The Bear Girl

beargirlAcross the valley on a distant mountainside, Rosethorne could see something glittering in the trees. “What is that?” she asked, shading her eyes with her good hand.

Grandmother Bear just grunted and thrust her grayed muzzle toward the spot again. The chilly morning breeze teased her shaggy fur, lifting her musty scent to Rose’s nose.

Rose chewed on the end of her dark braid, trying to figure out why the shining thing interested Grandmother so. “What’s over there?”

Grandmother rumbled something. More often than not, Rose could figure out what Grandmother wanted by the way she sounded and how she moved. This time she wasn’t sure. The bear pointed her muzzled toward the spot once more, and then shuffled away on her scarred paws, leaving Rose alone in the chilly spring wind.

Grandmother wanted her to go there, Rose decided, but the shining thing in the trees looked awfully far away. She would have to cross the valley and climb the far mountain to reach it. And as the sun rose higher, the glittering faded away, making her wonder if she’d imagined the whole thing.

The old bear was sick, Rose knew. She didn’t need a bear’s nose to smell that out. Grandmother had emerged from hibernation much thinner than usual this spring and had no cubs.

Rose sighed. She had planting to start and wood to chop. But Grandmother wanted her to do this instead, so after fixing in her mind the spot where the trees had glittered, she headed back up the mountainside to her little cabin to gather supplies.

The packs Grandmother had scavenged from the campgrounds made Rose’s bad shoulder hurt, so she didn’t use them much. This time she collected everything she needed and stuffed it into the biggest one, blankets and a pot, matches and food. She found an extra shirt and put it on over the blue one she already wore, then added her heavy jacket.

Wolf watched her work, sitting next to the hearth with his tongue lolling out. His odd brown eyes followed her every move. He tilted his head and looked confused.

“Grandmother wants me to go see something,” Rose explained. “You stay here and guard the cabin, Wolf.”

He rose, shook himself, and stalked out the door with his tail held high, clearly offended. Wolf only did what she asked when he felt like it.

Shaking her head, Rose put out her fire and shut the cabin door behind her. Wolf could squeeze back in through the loose boards in the floor if he needed to stay warm. She took one last look at her cabin, and then started down the side of the mountain that had been her home for almost as long as she could remember.

Wolf showed up after a time, evidently forgiving her for trying to leave him behind. He dashed ahead into the trees and bounded back until he tired of that game, and then she talked to him as they walked along. Wolf guarded her path, his brown eyes alert.

“I have a long way to go,” she told him. “If you want to come you’ll have to hunt, or there won’t be enough food for me to get to the shining thing and back.”

He whined, but didn’t argue. Rose felt better for Wolf’s company. She hadn’t really wanted him to stay back at the cabin. She would be safer now. He was big for a wolf, and most things in the woods were afraid of him—except for the bears.

They passed Grandmother’s den, but she didn’t come out. “Wait here,” Rose said.

This once, Rose knew he would obey. Wolf never went into Grandmother’s den. He feared Grandmother. She could tell by the way the hair on his back rose whenever he went with her to take Grandmother extra food. Rose suspected it was because Grandmother was a bear and Wolf a wolf, and they just weren’t meant to be friends. He crouched down near the entrance, making his uneasiness clear, and then slunk away into the trees.

She crawled inside the dark den. “Grandmother, I’m leaving now. Wolf is coming with me.”

Grandmother grunted, her pleased sound, and then slipped back into a rumbling sleep.

When Rose emerged, Wolf dropped a rabbit at her feet and pointed his muzzle toward the entrance. Grateful for his effort, Rose took his offering and laid it near Grandmother’s scarred paw.

They walked on, climbing downward until darkness fell, stopping near the bottom of the mountain. Wrapped in her blankets, Rose settled against a tree and chewed a piece of jerky from a stolen tin. Wolf came over, sniffed at her mouth and whined, so she gave him a piece and he trotted to the other side of the clearing, chewing his prize.

“You still have to hunt,” she reminded him.

She dug a hollow in the dirt and laid her blankets in it. Wolf burrowed down into the hollow with her, and Rose put her arms around him, grateful for the added heat.

Wolf growled and his paws twitched in his sleep. In Rose’s dreams, though, Wolf had arms like hers and wrapped them around her to keep her safe.

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Wolf had gone hunting when she awoke.

Her scars ached on cold mornings, marks left from when the Yearling Bear dragged her off. Of course, no one called him the Yearling Bear anymore; they called him Crooked Toe Bear now. Rosethorne avoided him because he still resented Grandmother’s stopping him from eating her, even now. She rubbed her scarred arm and shoulder until they didn’t hurt so much and then packed up.

Wolf brought her a pair of rabbits. Rose tied them to her belt, not wanting to stop to skin and gut them just yet, and they headed down into the valley where the two mountains met. At the edge of the valley floor, she tried to spot the shining thing, but couldn’t see it. Most likely the trees hid it from that angle.

“What do you suppose Grandmother wants me to see?” she asked Wolf again.

He ignored her question, like he had every time before. Rose didn’t think he knew the answer, anyway. They left Grandmother Bear’s territory, crossed the narrow end of the valley, and began climbing up the unknown mountainside.

Rose cooked that night, chunks of rabbit meat with old dried pieces of carrot. She curled into her blankets alone since Wolf had gone off hunting. She dreamed—terrible visions of cars and screaming and darkness—and woke frightened and alone. She didn’t want to remember that time with Papa all broken and bloody, and she cried.

Wolf trotted into the clearing and crouched down next to her, licking away the salty tears. She hugged him and went back to sleep, her fear fading with the familiar scent of his fur.

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Her breath steamed that morning as she packed up her things, so Rose wrapped her blanket around her shoulders. She climbed the steep slope, using branches and stones to help pull her up. The scarred arm didn’t work right, so she had to stop more than once to rest.

Leaning back against a boulder, she spotted the shining thing again—not on the ground like she’d expected, but trapped partway up in the trees. Rose scrambled up and headed in that direction, Wolf trailing behind her. She finally emerged into a clearing underneath the shining thing and gazed up at it.

It was an airplane—or at least part of one. Its wings were missing, and its nose had crumpled into the ground, but the tail still hung up in the trees. That must have been what she saw shining. Creepers had grown over the top of it, blocking it from the sunlight. It looked all broken and smashed, like Papa’s car.

Wolf whined and laid his head on his forelegs.

It must have fallen out of the sky, Rose decided. The part that lay on the clearing floor was as big as a school bus. A door hung loose on the side, carelessly left open for raccoons and squirrels and spiders to get in.

She walked around it, puzzling over what Grandmother wanted her to see. She tried to look into the windows but dirt covered what glass was left, so she decided to peek inside the open door. It smelled only of dirt and plants—not dead things. Rose crouched down and went inside, the thing groaning and shifting when she moved but nothing more. She waited a moment until she could see better in the darkness.

She had never seen the inside of an airplane before, but she expected it got so messy when it fell through the trees. The back had some chairs, but they were crunched down under the top of the plane.

She saw two chairs in the front of the airplane, not crushed like the others. Bones sat in one of them—human bones. She didn’t see those often, but there had been some in her cabin when Grandmother first took her there. Those bones hadn’t been new. These were old too, dry and brittle, some scattered on the floor. Tattered cloth still clung about them, but Rose thought they’d been there a long time.

Papers cluttered the floor, brown-stained and mired in dirt that had blown in through the broken windows. Rose pulled a couple loose, but there was only writing on them, neat little rows. No good to her.

Near where a pile of little bones lay, she spotted a square of paper with a little bit of old tape coming off the corner, like it had been stuck to something and fell off. She knelt down and stretched beneath the chair to grab it. Turning it over, she realized it was a photo.

She held it up to the light and wiped dirt off the slick front. In the picture, a woman with pretty hair held a baby in her arms, and a man stood behind her with one hand on her shoulder. If the woman had dark hair instead, she would look a lot like Mama. Rose slipped the photo into her pocket and went back to looking around. She only found more dirt-covered papers and a dead flashlight, so she gave up and went back outside.

Wolf still cowered at the edge of the clearing, keeping his distance but clearly unwilling to leave her alone there.

Rose walked around the airplane, studying all the ruined things that must have come from inside when it broke. Most were unidentifiable pieces of plastic and metal, too large for a raccoon to drag away. At the base of one of the trees, though, she found an old kiddie seat like Sissy’s, dirty and with all the stuffing torn out.

A pile of bones lay next to it, another human’s. She crouched down and picked one up—a long leg-bone. It showed signs of gnawing, like wolves had been at it for the marrow. She showed it to Wolf. “What does this mean?”

He didn’t answer, his eyes clenched shut. She went to him and saw tears sparkling on his grizzled fur. She’d never seen him cry before, never once, not even when the pack had left him behind.

She sat down next to him and laid a soothing hand across his neck. Wolf draped a foreleg over his muzzle and whined, the way he moved telling her he wanted to go, he hated this place. Rose stroked his coarse fur, trying to reassure him. “Grandmother wanted me to see it, Wolf. I don’t know why, but I did, so now we can go home.”

She coaxed him to his feet and together they left the dead clearing behind. Once back where she’d left her supplies, Rose built a fire and gave him some jerky. Wolf chewed it, shivers rippling his fur.

In her dreams that night, Wolf had human eyes like hers, and she put her arms around him and held him while he cried.

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When she woke, Rose smelled bear urine on the wind. Not Grandmother’s. She shoved her things into her pack, put it over her good shoulder, and headed back down toward the valley.

She stopped to touch a tattered tree trunk, fear prickling through her. Horrible scars marred the bark—Crooked Toe Bear had come out of his den to mark new trees. His territory had gotten bigger, and she was in it. She called for Wolf, but when he didn’t come, she hurried on.

She hadn’t gone far when she heard a popping in the brush uphill. She spun about and saw Crooked Toe Bear there, looking thin and irritable. He charged at her, and Rose bolted down the hill. Grandmother couldn’t save her this time. He chased, clumsily banging into the trees as he came.

Then the hillside became flat meadow, where he would run faster than her. Rose had nowhere to hide. She expected to hear his whuffling close behind her, but instead she heard the Bear bellow angrily. Surprised, Rose glanced back. Wolf was there, dancing out of range of the Bear’s paw. He moved fast and agile where the Bear was slow and clumsy.

He might be big for a wolf, but the Bear could break his back or snap his neck. The Bear could drag him off, the way he’d done with her, to chew his bones in a quiet place.

Rose dropped her pack and yelled, “Run, Wolf!”

She ran back for him, knowing Grandmother would be angry with her for doing so. Wolf leapt and twisted around the bear, trying to evade those long arms and sharp claws. He danced too close, though. Rose heard him yelp; the Bear had swiped his hindquarters.

Rose screamed at the Bear and ran between him and Wolf. The Bear rose on his hindquarters and lumbered toward her, claws displayed. It seemed that he remembered then that he wanted her, not Wolf.

A crack sounded across the valley, sharp and frightening—a gun. The Bear yowled in pain and dropped to all fours.

Rose huddled into the tall grass with her arms around Wolf, playing dead, hoping that in his rage the Bear might not notice them.

A second shot whizzed over her head and she heard the Bear snuffling in the grass. A third shot boomed and echoed through the valley.

Wolf whimpered in the silence that followed.

After a moment, Rose unwrapped herself from around him and checked the gashes on his leg. Not nearly as deep as the ones on her arm, but she thought they must sting. Wolf rose stiffly when she bid him, otherwise unhurt. Then she saw an even more frightening sight than the Bear.

The hunter walked toward them through the tall grass.

Rose laid a trembling hand on Wolf’s head. “Be still.”

“Are you all right?” the hunter called. He held his gun under his arm, not the way he would if he wanted to shoot her or Wolf. “Are you hurt, miss?”

Rose knew she shouldn’t talk to a stranger, but he had a gun. “No”, she answered.

The Bear lay motionless and didn’t snuffle anymore.

The man wore brown from head to toe—even a brown hat. He took the hat off as he came closer to check on the Bear. The hunter’s hair was silver, the same color as the tips of Wolf’s fur. His face looked all lined and craggy like Grandpa Thorne’s had been. That told Rose he was old like Grandmother Bear, and wise.

“Been chasing this fellow for months,” the hunter said with a sigh. He played with the Bear’s ear, turning the yellow tag to peer at it. “Poor boy got a taste for the camps, been making a nuisance of himself. They think he even killed a little girl ’bout fifteen years ago. Still, it’s a shame.”

The hunter seemed sad that he’d shot Crooked Toe Bear.

He gave her a strange look when she didn’t speak. “Not supposed to be hiking in this part of the park, miss. It’s a reserve. I’ll give you a ride back to the ranger station.”

“No.” Rose didn’t know what a ranger station was, but she didn’t want to ride in a car ever again. “I need to take Wolf home.”

Wolf whimpered, uncomfortable this close to the human. The hunter stared at Wolf then, as if just noticing him. His eyes widened when he noticed Wolf’s size and he shot another strange look at Rose.

She crouched down and draped an arm over Wolf’s shaking shoulders. “He’s scared of you,” she told the hunter.

Wolf growled under his breath, complaining that he wasn’t scared, only hurting.

“Where’s home?” the hunter asked.

“Up there,” Rose said, standing up and pointing.

The hunter pushed his hat back on his head and glanced up the mountainside. He had a funny look on his face, like Papa had worn when he worried. He turned back to her and asked, “Why don’t you come back with me to the ranger station, miss?”

“No. I have to get Wolf home,” she said again, backing up a few steps.

The hunter frowned at her. She thought he was looking at the scars on her face, even though she knew it was rude to stare. Her weak arm hurt, and she cradled the hand in her other palm. After a moment, the hunter nodded. “Is there anything you need, miss?”

Rose knew she shouldn’t have anything to do with hunters. Grandmother didn’t like them. “Matches?” she asked anyway. She had so few left.

“Stay right there,” the hunter said. He went away to his brown car and came back with a sack in his hands. Wolf growled when the hunter got close. He stood between Rose and the man, his hackles raised.

The hunter gave Wolf another frowning look, but kept his distance. He tossed the sack to Rose. “Miss, you follow this valley down to the lake and go all the way around it, you’ll find the station, just in case you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” she said, remembering that Papa always told her to mind her manners.

Rose clutched the sack and laid a hand on Wolf’s head. After picking up her pack, she led Wolf away back up the side of the mountain, very aware that the hunter stayed behind and watched them go.

The sack had a big box of matches in it, many more than she could count on her fingers and toes. There was jerky and dried fruit, raisins and nuts—a treasure better than any Grandmother had found for her in a long time.

Wolf gulped down a couple of pieces of the jerky and licked at his cuts, his pride stung.

He crept into her hollow that night to keep warm. Rose dreamed that he had hands like hers, but when she woke he’d already gone hunting rabbits.

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In the morning, she gathered up her things and headed home. She stopped at the den, and found the old bear dozing, broken rabbit bones under one scarred paw. “I found the place, Grandmother.”

Grandmother snuffled at her, either too sleepy or too sick to respond more. It frightened Rose. That first winter in the den, Grandmother hadn’t had a cub. Rose couldn’t move around much since her arm hurt so badly, so Grandmother had taken care of her and fed her. She wished she could take care of Grandmother now, but Grandmother wouldn’t let her stay in the den anymore now that she was grown.

Instead, she placed the last of the jerky next to Grandmother’s paw, along with the dried apples from the hunter’s bag. Grandmother would like those. Rose patted the old bear’s paw, slipped out of the den, and headed up toward her little cabin.

It was cold inside when she got there, but the raccoons hadn’t gotten inside. Rose started a fire and went about the tiny room, putting everything back in place while the cabin slowly grew warmer. It would be a chilly night anyway.

She checked the cuts on Wolf’s hind leg. They had nice scabs now, and she thought the fur would even grow back properly. He settled in his nest of tattered furs and rested while she finished putting things away.

She remembered the photo she’d taken from the airplane, and drew it out of her shirt pocket. The only thing she’d taken away from that place, it still told her nothing about why Grandmother wanted her to go there.

The baby in the picture wasn’t a baby, she decided, but a little boy, maybe two or three. The photo’s colors had gone all funny because it was old, but the woman’s hair looked golden, almost the same color as Wolf’s undercoat. Rose gazed at the little boy in the photo and wondered if the torn-up kiddie seat she’d seen in the woods was his, if it was his papa all broken inside the airplane.

Wolf set his muzzle on the old mattress and whined, so she moved over and let him crawl onto the bed next to her. “Maybe a bear dragged him away,” she said, showing Wolf the photo, “just like me.”

Wolf tilted his head as if he were considering the picture. Then he grabbed the corner of it with his teeth and jerked it out of her fingers before she thought to stop him. He jumped off her bed and retreated to his nest with the stolen photo.

“Wolf, give me that.” Rose scrambled after him, but he buried the thing down in his tattered furs, and then turned around and sat squarely atop it.

For a moment, she just stared at him and he gazed back, unrepentant, with those brown eyes all the wrong color for a wolf.

She understood then why Grandmother always had a funny way of growling his name, like ‘wolf’ wasn’t really the right word for him. Grandmother must have known all along that Wolf didn’t belong in the pack any more than Rose belonged in her den. And Rose had never suspected, not in all the winters in between.

She sat down on the cold floor and asked, “Is that where you came from? From the place with the airplane?”

Wolf laid his muzzle on his forelegs and whined.

Something bad had happened there, Rose guessed, and Wolf didn’t want to remember it, just like she didn’t want to dream about Papa’s car. “Do you remember being human at all?”

Wolf started chewing on his footpads then, pretending he couldn’t hear her.

“Don’t you want to be a human?” Rose asked him. “They’re not all bad. The hunter didn’t hurt us.”

He raised his head and looked at her. For a second, Rose wondered if she kissed him if he would turn into a prince, but that was just frogs, she remembered. She’d tried it a couple of times and found out it didn’t work.

“Well, I wish you were human,” she said with a sigh, and retreated to her bed to get warm.

When she glanced back at him a few moments later, he’d dug the photo back out from his furs and it lay on the floor in front of him. His muzzle sat on his crossed forelegs as if he were staring down at the photo, hard to do around a nose of that size.

When she pulled the blankets over her for the night, he came back over and asked to get under the covers.

“You’re spoiled now,” she told him, but let him anyway. She fell asleep, the low crackling of the fire and his soft breathing lulling her.

She dreamed a third time and in this dream, Wolf’s arms wrapped around her. He touched her with human hands, warm and strong. It felt more real than the dreams before, but she woke alone again.

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Rose built up her fire and walked down to the stream as she did every morning. Several feet away she stopped, amazed.

Wolf crouched on the bank, staring down into the tranquil pool where she usually drew her water. He still wore his human shape, with arms and hands like in her dreams. She stared at him for a long time, not wanting to startle him, only look.

His skin was the shade of clouds at sunset. Long fingers clenched his bare knees and light-colored hair trailed across his pale back. He had scabs on his leg, just where he had them as a wolf. Rose could hear him breathe from where she stood—short, fearful pants.

“Wolf?” she whispered.

He turned, his eyes wide, and then jumped up and bolted away.

Rose didn’t even try to catch him. He was too fast. He would come back when he wanted. He always did. Instead, she went back to her cabin and began working her garden, already late for planting.

Just after nightfall, she heard whining outside. She rushed to the cabin door and flung it open. Wolf stood there in his human shape, his arms held tightly about his chest. She pulled him inside, dragged the blankets off her bed, and threw them around his shivering shoulders.

Wolf’s eyes were worried and afraid. He didn’t look like Rose had expected when she wished for him to be human again, but she recognized him anyway. He looked a lot like the man in the picture.

“It’s all right, Wolf,” she said, stroking his hair to calm him.

He whined, his new throat making it sound odd. Even so, Rose recognized his voice. She sat next to him in front of the fire and wrapped her arms around his shoulders to keep him warm. “I’ll bet you’re scared. I was, when Grandmother first brought me here,” she said, “but you came and took care of me. I’ll take care of you now.”

His eyes met hers, and then he freed one of his hands from the blankets and pawed at his pale cheek.

“You’re a human, Wolf, like me. You just forgot.”

He started to cry. Rose held him closer, wishing he wouldn’t be afraid anymore. She let him share her bed again that night, and he slept curled against her, smelling very different now that he was human.

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Wolf never learned to speak the way Rose did, but she understood much of what he said in the wolf tongue. She’d had years and years to learn it.

Even so, he never could tell her how he’d managed to change back after being a wolf for so many years. It took him most of the summer to figure out how to turn back into a wolf again, and he was happier after that.

He would chop wood, carry water, or help Rose in the garden. Then he would slip away and be a wolf. He brought more kills back to the cabin that way. Sometimes he just sat by the fire panting after something had given him a good chase. Other times he came back as a man, wearing clothes even, old pieces Grandmother had stolen from the campgrounds.

He didn’t seem to mind anymore that she wanted him to be human. Rose thought he’d resented it at first, being a man when he really didn’t want to, but he liked having a proper mate and that seemed to make up for his clumsy new feet and easily-torn skin.

Grandmother Bear wasn’t alive when the baby came the next spring—only a single cub, like Sissy. All the same, Rose thought the old she-bear would have approved of the new human living in the cabin on the side of the mountain.