There are only three things in life Harold enjoys—food, sleeping, and family, pretty much in that order. Drifting lazily in that dreamy world between sleep and wakefulness, his senses seem especially keen. There is the sharply sweet fragrance of fresh bamboo, his tummy rumbling, and the children’s giggles … and something different. Very different. He tries to focus on that—what? A smell? A feeling? Something is not quite right, but interpreting the sensation is impossible what with all the noise his wife is making.
“Good morning, Harold.” Her voice is soft, gentle, and persistently invasive.
“Humph.” His deep, sonorous reply is a half grumble, half snort as he flaps a paw across his face in an attempt to shoo away a fly. The paw also aids in blocking the light coming through the cave entrance, which is becoming an annoyance.
“Come on, sleepyhead. Time to rise and shine.” Her voice continues it’s pesky prodding.
“Humph,” Harold grumble-snorts again.
“I’ll send the children in.”
“No good. Too early. They aren’t up.”
“Oh, yes, they are, and almost finished with breakfast.”
Harold opens one eye to peek passed the protecting extremity.
“They delivered a tasty breakfast two hours ago.”
“I hate having to make choices. To get up and eat or remain here and sleep … sleep wins,” he says, covering his eyes more thoroughly.
“Oh, come on, Harold,” his wife coaxes, pushing him.
“No way. Too early.”
“Way. It’s late morning. The visitors will be here soon.”
“All the more to go back to sleep.”
She pushes him again, harder. He rolls onto his back to look at his wife.
“Oh, come on, Martha. Give me a break. You and the kids put on a show. I’m tired.”
“They come to see you, Mr. Big Shot,” Martha replies, attacking his ribs with both paws to tickle him.
Harold laughs. “Oh, alright. Good grief! Twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Never a moment’s peace, but I warn you, if one of those little buggers throws a paper cup at me again, I’ll swat him with a bamboo stick. I’m up.”
Ambling out of the darkened cave, he sits down in the warm, morning sun on the hill that slopes just right to bask in the sun all the way down to a small pond at the base of a sheer cliff. Here he indulges in his second most favorite pastime. The place is perfect, better than where he was born, except for the high-pitched screams that drift daily on the light breeze. It announces another invasion of their sanctuary by a herd of small humans behaving worse than the insufferable Howler monkeys down the road.
“We should give them a bit of a show, Harold,” Martha suggests.
“Yeah, pop,” his son, Dexter, jumps into the conversation. “Maybe Penny and I should wrestle like we are fighting.”
“Yeah, you do that,” Harold says while gnawing on a fresh, tender piece of bamboo, savoring its sweet juiciness.
“We should do something, too,” Martha says as the voices grow louder.
“The children can do just fine,” Harold replies, his words garbled by all the food in his mouth.
“They have come to see you, Harold. You’re world-famous.”
“Let me finish breakfast first.”
“Oh, come on, Harold,” Martha begins to whine. “You eat all day. Take a break.”
“Oh, alright. How about we …,” an evil glimmer flickers across his dark eyes, “how about we mate.”
“Harold! Not in front of the children!”
“Well, isn’t that why I’m so world-famous, because we had children?”
“Harold Ling, you are absolutely gross!”
“Okay, okay,” he recants as the first wave of school children line the railing along the top of the cliff wall encircling their habitat. “I’ll roll onto my back like this and waive. Will that … Ow! Why always with the flashing lights. Don’t they know camera flashes are useless beyond six feet? Now all I’ll see for the next hour are those nauseating little dots whirling in front of my eyes.”
Harold rolls into a sitting position to concentrate on the pile of bamboo. Closing his eyes doesn’t help. The whirling little spots refuse to go away. Dexter and Penny tumble about to the gleeful yelps and giggles of the children while Martha looks on serenely. The humans move on, their annoying, high-pitched noises slowly become lost. Harold relaxes to the sound of trumpeting elephants, chattering monkeys, and raucous peacock cries, punctuated by an occasional lion’s roar.
With the relative quiet, Harold’s nose twitches, followed by the skin down his back tingling. Gnawing on a bamboo sprig, he contemplates the signs, knowing they mean something, but the answer is beyond him for the moment. Thirty minutes later, another wave of schoolchildren descends upon them just as he thinks to have the answer. The answer disappears.
So goes Harold’s morning as one invasion follows another, and the bamboo pile slowly disappears. As the sun grows warmer, Harold grows sleepier, until laying on his back, he waives mechanically at the parade of visitors before falling sound asleep. This is a pleasant respite until Martha pokes him as more little humans descend upon their home. The afternoon shift has begun.
Every half hour after that, Harold dutifully lifts one leaden eye at the increase of inane giggles, squeaks, and screams each time the hairless human monkeys line up at the black railing to stare down at them. At that point, he waives a black and white paw, invariably eliciting more annoying giggles, squeaks, screams, and those infernal camera flashes.
Harold reasons he is famous because of being so friendly, despite what the sign on the black railing tells visitors. The fact that he and Martha produced twin cubs is of little concern. What is truly important is that good bamboo appears on schedule. There was a time when one of the big, hairless monkeys that are his servants delivered a bad lot. It was dry, rancid smelling, and bitter. One bite and Harold stood up to trudge into the cave and out of sight, steadfastly refusing to appear. This, of course, caused no small problem for the monkey servants who were at a loss for the sudden change in behavior until they noticed Martha wasn’t too fond of the bamboo, either. Only when a change had been made did Harold condescend to resume his world-famous appearance.
He really didn’t have feelings toward these servants one way or the other so long as they did their job of cleaning and serving meals in sufficient quantity, and on time. Actually, he has looked upon the creatures with a little pity. They never seem content, always scurrying about, seldom resting, constantly jabbering like the monkeys, and forever flashing those little lights at him.
Harold knows about cameras and photography. Sidney, the old Orangutan, taught him. (The servants always call Sidney by some weird-sounding name they claim to be African, but Sidney is his real name. It is no different with Harold. They call him Ling, and Martha is Ming, but so long as the hairless servants keep providing reasonably good service, Harold doesn’t give a bear’s woof.)
The humans taught Sidney how to take pictures. They then lead him around on a chain (most humiliating), so he could take pictures of the visitors constantly plaguing Harold’s peace and contentment. One day Sidney snapped a picture of Harold. There was a strange whirring noise before a piece of paper popped out of the camera. Sidney removed it and held it out for Harold to see.
“So, what’s that?” Harold asked.
“That’s you,” Sid replied.
“That’s not me. I’ve seen myself in the water.”
“Trust me, this is you, my friend,” Sid said.
“So, what is it good for?”
“Humans apparently don’t have very good memories, so they take pictures to remind themselves of the things they’ve seen.”
“Pathetic, isn’t it? Harold commented.
That’s how Harold learned all about photography. With that understanding, he always positioned himself in the best light because he is accommodating as well as friendly. Usually. That the humans always insist on using the useless flashes is just another indication of their inferior intelligence.
Day in and day out, seven days a week, Harold puts on a show, a very boring repetition except to a Panda who takes life one munch at a time. Later that afternoon, he is awakened as the hairless monkeys make an unusually loud commotion. He is mildly surprised that it has become quite dark, the people aren’t gathering at the railing to take pictures. Instead, they are running about as if chased by swarms of Yellow Jackets. Rolling onto his tummy, Harold leans backward, sticking his well-rounded bottom into the air and stretching. Leaning forward, he drops the bottom end and stretches forward. Following a very large yawn, Harold meanders up the hill to where their cave entrance is hidden behind a thick grove of bamboo.
Martha looks up from where she is sitting inside, waiving at the little humans who are pressing hairless faces against the window. Quite unexpectedly, they were being rounded up and herded out of the building by the older humans.
“What are you doing?” she asks as Harold begins fluffing his bed of bamboo leaves.
“Going to bed, of course.” He yawns.
“It’s not that late.”
“Oh?” Harold responds, confused. “The sun has gone down?”
“What do you mean the sun has gone down?”
“Well, that’s what happens when it gets too dark to see, doesn’t it?”
Martha lumbers toward the cave entrance, stops halfway out, and looks up.
“Oh my, what?” Harold asks, a little annoyed.
“Storm clouds. I’ve never seen it so dark,” she announces, sniffing the air. “Yes. There is a storm coming.”
“Good. That ends the show for today,” Harold says as he lays down and begins curling into a comfortable ball.
“Harold, you better come here.”
“Why?” he grumbles from beneath a paw covering his face.
“There is something wrong with the air. Please, come here. You know more about these things.”
Harold rolls his big, brown eyes and uncurls, knowing full well Martha will not let up until he responds. Besides, the twitching he has been experiencing all day has become stronger, making sleep difficult. Standing next to his mate at the entrance, he sniffs the air.
“Yep. It’s going to rain,” he confirms and is about to return to bed when his nose gives a great twitch that shimmies right down his broad, rounded back to shake his invisible, stubby tail.
Looking around their bamboo yard, he spots Dexter and Penny near the cliff below where the humans always congregate.
“Children, you better come into the cave,” Martha calls out.
“Why?” Dexter returns.
“Get in here, now!” Harold roars, something he never, ever has done to the children.
Dexter and Penny look at each other. Their father’s behavior only indicates something is seriously amiss, and without further comment, the two begin lumbering toward the cave. Overhead a small group of middle-sized humans arrived to begin shouting and yelling at them. They throw wadded food wrappers and ice-weighted, paper cups that bounce off Dexter’s rump, but when poppa roars, a dutiful child obeys.
There is a flash of light followed seconds later by a dreadful, splitting crack and lingering rumble. The twins break into an uncharacteristic amble. The human children continue to yell at them. The two Pandas enter the cave as another flash of light is quickly followed by a blast and rumble, hurtful to their sensitive ears.
“Let’s go to the back of the cave,” Harold says, turning to follow them.
“Oh, no! Harold!”
“Those bigger children were dangling a smaller one over the railing. When that last flash occurred, they dropped it. It’s inside our yard?”
“Oh, good grief!” Harold roars.
He knows there is no way out of their yard except through the other cave. That entrance is always blocked except when food is delivered, or the servants come to clean.
“I think he’s hurt, Harold,” Martha groans.
“Well, I wouldn’t be surprised. Humans aren’t as tough as we Pandas. A flimsy lot,” he says, looking out the entrance again. “Where is he?”
“Just beside the center boulder,” Martha says. Her voice is quivering as another flash and explosion occur, followed by a new sound, a continuous, mournful wail.
“We’ve got to do something. This is going to be a bad storm,” Martha says.
“Bad, indeed!” Harold grunts to himself. His whole body is twitching as if he has a chronic case of flees, he now fully understands the meaning. With the first drops of rain, big drops the size of the twin’s paws, he knows this is going to be a nasty storm.
“I’m going out there,” Martha announces.
“And do what? Those paranoid humans will think you are trying to attack the child and shoot you with one of those infernal, yellow darts.”
“But we can’t just let him lay there, Harold. He’s on the edge of the pool, and with this much rain, it will fill higher. He’s not moving. He’ll drown.”
“I’m going to hate myself,” he rumbles, pushing passed his mate and down the hill, now slippery from the rain, as fast as his short, round legs will carry him. He hasn’t gone halfway and is soaked by the downpour.
Wading across the water, Harold carefully edges up to the human. It is so tiny. He sniffs. It appears to be alive. Harold looks back at the entrance where Martha is standing motionless, watching fearfully. Another flash and boom spark Harold into action. Reaching down, he gently takes the little human’s covering at the neck in his mouth and begins dragging it between his legs, beneath his large, round tummy. Crossing the rising water, he takes great care to keep the little face out of the water.
Suddenly there is a thud just off Harold’s right shoulder. At first, he thinks it is the sound of the human gun shooting darts, but what he sees is a large, white rock. It is quickly followed by another and another accompanied by many smaller ones. He is hit by the falling rocks, but the great padding of fur absorbs the shock until one of the big ones hits him on the shoulder.
“Ouch!” he yells, almost dropping the human.
He is only halfway up the hill when another big, white rock hits him. They are falling more frequently, and the smaller ones are so numerous to cause the ground to become white as if covered with snow. More lighting strikes nearby, followed by an ear-hurting blast that drowns out the insufferable wailing noise.
As Harold waddles through the entrance, Martha says, “Put him on our bed.”
Tenderly, Martha sniffs the body. “He’s breathing, but he’s not awake.”
“No doubt, judging by that big bump on his forehead,” Dexter says.
“He’s shivering,” Penny adds.
“Penny, curl up on the bed and let me nuzzle him against you. These humans are so helpless in cold weather without any fur. Dexter, you curl up next to him, too, but be careful so he can breathe.”
Harold watches from just inside the entrance as the human child is cuddled between his children, then Martha comes to him.
“Are you alright?” she asks softly.
“I got hit on the back by some of those big rocks. It hurts.”
“Lay on your stomach and me rub them,” she says, and using her paws, massages his shoulders and back.
“Martha? Something is terribly wrong,” he says as her rubbing soothes the hurt. “I feel the ground shaking.”
The rain and hail have stopped, but not the insistent wailing sound, now joined by a growing howl. Suddenly there is a terrible crash in their yard.
“Good heavens, Martha! Something just landed right in the middle of our bamboo!”
The roaring grows to a shriek as more things fall into their yard, are picked up and slammed against the cliff beneath the black railing. The lights on the other side of the glass wall go out, plunging the cave in total darkness. There is terrible banging as if something is hitting the roof of their cave.
“Momma? Poppa? I’m frightened,” Penny says.
Harold and Martha move close to their children and human to put on a brave face, but they are frightened as well.
After a time, the horrible roaring moves away, and things stop falling from the sky as the rain and white rocks return. After a few minutes, the rocks stop, but not the rain as it pummels the world for quite a while longer until eventually becoming a steady drizzle.
“Well, so much for the yard,” Harold says sadly as he eventually looks out the entrance.
What had once been a pristine, bamboo forest is a shambles of broken, twisted things of all sorts. The small pond at the bottom of the hill has become a virtual lake. There is all manner of junk littering their yard. Above, beyond the bent and broken, black railing come the voices of humans, but not the joyful shouting and screaming more commonly heard.
“What’s going on out there?” Dexter asks.
“Well, a lot, I’d say,” Harold replies. “Edith Zebra and her baby just trotted by, followed by Fred and Elmo. A half dozen monkeys hiding in what is left of our bamboo. Oh, there are some humans at the railing now. I think they are looking for the human child. There goes Fanny Giraffe, and I think I just saw one of the lions trotting behind her. The humans are leaving. They have their hands full sorting things out.”
Harold rejoins his family as bright spots of light show through the glass wall, illuminating every inch of their cave. He dutifully sits and waives politely, hoping they don’t flash their cameras.
The next morning Harold awakes early. He hasn’t slept well, worrying about what is going to happen with the human child. If that wasn’t enough, the whole outside sounded like a jungle gone berserk with roaring, screaming, yelling, trumpeting, mooing, and whinnying as friends and neighbors run back and forth, humans in pursuit.
Seated at the entrance, he gazes out at the ruined yard. The sun is shining, it’s late, and he’s hungry, but there is nothing to eat. Harold wonders if the servants will bring food at all. About an hour later comes the familiar, comforting sound of the secret door being opened and the appearance of two large bales of bamboo.
“Harold, I think the human child is awaking,” Martha whispers.
Harold turns and sits on his haunches. Yes, the child’s eyes have opened and appear the size Ferd the Owl Monkey’s eyes. Martha senses the child’s terror, but when she licks the red lump on his forehead, he seems to understand the Pandas mean him no harm. After a time, the child curls next to Penny and closes his eyes to sleep as Harold samples the day’s serving of bamboo.