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North Star

by Tom Lee

I had to keep moving. He could be right behind me. But I also didn't want to find myself unknowingly going in circles. I found a clearing and looked up, sighting the Little Dipper. I was still headed north. Good.

Reentering the woods, I struggled through trackless terrain. I thought to myself as I broke branches and disturbed the carpet of dead leaves that I was certainly leaving a trail that anyone skilled in woodcraft could follow. It was a good thing that he was not such a person. But he could easily hire such a person, or employ hounds, or hire someone with magic. No, I could not stop to rest.

I had been running for two days, without stopping to eat or rest. There had been mountain streams to drink from, but I knew nothing about the fruits and berries I had seen growing among the forest's trees and shrubs. Although I was running from his control, I had no wish to die, and if I ate something poisonous that did not kill me, he would certainly find me and bring me back. Oh, he would certainly hire the best doctors money could buy to care for me. But he would also certainly buy the best locks and gates money could buy to keep his Ursula from leaving him again.

It was certainly well past midnight when I found the cottage; the quarter moon had set long before. It was not in a clearing; the tiny house was set right among the trees. I could not be sure that it was not a hallucination brought on by exhaustion and hunger, but the presence of some sort of dwelling promised food, rest, and perhaps help. I had run north because I knew it would be less likely for him to find help. A man generally has no trouble convincing people to help him find his runaway wife. It is a pity that this rule does not extend to runaway husbands. But where there are no people, there are no people to help him. However, there were also no people to help me.

Which brought me back to the cottage in the woods. Who lived here? I knew of no human towns this far north; that was why I had run this way. Why had I run at all? I remembered only looking out the window of our house, his house, and seeing the North Star glittering; suddenly I had simply known I could escape. But to what? Until now I had had no plan save to run. Could there be Apes this far north? I knew we traded with the ape-folk, but they lived to the south, generally. Everyone was warned from childhood about the wolf-folk of the woods, but I had seen and heard no one since I entered the forest. The house seemed too large for the reclusive forest-dwelling peoples such as the seldom-seen Badgers or Squirrels. Who could live here?

I only thought about this for a moment before knocking on the door. Whoever it was, there was a chance that they would help me, and that was better than the certainty of starvation or recapture if I ignored this gift from the heavens.

I knocked again. There was light in the windows, but it appeared that no one was home. Should I go inside? I tried the door, which opened easily. But whoever lived here would certainly be less likely to help me if I failed to respect their property.

I thought I heard something behind me, a rustle in the branches, far off to the south. Could he have found me already? Or could it be the residents of this cottage? I slipped inside, closed the door, and found a small window from which I could covertly watch the forest to the south. I stayed there for a long time. Nothing moved. Perhaps it had merely been the wind, or some far-off animal going about its nightly business.

I turned to look at the house's interior and found that I was in a kitchen. It was small and cozy. And modern: there was some sort of gas stove, and a small refrigerator powered by I knew not what. The ceiling light was on; it was an electric light bulb. Whoever lived here, they must be human-sized, since the table and chairs were about the right height. There was a cross-stitched sampler on the wall, reading, "Welcome, Friends." And there was something on the table...

It was a bowl, full of something that looked like oatmeal, gruel, or porridge. And it was warm. There was a wooden spoon beside the bowl. The chair was pulled out. I was so hungry that it smelled like the most sumptuous feast in the world - but was it meant for me? Had the inhabitants of this cottage heard or seen me coming? Could it be that perhaps they wished to help me, but did not want to become involved directly? Thus rationalizing my actions, I sat down and ate. It was wonderful, even if it was gruel; perhaps it was all they had. "I don't know if you can hear me," I said to the empty cottage, "but thank you."

Was the cottage empty? I looked through the doorways. There was a den, a bedroom and a simple bathroom. In the den or living room were chairs, bookshelves, a sofa, a nice throw rug ... the sofa looked inviting. I felt so tired. It wasn't long before I sat down; not long after that I lay down, and not long after that I was asleep.

When I woke up I felt better than I had felt in a long time, although I could tell my bladder was full. Sunlight streamed through the windows, but remembering the orientation of the house I realized that it was the sunlight of late afternoon. I had slept through most of the day. I was stunned by the thought that I'd lost many hours of my lead; if he was following, he could now be much closer. On the other hand, he would also have to stop for meals and sleep; I'd never known him to go without. But then, I'd never escaped for so long before...

I rubbed my eyes and shouted with surprise. There was hair on my hands. Yes, there'd been hair on them before, but this was a fine, reddish-brown coat of fur, about as long as that on a plush toy. It was about the same color as my hair...I felt, and although there was still hair on my head, it seemed that this new fur was all over my body, even my face. I was frightened. It also seemed that I was shorter than I had been; I remembered that when I had lain down to sleep my legs had extended past the end of the sofa, but when I had awakened they had not.

"What is going on?" I asked nobody. How and why would I have grown fur and become smaller overnight? "Magic," I said. "Got to get out of here." It must be something about the cottage...or the porridge I had eaten.

I had my hand on the doorknob and was about to run sprinting into the woods further north when I imagined I faintly heard a chillingly familiar voice calling, "Ursulaaaaa..."

I stiffened. He had found me! Panicked, I peered out a window as I had before and saw nothing, but then I heard it again - "Urrrsulaaaaa..."

That was when I wet my pants. I felt the urine running down the legs of my tattered slacks, puddling on the floor. I'd been this scared before - he'd scared me this badly before - but I'd never done this. Perhaps it was because I had more to lose this time. But I emptied my bladder into my pants like a little kid, and it seemed like I couldn't stop it, or didn't want to.

Then the door opened, and there they stood. Two huge bears - no; they were Bears, for they wore clothing and walked upright. There were only rumors about the existence of the bear-folk; no one had ever seen them, or even photographed them. It was always said that, if they existed, they were the most reclusive of all. But here they were, and here I was; I had stumbled upon one of their dwellings in the deep northern forest.

"I'm - I'm sorry," I began. My mouth felt funny.

"Don't worry, little one," said the one wearing the dress and apron. The other one, who wore a red and black plaid flannel shirt and dark-colored pants, disappeared into another room and came back with some white towels. "We've been watching over you, and we'll take care of you."

Before I could say anything she had picked me up as if I weighed nothing, and the male Bear had begun cleaning up the floor where I had stood. His fur was shiny and dark brown, almost black, and hers was a beautiful deep reddish brown. She carried me into the bedroom and set me down on what I thought was a dresser, except it had a soft pad on top. She took my sopping pants off me, and I noticed two things: the fur on my legs was darker and longer than it had been, and my pants were much too long for me. But before I could explore this further, she also removed my torn shirt and bra.

Now, I've never been particularly large in the breast area, but I could now see that I had become completely flat. And everywhere was that long, thick, reddish-brown hair. When I got a chance I felt my face. More hair, but...I had a snout. My nose and mouth stuck way out in front of my face. No wonder talking had felt strange. "What's happening to me?" I asked, panicked.

"There, there," said the Bear, "everything's going to be all right." I felt oddly comforted; her voice was so gentle. But then she picked up a few squares of gauzy cloth from a drawer underneath me and pinned them on around my groin, and I realized that I had just been diapered.

"A diaper?" I asked. "What's going on?"

She slipped a pair of plastic pants over the diaper and explained, "We've been watching you ever since you started fleeing from Humanity. We made sure no harm came to you. And we made sure that the male following you didn't catch you. But he will be here soon, and you must have known that you would have to confront him sooner or later. We will help you."

"Thank you, but why am I turning into a baby Bear?" I asked.

She smiled what must have been a Bear smile. "It is what you wanted. To be taken care of, in freedom. You will be free to grow up as you wish, far from him and his friends, or to return to him and the world of the human-folk. But first you must confront him and choose." She slipped a pink, lacy dress on over my head, deftly maneuvering my arms into the sleeves. Her claws were huge, but they were also smooth and didn't hurt.

She was right. To be taken care of was what I had wanted. For as long as I could remember I had longed for someone to care for me. Even as I had made a career for myself the longing was there. Then I met him. He seemed so wonderful at first. I told him of my one desire, and he showed me that he could fulfill it. He was wealthy and powerful and could afford every luxury. Whatever he wanted, he bought. Including, I later began to realize, a wife.

"But I don't want to confront him like this!" I shouted. The dress' skirts were nowhere near long enough to cover my diaper.

"It is the only way," she said. "He must know that you are lost to him."

She lifted me again and carried me back toward the front door. I heard a familiar voice saying, "The beacon says her clothes must be in there, at least."

The male Bear stood in the doorway and said, "She is inside, but she is no longer yours."

Then I saw him, behind the male Bear, trying to see around the cottage's immovable watchman. He had a gun, a pistol, in one hand, and an electronic device of some sort in the other. "Ursula?" he asked. "Is that you?"

Perhaps I still resembled my human self, but at this particular time I was glad of my new face, for it helped disguise the fear I felt. The female Bear set me down on the floor again, but I trembled and could not move. I felt helpless before him, for I was tiny, and wearing diapers.

"Here she is," said the female Bear. "Ursula, you are free to choose. You may go to him, or stay with us. Either way, we promise no harm will come to you. You already know how to make the choice."

"Come on, honey," he said. "I don't know what kind of magic they've used on you, but if you come back to me I'll take care of you so well you'll never want to take a vacation again." So that was how he had rationalized my escape. He could not accept that I would ever want to leave him permanently; he had treated me so well in the gilded prison he had built for me.

I looked at the Bears. They looked at me, silently.

And then I felt a heaviness, a fullness, in the pit of my stomach.

I'd peed all over their floor earlier, but now I was a toddler - a toddler Bear, to be sure, or a toddler almost-Bear, but still a toddler, and I was in diapers. They weren't angry before, and I felt certain they wouldn't be now.

The mess came out into my diapers, hot and soft. Suddenly I fell to the floor weak-kneed, and my diapers seemed too loose for me. "Mama," I said, holding out my arms toward the kindly female Bear. She smiled again and picked me up, cradling me in her warm, furry arms.

"She is no longer yours," repeated the male Bear.

He dropped his electronic tracker, letting it fall to the forest floor, and pointed his gun at the male Bear with both hands. "You've brainwashed her!" he shouted. "Give her back now, or I shoot!"

"Leave now," said the Bear. "This is your final warning."

"She's mine!" I saw his finger moving on the trigger.

"Would Baby Bear like some more porridge?" asked Mama. "She would? OK, here it comes!" She dipped the tiny spoon into the bowl and slipped it into my mouth. Someday I'll feel like growing up, but for now I enjoy being little. I love Mama and Papa Bear, and they love me. The world of the Bears is isolated, but their magic is powerful, and they have commerce with certain other animal-folk. I am sure I will enjoy my new life in it.

Outside the window I could see a crow, busily lining its nest with shiny objects it had stolen, hoping to attract a mate. Through the dense trees I could just barely see the North Star, glittering brightly.

© 1998 by Tom Lee

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