Ursula lived in a small cottage beside the woods with her mother. She had no father; besides Ursula and her mother, there was only the cow and some chickens for company. There was a town nearby, though, where Ursula's mother bought supplies.
Ursula hated going to town. The boys didn't like her because she was small and had a stutter. They threw things at her until she ran and hid, crying. The shopkeeper's wife, who was a friendly old soul, told her that her name meant Little Bear, but she certainly didn't feel like a bear. She couldn't look other people in the eye, not even her mother, because her stutter embarrassed her so much. Although her mother loved her, Ursula felt that she had let her down. Her mother called her Little Rabbit, a name which Ursula felt suited her much better.
Ursula liked to stay at home, away from the boys. She preferred digging in the garden and feeding the chickens anyway. They never laughed at her. Here, at home, she was safe.
One day, all of a sudden, Ursula's mother fell sick. She was so sick that she couldn't even get out of bed. Ursula cared for her as best she could, but her mother only got worse, and the whole cottage smelled of the sickroom. After a few days of this, Ursula's mother called her to the bedside.
"Little Rabbit," she said, "I must see the old wizard who lives in the woods; he will make me better. But I am too ill to get out of bed. I am afraid that you must go and bring him here."
Ursula was terrified. "B-B-But Mama, I d-d-d-don't kn-know how t-to f-f-find him. I would g-g-g-get l-lost."
Ursula's mother sighed. "You must follow the path that leads into the woods. It will take you to him. He lives in a hut on stilts. Please, Ursula. I fear for you if I do not get better. Please go."
So Ursula went. She followed the path carefully, her stomach churning with nervousness. The sun was shining and the birds were singing, but Ursula was too intent to notice. The woods had always been frightening to her, so she ignored the trees and concentrated on her mission instead.
Soon she reached the hut. Sure enough, it was on stilts, and it seemed to be shaped like an upside-down bowl. It was the strangest house that Ursula had ever seen. She gathered up all her courage and knocked on the door. "Enter," said a low, threatening voice. Ursula took a deep breath, pushed open the door, and entered the hut.
Inside, it was very dark. There were no windows, and only one tiny lit candle. Ursula caught glimpses of large, dark, unidentifiable objects against the wall. There was a huge desk in front of her, and a large, dim form behind it. Ursula knew that this was the wizard. She tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come.
"Who are you, and why are you here?" intoned that frightening, deep voice.
"I-I-I . . ." began Ursula, but she found that she still couldn't speak.
"Well? I haven't got all day, you know."
"M-M-M-M . . ." Ursula tried, she really did, but the wizard leaned forward suddenly, and the candlelight glinted off his eyes, and Ursula remembered every story about evil monsters that she had ever heard. She gave a little squeak and fled outside, into the sun. The wizard's laughter followed her.
Ursula ran. She ran for hours, it seemed, her lungs burning, her heart pounding, and it was only when she was forced to stop that she realized that she was lost in the woods. She collapsed against a small tree and cried. But soon she realized that crying was not helping her situation, so she dried her eyes and looked around. To her left, there was a patch of sunlight, so she headed towards it.
The patch of sunlight turned out to be a lovely glade, covered in wildflowers. Ursula sat down on a log near the edge of the meadow, and tried to think about what she should do. Suddenly, a large, grey wolf emerged from the brush, saw Ursula, and growled threateningly.
Ursula was so frightened that she was rooted to her log. She couldn't move, couldn't run, couldn't scream, could only sit there while the wolf came towards her with huge, toothy jaws. The wolf saw the terror in her eyes, and sighed.
"Look, I'm sorry I frightened you, but you startled me. I have a tendency to growl when I'm surprised."
The wolf's words returned movement to Ursula's frozen muscles. "P-P-Please, M-M-M-Mr. Wolf. P-P-P-Please d-don't ea-eat m-me."
"You'd do better convincing me if you actually looked at me, you know. But in any case, I have no intention of eating you. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a vegetarian, but I really don't like red meat. I find it rather disgusting. In fact, I'm off to the stream to catch some fish, and . . . oh dear, please don't cry. Here, use my handkerchief."
The wolf produced a handkerchief from somewhere, and handed it to Ursula, who used it to wipe her eyes. She returned it with a stammered "thank-you."
"It's been a pleasure meeting you . . . what is your name, little girl?"
"Yes, well, it's been a pleasure meeting you, Ursula, but I fear I must fly. The fish wait for no one, I'm afraid. Farewell!"
With that, the wolf bounded over the bushes at the far end of the meadow and disappeared. Ursula was left staring bemusedly after him, thinking over what he had said to her. Was it true? Did no one take her seriously because she refused to look at them? There was the stutter too, of course. How Ursula wished that she could overcome it. Then she'd be the bravest girl in the whole world!
With that in mind, Ursula got up from her log and walked determinedly through the trees.
After walking for what seemed like forever, Ursula still hadn't found her way out of the woods. Worse, the shadows under the trees were growing longer and longer. It would be dark soon.
Ursula sat down to rest her aching feet. She refused to cry again, but those shadows were scary. Ursula began to sing, in hopes of banishing her fears.
Ursula liked singing. She never sang in the presence of others, for fear that they would laugh, but she often sang when she was by herself. Now, alone in the deep woods, her voice was her only friend.
"You have a beautiful voice," said somebody behind her. Ursula whirled, startled. Behind her was a small, brown bird.
"You're voice is lovely," continued the bird, "and I should know. My own voice is ranked among the best."
This last sentence sounded conceited to Ursula, but then the bird sang a few notes, and she had to agree. "Wh-Wh-Who are y-you?" she asked.
"I am the nightingale," said the bird, and Ursula suddenly understood. Even she had heard of the nightingale's beautiful voice.
The two of them sang together for awhile. After their little duet, the nightingale said, almost as an afterthought, "Are you aware that your stutter is gone when you sing?"
Ursula was shocked, for such a thing had not occurred to her. As she pondered it some more, she realized that she may have discovered the remedy for her stutter. Singing! Who would have thought it?
Ursula and the nightingale sang together for awhile longer, until the shadows were very close. It was getting dark and it was time to go home. But there was something to be done first.
"Nightingale," she sang, "do you think you could lead me to the wizard's hut? I think I'm lost."
The nightingale sang back, "Of course. We're not from it, you know."
The nightingale flew up in the air and perched on a branch a short distance away. When Ursula reached the branch, the nightingale flew to another branch. In this manner, the nightingale lead her to the wizard's bowl-shaped hut. Ursula thanked the nightingale warmly.
"No problem at all," sang the nightingale, "and if you ever want me to come and sing with you, or whatever, just stand outside and call my name. Make sure you call loudly, though. So long!"
The nightingale flew away, and Ursula once again gathered her courage and knocked on the door. This time, there was a lot of banging and cursing, and the door opened to reveal a harried-looking man with a stained, white beard, who was no taller than she was. Ursula stared; this was the monster who had frightened her so?
"Well, what do you want? I'm in the middle of dinner, you know," said the wizard irritably.
Remembering the wolf's advice, Ursula carefully looked the little man in the eye, and sang, "Please, sir, my mother is awfully sick, and she said that you could help her."
The wizard harrumphed. "You are not a shy one, are you? Well, let me fetch my things. In the middle of dinner, of all times!"
A few minutes later, the wizard and Ursula were tramping down the path which led out of the woods. While they were walking, the wizard asked Ursula if she had been the little child who had run away earlier. Ursula was so embarrassed that she forgot to sing.
"You caught me during my afternoon nap, when I blow out the candles and fall asleep at my desk. I'm grumpy when I'm tired, so my attitude may have scared you. Sorry."
At that moment, they arrived at Ursula's home. Ursula's mother was on the front step, looking tired but much improved and very worried.
"Ursula," she said, "where have you been? It's almost dark, and I was getting ready to look for you."
Ursula ran to her mother and hugged her tight. "Oh Mama," she sang, "I was scared by the wizard and ran into the woods and got lost, but I was found by a wolf and a nightingale, and look! I brought the wizard!"
Ursula's mother did not understand what Ursula was talking about, but she was very glad to have Ursula home safe, and surprised by Ursula's sudden lack of shyness. Where has my Little Rabbit gone? thought Ursula's mother.
They all went inside. The wizard examined Ursula's mother and declared her to be well on the road to recovery. "Merely a bout of the sickness that has been going around, madam," said the wizard. "The symptoms are nasty enough, but everyone seems to recover from it eventually."
"Ursula's mother was relieved. "Thank-you, sir. Here is your fee. Would you do us the honour of staying for supper?"
The wizard accepted eagerly, reminding Ursula that the wizard's supper was back at his hut, and probably stone-cold by now. Unfortunately, there was not a great deal of food in the house, since Ursula's mother had been unable to go to the market.
As Ursula's mother despaired over the lack of food, Ursula sang that she had an idea. She went outside and called the nightingale's name. In a few minutes, the nightingale appeared on the front step. "You wish to see me already?" the bird asked.
Ursula sang, "We want to have a party, and we'd like you to come too, but there is not enough food in the house for everyone. I was hoping that you could find the wolf who won't eat red meat, and ask him if he could spare a fish or two for us. He could come too, if he wanted."
The nightingale was leery about visiting any wolf. "I'll go, but red meat or no red meat, I will certainly keep my distance!"
The nightingale flew off, and Ursula told her mother that dinner was taken care of. Ursula's mother was once again startled by the difference in her daughter. Little Rabbit was truly gone now.
In a remarkably short time, the wolf came loping up to the front door with a bulging sack full of fresh fish clamped in his teeth. The nightingale had apparently gotten over his fear, and the two animals were already fast friends. The nightingale was singing a little song while the wolf ran, and the wolf had his eyes half closed in blissful appreciation.
Ursula's mother was more than a little shocked at finding a wolf on her doorstep, but the wolf was unfailingly polite to her, and was glad to see Ursula again. The wizard seem to know both animals, and gossiped with them cheerfully. By the time the fish was cooked and bread was cut up for the nightingale, everyone was chattering to each other like old friends. It was a real party, and Ursula felt as if it was for her and her newfound courage. She felt as if she truly deserved her name now.
I am Little Bear, she thought. And from then on, she was.