Once, there was a king who ruled a great mountain. From atop its crest, his mighty words descended like a wind upon the noble trees that lined its slopes, shaking their fragrant needles as he spoke and loosening their seeds. The seeds dispersed and sprouted offspring on the land below, and he loved them as his children.
As the king surveyed his land, looking and thinking on the lush forest over which he reigned, his gaze shone down generously, warming all upon whom it fell like rays of fertile spring. Meandering streams issued from his feet and coursed their way across the face of his kingdom, babbling and churning, carrying his soil to its every reach. And he smiled kindly on the fishes and toads that soaked within the crystal water.
Many a creature adored his kindly majesty, and took refuge in and on the earth which he called his own. Life was bountiful within his good home, making rich with music every minute, which brought endless pleasure to the goodly man who oversaw it. Bears in the mountain’s caves and fissures made their dens; rams and goats bleated up and down the steepest rocks where trees could not take root but grass and mosses carpeted and kept the stones from tumbling; deer and elk plucked the tender shoots of green that spread like cool, velvety blankets about the lower hills and valleys; in the highest spires—the sheerest cliffs that ever pierced the open sky, breaking even the winds that gasp relentless above the earth—ponderous eagles built nests to hatch and feed their young in the safest bosom of nature; even snakes and serpents, despised though they were for the evil deeds of their fathers, lurched beneath the canopy and munched the insects which the king, too, welcomed to his castle.
Then one night, amid the coldest weeks of winter’s icy grip, a great bear came sullenly, exhausted as he was, to the summit where the king had taken throne. Frost had all but engulfed his fur, spears of ice pointing like teeth from near his mouth and nose. Tears of despair seeped from the bear’s deep eyes and had begun to pile like glaciers on either of his cheeks.
“Why, poor, pathetic bear,” the mighty king said softly, “why have you ventured so far from your shelter? It is the heart of coldest winter now, and you should perish lest you thaw this ice from off your withered body.”
The bear came close up to the king, and with frigid breath whispered to his majesty, “Lovely king, to whom all upon this mountain kneel in thanks and adoration, I have dwelt for many years in the bounty of your palace, feeding on the fat of fishes in the spring, tasting many ripe berries and juicy crawling things when your seasons have allowed. I have taken respite in the belly of your house when winter blows her handsome breath and brings her whitened coat to drape upon the slopes. The same cave have I slept in all my years, given to me by my own mother who gave life to me as well within it.
“All of which I speak has been bestowed upon me by your generosity, yet I have never seen your face nor heard your voice. In all these years—and many have they been, indeed—I have thought not to thank you for the kindness which you couch within. And so I have taken mind to shoulder the grimness of this baleful season, and to labor up this harsh summit, that I might express my indebtedness to he without whose alms I would not live.”
With this, the billowing creature fell to the ground at the ankles of the king, and wrapped his huge and quivering arms about them. Standing at once from his knotty throne—a great and ancient oak that had been cut, at the height of its old age, by a bolt of fire hurled from a raging storm—the sympathetic king heaved the bear to his feet and, removing the kingly robe from his own shoulders, covered the bear as best he could and huddled near him so as to make him warm.
When the layer of ice began to thaw, the king saw that the bear was not so great as he had first thought, but, in fact, was as thin as the tiny saplings that line the lower slopes of his kingdom, having shot from the ground just a season or two ago. He felt a painful sadness lay its weight upon his heart.
“Great and virtuous bear,” said the king, beginning to weep. “You who are the prince of these awesome woods, you who brings esteem upon his race by nature of his greatness, you are wasted to but a twig.”
“Please,” begged the mighty king. “Be seated on my thrown and give rest to your poor and trembling body, while I gather from my stock some food that you might eat and gain again your fabled strength.”
The bear sunk into the fallen oak, both he and it sighing deeply, as under a tremendous load, while the king left in search of something warm that might bring life back to his sorry guest. He returned with bread baked fresh that morning in the kiln hard by his ancient seat, and fishes caught last summer, preserved with salt gathered from an ocean rain. But the bear refused to eat.
“Please,” the king pleaded, “take this food. I have plenty, and the journey to your den is sure to call on all the strength you have.”
But still the bear turned the gifts away, saying, “King, you have given much to me in the run of my life, and still you offer more as the end of it is in plain sight. There is not hope left in me anymore, for I have exhausted myself to reach this peak and lay my weary eyes upon the one who breathes all life into the earth which grows below.
“I will perish here, in your company. But I will pass with ease, having brought myself through toil and pain to speak the faintest word to you, who loves all with all his heart. Take, therefore, my flesh, and bring yourself through many winter’s sorrows with the fat and meat therein. I know it is not so much, having wasted myself in the journey, but I can give no more than this.
“Take also my hide and dry it well. Adorn yourself within me—that I might live again through the life that my hide protects. Sew my teeth into the neck of your robe, whittle my heavy bones into the tools of your need, so I can always be of help to you, as you were to me.”
At this, the bear’s eyes grew dark and hollow. As his breath left him for good, his body lightened and slid to the snow-covered ground. And the king wept vigorously, shedding a flood of lusty tears that froze before they met the ground and shattered at his feet. An icy chill gasped over his back that even his kingly robe could not daunt.
For days the king mourned over the body of the bear, which he moved into the narrow fissure where he slept. He cleansed and anointed the great creature, rubbing his fur with the scented branches of the highest mountain pines. And when the snow finally relented, he brought the fallen beast back to near his thrown, where, with heavy mind and frozen heart, he did all of which the bear had asked.
From that day forth, the king set not one more glance upon his mountain, for it was a pain to him to think of any other creature meeting with the same fate of this gracious bear. So he cut a path to the valley and wandered sullenly for weeks and weeks.
In time he reached the edges of the sea and, having dwelt on land for his entire life, was awed to find himself hemmed by the surging waters. But he felt no distress when the raging ocean swelled and pushed him back, only deepest grace for the power that roared beyond him. Wondrous waves of grey foam frothed up from the deep, mysterious body, screaming out to all who stood to hear them. But the king stood alone, and answered only with his breath. Words were no longer of use to him, only whispers, as the wind pressed forth from his weather-beaten lips.
The king stood at the brink of this hard world for many, many years. He neither ate, nor drank, nor spoke a solitary word. He simply stood and watched the crashing water. He watched it toss against the rocks until it cleared them all away, leaving nothing in their place but smooth and saturated sand. He watched it cut the roots of mighty trees which stood at its coast, carrying them out until they sunk or simply disappeared. He watched as it rolled into the driving wind and blew a briny mist to shore, washing through his wise old beard and leaving it flat and salty. Finally, having seen and heard the humbling words of the raucous ocean as it changed the world before him, he felt again the lure of the kingdom he once loved, and turned his back to the sea to journey home.
But, when he turned, he could see nothing but another sea in front of him. Not a sea of water, but a great ocean of arid soil, lasting as far into the horizon as his faded eyes could look. Knowing not whether his mind had gone from him and delusion taken its place, he walked on.
Before long, he reached the foot of a small hill, its earth black and burnt, as barren as the hardest desert. At its base were tiny ruts that seemed once to carry water. The king kneeled down and sifted through the loose, dry ground. In his hand he found the crumbling bones of fish. But so gone were they from life that just the slightest breath spread them like clouds of dust into the warm air.
With ease, the tired king climbed to the top of the hill, where he turned and looked behind him to see the water of the sea so far away, just barely lining the brink of earth. It seemed to him the view was much more than such a small hill should offer. Then he sat on its meagre crest to rest himself before moving on. He sat and thought with sadness on the wasted land, wondering how such acreage could have been so void of life.
“I must have travelled farther from my land than I imagined,” thought the king. “Or perhaps I have turned amiss and lost my way, being gone for all these years. Nevertheless, I miss my kingdom much, and I must move until I find my way to those I love.”
As he put his hand to the dirt to lift his body, he felt beneath it something cold and smooth. Taken aback at the smoothness of what he touched amid the rough terrain, he at once dug further down to unearth it. The king began to weep as he brushed the dirt from off of it. He lifted the mighty bone and cried aloud. From the depths of his breast he cried.
“This, this is my forest,” cried the king through his silver hair and beard. “Gone it is to the hands of my grief and desolation. Alone I left the bounty of my kingdom for the slightest pain within my heart.
“And the noble prince,” the sobbing king exclaimed, lifting the white bone before him. “He who gave his life to thank me, I have left him and forgotten. Shame shall be my journey now, for I have denied this tender beast the very thanks for which he died.”
Still heaving, the good king struck a rock against the tip of the old bear’s bone. He struck and struck until he fashioned at its length a sturdy tip on which to support his weight. Then the king righted himself, dried his tears with his dusty hands, and began walking down from the hill, away from the fuming ocean so far behind him.
Never did he lose his step, even in the loosest of ash through which he trekked in the vast charred forest before him, for with him always walked the staid foot of his companion. He never stopped. He never sat and gave himself a rest, for the bear with which he walked refused to stay and eat.