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The Hibernating Queen

The first summer I grew fur and gained fat around my slender limbs I was happy. I could hardly wait for the peacocks to arrive, and so I spent the days craning through my tower chamber’s window. When I finally saw my best friends soaring across the blue sky, I instantly rushed to greet them.

I’m the oldest and only daughter of the Hibernating Queen. I know every hall and hallway of the Cavernium Castle. My favorite place in the whole kingdom is the garden carved in the south side of the rugged gray mountain. The garden grows on a crescent shelf, and during the long, white summer days the grass grows lush and the topiaries cut to resemble bears rustle so loudly they hide all secrets. There is also a pond with orange-finned carp. I often feed them pastry crumbs. However, what I love the best is the peacock tree.

The peacock tree stands proud at the exact center of the garden. It’s a leafless oak, hollow with age, but with branches spreading out like a multitude of arms yearning to embrace you. But it isn’t the pure bareness or any of the previous that make the tree so beautiful to me.

It’s the peacocks that come visit the castle every summer, the birds wearing the most dashing greens and blues of the season. The sharp-witted dandies perch on the dry branches chattering and bantering the days through. Ever since I was a little cub, they’ve entertained me with anecdotes about their faraway homeland. I can see the lands they come from with my mind’s eye, but never with my own. I do like what I see: golden sandy beaches that stretch on forever, glittering turquoise sea with white-crested waves dancing in the distance, arching palm trees swaying in the gentle breeze that tastes of salt and jasmine.

But the summer I first grew fur was different. I felt it as soon as I entered the tunnel leading to the garden. The feeling strengthened as the sound of my steps echoed against the arching walls. It became overpowering when I reached the iron gates, and my paws did tremble as I unlocked the gates wrought to resemble birds whose necks curled around each other in an unnaturally elaborate manner. As I pressed the gates shut behind me, I attempted to evade this uneasiness by descending down to all fours and galloping to meet my best friends.

I failed utterly and miserably. As I dashed to the leafless tree, the peacocks paused their chattering. Their beady brown eyes widened as they turned to stare at me. Even as I slowed down to a waddle, then straightened up to two paws, they eyed me as if they didn’t recognize who I was.

I halted there before the tree and folded my paws behind my back. “It’s me, Karaval. Don’t you recognize me?”

The peacocks glanced at me, at each other, white beaks clicking melodically with the language they don’t share with other creatures, not even with me. Yet, it was obvious they thought me a crazed, grizzly bear, more like my late father than my sophisticated mother.

That hurt. After the dark winter months, I’d been looking forward to seeing my friends. I’d dreamed of the day I could flaunt them my gorgeous fur that gleamed like burnished copper. I’d practiced posing before my silver-coated mirrors, admiring my beautifully thickening limbs. I couldn’t wait to tell them that come next autumn, I’d get to hibernate with my mother rather than have to stay up in my chamber, reading books and carving statues with my claws like a furless cub!

“Val?” the bravest of the six peacocks sang at last.

One thing to note about the peacocks is that they don’t have names and they all look and sound the same. The color and pattern of their plumages might vary from year to year, but all of them always wear the same outfit. They call it fashion, a strange rule they must follow, though this means they’re pretty much impossible to tell apart. “What . . . ”

“ . . . have they done to you?” the second one continued where the first trailed off. This one perched on the thinnest top branch. The sun brushed his chest into a shade of blue that rivaled with that of the very sky.

“I’ve grown up,” I proudly announced, though their behavior was starting to mar my excitement. We hadn’t seen each other in half a year, and now they treated me like . . . not like a stranger, for then they’d have been more polite, but like they were somehow disappointed in me.

“You’re so silly!” I grabbed the lowest branch.

But something had indeed changed during the tedious winter months. Always before, I’d climbed the tree with ease, but now . . . I couldn’t haul myself up. And to make things worse, the hollow oak groaned so horrifyingly that the voluminous hair at the back of my neck jumped up.

“Val!” The peacocks shuffled their blue wings in apparent shock.

I tried and tried to pull myself up. I tread the air with my legs. I pulled, but my arms lacked strength. The tree continued complaining.

“Val, you’d better let go. You . . . ” The first peacock tilted his delicate head to left in a rather patronizing manner.

I gritted my teeth and hang onto the branch a while longer, even though my arms already ached. I was the heir to the Cavernium throne. One day I’d rule the whole kingdom. Who were the peacocks to tell me not to do something I wanted to do?

“ . . . you can’t join us anymore,” the second peacock sang.

The branch creaked again, and my hold would have slipped if it hadn’t been for my claws. Had the harsh winter hurt the oak? For never before had the tree made any sounds whatsoever. I asked through gritted teeth, “Why not?”

The peacocks chanted in unison. “You have changed. Yes! You are too heavy now.”

My hold on the branch slipped then, despite my claws, and I fell. When my feet thudded against the ground, the joy I’d felt for my new shape, the lovely plumpness embracing me, the thick brown fur that covered me from head to toe, evaporated.

“This summer your mother . . . ” the first peacock sang.

“ . . . will introduce you to the court . . . ” The second one made a pecking motion.

The third one whistled a sad little tune, “ . . . and she will marry you off.”

I was so insulted by the peacocks’ behavior that I avoided them for the next few weeks. I lingered in my tower chamber until my mother recovered from her hibernation and announced that there would be a feast to celebrate the beginning of the Feeding Season. This was the first time I was invited to an official court event. My heart swelled with excitement, but jolted with . . . The peacocks’ careless words had left their mark on me, and I did wonder; my mother had married young. She’d emerged from her first hibernation with me clinging to her tit.

Be it as it may, I trusted my mother more than the peacocks’ speculations. Naturally, I would marry at some point, but my mother wouldn’t go organizing a match behind my back. I knew her better than the peacocks did. I was after all her only cub.

And so that evening I brushed my fur until it shone and padded to the grand hall. I halted at the massive double doors, dazed by the sheer number of bears that had gathered to celebrate the Feeding Season. Nobles from near and far crowded the hall, great gray-furred bears with medals of honor pinned to their scarred chests, with fangs chipped in skirmishes, with broken claws reinforced with iron. But it wasn’t only the bears of war who’d come, but also golden-furred artist with lutes and flutes strapped against their backs, the most courageous ones of them already plucking melodies that chimed above the banter.

All sound ceased when my mother noticed me. She beamed at me from her seat at the end of the impossibly long table. Her fur shone black as starlit sky, already twice as thick as mine. She’d curled the locks around her face into ringlets. As she smiled, her curving fangs peeked out from behind her lips. I hovered by the door, for as I looked at her, at the finest bears of the kingdom, a thought crossed my mind. What if my mother had invited these bears here to . . .

My mother’s booming voice filled the hall, “It brings me a great pleasure to introduce you my daughter, Karaval!”

I fell into a deep curtsey. A small part of me wanted to flee, but a larger part wanted to stay. For the assembled nobles burst into cheers of awe and admiration. And I did like this attention. I curtsied to left and right, and my rich fur whooshed. I belonged into this hall, not in the garden. “The pleasure is all mine.”

As soon as I’d taken my seat at the other end of the table, opposite to my mother, the hairless servants draped in red brought in the silver trays laden with countless dishes. They lifted off domes to reveal venison and boar and trout and salmon and butter-crusted pies. They brought in ten different sorts of gravies, spicy sauces, and berry compotes. They piled next to them sweet pastries, pies, and multi-layered cakes. The long table bent under the thousand delicacies.

“Let the Feeding Season begin,” my mother announced, and she was met with cheers so loud that the beeswax candles in the chandeliers shivered wax on us and the tall windows in the roofline chimed.

My mother dug into the food, and thus began the Feeding Season that would last through the summer. The guests attacked the dishes, and overjoyed to participate in my first feast, I followed suit. I ate with them through the night, and never had there been a sweeter melody than that of the countless lips smacking, pastry crumbling under our claws, and grilled meat tearing from bones.

There was absolutely no talk of me marrying anyone at all.

I went to see the peacocks the next day, when my belly was still so full from feasting that I could only waddle. But as I reached the gates, I faltered to a halt. I was tired from staying up so late. Yet, what had left me more exhausted was shame. I’d thought ill of my mother, and the peacocks were to blame for that.

I spied the peacocks through the space between two interlocked iron necks. The peacocks perched on the hollow tree, singing joyful notes as if their beaks had never parted for a lie. Though they must have heard of the splendid feast, that there had been no talk whatsoever about me marrying, shame didn’t redden their cheeks. They weren’t sorry for their rude behavior. They wouldn’t apologize to me.

That summer, I didn’t go and see the peacocks again. I was going through a season of change. It was time to leave behind childish follies, climbing trees and talking with birds that only cared of how they looked. With each passing day, my fur and limbs thickened more. The gray-furred counts and generals my mother introduced to me admired my fine form. I laughed in delight as they rained down compliments on me.

Days and weeks and months passed. No one even mentioned marriage to me. I made sure not to bring up the topic, least I’d sound interested and my mother might get unduly inspired. The bottom line was that the peacocks had been wrong. It was a pity, really, that they couldn’t be happy for me. Perhaps they were only jealous of the attention I now received. That would explain why they’d been so mean.

When the winds grew cold, the peacocks left without as much as saying farewell. I watched them fly away from my tower chamber’s window. I waited for them to turn back, perhaps to come and peck the glass panes, to apologize so that I could forgive them, and then come next summer we could be friends again.

That didn’t happen. Instead, they disappeared in the distance until they were just insignificant blue specks against the vastness of the sky. A while later, there was a knock on my door. I knew what it meant. The time had come for me to follow my mother into hibernation. I dashed to my mirrors and checked my figure. I was beautifully lush and plump and perhaps a tad vain.

The clawless, hairless attendant in robes the color of autumn leaves escorted me to the throne room. I took my place next to my mother, excited to be part of the hibernation procession for the very first time. My mother’s smile revealed her white fangs. She took my paw in hers and gently squeezed it. “Are you ready?”

She’d been married to my father upon her first hibernation. She’d emerged from it with me by her side. I was still free. I wouldn’t be bearing cubs this winter. Yet I was just a little bit nervous about the prospect of going to sleep for months.

“I am,” I said, loud and clear. It was time I stopped fretting about the peacocks, a fancy of my cub-time. I was an adult now, and I had to concentrate on more important things. I would hibernate through the winter and emerge with my mind cleared by the long sleep.

“Good,” my mother replied.

The hibernation procession coiled though the castle, from the throne room through countless tall halls and hallways, down many, many spiraling stairways, toward the heart of the gray mountain. High-ranking nobles followed behind my mother and me, and behind them came the lesser members of the court. Hairless servants and cubs who had to stay up for the winter followed our passage from a respectful distance. Musicians played brass horns, summoning melodies that vibrated my bones. I felt proud, excited, but also nervous.

If it hadn’t been for my mother holding my paw, I might have faltered and stumbled on my own feet. I was about to go to sleep for months. I wasn’t entirely without fear.

The deeper we descended, the smaller the procession became as nobles retreated to their own hibernation chambers. Eventually, only my mother and I and a handful of hairless servants remained. We came to a windowless, oval-shaped chamber lit with torches that flickered in the persistent draught. As my eyes got accustomed to the bleak dimness, I could make out three doors.

Two of the doors were open. They revealed luxurious hibernating chambers encrusted with gemstones and furnished with velvet. One was dressed in gold. It was for my mother. The other was furnished with silver. It was for me.

But it was the third door, narrow and plain, that both frightened and intrigued me. Why was the door closed? Who was the chamber behind meant for? Though I probably should have remained silent, I whispered to my mother, “Where does that door lead?”

“That is not for you to worry about, my dear obedient daughter.”

I knew when to refrain from asking more questions.

My mother escorted me to my hibernation chamber. She sat next to me on the plush bed and wrapped her arm around my shoulder. I didn’t feel at all sleepy, and this did unnerve me. For what if I wouldn’t fall asleep? What if the attendants were to seal me in for the winter, and somehow, impossibly, I’d remain awake? I shuddered at this thought.

My mother studied me from under her gorgeously thick black brows. I didn’t want her to think me a weakling, and so I took a deep breath and lay down on the bed. My mother drew the velvet coverlets over me and tugged the corners in. She beamed down at me.

“What do I do now?” I asked.

She replied, “You close your eyes.”

“But what if . . . ” The words slipped out from between my fangs.

“You will fall asleep.” My mother kissed my forehead.

I nodded, despite my growing dread. More questions would only bring me more shame.

After my mother left my chamber, the servants closed the door. There were no lamps in the room, and so I closed my eyes. I could hear the servants sealing the chamber with clay. My heart thudded with primal fear.

But then, against all odds, I did feel tired and fell fast asleep.

I woke up to the sound of clay cracking. I’d dreamed unfathomably deep, and months had passed without me even noticing. That left me feeling . . . fooled and somehow exposed. I shivered as I thought of it.

The door squealed open, and light flooded in. I blinked furiously for my eyes had grown accustomed to dark. I attempted to get up from the bed, but my limbs wouldn’t obey. They weren’t numb as such, only weak. I’d lost everything I’d gained the previous summer.

Two shapes draped in blue entered the chamber. They were hairless servants who’d stayed awake through the winter. They greeted me in unison, “Honored Karaval, welcome back from the sleep.”

I growled before I could stop myself. My tongue had apparently forgot how to form words. I wondered what else my body had forgot. A bear of the noble bloodline wasn’t supposed to be this vulnerable!

“We are here to assist you back to your chamber.”

I refrained from answering other than politely nodding.

The attendants offered me a cup of honey mead. They held it up to my lips so that I could sip if I so pleased. And I did so please. My mouth was parched. Throat too. With each drop I swallowed, life returned to my body. I pushed fast aside the shameful thoughts that had crossed my groggy mind.

After I finished drinking, the attendants assisted me to a curtained palanquin. I must have taken longer to recover than my mother, for she already waited in hers with the gold-sequined curtains drawn down. I knew I looked shabby. The curtains were there to protect us from the curious gazes of the court.

The palanquin was surprisingly comfortable. As it swayed with the servants’ steps, I dozed off. I dreamed of the feasts to come, but also of . . . darkness I couldn’t quite identify. Tightness around my wrists and ankles. Something hard and slick snaking down my throat, all the way to my stomach. I jerked awake, gasping for breath.

A steaming hot bath waited me in my chamber. Two clawless old women scrubbed me clean, and afterward I lingered in the water that smelled of lavender and lemon. I wondered at my limbs, so svelte and narrow under my thinning winter coat. It would take me months and months to regain the glorious shape I’d hold the previous autumn. And then I’d have to hibernate again, and lose it all.

I told myself that that was the way my kind led our lives. We feasted the summers and slept the winters. Shame on me for entertaining even in passing the thought that I could somehow remain unchanged through the seasons!

In the weeks that followed the waking up, I recovered slowly. My fur came off in thick brown patches. It stuck to my sheets and to the chairs and lead to many embarrassing incidents. Underneath my shedding fur, my skin was milky white and translucent. Bones protruded through my skin. I could count my ribs.

Ashamed and horrified of how I looked, I remained in my chamber, carving wooden statues with my claws and re-reading all the books I owned. I understood at last why my mother would visit me only during the summer months. We needed time to recover from the hibernation. But as the spring days lengthened and I remained skinny, I couldn’t stop thinking of what the peacocks would say if they saw me now.

A hairless, clawless servant came to inform me that the peacocks had returned. They must have flown in through a different route, because I hadn’t glimpsed them from my window. Either they feared I was still upset with them—as if I were that childish—or then they were upset with me. Which would be even more childish.

Be it as it may, there was only one way to find out for sure. During my recovery, I’d read every book in my chamber twice and finished three separate carvings depicting the heroics of my late father, the Great Grizzly. I was bored out of my mind, and it was still weeks until the Feeding Season would begin.

When I entered the tunnel leading to the garden, I dreaded what I’d encounter. I remembered all too well the unease I’d felt the previous spring. But now it was gone. Truly gone. I felt like laughing, but as I was an adult now I merely smiled mysteriously.

The peacocks strolled by the pond. They sported feathery crowns atop their delicate heads. Their necks were slender and blue and their tails were lavish green. The winter had left me weak and ugly, but it had made them even more beautiful. How I could have ever been mad at them, I suddenly couldn’t remember.

“Greetings, my friends,” I called at the birds.

The peacocks turned to look at me. The bird closest to the pond craned his head, beady brown eyes gleaming with . . . admiration? “Why, who is this creature come to meet us?”

“With limbs like a young willow’s branches,” a second peacock sang.

“So visible for us to admire.” A third whistled an elongated happy note.

With the song finished, the peacocks dashed to me. They fanned their marvelous wings and tails, and an exquisite susurrus of feathers filled the garden. I giggled despite myself as the peacocks swarmed around me. They kissed my bony feet. They brushed their wings against my twig-like arms. They curled their necks around my horridly narrow waist. As they did so, they oohed and aahed.

“Beautiful . . . ”

“ . . . Val is . . . ”

“ . . . back with us!”

“Not married off . . . ”

“ . . . to a mountain lord . . . ”

“ . . . bearing his cub in her little belly.”

They as much as admitted to being wrong! I laughed unashamedly, and my laughter chimed across the garden. It rode with the breeze, far away, past the snow-capped peaks. I was so very happy. I was with my friends, and there was no grudge between us anymore.

Sensing that I was still weak from my hibernation, the peacocks ushered me toward a bench carved from black-speckled granite. Grateful, I sat down. As there was no one else around, I tangled my feet in the cool water. Carp swam slow circles around my feet. The most courageous ones nibbled my toes. I laughed at that, and the peacocks laughed with me. Not at me.

“How was it?” a peacock asked. He might have been the one who spoke to me first. Or he might have been someone else altogether.

“Tell us, Val . . . ” another peacock sang.

“ . . . tell us,” the rest joined the chorus.

I tensed as I thought of the dark emptiness. The carp scattered away. The bear-shaped topiaries rustled. The peacocks stared at me, beady eyes bulging with curiosity. Could I entrust my friends the secret that weighted my heart and mind alike?

I whispered, “I hated it.”

The peacock closest to me lowered his head on my lap. He blinked slowly. “Why?”

I studied the peacocks for a long while, my friends that knew only joy. Their life was different. They idled their summers in the shelter of my garden. They enjoyed the winters in their distant homeland. The led their lives so that they got the best of both worlds. But I was born a bear. All choices had been made for me already.

I waited until the wind intensified and the topiaries hid my words. “It felt as if I had ceased to be.”

“Val, beautiful Val!” One of the peacocks waded into the water, deep enough to float. He paddled to me, neck curled like a question mark. “Will you do it again next year?

I was the heir to the throne. I had to follow the traditions. But I hated how petulant I sounded. “I have to.”

“Do you indeed?” the peacock with his head on my lap shifted so that he could stare me squarely in the eye. The others nodded in chorus. Their feathers shimmered in the sunlight. “You could always come with us.”

I laughed, for they had to be joking. “I possibly couldn’t!”

The Feeding Season started with the grandest dinner I’d ever participated. The silver trays were so wide it took two servants to carry one. The domes covering the dishes were so heavy that they had to use special contraption of ropes looped around the ceiling beams to lift them off. But what a feast awaited underneath! Boars grilled whole. Venison prepared to perfect tenderness. Fish roasted to glorious, flaking pinkness. There was sourdough bread with nuts and raisins and honey-glazed pastries in more varieties than I cared to count.

Oh, how we feasted that night!

It was only after my belly was so full that I dreaded it might actually burst that I noticed a curious thing. The two guests closest to me seemed very nervous. They continuously patted their mouths with their napkins and ran claws through their teeth as if to ensure that nothing had gotten stuck to their fangs. They fidgeted with the cutlery, though they’d finished eating. They shifted in their chairs as if uncertain whether to stay or leave.

I glanced at my mother, seeking for guidance. She merely smiled gently at me. What could I say?

I belched as is polite in these circumstances. “What a splendid dinner that was!”

“That it was.” The bear to my left, a general with a furless line crossing his face, a scar from a battle that had brought him much honor, nodded in full approval. He’d waited for me to speak first, it seemed. “Honored Karaval, if I may speak with you.”

“You may,” I replied, for what else could I say?

“If we may inquire,” the gray bear to my right, a wealthy aristocrat with golden chains layered around his neck, jumped in. It was as if he were afraid he’d lose the chance to talk to me if he didn’t utter the words immediately.

“Yes?” I patted my belly, for I had eaten and drank so much that it hurt to think, let alone speak. Oh what, oh what could have made these two grown bears so nervous? My mother wasn’t a particularly harsh ruler. Demanding yes, but fair as well. Hardly ever feral.

“Seeing that you don’t have a cub yet, we were just pondering . . . ” the general turned his head aside shyly. His cheeks were positively bushy with fur.

This pause was what the aristocrat had clearly been waiting for, for he hastened to continue, “If it’s really so that you have yet to choose yourself a husband!”

I burst into laughter. How absurd of them to ask this! I’d just woken up from my first hibernation! Of course I hadn’t yet married or had a cub! I wouldn’t do so in years! I laughed so long and hard that my stomach cramped, so loudly that everyone around the table turned to look at me, including my mother.

I stifled the giggles the best I could. My mother looked so very serious.

“What is it that you find so amusing, my dear daughter?” she asked, pushing her plate aside. It clinked against one of the silver trays. “Would you not share it with the rest of us?”

The general and aristocrat glanced at me, at my mother, as if dreading what I might say. A giggle escaped my lips as I thought of what they’d dared to suggest. I was about to repeat their words, regardless that this would bring shame upon them. But then I realized a curious thing. My mother and I were the only women around the table. All of our guests were men I knew by name and status. None of them were married.

“Well?” my mother prompted me.

Coldness such as I’d never felt before swirled in the pit of my belly. It was I who had made a fool of myself, not our two guests. I’d let myself believe that nothing was expected from me when everyone knew what awaited me. I cleared my throat, forcing my voice as steady as I could. “It was a most amusing anecdote. I couldn’t possibly repeat it as well as it deserves to be told.”

“Is that so?” my mother asked.

I glanced at the general, desperately hoping he’d save me from further humiliation. His eyes glinted black, and his grin revealed his battle-crooked fangs. “If I may?”

I shivered despite myself. The peacocks had been right. My mother wanted to marry me off, and there was nothing I could do about it. “Yes. You may.”

After the dinner that lasted too long, I dashed to the garden. My steps slipped on the night-moist grass. The sky, though scattered with stars and stardust, was somehow darker than before. The peacocks were still up. I could hear their laughter from afar. Closer, I could smell the sweet wine they preferred. They were as they’d always been. They didn’t have to change.

“Hush,” one of the peacocks sang. “I hear someone approaching.”

“Who goes there?” the rest of them chanted. “Who goes there? Go away. We aren’t tasty!”

“Hush,” I called back at them. How silly they acted! “It’s only me, Val.”

The peacocks whispered at each other, silent notes not meant for my ears. Their feathers rustled as they hopped onto the lower branches. As I reached the tree, their tails brushed against my shoulders. I blinked back tears.

“What is it?” a peacock asked.

I should never have doubted my friends. The truth had been there for me to see all along. “You were right.”

I expected them to whistle victorious notes at each other. But instead, they lowered their heads toward me. They pressed their beaks against the top of my head, burying them in my short brown fur.

“Climb up,” the first peacock said.

I shook my head. I was an adult now. I would only break the branches.

“Climb up,” the peacock repeated. “You are still light enough.”

I didn’t have the strength to resist a direct order, and though I was sure I wouldn’t have the strength to climb up either, I half-heartedly grabbed the lowest branch. Much to my surprise, I could haul myself up with ease.

“Tell us more.” The peacock sharing the branch with me pressed his warm body against mine.

My kind carries our cubs during the long winter months. The younger we do so, the more likely the cub is to survive. As I’m the heir to the throne . . . “My mother means to marry me off and have me bearing cubs.”

“Do you not want to marry?” a peacock higher up in the tree asked.

I thought about it, and the answer was clear. I really wasn’t looking forward to hibernating again, and I certainly didn’t want to bear any cubs. Not yet. Perhaps not ever. “Not really.”

“Then don’t,” the peacock closest to me sang.

“I don’t think that’s an option.”

“If you really don’t want to marry . . . ” the peacock above me whistled.

“ . . . you could always come with us,” another one joined in the tune.

I laughed at the idea. Had it escaped them that I had no wings? I couldn’t possibly keep up with them, even if I were to run on all fours. Their homeland was far away, separated from mine by an ocean.

“It wasn’t a joke,” the peacock perching near the top of the tree sang. “But you would have to be lighter. Much lighter than you are now.”

I tangled my legs in the air. The Feeding Season had only begun. I’d barely started regaining weight. My fur was still thin, but it would soon thicken. I might be able to refrain from eating and hide the changes in my body under my fur. But how would the peacocks fly me away?

I asked as much, “How would you do it?”

The peacock closest to me pressed his head against my heart. “We’d weave a basket from our feathers.”

“We’d carry it in turns,” the peacock above me whistled.

They sang in unison, “All the way to our home.”

That night, I tossed and turned in my bed, agonizing over the unfairness that was my life. But when the morning came, I knew what I would do. Marriage meant committing to yearly hibernation, and even worse, bearing cubs. I wasn’t ready for any of that.

For the peacocks’ plan to succeed, I’d have to become as light as I possibly could. It seemed like an impossible task, but I embraced it with the determination of a desperate beast. If I needed to be just skin and bones to get away from the castle, then skin and bones I’d become. I’d learn to cherish hunger. It wouldn’t be my enemy, but a friend I could trust.

I devised cunning routines to hide my transformation from the servants and my mother. I ordered the servants to bring my breakfast into my room. I nibbled only a morsel or two as I fed the rest to the sparrows and magpies that happily flocked to my windowsill. I took my lunches in the garden. The cooks prepared me a basket after basket of treats. I buried the sausages and mince-meat pies under the bear-shaped topiaries, and they did grow thick that summer. The bread rolls I fed to the carp that soon turned plump and lazy. The rest of my lunches I disposed over the garden’s edge, into the abyss that waited below.

The true challenge were the dinners that my mother held every evening. I sat dutifully at the end of the table and listened to the tales of my gathered suitors, pretending utmost interest. It was important for my mother to believe that I was considering which one of them to marry. For if I would have protested against the idea, she would have surely just picked one for me, and there would have been no escaping my fate.

But I did hate those evenings. As the guests crammed food down their throats, I had to do likewise. Failing to do so would have only roused questions.

And everything was so tasty, so sweet and savory. After fasting through the day, I couldn’t hold back myself. I swallowed pies and pastries whole. I drank full pitchers of honey mead. I ate until my stomach ached, until I burbed. My mother gazed at me from the other side of the table, nodding in approval.

She thought me preparing for the winter, marriage, and inevitable hibernation. But little did she know that once I retreated to my tower and locked the door, I kneeled before my chamber pot and vomited everything I’d devoured.

That summer, I wilted away slowly but surely. Contrary to my expectations, I soon got used to the growling of my stomach, the hollow pit inside me. My fur grew long, but not as lush as it had been the year before. It hid the bones that poked prominently through my skin.

When the first cold nights blanketed the garden with frozen mist, I hopped through the grass for I felt so light that I could simply float away. My limbs had thinned to the extreme, and my stomach curved steeply inward.

When the peacocks saw me approaching, they paused weaving the basket. At their feet lay scattered shafts of feathers, tufts of green and blue. Though they’d plucked the feathers from their own backs, they seemed cheerful enough. “Val! Val! We’re almost ready!”

Their words consoled me greatly. I lived in constant hunger and fear. I dreaded that someone would learn of my plan, that mother would realized that under my fur I was thinner than a scrawny cub. And at the same time, I took great pride in this achievement.

But it didn’t come without a price. As I had diminished, the peacocks’ plumages had wilted. Though they followed a careful plucking plan, their once magnificent tails had thinned. They had bald spots under their bellies. Their crowns were gone, woven into the basket.

“When can we leave?” I asked, nervous.

One of the peacocks paused weaving. “Come to us . . . ”

Another one sang, “ . . . tomorrow . . . ”

“ . . . at dawn,” they finished together.

I smiled as luminously as I’d ever smiled. How could I have ever doubted their friendship? The peacocks were weaving the basket from themselves. They were risking their ability to fly for me. And more.

“So soon,” I whispered. But in my heart, I feared that it might not be soon enough.

“Soon,” the peacocks sang, flapping their tattered wings. “Soon!”

It was then that I heard the unmistakable squeal of iron, the garden gates opening. I spun around to better see, but the topiaries blocked the view to the tunnel. We were in luck. “Someone is coming.”

“Go,” the peacocks sang. “Keep them away. Away.”

I ran to the gates to give the peacocks time to hide the basket that would carry me away from this castle and the fate that awaited me here.

My mother stood on two feet by the gates—I recognized her glorious black shape from afar. She smelled me before she saw me. She had her head raised high, and her nostrils flared.

“There you are, Karaval.”

I curtsied at her, riveting my attention to my bony knees. I shouldn’t as much as even glance at the peacocks. “Yes. Here I am.”

My mother sniffed at the air once more. She’d never displayed much interest toward the garden or the peacocks—to her, they were just ornaments. To my relief, she didn’t seem suspicious or concerned by what she’d smelled, for she nodded toward the gates. “Come with me, daughter.”

As my mother led me through the arching tunnel, she studied me from the corner of her eye. I knew that look. She was displeased with me.

“I married your father, a great general chosen by my parents, the very first summer I grew fur, and when I emerged from that hibernation, it was with an heir to the throne.”

“Yes, mother,” I replied in a suitably demure voice. I could already see where this conversation was leading. Well, it was a wonder really that she’d waited for this long!

“You have now been introduced to every available gentlemen of this realm. Have you met anyone to your liking?”

I gritted my teeth. Though plenty enough of the suitors were perfectly nice, nice wasn’t enough to commit myself into a cycle of hibernation and bearing cubs.

“I take that as a no.” My mother shook her head, and there was no mistaking her disappointment. She continued in a much lower tone, barely more than a growl, “Give a cub the freedom to choose and . . . ”

Lacking any other option, I followed my mother back to the castle, to the stairs that led up to the throne room and down to the hibernation chambers. Seeing us approach, the servants quickly scattered. Soon, I was alone with my mother, and that did fill my heart with dread. What if she’d seen through my plan? Could there be any other reason for this discussion?

I chided myself. Of course there was. Had I not been listening? She wanted me to favor one of the suitors over the others.

“Dear Karaval . . . ” My mother halted and shifted to place her paws on my shoulders. I was too late to realize her intention, too late to step aside. My mother’s eyes widened, and her lips drew up and back as she felt the bony ridges under my fur. “Karaval!”

I wanted to evade her gaze, failed. She locked eyes with me. There was no hiding from her scrutiny. She took in my diminished shape, the lusterless fur that cling to my bones. Eventually, she said, “You are not well.”

I brushed her paws away. “I’m perfectly fine. Really. I am.”

My mother shook her head slowly. I could sense the servants eavesdropping on us. I burned with shame.

“That you are not. Your cheeks are hollow. Your shoulders are bony. Your . . . ” She grabbed my arm into a vicious grip. “Even your arms are thin.”

I knew better than to attempt to free my hand. Instead, I furiously thought through my options. There was no hiding my thinness from her anymore. What could I say to distract her from what I was really trying to hide? Then a solution dawned at me, and I could hardly refrain from beaming.

“I’ve been eating as much as I can! You’ve seen that for yourself! Perhaps I’m . . . ill.” And perhaps I suggested a bit too triumphantly, “Perhaps I’m not fit to hibernate this year.”

My mother set forward, still holding onto my arm. I could either let her drag me with her or follow her. I opted for the latter.

“If that is the case,” she said, “then we shall have a doctor attend to you the soonest.”

A doctor did visit me that very same evening, and it was awfully embarrassing. The gnarly old bear peeked into my eyes and ears. He looked down my throat and smelled my breath. He poked me through the fur and measured my waist and arms and legs. He muttered to himself as he scrawled down each number into a leather notebook. He eyed me with pity I didn’t want to see. Even less, I wanted my mother to be present, witnessing this humiliation.

Eventually, the doctor clasped his black briefcase shut. “I have concluded the examination.”

“Well, what is wrong with my daughter?”

I stared at the carpet, praying that the doctor had found something genuinely wrong with me, that he’d announce me unfit for hibernation, that he’d say there was no way I could bear cubs. That it wasn’t my fault I had so diminished, but that there existed a true cause.

The doctor glanced at me, then at my mother. “She simply needs to eat more.”

“I do eat a lot!” I protested, only partially lying. “I love eating! I haven’t missed a single feast!”

My mother waved me silent with an imperative swipe of her paw. “Be silent, cub.”

The doctor backed deferentially away from my mother, but I held my ground. I was no hairless cub. My mother had no right to call me names. I was about to say so, but then . . .

“Could it be that she is doing this”—my mother eyed me from head to toe from under her arched brows—“on purpose?”

The doctor wrinkled his glistening black nose. He consulted his notes. He glanced at the numbers, then me. “It is not unheard of for a girl-cub to attempt such.”

Their speculating gazes made my skin crawl. I wanted to dash away from the room—my room!— and never return. But that would have been as much as to admit being caught red-pawed. I cried out, “Why would I do such?”

“Why indeed,” my mother mused. She ran a claw against her fangs. Then she went on to converse with the doctor in hushed growls as if I weren’t present at all. But I was, and I did catch a few words.

The doctor saying, “Talk with the servants . . . ”

From my mother’s lips. “ . . . fit to hibernate?”

Then, the doctor speaking without bothering to lower his voice, “There are ways.”

“You will wait here.” And with that said, my mother and the doctor left the room.

I locked the door behind them. I didn’t want to think of what they’d do next. They’d interrogate the servants, no doubt. Would they go and talk with the peacocks?

It really didn’t matter anymore if they found out that I wasn’t eating. But if they learnt of the basket, that I planned to run away from home for good. That wouldn’t end well for any of us. My mother might order the peacocks plucked. Or even roasted.

There are three possible endings to this story.

In the first, I shave off my fur and flee my chamber that night. The peacocks carry me away in a basket woven of their own feathers, into their faraway homeland where the wind is always warm.

There, I never grow fur. I never return home. But sometimes I see terrible nightmares of the things I left behind.

In the second one, I remain in my chamber, there to consider my options. I’m afraid that fleeing will mark me a coward. I think that my mother can’t force me to hibernate, that she will let me remain awake.

But that very night my mother rouses me from the bed and marches me down the endless stairways. I don’t dare to resists her, for she has her claws pressed tight around my arm.

The doctor waits us in the hibernation hall. The ominous third door is open. It’s so dim in the hall that I see the bed with leather straps too late.

They drag me into the room and strap me down on the bed. I scream and beg them to stop. I try to reason with them. I’m too scrawny, and my fur isn’t thick enough. I won’t survive the winter. I will never wake up.

They ignore my pleas. The doctor forces a tube down my throat, and this tube pumps fat into my body. My body swells and swells until it’s not possible for it to swell more.

That winter I don’t sleep. Little by little, my resistance crumbles, and by the time the spring comes, I’m ready to marry anyone. Anyone at all my mother picks for me.

In the third one, I don’t know which one of the two endings came to pass.

About the Author

Leena Likitalo is a writer from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. She’s a Writers of the Future 2014 winner and Clarion San Diego graduate. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge. She’s recently finished writing a fantasy novel, The Five Daughters of the Moon, and dreams of being a published novelist one day. Read more about her in