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2008-04-23 4:53 PM
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In honor of the 2nd Annual Pixel-Stained Techopeasant Day, I'd like to share my short-short story "Foxwoman", which has always been one of my personal favorites. It's also my tribute to all the Swedish folklore and history I love (and if you own any Swedish folk-rock music, by bands like Hedningarna or Garmarna, please feel free to crank it up as you read! :) ). It's just over 1000 words, and it was originally published in Aeon Magazine, Issue 8. Courtesy of Marti McKenna, I can even include the lovely original illustration.
By Stephanie Burgis
She’s lurking outside my campfire again.
I can hear her breathing, quick and eager, through the crackling of the fire. Sparks fly into the darkness.
She’s too clever to let me see the glow of her green eyes.
Every night for the past week, I’ve camped outside, caught between wavering hope and dark despair. I’ve chanted the incantations the old men of the village taught me, tossed their herbs of summoning into the fire. The flames burn hot, with a scent like the bittersweet beginning of autumn.
I catch the smell of musk, sharp and sudden behind me. I spin around--
Too late. I’m not even granted a glimpse of her copper tail, shimmering behind long human legs.
It must be a sign of madness, to want a woman this badly.
Other men tell tales of her sisters singing to them, as they walk back at night to the safety of home and hearth. They cover their ears to keep their feet moving toward the women and children who wait for them, counting on their fidelity. They stumble into their warm houses and slam the doors behind them with relief. But their dreams are haunted for long nights after by teeth and claws and the scent of the wild. They wake, shivering, to hear branches tapping steadily on their windowsills, while their wives sleep quietly in bed beside them.
It’s hard to live in the woods again, after years riding the longships to glory and battle. At sea, you can see clearly for miles around you. Here, the trees surround you, whisper to you, trap you...and predatory eyes watch from the thick, leafy darkness.
I came back after twenty years, ready for the peace that comes without blood or fanfare. Ready for the quiet life of a farmer, supported by a plain wife who would stand by me in my twilight--no passion, but comfort, all a man of my age could expect. All I could want, I told myself, and I tried to believe it, even as I arranged to wed a girl I’d never met--a good, quiet girl, according to her farmer father. One who’d cause me no trouble, he promised. I swallowed disappointment and nodded in sober approval of his words.
I wasn’t ready for the whispers in the forest, as I walked home at night. I wasn’t ready for the enticements that lurked in the darkness outside my house.
I wasn’t ready for the wife who wandered further and further into the woods as her clear green eyes turned wild and strange and every binding tie of family and duty slipped away from her. Until, one day, I came home to find an empty house, the doors swinging open...and fresh leaves covering the floor.
I can feel the foxwoman’s breathing close behind me now. The herbs draw her in, though she’s too cunning not to suspect a trap. I hold myself as still as an old boat drawn up on dry land. I barely breathe.
The old men helped me weave a rope from scraps of our marriage quilt. I pulled out discarded strands of shining brown hair from my wife’s brush to braid into the handstitched cloth.
Wrap it around her wrist, and she’ll be yours for life, they said. But you’ll only have one chance. If you let her go before it’s fastened, she’ll never be tricked back to house and home again.
I feel hot breath on the back of my neck. My hand tightens around the rope, in my lap.
On our wedding day, as we spoke our vows and I looked for the first time into her clear green eyes, my chest tightened with a feeling so unexpected, I couldn’t even give it a name. It was only months later, as I stood alone in our empty house with the sharp, bitter scent of the forest blowing through it, that I recognized all I’d lost.
Oh, she’d been quiet enough at first, just as her father had boasted. But her soft voice had shivered with yearning when she’d asked for stories of my life at sea. And when she knew me better, she told wild stories of her own, all drawn straight from the fires of her imagination. A good farmer’s daughter she might have been, but she’d never been meant for a life of peace and drudgery. If she’d been a man, she’d have gone a-viking with the best of them.
As a woman, she had to find a different path.
Sharp teeth brush lightly across the nape of my neck, tasting my skin. I stare at the center of the fire, feeling my breath speed up. Caught between sweet pain and bitter pleasure.
She smells of danger and adventure, now. Of all the things I chose to leave behind forever, when I left the longships and the dreams of my youth.
But marriage is an adventure of its own. And when the moment comes that you’ve been waiting for, sometimes, suddenly, you see...
The scent of musk fills my senses. Soft fur slides lingeringly along my left arm.
Tears sting my eyes, as sharp as daggers. I fling the rope away from me, into the fire.
The flames pop and sizzle as it lands, filling the air with memories and loss.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to the darkness behind me. “I chose to leave it all behind. But you never made that choice.”
I move to stand.
And that’s when I realize: I’ve been tricked.
I stare at my arm, in the glow of the flames.
A rope surrounds it, strong and soft and shimmering with color. A rope made of copper fox fur, yellow leaves...and strands of my own stolen, graying hair.
A yip of joyous, wild laughter echoes through the clearing.
I turn to find green eyes glowing with invitation. She leaps into the darkness of the deep forest, with a teasing flick of her tail.
Copper fur sprouts on my arm, around the rope.
I sniff the air and catch her scent.
Foxwoman. Danger. Adventure. Joy.
Trapped and ecstatic, beginning again, I drop to all four paws and race to join her.
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