What Ever Happened to That Fox?
By JD Miller
Illustration by Aaron Tolopilo
The legend of the fox spirit ends as it begins—in smoke, or fog, however you like to interpret it. He was not born, you see. Even at the beginning, he simply appeared. Often, he’d joke about the way he came to be, that some beautiful god entwined with a bolt of lightning, and he was conceived. But he came from nothing, or at best, from some hidden desire, perhaps hidden inside the earth itself. But what that desire was, not even he knew.
Why did he come? This god of mischief, this spirit of cunning and calamity—he wonders that, as often as you wonder it about yourself. Perhaps more, because you know the events that brought you here, and he does not. He does what he does, perhaps for no reason at all, except to feel himself doing it. He simply is, and he simply does. A curious spirit, wouldn’t you say?
At least, that’s how it was. But when the fox spirit fell in love, legend says that he changed. If you were lucky enough to live in the before times, when he hid in wheat fields from vengeful farmers, happy to terrify all their chickens to death, or won every game of cards in every bar, laughing and drinking like the loudest, proudest mortal, you’d have seen him in his youth. That’s how my great-grandfather knew him.
That Fox, that Rogue, he’d say, as likely to steal your purse as your daughter. Luckier still, if you’d had gotten to see him in that middle time, when love transformed him, the way that the sun transforms the spring. He’d always been a favorite of the nymphs, you know. Those dryads and nyads, bored of the company of satyrs and thrilled at his wildness, his otherness. The mystery of him that they could solve no better than he himself.
It was one of them that tamed the Fox, if tame he could ever be. Pagita—a willow-spirit, who’s hair is woven with vines a hundred feet long, whose laughter is like chimes, echoing down the hills. According to the tales, it was her laugh that won his heart. He gave it to her. Pulled it, beating, right out of his own chest to put it in her hands.
She wore it around her neck, from then on, until she day she died. Where she and it were laid to rest, no mortal creature knows—only that it was the bitterest day my people have ever known.
If you ask my father, he’ll tell you, even though he was only a boy at the time. The fire that scourged these mountains was unearthly, a fire of bitterness and rage. Whether he meant it or not, the fire leapt from the Fox’s chest, from the hole where is heart had been. It consumed everything it touched, even the shadows of things.
We were spared (speaking of my people, my parentage, myself not yet being born) only by a peculiar rain that sprang out of the night sky, and set a steam rising on everything. The rain, like the fire, was not of earth. I heard that its drops were sweet, that where they touched burned flesh, the blisters faded away.
It might have been in that fog, that blinding curtain, that the Fox made his escape from our realm. I cannot blame him, if it’s true. A lifetime of searching, of uncertainty, that ended in pain and rage. I do not envy his lot.
But I do not think, either, that he is gone. I think he is still there, somewhere, in the shadows, or beyond the shadows, in the gateway of the Place Unseen. Wherever he can be closest to her. She still has his heart, after all, and not even a spirit can live without one of those.
Have I seen him, you ask? I have thought so. In the fog that hangs over the river, one morning, I could have sworn I saw a fox disappear along the bank. And while I stood looking after it, I could have sworn that I heard a woman laugh, and I thought: Perhaps I have entered the veil. Perhaps, in moments like these, they are reunited.
The others laughed at me when I told them. He’s gone, they say. If not, he would’ve been back to finish off their chickens, or burn their crops. But I think they’ve got him all wrong. And I hope that wherever he is, he knows why he is there.