|By Haggblom, Lisa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
There once was a fox who fell in love with a human. Needless to say, the fox found this to be highly inconvenient. Foxes are wild, wily creatures not generally given to sentiment or domestication, both of which plague humans in abundance. But he could not deny that his heart beat a little faster at the mere scent of her, his human. Nor could he fail to notice that his nightly wanderings nearly always ended near her den on the edge of the deep woods. So, as much as he'd have liked to deny it, eventually he had to admit that he was indeed in love. With a human.
So how were humans courted?
"What's wrong with you?!" the elder fox barked.
"I know, I know," the young fox said, laying his ears down in shame, "It's wrong, me loving a human, but I do anyway. Can you help me or not?"
The old fox thought about it and said, "I may be able to cure you of this unnatural love."
"No!" said the fox. "I mean, it's all kinds of horrible, but I don't want to cure myself of my love, because it's kind of nice too."
"Well," the old fox huffed, "I can't help you. Go ask someone else."
So the young fox left to ask someone else. The bears were known to have a certain amount of wisdom, the fox decided that he would go ask them.
The fox found the oldest and wisest bear in the forest and asked him about wooing humans.
"Bears do not woo humans," the bear said. "Human and animal kind do not mix. It's unnatural. I cannot help you. Go away."
The fox was disheartened, but determined so he left the bears and went further afield in search of someone who could help him. Maybe the wolves—he'd heard stories of the wolves' dealings with humans. He decided to seek out the wolves.
At the wolves' den the fox spoke with the two oldest and wisest wolves, the grandmother and grandfather of the pack. Wolf cubs played tumble-rumble at their feet.
"I am in love with human," the fox told the wolves. "I don't know what to do about it."
"That is the way with love," the old female said.
"True, true," agreed the male, "love is the greatest of foolish acts, but with a human? I don't see the point."
"I think what my mate is trying to do," said the female, "is ask what you want to do with this human female? What are you're intensions?"
The fox thought about this for a bit and then said, "I love my human. I would like her to love me too. I want to make her my mate and raise kits with her."
The old wolves' howled with laughter, joined by the pups who, though they didn't really know why their elders were laughing, thought it must have been a grand joke. The fox wanted to curl his tail over his nose.
"We can't help you," the old female said.
The male shook his head. "It's been over a hundred years since we had close relations with humans," he said, "and even then we didn't mate with humans, we just raised the occasional human cub."
"What should I do?" the fox cried.
"We don't know," the wolves said.
The fox left the wolves' den and went in search of better help. But who could he ask? He couldn't think of who could help. He wandered the woods asking all the animals he saw. The mice just squeaked and ran away. The squirrels threw nutshells and chittered from the tops of their trees. The deer didn't even deign to look his way. The birds were too empty-headed to do anything but sing obnoxious limericks at him.
After days and days, and miles and miles, the fox was beginning to lose hope. He thought about going back to his den and pining away for his human. What was the point of continuing on? No one could help him. No. He had to go on. His heart wouldn't let him do anything else.
"Hey, little cousin," a sly voice crept out of the shadows towards him, "Why do you wear such a sad look?"
It was a coyote. The fox perked up, he hadn't asked a coyote for help yet. In truth, he hadn't even thought about asking a coyote for help, for though coyote's are wise it is a crazy sort of wisdom. The kind of crazy that is just as likely to cause disaster as to avert it. Coyote's are sly too—not as sly as foxes, mind—but they carried a cunning unique among the animals. The fox sighed, he had nothing to lose and love yet to gain.
"I've fallen in love with a human," he said, "I want to make her my mate, but I don't know how to woo my human. I don't know a way to be with her. Can you help me?"
The coyote chuckled, a spark of madness danced in her eyes. "That's easy," she said, "and difficult. Humans don't mate with us animals. So what you need to do is become human."
"How do I do that?" the fox asked, hoping against hope that the coyote wasn't playing some trick.
"You need to learn how to shed your skin and become something new," said the coyote. "If I were you I'd talk to the snakes, they're always shedding something."
"But snakes shed their skin and are still snakes," said the fox.
"Yes, but they like being snakes and see no reason to become anything else," the coyote said. "You, if you really want to be with your human, have a reason to change. Ask the snakes. What harm could there be in it?"
Then, with a yip and a scurry the coyote ran off to do whatever damn-fool-crazy thing coyotes do, and the fox thought that maybe asking the snakes was a good, if dangerous, idea. He set off in search of sun-warmed rocks and dark burrows to find one.
And soon enough, he did.
The snake he found was a big king-daddy of a forest rattler. Old-old by the size of him and the number of rattles on his tail. Snakes, now, are dangerous creatures. Some of the oldest predators in the world. For the first time since he grew to adulthood the fox felt afraid for his life. The other creatures the fox knew he could outrun, outthink, or outfight, but snakes, especially ones with venomous bites, were different. Snakes struck fast, often without warning, and would eat anything they could get their jaws around. Generally the fox avoided snakes, except for the small, harmless ones he sometimes ate for supper, but he needed to know how to shed his skin and change his shape, so he had to get close enough to have a conversation. He shuddered and stepped closer, the old rattler eyed him speculatively.
"Do you want sssomething from me, little fox?" the rattler asked, his deep, sibilant voice swept along the ground, and the fox could almost feel it slide into his ear.
"I have fallen in love with a human," the fox said. "I want to make her my mate."
"Humansss don't mate with animalsss," the snake hissed.
"I know," said the fox. "I have asked every animal in this forest for help, and they have all said the same thing. But a coyote told me that to mate with my human I must become human. She suggested that I speak with one of your kind, because to become human I must shed my skin."
The rattler slid around behind the fox, looping his body around the smaller animal, and held his face so close to the fox's snout that should the snake flick out his tongue the tip of it would touch the fox's nose. He looked directly into the fox's eyes and said, "You want to ssshed your ssskin and become a human."
"Yes," the fox was so scared that it came out as a growl.
The snake shook his rattles in response. "It'sss been a long time sssince a mammal hasss wanted to ssshed itsss ssskin," he said, coiling slightly tighter around the fox. "Cccenturiesss, I think. Are you sssure you wisssh to do thisss?"
"To win the affection of my beloved I would do anything," said the fox, "What do I need to do?"
"Then, it isss sssimple," said the snake. The fox felt the spark of hope inside of him flare into a wild blaze, he almost asked the snake again what he needed to do to shed his skin and become human, but the old rattler continued before he could speak. "To ssshed your ssskin, all you need to do is die."
And the snake struck. The fox barely had time to think before the rattler's fangs were pumping his small body with venom. It was all he could do to bring the vision of his beautiful human to his mind's eye before the world went black with pain.
At the edge of the deep woods there is a little stone cottage with a thatched roof and a lovely garden. A woman lived in the house alone, just her and her old tomcat, and most of the time she preferred it that way. She didn't fit in in town, and while she was not exactly shunned, she wasn't exactly welcome there either. She was too independent minded, too much a creature of the forest for the townsfolk to feel comfortable around her. Some whispered that she was a witch, and though she knows a bit of magic, and worships different gods, she'd never done anyone any harm, so most were content to leave her be, and she was content to let them.
Sometimes though, when the wind was right, the woman dreamt of having someone to love. Someone to help her with her chores and the upkeep of the house. Someone to laugh and talk with. Someone to hold her during the lonely nights. Someone who could give her a family. But she knew that what beauty she has is not great enough to lure a man out to the woods, and she couldn't stand being so close to so many other people for long periods of time, so she wouldn't move into town. After having to refuse one legitimate proposal of marriage, and several other more insulting offers to become a mistress, she decided that that particular dream of hers wasn't meant to manifest, so worked instead on other projects. Still, there were nights when her heart ached for what she knew she'd never have.
Most days, unless she needed to go into the forest for something, or into town for something else, the woman could be found in her back garden tending the plants. Vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow in near jubilant abundance, and she found peace turning the soil and discouraging weeds. She'd sing to the plants, and watch them grow.
That is where she was, kneeling on the ground, tending a young juniper plant, when a tall, thin man stumbled out of the woods, naked as an animal, with hair as red as the fox's pelt he clutched in one hand. He smiled at her, a crooked grin that showed off his white teeth and rather long canines, and said, "I did it. I did it," in a scratchy sort of growl, before collapsing into her patch of basil.
"Goodness!" the woman said, jumping to her feet and running to the man. "Sir! Sir? Are you alright?"
The man whined deep in his throat. "I hurt," he said in halting syllables, "but it was worth it. You are so lovely."
The woman blushed, it'd been a long time since anyone called her lovely, and said, "You're injured we should get you inside. Can you walk?"
"Yes. On two legs even!" the man said as, with her assistance, he struggled to his feet. He would have fallen again once he got there, but the woman draped one of his arms over her shoulders and put her arm around his waist to steady him. He struggled to put one foot in front of the other.
"Come on now," she said, "We'll get you off your feet again soon enough. Let's go inside and you can tell me how you came to be here."
"Okay," the man said, distracted by the feel and smell of her, he'd never been so close before. "What are you called?"
"Aubry" the woman said. "What should I call you?"
The man thought about this, and answered, "Fox. You can call me Fox."
"It suits you," Aubry said, he thought he heard a smile in her voice. He hoped he was right. "What happened to you, Fox?"
"I was bit by a snake, but that didn't happen until the end."
"And what happened at the beginning?"
"I fell in love with you."