by Melissa Bobe

Isabel couldn’t understand what was strange about wanting to go north to the polar bears. After she’d mentioned the idea to a few friends, their reactions told her not to bring it up with anyone else. They seemed to regard her as though she had gone crazy, like that man in the documentary who got eaten by his pet grizzly bears. But who would want to visit a grizzly? And she wasn’t looking for pets; she was looking to make amends.

She thought maybe she should bring a gift or something, though she wasn’t sure what kind of gift, so she said, “Sorry for being part of the species that’s melting the glaciers you live on. Sorry for adding to the heat that is starving your relatives and friends to death.” How do you apologize for being human? It seemed there weren’t words or gestures enough.

It was not difficult to go north. She’d had to read about proper attire and equipment, but thanks to the magic of shopping online, most of it wasn’t hard to get her hands on. The warm parka she’d purchased disturbed her when she received it. The color was louder than it had looked on the store’s site –– an unforgiving fire engine red that she’d rather not look at and certainly didn’t want to wear. But it was the best coat available for the price.

Her savings weren’t huge, but they were substantial. In the end, she had enough for gear, transportation and lodging, and the weeklong guided tour. Before she knew it and without another word to her friends and family, Isabel was on a plane overlooking tundra, blinded by the bleak white glare from below.

She didn’t talk much to the other travelers who were part of her tour group, though a few tried to get to know her. She was patient in her muted smiles and drifting gaze, and eventually, they left her to herself. Over the course of the two days she had to wait for her planned bear encounter. She grew to detest the voice of their tour guide, who felt the constant need to remind them that, if they felt like they might be experiencing too much exposure to the cold, they must report it to him immediately. Isabel wondered how he managed to fight the impulse to spoonfeed them all hot soup and tie their bootlaces for them.

On the third day, when the tour was finally set to travel a distance to see more exotic wildlife, the tourists in Isabel’s group were checking their camera bags obsessively to be certain they had enough spare batteries. She stared out at the landscape as the shuttle bus took them from their lodgings farther into the snowy terrain, wondering with little interest what they hoped to capture with their expensive cameras. She heard the guide’s grating voice remind them to stick together as a group, that predator animals were much less likely to bother a large group of people and that staying together would enhance their experience as they marveled at nature’s beauty together. She wished someone would open a window so that the snowfall swirling around the bus would blow in, fill his mouth, and shut him up.

It finally came time to park and get out to search for whales, another creature the tour had promised buyers a glimpse of. The land seemed endless, a frozen desert that disappeared into itself on all sides, but after walking a few paces, Isabel found with her burning eyes the edge of the arctic sea. The guide reminded them that they could only get so close to the water because they wanted to remain safe on solid ground, but if they were lucky, the whales would start spy hopping. A murmur of excitement rippled through the group like a shiver in the falling snow. The whales were quick to come out of the water, to the delight of all the tourists. Isabel took advantage of the sounds of cameras clicking and the excitement of the photo frenzy and snuck away into the gust of a snowy wind. Once she knew her steps wouldn’t make a sound loud enough to distract the enthralled shutterbugs and their pontificating tour guide, she began to run from the group, past the shuttle and into the snow-covered beyond.

After a while, Isabel found that she was warm inside her parka from running, though her face ached from the unforgiving wind. She stopped to look around. White upon white, no sign of the shuttle behind her. She knew she couldn’t have outrun it by all that much in the short time she’d been traveling, but gone was the sound of coastal waters. She was left with the cold and the lonely singing of the wind.

She shut her eyes. Black. Opened them. White. Black, white, black, white, and she kept them closed, hoping for something that might not come. But just as she was about to open her eyes once more, she heard it: a slow-paced step, a shuffling gravity, breath that sounded too thick to be human.

Isabel opened her eyes. Approaching her slowly was a huge white bear. As their gazes met, he paused in his steps, then continued forward until he was standing before her. She reached out a hand, and the bear sniffed gently at her fingers.

She was overwhelmed by something that she didn’t have the words to name, because she had never felt it before. Tears froze painfully to her face. “I’m sorry,” she said aloud. Her voice wasn’t hollow, as she had expected, but quiet. In that wide expanse of winter, there was nowhere for her words to echo. The snow seemed to muffle them so that only he could hear her. Isabel and the bear were alone in a world that ensured its sole two occupants had privacy in which to share their deepest secrets.

He nuzzled her with his face, and she was amazed by how easy it was to hug him, just like you’d think it would be to hug a bear. He put a paw to her back, embracing her in turn, and made a gentle huffing noise. They stood, holding one another for what felt like several extended minutes, until Isabel heard the sound of a distant horn and recognized what must be a searching shuttle bus looking for a vanished passenger.

She knew that, even off the road, her red parka might be visible against the otherwise white expanse. She unzipped it and threw it off, feeling an immediate jolt of cold push through her white sweater. She snuggled close to the bear. He made a little whine, and let her drape one hand over the massive base of his long neck. He took a step, slowly, waiting for her to walk with him before putting his huge paw down and moving his massive body forward. Together, they left the sound of the desperate honking horn behind them.

Isabel didn’t feel the cold standing next to the bear. She thought for a moment that she must have what the guide had called “exposure,” that there was no way she wasn’t freezing to death. But walking came so easily, and she felt the bulk of the bear in her arms, saw him next to her, heard his chuffing, curious little breaths. She shed her fear like another coat and left it behind.

The two walked together as night rose and day fell under the tundra before them, which hadn’t yet disappeared into the encroaching ocean. They saw no water, only ice.