“Tasks of the Bear-Witch”
By Jasmine Gower
The trunks of the trees in the woods were not so unlike the legs of adults scurrying about the market, not from Verochka’s angle. The trees were as tall and uncaring, though they did not scurry and gave each other enough space to stretch their arms. Like the adults, too, they hid secrets. Tiny secrets, maybe. Simple secrets. Secrets of omission or ignorance. But secrets all the same, and Verochka had seen the bear-witch sneak between the trees. She had traversed over thin and slushy layers of snow, through the mud and the pine needles far beyond the edges of the small town where she lived.
Her parents worked in the factories in town. Mother worked in the sheet metal plant and Father worked in a smaller factory carving wooden buttons. It was hard work, and Father often complained about moving to Baycuff to build boats, but they couldn’t afford a wagon to transport their meager belongings. The Holds was a harsh place. The fishing was bad and the farming was worse, so Verochka’s parents worked the dim-lit factories and raised a family and complained about wanting a better life. Verochka and her brother, Radomir, used to go with their parents to the factories, just like most of the Holski children with factory-working parents. Verochka remembered it had been loud and miserable, and even though it was warmer than their house, breathing in a factory was like breathing in muddy water. At a certain point, Radomir was old and curious enough to examine some of the tools in the factory when none of the adults noticed, and his inquisitive nature was rewarded with the loss of his little finger. By then, Mother and Father agreed that the children were grown enough to hold their own at home. Now, Radomir and Verochka were content to wander through the plains just outside of town like the other older children.
Verochka was not much interested in playing in the fields with the other children, though. The parents and older kids insisted that they play in the fields because they are open, safe. Verochka tended to hover closer to the edges of the woods, but if she ever got too close where an older child was watching, they would stop her from entering the forest.
“Vera, no,” one of Verochka’s neighbors, Nataliya, would always tell her. “There are ghosts and witches in the forests.” Nataliya was nearly an adult and always kept the younger children from doing anything dangerous or interesting while their parents worked. She always griped about how the neighborhood’s parents should pay her for “raising their children for them”, but the children speculated that with her militant eye on misdoings, Nataliya would someday make an excellent police officer.
As to the ghosts and witches, Verochka never believed Nataliya because she could tell that Nataliya did not believe it herself. That didn’t mean, of course, that Verochka didn’t suspect that there might exist things outside of Nataliya’s limitations of belief.
Their village was largely torn on the issues of the supernatural, Verochka had noticed since she was a toddling infant. Mother claimed that witchcraft and spirits were superstitious paranoia, and Father retorted that she was poisoned by metropolitan ideas from the other provinces in the Common World. Mother would declare that witch-hunters were only con-artists preying on the foolishness of people like Father, and Father would reply that while he did not care for witch-hunters or see them as all that much better than the witches they hunted, they had been driven to that state by discrimination from the Old Atheist institutions of the east. Mother would answer that Old Atheism was right about magic, and it wasn’t religious intolerance that ruined the reputations of witch-hunters, but their own illegal and immoral activities.
Arguments like that happened in households all over their village—across the entire Holds. Sometimes strangers would roll into town—merchants from Cloudreach, fishers from Baycuff—and they would laugh at the notion that anyone believed in witches. Witch-hunters sometimes rolled through, too, and they would muse aloud at the notion that these small Holski villages could survive without proper protection against magicians hiding in the forests and mountains, and would often continue to muse until someone handed them some coppers. It was a long argument and a loud one, and very little of it consisted of any substantive content.
But Verochka knew the truth.
Since winter came around, she had begun seeing a shadow lurking in the woods. A few times, another child might spot it, too, and scream out, “A bear!”, and away all the children would scurry back to the edge of the town. When that happened, Nataliya or Radomir often dragged her away before she could get a better look at the shadow. But sometimes, when it was too cold for many children to motivate themselves to leave their families’ huts or apartments, she could see it weaving its way between the trees. She never knew if the bear could see her, too. It seemed unlikely, because on more than one occasion, she had watched it pass behind a tree as a bear and come out the other side as a man.
It was hard to tell. She often rationalized it away. “It just stood up on its hinder legs, that’s all. Perhaps there are both bears and bear-trappers in the woods, and I am seeing two different things.” But she was stricken with a certainty in her bones that the shadowy shape she saw was the same creature, simultaneously human and bear. It moved with fluidity, it altered its shape and size, but it was a singular being.
Witches were real, and if there was such furious debate and ridicule and fraud over them, then they must be terribly and wonderfully interesting.
That was what drove Verochka to the legs of the trees that morning. Radomir did not always keep a close eye on her, and so long as Verochka never appeared in the fields, Nataliya would not be able to stop her, either. Once Mother and Father had left the house for work, Verochka tramped through town and up the coast to enter the forest from that angle. Finding the place where she had been spotting the bear, she figured, would not be all that difficult if she circumvented the field.
But Verochka didn’t spend a lot of time between the trees and amongst their secrets, and the way was harder to find than she expected. She wandered for hours, always looking for the field just beyond the wildlife before her, but never did she find it. Melted snow soaked through her boots, and the early-spring sunlight could not reach her below the grey canopies, and her quest for the bear-witch became less adventurous and whimsical with each squishy step.
Just as noontime rolled around and the pangs of hunger whispered at her to return home, she noticed a movement from the corner of her eye. “The corner of the eye is where the mind plays all its tricks,” her mother often said, usually in argument with Father or superstitious neighbors. Verochka often trusted her mother’s wisdom and practicality, but the woman displayed an impressive lack of imagination and open-mindedness. There were some truths, Verochka believed, in the shadowy worlds of magic and mysticism. Intuition begged her to follow that brief movement she had detected, and follow it she did.
Another hour of tromping through mud and clambering over roots and ledges led Verochka to a cleared hill. Surrounded by a ring of tree stumps, clearly rid of their bodies by human intervention, was a small wooden shack.
Verochka stomped up the hill and stopped before the door—a rustic slab of wood that did not quite fit in its warped doorframe. Outside the cottage, there were fish laid over a stone grill to smoke, a rack of stretched leather, and piles of chopped and unchopped wood next to a stump with an axe lodged into it. Some people did not care for the company of others, Verochka knew, and such a hut would be an ideal living situation for that sort of person. But she would not let concern over other people’s preferences stop her from meeting a bear-witch.
She reached up to the door and rapped on it with a tiny fist.
From within, she heard a sound not unlike the snort of a startled dog awakened from its sleep. The muffled growl of an old man’s voice said, “Who’s ‘at?”
“Dunno,” a gentler voice answered.
“Well? Get the door, laggard; see who it is!”
The door pulled inward and a young man with sallow cheeks and watery eyes stared out at her. His clothes were roughly hewn and patchy, which would seem normal on any man in the village, if not for the fur shawl and numerous wooden amulets he wore over them. At the sight of Verochka, he grabbed one of the amulets around his neck and fiddled with it—a carved bead, although Verochka couldn’t tell the shape as it was engulfed in the man’s grasp.
“Father,” the young man said, his eyes locked on Verochka, “it’s a girl-child.”
“Oh? Is the little milá lost?”
Verochka leaned to the right to peek around the young man, spying his father slouched in a chair on the far end of the cottage. He had a small block of wood in one hand and a carving knife in the other, but the knife was idle for the moment. The older man was twice the width of his son and had a full, greying beard masking most of his face. All she could really see of his face was a nose too narrow for a man so wide and a pair of small, black eyes. Those eyes turned to her and the man offered a small grunt.
“Isaak, let the child in,” he said, and his son stepped aside. Verochka entered the cottage, lit only by a small candle on a table next to the old man and the beginnings of a small cookfire in the corner, over which a cast-iron pot waited to serve its purpose. Isaak moved to the cookfire once Verochka was inside, but she paid no more mind to him. She stepped up to the grizzly old man.
“What are you doing here, little one?” he asked. “What is your name?”
“My name is Verochka. I came here following the bear-witch.”
The man leaned forward, setting his carving tools aside on the table, and ran the back of his hand over his mouth. Like Isaak, he wore a shawl of fur, though Verochka did not know what sort of animal’s life was sacrificed for its making. She had her suspicions, however.
“I am Sergei. So, you seek a bear-witch, do you?” His black, pebble-like eyes focused on her, scanning her face. She made an effort to keep her expression neutral, though that made it feel like her face was scrunched up in every possible way. If Sergei noticed, he said nothing on the matter. “Little city girl, yes? I thought city-people did not believe in magic. Or is the Old Atheism imported from Westeye not enough for you?”
Verochka had heard some of the Secessionists. The height of their movement had been shortly before Verochka’s parents were born, so she didn’t know much, but in her village, they were most often dismissed as rabble-rousers who would risk the Holds’ political stability under the Common World monarchy seated in Westeye simply to call that frozen chunk of land their own. Sergei might have been old enough to be a Secessionist from the era when they had nearly claimed the Holds’ independence. Or perhaps he was nothing more than an old hermit who resented outsiders.
“I’ve seen the bear-witch,” she explained. “I see him in the woods most every day. I’ve seen his shadow change as he transforms. I know there is magic.”
Sergei scratched at his beard. “And… why do you seek this witch?”
“Because I want to learn his magics and be a witch, too.”
The shape of Sergei’s beard shifted slightly—perhaps a smile had formed underneath. He leaned forward and said with a conspiratory whisper, “Verochka, milá—do you not know all the terrible things they say about witches? Look into one’s eyes, you might find yourself hypnotized. They can drain your very soul from between your lips. They control animals and send them out to mark you for death. You wish to tangle with such sorcery?”
“I will be a good witch,” Verochka declared, uncertain if she truly believed it herself. Her fingers twitched at the thought of magic—of having the power to become a bear or heal her illnesses or create light from nothing—and she would have told Sergei anything to learn his secrets. She had no intention to do ill by others with her hypothetical powers, but she had never heard of a witch that did anything but evil with their magic.
Sergei laughed and slapped his knee. “You hear this, Isaak? A ‘good witch!’ Well, child, I would very much like to see more of those.” He leaned back, the chair creaking under his mass. “Well, little city-child, I may be able to share my knowledge. But this knowledge is not for the weak-spirited. You must prove yourself.”
Verochka straightened her spine as much as she could, standing at attention as she had seen sailors do in the presence of their captain. “Yes, Mister Sergei, I can prove myself!”
“I will give you three tasks,” he said, holding up three thick fingers, perhaps unaware that children in the village were given enough schooling to know at least how to count. “A test of your power and humanity. One task each: Labor, work, and action.”
Verochka wrinkled her nose. “What’s the difference?”
Sergei lowered his hand and gave a single, dramatic nod. “Very good. You’ve transformed your thoughts into an act of speech. You have completed the task of action.” When praised by her parents or other adults, Verochka usually experienced a flush of pride, but the sensation was drowned in this instance under her skepticism. “The other tasks will be more challenging.” Sergei began to heave himself up out of his chair, but halfway up, dropped his seat back into it with a low groan. He glanced about the hut until his eyes fell on the block of wood and small knife from before. Snatching them up, he leaned forward and offered them to Verochka.
“Here: The task of work. You must create something of lasting value.”
Verochka took both the items—one in each hand—and stared at the block. “Create what?”
Sergei scowled. “There’s only so much you can make out of a block of wood. So, make it.”
Verochka matched his expression, dropping her arms to her side. “It’s too dark in here.”
“Then go outside.” Verochka tried to ignore his snappiness and turned to head out the door, catching a glance of Isaak hunkered in the corner, wooden spoon clutched desperately in hand as he hovered over the cookfire. How a little mewling kitten like him was the offspring of the hulking, growling bear-witch on the other side of the hut was beyond her.
Sunlight flared across her sight as she opened the door—a painful contrast to the dimness inside—and her eyes were still a bit splotchy by the time she sat on the ground against the wall and pulled the block of wood up to her face.
The beginnings of a small idol had already been chipped out by Sergei, though Verochka couldn’t tell what it was supposed to represent, or why a hermit would have need of wooden statues. For magical rituals, probably, she reasoned, and tried to imagine the sort of symbol a bear-witch would worship.
Though it felt too obvious, Verochka took the knife to the block and attempted to shape a bear out of the amorphous piece. A creature so large, she figured, would also require less wood to chip away.
While Verochka worked, hand already aching a bit from the pressure of forcing the blade between the grain of the wood block, she wondered what knowledge Sergei would pass onto her. The superstitious sorts had all kinds of theories about the means and manners of magic, and there was no general consensus in that mythology. Some claimed that magic was worked through spells, others said that it came from crystals. There were plenty of tales about witches who worshipped demons, deities, or such creatures from otherworldly planes. A few theories suggested that magic was born into a person, like an inverse illness, and yet others suggested that it was something that a person simply could or could not do, like whistling. If it was a matter of birth or simple being, Verochka hoped that Sergei would have addressed that before setting her to work. No, if she was to prove her power and humanity, then it was something beyond that.
After a while of working (the sun had earlier been visible overhead in the small circle in the canopy over the clearing, but was again hidden behind the ring of trees beyond it), Verochka lowered the knife and examined her work. It was bear-like, at least—still mostly square-ish, but bears were a bit blocky as it was, and a distinct head and four legs had formed. Its tiny face, the part that she had taken the most care on, was lopsided to the left, but it had two rows of six teeth each. Its little eyes, made only carving out two hollow circles in its face, stared back at her in perplexity, almost as though it wondered at its own misshapen existence. Her hand burned from clutching the knife, though, and Sergei never specified that it had to be a masterful piece of work.
She reentered the cottage with her new creation. Isaak was serving a bowl full of whatever he had been tending to on the cookfire to his father, and Sergei harrumphed at the sight of Verochka. “Just when I’m about to eat, eh?”
Verochka had grown used to accepting that sort of dismissively annoyed tone from her parents, but she found that coming from Sergei, it made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. She would suffer the old curmudgeon’s demands, though, until she obtained the secrets she coveted.
“Here,” she said, approaching Sergei’s rustic throne and offering the knife and the bear idol. Sergei set aside his meal to take them and examine the latter.
“Huh. Darling little thing, isn’t it, Isaak?” The young man nodded without much interest. Verochka suspected that the movement might have resulted less from agreement and more from Isaak’s thin and wobbly neck.
“Do I pass the second trial?” Verochka asked after too many moments had passed by of Sergei tilting the bear statuette in his hand, smirking just slightly at its novice craftsmanship and lopsided, perplexed face.
Sergei nodded and traded the knife and carving again for his bowl. “Eh, sure. Congratulations. You want the last task now, I suppose?” Verochka nodded once and with as much force as she could put behind it without giving herself whiplash. “Right, then. And, uh… which one do you have left, again?”
Sergei shoved a spoonful of whatever Isaak had cooked up, chewing thrice then swallowing. “Right, right. Good recollection, little one. Should have made memory one of the tasks, eh?” After another spoonful, he continued, “Well, for the task of labor, you need to harvest something valuable. And what is more valuable to bears than delicious fruits? There is a cluster of salmonberry bushes nearby, you see—very fertile, and they have longer seasons of bearing fruit than any other salmonberry bushes you are likely to find. However, this particular cluster has a beehive built just above it—get too close to the berries, you get too close to the hive.”
“Do you want me to get rid of the bees?” Verochka asked, wondering what kind of cruel person would send a child out after bees. She had been stung before, a year ago, and prided herself in not crying over the biting pain of the venom, but she didn’t look forward to the idea of willingly confronting one of those little demons, never mind an entire hive of them.
“No, no. The bees are valuable themselves—they pollenate the salmonberries, after all. Can’t be rid of them. I want you to collect a haul of berries. You’ll have to figure out how to avoid their little guardians, though.”
That did little to sooth her concerns, but with two tasks already down, she resolved to complete what she had started and obtain Sergei’s knowledge of magic.
“I will do it.”
“Good. Isaak, get the girl a basket, then go make yourself useful outside. I need an hour or so of solitude from both of your nonsense.” Isaak went back to his corner by the cookfire and pulled a woven basket out from under a shelf there, handing it to Verochka, and then they went outside together. Isaak pointed with one spindly finger, wordless, to where Verochka needed to seek out the salmonberry bushes, and she left him there to tend to whatever chore he was managing.
Back between the legs of the trees, Verochka tried to walk as straight as she could manage while maneuvering around roots and underbrush. She worried she would get lost, but it seemed only moments before she found the cluster of bushes that Sergei spoke of. Perhaps her understanding of the ways of magic were already beginning, and the spirit of a bear had discreetly led her there.
Her excitement waned as she spotted the beehive Sergei had mentioned. It was a fat thing, dangling from a branch that was too thin for it, and although Verochka stood several yards away, she could already hear the furious humming of its populace. She watched for a while as drones darted in and out of the hive, visiting the ripe, pink berries and what few blossoms remained so late in the season. The bees did not seem to be guarding the bushes themselves, necessarily, but their numbers were non-trivial. As Sergei said, if she got too close, they would take it as a threat, and then she would have a swarm of angry buzzers to answer to.
She hung back while she examined her options. She had seen beehives before in town, and she had seen larger animals get into them, sniffing about for something to eat. She recalled watching a stray dog once stick its nose into a hive built into a rotting fence post. The bees, naturally, did not take kindly to that, and swarmed the dog. It had tried at first to fight back but discovered that biting the bees only served to make it easier for them to sting it. After a few moments of flailing and yelping as its tongue was pierced by stingers, the dog eventually darted away, aiming for a nearby puddle from a recent rain shower. Diving into the puddle, the dog rolled around, covering itself in mud, and this seemed to either serve as armor from the bees or somehow blind them to its presence. Either way, the insects left the mud-covered dog be and returned to their home in the fence post.
Resolved to try it, Verochka backed up and searched for a good source of workable mud. In forest, it didn’t take long to find a patch of ground squishy enough to suffice, and she stripped off her clothes and began applying it to her skin. She had seen many grown-ups (or almost-grown-ups, like Nataliya) flinch at contact with mud, but Verochka had never had any issue with it. Mud was a present part of most childhood play in the town—she had grown comfortably used to it. As she smeared a thick layer of it across her skin, something about its coolness was relaxing even as she stood naked in the shadows of a dim forest.
She returned to the edge of the salmonberry bush cluster, a few yards away from the hive, and began creeping forward, careful to watch her feet in case some of the bees fancied a nap in the cool mud. A few of the bugs scattered at her movement, but most remained still, so she continued tiptoeing further. As she got near enough to the body of the bush, though, she could hear the furious buzzing of bees in the back of her skull. She didn’t know if they were trying to swarm her—when they weren’t moving, they were difficult to see in the waning daylight—but the increase of noise did not soothe her soul, and so she backed out, returning to a safe distance just beyond the reach of even the most outstretched branches.
Sergei had told her not to kill the bees, but she began to wonder, while squirming under the sensation of mud hardening over her skin, if there wouldn’t be a way to displace the bees long enough to fill the basket. She glanced up at the hive.
Yes, the branch it hung from was rather thin. The tree’s lower branches looked sturdy and simple enough for a small girl to climb, and perhaps if she sat still enough, her mud-mask would shield her from the insects’ detection. All she needed was to creep up from the other direction, circling around the bushes, climb into the tree and wait until the bees stopped noticing her, then use something to knock the hive down and preferably away from the berries.
Verochka slunk back to where she had disrobed and began searching for something to make such a tool from.
Twigs and branches were simple enough to unearth in a forest, but she needed one of each to be just so that it would function for her purposes. She found plenty in the immediate muddy area that were long enough but too thin, or sturdy enough but too short. She came upon one fallen branch that was both long and thick, but it was also void of branches, meaning that it would only serve to knock the hive out of the tree and right on top of the very area she intended to clear. She needed something that forked at the end or near it—something she could hook the hive onto and use to chuck it in another direction. Wandering a few yards from her mud hole, such a stick was found, and as she made her way back to the bushes, she was truly beginning to feel that she was becoming at home in the woods, bear spirit or no.
Circling around the cluster to approach the tree from the northwest, where a small section of it was free from tangling berry branches at its base, Verochka clamped her large forked stick between her teeth and wrapped her arms as far around the tree trunk as they would reach, hooking her fingernails into the chips in the bark. The bees seemed to not notice the little muddy beast shimmying up the tree, and there were few enough blossoms that close to Verochka for them to turn their attention to her. This gave her the freedom to focus on inching her way up the trunk, arms and legs wrapped halfway around it while the branch in her mouth struggled to stay balanced there. Her worry over detection by the bees was replaced with stings of protruding bark digging through her mud coating and scratching her naked skin. Once she reached the lowest branch large enough for her to perch upon, she scrambled onto it, struggling to keep her stick from hitting the trunk and getting knocked from her mouth, then sat still as a stone while she examined the flight of insects around her.
A few of the bees were alerted by her movements, but none bothered to float down to her and investigate further. She steadied her breathing, keeping it deep and even, while she waited for the small ruckus her climbing had caused to die down. Once things had normalized, when all the bees were back to crawling or buzzing about in their leisurely fashion, she peered up at the hive many branches above.
It was in reach of her stick, so she began slowly lifting it. Settling the fork in the branch close to the neck of the hive, she paused again to ensure that no bees were alerted to her intentions by the movement. When she was certain the little bastards were least expecting it, she shoved the branch, cutting through the neck of the hive and launching the lumpish thing into the underbrush just east of the salmonberry bushes.
Enraged humming filled her ears like a siren, and as a cloud of furious insects rose up from the destruction she had brought upon the hive, she flinched and slipped on her perch, falling back onto the roots below. The bark of the tree scraped across her bare buttocks as she fell, creating several tiny, burning streaks across her backside, and the protruding roots below punched her in the shoulder as she tumbled upon them. Still, she supposed it was better than landing in the prickly salmonberry branches.
Her primary concern was still the bees, though. Scrapes and bruises faded over time, but enough bee stings could make Sergei’s task ultimately fatal. Verochka began scrambling away from the cluster of bushes, hoping to find more pools of mud and lie low in one of those like the dog she had once seen sniffing the fencepost. She didn’t get far before she began feeling pricks along the back of her legs. The first one or two were barely noticeable, but once she passed the line of trees surrounding the berry bushes, more fell upon her and she could feel the venom pulsing through her limbs.
On her hands and knees, she managed to crawl a few yards off, effectively dragging the lower ends of her legs as they began to go numb and swell, until she found a patch of earth empty for all but a few fallen pine needles. She flopped into that and rolled around as the dog had, recoating herself in a fresh coat of dirt. The new layer cooled her skin again, giving some small relief to the throbbing pin-points all across her body. However, it wasn’t until she pressed herself to the ground and sat still as death for what felt like many long minutes that the bees abandoned their chase, presumably returning to their hive to begin repairing the damage. Two bees left her sharp goodbye kisses on her left arm before going on their way.
When the buzzing died away and all that was left the erratic thumping of her heartbeat in her ears, Verochka pushed herself up to the best of her abilities, stiff and dizzy and counting herself fortunate that she did not have an allergy to the venom of those little demons. Keeping a wide distance from the berry bushes for the moment, she made her way to where she had dropped her clothes and the basket that Isaak had given her. She crept back to the bushes from the south, hoping that the hive had been launched far enough away and the bees were as busy as proverbs would have them, devoting their attention to salvaging and rebuilding their home. With the bushes unguarded, she was free to collect salmonberries at her leisure. Her body already covered in stings and bruises, she didn’t much bother to avoid the thorns on the branches, either. When the basket was filled and her task completed, Verochka returned to her pile of clothes, pulling them over her mud-caked body with a furious apathy to the garments’ stains and ruination.
She stomped her way back through the woods, spitefully aggravating the coursing of venom through the veins in her legs. Neither numbness nor soreness nor the disoriented headiness caused by the stings would stop her from obtaining what Sergei had promised, though, and she reached the hut again just as the first stars of the night began blinking above. Those winking, distant suns almost seemed to be trying to clue her in on a joke, one that she suspected she was the butt of, but the numbness in her began extending to her head, and all her mind could truly see was her destination, now nearly in reach.
Verochka shoved open Sergei’s door without knocking, careless of two berries flying out of the basket at her jerky actions, and Sergei, alone in the hut, looked up wide-eyed at her dramatic entrance.
“Great thunder!” Sergei shouted, unmoved from his throne. “Little milá, is that you?” Verochka entered and gracelessly dropped the basket by Sergei’s feet, staring up at him, demanding without speech. He surely knew what she expected, but he danced around the matter. “Are you the girl-child from before, or a little mud demon?”
“I completed your damned tasks!” Verochka shouted. It was the roar of a kitten, but a roar, nonetheless. “I’ve proven myself, right? So, teach me your witchcraft, and I can be on my way and forget about ever having done your stupid chores!”
Sergei’s mouth fell agape as his eyes evaded her, searching for an escape from the howling little beast he had helped create. He closed his lips and shook his head.
“Ah, milá… I’ve got nothing for you.”
A feeling like a sinking stone cut through her gut, grounding her even through the lightheadedness caused by the bee venom. “What.”
Sergei shrugged, a small consolation to the cold and bruised child standing in his home. “I’m sorry, Verochka—I’m not a witch. Those tasks were only a trick. I didn’t think you’d even get the berries. I figured you’d take off with that old basket and head home eventually.”
“Why?” Verochka asked, her eyes beginning to sting as much as every injury she had incurred during her trials.
“I don’t care to be pestered by little village whelps.” His voice grated with irritation, but the wrinkles around his eyes were not so severe. “It seems you are more heroic than I expected you to be.” He reached over to the side table, where Verochka’s lopsided bear sat. His knuckles gnarled as he clasped onto it, yet he held it delicately as he handed it over to her, almost cradling it. “Here—this belongs to you. You are a strong child, Verochka, but too fanciful. Maybe your ursine statue will remind you of more practical things you can do with your time.”
Verochka took the bear idol. Its empty eyes now echoed of pity. Or mockery.
“I’ll never learn magic, then?” she asked Sergei, tearing her eyes away from the idol.
“Verochka, there is no such thing as magic.” Sergei sat back in his chair, closing his eyes. “Now, go home.”
Verochka recalled a phrase she had heard her brother fling at one of the neighborhood bullies, a lanky girl who ran fast and pinched like a lobster. She didn’t know the exact meaning, but the connotation was fitting enough.
“Stupid bastard, I hope you rot!” She tightened her grip on the idol and gave a swift kick to the basket of salmonberries before turning and leaving the hut. The little clustered orbs bounced off the wooden floor and rolled about, few of them spilling even a drop of their sweet juices, robbing Verochka of the satisfying destruction she sought. Sergei said nothing of her tantrum as she stomped out like an earthquake.
Outside, Verochka paused, looking down the clear hill. She wondered if her mother and father had noticed she had gone missing, yet. Surely Radomir and Nataliya would have informed them that they hadn’t seen her once all day. Exhausted and drained of hope, Verochka wondered how she would breach the subject of having spent the day being tricked into collecting berries for a lazy old hermit under the false promise that she would obtain the secrets of witchcraft. That only wore on her further, and she pushed the idea from her mind as she began walking down the hill, aware of little but the pain in the back of her legs and her own bitter failure.
Her head hung with the weight of mud and resentment, but a movement ahead of her alerted her to danger. Maybe there was no such thing as magic, but the forest still had its threats.
When she lifted her head, though, all she saw was Isaak lurking at the bottom of the hill. In all her fury, she had forgotten about the scrawny hermit’s son, as pathetic and useless as his miserable father. Isaak faced away from her, shrouded in a heavy bear-skin cloak, making him seem bulkier than he did before. He stared out into the forest beyond the clearing, but Verochka couldn’t see much of his face, and he didn’t appear to be aware of her.
She felt a shift in the wind as she watched him—or did she feel an odd taste in her mouth? The dim colors of the clearing seemed to, all at once, become more vibrant and less distinct, and a feeling of déjà vu—or forgetting something, or recognizing a familiar stranger—overcame her, and yet nothing in the physical world appeared to truly change. All but Isaak, that was.
He hunched over, his limbs twisting and his head curling in toward his chest. Verochka’s first thought was to step back, but the clay all over her body seemed to solidify her into a statue in that moment. She watched in silence, her breath stilled in her lungs, as Isaak fell forward to land on his hands while his back arched up.
No, not arched. He had grown, somehow. His body was twice as thick, and she could see, now, that his arms had morphed into wide stumps, his hands massive and tipped with black claws.
Isaak turned his head, and although he still was blind to Verochka, she caught a glimpse of his face from around his wide, fur-covered backside.
It was a bear that looked out into the woods, that lumbered ahead over roots and twigs after a moment’s silent contemplation at the edge of the clearing. Verochka gaped as Isaak’s larger, furrier form waded into the shadows, strolling about through the trees’ secrets in the night.
The bear-witch, she thought under the stars and their all-too-knowing winks. Perhaps she had proven herself, after all.
Text copyright © 2013 Jasmine Gower
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