The Fox and the Apple Tree
August 24, 2016 § Leave a comment
Written because Jess asked me for a story about a fox and an apple tree that won’t bloom.
Once there was an apple tree on a grassy hill, and as far as the eye could see were waves and waves of long golden grass like a great windblown sea, dotted occasionally with graygreen sagebrush. And this was great for hunting rabbits or prairie dogs or mice or pheasant, so it was paradise to the fox with the greygold coat who arrived on black stockinged paws to the wide sky-crowned plains.
The fox crept through the grass, ate well on too slow mice and an occasional vole and sometimes a rabbit or hare. And as the season wore on and the plains turned to all shades of ochre, the fox knew it needed a home to hide and stay in before the winter snows arrived. So the fox found a hill with the only tree visible as far as the eye can see, a gnarled apple tree with low crooked branches as is often the way of apple trees.
The fox thought, “ah! This is perfect! Apples will draw all kinds of tasty creatures, and sometimes I like a bite of fruit too. The tree will shelter me from the storms and the roots will support my den and protect it from caving in.”
So the fox began digging and digging and digging with its sharp clever paws and pointed black tipped snout rooting around in the earth.
But the tree was already asleep although its leaves had only just begun to flame with autumn colors. So the crooked apple tree simply dreamt a quiet dream of scratching fox paws and a wet cool nose against its roots, of soft fur and a hollow place where solid earth used to be, of cradling rather than being cradled as it was used to. The tree’s fading crisping leaves whispered with its sigh, though no one would be able to say if it was the kind of sigh that comes with furrowed brows and discomfort or concern, or if it was the kind of sigh that comes with a settling into comfort and satisfaction.
Winter came with its cold winds and blowing snow. The fox huddled in its cozy new den lined with fur and sage and prairie grass, cradled by loam and apple roots. The fox hunted across the fresh snow blanket, listening with pricked ears and tilted head for the quiet scratching sounds of mice tunneling beneath the white, pouncing with its tail streaming behind like the streaks of golden sun at the gray stormy dusk.
Spring dawned slowly, the sun thawing the ground into slick mud and soft loam. The prairie awakened into pale green grasses tipped with white so that the wind rippling the plains looked even more like a foaming sea. The crooked apple tree stretched to the crisp blur of the sky and yawned its creaking-branch yawn and sprouted tight-curled green shoots of leaves and new twigs growing slow.
And the fox leapt about with pent up energy. Soon there would be treasures of pheasant eggs and barely-furred rabbit kits if only its clever nose could sniff them out. The fox had grown lean of body but lush of coat in the winter cold and now it was time to eat eat eat until it regained muscle and fat and glossiness. Spring! Spring! Spring!
“Oh,” groaned the tree in sluggish waking startlement. “Oh who are you who has dug a hollow beneath my rootbones where solid earth once supported me? Who are you who yips and scratches and snores against my hidden skin?”
The fox paused, because it had never been talked to by a tree before. The trees of the wood it came from were busy talking leafy gossip to one another, or the aspens who lived as one connected root system and sang deep harmonies among their roots and melodies in their tinkling gold-coin leaves.
“I am Fox,” it said, “sharp of ear and quick of paw, pouncer and leaper in the snow and grass.”
“Leaping Fox,” creaked the apple tree, “why do you disturb my roots?”
“I needed a home and you are the only tree as far as my sharp eyes can see. Trees are excellent for burrow dens. And the birds and rabbits and mice will come eat your apples, and maybe I will too, and it will be excellent easy hunting.”
The tree shuddered against the sudden stillness of the air. “Pouncing Fox,” it said, “do you see any sprouts from appleseed children, or nest-remains in my branches? I do not flower and therefore I do not fruit. I am barren and if you stay here you will be barren too. Nothing feeds or shelters with me. None disturb my dark places, except apparently sharp-nosed foxes.”
The fox thought about this. “Still,” it said, “the grasses are rich in meat and only the coyotes and sky-hunters compete with me for it. You are the only tree around and you are excellent shelter. I suppose the lack of apples isn’t too terrible.”
“No, Quick of Paw,” said the tree. “I do not want hollows in my roots or chatter on my hill. Go somewhere else.”
“But I have made my home here already, and you are alone. I am good company, I sing well and have soft fur and bright amber eyes.”
“A tree is no company for a fox,” groaned the tree, “and there are no other foxes here. You will become lonely and leave, for I am a crooked barren apple tree who bears no apples.”
The fox was confused and also annoyed at this point. That den took a lot of work to dig and this place was an excellent spot. Also the tree was talking nonsense. “You are still a perfectly good tree, smelling of apples in your wood, providing storm shelter with your trunk and gnarled limbs, and your roots are very strong and deep. Besides, if I get lonely I can find another fox and bring them here and then the hill will be merry with singing and there will be playful kits and we will dance beneath the stars and your branches.”
The tree shook and protested a third time. “A fox is no company for a tree, and there are no other trees here. You cannot break my loneliness with your dancing and red yowling, only disturb my rest and remind me that I am alone. Then my heartwood will break and my roots will rot and you will be disappointed or harmed or devoid of shelter.”
The fox circled around the tree and circled around its own tail. It looked up at the crescent moon and down at the greening grass. It listened to the creaking branches and sniffed at the messages the wind brought. It thought very hard, which foxes are not good at doing because they are impulsive creatures of feeling and action and in-the-moment cleverness, not of planning and contemplating. That sort of thing is more for wolves and grasscats, you see, who are rather less successful than foxes overall.
“You want me to leave,” the fox said slowly, ears laying back. “You want to be left alone. You do not like fox songs and moon dances and soft fur in your roots. You would rather the distant chime of stars and whisper of grass and nothing warmer or closer, and certainly nothing nestled into your roots.”
The tree was silent for a long long time, until the fox began to think it had imagined the tree ever talking at all; after all, trees normally only talk to other trees, and sometimes to birds and worms and bees. And the occasional ivy or fungus, to scold it.
“I… might like fox songs and moon dances, eventually. I might like soft fur in my roots. I would not like an empty hollow that you dug so inconsiderately; I went to sleep with solid earth beneath me and awoke with a hole filled with a fox. If you leave or die, it will be an empty hole and I can’t move to fill it in. There is little else that lives on the hill to replace a soft furred fox, and an empty hole in my roots is a terrible gaping weakness.”
“Ah,” said the fox, beginning to understand. “I see. Foxes live ever so less long than trees who live for many lifetimes, and sometimes we are impulsive and follow the moonsong to new places and different homes. And you are a tree who cannot follow wind or moon.”
“And I do not flower nor do I bear fruit. I am visited by neither bee nor butterfly to bring me whispers from other trees beyond the sight of the hill. Nothing would come to replace a fox who reminds me how alone I am by tricking me into conversation and companionship.”
The fox thought a while longer (and remember that this is very hard for foxes). It really liked its den on the hill in the rich greengold plains with a single tree for shelter and shade. It rather liked the lonely gnarled apple tree, even if it didn’t bear fruit or flower, and really that was a blessing for a fox den as fewer prey nests meant fewer bigger predators and less to eat the kits.
“I will travel to find a fox friend who will dance the leaping fox dance with me and sing the song of stars and amber moon. I will return and we will make sure the hollow beneath your roots will always be full of warm soft fur. Sometimes there will be no kits and we will both be hunting and the hollow will be empty for a time but then we will return and fill it again. And you will shelter us with strong crooked branches and deep holding roots.”
So the tree agreed, and the fox went away under a path of silver moonlight and windswept grasses until it was swallowed up by the prairie sea and the rolling distance. And as the tree waited, it was keenly aware of the hollow in its roots where once cold solid earth had been. And it missed the warm fullness of soft graygold fur and a sharp black nose. It felt lonelier than it ever had before because now it knew the emptiness of dark earth and a claw-carved hollow that once held a fox. And the tree became sad and scared and angry all at once. It never asked for an amber eyed Leaper to dig out a place in its deep solid roots. It is a barren apple tree who not even the bees visit and it had lived just fine like that for many years. What right had the fox?
But it missed the fox, and its branches creaked angrily about that too even as its leaves rustled with sadness. It never got to see the moondance or hear the yipping fox song. And the cold constancy of star chimes and grass whistle was not the same comfort anymore.
What if the fox never returned and never meant to return? What if the fox didn’t find a foxfriend to bring home, or the other fox convinced Sharp Ears to stay with them? What if another apple tree flowered and bore bright sweet red fruit and made a more appealing den?
The tree was alone and the loneliness was far more unbearable than before.
Or what if the fox died a short sharp fox death out in the wide world beyond the sight of the hill? There are grasscats and hunting hounds and wolves out there after all, and foxes are impulsive things.
What if the fox forgot the tree?
What if, what if.
The summer heat unfurled the tree’s leaves and singed their edges, because there was no company of trees to share shelter. The summer sun turned the greenwhite grass to amber like the fox’s bright eyes, and still no fox arrived.
A family of rabbits moved into the hollow, and their fearful pitterpat hearts and stamping feet were a different company than the fox. But at least the hollow had warmth and fur, even if the rabbits gnawed with their sharp hard teeth on the tree’s deep roots, and licked the sap that bled, and let the insects burrow into the wound.
Maybe there are many hills with a single barren tree atop them, aching with the hollow in its roots.
On one hill, the rabbit warren grows and grows and they dig a hundred hollows beneath the roots and chew the taproot for its bark and sap and the tree has no more nutrients to reach and cannot support such hollows though it tries, for at least the furry bodies are warm and fill the hollows they dig… but there is not enough solid earth and it collapses as its heartwood rots.
Or a small child comes with snares, or a coyote pack with hunting jaws.
On one hill the rabbits are killed and eaten, or they move on when they realize the tree will not give them apples to munch on, and the hollow remains but bigger and with some wounded roots, and the tree heals, and someday the hollow collapses and the tree is rooted enough to withstand it, and the fox never returns.
One hill’s fox is eaten, and one hill’s fox is tempted away. One hill’s fox is trapped, and another loses its way.
But on this hill, the hill of our story, our gnarled apple tree waits and bears the pain of rabbit warmth until one day, as summer gold cools into fall ochres, there is a flash of red fur and a flash of grey gold amidst the sagebrush and plains grass.
There is a Pouncing and a Leaping. There are rabbit screams and blood on the hill. There is contented munching and black stockinged paws scratching to reassert the den to its proper foxy hollow.
And there are generations of foxes forevermore to fill the hollow with warm fur and pointed black noses. And the tree is never alone for very long again.