Little Kayla Huntington felt her eyes open as she shivered in the dark. Sniffling, she used the edge of her sleeve to wipe her nose before she rolled over to fall back asleep. She tossed again and turned again before opening her eyes a second time. Her head ached and she rubbed her eyes with her fist as she tried to fall back asleep. Yet every time she closed her eyes she saw the shadows grow red eyes.
After a moment she heaved the blankets off of her legs and turned towards the door. She looked down at her toes in the dimly lit room and felt the cold sweep in. Winters were always cold and the wood floors would not be kind to her little toes. Reaching back under the covers Kayla rummaged around until she found the first sock. With a triumphant sound she held it up in front of her before putting it on.
She rubbed her nose again while she sniffled before diving back for the second one. Her fingers dug in the sheets and after a moment she drug the second one out. This one she put on in a hurry before hopping off of the bed. Rubbing her eyes, she walked towards the door and slipped through it. The hallway light guided her way as she pushed the door open.
“Grandma?” Her little voice asked into the darkness.
A light clicked on and she blinked a few times as her eye adjusted. When they did her grandmother was putting on a pair of glasses and sitting up in bed. Her face was wrinkled but they were subtle. Her once blond hair was now white like the snow. Kayla loved her mother’s blond hair but she had been born with her father’s brown curls.
“What is it chickadee?” She asked, holding her arms out as Kayla crossed the room.
Helping her up onto the bed little Kayla put her legs under the covers as her grandmother gathered her close. She sniffled and rubbed her nose again before whining, “The shadows had red eyes and my head hurts.”
Her grandmother pressed her forehead against Kayla’s. She pushed her hair back and a soft back of her hand touched her forehead. Even in the winter her grandmother smelled like spring flowers. The smell of a garden awash with flowers always reminded her of her grandmother. Kayla sniffled for good measure but she didn’t need to. She felt warm despite the slight chill in the house.
“Looks like you might have a cold,” her grandmother said kissing the top of her head, “And had a nightmare.”
“Uh-huh,” Kayla managed as her eyes drooped.
Her grandmother got up out of bed and Kayla saw her slip into a pair of slippers. She went out of the room leaving Kayla alone. Kayla curled up on the pillow, her eyes heavy with sleep, but fear kept her from closing her eyes for too long. Her eyes opened wide when her grandmother returned with water, medicine, and a book tucked under her arm.
Once the medicine was consumed and the water partially drank, her grandmother sat down on the bed next to her. Kayla thought she was going to make her leave but instead her grandmother returned to the blankets as well. She set the water on the night stand when Kayla handed it to her and opened the book on her lap.
“Shall I read you more about Alice’s adventures?” Her grandmother asked but Kayla shook her head.
“The jabberwocky is scary,” Kayla replied biting at her thumb nail, “I don’t know how Alice isn’t scared all the time.”
“Do you fancy a fairytale?” Her grandmother asked glancing down at her, “One about how I overcame my fear?”
Kayla nodded and settled against her. She closed her eyes as her grandmother set the book aside. She could hear the beating of her hear and fell the rise and fall of her chest. Her grandmother moved her fingers through Kayla’s hair as she started to tell her story. With every stroke her fear left her more and more.
“Once long before you were even a though, I was a little girl hunting in the Denali National Park. Above us the Great One watched, peaking through the clouds on shaded days and standing tall on clear days. Your great grandfather was taking me hunting in the caribou camp, one so deep into the hilly landscape that you needed a plane to get there,” Her grandmother started and Kayla felt her eyes grow heavy.
Dreams mixed with her grandmother’s words and Kayla fell into her grandmother’s story. She awoke on the landscape her grandmother described. Her grandmother’s voiced lulled her into a state of drifting consciousness as she listened. There were no trees of great height and the hills went on for miles before becoming mountains. Kayla could see them as far as the eye could see.
She was weary because even she knew from her eight years of life that the terrain lied. It may seem close and an easy walk but an inch was a foot and a foot was a mile and a mile were many miles. Nothing about that country was safe from the animals that ran wild to the distance travelled.
Apparently she had wandered too far. She was far past the camp and Eagle’s Point, far past where the caribou had crossed earlier that morning. She was sitting at the water’s edge on the other side of the lake as the light waned. She watched the swans swim gracefully and pretend they were ballet dancers.
They danced across the pond the beavers had made for them. You see, the beavers fancied graceful things and made ponds for swans to swim in. Beavers would never admit this if you asked them, but then swans would never admit they liked to perform for the awkward beavers, either. It was this particular occasion that the most beautiful of the swans began her solo. As she danced and swooped the beavers watched, pretending to toil at their dam.
Yet she knew, she knew that they danced because they were being watched, selfish beautiful things that they were. She watched them in their move and dance until far into the evening. By the time she knew how late it was the sun was starting to set. So she turned and ran, hurrying back across the shallow part of the trickling stream. Her little legs could not chase the shadow of the fading sun and as she passed Eagle’s Point she knew she would be lost.
Her father would surely scold her for her misdeeds, and she feared his disappointment. Surely he would not let her wander off again on her own if she did not return when she promised to. Dusk settled across the sprawling hills of the Denali expanse. She hurried through the tall brush, and though the tallest hardly could be called a tree but it was very tall for her.
She only paused when a raven cawed in her direction. On instinct she reached into her bag and picked up a napkin. She dumped the bread crumbs onto the forest floor and watched as the raven skittered nervously from side to side on the branch.
“That’s all I have,” she called and didn’t wait for his reply before rushing towards what she though their camp to be.
She was in such a hurry that she nearly ran by the porcupine. When she saw him lumbering by she stopped and called, “I am lost, Mr. Porcupine, can you tell me which way is home?”
Although she was sure she liked the comfort of her own voice. Yet she thought it peculiar that he should walk so strangely. When the porcupine turned she saw that his front paw was stuck in a trap. That was why he lumbered and drug himself in such a strange fashion.
“Oh let me help you,” she said but his little quills raised and he backed away.
Frowning she set to her task careful of Mr. Porcupine’s quills. He continued to walk when she reached for the trap so she found a long stick and pressed it against the top of the trap. Her father wasn’t much of a trapper but she knew there was a special release just in case a hunter got himself in the trap. This strange animal with a defense system finally stopped when Kayla touched the trap with the stick.
He hissed at her and tried to side step around her as his quills raised. Kayla lifted her arms to indicate she didn’t mean any harm. She turned around when she thought she heard a laugh. She searched the space behind her but the laugh had sounded so far off Kayla wasn’t sure if it was a laugh or not. Mr. Porcupine took the opportunity to lumber away in a different direction.
“Hey,” she called glancing to the sky as the edge of darkness crept across the sky, “I’m only trying to help!”
“I don’t want your help.” The porcupine grumbled.
Kayla’s eyes went wide and she felt her jaw drop open. She watched as the porcupine waddled away as she sputtered. Finally she managed to get the words out as she hurried after him, “Did you just speak?”
“We always speak,” Mr. Porcupine muttered as though she were very stupid, “You just couldn’t hear before.”
“How can I hear now?” She demanded hurrying to stand in front of him.
He sighed heavily before moving away from her but he answered, “Likely Raven, the trickster amongst the animal kings.”
“You guys have kings?” Kayla demanded, her eyes wide as she walked next to the porcupine as it continued waking.
“We do,” he replied but said nothing else.
“Porcupines have Kings?” Kayla asked astonished.
“No,” he retorted as though she should know better, “We have our Bear King.”
“Bear King?” Kayla asked and she hesitated to take another step as her eyes searched the woods.
“Mightiest amongst us,” Mr. Porcupine replied with a sense of pride.
“Who else has kings?” She asked, her curiosity getting the best of her as she continued to follow the porcupine.
“Moose, Raven, Hare, and Eagle to name a few,” he replied glancing over his shoulder, “Not that a human would understand.”
“And every animal follows one of them?” Kayla asked, unwilling to let the moment end as darkness embraced the forest.
“Not all,” Mr. Porcupine responded, “Fish do their own thing, gross slimy buggers that they are. Owls too, they are a bunch of loners.”
“Where are you going?” Kayla asked glancing around in front of them.
Mr. Porcupine stopped and grumbled at her, “Stop following me.”
He continued at a slightly faster pace but he waddled more than lumbered and the pace was not difficult to keep up with. Kayla stopped and glanced around only to realize in her excitement she had been following him blindly. She looked around and realized she had no idea where she was. Worse still, nothing looked familiar.
“I’m lost!” Kayla cried before hurrying after the porcupine and yelling, “Wait for me!”
“Not my problem,” he retorted.
“But I could die out here!” She felt panic rising up in her throat. Her lip quivered as she took a few steps towards the porcupine. Tears began to bubble over as she started to cry.
“Please stop that, it is so annoying!” He groaned and she stumbled towards him.
“I’m scared,” she whispered glancing around as fat tears rolled down her cheeks, “I’m so scared.”
“Crying isn’t going to do you any good,” Mr. Porcupine sighed heavily, “You’ll just get yourself killed faster.”
“I’m going to be eaten by a porcupine.” She wailed.
“I don’t eat animals,” he sounded exasperated.
She stopped crying and sniffled. She rubbed at her running nose and asked, “You don’t?”
“No silly human,” the porcupine replied, “Just your bones.”
She sniffled and her face scrunched up as she managed to say, “That’s worse.”
“Please don’t make that awful sound again,” he said lifting his trapped paw toward her.
When he did Kayla reached out with both hands and closed her fists on the springs that held the trap in place. The porcupine let out a startled sound and pulled his paw back. Kayla let go of the trap and it snapped down between them and closed without anything on it. Kayla and the porcupine glanced at each other wide eyed. Then without rhyme or reason, she burst out in laughter.
“That’s almost a worse sound,” he grumbled and continued on his way.
“The reason it didn’t hold is it was meant for something much smaller than you,” Kayla told him. She was proud that she knew why the little Conibear trap didn’t work on such a big porcupine. She hurried after him, glancing back at the trap before returning for it. She lifted it up between her fingers. It was as long as her forearm, so she turned it one way and the other before she dropped into the little bag she had on her side. Then she hurried after the no longer limping porcupine.
“I’ve helped you,” Kayla pointed out, “You have to help me get back to the camp.”
“I can’t help you,” Mr. Porcupine replied annoyed.
“You have to,” she insisted before crossing her arms, “Or I’ll follow you around until I die.”
“Fine!” He said exasperated.
He changed direction and they started along another path. Kayla followed the spikey mammal deeper into the woods glancing back over her shoulder at times. The clouds had slowly dissipated and all that remained were stars and the light of the moon. Its crescent shape seemed so far away that Kayla lifted her hand and pretended she held it in her palm.
“Stop dawdling,” the porcupine grumbled again.
“Sorry!” Kayla called and hurried to catch up with him. She looked down at him and asked, “Where are we going?”
“To the Bear King,” he responded and she stopped walking.
“Why?” Kayla asked hurrying after him, despite the danger.
“He knows everything that is happening,” he answered without stopping.
They continued on in silence as Kayla pushed her way through brush. It snapped back at her as the porcupine passed through and she slowed down. She didn’t want to lose him, though, so she settled for watching his tail closely to the point that she was squinting, Kayla soon emerged behind him into a great clearing. When she took a step a blueberry bush brushed against her leg.
“Squished blueberries are bad blueberries,” a great booming voice said as a massive bear rose up to tower over her. The Bear King stayed standing on his back two legs as he asked, “What do you want, berry-squasher?”
“Bear King, she needs to find her home,” Mr. Porcupine said although he sounded annoyed, “I’ll leave it in your care.”
She watched as he waddled over to the collection of trees. The porcupine promptly climbed a very short tree and hid amongst the burrows. She heard his content sigh as she turned back to the Bear King. He settled back on all fours and she could see that he too had squashed some blueberries.
“Don’t mind him. He is always that way,” the Bear King informed her as he settled back to eat more blueberries. He munched on a few as Kayla stood there awkwardly. She gazed at him and didn’t understand why he was called the Bear King. He was large and had a thick ring of fur around his collar, but he didn’t seem all that extraordinary to her.
“How are you going to help me get home?” Kayla asked her body swaying back and forth to keep warm.
“Birds,” he replied gesturing up.
Kayla looked up as a bird streaked across the sky. It had wide wings that caught the starlight and a body that didn’t seem completely there. It was the largest bird she had ever seen but then it dipped and began to dive towards them. The closer it got the more real it became and she soon recognized it as a great golden eagle.
Her father had taught her to respect nature and all its animals. When her family harvested an animal they took every usable piece. That is how they honored an animal and their spirits. Nothing is wasted; everything could be used and was. Before that moment she didn’t understand exactly what it meant to respect nature, but she did then.
Kayla watched as the eagle landed and saw that it was twice the size of a normal eagle. It was graceful and completely confidence. Kayla knew her mouth was open and that she was in complete awe of what was happening.
“You asked for my help?” The Eagle called, her voice was sure and fluid.
“I did,” the Bear King replied holding up a handful of berries, “Blueberries?”
“No,” she responded with a wave of her wing as she glanced at Kayla, “Is this about the baby human?”
“I’m not a baby!” Kayla protested, “I’m almost nine!”
The eagle stared at her and Kayla felt her lips curl back against her teeth. She hadn’t meant to yell like that, but she didn’t like being called a baby. Babies didn’t go to school and she was starting the fourth grade right after she turned nine.
“The porcupine asked me to get her home,” the Bear King said, “I intend to take her but do not know where she came from.”
“She was seen by the swans not far from my nest,” the eagle said glancing at her.
Kayla’s eyes went wide and her mouth turned into a perfect little circle. She realized that she had one of the eagle’s feathers tucked into her little bag. Her hand immediately went to the bag but the eagle didn’t say anything. It sat next to the Conibear trap she had taken off of the porcupine.
The Bear King stretched his arms up and rolled forward onto all fours. He looked up towards Kayla and told her, “Come along, berry-squasher.”
The eagle put her wings out and took to the sky. Kayla watched her with the same awe she had originally felt as she walked just behind the Bear King. When she couldn’t see the majestic eagle anymore she turned forward and her short legs hurried to catch up. They walked in silence as the bear lead them back into the high brush. It was easier to follow behind him as the high shrubs were parted by the girth of the bear. He mowed them down with his weight and they languished instead of springing back. Kayla followed close behind but she looked up at the stars and thought they looked like a river because of the narrow view.
When they left the high shrubs the Bear King glanced back at her and said, “The Raven likes his tricks. You are lucky that is all he did.”
“I actually think he helped me,” Kayla said softly with a smile. Then she remembered that she only got lost because the porcupine had spoken so she stated, “Though perhaps not.”
She swallowed her fear down because the mighty Bear King was guarding her now. She glanced at him and wondered at his simple might. Not only was he strong but he could call down a bird from the heavens; an eagle that washed the sky with stars and pushed the clouds away.
“Did you give him food?” The Bear King asked.
Kayla remembered the raven that had cawed at her and she answered, “Some bread crumbs.”
“Works like a charm every time,” the bear said swinging his great head from side to side, “He loves your food. It is good you decided to be generous.”
Kayla nodded her head and the bear continued to lead her. When they entered the area that closely resembled a forest Kayla got nervous. The clouds had moved back across the moon and the world was darker. She could just make out the Bear King’s movements and followed him but her hands shook and she had to pull her lips against her teeth to keep from crying.
“Are you afraid of the dark, berry-squasher?” The Bear King asked without stopping.
Kayla nodded her head but then realized he couldn’t hear her brain rattling around her head so she added, “I don’t like it.”
“Without the darkness of the evening sky there could be no light,” the Bear King told her with a sweep of his paw, “Without the shadows on the ground we would not know we existed. The light is what we crave but the light would not look so bright without the shadow of a cloud.”
“It is still scary,” Kayla said to him though she felt a little less afraid hearing his voice.
“Tell yourself you are not afraid,” he said to her stopping, “Close your eyes and say it to yourself over and over again and you shall not be.”
Kayla bit her lip a little before she stopped and closed her eyes. She began to whisper it to herself, ‘I am not afraid’, over and over again. Finally she stopped and open up her eyes. She thought the world would be darker but instead she could see better. There were shadows and the world was still dark but she could make out the barest of light better.
“Do you see it?” He asked looking at her as he brought a paw to her back.
“It is brighter now,” Kayla said and felt her fear melt away.
“There is always light even in the darkest places,” the Bear King told her before continuing on, “Remember this the next time the dark scares you.”
“I will,” Kayla replied and smiled to herself because she no longer felt as afraid.
“There it is,” the Bear King said pointing to a great hill.
“Eagle’s Point!” Kayla called and turned to her right. She pointed an exclaimed, “And there is the way home.”
“Go,” the Bear King said, “And remember.”
Kayla nodded as she flew past Eagle’s Point and through the woods. The thick bushes grabbed at her clothes as she ran but she hardly minded. She looked up and the eagle streaked across the sky to brighten her path. She waved at her as she ran.
“Kayla!” A voice called as the world became hazy.
Kayla’s eyes snapped open and she sat up. Her hair danced around her head in a wild array of curls. She glanced to the right and then to the left remembering that she had fallen asleep in her grandmother’s room. Hurrying out of the blankets she jumped off of the bed.
“Kayla, breakfast,” she heard her grandmother call.
Kayla was smiling to herself at the wonderful dream she had had when there was a tap on the window. She glanced round and there was a raven tapping at the glass. The moment she saw him he cawed at her again and she swore it sounded like ‘remember.’ Before she could respond the bird spread his wings and flew away and Kayla was left wondering if it was really a dream or something else.
“Grandma!” She called and began to run towards the kitchen to tell her about the dream that might not have been just a dream. That and steal some bread to leave for the raven. It is always best to be generous, Kayla decided as her feet slapped against the wood floor, and to remember the light instead of the dark.
This is a short story I wrote for the Writer's guild contest. The cover is Fancy a Fairytale and I've decided to go back to my roots and do an Alaskan tale.