Bruin in Town
Gustav Schlegel wrapped a thick rope around Gretel’s wrists. Then he wrapped the rope several times around a tree at the edge of town. Satisfied, he passed the rope to Hans Ulbricht, who tightened his grip on a squirming Lily and firmly bound her wrists, too. Eyeing their handiwork, the men decided that the girls could not escape.
“It’s almost dark,” Gustav said. “The girls’ coats will keep them warm enough. They won’t freeze. The rest is up to the bear.”
“We can’t wait here,” Hans said. “The bear will smell us and won’t come. She’ll think it’s another trap.”
“We’ll wait at the town hall,” said Rudolf Kleist. “We can come back to the tree in the morning.”
“Don’t leave us,” Lily sobbed as the men turned to tramp back to the village.
But Gretel knew better than to plead. The men were too happy to offer two orphans to the bear. It was better than losing more livestock. Frau Hilda might miss all of the work they did, but no one would miss them. And soon, Herr Gustav would hire a woman from the village to come and do the chores that she and Lily had done. Frau Hilda would be rid of them, and she’d still be able to sit by the fire and while away her days.
“What are we going to do, Gretel?” Lily cried. “Can you pull your hands out of the ropes?”
Gretel tried, but she knew that the men had tied them in such a way that the more the girls struggled, the tighter the ropes bit into their skin. Tears slid down her cheeks. “It’s hopeless. I’m sorry, Lily.” She leaned as close to her sister as possible.
Lily sagged against the tree trunk. “The bear will eat us, and Frau Hilda will be happy. I hate Frau Hilda, and I hate this town.”
“Josef and Kurt tried to save us. So did others.”
“They should leave this place. They should go far away. This village is wicked.”
How could Gretel argue?
Lily sniffled, trying to stop crying. “I hope we die fast.”
“Do you believe in heaven?” Lily asked.
“Yes, so did Mother and Father.”
“Do you think we’ll see them there?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Then nothing bad will ever happen to us again.” Lily’s voice wavered.
“Never again.” Even while she tried to comfort her little sister, Gretel let her mind work feverishly, trying to think of some way to escape, some way to save Lily. But this time, she feared her little sister was right. They were doomed.
They huddled together, leaning against the tree trunk, when they heard branches snap and leaves crackle. A big animal was moving closer to them from the woods.
A half-moon cast pale shadows on the ground. It was the only light. Clouds covered the stars. But at the edge of the tree line, the girls saw the large, dark shape of the brown bear. It loped forward, sniffing the air. When it was nearer, it slowed and moved closer.
Lily wedged herself between Gretel and the tree. “I’m scared.”
“So am I. I’m sorry, Lily. If I hadn’t snuck out to save Rusty or talked about the bear, maybe. . . “
“They’d have tied us out here anyway,” Lily whispered. “No one wants us.”
The truth hurt almost as much as the fear of dying. Gretel took a deep breath and looked at the bear. It turned its furry head and studied her in return. It gave a deep snort, moved forward, and showed its long teeth.
Gretel closed her eyes and every muscle in her body tensed. She felt the bear’s thick fur on her arms and waited for its teeth to sink into her flesh. When nothing happened, she opened her eyes to peek.
The bear was chewing through the ropes, just as it had for Rusty.
“Lily, it’s helping us,” Gretel breathed.
Lily pushed her head past Gretel’s shoulder. “What will the townspeople do if she doesn’t eat us? Won’t that make Frau Hilda really mad?”
“Does it matter?” asked Gretel.
“Who’ll take us in? We’ll freeze to death or starve.”
The bear broke the last cord of rope with her teeth, then stepped back and snorted at them.
“What does it want?” Lily moved farther behind the tree.
“I don’t know.”
The bear gave a low growl and lowered its head. It stepped toward them, and both girls cringed.
“Can bears climb trees?” Lily asked.
“Faster than we can,” Gretel said.
The bear bumped Gretel with its nose. Unsure what to do, Gretel reached out a shaking hand and petted it. The bear rubbed its face against Gretel’s body. Gretel threw her arms around the thick neck and patted harder.
With one quick snap, the bear lifted Gretel off the ground and tossed her onto its back. Then it moved to Lily.
“Nice bear. Nice bear. I don’t taste good. You won’t like me at all.”
“It wants you to get on its back,” Gretel said.
Lily patted the bear’s side gingerly. “I’d rather walk. Really.”
The bear slid its head under Lily’s legs and tossed her behind Gretel. Then it turned, with both girls clinging to its fur to hang on, and started toward town.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Gretel told the bear. “The men all have guns. They’ll shoot you. And who knows what they’ll do to us.”
The bear lumbered along, uncaring.
“We appreciate it that you saved us,” Gretel said, trying again. “Now let us help you. Turn around and hide in the forest. The village isn’t safe.”
The bear was at the first house at the edge of the village and kept going.
“We really are doomed,” Lily told Gretel.
If anyone had told Gretel that the men of the village would offer her and Lily to the bear as a sacrifice, she might have believed it. If they’d said that the bear would spare them, she’d have doubted it. But she couldn’t imagine the bear saving them and then taking them into the village, back to the men who’d tied them to the tree.
Lanterns burned brightly in the town hall. The doors were shut against the winter cold. The bear went to the large iron bell that hung from a heavy beam. It stood on its hind legs and swatted the bell.
The doors of the hall opened. Men swarmed outside. Gustav raised his rifle, and thunder clapped in the sky, clouds churned, and winds whirled in a dark funnel.
“Stop, you fool. If you shoot that bear, our village is cursed forever,” Frau Gerhard said. Otto’s mother went to stand between the men and the bear. “You’ve lost enough. Do you want to lose everything?”
Gustav lowered his gun.
She motioned to Hans. “Release Kurt Hoffman and help Franz Wilhelm and Josef Brecht out here. Josef can hardly walk from the knot you gave him on the back of the head.”
“What does the beast want?” Hans asked.
“How should I know? But Franz Wilhelm will. And this time, you’d better listen to him. It’s your last chance,” she warned.