The giant forests of Lapland are a good place for brown bears. They are not such a good place to lose a child.
They had pulled the station-wagon to the side of the road to take a break on their way to Santa Land, through the Pyhä-Luosto National Park.
The family ate in the car, the coffee from the thermos steaming up the windows. All around them was the sound of melting snow, thudding down from the branches of the spruce and pine trees. “I don’t like the sandwich,” said the little girl in the back seat, squashed between her two brothers. “It’s reindeer.”
“Eat it,” said the mother wearily. “It’s a while before we get there. Poronkusema times ten. Anyway, the reindeer is already dead, darling.”
“I want to pee,” said the child, and clambered across her brother’s lap. He opened the door. “Look out for wolves,” he said, grinning. “Go with her,” said their father. “No way,” said the brother, frowning because he couldn’t get a signal on his gaming App. “She’ll be fine.”
“Who wants to see Santa, anyhow,” grumbled the other brother, stretching and yawning. “There’s no such thing.”
“Saila believes in Santa,” said her mother. “And don’t you spoil it for her.”
The child had already disappeared through the snow, plodding into the shadows of the towering trees. “Go with her, there might be bears,” said the mother, frowning. “No bears,” said the father. “There’s hardly any left and even if there is, they’ll be hibernating by now.”
After a few minutes, the mother sighed and climbed out of the driver’s seat. She stretched and yawned, peering towards the luminous green light of the forest, where the sun was barely filtering through the branches. “Saila?” she called, hesitantly at first and then with a sense of urgency.
There was no reply.
Deep in the forest, the little girl was following a small bird. A blue throat. It trilled and hopped from branch to branch and she followed. Under the trees, the snow was sparse and her feet crunched on the frozen pine needles. She kicked a pine cone and giggled when it hit a trunk. Then the trunk turned.
It was a brown bear. Standing taller than her father, the bear looked at Saila and she looked back. “I’m sorry, bear,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Saila looked sad. Then she said, “They killed your friend and put him over the fireplace in the hotel. It made me cry. Are you sad, bear?”
The bear was very still. She was standing in a grove of silver birches. Suddenly she dropped onto all fours, never taking her eyes off the child.
She seemed to sense that there was no danger from this small human being, standing so upright, looking at her so fearlessly.
Saila dug in her pocket. “Here,” she said. She tossed the remains of her sandwich in front of her. “You have it. It’s not very nice. It’s reindeer.”
The bear didn’t move. Saila took a step backwards, just to be polite. “It’s alright, you have it,” she said, gesturing towards the sandwich.
The bear looked at the sandwich. “Are you sure?” she said, in a rumbling voice. “Yes, really,” said Saila and smiled.
“You are kind, child,” said the bear. She moved forward carefully and sniffed the sandwich. “I prefer berries,” she said in her curious growling voice. “But before the Big Sleep, all food is good.” She devoured the sandwich. “Do you have anything else to eat?” said the bear in a low voice.
“I’m so sorry,” said Saila. “Nothing else.” All around them, the silver birches shivered although there was no wind. “I must go now, bear,” said Saila. “My mother will wonder where I am.”
“Must you go?” said the bear. The silver birches shimmered and whispered. There was a strange light in the bear’s eyes. Saila was clothed in innocence. She stood, upright and fearless, her white-blonde hair sparkled silver with frost, her breath surrounding her in a cloak of mystery.
She curtseyed to the bear. “Goodbye, bear,” she said and she turned her back.
“That is not a good idea,” said the bear. “You might come to harm in this deep forest. There are wolves. I shall walk you to find your mother.”
“I’m not sure I know the way back,” Saila said.
“Then I will show you,” said the bear. “Follow your footprints and I will walk with you. You are too small to be alone.”
The great creature moved slowly towards Saila and then past her. There was a fragrance of pine and warm, wet fur. It was a strange smell but also comforting. They walked side by side, the silver child and the great bear. Soon they could hear the frantic calling of her family.
“This is where we must part,” said the bear gravely.
“What is your name?” said the little girl. “I am Saila.”
“And I am the mother of Otso, the great bear,” said the old brown bear. She turned on all fours, and then stood upright and walked into the forest. For one moment, she didn’t look much like a bear at all.
Saila watched her disappear into the shadows and then she ran out into the clearing. The car was empty, doors wide open, because her parents and her brothers were running up and down the road, calling her name into the forest.
“Here I am,” she called. The family turned disbelievingly and stared at her before they all started shouting at her, and then at one another, laughing and cheering, as if she had done something wonderful.
She had. Of course, she had. They would never believe her, she thought, just as they didn’t believe in Santa Claus. But she, Saila the brave, the fearless, the silver child. She believed in the magic and so it was.
For Katherine Soutar
26 June 2020
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