Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 17, 2015
Once upon a time, in a forest just beyond the deepest of the deep lakes, lived an old man named Florentine and a black bear with cataracts in his eyes. This is the story of how Florentine came to save Alonzo the bear, save him from all the small woodland creatures who mercilessly tickled and teased him (even threw little rocks at his head) to the point of a nervous breakdown. Which most bears aren’t susceptible to, but when you factor in blindness, well, things go a little differently.
Alonzo had not ever been the kindest bear in the woods. No. He had taken pleasure scaring the other creatures – the squirrels, the partridges, and mainly the foxes – sometimes just for the simple satisfaction of watching tails get big and feathers ruffle. At home in his cave later on, he would giggle, remembering the surprised looks in their eyes, the way they rushed off, who knew where. He would sometimes even fall asleep with a smile pulling at the corners of his heavy black jowls.
Though one could not say with perfect certainty, the cataracts seemed to have come on suddenly — right after an incident whereby Alonzo had shoved a stump into a foxhole one lazy spring day, and then sat on it, picking at his claws and humming a tune he’d recently heard a local blackbird singing. He did not stop to consider the feelings of the fox family trapped in the dark — the little foxes shivering, the mother fox, whose panic sent waves of fox-fright vibrating through the forest floor. Eventually, it was a badger who dug them out, while Alonzo remained perched on the stump murdering a tune, unaware that father fox had suffered his first panic attack.
One morning, soon thereafter, Alonzo woke up and could not see. Being a bear, he rubbed his eyes, thinking the mantle of slumber had had a stronger hold on him than it usually did, that he was still in the dark dreamland of his kind, ursus Americanus. But as he started stretching and groping, he realized even with eyes open and dreams done, he could not make out the pads of his paws, which he was holding and waving two inches from his nose. He started grunting, and then hyper grunting, and got scared for the first time in his life.
At this point, to give credit even to so clueless a bear, it occurred to Alonzo that somehow, mysteriously, what he had done to the foxes had been done back to him. That a big monster, or one of those giants from the next valley, had rolled a stone in front of his lair’s opening, just for the simple pleasure of having a good laugh at Alonzo’s expense. Which would have been better than what actually happened, which is that Alonzo found his way outside, felt the gentle rain falling on his snout, and heard the morning birds singing as if nothing were wrong, as if no one in the forest had awakened without sight in their eyes. And being a visual sort of bear, Alonzo was utterly and completely lost.
It would be too heartbreaking to go into great detail regarding the weeks that followed. How the rodents and woodland birds followed him, jeering, telling bear jokes, pulling at his fur, even throwing pine cones and rocks at him from their higher perches. How every night he would fall asleep in a ball, shivering not from cold but alienation and growling hunger. After just a few shorts weeks, Alonzo could remember nothing of his former life as a carefree bear. Not how he lazily watched the river, or swatted at jumping fish. Or watched the moon come up. It was as if the veil over his eyes had also veiled his past.
Such was his state when Florentine, a blueberry picker and fixer of watches, found him: weaving from side to side, making his way timidly across a field of wild irises. Florentine approached the dehydrated and disoriented bear with gentle words. He scooped out a big handful of ripe berries from his tin picking-pail. He put them right in front of the Alonzo’s dry mouth and held very still, murmuring that it would be okay, that the berries would revive him.
Alonzo smelled the berries and then, famished to the point of swooning, ate them and all the other berries in Florentine’s pail. Despite the bear’s pitiable state (maybe because of it, actually), in a sudden flash he remembered – saw vividly — how very blue blueberries were. And how deep blue the sky was above them on a good picking day. With sweet blue juice running down his throat, he experienced inner vision for the first time, and, hypnotized by it and thinking of all the blues he had known, allowed himself to be led away by Florentine….
To be continued May 31.