Monsters in the Forest
Rags draped upon a thin frame, shoulders shaking with harsh, rattling coughs as a young girl with filthy hair wandered the forest. Tall trees casting shadows on her tear stained face.
No one wanted to see street rats, it forces one to realize not all is perfect in the world. Because of this many are cast out behind the village’s wooden walls to fend for themselves in the monstrous world of the wild. She had heard whispers before she had been cast out, of the demons beyond the wall and how the poor urchins are sent as an offering to them to keep them from attacking the village.
The forest is dark and dusk is approaching. Shivering, the ragged child wandered hoping to find some sort of shelter. She clutched at the rags around her shoulders trying to preserve the warmth in her body. Wiping at her dirt covered face, she held in her coughs frightened that any sound she made would summon the beasts of the tales she had heard. Every rustle of leaf or snap of twig would cause the girl to flinch, expecting monsters stories high to descend upon her.
Then, all at once, the forest was quiet. Every bird and rodent halted in their noise, waiting for something, hiding from something that was surely making its way to the cold, frightened child.
A CRACK sounded from her right, like an entire tree had been pushed and snapped from the force. She gasped, a scream on her lips that refused to escape. Just as her breath refused to come to her. She stood, shaking and desperately trying to take breath into her lungs as fresh tears streamed down her already stained face. Hiccups of hyperventilation was broken by stifled coughs as the girl strained her ears hoping, praying that the noise would stop or the beast would not find her.
The ever growing sound of cracking and snapping of trees drew closer. The ground rumbled as heavy thuds made their way towards the child. A chilling boom came just yards from her, a tree, four feet in diameter had been pushed. Branches snapped like broken bones, bending and breaking against the unyielding forest floor. Soil sailed through the air from uplifted roots that stood straight in the air, dirt clinging and dropping as the seconds passed.
Not a sound was heard but the harsh choking of tears as the child sought for air that would not come. She glanced a head, a moment of courage, wanting to meet her death in the eyes but the darkness of settling night cast shadows on her face and she could not see.
A swiping sound was heard followed by a vicious quake as the bushes to her right were trampled beneath horrific clawed feet, thick with fur. She looked up. And up. And up. Until her eyes met bared teeth as long as her arm with hot breath streaming the cooling evening. And up. As she saw inky black nostrils flaring, taking in the scent of fear that dripped from her tiny body. And up to beady yellow eyes, staring beyond thick brown fur. Monstrous, dangerous.
The eyes of a bear.
Trembling knees gave way and the child collapsed. Air continued to elude her and as gaping maw descended, darkness took her. There was no pain.
Dust coated her mouth, ticking her throat. Coughs sprang up and for several seconds she was back with the bear, fear taking her breath once more. Shivering she willed the coughs to stop and opened hazy eyes to find where she was. Sleep filled eyes, filmed over by flu, scanned her surroundings. Rock and shadow met her everywhere she looked. As warmth spread across her back she glanced behind and saw a rising sun. She was at the mouth of a large cave.
Weak from sickness and hunger, she stared unseeingly at the cave. Thoughts and emotions she could not name, bore down on her. Crushing her. She was alone, she always felt alone but in the village there were people. With people she could pretend she was a normal child and not an urchin scraping by for food and shelter. People had also stripped away her fantasy when they had caught her scavenging others rubbish and tossed her before the gates in nothing but her rags.
A loud roar rolled through the forest behind her, breaking her from her memories and stopping her heart in fear. Another, closer, sounded. A third followed and terror struck her core and her feet and she found her weak body had strength left. She dashed into the cave without thought. Beady eyes and tremendous paws followed in memory. She ran, rising sunlight guiding her feet until its arches of brilliance could stretch no further. And still she ran. Bided by darkness and fear, she ran. Flaring nostrils, bared teeth. She ran. Until sick weak legs and coughing lungs brought her to her knees, quaking in fear and she sat. Hungry. Tired…lonely.
Quakes struck the ground growing close, stronger than the night before. She did not move. Eyes adjusting to darkness spot massive shapes lumbering forward. And still she does not move. Hungry, tired, lonely. Defeated. She does not care. She is in the den of bears.
She sits in silence, watching, waiting. But nothing happens.
As the sun rises and her eyes further adjusts, she begins to see the beasts whose den she has unwillingly intruded upon. The closest was not the one she had seen the last night. Its fur was lighter with smatters of grey. It moved slowly, as if with age. The bear was not as tall either, though it still towered over her on four legs. It was a girl, the child noticed, watching as she turned on a bed of worn wood chips, soft with time, and laid down.
The bear sniffed the air as she lay and turned her head towards the child. Her face was noticeably old. It sagged with age, wrinkled around its snout and lips. She wasn’t nearly as freighting as before. She looked rather much like old grandma, like a Granny bear. Her eyes were mostly closed and she had not moved them for some time. They were a murky grey, like they had once been another color but they had dimmed with time. A film covered the eye making it cloudy. She was blind! The child gasped, quick breath catching at her sore throat ripping a series of coughs from her lungs.
Movement halted her, though not her coughs, and she watched in trepidation as another bear, still not the one she had met in the woods, whirled around to look at her. He was terrifying. Scars riddled his body and face, dark fur bald in spots. He limped towards her with fore paws covered in gouges and bite marks from old battles. He was old like the last. Clawed face sagged and wrinkled but unlike the last, this one was no kind Granny. He was a warrior. Mostly missing ear flapped as it swirled to listen to her quieting coughs. He stood watching her, examining her, and then turned away in disinterest. Walking towards a dead deer.
She followed him with her eyes until she caught site of the last bear in the cave. The one from last night. It stood at the mouth of the cave, dark brown fur reflecting sunlight. It was the biggest of the three and it betrayed no age like the other two. It was female as well. Though that gave her no comfort. Everyone knows not to get between a ‘mother’ and her cubs.
The bear’s beady yellow eyes unnerved the child. They stared in a way very similar to the Warrior bear, though her fur reminded her of Granny bear. Perhaps she was their adult cub. Yes, she must be. She held the Granny’s calm dispositions but her body showed she was more than ready to fight, like Warrior. Perhaps that is what unnerves her so. Calm but can become powerful, like a storm.
A growl filled the air, causing the child to jump. However it did not come from any bear. Hunger had once more made itself known. There was nothing she could do about it though, three enormous bears stood between her and food and she didn’t think she could have summoned the energy to find it even if they let her through. She fear she would star—
Warrior viciously tore a chunk from what was left of the deer. He climbed to his feet and limped over on once broken legs that had likely healed wrong. Black eyes, deep set into is fur covered face, seemed to scowl at her. Scared, she debated the merit of trying to run, surely her sickness riddled body would be fasted than an old limping bear. Before she could attempt such an idea, Warrior deposited is bloody mouthful and waited, scowling. Unsure of what to do she sat still, willing the beast away. Warrior released a growl that rumbled through her and in fright she dived towards the bloody mess. He stopped and waited, scowling once more.
The child paused, realizing what he wanted but unwilling to do it. As a street urchin you eat what you find and not all you find is cooked, because of this many civilized people called us animals. I hated it. To eat something so raw and bloody, she felt it would mean they were right, that all she is an animal, street rat, that had been unashamedly tossed to the wild. Warrior growled once more, baring broken and crocked teeth. She took a bite. The meat was rich with nutrients, the like she had never had. It was tender but held weight that filled her stomach. Years of starvation gripped its hold on her. It was too much. She could not keep it down.
Bile and mashed, bloody meat soiled the cave floor. Tears streamed down the child’s face as she clutched her sore stomach. She had never felt full in her life yet when chance came to eat she could not. It was too much for her ill, malnourished body to handle.
Grunting, Warrior gathered the deer once more into is maw and ate it, walking back towards its carcass to finish the rest. Granny slowly got up, pain of old joints flaring. Carefully, the blind bear made its way to the child, stopping several feet away. It carefully lowered its jaw and released several berries before her. Teary eyes gazed at the colorful fruits in wonder. Berries were a delicacy in the village. The rich would eat it for breakfast with oatmeal and have shaved ice and mashed berried for dessert. She had never tasted them before. Hands, splattered with bile, were wiped across dirty rags before reaching for the small fruits. Cradling a few in the palm of her hand she brought them to her mouth to taste. Burst of sweet and tang collided in her mouth and she gasped in wonder.
The taste was so amazing but she had never eaten something like that before and her stomach once more rebelled. Down trodden the Granny left as the child wept in hunger and desperation.
The bear from last night watched this were she lay by a small pile of fish. The storm in her eyes as penetrating as ever. She stood and placed a single paw before her. The child flinched. The sound of falling trees and flattened bushes echoing in her head. However the same courage from the night before that had told her to look her supposed death in the eye was also making her match the bears gaze. The Storm bear seemed to notice something in the child’s eyes, whether that was the challenge to the bear or the promise to the child is hard to tell, and continued forward with a single fish in her jaw. The child watched, half unbelieving that these monsters were trying to feed her, and half grateful that they weren’t giving up.
The fish was placed before the child, but though she knew the silent request, she could not take the fish. When she was younger still she had had a father. He was poor but made well enough to keep more than shambles over their head. Her mother had been a prostitute who never stayed long in one place and though they had only met once a child had been conceived that night. Her father had spent a single night with a faceless woman and nine months later found a child on his doorstep.
What this has to do with fish is simple. One night when money had been tighter than usual the father had gone to the market to get a deal. He had gotten a single fish, which was not as fresh as it could have been, and brought it home. He had intended to share it with his daughter but she refused. ‘You work so hard, Papa.’ ‘You need your strength, Papa.’ So he ate the fish, promising to work harder and make more money to shower his precious girl in gifts.
But he could not work harder and he could not make money and he would never give his daughter gifts. He had grown sick. A single fish had made him bed ridden and had made the child watch as life left the only person who cared for her. But what was the death of her father could mean life for her. The Storm bear looked on with knowing eyes as she gazed upon the teary child. Greif, brought up by memory, spilled forth from the child’s lips and sore throat. Still, Storm bear edged the fish closer, encouraging the child to take it. Knowing that one way or another, hunger would force the child to eat. And with hesitant, shaking hands the child did. Using nails to scrape off scales before taking small, aborted bites.
The fish was fresh. It looked and smelled nothing like the one that had taken her father from her. The meat was watery with not much weight, but it filled her like the deer. She ate a few more bites when Storm bear slowly reached her snout towards her and took it. Preventing the child from gorging on the fish like she had the berries and the child felt no sickness. Relief struck through the child. She could eat and she wouldn’t go hungry. The child smiled brightly, with tired eyes towards the three bears. A full stomach leaving her sleepy and content. But before she could curl up on the ground for rest, Storm bear stepped over her, heading deeper into the cave. The bear turned towards the child and waited once more.
When nothing happened Storm bear walked back and leaned down, nudging the child with a large, wet nose and walked away again. Frightened and uncertain, the child turned away believing Storm bear wished her gone now that she was fed. Further confusion fell upon her when she found Warrior bear and Granny bear blocking the exit of the cave and looking towards Storm bear.
Stumbling to her feet, the child made towards the expectant bear further in the cave, the others following. Slowly, the child and the bears made their way into the darkness, stepping over and around rocks with careful help of Storm bear. Finally the child heard the sound of rushing water and the scent of damp rock. As the child turned a corner in the cave she noticed light. A crack above let in the light of the rising sun which glanced of the spray of a water fall, coming from the same crack. A pool of water underneath, with more water than she had ever seen. Granny bear separated from the group and made her way towards the pool.
As Granny bear stepped into the pool, wading out to a point where she could simply float, the aches in her joints and the sagging, sore appearance lifted. Floating in the water allowed the bear the keep weight from her old joints and gave her a mostly paint free way to move and relax. Excited, the child made her way to the pool of water. She had played in a bath before, faint memories of her father washing her in a small, metal tub and splashing her, rose to the child’s mind. But when she went to step in she shrieked! The water was freezing! Most likely melting off a nearby glacier. Disheartened, the child returned to Storm and Warrior bear.
Much as she would like to, she knew with her illness it would be bad to attempt to swim in such cold waters. Storm and Warrior bear continued through the cave tunnel and the child followed. Light faded as they left the crack and pool until they were once more in darkness. The scent of damp rock stayed but it was joined with a growing smell of something like rotten eggs. The further they walked, the more the child noticed the scent and rising heat. Humid and hot air filtered through her muck filled lungs causing her to give several wet coughs. The coughs continued until the child felt something build up in her throat. A persistent mucus she could not ignore until finally she could not take it and spat it out. The wet glob flew from her mouth and into the darkness, landing with a small splash.
Startled by the sound the child stopped and listened, Storm bear too stopped. However the odd shuffle sound of Warrior bear continued until a sloshing sound joined it. It must be a hot spring! The child thought. The sloshing ended with a single sploosh as Warrior bear laid down in the hot water. Water from the hot spring flooded over the edge as Warrior laid and lapped at the child’s toes. HOT! The child jumped back, there was no way she was bathing in there. She had never felt water so hot. Warrior bear however, was content, the pain of old battle scars were driven away by soothing heat. And though the child could not stand the heat, the humidity was rejuvenating to her lungs.
Storm Bear gave a gently nudge in another direction and started walking. The child and the bear continued further, leaving the smell of rotten egg but once more nearing the sound of water. At first the child wondered if they were returning to the fall turned around as she was in the dark. However when she felt water at her feet well before seeing a light around a corner, the child realized it was an underground river. This time the child refused to try the water, not wanting to be disappointed if it was too cold or too hot.
Storm bear continued towards the river, wading in and blocking much of the rivers swift speed. When the child simply stood beside the river and did not get in, Storm bear reached up a paw and gave a gentle push, sending the child splashing into the river. Gasping, the child surfaced, whipping wet hair around as she tried to find the affronting paw and the bear attached. Her search was derailed, however as she swam through the water. It was warm with the occasional stream of hot or cold that would glance her clothed self. It was the combined water of the pool and spring, mixing two extreme waters to make a river just right.
The child let out a delighted laugh, uncaring that her rags were getting wet. She splashed and played and swam, giggling with giddy joy. When she ran into the river bank in the darkness, she scrambled up it, stripping from her rags before turning and jumping in once more. An animalistic grunt sounded, reminding the child of the bear that had pushed her.
Filled with giddiness, she splashed towards the sound and stopped. Sudden fear struck her as she listened to the resulting silence, remembering the silence before the Storm bear had flattened a bush the night before.
A swish of a paw sounded as it flew through the air, landing feet from the child. The resulting wave sent the girl spinning. Once more surfacing the child sent a smaller, more hesitant splash to the front of her. A retaliating flick of a paw sent fat drops into the back of her head. Giddiness returning, the child turned, throwing her arms in front of her once more splashing towards the bear before swimming to the side in an attempt to dodge the next swiping paw. The child and the bear continued playing until the child was wrinkly and tired. Energy having run its course. Sleepily the child swam toward the river bank and found her clothes. The bear climbed out and shook its fur and together they wandered back through the cave tunnel. Passed the empty spring, passed the vacant pool, and into the cave mouth.
Stumbling in sudden exhaustion, the child dropped her still damp, clean rags and curled up beside them. Clean hair curtained her face, the glow of evening light highlighting her golden locks. She smiled sleepily, it had been years since it had last been clean. Papa used to call her Goldilocks or Goldy, after the only good thing she had inherited from her mother. He would say she was all the gold he needed. A weight lifted from her shoulders as she watched her golden locks sway with every breath she took. She had felt lost as a street urchin, it had all been so sudden, Papa was gone, the house was gone, and the food was gone. It had felt like she was losing herself as an urchin, like everything she was, was being buried behind the grime of the streets. Washed and full, she felt like she was regaining what was lost. She felt cared for, for the first time in years. It felt good.
A breeze drifted over her damp skin causing her to shiver. The ground was cold but clothes were still wet so she couldn’t cover up and she could not make a fire. Sitting up, she looked around the cave, looking for a shelter from the wind. Warrior and Granny bear were laying together on the bed of worn woodchips. Gruff snores sounded from Warrior bear, grumpy and scowling even in his sleep. Granny bear was sniffing at the air and turned in the child’s direction, letting out a few quiet huffs. Crawling to her feet, she made her way to Granny bear who nudged her towards the bed of woodchips.
The woodchips were lumpy beneath her feet, but not hard and splintered, worn down by many years. She laid down, using the bears to hide from the wind and use their body heat to stay warm. For several minutes she tossed and turned but found no sleep. Though exhausted from illness and spent physical and emotional energy, the woodchips were too uncomfortable to sleep on. She moved back to the cave floor and found it too hard and cold. Letting out a whine of tired annoyance, she curled tighter to preserve warmth, but it wasn’t enough.
Storm bear, who had been watching from the mouth of the cave, walked to a divot in the wall, which was protected from the wind. It was comparatively small to the bear but quite large to the child. She beckoned the golden haired child to her and showed her a bed of old pine needles and soft soil. Goldilocks collapsed onto the bedding, grateful for a place to sleep. Storm bear laid beside the divot, further preventing wind from getting to the child, her furred body giving off enough body heat to keep Goldilocks warm throughout the night.
Goldilocks let out a content sigh as she lay, sluggish thoughts keeping her company in her last moments of wake. Lax finger ran through soft needles, tiredly wondering where such a wonderful bed had come from. It was too small for a bear, yet purposely made. There was a slight dust that tickled her nose, yet from the looks it had never been used.
Storm bear turn where she lay to look at Goldilocks. Her eyes were different. The calm storm seemed dampened somehow. Like a great sadness had clouded over the previous power they had held. Those eyes were so full of understanding when she had been crying while thinking of her father, and she was so gentle when she played in the river. ‘She’s fed me, bathed me, played with me and given silent comfort’. Like she imagined a mother would.
Understanding flooded goldilocks, her hands still carding through the needles distractedly. Storm bear was a mother, this bed of needles was for her cub. A cub who never lived long enough to use it. Warrior, Granny and Storm bear had lost a cub as she had lost her father. Perhaps that night in the forest Storm bear had heard her cries and heard the cries of an orphan. An orphan in as much need of a family as she was for a cub. In an odd way, Goldilocks felt like she had been adopted. She was not alone or an urchin to be cast out. She could have a family again, a roof over her head, and food to eat. She no longer had to be a street rat.
She could be a cub.