Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Fox Went Out: Part Five

// Part Five: here at the end of all things //

The Fox Went Out
by Rachel Heffington

Part Five:

Rest of that week, the air was sweeter between us. We both knew John would come and that he would come before the snow. We both knew that soon I would go. Not all the wishin’ in the world could keep the Fox and me side by side. Also, I was no longer a’feared of the Fox: I understood him. I was able to enjoy his company as Duck did: as the friendship of a creature innocent as the finches in the willow-wand cages.
And so the days passed, each finer than the last. The Fox slipped into his happiest mood, his singing-mood, and sang to us in a sweet, clear voice while Duck and I danced. We helped him gather the last of the autumn harvest from the secret places he knowed. He only disappeared one night more and this time I let him be, let him have his dignity.
Will we never have to go back to see Pa?” Duck asked me, right in the middle of dinner one afternoon.
Reynard shot me a “We don’t mention that herelook so I only smiled at Duck. “What on earth are you troublin’ your pretty little head about that for?”
Cuz I wanna stay with the Fox forever an’ ever, Mama.” She flung her arms around Reynard’s neck. “He’s nice and he smells good.”
The Fox picked her up. “You will stay for as long as I need you.”
We’d never spoken again of his forcing me to stay. We both knew my time was coming to an end, so there was no use in it. But the way he said it today made me turn to him with cheeks burning. His bright eyes took their time looking me over, then nodded.
That night, when Reynard had tucked Duck into her fleeces and draped another over my shoulders, he settled down behind me and wrapped me in his arms. It was the same as the first night, only this time I did not mind the feel of his hug or the way he rested his chin on my head. It was odd, but it was him. He was happy and it made me so.
I went out last night,” he said finally.
Don’t see any new bruises.”
His jaw pressed into my hair as he spoke: “I went back to where I found you. To the Man’s place.”
My blood prickled.
He’s not there. He’s looking for you. I found his was headed strongly this way.”
I swallowed. “John’s a good tracker.”
I won’t let him have you. Anise. He made you bleed. I can’t let you go back to someone who hurts you for fun.”
Only when he was angry.”
Tears slid down my face before I could wriggle my arm out to wipe them away. The Fox wiped them for me.
My sweet gray-goose,” he said, “you won’t go back.”
He’s comin’ to kill you and take me. I know you don’t wanna hear that but that is what he’s comin’ to do. He’ll come here and find me and—”
He won’t find you.”
He will.”
You won’t be here.” Reynard released me, creakily moved to a shelf cut in the wall where he kept all his clay pots and jars. He sorted through them and brought one back. It was heavy. It clinked.
This is money.” He smiled at it funny. “Don’t need much of that back here, do we?”
What’re you—”
Anise, you’re to wake the Duckling up and take her with you. Quietly now. Take the money and the sheepskins too. Nights are getting colder.”
I stared at him across the table. “Are you sayin’ we can leave?”
I am saying are no longer my companion.” He shrugged loosely. “So you do not have to belong here.”
My heart cracked. Suddenly I wanted more than anything to be his companion.
You are a clever woman no matter what they say. Get away. Be safe. Be merry and gentle like you are when you think no one can see.”
He shoved the money jar roughly at me. I knew it upset him past reason to let me go. He just sat there, starin’ at me with a world of pain in his eyes. I wrapped his big, cold hands in my rough, smaller ones and looked at him. So many things needed sayin’ and there were no words to say ‘em with. Instead I picked up his clenched hands and kissed them, pressin’ into that kiss all my fears for his safety and my wishes that things went different with us.
I’ve left your breeches mended,” I choked through the tears. “And don’t you forget to put salve on your hurts.”
I let go of his hands because if I stayed a second longer, I might never make it out. Half of me felt relief, half scaldin’ guilt. How could I leave the Fox, more child than man, to handle John O’Grady?
Can’t you come with us?”
He snapped out of whatever sad dream he’d fallen into and shook his head. “If I come with you, you’ll never be safe. I will stay and I will take care of the Man. Hurry, now.” His voice sharpened on the end and I jumped to action.
I scooped my sleeping Duckling out of her warm nest, wrapped her round with the skins. The Fox took strips of rawhide and tied her to my waist, indian-fashion.
Can you manage?”
Just fine.”
He threw a satchel of food over my neck and tucked a blanket around my shoulders. “Well...goodbye then, Gray Goose.”
I couldn’t say goodbye. No words.
He walked with me to the ridge, and the fox kits, up for a nighttime romp, rolled about his feet. Couldn’t afford to draggle-tail time. John might be someplace close by now. I took the Fox’s hands again, kissed them hard once more, and prayed that God might strike John O’Grady dead before he could touch my fiercely-gentle friend.
God bless you, companion,” I said, using his own terms.
He rustled his fingers in my hair and I heard the smile in his voice, felt the kindness in his touch. “Companions...we were, weren’t we?”
He put me from him and I took to the hillside.
Godspeed, beautiful friend. Christ watch over you.”
And you,” I called as I gained the ridge. And when I turned back, I saw my Fox among the foxes and he waved his silly, trusting hand. And then I ran hard, tryin’ to outstrip the terrible thought that I’d nevermore see him this side of heaven.

Foxpiece IV
She dropped over the ridge and the Fox lost her scent. All the goodness, all the grace, all the gentle things of his spirit stumbled and brought out a trembling all over him. Tears would come if he wanted them, but he did not. He picked up a fox-kit and ran its ears through his fingers. He prayed that the Duckling might grow to be like her mother, all silver-kind and wide-eyed truth. Then he put down the foxling and said goodbye.
The moon, he noticed, had grown shy and smiled only with her lips: a thin-lipped moon, three-quarters dark. A ways down the breeze came the scent of the Man.
Calmly, the Fox entered his cave and gathered his willow-bound friends: the red-headed finch, the others. He took the cages outside, opened them, and watched the feathered things wing into the darkness. Goodbye, friends. Godspeed.
Then, because words-on-page soothed his soul, the Fox waited for the Man and wrote in his book all the things he could remember about the Gray Goose, her Duckling, the way they’d helped him live. Little marks on the page spoke the bleeding furrows in his heart.
Companions. They had been companions. And the Fox smiled because, as far as dying went, this was a rich way to go. A way to care for the Gray Goose, a way to love her. And above all, a way to die that did not involve falling prey to his mind, to the sickness that pillaged and paralyzed. This would be clean, violent, human.
A very rich way to go.
The Man’s scent came strong.
The Fox put up his story-things.
He smiled, he stretched, and prepared for a fight.
From the ridge of the wood came a fox’s song and he felt comforted and called back to them, to the foxlings who trusted too freely. They would be well. All would be well. For there was a Being that watched over all innocent things and let no harm come to them. No real harm. No harm that lasted beyond the rim of this world.
So he would see the Gray Goose again, and pray God her Duckling too. And he’d call her name when he saw her in Heaven’s fields:
Anise, my love. My companion.
And the scent of the Man came upon him. The other side of that door.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Fox Went Out: Part Four

// Part Four: Pain and Intensity //

The Fox Went Out
by Rachel Heffington

Part Four

Many days passed between me and the Fox. Duckling got herself adjusted right quick to this new home deep in the forest. She was glad for the fox-kittens which were the only playmates she’d ever had the chance of knowin’. Even made herself friendly with Reynard’s birds. The Fox himself had even got past my jealousy for Duck and hers for me. He brought her pretty things from the woods: dogwood berries, beech leaves, a flinty arrowhead. She would laugh and let Reynard ride her on his knee, singing over her a throaty, silly song he brought from ages back.
As for me...well, the bruising and batterin’ from John O’Grady had healed over thanks to a yarby-smelling salve given me by the Fox. Don’t know what kind of secrets he put in it, but my skin healed like magic. My shoulder stopped aching too. Sometimes I’d catch the Fox watchin’ me as I spread the salve over the blue spots left by John’s raging fingers on the inside of my arm. Everywhere else I’d healed up but the fingerprints stayed, like as to say, ‘John still sees you. And he’s coming.’
These times the Fox looked a little sad, like he was thinkin’ of things he’d rather not and wasn’t sure quite how to handle them. He never mentioned John, which I guess I was glad for. If there was no one around to speak of my husband, I didn’t have to mention him and it made not-thinking easier. But while October toddled off toward winter, a feeling growed up in my heart that scared hoar-frost into my bones.
John would come. He would find us. He would kill the Fox.
I tried more than once to warn Reynard of the terrible badness he’d stuck himself into by takin’ me. But he would only smile, grab my hand, and haul me off to see one more of the pretty places he found when he wandered. Sometimes we’d bring Duck, sometimes she’d stay with the birds and foxlin’s and the secret someone the Fox said kept ‘em safe. But always, always he wouldn’t hear no talk of John O’Grady.
Shhh,” he said, and put his grubby finger to my lips. “Don’t speak ugly things into the beauty of here.”
I wondered if he’d seen himself lately, seen the way fresh bruises and scrapes turned his chest to a welterin’ wilderness of blue and red and purple and the way his hair and eyes mismatched the rest of him. If anything was ugly, it was him.
I’m afeared for you.” I hurled a handful of acorn shells into the same spot of wild stream he’d brought me the first day.
We were friends now, the Fox and I. Don’t quite know how it got to be that way, but that’s how things was. My heart still planned on runnin’ but I could wait a while. The Fox would never hurt me, I felt sure. In that way, he’d took me someplace safe when he took me here.
I feeled toward him like he was my cousin. He knew lots of things better than I did and there were times I still felt mortally afraid of his strangeness and wildness. But it always came back to his bein’ simple as Duckling and just as gentle to me. I couldn’t find it in me to mistrust him.
I’m afeared John O’Grady’ll hurt you.”
You aren’t allowed to speak such things here, you know.” He stretched his back long and lanky on the sun-warmed rock. Duckling climbed onto his belly and bounced. He grunted as she used him for a hobby-horse.
I jiggled more acorns in my hand from the unhusked pile and flicked them one by one into a turtle shell bowl at my side. “If you don’t start taking care of yourself,” I teased, “why, I’ll just have to run away. It’s not good for you for me an’ Duckling to be here.”
Reynard got real still then. His quietness forced me to look his way. What I saw shivered the guilt in my gut: his heart had broke all over his face, messed it like cracked eggs.
You cannot leave,” he rustled. “Oh no. You can do anything but leave.”
But if I wanted to leave, you surely wouldn’t force me to stay here.” That’s really what I’d wanted to know ever since we’d got to be friends. My heartbeat stopped, listenin’ for his answer.
His eyebrows crowded together and he shook his head. “You will not try, though,” he said. “You would not want that. We are companions.”
He sat up, clearing Duck off his lap, and rocked himself, hugging his knees.“If you left, we would both be alone. I will never let you leave.” He did not look at me but kept his eyes fixed on the rumpled water around us. “You will not want to leave. I would not leave you. We are company for each other. You would be alone,”
I would have Duck, which is all I want. But I said nothing and in a moment the Fox’s strange, unbending humor had passed and he had caught a lightening-shy lizard with swift hands to show Duck its pretty patterned skin.
So I’d got my answer now: I might be safe with the Fox, but I weren’t free. And safe and free, when standin’ opposite each other, might as well call it war. What was it that had made Reynard the way he was, so gentle-fierce and wild-minded? What strange kind a’trouble had rumpled his brain same way the big flat rocks disturbed the path of this mountain stream? It troubled me like few other things ever had. I needed to know so’s I could form my plan to break away.
Right there, in a mud-puddle of late afternoon sun while the Fox played with my Duckling, I made the first step: a fight against my new friend. I determined to follow him next time he took to his wandering-ways and see what I could make of the terrible thing that had made him this way. Don’t know what I worried I’d find, just had to know. As much to settle my own spirit as to understand his. If it was evilness, I’d like to face it head-on. If it was somethin’ kinder, I was still against letting it sneak up to tear out the back of my neck.
I cast away the rest of the acorn shells, dragged the turtle shell into my lap. With a round stone I crushed the nutmeats. The Fox’s familiar, woodsy smell rose up under my mortar and I smashed the acorns like they’d been his heart. And who knows? Maybe they were. Because it was decided and done now and for always: I had to leave. Nothing he could say, no little animal cries and human pleas could keep me from my purpose.

The moon grinned out big and corn-colored that night. Something about the Fox made the moon a fast friend a’his. Seemed like it was always in its fullest stage over his homeplace. Go anywhere else in the mountains and it might change, might let itself be nibbled back to a shy little fingernail moon, but pinched in the sky above our green saddle-back, it glowed like a pumpkin. Not that I’d know what it looked like right now elsewheres since I wasn’t allowed to leave.
We had all gone to bed shortly after the sun set, which I’d got used to. We did this every night and tonight was different to nobody but me. Nothing seemed unusual except that something was. I’d learned that when livin’ by your wits, the smallest thing is everything. Your whole life is small. Can’t afford one piece of the smallness falling apart unless you want to be torn to mincemeat. I had watched the Fox even before my decision to follow him. Guess I knew I needed to know his habits well as I knew my own, well as I’d known John’s. And I’d noticed that on the nights he took his strange turns—even in the daylight hours, sometimes—his birds were all manner of upset.
I laid now on my stone bench in the cuddlesome touch of the sheepskins. Duck snuggled by my side, sucked her thumb, drooled on my dress. In their cages, Reynard’s birds twittered and scratched. That old king-finch, Audubon, acted curious, hopping from one side to the other, flyin’ at his cage and hangin’ upside down. The birds flickered like dark candle-flames in the butter-colored moonlight making stains on the floor. I had nothing to do but sleep, and sleep surely wasn’t on the menu.
Breathe in, listen to the scratching, breathe out, listen for the footsteps.
Didn’t even hear Reynard till he was right beside me, a pale, leggy shadow.  I couldn’t stop the little jump and scream that came out. He spun at me. The moon caught on his strange tail and the strange light in his eyes. He was not himself—that was easy to see.
Anise?” His eyes fixed straight ahead on the cave wall behind me and he felt for me, sightless, like a raccoon a’washing of his supper in a stream. He found me, pushed my shoulders back against the sheepskins, patted my head.
Rest there, Anise. To sleep my love.”
An odd, half-strangled sound caught in his throat like a fox-call as he turned away and my skin tingled with terror. Were the wolf-man stories true? Were all those horrible things the folk said in town true?
Hair like fire...eyes like coals. And sometimes he’ll come up close to a lonely cabin and cry at the windows.
Life has a funny way of pointing its shivery ghost-finger at things. The Fox turned once more as he opened the door. The moon shone all around him, picked out his sorry, bony body, and his face that should have been in shadow but was not. His eyes scraped up some of that light and cupped it like ruby-red fire-coals.
God in Heaven. It was true.
I don’t know how I forced the courage into my legs, forced myself out of my warm bed, patting the skins around the Duckling and askin’ the Lord God to keep watch over her. I thought about what the Fox had said, about the strong things in the forest that watched out for innocent things.
In the light places of my mind I thought angels.
In the dark places such as right here, I thought of a great sooty panther with eyes like pumpkin-moons curled up on the stone-outcrop above the door.
I kept close on the Fox’s heels after that thought, slipped out the door right behind him and shut it tight. Everything in me told me not to look back to see Duck’s guardian, but I couldn’t help it. I looked back over my shoulder and tripped on a root: a dark shape huddled high on the outcrop. Muscle-lumped shoulders, trailing, flailing tail. Then the fear shook down and I realized it was ivy growing bushy around the doorsill, one leafy strand kicked out by the wind.
I hurried on and the farther I got from Duck, the more I wondered what sort of death I was headed to. I prayed the twenty-third Psalm under my breath, using it like a charm against the moon-eaten darkness all around us. It was dark even with the moon as we trailed up out of the valley-glen, made the circuit of our usual hills, passed through a creek and a briar-patch, and thick, grabbing woods. I thought I knew now where he got half his scrapes and scratches. Reynard was reckless in his determined wanderin’ but I knew his mind had gone someplace far off. His eyes didn’t see the ground beneath him. He sob-cried now and then and leaned himself into the trunk of a tree. His legs wobbled. And though I kept far enough back he wouldn’t notice my footsteps, I kept close enough to see that his hands had gone stiff and his fingers curled up like bird-claws.
All at once he stumbled, didn’t even put his hands out to catch himself. Just fell like a sling-shotted squirrel into a slot between two trees. I bit off the sharp sound of my breath and ducked behind a tree, resistin’ the thing in me that wanted to help him. What if he turned into a wolf right there? What if that tail grew into his back and his ears went sharp and foxy and his stiff hands grew dew-claws? I imagined the feel of them on my neck, ripping into my soft flesh.
Then the sounds began. I don’t rightly feel that there’s any sound outside of Hell to compare with it. Wailing, crying. Hoarse, horrible barks that don’t rightly belong to anything in this world but surely not a man. He vomited the sounds into the forest and I stood there listening because I could not go back. Maybe I could find the way—we hadn’t come so far and I knew his territory pretty well by now—but I would not leave the Fox to whatever demon was riding him piggy-back. I don’t remember ever bein’ as truly terrified as I was then. For certain a dark terribleness had crawled with us into the woods and I was that afeared it would leave him and climb onto me. Still I couldn’t leave him.
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” I chanted under my breath. The night was ice-prickle cold. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
One final wail and the Fox froze and my heart froze. Had it killed him then? Was it coming for me? I hissed my prayers with what little breath I had left and took some feeble steps toward him. He laid stiff as a frozen puddle. Then the convulsions began and I knew, whatever ailed my friend, it was medical-natured. It needed doctoring. Serious doctoring. This relieved me till I realized I would have knowed what to do with a devil. But what did I know of doctoring?
Reynard’s body thrashed between the two trees like a trout thrown up on a riverbed. I could feel in my own body the merciless way the bark cut into his poorly-protected chest, ripped into his bare arms and belly.
Christ save us!”
I ran to him. I didn’t care half a second what he might do to me in this state. All I knew is that he’d kill himself if he went on like this. Plumb kill himself. I couldn’t let him. Somehow I forced myself down in the crack too and tried to keep hold of his body. I’d misjudged how slippery he’d be, all slick with sweat and leaf mould. He slid out of my grasp, foaming at his mouth, eyes rolled back deep in their sockets. All the tears I’d held back swelled in my breast and squeezed out my breath. I pulled the Fox’s poor head into my lap, stroked his hair with my fingers. He slammed his head repeatedly into my thighs till I thought I must have near as many bruises as he did. I braced myself against the ground and held his head till the thrashing slowed, stuttered, and finally stopped. He just went limp all of a sudden, a sight less disturbed-looking than the rigidness from before. I sat there with his senseless head pillowed on my lap and stroked his torn-up face and whispered to him. And finally the whispers became a few notes and the notes became a song and pretty soon I was lying beside him on the ground singing the song I’d made for Duck:
Oh the Fox went out on a chilly night, begged for the moon to give him light for he’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o. He’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o...”

I woke up with a twitch and the feeling that somethin’ was different. Then I saw the Fox, and he was sitting up and looking back to normal, except more bruised and torn than ever. He watched me. I groaned and pulled my stiff legs into even stiffer arms.
You should not have done that,” he said. “You should not have followed me.” He stood and pulled me to my feet too. “I wish that you had not.”
I shrugged. “I needed to know.”
The look he gave me next was pitiful in its huntedness. Huge black circles punched themselves into the poor skin under his eyes. He looked sore in need of water.
Was it a very bad one?” he husked.
It looked bad.” I jerked my head to the other side so I wouldn’t have to see his tired face. “But I’m not sure how bad. What are they usually like?”
He brushed trembly, stupid fingers at his face and shrugged. “I’m...I’m not sure.”
You don’t have no memory of your...fits?”
Well I’m not exactly at my best during them, am I?” He was angry and hurt like a wounded animal. Hurt I’d seen him like this, angry he was like this at all.
We’d best be getting home,” I said.
You left the Duckling?” he asked after me as I forged the way through the dark woods. “What if your husband came while you were gone?”
It was the first time he’d ever offered to speak of John. I tramped along and knew that Duck was all right.
John didn’t come.”
Reynard trotted to catch up. He seemed to be recoverin’. “But he will. I can sense it. He is coming.”
I did warn you,” I said, and the Fox and I hurried back along the rim of the mountain to the place where it fell into our valley.
I had to know one thing before we got back to the cave and to Duck and the animals. “What is your ailment?”
Reynard paused, one foot lifted and the turned back to me. His eyes glowed again but this time it was just the moon’s reflection. “I would rather not say.”
You are keeping me here against my will. I have to know.”
We are companions, though.”
Because you want us to be. Because you’re making us be.” I hated to hurt him, but hadn’t I just braved goodness-knowed-what kinda horribleness to keep him company? And he wouldn’t even tell me what it was I’d watched him go through.
He glared at me a moment, then shook himself. “A long time ago I did not live here.”
He would let me in.
I had a lot of money and high intellect. But I began to have seizures like this. Doctors told me that...that it would deaden parts of my brain. That I would not get those parts back and that eventually my whole brain would...malfunction. And I would die.
I came to the woods so that people would not ridicule me or see me lose my wits. I did not want to be watched when I was in that state. It is frightening...I had seen it in others before it became my thorn.”
He was panting again and I wondered why he could speak so clever sometimes and be so childish others. Guess it was the the different parts of his mind already gone or strong as ever that stepped forward to say their piece at different times.
I soon learned that the animals could sense my strange turns before even I could, and that it broke their trust to see me as you did tonight. So I made a point to trek as far away as I could when my auras came.”
What’s an aura?” I asked him.
A presentiment. A change in the chemicals of my body that inform me a seizure will soon follow.” His eyebrows pinched together painfully and he shrugged off the words like an arm he didn’t want around his shoulders.
How often?”
Few times a week.”
I crossed my arms. “And what do they call your sickness?”
It stiffens up your brain?”
Not exactly.” He shrugged. “More or less.”
I sniffed. “Well, it can’t get much stiffer’n my body is right now. Let’s go home.”
And then, same way a dog’s bad humor passes quickly, he was smiling again and reaching for my hand. We walked back to his cave and entered on fox-silent feet. The birds had settled back and Duckling was just like I’d left her, burrowed in the white sheepskins. Reynaud was all for going to bed straight away but I forced him to sit on the stool while I cleaned his wounds and fixed them with his yarby salve.
“ ‘Night, Fox,” I whispered after he’d curled himself gingerly in a pile near the stove.
But soon as I was sure he had fallen asleep I let the tears loose and ‘bout flooded myself out of bed. I had seen such pitiful things tonight. I’d seen the Fox as he must have been all those years back: gentle and smart and kind. Maybe the seizure had cleared the murkiness out of his mind for the moment, but I’d seen him: the kind of man he had been once and would be now if the terrible sickness hadn’t killed off places in his brain. Everything had come clear now like a window washed fresh by rain.
Why Reynard was such a pile of contraries. Where he’d learned to talk so smart. Why he wandered, where he went. What caused him to be downright crazy. Why he didn’t have no concept of civilized rules and common graces. How he thought he could keep me here because he wished for it. How, if things were different, I could have easily learned to love him.

I rolled over and scooted Duck toward me, buried my face in her dusty-smelling curls, let the tears cry themselves out. And far-off-sounding from the trayne above us, one of Reynard’s foxes yipped high, then low.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Fox Went Out: Part Three

// Part Three. The Gray Goose and Duck an' everything //

The Fox Went Out
by Rachel Heffington

Part Three

Where’s Duck? I flung myself out of bed half asleep but awake to the fact that the skins beside me were cold and flat. Reynard, too, was gone from his spot near the squatty-looking stove. I turned a few circles in the room looking for Duck. My eyes wouldn’t focus enough to let me be sure she wasn’t in the cave. She was gone, of course.  I’d known that from the minute I woke up. Till now, I’d been all right with being taken away from John O’Grady. Not overjoyed, not unconcerned, but Reynard the Fox was more man than creature. It was better than my fancy had him.
But now he’d done it. My knees jittered and my hands too. I pushed my way out the front of the cave wanting to murder Reynard for darin’ to take my child away while I slept. Maybe Duck wandered on her own, you’ll say. Could be, but didn’t make it any less of a problem, since Reynard had gone after her and had done God knew what with her.
The valley sunlight showed me an early afternoon. Light came blinking down slant-wise through the lacey birches and the stick-straight pines behind them, broken here and there by elephant-shadows from the oaks. Seemed like a bad idea to yell, but I didn’t know how else to find where Duck had gone.
Duck!” I shouted. Gracie Mae is what her Pa had called her, but that was his name for Duck and she never would come to it. “Where are ya’, Duck?”
A hand clamped hard over my mouth. It pulled me backward and dumped me on a log. Reynard removed his palm and sprang over the log onto his knees beside me.
Don’t yell,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if someone heard you.” His smile jumped out again and startled me. It was too bright for the situation, just like his eyes. And what was it about the way he spoke?
You won’t yell, will you?” he asked again. “Because I would rather give you the choice than force you.”
I glared. “What’d you do with Duck?”
His gaze wandered into the woods. “Sent her to play.”
At the trayne.”
The what?”
He fluffed himself like a bird fluffing its feathers. “I will show you instead. You will live here, so you must know everything about our homeplace.”
Without much of a warning, Reynard stood, hauled me off the log, and twined his fingers through mine. His skin which had looked so pale in the moon seemed almost blueish now. With bruises or its natural tint I couldn’t say. I had never liked holding hands and the Fox’s fingers placed just so between each of mine sent a sickness through my arms. Why didn’t he hit me, kiss me, handle me? Nothing but holding my hand...and this I didn’t trust. He was strong and I was at his foxy mercy. If he would mistreat me, I could hate him.
Hurry, please,” I whispered.
If you’d like.”
Together, we climbed the hillside his den was chipped into and shuffled through a fernglen. At the roots of an upside-down oak I saw my Duckling romping with the fox-kits. They worried her dress, nipped at her knees, and tumbled head-over-heels between her legs. Duck, too young to be afraid, laughed and played with them. When she saw me, she called my name and ran forward with a flurry of foxes at her heels.
Come see, Mama! There be fox babies!”
Reynard released my hand and I let Duck pull me to the den—what he had called the “trayne.” We sat with the fox kits and though their gnawing and nipping startled me, I was happy to see Duck happy. The Fox climbed a tree that leaned to one side, took a leather-bound book from his pocket, and wrote in it. I watched him. What did he write about? Since I never learned my letters, I wouldn’t know unless I asked. Maybe one day I’d ask. For now I counted myself glad he was happy to sit in a tree, writing secret things.
Duck patted my face with her hands till a kit knocked her over. “Mama, how long are we gonna stay here?”
I smiled my brightest for Duck. “We’ll have to see, Duck. We’re surely bein’ taken care of, ain’t we?”
She wrestled a stick from one of the foxes. “He gave me thome bread and honey.”
At mention of a meal, my stomach churned. It had been at least a full twenty-four hours since I had eaten and I’d drunk nothing since John’s beating. Hunger’s always worst when someone else has just eaten. Doesn’t matter how hungry you were before, your belly chooses then to throw back its head and howl.
Is there any food?” I called back to the Fox.
Reynaud put his book away and dropped to the ground “What would you like best to eat?”
He helped me to my feet. It was October and not too much grew in the woods in October. I hadn’t seen any barnyard. Guess Reynard wouldn’t have poultry since he kept foxes. Maybe there was a pig or two roamin’ the woods. My options would be wild game or same as what he’d given Duck, then.
I shrugged. “A little bread and honey wouldn’t be too bad.”
Then you shall have it.” He said it like he was king, I his queen. Half expected he had a big old feast set up under the birches and a crown for my head.
Reynard loped down the hillside and Duck and I, a bit slower, followed. Inside the cave again, he bustled around with an energy I had not guessed was in him. Last night he had been desperate, dark, mysterious. The mystery hadn’t gone away, but the darkness left. He was too bright—odd and sparkling—and desperate in a different way. I ought to have been less afraid of him than before, but somehow I was not. Crazy people don’t make for quiet companions.
Would you take this to the table?” Reynaud put a bowl into my hands.
Though I hadn’t noticed before, I found the wooden table spread already with the butt end of a bread loaf, a pot of honey, and a tin cup. Duck wriggled onto the stool at the head-place and swung her short legs. It must be the Fotx’s stool, I shooed her off it, but the Fox stopped me.
Let her sit. She is shortest anyway. It is harder for her legs to reach the floor.”
He and I settled onto the floor on opposite sides of the table and the Fox grabbed my hand again. The sickness which had drifted away outdoors flooded back in, doubled because with his right hand, Reynard also took hold of Duck’s chubby fist. What was he about? What sort of devil-brewed mischief did he mean to start in this fusty little den of his? Reynard bowed into his chest, skin even bluer in the natural dusk of his cave. He took a deep breath, let it out, breathed deeply again, let it out again. I forgot to breathe at all, I was that curious to see what would happen.
Duck tried to wriggle her hand out of his, but his grip tightened and I saw how his fingertips pressed into her wrist. He closed his eyes now and murmured things to himself. What was this? Fright birthed in my bosom. I pounded the table with my free hand.
What are you doin’?”
One eye opened. “Shhh.”
I won’t shush till you tell me what sort of spell you’re castin’.”
The other eye opened. “Do not speak of casting spells, lady. I am praying God to bless this meal and unless you would rather Divine punishment on your head for blaspheme, you had better sit quietly.”
Oh. That was all. A blessin’ on the food. Been so long since I’d seen anyone do it, I’d forgot the custom. My own prayers happened without much plannin’. I prayed now while Reynard muttered to himself—to God, rather. He finally released my hand just when the quietness got awkward and Duck had begun to fidget.
No one said much of anything at the meal. I had never been what anyone’d call talkative, even if I felt like becoming friends with my companions. And I did not hanker for the Fox’s friendship. I was grateful he didn’t seem intent on murderin’ us first things first but that only goes so far. He had yet to show us what plans he brewed for Duckling and me. I meant to have them out of him.
I broke a chunk of bread from the loaf. “How long you been hidin’ out here?”
I don’t hide. I live.”
Have any friends?”
He brightened. “I now have a companion. Two, if we count the Duckling.”
He took the bread from my hand, opened a little clay crock and spread butter thick and yellow. Did he have a cow hidden in one of the ferny places or was this my neighbors’ butter, same as the sheepskins I’d slept so comfortable on had probably once been my neighbors’ sheep? But so hungry I’d gotten in the long day and night before this, my stomach out-yelled my conscience. I ate well from the food Reynard sent my way. I could never spread my own butter or drizzle the wildwood honey or choose berries from the wooden bowls. All this he did by his own hand. Wouldn’t let me touch a thing unless it was to serve Duck.
At last, Duck got tired of our silent meal, crawled into my lap, and fell asleep with her arms around my neck and her curly head nestled under  my chin. Now it was just me and the Fox and I could ask the things I wanted to know. I watched him lick his fingertip and collect crumbs off the wooden table, then square off the loaf of bread and scatter the shavings to the finch with the funny name and its kin in the other cages.
Why’d you take me?” I jumped at the sound of my own voice and put a hand over Duck’s head to settle her back to sleep.
Reynard cocked his head and knelt on the floor beside me. What he intended to do, I didn’t know. Then he put his arms around me and Duck and rested his chin on top of my head. Just rested it there. Didn’t move an inch, just settled his head on mine and possessed me.
You were in trouble, weren’t you?” he explained.
How did you find me?”
He must have shrugged, for his chin briefly sank deeper and hurt the top of my head. “I heard you crying. And I smelled blood.”
My stomach filled my mouth. “You can smell things like an animal...but you are a man?”
Of course I’m a man. Fully man. Living in the backwoods—especially alone—is dangerous work. One’s senses become heightened from necessity.”
I wished I could see his face now in his place across the table, but he held me tight and talked straight through with his chin waggin’ against my hair and a woodsy smell like crushed acorns and green moss risin’ up all around him, me, the little cave.
I wander some nights,” he explained. “Sometimes I get....strange turns...and I wander those times because if I stayed, why, the animals wouldn’t trust me. I was wandering the night I found you.”
What he meant by strange turns, I didn’t dare wonder. Stories of wolf-men and evilness prowled in the corners of my mind, but I talked myself out of them. It just didn’t fit to think of this fierce and gentle man maraudin’ all around the mountains with a taste for blood.
What do you mean by strange turns?” I asked. Might as well clear that one out of the way.
Nothing,” he quickly said, and though I couldn’t see his eyes, I felt the annoyed-ness tensing in his body behind me. He let me go too, and went back to his bird cages. I knew I’d broke some of his good humor by asking about the wandering moods. I’d hate to make him mad. Maybe he’d turn on me. Should have kept my mouth shut. Was that always goin’ to be my downfall?
Off by himself, Reynard whistled some low little tune to his birds and peeked around the side of the largest cage. “I’ve watched you many years.”
Somehow I was not surprised. I hugged my daughter a little tighter and remembered the first night the fox barked. “Ever since Duck was born?”
He stilled.“You didn’t see me.” More of a protest than a question.
A dusky shiver ran up my neck. “I didn’t see anythin’. I heard a Fox bark.”
His laugh was short, like the sound. “Then yours was only a lucky guess, a coincidence. I never made a sound while I watched.”
Then who sang at the windows?”
He dropped to his haunches and stared at me. “You heard my songs?” This time it was a question, like he didn’t want it to be true and gave me a chance to change my answer.
I stared him straight in the eye and made my next jab: mockery. “Livin’ in the backwoods is dangerous work. One’s senses are heightened by necessity.” His words tasted odd in my mouth. I hungered to spit them back and make a wound.
Instead, Reynaud nodded, cast himself on the floor, propped himself up on his elbow. “Were you ever taught?”
I frowned. “Taught what?”
To read? To think? To...learn?”
I rocked Duck and blushed that the man to kidnap me was the only man to have ever asked me this. I felt shamed, too, over the obvious answer that no, no one had ever taken a lick of pains with my education. Wrath sizzled just under my skin and shook up my breath a little. I’d never even had the choice to learn whether or not I might have been clever. All these things poked each other in the side with pointed elbows and fought to come out my mouth. Instead, I answered the Fox calmly:
No, I never learned anythin’.”
He got up so suddenly, seemed like he was made of vapors. “Then I will teach you.”
Did you ever learn anything?” And soon as I asked it, the strangeness of his speech knocked me under the jaw. He talked like a book-learned man. Used words I’d barely heard of, spoke long sentences where men like John O’Grady’d use a grunt or two. The Fox was a smart man. Smarter, probably, than anyone I’d met in my life. At some point he must’ve  lived with normal folks. Like as not he’d been rich, too, if he’d been able to spend time and money on an education. I remembered stories of a few young men in town who’d tried for fancy schools and come home broke and bitter. It wasn’t everyone who could do it. So at some point in his lonely life the Fox had been a rich and smart man. Oh, what drove him to this strange life? And what drove him to want me so much he’d risk the fury of John O’Grady?
My left arm tingled up and down where Duck had slipped and hung heavy for the last twenty minutes. “I hope you realize what you’ve done.”
How so?” The Fox grinned, all easiness again.
You’ve knocked over a nest of hornets by takin’ me away. And golly Moses, does this batch sting terrible.”
Pah. Your husband—and I shrink to call him that—will never find you.”
Was that supposed to be a comfort? I couldn’t tell which felt worse: being beat on by John O’Grady or kept like a pet by the strangest, most addled man in Tennessee. But I knew that John swore to destroy anyone who got in his way. Even the trickiest animal in the mountains couldn’t hide from him if he set to looking.
I wouldn’t rest in that, friend,” I said.
We are, aren’t we?” He smiled on me shyly. “You called me ‘friend.’ Aren’t we?”
It was lucky I’d turned away to lay Duck on the ground. I waved for the Fox to hand me a sheepskin. This he did, and smiled overtop Duckling while I cozied the fleece around her warm little body. I stood, bones aching, and looked down on her too. A quiet moment, and a peaceful one. The first moment for me and my Duckling that I had not worried John O’Grady would bust through the door.
Let’s go for a walk,” Reynard said. I can’t just leave Duck here.”
She will be well.” He slipped his fingers through mine. “The animals are with her. They will not let anything pass.”
A bunch of baby foxes and tiny birds?” I worried as he led me through the valley. “What if a panther comes? Or some wanderin’ crazy-man.”
You have much fear in you, haven’t you?”
Tears nipped at the backs of my eyelids when I shut them against his simpleness. Course there was much fear in me. Fear had got so big these days, I thought it would about eat up anything else and then start on my own insides.
Duck is my life,” I whispered at last. “I hope your finches keep an eye out.”
The Fox helped me over a stream. “They are friendly things and add much beauty to the woods. There are others in this forest who will see that nothing disturbs them.”
And though it feared me sorely to leave Duck asleep in the cave, what choices did I have but to trust to the Fox’s promise that all was well? Little as I trusted his ways, he was enough like the animals to know risk when he smelled it. Besides, I thought, let a bad man try to cozy up to the wild things: they won’t let him near. These wood creatures had accepted the Fox as one of them. He was gentle in his fierce way. Duck would nap peaceful.
We wandered through the forest a long way. October sun squeezed me tight where it fell ‘tween empty spaces left by fallen trees. The smell of ripe grapes swirled around me, giddy and purple, and mixed with the husky scent of the Fox which was like acorns and things growing and...honesty. I frowned at this thought and let him lead me to wherever it was he meant to go. We’d come far from his den and I couldn’t help riddling over what he meant to do with me.
I thought I knew.
I steeled myself for it in the playfulness of the world around me. When my nerves had run their length, the Fox stopped at a wild, rollin’ stream. The stream chattered water-words as it frothed up against some flat-nosed rocks flung off the hillside into its path. Out to these rocks the Fox led me, and though I couldn’t see no path, his sure feet picked the way out for me on stones sunk in the chilly streambed. The sunnied rocks glowed against my soles after the stream. I drew my feet up under my skirt and sat for a while. Reynard put his arm around my waist. He scooted next to me, then leaned his head on my shoulder. For a weird moment, I fancied it was Duck nestled up close and not the man who had carried me over his back through a wild and weary night. His touch burned me. Wished he’d get on with whatever he had planned.
It is a beautiful thing,” he said in a fiercely gentle voice.
The stream?” Where it wound away from us, damselflies danced over its surface and trout rippled in the calmer spots by the banks.
You. Me. Companionship. It has been long years since I have had a companion. I thank you.” He raised his head and stared off downstream, seeing things I guess I couldn’t. “I am not beautiful, I know, but do you like me?”
I ought to have said something. A childish question that wanted answerin’, for it was a question and I knew enough of men to know that when they did you the courtesy of asking for something, you answered. But my thoughts ran like water off a grassy bank. They swished through my fingers before I could catch one for a reply.
The Fox took my hand again and smiled his too-bright smile. “You are a beautiful thing. When you are mothering the duckling, sweet gray goose...” He circled his thumb on my wrist and his voice floated easy. “I don’t know of any more beautiful thing in the world. You are pure and lovely are like the Mother of Christ. You remind me of wonderful things. Good things.”
I anticipated his kiss before it came...and then it did not come and my panic widened. He stayed unmoving beside me, his head against my shoulder. Wave after wave, his particular brand of peaceful washed over me and the stream rumbled between. Sleep pulled my eyes and when I checked, I saw it almost had the Fox in its mouth too. What spells had this man cast on me? This creek? Himself? Late sunshine reached a hand down my back, worked out all the knots between my shoulders. Relaxed. I was relaxed. Reynard too. And I ought to have every sense tied up, looking for a way to run.
Just do it,” I spat.
He shook himself from his drowsiness, stretched, and yawned. Then he shifted to look at me. “Do what?”
My face fired. “You’re an educated man. Do what we’ve come here t’do and let it be done with.”
What have we come here to do?” His smile and the tilt of his head were purely mad.
Oh, let me die.” I half-groaned, half-prayed. “Kiss me. Touch me. Do whatever you will do and do it quickly for th’love of God.” I bent in half, crying now and hatin’ myself and him and John O’Grady. Oh, that God would take me now and take Duck too, quietly while she slept. Couldn’t bear this world and its ugliness any longer.
I beg your pardon.” The Fox frowned and shook his head. “I don’t understand you.”
You don’t...”
He pulled away, put his hand on his knees. The Fox’s tail he still wore curved around his upper leg. Beads of water, like crystals, stuck to the long hair covering the tail. Questions formed lines between his eyebrows and he flicked looks my way. Confused looks.
Did you want me to kiss you?” He sounded tepid, a little hurt.
His bright eyes stared a little shy, a little confused, but good-willed. “Why would I kiss you?” And now he really was curious.
If you didn’t want to....kiss me....then why’d you bring me here?” I asked.
Because it is beautiful.” He shrugged. “Because you are beautiful. And beauty should always befriend other beauty. My favorite thing in my favorite place. Companions.” He bumped me with his shoulder, laughing at his joke, and dabbled his feet in the water off the edge of the rock.

I shrunk into myself with a muddy mixture of relief and old panic. The Fox was a not a man after all. He was an overgrown boy. Was it connected to his strange turns? He knew an awful lot—more than most men, and acted more like a growed up fellow than anyone I knew. But somewhere, something had gone childish. It was chilling. I meant to know what it was.