By Stickling Hazelshade
Once upon a time there was a tribe of raccoons who lived in a valley. Three of these raccoons were sisters. Klara was the cleverest. Klara persuaded the other animals to make deals with the raccoons. Klara was always one step ahead of the squirrels, geese, and deer who traded in the valley. Fiona was the fiercest. When other animals tried to steal the humans’ garbage, Fiona would hiss and bear her teeth. Fiona had terrific fights against quick cats and belligerent possums. Sylvia was the sweetest. Sylvia was affectionate, and she was quick to comfort the other raccoons in their distress. Sylvia often cared for the old and orphaned raccoons. Sylvia would always share food when she found it in the valley, sometimes even with other animals. The three sisters loved each other.
The raccoons shared the valley with geese, squirrels, hawks, humans, and other animals. Besides garbage from the humans, the raccoon sisters ate bugs, nuts, fish, mice and such. The raccoons lived in fear of predators, especially the hawks. The raccoons were often sad because the hawks preyed upon them and their kits.
Now a bear named Bongo also lived in the valley. Bongo was the biggest and strongest animal in the valley, and all of the other animals feared him. The season was early Fall, and Bongo had to hibernate soon. Unfortunately Bongo could not find very much food to fatten up for Winter. Many nights Bongo saw the raccoons eating garbage out of the humans’ dumpsters. Human garbage was Bongo’s favorite food. Bongo ate human garbage himself many years ago. The humans fired their dreadful guns and wounded him. Bongo stopped eating human garbage after that. The raccoons were sneakier than him, a big bear, and so they were better at eating the human’s garbage. Bongo also often saw the hawks preying upon the raccoons and their young. Thus one night Bongo got an idea. Bongo went to talk to the three raccoon sisters. He called them over to him from the other side of a clearing in a very loud, deep bear voice.
“Raccoon sisters! Please come speak to me. Fear not, for I am not hunting.”
The three sisters met the bear in the middle of the clearing. They were not scared despite Bongo’s immense size. It was of course in Bongo’s nature to prey on raccoons occasionally, but it was well known that bears are just and honorable with all other animals while not hunting. Bongo began:
“I am a bear, and I must hibernate soon. To hibernate is in my nature. I cannot find enough food to eat. I have seen you raccoons eating the human’s garbage. I would like to eat the human’s garbage too, because it is my favorite food. But you raccoons are sneakier than me, a big bear. The humans point their dreadful guns at me when I approach their garbage. Also I have seen the hawks often preying upon you and your kits. Thus I propose a deal: If you give me half of the human’s garbage that you steal, I will protect you and your kits from the hawks. Moreover, I promise I will not prey upon you raccoons.”
The raccoon sisters huddled together to talk about the deal. “Never!” Fiona said. “We take the food; it’s ours!”
“But the hawks do prey upon our kits. They ate your youngest only five weeks ago, I’m sorry to remind you,” Klara said. “And we have plenty of other food to eat. Nuts will fall soon, and after that we will feast on fish trapped by the ice.”
“And Bongo is a bear; he must eat a lot before winter,” Sylvia said.
“And…if Bongo can’t get enough food to eat…he may prey upon us,” Klara finished gravely. Klara and Sylvia calmed their fierce sister Fiona and persuaded her to accept Bongo’s deal.
“We shall give you half of the garbage we steal. We shall pile it outside your den.” Fiona promised.
“And the hawks shall prey upon neither you nor your kits for one full year,” Bongo promised.
Fiona, Klara, and Sylvia shook hands with Bongo the bear, and the animals left the clearing.
The next night the raccoon sisters ate garbage, Sylvia prepared a bundle to carry to Bongo’s den. Bongo’s scent was still traceable from where they had last met. Sylvia began to follow it through the moonlit forest. Nearly all the trees and bushes had lost their leaves, and the brisk wind howled through the bare branches. Sylvia followed Bongo’s scent past dark cedar groves and ghostly sycamores. The way was hard, and Sylvia panted as she crossed a creek and climbed out of a rocky ravine. Just as Sylvia was beginning to lose hope she found herself at the threshold of a huge den. Sylvia left the garbage bundle at the threshold and hurried back to her own den. She did the same the next night and the night after that. On the fourth night Bongo was outside of his den, waiting for the garbage.
“Hello Sylvia the raccoon! Thank you for the cold pizza you brought yesterday. Cold pizza is my favorite!”
Joy spread across Sylvia’s white and black raccoon face. “You’re welcome, Bongo the bear!” she said.
“It’s cold and rainy outside. Please, come in!” Bongo said.
They entered Bongo’s den. Sylvia scratched his big bear head, and Bongo pet her furry stomach. They ate garbage, talked about the weather for a short while, and exchanged farewells. Thus Sylvia the raccoon and Bongo the bear became friends.
Later that Fall at dusk one day, Klara was crossing a meadow with her young. Like lightning a hawk struck her young son from above. Bongo the bear thundered out from a nearby grove. His paws shook the ground. Before the hawk could fly off with its prey, Bongo swiped the hawk with his paw. The hawk fell to the ground with a squawk and dropped the squealing young raccoon. Klara’s son was ok, and the hawk was dead.
After that terrifying incident, the hawks did not hunt the raccoons, and the raccoon sisters continued to give half of the garbage they collected to Bongo the bear. The raccoons had many kits, and the hawks did not prey upon them.
Winter came. Sylvia stopped bringing garbage to Bongo’s den, and Bongo hibernated. In the Spring, the raccoons resumed giving Bongo half of their garbage, and Sylvia resumed delivering it.
One night in the Spring, something strange happened in a glade. The three raccoon sisters nearly stumbled over three mountain lion cubs. Alarmed, the raccoon sisters scattered and each scampered to the top of a tree. Neither a mother nor father mountain lion was to be seen. The cubs played loudly in the glade, squealing and hissing. After a long while the raccoon sisters climbed down and approached the cubs. Because they were young and helpless, each raccoon sister carried away a cub.
Sylvia carried her cub to Bongo the bear. All the trees had leaves, and wildflowers grew in the meadows. Spiders were busy spinning webs among the dense honeysuckle bushes, and Sylvia did her best to avoid them. Sylvia met Bongo outside his den. Bongo and Sylvia decided to raise the orphaned cub until it was strong enough to go back into the wild. For Bongo reminded Sylvia of the mountain lion’s nature:
“Mountain lions are fierce, cruel animals. They do not merely hunt; they murder for sport. They cannot be traded with, nor reasoned with at all. They are deceitful. Though they may seem friendly, they wish only to hunt and murder.”
Sylvia knew all this–all animals are taught it by their parents.
Sylvia and Bongo’s wife nursed the cub, and it grew quickly. Soon the cub was as large as Sylvia herself. Trained a bit by Sylvia and Bongo’s wife, the cub hunted fish and mice and other small animals quite successfully. Hunting is deep in the nature of mountain lions, after all. Though Sylvia had grown attached to the cub, she yielded to Bongo the bear. One sad night that Summer Sylvia and Bongo walked far away and released the cub into the wild.
Fiona took her cub back to her den and nursed him along with her kits.
Klara likewise took her cub back to her den and nursed him along with her kits. Klara knew the raccoons were getting tired of giving half of their garbage to Bongo, and Klara had an idea. Klara trained her cub to obey her. While it is not in the nature of mountain lions to be tamed, Klara was clever and she managed it.
Sure enough a few nights later the raccoons got tired of giving Bongo half of the humans’ garbage. They grumbled among themselves often, and only Sylvia the sweetest sister wanted to give half of her garbage to Bongo the bear.
“We took this garbage–it’s ours! We should stop giving half to Bongo the bear,” Fiona said.
“But Bongo is my friend! And he thanks us every time we give him garbage. It’s his favorite food,” Sylvia said.
“Bongo does not need the garbage now. He does not need to hibernate soon. And though the hawks do not hunt us, we are still preyed upon by the foxes, cats, and owls. Sylvia, Bongo may be your friend, but the fact is that he is exploiting us. We should find a way to avoid giving Bongo our garbage,” Klara said sensibly.
The next dusk Klara led her cub out into the meadow. The cub was larger than Klara now. Klara led her cub to the tree where hawks lived. Klara grimaced and hissed, and her cub sprang up the tree. He carefully leapt from branch to branch until he was near the very top, where the hawks’ nest rested. Inside the nest five hungry hawk chicks tweeted and opened their mouths wide. Klara’s cub shook the branch. The nest lurched and the hawk chicks screeched in terror. Klara’s cub bounded down the branches and into the meadow. Screeaahhh! The raccoons looked up and squinted into the setting sun as a chicks’ parent soared into view. The enraged hawk dove at the fleeing cub like an arrow. The hawk grasped the cub with its sharp talons, but the cub was too heavy for the hawk to carry off. Quick as a cat the cub turned around and lashed out with his paws. Feathers flew and Klara’s cub pinned the hawk to the ground, killing it. He carried the dead bird away in his jaws. Many animals had seen the fight, and word spread like fire. All the other animals feared the raccoons. The raccoons said among themselves that Klara was surely the best among them–she was the cleverest.
After the fight Klara declared to the other raccoons that she would cancel the deal with Bongo the bear. The raccoons would stop giving Bongo half of their garbage, and Bongo would not be bound to protect the raccoons from the hawks. After all, the hawks feared Klara’s tamed mountain lion now. The raccoons no longer needed the protection of Bongo the bear. All the raccoons enthusiastically agreed with Klara except her sister Sylvia. Thus that night Klara went to Bongo the bear’s den and called to him. Bongo met her outside.
“Bongo the bear, we raccoons move to cancel our contract with you. We no longer wish to give you half of the garbage we take from the humans’ dumpsters. We would release you from your promise to protect us from the hawks. What say you?”
Bongo the bear was disappointed, for garbage was his favorite food. And he was distressed that the hawks might now prey upon the raccoons, including his friend Sylvia and her kits.
“Are you sure you no longer want my protection from the hawks?” Bongo asked.
“Yes. Our need of your protection has decreased significantly since our initial contract.”
“Our contract is canceled, then. All here have born witness,” Klara concluded. Klara and the raccoons left.
Though the other raccoons scoffed at her, Sylvia still brought garbage to Bongo the bear. The quantity was much less, for the other raccoons would not let her take even close to half of the garbage they saved. Sylvia came to Bongo in sadness.
“Bongo, my friend, I’m sorry,” she whimpered. Bongo rubbed her belly to comfort her.
“I am disappointed too, Sylvia my friend,” Bongo said. “But these fish heads you brought to me are tasty. Though I will no longer protect you raccoons from the hawks, I will not hunt you, as is my nature,” Bongo said.
Comforted, Sylvia smiled. She and Bongo the bear hugged each other and Sylvia left his den. Sylvia continued to take Bongo small bundles of garbage. Some nights Bongo was not near his den. The bear needed to hunt and forage more often now that he did not get much garbage from the raccoons. On these nights Sylvia left the garbage bundle outside the den, praying that other animals did not steal it before Bongo came back. Bongo always thanked her when they did get to spend time together.
The geese, squirrels, and deer had seen Klara’s cub, and they feared the raccoons. Klara capitalized on their fear, and the raccoons made profitable new deals with these trading animals. The stingy squirrels even gave the raccoons first harvesting rights to a mulberry bush by a fence, for the paltry price of an abandoned birdhouse. The raccoons feasted on mulberries and praised Klara’s tact with their purple, berry-stained mouths. The raccoons controlled more land and gained more access to food.
Now hawks are proud animals, and the actions of the raccoons had hurt and enraged them. Two of their number had now been killed on account of the raccoons. The hawks flew menacingly close to the raccoons’ dens. When the raccoons ventured out into the meadows and open spaces, the hawks would circle and denounce them with piercing screeches. They would not dare attack, however. The tamed mountain lion cubs were fearsome–both were bigger than the biggest male in the raccoon tribe by now.
Fiona envied her sister Klara’s charisma and success. Fiona had trained her cub just as Klara had done. Now Fiona got an idea. Fiona trained her cub rigorously. She doubled the fish and mice that she fed him. She showed him many more rabbit dens, and he gorged upon the rabbits, and murdered them for sport. Soon Fiona’s cub was larger and fiercer even than his brother, Klara’s cub. Fiona’s cub drove away the possums, the owls, the foxes, and the cats. He struck fear into the hearts of all the predators of the raccoons.
One night in the Fall Fiona led her cub to the den of Bongo the bear. Bongo came out to address the pair. Fiona hissed. Quick as a cat her cub bounded at the bear. Before Bongo could react the cub struck his face, paw full of claws like daggers. Bongo roared in pain and threw the mountain lion away from him. His nose bleeding great gouts of red blood, Bongo drove Fiona and her cub away. Fiona and her cub went and told the other raccoons what had happened. Crows had seen the event, and they spread the news like fire among the other animals. Fiona the raccoon had defied the strongest animal among them. Truly the raccoons were the most fearsome animals in the valley.
In the following days the raccoons gained more land and food than ever before. All the other animals feared the raccoons. The raccoons praised Fiona the Fierce. No other raccoon had led them to such strength before. Fiona herself made deals with the trading animals. With stubborn, bold demands Fiona multiplied the power of the raccoons. The deer gave them exclusive harvesting rights to the entire grove of persimmon trees at no cost to the raccoons. The raccoons ate so many persimmons that Fall that most of them got sick. The geese gave them the whole pond. The geese even promised not to honk around the raccoons, unless it was to praise them.
Sylvia continued to take her small bundles of garbage to Bongo’s den, but to Sylvia’s sadness he was not there. She piled her bundles outside the den. Sylvia observed with dismay that the other animals stole the bundles, and the older bundles rotted. Sylvia was worried about her friend Bongo the bear.
One night a horrifying thing happened. A great black shape stormed the raccoons’ den. It was Bongo the bear! Gaunt from lack of food and fur matted, the bear was a terrifying sight. Bongo’s wound was festering, and a white sore spread over his nose and face. Bongo’s roar shook the forest. The raccoons fled and scampered up trees. Fearful, the mountain lion brothers fled the valley, never to return. Bongo started to dig, throwing great gouts of soil behind him with his paws. Klara and Fiona hissed wildly, trying to call their mountain lions. Suddenly Bongo uncovered something: a young raccoon. The animal squealed in terror, and Bongo leapt upon it. The kit was dead in an instant. Bongo turned to the raccoons in the trees. He reared onto his back legs and roared.
“Behold my revenge! One of you attacked me without warning, so I do to you. You are vulnerable, you are defenseless. See how the cats flee real danger! Your mountain lions have fled–you know it is not in their nature to fight in the face of real danger, and yet you fancy that you tamed them. They do not care for you–they only care about themselves. Mountain lions are deceitful animals by nature–we all learn this as young. Your greed for power so blinded you that you ignored this natural lesson. You raccoons say amongst yourselves that you are the fiercest and the cleverest of animals. You are neither. Truly you are the most foolish animals in the valley!” Bongo left the dens of the raccoons. The coppery smell of blood hung heavy in the air.
Sylvia wept. The kit Bongo had killed was her only son. Sylvia cried and cried, and the other raccoons could not help but join her. Bongo the bear, Sylvia’s best friend, had killed her only son. Sylvia’s heart was broken.
In the time following the raccoons lived in shame. The geese, squirrels, and deer canceled their deals with the raccoons. The trading animals did not merely cancel their deals–they disregarded all the raccoons’ past claims on food and land. When a squirrel saw a raccoon in the valley, it sneered with contempt. When the geese saw a raccoon, they honked in raucous laughter. The raccoons again lived in fear. The hawks had not forgotten those who had died because of the raccoons, and they preyed upon the raccoons with renewed fury. Once in a meadow three hawks killed an adult male raccoon. Instead of eating the raccoon, the hawks left the body to rot, as a sign for all the other animals. No animal would dare go near the dead raccoon, because four tenacious hawks circled overhead all day and night. As the fowl smell of the dead animal pervaded the valley, so shame and fear spread among the raccoons.
The next three days and nights it rained. There was lightning and thunder. The rain was cold, for winter was approaching. Sylvia tried to visit Bongo, but the creek had burst its banks and turned into a torrent. The black water flowed among the bare tree branches, and it rushed by faster than a raccoon could run. The raging waters could have carried even a bear away.
The first night after the rain Sylvia went to Bongo’s den. She brought a small bundle of garbage. Though Sylvia was still very sad about her son, she only wanted to ease the suffering of her friend. At the big dark entrance she called Bongo’s name. No answer. Sylvia crossed the threshold and her eyes adjusted to the deeper gloom. Bongo was lying on his stomach in the back of the room, facing the wall. Sylvia gasped, worried he was dead. “Bongo, Bongo! My friend!” She shrieked. Sylvia ran to Bongo’s side. Bongo groaned.
“Hello Sylvia,” Bongo wheezed. “I’m sorry, my hearing is declining. I must not have heard you at first.”
Sylvia looked into Bongo’s face. The white sore had spread from the gaping scratches on Bongo’s nose to cover his head. Even Sylvia was slightly disgusted. Bongo’s eyes, which had been chestnut-colored, were white with the sore. The slack-jawed bear looked at Sylvia with a blank stare. He was blind.
“Bongo, Bongo,” Sylvia whimpered. “I’m so sorry. So sorry my sister and the mountain lion did this to you. I’m so sorry I didn’t see what was going on…I’m so sorry I didn’t try harder to persuade the other raccoons to give you food. I could have stopped my sister…I could have.”
“I forgive you, Sylvia. I forgive your sister and the mountain lion. I forgive all the raccoons,” Bongo wheezed. “I’m sorry for killing your only son. I was angry. Blind with rage. I deserve my horrible fate.”
“No, no!” Sylvia cried. “You don’t deserve this. You’re a good animal. I know it! I forgive you, I forgive you!”
Bongo cried white, cloudy tears. Sylvia hugged the bear’s mangy muzzle. Suddenly Sylvia got an idea. Very gently, she licked Bongo’s nose. Bongo snarled, showing his yellow teeth. “Bongo, it might help!” Sylvia said. Sylvia was scared and ashamed that she might have done something wrong, but she persisted. After a moment the bear closed his eyes, and stopped snarling at every touch of Sylvia’s pink tongue. Ignoring the repulsive taste, Sylvia licked Bongo’s ears, eyelids, snout, and jowls.
“Thank you, Sylvia” Bongo said. “I think it has helped. Even if it was only a kind gesture.” Bongo sighed contentedly.
Sylvia felt warm inside. She opened her bundle and took out the cold pizza. She opened Bongo’s mouth and put a morsel on his tongue.
“Ooo!” Bongo sat up, delighted. “You’ve thought of everything!”
The cold pizza was soft and easy on Bongo’s inflamed mouth and throat. When he had devoured the six-or-so pieces, Bongo licked and slurped at the cardboard, damp with cheese and pepperoni grease and garlic salt.
Sylvia washed in the stream outside. When she came back in, Bongo was already snoring. His head was propped on his front paws on top of the pizza box. Sylvia sprawled up against his arm and fell fast asleep.
Sylvia woke near midnight. Bongo was still snoring. He needs sleep, Sylvia thought. She left the den to forage.
Around dusk the next night Sylvia went back to Bongo’s den. Climbing the slope Sylvia was startled to see the great black bear running down towards her. Bongo roared in happiness.
“Sylvia, the sweetest raccoon! You’ve done it!” Bongo roared. To Sylvia’s amazement the white sore was gone. Short, soft fir grew on Bongo’s broad face.
“Not me,” Sylvia said, overwhelmed. Tears of joy streamed over Sylvia’s black and white face. It was a miracle.