The grizzly bear snarled and swayed on two legs above the boy, holding up a massive paw with death riding the tips of its claws. The brave red dog snapped at the monster's wooly flank and summoned upon himself the full fury of a killer.
Noah had retreated under his comforter, trembling because of what his imagination was doing with the story. I had considered saving this part of the book for daytime, when there could be some distance between these frightful images and his dreams. But there was no turning back now.
"Just tell me now," he said, muffled words filtering through his cotton shelter. "Does Big Red die?"
I looked down at his fetal form beside me and smiled, but not so much at the cute cliche of childhood quivering in the bed. You can see that sight a hundred nights and be warmed every time just by the innocence. But that is a small thing by comparison to the smile that lifted my face. That one bore the glow of a soul recognizing itself.
"Wait for the end," I said, and I knew that he would, because we had met in the pages of a book older than both of us, and our stories had fused. Mine was now his and his all the more mine.
Noah gets me. He gets the jokes I find funny. He sees the subtle hues and dramatic shades in a sunset, same as me. He can appreciate a well-skimmed stone. He knows the words to Ball of Confusion, even though he wouldn't know the Temptations from the Teletubbies.
He has figured out without one lecture from his father that fishing is not about the fish, but about the electrifying anticipation that comes first and the contemplative silences that will keep you company if you treat them with proper respect.
These are gifts that pay off in small ways every day and portend well for later years, when I won't always be able to avail myself of such pleasures without him. Somehow, though, a single book means more.
- - -
Snow covered the forest. Ross Pickett was no good to his son Danny. He was laid up in the cabin recovering from a near-fatal run-in with the grizzly. The hounds were dead. Asa, the mule, lay buried in the clearing, all murdered for sport by the bear they called Old Majesty. Big Red's shrill bark called the grizzly away from Danny, who waited in the darkness for the deadly, sledgehammer paw to find him.
I slid low in my desk, the hardcover novel concealed by the fifth-grade book I should have been reading. Sister Mary Margaret, I think that was her name, looked up from grading geography papers and glanced my way, but I was already gone. I was in the Wintapi forest. Big Red was barking. It was cold there, so I shivered.
- - -
I bought this aging copy of Big Red when I came upon it at a used bookstore in Seattle some 13 years ago. The sight of the Irish setter on the cover of Jim Kjelgaard's adventure story had sent me spinning back to St. Mary of the Angels school and a terrible, magical time in New Orleans. My father had taken me to the library to check out books that fall, and I'd used them to escape while my family disintegrated. I started with Big Red.
Through that book and its offspring, the hero dog stood courageously between me and the special pain of divorce, earning a place in my heart even deeper than the love of reading he'd inspired. When my oldest son was in the fifth grade at Rawlings Elementary, I'd offered Big Red to him, but he was addicted to the cheap adrenaline rush of Goosebumps horror stories, and then he was too old.
So Red sat on my shelf, unread, and followed me to a new home in Tampa, a new marriage, this special child. For nights on end, we read until he drifted off to sleep. I watched, a page at a time, as he fell in love with my old friend.
- - -
Old Majesty had been hunting Danny and his dog as surely as they had hunted the bear. Under cover of darkness he had launched his assault, ripping a wound through Big Red's shoulder, rending any hope that Red would ever be a champion show dog again. This would be the decisive battle. Danny raised his rifle.
The shuddering child under the comforter tensed. The story would end soon. I would know for sure then whether I was right when I thought I'd seen my reflection in my son's eyes.
Noah has his own story that has no parallel in mine. At 7 he's already socially fearless, formidable on the soccer field, popular with the girls. I was never that way. I don't live vicariously through him. Still, my soul recognizes itself, and I'm left with a question: What does it mean when a child embraces your passions, sings your songs, treasures the artifacts of your memory?
The bear is dead. Big Red lives with a limp. He has sired five puppies and spawned two sequels. He has set me on this journey of reading and writing, and I wonder now whether he'll do the same for my son. Red proudly nuzzles his fledglings as I read the last words, and Noah answers my questions with one of his own.
"Dad, can we get another one?"
Keith Woods is dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, the school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times. The italicized passages in this essay are the words of Woods summarizing the story. They are not direct passages from "Big Red."
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Festival of Reading
The annual Times Festival of Reading will take place Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. For stories about featured authors, as well as schedules, maps and author biographies, see the Festival of Reading special section inside Weekend, in Thursday's Times.