The Boy from the Woods
11 February 2021


Every day after work, the old man walked his dog in the woods downtown. The city had veins of wooded trails running through it and he liked to walk on them and when he felt the soil beneath his feet and the shade of the tall trees’ canopy, he could close his eyes and imagine he was somewhere else.  

One evening in early spring when the trees were still bare, and the ground was soft from melting snow the old man heard something rustling in the bushes.  The dog pricked up its ears and barked and ran off to investigate. The old man followed cautiously.

He found the dog wagging its tail and barking excitedly over the body of a boy.  The boy was half clothed and lying in the mud and decaying leaves.  His eyes were closed but he was groaning.  

The old man got down on his knees beside the boy.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.  ‘What happened to you?’

The boy opened his eyes.  He mumbled something the old man couldn’t understand.  He smelled strongly of alcohol. There were cuts and bruises all over his body and he was shivering from the cold.

The old man helped him to his feet.  

‘Come with me,’ he said.  ‘We’ll get you cleaned up.  Warm you up.’

The old man held the boy’s arm and supported him along the path.  He realized this was not a boy but a teenager who looked very young for his age.  They arrived at the old man’s apartment and some of his neighbors poked their head out their doors when they heard the commotion in the corridor. Some looked at him strangely.  What was he doing with this beaten-up boy who stank of alcohol?  In the city neighbors made assumptions about old men who returned from walks with teenaged boys.

In the small apartment, he found some old clothes and gave them to the boy.  He dressed the boy’s wounds and he made strong tea and opened a can of soup and the boy sat on the sofa and gradually his shaking subsided.  The dog lay at his feet.  It had not left the boys side since they found him.

The old man called the police and soon a policeman arrived, and the old man told him what had happened.  The policeman sat down with the boy, but it was clear his presence made the boy very uncomfortable and the boy still refused to speak.  

That evening, after the policeman left the boy would still not speak and so the old man began to talk and he told the boy about where he came from and how he ended up in the city. 

‘I grew up in a cabin in the north.  It was beside a lake.  I lived with my mother and her father.  My own father disappeared shortly after I was born.  I fished and hunted with my grandfather and played with the other children on the lake.  One day some men came and said that I had to go to school.  They took me away from my mother and my grandfather and they changed my name and cut my hair and forced me into large classrooms with other kids who looked like me and we slept at night in cold dormitories and I thought it strange because now was the season when the salmon run, and we should be fishing not learning about places I’d never been and people I had never met.’  The old man took a deep breath and continued.

‘They showed us a map of our land. It was covered in red lines and borders but growing up in a cabin by the lake I had no knowledge of such things . Many children ran away and finally I did too.  I followed train tracks for days and survived off berries my grandfather had taught me were safe to eat.  I finally found my home, but it was changed.   My grandfather had died, and my mother had married a man who was cruel and beat me and so I left that place too.  I wandered and I slept beneath the stars and as winter began, I found myself here in the city.  I’ve never left.

The boy was sleeping now.  The dog had curled up next to him on the sofa.  The old man got up and turned out the light.  

When the old man got up for work the next morning the boy was gone.  


It hadn’t taken long for the boy to find something to drink.  

There was a bridge by the river which some of the guys slept under every season but winter.  He found familiar faces there and they offered him a couple of swigs of something strong that burned his throat and he nodded his thanks and made his way onto the streets where he begged for money and checked the doors of parked cars to see if they were locked. If they weren’t he’d search the ashtrays and under the seats for loose change. 

Most days he was able to rustle together enough money that by late afternoon he could find one of the old bums and get them to buy him some booze, as he wasn’t old enough, and he would share it with them, but sometimes they just took his money, and he would be left with nothing.  

If he couldn’t find anyone, he would go to the hardware store and buy spray paint which he would sniff from a plastic bag. 

When his clothes got too dirty and he smelled too strongly, people stopped wanting to give him change so he would have to go to a shelter and find clean clothes and shower.  His days went like this until winter when everything became more difficult.  One night he passed out on the sidewalk and woke up with his face and hair frozen to the sidewalk.  The paramedics had to come and free him.

The boy had lived this way for a few years.  The booze and chemicals had dulled his memory enough that he could barely remember the place he’d come from.  The place he’d escaped.  His stepfather who beat him and his mom.  His sister who had died.   And he thought he could run away from it all, but the sadness was like a black cloud that followed him to the city.  And the city wasn’t much better. People would look away when they saw him on the street.  Pretend they didn’t see him.  He found other kids like him.  And he quickly found the way they all used to escape.

He liked the feeling of being high.  When his feet stopped working and he was stumbling.  He liked the warm feeling in his stomach or the oblivion that then came after.  He liked seeing double.  Everything fuzzy around the edges.  He closed one eye to better navigate the sidewalks.  He teetered along like a bowling pin and would often fall over and cut his head open and then the hospital would stitch him up and sometimes they’d put him somewhere he couldn’t drink for two weeks.  In warmer months he slept in the park beneath the stars, other times under bridges and in doorways or on subway grates that blasted warm air when the weather got cold.  He dreamt often.  That he was flying high up over the land and far away from the city.  He remembered these dreams better than he remembered his days and this was good.


The old man was disturbed one evening by a thud at the door.  The dog barked and they both got up to see what it was.  He found the boy slumped in the corridor outside.  He helped him to the sofa.  He had been severely beaten and had been sick down his front.  He stank.  A chemical smell the old man recognized.  The old man cleaned him up and then the boy slept for a full day.  The dog did not leave his side.  

When the old man came home from work on the second day, the boy was sitting up.  He had found some bread and cheese and made himself a sandwich.  The old man was relieved to see him there.  He had not worried about leaving the boy alone because he had nothing of value to steal.  

‘You’re up,’ he said.  ‘Boy, you were in some shape.’  The boy did not speak but looked at the old man with his sad, wide eyes.  

‘You know, I lived like you for a time.  For many years when I came to the city.’  The boy continued to stare at the old man.

‘I was in jail, in hospital.  I broke all my teeth and many bones.  I watched all of my friends die or disappear one by one and still I drank and I stole and I fought.’  The boy nodded and scratched the dog gently behind the ears.  

‘Then one day an old man found me beat up and drunk just like I found you.  And he was kind to me, and he came from a place like I did, a cabin in the north, and he fed me, and we told each other stories of our childhood homes and he showed me how to live without the booze and in an honourable way. A way my grandfather and mother would have been proud of.   He saved my life.’  The old man gestured at the walls of the room.  

‘He used to live in this apartment here and I took it over from him.  He moved back to the cabin in the north, away from the city.  He always wanted a cabin by the lake like the one I was born in.  I’m going to move up there soon.  He is very old and needs help around the place and I am tired of this city and the smoke and the neighbours who judge me and the people on the street who look through me.  I have dreams at night that I am flying, and in my dreams, I am flying home.’

He fixed a long gaze on the boy.  

‘I know what you’ve come from and I know how you feel, and I want you to know that I see you and the dog sees you.  And we are both your friends.  You can stay here and get better but soon I will be leaving, and I will go up north and you should think about coming with us.’   The boy did not speak. He looked down at the dog and the dog looked up at him and it thumped its tail and whined softly.

‘I also want you to know that this story does not have a happy ending,’ the old man said this firmly.  ‘Unless you want to change there is only one way this story ends.’

With that the old man wished the boy a good night and he went to bed.  He hoped the boy would take his advice but he had seen that look in people’s eyes before. He knew what it meant

When he got up the next morning the boy was gone.


It had been a hard day.  He was in a great deal of pain and walking hurt but he had been able to get enough money together by mid-afternoon to buy some paint.  He took it down into the subway and got on a train.  

He liked to ride the train.  It was warm and the motion soothed him.  He took a deep breath from the plastic bag.  His head swam and a surge of nausea rushed through him as it always did on the first huff. The subway reeled around him.  He thought he would be sick, but he held his breath and the feeling subsided so he took another deep pull from the bag.  The subway was busy but the seats around him were free.  He could tell people were staring at him but he didn’t care, when he looked up they looked away or at their newspapers and phones.  He smiled and he could feel himself drifting away.

He went to take another deep breath from the bag but it was full of blood and the blood came from his nose.  It poured from his nose like an open faucet, in a way he could never have imagined possible and it filled his lap and then spilled out onto the floor.  How could there be so much blood inside him?  He could hear the people around him murmuring and then a lady screamed and they were all now looking directly at him but seemed afraid to come near him.  The puddle on the floor grew larger. The subway left the tunnel and was outside in the blindingly bright light of day. It pulled up to a platform.  

He could see the sky through the window.  It was blue and there were fat white clouds and he suddenly wanted to feel the sun on his face. He got up and staggered forward, still streaming blood.  

The doors opened and he stumbled out.  The crowds outside parted before him like water from a ship’s bow. He tripped and he put his arms out to break his fall but they were covered with white feathers and they weren’t arms anymore but wings and he flapped them and he rose out above the subway station and the crowds.  

He was no longer bleeding, and he looked around and at what of his body he could see. He realized he was no longer a boy but a snow goose.  He heard cries from all around and there were other snow geese rising up out of the city’s streets and they came together behind him, above the tall buildings.  From up high where they flew they could see the land spread out before them. It was so vast and beautiful and they could go anywhere they pleased.

He turned, once to the south and then to the west and then he turned one last time and headed north.