another year in stories: eight

Another week, another story. This one about foxes and watching gods behave as gods do.

A Fox Wedding

A tambourine and a handdrum in the distance danced between the trees.

Guo stopped and the children stopped beside her. The dense canopy turned the forest into a halflit tapestry of greens and yellows and blues. Fecund and fragrant, the air thickens as the tambourine and drumming come nearer.

It came slowly paced. The hand drummed slow with time dragging in between each strike and the tambourine chimes every third drumbeat.

What is it, Granny? Franny whispered and grabbed Guo’s hand.

Guo smiled at the children and spoke Sprache with a thick accent, We’re going to see something few humans ever get to see. How does that sound?

Heinrich fought his smile but Franny’s burst over her face.

We need to be still and we need to be quiet. Can you do that for me?

Franny clamped both hands over her mouth and nodded. Heinrich nodded too.

Follow me, Guo said as she moved slowly toward the drumbeat. Creeping between trees and over underbrush, she turned to the children and pointed to her feet. They watched as she took a step, landing on the ball of her foot and then rolled the rest of her foot to the ground from the outside in. She did this twice more and then carried on forward.

Heinrich and Franny imitated the step with Heinrich proving successful and Franny struggling to get her feet to behave.

She whispered loudly after them, I can’t do it. Heinrich! Granny!

Heinrich turned to her, his face flushed, and made a loud shooshing noise.

Guo put her hand on his shoulder and his bowels dropped as the tambourine struck. Guo moved quickly and silently past him to Franny. She came to Franny who had tears in her eyes, turned around, and squatted. Looking back, she tapped her shoulders and motioned forward. Franny smiled and threw her arms round Guo’s neck and Guo carried her towards the drumbeat, the tambourine. She kept pace with Heinrich who crept slowly, his heartbeat racing as he held his breath.

The drumming sounded closer and the tambourine chimed in their chests and eyes. The air thickened and vibrated. Guo put her hand to the viscous texture of the air and then pushed through. Heinrich saw nothing but Franny leaned away from the barrier as she moved through it, holding her breath as if submerging. The forest grew dim and then dark, as if night fell and they stopped perpendicular to a narrow pathway leading east through the forest.

Franny released her breath and when she inhaled again it came as a fire that did not burn but rushed through her lungs and veins to every corner of her body. The tacky air clung to her skin and danced over it. Every breath made by Guo and Heinrich rippled through the air and the tug and push of the disturbance touched her skin. She watched her own breathing disturb the air, distorting her view of the forest. She waved her hand and saw the trailing wake it made.

Guo gently grabbed her wrist, her eyes pointed westward.

Blood rushed to Franny’s head and her heart skipped a beat when Guo stopped her playing in the air, but it evaporated when she turned to where Guo and Heinrich stared.

Balls of light came through the darkness. They came slow, keeping tempo with the drumming. They bounced twice and then moved slightly forward. The darkness held off their vision but the balls of light shined like far off stars or the moons at their faintest. The light gradually grew and the drumming and tambourine came louder. With it came a thick fecund mist. One beat with each bounce of the lights. On the third beat the lights moved forward and the tambourine clanged.

The darkness receded as they came closer. Two figures in kimonos appeared from the mist as if from nowhere. Each held a small drum in one hand and a drumstick in the other. Their steps were a dance, their movements measured and deliberate but fluid. They moved like water through mountains. Behind them came two more holding poles with lanterns attached to the top. Rows and rows of lantern carriers took shape in the mist.

The drummers were woman with long reddish hair and skin pale as the moons, their smiles too large for their heads. They passed the three watchers without turning. Franny and Heinrich held their breath as they passed and Guo held onto Franny’s balled fist, releasing waves of comfort and warmth through her. Franny studied the dancing women and their drumming. Her heart beat with the drum and the very air moved with their dance. She noticed their tails. Each had seven bushy tails that were red as their hair with a white tip.

The lantern carriers were men who danced to the beat as well, but their dance was up and down with no movement side to side. All smiled with mouthfuls of sharp teeth. They all had tails but their tails varied in number. Some with two and others with three or four or five.

Then came the tambourine and another duo of drummers. The tambourine was carried by the most beautiful woman Heinrich had ever seen. Her skin glowed like the fragmented moon at midnight. It pulsed in his eyes and chest. Her hair and eyes were silver. Her smile ran through him, reaching deep between his legs, changing his biology prematurely, filling him with newly discovered sensations.

Guo saw the change in the air, the heat rising from him, and she reached her handless arm towards him, gripping his neck with what did not exist. This cooled him and he wiped the sweat from his brow as she passed, her nine tails weaving through the air, making trails of motion.

All at once, he saw the air as a liquid rippling with their movements and because of them. His skin flooded with sensations and heat. His chest and stomach tightened but the cool touch of Guo kept him stable, kept his body focused, kept him from spilling in all directions, chasing every new sensation.

The lights grew and spread with the mist and the air bubbled around the group that followed. Foxes came dancing and prancing through the clearing, creating a circle around two foxes. The foxes were taller than Heinrich and when they pranced the air screamed, bursting in light. Their tails varied in number and their fur came in different colors but the force and power surging through the clearing was like a riptide.

Guo held the children close to her. Her smile so large tears streamed down her face. The children’s hearts beat so hard and so fast that she held them tighter, closer, pushing her own life into them, teaching them how to hold themselves together. Their heads against her chest, the beat of Guo’s heart wrote itself into theirs and taught their hearts how to dance.

The two foxes at the center did not dance but walked slowly within the writhing circle of dancing foxes as they made their way eastward. Both foxes had three tails.

The mist receded and the light fell as a final tambourine carrier came into view. He stood tall with the same coloring as the female tambourine player. He did not dance or smile but followed with eyes closed. His ears were those of a fox and his nine tails swayed back and forth. He stopped before the three watchers and opened his eyes. He glanced to Guo who stopped smiling. A wave of cold struck the three of them, vibrating through their bodies, filling them with a shaming heat, their mouths and lungs full of bitterness. Sweat covered the three of them and Guo stood. The children quaked, huddled beside her legs.

She stood and faced the man who did not turn to her but only looked from the side of his eye. Guo raised her right arm and with it the hand that was not there.

Franny and Heinrich watched the waves of disgust seethe round the man. The mist thickened round him. They saw Guo’s own waves of blue and mountain flowers and the shining nothing glimmering at the end of her raised arm.

The man snorted and closed his eyes. He walked after the rest of the procession and the mist rose behind him, covering his trails.

Guo stood there for a long time with the children on the ground. The mist disappeared with the lights and the darkness was absolute. The air fissured and then released and Heinrich and Franny inhaled as if seeking reprieve from drowning. Gasping and sputtering, their limbs light and full of air. The halflight of the forest returned along with the many smells and sounds that came with it, all the living creatures once again singing and screaming.

After hours of walking in silence, they made camp without a fire.

Franny cleared her throat but her words came whispered, What did we see?

Guo smiled and rubbed her nose, A fox wedding. I doubt you’ll ever see another one, even if you live twice as long as me.

Heinrich wiped tears that sprouted on his cheeks, What happened?

Guo looked down then fumbled in her cloak for the boneflute. Pulling it out she said, I saw that man’s wedding long ago. That man was a fox. They were all foxes. Not your average fox wandering the forest eating mice and rabbits. Those were gods. Many gods couldn’t care less about humans and so most of them didn’t realise we were there. Other gods don’t appreciate being spied upon.

Franny frowned and rubbed her eyes and yawned, I’m sleepy, Granny.

Guo smiled and played the boneflute.

The song wrapped round Franny and she drifted quickly to sleep.

Heinrich lay awake even after Guo stopped playing and her breath slowed and evened. He stared into the darkness of the forest, visions of the women dancing across his night.