The bear will knock on your door on a night deep in winter. It will smell of ice and the secret corners of the forest. Its fur will gleam whiter than the blue-tinged snow sloping away to the larches and birches that shelter your cottage.
You’ve always suspected-dreaded-hoped that a bear would someday arrive on your doorstep, and when it does, you will let it in. Creak the door hinges, whisper the invitation, watch it track dry snow over your floorboards and crouch on your bright braided hearthrug before the fireplace.
Examine your capable-coarse hands, nails still rimmed with dirt from the autumn harvest. The bear will notice. It will lean across the length of the fireplace and lick your hands, rough tongue leaving skin new and clean again. Study your now-white knuckles, your newly unbent fingers. Cradle the possibilities in your hands the way you gather fragile strawberries from your garden in springtime.
Oh but then. The bear will stand, abruptly, taller than your hearth, and speak: I’m hungry.
Crack your trapdoor, descend to the pine-smell of your root cellar, return with jars and baskets. Stew apples, serve them on cracked china. Dredge salted venison from the barrels in the root cellar. Scoop plum, winterroot, bramble preserves from the jars you carefully stacked on your shelves in the autumn.
The bear will eat it all, teeth spurting into apple-skin, venison greasing its snout. It will lap the plates spotless with a frenzy that causes you to turn away, hot-cheeked, or stare, your hands and feet cold. It will want more.
Trap confused rabbits and strung-thin squirrels in the forest. Forage for cloudberries, blood-drop winterberries, pinecones, dead leaves and birchbark–peel it off in long white strips. Serve them on a tablecloth sewn hastily from your best red-on-white embroidered dress (the bear will eat that too).
Study your suspicion that if you serve the bear enough meals, an enchanted number of three or seven, the bear will lumber back into the forest, and you will be free. Wonder if you want it to be so. Wonder if your story will disappear without the bear. Wonder, then, if the right combination of food will break the enchantment and the bear will become a prince, or a princess, or a wild forest-woman with a dress made of birch-leaves. Just one more apple, or one more handful of dandelions, when spring comes.
Your hands will crack again, bleeding with winter, but the bear, glowering by the hearth, won’t lick them clean.
Wonder, some nights, in a wrong-footed moment of panic, whether this was the bear’s house all along, whether the bear brought you here as a prisoner, whether your sweetness and goodness will soften the bear, and the enchantment will break like summer dawn.
(The root cellar will empty, the turnips devoured, the gnarled autumn potatoes you dredged out of the ground four months ago lying heavy in the bear’s stomach. The bear’s fur will coarsen, its claws yellow, but it will remain lean, feral, even after everything. It won’t speak after those first two words).
Wonder, other nights, shivering, if the bear is even a bear, or if the bear is the dried grass slumbering beneath the snow, the crooked pines, the pale sky, the whole world, begging at your hearth-table.
Hear the rumor-whispers of the magic in the north. Fill a rucksack with bottles, leave the bear gnawing on the chairleg in your cottage. Walk through cedar pines and birch until the forest stops. Highwaymen will watch you, shout after you. Leave them behind. Trudge past twisted snowdrifts, find the gleaming dead strip of the world where the Northern Lights twist close enough to the earth so their vibrations sigh down the tundra. The witches who glow in the snowdrifts there will show you how to gather strands of the lights, which will prick your fingers through your gloves, and how to harvest them into bottles. Ask whether you can use these lights to make a bear-feast. The witches won’t answer. They will murmur to each other, glowing lip on glowing ear. They might be laughing at you. Or it might be sorrow. Gather your bottles, and head south again.
Return to your cottage as hard green shoots are beginning to struggle from the snow-melt. The bear will wait in an empty room, tangled in your unwoven blankets, next to your copper pot listing on its side.
You will have emptied your stores, traveled north and back again, and bloodied your feet. Now, to break the enchantment.
Uncork the bottles, watch as the thin strands of sighing light slither from the necks. Reach out to gather them into a feast, to shape them into grouse and plump sparrow, into butter and sugar and harvest fruit. The bear will lick its black lips.
But. The lights will whisper towards you, slippering around your legs, eating through your woolen coat and dress and shift, pricking your nipples and breathing on your neck-hairs. Hold the tangle of lights in your hands, which gleam like a stranger’s, or like hands you’ve known all your life, or both. Hold the lights close to your chest, let them beat with your neck-pulse, and realize: they are yours now. They were yours always.
Glance back at the bear. Its eyes are older than the solstice-sky without a moon. Pity the bear, because pity is part of you, just as much as nimbly embroidering tablecloths or foraging for morels or decanting preserves. Touch its greasy cheek, if you must. Say goodbye.
But leave it. Lift the trapdoor and creak into the cellar, holding the light. Touch the dusty bare shelf, which will suddenly brim with all the food you could dream of, food they whisper about in the marketplace: oranges and cinnamon and cardamom and starfruit.
Taste them, licking your fingers.
Hold the enchantment in your hands: bright, blinding, seething.
Notes from Guest Reader Kendra Fortmeyer
The beauty of this piece, and its quiet resilience, are just stunning. Though it dwells in the gorgeous, gem-faceted language of fairy tales, its modern sensibilities and self-awareness create a doorway for the contemporary reader to enter. I love the brief time I’ve spent in the world of this story, and hope SmokeLong readers do, too.