The Town Meeting
Herr Gustav stomped out of the house while men loaded Otto’s body into a cart, flicked the horses pulling it, and took it into town. He paced up and down, between the cottage and the barn, stopping each time to kick at the bear hide stretched on the barn’s side.
Frau Hilda watched from the kitchen window, shaking her head. “Silly man. No reason to get so upset. Accidents happen.”
“It’s not just losing Otto,” Kurt Hoffman said quietly. “The men are nervous about going back into the woods. The bear’s been seen watching us from the trees. It’s waiting for us.”
“A bear? They’re not that smart,” Frau Hilda said. “It’s probably looking for its cub. Animals don’t understand about death.”
Kurt Hoffman looked at his heavy work boots. “This bear seems smart enough.”
“Ridiculous! You’re letting your imaginations come up with all kinds of strange ideas.”
“Strange or not,” Kurt said, “the men don’t want to go into the forest right now. Not until the bear settles down.”
“And how long do you think that will take?” Frau Hilda asked. “How long can you afford to neglect your work?”
“We can manage,” Kurt said. “We all have enough food and wood to last the winter.”
Frau Hilda sniffed. “Is that all the more ambitious you are? If you have enough food in your bellies, you’re satisfied?”
Kurt shrugged. “It’s enough for me.”
Gretel stopped scrubbing the great room’s wood floor and looked at Kurt. He made perfect sense to her. What more could a person ask for than a warm house and enough food to eat? But it obviously wasn’t enough for Frau Hilda.
“Stop gawking, girl, and finish scrubbing the floor. Who knows how dirty it is after Otto came in here with his infection and bleeding?”
Gretel dipped the heavy brush in the hot, soapy water and got back to work. She was still cleaning when Herr Gustav stomped back into the house.
I refuse to be frightened off by wild beasts,” he said. “A cub killed one of our fellow townsmen. Who knows what its mother might do? None of us are safe. It’s time to call a town meeting.”
“For what purpose?” Kurt Hoffman asked.
“This time, we tried to bring the bear to us. The next time, I say we go after the bear in its own territory.”
“You want to try to hunt the bear?” Kurt asked, surprised.
“Why not? I’d rather go after it than let it watch us from the woods, waiting for the chance to pounce on us while we work.”
Kurt just stared, too surprised to argue.
“Go to the meeting hall. Ring the big bell,” Gustav said. “Everyone will gather after dinner tonight. We’ll discuss it then.”
Kurt nodded and set off toward town. Gretel noticed that he gripped his rifle close to his side, at the ready, if the bear came for him.
Herr Gustav turned to his wife. “There’ll be no getting those stupid men into the woods if we don’t get rid of this bear.”
Frau Hilda gave a tight smile. “A wise choice, my husband. That’s why I married you. I admire a man of action.”
The household got busy after that. All of the chores and supper had to be finished in time to take the wagon into town and attend the meeting.
“The girls can stay here,” Gustav said. “Then we won’t have to bother with them.”
“No,” said Frau Hilda. “I want to take them into town and have them sit with us. I want the villagers to remember that we took them in when no one else would. It will show that we think of others, that we care, that the main reason we want to rid the woods of the bear is because it’s killed one of our friends and it’s killed the animals of a lot of our fellow townsmen.”
Herr Gustav put an arm around his wife. “You’re very good. Yes, you’re right. The girls will work to our advantage this time. Get them ready and I’ll get the horse hitched to the wagon.”
So Gretel and Lily found themselves bundled in their warmest coats, mittens, and scarves to set off for town with Herr Gustav and his wife.
“It will be a long trip,” Frau Hilda told them. “Remember that good children are seen and not heard.”
The two girls sat in the bed of the wagon and watched the fields and neighboring cottages pass by until Herr Gustav reached town. He drove straight to the meeting hall in its center and tied his horse to a tree near the door. He laid his hand on Gretel’s shoulder as they entered the large, rectangular room, and Frau Hilda laid a hand on Lily’s shoulder as they entered. They led the girls to the very front row in the room and had Lily and Gretel sit between them. When Herr Gustav got up to speak, he patted Lily on the head before he left their pew.
“I’ve come to ask for friends and neighbors to go into the woods with me to find and shoot the bear that killed Otto Gerhard and attacked Ernst Hebbel’s cow and Rudolf Kleist’s workhorse.”
Ernst Hebbel stood. “I have no grudge against the bear. She wouldn’t have left the woods if the town had respected her home.”
Rudolf Kleist pushed himself to his feet. “Ernst might not mind if a bear kills his animals, but I do. I lost my best workhorse, and I don’t want to lose anything else. I say hunt the thing down and finish it off.”
The whole room hushed as the old wise man stood.
“We all know your opinion,” Herr Gustav growled.
The blacksmith stood and crossed his muscular arms. “No one talks to Franz Wilhelm like that. You might not respect tradition, Gustav, but you’d better mind your manners to our town’s elder.”
Gustav immediately apologized. “I meant no disrespect, Herr Wilhelm. The floor is yours.”
“We’re not just talking about a bear,” Franz Wilhelm said. “This bear is the guardian of the forest. If you disturb the bear, you disturb our harmony with the rocks and trees, the sun and rain. You could upset our very existence.”
Herr Gustav sighed and shook his head. “Those were the old ways when we were afraid of thunder and lightning and thought they were the grumbling of the gods. We used to think the world was flat, but we know better now. We should know that a bear won’t change our destiny.”
“It’s good that we no longer live in fear,” the old man said, “but we should still respect harmony and the earth’s balance. If we tip that, we harm ourselves.”
“That’s a nice, old-fashioned philosophy that doesn’t apply anymore. I say that the bear learns to live on man’s terms, and if he doesn’t like it, we teach him to respect us.”
Voices cheered when Gustav finished his speech.
Franz Wilhelm shook his silvery-white head. “I see that we cannot agree. I’ve done my best to warn you, but you have no patience for restoring balance. You see what you want, and you’re determined to take it. At any cost.”
“What do I care if I hurt a bear’s feelings?” Gustav demanded. “If your bear is so wise, why didn’t he plant new trees himself to care for his forest?”
“He didn’t chop down the trees and cart them away for wood,” the blacksmith said.
Franz Wilhelm looked around the room. His blue eyes studied each man’s face. “I see you have many followers, Gustav. I’ve tried. Let’s decide what to do with a vote.”
But the vote didn’t settle the issue. The town was divided exactly in half.
“Good enough,” Gustav said. “Franz and his followers can go to the scared shrine and give offerings to the bear so that she knows they respect her. The rest of us will get our guns and go into the woods to kill her.”
“Very well,” said Franz. “But I fear that our offerings will not be enough.”