He was an old bear and was slow to wake. He rolled over and the frozen earth groaned beneath him. In a normal January he would sleep through storms, falling trees and even human calls but this was no ordinary January.
A patter of paws outside his den signaled a new arrival. It went unnoticed by the old bear. He was dreaming of an enormous pile of berries and bulbs, all slathered in honey. He drew a long tongue across his lips and grinned peacefully in his slumber.
A scratching in the wall revealed a tiny hole in the side of the den, sending a beam of light across the sleeping bear. Through this little gap tumbled a tiny chestnut brown chipmunk, sliding down the den wall and landing awkwardly on its side.
A small high-pitched throat clearing was followed by a timid “Mr Bear”.
The bear slowly opened one eye. Focusing on the small creature, gradually he recognised her. After all, there was only one Chipmunk who would be so bold as to wake a sleeping bear.
“Yes, Mali” he growled.
The chipmunk heaved herself up onto her hind legs and squeaked “I… I need help”.
The old bear grinned, “You always need help” he mused softly, “I must admit… You’re a brave one to wake a sleeping bear” he joked, amused at the thought of himself as a menacing creature. Mali looked nervous; he went on “What is it?”
Mali inhaled sharply then began, “Humans at the frozen lake. We were sleeping and then suddenly they were there. I just ran. I… I didn’t know what to do. I lost them and I don’t know what to do next…” She trailed off.
The old bear groaned, scraping the frosty earth with his claws. “I suppose I can be of service.”
Hauling himself to his feet, he lifted a heavy paw, tearing a large hole in the side of his den. He rolled his head, shaking off the last of his long sleep. Then drooping his head, he gently gripping Mali in his powerful jaws and lifted her up onto his back.
He burst out into the cool winter’s day, feeling the cool wind bite through his thick fur. The forest trees glistened with snow; all the usual green of the hillside was buried in layers of sparkling white powder.
“Mali!” he groaned. Turning his head to one side and looking at her with one dark brown eye. “Hold on tight.” Mali nodded shakily.
The old bear bounded between the trees towards the river. He burst down through the frozen bracken down the hill. Mali gripped the thick fur of his back and squinted against the rush of the icy air.
Within minutes he had skidded onto the bank of the river, stopping short of the frozen surface. He lifted his head, panting heavily and scanned the bank for clues. He carefully padded towards Mali’s tree, sniffing as he went. He approached the small hole at the base and without warning Mali scampered down his neck disappearing down the shoot. The old bear turned away and couldn’t help but notice the scuffle of human paw prints all around the hole. He was surprised by how small the human prints were. He sighed; turning his head away then froze.
There in front of him on the opposite bank of the river was a small, round, human. It’s flat snout a-gape with shock. The old bear carefully whispered “Mali”. Mali was still scraping away deep inside her burrow, looking for her brothers. “Mali” he called again more forcefully, craning his neck towards the base of the tree. As soon as he turned his head the human moved, thumping backwards away through the thick snow, disappearing over the opposite bank. The old bear sighed in relief. Humans were unpredictable, even the smaller ones.
Suddenly, Mali shot out of the hole and scampered up the old bears leg and onto his back. As she settled near his hind, the bear pointed with his nose towards the opposite bank of the river.
“There” he said.
Approaching the bank of the frozen river, the bear padded gently towards the edge of the ice. Nervously, he placed his first pore on the ice, feeling it groan beneath him. He slowly padded his way towards the opposite shore, his breath heaving with nerves.
As he heaved himself up onto the opposite bank he breathed a heavy sigh of relief, then bounded up the bank. As his front paws pulled him over the top of the bank he could see three humans. They were at a foot of a tree, each gripping a long stick and prodding at the branches above them.
“Up there!” Mali squeaked.
Looking up, the bear could see three small figures darting around the branches, dodging the prodding sticks being held by the small figures. The old bear cleared his throat, lifted his head towards them and let out a croaky roar.
The human’s heads turned and they stood as still as stone, their little mouths agape. He roared again, louder and fiercer. The bellow echoed off the mountains in the still morning air. Then, after a beat, the humans reacted. They turned and ran as fast as they could across the field and towards the woods beyond. The old bear laughed a deep, hearty laugh. Proud of his display and secretly relieved as he did not know of what else to do in such a situation, he turned his head to Mali, still gripping to the fur of his back.
“You awoke me because of the threat of cubs? Little Human cubs?” He asked as the distant figures of the children slipped out of sight.
Mali thought and simply replied, “Yes”.
At this point, having darted down the tree and across the snowy field, three small chipmunk faces popped their heads up through the snow.
The bear leaned down to say “Are you ok, gents?”
Miko, Mikey and Mave replied in unison “Yes”.
“You’ve made your sister very nervous! You shouldn’t be knocking around with humans,” the old bear said in a mock serious tone. They smiled up at him mischievously. He continued “Alright. Let’s get you home” and the three brothers scampered up his arm and onto his back, settling in alongside Mali.
After another dubious crossing of the iced over river he deposited the siblings at their burrow and returned up the hillside into his den. Taking a few moments to scoop pawfuls of earth to plug the entrance, he collapsed to the floor in the spot where he had awoken just hours earlier. He slipped back into a deep slumber, with a broad grin on his face. There he remained for the rest of the winter, snoring and grunting.
As winter broke into spring, the old bear finally awoke. Gradually he pulled himself up and scratched a large hole to come out of his den. As he stepped out onto the green hillside he noticed something in the grass at his feet. A small tasty bulb at his foot, he snuffed it up and chewed it down. It tasted amazing. Blinking in the sun he looked more closely and saw that there were delicious berries and bulbs scattered all around the entrance to his den, enough for a grand meal. He wondered who had left him such a banquet. From a bush nearby, four small chipmunk-sized heads poked out, jostling each other to see through the leaves.