Tiny rivers of rain rolled down the misty window pane by Herman’s bed in the loft of his parents’ farmhouse. They lived fifteen miles south of Cumby in North Texas, basically in the middle of nowhere. He didn’t know what time it was. All the thin sandy-haired boy knew was that it was wet, cold and dark, and the he was lonely.
Now it was odd that he would feel lonely. His brother Tad lay in a bed not three feet from him and across the room behind a curtain held up with clothes line was his sister Callie. Downstairs in the room behind the kitchen were his parents. But still, Herman felt very lonely and very, very sad. Why should he feel this way? He didn’t know why; after all, he was only five years old. Soon the sad and lonely feelings became too strong, and little Herman began to cry softly until he finally fell asleep.
The next morning, after Callie and Tad had gone to school, Herman summoned his courage to talk to his mother about how he felt so lonely late at night, when everyone else was fast asleep. He didn’t dare mention it while he, his brother and sister ate breakfast. Tad, he knew, would have made fun of him.
“Mama,” he began hesitantly. “Do—do you ever feel sad and lonely—like at night?”
His mother stopped washing the dishes and looked quizzically at Herman with her soft gray-blue eyes. She brushed a wisp of light brown hair from her face and asked, “Whatever makes you say a thing like that?”
Herman shifted nervously in his home-made cane-bottomed chair and looked around the big room, first at the pot-bellied stove and then at the worn couch and chair in the far corner.
“Oh, it’s just that, late at night, when I can’t get to sleep, I start thinking that I’d like to have a friend.”
“Why, you have plenty of friends,” she replied with soft laughter. “There’s me, I’m your friend. And your papa. And Callie thinks you’re adorable. And your brother Tad–”
“I don’t think Tad likes me very much,” Herman interrupted.
“Oh, he’s your friend,” his mother reassured him. “It’s just he’s going through that age when I don’t think he likes anyone much.”
Herman almost added he didn’t think his papa liked him much either, but he didn’t because that really wasn’t what he was talking about.
“I mean, I want a friend my own age.”
His mother threw back her fragile head and giggled. “Well, there’s not much I can do about that. Living on a farm out here in the country like we do, we don’t have many youngsters running around for you to play with.”
“But still…” Herman’s voice trailed off. He knew his mother was right, and there wasn’t much use in talking about it anymore.
After a moment of silence that seemed as sad and lonely as the rain on the window pane, Herman’s mother said quietly, “You go one and gather the eggs in the hen house.”
He walked slowly through the front door and around the side of the weathered wood-frame house to hen house next to the barn. He stopped short when he saw his father unloading sacks of grain from their old pick-up. His father never beat him nor had he ever said a harsh word to him. But Herman was still a little afraid of him.
Father was a tall, boney man who looked like he had long worms all over his arms. Mother tried to explain to him once that those were just papa’s blood vessels. They stuck out like that because papa wasn’t very fat, but he was very, very strong. Still, Herman thought they looked scary. Maybe they would seem scary if his father ever hugged him, but he didn’t, so the fear still pestered Herman like a mosquito on a hot summer day.
“Hi, papa!” Herman yelled out, trying to be friendly. His father looked at him, grunted and went about his work. So Herman went about his own chores. He did have to admit he felt good about helping out. He brought in the eggs, kept the kindly box next to the pot-bellied stove filled and helped his mother set the table every evening. He went into the dark hen house and felt into the warm, downy nests to find eggs.
Soon he became aware of voices outside by the barn. It was mother and father talking. Herman knew it wasn’t very nice to eavesdrop, but he put his head to a crack in the hen house to listen anyway.
“Woody,” his mother said warmly but with just a touch of urgent pleading, “it would mean so much to the boy if we could give him a teddy bear for his birthday. It’s next week, you.”
“Now you know we can’t afford any fancy extras like toys,” his father replied wearily.
“Just this morning he was telling me how he wished he had a friend,” she continued. “A teddy bear, just a little stuffed something for him to hold onto at night so he won’t be afraid.”
Herman’s heart jumped a moment. A stuffed animal to hug at night. It was too good to be true.
“Opal, we just can’t afford it,” his father said in his voice that meant he was tired of talking.
Just then something odd happened. Peeking through the crack Herman could see his father looking down at the burlap bag underneath his hand. His father stroked it and patted it for a second then looked at his wife. She stepped closer to him, and they talked in low tones, so soft that Herman couldn’t hear them anymore so he went back to gathering eggs.
Herman didn’t think much about what his parents had talked about that day. The next weeks he was too busy gathering eggs and kindling and playing with rocks which he pretended were cars and trucks. He sang songs with his sister Callie and had a fight with his brother Tad, for which his mother gave them both spankings.
One night after supper, mother cleared away the dishes and brought out a small chocolate cake—Herman’s favorite—with six flickering candles on it. She and Callie sang happy birthday while his father and Tad sat there and pretended to mumble the song. Herman had actually forgotten his birthday. But when he blew out the candles and tasted the sweet chocolate cake he remembered—only for a second—what his mother had said about a teddy bear. After everyone had finished the cake, his mother with a beaming smile on her face pulled out a bundle wrapped in butcher’s paper.
“I colored pictures on the wrapping paper,” Callie announced proudly.
For a nine-year-old girl with too many freckles she was very nice, Herman thought.
“What! He gets a present!” Tad exploded.
“Be quiet, son,” his father said softly but firmly.
“But he don’t do half the work around here that I do, and he don’t have to go to school!”
“Oh, shut up, Tad,” Called chided her brother.
“You shut up,” he retorted.
Tad was a big twelve-year-old but he looked like a pouting baby when he was angry, which was too often, Herman believed.
“Now both of you, settle down before I take you out behind the barn,” their father warned.
“But it isn’t fair,” Tad whined.
“Shush,” his mother added, handing the gift to Herman.
“Not fair,” Tad said under his breath.
Herman was sad his brother was made, but he put that out of his mind as he tore into the paper and what he found made him grin from ear to ear.
It was a bear made of burlap with buttons sewed on his arms and legs so that they could move. He had a sweet little smile sewn on his face. Two more buttons made the eyes.
“Ooh, how pretty!” Callie cooed, hugging Herman. “Isn’t it wonderful, Herman?”
Herman was speechless.
“Mama made it,” Callie told him.
“It was your father’s idea to use the burlap bag,” their mother said, smiling sweetly and nodding to her husband.
Herman jumped up, without thinking about the worms on his father’s arms, and ran over to hug him and kiss his rough, weather-beaten cheek. For the first time he could ever remember, he felt those long, strong arms fold gently around him and pat him softly. He his stood quickly.
“Um, I’ve got to go see how the livestock’s doing,” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes with his hands and walking with long strides out the door.
Mother looked at the door long after father went through it and then rubbed her eyes gently with her hands. “Time to clean up,” she announced crisply. “Callie, clear away the dishes.”
“Mama, can I play with my bear?” Herman asked timidly.
“Of course, dear.”
“What are you going to name him, Herman?” Callie said excitedly, leaning down to look at the bear.
“I don’t know,” he replied simply.
“Why don’t you name it after yourself,” Tad said with a nasty sound in his voice. “Baby.”
“Oh, shut up,” Callie spat, then turned back to Herman. “Since he’s made out of burlap, why don’t you call him Burly?”
Herman smiled. “Yeah. Burly Bear.”
“Mama,” Tad began to complain, “it ain’t fair Herman gets fancy toys and I—“
“It isn’t a fancy toy,” his mother interrupted sharply. She sighed deeply, then smiled wearily. “And whether it’s fair or not—well, I’m just too tired to worry about it. Times are might hard, children. Things aren’t fair for just about everyone. Maybe Mr. Roosevelt can do something about it but for now, let’s just try to get along and surive.”
Herman turned for the loft ladder when Tad jumped in front of him, pointed his finger and made a silly face. “Baby, baby, baby,” he said in a mean sing-song voice.
Called ran over and kicked Tad in the sins and screamed, “You’re so dumb and awful! I hate you!”
Tad yanked Callie’s long, stringy hair. “Oh stay out of this!”
Tad and Callie began to fight and scream but stopped very fast when their father came throught he door and bellowed, “Hey! What’s goin’ on here?”
Both of them tried to tell their side of the story but since they were talking at the same time their father couldn’t understand either one. “All right,” he announced, “I’ve had enough of this. You’re both going out behind the barn.”
With muffled protests Callie and Tad went out the door with their father. Herman was glad he kept his mouth shut because he knew what awaited them behind the barn, a paddling.
“Why does Tad always call me a baby?” Herman asked his mother.
She smiled and slightly and hugged him. “Why, you are the baby of the family. And you’ll always be my baby, even when you’re grown and as big as papa.”
“Gosh, will I be that big?”
“Yes. Now get ready for bed. Take Burly with you.”
Herman climbed into the loft, took his clothes off and got into bed with Burly. He looked out of the window at the dark sky and thought how lonely he still felt. Burly was wonderful, and he could him hug him; but, Herman still felt lonely and sad. Part of it was because Tad made such a fuss and another was—well, Herman still didn’t know why. Again, as so many nights, tears began to fall from Herman’s eyes.
“Herman,” Burly said in a soft, soothing voice, “please don’t cry.”
Herman looked around. He didn’t know where the voice came from. Then he looked down to see Burly smiling up at him.
“Burly! You’re alive! You can talk!”
“Not so loud,” Burly shushed him. “Yes, I can talk, but only when it’s just you and me. When Callie and Tad, or anyone else is around I’m just a regular stuffed animal.”
Burly wrinkled his brow. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I can talk. But when your tear hit the top of my head I began to talk. That’s all I know.”
“Oh this is wonderful,” Herman whispered, hugging Burly tightly. “Oh! I didn’t hurt you by squeezing too right, did I?”
“Oh no,” Burly replied. “We burlap bears are pretty tough.”
“And you’ll be my friend!”
“Of course, I’ll be your friend,” Burly said. “I’ve been your friend ever since I was that feed bag. Remember, you rode in the pick-up to buy me at the feed store.”
“Not really,” Herman had to admit.
“You impressed me because you were so nice and kind and polite,” Burly explained. “And honest.”
“See how polite you are. Do you want to know a secret? I t was really my idea for me to be made into a bear. I made the bag rustle underneath your father’s hand that day so he would notice me and get the idea.”
“I didn’t think papa liked me enough to think of it on his own,” Herman sighed, a bit sad.
“Oh no, Herman,” Burly corrected him firmly. “Your father loves you very much. I could have sat there rustling all day long, but if he hadn’t really wanted you to have a bear, my rustling wouldn’t have meant much.”
“Oh.” Herman was happier knowing his father did love him after all.
“And do you know why he left so quickly after the birthday party?”
“He had to check the horses and cows,” Herman replied innocently.
“Wrong again,” Burly said. “He left because he didn’t want you to see him crying.”
“You mean papa cries? Gosh, I didn’t think anybody that big and strong ever cried.”
“Your father cries all the time, but you and your brother and sister don’t know it. He loves you all very much, and it makes him said when he can’t give you more things.”
“I guess things don’t matter as long as I know papa loves me.”
“Oh my, nice and kind and polite and smart too,” Burly sang. “I knew I was right to want to belong to you.”
Herman smiled a little, then thought of Tad and sighed. “I just wish Tad didn’t hate me.”
“Your brother doesn’t hate you,” Burly said. “He’s just jealous because he never got a stuffed bear. And he’s jealous because he has to go to school and help on the farm more than you do.”
“I do what I can,” Herman protested. “I’m only five.”
“Six. But you see, Tad is still just a little boy, even though he is bigger than you, so he doesn’t understand these things.”
“So maybe when he’s older he won’t hate me,” Herman said hopefully.
“Of course,” Burly assured him. “After all, he is your brother.”
Herman smiled and hugged Burly, knowing he would never feel sad or lonely again. “And you are my friend.”
“Yes, and you are my friend.”
Herman heard Callie and Tad come into the house, muttering and crying. He felt sorry they had gotten into trouble but felt good that they would know better as they got older. Like he would know better as he got older, with the help of Burly Bear, of course. He hugged Burly once more.
“Happy birthday, Burly.”