It had been bothering him for days, but up to now he had hesitated to speak to anyone about it. He went first to get his brother's opinion but the older boy only widened his eyes and told him to hush. Stubborn, the boy braced himself and went to ask his father. He received a clip on the ear for his trouble, which wasn't wholly unexpected, and went to sit under his favourite tree to sulk, resigned.
A little later, his father surprised him by sitting next to him, and saying gently:
"Some things were not meant for boys to know. Some not even for men."
He sat there for a good while after his father left, a little stunned. This was almost akin to an apology - something his father never indulged in. He had been ready to abandon his quest for an answer, but his father's behaviour bolstered him. It reassured him that his question was important. He decided to branch out a little, and went to find his mother.
After a boy passes a certain age, and has begun his journey towards manhood, it becomes unthinkable for him to discuss important issues with his mother; for what can a mother know of the world of men? In this case though, the boy felt compelled to speak with her, although he could not imagine why.
"You should go to the Elders with this", she said.
He was surprised, elated, and also nervous. It was not an answer he had been expecting, but as soon as it was uttered, he knew it had always been the answer he'd been hoping for. It was not until much later, with the benefit of hindsight, that he realised the look on his mother's face had been the same one she put on to disguise the fact that his mischief amused her, while scolding him for it.
He waited until the appropriate time to visit with the Elders, his nervousness growing. Boys his age would go out of their way to avoid the forbidding old men, and yet here he was placing himself in the Elders' path voluntarily.
Sundown finally came, so he made his way to the gathering point. When it was his turn, he was ushered into the Elders' enclosure. A little stutter in his voice, he raised the issue to the tribe leaders. He was met by silence. The five men appraised him sternly and intently, and exchanged glances between themselves. They seemed like angry, apprehensive glances to the boy, but he tried to dismiss these thoughts as the product of a young mind inexperienced in reading people – certainly venerable people such as the Elders. He was told to leave the enclosure, and that he would be summoned when the council was ready to discuss his issue.
A few days passed, and the boy’s initial nervousness and excitement had been replaced by interest in other things – there had been work to do, and games to be played. He had almost forgotten about his issue (he had, after all, left it in capable hands), and thought nothing of the hushed conversations among the older people in the tribe, and failed to notice that there was a certain tension in relationships between villagers which perhaps had not been there before. When the summons came, it sought the presence of himself, and that of his father. Together, his father’s face a study in anger, his that of a boy much younger than his years, they walked to the enclosure.
The Elders were sat in a semi-circle, in full ceremonial clothing, which caused both father and son some concern. The acting tribe leader beckoned to them to come forward.
“We cannot answer your question”, he said. “You are going to have to talk to the bear.”
The boy was shocked. Never in the history of his people had someone as young as him been allowed to go to the bear. A few had asked, over the years, but had been denied instantly. He felt proud, but also terrified. The look on his father’s face he couldn't quite interpret, but at least the boy was no longer worried about being punished when they left the enclosure.
One cannot simply go up to a bear and start talking. There are certain procedures that must be followed, and so the boy spent the next few days in the company of one or other of the Elders, receiving instruction: how to approach, how to show respect, how to bow; how to formulate one’s question in a way that makes it clear that one is kindly requesting that the bear consider devoting some of his time to one’s measly concern, and not demanding a response. The boy found himself fascinated by bear lore, and the Elders warmed to their pupil, despite themselves.
The particular bear that had been assigned to his people was an old soul; his wisdom had been a help to them for almost two generations now. He had been becoming easier to anger over the last few seasons however, and the boy once again felt apprehensive. He remembered his grandfather’s story about the Elder who had met his death at the claws of the bear’s predecessor, despite following procedure and showing no disrespect. The story being in living memory made it all the more poignant and as the time neared for the boy to leave on his quest, he became increasingly subdued.
Finally, the day of his journey dawned. His mother saw him to the edge of the village and embraced him and spoke warm words to him in an uneasy voice. His father walked with him for about half a day, to the outskirts of the Deep Forest. Those without good reason to be in the forest enter at their own peril, so it was from here that the boy would journey on alone. His father wished to impart some words of wisdom, or at least encouragement, but found himself unable to think of anything lofty enough for such a momentous event. He settled for gripping the boy’s shoulders and showing him how proud he was with his eyes and his smile. The boy returned the smile and with a lurch in his heart, turned around and stepped into the forest.
The rest of the day passed without incident and by nightfall he had found a quiet clearing where he could make a bed, prepare and eat some food, and gather his thoughts for the possible challenges he faced over the next day. His main worry was that he was carrying no weapons; the Elders had insisted upon this - it was a sign of respect towards the bear, and therefore non-negotiable - and assured him that he would need none. Back in the village, he would never have doubted the word of the tribe leaders, but he was sat on his own, in the dark, in a forest teeming with all sorts of dangers. He eventually drifted off into an uneasy sleep, and dreamt of teeth and limbs and his mother's face.
He awoke with a start at first light, bad dreams all but forgotten. His enthusiasm for the adventure ahead had returned, and he set off with a spring in his step. In his exuberance, he failed to notice the cougar in the tree up ahead, until she jumped down in front of him, appraising him as she stood poised to pounce.
"I am going to see the bear", he said, as the Elders had instructed.
The cat laid her ears flat on her head, bid him good day with pursed lips, and returned to her tree where she proceeded to ignore him. He stood in shock for a short while - polite encounters with cougars were not unheard of, but very rare. He then walked on heartened, and feeling a little foolish about the doubts that had kept him awake the night before.
As the boy was nearing the bear's domain, the creature himself sat in his usual spot, his back hunched, his head bowed from tiredness. There had been a seemingly endless procession of old men for the last few days, all with tiresome questions. All questions he was able to answer, but he was finding their tedium almost unbearable. Maybe he was just getting too old for this - he cursed whoever it was that decided that oracle bear appointment should be for life. He would have retired years ago if he'd had the choice; instead he had to put up with day upon day of solemn, austere old men, their grey hair long, their faces longer.
One more to go, then - the last of the day. He looked at the figure, standing awkwardly in the respectful bowed stance the bear had long since come to hate. However a closer look told him that this was no old man - the creature's hair was dark, and barely fell below its chin, and its stature was small. There was neither austerity nor solemnity in its look, only awe and timidity. And something else - something the bear had not seen in a long time: excitement.
"Why, it's only a cub", he thought. "Maybe this will be interesting, for a change".
He motioned to the cub to approach.