Mukashi mukashi, an orphan lived alone in an old house on a forested mountain in Japan. She was called Binchou-tan, and as you can tell by her honorific, she was small and cute. Very cute -- especially when she put on her worn kimono and crookedly tied obi. Binchou-tan lived alone but wasn't lonely, for she was a friend to all the woodland creatures. She gossiped with wood-ducks, traded foraging tips with squirrels, and caught rides with the birds into town. Even falcons would carry her in return for an acorn, which they do not eat, because she was an orphan -- a cute, heartwarming orphan.
But Binchou-tan was also warming in other ways. You see, Binchou-tan liked charcoal. All kinds of charcoal, but especially the kind called binchoutan in Japanese. She liked it so much, she not only cooked everything with binchoutan, she wore a piece as a hair ornament. Even cooking only a single hot meal a day, she used so much binchoutan that her monthly shipment from a mysterious benefactor was not enough. Most of the time, she could do nothing about this, between being too busy on the one hand working odd jobs as a child day-laborer in town for rice, and on the other eking out the rest of her diet gathering shoots, mushrooms, nuts, fruits, and other wild foods in the forest. But that winter, when there was nothing else to gather but wood anyway, she had the chance to make binchoutan herself.
First, she collected fallen oak branches and chopped them, using the axe left her by beloved dead grandma, into the right size and shape. Then she cleared remaining snow from a flat place in the forest, half-sheltered by a few trees, and piled the pieces on end, leaning them together in a cone. Finally, she covered them with snow-dampened dirt to keep them smoldering instead of burning, and through a small opening in one end, she lit the wood with her flint and steel. Once she was certain the wood had caught and smoke began rising from the vent on top, Binchou-tan crouched down to watch the pretty red glow.
And then a bear put it out.
At least, that's what Binchou-tan thought she saw. It happened so quickly, sending her flying before she knew what was happening. She sat up where she lay under a tree and blinked. Her carefully stacked wood was strewn across the clearing, having been dowsed in the snow and covered with dirt. The wood was barely scorched -- and the fire thoroughly put out.
"Kuma-chan?" she lisped. That HAD been a bear, right? But like no bear she'd ever talked with. Unlike the other forest bears, he'd worn blue breeches -- like townspeople did -- and a hat unlike any Binchou-tan had seen before. And none of the bears she knew carried a shovel, let alone used it to knock over someone else's charcoal stack, before leaving without saying a word. It was almost -- almost rude.
Binchou-tan was not used to rude people.
She straightened the charcoal tied to her head and got up. Binchou-tan had not survived on her own by stopping when there was hard work to be done. Without even a sigh -- though maybe her liquid eye quivered -- she collected her wood. After cleaning it off, making sure it was as dry as she could get it, she remade her pile. Just before she struck her flint, she looked around. No bears. Or anyone else -- just the winter woods, quiet except for the dripping of snow-melt in sunlight. She bent over and struck.
"Little girl," a growly voice said, "playing with fire is dangerous."
Binchou-tan swallowed, and slowly turned around. It was the bear, just as she had remembered him. He stood on his hind legs and leaned on his shovel, which made him even bigger than her bear friends.
The bear looked at her and said, "You shouldn't light one without an adult around."
Binchou-tan made a small sound, and shook her head -- she was an orphan, alone. With granny gone, there were no adults.
The bear frowned, which made him even scarier. "Little girl?"
"Binchou-tan," she managed to say.
"Is that your name?" he asked, not unkindly -- but still very growly.
She nodded, unable to say more.
The bear considered that a moment, then said his name.
Binchou-tan sounded out, "Sumouki Beiru."
He grunted. "Close enough."
She repeated his family name, "Sumouki-san."
"Listen, Binchou-tan, what are you doing?"
"Um," she said. "Binchoutan."
"Yes, that's your name."
"No, um." She gestured toward her pile. "Binchoutan -- charcoal."
"You're smelting charcoal, are you?" He considered that another moment. "Well, that IS a valuable forestry product."
Was a compliment or an insult? Not knowing how else to respond, Binchou-tan bowed politely. Granny had raised her to be proper to strangers. Even rude ones.
"But Binchou-tan, you shouldn't be doing that here."
She looked around, confused. Didn't all charcoal burners work up in the mountains? Or was it that this place was reserved?
"There's too much leaf litter -- it might start a forest fire. Which only YOU can prevent."
Binchou-tan supposed he was right. She had never done this before, only watched the charcoal burners with granny, when she was very young. She bowed again, this time in apology.
Sumouki looked at her oddly, then sighed. "Do you have a cleared area where you live?"
She thought a moment -- there was the garden. Grandma hadn't planted anything, her last year, and Binchou-tan had been too busy making ends meet to work it herself. Even the weeds had died off long ago. She nodded.
"That would be a good place," he said.
Well, the house would get smoky, if the wind was the wrong direction. But clearly he expected her to move. Binchou-tan was used to be being told to move by adults in town, especially when she tried to sell her gatherings on a street corner. She bowed again, this time in agreement.
Binchou-tan took down her pile and started picking up her wood. Even piled so high she couldn't see over it, she could carry less than half the pile -- this would take three trips, across the small valley and back.
"Here," Sumouki said, reaching down to gather her remaining wood under a single large furry arm, and picked up the axe in his free hand. "We can do it if we all work together."
"Um," Binchou-tan said, "you don't have to. Really."
"Lead on," he said, almost -- or was he ... smiling? Was he as unnerved as she was?
"Hai," Binchou-tan said in agreement, trying not to make it a sigh. She already owed too many people as it was -- and who knew what this strange bear might ask of her in return for his help. But there was nothing to do but head back to the house and try not to trip.
The second time she fell, Sumouki took some of her wood. As much as she didn't want him to, she had to admit the smaller load did make it easier to see where she was going.
At the house, Sumouki used his shovel -- more obligation -- to clear away the dead garden weeds from an area far larger than her pile would make. He let her stack it herself, at least. And she had to admit, his shovel did cover it quickly.
Before she lit it yet again, he insisted they fill a bucket with water from the stream down the hill, to put out the fire if it spread. "Always have water on hand!" Fortunately, her larger wooden bucket was still in good repair -- the leaky smaller one, hidden inside the house, would have been embarrassing. As it was, the critical eye he gave grandma's house dismayed her.
Fortunately, the wood was still dried enough, despite being scattered and dropped, that it caught on her first try. As Binchou-tan watched the red coals to make sure they didn't go out, Sumouki cleared his throat -- a sound even more growly than his voice.
"You know, if your house was properly insulated, you wouldn't need as much charcoal.
Binchou-tan felt her cheeks flush. It WAS cold inside, especially when the winter wind blew, and her blanket was thin. The leaking roof was bothersome as well -- if just one more drip sprung, she'd be out of bowls and cups to set out. But she was too small yet to climb onto the roof herself, and couldn't afford to pay for repairs. "Hai," she said quietly, to indicate she understood -- then blew on the fire, to help it catch.
"Probably not eligible for stimulus money here, I bet," the bear muttered under his breath.
The embarrassing moment stretched out into two and then three. Finally enough time had passed, Binchou-tan stood up.
She bowed deeply to her benefactor. "Thank you very much. Without your assistance ... "
He chuckled like gravel rolling down a mountain streambed. "Don't mention it -- I'm always glad to help protect a forest."
A surprisingly polite response. As they watched the delicious smoke rise from the vent, Binchou-tan thought of a way to pay off her obligation, at least in part. "Um, Sumouki-san," she said softly, then when he didn't hear that, said louder, "Please stay for dinner. I have nothing to offer you, but partake of it freely."
To her dismay, he declined all three times. "I must be off -- there's a lot of forest to patrol."
"But -- "
"Remember, don't leave this fire unattended, even for a moment."
As if to punctuate his words, some still-wet wood popped, sending three sparks out the vent. Binchou-tan's eyes widened -- each spark was brighter and hotter than anything she could strike from her steel. "Hai," she said in agreement.
Sumouki slung his shovel over one shoulder -- clearly, he really was leaving. But then he stopped a moment. "Binchou-tan?"
"One more thing: You need to clear a defensible space around the house -- cut down all greenery at least 30 feet from all structures, all the way around. Including these branches," and he waved at the forest canopy above them.
Why? Binchou-tan wondered silently. And did he mean his feet or hers?
"If there's a forest fire, it keeps the flames away from your house," Sumouki explained, "because there's nothing to burn."
Binchou-tan looked at the ancient oaks and chestnuts bent over her house, the ones that sheltered it in summer and gave her nuts in the fall. Could the bear be right -- they were danger as well as friend? How on earth could she cut them down?
Sumouki picked up grandma's axe again -- Binchou-tan could barely heft it, but it was small in his hand -- then put it down. It would take a long time for even a large bear to chop down a tree with it. "I know," he said, "I'll send my friend to help you."
"Friend?" Binchou-tan said softly, wondering if there was any way to politely refuse yet another favor. Or even impolitely, if need be.
Sumouki said the friend's name, another odd one, then waved goodbye with a heartily growled, "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."
"Pauru Bun'yan," Binchou-tan sounded out as she watched the bear disappear over the mountain ridge.
Then with a sigh, she crouched down to stare at the pretty red coals.