This story is by Jan Perry and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
A hawk’s shrill cry awakened Hedreth. His fasting and prayers were answered. He knew Bear had the message for him. He left his hermitage and walked for hours.
Suddenly all of the messages stopped. The snow started. The woods were silent. Hedreth sought shelter in the hollow of a tree.
As the snow fell, Hedreth reflected on his decision to follow a hermit’s life. His people had divided themselves into the Message Seekers and the Sustainers. The Message Seekers lived a solitary life to purify themselves from the distractions of the world. The Sustainers gathered food and created babies. All lived in near silence. The purpose of their life was to hear and disseminate the messages from the Others. As he sat there, this seemed important — and not enough. So many died, and they had nothing to offer the dying. Between his fasting, his fatigue, and the silence of the snow, he slept. Within the hour the snow covered the tree.
When he awoke, snow had covered the hollowed out tree and had frozen. He was trapped.
Cleora set out before dawn to hunt. When the sun was high she saw a bear. It raised its nose, sniffed the air, changed directions, and charged toward a snow-covered tree. She followed it. The bear clawed at the tree. Snow and ice flew.
As she watched the bear, she was thankful for her freedom to walk the earth and to hunt for food and medicines for her people. She was thankful for the knowledge of healing and hunting that the elders shared with her.
The bear would feed her village for the rest of the winter. In the deep of winter, other sources of food were gone. The plants and berries they collected in the summer were saved for the healing that was always necessary during the winter.
The bear slowed his clawing, she raised her bow and drew her arrow back. The bear growled and gurgled toward the tree.
She watched. She heard a groan and saw a hand. The bear looked at her.
“Wait,” sang a deep, but weak voice. The bear growled and grunted as it nosed the man. The man sang weakly and quietly. The bear grunted. The man sang again.
Cleora was stunned. She walked toward the man and the bear, her bow ready.
“Put the bow down,” Hedreth almost whispered. “Bear is a messenger. He is not food.”
“Bears don’t talk and they are delicious. And our village needs food.” Cleora eased her arrow back.
Hedreth pulled himself up by the bear’s fur.
Behind the man and the bear she saw a buck. She turned slightly, loosed her arrow, and downed the deer. She quickly notched another arrow. She turned back to the man.
Hedreth collapsed. The bear nosed the man and looked up at Cleora. He stepped back so she could approach.
Not taking her eyes off the bear, she put her bow over her shoulder and unsheathed her knife. Knife in hand, Cleora walked slowly to the man. The bear did not move.
The man’s lips were cracked and dry, his skin was loose. He looks like he hasn’t eaten for days, she thought. She lifted the man’s head and gave him some water from her waterskin. She pulled some healing herbs from her pouch and placed them on the man’s frostbitten fingers, nose, and feet. She put different herbs in his mouth. The man moaned.
She watched the bear.
The bear looked on.
She went to the deer, slit its belly, and cut a piece of liver. She took it back to the man and put a small piece in his mouth. She closed his jaw to crush the prized morsel.
Hedreth swallowed hungrily. His eyes flew open. “What was that?”
“The buck’s liver,” she said. “You’re weak and need food.”
“I don’t eat animals,” he sputtered.
“Then you will die.” Cleora looked at the bear, then back at the man. “There isn’t any other food here and you need to eat. Your fingers and toes are frostbitten and you need to eat to give them nourishment. I am a healer.”
She looked at the bear again. It stood still. She offered the man more water. Hedreth drank and felt stronger. She offered him another piece of liver. He accepted it.
He did not know this word, healer. What was this woman doing to him?
“I don’t eat meat. If I do, I won’t hear the messages,” he said as he ate the bloody offering.
“You won’t hear them if you don’t eat. You’ll be dead.” Cleora was direct. “What are the messages?”
“Where to go, what do do. Where to plant, where to bury the dead.”
“The bear tells you that? The bear tells you where to be safe?” she asked.
“Yes, and more.” Hedreth fell back wearied from so much talking.
For a moment they were quiet. The Bear grunted at each of them and sauntered off.
“Bear thanked you for saving my life,” Hedreth said.
“Bears don’t talk,” she said. She handed him another piece of liver. “What is it like to have guidance?” she asked.
“They don’t talk. They sing. What is a healer?” he asked as he reached for more meat.
The bear was twenty yards away and turned back to them and bellowed. So stubborn! Learn from each other!