In the middle of the woods stood a cottage that had, once upon a time, been home to three contented bears. But late one summer, poor Mama Bear got sick and died. Papa Bear and Baby Bear continued living in the cottage, but it seemed to grow a little shabbier each day.
One dreary suppertime, Baby Bear looked sadly at the ruins of his chair lying in a corner of the room. There was a hole where the seat used to be, and one of its legs was cracked. It had been broken by that lump of a Goldilocks who’d sat in it to gobble up his nice dinner. Papa Bear had promised to fix it up, but he hadn’t done it yet.
Baby Bear looked even more sadly at the only chair available to him. It was a big, plushy thing that Mama Bear would always sink down into with a contented sigh. When he was smaller, he would clamber up into her lap, and they would have a cuddle. When he got bigger, he preferred sitting in his own just-right chair, as long as it was next to hers, and she would smile at him with her warm brown eyes as they ate their porridge.
Now, his small round ears drooping, he trudged to Mama Bear’s chair. He was big enough to not need to climb up into it anymore, but he sank so far into its too-soft depths that he ended up chin-level with the table.
His bowl clattered down inches from his face and he jumped. Something lumpy and steaming slopped into the bowl from a ladle that dribbled more lumpy, steaming something onto the table as it retreated.
“Eat,” Papa Bear growled. He slammed a full tankard down beside his own bowl and sank his enormous haunches into his rock-hard chair.
Baby Bear reached up to poke at the stuff in his bowl with his spoon. “It’s too hot.”
“Nonshensh,” came the gruff reply around a sludgy mouthful.
“Look, my spoon can stand up in it. It’s too thick. And lumpy.”
“It’s food. Be grateful.”
But all Baby Bear could think of was the just-right porridge Mama Bear used to cook, and relinquished his spoon to paw away the tears leaking from his eyes.
Papa Bear went on shovelling porridge into his mouth and washing it down with huge draughts of mead. He did not look at Baby Bear. His chewing and gulping filled the silence and threatened to spill over the edges.
Baby Bear pushed his bowl away. Suddenly he felt very angry with Mama Bear’s chair. It still smelt faintly of her and it was all wrong for him. He waded his bottom out of its squashy depths and leapt to the floor.
“Oi! Where do y’think you’re going?”
“I hate that chair!”
Papa Bear glared. “Get your arse back in it and eat your supper.”
“No!” Baby Bear yelled. “It’s horrible porridge and not a bit like hers and I’m not sitting in her horrible chair ever again!” And with that, he flung himself at Mama Bear’s chair, kicking and biting for all he was worth. Finally, it went over with a huge thump. One leg flew off and the back split in two.
Papa Bear roared so loudly that the windows rattled. “What the hell is wrong with you? What did you go and break her chair for?”
Baby Bear roared right back at him. “Why did you never fix my chair? You said you would and you didn’t! I hate you! You’re just an old drunk and I hate you!”
He ran out the front door and into the woods.
He had sort of hoped that Papa Bear would come after him, but the front door had swung shut after him and remained that way. So Baby Bear swiped furiously at his streaming eyes, lifted his chin high and walked. He walked and walked, stomping his paws to show that he meant business. He walked to the right of this tree and to the left of that bush. He walked up this path and down that stream and round and around the next bend, losing his way on purpose, because he was done with Papa Bear forever and would never go home again.
Night came, and he grew very tired. He lay down on a soft bed of fallen autumn leaves and fell fast asleep.
He was awakened by a giggle coming out of the dark. The voice was familiar, and made his fur crawl. There was an answering murmur in a deep, strange voice. Then came that high, girlish giggle again, that made him think of maggoty strawberries.
He crept behind a thick bush to peep at the giggler. Lo and behold, in front of a toasty campfire was that awful Goldilocks, tucked cozily in the lap of a big old barrel-shaped man.
How come someone like Goldilocks got cuddles, but there were none left for him?
Stroking Goldilocks’ hair, the man crooned, “Come, pretty princess. Tell me again about your exciting adventures with those evil Bears.”
Baby Bear’s eyes nearly fell out of his head. Evil Bears, indeed!
Goldilocks said, “Oh Daddy, I was so scared without you! Papa Bear was so rough and fierce, and Mama Bear was so mean and cruel, and Baby Bear wouldn’t share a single one of his nice things with me!”
Baby Bear couldn’t believe his ears. Mama Bear—mean and cruel?! She had been the sweetest, kindest, lovingest Mama in the world! And him not sharing his things? Why, Goldilocks had broken in and stolen his things, and spoilt them! She was a burglar and a thief and a liar!
On the other hand, she was not wrong about Papa Bear.
Goldilocks wrapped her arms around the man’s thick orange neck. “Oh Daddy, what will you do to punish those evil Bears?”
Ohdaddy (for that was what Baby Bear thought his name must be) haw-hawed. “Well, princess, I have in here—” he patted the bag beside him, which went clink—“these very special bottles called Molotov cocktails. Now, don’t you confuse them with real cocktails, which are the nice drinks I let you have when you act all grown up. Molotov cocktails, princess, are bombs.”
“Ooo,” breathed Goldilocks.
Baby Bear did not know what bombs were, but his hackles began to rise.
“What we’ll do is, as the Bears are fast asleep, we’ll take out our Molotov cocktails and set them on fire. Then we’ll chuck them at the Bear cottage one by one. The bottles will break and fire will explode all over the place. The Bears will roast in their beds like jacket potatoes. And, if you like, we can dance around their burning cottage and sing nyah-nyah through their windows!”
“Oh, Daddy!” And Goldilocks reached up to cover his wattled face with rapturous kisses.
Baby Bear backed away from the clearing in deep horror. In his mind, he saw hungry flames swallowing his home. He saw Papa Bear, mazed by mead, lying like a stone as his covers smouldered. His heart clenched and he turned to run home.
Except … he had no idea how to get there, did he? Thanks to himself, he had no way of warning Papa Bear about the attack. He was so angry with himself that he could have cried again, but he made himself breathe instead, so that he could think.
There was nothing for it but to wait for Goldilocks and Ohdaddy to finish their cuddle and let them lead the way to his own home. He felt very small indeed—too small to contain the panic writhing in his belly. Maybe Papa Bear had stopped loving him, but the idea of a world without Papa Bear and Mama Bear was like drowning.
The way back home seemed much shorter than the one away from it. When they were close to throwing distance, Ohdaddy stopped. He laid his clinking bag down carefully and squatted to open it, inhaling its reek like a favourite cologne. He lit a match, pulled out a Molotov cocktail and walked towards the cottage. Goldilocks stuck to him like glue, her lips parted hungrily.
Heart in mouth, Baby Bear crept out from behind them and gripped Ohdaddy’s bag in both paws without making a sound. Then he mustered up all his strength and swung the heavy bag hard against the nearest tree.
The shattering bottles made a sound like silver fireworks.
Goldilocks shrieked and Ohdaddy dropped his match as they both spun around, eyes popping. They looked like two stunned, overlarge meerkats, and Baby Bear felt a wild urge to laugh. Instead, he took a deep breath and screamed at the top of his lungs, “Papa Bear! Wake up! I’m here, wake up wake up wake UP!”
Then he turned and ran back into the woods. He managed to cover some distance before making the mistake of glancing backwards. His paws tangled in a clump of tree roots and he tumbled over. With a triumphant shriek, Goldilocks reached him and sat on him hard before he could get up. Ohdaddy came in a distant second, still gripping his Molotov cocktail. Squashed flat against the ground, Baby Bear could only watch as he lumbered up, looking ten feet tall.
Trying to sound as if he wasn’t wheezing, Ohdaddy wheezed, “Pick him up.”
Sweet air rushed into Baby Bear’s lungs as Goldilocks got off his back. Then her hands bit into his armpits and she yanked him up to face Ohdaddy, grunting with the effort. He wriggled furiously, but she shook him roughly in return and clamped her arms around his chest.
Ohdaddy bent down so that his fleshy nose nearly touched Baby Bear’s quivering one. “Spy!” he barked. “Sneak! How long have you been following us? What is your game?”
“Oh Daddy,” giggled Goldilocks, “it’s only stupid Baby Bear. He’s too stupid to play spy games. I bet he just likes smashing things.”
“Hmph, well, he failed to smash everything. We still have one Molotov cocktail left, so we win. Let’s pour it over him and set him alight.”
“Oh, Daddy! How funny he will look, running around all in flames! Just like my dolls, but alive!”
“Haw haw haw! And when he finishes burning, we’ll roll him in the broken glass from all those nice bottles he smashed up! Can you imagine how he’ll scream?”
“And then we’ll leave him outside his cottage, bang on the door, and run away as fast as we can!”
Baby Bear nearly choked with fear. He thought of the pain that was going to happen to him. He thought of the dear old home that he was never going to see again. He thought, without recognising it for what it was, his first truly adult thought—poor Papa Bear.
He waited for the end to come. Goldilocks’ arms squeezed more breath from him. He could feel her heart pounding against his back, the sweat on her neck curdling his fur. Ohdaddy unplugged his Molotov cocktail and raised it, smiling.
And then Baby Bear smelt a thread of something new in the air. It was half musk and half old mead, and one hundred percent red-hot animal rage.
Leaves rustled in the windless night. The ground rumbled like distant thunder.
Ohdaddy heard it when it became loud enough. He began to say something but it was obliterated by half a tonne of berserk parent crashing out of the dark woods. The Molotov cocktail fell from his hand. By the time it smashed on the ground, he was flat on his back several yards away, flailing uselessly at the angry beast pinning him down.
First, there were claws. Then, there were fangs. When Papa Bear finally raised his massive head, it was over an unmoving, gently oozing mound on the ground.
Baby Bear stared, his mouth hanging open. Just above his head, Goldilocks was doing such an excellent job of non-stop screaming that his ears were going numb.
Papa Bear’s eyes, which seemed to be gleaming red, homed in on Goldilocks’, and her last scream dried up to a froggy croak. His lips curled, displaying teeth dripping with things that had, till recently, been on the inside of Ohdaddy. He took one slow step, and another, and another, until he was close enough to lick Goldilocks’ face.
Goldilocks dropped Baby Bear, along with the contents of her bladder. He scrambled to his feet alongside Papa Bear and turned to face her. She back-pedalled clumsily, tripped and sat down hard. “D-d-don’t hurt me,” she blubbered. “P-please? Let me go home?”
Papa Bear said, “We let you go once.”
Baby Bear said, “And you came back to burn down our home.”
Papa Bear said, “And worse.”
This time, he let Baby Bear have a go with his little claws and fangs. He watched carefully from aside, offering helpful hints when he thought he might be missing a spot.
The moment he finished, Baby Bear bounded towards Papa Bear and hurtled into his arms. Hugging back hard, Papa Bear growled, “Don’t you ever, ever do that to me again. Do you have any idea how I felt when I couldn’t find you?”
Baby Bear hung his head. “I thought you didn’t love me anymore, because Mama Bear died.”
Papa Bear butted him in the cheek, very gently. “I thought I was giving you space—something she said you need. We’ll have to figure out a better way of doing that.” He shifted Baby Bear in his arms and chuckled. “Also, we’re going to have to come up with a new name for you, son. You’re far too heavy to be called a baby anything.”
Baby Bear nuzzled Papa Bear’s neck. Close up, he saw, under the bloody flecks, how Papa Bear’s muzzle was beginning to go wintery. But his shoulders were still strong and his chest still solid. Baby Bear buried his face in the grizzly fur and clung tight.
Papa Bear held him close for a minute longer, then patted him on the back. “Right. We’ve still got a bit of work to do.”
Baby Bear raised his head and blinked. “We do?”
Papa Bear hoisted him back down to the ground and cleared his throat. “Yeah, see, what we don’t want is people coming by and finding these two idiots just outside our house, covered with bear bites and claw marks. I don’t mean the Pigs or the Billy Goats Gruff—they wouldn’t give a toss—and Big Bad Wolf would only laugh. But humans, now, they only see things from the human point of view.”
Baby Bear nodded thoughtfully. “So what do we do with them?”
“Well,” said Papa Bear, “I know how you feel about my porridge. Do you want to try something new for breakfast?”