Long ago, Bear was a small creature, no bigger than a fox. She ate flowers and leaves and berries, and sometimes scavenged the carcasses of prey that larger animals had killed. Bear was mostly happy, but she was also afraid. Wolves terrorized her, snapping their razor jaws at her. Mountain lions chased her, screaming with rage. When these things happened, Bear would find a small hole or crevice to hide in until they had gone. She had claws and teeth, yes, but the other animals were so much bigger they scared her.
One day, as Bear was looking for something to eat (her tummy was rumbling ferociously), she happened across a wounded deer. The deer hadn’t been taken down by wolves or lions. Bear could see blood on the jagged edge of a stone, and a great gash had been opened in the deer’s leg.
The deer started as Bear sniffed close. The bitter scent of fear tinged the air.
“Don’t worry,” said Bear. “I won’t hurt you. I’m just a bear.”
The deer’s eyes grew wide. “Your teeth and claws say you’ll hurt me.”
Bear shook her head. “My teeth and claws are for grabbing berries from the insides of bushes. I don’t kill.”
“I’ve seen you eat animals.” The deer’s voice shook.
“I have eaten dead animals,” said Bear. “You are not dead. You have nothing to fear. I am not going to eat you.”
The deer’s eyes were still huge. “Then leave me for one who will. I am finished, whether by your claws or the wolf’s.”
Bear turned and began to walk away. She stopped. She sighed. She turned back.
“No, you’re not finished.” She sniffed the deer’s wound. “Your wound is fresh and clean. I will find herbs to stop the bleeding and ease your pain. I’ll be back soon.”
Bear didn’t have to go far. She tugged some moss off a few stones and pulled some bark from a willow tree. She brought the bundle back to the deer. The deer was busy licking blood away from the gash.
“Good, that’s right,” said Bear. “That will help clean the wound. When you’re finished, I will pack this poultice for you. It will stop the bleeding and help with the pain.”
The deer’s eyes, still wide with fear, flicked back and forth between her wound and Bear. Finally, she leaned her head back, her eyes on Bear’s paws. “I’m ready.”
Bear had crushed the moss and bark into a soft mass while she waited for the deer to finish. She now pressed the mass into the gash in the deer’s leg. The deer jerked but stayed put.
“There, that should hold.” Bear straightened and backed away. “How does it feel?”
“Better.” The scent of fear dissipated somewhat. “Thank you.” The deer’s eyes were dark and calm as she looked at Bear.
“Be well,” said Bear. She turned to leave. There was light enough yet to find a few berries for dinner.
“Bear, wait.” The deer’s voice stopped Bear. Bear wondered how long she would need to stay with the poor animal. With a sigh, she turned.
There was no deer. Instead, a forest spirit stood where the deer had lain. Tall, branching antlers sprouted between her golden tresses. She seemed suffused with light, and a light breeze swirled around her. Bear’s breath nearly stopped in wonder at her magnificence.
“Bear, you have been kinder to me than all the other creatures.” The spirit’s voice was like a harmony of birdsong. “I was lamed in my corporeal form as I ran through the forest today. I thought I could not return to the world of spirits. Your kindness saved me in more ways than you could have known.” She smiled. “I would like to grant you a gift. Anything you want, name it, and, if it is within my power, it shall be yours.”
Bear found that it was hard to get her mouth to work, so awesome was the spirit. “I…I don’t know. I want for so little. The forest provides all that I need.”
“You are never unhappy? Never afraid?”
“Oh, I am afraid most of the time,” Bear admitted. “My claws are sharp, but small. Many animals would kill me if they could, but I stay in holes and caves most of the time, where they cannot reach me.”
The spirit beckoned Bear closer. Bear felt herself move as though she were floating above the ground.
“Dear bear, what if you were larger? What if you were the largest animal in the forest? Would that help? Would the other animals leave you alone?”
Bear considered this. “Yes, probably they would. How large?”
“I can make you larger than a man. Larger than I am. Larger than the trees of the forest.”
“Maybe only the small trees!” Bear put her paws up. “I think I’d destroy everything if I were too large.”
The spirit laughed. “Larger than the small trees, then. And master of the forest. All will tremble before your power.”
Bear cocked her head. “I won’t have to eat them, will I?”
The spirit shook her head. “Not if you don’t want to. You can go on as you have been, eating what the plants offer and what others leave behind.”
“And maybe fish. I really like fish.” Bear’s mouth began to water at the thought.
“Whatever you like.” The spirit leaned forward and kissed Bear on the nose. A warm, tingling sensation spread from Bear’s nose throughout her body. She watched the ground fall away, and suddenly her head was brushing the branches of the tree next to her.
Bear turned her paws over. They were the same familiar shape, with the same old scars. But now they were large, fierce, ferocious. Bear took a step and felt the trees around her shake. She shook her head and let out a fearsome, echoing roar. A dozen birds took flight in fear, crying their terror as they winged out of sight.
“Oh, thank you!” Bear grinned what must have been a terrifying smile at the spirit. “This is wonderful!”
The spirit bowed. “May you always rule, dear friend.” She stirred the breeze at her feet and let it whisk her away into the air.
Bear has been the greatest of the beasts in the forest ever since. She still eats mostly berries and animals that have already died. And, of course, fish. But the other animals no longer terrify her. Wolves and mountain lions flee at her approach. And when Bear goes into a cave it is to sleep and dream of the beautiful forest spirit, whom she once helped.