Three bears, Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and their daughter Baby Bear lived in a house in the woods. It was a stone house, solid and well built. Papa Bear was proud of it, he had worked hard, hauled every stone from the human stone quarry miles away through the woods. He had fitted the stones with love and care, one at a time over the course of two summers, always traveling to the quarry in the dark of night to avoid the human workers. It was a good house, with a solid oak door.
Other bears had things to say about Papa Bear’s house, the young bears who slept under trees in the woods and ate berries and fish, they were venomous – Papa Bear, they said, had become too good for them, too good to sleep on the ground, too vain to live like a bear. Papa Bear, they said, was far too conceited in his big stone house, lording it over everyone. Papa Bear paid no attention to these.
The established bear families, they were less venomous but just as dissaproving. They felt Papa Bear and his family were going human. Living in a human house, cooking food like humans, sleeping in human beds, probably wanting to be humans themselves. Papa Bear, the traitor to Bear Kind, thinking he can be human by builing a stone house and a fire. Papa Bear did not listen to these.
The old bears, cynical and experienced, who lived in caves and were feared by the young male bears, despite their waning strength, these bears merely shook their head when they spoke of Papa Bear and his big stone house. The humans would find him, they said, a stone house was no way to hide. Humans would shoot a bear just for being a bear, and they would notice, sooner or later, a bear who built a house. Hunters would spot it, the men from the quarry would see the well worn tracks between the trees. Someone would find an unusual bear and his family, and shoot them for being both bears and unusual. These Papa Bear heard, and in his heart, was disturbed.
Still, Papa Bear had a fine home and he was not about to give up his ways.
One fine day, Mama Bear was cooking. Bears are not good with fire, but Papa Bear had built a stone fireplace as an experiment, and the family found they quite liked porridge. Mama Bear, still not used to the power of fire, made a good porridge, but it was too hot by far for any of them to eat. She ladeled it out in bowls, one each for her and Papa and Baby. Then, as it was too hot, and bears in any case are not used to heated foods and require them to cool quite a bit anyway, they decided to take a walk by the stream to perhaps catch a fish and gather some berries.
Baby Bear played along the shore while Mama Bear fished. Mama Bear waded into the stream and stopped still as a stone, waiting for a fish to come by, which she would scoop out with her claws. Papa Bear watched, and wondered if there might be a more efficient way. perhaps a stick, which could be held over the water from the dry shore, and on the end of the stick, a length of string. On the end of the string, why not hook on which you could put something that a fish would want to eat? Surely fish ate something, as did everything in the forest. The fish would bite the food, and get caught on the hook.
Mama Bear caught a fish, and Baby Bear gathered berries, and then Papa bear took a branch with many small branches on it and experimented with putting it in the stream, perhaps fish would get caught in it as they swam by? It did not quite work, so Papa Bear began to think along new lines. If he were to weave fine strings into a net, the fish might not see the strings, they would be more apt to get caught. In fact, he might catch more fish than the family needed, then perhaps her could trade the extra fish for some honey with some of the bears deeper in the forest.
When Mama Bear had two fish, and Baby Bear had a large double handfull of berries, they started along the path back to the house, Papa Bear thinking of this new idea of trade and Mama Bear wondering how a fish would taste if you put it on a fire for a while. Baby Bear snuck a few berries when she thought her parents weren’t looking.
When they got back to the house, Papa was first to notice that the door was ajar. This surprised him, as he usually closed the heavy oaken plank when he left. Cautious, he quietly opened the door ahead of Mama and Baby, and stepped in. Nothing looked amiss, and Papa let the others in.
Surely Baby had left the door open when they left, it was nothing to worry about.
Mama Bear put the fish away and the family sat down to eat their porridge. This time, Papa Bear’s hackles raised and he went silent and still. Mama froze instinctively herself, then looked to her husband to see what the problem was. Papa gestured to his bowl of porridge. It had cooled enough to be thick, and very clearly, a spoonfull had been scooped from the center. Just a spoonfull, nothing more. Mama Bear looked to her bowl, and saw that a single spoonfull was missing from hers as well. They both looked to Baby Bear, who didn’t know what was going on, but was still and quiet because her Mama and Papa were. Her bowl, the smaller and faster to cool of the three, was completely empty.
Papa decided immediately that until he knew what was going on, his family was safer with him. He motioned Mama to his side, and baby shadowed her haunches. She would be fierce in her child’s defense, leaving Papa to fight unencumbered if that became necessary.
With his family close behind, he stepped into their small living room. At first all seemed well, but then he caught a gentle scent. Human. He hadn’t noticed it before, his nose full of fish and then porridge. There was a human in the house, though not in the living room – but it had been there. He walked into the room and found the scent on his chair. And on Mama’s chair, and when he came to Baby’s chair, he saw it broken, and an involuntary growl escaped him. This human was a vandal as well as a thief.
Next he led the way toward his and Mama’s bedroom. Bears do not sleep in a bed together, as they are large and don’t fit on the same bed, and as well they make love standing in the forest, and would have been startled to find what humans used beds for.
Papa’s bed was ruffled. Mama made the beds crisply and neatly every morning, but his had definitely been lain in. So had Mama’s. The human had not even bothered to straighten the sheets after. The tension grew as the one room left in the house was Baby’s, and if the human was still in the house, that is where it would be. He opened the door silently. Baby bear saw it first, and but they were all startled at once – a human child, with golden hair in braids either side of its face, was snuggled into Baby’s bed, asleep.
Mama Bear was visibly shaken – she had been prepared to fight to the death to protect her baby, but here was an infant just as vulnerable, if not more for its light frame and lack of claws. She was struck with the maternal urge to look after it. Baby Bear saw a peer, a young friend, and before Mama could stop her, she had stepped into the room and leaned over the bed. Papa saw the danger more clearly than either and made a quick move to grab his daughter, but the human child woke just then and let out a piercing scream.
Papa Bear knew as soon as he saw her that this was the greatest danger his family had yet faced. The cynical words of the old greying bears rang in his ears. This human had found his house. If they killed and ate the child, its parents would come searching the forest for her. If they let her go, she would go back and tell the other humans about the house. The only hope would have been if she never knew that there were bears here at all, and assumed when she woke that it was a house of humans she had wandered into.
When the child screamed, there was a moment of perfect stillness. Papa bear knew he had lost, he hung in mid stride, halfway to the bed. Mama Bear gasped, suddenly, as it occurred to her what Papa was thinking, and where the true danger lay. As if this sound had released her from the bonds of fear, the human child leapt from the bed while the bears stood still, she was out the window and running into the woods before any of them moved.
Mama made a move to give chase, but Papa stopped her with a gentle paw on her shoulder. It was too late, even if they could catch and kill the human. They both knew what it meant. Baby Bear did not understand, but she felt the decision being made, and began to cry, softly.
Papa Bear left the door wide open. Mama and Baby walked ahead, into the woods, and he trailed slowly and painfully behind. The old bears were right. And more than that, humans would find a net in the stream, one of them would spot a fishing stick. Sooner or later, the humans would notice anything that marked a bear out as unusual. His head hung low, he and his family gave the old stone house one final look, and walked away into the forest.