Spring always comes, and this the bear knows. Even through the harshest of winters, the bear does not doubt it. Whether or not the bear knows this by his own smarts and cunning, or merely just by instincts, is quite unknown. Nonetheless, it knows.
When the snow began to melt and trickle into cool slim streams on top of the muddy brown earth, the bear awoke. It happened fast, the waking, like how a man awakens from a nightmare, drenched in his own sweat and confusion. The bear, however, is on a slightly different level. All thought, understanding, reason, desire, pleasure, and fear return all at once. It is as if the animal initially awakens from a dream, only to find itself on the verge of being overtaken by an icy wave in the center of a deep grey ocean. The time between the initial waking, to the moment of actually being awake, seems to fill a lifetime.
In reality, only a few moments go by from the point in time when the bear is fast asleep in hibernation to the moment of it being wide awake … But in those moments, the rush of life back into a nearly empty vessel of a creature’s body is an exhilaratingly profound moment.
At first, the bear has a sharp recollection that it can think. Not clearly at first, but in little time it becomes aware of its reanimated existence in this world. Next, and almost simultaneously, come two more recollections—that the bear must quickly relieve itself and then promptly find nourishment for survival. And not just nourishment, but it must feed on anything and everything that its still very blurry and out of focus eyes land upon. For months have gone by since the taste of food has touched the bear’s tongue, and hunger is the strongest of wills.
Next comes the task of actually moving. Its first attempt at rising to its feet will always result in failure. The muscles of the bear have not been used for many weeks, and thus have become foggy on how to perform their functions. Once muscle strength flows back into the bear, it spends many moments working its legs to function properly within the pitch black den, falling over itself it great humbleness.
Then, as its newly restored heart rate begins pumping more and more oxygen-rich blood into its muscles, the bear stands for the first time in quite awhile. For minutes he stands there, allowing his four stout, wobbly legs to gain more strength and balance, which is a small but gratifying victory. Shortly after comes the first step, quickly followed by the next. And just as it had done once as a small cub, the bear clambers up and out if its cozy den and takes a lung-chilling breath of fresh spring air.
As the smells of moist, rotten dirt and crisp freezing water fills the bear’s nostrils, instinct rushes vital information to its minimal sense of understanding. It is weak, it is hungry, and it must eat within hours in order to survive. So, after taking a moment to feebly venture a few feet from its den to relieve itself, the bear begins its sole purpose in life—to eat.
The gigantic beast will take a quick moment to gulp down cups of icy cold water through its gaping dry mouth and then sets forth with groggy haste. Signs of life are all around him. Red squirrels chatter obnoxiously over fierce territorial qualms, and hawks stealthily circle overhead watching for field mice within the brown spring grass. The bear pauses beneath a tree, staring up at a squirrel that noisily barks down at him from above. But the bear knows better than to waste its energy on such a small rodent.
So it sets out through the towering evergreen forest for a much needed meal to nourish its weak and thin body. For days the bear searched the woods, but only ever found a few dirty roots and tubers buried beneath the wet earth. What the bear didn’t know—and frankly, how could have the poor beast known?—was that the winter which it slept so quietly through was one of the worst the woods had seen in nearly a decade. So while the bear lazily slumbered beneath the freezing earth, other creatures succumbed to the freezing temperatures and weeks of sleet and snow.
The bear also didn’t know—though this time he probably should have—that during its quest for a survival meal, he had trespassed on the territory of his neighbors, the grey wolves. Proud and swift, the wolves would normally leave a creature the size of the bear alone, and the bear would happily return the favor. But the winter had been a hard time for all animals.
The starving wolf pack had feasted on the younger, weaker members during the roughest weeks, and even then the majority of the wolves had died in the icy grip of winter. With nothing to eat and the instinctual pull to feed its pregnant mate back in its den, the lead wolf knew it had to venture past its own territory in order to survive and feed its family. So, with an empty stomach and a heart full of desperation, it crossed the boundary into the bear’s territory and sought out a tiny hare.
The wolf eventually tracked down the rabbit, but it found the small creature in a very peculiar position, hanging a few feet off the ground by its long hind feet. And just as the wolf started to leap into the air, gnashing its white teeth at the hanging meal, an arrow pierced its side and punctured its lung. The wolf was dead by the time it flopped back down onto the thawing earth. The trapper, holding his bow and wiping the nervous sweat from his brow, already had a sleigh full of game and had no choice but leave the wolf carcass behind as he made his way back to his camp, many miles away.
And not too far away, a few days later, the hungry bear finally realized it was treading on the ground that belonged to the wolves. It also realized, on a deep and unconscious level, that if it were so hungry, the pack of wolves would be hungry, as well. So in a defeated haste, it turned tail and made its way back towards the land near its den. And that was when the bear found the dead wolf.
In the time from when the wolf had been shot by the trapper, to now, when the bear stumbled upon it, nothing but a lone black raven had found the chilled carcass. Taking one last greedy beak full of meat, the raven took flight and perched upon a bare branch not twenty feet above as the bear neared the dead wolf.
The bear didn’t bother to smell the air for any other nearby competition. It didn’t take a moment to gaze about for another hungry beast of burden. It only closed its eyes and delved deep into the already exposed side of the wolf’s body. Nearly-fresh meat mixed with the frozen bloody icicles was almost too much for the bear. It groaned loudly as instinct took its hold, and didn’t even realize its greedy grasp until nothing but a few bones and a light mist of gore surrounded the spot where the dead wolf had once lay.
The black bird called sourly as the bear sat on its hind end and stared out stupidly into the woods, its muzzle dyed a deep red from the blood. Slowly, and with much effort, the bear rose and began back through the woods towards its den. Unable to get much farther than a few weighted steps, the bear flopped down next to a large oak and curled itself up tightly against the roots, asleep within seconds.
The next morning, as the bear silently slept, the trapper returned with hopes of finding a still-intact wolf carcass. Of course he only found a bloody spray of remains in the snow, which was still being watched from above by the grumpy black raven. But upon a closer look, the trapper noticed a trail of bloody paw prints leading off towards a towering oak. Tightening his grip around his bow, the trapper ventured forth, cautiously stepping to the sides of the large bear tracks, and made his way to the slumbering beast. The black bird laughed loudly as the trapper disappeared into the depths of the woods.
For a moment the bear thought that perhaps it had already been another year—that, after feasting on the dead wolf, it had slept through the season and was now awakening at the start of a brand new spring. Its body was tight and in pain, its head cloudy and heavy with confusion. As the bear opened its eyes and adjusted to the morning light, it suddenly realized that something moved nearby. And then the bear smelled the moving creature—the stink of man in dirty cotton coverings.
Just then the bear smelled blood as well. It first mistook the smell of blood for that of the wolf’s, which had dried on its fur and muzzle. The bear quickly imagined—in a way that a bear can imagine—that the starving pack was now upon him, full of hungry vengeance. But the bear realized the blood smelled too fresh to belong to the late wolf.
And suddenly, like that icy wave from the deep grey ocean, the bear realized that it smelled its own blood. It realized that the pain it felt in its muscles was not that of stiffness and soreness, but that from an arrow that was dug deep into its side, at least a good six inches. Just then the bear also realized that the thing moving off to its side was the man—the trapper—that he had smelled.
As if the blood was running down into its eyes, the bear quickly rose and its vision turned an uncontrollable red. Ignoring the pain in its side, the brute lunged at the man who had just fired an ill-aimed arrow. The slim shaft of wood flew past the bear’s left ear, smacking into the oak tree trunk a few yards beyond. The trapper had just enough time to unsheathe his eight-inch blade from his belt as the bear landed on top of him in a flurry of teeth and claws. As the knife plunged into the bear’s chest, piercing its heart, the beast sank a mouthful of teeth into the trapper’s face, gouging out an eye and ripping off the man’s lower jaw.
Both creatures fell to the earth, dead, their blood mixing into one large pool of red that slowly soaked into the snowy, thawing ground. The black bird quickly found the scene and, laughing, hopped between branches above. Its laugh became deafening as the pack of wolves, which had also followed the bear’s bloody trail, came upon the two dead animals. They licked their lips as they cautiously neared the lifeless bodies.
Ten miles away, an acquaintance of the now dead trapper mushed a team of eight large sled dogs along the trapper’s trail. The cold steel of a gun pressed against the acquaintance’s side as he thought about the debt the trapper still owed him.