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The Lonely Panda
Once upon a time, in a dense bamboo forest in southern China, there lived three young pandas. They all lived together in a cozy cottage built out of bamboo and other wood, with a thatched roof of leaves. It was the perfect home, warm in winter and cool in summer, surrounded by the seemingly endless forest filled with as much bamboo as they could ever want.
The only problem with their home was that it stood alone in the forest. All of the other pandas had chosen to live closer to the town, where they could bask in the attention of small Chinese children, and rest assured that they’d be safe from predators. Alas, they had to give up the peace and quiet one could only find in the middle of the forest, but this factor was unimportant to them. So the three pandas lived alone.
They were content to live this way, until one day the older pandas, Momo and Tohma, announced that they were in love. From that point on, everything changed. Tohma would climb to the top of the tallest bamboo stalks, to get the best leaves for Momo to eat. He would cuddle her when she was sad, and bring her flowers he picked himself. Momo, in turn, never left Tohma’s side. It was as if she’d forgotten everyone except him. They shared every meal, and every night pushed their leaf beds together to make one bed.
In the midst of all this, the littlest panda, Naru, was all but forgotten. She had to climb the stalks herself to get leaves, and had no one to cuddle, nor any flowers to admire. She ate her own meal that she made herself, as Momo was usually too busy with Tohma to help Naru make anything. Every night, Naru slept by herself on the side of the cottage farthest from Momo and Tohma’s happy, in-love laughter. She began to feel very lonely, and started thinking about what she could do to fix it. She decided she must fall in love, as Momo and Tohma had.
Once Naru knew what she had to do, she wasted no time. Momo and Tohma were sad to see her leave, but they understood why, and helped her pack. She took only what she thought she might need: a supply of bamboo to eat, and her warm winter coat in case she got cold. All this, she neatly packed into her green backpack. She hugged Momo and Tohma goodbye, and set out to find her one true love.
At first, Naru wasn’t sure which way to go. But, seeing as she’d lived in southern China for her entire life, she decided exploring the north would be the best choice. And if she didn’t find love in the upper reaches of China, she’d keep going – she’d go to the ends of the Earth if she had to!
And thus she began her journey, walking during the day, and sleeping on makeshift beds of grass and leaves at night. Using the Sun as a guide, Naru traveled steadily north. Along the way, she came across other pandas, as well as sun bears, monkeys, and the occasional elk. They were all very kind and friendly to her, and sometimes she would stay for dinner or even spend the night. But none of them were her one true love, so every morning she bid them farewell and resumed her traveling.
This pattern continued, relatively uninterrupted, until one especially cold morning about two weeks after she’d left Momo and Tohma. Naru had just waved goodbye to a family of mole shrews, who’d generously invited her to spend the night on their guest bed. She set out again, glancing up at the Sun to make sure she was still heading in a northern direction. She’d almost reached the border between China and Russia, and it had become quite chilly. She wrapped her soft winter coat tightly around herself. Suddenly, right in front of her jumped a leopard! His fur was smooth and glossy, and sharp, white claws protruded from his massive paws. His black eyes were narrowed, and fixed directly on Naru. He looked mean, powerful…and very hungry.
“Well, well, well…look what we have here,” he growled, his sharp teeth just visible when he spoke, “I’ve had a craving for bear all day.”
At the sight of the leopard, Naru had jumped backwards and fallen over a stray tree root. Now, she scrambled to her feet, her whole body quivering with fear. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think, as the leopard slowly advanced towards her, licking his lips.
“P-p-please! Please don’t eat me!” she stammered, “I’ve come all the way from the south in search of my one true love! Please!”
Unfortunately, Naru’s efforts were in vain. The leopard cared nothing of her quest, for he had a heart of stone, as is common for vicious predators. “Quiet down, my little bear,” he murmured, in what Naru guessed was meant to be a calming tone. “It’s been so cold this morning that all the animals are hidden, so I’ve been starving all day! You’re just what I need!”
With that, the leopard lunged at Naru, pinning her to the ground with his powerful paws. She struggled to escape, but there was no way out of his grasp. The leopard leaned down, opening his jaws and preparing to sink his sharp, pointy teeth into Naru’s neck. But before he could, they both heard a rustling noise, and voices. Humans! Naru screamed as loud as she could, hoping they would hear her.
“Shut up, you stupid bear!” snapped the leopard, covering Naru’s mouth with his paw to silence her cries. His dark, narrowed eyes scanned the surroundings for any sign of the humans. He could hear them, but couldn’t see them. He began to feel uneasy. If they discovered him attempting to devour a defenseless panda bear, they’d surely throw a fit. He had no desire to be shot. As the leopard weighed his options, he realized the rustling noises had ceased. Click. A rifle safety being switched into the Off position. In a flash, he was off, running as only the wild cats can, and leaving Naru stunned and still shaking from the whole ordeal.
Slowly, she got to her feet. She had a few scrapes and bruises, and one bleeding cut on her shoulder where the leopard’s claw had dug into her skin. Other than that, Naru had escaped unharmed. She breathed a shaky sigh of relief, and looked around to find her rescuers.
At that moment, three men walked out from between the trees. They were all in uniform, with nametags and hats. They each carried a rifle, as well as some other equipment Naru had never seen before. She might’ve been frightened, had she not seen the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission logos embroidered on their jacket pockets. Naru knew these people regarded her kind as a species to be protected.
“Hello there!” called out the tallest of the men. He offered Naru a kind smile, and kneeled down to be level with her. “Close call back there, huh? You should watch out for leopards; they love to snatch up young animals like you. Say, what are you doing this far north anyways? There’s no bamboo around here.”
“I’m looking for love,” replied Naru, “I’ve traveled all the way from southern China. I’ll go to the North Pole if I have to!”
The man stared, surprised at Naru’s response. He didn’t think it was likely she’d find love this way – she’d be lucky to stay alive! He knew he couldn’t leave her here alone.
“Tell you what, why don’t I arrange to have you escorted back home?” he asked, motioning for the other two men to join them. “You’re never going to find love! It’s a foolish quest you’re on. I mean, some people go their whole lives without falling in love – that goes for pandas, too. You should give up on the whole idea, dear.” He paused for breath. “Now then, shall we take you home?”
“I’m not going home,” Naru answered firmly, “I’m going to find love, and I won’t give up!” She began walking away, her head held high.
“Wait! Come back!” the three men called. They hurried to catch up to Naru.
“If you’re determined to do this,” said the man with the curly, brown hair, “At least let us help you.”
“Yes,” agreed the third man, “We wouldn’t want a repeat of your little encounter with the leopard.”
“Come with us,” said the tall man, “We’re about to leave on a trip to northern Russia. Along the way, there’ll be plenty of stops to check on different animals’ habitats – who knows, maybe you’ll find love!”
Naru thought it over. If she traveled with the FWS people, she’d be safe and warm. Not to mention, she wouldn’t have to walk across the length of Russia. She’d probably end up meeting more animals this way than by herself anyway.
“Alright, I’ll come,” she consented, and followed the men to their Jeep, which was parked nearby. By following a path Naru hadn’t noticed was there, they were able to reach a dirt road in about 30 minutes. From there, they drove a short distance before arriving at a FWS outpost. It was surrounded by a fence, and uniformed men and women hurried to and fro within the grounds.
“We’ll be taking that,” said the curly-haired man, pointing to a helicopter resting on top of the single building (the rest of the site was composed of large tents). Naru stared wide-eyed; she’d never seen a helicopter, or so many humans in one place! She was awestruck, and didn’t say a word until they’d parked and gotten out of the Jeep.
“When will we leave?” she asked, as the four of them entered the building.
“Tomorrow morning,” answered the tall man. He and the others began to put away their rifles and equipment. “Today, we were just finishing up our work here. By the way, we’ll get you a tent for the night…it can get chilly, and you’re probably not used to the cold. And we have some bamboo you can take for the rest of your trip; I see you don’t have much left in that backpack.”
Once all this had been taken care of, the men left to pack for the trip. Naru was exhausted – it had been a nerve-wracking day. She lay down on the sleeping bag that the tall man had unrolled for her. It wasn’t as comfortable as grass and leaves, but it would do. She was asleep in minutes.
The following morning, Naru and the men were awake at sunrise to begin their trip. They traveled many miles each day, stopping every few hours so the men could do their FWS work and refuel the helicopter. Naru lost count of how many animals and humans she met, but none of them was her one true love. She began to lose hope, and thought perhaps the men had been right in telling her it was a foolish endeavor.
After a few weeks of traveling, they reached the coast where Russia bordered the Arctic Ocean. Here, the men said their goodbyes and wished Naru good luck on the rest of her journey. She was left alone on a Russian beach, staring out at the freezing ocean and feeling lonelier than ever. She sat down on the sand and began to cry, her tears cold in the icy breeze. She was so consumed by misery that she didn’t notice the old reindeer until he was standing right beside her. She looked up, startled by this unexpected visitor.
“Don’t cry, little one,” said the reindeer. His voice conveyed wisdom that could only be gained with age and experience. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“It is that bad!” cried Naru despairingly, “I’ve come all the way from southern China looking for love, and I haven’t found any! And now I’m stuck on this beach with no way to cross the ocean, or go home, and I’m freezing!” Naru began to cry harder. The wise, old reindeer smiled.
“I can help you, dear,” he said gently, “My name is Andrei, and I was just on my way to visit my cousin and his family; they live in the North Pole. If you like, you can ride on my antlers as I swim us across the ocean. I’m an amazing swimmer, if I do say so myself.”
Naru sniffled, and tried to stop crying. Andrei’s plan sounded like it might work, but what would she do once they reached the North Pole? I’ll be right back where I am now, she thought sadly, Alone, cold, and still not in love. I should just give up…
“Don’t give up,” said the reindeer, seeming to have read her thoughts, “Never give up on love! Here, drink this.” He handed her a small vial filled with bright orange liquid. “My cousin is an alchemist, and he made this for me. It’ll make you be able to get warm simply by thinking about it!” Naru swallowed the orange liquid in one quick gulp, and immediately thought, I want to be warm. Sure enough, her shivering subsided and she felt as if she were back home in the pleasant temperatures of the forest. She began to laugh out of sheer happiness.
“Let’s go!” she exclaimed, her spirits renewed. She climbed onto the old reindeer’s antlers, and he swum them both across the Arctic Ocean.
Andrei was indeed an excellent swimmer, as he had claimed (although Naru suspected that might be the result of another of his cousin’s potions). They reached the opposite bank shortly, and after a brief rest, continued on to Andrei’s cousin’s igloo. Just outside its icy door, Naru climbed down from her perch on the reindeer’s antlers.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” she said.
“It was my pleasure,” replied Andrei, “Now remember what I told you: don’t ever give up! Good luck!” Naru nodded and waved, before continuing her journey, making her way across the snow and ice.
It wasn’t long before she came upon a small village of igloos. They were of all different sizes, and some had cooking fires built nearby. Naru wandered through the town, hoping she’d finally discover her true love. She turned a corner and came across two polar bears. The larger one noticed Naru right away, and promptly released his grip on the small one, who fled immediately.
“Well hey there, cutie,” he drawled, his voice like worms crawling over her skin, “What’s a little panda like you doing all the way in the North Pole?” He moved closer to her, and she hurriedly backed away.
“Nothing, I…I was…” she faltered. The polar bear reached out and grabbed her wrist. She tried to jerk her paw away, but he was too strong.
“I can make you feel right at home, don’t you worry,” the polar bear grinned, tugging Naru closer.
“NO! Let me go!” she shrieked. “Help! Someone please help me!!”
“No one can save you!” snapped the polar bear, “Now be quiet and let me – “
“Leave her alone, Nilak,” came a growl directly behind Naru. She turned to see a second polar bear, his angry gaze locked on her attacker.
“Don’t you have better things to do, Taku?” scoffed the bear who still had Naru in his grasp. He jerked her close to his chest. “Me and the panda here were just getting to know each other.”
“She doesn’t want to know you,” said Taku, slowly advancing towards Naru and Nilak, “No girl does. Now let her go before I rip your ugly face off.”
“You wouldn’t!” was the response. In a flash, Taku reached out and swiped his paw at the other bear’s face. Blood dripped down from his sharp claws, which had left deep gashes across Nilak’s cheek. Nilak lurched backwards, clutching his injured cheek and subsequently releasing Naru. He glared at Taku with a mixture of fear and anger, before stalking away without another word.
“Sorry about him,” Taku apologized, “Are you alright?”
“Yes, thank you – you saved my life!” Naru exclaimed.
“Nahh,” Taku brushed it away with a wave of his paw, “Nilak wouldn’t have gone that far. Anyways, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you doing here in the North Pole? Looking for someone?”
“Well, you see, I’m looking for…,” Naru trailed off. She’d suddenly realized that she wasn’t looking for anyone – at least, not anymore.
“My name is Naru,” she said shyly, “And I think I’ve found what I was looking for.” Taku smiled, and held out his paw for her to take.
“Actually,” he started, “I think I’ve found it too.” He pulled Naru into a tight hug. “Come on, I’ll show you the village!”
As they walked together, Naru smiled to herself. She was happy she’d decided to leave Momo and Tohma, even though she missed them. She would always remember the FWS men, for without them, she surely would’ve been that leopard’s breakfast. But most of all, she was glad that she’d listened to Andrei’s wise advice to never give up on love. It had been a long, dangerous journey, but Naru had finally found what she’d been searching for. She and Taku spent the rest of that day together, and ended up living happily ever after.