One Lone Fox
I woke up to something warm and moist running across the top of my head and for a second I thought I was in heaven. It felt like I was floating, a tingling numbness enveloping me, bringing back memories from when I was a small cub, cared for by my mother. A rippling river flowed near me. Strange, however, was the scent it gave off, unknown, but so tantalising to my empty stomach.
But when I opened my eyes, there was no blue sky above me. Rather, it felt as if I was in a sharp cave, the inside of which perfectly resembled a deer’s skin. I tried to get up, but I had something on top of me, heavy enough to keep me down, but light enough to not stifle my hastening breaths.
My ears twitched towards a soft crack and I turned my head to see a short and stout flame burning through a stack of wood. I would’ve panicked, were it not for the black block of tar above it tempering its rage. Then I heard water falling and a laboured breath. And my instincts flared up as my eyes laid on what I had believed to be a myth, were it not for me seeing it so clearly. A human.
He – because so he smelled – was crouched above a small pond contained in a round dam of wood, its pinkish forepaws squeezing a white fur dry. I heard them to be hideous beasts, but hideous he didn’t seem nor smelled like. Bears reeked of musk and power, but he had a mellow aroma to him, sweet and calming like the child of one droplet of honey and one of morning dew.
I heard them to be hairless, but a short tuft like a brown, ruffled bush rested on top of his head. And skins, I’ve never seen anything with so many. On top of his pink one grew a white one, silken and on top of that, yet another one, brown and leathery like my paw pads. His legs were thin and black, whilst his feet were stuck in a pelted nest, constrained by slender vines that loosened around his ankles.
Without warning, he turned around, prompting me to bury my head in this strange, cosy snow. Only my ears and eyes were left unsheltered, but even so, he could still see me. And I dug myself deeper with every silent, approaching step. All until a stray spark lit up his face.
It was flat and round, the only hill on it being his nose, tiny like a hare’s. But uncanny as his shiny skin looked, there was a spot of colour that enthralled me. His eyes, not dull and not scared, but strong, tenacious and as piercing as they were soothing. A forest, evergreen and kind.
‘Looks like you’re finally awake,’ he opened his mouth. And to my surprise, I could understand everything he vocalised, his voice like a gentle, caressing wind. But as he reached for my forehead, I shut my eyes and dug my head again. What was he going to do? Was he going to hurt me? I–
I winced at his touch, but as soon as instinct ran out, I was left with nothing but warmth. And in spite of it feeling strange, like bare skin against bare skin, there was no ill intention behind his hand.
‘Fever’s gone down. Good. I was afraid the tranquiliser might’ve been too much.’ He pulled away and reached for a stack of dry, white leaves on top of a long, yet thin sheet of wood held up by sticks. His lips curved upwards as he reached behind him, pulling out a small branch with a sharp, glistening thorn at its tip.
I scurried backwards, away from the deadly weapon. But as my back hit against something hard and unflinching, I let out a silent whimper. My head sank low as my ears flattened, eyes waiting for the tiniest of movements. And if anything were to happen, I was tensed up and prepared.
‘Oh! Don’t worry, it’s just a pen!’ he waved the pointy thing around and I followed its every motion. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he took one of the white leaves, revealing a series of dark roots crossing it. ‘It’s harmless. We just use it to draw and write on paper?’
Slowly, he dragged the ‘pen’ across the ‘paper’, leaving behind a black, meandering river. And slowly, I saw that river turning and twisting, before it joined its start to form a shape I recognised, a flower. I couldn’t help my mouth slowly opening in awe. How could something so small create life out of nothing?
‘You like it? I have plenty of these.’ With careful movements, he began laying the sheets on the snow, each of them revealing the wonders this human had managed to spawn. A field of daffodils, chrysanthemums, daisies, rapunzels, all scattered before me, frozen, awaiting a gale to blow through their petals.
And then a hare! So small and tasty looking I would’ve pounced on it, had it not been stuck dead on the paper. And a hunched wolf, the dreadful stench of it almost reaching my nostrils through sight alone.
‘I use them to remind me of the beautiful things I see,’ he spoke like a peaceful breeze.‘And you’re one of them,’ his finger rested on top of the last ‘drawing’ he laid down.
Me? But that wasn’t me! Where was my majestic snout that, come to think of, I couldn’t see in front of me anymore...? Certainly this human had my ears, eyes and whiskers, but the long hair they sported was nowhere near my exquisite coat of fur...
But still, there was an unmistakable confidence that both his gaze and his words shared. And it was enough to sow a doubt that crept up my spine and landed silently at the back of my head, slowly getting louder. Scared, I gazed below my shelter, meeting a body I was a stranger to.
My fore and hindlegs were long, pale and smooth, poking out of a strange, grey pelt. Of my former self only my pride remained, the bushy, white tail that kept me warm and cosy throughout many winter nights. And even now, it cried, trapped between my hairless back and the strange skin I was stuck to… But it couldn’t be… Impossible!
I leapt out of the bed, startling the human, but my attention was drawn only towards one thing. I landed next to the puddle he had caught and gazed into it, only for someone I didn’t know to gaze back at me.
I twitched my ears and she twitched hers. I blinked and she blinked. I shook my head and her white hair shook. And as my lips began to tremble and my golden eyes watered, the same terror that seeped into me was cast back in rippling detail. Was that...me? It couldn’t be… Who was this face, sharing every feature that I didn’t own? I pawed at the water, splashing away the imposter.
‘Are you okay?’ he uttered, his scent drawing closer. As a response, I could only sniffle, my chest hiccoughing uncontrollably. And as I struggled to contain my struggles and make sense of it all, another smell entered my nostrils. Salty, acrid and overbearing.
‘Tsk, tsk. Dolo, you made our guest of honour cry!’ a new voice barked. I could hear the ground creaking closer as the funk grew stronger, stopping right beside me. And it forced my head up, demanding that I open my shut, moistening eyes.
Another human, bigger, his chin a mess of dark, scraggly fur. His eyes were claws and his touch was stone. But even so, his presence felt just like the other’s, kind, but rougher, more vicious in its approach.
‘Sweetheart,’ his growl turned to a trill. ‘You hungry?’ My ears perked up, nostrils flared. It took a moment for my attention to snap at the piece of meat he held in his forepaws.
‘Here, hold out your hand,’ he said, grabbing my foreleg. And seeing me staring confused at the hare’s leg, he beckoned me, ‘It’s okay, go ahead.’
They offered me their food...But even so, I pushed away, stopping until they were both in my sights and at a safe distance. Only then I felt like I could feast upon this delicious meat...
‘Bit savage, ain’t she? They like them a little wilder,’ the stinky one muttered.
‘They?’ the other’s voice rose, falling to a murmur soon after. ‘What do you mean?’
‘What, did you think we were gonna keep her?’
‘B-but...she is. Look at her! W-we gotta take her to the... c-capital! O-or –’
‘Her buyer can worry about that.’
‘Then I’ll buy her! P-please, don’t –’
‘She’s probably worth more than we’ve ever earned together. Tonight you’ll let her go, Dolo. Remember the rule. No strings attached.’
‘Attaboy. Prep her up, will ya?’
As soon as I finished eating I could smell the pungent odour tapering off into the distance. And with my attention free, I looked up to see Dolo alone in the room, his hand resting on the back of his neck.
Hands. I looked down to see two of them… And with hunger far away, other thoughts now spiked in my head. But as soon as Dolo let out a laboured breath, only one remained. Fear. His lips meekly curled upward as he walked towards me, grabbing the white fur.
‘Let’s get you all cleaned up,’ he mumbled.
With slow, tepid movements, he rubbed it around my mouth and hands, rinsing them of any scraps and blood left. All the while, he kept the same peaceful expression on his lips. And it felt...nice. Like a familiar grooming.
‘Can you stand?’ he followed up, grabbing me by my waist. And with his gentle help, the question answered itself.
The sensation was as alien as it was natural; on two shaky hindlegs I remained upright. Involuntarily, I looked forward, one of my ears falling flat. He was tall, but so was I; the tips of my ears reached the top of his head.
‘Good, very good,’ he said softly. ‘Now let’s sit you on the bed.’ Slowly, he led me towards the snow I woke up in. Every step was natural, trouble-free, but still...I couldn’t shrug off the oddness of feeling my heels touch the ground as I walked.
He spun me around and for a blink, his arms were wrapped around me. And in that moment, I heard every alarm in my head shout as terror met with suffocation. But they soon fell silent as soon as I felt him slowly press me down on the softness. He wasn’t forceful, not one bit. Rather, his support was a welcome sympathy.
But as I sat, I couldn’t ignore the stringent prickling jabbing my behind.
‘Is your tail caught on the cloak?’ he asked. Was he… concerned? ‘Let me help,’ he approached, his hand disappearing into a small hole near his leg before returning with a sharp, shiny edge.
My eyes widened. Pointy was deadly and death was scarier than the building pain I felt crawling away from that terror.
‘No, no! I won’t hurt you! I s-swear!’ his voice trembled. He took a step back and I stopped, my face unable to hide the discomfort anymore.
‘Look, I’ll be slow, okay?’ Under my scrutiny, he approached with large, sluggish movements. I followed him intently. He wouldn’t escape my sight. But craning my neck soon became harder, until it turned impossible. The danger was in my blind spot.
Everything caught fire. Eyes wide, nostrils flared, dried blood, tail squirming in its trap. Then the motion, winding up. He was about to strike. And I had to –
A cold sensation accompanied the sound of skin tearing and what followed was...relief. Unrestrained, my tail spilled on the bed and I couldn’t help wagging it until all the soreness was gone.
‘See t-that wasn’t so bad,’ he coughed, wobbling away with his cheeks reddening. He let himself fall on a small stump, reaching for his pen and papers. Then, he turned around.
For a while, he stood there speechless, looking at me as if it was the first time he laid eyes upon my figure. A shadow crossed his gaze and he shook his head, as if to ward it away, before the corners of his mouth raised ever so slightly.
‘I’ll ask you a few questions. For a “yes” nod like this,’ his head went up and down. ‘ And for a “no” shake like this,’ his head bobbed from side to side. ‘Understood?’
‘Very well! Can you speak?’
Could I? I opened my mouth, but instead of a ‘Yes!’ all that came out was a much too familiar yelp.
‘I see,’ his eyes fell to the paper as he scratched at it with the pen. ‘Are there...more like you?’
Thousands… But as soon as I remembered that thing staring back at me, the answer became as unknown to me as it was to him. But still, there must’ve been more to it. And there was one way to find out more...
‘My notes? You...want them?’ I nodded.
I wasted no time flipping through them, stopping only at a splendid drawing of a fox. I paused briefly… Longing wouldn’t solve anything now… I held it up, pointing at the drawing, then at myself.
‘Fox...you? Yes, I can see that. A smart one, while at it!’
No! Damnit. I feverishly shook my head, then searched for the drawing of ‘my’ face again. Then, I repeated the gestures. ‘Me’, shaking my head, fox, myself.
‘That’s not you… You’re a fox?’ his eyes narrowed as he shook his head. I clenched my teeth, my ears flattening. ‘Like...small, w-walking on all fours?’ Yes! I nodded excitedly, my mouth slightly open in awe.
‘So you weren’t always a fox...girl? You –’ I nodded even more powerfully, cutting him off. But he didn’t share my newfound joy. Rather, this realisation darkened his features, his eyes sinking in a chasm of confusion…
He...didn’t know. He couldn’t help… I curled my tail on top of my legs, hoping its warmth would chase away the cold shivers that shook through me. But as soon as they reached my lungs I felt my head as heavy as my breath. And my eyes became wet...like clouds forewarning rain.
‘So that’s why you were crying earlier… You must’ve been so confused and scared,’ his voice rumbled low, before turning to a comforting hum. But soothing as it was, I was untouched by it. I am scared and I am confused... Because I was nothing, nothing but a lone fox next to a human… What do I do now?
His gaze was upon me, but soft as his eyes felt, I couldn’t help a whine. Then another came, in a string of heaves I couldn’t stifle. It hurt. And I had no other way of making it known, if not to him, then to myself…
But then, he spoke again, my ears perking up. And whilst his tone was shy, it bore a confidence in it that brought a berry of hope in my heart. It wasn’t an answer to my troubles, but a question. A question I couldn’t help nodding along to because it was the only aid I could get.
“Wanna learn about humans?”