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.


Dragon’s Web

November 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Written in November 2009.

My blood flows with the essence of both Spider and Dragon.

There is Dragon from my mother—strange, is it not, that someone so soft-spoken would have heat and flame predominant within her?—for she is Gekido Clan, and our emblem is the black dragon for a reason.

There is Spider from my father—ah, and that is more rational, with his intricate webs of plot and deceit, Toshori Clan upbringing, and cold detachment.

All of my kind are both of Dragon and of Spider, of course; but time and breeding and upbringing have separated the two in some places, and perhaps we even descend from two lines of dark elf. Why must one legend or another be true? Perhaps both creation myths are true simultaneously.

Akeno—well, he is dragon at his core, deep passion and hot intensity. He conceals it behind a spider-mask: controlled expression, courtly manners, measured words. But one only has to look at his eyes to know there’s fire in his spirit, strong emotions behind his every action, a heated opinion that he does not speak.

I am a spider concealed in a dragon’s husk. Cold detachment. Plotting, analyzing, waiting. Yet outward warmth establishes rapport. Languor and indulgence lower the defenses of others, puts them off their guard. I seem friendly enough, approachable enough, do I not? I even know the trick, most times, of bringing my smile into my eyes. But it is all cool calculation and a spinning web within.

This is not, of course, to say that I do not feel, that I am not passionate-—we are a passionate people, and that necessitates outward control and rigid courtesy to keep it all in check. But my passion is cold where Akeno’s is hot; I detach where he engages. I observe my emotional reactions from a distance and let them burn out without any fuel to keep them burning; Akeno uses his emotions as fuel.

He will burn out, doing that. Though perhaps I will freeze. Will it end in ice or will it end in fire?

Meeting the Dragon

November 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

The dragon’s lair yawned wide in the eastern face of the sheer mountainside, a stone-toothed mouth of the primal earth. A generous ledge jutted from the opening like a wide tongue, or maybe a long underbite — Yarim could not quite decide. Not that he’d ever waxed poetic on landscape before — but something about this deep cavern cast in thick shadows from the setting sun… well, it was striking.

Morning would bathe the ledge in golden light, glitter off the pyrite flecks in the rock, warm it to the heat favored by snakes and dragons. The sun would draw the dragon forth in a sleepy lumbering spill of scales and wingsails to soak in the light, blinking slowly at the layers of cream-bright walls protecting the city below.

But for now, in the growing shadows of evening, the great beast curled quiescent in his lair.

Thought of the many-walled city drew Yarim’s gaze back the way he’d come, back down the goat path that he’d not deign to call a road. His city gleamed, firelight and the more steady glow of magelight burning from windows, walltops, tower rooms. The city lay half-veiled in shadows from the northwestern mountains, half awash in red light where the sun’s dying rays streaked across the lower plains. To his other-sight, though, the entire city shone: layers of bright shields, spheres, doming over each circle of wall, and he knew–could feel, like a sloping in his skin, that they circled underneath the ground as well. Each tower burned in his subtle senses like miniature suns, runes and strong cords of combined will just discernible if he focused closely enough. Each temple was a spiderweb of many but lesser wills, tied to the direction of the priests, webs stretching over each district, strands connected to the hearts and minds of the faithful, anchored to order by their little beliefs.

Yarim drew in a deep breath of moisture-thick air and turned back to the dragon’s darkened cave. The path–if it could even be called that–ended at a small pool fed by a trickling fall of water. It was sheer cliffs from there to the ledge and cavern. No one would reach the dragon without wings or power. Wings he did not have, not truly–and excessive power was frowned upon, for it undermined the fabric of the realm, let the primal chaos eat it into formlessness.

But Yarim was of Gibnateb Tower, the Eight-Fold Stone. The towers defined the patterns of the city. His tower shone in the back of his awareness, a constant presence. He knew its strength, knew it to be the equal of the other four towers, the dominant force in the districts it shared with two temples. Khafad, the Influence of Gibnateb, meant to keep it that way — and Yarim did what the Influence willed. Yarim was to strengthen their position by a thousand subtle means. This dragon was one of those.

If it took a show of power and will to negotiate with the dragon–and indeed, power was often the only thing the great wyrms respected — then Yarim would use power.

He breathed deep, turning his focus inward to that tightly controlled core of self. So rarely did he release his own power — so rarely did he let his energy stretch beyond the strict confines he set upon it — so rarely did he let go that it took no small effort to do so. Yarim’s strengths tended towards subtlety and fine manipulation, not roaring force, not massive displays.

Yet this situation required it, and so . . . he breathed.

The first tendrils of aura, like fire reflecting off of burnished gold, curled at the edges of his body, flushing his olive skin darker still. A breeze rose up, blessedly cooling, chasing the humidity down the mountain. He breathed, and his aura brightened about him. It flickered to stronger life with each exhalation, like a kindled flame coaxed larger with bellows and breath. Something clicked between his conscious will and his inner center, then, and he gathered his focus tight — bowed his head, mahogany curls loosening from their ribbon ties — arms curving towards his back, like wings half-folded — and the breath whooshed from him in a single forceful exhalation.

His power flared, caught the last rays of daylight in its grasp and became a substitute sun for the twilight. Golden light-that-wasn’t-light surrounded him, stretching along his limbs, vague heron-necked bird-shape overlaying his human body. His fingers were both digits and pinions, his mouth both teeth and shining beak. He blazed the colors of sunlight and hearth fire, golden noon and dark red embers, his power visible even to physical eyes.

It took wings or power to reach the dragon’s lair. Yarim possessed both. He bent low, leapt into the rising night wind, and rose on wings of power in a slow burning spiral to the shrouded ledge above.

He alighted on the ledge with a backwash of light and wind, heavy with the aroma of cinnamon and myrrh. The power drew into his skin just a touch, and his feet flexed for balance as he refocused himself, breathed his aura out again. The practical use of transportation was unneeded now, but there were yet other uses…

A sharp exhalation flared brightness across the rocks, shone into the cavern, solar bright, fire warm. It brought a stirring and a rumbling from the depths of shadow. Yarim inhaled the musty scent of scales and shed skins that wafted out from the cave. The light of his power reflected hot and cold at once off of twin globes, red-gold, slitted — enormous eyes in the dark.

“Purity and truth to you and yours,” Yarim said, projecting from his gut so that his voice carried strong and firm. “I bring word from Kharib abd Gibnateb, Influence of the Eight-Fold Stone. He greets his cousin-on-the-mountain, keeper of the eastern cliffs.”

The great red-amber eyes blinked once, slow clouding from side to side of sliding membrane. There was no reply from within the cave.

Was it a waiting game? The Influence had given him only basic instruction in dealing with dragons. Yarim had to run on instinct and little information… and as knowledge truly was the greatest power, he was handicapped. So he did what instinct suggested. He followed the dragon’s example. He met the burning-ember eyes with his own mud-green gaze, and he held that fixed regard.

A low throaty rumble sounded within the cave, like the shifting of rock before an earthquake. He felt the sound touch the edge of his power, almost physical, almost solid. The great eyes seemed to grow larger. A trick of perception? Mind games? Yarim set his spirit’s anchor to earth and stars just in case, renewed his grasp on that central core within. His power flared hotter in response, pushing back at the otherworldly touch of grinding stone.

Something flickered in the seemingly disembodied eyes, hard to read in such an alien gaze — surprise? Startlement? Displeasure? The narrow pupils constricted. Now the dragon’s questing energy flicked around Yarim’s aura like a scenting snake-tongue, like desert wind. Tasting, testing.

Yarim stood his ground, met the dragon’s stare, and waited.

It felt like half an age, or an eternal moment. In time, with a sigh that smelled of volcanic ash and dank earth, the dragon stepped forward. Its claws clicked on the stone with a sound reminiscent of a blacksmith’s hammer on steel. Something rasped in the background between clicks — scales on rock? Yarim lost sight of the eyes, and when the dragon stepped into the strange glow cast by his aura, he realized why: the great wyrm had raised its head too high for a man of Yarim’s height — indeed, for any man — to see.

He’d seen dragons before, older than this one, and larger — but not this close. Proximity made a vast difference in the impression of sheer size. The scales were like dark emeralds, or the foliage of the part of forests that rarely saw sunlight: a green so deep it was almost black, or a black with green iridescence, flashing subtly between green fire and opalescent blackness in the flickering light of Yarim’s power. The scales on the massive body were as big as Yarim’s hand, and bigger; they grew smaller towards the upper neck and down the legs that ended in wickedly curved claws, obsidian black, obsidian shiny.

The dragon seemed to wear a leather cloak: wine-red, blood-red, the bass hue of garnet. Then it shifted its weight, the cloak lifted to reveal emerald ribbing, and Yarim realized that it was wings. Dark spines decorated the spine, barely visible between the rustling wings; spiked along the ridge of neck and tail, fanned out from the broad head like a hard, sharp version of the layered collars so fashionable in the city’s Wakhib district.

Yarim’s power flickered lower in his half-awed regard of the dragon. I am losing my focus, he thought. Unforgivable. He collected himself. Kharib had mentioned that size mattered with dragons. Yarim could not change his physical size, but he was more than his body. His aura was his banner, the badge of his role as diplomat. In most places, with most people, it granted him diplomatic immunity . . . but would a dragon, especially one unwise to the ways of humans, understand such a thing? Would it respect that?

It would respect power and size, Kharib had assured him. Well, Yarim’s power was not the most impressive, and he was small for his race — but he had a few useful abilities. He drew into himself, into that quiet central place within, inhaled till he contained only air and flame. The whoosh of breath leaving his body outlined his skin with incandescence that exploded outward in a wash of heat and light. It pushed the edges of his aura outward, upward, till he was surrounded by a blazing bird-light, till it rivaled the dragon’s height, till he could gaze out of eyes of fire’s-heart blue at the level of the dragon’s ember-red ones. He could see the creature’s face now, a head that could not quite be called beautiful — there was strength to it, all horned and fanged and fierce, but not refinement, not the near-equine shapeliness he’d seen in some dragons. But it was undeniably striking.

“I am Yarim abd Gibnateb, Guided Voice of the Eight-Fold Tower.” His voice crackled like a bonfire, harsh with the force of his power. “I greet you in the name of the Influence of Gibnateb Tower.”

The dragon considered him for a few thudding heartbeats. It looked into the eyes of Yarim’s banner, ignoring the human shell below. Perhaps the bright display won a response — or perhaps he’d only managed to catch the dragon’s attention. Primal earth, soil mixing with boulders just above magma rivers, rumbled in Yarim’s mind, echoed as hissing toothful words from the dragon’s hinged jaws.

“Some call me Verdant Shadow of the Mountain.” The name — or title, more likely — was imagery and sensation in Yarim’s mind. Cavern shadows, moss on the southern mountainside, ancient trees and older rock.

He felt a deep vibration in his chest and skull. After a moment, he realized it was sound, a bass rumble too low for his ears. It was a draconic chuckle. “What my people call me — you cannot make the sound,” said the dragon.

Yarim’s physical body smiled; his aura’s fiery feathers fluffed. “You might be surprised.”

“No.” The red-gold eyes slitted, pupils barely visible, harder and colder all of a sudden. “You cannot have my Name.”

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