—adapted from the Brothers Grimm
Once upon a time there was a young man who joined the army and went to war. He learned about courage when bullets are flying. He learned to kill the enemy and to trust his brother soldiers. He found some skill in warfare and enough pure luck to stay alive. Then peace was declared. The captain told them all to go home. But the parents of the soldier were dead. He went back to where his older brother lived.
“Let me stay here until another war breaks out.”
But his brother sent him away. “I can’t have you hanging around here. What use are you? You just stare into space and drink up all the spirits in the house.”
The soldier hoisted his rifle on his shoulder and took to the road. With no money or food he didn’t go far. He wandered through the wild lands and came to a heath, and there he entered into a circle of trees. Evening was coming on. He sat down and his thoughts battled back and forth. What could he do? He was a grown man who couldn’t make a living, except by killing the enemy, but in peacetime there was no enemy. Luck was against him. People had turned against him. They knew he couldn’t be trusted. Sometimes he shook and went mad with rage.
He had seen men pray for their lives and then die in battle. What good was all that business of prayer? He had two bullets, one in his rifle and the other in his belt. He knew how to solve his problems. He checked the bullet in the chamber. He knew how to prop the gun barrel in his mouth and pull the trigger with his toe. What happens after that? Could any afterlife be worse than this? Yet he held back. He might want the bullet for something else.
Just then he heard footsteps behind him. He turned and saw a man, sharply dressed, much too finely dressed for these wild lands. He had on a tailored green jacket but no shoes. The soldier saw his feet were animal feet, cloven hooves.
“I know what you are thinking, and I know what you want,” the man said. “And I will get you money and property, all you can handle, but first I must test you. I’m not going to throw my money away. I want to see if there’s fear in your heart.”
“Test me,” the soldier said. “If you think I can handle property I can surely handle fear.”
Suddenly out of the darkness a great bear charged in on him. It was coming fast. The soldier took steady aim and shot the bear through its muzzle, into its brain. The big creature tumbled and fell lifeless at the soldier’s feet.
“A fine way to tickle its nose,” the man said. “You are brave enough, but there is one more condition.”
“Just as long as it won’t cost me my soul.”
“You’ll be taking your chances with that. For the next seven years you are not to wash. You are not to comb your hair or beard or cut your nails. You are not to say even one prayer.”
“Not one prayer?”
“Ah, but you will wear this green jacket of mine. Its pockets are always full of gold coins. But over it you must put on the pelt of this dead bear for a coat and use it to sleep in. No other bed shall you use.”
“Seven years?” said the soldier. “A lot can happen in seven years.”
“Exactly,” said the man. “If you die before seven years then your soul is mine. If you can keep alive that long in the bearskin then you are free the rest of your life, and you’ll be rich. Is it a bargain?”
The soldier was used to risking his life, not his soul. He had long ago left off saying any prayers, but now he was forbidden. Yet what else could he do? He agreed and traded jackets with the man. When the bear was skinned he had to put that on as well for an overcoat.
“Now you shall be called Bearskin.” With those words the man faded into the dark.
The soldier put his hands into the pockets of the green jacket—ah, gold. And so he had his pleasure for about a year. But then the sight of him and the smell drove people off. He gained the look of a monster. His hair grew shaggy and his beard turned to thick felt. Dirt on his cheeks got so dark and oozing that grass would have grown on them if someone sprinkled seeds. And the awful smell went before him. Everyone ran and hid from the one called Bearskin.
After the fourth year he came to an inn, but the innkeeper wanted to drive him away, until he saw his gold coins. “I can’t have you seen around here, or my reputation will be lost. You can have a room in back. And don’t go near the stalls, or the horses will bolt at the sight of you.”
So the soldier sat in a back room. His mood went down, and he thought again of his rifle and the last bullet. He had gold¾and nothing else. No one at all cared about him. Yet if he killed himself this heartsick pain might still go on and on. He was not curious to take that risk.
As his thoughts battled he heard moaning and weeping through the thin wall. He wondered if someone next door was suffering. He knocked on the door. An old man there had been in tears.
“What’s the matter?” Bearskin asked.
The man was frightened at the sight of him, yet he heard the concern in Bearskin’s voice. And so he told about his huge debts, so many that tomorrow he was to be thrown into debtors’ prison. “Then my three daughters will be turned out on the streets. What will become of them?”
“How much money do you need?” Bearskin called for the innkeeper and paid the man’s bill and then gave the old man a pouch of gold.
In great relief he turned to Bearskin. “We must have you to dinner. I want you to meet my beautiful daughters. When they hear that you have saved our family they will certainly let you choose between them for a wife, I can promise you.”
Bearskin was touched and went to his home for dinner. But at the door the oldest daughter let out a shriek and ran off to hide. Her sister stared at the monster from head to foot.
“How could I ever marry this? It looks like that shaved bear in the town market dancing for coins. At least that one had on a hussar’s uniform and white gloves. But it’s not just the ugliness of this. Really, it’s the smell.”
But then the youngest daughter turned to her father. “He must be a good man to have helped you out of trouble. If you promised him a bride, then your word must be kept.”
Because of matted hair and thick dirt no one could see Bearskin’s face, but his heart leaped for joy. He took from his finger a double ring, which he turned and slipped open into two rings. He gave her one and kept the other. In her half he wrote on the gold his own name, and on his half he wrote her name. “I must continue to journey three more years. If I do not return you are free because I’ll be dead. But if you pray for me every day I may be kept alive.”
From that day the young bride dressed in black while her sisters mocked her.
“If you hold out your hand to him his paw will smash it!”
“I hear that bears just love sweets. He will surely love to eat you.”
“Everyone will be so happy at your wedding—to see you dancing with a bear.”
“You must always do everything he wants, everything, or he’ll growl at you.”
The bride kept her silence and prayed for him. Meanwhile Bearskin traveled through the years and in every town gave generously to the poor, asking for their prayers. Finally, on the last day of the seven years he came to those wild lands and entered the circle of trees on the heath. A wind howled and swirled around, and here before him stood the man, sharply dressed, yet none too happy to see Bearskin. He tossed him his old soldier’s jacket and got his own green one back. “You will find plenty of gold in those old pockets of yours.” And he started to turn away.
“Not so fast,” said Bearskin. “You must get me clean again.”
The man scowled, but he fetched water, got on his knees and had to scrub, scrub hard to make the soldier clean. He clipped his nails, and trimmed his hair and beard. At last the soldier looked more handsome than before. Then that man got away into the dark.
The soldier went to the city and in his old pockets found gold for a new set of clothes.
“Will master want your old jacket or shall I get rid of it?” asked the tailor.
“I’ll keep it,” said the soldier, “to remember where I come from.” Then he ordered a coach to drive him to the home of his bride. Her two older sisters thought he was some distinguished colonel. Not even their father recognized him. He took a seat between the two sisters. They gave him wine and delicacies, while their younger sister in black sat opposite him at the table. Finally he asked their father if he could marry one of the daughters. The two jumped up and ran to their rooms to dress up in their finest.
He was alone now with his bride, and so he slipped his ring into the wine cup and passed it to her. When she drank from it she found the half ring with her own name. Then she took its mate from a ribbon on her neck and fitted the two together.
“I am that Bearskin you said you would marry. By luck and the grace of people’s prayers I am clean again.”
They embraced, and just as they were kissing the two sisters came out in their finest dresses. At the sight of their young sister winning him they flew into a mad rage. One of them ran outside, jumped in a well and drowned. The other climbed a tree and hanged herself.
In the evening there came a knock on the door. It was that man, sharply dressed in his green jacket, and he said to the soldier. “I just wanted you to know, I may have lost you, but I got two other souls in exchange.”
But what happened to that smelly bearskin the soldier had worn so many years? It was left far behind in those wild lands, forgotten like last week’s bad dream. And the soldier and his wife lived long and happy lives.