Every fox is a magical creature. Every one. Each fox you have ever seen and each you have never seen. You simply can’t tell because they grow their magic with age, so that innocent fox you’ve seen in the woods may have only been a youngster, or perhaps an older fox was deceiving you. Foxes are fond of deceit.
One day, a small fox turned one hundred years old and that was the day she learned to speak like men. “Mother, I’m off to see the world,” this little red fox said as she left her den. “I’ll return by dusk.” She crawled from their foxhole and trotted off through the trees with stars in her eyes, for she was about to see the world of men, which men and foxes all agreed was more entertaining than the world of foxes.
At a clearing in the woods, the little fox happened upon three of her elders. “Good morning,” she said. “Today, I can speak as men.”
The lady foxes tittered, and the youngest said, “Well done surviving for so long.”
The middle one added, “Those first hundred years of yipping are a trial.”
The oldest one leered. “So you can speak like men, but can you trick them?”
It is well-known in most places that a fox must have some craftiness about her to survive a hundred years of dodging dogs, farmers, and hunters’ snares, not to mention demons, bears, and the general population who were once permitted by the emperor to kill and mutilate a fox on sight. The little fox was quick on her feet, that was true, and a man could still be chasing a phantom while she was long gone, but these were her elders. They would not be impressed with this. “I can trick a man,” the little fox said. “But I cannot take their form to do so.”
“Don’t you know anything?” The lady foxes tittered again. “Follow. We’ll teach you.” The little fox followed her elders to the edge of the woods, where they found a little hut, home to a big man. “Off you dance,” said the eldest fox. “Make him want you.”
“But he’ll see me for a fox,” the little one said.
“Men are stupid,” said the youngest lady fox.
“They see what you want them to see,” said the middle fox.
“It is part of who you are,” said the eldest, and she nudged the little one out of the forest.
The little fox stood on her hind legs and strode toward the big man’s hut. He was busy carving a block of wood with a knife and did not notice her, even when she stood only a step away. She coughed into her paw. “Pardon me, sir, but I’ve been walking all day. Have you anything to drink for a sweet woman all alone?”
The big man looked up from his carving. Then his knife and body rose from where he sat and the block of wood fell. “Fox!” he shouted, and lunged after the little one.
She dropped to all fours and darted around the side of the hut, with the big man stomping after her. All around, she heard the yipping laughter of the lady foxes. Their encouragement had been nothing but a cruel trick, and the longer the big man chased the little fox, the harder the three sisters laughed.
On her third lap around the back of the hut, the little fox felt something grasp the nape of her neck and thought she was done for. Then this something pulled her into the forest, where neither the man nor the lady foxes could see. “Calm down,” said the something as it returned the little fox to the grass. She turned to face a great, grizzled old fox, who must have been taller than the big man if he stood on his hind legs. “You’re a young one to think you can dance with men.”
“The others deceived me,” the little fox cried. “They said men are stupid. That my will could fool this one. Why? I haven’t done anything to them.”
“Men are stupid,” the grizzled fox said. “But foxes like to show off. If you could not survive, they believed you weren’t so clever after all and weren’t worth keeping around.” The little fox sniffled. “Don’t cry over their tricks. Men will play worse ones in your future. I will show you how to avoid such trouble.”
The lady foxes waited an hour, tails twitching, eyes leering, mouths grinning, eager to see if the fox would appear again as whole or hide. She appeared on her hind legs, her forepaws held clumsily by the big man. They danced circles in the yard and the big man roared with laughter. The lady foxes watched this for an hour, tails flat, eyes wide, mouths agape, and then the little fox danced their way after sending the big man to fetch her a cup of water.
“How did you tame him?” asked the eldest lady fox.
“Exactly as you taught me,” the little fox sang. “I willed him to be mine, to see me as a woman of his kind, and so now that is what he sees. We’re in love! Love, love, and it’s everything I dreamed of!” When the big man returned, the little fox danced his way and drank from the cup he gave her.
“But she cannot transform,” said the youngest lady fox.
“There’s not power enough for such deceit in her bones,” said the middle.
The eldest only seethed, for more than anything, foxes wish to join the world of men.
The lady foxes went on watching hour after hour, watched dancing and eating and lying around giddily, as those under the spell of true love will do. They watched for so long that light became dark, dawn became dusk, and the little fox said goodbye to her big man.
“My mother expects me home,” said the little one. “I’ll return to him in the morning once I’ve rested. Thank you again, ladies.”
“Of course,” said the eldest, and she smiled until the little one disappeared. Then she turned to her sisters. “She is too young to deserve that blessing. I say this man will be ours by morning.”
“But how?” asked the youngest.
“We can no more change form than that little pup,” said the middle.
“You heard her use our words,” the eldest said. “Will it upon him and it’s what he’ll see.”
Alone now, the big man called for the little fox to return to him, but she didn’t appear. Instead, the three lady foxes emerged from the forest, each on her hind legs, tails waving, eyes smiling, mouths speaking. “Don’t worry yourself to old age over that child,” said the eldest, and all her will was bent on the man’s seeing her as a human woman. “We will dance with you.”
The big man stomped closer to the sisters and glared down at them. “F—” The lady foxes cringed, fearing he had seen through their deceit. “Fortune is kind,” he said then, and he grabbed the eldest fox by her forepaws, and they danced and danced. Quickly he took another partner, the middle fox, and they danced and danced as well. Then he moved to the youngest lady fox, and by the time their dancing and dancing was done, man and fox alike were worn out.
“We seem to get along well,” the eldest said. “What would you say to marrying one of us fine ladies?”
The big man laughed. “I’d say that depends on your stamina. I swore when my first wife died long ago that I would never marry another woman unless she could outdrink me. Are you ladies up for a challenge?”
The eldest of the lady foxes smirked, for the man was as good as hers. A mortal man couldn’t hope to best any magic creature’s constitution for alcohol. “Absolutely.”
They were led inside the man’s small hut and he set the table—four places, four bottles of firebrand, a powerful wine said to be laced with the tears of a dragon. All four sat down on different sides of the table and the big man took the first swig.
The youngest fox drank next and fought hard not to spit out the hot solution.
The big man laughed. “I’ve been drinking this for many years,” he said. “It takes some getting used to.”
The middle fox followed, in slightly better standing. The eldest drank last and swallowed without any trouble. On they went for a third of the night, drinking in turns, until each had emptied a bottle.
“We seem to have done well for ourselves,” said the eldest lady fox.
“Don’t think making it through one bottle will mean you’ve gotten the best of me,” the big man said. “There’s more where that came from.”
“There’s more?” squeaked the middle fox.
“Much more. Gallons. By the cask, filling my cellar.”
The youngest lady fox made the kind of sound you might expect from a small, lonely mouse howling miserably before it is devoured by an owl. Then she sank under the table, her paws clasped over her head.
“There goes one,” the big man said. He left the table and returned in an instant with three more bottles. “Let’s keep at it, yes?”
So the two remaining foxes and the big man went on drinking, one swig at a time, taking turns, until another third of the night had passed and each had drained another bottle. “There’s more, isn’t there?” the middle fox asked, laying her head upon the table.
“More than you can count,” the big man said. “More than any man can fathom.”
The middle fox groaned and sank under the table beside her sister.
“There you have it,” said the eldest lady fox. “I’ve outlasted the others. When will we be married?”
“When you’ve outlasted me,” said the big man. He left and returned with two more bottles of firebrand. “Don’t think that filling yourself with two bottles’ worth means you can drink me under the table.”
So the last lady fox and the big man went on drinking for the last third of the night and each emptied another bottle. Dawn’s light crept through the windows and the eldest fox could scarcely sit in her seat, yet the man seemed undaunted, as if he hadn’t tasted a drop. The lady fox swatted her paw across the table in an unladylike fashion, grasping for the man’s bottles—they were empty, save for a couple drops of liquid. She thought for a moment that maybe he had been drinking milk or water, but when she tossed the droplets onto her tongue, she tasted the sizzle of dragon tears, and those were the last drops she could stand. Down she went, under the table where her sisters cringed.
“Seems I won’t be wedding anyone anytime soon,” the big man said.
Just then, there was a knock at the door, and the little fox appeared on her hind legs. “I’ve returned to you, my love, and with important news,” she said. “My mother has consented to our marriage—if you’ll have me.”
The eldest lady fox cackled, and then hugged her aching head. “Best of luck, little pup. He’ll only marry a woman who can outdrink him and I promise that won’t be you!”
The little fox approached the table and tapped its surface with one paw. The big man fetched two more bottles of firebrand and set them down. Before the little fox could take a swig, the man took his, and then fell over backward onto the floor.
“My girl, you’ve bested me,” he said, groaning. “Give me a day and a night to recover from all this drinking, and on that day we’ll be wed before all my friends from the village. Return here tomorrow and I’ll make you my wife.”
The little fox skipped out of the hut with hopes and dreams in her head. The lady foxes watched, tails bristling, eyes glaring, mouths baring teeth.
“That isn’t fair,” the youngest one hissed.
“We weakened him for her,” said the middle.
“I weakened him,” said the eldest. “And I’ll have him, I promise.”
Carefully, so as to move their heads as little as possible, the three lady foxes followed the little one out of the hut and called to her.
“We wish you warm congratulations,” said the eldest fox. “And well done in finding each of the sacred stones and berries you’ll need for the ceremony.”
“Sacred stones and berries?” the little one asked.
“Your mother didn’t tell you? For a fox to wed a human, she must carry with her the sacred stones, found miles to the north behind a waterfall on a high cliff. The flat stones are shaped like the heads of foxes. Then there are the berries, found miles to the south at the bottom of a bramble patch in a thicket in a forest where demons prowl the trees. The berries are orange and white like the fur of foxes and must be carried in your belly. If you do not have these, then when the priest pronounces you man and wife, your true form will be revealed, no matter what your will imposes. And when that crowd sees a fox at their wedding, they will call you by what you really are, and try to kill you quick as they can.”
The little fox shuddered. “But how will I get both the berries and the stones? They’re both far away, in separate directions, and I’m not so quick on my feet yet.”
“My sisters will help.” The eldest lady fox turned to her sisters. “One of you will go north and the other will go south, and you’ll return with what this little one needs.”
“Thank you,” the little fox said. “I’m forever in your debt. When I’m wed to this man, I will see to it that friends of his seek out each of you to be their wives.” Then the little fox hurried home, for she had to prepare herself for her wedding.
The youngest fox whimpered. “I don’t want to climb up high or dive through a waterfall, especially not with my head drowning in spirits.”
“Waterfall?” the middle asked. “I have a waterfall to worry about. You can sneak past the demons and under the bramble patch. That’s your concern.”
“It’s neither of your concerns,” the eldest said. “There is no waterfall, no bramble patch, no sacred stone, and no fox-colored berry. Your only task is to sit still and silent until my headache goes away.”
The three lady foxes lay in the woods through the day and the night, only looking up when the big man would leave or return. By the next morning, the clearing where his hut stood began to fill with men and women from the village, standing to one side or another, and the big man stood at the end in his finest attire. A priest of the sun stood beside him. They were waiting for the bride.
The little fox crept through the forest and stopped beside the lady foxes. “I’m ready for my wedding,” she said. “I’ll will him into seeing the beautiful gown I’ve imagined. All I need are the sacred stones and berries.”
Tails dropped, eyes low, mouths frowning, the three lady foxes turned away from the little one. “I apologize, little pup,” the eldest said. “The waterfall had smoothed the stones into round pieces and the demons ate all the berries. I don’t know where to find more of either. It seems you will not be getting married today.”
The little fox hung her head. “Oh.”
The youngest fox and middle fox approached each side of her and led her deeper into the forest with condolences on their lips.
When they had walked out of earshot, the eldest lady fox stood on her hind legs and stepped from the clearing. She willed the people to see her as something younger, something more like what the little fox would have pictured herself to be in human form, and most especially she willed this upon the big man, hoping it was right. When the big man’s eyes lit up, the fox knew she had won. She smiled and waved at the people around her, the simple villagers who thought some strange girl had become enamored with their friend.
Only when she reached the sun priest and saw his face aghast did she notice that everyone else watched her with a similar expression, surprised mixed with horror and laced with rage. The big man went on smiling, but no one else did.
“Fox,” said one man. “Fox,” said a woman. “Fox,” said one child, then two, then three.
“Fox!” roared the priest. “Kill it!”
The eldest lady fox froze and tried to impose her will on the crowd. She gave up thinking of herself as the little fox might have and pressed for a human form, any human form, but the crowd tightened around her. Tail quivering, eyes tearful, mouth trembling, the eldest lady fox darted toward the big man and then off into the forest. The mob chased after her, hissing and shouting and clawing after her, throwing rocks and sticks and curses, their footsteps shaking the trees. They chased the lady fox through day and night and another day, far north and far south, and then off into lands beyond, and she was never seen in the forest again.
The little fox appeared in the emptied clearing, where only the big man stood. She smiled at him and he smiled at her, and then he got down on hands and knees. In the blink of an eye, his clothes melted into fur and his snout, tail, and paws returned, and the great, grizzled old fox stood over the little one. She nodded to him, he nodded to her, and then he sent her home to her mother, for ahead she had another day of seeing the world.