The boy was cold. There had come a light rain during the night, in the valley where he was camped with his grandfather, and the dampness, coupled with a slight wind, was making him cold. He moved to get closer to his grandfather and realized he was alone under the sleeping robe. Where was his grandfather? He instinctively froze in place, as he’d been taught to do when danger was close or he was unsure of his surroundings.
It was near dawn, that magical hour before the sun rose. Although it was still dark, the birds began to sing in anticipation of the sun’s appearance. In the tall grass, he could hear the smaller night animals scurrying to return to their burrows and dens, before Eagle and Hawk were awake and on the hunt for a meal. Around the edge of the lake by which they were camped, Frog was singing his final songs of the night and preparing to hide in the cattails and lily pads before Crane and Heron began their morning hunt. The boy sensed no danger.
Suddenly all grew quiet. From a nearby knoll, he heard a man’s voice. It was his grandfather, singing the Spirit song welcoming the sun. Soon, the animals resumed their activities, as they realized they had nothing to fear. The boy lay and listened to the sad sounds of the song with anticipation. Back at their village, this was his favorite time of day. He would lay in their wickiup, huddled together with his brothers and sister, and listen as the men of the village sang the sun up. He would be glad when he was a man, so that he could join them and do his part to maintain the balance between light and dark.
“Come forth and light the day, that we might hunt and feed our women and children,” his grandfather sang. “Come forth and warm the soil, so that our maize will grow and we will not hunger in the cold months.” The slow, pleading dirge suddenly became yips of joy, as the sun first peeked over the peaks of the distant mountains. The Spirit song had awakened the sun, and soon it would send its warmth to chase away the chill from the night rain. The boy lay back, contented, and awaited the return of his grandfather.
It had been seven days since the arrival of his grandfather at their village near the Mountains That Smoked. His grandfather was a great shaman among the people and, since the death of his wife, he had chosen to live alone in the mountains, making only occasional visits to the village and his children’s lodges. His arrivals had always been times of joy among his grandchildren, as he was well loved by all of them. He never had failed to bring small gifts for each. Usually these gifts were small, carved creatures or unusual stones and shells to be drilled and woven into necklaces and bracelets. This time was different.
Word of his coming had spread among the villagers and nearly the whole village was there to greet him. He strode into town, in a stately manner, and walked directly to the boy’s mother and father and spoke to them in a low voice. The boy’s parents nodded their heads and, while his grandfather and father continued talking, his mother went into the lodge and soon reappeared carrying two sleeping robes and the boy’s pouch, in which were kept all the things boys needed in daily village life. Taking the things from the boy’s mother, his grandfather walked over to him and said, “Come with me, boy.”
“Yes, Grandfather,” he answered. “Where are we going?”
“I am going wherever I will and you are going wherever I go.”
Knowing from his grandfather’s tone of voice that this was not the time for questions, the boy tied his pouch around his waist. His grandfather handed the boy’s sleeping robe to him. The boy hung it over his shoulder, held with the rawhide straps that also tied the robe into a bundle. He silently followed his grandfather out of the village and towards the mountains. For five days they walked, mostly in silence, making their way ever deeper into the mountains. Each evening, the boy set snares and deadfalls, and the next morning, he would collect the small animals he had trapped, and these, along with wild tubers and berries, were their food for the day. On the morning of the sixth day, they had crossed a ridge and had entered this valley, where they had made their camp the night before.
“Will you sleep the day away?”
The boy’s grandfather’s voice startled him from his reverie and he quickly jumped up and hung his robe to dry near the fire his grandfather had built. “I wasn’t asleep. I was remembering.” the boy replied.
“Humph,” his grandfather said. “Remembering the past has a time of its own and must not interfere with the time of now. Now is the time in which we must live and make memories for the remembering times. Gather your snares and prepare the meat. Soon we must leave for a long climb and food will be scarce.”
“Will we see Bear’s den today?”
“Yes, but it’s a long walk and you must shake the sleep from your head and do what must be done to prepare.”
“And will you tell me Bear’s story?”
“Yes, but if you don’t do your work soon, night will find us still here asking and answering questions.”
The boy laughed and left to gather his snares and whatever they had caught. Like all children, he was fond of the stories told by the old ones, and was looking forward to the telling, in spite of the fact that he’d heard the story so many times in his thirteen summers that he could tell the story himself, word for word.
When he returned with two fat rabbits, the fire was just right for roasting them. He was careful when skinning them, so as not to damage the hides. They would make a warm pair of mittens for him or one of his younger brothers or sisters when the snow and cold came.
It wasn’t long until they had eaten their fill and had wrapped the leftover meat in a hide for later that day. They rolled their robes and tied them, and the grandfather turned and started walking towards the far end of the valley without saying a word.
The boy followed.
The sun was bright, but here in this high valley, the air was still a little chilled. The birds were singing and chasing insects for their young. In the distance, he could see Eagle circling and looking for a rabbit or ground squirrel to take back to its nest. The boy was gradually falling behind his grandfather and barely heard him when he began speaking, “Listen. It will rain tomorrow.”
The boy stopped and listened but only heard the call of a crow in the distance. He had thought he’d hear distant thunder but heard only the crow. “What do you hear, Grandfather?” he asked.
“What do you hear, boy?”
“Only a crow in the distance.”
“Listen again and listen with your heart as well as your ears.”
The boy stood very still and listened. Suddenly he got it. There was something about the call that didn’t sound right. “What is that call, Grandfather? Is it an enemy?”
“No, boy. That is the call of the rain crow. When the catbird uses the call of the crow, it means rain soon. The spirit of the rain uses the voice of a crow to warn the people and animals so that they may prepare for the storm.”
“But why not just let the crow warn the people?”
“Because the crow is always making noise and the people would just ignore him, but when they hear the call coming from the catbird, they know it means rain and not just the fussing of Crow. Sometimes, when you want someone to listen, you need to use a messenger and not fuss at them yourself.”
They resumed their walk and the grandfather continued, “It was so with Bear....”
Summer was gone; the leaves were turning and getting ready to fall. The air was crisp with the warning of what was coming. Bear stood on his hind legs and sniffed the air. He smelled the presence of Coyote and something else. It was an undefined smell, as much something sensed as smelled. An early storm was brewing. Soon the snow would come and cover the ground.
The hunger had come upon him two months before, and he had spent those months gorging on whatever he could find. He had eaten the mountain huckleberries and blackberries. He had overturned logs and eaten the fat grubs, ripping them from the presumed safety of their hiding places. He had climbed trees and raided the hives of honey stored by Bee and her sisters as their winter food. He had sat in the flowing water of streams grabbing salmon as they swam by. Eating only the fatty, fleshy parts, he ate until he could eat no more. Now, with a thick layer of fat and his winter coat of fur, he was ready for winter. It was time for Bear to sleep.
This was Bear’s second summer. The first was spent as a cub with his mother, and had been spent in play and learning – learning what was food and what wasn’t; learning which animals to fear and those he had no need to fear. Now, at nearly full size, he feared nothing.
When they had entered the den for his first winter sleep, he was sure it would be him and his mother again when they woke up. When they awoke though, there were two cubs in the den with them. For the first few weeks, he enjoyed having the cubs as playmates; but his mother began to keep him away from them, and then came the day in early summer when she attacked him and chased him away. For several days, he followed them but, every time he tried to rejoin them, she chased him away. Finally, he turned and went his own way. The sadness he first felt was soon replaced with the wonderment of discovery. No longer did he have to follow his mother but could now choose his own path.
He spent the summer wandering the mountains and exploring the territory he claimed. From the lush mountain meadows to the barren mountain peaks, he wandered. He grew familiar with every stone and bush in his territory. He learned where the ground squirrels had their dens and how to listen for the cries of the young so he knew just where to dig to get to them. He learned where each stream had shallows where the fat salmon and trout would be in easy reach as they made their way to their breeding areas in the headwaters. He now knew where Bee had her nests which would be filled with sweet honey come fall. He was the master of his domain and held all other creatures there in disdain. Even Cougar kept his distance from Bear, and all creatures, except Bear, feared Cougar. Surely, none were as strong or smart as he.
Now it was time to sleep, and Bear must find a den. Once again, he stood on his hind legs and looked around. For just a moment, he gazed wistfully to the South, the area where his mother had her den, but he knew he couldn’t go there. He must find his own den. He knew of many caves in the high country, but these didn’t appeal to him. Instinctively, he knew a den in the lower regions would be the better place to overwinter. Spring would come earlier to the lower country and his sleep wouldn’t need to be so long.
Again he sniffed the air and smelled Coyote. He always smelled Coyote. Coyote followed him around, and whenever he took the kill of Cougar or Wolf, Coyote would take whatever remained after Bear had eaten his fill. Bear filled his lungs and gave out a mighty roar, announcing to all that heard that this was his area and all should fear him. He was pleased when all other sounds ceased for a few minutes. He knew his roar had created fear among the other animals – all except Coyote.
“Why do you hide in the bushes, Coyote? Why do you not run away when you hear my roar? Do you not fear me?”
Coyote came from behind the bush, sat on his haunches, and looked at Bear. “Yes, I fear you, and no, I don’t fear you.”
Bear was confused by this answer. “How can it be that you both fear and do not fear me?” he asked.
“I fear you when you are close, or when you are close and I don’t see you, but as long as I can see you, I can stay far enough away to have no reason to fear.”
“But if you feel you must stay far enough away to feel safe, then you must fear me even at a distance.”
Coyote laughed, “As you will, Bear, but having no fear doesn’t mean I have to do something stupid, just as having no fear doesn’t mean you are smart.”
“Nonsense,” Bear snorted, “I am both fearless and smart. I am the fiercest and strongest of all animals. I go where I will and take what I want. None dare oppose me. I, alone, am free to do whatever I wish.”
“But that is not true. You were made as Bear and must do Bear things. You must look as Bear was intended to look and eat the food chosen for Bear to eat. You must sleep in the winter and hunt in the summer. You cannot change the nature of Bear.”
“These things are as I wish them. I am what I wish to be.”
“But surely you cannot change the way the Great Spirit (Manitou) made you. Are you so powerful that you can ignore his wishes?”
“As Bear, I am allowed to make my own decisions.”
“Yes, you are surely favored by the Spirits. It’s a shame the other animals don’t see you as you say you are.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry, friend Bear, but they see you as merely another animal, much as they are, and no more favored than they.”
“That is nonsense. Can they not see that I’m the most powerful animal created? That I go wherever I wish, whenever I wish and that none dare oppose me?”
“They see these things, but in a different way. They see the things you do as the things you were created to do; the foods you eat, the foods you were created to eat; and your strength was given you to match your size. They see in you undeserved arrogance and pride; nothing more than a larger vermin, such as torments them daily.”
Bear roared in anger. His anger was so great, he began ripping bushes from the ground and breaking saplings like small sticks. Small animals began to run to their hiding places, and even Cougar looked over his shoulder as he hurried to the safety of the higher crags and cliffs. Awakened in his nest in a hollow tree, Owl looked down on Bear and Coyote. He watched. He listened. He learned.
“I will not sleep. I will hunt through the winter. I will dig them out of their safe little hiding places and eat them and their families. They will see that I am what I say I am and learn they have good reason to fear me.” Bear growled.
Coyote, who had moved to safer distance when Bear was at his angriest, came closer once again. “Yes, it is good that you should teach them to respect you and your authority.”
Owl merely blinked and thought, “Stupid Bear,” as he returned to his nest.
“We will rest here for a while,” the old man said, standing at the edge of a deep but narrow ravine.
The boy walked over and stood next to his Grandfather. “Are we near Bear’s den?”
“Yes. You can see it from here. Just there, across the ravine,” he said, pointing.
“I don’t see it.”
“There, by those rocks.”
“Yes! I see it! Will we be there soon?”
“In a couple hours.”
“But it is so close. I can throw a stone that far.”
“We will rest here a while,” Grandfather repeated, giving the boy a look that silenced any further argument. He lay back, using his pack as a pillow, closed his eyes, and soon was sleeping.
The boy walked to the edge of the ravine and saw that it was deep, but there were many handholds, and it would not be that big a task to climb down and then back up the other side. He didn’t understand Grandfather’s desire to delay, but had always been taught to obey, so lay down near his Grandfather and soon was also asleep.
The boy dreamed. He was in the rocks near the village and throwing stones at chattering ground squirrels. His younger brother was taunting him for his bad aim, when suddenly all grew quiet. The two boys stood back to back, to watch for danger, but there was nothing to see. In the distance, they could hear a low, moaning growl that seemed to be coming towards them.
“What is it?” his brother asked, his voice quivering in fright.
“I don’t know.”
“Should we hide?”
“Not yet. We’ll wait to see this thing.”
“But I don’t want to see it,” his brother whined.
“Not seeing it will not make it go away or mean it won’t see us. It will be better to see the danger we face, so as to know how we should act.”
Off in the distance, he could see the village, and the women grabbing their children, who were playing in the stream, and running up the hill on which the village was built. He saw his mother and father, standing looking at him and his brother and pointing in their direction. He knew they were shouting but could not make out their words. The noise seemed to build behind him and he turned to look in the direction his parents were pointing.
He saw trees falling and birds flying to safety, as the ground below them started a gentle shaking, which was growing more severe every second. He saw a dark, low line of what looked like boiling clouds advancing on them. “An evil Spirit!” he shouted to his brother and, grabbing his hand, they started to run for the safety of the village.
The shaking of the ground was now so severe that it was hard to keep their balance as they ran. Soon the dark cloud had overtaken them and they were being tossed about with the debris the cloud was bringing with it. The boy knew they’d never make it to the village, but never once released his brother’s hand. They could not breathe and, as they looked into each others eyes, they knew they were dying and bid farewell to all they knew and each other with their eyes.
The boy sat up in fright and knew it was a dream – but the noise was still there and there was a terrible shaking to the ground. He saw his grandfather standing at the edge of the ravine and hurried to his side. “What is it, Grandfather?”
The boy looked into the ravine and saw the vision from his dream. Muddy water was boiling down the ravine, carrying with it parts of trees and even large rocks. “We would have died,” he said, taking hold of his grandfather’s hand. “Where did it come from?”
“From the mountain. There were dark clouds over the mountain and Manitou saw the need for water in the valley, so squeezed the water from the clouds. The water is angry at losing the freedom of the sky, and is using its anger to destroy as much as it can before it reaches the valley floor.”
“Like Bear,” the boy said, thoughtfully.
“Yes, much like Bear. Come and let us rest, the water will be gone soon and we will cross to see Bear’s den. I will finish Bear’s story as we wait.”
It had only been a month since Bear had decided to stay awake all winter. The first few weeks weren’t all that bad, but now the cold had set in and Bear was finding it hard to find food. He still had a good layer of fat, so the cold wasn’t affecting him as yet. The snow had come and stayed and now was deep enough that when he walked, his belly was touching the snow. The ground dwelling animals felt safe in their tunnels through the snow. Bear could not hear them scrambling through those tunnels like Fox and Coyote. He depended on his nose to find food, and the deep snow hid the scent of the smaller animals moving around within mere feet of him.
The sun was shining today, and Bear had climbed to the top of a large rock to bask in the sun and get out of the snow for awhile. Soon, he’d need to start the hunt again so as not to use up his fat reserves.
He was surprised at how hard it was to stay awake. He had thought that all he had to do was decide to stay awake and that would be all that was needed. He soon found, however, that it was a constant struggle to keep from looking for a nice cave or deadfall to climb into, if only for a short nap. He’d found that when it was night, he could nap and the sunlight would awaken him in the morning, but only if he napped in the open. He knew, if he tried to nap in a sheltered place, he’d not wake up until spring. The lack of sleep was making him even more irritable than normal.
He caught a familiar odor on the breeze. “What do you want, Coyote, and why are you hiding?”
“I’m hunting and saw you, friend Bear, lying on that rock. You look well.”
“And why wouldn’t I look well? I’m Bear and doing what I want. Now I’m resting from a hunt and will hunt again shortly. Why don’t you show yourself Coyote? Come closer that I might see you better.”
“I’m close enough, Bear.” Coyote said stepping out from behind some rocks a short distance away.
“Come closer so that I might bite your head off and eat you.”
Coyote laughed. “You would not want to eat me. I am all fur and bones.”
“Fur and bones are more than I can find to eat now.”
“You were not meant to hunt in winter.”
“I was meant to hunt when and where I choose.”
“Then you should have no trouble feeding yourself in the winter.”
“Go away, Coyote. I am resting and you are disturbing my rest.”
“Why do you wish to distress me with your disrespect, friend Bear? I, alone among all creatures, wish only your friendship.” Coyote answered with barely concealed sarcasm. “I will leave you, but only because a storm is coming. Perhaps you, too, should seek shelter.”
“I have been in storms before.”
“Of course, but not a winter storm. They are much different from summer storms.”
“I am Bear and fear nothing. A storm is but a minor disturbance to me.”
“Yes, I am sure, but I must find shelter, for I am not Bear.”
The storm was unlike any storm Bear had ever seen. The wind seemed to be coming from all directions at once and the bitter cold penetrated even Bear’s thick fur. The falling snow swirled in the wind and made it nearly impossible to see. The wind took his breath away and, to breathe, he had to shelter his face from it with his huge paws. Bear stumbled around in the storm, trying to find shelter. With the low visibility, he bumped into many trees, and was beginning to fear he would soon perish.
Bear felt bushes rubbing on him and knew he was entering a thicket. The wind eased and the snow was blocked somewhat, so Bear could see he was in a copse of wild plums, where he had gorged on the small fruits during the summer. With the wind lessened, he was a little more comfortable. Making his way to the center of the copse, he curled up to await the end of the storm.
The storm raged for many days but Bear stayed awake. He knew, if he fell asleep, the deep sleep of winter would begin, and he was in an exposed area where it would not be safe for him in that state.
After four days, the sound of the wind was gone and Bear could see diffused light coming through the snow above him. He knew the sun was shining and the storm was over, but he was sleepy. Wrapped in the warmth of the insulating cocoon of snow, he was tempted to just go to sleep, but struggled to dig his way to the surface anyway.
When Bear emerged, he was in a different world. Nothing looked the same. The thicket he was in was nearly buried, and the tops of the plum bushes looked like newly sprouted plants, with barely a foot extending above the snow. All the old landmarks were hard to recognize. Some were buried and no longer visible, and the others looked very different with all the snow.
A short distance away, he could see the rocks where he’d been sunning himself just four days ago. He decided to go to them, and since they were tall enough to be above the snow, he was sure he could see farther as well as get out of the snow. He found, however, that it was nearly impossible to wade through the snow. It was more like swimming than walking, and took a great deal of effort. By the time he got to the rocks, he was so tired out he could barely make it to the top. Once there, he almost wished he was back down in the snow. It had insulated him from the frigid air, but now it was seeping through his fur and chilling him.
He could see the tree line in the distance and knew the snow would not be so deep in the trees. He also knew he wouldn’t be able to make it that far until he rested some. He decided to rest on the rocks and head to the trees after dark. The struggle to get there would help keep him awake.
When it was nearly dark, He started for the trees, and the going was even harder than he had thought it would be. It took him all night, and dawn was just breaking, when he finally made it to the forest. It was as he thought, and there was less snow in the shelter of the trees. He staggered deeper into the trees, and collapsed at the base of the tree where Owl had his nesting hole. Bear looked around at his surroundings and felt something he had never felt before. A new emotion for him: He felt fear.
Bear tried to roar but barely managed a loud growl. Owl looked down at Bear. “Why are you growling, Bear, and why aren’t you in your den asleep for the winter?”
“I decided to not sleep this winter.”
“Why would you decide that, you stupid Bear?”
“To prove that I make my own decisions and can do as I please.”
“You did it to prove you can do what you want?”
“Do you want to stay awake all winter and die?”
Bear pondered Owl’s question before answering. “No, but that is the decision I made.”
“But, if you truly can make your own decisions, can you not decide to change your mind and sleep through the winter?”
Bear was startled at this thought. Why had he not thought of it? Perhaps that would prove he was truly master of his own life. “Yes, yes, I think that would be possible. But I have no den,” he replied forlornly.
“Beneath those rocks you rested on yesterday, there is a small opening. It is not large, but it would be a good place for you.”
“It will be a hard struggle to get back to the rocks. I must rest and gather my strength first.”
“It will not be hard. Last night you broke the way and you have only to retrace your steps.”
“Yes, of course. I meant only to rest a short time.” Bear replied haughtily.
“I’m sure you did,” Owl answered knowingly, “I’m sure you did.”
Bear waited a short time before departing, although he wished for a longer rest. The winter had taken its toll on him and most of the fat he’d built up was gone. When he got back to the rocks, it only took a short time to find the opening Owl had said was there. Bear scraped away the snow and entered a small cave, barely big enough for him to curl up in. He had no time for dreaming and was soon in a deep sleep.
It was spring, and Owl had just returned from his nightly hunt, when Coyote appeared. “Owl, have you seen Bear?”
“He has not awakened from his winter sleep.”
“Aha! Then he did sleep. But it is well past time when he should be awake.”
“Perhaps he will sleep through summer,” Owl replied, and then thought to himself, “Or longer.”
“Yes, well, I’ll go look for him,” and Coyote wandered off.
Owl flew to the rocks and landed on one where he could see the opening around the small cave’s entrance. Below him, he could see the scurrying mice as they pulled tufts of fur from pieces of hide scattered around. “Yes,” he thought to himself, “the scavengers have done their work well. The mice will have nice, warm nesting chambers and rear many young this year. I will feed well this next winter.”
It had been several hours since the angry water had filled the ravine, and the old man and boy had safely crossed to the other side. As they approached the rocks where Bear’s den was, the boy ran ahead. He circled the rocks and soon found the small entrance. He squatted down and threw many small rocks into the opening, to make sure there were no snakes inside, and then crawled into the hidden space.
The old man found a comfortable place and sat waiting for the boy to finish his explorations. This was his eldest grandson, and the old man was very proud of him. He would become a fine man and a benefit to the tribe. The Spirits had told him, before the boy’s birth, that he would have many grandsons, but the eldest would be blessed by Manitou and become a great shaman. The boy had shown early promise of the fulfillment of this prophecy, and it was now time to begin his training.
“Grandfather,” he heard the boy say, “It is but a dirty hole in the rocks.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“But I thought it would be large, as befitting Bear.”
“Sometimes, the things we imagine in our youth are not what is real when we become a man.”
“Then I never want to become a man.”
The old man laughed. “Boy, unless you believe as Bear did, then you must be as Manitou has made you to be.”
“Why do you never call me by my name, but only Boy?”
“Little Tree is the name man gave you. You were blessed by Manitou before you were born. I will call you Boy, as Manitou made you, until Manitou gives you a man’s name.”
“And is that why we have made this journey?”
“And when will Manitou give me a man’s name?”
“Tomorrow, you will begin your fast and vision quest, and it will be decided by Manitou when you are prepared to receive your name. Come, let us eat the food we have and drink. It may be days before we eat again.”
As the boy was unwrapping the food left over from the morning meal, he asked, “And when I receive this name, will I be a man?”
Again, the old man laughed, “No, Manitou honors you with a name, but it is your actions that make you a man, and show that you deserved the honor given you by Manitou.”
“I will do my best.”
“That is all Manitou requires.”
“Will you tell me another story?”
“When you have received your name, I will tell you the story of the Frog and Beaver Brothers.”
I’d like to give a special thanks to Blue for editing this for me, and especially for the awesome graphics he drew for the story.