Winter was almost over, but deep in the woods where old Jess lived, the nights still grew cold.
One evening, as the sun slipped through the trees’ fingers, she gathered twigs for her fire. Tying them into a bundle, Jess thought she heard someone sigh, or maybe groan.
“Hello?” she called. “Who’s out here with me on this bitter night?”
But no one answered.
Just the wind, Jess told herself, feeling sad. How lonesome these long winter nights could be!
Her snug little house breathed upon her glasses, fogging them up, so she laid them on the mantle, and set to building a cheerful fire.
But, what was that sound? The very same groan! Or was it a growl?
Old Jess squinted over her shoulder. In her doorway crouched a large, shivering dog.
“Sweetheart!” she cried. “Come in, come in! Are you lost? A crackling fire will warm you right up.”
In hurried the poor creature. He sniffed and snuffed and at last settled down in a corner. Glad of company, she threw an extra log on her fire, and bustled about preparing toast with honey, and a bit of sausage she’d been saving.
“Are you warm yet, sweetheart?” she asked. No sooner did she set the food down than the animal began to gobble it up.
It was then that Jess reached for her glasses, and settled them on her nose. It was then that she discovered who her guest truly was.
(Art Note: Here Jess and the “dog”, who is actually a bear, come face to face.)
Jess’s old heart tumbled inside her. A frightened scream caught in her throat.
Oh, she thought. I have made a mistake! A dreadful, most serious mistake!
With trembling hand, she reached for the heavy poker hanging beside her fire.
But now, from somewhere inside the young bear, came another sound. Not a sigh, or a groan, or a growl, but unmistakably a sound of pleasure. He had been cold, and now he was warm. He had been hungry, and now he was fed. Swiping another piece of toast and honey, he gave Jess what she was sure was a smile.
When I took him for a dog, I was happy to help him, she told herself. Why not treat a bear with the same kindness?
And so Jess toasted the rest of her loaf, and the bear ate every crumb. By then his dark eyes had begun to droop, so Jess got her extra quilt and tucked it around him. With the beast snoring beside the fire, she slipped into her own bed.
Now, a supper of toast and tea will only satisfy the belly of a growing bear for so long. A few hours later, when the moon had slipped behind the trees, and the night was at its darkest, the bear woke up.
With clumsy paws, he tugged open Jess’s cupboards, only to find he’d already eaten every bite of food she had.
With a sound that might have been a groan, or maybe a growl, the bear made his way to Jess’s room. Standing over her bed, he watched her sleep. He licked his lips. His stomach rumbled.
Oh, was he hungry.
Jess woke and rubbed her eyes. Without her glasses, she made yet another serious mistake.
Poor thing, she thought. Just look at him. He’s as lonesome as I am.
“Sweetheart!” she cried. “Would you like me to sing you a lullaby?”
Old Jess sat up.
“Here’s one my mother sang me,” she said.
For a scrawny woman, her voice was surprisingly full and sweet. It made the bear remember his own mother, who’d once brought him honey to eat, and always kept him safe through the deep, dark night. His empty heart grew full. His aching hunger eased. Jess sang on, enjoying herself. Before he knew it, the bear was curled up, fast asleep.
“Good night, sweetheart,” whispered Jess.
Outside, the trees danced in the wind, and the forest shook off the last of winter’s bitterness. Early the next morning, when Jess woke up, the sun shone down with new warmth.
But the bear—the bear was gone. Old Jess was sad, though not surprised.
After all, she thought, a bear is not a dog. He was never meant to live in a house.
But oh, still, she missed him.
Yet that very day, as if the bear had packed up the mean-spirited winter and taken it with him, the first green shoots stole up from the ground. Within days, the trees put on shiny new leaves, and wore blossoms dainty as earrings.
Early one morning, as the birds sang the songs their mothers had taught them, Jess discovered a rough piece of bark left on her doorstep. Bending to look, she found that it cradled the year’s first, wild strawberries.
What’s this? she wondered. Someone worked hard to gather these, then forgot them. What a dreadful mistake!
A few of the heart-shaped fruit were squished, as if by a clumsy paw. Unable to resist, Jess put one in her mouth. The sweetness went all through her, as if she’d swallowed a song.
And then she knew. She knew.
Old Jess ate the delicious red berries slowly, one by one.
“Thank you,” she called, when she finished. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
No one answered. But still, Jess smiled.
For this kindness was no mistake.
As no kindness ever is.
Winner in the Picture Book/Writing for Younger Children Category in the 2009 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Katherine Paterson