"At your command, madam."
The woman held the squalling baby before the bear's nose. "This is my own dear child," she said, "and he needs a nurse. I would like you to care for him as if he were one of your own cubs."
The bear squinted at the baby through nearsighted eyes and sniffed it all over. "Of course. I would be honored," replied the bear. "A very healthy and strong-smelling infant, if I may say so, madam. What is its name?"
"Name? Well, of course, I haven't had time to find out his proper Name. In the meantime, I think . . . Lump will serve."
"Lump it shall be. Now, as to arrangements, will I be staying here or at the den?"
"Oh, here, by all means. Please, how discourteous of me! Do come in. Door, there! Open!"
At the woman's command the doorframe writhed and stretched to admit her and the bear. She darted forward and moved a chair. "You'll have to stay here by the stove for the while until I can get an addition built. A nursery, in fact. Imagine that! But, oh my! Listen to him wail! Could you give him his milk?"
"Of course," said Ysul. The bear waddled over to the indicated corner and settled herself comfortably. The woman placed the baby, Lump, on the immense living rug with his mouth convenient to a nipple. Immediately he began to imbibe the rich milk, nor was he quiet about it.
The woman watched with satisfaction. "I trust it will agree with him," she said. "They do say bear's milk is the best."
"I have never doubted it, madam," said the bear. "One question, though, if you please. Is he to be raised as a bear or as a man?"
"Oh, at this point it hardly matters," replied the woman, gazing fondly at the nursing baby, who, if truth be told, resembled a baldish bear cub more than he did a human infant. "Use your own judgment in such matters."
The bear nodded. The cat, who had observed all from a pantry shelf, sniffed and began to wash himself in disgust. At this moment, the sun lifted over the tops of the tall trees that ringed the cottage clearing and sent a shaft of buttery light into the room.
"Oh, my!" said the woman.
"You forgot about the star grass, didn't you," said the cat snidely. "While you were being a mother. And it has to be picked before noon, or it's no good"
The woman shot him a look that made the fur stand up along his spine. "Cat, I'm warning you . . ." she began, and then, throwing up her hands, she turned and dashed toward the door, which barely had time to get out of her way. A moment later she stuck her head through the window and addressed the she-bear. "Ysul, take good care of baby, and I'll be back in no time. I must fly!" She vanished from the window; shortly thereafter, a large raven flew over the tops of the trees toward the west.
The cat dropped from the shelf and padded over to the bear and her charge. Wrinkling his nose, he remarked, "Ysul, I hear that bear cubs are born unformed, so that their mothers must lick them into the proper shape. If so, you will wear your tongue out on this one."
"I will not dignify that with a reply," answered the bear.
"But seriously, Ysul, you're a sensible creature. Tell me what can have gotten into her to have brought such a misshapen manikin into our house? I fail to understand it."
"For me, I do not even try to understand her. Nor should you, cat."
"Still, you agree it makes no sense," the cat persisted.
"Not to you it doesn't," the bear responded shortly, "but that is why she is the Woman of the Forest and you are only a cat. Now, be quiet and let me get this child to sleep!"
From The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, Copyright © 2005 by Michael Gruber. All Rights Reserved. HarperCollins Publishers.
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