There was a season, between fall and winter, where the world just waited.
The trees were bare of leaves, the sky scrubbed clean of clouds, and the air was cold and clear and collected in lungs like a shock.
It was this time of year that Jenny hated most. The waiting time.
She wandered the land by her cabin, crunching dry leaves under her feet, and stared at blank canvases with loaded paintbrushes, too afraid of the gaping hole in her creativity to touch one to the other.
She stacked wood, and stuffed insulation back into the holes the squirrels had stolen it from. She put new sealant around the windows, and hammered up the loose siding on the garage, and she found herself standing in the sparse yard looking wistfully into the forest. Waiting.
It was too cold to stand long, and she would shake herself, and pull her knit hat further down her ears and go to put the flower pots and their dead inhabitants under the cabin and roll the garden hose back onto its hook.
"He will come when he comes," she told Fred one morning. Fred was quite content with the naked trees and lack of snow as long as his food dish was full and a lap was provided on demand. "I don't know why I'm so nervous."
It was the not knowing. It wasn't a visit she could prepare for. If the weather clung, warm, to the land, it could be a month before Bjorn returned from his summer wanders. It could turn cold and snow overnight, and Bjorn's bear-self would feel the slow lassitude of winter creep over him and release the man-self back into the world.
Jenny picked Fred up, all near-20 pounds of him, and tucked him, protesting, under her chin for a cuddle. She suddenly wished for the spruces of her last cabin. Winter had always been a surprise there, no turning of leaves to betray the coming of the season. And no waiting time like this, after the last of the leaves had blown to the ground, when the woods were naked and the sky was cold and unforgiving, with no hint of snow.
"Three years," she muttered into Fred's orange coat. "Three years of living with his curse, and you'd think I'd be used to it now."
She put a grateful Fred back down on his four feet and went to the easel, with its gaping blank canvas glaring back at her. "I wish I had a day job," she said peckishly. But she didn't, not really, and waiting for a naked man to come wandering out of the naked woods wasn't going to put any money in her bank account.
So she unscrewed the caps of six tubes of paint, and squeezed them out onto a paper plate, and, without so much as a plan, began to paint.
Halfway through the morning, she flipped the canvas over, as she realized that what she'd set out as roots were more like branches, reaching for a restless sky, and she continued to paint until hunger drove her to the fridge for anything with enough calories to carry her through the afternoon.
It was wretched, agonizing work, and Jenny hated it and loved it all at once.
At the end of the day, she was too tired to do more than throw her brushes in a tub of water and toss the plate - the fifth of its kind from the day - into the trash. Blindly obedient to Fred's cries for food, she dumped a generous handful into his dish. She fell asleep on the couch trying to sate her own stomach.
She dreamt of never-ending fall, where leaves sprouted golden and dry on their branches.
When she woke, it was dark, and Fred was trying to steal crackers from the plate under her hand.
"No, Fred, they're bad for you," Jenny said automatically, pulling them away. The fabric of the couch had her face itching and bumpy with its texture, and she sat up stiffly. She couldn't have picked a less comfortable position to sleep in if she had tried, and her shoulders ached.
It was dark, and the canvas was dark, but Jenny wanted to see it again, so she flipped on the lightswitch and flinched at the flood of brightness.
She had painted the naked woods.