Short Story: First Contact

“It is hard to see the forest for the trees,” said Beaver nervously.

It was almost spring and the forest was starting to melt. Soon the river would swell and the dam would be in trouble. Beaver’s whole family lived in the dam. If it broke, if it split under the weight of so much water, then they would be in trouble. The two little ones who had come last spring were okay swimmers, but Beaver had seen whole families washed away.

The Bird, to whom Beaver had addressed his quasi-philosophical statement, looked nervous as well, but it is always hard to tell with birds. The feathers get in the way. Obscuring their bright little eyes.

“If I could just see the forest,” Beaver continued, tentatively. “If I could just see it, then I’d know what we were up against. Those Not-Beavers have been busy, I think. I’d like toknow how much of the forest they had taken.”

Bird twittered nervously and pecked at the ground a few times.

“They were making noises all day yesterday.” Beaver didn’t need Bird to add to the conversation. He just needed to get the words out and to have someone other than his perpetually worried wife listen. He needed a sounding board. “Loud noises. Noises I’ve never heard before. Louder than a beaver could make, or even a bear or a moose.”

Bird cocked his head to the side.

“They … I can’t even explain it. They had these things, like paws, but not paws, that made noise, and then the trees would fall down. A whole tree that would take me from the sun being over there,” Beaver pointed with his stubby paw, “to over there,” he pointed again, “was down in no time. In no time, Bird.” He said the last four words with emphasis. He didn’t know Bird’s chosen name, but he’d been talking to Bird so long that it felt rude to ask now. And, anyway, Bird didn’t know Beaver’s chosen name either.

Bird looked puzzled and Beaver took that as a sign of encouragement.

“I know!” his voice sounded high pitched, like his wife’s did when the food stocks were low. “I’ve never seen a beaver do that. Or a bird. Or a bear. Or a fish. I wonder what they are?”

Bird peeped a series of words that Beaver couldn’t quite make out. He was beginning to think that Bird might be a little slow.

“And they came in these things. Fast things. Faster than salmons and bigger than bears. Those made loud noises as well. I thought I was scared for a second, but I turned out to be brave,” Beaver said, with more than a small amount of pride.

Bird looked quizzical.

“They pulled into a patch of forest, about half-sun-going-around-the-forest that way.” Beaver’s stubby paws were bad for pointing, so he was glad that he did not have to do it often. The beaver language had a lot of descriptive, directional words, but when you talk to birds you have to dumb things down and point a whole lot more for them to understand.

Bird looked in the direction that Beaver pointed and the furry little creature felt encouraged. Maybe his words were getting through. Maybe Bird would fly over and report back the extent of the damage that these large Not-Beavers were doing to Beaver’s forest. Maybe Bird would tell him where the Not-Beavers were taking his trees.

“You see, Bird. My father lived on this river and his father lived on this river before him. These trees were his trees and now they are my trees. I tried to tell these Not-Beavers that, but I don’t think they speak the same language we speak. They don’t seem to know the International Forest Language at all.”

Bird hopped three steps away from Beaver so Beaver followed him casually.

“I’m not saying they are stupid, you understand. They seem to be talking to each other in this weird foreign language I’ve never heard before. They must be from another forest, but it is rude to travel and not learn the language. Don’t you think?”

Bird cheeped

“Right?” said Beaver, but he hadn’t really caught what bird had said. “I tried to extend a greeting and the Not-Beavers acted like they didn’t even know I was there. The biggest one had his back to me, and his buddy kind of looked at me, but then pretended I wasn’t even there. Can you imagine? It was so rude.”

Bird did not look sympathetic. He, or she quite frankly, because Beaver was never quite sure, was pecking at the still half-frozen ground. Maybe looking for a worm? Disgusting, thought Beaver. Even in the hard times he and his family would never stoop to eating worms. Bird could do better.

“Tomorrow!” announced Beaver with a great deal of satisfaction. “Tomorrow I’m going to talk to the big one. He has to know that he cannot just come in here and throw his weight around, take my trees, and turn his back to me. I understand that he doesn’t know the rules of the forest, being from another forest and all, but that is no excuse.”

Bird was thoroughly distracted now.

“Oy! Bird!” Beaver said to get his attention. “Did you hear what I said? Tomorrow I’m going to tell those strange Not-Beavers to either leave the forest or at least stop taking our trees.”

Bird looked genuinely anxious. But kept pecking the ground. Beaver was trying to build up his courage so he put on some bravado.

“I’m going to say, ‘Look here… you. This is our forest. Those trees belong to us. You cannot take them.’”

Bird got distracted by a pebble, but Beaver didn’t notice.

“I’m going to say, ‘I need those trees to make my dam strong for spring. If I had extra, I would lend them to you, but my wife says the roof is leaking, and spring is coming. Spring means water, water means the river gets bigger, and the river getting bigger means my house gets wet. If my house gets too wet, the walls collapse, and I cannot let that happen.”

Bird scratched his or her head with his or her tiny, clawed foot, and Beaver looked disgusted. Who does that? What kind of creature doesn’t have paws? At least the Not-Beavers had four paws, though they only stood up on their back ones, like bears do when they were looking around for something. Beaver thought it looked a little odd at first, but now he wanted to try it out. He’d tried half-heartedly while making his way back to the dam, after his first unsuccessful contact with the Not-Beavers, but he’d found the balance tricky and his tail kept getting in the way. He would have to study their posture tomorrow to figure out how they didn’t just tip over.

“I would share. You know me, Bird,” Beaver said, though this may be the first time he and this particular bird had met. “I’ve the most giving beaver in this forest, but I need some of the trees to fortify my house and the other ones for decoration. I don’t have trees to spare.”

Bird was flat out ignoring Beaver by now and that just made Beaver more anxious to show off.

“I’m going to walk right up to that big one and tap him on the … well, I guess I’ll tap him on the lower calf, because he really is big, and I’m going to say, ‘Listen, buddy. This is our forest, andour trees, and you’ve got to take your bigger-than-a-bear-and-faster-than-a-salmon thingy, and go back to where you came from.’”

Beaver stopped short and blushed under his fur. He hoped Bird wouldn’t find what he had just said racist or xenophobic. He, actually, had a pretty left of center view on forest immigration, just not when it came to Not-Beavers taking their trees.

“What I mean to say is, if we had more forest, then I’d absolutely let those Not-Beavers take as many trees as they wanted, but there is just not enough to go around.”

Suddenly, Bird flew off and Beaver heard an unfamiliar sound behind him. He had one of those moments where he felt like he was turning in slow motion. Behind him was the largest Not-Beaver, holding his big orange not-a-paw attached to his paw. He was looking at Beaver. Beaver didn’t like it and he backed up slightly, tripping a little on his tail in the process. The Not-Beaver halved his size so he was closer to the ground and extended his paw towards Beaver. Beaver noticed something in it. It could be food or it could be poison. Beaver could not be sure and that made him furious.

“Look, buddy!” Beaver began, but was ashamed of how squeaky his voice sounded.

The giant Not-Beaver’s face changed to look more aggressive. The corners of his mouth turned up in a way that made Beaver angry and scared at the same time. The Not-Beaver was waving his paw and making noise with his face and suddenly another Not-Beaver came and halved himself too. This made Beaver nervous and he said, “Look! This is not your forest!” He put emphasis on every word and spoke them slowly, so that both the obviously stupid Not-Beavers could understand.

Both Not-Beavers made the aggressive face now. Both sides of their mouth curling up. The smaller Not-Beaver was inching closer and Beaver willed himself not to back down. He heard a noise and looked up. Bird was watching everything and seemed to be laughing at his situation. Bird must sense that Beaver was scared and he, or she, was getting a kick out that this. Beaver was fuming and fighting an urge to run.

Smaller Not-Beaver was about a salmon’s length away when Beaver could not take it anymore. He turned tail and ran as fast as his beaver legs would take him. He was back at the dam when his wife came out looking harassed. He could hear his children inside. They were rowdy again. They were hungry. It was almost spring.

Behind him, in the forest, Beaver could hear the loud not-a-paw start to make its louder-than-a-bear noise. He heard a tree fall. His wife was trying to make eye contact, but Beaver looked away, defeated and embarrassed. She seemed to sense it. She laid a dainty paw on his oversized furry one. When Beaver didn’t acknowledge it he saw, out of the corner of his eye, her tail lowered a bit and she slowly walked back inside the dam to deal with the children.

That look of disappointment would haunt Beaver long after they had left the forest.

The new forest was never the same. They had to share the new river with other beavers and learn a lot of new salmon names, which are all so similar that it left Beaver wondering, “What is the point.” He saw Bird from time to time. They never spoke again, but they shared a glance frequently that said, “I know.” Those Not-Beavers might come for this new forest one day. They wouldn’t stop until they had taken every forest. There was nothing that Beaver or Bird could do.

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