Extra Scenes: Smokey Bear novel
For avid readers (like movie fans who like to see extra scenes) here are some of my favorites left out of the final book. For writers, you can see how I composed scenes in my early drafts, and why I later cut them for the final book..
6/07/2014 (c) Karen Signell Smokey Bear
SCENE: Early draft of a Preface to the book:
Early reasons to include in the draft:
Back around 2001, as I sat at my desk wondering how to begin Smokey’s story, the Great Horned Owl (whom I knew near my home in the mountain) entered my mind and wanted to begin the book. And so he did. Looking back now, I wondered why I kept the scene in the drafts for so long. I suppose I honored the intuition that he’d be a wise storyteller to frame the book. Perhaps a fantasy helped me and readers enter the storytelling. I wonder now whether the owl harkened back to my early childhood book of the Wise Old Owl who advised me as a child.
Reason to omit it in the final book, and, instead, substitute a Preview of the cub during the fire:
I realized that readers now-a-days want an exciting preview, and then want to plunge right into the first chapter of the story.
Early Draft of the Preface
Through the thick walls of our log cabin, I heard the Plymouth Suburban gun up the hill and sputter to a stop, then Dad’s footfall on the porch and a click as the kitchen door opened. “Toots! Here’s something right up your alley. It’s a wild animal you’ll have to see.”
My father knew me well—how I’d bleat, “Mah-ah-ah, Rosabel!” so my slit-eyed goat would come trotting up to me with her milk bag swaying, followed by the flat-footed Muscovy ducks waddling behind her. He knew I especially liked to watch wild animals in our Maryland woods. I’d wade up the creek to see frogs plop into the water, and I’d creep through the pine-strewn woods breathing softly, to stand so close to rabbits that I could see their noses twitch.
Dad put his hat on its peg, reached into his jacket for a folded newspaper, and smoothed the front page onto the kitchen table. The headline announced, “SMOKEY BEAR ARRIVES AT THE ZOO.”
[Note: Some of what followed in the early Preface—not shown here—was relegated to a Backstory of the final book.]
[Early Preface later resumed]
At last I was perched high in the mountains of Colorado where I unearthed the papers from the musty trunk. My older eyes saw wonderful photographs, but a manuscript of childlike fantasy about a sweet-bear-cub-saved-from-a-fire-to-live-happily-ever-after-at-a-zoo. I realized I would have to ferret out the story of what Smokey had actually encountered in his life as reported by eyewitness accounts. That much seemed possible. But there was one big gap. What had happened to him in the forest before the fire? Here I found one slim clue. The vet who had saved his life considered him quite small and underweight for his age. Why?
Twilight approached. I remained at my writing desk rummaging in my mind for what might have happened.
Suddenly the call of a great horned owl, “Hoo-hoo-hoo … hooo-hooo” summoned me. In the twinkling of an eye, I was entering the woods in a daze of imagination, my senses alert to the forest around me: the husky-musky scent of skunk stealing past my nostrils, the whine of a mosquito, and the crackle of twigs and dry leaves on the ground as a chipmunk flashed his stripes and disappeared.
Ahead, at the edge of a small clearing was the owl’s favorite evening vigil. I emerged from the woods, and looked up. Was it in my mind’s eye, or was the great horned owl really there? I saw him standing on sturdy white-feathered legs atop the high stump of a decapitated tree. His talons curved over the edge and gripped the bark. The twilled pattern of his feathers blended so well with the roughly-corrugated gray bark that he seemed an outgrowth of the old dead tree. He eyed me from his pedestal above with a hypnotic stare from the black centers of his straw-colored eyes.
The soft-slanted rays of the twilight sun brightened the white bib at his throat, and then the sun, in its descent, suddenly flared to backlight his impressive two-foot frame. He had the great horned owl’s distinctive silhouette of feathered ear tufts that dramatically jutted upward like horns above his rounded head. And he had the dignified bearing of a mature and seasoned owl.
Time seemed suspended until something rustled nearby that sounded like dry beans rattling in a gourd. There it was again, the tik-tik of a chipmunk. A strange smell wafted my way, making the hairs on my right arm prickle. Over on my right came a rumbling guttural sound that resonated through the soles of my boots.
The mountain lion slipped out of the bushes on padded feet, tightened her thick haunches, and lifted her lean body with sinuous smoothness onto a tree limb below the owl. She reclined in a languid way, her thickly-furred tail slung carelessly down. The intelligent-looking head was topped by small rounded ears, and her pink nose twitched. The cougar’s muscular six-foot body and silent bearing exuded an awesome wildness.
The owl commanded my attention again. With a distinct feeling of unreality, I raised my eyes to see the owl open his beak and snap it shut with the “clack-clack” sound of wooden sticks whacked together. At that moment the owl gurgled hoarsely as if he was about to speak. He swiveled his head to stare at me. An imperative voice announced, “We know what happened to the bear cub in the early days before the fire.”
The next Scene, the Backstory, followed the previous one (above) in an early draft of the Smokey Bear book.
Early reasoning for animals to tell the story:
I suppose I wanted to let myself, and readers, enter into another world, the animals’ world, where the animals are the storytellers. I think these animals spontaneously came to mind because I needed to immerse myself in the Wild that I’ve known up close, remembering the great cat I once felt to be so muscular and heavy pressed against my chest,, and the chipmunks I loved to see in the mountains. And I relished the fun of describing the owl, the big cat, and the chipmunk.
Why the lead-in sentence offering readers a chance to skip this violent scene? I wanted to signal that the backstory was an exception in the book. Although readers are accustomed to animal books filled with lots of violence and loss, this book, instead, would be one of tender-heartedness and inspiration. And, though I wrote the book mainly for adults, especially animal-lovers, I wanted to give them, and, especially young readers, the choice to be spared this violent scene.
I also thought that having other animals recount what happened would give the reader more distance from a harsh emotional impact. Why have the attack at all? One reason to have the attack was to explain the fact that the actual cub, according to the vet, was, indeed, a runt. And, perhaps, in my lifework as a therapist, I was aware of how some people have needed healing from trauma; likewise, in the Wild, most cubs have probably experienced some trauma that needs healing.
I retained the story of an attack in another form. It seemed much better to integrate it into the story, where the difficult interactions between the mother bear, cub, and crow could reveal their personalities as they first avoided, and later moved toward healing the trauma.
To the reader: Skip the owl’s back story here if you wish to be spared the violence in nature.
Great Horned Owl speaks:
“We all know the story. Smokey’s life began in tragedy. The mark of death was upon him, as well as the mark of life. He was the runt compared to his robust litter-mates. From the time he was only a few inches long, suckling in the winter cave high in the mountains, the two bigger ones pushed him aside so he couldn’t get enough of his mother’s milk.
“But Smokey was a plucky bear—the first to scramble onto his mother as soon as she leaned onto her back to let the cubs nurse. He clamped onto the nearest teat and fiercely held onto Mother Bear’s fur with his paws and curved claws. More often than not, though, the other cubs knocked him out of the way, so they grew bigger and stronger while he grew weaker.
“We knew his mother as ‘Gersa.’ She was a special friend of mine from an early age and confided in me. We had a Night Affinity. Gersa came from a long line of medicine bears that made their den in the old Spirit-Bear Cave, an unusually large place for hibernating. Rumors said that deep within the cave was a maze of tunnels leading to a secret chamber.
“Gersa was a young mother and a good one. As time went on, she tried to include the littlest cub at her breast, but the long year of drought had left her with only a thin layer of fat by early spring. Her milk began to run dry. She grazed nearby on chartreuse grasses that poked through the late-melting snow, but they were not yet plentiful enough. So Gersa had to seek food farther from the cave, even though she worried about the cubs being alone.
“Careful to leave them only in bright daylight, she made excursions deep into the forest as quickly as she could. She tore bark off fallen trees with her great paws to gather up fat grubs with her long tongue, and stomped on scurrying ants to lick them off the bottoms of her feet. To find an abundance of even more nourishing food, Gersa began to venture above the timberline to a rock scree where she turned over boulders to eat quantities of larvae and newly hatched moths.
“One day when she rushed back from foraging and heaved her back onto the earthen floor of the cave so the three cubs could nurse, the little runt hadn’t even reached a breast before the other cubs shouldered him aside. Gersa tried to make room for him, but wondered whether she should stop trying so hard to feed the little one. That day she began to relinquish hope for him, thinking he’d probably die anyway.
“But Gersa told me later that in the days that followed, whenever she searched his face, expecting a dull look of defeat, she’d always be surprised by the look of determination in his eyes, and she’d think, ‘This one is a struggler. If he can’t be fat, maybe he can be lean and lucky.’ She’d say to herself, ‘With that sparkle in his eyes, my young one can do anything!’
“Mother Bear thought, this tyke resembles his strong-minded father, who’s a rogue at heart. This one’s a rascal. From seeing the gusto and curiosity the little cub could muster at times, she knew that he, too, was restless for adventure. Of course, Gersa wouldn’t expect a mate or son to stay nearby. She knew male bears left home when they were young and roamed throughout their life. This cub’s father had roved afar. If their son lived, free to pursue his inquisitive spirit, would he even surpass his father? Go past the boundaries, to the land far beyond? Such dreams—and also forebodings—she harbored deep inside.
“Finally the bear had to admit that she didn’t have enough milk for all three. And whenever the smallest one did try to suckle after the others, there was no milk left for him. He became weak and listless. The little fellow was still curious, and sniffed every corner of the cave with what energy he had, but he slept a lot. The day came when Gersa knew she had to face the sad truth, and follow The Way of the Ancient Mothers of the Forest: Let nature take its course for those who have no chance to survive.
“Mother Bear argued against her love and hopes for the little one, saying to herself that it would be merciful to let him go. It would give the other two a better chance of survival. She was ready to stop feeding him altogether when something quite unexpected happened.”
Great Horned Owl paused in his story and turned his head toward the mountain lion.
Leona moved her long muscular body into a crouch with her legs drawn under her as if ready to spring. She lobbed her tail from side to side. It hit the branch below with a rhythmic thump. Then the big cat slowly raised her neck and chest to command attention, and turned her head toward the Great Owl.
Mountain Lioness speaks:
“Excuse me, great horned owl, my old friend. This is where I come in. Let me spare you searching to find wise words for what comes next. It was bloody and raw. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m a carnivore. We have no choice. We kill to eat. But nothing is wasted. What we don’t eat, the buzzards and the maggots clean up. That spring it was slim pickings for me and my kittens. I had seen two bear cubs near the entrance of a cave. Tumbling and scrapping. They looked fat and juicy enough for my four little ones. I bided my time.
“One day I crouched and waited, silent, until Gersa left the cave to forage. The two cubs were playing outside the cave entrance. Growling and play-wrestling as usual. I was perfectly still. Then I pounced. Killed one cub with a quick slash. Closed my teeth around the other at the scruff of its neck. It growled and squirmed and squealed. I didn’t want Gersa to hear the commotion, so I quickly silenced it. I ate some of the meat for strength. Then I seized both their bodies in my mouth and carried them back to my starving ones. My kits fought over the remains. I would call it a most satisfactory hunt.” Her long tongue slowly licked her lips.
Leona stopped her narrative for a moment and looked up at the owl. “Don’t stare at me like that! I know what you’re thinking. I should have taken the runt instead. That’s the Predator Law of the Forest: Cull the weak, the sick, the stragglers. Let me set the record straight. I had surveyed the whole scene. But I hadn’t seen a third cub—the runt—or I would have taken him first. He must have been too weak to play outside the entrance with the others.
“But the tiny cub must have witnessed all that gore and mayhem from inside the cave without moving or making a sound. Or I would have caught him too. I must have loomed like a monster to him in the bright light outside the cave entrance. I hope that image of death won’t haunt him the rest of his life.”
When the rumbling voice of the big cat stopped, it was quiet for a while in the woods. The great horned owl closed his eyes, as if deep in thought. I waited to hear his response, but he leisurely lowered his head to preen some breast feathers and set them right. Then he stood on one leg and lifted his other foot to poke his beak into the small feathers at his toes, then nibbled at his talons. He took his time with the other foot.
Great Owl speaks.
“Thank you, Leona, for being so candid. It was a ruthless task you carried out. I know it must have left the runt with a nightmarish lesson about how harsh the world can be. But it also must have given him the hope and strength to survive terrible things to come. Of course, legend now says that the Great Spirit of Sun and Earth must have saved the cub for a special destiny.”
Great Owl looked down at the ground.
“It’s your turn, Chittery. I hear you darting among the bushes, and I see that fluffy brown tail bobbing up and down. Come closer so we can hear you. Remember, a Daylight Truce is in force. None of us big ones will harm you. I know how vulnerable you small animals feel, as if someone might pounce on you any minute, or, in my case, swoop down and seize you with my talons.”
A tiny chipmunk perched upright on a low branch. He was a Tamias minimus, a least chipmunk, with two white lines streaking above and below his sparkling eyes. He spread his arms as wide as he could beyond the sides of his fat white belly as if proclaiming to a wide audience.
“Oh, yes, indeedy! It’s many a time in life that I’ve escaped by the tip of a whisker. That’s what makes an optimist of me, you see. I’ve really no choice at all. Oh, no. To dwell on dark and fearful things—a nervous wreck I’d be. I’m fast and I keep an eye out, I do, but go cheerfully about my way. Life is to enjoy. There are interesting things to see, and I’m not one to be wanting to miss anything.
“It’s not for my own pleasure that I be talking to you about what happened that day. It’s hard to think about, it is. But since I’m the only witness, it’s my story to be a-telling. And well I’m used to telling the story by now. Run and hide I did, lickety-split. By and by the forest was quiet again. Gersa was still away. I scurried as fast as I could over to the cave, hopped up on a low branch, and waited. Not for long. Mother Bear was running home fast, panting. Paused at the entrance. Jerked her head around this way and that, drooling. Rose up on her hind legs and sniffed, she did, with that big nose of hers.
“Then Gersa let out a mighty roar. Loud enough to wake frogs-in-the-mud. Into the cave she trudged. Frantically searched this way and that. Scratched the earth at the entrance, flared her nose wide and searched the bloodied ground with it. Then slump she did, to sit down next to the scuffed up place. As if in a daze she was, swaying back and forth, moaning and wailing. So sorry for Gersa, I felt. Then … oh my … I shall never forget how she reached over to nudge some tufts of fur on the ground. Drew them toward her body and lay the pads of her paws on them. So sorrowful it was, I couldn’t help a-crying for her. It shattered my heart, it did.
“Then, surprise of all surprises. It’s sharp hearing I have, and in the stillness that followed, I heard a small mewing. From the back of the cave, it came. Gersa must have heard it, too, for she sat straight up and turned her head around. Then, as if she couldn’t believe she’d really heard anything, down she slumped again.
“I’m only a wee chipmunk, but I was mightily tempted to dash over and cuff her one on the rump and say, ‘Wake up, you big lunk. By jiminy, that’s your cub, alive!’ But I wasn’t a-needing to. A desperate high-pitched scream cut the air, it did, and fell to a quavering cry, like to pierce my heart. Gersa, without a doubt this time, her massive head did turn. Toward the sound. She recognized who it was—the wee one. ‘Oh, thank the Spirits! You’re still here. My dear little runt! Where are you?’
“In the blink of an eye, I saw the silhouette of her great hulk of a body lurch over to a dark niche at the back of the cave. Reached in, she did, and scooped up that tiny cub. He clung to her, crying in loud gasps. Gathering him to her furry breast, she laid her head next to his shaking body. So gentle she was. With her soft rumblings, his cries subsided to little whimpering sounds.
“‘Let me see you by the light of day,’ Gersa said, ‘and make sure you’re all right.’ She brought him out of the cave into the sunlight. She stood so close to me I could inhale her heavy bear-smell and feel her breath blow air across my fur. Perfectly still I stood, to blend into the old leaves and bark. Hardly daring to breath, I was. Gersa sat down and placed the cub on the ground between her spread legs. To turn over his small body with her front paws. ‘You seem perfectly fine. Unscathed. But, little bear, how did you get your belly so dirty?’ Mother Bear patted Smokey’s furry sides and gray dust rose from his body.”
“‘After, uh, it happened, I crept to the back of the cave and burrowed into the old ash-heap. To hide.’
“‘And so you did! Let me clean you up.’ She started to lick his belly clean with her big slurpy tongue.
“Giggly sounds spilled from his throat, and he gasped, ‘Stop! Don’t! It tickles!’ His laughter got wild. Hysterical it was. Mother Bear stopped and the cub squirmed out of reach, still breathing fast, still wide-eyed from everything. Gersa, she waited until he was himself again.
“She rubbed his body back and forth with her paws. Out came puffs of fine gray powder. They formed a cloud around him and they both coughed. ‘Why, you’re full of ashes! So, maybe you should be called ‘Ashy Bear.’
“‘And look at this charcoal all over your face! Others will nickname you The Coon if you don’t watch out.’ The little bear rolled his eyes up inquiringly so the whites of his eyes showed. He sat down to lick saliva onto his paws and reached up to rub his face clean, then looked at his paws with dismay. His pads had a layer of thick charcoal.
“Gersa said, ‘You’re smearing it. Here, I’ll do it.’ As if the cub knew what was coming. he scrunched up his face, pressed his eyes closed, and leaned away from her. But Mother Bear held his head with one big paw, wiped the black smudges off his face, and said, ‘Now, you’re a proper black bear.’
“Then the mother ear noticed the streak of black smeared down his cinnamon-colored back. ‘That must be charcoal from the wall,’ she said. ‘We don’t want anyone to mistake you for a skunk, do we?’ His rounded ears spread out, they did, as his wide smile flashed at her, so happy he was to laugh with her.
“Gersa said, ‘No, I’ll never let them call you a skunky bear, my little one. You don’t even smell of skunk. But I sense the smell of smoke about you. You have come out of fire-and-ashes. What shall we call you? ‘Ashy Bear’? I think I’ll have a Gathering of the Animals for a naming ceremony and see what the other animals think.’”
“Mother Bear paused a moment and her voice reverberated low and earnest at the sky, ‘Thank you, Great Guardian of the Forest, for sparing this one.’”
Chittery’s voice stopped. He turned to the owl. “So that’s how it was, Great Owl. I swear by my family honor, including all my cousins.”
Great Horned Owl speaks:
“You told the story well. Thank you very much, Chittery.”
Great Owl paused, stretched out his wings to their full wing span and flapped them vigorously until they were a whirr of motion that swirled a breeze down to those of us below. He settled his suit of feathers back onto his body and resumed.
Great Owl continues:
“We all know what happened next: preparation for the Gathering we witnessed under the Great Pine Tree. Others know it from legend.”
The Great Owl shifted his position, stretched out each leg, curled and uncurled his talons, then shook his feathers with a shuddering motion and settled them again. He swiveled his head to include the other two members of the delegation in his gaze: Leona the mountain lion and Chittery the chipmunk. Then he turned to look at me with his steady, even friendly, pale yellow eyes.
“So this concludes the animals’ history of the bear cub when he was very young. It’s now best for a human author to continue the rest if the story, now that you have our background. We will visit you again in our Postscript to the novel. Meanwhile, if you would be so kind, please tell it as much as you can from the cub’s point of view. Imagine how he experienced his life. Let him place his own paw prints on history!”
“Begin the story where we left off—just before the Naming Ceremony, and tell about the good days the cub spent in the forest with his mother and his friend the crow, before he met his fate.”
The owl rose on whisper-soft wings and disappeared into the night. The cougar and chipmunk were gone. The woods were empty again. I shook myself awake. I gazed through the window over my desk at the low moon and the stars that studded the sky, and silently thanked the muses for their help.
Draft of an early scene of Chapter 1:
Reasons for the chapter:
As a writer, this beginning came to me spontaneously. Now I can guess where it came from. To enter a cave in an ‘active imagination’ exercise has long been a special way for me to enter the unconscious (besides dreams). So, too, I imagined, might a reader enter the story. Was I influenced by remembering the book Clan of the Cave Bear which has impressed me through the years? Probably. It was easy to picture the cub in a cave, an easy place for me as a writer and an easy one for readers to imagine. I admit that this was a lazy choice, because I knew that bears don’t usually hibernate or live in caves, but, all in all, I’m glad I chose it.
By having an initiation with a naming ceremony, I might have been grasping for more gravitas for the book, and thus wanted his mother and all the wild animals to launch the cub into a life with a special destiny. Also, in the process of writing chapters about his early life in the wilderness, I faced a dilemma: It became awkward to refer to the cub repeatedly as ‘the cub,’ or ‘he’ or ‘the fellow.’ Yet, how could the real cub already be called ‘Smokey’? So I had a naming ceremony in the Wild.
The reason why I finally omitted the chapter from the book:
The book became too long. I had to sacrifice whatever wasn’t essential to the movement of the story. After realizing how sophisticated the rest of the book had become, the chapter also seemed too childlike. I decided to omit a naming ceremony. I also presumed that a reader could accept calling the cub ‘Smokey’ from the very beginning.
Without wilderness no fish could leap and flash, no deer could bound soft as eternal
waters over the field; no bird could open its wings and become buoyant, adventurous,
valorous beyond even the plan of nature. Nor could we. Mary Oliver
The cub followed the mother bear’s big rump through a labyrinth of tunnels deep into their cave. When they reached the innermost recess of the Spirit-Bear Cave, Gersa stopped at a large hole in the stone wall. The runt saw her crawl through the opening and disappear. He uttered a shrill howl. He raised himself to peer inside but it was too dark to see what lay ahead. Then, not wanting to be left behind, he plunged headfirst through the hole and plopped into a small space. The first thing he saw was a shaft of light from the high roof that beamed its rays against the far wall. The cub gasped at what was highlighted in a niche there: an enormous bear skull.
The empty eye sockets drew the cub to the skull as if against his will, and he stretched his body so his paws could reach the edge of the niche. The fur on his back stuck out stiff as he leaned his head forward to sniff. There was only a musty smell, and he backed off, staring at the vacant eyes.
Gersa said, “My mother brought me to this special place. Come here. I must clean you all over for your naming ceremony tonight.” She licked his head first, then started to comb and fluff the fur on his head with her claws, but the cub wrenched his body away to stare at the empty eyes on the skull.
He asked, “Who is it?”
“It’s the skull of a bear. From the time when our ancestors were huge and walked the earth unafraid. You’ve come from an unbroken chain of bears: your grandmother, your great grandmothers … going back to the earliest time.”
The cub huffed. “But how did the skull get here?”
“Some say it was washed here in a great flood back when these tunnels were underground rivers. Others say that hairy people long ago placed it in the niche. Every creature since then who has seen the skull wonders whether it holds the secrets of birth and death.”
Mother Bear began to groom again with vigorous licks of her tongue over the cub’s entire body. He squirmed out of reach and asked in a small voice, “Does it know where my brother and sister went?”
“Yes. Back to the Great Beyond where they came from.”
“Is it like when I wake up in the morning, and I’ve been somewhere else?”
“Something like that. It’s a mystery. The bear skull would know, but he could never tell. Even I can’t tell you. All I know is that we wake up into this life and can’t remember where we’ve come from.”
The cub asked, “Where did I come from?”
“From my belly, to be born in the cave.”
The cub sat and furled his brow. “But where did I come from before that?”
Gersa pondered a moment. “Oh, my cub, how can I answer that? We only know there’s a Great Mystery. We live our life here until we return to the Great Beyond.”
Mother Bear finished licking. The cub looked fresh and keen, and his mother appraised him with proud eyes. As they squeezed their way back out of the room, the cub said in a hushed voice, “I’ll never forget the skull. It can see what I can’t see.”
Gersa replied, “Yes, little one. It knows about the great round: the great round of life and death. Remember the skull so you can cherish life … and meet your end well, whenever it comes.”
It was not surprising to the forest animals that Mother Bear wished to have a Gathering. They assumed she wanted to commemorate the tragic death of her two cubs as well as celebrate the survival of the remaining one. Gersa was respected—and also a little feared—by other animals for her great knowledge and strength. But overall she was well-liked. Everyone felt melancholic about her loss, so when she asked certain friends to come, they agreed.
Late evening approached. A short procession of chosen animals made their slow progression toward the Great Pine. Mr. Snake led the way to witness for the Scaly Creatures and the Insects. Ms. Frog came next, as one of the Mud-and-Water Dwellers in the streams and lakes. Chittery the chipmunk followed, on behalf of the Ground Creatures and Burrowing Ones. And, last, but not least, came the great horned owl to represent All the Creatures of the Skies and Forests. Since the tragedy had been so recent, the mother bear couldn’t quite bring herself yet to invite a member of the cat family. However, she smelled Leona’s scent, and knew that the stealthy cougar must have hidden herself behind the dense bushes nearby earlier in the evening. From there, the big cat could hear quite well, but not be seen through the thicket. The animals waited. Nightfall was black. The next moment the moon slipped from under the heavy cloud cover. Cool luminous light flooded the clearing and cast the dark shadow of the Great Pine onto the ground. In the center of the circle of animals stood Gersa. The little cub looked very small beside her. There was a lull in the wind and everyone was silent, honoring the two cubs that had died. Mother Bear’s gaze moved in an arc across the sky, as if she could see the two cubs walking up the Rainbow Bridge—to await the time she would join them at the end of her life. When the wind began to whisper in the pine tree again, Gersa nodded to the assembled animals.
Silhouetted by the night sky, she held the runt above her head toward the Big Dipper. It was the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear in the sky, whose tail pointed in the direction of the changing stars through the seasons. Thus, she dedicated her cub to the Bear Guardian of the Forest.
Still holding the cub, the mother bear lowered him to her face. She looked into his eyes. “Remember this day, my son. It’s a day commemorating your place among animals. Remember, every animal is unique and special. You are, too. There’s only one like you in the whole world. Carry the good wishes of our animal friends, assembled here, throughout your journey in life. Through the bad times, the dull times, and the good times.
“Don’t waste your life, my son! Dedicate yourself to the animals and the forest. That is a good life.” The little bear, who had been meeting her eyes and frowning earnestly as she spoke, suddenly cast down his head at the gravity of carrying such trust.
The naming came next. Gersa listened attentively to each animal in turn. Mr. Snake, who knew the mysteries, announced that it would be too heavy a burden for the young cub to be named after the sacred great bear, Ursa Major, or even the little bear in the sky, Ursa Minor. He slithered forward, darted his tongue this way and that, and with a sly look in his slitted eyes declared, “Let’s give him a snappy, down-to-earth name like ‘Zigzag!’”
Next, Mother Bear stooped to peer at Ms. Frog, whose wide head now rested on her tiny fingers flat on the ground. Her bulging eyeballs, usually seen beneath heavy lids, had disappeared. She had fallen asleep, so Gersa snorted and skipped her.
Mother Bear tilted her head toward Chittery the chipmunk and asked him to speak on behalf of the small ground animals. He rose on his hind legs. In a dramatic flourish he spread his arms out to each side so his vulnerable white-furred underbelly gleamed in the moonlight. “It’s not a big name the cub will be a-needing to meet the troubles in life. A small name, I’m thinking. He’s such a wee chap. Remember the ancient animal sayings: ‘The smallest can become the biggest,’ ‘The mildest can be the fiercest,’ and ‘The last can be the first.’ How about ‘Teddy-the-Bear.’ There be a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
Then came the great horned owl’s turn to represent All the Creatures of the Skies and Forests. “After due consideration, my judgment is that the cub should have a proper title. He should be named ‘Guardian of the Forest, Junior.’ Of course, those of us who know him personally, like myself, can call him ‘Junior.’”
Gersa nodded her big head at the animals, thanking them, saying she would now consider their suggestions. The animals shifted from foot to foot as she seemed to turn her eyes inward to ponder. Everyone waited a long time. Finally she announced that she had decided upon a special name that should satisfy all the animals once they had heard the story behind it.
She related how the little bear had hidden in the pile of old ashes at the back of their cave. She reminded them that it was the Spirit-Bear Cave—a place where he must have been guarded by the spirits of the great bear ancestors and the early people who had worshiped them. She declared that the sanctuary must have saved him from the mountain lion. The mother bear told how she found her cub’s fur marked by ashes and charred wood.
Gersa rose to her full height, towering over the other animals, holding her son aloft for all to see. “I name this cub ‘Smokey’—the one who rises from the ashes.”
6/07/2014 (c) Karen Signell: Early Draft of Chapter 3
Reason to include:
While writing the book, I was enchanted to hear someone tell me the true about their rescue of an injured tiny flammulated owl who then lived with her awhile. I became eager to incorporate this in the book. Perhaps I was especially keen from my remembering how moving it had been to have once rescued orphaned baby owls, so small that I could cup all the fluffy little beings in my hands. And it would add an unusual story for the crow to recount about his life in a human house.
Reason to exclude:
I needed to reduce the size of the book, and although I was very fond of the little owl, I heeded the harsh saying, ‘an author needs to kill his darlings.’
Men have forgotten this truth, but you must never forget it. You remain responsible forever for
what you have tamed. Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The crow told Smokey that the human’s house had a very small family living together, although friends and relatives from their flock of people dropped by from time to time, but never to roost for the night. The family were always cawing at each other just like crows, but not in a boisterous way, with everyone talking at once as if they were really enjoying themselves. But in time, Strut grew to like their voices, calm and friendly, lilting up and down like songbirds.
“The most remarkable thing was that human animals don’t seem to have tails! Or any fur or feathers. Not the father, the mother, the son or the little girl. Instead of wings, they have arms, and instead of bills they do everything with their hands. The adults and young people stand on their hind legs like you bears sometimes do, but they have to walk upright all the time—except when they sit on some wooden sticks. And, of course, they can’t fly at all.
“And did you know that human cubs crawl on their hands and knees? Just like crows can’t fly at first. The babies are much more awkward than bear cubs like you, Smokey, who can walk so easily on all four feet. I had a chance to see a baby that could only lie, sit, or crawl. He came to stay sometimes in the afternoon. He had the softest skin, like the delicate pink skin that our newborns have. I liked his baby-smell; it was so fresh and good. Except when he pooped in his diaper. It’s an odd thing: Human babies aren’t as well-mannered as ours are. You know, baby crows always hold their tails outside the edge of the nest. Anyway, he would watch me and wiggle-waggle his chubby arms and babble and burble. I sang back gurgly-garbly sounds—the same kind crows make in the roost in the evening, and I became rather fond of the little fellow.
“Do you want to hear what it felt like to be in a house? It’s very strange.”
Smokey nodded with enthusiasm.
“After I was carried down the mountain, I woke up in a small box. I could see over the open top that the box was enclosed in a large metal cage. I was a prisoner! The first day I felt dizzy anyhow, and didn’t stir from the box to even explore the cage. The next day, though, I raised such a rumpus pecking and rattling the cage that they let me loose in the house during the day. The human house is like an enormous box. There are only windows and screens here and there to look out, with a ceiling keeping you from flying out. A terrible change, when you’re used to being able to go wherever you want in the sky.
“Inside the house, Smokey, you can’t even see stars at night. Imagine being in a house. You can’t hear anything outdoors, except the noisy buzz of cars and the clash of machinery. When you wake up in the morning you can’t hear the forest come to life, and through the day you miss the rustle of trees, and the sounds of insects and other animals. You have no idea what’s happening outdoors.
“Instead, oddly enough, humans know what’s happening far away. In the living room they have a flashing black box, that they watch after the sun goes down, like night-owls. They study their enemies—bad people hunching up their shoulders in a menacing way, yelling and shooting at each other. The black box sometimes has people talking and joking with each other on shows. That makes the adults and young cubs in the living room laugh, though I found the shows very boring.
“The shows I liked best had people singing beautifully, one song after another, like mockingbirds that sing one song after another. The singers went,’Trraah-lah-lah-LAH-lah-lah.’ Sometimes I’d imitate them, ‘Craah-cah-cah-CAH-cah-cah,’ and everybody would look at me like they couldn’t believe it. Then I started imitating the father’s laughter: ‘Yuh-ha-ha!’ and the way he’d call out to his wife when he got home, ‘Oh HON-ey!’ My imitation made Oh Honey and everybody else really laugh.
“They had a funny-looking wooden bird on the wall. Sometimes I’d imitate the bird. I’d leap forward and bob up and down stiffly and call, ‘Cuckoo, cuckoo,’ the same number of times the wooden bird had just done. Of course, all animals know that crows can count very well, but the humans would point at me in amazement.
“And in the black box at night they have shows about animals in the wild, like us. I’d have fun imitating those animals too. I wish you could have seen the show about a group of animals who looked just like people—except they had thick fur all over and long skinny arms for swinging through branches. They were always chattering ‘chaka-chaka-chaka.’ They scampered on all fours, had long tails, and had fun playing.
“And listen to this! In winter, the furry-looking ones came out of the snowy forest to get into a hot spring. Only their heads showed—like frogs suspended in water. They looked warm and contented, with a far-away look in their eyes. Caaah. If only I could soak like that some day. Of course, any bird knows that hot water melts the oil in your feathers and gets you wet. Oh, Smokey, on the flashing black box you see so many tempting things you can’t ever do! It must be very frustrating for people.”
Smokey declared, “Well, I, for one, would like to at least see those things, even if I can’t do them!”
“Caw! I almost forgot to tell you, Smokey, about the pets in the house. During the day when they let me out of the cage I’d fly around and play with Jet, the small puppy. I would dive-bomb him whenever I felt bored. He’d go into a frenzy and bark, but couldn’t jump high enough to harm me, so he was lots of fun to tease.
“I was left alone in the house with the pets during the daytime while the humans went out foraging. But one morning I remained out of my cage when the Two-Legged Ones left, and found myself alone in the house—with a mountain lion. Oh, Smokey! More than anyone I know, you can imagine how startled I was. I’d been standing on the window sill, watching this neighborhood lion through the window when she suddenly leaped onto the window box just outside. I quickly faded behind the curtain at the side of the window so she couldn’t spot me. She pounced on a lizard in the window box, pawed it, and played with it until she finally ate it. Then she crawled through the half-open window past me and lowered herself to sit on the sofa.
“Hardly breathing, I peeked down at her. She had long gray hair, quite unlike our mountain lions, and was about your size—if you don’t include her long tail. Luckily, she was too busy licking her paws and cleaning her whiskers to notice me. Then she saw a sunspot on the sofa and lay down on it.
“She looked mild-mannered and had a small pink nose. So I crept closer along the top of the sofa. I could hear her purr. She rumbled like Mother Bear when she sleeps and snores in the cave—errrh, errh—but much more softly. Then she discovered me. The tip of her tail twitched, her back arched, and she menaced me with her slitted eyes. I hastily backed off, ready to launch myself into the air if need be, and stayed at a safe distance. Caw! Caw! All morning I kept a careful watch on her ‘till she stretched, jumped to the top of the sofa, and went out the window.
“Now, Smokey, I have to caution you about humans: They hold your fate in their hands. You should know that some animals that stay with humans can’t ever go back to the forest. Do you want to hear a cautionary tale of what happened to another pet in the house? I’ll bet you’ve never heard anything like it.”
Smokey hesitated, gulped, and nodded briskly.
“It’s a story about Wee Willie, a miniature owl. So tiny that he hardly came up to the top of my legs. During the daytime he slept high up, in the corner of the room, his feet gripping the curtain rod. Sometimes he’d slide open his eyelids, and looking like a very wise little owl, Willie would peer down at me as if pondering why a crow was in the house. I’d turn my head to return his look. His eyes had an intelligent gleam, and despite his injury, he had a jaunty way about him like he was a happy little guy.
“This is the strange thing. When it grew dark, without any warning, I’d feel a breeze ruffle the feathers on my back and I’d know he was silently skimming over my night-time cage. Back at the curtain rod during the day, though, he’d just stare at me, unblinking with his big round eyes, then swivel his head away as if to say, ‘Who, me? I’m not even here!’ Every time I felt that sudden swish above me, I’d shudder as if it was the great horned owl in the forest, wings spread wide with sharp talons ready to grab and crush me. Caw!
“You won’t believe what happened one morning. The night before, the owl had been fed part of a small mouse, so guess what I found next to my box when I awoke? A round hard pellet of teeth, bones and fur that the owl must have coughed up and left there. I wondered if the little fellow had meant it as a gift for me. Caaah.
“After that, the little owl and I became friends. And one time when I was in my cage for the night, he whooshed down just outside the cage and crash-landed, tumbling over his outstretched legs. He righted himself, faced me, and twisted his head upside-down to fix his eyes on me. Then he pulled his head back and forth as if he couldn’t believe I was so close.
“Then a remarkable thing happened. The owlet walked back and forth with a galumphing gait, chuttering a song. So I strutted along, dipping up and down like a pigeon doing a dance. I would never have stooped to do this with an owl in the wild! Well, you have to find things to do, or you’d get bored stiff in a house. It’s not like the forest where there are lots of things going on all the time.
“I guess I already told you the owl’s name was Willie. That’s short for ‘Wee William the Wise.’ He told me how he came to be in the house. He could hardly remember growing up in the wild. His memory got knocked out of him when he smashed into the windshield of a car. At first his head hurt and twitched. The bad thing was that Willie couldn’t fly well after that, always tilting to one side, certainly not agile enough to catch insects. He got so weak that he finally lay dying on the ground. Finally Oh Honey’s husband—the game warden Ray—found him and brought him home for his wife to save.
“At first Oh Honey used tweezers to feed the owl tiny bits of raw hamburger and chicken. Then one day she offered him another treat. She placed Willie in the middle of the empty bathtub and plopped down a fat green tomato worm at one end. No way was he going to eat that big thing! It started crawling toward him. With his keen hearing he could detect all its feet marching forward. He backed up until he was pressed against the far end of the tub. Willie puffed out his feathers to look fierce, raised the tufts on his head like fierce horns, hunkered down to stare intensely at the menace, and screeched loudly. But the fat worm kept coming closer and closer until Oh Honey’s hand reached down and rescued poor Willie. It was the same with bug and beetle experiments: too scary.
“So it was a happy day for Willie when his guardian fed him his first grasshoppers—those small brown ones. They were delicious—crunchy and juicy. So she caught enough grasshoppers to fill gallon jars she kept in the freezer. Then, snippety-snap, he could eat as many frozen ones as he wanted.
“At dusk I liked to hear Willie’s quavering call, ‘Ho ho-o ho…ho-o ho ho,’ and I’d spy him up high, clutching the curtain rod. Oh Honey would come, and he’d turn his head around and look at her fixedly. Both of his round eyes were framed by large circles of short, rust-colored feathers giving him a wide-eyed look as if to say, ‘Here I am! Don’t you want me to fly down to say hello?’
Before Oh Honey would invite him down, though, she’d always chant ‘Fan, stove, sink! Fan, stove, sink!’ to herself and go around the kitchen to check everything so he wouldn’t careen into the spinning fan, burn himself on the hot stove, or drown in the sink full of water.
“One day, I noticed that she forgot the chant. Willie had been perched motionless, eyeing her for quite a while, when he slapped his foot down, lifted his flight feathers and bent his knees to push off. I knew that he was slow in decision, but swift in execution. Sure enough, he plummeted downward … and veered toward the fan on the kitchen counter. I cawed as loudly as I could, ‘Cra-ack! Fan, stove, sink! Fan, stove, sink!’ and Oh Honey leaped to shut off the fan. She flashed me a grateful look that made me feel very special. I bent my head, Cah, and stood on one foot and then the other, as if to say, ‘It was nothing. I was just being a proper sentinel.’
“Oh Honey liked to hold out her hand to Willie, and he’d dive in his slanting way to her and cling to a finger. He’d nibble her hand with his bill, and jab at the ring on her finger. She’d nudge him away, and he’d come right back, like it was a game. They always played like that until she brought him up toward her face. She’d stroke the downy back of his neck, and Wee Willie would rub his head against her smooth cheek, smack his bill in contentment, and make soft chirping sounds. Sometimes he’d look right into her eyes for moments at a time. They were good friends. Caaah.
“This is the terrible part, though. One day a professor from the university came to the screen door and called, ‘Ruth.’ That’s when I learned Oh Honey’s actual name—and Willie’s fate. Cah! The man questioned Ruth in such a serious tone of voice that she stepped away from him, as if she was afraid.
“She led him over to Willie who was perched on his curtain rod. ‘This owl belongs to a rare species—the flammulated owls,’ he said, ‘the only small owls with dark eyes. Gives them a round, kindly look like your owl, don’t you think? Not yellow eyes that seem to stare at you with a black target in the center, like pygmy or elf owls.’
“In a very matter-of-fact way, the professor told Ruth it would be best if he could take Willie back with him to the university. He said that the owl could never live in the wild again because he couldn’t fly well enough. But he could live with others of his kind and have offspring.
“Ruth murmured, ‘Why should Wee Willie have to go? He’s so happy here.’
“The professor told her in a firm voice that she should be ashamed to keep a flammulated owl when it was needed elsewhere to preserve his kind from extinction, especially since her husband Ray was a game warden for wild animals. She placed her fists on her hips and said that Willie wouldn’t even be alive if Ray hadn’t rescued him and she hadn’t taken care of him.’
“He put his hand lightly on her shoulder and said with a softened voice, ‘I know how you’ll miss him. Of course you have some affection for the little owl—like anyone who tends a wild animal….’
“The professor cleared his throat. ‘I heard Ray was promoted and you’ll soon be moving from Capitan to Santa Fe. So it’ll only be a short drive to visit my department where you can see how he’s doing. He’ll live among other flammulated owls, and serve a useful purpose—to help preserve the species.’ Ruth looked down at the floor for a long time, then straightened up and sighed.
“It happened fast. The professor fetched a cage from the car, and Ruth found a towel to cover the outside of the cage so Willie would feel safer in the dark. Before Ruth put him in, she took one last look at Wee Willie in good-bye. She told the man how much Willie liked grasshoppers, and had him wait a moment while she fetched him a gallon jar of frozen grasshoppers.
“As the man was taking Willie to the car, I beat my way to Ruth and hopped on her shoulder. As the car drove away, I leaned my head against her cheek. And after it went out of sight, we looked up at the curtain rod where Willie had often peered down at us and we were both left forlorn! Caah.”
Smokey’s eyes were misty by the end of the story. The crow said, “Life is sometimes hard, little bear. Even though humans love you, they can’t always protect you from being taken away. Caah.
“So, Smokey, that’s what it’s like to be in a house. The walls shut you off from all the wild animals outdoors. And inside, there are people cawing to each other, a flashing box with singers, and a little owl taken away making a woman sad. Is that enough for you to hear today?”
“My head is spinning. What strange animals humans are, and what a story—to see an owl up close! Those are the most exciting stories I’ve ever heard, Strut. I want to hear all the rest sometime, after I’ve had a chance to think about all the bad parts you’ve told me.”