I was playing with them, actually playing with them. They were just like Dad's rug, but my size, and alive! I cuddled in their soft black fur. Their padded leather paws threw me and I fell, laughing. We rolled into each other and onto each other. And their big round eyes looked at me, comfortingly. They felt the same way towards me as I felt towards them. Their claws gently played with and tangled my long brown, curly hair.
"Ann, Ann! Where are you hiding this time!?"
I gave each of them a big hug, which they returned with licks that filled my whole face.
"Ann, Ann! Come out, come out, wherever you are." Where could such a small three-year-old girl be hiding?
"Here I am, Daddy."
Where was that from? Oh, from over there, all the way across the valley, right outside the big forest. I ran to her as she ran to me. She gave me the biggest hug she could.
"Where have you been?"
"Oh, Daddy, it was so much fun. I was playing with black furry animals, like your coat and rug."
"Wow!" I said, laughing. "You've got a great imagination. Well, Daddy's going hunting and he wants you to go with him, do you want to?" I asked her for the first time. Her face lit up brighter than the sun.
"Really, can I?"
"Yes, this time you can." She was unaware of what hunting really was, but she knew I did it for a living, and it had to do with animals, that she then could keep forever.
* * *
The clear, blue sky slowly shifted into green and yellow leaves. The long valley changed to brown evergreen trunks. I hadn't ever been in the woods except this morning when I went a few feet into its shadowy depths. I was a little frightened so I clung to Daddy's legs. But he acted very different. He was calm and blended in with the trees. I did anything but that. I was like a baby bird struggling to get the first worm from its mother. Suddenly Daddy froze. I froze as well. He tiptoed lightly off the path and into the dense forest. I stayed frozen from fright, unable to move. I saw Daddy's head tilt cautiously from behind the tree trunk. His hand gestured for me to come.
My young girl stalked towards me, her eyes open like two full moons. We walked a little further into the forest. I could hear something very distinct. It was a buzz accompanied by scratching and patting. I stopped and cleared away the branches of an overgrown shrub. I saw a big mother bear picking out the honey from a bumblebee's nest. Quietly, I lifted Ann so she could see the big animal. I set her down, while raising my rifle to eye level. Slowly, I pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang and Ann fell over into the mud.
"Daddy, what was that about?"
"Come," I said.
* * *
What had happened? I wanted to see the big beautiful animal more. But obviously the loud noise had scared it away.
"Come," he said again. Then he walked through the shrubbery. I followed. Without looking around I said, "I want to see it again."
All he said back was, "Look."
I raised my head to see the bear lying there with its eyes closed. One small part of its thick black hair had turned slightly red.
"Did it fall asleep?"
"Of course it did."
The bees were still humming around their broken-up nest. The bear still had honey around its mouth. Daddy ran up to the bear.
"Won't you wake it?" I whispered.
"Of course," he said, "I forgot."
I wish I could just tell her the truth, but I couldn't, she wouldn't understand. "Do you remember how to get back home?" I said to her.
"Yeah, Daddy, you just follow the path back until you see the house."
"Well why don't you go back, I'll be here awhile, to see if the bear gets up."
"Can I stay with you?"
My mind was racing my words, but losing.
"It's getting late. I think you should go back."
* * *
I started walking back, but turned behind a pine tree to wait and see what Daddy was really doing. I could still hear him even over the sweet songs of the birds and the chirping metronome of the crickets. My eyes closed and I was lulled to sleep.
Taking such a young girl hunting with me was not such an easy feat. She had too many questions that she would regret asking and I would regret telling. I was almost done carrying the bear on the new but old-looking sled that I had made out of old sticks from the forest. The sled was brittle and I would probably burn it in tonight's fire. I couldn't wait to give Ann the stuffed bear for her fourth birthday. I reached the valley that was glazed by the full moon. Now I could see our house that was just across the valley. The heavy sleigh jerked across the dry grass, and before I knew it, I was home.
I crept inside, past Granny who was sleeping in her old wooden rocker with her knitting in her lap, past our room where I could hear Janet, my wife, snoring, till I came to Ann's room where I quietly opened the door to look into the darkness. Faintly, in the murky light I could see her bed, with no one in it!
* * *
I woke up to the hooting of an owl. The crickets were still chirping and I could feel the warm breath of an animal. I looked to the side to see one of the bears I played with that morning. I looked away to see the two other bears on top of each other both with frowns on their faces. I looked behind the tree. But the bear was gone. The big one. It must have woken up, I thought. Then I felt a drop of water on my jeans. I looked down. Coming out of the eye of one of the bear cubs was a path of salty water. The small bear was crying. What shall I do? I thought. What happened? I couldn't think now. I had to go home, Daddy must be worried.
I opened the front door. Where could she be? If Janet finds out, Ann wouldn't be able to go hunting with me again. I looked out on the valley. My nervous body was soothed when I saw Ann running towards me. "Ann, where have you been? No, don't tell me, just go straight to bed. You frightened me."
"But Daddy . . ."
"Now!" I yelled, pointing into the house.
* * *
TWO MONTHS LATER . . .
Every day I visited the bears. They were always right inside the forest. I loved them and thought they loved me too. But now I knew they did not. Ever since the first snowflake fell on the forest floor, they had left me. When I went to meet them I didn't even see a footprint. Only the snow. The cold horrible snow. But I had to get myself off the bad feelings that I felt. So I decided to think of my birthday, which was always my favorite day.
It was my birthday! Mama had given me a toy doll that said "I love you" when you squeezed its stomach. And Granny gave me a striped scarf that she had made herself. And now it was Daddy's turn, he said it was a big present, so he had set it up in my room, and now I was walking to my room where I would find my "big" present. I turned the corner into my room. There, standing in front of me, was a bear, a big black bear. It was in a position that looked like it was about to jump on me.
She loved it. She walked around it, with her smile reaching her eyes. I felt proud to have made her such a great present. It was easier to recreate this bear than any other animals that I had made in my free time because I had the Christmas break to work on it. I just had enough time off to finish the project, for the museum was very strict and only gave me four days off. Suddenly Ann looked up at me and asked, "Why aren't the bears here when it snows?"
"They're sleeping in big caves to keep warm," I replied.
* * *
Snow isn't that bad after all. It doesn't take friends away from you, at least not forever. When the snow leaves, my friends will come back. "Thank you, Daddy."
"For telling me that my friends aren't gone forever."
"What? Your friends? Which friends?"
"The bears that I met the day we went hunting together."
"Oh, those bears," he said questioningly.
"Yeah, those bears, but you haven't met them before."
His eyebrows raised.
TWO MONTHS LATER . . .
I followed Ann every day since the snow melted away. But I hadn't found any trace of bears. What was she talking about? One day she left particularly early. I got out of bed and started to follow her. By the time I reached the door, she was all the way across the valley and looked only an inch tall. I ran quietly, trying to catch up. But by now she was already out of my sight. Finally, I reached the edge of the evergreen forest. Slowly, I crept into the blooming woods. The forest floor was carpeted with flowers. The new pine trees sent a refreshing fragrance through the air. I quietly followed along the gravel path, listening for any sound of my daughter, or any signs of bears! Faintly in the distance I could hear a small giggle. I strode quietly towards the laughter. I cleared away the intertwined branches of two pine trees; through them I could see a small girl. My small girl. She was chasing after a butterfly that flew wobbly through the air. Behind her, something so extraordinary my eyes could barely take in the picture, were three small bears.
* * *
Walking home that afternoon was nice. A light breeze waltzed through the air and passed my forehead. I was wearing the scarf Granny had made me for my fourth birthday. Being four made me feel big. I could go all the way into the forest without Daddy even caring. I opened the gate to the house and knocked on the door. Mama opened it. Before I could say anything, she said Daddy wanted to talk to me. I could tell this wasn't good because of her tone of voice. She had her hands on her hips and the sides of her mouth were tense and curved slightly up. I walked into his office. He was displaying the skins of an elk onto a mannequin. "Hi," I said. I pulled up a chair to where he was working.
"You've been getting up really early, I don't think you're getting enough sleep."
"But Daddy, with my nap, I do get enough sleep."
"Yes, but those bears are very, very dangerous. So I'm sorry, but you are not allowed to go see them any more."
"But, Daddy . . ."
"No buts about it."
I wasn't going to cry, I was a big girl, and big girls don't cry. But I had to; you can't make a dam hold in water forever. Tears poured out of my eyes and onto the floor.
"I hate you, Daddy!" I screamed.
"You come here, you little rat!"
"No!" I mumbled. He grabbed me by the shirt and laid me on his lap. In the dim light, I could see him take off his working gloves and start to unbuckle his belt. I punched and kicked and wiggled and bit, but I couldn't get free. He raised the leather over his head, and then he froze, and I stopped crying.
I could hear something else over her yelling. A sobbing that really meant something. I lowered the leather and laid Ann on the floor. Curiously I looked around the door and into the living room. Janet was on her knees, with her head on Granny's lap, weeping. Granny had her eyes closed and wasn't moving. "She's dead," Janet forced out of her mouth.
Ann crept up to me, bewildered. "What happened?" she whispered.
"Granny died," I said. A teardrop managed to fall out of my eye. Then everything was quiet.
* * *
Mommy had explained everything to me in the car drive to the church where we were now. The rocking chair was old and had broken. Granny fell and had an accident with her knitting needles. She had a red spot just like the big bear. Daddy had killed the bear with the noise, just like how the rocking chair had killed Granny with the knitting needles. And the baby bears were sad that their mommy had died, just like how we're sad that Granny died.
TEN YEARS LATER . . .
"Honey, I need to go hunting! It's my livelihood!"
"Dad, don't call me honey, I've been a teenager for two years!"
"Why don't you want me to go hunting?"
"I don't like killing. Imagine if you were those animals."
"But it's different. Humans are humans. And I'm not the only one going hunting."
"OK, fine. You can go hunting. But I get to pick flowers for Robert," she yelled back.
Ah, teenagers are so complicated. This boyfriend thing is really getting on my nerves, I thought. "All right then," I said, agreeing.
I had been hunting for a half hour and had still found no signs of bears. I put down my rifle and went to the stream to fill my water bottle. Suddenly I heard a roar and a big black bear appeared behind me. It was standing on its two hind legs about to attack me. I started to run but it gashed me in the right arm. I focused on the rifle, but it was behind the angry bear. Even if I could get to it, I wouldn't be able to lift the gun. I knew not to run and only to stand still, but I had never been face-to-face with a mad bear that was almost twice my size. I staggered to my knees and yelled, "Help!"
* * *
I had found a rose bush on the edge of the field, and the first red buds had just entered the sun-filled world of spring. I gently snipped off three young flowers. As I smelled the sweet fragrance, a man's voice echoed across the valley. "Help!" I dropped the roses and started to run into the woods, where the yell was coming from. I ran through the tightly woven trees and leaped over the bushes and logs. Finally I reached a place of terror and fright. A bear had attacked my father.
"Help me, Ann," he cried. "My rifle, give me my rifle." The weapon was right in front of me. It would be easy to pick it up and hand it to Dad, if it weren't for the bear. But now it was up to me. My father or the bear. I had held Dad's rifle before, but never used it. I picked up the gun and pointed it towards the bear.
"Ug!" Dad moaned. And as if this was the magic word, the bear turned to look at me, its nose twitching. It looked in my eyes and I couldn't shoot. Its eyes had shot into my soul and I could not fight it. The bear's gentle face hypnotized me.
"Shoot, Ann! Shoot!" Dad's voice was like an alarm clock you want to turn off. This bear's face shot me down to my childhood, to a day where I saw that same face, but small. When I was playing with him, actually playing with him.
I had been in the hospital for two weeks. And Ann had been seeing the bears ever since I got here. I had a cast over my broken arm, which disabled me to go hunting for a few months. But that didn't matter, for I wouldn't go hunting ever again. I would keep my work as a taxidermist for the museum, but I could no longer kill my daughter's best friends.