Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Chapter Two

“Once upon a time, when I was a cub not much older than yourself, I had gone on a picnic with my family upon the Great Arctic Ice Sheet,” Gene said.

“There is no such thing,” Anthony protested.

“Well not anymore,” Gene snorted, “the Great Melt took care of that. Look, do you want to hear this story or not?”

“Not if it’s fake,” Anthony said while crossing his arms.

“It’s not fake, every word is the truth. Now where was I?” Gene pondered. “Ah, yes, we went on a picnic. We had taken the 10:15 snowmobile to the park and were ice fishing and playing other picnic games.

Mom was sitting on a blanket preparing lunch. She had this picnic basket. It was made of the blondest wicker from the wicker forests of Bamboolia and inside was a matching set of blue, melmac dishes.”

“What’s melmac?” Anthony interrupted. He thought Gene was making things up. “Are you sure you’re not confabulating?” he asked. Gene didn’t hesitate, even for a second.

“Confabulating? Are you calling me a confabulator”

Anthony wasn’t sure. He thought about taking a guess but he thought it safer to be honest. Although Gene seemed very friendly he was, after all, still a bear.

“I don’t know?” he offered.

“Hmph. You should stop using tuxedo words when we’re just sitting here sawing logs, you might get them dirty,” Gene said. “Now where was I… …oh yes, melmac is the champagne of picnic plates. It’s made of the toughest substance known, Bakelite. Anyway, mom was setting out a lunch of Arctic Char and salmon while dad had found an abandoned seal pup to play catch with. The sun was high in the sky that summer. The day was hot, too hot. It was so hot that even the seals were sweating.”

“Seals don’t sweat,” Anthony said. Gene just looked at him and raised an eyebrow in warning. Anthony decided it was probably best to let him continue.

"After a while dad got tired of throwing the seal around and he went to help mom with lunch.”

“Wait, you were throwing the seal pup at each other?” Anthony asked, his eyes wide in surprise.

“Not at each other, to each other,” Gene explained. Anthony’s nose had scrunched up like he had just smelled something bad twice and Gene thought he may not appreciate the subtleties of a good, old-fashioned seal toss.

“My dad is a bit of a jerk,” Gene apologized. “Besides, he’s a grizzly bear, what do you expect?” Anthony still looked unconvinced. “Anyway, it wasn’t a normal seal pup, it was sort of runty and owl like.” Anthony prepared to say something about pots and kettles but he couldn’t remember how it went.

“You’re not a normal bear,” he said, instead. Gene raised a claw and opened his mouth to argue but after a moment he lowered his paw.

“Good point. Anyway, all day the ice was melting and we never paid any attention to it. We thought that in three months the sun would set and everything would get back to normal. Besides, I had recently discovered a wonderful sport called hot tubbing and I thought I was a natural at it. I was spending most of my free time training but living in the Arctic, like I did back then, meant it was usually pretty tough to find large pools of hot water just lying around.

I usually ended up making my own hot water. Once I had found a nice pool of fresh water in the ice just deep enough to soak in. I would use a large magnifying glass to heat the water. I would stick the glass carefully in a snow bank and aim it at the pool. Before long the pool would be heated to a lovely temperature.”

“That’s impossible!” Anthony protested, “It would take a long time for a magnifying glass to heat up a pool!”

“It was a very large magnifying glass. Anyway, I slowly lowered myself into the pool to unwind. I was so busy splashing and relaxing that I hadn’t noticed my sister had crept up beside me until she dumped a giant pile of snow over my head.

“What are you doing?” I shouted at her in surprise, “You’re cooling off the water!”

“So what? You’re a bear, you should like your water icy cold and refreshing,” She sniffed derisively which is a way of sniffing that’s supposed to make you feel bad about yourself. I thought she was just being cruel for no particular reason as siblings sometimes do.

"Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m training?” I barked.

“Bears don’t bark, either,” Anthony sniffed. He was starting to doubt that this story was true after all. “Dogs bark and seals bark but bears don’t.”

“I happen to be fluent in both dog and seal,” Gene asserted while raising his nose to the air. “Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, I had just told her I was training to be a competitive hot tuber.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said as she turned away from me as if she was about to ignore me, “It’s not even a real sport.”

“Is too,” I protested, “It’s even organized!”

I was, of course, speaking of the United Federation of Hot Tubbing, the group that governs traditional competitive hot tubbing which isn’t to be confused with the Organization of Hot Tub Enthusiasts, which is more of a non-competitive group. I was even the sole member of the Northern Lights branch of the Federation and had a certificate from them to prove that I was a fully paid member. I was very proud of my membership. When they mailed the certificate to me I framed it and hung it on a wall in the bedroom on my igloo. It was my dream to win the coveted gold towel in freestyle hot tubbing. No bear had ever won the title and I wanted to be the first.

“You’re silly.” My sister exclaimed while turning around and waving her paws dismissively at me. “Even if you became the best hot tubbist ever you still can’t enter the Olympics. You’re a bear and they don’t allow bears to compete.”

I knew she was right, no bear had been allowed to compete at the Olympics or any other international sporting event but I still had hope. My hero, Wela Wiliwai Johansson, the father of competitive hot tubbing himself, had always said that when people tell you that you can’t do something it really means that they’re afraid to try it. If you believe in yourself and take one small step at a time toward your dreams before you know it you’ll be there.

“I will too get into the Olympics!” I stated with my arms crossed, which is a very good way of stating things if you feel very strongly about them.

“Only as a carpet,” she said as she turned to walk away. Being young and rash I reached over, grabbed her feet and pulled her into my hot tub.

“Agh! What are you doing! I just had my fur done and you’ve ruined it!” she screamed.

“You’re a bear, you should like icy cold and refreshing water,” I retorted as I splashed a pawful of slush at her. We splashed around for a while, dunking each other under the water and generally making a wet mess of everything around us. We were so busy bickering and playing that we hadn’t noticed there was a small crack in the bottom of the pool. And it was getting larger, larger and larger.

All of the sudden a snap like a thousand pretzel sticks breaking rolled across the Arctic and interrupted our bickering. It was so loud and sudden that we forgot all about what we were fighting about and began to debate the puzzling noise.

“What was that?” my sister asked.

“Probably a thought breaking your brain, you goof,” I replied.

“Maybe it’s thunder,” she pondered while searching the crystal clear, azure blue sky.

“There is no thunder in the Arctic, besides, it’s sunny out,” I stated while scratching my chin like Wela Wiliwai Johanson did when he posed for pictures that showed him thinking great thoughts, “Perhaps It was an earthquake?”

“You must have bait for brains. You can’t have an earthquake where there is no earth. It must have been a sonic boom or an explosion. Are there any wars going on around here? Maybe it was fireworks or something?”

My sister and I were so busy arguing about the noise and whether it was more of a boom or more of a crunch that we never even noticed that the crack below our paddling paws had spread over the entire ice sheet. Most bear cubs are as silly as humans when it comes to dangerous things; we sit and wonder about them until it’s too late. Sometimes we even sit down and take pictures or paint landscapes of the oncoming danger rather than running or finding shelter. I once knew a bear that sat down to write a poem about the pretty swirling shape of a tornado that was approaching him. Two weeks later they found him sitting in a bathtub that was stuck high in a tree far away from where he started while he still debated whether a sonnet or a limerick would best describe the event.

While my sister and I debated there was a mighty roar unlike any roar heard before. Before I could blink more than once I was floating in green arctic water so cold it shimmered. I clambered onto the ice floe that was closest to me and turned back to look at where my hot tub used to be. I saw that the whole ice sheet had split into three gigantic ice floes.

My sister was in the ocean, too and was clinging on to a different ice floe, my parents were on the third and they were running toward us and shouting. The floes were soon caught on a current and they spun and drifted apart like toboggans racing downhill. My sister tried to climb onto the ice but it crumbled beneath her like feta cheese, which is almost the crumbliest of cheeses.

“Stay with your sister!” my mother shouted to me. Meanwhile, my dad reached the end of the ice and jumped high into the air before diving into the icy water. This was quite a feat for a grizzly bear as they are more walking bears than swimming ones. I was running as fast as I could along the floe that I was on, sprinting to the edge to trying to reach my sister. But as fast as I was running, the ice was drifting faster and breaking apart under my feet. I knew that if I could just make it to the edge I’d be able to swim to my family but I was afraid the ice was drifting too fast. Still, I had to try.

I didn’t know it but I wasn’t the only one who was watching. A group of seals peered up from a hole in the floe my parents were on. While everyone was distracted, two of them snuck up behind my mom and quietly snatched the cub we were playing with and started to sneak back to the hole in the ice they had come from. And on the horizon a man was standing on the prow of an icebreaker. He was a zoologist who was leading an expedition to study arctic animals. So far, his expedition was a failure. He had spent two whole months watching seals and so far he hadn’t learned anything other than they liked to eat a lot of fish.

The ship was heading back to Halifax and all he could think about how the other zoologists were going to laugh at him. He never really wanted to be a zoologist he just thought his parents would like him to be one because they were the great zoologists Mary and Hector Oddabon. All his life he really wanted to be a gardener because he loved plants. He loved them so much he often traveled with a small rosemary plant he called Alice. He would talk to Alice when he was lonely and, sometimes, he swore that Alice would talk back to him.

He looked up and saw me when he heard the ice crack. He fumbled for his binoculars and struggled to focus as I ran toward my family.

“That bear,” he stammered while staring at me so hard his eyeballs pressed against the cold, glass lenses of the binoculars, “He’s magnificent.” The zoologist realized that if he were to capture me he would finally become as famous as his parents were. He imagined how he would be given the Golden Darwin, the most prestigious award given to only the best zoologists during the annual dinner and awards night zoologists have in the Galapagos. He pictured himself arriving by Jet Ski while dressed in a white tuxedo with fur trim and a red fox bowtie; he thought how the other zoologists would be burning pink with envy as he gave his acceptance speech. He thought it would finally make his parents proud of him.

In reality, his parents were always proud of him. They always wanted him to find his own way and follow his own dreams as most parents do. While he was growing up they had seen how much he loved plants and had always assumed he would become a farmer or gardener. But the zoologist never realized this so he bitterly lived a life that should have belonged to someone else. When he saw me, though, he saw opportunity wrapped in fur and covered in brine.

The zoologist ran along the whole length of the ship as fast as I was running on the ice. As I jumped from one large block of ice to another he was tripping and stumbling over the ink black anchor chain that was polka dotted red with rust. He headed to the steep white metal staircase, his boots making hollow clanging and banging as he ascended the arctic white superstructure to the top of the ship. He burst into the spacious bridge and collided with the purser sending him ricocheting off the mahogany map table and into the elderly captain causing him to spill the blueberry tea he was sipping all over his royal blue captain’s jacket.

“What’s all this about,” the captain sputtered crossly while dabbing the tea stain on his jacket. The zoologist ran in front of him and gestured slightly to the port side of the bow of the ship.

“That bear, we must capture him!” he exclaimed while grabbing the captain by the lapels of his uniform which only irritated the captain more than he was already irritated and spilled more tea on him. “His colouring is fantastic!”

“What? We’re here to study seals and not go on some wild goose ch or a patchwork bear hunt,” he harrumphed as he shook himself free of the deranged scientist.

“But… but, we have to capture him! This could be the discovery that gets my picture on Übernational Geographic magazine. I order you to go there now!” the zoologist sputtered all crazy eyed and fuming.

“And you don’t order me, I’m a captain. You may ask me politely and then I will take your request under consideration but no one gives orders on my ship but me.” The captain replied brusquely while peering into his now empty teacup. He set the cup and saucer down on the map table and noticed it left a dribbly, circular stain there, too. He harrumphed again, this time in a most irritated manner. Then, just to make sure his displeasure was known, he turned to the purser.

“Purser, make sure you enter that harrumph in my logbook,” he said.

“Right away, sir!” the purser replied crisply as she pulled a book out of a drawer on the map table and began to write. The captain was always one for details. In his spare time he used to build very small palm trees out of toothpicks and duck feathers. He would place them around the windows and portholes of his ship to remind him of the tropical forests of his youth. The crew loved him for it as it made them less homesick and helped them pretend they were in the South Pacific rather than breaking up the ordinarily white icebergs they were always sailing through.

The zoologist’s eyes darted between the captain and myself. He could see that I was getting closer and closer to my family and farther and farther away from him and his golden dreams of glory.

“Please, captain, may we capture that bear?” he asked while trying to sound sincerely polite. The captain paused for a moment. He was a most reasonable man and not one to make rash decisions.

“No,” he said, “Second officer, make sure we give those bears a wide berth, we don’t want to disturb their habitat.” The captain had always liked the word habitat. It reminded him of the French word for peasant, habitant, which in turn reminded him of the word pheasant, which was one of his favourite birds. “And, purser,” he added, “ask the ships mess to cook some nice pheasants for dinner.”

“Right away, sir,” she replied with enthusiasm.

The zoologist, who was now watching as the ship began to steer away from me, howled as his golden dreams of glory turned to rusty barnacles of disappointment. He pushed the captain out of his way and ran to the large, brass and wood wheel. Before anyone could stop him he spun it to steer the ship toward me. The corner was so sharp that the ship tilted dangerously to one side and the captain tumbled out the door and down the steep stairs. The rest of the crew was too frightened to do anything so they just grabbed onto anything solid and hung on for their lives.

The captain was quick to regain his sea legs and was trying to climb the pitching stairs. He was nearly back on the bridge when the zoologist pushed the lever that told the engine room how fast to go and in which direction to full speed ahead. In the engine room the engineer thought there must be some kind of emergency he wasn’t notified of in their morning staff meeting.

“Full speed ahead!” he yelled. With a roar, the engines raced to full throttle and the shiny, brass screws churned the chilly, arctic water into roiling foam. The ship lunged forward tossing the unfortunate captain back down the stairs and onto the deck of the ship. He rolled head over heels and nearly fell off the slippery deck and into the ocean if not for the quick reflexes of a good-natured albatross that had been resting on the deck railing. It grabbed onto him with one webbed foot and hung onto the deck railing with the other.

As I ran toward my family the icebreaker was steaming up behind me belching black smoke from its tall funnel. Large blocks of ice disintegrated under the heavy, steel bow as it came closer and closer but I was so focused on getting to my sister I didn’t notice. I was just about to dive into the water when the zoologist pulled on the cord that sounded the ships whistle. I turned in surprise right as the ship hit me in the face with a mighty crunch.

“Eeeeeeew…” the seals said before slipping back into the hole they had surfaced from. My head was spinning and ringing like a large gong in a blender and it felt as if my nose was bleeding. I reached up to check but I noticed my nose wasn’t where it usually was. Meanwhile, the captain had managed to thank the albatross that saved him and rushed to the bow of the ship.

“Full stop!” he hollered at the bridge while glaring red faced at the zoologist. The zoologist just stared back with a queer look on his face that unsettled the captain. The second officer took control of the wheel and twisted it so the ship skidded around me. “Someone help that bear,” the captain shouted to a crewman, “bring him aboard and see if he needs medical attention.”

For a while I floated in the water, carefully touching my newly crunchy snout. It was bent in a different way and bloody and I smelled things in a way I’d never done before. I looked back to see my dad pull my sister out of the icy water and onto the ice where my mom waited. I tried to wave to them but my paw wasn’t working like it should. I was starting to get confused and dreamy headed so I figured the best thing for me to do was to float on my back in the soothing water until I felt strong enough to swim to my family.

Behind me, a burnt orange lifeboat had been lowered from the ship and seven sturdy seamen steered it towards me. I could hear the motor putt-putting along as it got closer to me. I tried to turn my head to look but a swell washed over my head and my nose stung from the brine. I sputtered and decided it was better if I just lay still and watched the puffy clouds that were starting to sail across the blueberry sky. A forever later the lifeboat slowed to a stop beside me and concerned looking faces peered down at me.

“I think I hurt my nose,” I mumbled to the seamen while they hoisted me carefully in the lifeboat. I stayed conscious just long enough to look back and see my dad, my mom and my sister sitting on the ice floe. My mom had wrapped a fuzzy, green towel around my sister and the three of them stared at me as the lifeboat was hauled onto the ship. The last thing I remember was my mom holding my sister while my dad howled at the icebreaker and stamped his large, brown paws on the ice as we steamed southward towards Halifax. At that moment, I swore I would never hot tub again.

1 comment:

Papillon said...

And again I say "WOW!" I'm not finished reading yet but thoroughly engaged so far. I think you should start looking for a publisher!