I wear a coat of dust that long ago obscured the color of my body and whatever brightness my eyes retain. It used to be different.
In the days of magic, I patrolled seven leagues of woodland under the shadow of immense oaks that groaned in the night like old men. I ate berries, and roots, and mushrooms; avoiding the mice and voles that squeaked to each other in their timid languages, though my nose told me that rodents were good to eat. Some lingering delicacy flinched at the thought of chewing wiggling flesh. I think I was a prince before the spell drove me into the forest. Or at any rate, a man. There were many of us in the shadowy forest: strange beings waiting for our stories, or for entrance into other people’s stories.
There was I, of course, a keen-eared creature in my furry coat of reddish gold with a chest of white, and my black nose often lifted to smell the north wind. There were solitary cottages made from stones where old woman gathered sticks to light their fires. Once I saw a snow white raven who sat beside a frozen pool, weeping tears of blood that struck the ground with hissing heat and melted through the snow.
For many years I waited. I didn’t know for whom, but when the moment came, clarity would burst into my life. At the end of the story, I would regain manhood and be free.
But while I waited, the world changed and the forest shrunk.
I don’t know why people began to scoff at magic. It would not have mattered, except that they seemed to fancy that because they had laughed at it, they understood it, and could dismiss it. Who would reject the wonder of a world filled with the unearthly? Perhaps magic is too immense, too wild, too unpredictable and yet predictable. No human fully understands it, or can understand it, but only recognize it. It carries, too, a burden and a demand on our wills. It is a realm of honor that demands suffering and patience. Much patience.
In the end, as I cowered in my den beneath the out-flung roots of the very last magic oak tree, a voice called to me. She was one of the old women who used to gather sticks throughout the forest. Her ankles were swollen and she smelled of smoke and bacon grease. Peering out at her, I remarked, “I thought that all of you were gone.”
“All but me. I’ve waited many years for a traveling beggar lad to offer to carry my bundle of firewood. Then I would have told him how to slay his monster.”
“Are all the monsters in the world gone?” I crawled out to join her.
“I doubt it.” She sniffed, wiping her nose on a corner of her ragged yellow shawl. “But my advice has lost its value. Nowadays, monsters don’t take their strength off every seventh night and hide it in the nest of an eagle.” She sat down beside me, groaning as her knees bent, and scratched the fur behind my ears. For a little while we were silent. The rotting tree above us stank of damp and filled the air with heaviness.
She sighed. “Your spell, too, is nearly gone.”
“What?” My head shot up. “Do you mean that I will be a man again?”
“Of course not. That cannot come to be without an adventure, a sacrifice, and an execution. I mean that you will become a fox.”
Snapping at a fly, I pointed out, “I already am a fox.”
“Only in body. That cannot last.”
I stared at her. Nothing existed for a moment except for her eyes. They were the soft color of brown leaves, and filled with so much certainty that they were pitiless.
My belly pulsed as if starving at the height of winter, and my paws shook. The sound that came out of my mouth was the bark of a fox. I swallowed and choked down the sound before I managed to say, “I do not call that justice. I have waited, possibly since the world began. Now you tell me that there was no reason?”
Sitting cross-legged beside me, her ragged skirts fanned out in the dirt, she pulled the yellow shawl tighter around her shoulders. “I don’t know.” She reached out to pet my head again, and I snapped at her fingers. She retreated with a shrug. “Maybe what you have done here has already been worthwhile. Have you helped anyone? A traveler, a fellow creature?”
“No,” I muttered. “They were not meant for my story.”
“That might have been your mistake.” She rose, a slow process full of groans and a few curses. Dead leaves fell from her clothes. “I came to tell you that you have a final choice. Which would you rather keep, mind or body?”
“Mind,” I said, without thinking.
She smiled, her woodland eyes suddenly gentle, and placed her palm on my head.
That was a long time ago. What am I made of, now? I am not sure. I’m an antique. A good luck charm in the shape of a carven fox with painted black eyes. I cannot blink or move my paws. My life is spent on three feet of shelving above a faux stone hearth inside a building called the gift shop. The perfumed women behind the counter sell prints of spreading oak roots, and knights with foolish faces. There are also wooden furniture and hand blown glass vases.
Usually I sleep inside my shell. Years at a time. The mind I chose to keep is not much good, encrusted as it is with dust and despair.
One day I am roused by a grating melody. The notes beat time in my brain and I became aware of the two humans behind the counter. One of them is the irritating young woman, the one who is always whistling under her breath. Her freckled neck bends over a large book, and as she studies it, fingers tapped the pages in time to her jerky tune.
“Do you really think there’s any point in that?” the other girl tosses her head, creating disorder among the pink disks that dangle from her ears to her bare shoulders. “You’re going to have to drop-out anyway.”
The irritating girl doesn’t look up. She says, “It beats playing Angry Birds,” and underlines something with a pencil. There is something special about her, about the pressure of her pencil on the page, that speaks of strength.
This time I study her more carefully than before. She stands with feet rather far apart, rocking back and forth on her heels, and her stomach bulges outward underneath her blouse. A child is coming.
There is a spark about her. This girl, I thought, might laugh at magic, but she would also try to understand it.
The effort of watching changes the feeling in my brain. It keeps me awake all night. The next day I watch also. On the third day, a strange feeling of warmth and cold at once, like a north wind in my face and a fire in my wooden belly, strikes me so forcefully I gasp. The intake of air fills my dusty lungs with an audible hiss and I realize that I am breathing.
The girl, who is talking to a customer, whirls around. She stares at me, and I stare back. When I blink my painted eyes, she drops the hand blown glass vase she had been praising. Shards of blue-green glass fly everywhere behind the counter. “My god,” she exclaims, then turns to apologize to the lady who has been complaining about the exorbitant cost of the souvenir.
My paws tremble, but I try to hold myself still. I must wait until the customer leaves.
Not all the magic in the world is gone.