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Isolated in the tower, the princess stared at the bird outside. The princess received royal care in her gilded cage. Servants bathed, brushed and dressed her. Young women brought food in china saucers. Her father had not visited for weeks. The queen died when she was young. The princess remembered sitting on velvet quilts near the stream. Her mother sang while young women played recorders. No man could look at the queen or princess.
The princess glanced at her tray. She had eaten half the soup, none of the bread and hadn’t sampled the cake. The bird looked hungry. He tasted pebbles and sticks before dropping them. He hopped between bits of ice. The princess wondered why the bird hadn’t flown south. She crumbled the bread on the balcony. The bird flew up and snatched every crumb.
When the princess stepped on the balcony, the bird remained. She bent to feed him sweet cake from her fingertips. As he ate, she noticed the heart-shaped red dot on his beak. He finished the last bite as the door opened. She turned as the kitchen scullion, Lucinda entered to clear the plates. When the princess looked outside, the bird had flown. She searched the sky daily, but never saw the bird return.
She noticed the squirrel three weeks later. He was leaping from branch to branch. She took her cake on the balcony and gestured toward him. He joined her but refused to eat. The plump squirrel rubbed her legs like a house cat. When the princess knelt to pet him, he leapt in her arms and pressed against her bosom. The princess stroked him and closed her eyes feeling his warmth. He smelled sweet. She looked down and saw a heart-shaped dot on his nose. Before she could cry out she heard the door open. The scullion had come to take the tray. The princess released the creature before asking Lucinda about her family and the village. When she was alone, the princess looked daily. Despite examining each branch of the tree, she never saw the squirrel again.
When spring came, the captive princess knew her routine would change. New life flourished in the forest. The princess saw birds and squirrels, mice and rats, possums and raccoons. She looked but never saw an animal with a red mark of any shape on its nose. The princess searched from her balcony through spring, summer and fall. She watched animals, heard bird song and smelled flowers and trees, yet felt empty. Her father did not visit.
After the winter holidays, the princess received letters from her father. He was negotiating her marriage to the wizard of the North. The princess despaired because the wizard was her family’s enemy and a man more cruel than her father. On the night of winter solstice, she sat on the balcony letting the cold wind touch her tears. She wore her sleeping gown without a robe, willing to feel chilled. She heard shuffling on the ground and saw a large white bear with arms outstretched. On his nose was a heart-shaped red spot.
Shaking her head, the princess crawled in bed and slept, dreaming a story she remembered. When she was young and her mother was alive, the princess crept in the kitchen to play with Lucinda. Lucinda’s mother, the royal cook, told them stories.
The Cook’s Story
The man escaped into the snow-covered mountains. Searching for food and shelter, he entered a cave. He smelled the bear in the cave. If it is asleep, I will slay the bear and eat it. If the bear is awake, it may eat me instead. The man walked down the tunnel willing to risk what came next. The bear seemed to know what the man wanted. She ran to get food for him, a basket of dried fish and jerked meat. The man lived through the winter with the bear until spring when she gave birth to their son.
Light streaming in her chamber awakened the princess. She was disturbed by the dream and unable remember the end. When Lucinda brought her breakfast, she asked about the story.
“I don’t remember my mother’s stories. None of the women in the castle tell tales.” Said Lucinda. “The old groom may know. The king won’t let him come to the tower.”
“You have to ask him.”
“If you insist.”
The princess spent the day reading and sewing. Her father demanded she needlepoint their family crest to prove her suitability as bride. The princess napped in the afternoon and slept through dinner. She woke in darkness and stepped on the balcony. Everyone in the castle was asleep and the ground was empty. Collapsing on the balcony, she wrapped her arms around herself and drifted to sleep. When she woke, the heart-nosed bear was standing below with his arms outstretched. The princess shook her head before she returned to bed, to another dream of a story.
The Second Story
The woman gave birth to twins. Her husband would not believe that meant ill luck. He insisted their boys would grow to be good hunters. The mother felt sorrow and could not relieve her sadness. She refused to nurse them. One day, the father abandoned them in the snow. Their neighbors thought he should have done so earlier. The babies did not die. They grew hair all over their bodies and became stronger. One twin crawled toward the moss and became Nanook, the brown bear. The other twin crawled toward the ice and tundra and became Nanook, the white bear.
When the princess woke, she rang her bell. An unfamiliar servant responded in three minutes.
The princess insisted, “I want to see Lucinda!”
Lucinda appeared three hours later, “The king is sending me away, Mistress. When I spoke with the groom about the bear, I was discovered. I failed you.”
Lucinda left before the princess could respond. The king never permitted any tenderness toward his daughter. Any one who cared might help her escape. Only the dreariest of servants were allowed to serve for more than three months. Lucinda was simple-minded. No one knew she had played with the princess when they were children.
The bear returned that night and the princess dreamed a third story.
The Third Story
A giant bear hunted the people as prey. He swallowed them whole. No one knew what to do until a wise man was willing to be swallowed. He slid down the bear’s throat into the dark stomach. The wise man had brought a knife. He killed the bear and carved a door. He saved the people who had been swallowed. They ate bear meat for months. That is the way it goes: monster one minute and food the next.
The princess woke before the sun. She had remembered a story from beginning to end. She looked in the darkness to find the bear waiting. After she scaled the wall, she climbed on his back. She rode the bear into the beyond. The princess lived ever after.
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