The Favorite (Georgios Jakobides); image in the public domain
When I was little, I spent most of my summers at my granddad’s house, and my favorite part of spending time with my granddad was listening to his stories. He would never say a word until I’d finished my chores, and I used to hurry so fast through all the scrubbing and dishwashing that my grandma said I should come with my own caution sign because the floor around me was always wet. But I just wanted to hear the stories.
He didn’t tell his stories to just anybody, either. People would come by the house and ask about this story or that one, and mostly my granddad would answer them, but sometimes he didn’t. When I asked him about it, he said he didn’t mind telling a story just to pass the time, but talking to a person who’d already made up his mind not to believe you was just plain dumb. I was still young enough that I didn’t understand what he meant, but looking back, I guess he wasn’t wrong.
The summers I stayed with my grandparents, if I wasn’t begging my granddad for a story, I was begging him to let me play with the flying bears. I’ve never heard of any other place in the world where the bears could fly, but where my granddad lived, you almost couldn’t get them to stop. It got to be a problem after they built an airport near the town; pilots would look up to see a bear in the sky ahead of them banking left, and they’d be so busy staring at the bear that they’d steer off course and end up halfway to the next state before they thought to look at the controls again. Of course, these days all the controls are automatic, so that isn’t a problem anymore.
The flying bears loved hearing my granddad’s stories as much as I did, and it was a rare night when we didn’t see at least one bear touch down in the garden. It just about drove my poor grandma crazy because they’d always land in the vegetable patch and trample the vegetables, and she couldn’t get anything to grow there until my granddad built a little landing strip for the bears in the field out back. Even then she’d still mutter about paw marks on her linoleum, but I saw her putting out a bowl of acorns and pine nuts once or twice when she thought no one was looking.
I used to play with the cubs while the grownup bears visited with my granddad. I don’t know how many times I got told to stay on the ground, but you can’t expect a child not to ride on the back of a flying bear cub and do barrel rolls just above the treetops when the chance is right in front of her. We used to fly way up near the stars, and I would tell the cubs all the stories my granddad told me about the constellations and what they meant. The cubs tried to teach me how to sing bear-song a few times, but I don’t think I ever got it quite right.
I asked my granddad once how the bears learned to fly, because the cubs said it just sort of happened, like walking or swimming. My granddad told me that, back when he was young, the bears couldn’t fly at all. One day, though, a bear cub climbed almost to the top of a tree when the branch he was standing on started to creak, and he realized the branches that high up were too small to hold him. The cub got scared and couldn’t climb down, and his mama couldn’t climb up after him because she was too heavy and the branches would break. None of the bears knew what to do.
The branch kept creaking and the bear cub kept crying until his poor mama was half out of her mind. Finally she couldn’t take any more, and she reared up on her hind legs and jumped as high as she could toward her cub. Instead of falling back to the ground like all the other bears thought she would, though, she just kept going higher and higher. She flew all the way up the tree until she was high enough to grab her cub just as the branch he was standing on snapped through, and if her landing was a little clumsy, well, no one thought any the worse of her for it.
My granddad got that story from the mama bear herself, though she never shared it with another human being. She told my granddad that she wasn’t scared at all on the way up, but the whole time she was flying back down, she was convinced the wind was blowing off all her fur and she was going to crash to the ground as bald as a baby field mouse. She didn’t, of course, and by the time a week had passed nearly all the bears could fly, except for the very old and the very, very young.
(When I asked the mama bear why she told that story to my granddad and nobody else, she said it was because, after she got her cub down from the tree, she took the cub to my granddad to have him fix up some scrapes and cuts, and somehow she found herself telling him everything. I used to go to my granddad with my scrapes and cuts, too, so I understood.)
I got a little older and started going to a different school during the rest of the year. It was a very good school, where they made us wear uniforms and tested us on things we hadn’t learned yet, but the teachers there weren’t very nice. At my old school, my teacher told me he always looked forward to reading my essays about what I’d done over the summer, so the bears and I made sure to do things my teacher would enjoy reading about when classes started up again. I used to save the essays and read them to my granddad when he stayed with us during the holidays, and he liked them, too, and said he guessed my teacher must be pretty smart.
At this new place, when I wrote my summer essay, my new teacher made me stay after class and lectured me about how stories have no place in works of serious nonfiction. I tried to explain about the mama bear and her cub, but my teacher said everybody knew bears couldn’t fly, and then she told me it was time I grew up and made me write a new essay where I copied out the encyclopedia entry on bears. When I got to the end and found out that my teacher was right and bears couldn’t fly, I felt just like that cub did when he climbed too high in the tree, except the mama bear couldn’t rescue me because everybody knows bears can’t fly.
My parents didn’t understand why I was so unhappy that fall at my new school, and I never told them. I didn’t want them to know how childish I’d been. The next time my granddad came for the holidays, he asked to hear my essay and I gave him the copied-out encyclopedia entry. He read it all the way through, frowned at the paper, and then frowned at me until I told him the whole story. When I finished, he frowned at the paper again and threw it into the fire. I asked him if it was true that everyone knows bears can’t fly. He said, “Of course everyone knows bears can’t fly. But the bears don’t know it, and don’t you go telling them.” And I felt better.
My granddad passed away not long after that, and it wasn’t more than a few days after his funeral that the bears flew for what turned out to be the last time. Before then, I’d never seen more than two or three in the air together, but that day so many bears took to the sky at once that they blocked the sun and turned the town almost as dark as midnight, though the clocks said it was 12 noon. In every home and office and store, people stopped what they were doing and went outside to watch the flying bears. We all knew they were telling us goodbye.
I was staying with my grandma when it happened. I saw the bears as they skimmed over buildings, circled once above the graveyard, and then flew in a long, slow procession over my grandparent’s house. I saw all the young cubs I’d played with, now almost grown and looking far too dignified ever to have done barrel rolls. The bears flew down to skim low over the landing strip behind the house, but never landed, instead climbing higher and higher until it became impossible to tell one bear from another. Then they turned toward the west and flew out of sight, and none of them ever came back.
I haven’t seen another flying bear since that day. I haven’t even been to the town in years. We sold the house after my grandma died and I never had a reason to go back after that. To own the truth, I don’t much want to go back. I don’t want to see how things have changed since the summers I spent there as a child, and I don’t want to know what the town looks like without my granddad somewhere in it, telling his stories. If I go back now, I’m not sure I could still believe that bears ever flew there at all. Some days I know they never did.
But the bears don’t know it, and I’m not about to tell them.