‘The Cold Boy’ by Benjamin Percy

The Cold Boy by Benjamin Percy, 2011

The magic trick:

Creating an extraordinarily tense survival story that turns out to be only a piece of a larger character portrait puzzle

Trigger warning up front for those who simply can’t deal with stories about young children in peril. “The Cold Boy” tells the story of a lonely taxidermist charged with babysitting his sister’s son for a week in the Minnesota winter. The boy wanders off and falls into an icy lake during the first paragraph. So we have a man-versus-nature survival story. Remarkably, as the plot morphs, the boy’s survival story recedes and our focus shifts to the taxidermist.

And that’s quite a trick on Percy’s part.

The selection:

The forest is hardwood and the branches of the oaks and maples and sycamores and walnuts would have been bare except for the crows, hundreds of them, all huddled like little men in black cloaks. Together they make a rusty music—clicking their beaks and rustling their feathers and clawing the bark and hissing and muttering and cawing—that can be heard from some distance, at least a quarter mile away, across a snowy cornfield, where Ray stands on a frozen pond.

The stubs of last year’s cornstalks fang through the snow and two sets of footprints lead like a rough blue stream from his house to the pond. Two sets of footprints, yet he is alone on the ice and the cold of it rises through the soles of his boots, creeping up his legs, into his belly, seizing him.

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