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Once You've Been a Fox
Words by Neva Bryan
The sun was up to no good. It licked the green off mountains. It forced junkyard dogs into the shadows beneath rusty clunkers. Children’s faces hardened when their mothers told them to go outside and play. Only the black snakes enjoyed the heat, curling themselves into tight ampersands on the hardtop roads.
At least that’s what Julie imagined as she kicked at one of those snakes with her hiking boot and watched it slither into the kudzu that crept from the dusty ditch. The young woman continued her trek down the road, blinking at the heat that shimmered off its surface. She felt like she was walking in place, that the soft asphalt was the belt of a giant treadmill.
She took a deep breath and felt as if her lungs might wither under the assault of the hot, heavy air. “Got to stop,” she muttered.
She stumbled off the road into the shadow of a pine tree. She slid her backpack from her aching shoulders and let it fall to the ground. After lowering herself onto fragrant pine needles, she lay flat on her back. Her clothes clung to her like a second skin, heavy with sweat. I can’t wait to get out of them. I feel disgusting.
When she first left home, she had spent each morning studying road maps, plotting a course for the day. She had moved east, then south, until the sharp winds of Chicago were a distant memory. Now there was no wind. Didn’t know Virginia got this hot in summer time.
She tugged at the band that held one of her canteens and shook the container. Almost out. Julie unscrewed the cap and sipped just enough water to wash away the grit in her mouth. She replaced the cap and let the canteen drop back into place.
Light filtered through the tree branches, its heat not so powerful now. Her leaden legs began to relax. Have to rest just a minute. Julie closed her eyes and felt the pleasant sensation of sinking into sleep. She didn’t fight it.
Light still shined through the tree branches when she woke up, but it was no longer gilded by the sun. This was moonlight, silver and cold. Julie sat up and rubbed her eyes. Ugh. My mouth feels like it’s full of wooly worms. She grabbed a canteen and drank all the water in it. Still thirsty, she grabbed the other one.
“Do you really think that’s wise?”
Julie dropped the canteen and jerked her hand up to her chest, where her heart was apparently trying to escape. Holding her breath, she peered at her surroundings. The road was a black river beneath the moon. On either side of her resting place other pine trees stood tall, their branches fragrant now that dew had settled on them.
A twig snapped in the woods behind her and Julie shrieked. She jumped to her feet. “Who’s there?”
The voice was smooth, the accent sophisticated. It reminded Julie of a famous actor. Alan Rickman, maybe, or the guy who played Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. It didn’t hold a threatening tone, but she couldn’t be sure. She pulled a penlight from her back pocket and aimed it into the dark woods.
“Why are you hiding in there? Come out!”
When another twig snapped, she moved the light toward the noise. It caught the green gleam of a pair of eyes. The eyes grew large as they moved toward her. A moment later, a fox stepped into the light. Its ears twitched. After it lifted its nose to sniff the air, it settled on its haunches and studied Julie.
“Don’t be afraid,” it said.
She wasn’t. This is the weirdest dream I’ve ever had, she thought.
Julie crouched on her knees, keeping the light trained on the fox, and scrutinized it. The animal was mostly red, although its chest and muzzle were white and its legs were grey. Its long, bushy tail curled around it where it sat. It was smaller than a Spaniel and its features were quite delicate. It cocked its head at her, then cleared its throat.
“Ahem. Well, as I said, my name is Alexander. And you are?”
“Julie.” The fox was so polite that she felt downright uncivilized. “Please to meet you,” she added and extended her hand, feeling foolish even as she did so.
Alexander extended his paw and touched her hand briefly. “Likewise. Well, Julie, from the sound of your canteen, it seems that you’re almost out of water.”
Caught up in the dream, she had forgotten the water situation. Now she swallowed hard and nodded. “I’m terribly thirsty.”
“I think I can remedy that.” Alexander rose on all fours and flicked his tail. He turned toward the woods. “Follow me, please.”
“Okay.” She drew her backpack straps over her shoulders and set off into the woods behind the fox.
Now that the full moon was so bright, she tucked the flashlight into her pocket. Alexander trotted forward on dainty feet that hardly stirred the pine needles. Julie was grateful for the soft path. Her feet still ached from her journeys.
The woods grew dense. Pine trees gave way to hemlocks. Julie realized that they were climbing a steep mountain. She smelled the water before she heard it, and when she heard it, it was loud. Alexander looked back at her, then ran toward the noise.
She ran after the fox and found him in a clearing. He perched on a wet rock next to a waterfall. When she thrust her hands into the tumbling water, he said, “Careful. It’s colder than you’d think.”
Julie nodded, then cupped her hands and brought the water to her mouth. Indeed, it was icy cold, but delicious. She drank several handfuls, shivering with each sip. She pulled out her canteens and filled them. Her thirst slaked now, she moved to a log covered in moss and rested on it.
“I hope I don’t wake up from this dream anytime soon. This place is so peaceful.”
Alexander cocked his head. He appeared to be grinning. “This isn’t a dream, my dear.”
She laughed. “It has to be. Foxes don’t talk.” She peered at him uncertainly. “Right?”
“Right!” He leaped from the rock and joined her on the log. “Except when they do.”
“I don’t believe it.”
The fox’s head darted forward and he nipped her elbow.
“Ouch! Why did you do that?” She rubbed it, grateful he hadn’t broken the skin.
“What is it people say? Pinch me, I must be dreaming.” He bared his teeth at her. “I had to use the next best thing.”
“Oh God.” She leaned away from him. “How can this be real?”
He laid a tiny paw on her knee. “Like I said, you don’t have to be afraid of me, Julie.” He climbed off the log and paced before her. “As for how, I don’t know. A lot of animals can talk. It’s just that humans are so self-absorbed, they don’t hear us. Usually.”
“Am I the first human being you’ve ever talked to?”
“No. Well, the first adult. Kits…I mean kids…are more likely to understand animals than adults are. So, in a way, you are the first.” He winked at her.
“Why did you—um—let me in on your secret?”
“I sensed a kindred spirit.” Alexander stopped pacing and laid with his belly to the ground. He crossed one front paw over the other and asked “Where are you from?”
“Chicago.” She brushed the soft moss with her fingers as she talked. “I used to be. Now I’m just a traveler.”
“Is that something humans do? Just pack up their belongings and leave home for good?”
“Some of us do, I think. Truth is…I’m running away.”
The fox rubbed his muzzle against the ground, then groomed his whiskers. “Would it be rude to ask what you’re running away from?”
“No.” She smiled at him. “People. I’m running away from people. When I’m in the city, I feel like I’m smothering. But I also feel lonely.”
“That’s quite a conundrum.”
She shrugged. “Getting out on the road seemed like the best solution.”
“And has it worked? Do you still feel like you’re smothering?”
“No. I’ve definitely had plenty of ‘me time’.”
“But you seem like you’re still lonely. After all, you’re sitting in the middle of the forest bearing your soul to a four-legged creature.”
Julie laughed. “I suppose so.”
She stood and stretched until her spine crackled. “Ah, that’s better!” When she glanced at Alexander, his furry brow was furrowed.
“Nothing,” he said. “Just thinking.”
“It won’t be long until the sun rises. The sky’s already getting lighter. I have to get back on the road soon. I’ve got to get some miles in before it’s too hot.”
Alexander jumped to his feet. “Wait! I may have a solution to your conundrum.”
Julie shook her head. “Is this some kind of trick?”
“Well, I’ve read all the fairy tales and fables about foxes.”
Alexander drew himself up in a proud stance. “I can’t believe you’re playing the trickster card. Hasn’t that stereotype gotten old yet?” He sniffed and turned tail.
“Alexander! Don’t leave.” She followed him out of the clearing. “I’m sorry I offended you. Please don’t be mad at me.”
He paused, his ears quivering. “Fine!” When he turned back to her, his eyes were bright. “How would you like to have space to breathe without being lonely?”
Before she could respond, he leaned toward her and spoke out of the corner of his mouth, as if sharing a secret. “Believe it or not, this forest is magical.”
She scratched her jaw a moment. “Okay, assuming I believe in magic, how will it help me?”
“You could be like me. Live here.” He scanned their surroundings as if appraising the trees. “It’s a fantastic place to make a home. Lots of room to move around. If you get lonely, you can talk to all kinds of animals and they won’t take offense when you need some…what did you call it? ‘Me time.’”
“Well, first of all, humans don’t live well in the great outdoors. That’s why we build houses. And second, how is living in the woods magic?”
“That’s not the magic part.” He walked a circle around her, muttering to himself, then said, “I can turn you into a fox!”
Julie’s felt her mouth drop open. She snapped it shut, then cleared her throat. “How? Erm, I mean…huh?”
“Well, there’s a lot of technical mumbo jumbo to it that you wouldn’t understand, but the process itself is simple.”
She let her backpack slide down her arms, then dropped it at her feet. “So, would it be permanent? Could I turn back into a human?”
“It’s forever. But once you’ve been a fox, why would you want to be a human again? I mean, look at me. I’m handsome. Intelligent. Charming.”
“Yeah, you’re the total package alright.”
“Do I detect a hint of sarcasm?”
She snickered. “Yeah.”
“I’m being serious, Julie.” He rested on his haunches and gazed up at her. “You’d have this huge forest for your home. Lots of food. Friendly neighbors. Well, except for the raccoons. Just between you and me, those guys are assholes.”
She laughed, then squatted next to her pack and rummaged through it. She found some photos she had shoved into the bottom, photos she hadn’t looked at one time since she had been on the road. Julie wasn’t close with her family. They wouldn’t miss me.
She thought about the city she had left behind…the traffic…the crime…the crowds. And my job.
She had imagined that one day she would return and get a job like the one she had before she left: customer service rep. That didn’t seem very appealing now.
“So, what do you say?”
Julie squeezed her eyes shut a moment. She felt Alexander’s tail brush against her arm.
I can’t believe I’m really considering this. Oh God. She opened her eyes and shouted, “YOLO!”
“YOLO. It’s short for ‘You only live once.’ Let’s go for it!”
“Outstanding!” The fox danced a happy jig. “Okay, we’ve got to go back to the waterfall.”
They made their way back to the clearing. The sun angled through the trees and pierced the waterfall, birthing a rainbow.
“Perfect timing!” Alexander hopped onto the rock and pointed his muzzle at the rainbow. “Go stand directly under the waterfall until you’re completely wet.”
“Uhm, okay. Then what?”
“After you’re soaked through, make your way to the rainbow and stand in its path.”
She did as he directed, gasping as she plunged beneath the icy fall. When she felt sufficiently wet, she waded toward the rainbow. She shivered. “Where’s that hot sun when you need it?”
“Don’t move!” Alexander shouted. He trotted back and forth at the edge of the water and began yipping. There was a rhythm to it that made it seem like a chant.
Julie’s bones ached. Sensing a change, she glanced down and saw her legs shrinking. Her arms grew smaller, too, and a fine down appeared on her skin. She lifted her hands to her face, frightened at the sight of her fingers transforming into paws.
She fell onto her hands and knees, her face dropping beneath the surface of the water. Her screams sounded more like shrill little barks. I’m drowning! It was trick after all!
She fell into darkness.
* * *
Julie woke up stiff and lightheaded. God, what a crazy dream.
Something soft and wet moved across her arm. She opened her eyes and saw a fox licking her skin. Her…fur.
“Oh,” she murmured.
“Julie. Thank goodness!” Alexander lifted his muzzle and touched his nose to hers. “You were out for a long time. I was getting worried.”
“It wasn’t a dream.”
She rose to her feet. Paws, she reminded herself as she walked in a circle on trembling legs. She could see the tip of her bushy tail.
“I’m a fox.”
“I’m a fox!”
She flicked her tail and it brushed Alexander’s nose. He sneezed three times, then said, “And a most beautiful one.”
He nuzzled Julie behind her ears. She giggled. “So…now what?”
“No people for miles and miles. Let’s go frolic!”
“I’ve never frolicked in my life.”
“That’s one of the perks of being a fox. You can frolic to your heart’s content.” He nudged her. “Just don’t do it in front of the raccoons. They’ll razz you for it.”
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