When he was a tiny little bear cub, Nelson would scamper over to be close to his mother when he heard any loud noise. When he got a little bigger, if something scared him he would growl. Bigger still, and he would stand up on his hind legs, growl, and wave his paws about. And when he got even bigger than that — when he began to look like a full-grown bear — if Nelson heard something that might be dangerous, he would stand calmly still and listen harder.
Nelson’s cubhood was a happy one. His mother and the other big bears taught him to run and climb, and how to find the berries that were good and wouldn’t make you sick. They taught him how to settle arguments with other bears. Growling was only for show, Nelson’s mother always told him.
A bear must never attack another bear
But only growl and attack the air.
She told him that little poem many times.
At the end of each day, Nelson’s mother would read him stories before he went to bed in the cave. He especially liked “Goldilocks and the Three Humans.” When Nelson got a little bigger his mother sometimes let him listen to stories told to a big circle of bears by the best bear storytellers in those mountains. All of Nelson’s friends listened to the stories, so Nelson’s mother let him do so too. Nelson found the stories — full of fights and adventures — to be tremendously strange but tremendously exciting.
Nelson knew that the bears around him in his woods and mountains were not the only bears in the world. He knew other bears lived far way, and others even farther away on the far side of the world. And yet Nelson was never taught a name for his bears until he was nearly full-grown. And when he was taught the name, it was a name he had heard before in movies and books. The name was: the Good Bears.
Nelson was happy to be a Good Bear, but the Bad Bears worried him. He was told where they lived, and he was horrified at the thought that Bad Bears might come into the Good Bears’ area. He imagined what the Bad Bears looked like. They must have horns and scales. Some said the Bad Bears breathed fire. Nelson began to grow afraid again, just as he had been afraid of everything when he had been a tiny cub. And at the same time, Nelson was excited by the idea of the Bad Bears. At any noise, Nelson would jump, his hair would stand up, he would rise and growl and wave his claws through the air fast enough to have ripped through a brick wall had there been a brick wall in the middle of the woods.
There was nothing human in the woods until the day the truck came. Nelson knew nothing of trucks. They hadn’t been in any stories. He also knew nothing of guns. So, when the forestry department came to help the bears by drugging them to sleep, inspecting them all over, sticking tags on them, and letting them go again, Nelson only knew that a large and noisy thing was nearby and getting closer. He sprang into action.
While Nelson stood his tallest and roared his loudest at the truck, the truck did not talk back to him or retreat. The truck stopped. A human got out with something in his hands. There was a noise. And then Nelson felt a sharp pain in his left rear leg. Nelson felt dizzy. He was spinning. Or the forest was spinning. Or the clouds were spinning. Nelson heard voices, human voices. They were saying he might be sick. He must be tested. They must help him.
Nelson woke up in a place he’d never seen or imagined. There were huge hard bars on all sides of him, and above him. Nelson roared like mad. Humans came near to his cage but were afraid to come all the way up to it. Nelson’s rage and fury were limitless. Nelson nearly went insane with fear and anger and hatred. He roared and roared and smashed himself against the bars. Afterward, he had no idea how long this had lasted. It ended when the cage was loaded onto a truck, taken into the woods, and opened. Nelson was free!
But something was wrong. The trees were not the same as before. The mountains were not the same shape. It was as if the world had been twisted sideways somehow. And then Nelson figured out what had happened. The humans had released him into the wrong woods. They had put him in the land of the Bad Bears. Nelson shook with fear. It was one thing to imagine fighting the Bad Bears with all the Good Bears standing at your side, like in the stories told to bear cubs. It was another thing to be alone, the only Good Bear in a world of vicious Bad Bears seeking to destroy you.
Nelson heard and smelled something. He looked quickly around for a place to hide, but it was too late. A bear was coming close, and the bear had seen him. But Nelson was in luck: this didn’t look like a Bad Bear at all. This was another Good Bear just like him. They would be together now, two Good Bears against all of the Bad. “Greetings, fellow Good Bear,” growled Nelson. “How did you come to be in these woods?”
“I was born in them,” said the bear. “But I haven’t met you before. Where do you come from?”
Nelson was confused but answered, “I come from over that ridge and across the next valley, of course. Don’t all Good Bears come from there?”
The other bear began to back away slowly and the hair to rise on his back. “You come from the land of the Bad Bears?” he growled. “Are you a Bad Bear then?”
“What are you talking about?” growled Nelson. “Do I look like a Bad Bear? Do I breathe fire? Where are my scales? Where are my horns? I’m a Good Bear, just like you.”
“That’s true,” said the other bear, whose name was Steven. Nelson and Steven relaxed a little and began to trust each other, but both were puzzled and confused. Each of them thought the other must be a Bad Bear, but both could see it wasn’t true.
Nelson stayed with Steven’s family that night, planning to begin traveling home the next day. In the morning Steven, who did not want Nelson to leave, said he would travel with him, at least half way. And so, the two friends moved quickly through the day and crossed the mountain ridge. And not long after crossing the ridge and beginning down the other side, they heard the most frightening noise in the world. They heard the noise of war coming. They heard it coming from in front of them and behind.
Hundreds of bears were roaring and stomping and screaming and smashing against the trees. They all seemed to have gone insane, a huge line of them moving up from Nelson’s woods. And another gigantic group of mad crazy bears ready to kill was coming up the mountains from Steven’s home. Nelson and Steven stood perfectly still, listened, smelled, and thought. And they thought well, without even quite knowing they’d done so, and without having to tell each other what to do.
Together, Nelson and Steven raced back to the top of the ridge. They could see the armies of bears advancing up both slopes toward them. Nelson faced the bears from his home. He saw bears he knew, friends and family. “Stop!,” he roared. “Who do you think you are attacking?”
“Stop!” roared Steven at his own bear nation. “Who are you coming to kill?”
“The Bad Bears!” said Nelson’s countrybears.
“The Bad Bears!” said Steven’s bear kin.
“They don’t exist,” roared Nelson and Steven.
“Look,” roared Nelson. “Look at this bear next to me. He is from the land of what you call Bad Bears, but he is just like you and me. His bears have been told that YOU are the Bad Bears. And you know that isn’t true.”
Steven told his bears the same thing. But meanwhile the bears had been advancing quickly and were nearing the ridgetop. “Look at them,” pleaded Nelson and Steven. “Look at them! They’re Good Bears the same as you. Bad Bears are only in stories. Things in stories aren’t always real. Bear cubs know that! And bear cubs know that growling is only for show. You must never attack another bear, but only growl and attack the air.”
The two bear friends were telling whole armies of angry bears what every bear mother had told every one of those bears when they had been young cubs. Some of the bears were roaring like mad at their enemies. Some of the bears were beginning to listen. Some of the bears were stopping and looking carefully at the bears in front of them.
Bears growled, but they didn’t attack. They stopped and looked. They understood that Steven and Nelson were right.
Nelson and Steven had stopped a war.
Later, at Nelson’s cave, Steven said to his friend, “Do you know why I’m glad you’re not really a Bad Bear?”
Nelson nodded. “I do,” he said. “Because then I wouldn’t exist. And you’d be a Bad Bear too and not exist either.”
“Exactly,” growled Steven. “There’d be no more bears if we weren’t all Good Bears, as of course we are!”
“I’m glad,” growled Nelson.