Like Blackberry Juice
The boy was only a baby, but even babies, especially babies, understand the communication of smell.
On the autumn evening when the boy was left to his own devices, clutching his fists and crying, naked, in the woods, he learned three sets of associations via the olfactory gland: that his mother smelled both of bear musk and sweet pink humanity, that the scent of cedar was viscerally connected to the pain of cold abandonment, and that blackberry juice and blood were virtually identical to his rapidly developing nose.
Having a newborn’s clouded eyes, he did not see, and therefore, could not record for memory, the image of her crooked amble away from him, a silver bullet in her haunch and tears blurring her small brown eyes.
Nor would he know then that, after she staggered through the nocturnal brush for a league, she laid down to die, only to wake up from hibernation several months later, healed.
Imperfectly. After a period of terrible inflammation, when she considered the pain of enduring infection to be worse than that of leaving her bear-son behind, she clawed and gnashed her way through the fevers until, finally, she woke one morning in mid-spring to discover two things: a rawhide-lined hole, the size of an apple, branded into the pink flesh of her human backside by day (and coated in russet fur tipped in silver by night); and a recovering appetite.
She did not forget her son at this time, but neither did she forget who she was. In the moment when she left her den to seek out sustenance, she looked with equal hunger for the sight of her progeny. In her heart, she could not resist the desire to reclaim him. Whether as bear or boy, it mattered little to her what form he took. He was of her flesh and she wanted him back. When werebears narrowly survive the damnation of silver bullets (a rare thing, indeed), they are nothing if not driven.
What is not so rare is the way the rest of the story unfolds, at least in the beginning.
The boy, mewling ceaselessly for the comfort of a warm nipple from his cold and lonely post under the cedar, was discovered by a woodcutter. Since the woodcutter’s wife had been found to be barren by the village midwife, the woodcutter recognized his gift of providence and brought home the trembling ball of pink who cried fat, real tears. What a robust boy he was, with a thatch of thick, coarse hair the color of russet on top of his head; bracelets of fat around his wrists, legs, and ankles; and brown eyes more startling than the ordinary newborn’s in blue-gray.
The boy was, naturally, extra-ordinary in other ways. All babies found in the woods are like that. He was larger and more agile than others, and he ate with greedy abandon, having grown his milk teeth just days after settling into his new home. The woodcutter’s wife, at first enchanted with the task of raising such a buxom infant, began to worry about the insatiable needs of the boy, and whether, on her husband’s woodcutter’s wage, they would be able to survive the winter without starving themselves in order to satisfy the boy’s needs.
But the woodcutter culled one benefit from his new son’s ways. Though the boy could not see particularly well, his sense of smell was so precise that he could discern the fragrances of different kinds of wood his father had chopped and stacked without thought into piles behind their cottage. Crawling around in the soft blanket of sawdust left over from a day of his father’s labor, he would, in particular, steer clear of the clean scent of cedar, which made him cry out in longing. The woodcutter, puzzled by his son’s reaction, began to stack the cedar directly into the wagon for the market in order to spare the boy. Then he began to sort the wood more carefully after that, until he had amassed a neat inventory of hard and soft woods that could be sold for different prices and purposes down in the square, and from this practice, he steadily improved both his income and his reputation.
Several years passed in this manner, and while the woodcutter did not grow extremely rich, he was able to provide well for his family and his wife worried less about suffering famine in winter.
In fact, she worried more about the fact that her new son seemed more aloof than the other boys in town. Whenever they traveled down to the square for provisions, she noticed how the other children ran about, butting their heads together or throwing things in rambunctious delight, laughing or fighting or otherwise spending their strong boy energy in frivolous, merry ways. Her son seemed uninterested in their playfulness and preferred to lumber alone along the deer trail in the woods behind the mercantile, where he explored the things that marked the path: the stumps, the fireweed and foxglove, the caves beneath towers of the thorny brambles he liked to hide inside. The woodcutter’s wife would call out for him after she was done with her shopping, and he would obediently return, often with stained cheeks and sticky fingers from eating berries and honey.
She could barely chastise him for it. The boys in the square also came away from their games equally marked with mud and bruises. So she told herself that her son, because of his poor eyesight, could not help his behavior, and this, along with his lumbering gait and keen attention to nature, endeared him to her all the more.
Her son, she discovered, knew the names of all the flowers across the seasons, and not only could he discern between varieties of trees, but he could identify birds by their songs as well as the difference between the honeybee and the yellow jacket by the sound of their buzzing. How could she not accept these precocities? They were unusual gifts that could be used to benefit in his adulthood. She stopped worrying about the oddity of raising a found child and focused her anxieties, instead, on what the future held for her special wonder.
His birth mother, in the meantime, took up a den nearby, her obsession with the loss of her son overwhelming. Between her human intuition and her excellent sense of smell, she realized almost immediately upon rising after hibernation that he was still alive.
Every morning, while in human form, she wept through the nightmare that was their last night together:
Sow and cub, feeding greedily on berries by the light of a half moon.
Racket in the trees behind them.
A bright flash in the night.
The roar of a weapon, followed by the acrid stench of gunpowder.
Searing pain deep in her backside.
Awareness, awareness. Her son!
The poison emanating from the silver embedded inside her flank.
Stiff limbs, her wildness set afire.
Stay inside this cave, she instructed him, though she knew he could not understand her. Go now, deep within the brambles. It is dark. He will not find you if you are quiet and still.
The boy murmured in confusion as she fled, her limbs ravaged by the invasion of blessed silver into her bloodstream. Images: her son’s shifted flesh by the light of day, pink and scabbed by blackberry thorns; of his helpless arms and legs, curled and jostling while he lay, exposed, on his back; the shivering reality of his death. But this would not break her heart nearly as much as the idea that if he were to survive, somehow, she would never see him grow into manhood to live his days out as a human. She would never be able to help him save himself on his thirteenth birthday. He would be destined to suffer the lycanthropic curse into adulthood, for which only she could offer a mother’s advice.
Aside from the nightmare of that last night together, and knowing now that he had, in fact, survived, she was struck with how deeply she missed her son. She felt it in her marrow, the need to reconnect.
Providence had also come calling on the day she’d risen from her healing hibernation. Now she had no greater reason to live in the world except to take back her son in whatever way she could.
It was with this sense of mission that she discovered him one day while ambling through a clearcut not far from the village. She watched, with amusement, as a barrel-waisted boy stuck his oversized and shaggy head into the dried boll of a nurse log. He pulled his head out, his face smeared with honey. Delighted to recognize his dark eyes, the mother bear called to him. After a moment of hesitation, the boy ran away, not as much in fear—for she would have smelled it on him—as in confusion. Instincts are like that; they muddle together what you know on the outside with what you know on the inside.
She would not let his startled exit break her heart, however. There was delight to be found in her recognition of him and hope for their eventual reunion inside those seconds when he paused and their eyes met. She saw, too, that he was clothed and obviously cared for, healthy and independent and hardly lonesome, for his first instinct was to run for the village, where surely a mother or father and perhaps a sibling or two awaited his return. Best of all, she enjoyed knowing that he was allowed to be himself by whomever it was who had taken on the responsibility of raising him. She returned to her den, satisfied that she yet had years to reach him, to teach him, but that in the meantime, he would be safe and sound.
The woodcutter’s wife grew less satisfied with her progeny as time passed, however. He spent entirely too much time alone on the mountainside and came home everyday stained with berries and honey. And he was growing at twice the rate of all the other boys.
“What will you do when you are ready for schooling?” she fussed while dressing him one morning. “You’ll have to learn to be a little man and use your manners and sit all day inside a school room.”
But the little boy would only shake his head and cry. “I don’t want to go to school! I only want to play in the woods.” When this only upset his mother further, he said, “I will make a fine beeman or berry farmer someday. You’ll see.”
His mother’s face lit up at that.
“Mother, it’s what I will always and ever want to do.”
In fact, the boy did grow big and strong, his head full of thick reddish hair and his face taking on new, hairy growth before all the other boys.
He was unlike them in other ways as well. They did as they were told: they went to school and learned to read and to use manners and to behave like little men in training. When asked what they said they wanted most of all, they replied as they were expected to, telling their dreams of becoming excellent hunters and woodcutters and farriers and blacksmiths like their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. In fact, they envied the boy who grew fastest and largest among them all, the woodcutter’s son who skipped school to wander the clear cuts every day for an education in nature. None of them wished to spend their days imprisoned in school, trapped behind desks reading books. How would they become educated in nature like he was? Shouldn’t they be better for spending their days hunting stags and felling trees and skinning animals and shoeing horses?
Little did they know that the boy they envied was not getting any sort of education at all. He was simply feasting on berries and honey and had little interest in pursuing a trade as a beeman or berry farmer, like he had promised his mother. It wasn’t that he was rebellious toward his loving mother. Nor did he feel any special calling. The boy felt it in his marrow that his was a different purpose altogether. But to do what? If only he could put his finger on it, he promised himself he would pursue it and make his parents proud. But, helpless to predict the moment of that epiphany, he felt compelled to do as he’d always done, for it was all that he knew.
Four days before the boy’s thirteenth birthday, the circus came to town. There were acrobats and dancing animals and clowns and magicians. The circus set up at the edge of the village, arranging cages of wild animals around the perimeter of the collapsible caravansary which sheltered three performance rings installed inside.
The woodcutter promised the boy, who was overcome with excitement at the prospects of going to the circus—and especially to see the dancing bears—that on the evening of the boy’s birthday, the woodcutter and his wife would treat him to a special dinner followed by a visit to the big tent. They had been struggling to find the proper way to celebrate their son’s birthday, for he had become an irritable young man who no longer seemed interested in the affairs of the family, nor was he friendly with other boys his age or interested in the fairer sex.
Their plans, however conveniently fixed on the arrival of the colorful fete of trapeze artists, magical oddities, musical acts, and displays of strength and cunning, were suddenly altered after a terrible thing happened following the opening night of the circus.
Under the light of the waxing moon, one of the trainers working for the circus had risen to check on the animals well after the show had shut down for the evening, only to discover that the throat of one of the two dancing bears had been torn out completely. He found the bear splayed across the hard floor of its cage in a pool of dark red. While neither the cage bars nor the padlock on the cage gate had been tampered with, the trainer could not imagine such horrific violence could possibly be inflicted by a man, so he reported the loss as the result of a wild animal attack. A wolf? A mountain lion? Another bear? He couldn’t say for sure. The discovery laid bare the trainer’s deep affection for the animal and, after a while, the rest of the circus hands left him alone to weep deeply over the loss in his trailer until the morning came. Then, the village and the circus folk alike joined together for a funeral for the beloved creature.
The circus’ master of ceremonies presided over the event, which was held in the woods not far from the place behind the mercantile where the woodcutter’s son often sought the company of blackberry vines and combs of honey. The bear was buried in a hole as big as a farmer’s cart; the trainer planted a single wild mountain lily on top of the grave in remembrance.
Afterward, the master of ceremonies was heard to have sighed, “At least I have one bear yet for three more nights.” The most popular attraction at the circus, after all, was the dancing bears. If the sole bruin did not perform, he and his circus would risk losing substantial receipts, and the master of ceremonies was not yet ready to press on, not with so many dozens of children yet to visit the show.
Despite the fact that the circus planned to continue its revelry in the shadow of the vicious death of the dancing bear, the townspeople remained fearful over the possibility of a bloodthirsty presence in their midst and felt compelled to do something about it. Trackers ventured from the site of the carnage out into the woods to help determine the kind of beast responsible for such a terrible act. The only tracks they picked up were human and bear and, from that news, the village’s best hunters ventured out immediately, looking for signs of a rogue.
In the meantime, families kept their children home from school or, if the children were allowed to attend school, they were not allowed to leave the building without an armed escort.
The woodcutter and his wife were especially restricting of their son, forbidding him from venturing into the hills until the hunters had returned with their kill. They naturally feared the worst would come to their only child, should they allow him to carry on as normal.
The boy, however, being not only an independent spirit but a boy of nearly thirteen and, therefore, surly and newly interested in rebellion, could not stand being cooped up in the yard all day. He had a terrible hunger for berries and honey; he grew nearly an inch an hour and, without his woodland feast, he would starve.
But the hunters returned with no beast claimed and without a single sighting of anything that might have been capable of the violence that had befallen the dancing bear the night before.
By the light of the waxing moon that evening, when his parents were sound asleep, the woodcutter’s son rose, his stomach growling nearly as loud as a bear’s voice, and stole away to the hills to feast on berries and honey.
“I hoped I would find you here,” he heard a soft, low voice say to him just as he was pulling his maw from an excellent honeycomb.
“Don’t be alarmed,” the voice said, much closer this time, as if right behind the blackberries just beyond his sight. “I’m your mother.”
Stepping from outside the bramble, the bear sat gently in the grass, revealing herself in the moon’s silver light to the boy.
“You’re not my mother.” He surprised himself not only by the sound of the growl in his own voice, but by his fearless appraisal of the bear that sat just a few feet away from him and the fact that he wasn’t at all startled that she was speaking to him. Rather, there was something familiar about this bear. A smell. Like blackberry juice.
“I am your mother. I gave you up the day you were born because I thought I was to die from a hunter’s wound.” She stepped forward then, swaying at an angle so that the boy could see the hardened scar on her loin where the hunter had injured her.
They locked stares for a minute, and then the boy beheld the bear again and noticed that, though she was large and fierce, she also possessed a beauty and gentleness that was nothing if not matronly.
“But I have a mother.” His heart pained him, for he had been so utterly mean-spirited to his parents these last few weeks, though he didn’t intend it. He loved his mother and father deeply, for they had always allowed him to be himself even when the rest of the village thought otherwise.
“Yes, your father is a woodcutter. He found you in the woods and brought you home to his wife, who could not bring forth a child of her own.”
“But that cannot be!” He had no reason to believe this, since his parents had never led him to believe he was anything other than their flesh and blood.
“But it’s true. How else can you explain your desire to graze the hills, your ferocious appetite, your massive head of hair, and your precocious size?”
The boy paused. It was true; his father and mother were both fair and slight; he didn’t look anything like them. He realized then that what the werebear was telling him made sense, even if he didn’t want to believe it.
“So what, then? So what, if you’re my mother? I can’t possibly leave my parents. What do you want from me?”
The werebear sat down again, relaxing her ears. “I have no desire to steal you away from your family, my dear son. It took me many seasons to overcome losing you, but I have. Instead, I have enjoyed many afternoons watching you grow to be the strong young creature you are now. You never saw me in the woods, but I was there, in some cases, protecting you from wolves and mountain lions that strayed too close to the village.”
The boy swallowed hard. He’d had no idea the woods could ever be that dangerous.
“My pleasure as a mother has been in witnessing your happiness, and I am quite proud of your parents for having the good sense to honor your unique personality by letting you be the boy you are. But the thing is this: you aren’t merely a boy.”
This was what the boy both hoped and feared he would hear. He had always understood himself to be an oddity among the children, but now he faced the possibility of an explanation. On the one hand, it would lay to rest all his unanswered questions, and yet, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the truth. Did his future rest in the words of this impossible bear sitting before him, made of flesh and blood and fur and bone, who claimed to be his true mother?
“You have been feeling strangely of late.”
The boy looked up into the gazing eye of the moon. She knew. “Yes, indeed, I have.” And he told of his cranky nature toward his parents, his nonstop growing pains, his insatiable appetite, his erstwhile and antisocial leanings, and all the other bodily changes—the hair and fat, in particular—that set him so far apart from all the rest of his peers.
The werebear chuckled gently. “Some of those are purely human concerns, and for those, I have no advice. I have been, for too long, living outside the human realm. When the hunter shot me, the silver bullet he left in my loin has prevented me from making the change since. Oh how I wish to return to my human self! I was beautiful, and wily, and independent, and I loved walking about on two legs!—
“But no matter. It’s important that, tonight, I tell you something about yourself. And so soon upon the eve of your thirteenth birthday!” She shook her head wistfully. “I should have told you sooner, but I have been unable to approach you until now.”
The boy swallowed hard. “Am I going to be like you someday?”
The werebear paused. “It is the nature of who you are, my dear. And I apologize for that. I brought you into the world and it is from me that you inherited this legacy: that once you turn thirteen, you will begin to make the cyclical change at the waxing of the full moon.”
The boy gasped. “I am going to become a werebear?”
“You are one already. You feel the effects of these new changes even now, in your hunger and your desire to leave your home.”
“But I don’t want to change! I want to grow berries and harvest honey and make my parents proud of me. Those are simple desires, I know, but they’re my desires. Don’t be offended that I should not want to be like you, but truly, I don’t! I am already strange enough.”
“Silly boy. You do not have to remain a werebear. You are simply at a crossroads.”
“I have a choice?”
The werebear smiled. “There is one way to avoid this legacy. You will need to taste the blood of a dying bear three separate times during the week that prefaces the full moon of your thirteenth birthday.”
The boy’s mind reeled. “And what if there was no full moon on my birthday?”
“There is always a full moon on a werebear’s thirteenth birthday. It has always been so. But that is not important. What is important is this: if you do not taste the blood of a dying bear three separate times during the waxing moon, you will continue to change into a werebear, as I did. And this will be your life’s reality.”
The boy paced back and forth before the brambles, thinking. “I don’t know if I can do it. It seems so impossible.”
“Indeed,” the werebear whispered, “it is one of the greatest challenges of a werebear’s life. I did not meet the challenge myself.” She paused, waiting for the boy to stop pacing. When he stopped, and looked up with tender curiosity, she nearly caved in to tears building up in her eyes.
“I could not find bear’s blood and, therefore, could not fulfill the change. Since age thirteen, I have made the nocturnal changes at the onset of every full moon. I lived with them for years and years, in a village not far from here. I even gave birth to you in the forest while I was half human and half bear.
“It wasn’t a terrible existence. I lived alone in a small cabin and nobody bothered me. The villagers scarcely knew I existed, for many of the things I needed to live I bartered for off the tailgates of traveling merchants.
“And there are benefits to being both bear and human. To have the strength and cunning to protect myself, and yet to move mostly unnoticed through the world. But I have always been lonely and was only able to conceive you after having an affair with a wanderer between full moons. It matters less to me that he is no longer in my life than that you are a part of it, and have been so for thirteen years. But it is a lonely life, and I would be selfish to ask you to choose the same.”
“But how will I find the blood of three bears? I do not know how to wound a bear, much less how to kill it for its blood. And what if I don’t want to taste the blood of a bear? All I want to eat is honey and berries! I don’t want to leave my parents!”
It was all becoming more than the boy could handle and he wept. He did not notice how the sow had left him for a short time there by the honeycomb. Soon, he heard a rustling sound and looked up to find her ambling toward him, dragging something in her jaws.
“Here is the blood of a dead bear. Taste just a little bit. This will help prevent you from changing entirely into a bear.”
The boy was horrified as the sow laid out the offering: a small section of bloody pelt he was certain had come from the dancing bear killed just the night before.
“Go on! I am here to help you, my son! And it really does not taste as bad as you imagine.”
“But this was the dancing bear!”
The werebear chuckled again. “A mother will do anything in her capacity to protect the future of her child, will she not?”
“But this was the dancing bear!”
“And how fortuitous for me that the circus should arrive in town, complete with dancing bears kept in cages?”
“You couldn’t have taken a wild bear?”
“I am the only wild bear in these parts. And the forest has ways of delivering intelligence between animals that humans aren’t aware of. When the news arrived, just as the moon began to wax, that the circus would appear and bring two dancing bears within our midst, I knew what I had to do.”
The boy grimaced at the sight of the bear flesh. “But there are only two bears.”
“I am developing a third source even as we speak.”
“But you said there aren’t any wild bears around these parts.” The boy stared at her, hoping she would reveal more, but she only looked away, up at the bright moon.
“Unless, of course, you’d rather make the change?” Her voice was soft, but gruff. “I would dearly love to have my son back in the form most agreeable to me, if I could have it my way. You are strong and bright, a good son. We have, between us, many lost years that could be recaptured, could they not?”
The boy’s heart pounded. His first impulse? To defy change, even if the sow’s ways seemed appealing, even hypnotic. And they did: the idea of living freely on the land and developing his ursine character attracted him. It made sense in his gut.
But the possibility of licking a dead bear’s blood, the possibility of never seeing his parents again, nauseated him.
“I am sorry, but I cannot leave behind my family,” he said finally. And he licked at the hunk of bear flesh and was not surprised to find that it tasted just like the smell of his wild mother: fruity, rich, and sweet.
“There, that was not so bad.” The werebear’s voice shook as if she were choking back emotion. “I am proud of you for making your decision. Now you must sleep, my son. I will meet you here again tomorrow eve, and I will bring you more bear’s blood to help prevent the change.”
The boy turned, not daring to ask the question that leaped immediately to his mind.
On the way home, the boy washed up in a nearby stream and crept quietly back into his cabin. He fell asleep and dreamed, of running and climbing and fishing and grazing. It was the most restful night he’d had since he was a baby.
The next morning, the report of a second mutilated bear from the circus swept the town. It left the trainer and the master of ceremonies reeling, as well as the luckless hunters who had hoped to prevent another attack.
The boy, upon hearing the news, nodded his head gravely and minded his parents quietly when they told him, again, that he could not leave the yard.
In the meantime, the rest of the boys in town were begging their fathers to join them in taking their rifles and their axes into the woods in search of the rogue.
It was as the woodcutter was sharpening his axe heads that it occurred to him that he might have better luck taking his own son with him out on the hunt for the bear. His son knew the hills better than all the boys in town combined. Without consulting his wife, who he knew would protest loudly, he approached his son.
“I have changed my mind and would like for you to accompany me as I join the hunters in seeking out the rogue bear.” He clapped his son’s shoulder like any proud father would to his son. The boy agreed, if only so that he could nip at berries and lick at honey while he was out in the hills. He knew there were no other bears out there except for the sow and the third bear he hoped she was tracking herself. She had been so good at hiding from him in the broad daylight all these years that he had no fear of her being captured.
Of course, they didn’t find the bear, and the son did get a chance to savor his favorite edibles, though it was hardly enough to sate his appetite. Once again, beneath the light of the waxing, near-to-full moon, he left his family’s cabin to seek out sustenance and to meet the sow.
They met at the same place in the clearcut, and she came with her maw clutching another bloody patch of bear hide, which he tasted, thereby sealing the second condition of his desired fate.
“You have one more night to go, and then you will be free to resume your life as a human, my son,” the sow instructed. “But I have not been able to hunt down another, as I had planned, though I roamed for leagues all day in search.”
“What will I do?”
“Tomorrow night, if we meet and I have not found the bear for you, you must go seek out the bear yourself. It lives not far from here, in a den in the foothills. I can show you the way. And, as the moon fattens to its maximum, you will need to assume the shape and size of a bear beyond what your human form allows. It will happen; it is your thirteenth birthday tomorrow, and the moon will be perfectly full. With the strength, acuity, and wit of a full-grown bear will you perform your first—and pray it be your last—bear hunt of your life. Drink of the blood of that bear before the sun rises and you will change back to your human form and not be troubled by this curse ever again.”
With that, she disappeared into the shadows of the cedars.
The son, though he knew what he must do, could not sleep the rest of the night upon his return from the meeting with his wild mother, for he feared this new and evil task. How will it feel to change completely into a bear? How will he find and kill the bear he needed?
But he feared the consequence of his failure to do so even more, and fell into a fitful sleep riddled with bloodied dreams of claws and teeth and musky hide.
The next day, the son joined his father in their second hunt. His father told him that, at the end of the day, they would return home and celebrate the boy’s birthday. Had it not been a day of beginnings and endings, the son might have looked more forward to the festivities his parents had planned, but he was far too concerned with meeting his task to show much excitement.
Of course, there was no rogue to be found. Even the master of ceremonies from the circus had sent out his men—the carnies, the animal trainers, the strongmen—to find the bear. Any bear, in fact. They hoped that whoever found a bear that day might trap it and bring it back to the circus. There were excellent bear trainers on staff. They might be able to tame a rogue, if need be.
The woodcutter and his son came home to a subdued meal that included two of the boy’s favorite dishes: berry cobbler and honeycakes. When the boy hungrily licked the dishes clean—for while his mother and father ate one piece each of both, the boy gorged on the remainder—his parents presented him with a special gift: a silver circlet engraved with berry vines.
His mother took the boy’s hand and slid the large bracelet around his wrist. “We have saved every coin we could to purchase this very special and expensive gift. Son, when you are prepared to marry, you must trade this bracelet for all the land it will buy. On that land, you can raise all the hives and grow all the brambles and berry bushes your heart desires, and you will thrive in these hills and leave a great legacy!”
The woodcutter and his wife smiled warmly upon their son. It was all the boy could do not to cry and run into their arms. He could see plainly how much his parents hoped for his future. He must complete the evening’s task. It would be the only way he could bring the legacy they wanted for him to fruition.
Afterward, the family visited the circus, with all its colorful carnival games and mysterious people and bizarre wares from faraway regions. The atmosphere of the event seemed subdued, however. The audience politefully applauded the feats of trapeze artists and dexterous acrobats, the arts of the dulcimer player and the illusionist, but there was dampness in their praise. The knowledge of a killer loose in the woods weighed heavily in the backs of their minds, as well as the sorrow of having lost two dancing bears, which the circus folk themselves wore in their drawn faces and hunched shoulders when they weren’t, themselves, performing in the spotlight.
The boy, however enchanted by the events of the circus, was also anxious to return home, for he worried that his wild mother had not yet found the third bear. If he were to fail at completing that task himself, he would be forced to reveal the truth to his parents. Would they keep him? Would he become too much of a burden, or a threat? Would life ever be normal for him if he failed?
Finally, the family said their goodnights and retreated to their sleeping quarters. The woodcutter and his wife, however, did not retire immediately, but sat chatting late into the evening. The boy, exhausted by the day’s events and by his growing hunger, fell asleep sitting up in his bed.
As the moon grew fatter and fatter late into the night, the son woke with a start, feeling stranger than ever. He was suddenly heavier and stronger than he’d ever been, and hair had grown all over his body. His breath was sweet and rank, and his voice growled from deep inside his belly. He had changed completely, just as the sow had warned.
He came to the clearing by the brambles breathless and found her waiting patiently just as before. Her eyes, reflecting the bright moonlight, narrowed and she looked away for a moment before shaking her head.
“I am sorry.”
The boy knew of the den that she described to him. He had seen it up along the hillside and had, at the advice of his father, avoided it for his own safety.
Tonight he would go there now, and track the bear, and seal his fate.
He loped up inclines and ran around stands of cedar with only the light of the moon to guide him visually. It mattered little that he couldn’t see, however. Using his powerful sense of smell, he sniffed his way toward the place, which was some distance away. Upon arriving, he surveyed the opening of the cave and found it desolate. Even walking deep into the space, he was unable to locate even the slightest scent of the bear, only the smell of damp earth, snakeskin, and rat droppings. It was as if there never had been a bear living inside.
The boy roared, and the feeling of the sound as it shook his body and vibrated the very walls of the cave, filled him with an intense rush of energy. He began to run.
For hours, he lumbered through the forest, passing up the honeycomb and brambles—though he was desperately hungry—in search of the other bear. He could not pick up any scent of musk that belonged to a bear, though. An occasionally trace of deer, maybe, or raccoon. There were the flashing wings of owls, the squeaks of field mice, but no large scratches in the bark of trees, no scat, no prints in the needled forest floor, to suggest the presence of any bear.
As the sky lightened, he began to grow slow and heavy and stopped to catch his breath. It was then that a searing pain shot through and encircled his wrist. The bracelet! He’d left it on when he’d gone to bed, and now it clamped so tightly to his enormous paw that he could not remove it. The pain was terrible and the blood around his wrist spurted from his newly gashed hide.
While he licked his wound—his bear wound, for he was no longer human at all—a familiar, musky scent wound its way into his nostrils. He looked up the hill to find the sow sitting on top of a large outcropping of shale. She was watching him. In the growing light, he could discern her sadness, and the way she shook her head, as if to indicate his—and her—failure to meet the conditions.
He stood carefully, taking the weight off his sore paw. He knew what he had to do. The knowledge flowed through him like water in a river swollen with spring melt. It wasn’t the reasoning knowledge of a young man making decisions to alter the course of his future. It was the carnal knowledge of a wild creature intrinsically tuned in to the nature of its survival instinct.
The boy-bear’s haunches accelerated his large form up the hillside. The other bear did not move, and for this, his heart was glad and raced, propelling him further. His mouth began to salivate, his blood rushed through his veins, and the scent of his wild mother drove his will furiously and with an aggression he had never felt before.
She was not afraid when the boy-bear raised a large front paw to swipe at her exposed neck. Instead, she stood, crying, her dark eyes rimmed in red, tears and mucus glistening the fur on her muzzle. But his ursine self had overcome any of the emotional capacity that once resided in his human self, so he did not resist the idea that she was mourning.
Before his claws pierced her hide, an arrow flew through the woods, piercing him in the shoulder. The pain flooded his vision in silver light; his ears filled with the roar of blood. The trajectory of the strike compromised his sense of balance, and he fell from the outcropping of shale where his wild mother cowered. The bear tumbled down the hillside, the image of the sinking moon swirling in his vision until everything went black.
Sunrise found the town rejoicing. The rogue bear had been caught! Hunters and woodcutters shot off rifles and built bonfires to celebrate their success. Milk maids and merchants, farmers and craftspeople filled the town square, carrying hot mugs of spiced punch and day-old pastries from the bakery, for the news of the capture of the rogue bear precipitated even the first batch of the baker’s morning fare, it had come so early.
The master of ceremonies of the circus was especially excited. His master bowman had aimed the silver-tipped arrow just right, catching the bear in a spot that could be healed fairly quickly. The bear would live.
In the meantime, it was decided that the bear, in its convalescence, would be treated to the early rudiments of dance training. Not only did the capture of the bear spell good news for the village, but it drew out an invitation of good will from the village mayor, who asked the circus to stay, as a guest of the village, for the duration of the bear’s training, to show his compassion for the loss of their two bears and gratitude toward the master bowman for bringing peace and safety back to his town.
The boy-bear, however, could not express the same satisfaction with his fate. He roared and clawed at the trainers and animal doctors who came around, poking at his wound through the bars of his cage. They gave him a large piece of raw mutton, which he lapped up hungrily, unaware it had been baited with medicinals. With the fading of his consciousness came the rise of cheers and merriment from the crowd, deliriously happy to see the brute turned passive under their attentions.
All ceremony came to a solemn halt, however, at the news of the woodcutter’s wife, who could be heard weeping the whole way into town. She had been woken by the early festivities only to discover her son missing. When she and her husband arrived in town, they came upon the sight of the wounded bear, only to discover the silver circlet, their gift to their only son, wound snugly around the animal’s massive paw, dripping blood that looked, smelled, and tasted like blackberry juice.
Tamara Sellman writes fiction, essays and poetry and is the founding editor of the archived magazine MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism. Her most recent acceptances for work in the magical realist vein include Alimentum Journal; Penumbra: Speculative Fiction from the Pacific Northwest (anthology); Like Water For Quarks: Science Fiction Meets Magic Realism (anthology); and Naugatuck River Review.