written by Laura Beasley
There was once a widowed king with one precious daughter whom he protected to the point of captivity within his castle grounds. She could never run in the sunshine through wildflowers or walk along the pebbled paths as the moon rose in the evening. She could never see the endless sky filled with the stars at night. The young girl was watched by her nurse, her governess and her tutors. Although the servants provided loving care, they obeyed the royal command: the princess never left the castle.
As she became older, the princess chafed against these restrictions. As her fourteenth birthday neared, she begged and pleaded with her father, “Please, won’t you let me go outside in the sunshine? Can’t I go out to play? To toss rocks in the stream? Can’t I climb the trees?”
The king refused. For her birthday, he gave her a golden dress that shone as brightly as the sunshine.
Before turning fifteen, she argued, “I understand, Father, that I am not allowed to go out in the daylight. What if I went outside in the evening when the moon is rising? I could walk along the path and hear the owls and the night animals coming out. Couldn’t you let me go out in the moonlight, Father?”
The king refused this request as well. He gave his daughter another dress. This silver dress shone and shimmered like moonlight.
In the days before her sixteenth birthday, she entreated, “Father, I understand and respect your limits. I cannot go outside the castle walls during the daylight. I cannot go out in the evening. Couldn’t you just let me peek out one night so that I would be able to see the sparkling stars in the dark night sky? When I look out of my tiny tower window, the view is so restricted I can barely see anything. Wouldn’t you let me go out one night to see the stars?”
The king refused, but he gave her a dress that sparkled like the starlight. The captive teenager was miserable. As her seventeenth birthday grew nearer, she was reluctant to confront her father. He had denied each and every one of her desires. Her old nurse suggested, “Ask your father for a wheelbarrow and a bearskin. He will not refuse to give you such simple things.”
As predicted, the king gave the princess what she had requested. The old nurse revealed her secret identity to her beloved charge. “I am a wise woman and a witch, and I am willing to help you. Do you really want to escape the castle? Are you ready to leave your father?”
The princess nodded in assent.
“Very well, my dear, first we must pack up your dresses for you may yet need such beautiful garments,” said the old woman.
The witch pulled three hollow walnut shells from the folds of her cloak. They rolled up the dress that shone as brightly as the sunshine so that it fit inside the walnut shell. The dress that shimmered like the moonlight was folded, rolled, squeezed, and pushed into another nut. The dress that sparkled like the stars was crammed, pushed, and smashed until it fit into the third shell. All three walnut caskets were placed in the bottom of the wheelbarrow. The witch told the girl, “And now, my dear princess, you must sit in the wheelbarrow.”
The princess did as she was told. Her beloved nurse draped the bearskin over the shoulders of the princess while singing an enchantment. When the bearskin was wrapped around her skin, the girl was transformed into a bear. The witch took out her magic wand and tapped the wheelbarrow three times. Her magic made the wheelbarrow move of its own accord. The old woman opened a door into the courtyard, and the palace guards jumped back as a bear in a wheelbarrow sped across the castle courtyard. They heard the old woman cry, “Open the gate! Open the gate! Let the monster escape!”
The guards were so amazed and frightened to see the horrid creature that they complied without thinking. Before anyone could blink, the bear in the wheelbarrow was rushing through the opened gates. She rode along the Royal Road over the hills and down the hills, across the pastures and over the plains, over the mountains and into a forest. The princess disguised as bear was whizzing along when she ran into a tree. The wheelbarrow was splintered. The bear princess, unhurt but overwhelmed, sat dazed and moaning. The baying of distant hounds stimulated the bear to find and secure the three walnuts. Before the bear could escape, it was surrounded by a pack of dogs. A prince who had been hunting in this forest rode up, astonished to hear a bear pleading, “Don’t hurt me, I haven’t harmed you.”
“Why you’re a bear who can speak! I must take you to meet my mother, the Queen.”
The queen was impressed with the bear which could not only speak but also cook and keep house. The bear was made a royal servant who did menial work in the castle: cleaning, sweeping, putting things away and serving food.
When the bear had finished the chores, it would lie under the dining room table, rolling about and muttering to itself. The queen adored the bear, but the prince despised it. He complained that the bear was always teasing him and making sarcastic comments. Exasperated by these insults, the prince would try to kick it. The bear always rolled out of reach before the boot could connect with its nose. One morning the queen spoke to the prince in that tone mothers use, “You know son, there is going to be a gala three-day ball in the neighboring castle. You really should go to the party. It is an opportunity to meet the right sort of young women.”
“All right, Mother, I guess I will go,” sighed the reluctant prince.
Under the table, the bear muttered, “Sure he might go to the party, but he’d be too embarrassed and shy to ask anyone to dance.”
The prince growled and kicked out with his foot. As usual, the bear rolled out of reach. That night when he went to the ball, the prince was determined to prove that the bear was wrong. He searched face after, face finding no one to dance with. His interest was sparked when a beautiful princess with gentle brown eyes entered the ballroom; she was wearing a dress as sparkling as the sunshine. He asked her to dance, and they whirled about the ballroom floor, gazing into each others’ eyes with a sense of closeness and special understanding.
The prince spoke to his mother the next morning, “I am so excited that there is a second night of the ball. I danced with someone special last night. She was so wonderful, and I can’t wait to see her again. I hope she’s there tonight!”
“Sure, you danced with someone,” muttered the bear. “But you didn’t bother to talk with her. You’re too shy to say anything. You’re just a coward!”
The prince kicked out, “Leave me alone, bear.” The animal rolled away.
On the second night of the ball, the prince found the same girl wearing a dress that shone and shimmered like moonbeams. He spent every moment with the brown-eyed girl. The next morning, he said, “I did talk to that special girl. I told her all of my dreams, all of my wishes, and all of my hopes. I told her all about my past and my present. We talked and talked and talked.”
Before the queen could respond, the bear interrupted, “Of course you talked about yourself. But you didn’t ask her any questions. You didn’t listen to what she had to say.”
The bear’s insight infuriated the prince. He swung with his right foot to kick at the creature. The bear rolled out of reach, laughing, and giggling at the youth.
On the third and final night of the ball, the prince searched and searched for his favorite companion. She was not wearing a dress like sunshine or a dress like moonbeams. The prince was almost blinded by the brilliant dress worn by the mysterious brown-eyed princess, a dress that sparkled and glittered like shining stars. The prince spent the whole evening asking her all sorts of questions. He listened and remembered every word she said.
The next morning at breakfast, the prince rambled, “Mother, she was so wonderful. I even put grandmother’s ring on her finger. It was the last night of the ball, and I will never see her again. She would not tell me her name or where she lived, but I learned so many other things about her. I know her favorite nut, a walnut. I know her favorite color, brown. Her favorite food is soup. I want soup for breakfast. Don’t let the bear make soup. That creature spoils everything. I am tired of that bear teasing me.”
The bear went into the kitchen and ladled a generous serving for him. The bowl was set before the prince. He looked down without acknowledging the creature and dropped his spoon into the soup. Languidly, the prince started to slurp, swallowing spoonful after spoonful until he spit something out and screamed, “Mother, mother, there’s a bone or something in my soup! The bear is trying to kill me!” The prince examined the object and exclaimed, “Wait, it’s not a bone. It’s a ring!”
After putting the ring on the table, the prince shifted his gaze upward. The prince looked up and saw something familiar in the bear’s gentle brown eyes. “Why don’t you take off this bearskin? It’s time this mystery was revealed,” he told her.
The bear’s paw reached to the top of its head stripping off the bearskin and revealing the brown-eyed princess wearing a dress that sparkled like shining stars. As the couple embraced, she told him her sad story of captivity and escape. They were married and neither was ever sad again.