Once upon a time there was a poor farmer who had so many children that she had difficulty clothing them, though she generally managed the feeding and housing of them, if the winter was mild and the spring came early. Her youngest daughter was the fairest to look upon, but she gave her mother no end of grief with her manners and her adventuring.
“Heart of my heart,” her mother said, more than once, “you’ll be my death with this.”
Her youngest always had some excuse ready to hand. The mermaids had been insolent, the crows had begged her aid, the king of the grasshoppers himself had promised her his hand in marriage if only he could have a handful of grain for his people. Pretty tales, to which her mother had no answer except to curse the spirits for leaving her such a wicked child in place of her own sweet babe. The girl paid no mind to her mother’s tears and curses, as she was her mother’s trueborn daughter and so had come into the world hearing the same.
One day a great bear came to their cottage, and he promised the farmer a great fountain of wealth if only she would give him a bride.
“Your youngest, please,” he said, bowing as well as a bear could do. “I’ve been up mountains and down coasts and across all the lands in between, and never have I seen a girl as beautiful as your lastborn. If I could but take her as my wife, your family will be wealthy down to the seventh generation.”
“Surely my second-youngest would make an equally suitable wife?” the farmer asked. That daughter was not as pretty, no, but she never had a thought in her head except to please whoever she loved. Of the farmer’s children, she had the sweetest disposition and gave the least trouble, though the farmer fretted over what sort of husband she’d need, as empty-headed as she was. A bear rich as Croesus was better than a banker, especially as the farmer suspected a bear could hardly get a woman pregnant.
“Your youngest, or no one,” the bear insisted.
“On your head be it, then,” she said, and went inside to ask her youngest if she’d take a bear’s hand in marriage.
The girl refused at first, hating the very idea of being a wife, but after a few days, she came around to her mother’s pleas.
“I’ll go with you, and be your wife,” she told the bear, “but first you must show me the bride-price for my mother and my siblings.”
No sooner had the words left her lips than a chest filled to the brim with gold appeared before her mother’s hearth. With that settled, the girl climbed onto the bear’s back.
“Hold fast,” he warned her, “and let go for nothing.”
He began walking, then loping, then galloping, toward the setting moon. He bore her to a mountain, into the roots of which was set a little door barely big enough for him to squeeze through. She dismounted, and he bade her enter, then followed on her heels. Inside the mountain was a palace fit for the sun himself, full of light and music and food and drink—anything the girl could ask for. When she was hungry, platters of rich food would appear by magic. When she was thirsty, her goblet was filled without the need of a servant. Her bath drew itself, her clothes were laid out without her lifting a finger, and she never needed to trouble herself about the dishes, or the chickens, or the dinner scraps.
When night fell, a man slipped into her bed, and she took her satisfaction with him. Who else could he be but her husband? He fell asleep, and slept deep. The girl kindled the fire with her own two hands, as she’d done all her life, and her husband slept on. The man in her bed—a boy, really, barely a year or two older than her—was handsome, but the girl had little doubt that he’d be just as handsome in a few hours. The bearskin folded over the foot of the bed, on the other hand…
The girl ran her fingers through the fur, and knew it for her husband’s pelt, which meant that it was her pelt now as well. Her mother had said often enough that she’d never married, because then all she had would also be a man’s, and there wasn’t enough to share around between herself and all her children as it was. If all a wife had was a husband’s, surely all a husband had was a wife’s, and so the girl had as much right to her husband’s bearskin as he did.
The girl picked it up and draped it over her shoulders like a cape, clutching it around her waist and feeling the pelt move over her skin. What would it be like to run abroad, over hill and plain, as a great bear? To kill a full-grown buck with one swipe of her paw, to swim rivers and not tire, to bite through a beehive and feel no sting? She pulled the face of it over her head, tugging it down until its nose was over her nose, and threaded her fingers through its paws. When nothing happened, she took a needle from her bodice, pricked her finger, and let the welling blood run along the edge of the bearskin. The girl drew a matching line on her own body, and the skin joined like to like, fusing to her form until she was a bear to match her husband.
She let him sleep. He had earned a few hours to himself, after all, and it wasn’t as if she couldn’t find her way back to the front door without him. The girl crept out of the hole in the mountain as easily as he had, and she roved the countryside, delighted in her new shape. She scaled a giant tree as if it were a ladder, pulled a giant fish from the river for sport, and frightened a royal messenger. She hadn’t meant to do the last, but she’d been so caught up in the joy of it all that she’d quite forgotten no one could be expected to know that she was not really a bear but a girl wearing a bear’s skin.
When the sun began to creep back into the sky, she thought that she must after all give her husband his skin back, and so she wriggled through the door in the mountain, stole back into her bedroom, and shed the skin before the fire. She laid it back in its place over the foot of the bed, wiped the blood from her face, and slipped back under the blankets just as her husband woke. She even pretended to sleep while he pulled on the skin still warm from her body, and she envied the way it stuck to him without needing bloodshed to do it. The girl made a show of waking once he was fully a bear again, and her husband suspected nothing.
The bear went out during the day, and he gave her dominion over their home, so that anything she asked for appeared at once and just as she liked it. The only thing her husband enjoined against was leaving the palace under the mountain when he was out, to which she assented readily. The farmer might have told him that the girl would give no thought to such a promise if she ever took it into her head to break it, but the farmer was not there, and the bear had only known his wife for a very short time and believed himself secure.
Things went on in this way for some time, with the girl alone all day and her husband only coming back at sunset. She thought that she might have grown restless and dispirited if he had been a normal husband and she’d had only him for company, or no company at all. She had the skin to herself as soon as he’d fallen asleep at night, though, and so she didn’t dwell on what passed during the day. The countryside where they lived was a very interesting thing, if one was a bear, and the girl amused herself to no end while her husband slept alone in their bed.
But all good things must come to an end, and the couple’s happiness together was no different. Spring came, and the girl longed for the feel of sunshine on her fur and to see the light dance on the scales of fish plucked from the river. One morning, when the sun rose, she did not wriggle back through the door in the mountain, and her husband woke and found both wife and skin gone.
Now, the husband was truly a prince under the curse of a great witch. Had the girl returned every morning, as she might have after all—it was only caprice which kept her at the river as the sun climbed higher and higher in the sky and then sank back down again—then after the span of one year, the prince would have been free to wear his own skin at all times and stay by her side forever, and he’d have been a very happy man. As it was, the prince was snatched away by the witch, who thought it very fitting that the faithless bride who’d failed to rescue her victim should return to a palace now dark and desolate and foul.
This was a bit foolish of her, as leaving the golden palace and magical servants as they were would have cost her very little, and how many poor farmer’s daughters would have followed after a bear or a faceless husband when they could live instead as a widow rich beyond believing? But not all witches are wise, and not all princes are lucky, and the girl never did squeeze back through the door in the mountain to see what the witch had left behind for her.
Eventually the girl missed her mother and her siblings, and she became curious about what they’d done with the gold her husband had given in exchange for her hand, and she longed to see them. She also longed to show her mother the lovely pelt she wore, and so she walked, then loped, then ran, away from the setting moon.
When the girl reached the farmhouse, she sat at the door and cried, “Mother, come and see how beautiful I am now!”
The farmer came out and saw her daughter, and she was glad that she had counselled the bear to take the elder, for she felt no guilt now when she looked at the bear who spoke with her daughter’s voice.
“Where is your husband?” the farmer asked, hoping at least that the girl had not eaten him.
“I left him abed,” the girl said. “Perhaps he is still there now, but I shouldn’t expect so, as it’s been several days.”
“Shall you ever be a girl again?” the farmer asked. Bears ate a great deal, and frightened the sheep, and while she had not been as sorry as she ought to see her daughter go, she would be very sorry indeed to never see her again.
“Whenever I please,” the girl told her. “I have only to throw off the pelt to walk on my own two legs.”
She’d done it three times, when she’d come to great cities where the hunters and houndsmen were too thick for her to go easily as a beast.
“Then put it aside now, and come in,” her mother said. “The table is laid, and we shall soon have supper.”
The girl did as her mother asked, and she ate and drank and made merry with her family until it was time for bed. She said goodbye to them all, and donned the pelt again, and went back to the woods. She did this a few nights every year for the rest of her life, and so lived happily and well until she died of old age, and she was buried with the bearskin as a shroud. What became of the prince her husband, no one ever heard, but then, no one except the farmer ever asked.
T.R. North was born and raised in Florida and has never been featured in a “News of the Weird” column run in another state. Other works of short fiction can be found in Metaphorosis, Persistent Visions, and PseudoPod.
See more: @northonthegulf