It was very cold. Snow fell in thick flakes from the dark sky as I walked towards the main street of town. Firelight flooded from the windows, turning the snow orange as it passed through the paths of light. I hurried through the growing layer of white, kicking it up over my shoes, where it fell down in and soggied my socks.
I made for the tavern to get a cup of hot cocoa before starting the trek up to my cabin. As I was about to drag open the big green door of The Jolly Werewolf, Tavern and Inn, I thought I saw movement in the dark space between the tavern and Alphonse Roebuck’s house. I took a step to the side, but I couldn’t see anything. A trickle of melting snow slipped down in my collar. I shrugged and pulled open the door.
The Werewolf had been built down into the ground a bit, so that when you went in, you had to go down several steps to reach the floor. I walked in and the tavern rumbled with life. A fire roared in the great stone fireplace, glowing across the yellow floorboards, and the dusty candles in the chandeliers had been lit. Men crowded together around little tables, their elbows in each other’s drinks, the quieter ones filling in the corners. At the bar, Mr. Tomlin Greaser slid silver mugs down the shining counter like fish flashing upstream.
“Hello, Clarissa,” he said, swatting away a little man to make room for me.
“How’s the paper?”
“Not much in it these days. No one needs to be told it’s still snowing.”
Tom turned to fumble with pots on his little stove and I glanced around the room. I was journalist and editor for the town’s only newspaper, and I always kept my ears open at the Werewolf, even though most of what was being discussed was something I’d heard a week ago.
Grundy Wallis came up beside me. “You’d better head home, Clarissa. The wind is starting to pick up.”
“Or stay here for the night,” Tom said, handing me my mug.
“No thanks, I’d better go home.” I wanted to stay, but a person in my situation has to keep up appearances.
“Well then go now and take the mug with you. You can bring it back tomorrow.”
“Thanks. See you then.” I turned and walked back up to the door. As I pulled it open, I saw a flash of white through the window, big and blurry. I thought maybe snow had fallen from the eaves. I stepped out and pulled the door shut behind me. The cold took the breath out of my throat, and snow fell in my eyes. I should take Tom’s offer and stay. I stood considering a moment, my back against the solid safety of the green wooden door. The steam rising from my silver mug caught in the wind and ripped away in wild patterns like dragon fire.
“Are you going to drink that?” A voice spoke beside me. I startled and turned to my right. At first I couldn’t see him, only a great white shape, blending into the snow, but when he glanced at me, his eyes glittered in the light from the window.
A polar bear sat there in the snow, gazing through the window of the inn.
I backed up a step, keeping my hand on the door handle. He sighed.
“Nobody asks a bear in. Nobody says, ‘Would you like a pot of hot chocolate with a marshmallow?’ No. They leave us in the cold. They don’t ask us if we like it or not.”
I stared at him. He was easily four times as big as me. He went on talking as if I wasn’t there, gazing mournfully through the window.
“Nobody asks if I want to sit by the fire for a while and hear the news. Nobody—
“I didn’t know bears were interested in the news,” I interrupted, my voice trembled a little, but news was what I did.
“You would be too if you never got to hear any,” he said, snorting.
“I am anyway,” I said, more bravely. “I’m the editor of the paper here in town.” I held out one of my cards. He took it between two enormous black claws and held it up to the light and squinted at it. I wasn’t sure if he could read it or not, but after looking at it for a moment he sighed again, ate the card, and turned back to me. He looked rather hard at the mug in my hands, still steaming valiantly.
“Oh,” I said, “Would you care for some hot cocoa? I’m sorry I haven’t any marshmallows.”
He didn’t answer, his snout already halfway in the mug. He slurped noisily for a few seconds, then ran his tongue around the sides.
“Good?” I asked as he sat back. The bear closed his eyes.
“I really should be getting home now,” I said, “Nice to have met you.” I started walking up the street, plodding through snow well above my shoes. I glanced back. The polar bear was following me. The snow barely reached the tops of his claws, and one step of his equaled ten of mine.
“What are you doing?”
He shrugged his massive shoulders. I walked on a bit, the bear beside me. At the end of the street I stopped and looked out into the black whirling dark. My cabin was nearly a mile from here, uphill. It would be stupid to try it. Too many people had been lost in storms already. I knew, I wrote about them, stubborn old people and stubborn young people, ignoring advice and trekking out on their own. I’d written their stories in tragic and cautionary tones.
“What are you doing?”
“Deciding,” I said. “It’s a long way to my cabin.”
“That little one on the hill? That’s not far at all.”
“Not for you maybe,” I said. “Wait, you know where I live?”
“If you live in that cabin.”
“And you know how to get there?”
He rolled his eyes. “I get around. I don’t sleep all day like some dumb bears I know.”
“So you sleep at night?” I asked, staring significantly up at the blackness.
He sniffed. “Often I don’t sleep at all. I dislike sleeping in the snow. It’s all very well to live in, but sleeping is another matter.”
“So get a cave.”
“I’m not welcome in any cave around these parts. They don’t consider me a proper bear.”
“The other bears.”
“Oh. Sorry.” I shuffled my feet in my wet shoes and noticed I could no longer feel my toes. “My family sort of gave me the boot as well.”
“You know, the paper and everything.” I considered. He could have eaten me anytime, but he hadn’t. Maybe he wasn’t hungry.
“Are you hungry?”
“Of course.” He looked at me and wrinkled his nose. I wondered if he smelled fear.
I took a breath. “If you’ll take me home, I’ll let you sleep by the fire.”
“If you take me home, you know, let me ride on your back, I’ll let you sleep in my cabin by my fire.”
I stamped my feet and stuffed my hands in the armpits of my coat. “I said—
“You’re asking me? Me?” He pointed at his chest with a claw.
“Under condition, yes.”
“I’m freezing here! Do you want to come?”
And then for a moment I thought my life was over. The bear thrust out a paw, picked me up, and drew me to him, closer, closer, and… chucked me over his head onto his back, where I landed surprisingly soft.
I filled my fists with his fur, snow damp, but warm. The bear lumbered through the snow, an awkward, bumbling run, but powerful and fast. The lights of town quickly faded behind us and I was blind in the dark. The bear could take me anywhere, and I wouldn’t know the difference. The wind bit my face, burning my eyes until I stopped resisting the urge and buried my face in the bear’s fur. It smelled musty and wild and a bit fishy.
We ran through the night and while I moved with the bear, it was as if I was part of him, and the paper didn’t matter so much, and everything I’d left behind was far away, even in my thoughts.
He stopped suddenly and I sat up. I felt more than saw the dark shape; a small patch of not-storm. I slid down from the bear’s back and fought the snow to my door. Going in I almost fell down when I crossed the threshold and the wind was gone.
I left the door open and lit several candles. The air inside was as cold as out. I knelt by my small fireplace and began piling on logs.
“Hurry and come in,” I called to the bear without turning around, “I want to shut the door.”
“I’m afraid you can’t,” he said, “I’m stuck.”
I whirled around. The bear’s head came into the cabin, and most of his shoulders, but the rest of him remained outside.
“Oh help!” I stood in front of him, trying to see if I could do anything. I couldn’t. He looked back at me tragically. I thought of telling him this was why people didn’t invite bears in, but I decided it was too mean.
“Try to turn a bit and squeeze in sideways,” I said instead.
He did. At first I thought he was going to turn the doorframe as well, it creaked and made disturbing snapping and cracking sounds, but finally he slipped sideways.
“Now just sort of rush in.”
The bear made a great heave and cannoned into the cabin, all on top of everything. I leaped out of the way and slammed the door shut behind him.
“There,” I said.
The bear shuffled his paws. “Hurry up with the fire, will you?” He mumbled, and tried to look smaller. I laughed and wrapped my arms around one of his legs, which was all I could manage.
Later we lay in front of the fire, empty cocoa mugs beside us. I put the candles out and we sat in the orange splash of the flames, the bear curved in a semi-circle, me leaning against his side.
“Pretty good, huh?” I said, but the bear didn’t answer. He was asleep.
Anyway, I thought, It’ll make a great story for the paper. I turned over a little. The bear’s head lay on his paws, a look of contentment on his face. I realized it was the first time I’d invited anyone into my cabin.
Or maybe I won’t write about it, I thought. Maybe I’ll keep it to myself.
I put my head down in the bear’s fur and went to sleep.