Fox is woken at mid-day by soft light filtering through the yellowing leaves of tall maples. She fights the urge to keep her eyes closed and eventually lifts her lids one then the other, peeking her snout out from the low foliage where she’s spent the morning. She is almost surprised to find that she’s still here— that she woke today the same way she’s woken each day of her nine years of life.
As she slowly raises herself from the Earth and parts from her den of leaves, she perks her ears to the stillness of the Forest. The damp earth under foot tells Fox that it is nearing time for the Forest’s winter sleep again. The squirrels have taken to their nests and the mice to their hidden burrows. Soon the Forest will have its first coating of frost, and prey will become even scarcer.
She scrapes her glinting claws through the muck until she unearths a wriggling worm. It tastes bitter, but she gobbles it down.
While the Forest nears time for another winter sleep, Fox is aware that a different kind of sleep is slowly stalking her. This one, more final.
She considers what the day has in store. Hours of clawing through gritty Earth, only for the small reward of a few measly grubs. She wonders if she should bother—if she should crawl back under the soft green foliage and wait, with patience, readiness, for that final sleep to come and find her.
In the brush to her right, she hears the sharp snap of a twig. A jolt of fear runs up her spine, freezing her. A figure comes springing out of the trees and in an instant, she is looking down the slender body of a poised arrow.
Lowering her stomach to the ground, she spies at the other end of the bow a pair of steady pale hands, wild eyes that shine like a clear blue lake, and a nest of shaggy yellow hair.
The boy’s breathing is rapid and high in his chest. His eyes are narrowed.
Fox lowers her black-tipped ears and bares her teeth, though she knows this will serve little purpose. As she braces herself for the sharp pierce of the arrow, the boy’s eyes lose their eagerness. He lowers his bow and Fox’s heart begins to pound less relentlessly in her ribcage.
“I’d never get any meat off you anyway,” he says. “You’re about as plump as the twigs under my feet.” He places his arrow back in his quiver and shoulders his bow onto his back.
Every instinct in Fox’s body tells her to dart for safety, but she is frozen with surprise. The boy spoke, and she understood him. With her belly still low to the ground, she thinks, humans don’t travel alone. Where are the others? She moves her eyes from left to right, scanning the forest line.
She is surprised again when his response comes. “I got lost from them— my father and my cousins.” He looks at her with curiosity, his eyes reflecting the afternoon sun.
Fox lets her ears slowly lift from her head. You are alone then, child. Her words float to the boy’s mind as if transported on gentle puffs of air.
He takes a waterskin from his satchel. “Yes. I need to find my way back to my clan by the new moon, about six days from now.”
While the boy drinks, Fox lifts herself from the earth and considers what he has told her.
Soon the weather will turn. The Forest will no longer be a hospitable place for ones like you. If you plan to survive the winter sleep, you must find your family. Soon.
The boy runs a dirt-splattered hand through his hair. She senses his anxiety. “Once I make it to the river, it will lead me back to them. Can you show me the way?”
Child, that’s four days’ journey.
His face crumbles. Fox recognizes this look from the eyes of her prey. It is the look of a robin before teeth rip into quivering breast.
“Please,” he begs. “If you show me, I will hunt the whole way and share my game with you.”
She takes a few paces back and, in a glance, takes in the boy. His thin animal skin slippers. His body— healthy— but without enough fat to make the bitter winter months bearable. Though Fox senses that he has recently entered the age of puberty, he is still of a slighter build. He will not survive. She knows this.
Another slow roll quakes through her gut and she remembers her hunger. She remembers that she, too, is desperate.
She sighs. Follow me, child. And catch us something to eat.
On that first day, they cover a large stretch of ground. Fox scampers at the quickest pace her body can muster, though it is difficult keeping up with the boy. She tells him which direction to walk, and he strides ahead. His body is young. Still agile. She remembers what it used to be like to dart with a sparrow’s speed at the helpless throats of rabbits. She watches intently from behind as he shoots his arrows into the dwindling tree leaves and through tall patches of grass.
The first catch, he gives to her. A star-nosed mole. She eats it quickly, hurriedly, but still watches him from the peripheries of her black eyes, making sure his arrow never points in her direction for too long. Once she licks her lips clean, she wishes she’d savoured her meal, as immediately her still-hollow belly complains for more. Next, the boy catches a weasel, which they share. They stop so the boy can build a small fire to roast the meat.
As he sucks the last piece of flesh from a bone, rays of sunlight become slanted and golden through the tree branches. They decide to rest there for the night and continue their journey the next day. They prepare themselves for sleep with darkness settling in around them. Fox, curling her body into a tight ball by the fire, and the boy, wrapping himself in thick layers of soft animal hide.
Do you have a name, child?
He says aloud, “My mother named me Atlas.” He sits up to stoke the fire with a small branch.
Firelight flickers against Fox’s coat, making it dance in different shades of orange and red. I do not know this word. What is its meaning?
He twists the stick in his hands, letting the rough bark scratch against the skin on his right fingers, hardened by hours of practice with his bow, then throws it into the flames. “It’s something that humans once used. There are none left— or at least, we don’t think any survived after the Last War, when there wasn’t much left of anything.” He stops to think for a moment, then continues, “It was a type of book that held maps— things that help people get from place to place. They have drawings that can show you where rivers, mountains, and oceans are. It’s meant to guide you.”
How do humans travel without getting lost, if these things no longer exist?
“I’ve heard that it’s harder now. The older generations, they do a lot of the remembering, and passing on knowledge of the landscapes to the youth. That’s what we do now, me and my family. We travel from place to place, and write things down to make the remembering easier. We have given names to rivers and large rocks so that when we see them, we know them again. They plan to move again soon. That’s why I have to find my way back to them.”
Fox curls her body tighter, circling her tail in front of her nose and letting her eyes grow heavy with sleep. How interesting that you are named for something that is meant to guide, and yet, I am the one who is leading you home.
Fox has a fitful sleep. She is not accustomed to resting during the night hours, which are usually the best for catching small prey. Dreams come to her in fragments, piercing through her subconscious like jagged shards of ice. She has to dig. The rain. There is too much of it. The sounds of her desperate cries are drowned out by heavy droplets assaulting the earth. She has to dig. She might not be too late. She submerges her head into the waters that flow from her burrow and comes up hacking leaves and grit. She has to save them.
Her eyes burst open to the bright sunlight, and she finds that her paws still move, though she lies on her side. They claw desperately at the air before her. She stops, panting, and rests her head on the dirt. It always takes her a moment to catch her breath when she wakes from this dream.
Her ears prickle to the rustling of foliage to her right, but it’s just Atlas walking back through the trees with a dead rabbit in his fist.
They have walked until the pads on Fox’s paws have begun to feel raw, but she is well fed. She cannot remember the last time her stomach has felt this distended with fullness. She feels lethargic, but Atlas keeps her moving along at a steady pace. She no longer feels the desire to scramble into the Forest every time he comes close.
Atlas’s feet crunch over twigs and dried leaves as he steps across the Forest floor. “Do you know,” he begins, “that I have heard legends of people who could communicate with animals? I mean, speak to them, like I’m doing with you.”
Fox steals a glance at him, but gives no response, turning her head back towards their path.
He continues. “It’s just, those legends— the people who could talk to animals— they lived thousands of years ago. I always thought that maybe they could be more than legends, but I just thought humans stopped being able to communicate with animals a long time ago.”
Fox still does not look at him. Child, humans never lost the ability to speak with us. You believed you had a higher place in the order. You believed you were different and took what you believed to be true.
Atlas nods, his lips a hard line. “Maybe if my ancestors had been listening more closely, things wouldn’t have ended up the way that they are.”
Even though we could not communicate, there were signs from us. You watched us crawl from blazing forests with our paws scorched and our children lost. Perhaps if you had stopped waging wars on each other for any amount of time, you could have seen what you were doing to the Earth.
“How do you know that? There hasn’t been a war for hundreds of years.”
Fox flicks her tail in response. The Forest passes down knowledge, too.
The sun sets two more times during their journey. Each time Atlas builds a fire, and they drift to sleep listening to the crackling of hot embers. The days have grown noticeably colder since they first set out and the trees look even barer than three days previous. But soon they will find themselves at the river, and Atlas will be able to make his way home.
Even in the morning sun, the day is cool. Fox pads her way across the lichen-covered bedrock as Atlas moves ahead to hunt. Yes, she remembers this place. They will reach the river today if they keep moving swiftly. Fox is feeling better than she has in many seasons, but the journey is wearing on her body. Her hip joints grind and ache. She knows that she is only slowing Atlas’s journey. Every time she spots a shady covering of foliage or a hollow notch at the base of a tree, she is tempted to crawl inside and rest.
Atlas steps his way back between two trees and towards Fox, this time empty-handed.
“Critters must still be asleep,” he jokes.
He sticks a hand deep into his pocket and then, lifting it to Fox’s snout, presents her with a fistful of blackberries. They ooze dark juice onto his palms. She imagines the sweet liquid slipping down the back of her jaw and begins to salivate.
She surprises herself by backing away from his hand.
Atlas kneads his eyebrows together. “Don’t you want any?”
She ignores his question. We are close enough to the river now. All that’s left for you to do is follow the bedrock North, and you will reach the river. The journey will take you until nightfall, but you can get there if you hurry.
Confusion casts a shadow across his face. “We’re almost there. We had a deal.”
She sighs. I can’t go on any longer. My body is old, while yours is still young. Besides, child, you don’t need me anymore. You are nearly there.
“The way my family raised me, promises must be honoured. That means you still owe me safe passage to the river, and I owe you at least three more meals.”
Fox feels her legs are about to buckle. I can’t, she whines softly.
He kneels before her, shaking the berries onto the ground and wiping his palms on his pants. She watches Atlas curiously as he unbuttons the upper part of his thin deer-skin vest and opens it toward her.
“Crawl in,” he says.
Fox notices that his eyes are set in a hard glint, but that his lips are still turned upward in a childish smile. He gives her a slight nod. “Come on.”
Gingerly, she climbs onto his knee, careful not to rip his clothing with her claws. Once she is tucked under his chin and Atlas has done a few of his buttons back up, he stands.
They set off, the only sound that passes around them is the creaking of birch trees in the wind.
By the time the sun filters low through the tree branches, they both begin to hear rushing water in the distance. Atlas has quickened his pace, eager to see what lies beyond the last stretch of trees. Finally, the Forest begins to dwindle, and they see blue water that reflects speckles of erratic golden light from the evening sun. He runs, Fox bobbing up and down under his chin.
A shout of joy erupts from his lips at the edge of the bank. Fox takes in the scene before them. The water is rushing high and strong. They can barely hear anything over the sound of the frothy water pounding against the rocks.
Atlas bends over to let Fox climb onto the ground and hurriedly rolls up his pant legs.
Fox looks at him with questioning eyes.
He laughs. “I’m going in to catch us some dinner.”
Without another word, he wades into the water through the jagged rocks that line the riverbed. The water is so cold at this time of year it feels like a thousand porcupine quills piercing the skin, but Atlas does not flinch. Fox watches as he pulls an arrow from his quill and suspends it over the water, ready to shoot anything that might swim by.
She feels the sun on her fur and, despite the day’s bitterness, feels herself growing warm. A strong breeze whisks off the water and tousles Atlas’s hair. She scans her eyes over the deep green pine trees that line the other side of the river. In the distance, she can see peeks of yellow and orange sycamore trees that will soon begin shedding their leaves. She imagines their bare branches dusted with flakes of powdery snow and feels her body grow heavy again.
She lowers herself to the ground. She feels strange now that they’re here, she realizes — their journey is over. She is free to move on now, but somehow, she can’t imagine leaving him here.
But, she thinks to herself, he doesn’t have use for me anymore. He’ll want to get to his family as quickly as possible now.
She imagines slowly backing away from the river and into the Forest. He wouldn’t notice. He’s too intent on catching their dinner. She watches him from the corner of her eye as she moves from the ground. She turns her back.
Then, a splash. She whips her body around, but when she looks back at the riverbed, Atlas is gone. She moves her head frantically from side to side, trying to spot him, and then she notices a thrashing in the waves. Something is being carried downstream by the current.
Sour dread curdles in the pit of her stomach as she realizes it’s Atlas. She runs, fear rippling through her body.
She moves swiftly down the bank of the river, chasing after his bobbing head as it’s swallowed by the waves and spit out again. She hears his screams over the sound of the water and yips madly in response, trying to let him know that she’s coming.
Fox watches as he is swept to the middle of the river where there is nothing to grasp but sharp rocks made slick with water and algae.
He is pulled beneath the waves again and Fox stops in her tracks when his head disappears. She darts her eyes from left to right, trying to spot him. When he does not resurface, her dread deepens.
Suddenly, his head bursts from the water and he comes up choking and gasping. His deerskin vest has caught on the branch of a partially submerged tree, and he has reared his head above the waves. Fox releases a high-pitch squeal as she runs toward him. Atlas throws his arm over the body of the tree and drags himself towards the riverbank.
When he finally pulls himself back to the rocks that line the river, he collapses with half his body still in the water. Instantly, Fox is by his side yipping at him with desperation and clawing at his soaked clothes. He tries to speak but can only hack up more river water. Fox collapses against him, overcome with relief that the water didn’t take him.
Fox fights against the heaviness of her own eyes as the weight of the day bears on her frail body. They are both only damp now, due to the warmth of Atlas’s fire. The firelight flickers against his dreaming face. In his sleep, his brow has relaxed, and his face has lost some of its hardness. He looks so calm he could just become another piece of the Forest. A creaking branch or a hooting owl.
She breathes in unison with Atlas, who breathes in unison with the rustling of the leaves and the water steadily rushing at the shoreline. And finally, she is one with him, the way she is at one with the Forest. And he could have been her pup or maybe just another mouse she ate, the same way that she could be the wind or a star in the sky or food for the grubs in the ground.
And she realizes that she is sinking, sinking, sinking. Deeper now, into the earth. She wonders if this is what it feels like. That final sleep. She lets her eyes roll back in her head and her breath grows slow before she lets herself slip off the edge of nothingness. But before she passes into the dark, a thought skitters across her mind like a bug on the surface of a lake:
But who will look after the boy?
The harsh light of morning comes, assaulting Fox’s still-closed eyes. She blinks as her vision adjusts to the brightness of morning and lies on her side, letting herself wonder for a moment why she is still there—why death had not taken her.
She looks to Atlas. He lies on the cold ground, his furs wrapped tightly over his shoulders. Ah yes, she thinks to herself, there is her reason.
After she wakes Atlas and they set out for the day, Fox realizes how pale he looks. How sickly. His lips are chapped and white. His eyelids look as if they are pulled down by an invisible weight. But he does not complain.
They walk throughout the day, letting a comfortable silence hang between them. It seems like an eternity before the sun starts to settle low in the sky.
Along the river the terrain is mainly hard bedrock, which is unforgiving against their tired feet. There are few trees to shelter Fox and Atlas from the wind. Atlas fights for warmth under the cover of his thin clothing and Fox watches him with anxious eyes.
We should have stopped to build a fire. You would be feeling warmer now.
Atlas shivers. “Maybe, but I can’t risk missing my family. They’ll be almost ready to leave now.”
And what would happen then— if you missed your family, and they left without you?
Atlas thinks for a moment. “I guess I would be on my own. I think that my family would probably try to leave a trail of some kind. Maybe by marking notches in the trees along the route that they take or leaving their fire pits intact, but who knows how long it would take for me to find them.”
They walk in silence for a moment and then Atlas continues. “Besides, I don’t want to be alone.”
Fox thinks about his words. She understands that staying alive is harder without others around to offer protection.
Another moment of silence passes between them before Atlas ventures, “You must have had a family at one point?”
Fox is amused by his question. Child, the Forest is full of my family. I’ve had six litters of kits in my lifetime.
Atlas tenses as another shiver of cold passes through his body. He speaks partly to keep his mind from his growing fatigue. “Do you ever think about them?”
Fox considers for a moment. I had a litter that I lost. They drowned. It was raining too hard and my borrow flooded.
“I’m sorry,” offers Atlas.
Fox takes a moment to respond. Life is unforgiving. Sometimes death is a release.
Usually, any memory of her drowned pups makes her chest feel hollow. But now, sharing their tragedy with Atlas, she doesn’t feel as she usually does. It feels nice, she thinks, to tell him.
She looks to Atlas again, ready to ask about his family, but stops when she sees his face. His skin is ashen, his shoulders slumped.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters again, and collapses to his knees. His eyes close.
Fox paws at him as he curls himself against the base of a tree. Why have you stopped? It’s nearly sundown.
Atlas lifts his eyelids only for them to flutter shut again. “I just need to rest for a minute. Just—just give me a minute.”
His body convulses as it is attacked by chills. Fox watches in horror as his face becomes the colour of birch bark. She knows he will not stand again. He is too weak.
Fox paces back and forth in front of Atlas as he lays shivering on the hard ground. No. Not now, she thinks. They are so close.
She fixes her eyes on Atlas’s face. Stay here, she orders, though she doubts he hears her.
She takes off in a dash along the riverbank. She knows that if she follows the river, she will eventually reach Atlas’s clan. Or at least, she hopes.
She is not sure how long she runs. A few minutes? An hour? But eventually she begins to smell thick, sweet smoke. She careens herself in the direction of the scent.
After another few minutes, her body starts to feel weary. Her muscles and joints ache, but she wills herself to move ahead as quickly as she can. Eventually, she comes to a clearing in the trees.
Her eyes flash over a few tents and a large fire in the middle of the clearing. She tilts her head to the sky and sees that it is a light indigo. It’s nearly night. Several people mill around the grounds, their bodies casting long shadows across the ground as they move in the firelight. Anxiety floods Fox’s body as she realizes that she doesn’t have a plan. She is here, among Atlas’s family, but now what?
From the corner of her eye, she spies a tall, light-haired man sitting on a tree stump. He thumbs through a thick book of birch bark pages drawn with intricate markings. Fox narrows her vision on the man’s hands. She lets her body tense, readying herself.
In an instant, she darts through the clearing. She is so silent that no one notices her as she bolts towards the man. With a snarl, she snatches the large book from his hands and carries it off between her jaws, racing back towards the entrance of the clearing. It takes a few seconds for the man’s shock to wear off. He blinks, dumbfounded, but Fox is already darting back through the forest.
She hears the man call out from somewhere behind her, “That Fox has the maps! Hurry! Get it!”
Fox wills her body to move quickly. She feels a sense of triumph as she hears a group of people enter the Forest in her pursuit. She races ahead, knowing that she will lead them directly to where Atlas lies.
That night, Fox lies curled under Atlas’s blanket, resting at his side. He is warm now, in fresh, dry clothes and with a belly full of food. Her anxiety has dissipated, and she now feels a resounding sense of calm. They survived. Atlas is safe.
Atlas had been carried back to the camp on the back of his father, whose eyes had filled with tears of relief when he saw his son resting against the base of the tree. Fox had sat panting heavily at his side, the book of maps at her feet.
Once home, Atlas was wrapped in warm blankets and placed inside one of the large white tents. After he had drank some pine needle tea and eaten some venison, he had turned to Fox.
“Thank you,” he said.
Atlas told Fox that he would care for her now. That she would never again worry about food or shelter. She would live with him and be given everything she could possibly need to live a comfortable and easy life.
She had not responded, though she did consider his offer. Could she see herself living among humans for the rest of her days? Could she give up her life in the Forest for a life of comfort?
She had let him run his hand along her fur. The feeling was pleasant. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the complete sense of safety that enveloped her like a soft cocoon. Atlas fell asleep again, and she lay watching him.
Now, with the entire clan asleep and the fires doused, Fox can see the star-lit sky through the slightly open flap of the tent.
Without a sound, she rises and departs from the warmth of the tent, moving slowly so that Atlas will not wake. She finds herself at the edge of the clearing once again, where the flattened grass meets the edge of the woods.
Trees twist to meet each other, the gaps creating dark crevices that call out to Fox. A few feet from the entrance of the forest, she finds a hollowed notch at the base of the tree. The opening gapes at her like a yawning mouth, and as she moves inside, she once again feels herself overcome with fatigue.
She tucks herself into the notch and curls into a tight ball. Only her wet eyes are exposed to the world outside. She blinks as the Forest grows darker, and lets her eyes shut. Once again, a feeling of calm washes over her. It feels as though the ground beneath her has opened, and she lets herself melt into it. She is sinking, deeper and deeper into the earth.
The last thing she pictures is Atlas’s face before passing into the dark.
~10 springs later~
Atlas wades through the tall grass that lines the bank of the river. His family is close behind, their voices just audible over the sound of the water. His clan has already begun to pitch tents in the soft grassy land just past the bedrock that lines the riverbanks.
He reaches out his hand to a small girl as she clumsily moves her chubby legs over the river rocks. He lifts his daughter to his hip, and they turn to face the water. It has been a dry spring and the water is running low this year. The gentle babbling of the water sounds to Atlas like an old friend whispering a heartfelt greeting.
His daughter plays with his beard, her eyes mirroring the shining water as they catch reflected speckles of light. It has been years since he has returned to this place where he once nearly lost his life.
Atlas bounces his daughter on his hip. “Do you know where we are?” he asks her, a smile creeping to the corner of his lips.
She smiles and hides her face in his neck.
Atlas continues, looking out at the clear water. “We call it Fox River,” he tells her.
He holds his daughter close as the wind picks up. A patch of grass on the other side of the river is blown back in the breeze, and just out of sight, a young Fox pads her way across the banks of the river.
Atlas and his daughter don’t see her, but she knows they are there. She moves without a sound through the grass and then stops, one paw lifted, to listen to the voices drifting to her from the other side of the river. With the flick of her tail, she scampers through the grass and disappears into the trees, her body light and agile as a sparrow.