Bear’s Heart, Chapter One

Time moved in a dance of days and then the long sleep of winter arrived. My family does not have to sleep through the winter and in truth, we do not. I leave the cave of our home to watch the snow fly across the land at least once or twice most years. But even with a bear’s coat, winter is best spent curled up and dreaming of friends.

I woke slowly this year, tangled and trapped in the last of my dreams. They sang in my head, awkward and uncomfortable. Before I opened my eyes I stretched and twisted, then straightened my legs. A long sleep, even on a well-padded pallet, always leaves me a bit stiff despite my youth. I breathed deeply and the faint tang of smoke coiled onto my tongue. Mother and Father must already be up, I thought.

I stood, shook myself and padded about the cave. That they had allowed me to sleep in until the afternoon surprised me, an unusual treat. In the months before the sleep, they had taken my training more seriously than before. The question of my future had never been in doubt. I would be a healer, as they were, as all in my family had been.

The summer before had brought changes to our world and the casual teachings of previous years had been replaced with a landslide of information. Change comes infrequently to our land and I think what happened that year frightened them a little.

It is odd to think of my parents frightened of anything. When I was very young, I wondered if my father was slower of mind than other people. He is not fast with words or easy in conversation. Only as I grew did I realize he speaks nothing without weighing both his words and the reaction of his listener.

My mother is the sun to his moon. Her hands fly like quick bird wings and her speech runs fast and cheerful. She is delicate of feature, but I have seen her hold down patients as they thrash in fever. Through it all she never loses her poise.

For all my life I have trained to be a healer, a doctor, like them, but I hold a secret tight to my heart. A fear. Fear that I will never truly be able to be like them, never possess the solid kindness of my father, the strength and grace of my mother. Never know always what to do, what to say.

And if I failed, people would die. For that is the burden of a healer.

No. I stopped these bleak thoughts; I would not let my fears burst forth, not on this first day after winter when new leaves would emerge.

In a corner of the cave we had designated for storage I reached above my head to check the contents of the dark red-and-tan woven basket. In the spring, there were always many patients with aches and pains and the pith of yucca bark makes a strong tea to help those afflicted with joint stiffness. Besides, the plant is good for washing and I looked forward to a long soak and thorough scrub.

Then I blinked in surprise. Before me, a heavy paw covered in honey-gold fur and tipped with long, curved nails, reached for the woven lid.

I sighed. I must still not be quite awake, to forget which shape I wore. I lowered my paw and began the shift in my mind.

I know well how the change appears to others; I have watched my parents shift from one shape to the other. A bear, black and towering, or golden and sleek, stands before you, pauses, then reaches his paws towards the sky, as if to pull down the sun. Then with a movement swift as a hawk, the paws pass in front of the face, down the center of the body and spread to the side. No slower than that, you are faced with a man or woman who wears an elaborate bearskin coat, which can be removed and hung on a peg, like any coat.

It looks so simple. However, the shift is anything but. As a child I would spend days in bear form, forgetting how to shift into a girl, unable to hold the girl shape in my thoughts and uncomprehending of why I should bother. I have to hold the image clearly in my mind. If I fail, nothing bad happens, I simply do not change. And there is nothing wrong with staying a bear. But a bear’s paw is ill-suited for some tasks. Many days, I find it is convenient to have the option of fingers.

I stood, quieted my mind and thought about being a girl, wrapped myself in that shape, as comfortable as my fur. As my hands flew down my body, the familiar crackling sensation came, like lightning striking. No pain, not exactly, but a tingle that began at the center of my chest and wrapped over my skin. I wondered, as I often do, if this is how snakes feel as they shed from one skin to the next.

I pushed the hood of my coat back and wrinkled my nose as I ran my fingers through waist-long black hair. Yes; definitely time for a bath. I checked the basket, relieved to find the contents full to the lip. I had spent the fall gathering supplies to hang and dry and did not want to spend my first day awake scouting for more plants.

I filled the clay pot with water from the trickling spring at the back of the cave and shivered at its chill, then placed the pot next to the banked fire to warm and pulled my fur coat around me tightly. Time to go outside, at least to gather a bit more wood. My parents’ rule is to replace supplies as soon as they are used, preferably beforehand, so we are never caught short, never run out. In an emergency, such a shortage could mean disaster. I know their rules make sense, but sometimes I wish I did not have to bother, could wait until later.

As I walked to the front of the cave, I frowned. That both of my parents had been gone for so long was more than passing odd to me. Usually we spend the first day together, talking over plans for the new season, checking over our home for any repairs that might have become necessary since fall crept into winter.

Still, I was not worried. At sixteen summers, I often felt they fretted over me, kept me closer than needed. Perhaps this was the beginning of the year when they would allow me more freedom, a chance to be on my own. Maybe . . . I stopped, my hand on the door to the cave. Maybe this year I could bring up the question of when I would be permitted to move into my own quarters. I grinned and opened the seal to the door in the cliff.

And the smile froze on my face. Flurries of snow drifted across my vision. Unusual, but not unheard of. Weather here is unpredictable. Snow will fall in early summer some years, not at all in others. The wind was what stopped me in my tracks.

Cold, biting, the wind moaned across the desert. The sound cut me, the howls sobbed, tore at my heart. I fell to my knees at the door and stared at the desert. The dusting of snow lent the land a ghostly aspect. As I knelt, words repeated in my mind, a loop, frozen in place.

The land is dying.

* * *

My parents found me collapsed by the still open door to the cliff. They must have approached from around the side of the cliff even as I came outside, for I do not think I sat long on the ground.

My father scooped me up into his arms, his fur tickling my face.

He placed me by the fire and my mother stepped out of her coat with swift movements and placed her hands on my forehead.

“Bear Girl, what were you thinking?” She gazed at me, her dark-brown eyes wide, still checking me for harm.

“Mother, I am fine, truly.” I stilled her hands with mine as they fluttered over me. “I do not know why I fell. I went out to get more firewood and,” I stopped, remembering, “the wind. The sound of the wind . . .” My voice faded, unable to explain what I felt.

I needed no further explanation. My parents looked at each other and my mother’s lips pressed into a thin line. My father nodded and my mother turned back to me.

“The wind has blown for days now. Our family did not hear the cry inside our home, the walls are too thick. But when your father and I left this morning, the sound shook us. We have spent the day checking on those who live near us. Many have been stricken by the wind with despair, fever and listlessness. Your father and I do not know what sickness this strange wind brings, but the illness is all around us now.”

My father put his paw on my shoulder. “The sight of you lying motionless by the door, after we had seen so many ill, frightened us.” His grip tightened. “Until the wind stops, perhaps you should stay inside.”

I tilted my head to rest my cheek on his paw. “It frightened me, too.” I straightened and looked up at him. “I think I was overcome by the strangeness, the suddenness. If I am expecting the wind, I do not believe I will fall again. If I am to be a healer, then I can not stay inside and hide.”

My mother bowed her head at my words and the dark wings of her hair curtained her face. “Let us speak more of this later. Your father and I are tired past imagining. This is not a favorable start to a new year.” She rose and walked towards her sleeping mat.

My father followed her. “Daughter, would you begin to prepare dinner? We can talk more after we rest and eat.”

I stared after them. Whatever they had found outside must have been more terrible than I could imagine, for them to be so affected.

In baskets that rested on stone ledges I found dried venison and wrinkled red berries. Baskets of ground cornmeal dangled from leather cords, part of father’s ongoing battle to keep the mice out of our pantry. After I nestled a clay pot in the ashes of the fire with the meat soaking within, I stirred water into the cornmeal and spread the mixture on a large, flat rock. A simple meal, but easy to prepare with what we had on hand. As I waited for the cakes to brown, I gazed into the fire and thought about the strange sobbing wind.

The flames sparkled, gold and red and orange in turn, reaching towards the smoke-hole drilled into the ceiling far above. I watched their dance, felt myself drawn in, my vision blurred by their flickering movement.

* * *

A girl sat in an enclosed courtyard and looked out through the gates as she sat carding baskets of wool under the spreading shade of a cottonwood tree. In the fields outside a ragged group of men and women searched for any ears of corn they could find, no matter how scrawny.

The appearance of a dark-haired young man trotting through the gates brought a deep flush to her cheeks.

“Tomás!”

He flashed a brilliant smile and detoured towards her, covering the ground between them with long, easy strides.

The girl put the carding combs into the basket of uncarded wool and hastily brushed loose tufts of wool from her long embroidered skirts and pulled her braids to lay straight down the front of her blouse.

“Is there anything wrong?”

He shook his head. “No, Isabel, nothing for you to worry about. A while back, the Brother asked the headman to keep an eye on the northern road for him. Some of our people have seen what looks to be a company of Otermín’s men headed this way.”

Isabel frowned. “I wonder why?”

Tomás no longer smiled. “The old men talk, but . . .” He trailed off and glanced around. “Now is not the time. Let me deliver my message to the Brother.”

He stepped towards her, eyes bright. “But, first, a reward for the messenger.” He bent towards her and stole a kiss, too quickly for her to duck away.

She pushed him back, laughing. “Stop it! You know you still must talk to my father.”

He heaved a great sigh, but still grinned. She reached forward to toss his braid back over his bare shoulder. “He will be back any day now. The caravan completes the circuit from New Spain every three years; it will pass through Santa Catalina on the way north to Santa Fe.”

“The caravan is late, the soldiers say.” Tómas scowled.

“Then it’s sure to arrive soon now, be patient,” Isabel answered. Her tone sounded light, but her lips pressed together in a tight line.

Tomás threw his hands over his head. “You have said that for a month now. Ah, nevermind, everything will work out.” He brushed her cheek with his hand, cupped her face so she looked directly into his eyes. “But now I must deliver my message. It would be bad if the governor’s men arrive before me.”

She smiled and followed him with her eyes as he entered the cool shade of the building behind her.

A soft caress against her ankles made her jump. She looked down to discover the fluffy tail of a large black-and-white cat swishing back and forth from the basket of wool at her feet.

“Nicco, get out of there!”

Golden eyes framed in a black mask peered up at her over a perfect pink triangle of nose. He yawned, showing off his sharp white teeth and the ridges going down the matching pink roof of his mouth.

Isabel sighed and carefully detangled the cat from the basket of wool. Task completed, she sat back down on the rough wooden bench, the cat sprawled across her lap. She looked out of the courtyard towards the fields. The heat shimmered like flames before her eyes.

* * *

The smell of lightly scorched cakes startled me. I flipped them over quickly, burning my fingers, while I wondered what had just happened. A dream? The images of the girl, Isabel, the strange place, all were so clear. They did not have the feel of a dream, rather a memory. A memory I could not possibly have. I puzzled over the images and sucked my scorched fingers. My parents returned from the section of the cave where their sleeping chamber lay and the shadows in their eyes made me resolve to worry about my own insignificant problems later.

 

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