Brave is not a word I have used very often in my four hundred years, I told her, but you know what, we can only find out how brave we are when we face great danger. Ha! The look in her eighteen-year-old eyes was priceless.
We sat at the kitchen table. I always considered that sweet little neighbor of mine to be a friend, much like a grand-daughter might be a friend. We had a lot of fun chatting or playing cards together. But today she was serious. What danger was I going to share? I could barely hold back myself. I loved to tell her stories. I still do.
We sat, then, each with a second piece of my delicious birthday cake and a cup of tea, and I began telling her about the day I went camping in the wild and came face to face with an uninvited guest.
I was young too then. A friend had invited me on a weekend camping trip way up in the wilderness of Quebec. It took an entire day to get there, and then we reached a suitable campsite by canoe after several hours, and barely before sunset. The silence was deep. It was like rediscovering the sense of hearing.
We set up our tent and could hear something play in thew water in the distance, but could not see what it was. A little while later, coyotes started singing to us. We had been warned by the forest ranger where we rented the canoe: “Do not bring any food inside your tent. Leave it outside and away. Hang it in a tree if you can. If you hear any noise over night, stay put. Do not try to see what it is.”
I secretly wished to see some creatures face to face, as long as it was something peaceful, like a deer maybe. We were there for three days. On day one, we returned from a canoe trip and found our bread was missing. A corner of the tent had a slight rip in it too, but we could not decide whether we had done this ourselves while setting up.
At that moment, my friend stopped her fork mid-way up and I don’t think she put the cake in her mouth until I was done with the whole story. I loved watching her eyes grow wide. I paused, for more effect, and then continued my story.
On the second day, near dinner time, I joked that we had been there 48 hours, out in the wilderness, and the only creature I had really seen was a salamander. After a while, we realized that we had not heard a single bird song or coyote for several hours.
The next morning, as I unzipped the door to get out of the tent, I immediately felt something was different. The hair went up on the back of my neck. I was not the only one. I stood there, my fingers still on the zipper of the open door, face to face with a giant bear standing on his hind legs with the hair on his neck as straight as if he had been wearing gel.
“Ho gosh!” said my little audience of one.
He was howling at me, or whatever it is that grizzlies do, and moving forward. I just froze and it felt like everything happened in slow motion. And to make things worse, my camping companion was still sound asleep, and snoring.
“Did you wake him up?”
No. Absolutely not. I was afraid he would panic and make things worse. Then again, I was afraid he would become this big furry guy’s morning snack too. But as much as it felt like time had stopped, I knew I had to figure something out very quickly. Something very odd happened then: I went from feeling extreme fear to extreme peace instead, and that’s when it hit me.
“The bear? The grizzly I mean? It hit you? Ho!”
No. Not the bear. Something I had read long ago came back to mind. That’s what hit me. I remembered some naturalist or some such saying that when face to face with a bear, you have to make yourself as big as he is and loudly claim your space. So I did.
I puffed myself up like a sailor with a bad mouth and screamed at it: “This is our tent. You know where the food is. Help yourself, but leave us alone, you big fatso! Go on. Leave!” And he did. I swear he looked at me with a face straight out of a cartoon. I almost saw question marks pop out of his head. He went back down on all fours and gently walked away. I turned around and my friend was sitting up, clinging to his sleeping bag and white as a sheet.
“Wow! That was close.”
Yes, it was, and I felt bad later.
“You mean you suddenly felt fear again?”
Not quite. I felt bad that I had screamed at this beautiful creature. We were the ones trespassing, after all.
“Did you see it again?”
You know, I almost wished I would. But he did not return. At least not so that we could see him. We left later that day. We still had some leftover fruit. I felt I needed to let the poor thing know I was not actually mad at him, so I walked away into the woods as far as I could, sort of away from the camp site, you know, and threw the fruit into the distance. Then I screamed one more time, but with a kind voice this time. I said, “Thank you for not hurting us. This is a gift for you. You are beautiful. Be well.”
She put the piece of cake in her mouth and sipped a bit of tea. We sat in silence. We both had tears in our eyes. I had forgotten how touched I had been by this encounter. As for my young friend, she understood that it was not a scary story at all.
Topic: You just turned 400-years old. An 18-year-old at your birthday party asks you to tell her a story about when you were her age. You tell her about a bear, to scare her a bit. Begin with these words: “Brave is not a word I have used very often in my four hundred years.”
The Book: Take Ten For Writers