The hermit wears the bearskin to town. He lost all his clothes to the fire. His feet are naked, his ankles cold. His reservoirs drained to put out flames, he has no water, has not bathed in weeks. Once, women called him handsome. Now he stinks of rot and smoke, his youthful face blackened with coal. The bear has been his only meat, his axe and pan purified by the fire.
No one will call him handsome today. No one will say anything to him, though a child screams Bear! when he arrives on the path, his fingers snug against the cleaned claws. The hermit skinned the creature well. It is a sort of art, and he is a sort of genius.
It is not always good to be a genius. The blacksmith hears the child’s cry and hurries with an unfinished blade. Hermits are easy to spear. He dies without grace, his body jerking in the folds of a flayed beast.
The townspeople mourn. They liked the hermit. He gave them cause to gossip. They bury him beneath the soot of his old home. Then they move on, telling their children the story of the beast who came to town, forgetting the legend’s truths.
Everyone, that is, except the boy who cried Bear! His mother had never been in such a situation, one where her child mistakes a man for a bear. She does not tell him it is not his fault that the hermit died. She puts soup on the table, says nothing.
Each night the boy listens for the hermit’s ghost to find and punish him. The oak’s branches hit his window in high gales. He labels himself a murderer. He tells no one, though he knows they all know. He wonders when the council will come for him.
Ten years pass. He is unwell. He was a haunted boy, and now he is a haunted man. His sleep is thin, his figure gaunt. Every time he sees two heads joined together whispering, he is sure it is his end.
Today the people gather around a small lawn. One of the townspeople turns, looks past him. It is an unkindness. He realizes they are condemning him, and though they must, they should do so openly, quickly. A decade is a long time to wait for judgement.
No one meets his eyes. No one moves from the small lawn. He understands it is unjust to take matters into his own hands, but he has tired. He wants to get on with it. He walks into the woods, to the site of the hermit’s old home. He lies down in the green weeds and waits for a bear to kill him. Nothing stirs. He covers his body with berries, falls into a deep asleep.
In the morning he is still whole, untouched, frustrated by his survival. He finds two large rocks and carries them further into the woods. He spots a lynx eating a deer. He clubs the cat and tears it apart with the crude edges of his stones, creating an inelegant costume for his walk into town.
Grotesque, that’s how he looks to the boy who screams Monster! when he appears around the path. The blacksmith rushes with a blade past the small lawn where spring’s first flowers bloom.
The monster is grateful the boy has named him what he is.
But the boy has a mother with soup in a kettle, and the mother has little to say.
Lauren Davis is the author of Each Wild Thing’s Consent (Poetry Wolf Press). She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her poetry and prose can be found in publications such as Prairie Schooner, Spillway, Qu, Hobart, and Lunch Ticket. Davis teaches at The Writers’ Workshoppe in Port Townsend, Washington.
Artwork: Sarah Ann Loreth