The boy woke in the forest, covered in snow, and blinked at the nickel-sized flurries falling on his face. He looked closely at his forearms and hands: dark black hair, brittle as icicles, and claws that shone like dull bone. He lay under the hangover of a jagged stand of rocks near the banks of a river carrying drift ice southward. A large black bear had its snout near the boy’s face, its breath warm and wet. Wind blew snow from the shoulders of the tall pines on either side of the river and cracking wood echoed through the forest.
The boy focused on the bear before him and didn’t move. The boy was cold, his nose frozen with ice that cleaved as he drew in full, waking breaths. His lungs burned with the deepness of his breathing. The boy couldn’t remember how long he had been asleep, hibernating. When he entered the forest months ago, a chill hung in the air and the mountains loomed beyond the balding tree limbs. Now everything was white, bits of brown peeking through at the base of trees and where outsized boulders broke through the powder. The boy had run from his village until he was lost among the pines and small earthen dens that pockmarked the hard packed ground. That was some time ago. His arms and legs had been covered in a soft down of fur then, as if a watercolorist had put the boy on an easel and gone to work detailing every hair.
As he looked at the bear the boy thought of his parents. His mother and father had locked him in the root cellar after his ears grew pointed and his teeth became too long and sharp for his mouth to contain. They said they wouldn’t feel safe with a bear living in the house, not after his brother had roared forth from their front door four years before and pawed through the village before being shot near the church, which anchored the village, its white steeple rising skyward to the lightening rod atop the wooden cross. His brother continued toward the thick wood leaving a trail of blood and disappeared into the dense summer foliage.
Four years later, as if overnight, the boy showed signs of changing like his older brother: first a curved back and an inclination to walk on all fours, and then a deep growling voice that sunk low on hard consonants. Finally, in late October, his father manhandled him outside with the moon high overhead. All the boy could do was growl and swipe at the air in front of him. They struggled against one other, their shadows mingled with arboreal silhouettes. The father covered the boy’s mouth with his hand, which smelled strongly of pork and dirt. His father’s arms were round with muscle from working the fields, plowing rows, seeding corn and wheat, wrestling livestock. The boy was not yet big enough to challenge his father and he went quickly into the cellar, worked his way down the mud-speckled steps and looked over his shoulder as his father latched the door shut. He let out a growl that hurt his ears in the small space of the cellar, which held the scent of mildew, dusty cornhusks, and discarded bits of wheat chaff.
The boy watched the village from a slit in the cellar door. Gray smoke billowed from tin-capped chimneys on thatched roofs. Women and girls carried pails of water from a stone-lined well, boys chopped wood, and men led teams of oxen into fields ringing the village, all of them preparing for the cold that would soon grip the valley. The boy’s mother chanced a visit once, held her palm to the latch on the cellar door and blocked what light bled through the cracks. The boy heard her whimpering, or she could have been humming a hymn. The lightness of her voice was stolen in the crisp air rushing through the village. The boy cried out to his mother, but by then his voice was deep and startling. She turned quickly, held up the hem of her dress, and rushed to the small house where the boy knew she would prep a stew or pot roast, her delicious bread certainly ready for the oven.
The cellar was cold and damp. The dusting of hair that covered the boy’s body kept him warm. When he looked down he saw a snout taking shape in the middle of his face, wet and dark-colored in the dim light. The boy’s clothes were tight and the leather of his boots dug into his feet, so painful he had to take them off. It took a week, but the boy used his claws and the tip of his snout to dig out from the cellar. He emerged under the wall abutting the edge of the forest and fled unnoticed in the middle of the night. The boy ran toward the mountains until he was lost and tired, panting like an animal.
With the bear looking over him, the boy rose steadily until he was firmly on all fours. He felt like a statue, his coat of fur matted and frozen; bending his knees felt like breaking through a thin vein of stone. The boy and the bear stood nose to nose, their breath suspended like mist between them. The bear’s right ear was half missing and his right eye had the rheumy blue glaze of an old man’s cataract. The bear licked the boy’s face and then turned to walk along the bank of the river; he occasionally pawed at the thick winter water. The bear had a hitch in his gait, and the boy followed closely behind. They continued into the forest and night fell. The boy followed the bear’s tracks under a full moon until they found a home deep in the thick wood, and in time he thought of the village no more.
Blake Kimzey’s short fiction has been broadcast on NPR and published by Tin House, FiveChapters, Byliner, Short Fiction, Puerto del Sol, The Los Angeles Review, and Surreal South ’13. “The Boy and The Bear” is included in his chapbook of six short tales, Families Among Us, now available from Black Lawrence Press. Blake is currently a student in the MFA Programs In Writing at UC Irvine and is working on his first novel.