The She-Bear roused from her long sleep. At first, a stillness saturated her limbs. She waited, slowly building her awareness of the world outside her dreaming.
The cave was warm and low. A fine layer of papery leaves were littered over her body. The cool, moist earth pressed up close against her stomach and thighs. The She-Bear breathed, her hands curled and still, tucked inside the bear skin’s claws, her face hooded by the great bear’s head. She felt her pelt gather in heavy spills of flesh about her and the way one foot fit neatly against the arch of the other. A great sigh breathed through her body, and she hunched up against the weight of her long repose. With a shy susurrous the brown, leafy detritus showered past her mass and the She-Bear rose.
The space beside her was empty. A round depression in the dirt of the cave belied the presence of the companion- but the cold, dry earth spoke of long absence.The She-Bear felt the silence of the cave- she was alone. She snuffed at the emptiness, her wet nose pressed flat against the place she remembered the companion being. But nothing was left of the companion, not even the lingering scent of light. The foggy shreds of the long sleep shrouded the She-Bear’s mind. She swayed, she took a step into the space where the companion should be, and at the end she lowly cried- where?
She waited for long moments. The world around her continued on. The cave remained empty.
Very soon, a more pressing need came upon the She-Bear. She looked firmly away from the depression, her sadness swallowed beneath a more primal instinct. With a heavy step, she shuffled from the cave and into the world.
Newly born, the She-Bear took her first uncertain steps from the earth-womb. She only dimly remembered the last life, before the long sleep. Her ancestor had been a mighty queen, whose vocal vibrations could sway the trees. The She-Bear felt small in comparison.
Before her, the forest whispered. The spark of winter glowed lingeringly behind between the sky-reaching tree trunks. A golden-brown warmth called to the She-Bear. Slowly, the heat of the sun would warm the earth. The She-Bear remembered the turning of the world, the waxing and waning of the seasons. Despite the confusion- where was the companion?- she knew the next step.
Lumbering through the never-ending twilight of the forest, the She-Bear descended from her rocky home and into the quiet lull of pine-needle carpets and green-gold sun rays. Far above, snowy tendrils were misting from the evergreen limbs, but beneath that muting canopy the forest was only just waking. The She-Bear’s nose twitched with the scent of the icy melts, a sharp contrast to spring’s quiet promise of life. Far below the cave, she emerged into the light. The rush of sound had called her, humming through the instincts of nature that came when the She-Bear had communed with the earth during the long sleep. Wading into the river, she plunged her massive head into the freezing current and, after a pause, threw it back with a fish firmly grasped.
This was the bear’s purpose.
The river was liquid air- her mind thrummed with the life swimming around her. The stones that cracked against each other beneath her feet, the tide that drew the river, the fish that gave her life- the She-Bear felt the great connection she had with the world spread out in her mind- from cub to young mother to queen, the She-Bear felt the pulse of her many lives down the years.
With the steady burst of blood and meat she fed into her gullet, the sense of her great sleep dimmed. Soon the stones were just the stones and the river just a river. Soon the empty place where the companion had been pulled her mind from its splendor.
With no sign to guide her, the She-Bear was lost.
She continued to feast well into the dimming light. A distant sense of unreality had overtaken her. With nothing to do, the She-Bear allowed the bear’s instincts to swallow her for a time. Wait, catch a fish, bite it in half or swallow it whole. Shuffle down the river a way. Begin again.
She kept an eye on the sky, and as the sun dimmed she waded ashore and waited. Slowly, the sky was painted. A distant pink, a flowering ray of yellow and- there- the orange of the deserts so far from her river shore. The She-Bear watched as the sun set behind her forest trees and as the purple of twilight came rushing from the east.
And then her memory sparked on the flint of the ice-giants that were blooming in her vision. The veil was running across the sky, the thin blue-purple curtain of next-to-night, and behind it the stars swirled from their treasure chest and were scattered above the She-Bear. She rose up, her tawny mass balanced on her back limbs, and cried her joy to the heavens. The companion was out there, and here was the She-Bear’s guide. The North Star glimmered brighter than the moon that night, and the She-Bear steadfastly lumbered towards it.
The way was a long one. The fish at first were plentiful. She dipped her head beneath the thin lace of the water’s surface and scooped them from their underwater home. The She-Bear put on mass and her skin began to feel full again.
The first time the North Star bowed in deference to the rising sun, the She-Bear spent the burning light of day resentful of the light. She hated the sun, its mocking eye staring at her from the bluer than blue skies. But that evening the veil ran across the world and the North Star sparkled and the She-Bear continued on.
The river became a stream.
The days grew long and longer. The sun burned in mocking triumph every minute more it gained in the heavens above the She-Bear. The stars sparkled less each evening and the sky was painted less black and more blue each night. The She-Bear hung her head low, her weary paws padding the thu-dump-thump of a steady beat into the hardening earth of the empty river bed. The joyous wailing of the world, caught in the heated orbit of summer, was ringing in the She-Bear’s ears. The forest was alight with fiery life. The birds, they sung beyond beauty. The trees, they thrummed with the sweet sap of plenty. The fish teemed even in the bare remains of the river the She-Bear followed.
With a cold eye, the She-Bear resented the happy chatter of summer that surrounded her. The sun was filling her forest with the golden light of day and the distraction of life. But each night the She-Bear saw the North Star and was goaded once more in her quest.
North and north she steadfastly journeyed. North and north she placed one foot after another after another. Past the towering trees, and past the edges of the forest as those self-same trees thinned and shrunk and ended. Past the plains that followed after, and the hills, and the mountains.
The She-Bear, with her heavy tread and swaying bulk. The She-Bear, her heart beating with the pulse of the distant Northern Star.
And, as the mountains continued to rise in never-ending bulk to the She-Bear’s eyes, there came a time when the sun did not set.
The She-Bear had climbed to the peak of a bisecting mountain. She had followed the curved ridge a distance. When it came time for the evening veil to be drawn, she had found the ideal site to watch as the sun lowered and the night came on. And the sun did lower. And the sky dimmed. But just as the last of the rich honey of daylight was to fade over the horizon… it simply did not.
The cloying heat of mid-summer was upon her. Her furred bulk was a burden, now. She dimly remembered the time when the wind skimmed over bare skin, when unprotected feet had feared the harsh earth, when her mane was a long lock of hair and not the furred pelt of a bear. This was long before her bear memories, long before the seasons ruled her and brought the long sleep. A past life, when the companion was there and the world felt right.
The hours upon hours of days without stars dragged at the Bear. She used the wait to forage for food. The mountains were not empty- she feasted on the small animal life she encountered and plants that seemed interesting. Her claws dug at the earth as she pounded after her prey or foraged in the undergrowth. Her limbs had gained the power of her many hours of journey and, for a time, she made the place her home.
Still, the sun kept its half-lowered eye upon her in watchful malevolence. The She-Bear eyed it in the strange half-light of the false night and when it rose to dominance above her in the day she found caves and burrows to hide away in. The scent of the sun was oppressive, a metallic sheen of copper and blood saturating the earth. Summer had entrapped the mountains. The She-Bear felt the constant presence of the heat like a prickle on her neck, like the whisper of threats rising up from the ground into her huge paws. She danced away sometimes in fear of the earth. She yearned for the welcome frost of starlight. She stopped looking for sunset, to avoid the disappointment.
It was in this way that she missed it. The dark of her cave had became the dark of night without her noticing. Emerging into the moonlight, into the welcome cool of true night, the She-Bear felt the wash of the chill North Star as a welcome relief. Looking up at her guide, she nodded to it in welcome. Then, without fanfare, continued on with her journey.
Slowly, the memories of the before-time were seeping back. Memories of running on two legs. Memories of her hair in the wind, of her short nails covered in dirt, of the soil pressed between her toes. The companion became more than a half-remembered dream. She thought of the feeling of fingers between hers, and the smell of the companion- like starlight, like winter frost.
The days began to wane. As she journeyed ever north, as the North Star led her on, the night came sweeping across the hours of day and swallowed the sun in its wake. The creeping sense of sleep was coming on- the She-Bear began to fear she would not reach her goal before it was time to rest for winter. But, as autumn began tumbling across the mountain-scape, the She-Bear put it from her mind. The determination to succeed rang in her blood and in her bones.
Still, her mind cleared. The cooler nights pumped through her blood and in their wake came the sense of a dress blowing against her legs, and of the dance of firelight throwing shadows onto cave walls. Sometimes, the She-Bear would walk upright as the four-legged gait of the bear became foreign. As autumn began to wane as well, as the snows sent their first drifts to dust her path, the She-Bear recognised that she was once human.
Eventually, having reached the peak of one low mountain, the She-Bear sighted her destination. It wasn’t anything special- but the scene that played out there flashed in neon splendor across her mind. A simple mountain, a stark black crack down the side, a crumbling, beaten path leading to that natural cathedral- a holy place for bears, or equally for man. As the sun set that night, as the veil ran across the horizon, for the first time the She-Bear saw her. The North Star in her human form, a young woman draped in silvery light, her hair the black stream of starry night that swept out into the East- she ran across the air like it was a bridge, and alighted in the cave. The She-Bear stretched out to her, her low cry echoing between their mountains. The North Star turned to look at the She-Bear, raised her hand in greeting, and beckoned. Then, with a flash, she became the star above once more.
That evening, the She-Bear pushed herself harder than ever. As she came down the edge of one rock-face her limbs lengthened. Her eyes lightened to their natural blue, her hair grew out as her fur melted away. She saw that in the shadows the snow was no longer melting away- the sun could not hold off winter forever. The long sleep was dragging at her bones, whispering soon.
As she crossed over onto the final length of her journey, the She-Bear recognised that she was no longer in her bear skin. The weak stride of her human form propelled her up the side of the mountain now. Her memories sharpened, focused. She saw them, the two of them, in the woods they had grown up in. She saw them, the North Star and herself, move between infancy and childhood, running through the trees and curled up together by the fire. Her heavy feet dragged, even as the afternoon began to hasten her stride. She knew it was today or never- one day to see the North Star, that was all.
As she reached the base of that blackened crack, the She-Bear remembered the witch. She remembered the North Star, born from the night to a witch who only wanted a daughter. But the daughter would grow, and her life in the woods would bring her out of the witch’s cottage, into the small village where the She-Bear sang as she ran her chores, and craved only a friend. The She-Bear began to weep as she crossed the final steps into that yearned-for meeting place. The last of the sun died on the horizon, and the North Star began running her starry mantle across the world. Her tiny distant light grew brighter and brighter as the She-Bear waited- the She-Bear, who had remembered the curse only as it once again repeated. The North Star alighted on the cave floor, her much-beloved face alight with the joy of their meeting. The She-Bear reached out- and, as their palms touched, the long-sleep descended upon the She-Bear, now human once more. Her eyes drifted close, her body sunk to the cave floor, and even as she struggled the hum of the earth drew her down. The North Star, bound to the heavens, was thrown into the sky once again- just a star to navigate by as the long winter set in.
The witch’s curse thrummed around the two captives, and the body of the bear-girl grew claws and fur and jaws to crush. It sapped her memories, and transported her back to that first cave- the site where the curse had been cast. The bitter witch, long dead, would never release them. Her only legacy doomed the two to repeat their futile quest, again and again, forevermore.
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By Danielle Day