Bruin’s Orphans—chapter 9
Herr Gustav and Frau Hilda scowled as the men left their house to return to their own homes. The victory supper that Frau Hilda had planned for her husband was merely a reminder that he had not succeeded: bear meat Frau Hilda had canned, surrounded by boiled potatoes and red cabbage. The girls served them quickly and quietly, then hurried to the kitchen to eat their own meals.
“Urchins!” Gustav yelled before they were finished. “Come, take this away. I can’t look at it another minute.”
Gretel rushed into the great room to clear his plate. Frau Hilda watched her husband push it away. Her eyebrows rose and her lips turned down. “You’re wasting good food.”
“I can’t stomach another bite of bear.” He stabbed the last potato on his plate with his fork and popped it into his mouth. “I tell you that bear is mocking me. It’s trying to make a fool of me.”
“It’s a bear, Gustav. An animal.”
Gustav ran his fingers through his thick, brown hair. “What if Franz Wilhelm is right? What if it’s more than a bear?”
Frau Hilda slammed her silverware onto the table. “The bear IS smarter than you. You HAVE become a fool. I never thought I’d hear such nonsense coming out of your mouth.”
“I’m telling you, woman, there’s something different about this bear.”
“Yes, it’s older and wilier than a cub, so you couldn’t shoot it the first time you tramped into the woods. It’s like the big fish you’re always trying to catch in the lake, the one that keeps getting away.”
“No, there’s something more.”
Frau Hilda pushed herself to her feet so suddenly that her chair scraped on the wooden floor, then toppled over. “Good! You’ve finally found the Spirit Bear. Build it an altar. Offer it one sheep a month. Worship the furry thing.”
Gretel stood silently against the wall, afraid to move, afraid to have them notice her. If they were this angry with each other, what would they do to her? She thought about slipping into the kitchen, but if she didn’t take Herr Gustav’s plate, she’d surely get in more trouble. So she cowered there, praying that they wouldn’t look her way.
Frau Hilda and Herr Gustav stood, glaring at each other in silence. Gretel worried what would happen next, but their argument was abruptly forgotten when wolf howls rose on long, forlorn notes close by.
Herr Gustav rushed to the window and looked out. “You won’t believe this,” he told his wife. “You’d better see it for yourself.”
Frau Hilda went to the window. She looked out and gasped. “What are they doing?”
Gustav shrugged. “It looks like they’re holding a meeting.”
“A meeting?” For once, Hilda didn’t argue. She simply watched.
Gretel grabbed Gustav’s plate and darted into the kitchen. She went straight to the window over the sink and motioned for Lily for join her.
The waning moon glowed like a thin, skeletal finger in the sky. Its lean, white crescent looked like a leftover crust after the circle of moon had been swallowed. Outside, everything was still. No winds blew. No branches stirred. The only noise was the howls of the wolves gathering on a high, bare hill. Gretel could see the black shapes of the animals dotting the ground below the moon’s silver sliver.
As the wolves raised their voices, more animals joined them. If Gretel strained, she could make out the pointed noses of the wolves, raised to the sky. Owls swooped out of the star-lit night to settle on the wolves’ backs. The short, stocky silhouettes of wild boars came and settled onto their haunches. Smaller shapes waddled into the moonlight: porcupines, beavers, opossums, and foxes. The procession continued during the entire time the girls were cleaning the kitchen.
The Schlegels never left their post at the side window. “Don’t dawdle,” Frau Hilda warned the girls. “Finish your chores and disappear. Off to bed with you!”
Gretel and Lily gladly obeyed, rushing up the wooden steps to the cold attic. Wrapping their blankets snugly around them, they went to the round window near the ceiling and peered out.
Animals came for hours. Gretel and Lily drifted in and out of sleep, leaning against one another for support. Finally, when the hilltop was completely covered with animals of all types, the animals raised their voices in unison and turned to the forest. The howls, grunts, and hoots carried on the still, cold night, waking the girls.
“What are they waiting for?” Lily whispered.
The huge, brown bear lumbered from the woods and stood on its hind legs before them. When it raised its paws to the heavens, the animals raised their voices in earnest. The noise was a long, loud flurry of protest.
Lily huddled closer to Gretel. “What’s going to happen?”
Gretel shook her head, as nervous as her sister. “I don’t know.”
As the howls and grunts rose skyward, a wind began to blow. It tickled the ivy leaves that clung to the stones outside the window. The longer the animals protested, the stronger the wind blew. The ivy leaves shook in a mad frenzy, and the glass in the window rattled. Dark clouds rolled across the angry heavens. The moon’s edges became tinged with red, and bloody crimson began to fill the thin crescent. Soon, a scarlet moon pointed a warning finger to the people of the village. The dark clouds snuffed out the light of one star, then another, until the only gleam in the heavens was the baleful red warning of a bloodthirsty moon.
“We’re all in trouble, aren’t we?” Lily asked.
“But we didn’t do anything!” Lily cried.
“Since when has that made a difference?” Gretel asked.
Lily rubbed at her eyes. “It’s not fair.”
“Haven’t you listened to Frau Hilda? She says it all the time. ‘Life is not fair. All you can do is play the cards the fates dealt you.’”
“But she got better cards than we did,” Lily protested.
“I think that’s why she always says it,” Gretel agreed. “Haven’t you noticed that the people who have everything think they have all the answers?”
“I think we’ve been punished enough.” Lily raised her hands to the blood-red moon. “Spare us,” she begged.
Gretel smiled. “If animals can talk to the moon, why can’t we?” She gripped her sister’s hand and they both raised their arms to the heavens. “Have mercy,” they prayed.
Their petitions were muffled by winds howling around the corners of the stone cottage. The trees bent and creaked. An old elm by the back stoop split and crashed to the ground. The crack of its trunk snapping was as loud as a gun going off.
More and more dark clouds brooded together until they were stacked so deep that not one ounce of light trickled through.
The girls pushed their mattresses together and huddled next to each other. The attic was so dark that they couldn’t see their hands if they held them close to their faces.
“The bear cursed us, didn’t she?” Lily asked.
“She cursed the village. And we live here.”
“Same thing. The Schlegels have made our lives worse again.”
And the Schlegels had, indeed, brought vengeance upon the village. Everyone would realize that as the days crept by.