Short Story – The Girl Who Spoke To a Bear
I’m working on a play right now involving lycanthropy. As part of that, I’m trying to create legends that will be woven in as support of the main narrative. I’ve been researching some Native American myths that could be considered sources for modern werewolf stories.
What I wrote this week is stylistically a sort of bedtime story that could have vaguely Native American origins. It is inspired by an existing myth but really retains very little of the original.
With a story like this, I worry a little bit about cultural appropriation. I am not Native American and I am not trying to write a story from the perspective of a Native American. Rather, I want this story to feel like it comes from universal source of tales passed down verbally before they were written.
As with all my stories, I hope you enjoy, think, share, and comment if you are so moved.
In a time before our language was a written one, legend tells of a young woman who learned to speak the language of the bears.
The eldest of three daughters, she lived in a house on the edge of a great forest. Her parents would hunt and grow crops to feed their family and to trade to other people who lived in the nearby village.
Each morning, she would leave her home to seek the solitude of the forest. She would sit on the cool ground and open her senses to the life of the forest.
She would listen to the breeze as it gently shook the leaves. In winter, she could hear each flake of snow as it fell. She could recognize each bird by their song and each frog by their croak.
She learned to recognize the scent of all the animals and she could greet them by name. When the robin would land on a branch behind her, she would not even need to turn around. She would simply smile and say “good morning, friend Robin.”
The Robin, and all the other creatures of the forest, would respond and greet her by name.
In the evening, she would return home with some fruits and nuts she had gathered for the evening meal. Her family loved her but they did not understand her connection to the forest. Her little sisters would giggle at her when she spoke of listening to the whispers of the trees.
“Trees can’t talk,” they would insist.
“Oh,” she would chide them, “trees can talk. You just have to be willing to listen.”
One day, she left her home and walked to a special place in the forest. It was a cool spring day and the snow had not yet melted from the ground. She found a clearing where the sun could warm her and sat upon the ground to experience the rebirth brought by the changing of the season.
She watched as two little birds darted among the branches of an evergreen. She greeted them by name and they whistled back to her. Then she noticed the scent of a bear.
The bear would have emerged from hibernation not long ago and it would be hungry. Bears, like humans, would eat most anything and a young woman sitting alone in the forest might be just the delicacy needed to fill an empty stomach.
The bear walked into the clearing and sat down across from the girl, looking deeply into her eyes. Time had taught her all the creatures in the forest looked for respect and kindness so she worked to control her fear.
“Hello, friend bear,” she said.
The bear looked at her and growled.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand you.”
The bear growled once again, more insistent this time.
The girl, who spoke the languages of all the beasts in the forest, still could not understand the words of the bear.
The bear stood and walked aggressively toward the girl, barking as it came. Knowing it could move much faster than her, she reasoned it would be better to calmly hold her ground as the bear stopped moving just a few inches in front of her face. She could feel the hot breath from it’s nostrils on her cheeks.
Then she smelled something else. Something very similar to the bear in front of her. And she understood.
“You would like me to leave this place?”
The bear looked into her eyes again and slowly blinked once. The girl knew this must mean yes.
“I will go. But the forest does not belong to you or me. I have as much right to be here as you.”
She stood to leave and slowly walked towards home. As she left the clearing, two small cubs came bounding out of the trees to play with their mother. The bear watched the girl leave and then turned her attention to the cubs.
The next morning, the girl returned to the clearing. She greeted the birds and the deer by name and she sat waiting for the bear to return.
Soon, the bear entered the clearing. This time, it walked directly to her and sat down just a few feet away.
“Hello, friend bear,” the girl said.
The bear growled back.
“I still don’t understand,” she sighed. “I can speak to all the beasts here. I can even speak to the trees. Why can’t I understand you?”
The bear grunted and groaned as if trying to explain but the girl still could not comprehend.
“Would you like me to leave so your children can play in the clearing?”
The bear looked directly into her eyes and blinked once.
“I will leave as you ask. But this forest does not belong to you or me. I am coming back tomorrow.”
The bear looked at her but did not speak. It watched as the girl walked away and then the cubs again bounded into the clearing.
She told her family what had happened over the last two days. Her parents were worried and told her the forest was dangerous. Her sisters laughed and said they didn’t believe her.
The next morning, the girl returned to the clearing. The bear did not come that day but she could smell it nearby. She waited until night fell. The bats and the owl awoke and she greeted them all. An enormous moon arose over the clearing and still the girl sat calmly waiting.
With the moon directly overhead on a cloudless night, the bear came walking into the clearing and sat in front of the girl, staring intently into her eyes.
“Hello, friend bear,” the girl said.
“Hello,” the bear responded.
“I understood you!”
“Of course you did,” the bear told her, “all one needs to understand our language is for one of us to allow it.”
“Thank you, you have given me a great gift!”
“The gift comes with a price, child. You must return to your family and tell them that you will no longer be able to live with them. Then, when the moon rises again tomorrow, you must return to this place.”
The girl returned home to find her parents waiting for her. She was much later than usual and they were worried. She told them what the bear had said and they wept and begged her to remain at home with them.
“The bear means to eat you,” they argued, “you cannot trust an animal such as she!”
But the girl was not afraid. She stayed with her family for all of the next day. She played with her little sisters. She helped her parents prepare meals and farm the land. She let all of them know she loved them and would never forget them.
As the sun set, she said goodbye to her crying family and returned to the clearing, where she sat and waited for the bear to return.
When the moon was once again directly overhead, the bear returned to the clearing with her cubs at her side. All three sat down and looked at the girl.
“Good evening, friend bear,” the girl said.
“Good evening,” the bear replied, “are you ready to pay the price?”
It was then that the girl’s two sisters burst into the clearing. They had followed their sister that evening and they were very angry.
“Where is our sister?” they cried.
“Why, I’m right here,” the girl waved.
“You bears don’t scare us! What have you done with our sister?”
The girl looked at her hand and she saw that it had grown into a massive paw covered with brown fur. Her nails had grown into sharp claws and when she brought the paws up to her face, she felt a protruding muzzle with a large, wet nose and sharp teeth.
“The price,” the bear explained, “is you cannot speak to a bear unless you are one yourself.”
The girl now realized that she could not speak to her sisters for they would not understand her. They pounded their fists against her but she could not even feel their tiny hands through her thick pelt of fur.
“But my family,” she cried, “how will they know what has become of me?”
“Have no fear,” the bear assured her, “for you are not all bear. Nor are you all human. You will live in between. You may speak to people or to bears but never at the same time. You will be of both our kinds but you will not be of either. You are now the protector of the forest.”
The girl understood. She turned to her sisters and as she did, her bear form dissolved and she was human once again. They gasped and pulled back in fear.
“Do not fear,” she said, “I am your sister as you can see. I cannot return home with you today or any day. But you may find me in the forest if you come to this clearing and call for me. I will be here to protect you should you ever need me, just as I shall also protect the creatures of the forest.”
And so it came that the girl and her descendants protected the helpless who passed into the forest, appearing always as bears.
Until the humans destroyed the great forest and built cities where the trees had once stood. Then they adapted and lived as people, hiding their true nature from those who would not understand.
The heart of a bear still beat inside them, ready to be set free if they were called to protect the life of the forest.