Ka Lem chose to spend his first winter’s study, after his years of schooling ended, as a female brown bear.
It was a serious task he faced, so he chose a serious animal, ponderous and slow. Besides, his parents, teachers, and various relatives had often told him while he was growing up that he had an old soul, washed more than once in Ishkra’s waters to be reborn. Choosing a quick animal, like a cougar, a wolf, or even one of the great horned elk, didn’t feel right to him, even though he was only eighteen and most of his friends had taken on such animals.
The first soul animal that one of the Wind People chose to become often tinged the rest of their lives, giving the person some of the traits of that animal. The brown bear was clever, using sticks to dig sweet honey out of a hive, and then using the same sticky tool to capture ants. She knew when to haunt the riverbanks and capture the fish just awakening in the spring, and she always found the best berry patches as well, visiting the same locations year after year.
Ka Lem’s teachers approved of his choice. He walked out of the village in his Wind Person form their blessings just after the midwinter celebrations, as the world turned and light began creeping back, the days growing longer. Both moons were full when he started, a good sign. He walked north and east for a week, following farmer roads and the trade routes, and then into the collection paths for the sugar maples. Though he stayed at inns, he didn’t see many other travelers along the way: most of the Wind People journeyed as wolves, coyotes, or even pigmy oxen, hurrying down the road and carrying nothing with them. Few would walk as he did, in their Person form, wearing a backpack not just made out of well-oiled cloth but attached to a wooden frame, carrying his belongings with him.
It took time to walk as he did. And though none of the Wind People were as strong as the Stone People, Ka Lim still had broad shoulders and sturdy legs, plus he’d built up endurance that fall helping glean the fields.
The snow crunched under Ka Lem’s solid boots and he left a sole trail down the center of the dirt road. In a few months’ time, two-wheeled carts would fill the road as the sugar maples were tapped. Then the sap would be collected and hauled off to sugar houses to be boiled off and turned into syrup. Fewer carts would then be needed to take the syrup to market, as much of the sap would be reduced.
Ka Lem hoped that he’d be able to hitch a ride back to his village at that time. For now, he walked in the great cloak his father had given him, made of the hides of ragyll sheep, its gray wool twisted into fat lumps that hung on the outside. The cloak would keep out the worst of the winds, as well as the snow and the wet.
A few puffed up chickadees still braved the cold, their chirping cheering him along. Gray skies above the skeletal trees drained the color out of the landscape, making the dark trunks stand out starkly against the white snow. Ka Lem followed his nose as the road finally died and the last of the sugar maples were replaced with pines and firs. He cut under the trees and turned due east, making his steps lighter with his magic so that he stayed on top of the snow instead of sinking hip deep.
His study of the maps of the traders back in his village was soon rewarded, and his feet led him to the edge of a river bluff. Fifty feet below, a white blanket of snow covered the Da Yan River. When Ka Lem listened closely, he could hear the trickle of water still flowing under the ice.
The river was wild this far north, and spring would send huge waves and turbulent water racing along the bank. Further south, though, the waters were tamer and much trade would take place along it.
It took Ka Lem most of the dimly lit afternoon to find, and then climb down, a path over the icy rocks to the cave he’d spotted.
The place was perfect, as he knew it would be. Still, Ka Lem was as cautious as a seasoned hunter. He stood at the mouth of the cave and sent all his senses forward, listening for any sound that would indicate something else had taken residence in this shelter first. He sniffed, but only smelled the musty scent of dried leaves blown by fall winds, not fresh scat. The rock at the mouth of the cave felt dry and cold, and he tasted nothing but dust in the air.
Ka Lem gave a prayer of thanks to Sune Li, the shapeless, formless, ever-shifting god of the Wind People before he took off his pack and rested it beside the entrance. He dug out one of his three wooden torches, its end impregnated with a quick burning oil, and lit it with a match that he carried in his tinderbox.
The brightness of the light made Ka Lem’s eyes water. He held the torch far out in front of him as he explored what he hoped would be his winter home. The front of the cave was open and flat, the walls scooped out by ancient spring rains. He could just stand in the center of the opening, the brown curls at the top of his five-foot three-inch head brushing the ceiling. A narrow passage at the back led to a second “room” that had a shelf on one side and a rounded basin on the floor—probably carved out of the rock by water dripping down the walls in the spring.
Ka Lem went back to the front room and gathered rocks together so he could stand his torch on its end at the entrance to the cave. He didn’t try to find dry firewood—he wasn’t planning on having another fire for quite some time. Plus, he was afraid the smell of so much smoke would bother the bear he was about to become. Luckily, there was little wind, and the smoke mostly drifted out of the cave.
Ka Lem prepared himself the best he could, stuffing himself with most of the jerked meat he carried in his pack, as well as the dried pears, apples, cherries, and blueberries, as he hummed hymns to Sune Li. He wedged his much-emptied pack between two large rocks, then covered it first with his great cloak and then more rocks, hoping that his scent would keep most creatures at bay. Shivering, he stripped off his sweater and two shirts, followed by his boots, his leggings and trousers, then finally his underclothes, tucking those away under the rocks as well.
He didn’t bother with the sacred paints to draw lines across his torso, or paint “fur” across his bare arms. The color of his skin was almost the same as the bear’s, as dark brown as a dried oak leaf. The paints weren’t necessary to remind him of his own shape or the shape he was about to take. He had stayed in his true form for the past week, that of a person of the Wind People, so he wouldn’t be confused about the shape of the body that he would return to.
Ka Lem, like all of the Wind People, could take on the form of any living creature he’d seen in the giant picture books that every child learned from. As a child, he’d played tag with his friends, flitting from one form to the next rapidly, never staying as any animal for more than a few moments.
Today’s form was different. It was a soul form. Ka Lem would stay in the shape of a bear from midwinter until spring. The instincts of the bear would drive the body, not the thoughts of the Wind Person. He would truly become a bear, at least for that time.
Like most boys, Ka Lem had wanted to be a brave hunter, until he’d realized how often he’d have to be alone, tracking his prey. When he’d chosen instead to become a teacher, all of his family had approved. As part of his training, over the next three years he would spend many seasons in different soul forms, fully learning that creature. He would also travel to far parts of the world of the Nehuli, visiting the People of Stone and Sea.
Shivering in the cold, Ka Lem called up the form of the female brown bear. The short curly brown hair on his head lengthened, growing down his spine and sprouting across his back and shoulders. The weight of the bear enveloped him, causing him to drop to hands and knees. His face elongated into a snout and wicked teeth sprang up along his jaw.
Ka Lem pulled the soul of the bear around the soul of his being, encasing it in warm animal fur. As he’d been taught, he left a spark of himself outside the soul of the bear, a reminder to awaken once the spring had taken hold, once he heard the sound of the river rushing and the dripping of the melting snow. If he didn’t, there was a chance that he’d lose himself, stay in the animal form and never take the shape of a Wind Person again.
The darkness of the winter night overtook him. His thoughts slowed and became essential: No longer full of hymns and words, but instead, full of absolutes, like cold, and dark, and sleep.
He—she—shivered in the cold, shaking her fur and settling it into place. She didn’t like the smell of people being so close, or the embers of the fire at the entrance to her cave. But she didn’t feel threatened; instead, she understood that the scent would keep out other predators, at least for a little while.
The bear squeezed through the opening at the back of the cave, heading for the smaller space there. She curled up on the hard rock shelf, wishing for more leaves with which to build a nest for herself. But it was too late for that.
She slept and shared her bear dreams with any who would listen.
Ka Lem still lay encased in the soul of the bear. But something had woken him. Was it spring?
No, it was midwinter still. Fresh snow covered the top of the hillside and glittered in the light of both moons. Cold winds ruffled the bear’s fur as she stretched and growled, throwing her voice to the wind.
Ka Lem had expected the heaviness of the bear to weigh him down, keep him grounded. His teachers had all told him the bear was a wise choice for such a serious young person.
None of them had told him how light a bear was on her feet, how she would sway in the wind or dance spritely over the snow. Her claws raked up flakes with every step, thin clouds of white puffing up behind her as she danced.
All the People danced in celebration of their gods, the Wind People whirling for Sune Li, the Stone People swaying back and forth for Kiproary, and the Sea People flowing around one another for Ishkra.
No one had told him that the animals danced as well, at the joy they found on their feet.
Maybe this bear only danced because Ka Lem lived in the heart of her soul. Or maybe this too was a dream, the bear’s thoughts influenced by the Wind Person’s hymns.
But the dance had called her from her sleep, the light from the two moons too bright to ignore, even though neither was full.
Though Ka Lem was afraid that he was doing everything all wrong, he still found himself lulled by the bear’s movements, falling deeply into her world, the stars above like bright eyes watching the purple-hued snowy mounds, the breeze delicately caressing her fur, the cold in her teeth like a bracing bite.
Winter’s grip still tightly clutched the land. She heard/felt it creaking. She knew deep in her bones that the season would last only one more long sleep before it would crack and water and life would come rushing back.
Slowly the bear bowed her head to the night, the winter, and the wind, before she made her way back to her safe warm cave for the rest of her winter’s sleep.
A cold drop of water on her nose woke the bear yet again. Spring was slowly taking the land. The sound of water rushed beneath her, the river having finally broken free of its ice during the night. Berries and winter fruits were hard to find, most of the bushes already picked clean by birds. Nuts still lay at the base of trees, nuts she could dig through the mushy, wet snow for. The fish wouldn’t yet be in the stream, and there were no easy nests for her to pilfer.
The bear rolled over. She should sleep more. Her belly fat would sustain her for a while longer, before she’d be forced from the cave in gnawing hunger.
But something pricked at her consciousness, like the moonlight that had drawn her out to dance. With a deep growl that echoed across the rock walls, the bear lurched to her four feet. She swayed for a moment before pushing herself through the less-tight opening to the outer room.
A pile of rock to her right caught her eye. She’d been aware of it before. It stank of people, those other than her. She should destroy it, banish the other. Another drop of water splashed on her snout. She growled and shook her head, claws paused in midair. Bright sunlight bounced off the snow outside the cave, blinding her. Maybe she should forage a little, then go back to sleep.
She stuck her head out of the cave, blinking, her thoughts moving slowly. It was too early for her to be up yet.
A loud boom echoed off the river bluffs as more river ice broke, losing its grip on the waters it sheltered. The bear shook herself, the sound of the rushing waters sending her blood pulsing.
There was something else she needed to do. She glanced at the stones again. Maybe there was food hidden in there…
Ka Lem found himself rising out of the bear form as she swiped away the rocks covering his belongings. He slid down into himself, sitting naked at the entrance to the cave, shivering in the cold. It was early spring yet, but the bear had been restless.
He’d expected to feel weighed down by the soul of the bear he’d been for the last few months. However, he felt as light as the wind, ready to race across the melting snow. He quickly drew on his layers of clothes, though they all felt stiff and foreign to him, confining after so long of just wearing fur.
However, he was grateful enough for his clever fingers when he opened his pack and got into the remains of the food there. The leathery brown apple rings tore easily, the sweetness making him drool. He licked his fingers free of the salt from the last of the meat. Now, all he needed was water, which was easy enough to come by, given all the snow outside. He filled one of his leather flasks and tucked it under his cloak, knowing it would melt quickly.
Ka Lem gave thanks to Sune Li for guiding and protecting his soul while he’d spent months as a bear. He did, but didn’t, feel as different as he’d thought he would. Why would being a bear for so long make him feel so much lighter? As if he wanted to dance? Surely this couldn’t be right.
He was a serious young person, who’d just finished a serious study task, learning how to be a bear in his heart and soul.
But no one was there to tell him what was right or wrong, either.
So after Ka Lem finished his meal, he stood and swayed, shuffling from one foot to the other, dancing as the bear had danced in the moonlight, his steps light as he circled the inside of the cave, the soft growls he gave a poor imitation of her magnificent voice.
He would never tell anyone of this dance, just that he’d given praise to Sune Li and the other gods once he’d regained the form of the Wind People.
And he would certainly never tell another soul that he felt, with the certainty of the cold rocks beneath his feet, that the next time there was a full moonrise, with the light of both moons bathing the earth, that he’d feel the call of the bear dance again. Such fancies didn’t suit a serious young person like him.