Why are we fighting so hard?

Everything seems like a fight these days; cooperation is lost in divisive issues of our time. Most conflicts have to do with scarcity, but that isn’t always the case. And when it comes to energy, is scarcity really the issue?

Economists are fond of saying we will never run out of oil. You can point to all the indicators of increased consumption and declining production you like, they just smile and shake their heads. Doesn’t matter, they say, because when oil gets scarce, the price will go up until no one can afford it. When that happens, alternative energy becomes cost effective and displaces fossil fuel in world markets. As a result, we will never run out of oil.

Huh. Makes sense.

Petroluem and natural gas producers already know this. When gas crested over $4 a gallon in 2008, wind and solar energy started looking like a comparative bargain. As a result Fossil Fuel companies increased production, flooding the market to keep prices low and stave off inevitable replacement as long as possible. But light, sweet crude isn’t nearly as plentiful as it once was, so this means increasing demand for  Venezuelan Heavy Crude and Alberta Tar Sand Bitumen. These sources come with higher contaminants (Sulfur, in particular) and that’s really bad when it comes to air quality and Climate Change.

Most of us have taken sides on this issue long ago, handing our beliefs down to our kids. Tough to break out of at this point, because these hard set ideas are so ingrained, we’ve divided ourselves into clans. We fight each other tooth and nail to accomplish…what?

Image result for rolling coal prius
Not exactly the compromise we’re looking for…

Asking a major oil company to commit suicide isn’t going to get us far. Neither is expecting all the people who draw their living from fossil fuel to just roll over and go broke. These companies are legally obligated to maximize shareholder value. It’s in their corporate charters. They must do business in the most profitable manner possible.  Anyone who seriously believes an executive would explain to their shareholders that earnings are down because “it was the moral thing to do” is living in a fantasy. Corporations exist to generate profit, and they will always continue to do so. While many of us hate the fact that Big Oil is profiting in an industry that is poisoning our landscape, let’s reserve our judgment just a moment to see a bigger picture.

These huge, multi-national corporations thrive in spite of their reputations because they hire intelligent, creative, motivated individuals. We need to stop dismissing that wealth of talent just because we don’t like the way it’s being applied.

We also cannot ignore the alarms our own scientists are setting off. We are changing our climate for the worse. Pulling out of the Paris Agreements is self-defeating. And as emerging economies demand more energy, our current path through fossil fuels is a literal dead end.

So do we start up a whole new set of renewable energy companies and subsidize them so they can kill off Big Oil?

Hell no.

We already have the brightest, strongest energy company companies in the world who understand world markets. We don’t need a crop of weak startups that lack the experience, stability, and influence to endure. We need to stop thinking of fossil fuel companies in terms of what they currently specialize in, be it coal, petroleum, bitumen, natural gas, or any other form of carbon-based energy and rebrand them plainly as energy companies.

Then, our Federal Government needs to decide it is serious about preserving our world for our children and for all things that live and breathe. Take a longer view.

Offer executives at these firms the chance to lead companies we can be proud of rather than despise. Show them how they can lead us into a clean, carbon neutral future. Explain how they will help America attain energy independence, and in the process, prevent our serving men and women from being put into harm’s way over access to energy. Entice these business people into becoming beacons of innovation that inspire our new generations and draw the best/brightest of every graduating class. How do we get there? By making these energy companies immensely profitable while doing so.

Fossil Fuel corporations would likely already be doing this if there weren’t so many obstacles. Many of them have already seen the predictions of peak oil. They understand the difficulty in accessing new reserves, etc. They see the instability of shaky governments that could be there one day and topple the next. They already know the future of petroleum is bleak. So we need to hear them out. Let them list the challenges. And then allow the Department of Energy to create needed incentives, subsidies, and grants that permit these companies to evolve while remaining in the black, financially.

Yes, we absolutely can get to carbon neutrality. There’s a fusion reactor in space that provides all the power we could ever need. There’s a moon that lugs the tides around. There’s wind, and geothermal. We are energy abundant. But we will never get to carbon neutrality if we treat our existing energy companies as demons to be slain. They will fight for life with the best lobbyists DC can offer. They will fight with doubt, confusion, conflicting reports, all the methods that have been so effective in getting their way in spite of what the public demands. GMO Labeling, anyone?

We must embrace these companies as partners, not fight them. Show them a better path and make it profitable.

This same method can work for any corporation producing a poisonous product. Assist these firms in divesting from their poison products (looking at you, Monsanto and Big Tobacco), and assist their transitions to something that benefits mankind. Could be energy storage (goodness knows our battery tech needs help). Could be refinement of ores from seawater so we don’t need to strip or pit mine our mountain ranges. Could be energy transport that doesn’t require a pipeline. Could be quantum computing, recycling, de-orbiting space junk, or better agricultural techniques that don’t kill our pollinators. There are hundreds of nascent technologies that need the investment and expertise of well-established firms.

Consider this: what vital technologies have been delayed because we chose energy that had to be secured through bullets and blood? Imagine how many roads, schools, and bridges could have been built with the money lost in the Iraq War. Imagine how much original research could have been funded. The opportunity cost of Fossil Fuel is much higher than most people can fathom (or believe).

We all want clean air, soil, and water. No one wants to look at a smoke stack. No one wants their child to suffer from mercury, lead, or arsenic poisoning. We don’t have to settle for a bleak status quo.

Our current administration would defund key programs the Department of Energy, and that betrays a total lack of imagination. Much more can be accomplished when our Federal Government serves business by encouraging new innovations rather than taking campaign contributions to look the other way and letting the buyer beware (caveat emptor). Subsidizing an industry has worked in the past. It can work again.

Demand better. Let the profit motive work in our favor. Incentivize the playing field for a more stable world. And bring our existing companies (with all the people who work for them) into a cleaner future.

-FAF

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The Panda, the Heart, and the Mirror (pt 6, Conclusion)

 

Night Sky by Preposterous Panda

 

Panda stepped backward, feeling her way in the darkness, arms out. The man wailed and wailed, his shoes scraping the dusty floor, his head thunking against the planks as if trying to knock the thoughts from it. Then he groaned, covered his face, and fell still.

“What have I done?” he asked through his hands.

Panda backed away, anxious about what the man might do, and she bumped into the wall.

Who’s there?” the man cried out.

Panda slid along the wall, hoping to find the doorknob, but found a light switch instead. When she flicked it on, a lone bulb overhead lit. The man blinked hard against the glare. Then, using his hand like a visor, he found Panda sliding toward the door. She froze in place at his gaze, her arms flat against the wall, eyes round in alarm.

The man sat up. Still shading his eyes, he said, bemused, “There’s a Panda in my house… I’d think that would surprise me… Why doesn’t it?”

Panda licked her lips, pointed at herself then to the door, and said, “I’m just gonna be on my way.”

“Wait!” the man said, and he struggled to his feet. Years spent chair-bound made his joints creak, and he had to pause on his knee before finally standing. A hundred different pains surfaced in him at once, and through gritted teeth he muttered, “How long was I sitting there?”

“No idea,” Panda said. “Long time, though, from the looks of it.”

The man pressed his hands into his lower back and arched backward, still struggling to comprehend why and how there was a Panda in his home. “I don’t know you,” he said, squinting, “but I feel like I do… Why are you here?”

“You dropped something,” Panda replied, pointing to his chest. “Had to make sure you got it back, that’s all.”

The man placed a hand over his chest. When he felt something beating there, his ears slid back in astonishment. “You found it? I thought it was…dead.”

“Almost was,” Panda said with a stern glare. “Would have been a crime, toobecause you were blessed to love deeply. That’s a rare gift…for those who can take it.”

The man bowed his head and clutched his chest. “But the price…”

Panda nodded. “It’s high, sure. And the alternative? Living without joy, without connection, without meaning? I couldn’t stand to live that way.” She looked him up and down. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize you can’t stand to live that way, either.”

The man shut his eyes, and he sank to his knees, shoulders bouncing with muffled sobs.

“Hey,” Panda said gently. She crept over to the man, knelt beside him, and laid paw on his shoulder. He looked up at her with red-rimmed eyes, and she was amazed to see many of the deep lines in his face had faded.

“I don’t get it…” he said. “You don’t owe me anything. Why would you help someone like me?”

Panda smiled a crooked smile. “I’m someone who feels deeply, too. Can’t stand to see things in pain. Had to help. And when I did, I found something truly beautiful.” She placed her other paw over his chest and pressed firmly. “It’s not afraid. It craves life, wants to help others, wants to protect and preserve. It’s imaginative, sappy, and sweet. And, well…I fell in love with it.”

He looked at her, both stunned and dubious. But she nodded to convince him it was true, adding, “If you’d just share this part of yourself with others and let them see who you really are, you wouldn’t have to be alone anymore.”

The man’s breath left him in a rush and he slumped. Then he reached his arms around Panda and hugged her with all his might, crying into her shoulder. Panda grinned, laid her head against his, and held him tight, letting him pour out years of desolation and heartache.

When he pulled back, there was color in his face. His eyes no longer recessed in their sockets. And Panda realized he wasn’t nearly as old as he had appeared in front of the mirror. 

“Can I show you something?” she asked.

He rubbed a hand under his nose and sniffed again. “Yeah, anything.”

Panda took him by the hand and led him to the door. The moment she opened it, brash droning grated on her ears. “First off, what is that racket?” she demanded.

“Oh, the generator,” the man answered. “Just a sec, I’ll take care of it.” He strode to the back of the cabin, opened a gray metal panel, and threw a big red switch inside. To her instant relief, the obnoxious droning cycled down then fell silent, and the lone bulb in the ceiling went dark.

“Ahhhhh, thank you,” Panda said. She crossed the creaky porch, stepped out onto the gravel path, and was bathed in silvery light.

The man hesitated at the door, holding the frame, struck dumb at how Panda’s white fur glowed like some angelic apparition. Through the corner of her eye, she caught him ogling and beckoned him out. “Brother Moon is up,” Panda said, pointing a finger toward the sky above. “Come see!”

The man cautiously stepped to the edge of the porch and followed her finger toward a brilliant gray and white disk that beamed over the placid valley. His jaw dropped. His hands fell to his sides. And he gaped in awe.

Panda couldn’t hide her smile if she tried, so she reveled in moonlight, head back, arms outstretched. “See what you’ve been missing?”

Still gazing skyward, the man took a tentative step off his porch then looked down in surprise at the odd crunch of gravel underfoot. He wrinkled his brow at the peep of frogs and the chirp of crickets as if he’d never heard them before. Night air was so cool and fresh it nearly made him cough. And, arching above this valley paradise, a cloudy band crossed the canvass of night like an infinitely detailed oil painting bejeweled with twinkling stars.

“This was here the whole time?” the man asked in disbelief. “I couldn’t even see it… All the things I’ve missed out on… the things I’d given up on…” He laughs at himself without a trace of mirth. “To think, I actually thought I was being strong!” He shot Panda a wry glance then looked up into the heavens, shaking his head. “Joke’s on me.”

“No one’s strong all the time,” Panda reminded. “Sometimes people need help. There’s no shame in that.”

“You don’t even know me…” The man looked into his palms, massaging away cramps from incessant typing. “But you picked me up, dusted me off, got me on my feet again… I haven’t a clue how to repay you for that.”

Panda stepped in front of the man and took him by the shoulders. Looking him in the eye, brow raised, she said, “You can stop wasting your time, for a start.”

The man nodded sincerely. “I will.”

Panda leaned in, kissed him on the cheek, and announced, “Then my work here is done.”

When she turned to leave the man tilted his head, confused, and said, “Hang on… Where are you going? It’s night time… Won’t you stay ’til morning, at least?”

Panda looked over her shoulder, and with a playful smile, retorted, “In that dungeon? No thanks!” Then she stopped and turned around to face him. “No, really, that’s nice of you to offer… But there’s someone waiting for me at home. I want to be there for him.”

The man bit his lip, and he rested his weight on one leg. “If you’d do all this for a stranger, then…” The man looked down at his hands. “Well. He’s lucky to have you.”

“Ha!” Panda snorted. “Sometimes he is. Other times….ehhhh…” Turning serious, she added, “But you’re not entirely a stranger.”

At that, the man’s heart leapt in his chest, sending a rush emotions through his head. The way his heart was beating, he’d have thought Panda was his most intimate of friends, someone so dear he must’ve known her from a previous life. But that was silly, he thought, since he had only just met her. Not to mention that she was a panda, after all.

“There will always be disappointments,” Panda said with an unhappy smirk. “Don’t let them change you into something you’re not.”

The man’s brow wrinkled, and his cheeks dimpled. “I know, I know. You’re right. I just… At this point, I haven’t got a clue how to start over. Any recommendations?”

Panda looked past him to to the doorway of the cabin. “How ’bout that mail pile? Got a few unanswered letters in there…”

The man looked over his shoulder at the collapsed heap littering the doorway. “Huh. Think they’d write me back?”

“One way to find out.”

The man put a hand to his chin and he grinned. “True enough.” He lowered his hand and looked out at the valley around him, watching tree tops gently sway in night breezes. Spring leaves and grasses whispered to the wind. River laughed with splashes and burbles. Coyote yipped in the distance. And the man knew what they were saying. His heart stirred again in his chest, reminding him of what he’d always known as a younger man but had forgotten while chasing meaningless blips in a pane of glass. 

“First,” the man said, “I’m going to enjoy the view a while.”

Panda winked and smiled with her whole face. “That’s my cue.”

“You gotta go,” the man said, more a statement than a question, his mouth crowded to one side of his face. “Wish you didn’t. But I understand.”

Panda sighed, placing a paw over her chest. “I hate good-byes. So how about, until we meet again?”

“Until then,” the man replied, and there was a tug in his heart he didn’t fully understand. It wanted desperately to go with her, even though he knew he didn’t belong, and he thumped his fist against it until it stopped.

Panda turned away, hiding tears in her eyes, and she walked off into the night.

 

*****

 

For the rest of her journey Panda let Nature’s sights, smells, and sounds keep her company.

Her sense of direction remained true as a compass, and she revisited many of the special places she and the heart found along the way. Each time she expected the same rush of magnificent joy she felt before, yet there was always something missing. For a while, she wondered if she was getting jaded because the vistas were every bit as gorgeous as they were before. The difference, she realized, was she had shared these moments with someone she loved. It was the mutual experience, the places they discovered together, that made the journey so rewarding; and she admitted to herself how much she missed that snarky little weight on her shoulder: the heart that nuzzled into her neck and told her how beautiful she was, how kind, and thoughtful. As if by prophecy she made it so, wanting to give back to the heart in equal measure, and she really liked being a person who could love unconditionally, free of expectation. All the little heart knew was love and he shared it without ever worrying about running out. A pile of blackberries here… A woven fan there… A hug and a kiss and kind words… A piece of silly poetry on a beautiful evening…  As much as she wanted to be home, she knew she’d never get poetry from her mate, and for many miles she wondered if she was okay with that. 

The closer she got to home, the cooler the air became. Where Spring had already bloomed in the valleys to the south, her northern forest was only just thawing. Patches of soggy ground showed between mounds of melting snow, and the earliest shoots of green had broken through the dun skin of her beloved bamboo. At once, she realized how little she had fed herself along the way and she could only barely restrain herself from chomping into every young bud she saw.

Soon, she smelled the uniqueness of her very own Bamboo forest, and Panda knew she could find the rest of the way home with her eyes closed. Exhausted from the trek she lumbered like a zombie up the path between her gardens, headed for the door to her cozy den, then stopped short and looked down at her bedraggled, clumpy fur. All she wanted to do was dive between the covers, but she wasn’t about to muck up her tidy home. So she made her way to the stream by her vegetable fields and waded into icy water. A shiver ran up her full length, and she hurried to rinse out the mud, burrs, and snarls before the chill went straight to her bones. Teeth chattering, she stepped out of the stream, shook out her drenched fur, then hustled back, careful to avoid mud puddles along the way.

At the door, she hesitated, wondering if her mate was awake. Ever so carefully, Panda pushed the door open and peeked in. The big lug was lying on his side, facing the far wall, snoring. Letting out her held breath, Panda tiptoed to her closet, toweled herself dry, then snuck into bed. The mattress was warm and luxuriously soft, molding around her tired, aching body. She inched over toward her mate, breathing in his smells, his heat, his presence. What loneliness she felt along the journey home faded away with her aches, replaced by a profound sense of gratitude.

Panda sighed a blissful sigh and pulled the heavy blankets close around her shoulders. She smiled at the shape of her mate’s head, at his round ears, at the way his chest rose and fell as he snored. Many, many times she’d wanted to throttle him when he snored like that, but now she couldn’t remember why. It was endearing, something so completely him she didn’t think she would ever get tired of it again.

He yawned, stretched his arms, and let out an exaggerated groan. Smacking his lips, he reached behind himself, patted her hip, and said, “Mmmmmf, time to wake up, sleepy bones.”

“Just a little longer,” she said drowsily, wrapping her arm around his belly and spooning behind him. Eyes closed, she thought about her adventures, the places she’d seen, the new flavors, smells, and creatures…and she knew right then and there that as exciting as it all was, this was where she belonged. This was home.

It only took a few seconds for the big lug to start snoring again. As she nuzzled in close to him, she thought about the man in the cabin, wondering how he was getting along and if he’d reach out to his lost friends (or if he’d ever get the nerve to find someone more intimate). I really hope so, Panda admitted. And then she drifted off to sleep exhausted, content, and happy.

 

The End

 

 

-FAF

The Panda, the Heart, and the Mirror (pt 5)

Panda galloped along the soft, damp ground then followed a rise toward a natural high point in the valley’s center. The ground became drier, the grasses lower, and herds of hoofed animals grazed in leisure. There were trees of all sorts, and dragonflies as big as birds patrolling the air. But neither could take their gaze from gargantuan boulders towering above the ground.

“Like fallen moons…” the heart said absently.

Panda approached one, rose onto her hind legs, and placed the pads of a paw against the stone. It felt warm, having baked all day in the sun, and, as the sun lowered to the canyon rim, was giving that warmth back a little at a time. She walked around it slowly, admiring the subtle cracks and the patches of colorful lichens. But she couldn’t stop wondering how such a massive thing could just be dropped here in the middle of a sandy valley. One, alone, would be hard to explain, yet there were dozens of them.

“Maybe they really did fall from the sky,” she pondered. When she circled around behind the colossal stone, she saw a log cabin so close it felt like it had snuck up on her. She and the heart both startled, hid behind the huge boulder, and peeked around it. There was nothing really that threatening about the cabin, aside from the fact they didn’t expect to find it so easily. It had a porch that ran at ground level across the front, with a simple door in the center and windows on either side. A pitched roof sloped down, extending over the porch, and was propped up by regularly spaced beams. But the color seemed wrong, somehow. The logs were stained a reddish brown that didn’t match anything in the area, and the only time Panda had seen a similar color was when she cut her paw. Getting enough to stain a whole cabin that color was too horrible to consider.

A shallow bowl jutted from the roof, sort of like one Panda used as a bird bath; except this one was tilted at an angle that would never hold water, and it had an arm that pointed up into the sky. When she looked up to see what it was pointing at, there were only some high altitude clouds, so that whole contraption remained a mystery. A simple chimney of stone on the other side was easy to recognize, however, and puffs of gray smoke from it confirmed this was the right place.

As Grandfather Sun dipped below the canyon rim, the whole valley darkened, and then a BRRRRRRRRRRRANG sound come from the cabin. It was brash and awful, like the beating wings of some humongous, angry fly. On and on it droned, far beyond nuisance, and Panda wanted to shout at it to be quiet! But as she opened her mouth to yell, the heart pointed to the windows on the front porch, and said,

“Look!”

Panda turned and saw a pale blue flickering inside the cabin. Setting aside her annoyance at the noise, she said to the heart, “Looks like somebody’s home. Let’s go introduce ourselv… Hey, what’s the matter?”

The heart was trembling. When he didn’t answer, Panda asked again, “What is it?”

Still staring at the cabin, the heart said, “I’m…. I’m afraid of what I’ll find in there.”

Panda nodded and looked again at the cabin that was so at odds with everything around it. If the outside is this strange, she thought, what’s inside could be much worse. 

“Sure you want to do this?” she asked.

The heart, still staring, nodded quickly. “I have to.” He climbed down from her head and hugged her neck for comfort. With a deep breath, he added, “I’m really glad you’re here. I don’t know if I could do this alone.”

“It’s okay, I’ve got you,” she consoled. “We don’t go until you’re ready.”

The heart thought long and hard about what he had to do. Then he let go of Panda’s neck, straightened his posture, and stood on her shoulder. “I’m ready.”

Panda strode up the worn gravel path to the porch. When she stepped onto the low planks, the boards creaked. What worry she had of alarming the occupant was drowned out by the irksome droning, so she filled her lungs, puffed out her chest, and rapped her knuckles against the door three times. The door felt solid, thick, but there was a tinny rattle from it. Looking down, she found a slot made of shiny yellow metal in the middle with a metal flap over it. When no one answered her knock, she stooped down, lifted the flap, and peeked in.

The cabin was dark inside with the exception of a single pane of glass propped on the only table. It glimmered and flashed with bluish light unlike any candle flame or lamp she had ever seen. Seated at the table, staring into the glass, was a man of untold years. He hunched toward the glass, unblinking, eyes devoid of mirth or despair. His mouth was a straight line across his face; his shoulders were round and tense. But his hands flew across the table in front of the glass, and he never once glanced away from it.

“Yoo-hoo!” Panda called through the slot.

The man either couldn’t hear her or ignored her completely, fingertips still tapping against the table beneath the glass.

The heart leaned close to Panda so he could peek through the slot alongside her, and when he saw the man, he sank. “He’s gotten so old!”

“Hey!” Panda barked at the man through the slot. “HEY!”

The man didn’t flinch or respond at all as if she wasn’t there.

“What’s wrong with this guy?” Panda asked, irritated by the man’s rudeness.

“Dunno. Might be stuck. C’mon, we gotta help him.”

Panda stood and gripped the door handle. It turned easily in her hand, but the door took effort to shove through. When she stepped inside, she realized why, because a waist-high stack of mail piled on the far side. She squatted down and sifted through some of the more recent letters, not recognizing any of the addresses. So the heart hopped down from his perch and dug into the pile to see what he could find, starting at the top.

“Bills, bills, bills,” he said during his excavation, tossing envelopes with transparent windows behind him. “Ooh, here’s a letter from his parents. Let’s save that one.” He dug down further, chucking more bills and adverts until, after a while, he found a picture postcard with a handsome young family and a greyhound on it. “Aww, I love these guys,” the heart said, and he set that card with the letter. The more the heart dug, the more postcards and letters he found of other young families, sunny beaches, and happy faces smooshed together to all fit in the same frame. Some of the photos even had a younger version of the man in them, and he looked just as happy as the rest.

Panda watched the heart tunneling deeper, noticing how many postcards there were at the bottom, but how few and far between they were toward the top. And she understood that, over time, people stopped sending them.

“He used to have a lot of friends,” Panda said, looking at a photo of an outdoor party with men and women arm in arm, mouths wide and hoisting bright red cups. “Where’d they all go?”

“You can only bash your head against a wall so long before you give up,” the heart answered.

“Hmm?”

Look at him. He doesn’t even know we’re here. And from this pile, I’d say he hasn’t answered a single letter in years.” The heart fishes out a thick red envelope with hand drawn hearts on it. “How long would you keep trying for someone who never gives back?”

Panda thought about that, and it gave her a twinge, because it made her immediately think of her mate. “I don’t know. A while, I guess. A long while…if I really cared about them.”

The heart looks up from the pile of mail and he turns a full circle. “Gray walls, no decorations…like a prison. This place is depressing.”

Panda looks at the postcard once more and taps it against her paw. “I don’t get it. All he has to do is go outside to see one of the most beautiful places in the world. He had all these friends… So why would he box himself up like this? It doesn’t make any sense!”

“That’s my fault, actually,” the heart confessed.

Your fault? How?”

“I fell in love with someone…she was awful to him.” The heart looks down at the floor, bowed by the memory. “You wouldn’t believe what some people can lie about. He wouldn’t trust anyone after that. Least of all, me.”

“Well, lots of people have bad relationships,” Panda said. With a disdainful glance at the man, she added, “That isn’t a reason to rip your heart out.”

“It wasn’t the only time.”

Panda’s harsh glare turned on the heart. “Oh, no… You didn’t…”

“It’s my job to feel, okay? It’s my job to care! I don’t know how to make sense of things, that’s what his head is for! I just… I just…” The heart sinks to the floor and sobs.

Panda crouches down beside him and gently cups him in her paws. “I’m listening,” she says.

The heart sniffs. “He thought I was the one making him chase impossible dreams and that I was the reason why he kept meeting people who betrayed him…but the truth is he wouldn’t go out and meet nice people! He was too shy, too afraid of rejection, and he just waited around for people to come to him!” The heart stares as if he is seeing through time and reliving the moment. “It was one disappointment after another, all because he wouldn’t go out and find a good person for me to love!”

The heart’s little face twisted with despair. “Then he said, ‘If having a heart means feeling this way, I’d rather feel nothing at all.’ And he threw me away…like I was garbage…”

Panda’s eyes welled and she hugged the heavy heart to her chest. “It’s not your fault,” she said. “It’s not your fault!” Then she pulled the heart back so he could look her in the eye. “The love you’ve shown me is real, I feel it. You’re a good heart, I know it, and nothing can change that.” She hugged him again and with a sour glance at the man, added, “He probably thought he was being strong, tossing you aside. So in charge, so in control. Hmmf! Turning his back on you, like a scared little boy… That’s the opposite of strength.”

The heart swiped his tears away, took a long, deep breath, and said “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have dumped all that on you.”

“Pshaw!” Panda said with a flap of a paw. “I’m your friend, don’t you know that? And friends help each other, no matter what.”

The heart smiled a crooked little smile, and he felt lighter in Panda’s paw. “All right,” he said, turning toward the grim man at the mirror. “Let’s get this over with.”

Panda stood and carried the heart over to the man. Light flickered over his vacant expression, giving him a ghastly pallor. She was afraid to look in the glass for fear it might enthrall her, as well, but as she approached the table she finally dared to look, and in the glowing glass was a reflection both youthful and vibrant, only vaguely resembling the man seated before it. Boxes opened around the reflection and inside them were scenes that played like memories, questions demanding answers, drawings, pages of text, and silly images with captions in bold letters. Below the mirror was a flat slab of buttons, and the man’s hands darted across it, feeding the windows words or code like they were squawking hungry chicks. The faster he fed the windows, the younger and more vital his reflection appeared, while his eyes became more bloodshot, his skin turned grayer, and the lines of his face deepened.

Panda had no idea how long the man had been peering into this thing that neither nourished nor fulfilled him, and she had no clue what appeal it held that could entrance a man so completely. What was abundantly obvious, however, was that even as the man strained to find life and meaning in the mirror, the mirror was pulling all of the life out of him.

“This is his only connection to the world now,” the heart explained. “and it’s killing him. We have to smash the mirror.”

“Too right,” Panda said as she reached for the glass.

“WAIT!” the heart shouted, and Panda froze in place.

“What? WHAT?”

“The moment you touch that mirror, he’ll do everything he can to stop you… I have to distract him first.”

“Okay… How?”

The heart looked carefully at the man. “I’m getting back in. And I’m going to make him feel everything.”

“Everything?”

“Yeah. Everything he’s suppressed, everything he thought he was escaping when he chucked me aside. The moment I plug back in, he’s going to feel it all.”

Panda fretted. “You sound a little bitter.”

You’re darned right, I am! Nobody should be made to feel disposable.” The heart broke off his vacant stare. “Okay, I’m ready. I just, uh…”

“Yes?”

The heart shied, then asked, “Will I see you again?”

Panda grinned and smooshed the heart against her breast, kissing him all over. “You will, sweetheart. You can count on it.”

The heart hugged her back with all his might. He drank in her lovely smells, her warmth, her kindness, and most of all her strength. Then he pushed back from her, kissed her cheek, winked, and hopped down into the man’s lap.

The man’s eyes never moved from the mirror, so the heart climbed back in through the open gate of his chest and pulled the doors shut.

The seated man blinked. Then he winced, twitched, and convulsed. Lips drawn back in a grimace, he clutched at his chest, and fell from his chair, crying out, “Oh, please, no, no no! It’s too much! Too much! Make it stop! I DON’T WANT THIS!”

Panda snatched the mirror from the table, lifted it high overhead, and slammed it into the floor. Shards of plastic and metal exploded with a flash of sparks. The false image shattered. And the cabin went dark.

*****

The Panda, the Heart, and the Mirror (pt 4)

“This is it,” the heart said.

Panda glanced at the heart to see where he was looking then followed his gaze to a broad, bowl-shaped canyon. The walls were nearly vertical at the tops, then gradually curved to meet the grassy plain between them. Great towers of stone jutted from the northern rim like sentries, and beside them a hanging stream poured lakes of snow melt down a high cliff in misty white veils.

It had taken Panda all day to get there, and her legs ached from the rugged path. Yet when the sun broke through the clouds and lit the entire valley in golden glow, she gasped, forgetting entirely about her physical pains. Everything came into crisp focus with stark contrasts of light and shadow. Every color intensified, and the veils of mist drifting away from the waterfall shimmered in prismatic arcs so vivid she could barely stand to look at them.

“This place is so beautiful…” she began, covering her chest with a paw. “…that it hurts.”

The heart took in the scene, trying to comprehend it. Understanding at last, he said, “The Master of All Life lives here.” 

“Wait, wait…” Panda said, looking at the heart, looking out the valley, then looking at the heart again. “The man you belong to…is the Master of Life?”

The heart turned as slowly as a millstone and looked into Panda’s eyes. Then he laughed as loud and jolly as he had ever laughed in his life.

Panda faced front and blew an embarrassed breath through her lips, but the heart just hugged his knees, rocking back and forth on her shoulder, cackling.

“All right, all right!” she said, exasperated. “You’re just being mean now!”

The heart wiped his eye, and, still chortling, said, “Oh, that was a good one.” He leaned over, hugged her neck and kissed her cheek. “I’m flattered you thought I might belong to the Great Spirit. Truly. But that heart is too big to lift. No, my man is just a man. A quirky, flawed, cantankerous, foolish man.”

The heart peered off into the distance. He squinted then pointed. “There! Do you see that puff of smoke?”

Panda followed the heart’s gaze to a high point in the middle of the valley’s flood plain. Far in the distance, a lone puff of gray smoke rose skyward. “I see it. You think that’s him?”

“I’m sure of it.”

Panda considered the distance, and her legs reminded her how far they had already carried her. She stooped to massage her hips and thighs. “Mind if we take a break first?”

The heart hopped from her shoulder. “Not at all! In fact, you make yourself comfy, and I’ll find you something to nibble.” In a flash, the heart was off into the brush.

Panda settled gently onto her sore tush, groaning the entire way. Then she looked out over the golden valley, and the scene filled her all over again with magnificent heartache. No one will ever improve on this, she thought, for surely this must be Heaven on Earth.

*****

When the heart returned, he brought a flat tray of bark heaped with dark fruit taller than he was. He set the tray in Panda’s lap, announcing in triumph, “Blackberries!”

Panda sniffed skeptically, having been the unfortunate test subject for the heart’s other ‘flavor sensations’, but there was something appealing in the way these shiny little clusters smelled. She picked one off the top, expecting it to be as hard as the beetle it resembled, but it was soft and squished easily. Dark purple juice dripped from it, which had a more enticing aroma, so she licked it.

Hmm, not bad…

Panda popped the whole cluster in her mouth and chewed. Unexpected sweetness, mixed with mild tartness, danced across her taste buds. Lost in delight, she closed her eyes and swallowed.

Oh my…that was wonderful!

Her hunger fully awakened, Panda scooped a paw full of berries and crammed the lot in her mouth. Mmmm-MMMMMM!” she moaned.

Panda’s smile made the heart feel several pounds lighter, and he hopped in place. Picking a berry off the pile for himself, he leaned against her leg and nibbled.

Panda was about to ask where the heart found these treasures, when she noticed the heart had raised welts crisscrossing him all over. “Hey,” she said through a juicy mouthful, “what happened to you? You fight off a mountain lion or something?”

“Hmm?” the heart asked, looking himself over. “Oh, these? Blackberries only grow in bramble patches. Thorns galore, so you gotta work for them. Worth it, though, don’t you think?”

Panda looked down at the heart, and her lower lip jutted. “You did all that for me?”

Of course, I did,” the heart said, matter-of-factly. “I love you.”

Panda’s breath caught in her throat. She leaned over and gave the heart a big purple kiss. “You’re sweeter than these berries, you know that? And I love you, too.” Then, Panda took another paw full and poured it into her mouth. Smacking her lips, she asked, “Think these would grow in my garden? Because I don’t think I can live without them anymore.”

The heart laughed. “Sure! They grow about anywhere. Save the little seeds inside and plant them when you can. Give ’em space, though, because they like to spread out. Might crowd anything you’ve planted nearby.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” Panda looked down at the tray and saw that she had nearly finished off the whole pile. “Here,” she said, offering the tray to the heart. “You’d better take the rest, or there won’t be any left.”

“No need,” the heart said. “I had all I wanted while I was picking them. These are just the ones left over. All yours!” To prove the point, he grinned a purple-stained smile.

Really-you’re-sure-you-don’t-mind-okay-then!” Panda said in a single breath. She lifted the bark tray and tipped it, letting the last berries roll into her mouth. Groaning in ecstasy, she savored, swallowed, and sighed.

“Hit the spot?” the heart asked.

“Sure did,” Panda replied. “Thank you, that was absolutely marvelous.”

“Anything for you,” the heart said, beaming.

Panda brushed the pine needles from her fur and climbed to her feet. With a glance to the valley ahead, she asked, “Shall we go meet this fella of yours?”

The heart nodded. “Ready if you are.”

Panda scooped up the heart, parked him on her shoulder, and hiked down the rocky slope to the valley floor below.

*****

The bottom of the canyon was sandy, shifting easily beneath Panda’s broad paws, and was a welcome change from the sharp rocks above. They crossed fields of tall grass grew so thick Panda felt like she was swimming through them. But the air was still and the valley was much warmer than she expected it to be. With late afternoon sun on her back, she started to pant.

“Hold up a sec,” the heart said. He pulled several long blades of grass, fiddled with the pliant leaves, and wove them together. Then, with a flourish, he showed off a rounded, flat mat with a handle at the bottom and shouted, “Ta-Da!”

Panda’s brow wrinkled, and before she could ask what it was, the heart flapped it at her vigorously.

“When there’s no breeze, you can make your own!” he said, passing the fan over to her.

Panda took the fan in a paw and waved it at her face. Then, with a sly grin, she lifted her arms and fanned her armpits. “Ahhhhhh, that’s better.”

“Let’s get you a cool drink,” the heart advised. He climbed up onto her head so he could see above the grass and turned a full circle. “I can see another puff of smoke straight ahead, so we’re on the right track. But I think I hear water to your left. Wanna have a look?”

“Sure!” Panda turned left and used her paws to part the grasses, occasionally fanning herself as she went, and her ears perked up at burbling water over stones. She followed the sounds with the heart still riding on her head. Ground beneath her pads got cooler and more damp until she emerged from the grass at a wide running stream. Round, polished stones covered the water’s edge, rinsed clear of sand or soil. And the river flowed around weathered boulders, splashing and bubbling.

Panda stepped briskly to the burbling river, and the instant her paws touched water, her overheated fatigue vanished. The tiniest shiver rose up her back as if someone lightly dragged a finger there. She giggled at the thrill then waded deeper into the soothing currents.

Dropping to all fours, Panda sniffed the water for impurities, and the only scents she could tell were of humidity and wet stones. Even where the water splashed, there was no hint of foam like she had seen in other rivers, so she dipped her tongue into the stream and lapped up crystal clear refreshment. Like a magical elixir, the pure water cooled her off in an instant. She squatted down until only her head was above water, dipping her snout under the surface and blowing bubbles with giddy glee. The heart held on tight to her ears for fear of falling off and getting chilled stiff by the icy stream. But Panda took care not to jostle or bounce him, and she never liked getting water in her ears, anyway. So after a luxurious soak, she paddled back to the river’s edge, and let the heart hop down to the polished stones. Then, with a mischievous grin, she shook out her coat.

The heart braced himself against the deluge to no avail. Drenched by Panda’s shaking, the heart gibed, “Well if there’s ever a drought, I know who to find.”

Panda grinned. “That’s right! I’m like a portable rainstorm!” Playfully, she gathered the bedraggled heart and parked him atop her head. “Hang on tight,” she warned and then raced off on all fours toward the lone puff of smoke.

*****

 

 

The Panda, the Heart, and the Mirror (pt 3)

That night, Panda and the heart both dreamed.

The heart dreamt of a glacial canyon with a hanging stream that sent cascades of mist swirling to the valley floor below. Dawn’s first light crept over the canyon rim, bathing the valley in golden rays and refracting through the mist in sprays of prismatic color. Lush green grasses waved in cool morning breezes where herds of Buffalo and Pronghorn grazed, overshadowed by enormous lumps of granite like fallen moons.

In the middle of the canyon sat a rickety wooden shack with a shoddy tin pipe for a chimney. A wood plank door and a single window were cut into the near side, though it was hard to see anything inside through its warped glass. Every so often there was a flicker of cold bluish light, never constant, certainly not any kind of candle or lantern the heart had ever seen before.

A well-trodden path through the sod led up to the door, so the heart followed it until he stood at the threshold. The mailbox on the doorframe was jammed with unopened mail and many pieces had fallen to the ground below it. The heart didn’t intend to snoop, but in the sun-faded envelopes he could see all kinds of bills, adverts, and the usual junk mail, as well as letters addressed by hand in cursive script.

The cabin door had no bell, just a patch worn into the center where countless knuckles had knocked. As far as he could tell, the door hadn’t opened in years, so the heart pressed against the planks and listened.

Nothing.

Pushing back from the door, he looked up at the window. Haphazard plank siding made an easy climb, and the heart peeked in through warped glass. Inside, the cabin was dark, except for a single pane of glass that flickered with sterile, unnatural light. A hunched man sat directly in front of it, hands flat on the desk, unmoving. Gray dust covered his slouched head and shoulders. Drawn cheeks made hollow recesses on the sides of his face, and his eyes squinted from cave-like sockets at the flickering glass. Yet the reflection in the glass was youthful, handsome, sun-tanned. Well-muscled arms rooted at square shoulders. Bright eyes radiated intelligence and a white-toothed smile radiated confidence.

While it seemed at first the seated man was a statue, the heart noticed the man’s fingertips tapping gently against the desk. With every tap, the image in the glass became younger, more confident, more handsome, while the man slumped deeper into his chair, turned grayer with age and dust, became uglier, more pale and pitiful, until the man and his reflection were utterly unrecognizable from each other.

“I’m hugely successful,” the reflection said with an arrogant gleam. “I can do anything I like. I’m witty and entertaining, and all my friends call me the life of the party…”

A single tear rolled down the man’s face, clearing a track of dust from pallid, wrinkled skin beneath.

Hey!” the heart shouted. He reached up to bang on the glass and get the man’s attention, but he lost his grip and fell, landing with a thud in the pile of unopened mail…

The heart startled awake, horrified. Please, he prayed, don’t let it be as bad as that!

*****

Meanwhile, Panda dreamt she was back in her forest, crunching away on juicy, tender, delicious bamboo shoots. She ate and ate until she couldn’t swallow another bite, then she stretched out on the soft forest floor. Warm sunshine filtered between swaying branches overhead, lulling her into drowsy bliss. After many happy sighs, she looked back toward her cozy home and it occurred to her just how much she loved the comfortable familiarity of it.

She glanced over at her garden rows, curious if her flowers had sprouted yet. So she ambled over to the low fences and found—to her joy—the first spikes of green poking up through thawed soil.

A mighty yawn sounded from inside her home. Through a window, she saw her mate roll over in bed and pat her side, expecting her to be there. He sat up, suddenly awake, and he called out for her. Panda walked toward the door to go in and greet him, but the door moved away. She walked faster, ran for it, then sprinted in a panic. As fast as she went, the door pulled farther and farther away. All the while her mate called for her, crying louder and louder in worry…

Panda’s eyes flicked open with a start. Hazy vision dialed into focus and she saw she was not in her garden. Rather, she was on a carpet of soft moss atop a treeless hilltop. The sun was just rising over a spectacular mountain vista, but all she could think was,  I’ve been away too long.

She looked down at her shoulder, expecting to see the heart where he usually snuggled, but instead found him by the embers of a smoldering campfire. He sat facing the circle of stones huddled, deep in thought. Panda stretched, yawned, then ambled over, plopped on her tush beside him, and she stared at the embers, as well.

“You have to go, don’t you?” the heart asked her, still staring at the wisps of smoke.

She looked down at the heart, saddened. “Mmhmm. I miss my home. My gardens. And my mate.”

The heart nodded. “I understand.” Looking up at Panda, he added, “I’ve loved being with you more than you know. You saved me, you really did. And what we shared…I don’t think I’ll ever feel as close to someone as you.”

Panda smiled a wistful smile, and she looked at the heart in adoration. “And I love you, though that doesn’t begin to describe it.  Because you saved me, too, whether you know it or not.”

“I saved you?” the heart asked, perplexed. “How?”

Panda smirked. “Living with someone is no guarantee against being lonely. Sometimes, it’s worse, because they’re right there but you still can’t reach them. You’ve given me love and acceptance, more than I thought was possible. I can’t give up on him, though. I made a promise. I mean to keep it.”

“I know.” The heart sniffed and stared into the wisps of smoke. “I’m gonna miss you.”

“Well don’t pack your bags just yet,” Panda countered. “I’m not leaving you out here on your own again. Not until we find your fella.”

“Really? You’re still gonna help?”

Panda nodded, her face scrunched as if it was the silliest thing she had been asked in months. “Of course I am! But time’s a-wastin’. Need to get a move on.”

“Okay!” the heart said, throwing handfuls of dirt on the embers. He reached out to the pit, feeling for any signs of warmth until he was certain it was out, cold. “I had a dream about him… I can feel him…he’s not far. We just need to follow that valley to the West, I think. Should take us right there.”

“To the West?” Panda looked about, getting her bearings. “Well, that’s kind of on my way. Sort of.”

“We’ll have breakfast on the way. Put a bunch o’ acorns in water last night to leech out the bitterness, so those should be ready. And we should be able to find some Burdock root pretty easy. Maybe we’ll get really lucky and find some Morels! Should be coming up now… Best with a bit of butter, but if you find me some quail eggs, I will make you a Morel omelet to die for!”

“Mmmmmm, sounds yummy,” Panda said with a smile, even as she patted the grumbling protests of her tummy and thought, Maybe we’ll get super lucky and find some bamboo  Her stomach only growled louder, and she snorted. “All righty then. Ready?”

“And how,” the heart said.

Panda reached down, scooped the heart up, parked him on her shoulder. She set off at a brisk pace downhill as the heart bobbled along on her shoulder, singing, shelling acorns and feeding them to her as they went.

The Panda, the Heart, and the Mirror (Pt 2)

Panda and the heart wandered through miles of briars and brush.

Melting snows of Spring made the ground squish underfoot. On level terrain it was a nuisance where a shallow-looking puddle might sink Panda up to her knee. On hills it was treacherous, the soupy earth as slick as ice. Sometimes she slipped and banged a toe against a thick root or rock. Other times, she fell on her tush with a muddy splat. Frustration got the better of her more than once, but the heart was quick with a silly joke or kind complement, and Panda found she couldn’t stay mad for long.

The pair journeyed through low swamps with swarms of biting flies. They crested craggy hilltops where snakes rattled and hissed from dark nooks. Sometimes Panda and the heart quarreled about how there was no path, and how finding their own way through uncharted terrain was leaving them both scratched and bruised. But along the way, they discovered wonders that made them feel both enormous and small at the same time, places that were alive with spirits (like her Bamboo Forest), and places that proved to them—beyond any doubt—that everything they saw was interconnected in a complex web of life.

Every spot was unique in its own scenic way, but the feeling of unconditional love it radiated was always the same, and they knew they were worthy of these gifts simply because they appreciated them. No matter how tiny Panda and the heart felt in the presence of such grandeur, these living monuments reminded them they were both important, they were loved, and they belonged here in the world. 

The following morning they bathed in a stream so clear they could see every grain of sand at the bottom. While Panda dried her silken fur, the heart gathered a lovely breakfast of fresh Fiddleheads and Dandelion greens, which the two shared, munching and chatting the whole time.

For most of that day they walked and grazed, enjoying lemony grasses, crunchy crickets, sweet berries, and spicy roots (though Panda’s tummy still rumbled for her favorite bamboo). Grandfather Sun played hide and seek among the clouds, sometimes shining so brightly the two had to squint. Other times, mists rolled through that were so thick Panda reached out ahead of herself to feel her way.

Terrain ahead took a sharp incline, and Panda grabbed thin trees, using them as hand holds to haul herself up. She enjoyed the challenge at first, huffing with effort, imagining her winter layers melting away to sleeker curves beneath. After hours the slope only steepened, however, and she groused, “Does this hill go on forever? It never ends!”

“I bet it goes all the way to space,” the heart quipped.

Panda halted, and between frustrated breaths, she said, “It doesn’t go to space, silly, that’s—”

“Just a little bit higher, then we can hitch a ride on a satellite.”

Panda halted to look at the heart and check him for signs of heat exhaustion. “We aren’t anywhere near a satellite—”

“Then you’ll be ASTRO PANDA!”

Panda frowned and clucked her tongue. “You’re not at all serious, are you?”

“No, but you were getting to be,” the heart answered with a wink. Then, with a once over glance, he added, “Besides, you’re kind of a knotted snaggle after all this climbing. More like AFRO PANDA.”

Panda’s jaw dropped. But she regained her composure and said, “You’re right. My fur is pretty tangled, since I’ve been doing ALL the climbing.” She lifted an arm. “Since you’re not doing anything useful, maybe you could help me with this one knot under here?

“Sure!” the heart chimed. “Where do I…?”

Panda scooped the heart, stuffed him in her armpit, clamped him there, and trudged up hill, whistling over his muffled protests.

*****

Even Panda’s strong limbs started to tire with the constant climb. But just when she was about to give up in exhaustion, a gust of wind parted branches ahead. Through the gap, Panda spied deep blue sky.

With a twinkle in her eye, she set the heart back on her shoulder (ignoring his gasps and advice on deodorant), slipped between branches heavy with new green buds, and emerged onto a bald hilltop overlooking a broad valley. High clouds reflected fiery hues of gold and red. Alpine ridges stood tall as Titans in the distance with the Sprouting Grass Moon perched on their shoulders, and the whole range glowed as if the setting sun was its spotlight. Her breath left at once, her arms flopped to her sides, and she gaped at unparalleled majesty.

Stunned to silence, the heart sat still on Panda’s shoulder. He listened to thin, dry breezes rustling the young foliage around them, and he heard animals calling out in the valley below: Fox yipped, Coyote howled, Hawk screeched, and Owl asked, whoo-hoo-hoo, whoo-hooooo? 

In reverent contemplation, the heart said, “When I look at this mountain range, and the moon peeking over it…I understand what ‘ancient’ means.”

Panda thought about that for a while. Every time she had seen Brother Moon in the sky, it was exactly the same as it had been before and it would always be the same. Then she gazed at the mountains, trying to comprehend how much stone formed them. Millennia of storms would scarcely leave a mark, she realized, and she understood what ‘ancient’ meant, too.

“But ancient doesn’t mean eternal,” the heart continued. “Someone has to protect these places.”

“The spirits do that,” Panda replied. As proof, she pointed to ripples gliding through the fields of young grasses below, to the mighty Oaks whose roots held the ground in place, and to the river that watered the land and nourished living things.

The heart sighed. “Only so long as people believe in spirits. When people stop believing, the spirits weaken and Wendigo roams free.”

“Wenn-DEE-goh?” Panda asked, puzzled.

“Imagine the hungriest you’ve ever been, and you’re still not even close. It’s always starving. No matter how much it eats, Wendigo needs more. It drinks rivers dry…eats all the trees and the animals that live in them…even carries whole mountains away.”

Panda smirked. “Drink a river? Eat the trees? Surely nothing could carry away a mountain! I think your imagination is getting away from you.”

Listen,” the heart urged, “and hear what they’re telling you.”

Panda was skeptical, yet she listened. And she heard a warning in those distant animal voices. Without knowing their words, she could feel the vigilance in their tone: they weren’t warning of some wandering monster, they warned of a sickness in mens’ hearts that drives them mad…a sickness that, if unchecked, can spread like wildfire…

With a pang in her chest, she realized the heart was right. If enough men are sick in the heart, entire mountains could be taken apart, stone by stone.

“Then we’re going to protect these places,” Panda said boldly. “We’ll tell everyone we know. So long as we live the spirits can’t be forgotten, and they’ll keep this Wenn-DEE-goh locked up tight.”

The heart thought about that and he smiled.

As the sun dipped below the horizon, a curtain of shade rose from the base of the mountains up over the peaks. Stars emerged from purple sky, suggesting shapes of two lovers in glimmering pinpoints. Inspired, the heart recited,

“Just two lost souls, asking directions,

then longing led to tender confessions.

A vibe they sensed when miles apart,

an always-on signal that rings the heart.

She touched his arm, he touched hers

The reason they shouldn’t grayed and blurred.

Taste of lips, and swipe of a tongue

Can’t stop the avalanche once it’s begun.

Two became one and infinitely more.

There’s far greater meaning, the lower the score.

When love is served, it more than doubles

Lost souls are found and freed from their troubles.”

 

Panda sighed sweetly. “Didn’t know you were such a romantic.” She settled down on the hilltop and thanked the heart with a gentle kiss.

The heart nestled into Panda’s fur, bracing against night’s oncoming chill. She hugged him close, and laid a protective paw over him like a thick blanket. Together, they reclined, staring into the glittering heavens, as happy and content as they’d been in a very long time.

 

The Panda, The Heart, and The Mirror (Pt 1)

She wasn’t trying to lose her way, at least not consciously.

Winter’s chill had given the Panda a bad bout of cabin fever, and she just couldn’t stand to be indoors anymore. She tapped her mate on the shoulder, thinking a walk would do them both good. But no matter how she poked and prodded, the big lug just snored away.

“Well I guess some pandas hibernate, after all,” she said in a huff and slid out of bed. Wrapping a scarf around her neck, she looked over her shoulder at her cozy, all too familiar den then opened the door.

Cold air tickled her nose and nipped at her ears. She shivered, and for a moment the Panda thought about going back to her cozy home. It was safe. It was comfortable. But it hadn’t changed in so long it was driving her crazy. So she strode outside and closed the door quietly behind her.

Powdery drifts buried paths she strolled in Summer and Fall.  Even the fences around her gardens and flower beds were hidden by heaps of snow. Her worries of stubbing a toe or tripping were unfounded, however, as her feet knew precisely where to go. Over there, sleeping under frozen earth, were Irises and Gladiolus. Over there were Morning Glory, Daffodils, and Lilies. Rose bushes were off to the side of her warren, with Peony, Echinacea, and Mums. Panda paused, seeing all of their beautiful colors in her mind’s eye and recalling the sweetly scented breezes when warm Spring showers brought them to bloom. Now, there were only mounds of white and a crisp coolness in her sinuses. She would have to be patient until her treasures bloomed once more.

Panda looked past her beloved gardens at the Bamboo forest beyond. As she gazed, she heard a rustling voice both haunting and enticing. It beckoned, assuring her in sighing breaths that she would find thrills and delights among its swaying stalks. Skeptical, yet intrigued, she trudged out through waist deep snow to see for herself.

All around, towering Bamboo bowed from the deadly grip of frost. No creatures stirred or tittered in the cold Winter night. An ordinary Panda might have found cause for melancholy, but this one could feel the land was alive with spirits. Gusts of wind lifted great eddies of snow that seemed to walk between stalks like giants. One turned toward her, bending whole stands of Bamboo aside with its might, and she staggered back, fearful she might be trampled. The wind blew over her then swirled where she stood, ruffling the fur of her cheeks like a lover’s caress. She closed her eyes and sighed, smitten by Nature’s gentle touch. There was no turning back now.

Clouds parted and a full moon beamed through leafless boughs overhead, casting silver glow upon the wind-whipped snow. Dazzled by the crystalline sparkle she crunched along, no thought of track or trail, allowing the lumbering spirits to lead her toward promised wonders. Gradually, stands of Bamboo thinned and gave way to hunched, crooked hardwoods that reminded her of wicked old crones. Even the ground felt sharper underfoot with protruding rocks and spiny pine cones. Panda realized she had ventured farther than she had ever dared. Such newness was more fascinating than frightening, however, and she explored farther to see what might be next.

These strange new woods grew dense with brown vines and creepers that reached up into the trees in chaotic webs. It took effort to push through their thick strands, which was an amusing challenge all its own, until she broke through and tumbled into a clearing. There, a heart sat exposed on a flat rock. The little heart huddled in the cold, shivering. He smiled his best smile at Panda. Then, embarrassed, he shied away.

Panda was already concerned about having intruded, and she mistook his shyness for disinterest. Even though she wanted to talk to the little heart and ask if he was OK, she picked herself up, apologized for disturbing him, and moved on.

The wintry forest never lacked for curious sights. There were creatures she’d never seen before, so busy up in the branches, tutting, chasing, and scolding. If she squinted just right, there were rocks that looked like elder Pandas under mantles of fur-like snow. And there were  mountains to make her imagination soar as high as the wispy clouds at their peaks. But  she couldn’t stop thinking about the little heart shivering alone on bare stone.

Panda retraced her paw prints and returned to the clearing. When she peeked through the vines, she saw the heart sprawled flat on the rock, blue and still. Gasping, she rushed over to the heart and scooped it up in her warm paws. The heart was cold and limp, sagging against her pads like wet leather.

Sadness welled up in her as she thought about the heart freezing to death alone, and Panda cursed herself for not asking earlier if he was all right. She hugged the little heart against her warm chest, nestling it in her deep fur, saying over and over with tears of remorse, “I’m so sorry, I should have helped you! Why didn’t I ask if you were OK? Why, why didn’t I just stop and take a moment to see—”

The little heart twitched.

Surprised, the Panda pulled away and looked down at the heart. Thawed in her embrace, the heart looked up at her with red eyes that had cried themselves dry, and he smiled. Overjoyed, Panda smooshed the poor heart against her breast again and held him there, letting her warmth revive him. The little heart beat slowly at first then thudded against her chest with restored life.

“What happened to you?” Panda finally asked, cradling him in her paws. “Why are you all alone out here in the cold?”

“I used to belong to a man,” the heart confessed, sad with memory. “But he said he didn’t want me anymore. Said I make him chase impossible dreams. That I make him love people who betray and lie. That I ruin everything and I’m no good. Said he wished I couldn’t hurt him anymore. Then, he pulled me out of his chest, threw me down, and left me here.”

Panda frowned awfully and hugged the little heart. “That’s terrible,” she said  and gave him a gentle kiss.

The heart found he had not yet cried all of his tears as waves of loss and longing rolled over him. Such kindness from a stranger allowed him to believe for an instant that he wasn’t so terrible after all. But when he remembered  how much hurt he had brought into the man’s life, the heart pushed away from Panda and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be any trouble. You should leave me here, because I’m no good. I’m a bad heart. And you’ve been so nice. I couldn’t stand it if I did something mean to you.” A chill swept through him and he shivered all over.

“I won’t hear of it,” Panda said. “You’re coming with me. And we’re going to find this man who belongs to you, because no man was ever meant to live without a heart. Besides, I can already tell you’re not bad.”

“But how do you know, like for sure? What if he’s right and I really am no good? Please, you should leave me, because I couldn’t–”

She pressed a paw to the heart to shush him, then pointed at herself and replied, “I have a heart of my own. I trust her. Right now, she’s telling me you’re a good heart and there are so few good ones around we can’t afford to lose even one. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to help you find your man and prove that he’s wrong about you.”

The little heart smiled, so full of gratitude he thought he might burst. Then a look of uncertainty came over him, and he said, “I don’t know where to look. I haven’t a clue where to go or what to do. I’m lost out here.”

“Well, I’m lost, too!” Panda said with a wide grin. “Let’s be lost together!”

The little heart beat with such excitement he nearly fell from her paws. Then, calmed, he looked out at the forest. Where before all he could see was the desolation of Winter, he now saw the inevitability of Spring.

***