, I went deeper and imagined his story. I let him tell it from his point of view. In the first, he had come to save me from my itchy, semi-permanent uniform, a sort of cage I’d locked myself into and did not realize I could leave. Next, and I admit I might have been a little loopy that day, maybe from the repeated percussion of a determined cardinal banging up my house, he’d been sent by a Disney princess to be one of those magical cleaning birds but was continually frustrated that he couldn’t get inside the window.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

I latched wholeheartedly onto the next theory, relayed to me by several Facebook friends. Some say that an appearance of a cardinal means that you are getting a message from a loved one who has died.

Then I was all about what the message might be. From my mother-in-law, watching over us? Telling me to clean the house and fretting that my husband is too thin? A friend who likes that we’ve hung one of his paintings in the hall and hopes we’re happy? Someone else? Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the love from beyond, but those windows are going to need some serious power washing come spring.

I know that my time with Napoleon on this plane is limited; I know that some think I’m making too big a deal of what might be a simple avian instinct gone awry. But his presence gives my little dreaming heart something to thump about. And now, instead of rattling my imagination for meaning, I spend a little time with him, send out a thought-beam of kindness and compassion, and say, “thank you.”

Why Tell a Story?

Typewriter - Once upon a timeFor as long as I can remember, I have been observing people. Not in a creepy, stalker-ish way, or at least not according to the local authorities. But as a watchful, introverted child attempting to make sense of the world, and later, as a watchful, introverted adult, still attempting to make sense of the world and my place in it.

People are fascinating. How they can say one thing and do another. How they are capable of great feats but falter at the smallest tasks. How they can smile at you and promise the world, right before crushing you under their heels. Continue reading

Flash Fiction in Triplicate

file00066854965When Friday afternoon comes around, I’m ready to play a little. Lately that means hopping over to JD Mader’s website and “posting my two” as we’ve started calling it. Grab a timer – mine’s been failing me lately – write for two minutes (usually) and post it in the comments. Even if you’re not into writing exercises, check out all the great writers who are just killing this thing week after week. Anyway, I’m not sure what caught me by the tail this time—a little nostalgia, or wondering what happened to Aunt Sylvie and her cats, perhaps?—but when I started, these three pieces popped out. [Edited just a tad for spelling and eye-rolling grammar errors.] Continue reading

A Better Place to Be

20091209-133006-772185If you’ve ever read any of author Chris James’ blog posts, you know that he normally ends with a video of one of his favorite songs. Normally this is something from Genesis’ discography. I think he has a side deal with Peter Gabriel, but I could be wrong. This week, he ended with a songwriter close to my heart: Harry Chapin singing “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

I’ve adored Harry Chapin since high school. He was a New York guy; he and his brothers, Tom and Steve, were born upstate near Watertown and some of his family still lives there. I’ll get to them later. Harry eventually landed on Long Island and that’s where he died, playing chicken with a truck on the Long Island Expressway. My father and stepmother were huge fans and still are, so I got the privilege of hearing him perform live three times: at a college in Newburgh (he loved playing colleges), at the Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, and at the Hudson Valley Winery in Highland.

At the winery, three days before my seventeenth birthday, is where I finally got to meet him.

After the performance—spectacular, by the way, and he played the extra-extended version of “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” but only after the audience begged—we stood in line to meet him and get autographs. My parents had been involved in fundraising for Pete Seeger’s Sloop Clearwater Project, among other causes, so I’d been to a fair number of small-venue concerts by then. Enough to know if the guys in the band didn’t really give a crap about meeting fans, that it was just an obligation because you paid for your ticket and it was good PR to act like you cared. Some didn’t even hang around long enough to do that. Harry Chapin didn’t have to stick around and meet fans. He’d played in London. He’d played Carnegie Hall. He’d been on Johnny Carson. But he hung around. He cared. He shook hands. He listened to stories. This was what, he’d said, inspired the songs he wrote. He traveled around and listened to peoples’ stories.

Meanwhile, as I waited with my father, I sneaked glances at Harry, cowed and amazed at the easy way he engaged with people, like he was born to it. Like that one person he was talking to was the most important one on the planet. When it was our turn, my dad shook his hand and thanked him for his music. I think I might have said something, but I was terrified. I think I asked for his autograph. He signed the front of my T-shirt (collarbone level, no straying hands), made an innocent-yet-slightly-naughty joke and smooched me square on the lips, right in front of my father.

Then I bought all of his albums.

Three years later, he died.

Almost exactly a year after that, I met a guy from Upstate New York. His last name was Chapin. Yes, they were related. There are a lot of Chapins running around up there, in that Watertown/Black River area. Some look exactly like Harry, I mean a freakish resemblance, down to the cleft chin and twinkling eyes. The hole in the family still pulsed, a raw wound. The cousin I met listened to my albums so frequently I thought I’d have to replace them, and I was not allowed to speak while Harry sang.

The relationship did not end well and the less said about it, the better. But for a long while afterward, I could not listen to Harry Chapin. I’d let my sweet, lovely memories be subverted by some bad associations. And one day, years later, I found a cassette tape of his greatest hits in a box long forgotten.

My car was old and still had a cassette deck, so I popped it in and cried all the way through. Not for the Chapin cousin. But because I’d denied myself the pleasure of Harry’s songs and stories for so long. And because fate and a tractor-trailer denied us more of them.

Here is one of my favorites. Thank you for reminding me to focus on the good memories, Chris.