Chapter 4 The Encounter
Night had fallen, but the young bear ran on without considering his destination. He had long since left behind the territory he and his mother knew, so where he went no longer mattered. All that lay before, around, behind him was new and strange. The cub had been born and lived all his life near Anchorage, but though some bears wandered through the city itself, he and his mother had always stayed away. She had been adept at finding food for both of them. Why should she go near the strangely altered landscape of the city with its hive of humans?
As the young bear forged ahead, he hardly noticed that clipped lawns and ornamental shrubs had begun to replace the marsh and meadow and forest he was accustomed to. He noticed little, in fact, except that his jaw hurt horribly, that he was alone, that he wanted his mother. He paused once to sample some grass the April melt had uncovered, but his sore mouth made chewing difficult. He moved on. He didn’t stop again until he came to a strange metal object. It was saturated with a scent his mother had taught him to avoid . . . humans. But beyond the human scent was another, even more pungent. It was the totally compelling smell of rotting food.
He sniffed around the can, tipped it over with an experimental blow from one paw, and when the cover came off and rolled away, settled down to enjoy the contents. His first meal of human garbage. Delicious, delicious garbage! And much of it soft enough that he could eat it without aggravating the pain in his jaw. He ate and ate, then moved on, looking for more.
Jonathan lay watching the undulating bands of light that poured through the skylight in his bedroom. Pink and blue and green flashed across the sky like a rainbow gone mad. He thought of calling his father to come see the show, but he didn’t. Dad would just point out that the northern lights came often here and that they both needed their sleep. If his mom were here, she would watch the dancing lights with him. Jonathan could remember once when he was a very little boy and his mother plucked him, sleeping, out of his bed on a summer’s night and carried him to the backyard to see a display not nearly as spectacular as this one. He didn’t remember Dad’s being there to watch the night sky with them, though. Mom said that Dad was a practical man, more of a scientist than a poet. And Jonathan knew that to be true. Mom loved poetry. She loved music and soft trailing scarves and flowery scents. Dad came home from work smelling of the big cats, and when Jonathan had dared to say that he, too, wanted to be a zookeeper when he grew up, Dad had said, “Then you must learn to pay attention, son. You can’t dream among the animals the way you do.” It didn’t occur to his father that “dreaming among the animals” might be just another way of paying attention.
Jonathan closed his eyes and turned over onto his side. Dad was right about one thing. He did need to get some sleep. Another quiz tomorrow. Social studies this time. Why didn’t anyone ever ask him what it felt like to be a polar bear . . . or a moose calf . . . or a white goose? Now that would be something worth taking a quiz about! Jonathan was just drifting toward sleep when a sound brought him awake again. A thud . . . like something falling. Like someone falling. It seemed to come from the deck just below his window. He jumped out of bed, taking a tangle of covers with him. He kicked the blankets aside and peered out the window. Despite a light layer of new snow on the deck, it was too dark down there to see anything. He scrabbled under the bed for his slippers. He couldn’t go outside without something on his feet. He found one moccasin-style slipper and one sneaker and pulled them on. The sneaker was for the wrong foot, but he didn’t care. He hurried down the stairs on tiptoe. At the sliding deck door he stopped and peered out. The house was surrounded by enormous fir trees, so even though the sky still flashed brightly, the shadows of the tall trees fell across the deck, obscuring everything. Jonathan flipped on the light switch. No light. Of course. That was his fault. Before supper, Dad had asked him to replace the bulb on the deck. He had said he would—and he’d meant to do it, really—but then he’d forgotten. Another sound. Almost a moan. Someone in pain?
Dad? Had his father gone outside and fallen down because the bulb hadn’t been replaced? Maybe he had come out to see the northern lights blazing across the sky after all.
Quickly, silently, Jonathan slid the glass door open and stepped out onto the deck. The cold night air slapped him in the face. It would be a long time before it would be warm heree, longer even than it took to warm up in Duluth. Snow crunched lightly under his feet.
He could see nothing. “Dad?” he called in a voice that surprised eeeeeven him with its tremor. “Are you out here?” No answer. Only that noise again, a little louder this time. Jonathan took another step.
And then he saw. Not his father. A brownie! It wasn’t full grown, but plenty big enough. And close enough, too! The shadowy hulk rose not six feet from the spot where Jonathan stood. Jonathan could make out the hump of muscle between the shoulders and the profile of the dished face that distinguished brown bears from black. The other way people said you could tell the difference between the two was that if you climbed a tree, a black bear would climb up after you and eat you. A brown bear would stay on the ground and shake you out of the tree and then eat you. Jonathan wished he could manage not to remember things like that.
The bear stood so close that Jonathan could smell the rotting food on the brownie’s breath and some other, darker smell that must be the bear himself. If the creature had wanted to, he could have reached out and knocked Jonathan down with one of those huge paws. But he didn’t seem to want to. In fact, as surprised as Jonathan was to be standing there on his own deck staring into the eyes of a bear, the bear seemed equally surprised to be confronted by a boy. And then, with a kind of strangled moan, a sound similar to the one Rhonda made when Mom was brushing tangles out of her long hair and she was trying really hard not to cry, the brownie bounded past Jonathan, down the snowy steps and was gone.
Jonathan stood rooted for a long moment listening to the pounding of his own heart.
Copyright © 2005 by Marion Dane Bauer. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.