“How are you today, Mr Fox?” Frank asked as he arrived in the forest clearing.
The fox made no move other than its regular little head tilt. It sat at the far side of the space, watching Frank — in the open but near enough to the underbrush that it could scurry away if necessary. It was the same location the creature had sat every time the boy had come to visit. Except for the first time, of course.
“Not talkative today?” Frank asked. He chuckled to himself. These were the same questions he asked it every day. And every day there was no response. Of course, he didn’t expect it to answer, it was a fox after all. But the creature was a familiar sight now, after these past few weeks, and it felt right to Frank to treat it like a friend. Especially after what they had been through together.
While the animal hadn’t done anything directly to help Frank, it had listened to him. In the beginning, to be sure, it hadn’t had much choice. But now, every time he came, it sat, watching, absorbing it seemed, every word that the little boy said. And Frank said a lot.
“Momma’s still not completely well, though she’s doing better every day,” Frank said as he sat down a few feet away from the fox. “And they still haven’t been able to find the person that attacked her. Though Gabby, he’s our neighbour, managed to slash them with his knife. It was lucky he was up so early. He was getting ready to go to the market over in Havenworth.”
Frank continued, telling the same story he had on several other days. “Anyway, a bunch of people followed the trail of blood from the wound but it disappeared outside town. At least it doesn’t look like the attacker is going to come back. It’s been a month now.” The boy shrugged. “So, that’s good I guess.”
The fox lowered its head, as if sad.
Frank eyed the fox’s left hind leg. “I see you’re doing much better too. I’m glad you’re healing well.”
As if understanding, and wanting to show that it was so, the fox walked a few paces toward Frank and sat again.
“Wow, that’s great! You’re not limping at all now. I’m sure you can hunt for yourself again too, but, well, I brought you something so I’ll give it to you anyway.”
Frank reached into the sack he carried and pulled out a cloth napkin. He peeled back the layers to reveal several thick pieces of raw bacon. With a little flick, he tossed one of them toward the fox. The meat landed a couple of feet away from it.
The creature made no move. At first. Then, as if not wanting to seem too eager, it stood and took its time covering the distance to the bacon. It picked it up and chewed, watching Frank. When the meat was gone it eyed the remaining pieces Frank still had in the napkin. The boy held out one of them at arm’s length.
“Come and get it.”
The fox rolled its eyes in a very human fashion before covering the distance between it and Frank. It stopped with its snout almost laying in the boy’s hand. Frank lowered the meat a little and the fox took it. It ate there, not moving away.
“I was very lucky to find you that day, hey? We should thank the apothecary I guess. She sent me out here to find those medicinal herbs for my mother’s tincture. I thought you were going to die.”
He gave another piece of bacon to the fox, but not before getting the animal to come a little closer. While it ate he rubbed it behind the ears. This had been their usual game since the fox’s wounds had healed enough.
When Frank first discovered the fox — the same day his mom had been hurt — there was so much blood matted into its fur that he assumed it had been almost eaten. But the only injury had been on one of its hind legs: a large, clean cut.
He had picked up the creature and taken it to the stream nearby, next to the bridge into town. There he had washed the wound in the cold water. Frank had worried that the fox might not understand what he was doing and try to bite him. Luckily, that didn’t happen; if anything the creature had seemed very docile. Frank had packed the cut with some of the herbs he had picked for the apothecary and tied it up with some cloth he tore from his shirt. The creature had stumbled off into the underbrush then, but not before looking back at Frank. He thought it had looked thankful. That’s how Frank chose to remember it, anyway. He’d assumed he’d never see the fox again.
Yet, the very next day he returned to the forest, this time picking mushrooms. Usually, his mom would’ve done that. But now he had to pick and sell them. He had to feed them both and there was also the extra cost of paying the apothecary for her services. Once his mom was well again they’d do it together.
The fox had been waiting for him in the clearing as if it knew he would appear. Frank had coaxed the animal over, noticing that its limp was not quite so awkward as the day before. He checked the makeshift bandage and saw that the cut was closing up. Using clean water from his leather water pouch he again cleaned the wound and repacked it with fresh herbs. Like before the fox made no move to resist.
This soon became a pattern and Frank started going into the forest with the express purpose of visiting the fox. The bandage and even the animal’s limp were gone. It no longer needed Frank. While that made him a little sad he was also very happy.
His mom would be healed soon and the fox was too. Everything was good now. That hadn’t been the case a month before, especially not that morning.
It had been very early, the sun hadn’t been up. But the moon was, full and silver in the sky. The light from it had given some slight illumination to his room. It had been warm so he’d left his window open. That was how the person had gotten in. The woman.
He had opened his eyes in the stark half-light and saw her watching him. Her eyes, he remembered, were very distinct, all silver and shimmery. She had been watching him sleep. He had cried out, screamed, for his mother. She had answered, scrambling from bed — the ruckus of her doing so had been very loud. The intruder had turned and turned, unsure what to do, very frightened. Those silver eyes had gone wide then.
Frank’s mother had pushed open the door. “Frank, what’s wrong?” she had asked. Then she had seen the intruder. And the intruder had seen her.
It was then, Frank recalled, that he realized the intruder was naked. The light from the moon reflected from her long red hair and illuminated the pale flesh along one side of her body. She was young, not as old as Frank’s mom, and very slender, all taut flesh, muscles and tendons.
That moment was frozen in time, pinned with pain and anguish. For the intruder had reacted — Frank was sure, for some reason, it wasn’t intentional — by throwing her body against the door, pushing it closed again. His mother, caught unaware, was tossed backwards and toppled down the stairs to the first floor.
The intruder had fled and ran into Gabby who, alerted by all the noise, was coming to see what was happening. He had tried several times to get her to stop and when she refused he had restrained her. She struggled and fought, even had tried to bite Gabby. He had slashed the woman with his knife on her left thigh as she ran away.
Frank, meanwhile, raced to help his mother, who had hit her head. Gabby, alerted by Frank’s cries, stopped pursuing the woman and came to his aid. The man said after that the woman had loped away, like a dog or a wolf bounding to answer some call.
But that was all in the past now.
With all the bacon gone, Frank wiped his hands with the napkin and put it back into his sack. He leaned back on his elbows in the grassy clearing, looking about, up, all around. He listened to the birds above in the trees, watched some ravens cross in the sky. And he watched the fox as it cleaned itself. He lay back, his hands behind his head, and looked at the sky. The fox came over and licked his face, which made him laugh. He rubbed the animal on its head. It lay down next to him, curled up, snuggling in the crook between his arm and side.
Frank knew it was a wild animal but it wasn’t a stranger. He closed his eyes a moment then blinked them open again. It had been a long month and he was very tired, having to carry the load of two people. It would be okay if he had a little nap. He closed his eyes again and let out a little sigh.
Frank didn’t see the fox turn at the sound. It lifted its head and looked at him. Looked at him with its silver eyes.
No, all Frank saw was darkness as he drifted off to sleep, the gentle sounds of nature in his ears.
When Frank stirred from his slumber the sounds had changed. Crickets and owls had replaced the birdsong and buzzing of insects. He opened his eyes, looking up and to the side. The clearing was dark, but not pitch, illuminated by the full moon. Immediately he thought of the light in his room the night his mom had been hurt. The moonlight cast deep shadows in the grass and made the spaces between the trees around the clearing black, impenetrable.
The warmth of the fox was no longer at his side. He turned his head, to see where it had gone. Staring back at him were those same silver eyes and, beyond them, the red hair and naked, pale flesh. The young woman sat in the grass a few feet away, watching Frank, as she had that other night. But her presence was not what alarmed him most. No, it was her eyes. He knew them, only too well. He had looked into them every day over the last month.
“I guess it’s not Mr Fox at all then,” he said, sitting up.
The woman said nothing.
Frank wasn’t scared; it wasn’t the woman, the attacker, no, it was the fox. It had had ample time to hurt him if it wanted, not the least occasion being while he was asleep and defenseless. Twice now. He didn’t know what she wanted but it wasn’t to hurt him.
Or his mom. He was certain of that now. It had all been an accident.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt my mom.”
The woman lowered her head, as the fox had done. And Frank knew that she was sad.
“It’s okay, really,” he tried again. She kept looking at her knees. He decided to try something different.
Getting to his knees he closed the distance between them. The fox woman looked up at the sound but made no other move. Kneeling before her Frank held out his open arms. She looked at him quizzically. He moved in closer, placing his arms around her. She trembled, scared.
“It’s okay,” Frank said again, closing his arms around her cool body. He hugged her as his mother had held him so many times, in that way that made him feel safe.
The woman laid her head on his shoulder and raised her own arms to embrace Frank. He felt the coolness of her hands on his back through his shirt. It wasn’t unpleasant, but there was no mistaking that she wasn’t completely human.
They held each other like that for a moment, not moving, not speaking. Finally, the woman broke the connection and sat back. Frank did the same.
It was time to leave. Frank couldn’t have said how he knew that, but he did. He got to his feet, collected his sack, and walked across the clearing. At the start of the trail through the forest he turned back.
Those silver eyes, glistening with tears, stared back. He smiled before turning away once more. Using the ample moonlight to guide his way he started back toward the town.