The house was tall and white, a handsome porch stretching the length of the front in support of a balcony above. It was an old house, but it had aged well, supported by the inhabitants and the healthy soil beneath. That same soil supported a multitude of fruit trees, spread out before the house like so much jam. There were pears and apples and cherries, and even a few apricots and plums.
There was a Fox that lived in this orchard. He hadn’t been invited, but when does that ever stop a fox. He was lead to the house by the sound of chickens. And chickens there were, but they were well protected, better than most. The Fox liked a challenge and had come back several days in a row in an attempt to catch one off guard. Unfortunately for him, the woman who lived in the house was not easily distracted, and the Tomten who usually hid himself in the shed had taken to sleeping inside the coop, in order to protect his charges.
The Fox was frustrated. Never once had he thought about making his way towards the front of the house, until one day he had heard dogs barking and caught the scent of a new human. Curious, he snuck around the side of the house and yipped in shock. There were two enormous wolfhounds on the front walk. The Fox almost bolted, but for the woman who stood on the steps before them. Her long dark hair trailed down her back, and she went barefoot. More interesting than either of these things, she held a dead bird in one hand.
She called out to the man holding the two dogs. He shouted back before pulling his snarling canines down the path and through the gate. The Fox kept his eyes on the dogs as they left, then glanced up to see what the woman would do. She was standing on the porch, directly above him. This time he did yip, and leapt back.
“So you’re the one who’s been threatening my chickens,” she said. She did not seem angry, but the Fox could never be sure. He breathed deeply and for the first time caught a nose full of the woman’s scent. She smelled of earth and herbs and time. There was something comforting and familiar about her, though the Fox knew she was a stranger to him.
“I’ll make you a deal,” she said. “Stay away from my chickens, and I’ll make sure you never go hungry.” She paused for a moment and the Fox continued to watch her. “What do you think, Tom?” She looked up and before he could stop himself the Fox glanced over his shoulder as well. The Tomten was standing at the corner of the house behind him.
“Sounds fair to me,” he said. His voice sounded like snow falling on aspens and water trembling over a riverbed; as though all his years had been set down in a single book and the pages carefully riffled by a stiff breeze.
The Fox glanced back up at the woman. She was holding out the bird for him to take. The Fox glanced between the two of them again, nostrils testing the air around him. Without warning, he darted forward, stole the bird and ran.
“How long?” she asked Tom.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes poking around again tonight. Voracious things, foxes.” The woman chuckled, then she turned around and went back inside.
The house was old, but the woman was older. She had been old when the house was built. By human standards she was impossibly old, though she appeared to be in her mid 30s. While she told most people the house had been built by her grandmother, the truth was she had built it herself, her grandmother being who knew where at that point. Probably sleeping with the King of England.
While she had lived there for many years, she had not always “lived” there. She lived there as herself now, or as much of herself as she felt like sharing. But at one point she had been he, or them, or a different version of her. It did no one good to have the same woman living alone in that house for over 200 years. Besides, had she lived as openly as she did now, even 50 years ago, she probably would have been run out of town. Or at least she would have found herself replacing the windows more often than she’d like.
Now, however, seemed like as good a time as any to truly enjoy the fruits of many lifetimes–both literal and metaphorical–and the particularly sensual nature of this one. The man who had just left had once been a lover of hers. So had the man who fetched her mail. And the woman at the library. And that lovely young couple who used to live next door. But if she stopped to contemplate the entire list of previous bedfellows, she could be here all day.
She took care of the house in the same way that the house took care of her. She kept it clean and well groomed, and full of life. There were three cats who lived in the house, and who had lived on the land before there was a house to live in. She would not call them her cats, for she did not own them and they would never consent to being owned by anyone. But they lived harmoniously, she providing food, they providing pest control and certain magical qualities.
Apart from the chickens and the cats there were a number of other creatures who visited frequently. A pair of ravens, a murder of crows, occasional doves and pigeons. There was a family of hedgehogs living at the bottom of the garden, and earlier in the year there had been a skunk and her babies. Life thrived around the little house. Insects and arachnids and worms crawled all over the plants. Sugar ants crept through the cracks in the windows, and butterflies danced around the rose bushes. The motley collection of living things filled to bursting the house, the garden, the orchard, but there was a sense of balance about it all, as though each individual had it’s place and worked to create a cohesive whole.
The neighbours did not always understand this carefully struck balance, and more than once had, unknowingly, worked to throw it out of joint.
It was late. Past midnight, closing in on 1 am, and the house was asleep. The garden and the orchard were alive with nocturnal creatures eating and mating and creating life. But inside the house was dark, and still, and quiet. The Fox crept around the outside towards the front and that spectacular orchard. He had been dreaming of those trees all day long. The Fox was not new to dreams, but this dream had been so real he could smell the scent of ripe fruit and feel the breeze in his fur. He wanted nothing more than to return, possibly forever.
As he came level with the front porch the Fox paused, listening. There was something out there in the darkness. That something was crying. There was something in the sound that twisted at the Fox’s heart, making him sink farther into the long grass. After a moment the Fox saw a figure slowly making its way down the stone pathway. It got closer and the Fox saw that it was a woman, her face stained with tears, white hair shining in the light of the crescent moon. He watched closely as she stumbled up the stairs, ears pricked for any other sounds in the night. As the woman crossed the porch the Fox glanced past her and saw another set of eyes and a soft red cap peeking over the opposite edge of the porch. Their eyes met and the Fox lifted his brows. The Tomten raised his own in return.
As they watched, the woman on the porch raised a hand to knock at the door, and hesitated. Another sob rocked her body and as she gasped for breath the wind began to blow.
The Fox heard a sound from inside the house. Footsteps. They hurriedly descended the stairs and raced towards the door. In a moment it was flung wide and the woman who lived in the house threw her arms around the woman on the porch.
The woman who lived in the house had also been dreaming.
The woman on the porch sobbed into her shoulder, the sound of her grief echoed by the wind and carried through the orchard till every tree trembled. The woman who lived in the house stroked the other woman’s white hair and rubbed her shoulders, murmured soft comforting words, and slowly pulled her across the threshold. The door was shut, and once more the night fell quiet.
The Fox and the Tomten shared a look. The breeze had died as the women entered the house, and the darkness was incredibly still, as though the entire world was holding its breath. And then, as though some ‘all clear’ had been sounded, the orchard came to life again. The Tomten turned his back and returned to the chickens. The Fox proceeded into the orchard. Almost at once, he began to dig.
The house was used to tears.
Tears, sweat, blood, shit. These were the things that humans were made of, and the house was more than familiar with humans.
The woman who lived in the house lead the other woman upstairs to a spare room. She took off her shoes, she braided her hair, and tucked her into the wide bed, all the while singing softly under her breath.
The other woman gasped, choking on tears. She tried to speak.
“She’s gone,” she whispered. The woman who lived in the house tried to shush her, but she spoke again. “They’re all gone.” The other woman reached a hand out to the woman who lived in the house, and as her fingers brushed the woman’s cheek they both began to weep.
When the Fox awoke in the early evening, he was immediately aware of voices. He was well concealed in the den he had dug the night before, cradled between the roots of an enormous apple tree. He pricked his ears and listened. The woman and another human. Perhaps the friend from the night before? Curiosity overtook him and he crawled out of his hole.
The breeze from the previous night had stuck around, and the branches of the fruit trees waved sporadically as the Fox slunk towards the house. 50 paces from the porch he sank to his belly in the grass and watched the two women as they talked. After a moment he became aware of a most delicious smell, and lifted his nose into the wind. Something with meat and spices and root vegetables. It smelled warm and delicious and full of fat. Abandoning instinctual precautions, he slithered on his belly towards the house and that wonderful smell.
As the Fox got closer the woman who lived in the house pulled a dish off the table beside her and descended the three steps into the grass. The fox froze. She took a careful step to the side, set the dish on the ground, and turned away. When she was once more tucked into her chair, deep in conversation, the Fox took a breath. His nostrils were once more flooded with that heavenly scent. He crept forward again.
As the Fox ate he watched closely, ears twitching forward and back, picking up every little sound carried by the wind. The woman with the white hair was no longer crying, but she smelled salty and sad. She smiled now and again, but the Fox did not know if this was good or bad. He ate his food in silence, hearing birds call overhead and the rumble of cars on the road behind him.
Suddenly the woman who lived in the house sat up straight, dark hair lifting away from her face in defiance of gravity. There was a new sound from behind the Fox and he looked around, dish empty and nearly forgotten. A man was standing outside the gate to the orchard. He was tall and broad and wore a wool flat cap pulled low over his face. The Fox could smell something metallic and putrid, and there was a darkness that hung about him like a shroud.
“You are not welcome here,” the woman said. She did not raise her voice, she did not stand, she simply spoke as though the man was beside her. The man lifted his head and when the Fox saw his eyes he hissed. The woman stood, and the Fox heard the Tomten approaching from the back of the house.
The air crackled with electricity. The cool breeze was suddenly hot and dry, the leaves in the trees grating against one another furiously. Clouds began to gather above the house, flickers of lightening manifesting in their depths.
“You are not welcome here.” This time the woman’s voice was powerful and was accompanied by a resounding clap, as though a massive door had been shut above their heads.
The man tipped his hat, and shuffled his boots on the the sidewalk, and disappeared.
The electricity slowly dissipated, the breeze returning to its former temperature. The clouds, however, continued to build and glower down upon them until the horizon was filled with steel grey monstrosities of condensed moisture.
The woman’s hair was now held aloft only by the natural physics of curly hair in high humidity. Her dark curls bounced around her face as she looked up at the sky.
“I think it is time to go in,” she said. She ran down into the grass to grab the empty dish as the woman with the white hair picked up the two mugs on the table and went inside. The Fox fled as soon as she approached, and was gone before they entered the house. The moment the woman’s heel left the porch it began to rain.
It was still raining at midnight, and the Fox was regretting not having dug his den a little deeper under the roots of his chosen apple tree. The orchard soaked up the water like a man dying of thirst. The tree provided some cover, though the drops were thick and they quickly saturated the ground. The smell of damp earth mixed with damp canine was pungent and nearly overwhelming.
Although the rain was loud, the Fox’s ears were sharp and he heard the Tomten coming across the lawn well before he arrived. Of course, the Fox now realized that the only reason he could hear him at all was because the Tomten wanted to be heard. He slowly made his way across the wet grass, and as the Fox peeked out of his den he could see the way the Tomten’s red hat strained under the weight of so much water, and his eyebrows sparkled with droplets. The Fox could smell fresh hay mixed with the Tomten’s own scent of woodsmoke and age. He stopped under the adjacent plum tree and beckoned.
The Fox did not move.
The Tomten beckoned again more urgently. When the Fox did not respond he called, “There is plenty of room in the shed where it is warm and dry. Come.” When the Fox still didn’t move he turned his back and walked away. The Fox watched as he made his slow progress back across the wet orchard, water dripping from the tip of his weeping hat. The Tomten reached the edge of the house and just before he disappeared the Fox darted out and dashed across the grass. His belly was soon damp with rain and his ears dripped. Rounding the edge of the porch he saw the Tomten disappearing around the opposite corner into the back yard. He followed quickly, squeezing himself as close to the house as possible to avoid more raindrops.
He paused again at the end of the house and hesitantly peered into the yard. The shed sat against the back fence, next to the chicken coop, which was locked up tight against the rain. The door to the shed was ajar, and a warm light spilled out into the thunderous night. Exhaling a cloud of steam the Fox ran towards the door, picking up the scent of hay again, this time mixed with the earthy smell of damp soil and chickens.
He peeked around the door.
Inside the Tomten was laying out a blanket on top of a pile of soft hay. There were more blankets folded neatly beside him, and an oil lamp hanging from a hook on the wall. The Fox crept silently inside and stood dripping in the doorway. The Tomten turned and, picking up a second blanket, made his way over. He encouraged the Fox farther into the shed, and once in, shut out the rain. The Tomten held up the blanket. The Fox looked at it blankly.
“Stand in the corner and shake. Then I will dry your ears.” The fox slunk into the far corner of the shed as the Tomten held the blanket up to protect himself from the spray of water. As the Fox shook, creating a mini imitation of the storm outside, the lamp flickered and thunder rolled. Creeping back towards the door, the Fox stood tensely as the Tomten gently dried his ears, then his tail, then lay the blanket on the floor for him to wipe his paws.
Satisfied, the Fox trotted over to the nest the Tomten had created and made himself comfortable. Curling himself into a ball, he pricked his ears toward the Tomten in a silent question.
“The chickens are safe enough without me tonight. I think I will sleep in my own bed.” The Fox watched closely as the Tomten lay the wet blanket over a bale of hay to dry, then, taking a third blanket from the pile, took it over to a much more well established nest in the corner. The Tomten blew out the lantern as he went, and they both lay in the dark for a moment, listening to the rain.
“Sleep,” the Tomten said. And the Fox did just that.
The rain was paler in the morning light, and a great deal of the moisture had taken to the air in the form of mist. Despite his keen eye sight, the Fox could barely see across the yard towards the kitchen. The door was open, and there was light and sound and the most heavenly aroma erupting from it. The fox could hear the woman and the Tomten speaking to each other, but could not understand their words.
There was a cluck-cluck beside him and he glance over to see the chickens sleepily emerging from their coop. Instinct kicked in and the Fox crouched low against the dirt, ears up, tail back. He scented the air and took a careful step forward.
“Don’t even think about it.” The Fox’s ears went back in surprise. He looked around the yard. There was no one there. He paused for a moment before his gaze went back to those vulnerable birds and he crept a couple steps closer.
“I can see you.” This time the Fox lay flat on his belly, ears flat against his head, letting out a little huff of air that stirred the cold ground before him. He glanced back over at the kitchen and saw the woman peering out at him through the kitchen door. She winked and turned her back. Suddenly the Fox remembered her promise. He hesitated for a moment before hopping up and trotting toward the open door.
Poking his nose around the doorframe, he saw the Tomten sitting on a small stool beside a large iron stove. He was carefully packing tobacco into a long pipe made out of some kind of horn while the women chopped something on the high table that ran the length of the room. The Fox was too short to see what they were doing, but he could smell something savoury and sharp. The Fox made to step farther into the room and froze.
There was a cat sitting underneath the table.
They stared at each other for a moment, neither daring to move, neither willing to back down. The cat kneaded its paws against the flagstones and lowered itself. The Fox did not move.
“Pearl,” the woman said, not looking up from her work. “The Fox is our guest.” If cat’s could roll their eyes, Pearl certainly would have. Instead she adopted the half-lidded gaze of utter indifference and after a moment appeared to doze off entirely.
The Fox set his foot down. He glanced up at the woman, who was not looking at him, then at the Tomten, who was now lighting his pipe. With an imperceptible shrug the Fox made his way over to the stove and plopped down beside it, making sure he still had a clear view of the cat under the table.
They stayed like that for a long time. The Tomten smoking his pipe, the cat dozing under the table, the Fox gently steaming beside the stove. The two women moved around them, chopping simmering, boiling, roasting, baking. They seemed to be making enough food for an army, or the entire winter. After a while the woman set a plate of meat scraps on the floor in front of the Fox, who immediately sat up and devoured the offering.
The cat got her own small plate but, unlike the fox, did not touch it. At least, not until the Fox started to creep towards it himself. Then she gave him a glare and ate everything on the plate as slowly as she could. The Fox went back to his spot by the stove and watched closely.
The kitchen was so warm, and the Fox was so full, that after a while–and against his better judgement–he began to doze. He dreamed of geese and ravens and the sweet slide of egg down his throat. He was running. Running through a forest. He could hear dogs behind him, baying for his blood.
In the kitchen the Tomten watched as the Fox twitched in his sleep, letting out a small whimper.
“Dreaming?” the woman asked. The Tomten nodded, still watching.
“He is being hunted.” The Tomten finally said. The woman froze, a knife still in her hand. “In the dream it is by dogs. In reality…” he trailed off. The two women exchanged a look, hands paused above their work, watching the Fox through the haze of steam that permeated the kitchen.
“The mugwort is about to boil.” In a flash, everyone was in motion again. The woman continued chopping, her friend stirred one of the large pots, and the Tomten re-lit his pipe. He exhaled a large cloud of smoke, watching the Fox with interest.
The Fox awoke with a start. The kitchen was dark except for the wood stove, and the Fox could smell something softly bubbling in a pot on top. Pricking his ears he could hear the sound of voices coming from the front room of the house. Many voices. Springing to his feet the Fox tiptoed through the interior door and into a darkened hallway. With silent steps he made his way deeper into the house.
The Tomten peered around a bedroom door as the Fox passed, but the Fox did not see him. Tom watched as the fox was drawn farther down the hall, toward the chanting that drifted back from the living room. The Tomten followed the Fox, taking care not to make a sound.
The door at the end of the hallway was ajar, and the Fox carefully stuck his nose in the gap, prying it open. The door let out a soft sigh and opened just enough for the Fox to peer through into the front room.
There were nine women, sitting in a circle, hands joined, softly chanting. A few drops of rain pattered against the windows at the front of the room, but the women remained sitting, eyes closed, breathing softly into the candlelight. The pattering grew in frequency and volume, and soon the rain was pounding against the windows like fists, demanding to come in. The Fox carefully pushed the door wider and sat in the frame, watching silently.
Suddenly, though nothing changed, something was different. The air began to hum, soon matching the rain volume for volume. The pounding of raindrops was now joined by the actual pounding of fists on the door. Every hair on the Fox’s body stood on end and he leapt to his feet, eyes locked on the door.
And then the Tomten was behind him. The Fox jumped as the Tomten passed him and skirted the outside of the circle before standing in front of the heavy door. The pounding came louder and the Fox could see the door shaking in it’s frame. He stood, unsure what to do. Every instinct was telling him to run, to sprint down the hallway and out through the kitchen door and away. But he knew he would never escape. That pounding might as well be the baying of hounds. He knew what it meant. He knew it was for him.
The Fox stepped forward into the room, and the woman who lived in the house looked over at him from her place in the circle. He could see the candlelight reflecting in the depths of her eyes, and felt himself drawn to her. He padded toward the circle, feet shuffling against ancient floorboards. The humming was beginning to recede and the rain lessen, but still there was that pounding fist. The Fox paused at the very edge of the circle of clasped hands. He could smell the sweat of many bodies and something metallic and salty. Hesitantly he raised a foot to step into the circle.
There was a pause in the pounding.
In the silence the Fox could hear every single heart beat in the room. Nine women, one Tomten, one Fox. There was no heartbeat on the other side of the door. The pounding resonated through the room, vibrating through the floorboards, and the Fox startled. The woman had not taken her eyes off of him, and he met her gaze once more as he stepped into the circle.
There was a rush of wind down the chimney and the fire guttered, the candle flames dancing and flickering madly. The wind outside scrapped branches against the side of the house and threw more rain at the windows. There was a moaning that seemed to echo from the upper stories of the house; a whistling of unsealed windows that sounded like terrible cries.
The Fox made his way into the centre of the circle, directly across from the woman who lived in the house. He could feel the house itself stretching and breathing around him, trying to expel the poison from its veins. He had been so focused on the woman that he did not notice that there was something inside the circle until he nearly tripped over it. Glancing down he saw a small obsidian bowl, full to the brim with clear water. Standing directly over it, the Fox could see his reflection in its surface. The face the stared back at him was not his own.
The Fox jumped back with a start, looking back up at the woman. She was now inside the circle with him, the other eight woman having closed the gap behind her in order to maintain its integrity. She remained perfectly still, sitting at the edge, watching him. The Fox began to pace. He wanted to get out, he wanted to run, to flee. But there was something that wouldn’t let him. Perhaps the continued pounding on the door, or perhaps something deeper within him, something he could not name.
A spark ran down his spine and he yipped in pain. Digging his claws into the floor he barked and shrieked as his skin crawled and twisted around him. The pounding from outside answered his cries with an increase in volume, and he clenched his teeth in an effort to keep quiet. He didn’t want it to hear him, to find him. He glanced up again, a growl rumbling low in his chest. The woman was closer now, and she had placed something on the floor in front of her. Two things now sat between them: the bowl, and a large black candle. The flame danced as the Fox growled. The woman reached across the candle toward the Fox, something held carefully in her fist.
Before the Fox could blink she opened her fist and dropped a stone into the bowl of water.
The water exploded outward, drenching both Fox and woman, extinguishing the candle with a hiss. For a moment the Fox wondered how such a small bowl could hold so much liquid. But then the darkness overwhelmed him and he thought no more. The Fox collapsed. There was a sucking sound as air rushed back out through the chimney and the cracks in the walls.
The pounding stopped.
The wind stopped.
The chanting stopped.
The candles were still, the only sound that of raindrops and heartbeats.
The woman looked over at the Tomten who still stood in front of the door. He carefully placed a hand against the wood, listening with ears more sensitive then any wild creature’s. After a moment of silence the Tomten turned back to the room and sighed. He nodded at the woman who breathed in with relief. Gesturing at two of the other women in the circle she said, “Carry him into the spare bedroom and lay him on the bed.” The women stood immediately to obey, gathering him up between the two of them, one under the shoulders one under the knees. The Tomten lead the way up to the second floor of the house as the rest of the women began to set the room back on its feet.
When he awoke there was sun shining on his face. Blinking in the brightness of early morning sun, he glanced towards the open window. A fragrant breeze was pushing its way past the sheer curtains, trying to fill the room with the scent of cherry blossoms. His head was resting on a soft pillow, and as he turned to look around the room he realized he was covered by a quilted comforter. He tried to sit up, but the mechanics of it were wrong and he fell back against the pillow. His hips and shoulders were in the wrong place, flattened somehow. And sore.
He closed his eyes again and breathed in. Other than the smell of cherry blossom the only other thing he could identify was his own scent. But even that smelled different.
He opened his eyes again with a snap and glanced towards the door. The woman who lived in the house was standing on the threshold, studying him carefully.
“Good morning,” she said in a quiet voice. “Do you remember last night?” He blinked at her a moment, frozen in fear, every muscle in his body tense. He shook his head. She nodded, but didn’t seem surprised.
“You were cursed.” At the word cursed, something of the night before came rushing back to him, though it was mostly dark impressions and terror. Instinct took over and he threw the covers off and jumped down, intending to bolt from the room. His muscles gave out and he promptly collapsed onto the floor. The woman chuckled.
“Two legs will take a little getting used to, so I’d take it easy if I were you.” She reached down towards him and he scrambled away across the floor as best he could. The air was cool on his skin and his limbs felt clumsy and out of joint. The woman had paused when he pulled away, and for a moment stood as still as a statue.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. Not taking his eyes off her he nodded. She nodded in return and left the room, closing the door behind her.
He sat on the floor, completely naked, and studied his hands. He flexed his feet. He rubbed his butt against the soft carpet. He clenched his hands into fists, then extended his fingers as far as they would go. The breeze tickled the sparse hairs on his arm and he shivered. The door of the room opened again and the woman stood there with a bowl and a spoon.
He opened his mouth. He cleared his throat.
“What happened?” he asked.
Azalea Micketti is a writer, director, and bookseller who is passionate about storytelling and sharing books. She grew up in Ashland, OR and has lived in her (second) favorite city for almost nine months. She works at Powell’s City of Books on the Inventory Team.