Bearing with Bears

In silence Dana tried to penetrate the darkness with her eyes and, failing, she tiptoed down the hall, following the cool pine floorboards with her bare feet. Every small creak throughout the house seemed to echo through the quiet of night. With no sight to guide her, she guessed at where his room was, shifted three floorboards to her left so she could easily touch the door, and reached out to touch the wall. After a moment of careful probing she found the door a normal pace beyond where she had guessed it would be, grasped the handle, and, pulling slightly, turned it before pushing the door open.

The starlight filtered into the room, enough to let her see faint outlines of shapes, but not enough to see what she wanted to know. She carefully released the door handle, felt for the light switch, and slid the button on the side of the toggle down before turning on the light. The dim glow from the ceiling light shone brightly in her eyes after the darkness of the hallway. In the light she could see the dresser to her left, the open closet beyond, and their bed to her right where it would be hidden from the hallway by the door.

But to her dismay, he was nowhere in sight.

Her lip curled in annoyance. This made the fifth time this week, and it was still only Thursday night. With a sigh, Dana turned off the light and closed the door to her Uncle Walter’s room.

She scarcely needed to check, but for good measure she went down to the entry. As she expected, his coat was missing as well. Shaking her head, she turned and went back to her room.

“There’s nothing on Earth he won’t do,” said Dana to her Aunt Matilda as they sat in the living room. The afternoon sun shone through the window with a bright golden light on the oak floor and flowered furniture, contrasting sharply with the February snow outside the window. “When I went in last night he wasn’t there and the new coat we got him was missing.”

“You don’t think he might be going off to the town?”

Dana looked at her aunt, still in the dark green dress she had worn for the trip home from visiting her mother for the week. “No. His coat was all covered in hair this morning, after I’d cleaned it yesterday. I think there were a couple new tears in it as well.”

Matilda frowned and shook her head, “Those claws are dangerous. I don’t want to lose him.”

“Neither do I. But what can we do?”

“Well, might as well start with talking to him again at dinner. Not that it seems to do much good.”

“Never does. We’ve already told him to be good. He does most of the things he should, but like I said, there’s nothing he won’t do.”

Matilda sighed and shook her head. “That husband of mine.”

“She’s a bit fragile still,” said Matilda as she dished out the soup, “but she’s stable enough with her crutches to get around.”

“Good to hear she’s up and about again,” said Walter. “Broken legs are no fun.”

“As you well know,” she said with an angry look, “no thanks to those dratted bears.”

“The bears wouldn’t hurt anyone. That was slipping from a tree after I’d climbed up to take a rest.”

“Here’s your soup. And just how are they so friendly and safe if you have to go up a tree to rest? It would only take a slip and you’d be gored or trampled to death before anything could be done.”

“It’s a nice tree to rest in, that’s all,” he said as he accepted his bowl with grease-darkened hands. Though he’d taken a shower, he still hadn’t managed to get his hands looking completely clean again from working on the tractor. “Besides, I know them. They won’t hurt me. And didn’t they take proper care of me while they came and got you?”

Matilda sniffed her disdain for bears, caring or not, as she started ladling soup into the white, rose motif rimmed bowl for Dana.

The conversation died and Matilda passed the bowl to Dana before serving herself. After trying to eat a spoonful and finding it too hot to do more than gingerly sip trifling quantities Walter tried asking Matilda about her trip. The tension quickly drained from the table as she filled Walter in on more of the details of how things were with her mother and the rest of her family. The easy conversation lasted until the bowls were empty and second helpings were cooling, when the conversation turned back to how things were around the cabin.

“I finally got the tractor maintenance done. She’s running purdy now. And the rocker for Jonathan’s birthday is almost done.”

“You’re on that one early.”

“Best not to put it off. Once spring planting comes round I won’t have much time to work on it.”

“Busy then, indeed. I’m sure he’ll be delighted with it.”

“I sure hope so. It should last through his younger siblings when it comes their turn for it, and then he can tell his children its stories.”

“Ever the perfectionist about your work.”

“Build it right the first time, and you won’t have to do it twice.”

“As long as right doesn’t become so perfect that it never gets done,” said Matilda, and then raised her eyebrow, “like the replacement for this rickety old thing you’ve been promising for three years now.”

“I have been making progress on that. But it’s an heirloom to go where it will be treated with proper care, not abused by little children roughhousing.”

“That won’t help you when my dishes break because you didn’t get it done before this heap of firewood falls over during dinner.”

“It’s getting closer. I should be able to finish it before Winter is over.”

“If you didn’t spend so much time off in the woods with those dratted bears, you’d easily have enough time to get it done.”

Walter’s eyes flicked upward before he answered, “They’d miss me so terribly if I didn’t go. I can’t disappoint them like that.”

“The world won’t end if they have to dance with themselves again. After all, they did before you started gallivanting in the woods with them.”

“I’m not gallivanting. I’m waltzing with them.”

Matilda snorted.

“Oh, please won’t you stay?” Dana pleaded.

Matilda raised her hand and shook her finger at him, “You should be good. We need you here, keeping this place up while we take care of the house and garden.”

“But I do keep this place up. It hasn’t fallen down anywhere that I’ve seen.”

“What about the entry gate,” said Dana, “that tries to fall off it’s remaining hinge every time someone tries to open it?”

“That’s tomorrow’s project. Meant to get to it today, but the tractor took a bit longer than I anticipated.”

“That still won’t help us if you get eaten by the bears tonight,” said Matilda.

“As I have already told you, they won’t eat me.”

“Harrrummmph,” said Matilda.

Dana took advantage of the brief silence that followed to get up and start clearing the table. The conversation died again as the other two turned to finishing their bowls of soup.

The rest of the evening passed quietly. As they said good night Dana quietly asked him one last time, “Won’t you please stay with us? I don’t want to lose you.”

In words she could scarcely hear as they hugged, he said, “Okay, I will.”

Dana and Walter came in as the light faded from setting the new post and hanging the bright cedar gate on it. Matilda had a venison casserole hot in the oven.

The conversation over dinner was a jovial talk about the news, with the new reduced subsidies for large scale agriculture that would make things easier for them brightening everyone’s mood.

The plates were being scraped of the last of the food, with half the casserole remaining for another day when the subject changed.

“It was nice to have you with me all night for a change,” said Matilda.

“It is good to be with you, too,” said Walter with a loving smile.

Even as he spoke, there seemed to be a sound of tramping feet outside. They all turned towards the door as the noise seemed to reach the steps, followed immediately by the sound of the front door opening and something large entering the house. They scarcely had gotten to their feet when the source of the noise entered their view – a raggy black bear that looked like it had been in one too many recent fights. Followed closely by a panda bear, another black bear, this one with unusually long, shaggy fur, a very baggy panda, and a polar bear.

“Where have you been?” demanded the first black bear.

“They … persuaded me to stay.”

“Well, then,” said the baggy panda with a toothy smile, “we’ll … persuade … you to come dance with us.”

With that, the bears barged into the dining room and the first panda bear grabbed Walter with her right paw. Before picking him up she paused a moment and scratched the table, banging Walter’s empty plate into the casserole dish. Her claws left deep furrows in the surface, and would have knocked it over had she not had her leg up against the table. As she carried Walter out the door the other bears came to leave their own marks in the table in a clatter of dishes.

“Remember,” said the second panda as she left, “we all get at least one waltz a day.”

As she disappeared through the door Matilda and Dana sank back into their chairs, too stunned by what had just transpired even to talk at first. After a couple minutes Dana finally spoke.

“At least they don’t seem to have broken any dishes.”

That brought Matilda out of the state she was in. Enough that she was able to look over the dishes, if still in something of a state of shock. After a moment of checking the dishes, she said, “Mmmmm…hmm.”

Dana was out of things to say, her mind still working away trying to come to terms with what had just happened. A few times she tried to speak, but each time the words died before she opened her mouth. Finally she levered herself out of her chair and started clearing the dishes from the table, much the worse for the wear it had received. Matilda sat quietly while she carried away the dishes and wiped the table, working carefully to keep the rag from catching too badly on the many furrows. Even after she concluded she’d done all she could, spending three times as long as it normally would take, the table wasn’t as clean as she would have liked.

After washing the dishes she came out of the kitchen with the tea she’d made to find her Aunt still sitting staring at the gouged table.

“Come. Let’s take our tea in the living room.”

Matilda’s only answer was to slowly get up, leaning enough on the table as she did so to make it sway perilously, and follow Dana into the living room. Once there she collapsed unceremoniously into a chair, and took the mug from Dana.

After a few careful sips of the still scalding hot tea Matilda finally spoke, “That rat. Never waltzes with me.”

“Maybe you should drag him to a dance.”


The conversation lapsed as Matilda seemed to be lost in thought. Dana thought about what had happened and wondered what her sometimes headstrong aunt would do. A few times they murmured to each other, but mostly sat quietly, each with their own thoughts. The tea cooled and was drunk, and still they sat cradling their empty mugs. Eventually Dana picked up the book she was reading from the coffee table. Matilda sat turning over ideas in her mind and getting nowhere, continually retreading the same ground like a hamster on a wheel.

Eventually Dana finished her book, set it down, and looked around. Her eyes lit on the chestnut grandfather clock standing in the corner. Nearly ten thirty. Time – or really past time – for bed.

With a sigh, Dana stretched and got up.

“It’s getting late. I’m going to turn in. Good night, Aunt.”

Matilda looked up at her, blinking a couple times. “Oh. Good night, then.”

Dana went to get ready for bed, leaving her aunt alone with her thoughts.

It didn’t take her long to get into bed, and she was soon dreaming about wild dances with bears of all descriptions.

The week passed quietly. The next day Walter sanded the table, which did little for the appearance, and made it ready to soak up any little bit of spilled food, but at least dealt with the splinters. Matilda complained vociferously about the horrible dusty mess it made of the dining room for days. Walter continued to go out every night to keep the bears happy, and tried to pay more attention to Matilda as well. She wasn’t happy about the whole business with the bears, but had given up on anything more than grumbling about it at any opportunity.

Valentine’s day morning Walter got up early to make breakfast of pancakes and eggs. By the time Matilda and Dana came downstairs to the kitchen he was serving it onto plates. They each started to get a set of silver, but he waved them away.

“No, no,” he said, “I’ll take care of it.”

They sat at the peninsula and watched while he finished filling the plates, set them on a tray that already had glasses of orange juice and sets of silver on them, and beckoned for them to follow as he carried the tray to the dining room. He opened the door stood beside it, inviting them to enter first.

Matilda got as far as the door, and stopped short. Dana nearly ran into her before she stopped and peered in around her. The rickety and gouged table was gone. In its place stood a beautiful walnut table that glowed in the morning light with a blooming anthurium growing on a rock in a bowl sitting in the middle.

“Oh!” said Matilda. “It’s… beautiful.”

She stood, staring at the table for another moment before turning to Walter and flinging her arms around him. The tray of breakfast wobbled on his hand as he hurriedly moved it out of her way. Dana reached out and lifted it from his hand before it could fall.

They hugged for a long moment. After a few seconds Dana carried the tray into the dining room and went to set it on the table, but couldn’t bear to put it on the beautifully finished wood. She was shifting the tray to hold it in one hand so she could put place-mats on the table when Walter came in and solved that problem for her by lifting the tray from her hands. She pulled three old crocheted place-mats from the shelf and set them out. Walter set the places and leaned the tray by the door.

“The table is wonderful,” said Matilda, “but how ever did you manage to bring it in alone?”

“Oh, I didn’t have to do it,” said Walter airily. “The bears carried it in for me.”

“That’s not much for stealing you away every night.”

“They need their fun, and I mine.”

“Hours every night isn’t just a bit of fun,” snapped Matilda. “Am I your wife, or are they?”

“You are. It’s just friendly dancing with the bears, nothing more.”


The conversation turned to what needed to be done that day. In the end it was decided that Walter and Dana would make the run into town to pick up supplies while Matilda got the cleaning done, which she especially wanted to get done in the dining room to get the last bits of dust from sanding the old table out of the corners.

It was night now, and Walter had left to dance with the bears. Matilda grumped a little at him as he left, but it seemed to Dana that she hadn’t been quite as annoyed as before. Dana went up to bed, but as she lay in bed she thought she heard someone in the entryway. Quietly she slid out of bed and padded down the stairs. From the dark stairway she could see her aunt through the window into the entry. She was pulling on what seemed to be a fur suit. After a moment she recognized it as her aunt’s fur coat, remodeled to put the fur on the outside. Her aunt then put on a fur bear mask, checked herself in the mirror over the hall table, turned out the light, and went out the door.

Curious as to what would happen, Dana quietly went into the hall, pulled her boots on over her flannel pajamas, put on her hat and mittens, and slipped out the door to follow. The full moon made it easy to find her way into the woods. About five minutes in she started hearing instruments. Soon the faint sounds resolved into the Swallowtail and she saw a faint orange glow in the distance. She sped up her steps and moments later found herself looking into a large clearing full of bears.

At least a hundred bears were dancing, perhaps two hundred. The whole clearing was lit by strings of lanterns hung between the trees at the edge of the clearing. A stage had been set up at the edge of the circle upon which stood and sat the musicians. Six fiddles, a viola, two cellos, a mandolin, three guitars, two banjos, three penny-whistles, a harp, two accordions, and a grand piano. The violins especially looked ridiculously tiny in the paws of the bears, yet somehow they played with a grace, speed, and delicacy that belied their lumbering appearance.

Dana, mesmerized by the music and dancing, crept closer, crossing the invisible, and yet all too real boundary of the circle without realizing it. In moments a shaggy moon bear came up to her and offered her his paw.

“Would you give me the honor of the next dance?” he rumbled gently as the musicians ended the jig.

With some trepidation she tentatively reached out and took his paw. A warm feeling came over her, and when she looked down, she found that she had purple fur with golden spots, just like her pajamas with stars. She looked up again, and saw that his paw now held her own purple paw.

The applause from the dancers for the musicians filled the night. They took only a moment for the dancers to rearrange themselves. The moon bear led Dana into their midst, and then they took off again to Lady of the Lake.

Dana lost herself in the dance. Eventually she settled down to rest curled up at the base of a tree. Looking up she thought she saw a lightening of the sky. A brown bear she had danced with a few times and a bear with a leopard-spotted coat saw her there and made their way over to her.

“Enjoy yourself, Dana?” said the brown bear in her Uncle Walter’s voice.

Dana started, and the bear laughed. It was definitely her uncle’s laugh.

“I did.”

He grinned, turned to the spotted bear and kissed her. “Well, my dear,” he said, “can I hope this means the end of your complaints about waltzing with bears?”

She hugged him, and then we, belles of the ball, turned our steps homeward again arm in arm.

FYI: This was the story mentioned in the voting thread in case people are wondering. :slight_smile: