Printed in the Water (a short story)
by essayan hart
“There is no shame in being a fox” Each morning, the fox calls out for the suns love, and in return finds her eyes blinded, and her head heavy and tired. She is starting to worry.
The city, which is too wild and vast for ever the wisest of foxes, is growing restless. The campaign against foxes is raging. There is little or no place for a fox to hide, nevertheless hear anyone say, evidently even the sun, that being a fox is okay. Still, she looks at her tail, and the way she appears and disappears with the help of her moon sister, and finds nothing wrong. She can see no reason for the campaign. No reason why her family and friends have abandoned the woods surrounding the city and hidden, deep in the mountains.
The fox loves her small home. She loves the tiny pond at the bottom of the hill, edging the kind farmer’s property. Property. She turns this word over in her mind each day. She loves her burrow, but could not conceive of it as hers. Not exactly, not entirely. The creatures of the city however, plant flags and draw lines all across the earth. She thinks of this each morning, with great puzzlement, over her peppermint tea and scavenged squirrel bone.
She comes up with examples. The inchworm who crosses her wall, nearly always three times, on its own small path across a day. The black window spider, stunningly beautiful in the little burrow window. These creatures are a part of the landscape. They are not hers, either. The people of the city abhor creatures they can not tame, can not eat or control. She wonders if maybe they are blind.
She is brave, and wants to understand. She dreams of one day living with her friends again, but for now, for the moment, she is studying their movements.
They crowd themselves into rooms with their books and pamphlets. Some they say, are the words of a great creature, a creature who can set them all free. She wonders what freedom is, and more particularly, what freedom isn’t, as she goes about picking blackberries, quiet and quick, along the rivers edge.
Today however, our friend the fox is tired. She has spent days and nights invisible, running with her blackberries along the river. See her there? She vanishes so quickly. She does not know who we are. She does not know that we are her students, practicing the appearing and reappearing, the sweetness of living in circles while the world moves always thoughtlessly to the edge of a high cliff.
The fox thinks that books are beautiful. Being ever so sly, she has stolen thousands of books. She has dug a hallway in her burrow. She has scratched out shelves. Sometimes, when she is feeling ever so foolish, she paints the bindings as if they were of one canvas. She draws them together, and tries to form a picture of the city. She is decoding them, the creatures of the city.
The fox thinks the books are beautiful, but she also finds them complicated, and when she has tired her head reading in foreign languages, she slips off her skin (for this is the magic of fox) and swims to collect stones at the bottom of the river. She arranges the stones. A heart. An arrow. She makes herself laugh. She returns them to the water, and returns to her post.
So, tired today, and finding that a swim in the river has not cooled her thoughts, she steps into the madness of the city entirely visible, in her woodland rags. She wears a coat woven from pages of stolen holy books, and she carries a small empty notebook.
One step. A fox-mad hunter points and hollers. She moves so slowly, tired as she is. She surrenders because there is more to learn. She surrenders because she can not believe in darkness. The fox now has become something entirely different. She stands on two legs. She shifts, becomes her surroundings. This is not a hiding, but a birth, and just as temporary.
The fox hunter blushes red. He apologizes to the small girl, speaks down to her as if she were quite possibly much smaller than she actually is. He asks where she lives. He offers her tea.
Her coat has grown long, the color of water. Stains of the old words remain, but they have been taken in by her very real heart. There is now, a deep sea of compassion for the man standing before her. The words of books have done this. In pointing awkwardly and variously to where she lives, simple and bright, she has discovered that these creatures want nothing more, at heart, than the oldest of ways.
Our fox accepts the tea. Her family will never forgive her. She may never be allowed to return, with the scent of this life, this body she has taken, these creatures on her skin. There are harsh judgments in her world. They do not respect the ways of the city creatures, so they stay, endlessly hidden, waiting and watching. She has betrayed them now, sipping tea, not unlike her own, from a ceramic mug in the entrance of a home that feels weighted in sadness.
“I live nowhere, because before now, I did not exist.”
The fox hunter laughs. He finds her delightful. Dressed as she is, in familiar skin, and a beautiful blue coat, she seems to be the brightest of his own kind. She is pure magic, standing in his dark kitchen. She speaks strangely, the fox hunter thinks to himself. Maybe she in injured somehow, or insane. The fox hunter decides then that he will raise her, as his very own daughter.
The fox hunter was a lonely man, but he did eventually fall in love with a quiet woman in a white dress decorated in blue satin ribbon. The fox hunters small daughter, born one morning at the edge of the city, came as a surprise. His wife was not expecting to find her self pregnant.
As the child grows, she learns that children are often exempt in this world, from the harsh tide of motion which seems to press in on the edges of life. Here, where the city meets the woods, she is free to wander deeper into the forest each day. She is free to run with foxes. Her father, the hunter, believes that this will make her an excellent hunting partner one day. She becomes an excellent tracker. Her father is the chairman of the fox hunter’s board. He wears, for his hat, this skin of a fox, discovered in the meadow the day of his daughter’s birth. He is very well respected.
The hunter’s home is clean, and only in the girl’s room does one spider survive, secretly, in the panes of a window. The girl asks to always clean her own room, afraid that the woman in the white dress with blue satin ribbons will destroy her companion, at the will of her father. Her father grows proud of the child. At night she watches the woods through a thin pane of glass, through a spider’s web. She watches the weaver, and wonders about her fathers mind.
When her father invites her hunting, she leads him away from the foxes. He believes that he has grown old, and cannot see well. This is when he begins to rest endlessly in his home.
This is where we find ourselves, when his students begin to arrive. When the girl learns to speak, she begins to sing. She sings fox songs to her ailing father, who lives confined to books, and battling the world of foxes with every step. He sends his sons off to war. His eyes grow a steely grey. People come to hear the fox hunter speak. They listen intently as he speaks of good and evil, of the coyness of foxes, of the snake and the spider.
The hunter knows one of the old holy books very well. He does not like the others, particularly those which suggest a life at peace with foxes. He can recite the words of the greater creature, verse for verse. He takes all of this very seriously. He teaches the words to his daughter. He buys her a blue coat, to keep warm in the winter.
The girl’s heart breaks every day. She does not like learning the ways of life in the city. She does not like learning of the dangers of foxes. She does not know why this strikes her as so wrong, as so dangerous and sad. “I am a fox-hunters daughter.” She tells herself in the morning. She loves her father, and loves his books, and his mind. She can not understand what it is that tugs at her heart, what drives her to protect foxes secretly, invisibly.
When the girl grows old enough to take a lover, she chooses a lover who can not protect her heart. She does not know why, but she finds herself wounded, dashed against the rocks. Her blue coat hangs in the entryway of their home. She sweeps the house of spiders, excepting a few. Her lover comments that she must be stupid or lazy, every time he meets a small creature, a spider or a mouse, surviving in their home.
There are memories that wake us in these dreamed-of lives. This is true also for our heroin, our dear fox-girl , our shape-shifter.
In the city, the war against foxes has grown in proportion as life grown more difficult. The air is full of smoke and smog, and the stores are running out of bleach. The woods seem to encroach on the lives of these creatures, and they react with anger, lashing out at their old enemy, the sly, invisible fox. The girl, now a woman, finds herself talking with her father, only a few days before his passing.
She finds herself whispering, in the smallest softest voice. “Father, I have always loved foxes.” His eyes soft, at the edge of death, he whispers that he will never understand. He worries for her soul.
This confession heavy in her heart, she tells her father about a burrow in the woods. A family she has known since her childhood. She tells him how they wander into the city and steal books. She confesses that she has left them gifts. They have lived in her story, though her life as a fox-hunters daughter.
The day of the fox-hunters death, he has forgotten all reason. He is hiding his books, stumbling from his sick bed, enraged. He wanders to the edge of the forest and back, armed with a shotgun. At thin edge between life and death, he arrives at the fox den in the woods.
The fox-hunter wants to take the lives of these small enemies, to remove them from his daughter’s heart, so that they might be fox-hunter and fox-hunters daughter, in these final days. He wants to steal back his missing books.
The bookshelf in the den runs for miles, for years, deep into the earth. He can not steal them all. He cannot even choose one, of the endless, to hold above the others. A few miles down, wildly seeking out his enemy, the hunter stops to rest.
His hands are old and withered, and his gaze rests on them. In the space beneath his hands, the bookshelf is blue. All blue. He can not distinguish the titles, because the bindings have been painted together, as if they were of one canvas. He staggers.
I will warn you now, that a man is about to die, having completed his journey, and returned to the book. The book he returns to is not bound in paper, but in water. I will tell you that he wept.
The wall of words was blue as the river, and a small paper coat, stitched from the old holy books, lay abandoned on the floor.
Somewhere, a woman, in fear and grief, ran through the forest, shedding an old skin.
And a man passed away weeping.
And how many of us have known our loved ones, in their great grief, to return to the water, to this river, by passage of tears?
And how many of us are there, of this living book, winding our lives into her passages with delirious abandon?
This is a fool’s world. The wounded healer rests her head on her paws. The snake charmer is seasoned in her surrender. Follow foxes. Entertain God. Heal something broken. It does not matter if it is the beginning or the end. The river runs home to itself. We are already here.
“There is another kind of book, I know it.
There is another kind of book, I saw it.
Printed in the Water. Printed in the Water ” T. Straw