Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 31, 2015
(In part one, Alonzo, an unconscious and mean-spirited bear loses his already failing sight and finds himself an object of derision from the very woodland creatures he had relentlessly tortured. He is about to give up hope when a stranger, Florentine, appears, offering the starving bear kindness… and blueberries.)
Before he knew it, he was lying on something soft, so soft he had no idea what to make of it in his mind’s eye (which he had just become acquainted with). Too tired to question, he stayed on the soft palette for hours, simply remembering all of the things he’d seen in his life. The splendor. The sweet familiarity of the world. Then, with his past gifted back to him, he experienced a deep, deep sadness. Because along with all the wonders of nature revived in him, were also the many hours he’d wasted teasing his animal brothers and sisters. He not only remembered, but felt their pain. Their fears, their beating hearts, their confusion. Especially the anguish of father fox.
When Florentine arrived in the guest room to wake up Alonzo the next morning, he found the bear sitting slumped on the edge of the feather bed trying to gather himself together. The bear-sadness in the room was so large even Florentine’s other animals — the cat, the flock of sheep, the chickens — had stopped to listen with their hearts. In the unusual dawn hush, Florentine guided Alonzo to the living room where he presented the bear with a bowl of mush and berries and played music for him on the old Victrola.
Not familiar with something called chamber music or anything remotely like it, Alonzo sat quietly, unable conjure any images (per se) in his mind’s eye. Eventually, he simply let the music course through him. Was it the food or the music that made him feel so good? He did not know. Every morning for weeks, Alonzo was fed mush, berries and music from the Victrola, and soothing words were spoken to him by his savior Florentine. Though Alonzo did not understand the reasons for the man’s kindness, he could not resist the simple pleasures and received them without question.
But, eventually, he did wonder: How long would he be permitted to stay before being returned to the forest? Why were they caring for him so? Had they been mean to bears once upon a time?
As the weeks passed and fall came with the first chill winds, all the animals stayed closer to the house. First, only the cat seemed to want to befriend Alonzo, rubbing up against him, purring. But soon enough the sheep felt comfortable milling around him, nudging him and finally the chickens started approaching, clucking and sometimes even flapping up onto his lap. One day, the cat curled up on Alonzo’s belly, which gave the bear a big, warm, fuzzy feeling. He had friends for the first time in his life, which seemed too good to be true.
So when Florentine sat on Alonzo’s bed one morning and told the bear he had something to say, it was very clear things were about to change. That this indeed had been too good to be true. Alonzo sat upright in his bed, peeled off the covers and swung his legs around. Bowed his head. Readied himself for he knew not what. He heard Florentine tell him winter was coming. That he was happy the bear had recovered his health. That he was a stronger bear than when he had arrived in Florentine’s life.
Seeing where this was headed, Alonzo stood up, as if to go. Pawed a couple times at the birch bark collar Florentine had made for him, the one that served as a handle for climbing onto the bear’s back, which he was sure Florentine would want back. Then he shook his fur as if he were wet, trying to look like a wild bear again, a bear who might survive being sent back into the forest where he would have to make restitution for all the wrongs he had done. And also do it blind. How would he manage this? He felt a lump in his throat but swallowed it, not wanting Florentine’s faith in him to waiver. He held the big bear tears back by squeezing his eyes tightly shut.
It was therefore a shock and a surprise when Alonzo heard Florentine laugh a big belly laugh. Florentine yanked the bear back down on the bed by the collar. Stroked his cheeks and neck and then put his arms around him as far as they could go.
“Silly bear,” he said as all the clocks in his house chimed the hour. “I don’t want you to go anywhere.” Florentine felt all the questions-mark muscles in the bear’s body relax a smidge. “Is that what you thought?” Alonzo sniffled. Turned his head toward his keeper and nurse and friend.
“No. Now that you’re strong I want to know if you’re willing to stay on with us. You see, every winter we are too cold here, much too cold. The snows are deep and the fireplace isn’t as efficient as it should be. It never has been. We never knew it but we’ve always needed good, warm, cozy bear energy in this cabin. To heat it up. So, though we know you’re desperate to return to your forest, we are asking you to stay. Will you stay?
It took a long moment for Alonzo to process this. Why should Florentine be so kind to him, when all Alonzo had done was allow himself to be healed? Only his bear body seemed to know what to do: He stood on his hind feet and nuzzled his licorice-y bear nose against Florentine’s white hair. He grunted. Sighed. Collapsed in gratitude on the floor so that Florentine could grab the collar and get on his back.
That winter and for all the winters thereafter, Florentine’s cabin and barn were warmed by the heat, peace and calm generated by the heart and soul of an evolved bear. The same bear who lead them, summer after summer after summer, to the sweetest and bluest blueberries in the woods. And every August, in the middle of the hottest month, they would take an entire pail of the choicest berries to the fox family, who, making a holiday of it, ate them until they were dizzy and then used the leftover juice to paint the walls of their den a deep blue, the color of the contentment.
One possible moral: In the heart of all diets is a food that is never truly tasted. May the blueberry juice of knowledge trickle down your throat and the throats of all you love.