The first time Peter saw the bear, he was tending his garden. He had been lovingly polishing off his ripest tomato when he noticed something move out of the corner of his eye. He glanced up and immediately made eye contact with a black bear, staring at him from just beyond the fence. Alarmed, Peter lurched to his feet, but the black bear scurried into the woods the second he moved. Peter watched after it for a few minutes while his heart rate slowed, but the bear was gone.
About a week later, Peter was in his yard, sipping his morning coffee and eating an apple. He was sitting on a deck chair, enjoying the Maine summer sun upon his face.
A crunching sound not too far from him prompted him to open his eyes. Warily, he scanned the yard. Peter had not expected to see the bear again, but there it was, again crouching by the fence. It could have been a different bear, though Peter doubted that two different bears would stop at the exact same spot just a week apart. To be sure, however, he took note of a white marking between the bear’s eyes–unusual for a black bear.
Peter glanced down at the apple in his hand, then at the bear. The bear stared back. Peter knew that you weren’t supposed to feed wild animals, especially not bears, but this one seemed harmless enough. He wasn’t displaying any aggressive qualities. And he was fairly scrawny; surely giving him an apple wouldn’t do any harm. Bears liked apples, right? Truthfully, Peter had no idea.
The bear rattled the fence with his paw, as if to signify his impatience. Shrugging, Peter carefully rolled the apple towards the bear, where it came to a stop at the foot of the fence. One hairy brown paw wormed its way under the fence, scooped it up and awkwardly brought it to the bear’s maw. Peter couldn’t help but smile as he watched the bear eat, then lumber back into the forest.
Now that he had seen it twice, as well as fed it, Peter expected to see the bear again. This time, when it appeared, Peter carefully approached the fence to meet him. Twice the bear lurched towards the trees as if it were about to take off, but Peter was holding out a fresh apple, and the bear stuck around. Once they were divided by only the fence, Peter very carefully dropped it over onto the bear’s side. He lunged for it gratefully, ate it in one bite, then sat up and faced Peter, resembling a dog.
They were face to face–or face to snout, really–and Peter was surprised to see the intelligence glittering in the bear’s black eyes. He spoke a soft greeting to it, and it cocked its head in response. But when Peter began to extend his hand towards the bear, it backed up three paces and then galloped into the shelter of the pine trees.
The next few weeks held much development for Peter’s relationship with the bear. He left his garden gate open, and the bear waddled all the way to Peter’s porch to accept the corn he had left out. Two mornings later, he allowed Peter to touch his back. By the end of July, he was coming every day, even sitting with Peter for a few minutes before racing back to the wilderness. They had reached such an extraordinary level of closeness between man and animal that it seemed inappropriate for him to not have a name, and as such, Peter decided to refer to him as Harry.
Peter did not, however, forget that Harry was a wild animal. At times he feared his flashing yellow teeth, the powerful jaw that crunched entire cantaloupes like they were seeds. On the momentous occasion when Harry allowed Peter to take his paw in his hands, Peter’s stomach lurched when he caught sight of the monstrous talons that adorned the paw. Despite this, their friendship did not waver. Peter felt that it added a healthy respect to the relationship, a form of appreciation for the fact that against all odds and common sense, these two beings had overcome their fear of each other.
Their friendship flowed beyond Peter’s yard. At times he and Harry went on walks together through the woods. Harry would bound alongside him, disappearing on occasion into the bushes, but he always returned.
Then one day, Harry did not show up. Peter waited in his yard with a chicken leg all morning, then left it on his porch and went back inside. He figured Harry simply trekked further than usual, and was certain that he would show up. But the next morning the chicken leg lay untouched.
Every day for the following week, Peter waited patiently in his yard for Harry. His confidence about Harry’s impending return wavered, then morphed into concern. Peter was a simple man; he lived alone, with no wife or kids, and tended his garden. He was content with his life, but over the course of the month, he had come to think of Harry as a friend. His lack of presence cut deeper than Peter had expected.
Unexpectedly, an old acquaintance of Peter’s invited him over for dinner. Peter hadn’t really spoken to Donald in over a year, but since it had been two weeks without any sign of Harry, Peter decided to go to take his mind off of it. He revved up his ancient pickup truck and drove the two miles to where Donald lived in a rustic old farmhouse.
Peter did not really care for visiting Donald. He was a hunter, with little respect for the laws of hunting seasons. Just upon walking into the house, Peter was greeted with the unblinking eyes of three wall-mounted deer heads. Peter did not meet their gaze, but followed Donald into the kitchen.
After a considerable amount of small talk and beer, Donald leaned across the table towards Peter. “I’m so glad you could come over tonight, Pete,” he boomed, excitement in his eyes. “I wanted to show you my latest acquisition, my prized trophy!”
Peter sighed. Donald had somehow conjured up the idea that Peter was very interested in his trophy hunting habits, when in reality he was revolted by the practice. “I’m not sure that I-”
“Feast your eyes on…the mighty bear!” Donald thundered, and with a sweep of his arm gestured to the corner of the room.
Peter’s heart stopped. There, not ten feet away from him, stood a still, stuffed figure of a black bear, his jaw agape in an unnatural position. Unmoving, glassy-eyed, and ferocious looking.
No, he thought. It can’t be. Impossible.
Peter’s hands clutched the armrests as Donald’s boasting faded to a distant roar. He could hear his own heartbeat as his eyes trailed down the bear’s rigid body. He felt an excruciating weight crush down on his heart, but he fought against it with reason. There were hundreds of black bears in these woods. It couldn’t be.
His eyes came to a rest on a familiar white marking between the bear’s eyes, and Peter began to cry.