Over Hill and Autumn Hollow (Through the Lands of Men)

Once there were two bears in a part of the world where man had not yet come.  Bears are scarce and lonely creatures, but somehow these two found each other.  They shared a cave and the boy bear slept with his head on the girl bear’s flank.  Outside there gurgled a cold stream, full of fish.  In the meadow there were berries and down the mountain there was honey.  They were happy.  Then man arrived.

First in great trucks they came to clear the trees.  Then in smaller machines to lay smooth black paths through the forest.  Then in station wagons with wives and children.  They came and they stayed.  In time the birds fled, the smaller animals disappeared and the forest grew quiet but for the sounds of the great machines.  The bears, for the most part, took no notice.  They fished and foraged and the boy bear slept against the girl bear’s flank as before.  Then one day the boy bear was pulling fish from a stream and he stopped and raised his snout.  There was a scent.  He turned and saw them.

Two men, wearing red and black flannel, stood watching him.  They carried shaped sticks.  In that soundless quiet they stood, looking at each other, for what seemed a long time.  Then one of the men raised his stick and it barked.  There was a flash of light and the boy bear felt something sharp bite him in the shoulder.  He roared.  He charged.  The fury was on him and the world dimmed to one fast-approaching face.  He destroyed it.  He took the head.  When the red mists cleared the other man was gone and he stood looking down at the gory mess.  Then he went home, laid his head against the girl bear’s flank and he slept.

The next day they were fishing their stream together when the net came down.  The boy bear was trapped and the fibrous ropes defied the rending of his claws.  The girl bear, panicked, tried to bite through his bonds.  Many shaped sticks barked at once and she reared up in pain.  The sticks barked again and swarming with burning bites she turned and ran.  She retreated to a safe distance where she watched the men drag the boy bear away.  That night she slept alone on the stone floor of their cave.  Her bites itched and her bare flank was cold.

The boy bear awoke in a large enclosure.  There was grass and there were trees and a man came each day to feed him dead fish from a bucket.  He passed many days here.  It wasn’t terrible, but neither was it good.  The days here felt unnatural, he missed the girl bear and he missed the freedom of the forest.  One day he looked at the outer wall of the enclosure and really saw it for the first time.  All day he sat looking at it.  When night fell he scaled a tree and leapt to the top of the wall.  His claws scrabbled on the hard surface, then found purchase.  He hung there, an odd sight, then slowly pulled his bulk up and over.

He landed on the other side in some sort of nightmare.  Everywhere and everything was the smooth hardness that man had brought to the forest.  He snuffled along, looking for a scent, not of the enclosure and not of man.  He found it and followed it to a large, hard box.  There was a glinting in one of the holes in the box and he pushed his snout up against it and peered inside.  There was a man, sitting in a chair, rocking back and forth with an animal by his side.  The man saw him and both paused.  Then the man reached for something.

The bear watched, confused, as the man raised the shaped stick and it barked.  The clear thing covering the opening shattered and he felt the bite.  This time it was his eye.  He roared in pain and confusion and lurched backwards from the box.  Sounds of yelling and commotion came from within as he stumbled down the street, trailing blood from his useless socket.  Lights came on, first yellow in unreal day, then blue and white.  He was surrounded by these lights and they blinded him.  He lurched drunkenly side to side, but everywhere he turned there were lights.  He heard the voices of men and the barking of sticks.  His side lit up in pain.  He ran.

He crashed through the line of men and the first face he saw was a little one.  He roared and took the head.  Sticks barked and he lurched up and forward again.  The sounds of machines filled his ears and the flashing lights were in his eye.  Overhead, a whirring sound preceded the coming of another machine, a flying machine.  This too barked, a terrible rapid barking, and pieces of the smoothness around him erupted in flying chunks.  He charged around a corner and there was the forest.

He thought of the cave, the cold stream outside full of fish.  He thought of the meadow, the tall grass and the honey.  He thought of the girl bear and her warm flank.  He was suddenly very tired.  These pictures flicked one after another through his brain as he gripped the smoothness and pulled for the tree-line.  He made it about halfway.  Then an awful roaring supplanted the earth and everything went black all at once.

After much debate, they took the boy bear, scarred and missing an eye, way, way up into the Northern woods.  A different woods, a far woods.  They took him there, where man had not yet come, and they left his body in a clearing where the song-birds still lived, and where small animals came up to nuzzle him.  In time, he awakened.  He dragged himself downhill, found a stream and ate some fish.  He crawled back uphill, found a cave and slept in it.  The leaves were auburn and gold and a damp chill hung in the air.  In the morning he pulled his battered body to the lip of the cave and looked south.

The girl bear didn’t know what to do.  The autumn days passed and she did her best to avoid the encroachments of man.  Sometimes she caught their scent or heard their machines and always she hid or moved on.  Each night she slept her flank was cold and each morning she rose to an empty cave.  She caught fish, ate berries and honey, and grew full for the coming winter.  With a heavy heart, as the first snows drifted down to re-paint the worlds of bear and man alike, she went to sleep.

When she awoke months later there was a familiar weight against her flank.  She placed a hand on his head and brushed the fur from his tattered eye.  He nuzzled against her as outside the cave the song-birds sang their returning.  She smiled and let him sleep.  It was spring.

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