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Bearskin


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BEARSKIN

A retelling by J. Kearns

A man agrees to neither bathe nor cut his hair or nails, and to sleep only on a bearskin for seven years.

ne hears about wars all the time. Even when where one lives is at peace, still, all over the world there seems constantly to be war; war in this country and that, between this people and that people. No matter how glorious some try to make war sound, almost as if it is a game, it is always a horrible thing.
This tale begins with a soldier. It is an old story, so the war this soldier was in was not one waged with bombs and jets. I don't know, this may have been even before people began to make war with guns, which would have been a pretty long time ago. So, are we to imagine our soldier dressed in an 18th century soldier's uniform such as seen in paintings of the American Revolutionary War? Should we imagine him firing a musket? Or should we imagine him in a time when wars were fought with swords and spears and clubs? However you see him, know that our soldier was living under terrible, terrifying conditions. From one day to the next, he never knew if he would live to see the sun set. He never knew which of his friends would come out of battle alive, and which he would never see again. The soldier wasn't an officer, he was one of a mass of nameless people who history never remembers except to say, for instance, "10,000 men fought at the Battle of Such-and-such." He didn't ride a horse; he trudged through the mud of the field, he fought face to face with an enemy who looked like him, another person. Our soldier was anonymous. The enemy he confronted was anonymous. But it was an anonymous with a face. It was horrible that he had to kill men with faces, if anonymous faces, if he wanted to survive. It was just plain horrible that he was expected to kill.

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Every child wants to be brave, so children are often told tales about people who behave bravely in battle. Some story tellers have made our soldier out to be one who was very brave, and when the war was over with he had no way to make a living, because he only knew how to make war.
But there is another version. Perhaps it was told by someone who had been in a war and knew how terrible war is. The soldier of this other story deserted his regiment in the thick of battle and took refuge in the woods. It may have been one of those wars where you don't have any idea what you're fighting about anymore it's gone on so long, or seems so meaningless. That he was a deserter may make his character questionable for some, but we really have no way of judging if what he did was right or wrong because we know nothing about the war in which he was fighting. And it is interesting that at least one story teller would decide to tell the tale of a deserter, one who fled the field of battle, rather than having our protagonist be the prototypical hero.
For our deserter, the foes of war were soon replaced by the enemies: cold, thirst, and hunger. He had already been half-starved in the army, but there he'd had at least something to eat and now he had no food and no reliable source of water. His clothes were in tatters, he had rags tied around his feet as he had no shoes, and it was the middle of winter. He had no money and no one he could turn to for help. Thinking all was hopeless, coming upon a small clearing in the woods in which was a ring of trees, he sat under a tree and contemplated his fate, which he was certain would be death.
At that moment, our ex-soldier heard a loud, rumbling growl near behind him. He turned just in time to see a huge bear charge. In a flash, with terrible teeth and claws, the bear was upon him. The ex-soldier, pulling his knife from its sheath, wrestled the bear with all his might. Finally, he plunged the knife into the bear's heart. The animal tumbled to the ground, dead.
Exhausted from both his hunger and the fight, the ex-soldier also dropped to the ground. When he had rested a little, he skinned the bear for its thick coat which would keep him warm in the wilderness and might even save his life. Oddly enough--imagine!--as he cut away the bear's fur coat, he found that beneath it was yet another coat. A green one. So started was the man that he tumbled back. He'd never heard of such a thing. But, near frozen with cold, our ex-soldier completed skinning the animal and, though it was still bloody, draped the fur about his own shoulders.
"I see you have put on my skin," the bear's spirit said, appearing before the ex-soldier. "If I told you I could provide you great wealth, as much as you could ever want, what would you say to that?"

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"What must I do for it?" the ex-soldier asked, who knew that nothing came without a price.
The bear answered him, "For the next seven years you must not wash yourself, you must not comb or cut your hair, nor cut your toenails or fingernails. You must not comb or cut your beard. You must not wash your clothing. In fact, I will give you clothing which you must wear each day and night of those seven years. You must never take it off. You must even sleep in it."
"Is that all?" the ex-soldier asked, who thought this deal sounded pretty sweet.
"If you die while you are wearing this clothing, which you must not remove those seven years, then your soul will be mine. Do you agree?" asked Greencoat.
"Yes," said the ex-soldier, who knew if he had all the wealth he could need then he wouldn't have to worry about dying from hunger or exposure. As long as he would have all the wealth he could ever need during that seven years, he had a plan.
"Take my green coat and put it on," the spirit said. "If you have this coat on your back and put your hand into any of its pockets, you will always find it full of money. As for the bearskin which you have taken from me, that will be your cloak and your bed. Thereon shall you sleep, and in no other bed will you lie. Because this is to be your apparel you shall be called Bearskin."
The ex-soldier put the green coat on. He felt in one of its pockets and found it was full of gold. He then wrapped himself in the bearskin and his new name and the spirit disappeared.
There is a Philippines version to this tale. It is not folklore from the Philippines. It is obvious that a western person taught this tale to people in the Philippines. In it, there is also the condition that Bearskin must not spend any of the gold upon himself during the seven years.
Our Bearskin didn't have that commandment.
Bearskin found his way to an inn where he asked for a room. He also asked that the bed be removed from the room, so that he would never forget and lie down on it and fall asleep, for he had been commanded not to sleep in a regular bed. Thus Bearskin began his seven years solitude. Every day his meals were brought to him, and every day he paid for his meals and room with coins from his pocket.

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Bearskin had gone for long times without a bath in the army, but he found that was quite different from never ever bathing or washing his clothing and never ever combing his hair and never ever cutting his hair, beard or nails. His skin began to be hidden under the layers of dirt that built up. He couldn't comb his hair so it became all matted. He began to smell so much that his odor was even offensive to himself, but after a while he did get used to that. Still, that first year, though he may have been quite dirty and smelly, Bearskin still passed as a man.
During the second year, Bearskin began to look more like a monster than a man. His hair covered nearly all of his face. His fingers had claws, as did his feet. He could no longer wear shoes, his toenails were so long. Bearskin no longer opened his door when his meals were brought to him because he knew that he looked less and less like a man. He had a hole cut in the door and received his meals through that hole, and paid for his room and lodging through that hole as well.
Because when he looked at himself, even he didn't recognize himself as a man, Bearskin turned the mirror in his room around so that it faced the wall.
Bearskin had thought it would be an easy thing to get through the seven years. He'd reasoned that it would be an easy thing not to be able to spend money on all kinds of different things he might want, while he was closeted in his room at the inn, because he knew that after seven years he would be free to go out in the world and live comfortably, even lavishly, as a normal man, the rest of his days. What Bearskin had not anticipated was how lonely he would become during those seven years. Not only that, after becoming lonely he began to be so accustomed to being alone, that he wondered if the seven years were over, right then, if he might just remain in his room. He had not been around people for so long, not had normal conversation with anyone, and was so used now to not looking like a regular man, that he began to think of himself as being like a lone bear. He had become so used to the idea of hiding from people that he felt he might never leave his room the rest of his life.
One night when the innkeeper brought Bearskin his meal, as he passed it to him through the slot in the door, he told Bearskin that he would have to leave as he was closing down the inn. This alarmed Bearskin. He could not imagine, looking as he did, leaving his room and finding another place to live. "What is wrong?" he asked the innkeeper. "Why are you closing the inn?"

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"For a long while now, a gang of robbers has been coming here and demanding all my money. They rule the highway and raid anyone they find on it. As a result, we have no travelers for they are afraid of venturing into the area. You are the only customer I have had for quite some time. I can't possibly keep the inn open. No one will purchase the inn as everyone is well aware of the situation, so I, my wife, and my three daughters are forced to leave with nothing. I have no idea how we will survive."
"I managed to save up a good deal of money before I came here," Bearskin told the innkeeper. "If I give you the money you need, so that you never have to worry about debts again, will you keep the inn open and continue to rent me out this room?"
Hardly able to believe his ears, the innkeeper asked, "You would actually do this thing for me?"
Bearskin brought out handful after handful of gold from his pocket and passed it through the door's slot to the innkeeper. Surely, it was a miracle. The innkeeper couldn't believe his good luck. "Oh, sir," he said, "I am forever indebted to you. You can be sure this room is yours as long as you are pleased with it. Indeed, you can count yourself as a member of my family. You will never owe me for your room or food ever again."
Much later that night, just when Bearskin had lain down to go to sleep, he heard a commotion downstairs. There was so much violence that he went to the door and considered leaving his room to go see what the problem was. The innkeeper had said there were no other customers there, so, feeling secure that he might not be seen, Bearskin opened the door and crept down the hall. From the shadows at the top of the staircase, he peered down into the lower floor of the inn. Sure enough, there were men making a wreck of the place, filling their pockets with the gold he'd just a few hours before given the innkeeper. Bearskin knew these must be the robbers the innkeeper had told him about. Without a thought for the fact that one of the robbers might turn on him and kill him, and that his soul would then be lost to him forever, Bearskin rushed down the stairs to help the innkeeper.
What did the robbers see approaching them? Not a man, but a bear! Terrified, they dropped the money and fled out the door never to return.

5




The innkeeper, for the moment, was every bit as terrified as the robbers had been. For the moment, he didn't realize he'd been saved by Bearskin. No, he thought Bearskin was a bear and would kill him.
"Don't be afraid," Bearskin said to him. "Don't you recognize me? I'm the man who gave you the gold for your debts. I'm the man who has been your customer all these years. Certainly you recognize my bearskin cloak. I was wearing it almost seven years ago when I first came to you for lodging."
The innkeeper recognized the voice, and realized that within the coat of the bear was a man. Slowly, relinquishing his fear of Bearskin, he stepped forward and said, "Sir, earlier this evening you saved me from poverty. Now, you have saved my life. I have three daughters, each one of them beautiful, please choose one of them for yourself as a wife. When she hears what you have done for me, she'll not refuse you. You do, in truth, look a little strange, but she will soon put you to rights again."
One hears this kind of thing frequently in fairy tales so we have become a little used to it and may not think of how unfair it is for a man to offer a daughter of his in marriage, without her consent. But people haven't always married for love, and contract marriages used to be acceptable.
The innkeeper, for sake of hoping to bring Bearskin's wealth into his family, might have offered him a daughter in marriage so he would gain Bearskin as a son-in-law. This innkeeper didn't have such base motives. He was, however, a man of his times, and saw nothing wrong with repaying Bearskin, for saving his life, by offering him one of his daughters.
Before Bearskin had the chance to agree or disagree (and he was thinking of not accepting the innkeeper's offer as he had become such a loner) the innkeeper had called out his daughters from where they were hiding in the kitchen. "Which one will you have as your bride?" the innkeeper asked.
The eldest girl was so terrified by Bearskin's appearance that she screamed and ran off.
The second girl was braver. She stood still and looked Bearskin over from head to toe. When she was done, she said, "If he was only ugly, I might get used to that, but how can I accept a husband who no longer has a human form?"

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The youngest daughter said to Bearskin, "Whatever your appearance, you must be good to have helped my father out of his trouble. I would marry you even if my father hadn't promised you one of his daughters as a bride."
Bearskin fell in love with the girl, but his features were so covered with filth one would not have been able to read his expression. He took a gold ring from his finger and with his bear-like strength he twisted it into two pieces. "Here," he said, giving the girl one part of the twisted ring. "I must go away for a little while. I will return shortly, to claim you as my bride. I will be carrying the other half of this twisted ring. That is how you will recognize me."
With that, Bearskin left the inn.
Why did he do this when he had been so fearful of leaving the inn beforehand? As I've noted, he had even been thinking of remaining in his room at the inn the rest of his life, that's how unaccustomed he was to human company.
Well, Bearskin found his way to the clearing in the woods where the circle of trees was, where he had killed the bear almost seven years before. It so happened that the seven years would be up in only a matter of a few hours. He sat beneath the trees to wait. At exactly the moment the seven years were up, the spirit appeared to him with whom he had made the deal.
"Why have you come here?" the spirit asked. "You've completed your part of the deal. You owe me nothing any more. Do you want to give me my bearskin back?"
Bearskin said, "The reason I'm here is that you may wash me, so that when I go out of this wood I'll be recognized as a man again. As you can see, I didn't die. My soul is mine, so when I leave here I think I should look like a man rather than a bear."
Bearskin was washed. His hair was washed, cut and combed. His beard was shaved. His claws were cut back so that he had regular fingernails and toenails again.
Bearskin returned to the inn. With his half of the twisted ring, he identified himself, and claimed his bride.
He kept the bearskin.

A retelling by j. m. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm.

Copyright information

Here is a link to different older versions of "Bearskin" at the University of Pittsburgh, "Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts" edited and/or translated by D. L. Ashliman.

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