THE BEAR FINDS HE IS ALONE
The polar bear awoke with a start. He raised his head, looked around and saw he was resting on a smooth, wide sheet of ice. How long had he slept? He’d completely lost track of time. Although it might have been only a few hours, he suspected it had been much, much longer. Possibly a whole winter had already hurtled by.
After rising to all fours and shaking off a thin crust of snow, the bear began to examine the surrounding neighborhood, methodically sniffing the air and the ice, searching for signs of life. Glancing up, he noticed an enormous round moon that seemed to float just above his head, casting a bright light over all he could survey.
One thing was certain, then, despite his initial confusion — morning had yet to arrive. Beyond the moon, he could now make out a multitude of twinkling stars, near and far, large and small, some gold, some platinum, some even orange. The ice floe, apparently having a life of its own, twinkled back, as if it contained a similar set of shimmering lights, but ones that remained well secured beneath its glossy surface.
Although it was an exquisite sight to behold, the bear’s interest in the vista did not last long, for his eyes were now confirming the truth his nose had first hinted at. Once he began to focus on his immediate surroundings and his mind grasped the subsequent implications, the bear realized that something — or rather someone — was missing. In fact, a whole lot of someones were missing.
He was alone! Completely alone. Somehow, seemingly over the course of the past evening — or, since he couldn’t really tell, many evenings — all his friends had disappeared. Where was Snowy Owl? Where, too, were Fox, Muskox, Little Hare, Walrus and Tern? And where was Little Hare’s impassive and mysterious friend, Big Hare? Even Lemming, who seemed to come and go on the slightest whim, was nowhere to be seen.
Life had actually begun to seem pretty crowded, even noisy, on the ice floe of late, what with so many creatures milling around. Always something happening; plenty of engaging conversation, even strenuous debate, about matters of both consequence and insignificance; in fact, there was no end of hullabaloo.
Now the utter silence took the bear’s breath away. He listened intently for the slightest sound, peered long and hard into the distance for the slightest movement, but nothing at all broke the silence. Yes, it was really true; there could be no mistake about it: no one else was around, no one at all. They had all left him while he slept.
At first, being a rather solitary and taciturn creature, the polar bear rather enjoyed the new peace and quiet, even if mysteriously acquired. And he still had the moon above to keep him company. As the bear thought about his altered status, more advantages came to mind: no one disturbing his sleep; no one asking for favors when he didn’t feel like obliging them; no one eating his food when he wasn’t paying close enough attention; and no one encroaching on his limited territory. Merely an eternal, blissful calm.
But the sense of serenity had no staying power. Before the moon had even started its inevitable descent to meet the horizon, the unusual stillness had begun to disturb the bear’s new peace of mind. Indeed, it wasn’t long before the silence felt distinctly eerie. To call it foreboding or sinister would have been overstating the case; rather, the feeling was simply disquieting, like a memory that eludes one’s grasp, remaining forever just out of reach.
The polar bear glanced inquisitively at his one remaining friend, the slowly descending moon, hoping it had an answer for him. The moon stared back at the bear as impassively as it did every night, with its mournful eye and serious mouth. The bear thought it funny to think of the moon always being there, up in the sky, quietly contemplating the life below, while he, in turn, ignored it night after night. The moon would have seen everything. If only it would deign to talk to him, the mystery of his friends’ disappearance would be easily solved.
After a short while, the polar bear turned away, disappointed but resigned to seeking the answers to this puzzle on his own. The bear was neither faint-hearted nor lacking in determination, but after all, where could he seek guidance? Was there anyone else on the ice floe capable of offering help? No, not a single soul.
Reflecting upon his unfamiliar predicament, it occurred to the bear that the premise of lost friends had the makings of an awfully good yarn. And would he not provide a stalwart lead character for that same yarn?
The bear began to outline in his head how the story might go. But first he had to figure out what kind of tale such an odd disappearance of characters would make. A classic children’s adventure? An intriguing detective story, full of twists and turns? A fable of friendship lost and (hopefully) found?
Perhaps, rather, it would turn out to be a tale of a young polar bear’s relationship with the deep unknown. Maybe even a heart- warming story of hope and reconciliation. Or, better yet, an instructional self-help manual, one that needed updating (and therefore republishing) year after year. Or, best of all, an exploration of the soul and life’s mysteries, yet disguised as a quest for kingship. Now, that would be something!
If he only knew how to write, he’d immediately start collecting his thoughts and putting pen to paper. He sighed audibly — to have the ability to write down his story would be such an immense gift.
Then, one last great stroke of genius came to him: his tale could become a great saga and include all those themes. As such, where it would lead would be inconceivable to both writer and reader, for at its inception, who could tell what direction such an amazing chronicle might take, let alone how it would end up?
The onslaught of ideas, overwhelmed the polar bear, pushing him to sit down again. He needed to rest. One thing was certain — he wasn’t used to reflecting on such challenging questions as loss and the nature of friendship. On the contrary, up to this point, the bear’s life experience had been simple and straightforward. It amounted to the following: choosing friends (divided between those who lived and hunted by day and those who did so by night); eating (mostly fish); companionship (lots of that); gossip (only of the nice kind); sleep (of which he never got enough); and games (at which he was quite proficient). In sum, it was a jolly, if uncomplicated, existence.
Still, if pressed on the point, he would readily admit that the ice floe had become a trifle crowded of late. In retrospect, however, the crowding had been no big deal: it was but a small price to pay for having such a wonderful set of friends. The polar bear began to regret his past behavior, those times when he’d been grumpy, short-tempered or resentful of the increasing throng. His initial dismissive reaction, he saw, had been overly hasty; really, the bear treasured them all. He felt he should apologize to someone, but of course there was no one left to accept his apology.
What to do? His initial task, as far as he could determine, was to confirm that his first impressions were accurate. He had to make certain his friends had really left him. Perhaps, in point of fact, he’d merely jumped to unwarranted conclusions about their disappearance.
The ice floe was, after all, quite large. Perhaps his friends were actually sheltering behind a distant snowbank, playing a game of Clue, Crazy Eights or Monopoly. Possibly the game — whichever one it was — had started while he’d been sleeping, but had yet to finish. Although such an answer provided a neat solution to the mystery, the pleasing picture of others at play actually served to annoy the polar bear.
Imagine them, the bear thundered, taking off to play one of his favorite pastimes and not inviting him along! Was not this floe his home? He was the host and they were the guests, not the other way around. So what if he’d been asleep; they could have waited or woken him up.
He’d be the first to admit that some bears can be awfully grouchy when woken up abruptly, but — as bears went — he was unusually patient and even-tempered. He’d never snapped or snarled at anyone, that is, not without serious provocation.
Understanding now he’d been left alone and betrayed by his supposed friends, the polar bear began to feel rather sorry for himself. All things being considered, he wouldn’t bother going out of his way to find them. He’d just wait around for some new and better friends to turn up.
The polar bear began to list the shortcomings of these so-called friends. For starters, who needed Little Hare and Big Hare? Were they not rather foolish and scatterbrained, spending most of the time hopping around aimlessly in all directions? As far as the bear could tell, the two never spoke, or if they did, he couldn’t understand a word either one said. As for Fox, she was always racing along at breakneck speed, leaving the slower, lumbering bear behind, out of breath and exhausted.
Muskox was standoffish and overbearing; in retrospect, that unpleasant creature had never been much fun. And Tern — well, the bird was unpredictable, coming and going for long periods at a time without the slightest advance notice. Undependable and flighty, that’s what Tern was. And what about Snowy Owl? The old bird thought she was so wise, smarter than anyone else on the ice floe. All right, perhaps it was true, but she certainly didn’t need to lord her brilliance over the others to such an extent. To the polar bear’s mind, the owl’s sycophantic press coverage had gone to her head.
Walrus wasn’t much better. The selfish brute was always jumping into the sea, trying to satisfy his boundless appetite, and never offering to share his catch with the polar bear. Afterwards, back on the ice floe, he was always lurching around, constantly complaining that he had no mud to wallow in and maintaining that things were far better on the meager stretch of coastline he inhabited further south. If Walrus wasn’t happy on this marvelous ice floe, reflected the polar bear, why didn’t he just go home? Then it suddenly occurred to him that Walrus must have done just that — headed for home.
For the briefest of moments, a shade of sadness touched the heart of the polar bear. It was not to last; within seconds he’d refocused on the faults of the disagreeable creature.
Above all, Walrus smelled. Bad. And all the time! None of the other animals could stand being near him. Seriously, it was true; everyone pushed to sit upwind during their board games. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough available spots to go around.
Perhaps, the polar bear considered, all the others had simply got fed up with Walrus and left, not realizing he’d already vacated the floe. Upon arriving at this ironically discordant thought, the polar bear frowned deeply. What a disloyal lot his friends had turned out to be! What a bunch of ingrates! “Harrumph!” he said loudly, to no one in particular.
Let them go; he didn’t need any of them! How hard can it be to find a better collection of friends? The bear had heard plenty of stories about noble, brave, exotic and even generous creatures. He would love to meet Eagle or Reindeer or Mountain Lion. And how about one of his own kind — another bear? It needn’t be white; it could be of any color; he wasn’t fussy. The polar bear didn’t know much about other bears, but word had it they were pretty good sports, especially when it came to games.
Perhaps his new friends were already en route, planning to arrive this very day. They couldn’t be far away now; any minute they’d show up, ready to greet him and suggest all kinds of amusements.
The polar bear peered into the distant horizon, eager anticipation written on his brow. He began to picture this new set of friends, each one impeccable. What great fun they’d all have, and what wonderful games and stimulating conversation he’d enjoy! He could hardly contain his excitement. All he had to do now was wait.
So the polar bear waited. Patiently, of course, for patience was one of his best traits.
And he waited some more. And yet still more.
With each passing hour, the polar bear’s doubts increased. He began to worry his new friends had been delayed or taken a wrong
turn. It struck him then that they might not know the way to his ice floe. Of course, how could they know? They’d yet to meet and he’d never invited them.
What a fool he was! Perhaps his new friends would not bother to make the long trip. Perhaps they’d never show up and he’d be stuck with his old friends, after all. Upon such further reflection, the former lot began to appear much more appealing. The more the bear thought about it, the more his old friends began to take on a rosier hue, at least in his mind’s eye. While they may have been imperfect, they were still his friends.
Now the bear considered the possibility that his friends couldn’t be faulted for deciding to leave. Maybe he’d been to blame; maybe he was the one with imperfections that needed correction. Yes, that must be it! If only they’d return, the bear lamented, he’d do everything within his power to improve.
He vowed to be a much better companion in the days to come. Yes, indeed, if they came back, everything would be perfect. They’d make a jolly smart set from now on. Imagining the perfection of the scene, the bear could hardly wait for his renewed life to begin.
He sighed deeply, gazing up at the moon again, hoping for a sign, enlightenment, anything. Where could his friends be? The moon, however, maintained its awesome silence.
“Harrumph,” the polar bear said again, looking up into the night sky. “You’re not really much help, you know.”
Receiving no reply, he continued with this train of thought, speaking as much to himself as to the moon. “You look down upon all of us. You see everything. Probably know everything, too. Yet you never give anything away. There must be more to this relationship. Look, don’t you have any Standard Operating Procedures? You know, some rules or guidelines, which could help our, ah, interactions?”
The bear waited, thinking he might have been too quick off the mark, not giving the moon enough time to respond to his demanding queries. For good measure, he sat down and waited some more. By this point, the bear was getting quite used to waiting.
At last, the polar bear let out a deep, mournful sigh. It was a sigh that, without a doubt, could have been heard from one end of the massive floe to the other. That is, if there had been anyone else around to hear it.
SUDDENLY, THE POLAR BEAR HAD A NEW THOUGHT.
“All right, that’s it!” he growled, although at no one in particular. He got up and walked about, turning a full circle before stopping.
As he did so, the bear closely scrutinized every direction.
“If we are playing a game of hide-and-seek,” he said loudly, “I’m getting pretty tired of it. Look, no one asked me what I wanted. Of course I’d be happy to join in, that is, if I’d been told in advance. But,
really, I’d much rather play something else.
“Normally, you know, I don’t have to get my way. In fact, I’m not
choosy at all. But can’t we please make it some other game? Please?” “Please,” he added again for good measure, just in case another
dose of politeness was required. His voice petered into nothingness. The polar bear turned his head from left to right and, just to be certain, back again. While the ice floe may have been large, as floes go, it was pretty flat and barren. From his vantage point, the bear couldn’t see any snowbanks or snow caves where his friends could be hiding, although, since everything was pretty indistinct in this dim light and
pretty much the same white color, he couldn’t really tell.
As every other creature knows, a polar bear’s vision over long distances is excellent, useful for spotting both friend and foe from afar. So if his friends were at all visible, he should be able to see them. Since
they weren’t, he guessed they’d found stupendous hiding places.
To be charitable — and the bear saw himself as a particularly empathetic creature — his friends may have assumed he was awake and listening while they planned the silly game, mistaking his siesta for his usual easygoing attitude. Yes, that must be it, the polar bear concluded; they were hiding really, really well, and the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding.
From where the bear stood, more or less in the center and at the
highest point of the floe, he could see in every direction. And with his keen eyesight, the view was unparalleled. Looks, however, could still
be deceiving; how big was this ice floe, really? He’d never examined it in detail, much less explored every corner. Possibly, just possibly, it was much bigger and more complicated than he’d imagined.
Yes, there was no getting around it: he’d have to search for them. Right away! Thoroughly! Every nook and cranny! The polar bear was determined to leave no snowbank or rise unsearched. All being well, he’d quickly find them.
He certainly hoped so.