Bear was the mastermind of every operation the friends set out to do, and he was rather good at it. So it took him just two hours to plan the trip and pack all the necessary bits. Fully stuffed, his backpack looked more like a bookshelf – being about Bear’s height and maybe twice as wide. He pushed it through the door of their home and, once out, lifted it effortlessly onto his back. If there was a reason why one would have so much strength, then it must be for exactly such occasions.
Meanwhile, the wet morning had gone and the sun was drying the puddles. Bear jumped up and down a few times for the backpack to settle on his back, and then called for the other two. A second later, Owl scampered out of the house with a most beautiful moss green satchel that had stitched drawings of butterflies and acorns on it. Rabbit followed, rolling down the stairs with an impressive series of thumps.
“Missed a step,” he explained after getting up. His backpack was exactly the right size for a rabbit.
At 1 p.m. sharp they rang the doorbell of Marten’s house. A moment later Marten emerged, gave an understanding look, disappeared back in, and came out with a highly professionally looking rectangular suitcase on his back.
After locking all three locks on his door, barely reaching the upper one, he gave a nod to the animals and off they went. Bear and Owl walked in front and Marten and Rabbit followed behind, as the path was not wide enough for all four to fit.
They nodded polite hellos as they bumped into animals, and exchanged the occasional how-are-you and the-day-has-turned-rather-nice’s and same-to-you’s when they could remember the names.
Bushes replaced the houses as they headed out, and after a good hour’s walk they reached the forest. It was all pines, stretching up incredibly high, their bushy tops providing shadow with patches of light every here and there.
“Here,” Rabbit said, holding his paw out towards Marten. “You will like this.”
The animal looked surprised as to what he was being offered.
“Dried apples,” Rabbit explained. “Traveler’s best friend.”
Marten accepted the offer and with slight suspicion put one of the lobules in his mouth and tried to bite in.
“It’s chewy,” he said calmly but his eyes were showing wide surprise.
“Of course it is!” Rabbit said, smirking, “and they never go bad.”
Marten’s gaze wandered around as he kept chewing the slice. With a gulp he swallowed the first one, threw a look at the small pile in his paw and decided to take another one.
“Can I ask you something?” he said.
“Of course,” Rabbit replied enthusiastically.
“What is the Dalmatian Hopper?”
“Ooh!” having heard Marten’s words, Owl hooted out loud and turned her head backwards.
“Don’t mean to pry,” he added hurriedly.
“No, no, that’s perfectly fine,” she said, smiling.
Rabbit started to worry that Owl would trip over, with her head looking all the wrong way. “Aren’t you going to fall over?”
Owl winked at Rabbit and smiled smugly. “If you ask then I guess you haven’t seen one?” she said to Marten.
He shook his head.
“Dalmatian Hopper is a…” Owl seemed to be looking for words, “a… gravy-stay-shu-nahl new-lee-fire.”
“Oh,” Marten said and nodded.
“You can drive it around,” Rabbit said, “really fast! And up the walls and such.”
“Rabbit crashed it” Owl said and Rabbit seemingly shrunk a bit, “but we will repair it.”
“It was an accident,” Rabbit said. “It ran out of batter.”
Bear, who had been listening in, giggled.
They walked for another good few hours when they stumbled upon a meadow. It was a beautiful green isle of grass with a solitary, seemingly misplaced beech tree in the middle. Bear said that this should be the perfect spot for a break and so they settled down.
Owl ran a circle around the tree after taking her gumboots off, and dropped down on the picnic blanket that Bear had laid out on the ground.
Bear handed out neatly cut sandwich triangles and cups of warm tea, freshly poured from a thermos. They drank lazily and ate the sandwiches.
“Are we there yet?” Owl suggested.
Bear gave Owl a warm smile and took out a map from one of the million pockets of his bag.
“The cross marks home,” he said. “And the other cross marks the South Branch. Right now we are about… here”, he poked with his finger in the map.
“We are home?!” Owl asked.
“Umm… no.” Bear said while looking around for something. With a satisfied “aha”, he grabbed a stick from the ground. “Here,” he said triumphantly, this time using the stick to point to a place a little bit to the right of where home was.
“Doesn’t look like we have gotten very far,” Rabbit said.
“Not at all,” Bear said. “But we just need to get here,” he said and pointed at a river a little bit more to the right that went all across the map from the top to the bottom.
“I can’t swim,” Marten confessed.
“You will not have to,” Bear said contently.
“Speaking of swimming,” said Rabbit, “what do we do with the tail?”
“So you have noticed as well,” Bear said. “Why, I guess we should let them be for now, whoever they are.”
Rabbit nodded understandingly and Owl nodded very ununderstandingly. Marten looked and his tail and decided to comb it up a little using his his tiny paws.
It had turned out to be a very pleasant, dry and sunny autumn day. A hissing laughter came from the trees as the wind tickled them, playfully jumping between the branches. It seemed to be in no hurry and that was more than all right with the animals. They finished eating their sandwiches and, after a moment of skygazing, Bear suggested they proceed as there was still a long way ahead of them. The animals nodded and vacated the picnic blanket which Bear folded in a very precise manner and packed into his bag. To Marten’s surprise, the trio bowed to the beech tree for providing them with company and shelter.
“Trees, too, have souls,” Owl explained as they left the meadow. She had her best eyes-wide-shut smile when she said it.
As they entered the woods, they fell into the same two rows, with Bear and Owl leading the way. Apart from the the wind rustling the leaves and the occasional squawk of birds rushing somewhere high up, the forest was silent. The path forked every now and then, but Bear didn’t hesitate even the slightest as he chose which fork to follow.
“Have you been here before?” Marten asked to Bear.
“Oh no, not at all,” Bear said.
“Do you look at the moss then?” Marten asked. “To tell where North is.”
“We have something much better than expecting the moss not to get confused,” Bear said with a smile. “Which way is North, Owl?”
“Half three,” she replied instantaneously pointing to her right.
“So you see. And that’s where South is,” Bear said. “And if South is to our right, then we are going East, which is where we want to go.”
“But isn’t North to our right?” Marten asked after a brief moment of consideration.
“That’s where true North is,” Bear said, nodding.
That made everything much clearer, of course. Marten didn’t say anything and just subtly blinked once. After a while of walking in silence, Rabbit produced something from his bag and handed it to Marten. It was a round, paw-sized silver pendant that had a finely engraved pattern on the casing that twisted, turned and weaved, folding under and over itself and formed an image of the moon over the sun, enclosed by stars. Marten knew fine craftsmanship and this was very fine.
At the upper end of the pendant there was a button. He pressed it and the case popped open, revealing a face of a clock. It had all the numbers in the usual places and a dial ring with letters of the cardinal directions overlayed on top of it.
“Try turning South to half past three,” Rabbit whispered to Marten, excitedly. Marten carefully rotated the ring until the letter S was at half past three, and East was indeed now roughly ahead. Looking at the dials, he scratched his forehead and, after a polite nod and a smile, handed the pendant back to Rabbit.
They kept on walking, and the road kept forking, and Bear just waved with his paw to the left or right, and while not fully understanding, Marten was certain they were heading the right direction.
At one point Bear broke into a hum. His humming voice was soft but much deeper than his spoken one. Owl joined him after a few bars, her hum more like a tweet, and the forest echoed their merry harmony. On the seventh bar Bear stopped, skipped a bar and then started singing.
It was a song about roads narrow and wide, going all around and back again, going low and high and over the sky, and coming together and forking apart. It was about all roads leading somewhere. Rabbit joined in on the singalong that went something like this: Everywhere, here and there, where we were, we were, we were. It was a happy tune that kept rolling in Marten’s head long after they had finished singing.
The time flew by in a flash and before anyone had realized, evening had arrived, and they set camp at the side of the road. Rabbit was given the important task of putting up the tent, just in case it started raining. Owl and Marten were to gather firewood and Bear went to resupply water as he had nose for such things.
An hour later everything was set up. The tent was standing proud and the fire in the campfire crackled merrily, and animals were sitting on the comfy mats that Bear had doled out. A pot hung over the campfire, filling the air with the the sweet scent of boiled carrots. The sky grew dark quickly and, one by one, the stars started popping up.
Rabbit and Bear were discussing who could see more stars. Owl didn’t participate in the competition and instead she had taken out a notebook from her satchel that she was scribbling in while sipping soup. Marten decided to make himself more comfortable, so he spun three times on his mat, figuring out the best possible arrangement, and finally laid down, propping his chin in front of him.
“Have you ever been out there?” he asked Rabbit and Bear in an opportune moment of silence, his eyes pointing upwards.
“Alright,” Owl said loudly, snapping out of her thoughts and putting the notepad and pen back in the satchel. The animals waited for her to go on, but she fell silent. A moment passed and then another. She sat unmoving, seemingly looking at everybody at once. Then she mumbled something under her breath and let out a snore.
Rabbit gasped a suppressed giggle.
“Oh yes, quite a few times,” Bear said after falling on his back on the mat. “The stars – beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Is it very different from here?”
“Sometimes it is,” Bear said and stretched, “and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes very different is just next door, and just the same, a whole galaxy away. There are planets of frost and planets of sand and planets where there is not a single tree and planets where there are only trees. And there are plenty of planets like this one. Some of them might have more or fewer suns and some would be spinning the other way around. Some might have a pink sky, and others moss-green. And every single one is unique. Just like you and Rabbit. And Owl.”
“Especially Owl,” Rabbit added.
Marten considered the words. “I think I would like to see some of it one day.”
“I’m sure you will,” Bear said, smiling. “Try getting some sleep. We have quite a walk ahead of us tomorrow.”
The animals fell silent and the crackling campfire took over. It radiated a cosy warmth and Marten quickly fell asleep.
In the morning, the remaining soup had disappeared and so had the pot it was in.