One day at the edge of autumn while they lazed in a hammock the man had strung between two pines, the girl asked if there were any more bears in the forest or just that one they saw in the summer.
There are bears still, said the man. They come and go, but keep to themselves.
I like that the mountaintop looks like one. And that it will always stay right where it is, said the girl.
That’s why I put her there, the man said. The bear is a companion to her while she sleeps. I hope one day I’ll sleep there, too.
The girl was quiet for a moment, then asked, What are they really like?
Yes. Are they nice?
They’re shy, the man said, if that’s what you mean.
I mean will they roar at us and come eat our food if they’re hungry? The real ones?
No, said the man. They don’t roar unless you bother them. Or threaten their young. My father once told me they will travel a long way to do good, for their own or another. It’s a promise they make when they are very young, whispering it to their mothers even before their eyes are open.
The girl swung slowly in the hammock, wondering what a bear’s whispered promise might sound like, until the man asked, Would you like to hear the story my father told me about a bear who saved an entire village by keeping that promise?
Yes, the girl said, and sat up so quickly that the hammock almost overturned them onto the pine-needle floor. The man grabbed hold of the tree just in time, and after a good laugh, he began to tell this story to the girl.
Once upon a time, in a place along a wide and winding river, there lived a king who demanded the villagers in his kingdom give him all of the silver and gold they possessed. They were good farmers on fertile land, but he was the king. So they gave him their silver and gold and went out to their fields to grow the food they would eat, thankful at least for the fruit of their labors. Summer went by peacefully and the villagers were about to take in one of their best harvests ever, when the king demanded they give him all of the grain they had grown.
They resisted, asking, Why would you do this to us? What will we eat? But the king answered none of their questions. He sent his soldiers and took everything the people had harvested, so that they had to live on what they could glean from the dust on the floor.
That winter, not long before the calendar said it was spring, and with the people on the brink of starvation, an old but affable bear came through the village on his way to the fair. When he saw what a state the villagers were in, he asked them why. So they told him.
And after our children die, the village elder said, we will die, and then, of whom will that king be king?
The bear scratched the hair under his hat and asked for a small wagon, a bundle of hay, and a large coat. He put the hay in the wagon, threw the coat over the pile, and set off with the wagon in the direction of the king’s palace.
When the bear arrived, he asked for an audience with the king, and when he stood before him, he asked the rich king if he would like to see a dance.
The king said yes, because he was lonely, and so the bear danced.
And when the bear had finished with the performance, the king was so delighted, he asked the bear if he would dance for him again in the morning.
Yes, said the bear. If you give me some food from your stores.
The king agreed, and this was how the bear found out where the king kept the grain he had taken from the villagers. That night the bear filled his wagon and left in the storeroom the hay he had brought.
In the morning, after the bear had danced again for the king, he said that he would come back the next day if the king let him retreat to the other side of the river so that he could practice a new dance. The king agreed, and the bear wheeled his wagon out of the castle grounds, with the grain piled high beneath the cover of the large coat. The palace guards saw the same wagon leaving as the one that had arrived, and so they suspected nothing.
The bear did this from the first quarter moon to the full, leaving only large piles of hay in the king’s storehouse. In that time, he gave all of the grain back to the villagers, without so much as the king’s cook knowing that it was gone, for he thought the bear had simply eaten his fill and the hay had been there all along.
Now, when the full moon was waning and the villagers could feed themselves again, they asked the bear if he had seen their silver and gold. He said he had, for it was kept in the same row of locked storehouses where the king kept the grain. With their money back, the villagers said, they could raise an army and overthrow the king. And yet, they despaired of ever seeing their fortunes again.
The bear had missed the fair by now and had become fond of the villagers. He scratched his head again and said, I will get your silver and gold back. I ask only that you wait to overthrow your king until I return with my own army to help you.
The villagers couldn’t believe their luck.
You have an army? they asked.
Of course, said the bear. It’s made up of every animal and tree in the forest.
So the villagers agreed and the bear left for the palace.
The king was overjoyed to see the bear, for he needed cheering up. All of the food he had stored away from the harvest was gone and he didn’t know what he could offer.
A piece of silver will do, the bear said, and then I will be on my way.
The king agreed, and the bear danced his best dance ever, after which the king bade the bear to follow his guards to the storeroom and take whatever amount of silver he thought was a fair price for the dance. The bear, true to his word, took one piece of silver and placed it in his pocket. Then he asked if he could sleep there, as it was late and, with the moon on the wane, there would be robbers in the forest.
Now, while the king and all of his court slept, the bear bribed the blacksmith with a silver piece to start his forge, after which the blacksmith could go back to sleep. And when the forge was hot and the blacksmith was snoring away like flabby bellows, the bear melted down all the silver and gold in the storehouse. Then he poured the silver into four molds of four wheels, and the gold into the mold of a wagon.
In the morning the bear took ashes from the forge and blackened the silver wheels and the golden wagon, then wheeled his pile of hay covered with the large overcoat away from the palace, through the forest, and into the village, giving back everything the king had stolen from his subjects in the form of the wagon.
The villagers were beside themselves with joy. They wanted to melt down the silver and gold right away and get to work on their army, when the bear reminded them, Wait for me before you go into battle. Otherwise, it will not go well.
The villagers all agreed. The bear waved good-bye and walked off along the road that led into the forest.
One season went by, then another, and another, and the bear did not return. In time, the villagers went back to their farming, the old king died, and his daughter ascended to the throne. This young woman was intelligent and kind, forgiving and fair. She treated her subjects well, and they worked for her in return. And no one in that village ever again set eyes on the bear.
After the man had finished the story, the girl sat in the hammock, rocking still, and stared off in the direction of the forest.
Have bears ever really talked to people? she asked her father. I don’t mean in the stories. I mean when there were people to talk to.
I’ve never heard one, the man said. The bear we saw was quiet, but maybe he didn’t see us, or didn’t have anything to say. So I don’t know.
He saw us, said the girl.
Well, there’s your answer, said the man.
Andrew Krivak, GSAS ’95, is the author of three novels, including The Sojourn, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2011. He is also the author of A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, a 2008 memoir about his eight years as a Jesuit. He lives with his wife and three children in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, which inspired much of the landscape in his latest novel.