People from the village came, bringing pots of stew and soup, loaves of bread, and dried fruit.
“We heard about the bear,” they said. “How can we help?”
Some of the men stayed to help Herr Gustav drag the sheep carcasses from the barn and bury them. Others helped fix the barn doors to make them heavy enough to withstand another attack from the bear. But the oldest man of the village, withered and wise, sat by the fire and said, “The bear will keep coming until we stop chopping down the trees of her forest and ruining her home.”
“Her?” asked Frau Hilda.
“According to legend, the bear who’s chosen to be guardian of the forest is usually a female,” Franz Wilhelm explained. “Of course, the first guardian was a male. That’s how the name came about. Bruin. The first guardian ever chosen.”
“And we’ve angered this new Bruin?” Frau Hilda persisted.
“Your husband and his men have angered her,” Franz explained. “Before Gustav started his lumber business, when the villagers cut a tree, they planted a new one. They respected the balance of nature and took care to replenish whatever they took.”
“Nonsense. There are plenty of trees. There’s no need to worry about the forest.”
“Man and beast share the Earth,” the old man said. “The Spirit of the Great Bear protects the dark forest. If we destroy the animals’ homes, she will come to punish us.”
Frau Hilda poured the wise man a second cup of strong coffee and glanced at her husband.
Herr Gustav waved the man’s words away with his hand. “No one believes in the old ways anymore. The old teachings have held us back long enough. The bear has come because it’s a cold winter and she can’t find enough food, so she takes the easy way out and takes what we’ve worked hard to feed and care for. Bears are only animals, stupid creatures who live by instinct. Men plan for the future. Bears forage for food.”
The old man shook his head. His white hair fell around his shoulders, and his beard brushed his chest. “Man and beat have lived in balance until now. The bear can easily find food. She should be asleep this time of year, curled in a cave on the side of the foothills, nursing her cubs. But she’s heard the howling of the animals. The rabbits and squirrels have gone to her, so have the foxes and wolves. She’s their guardian. She’s left her warm home to help them.”
Herr Gustav sneered. “Do you really believe animals talk to one another? The bear’s stomach rumbles, so she’s come to steal easy prey. No more, no less.”
Gretel and Lily glanced at each other as they cleaned dishes in the kitchen. The old man’s words reminded them of their father’s teachings. He told them often that man must respect the world that he lives in. But Herr Gustav would never accept such teachings. He and his men went into the forest every day to cut trees and roll them into the river, sending them to a logging camp at the base of the hills. They were paid for each log they delivered, and no one wanted to spend part of his weekly wage to replace the trees he’d chopped.
“The bear hasn’t bothered men since we treated her home with respect,” the old man said. “You are tampering with an ancient treaty. No one knows what will happen if you continue.”
“I do,” Herr Gustav said. “Loggers will become rich, and the bear will be forced to live elsewhere. This is a temporary problem that we can soon solve.”
The old man stared at him with watery blue eyes. Gretel watched him shake his head. “So be it then. But I’ve warned you. You’re not just fighting the bear. You’re setting yourself against nature. In my opinion, nothing good can come of this.”
Frau Hilda gave a thin smile. “You’re an old man. We’ve listened to you. That’s enough.”
The wise one finished his coffee and pushed himself to his feet. “I’ve done all I can.” He leaned on a cane and started for the door.
Josef Brecht, the town’s blacksmith, hurried to open it for him. “It’s too long of a walk back to the village. I’ll give you a ride in my wagon.”
The old man frowned at him. “What do you think of the village’s lumber business?”
Josef flexed and unflexed his strong arms, the muscles bulging beneath his wool shirt. “It frightens me.”
The old man nodded. “Then I’ll ride with you. The animals can smell who are their friends and who are their enemies. They won’t harm you.”
Herr Gustav laughed as the door slammed behind them. “Listen to the old fool, trying to frighten us with folktales. No wonder no one in our village is rich. Everyone’s afraid to take what they want.”
Frau Hilda placed a thick slice of apple pie before her husband. “Eat what our neighbors have brought us. Then talk with your men. Decide how to stop the bear and put an end to this silly nonsense.”
“Yes,” said Herr Gustav. “It’s time to rid ourselves of this nuisance. After all, it’s only a bear. A trap and enough bullets can easily solve this problem.”