When he emerged from his den with fur covered in dust and dew, the fox found he was not alone. A great feathered bird with a bill almost as large as its grey, beastly body stood before him. Its legs were long, long and thin, and its eyes pierced the fox’s soul with a too sentient intensity. It turned its eerie gaze to the west and then back to meet his eyes.
Suddenly, as if he could ever understand the bird’s language, it opened its great maw and let out a pulse of ferocious sound like the fox had never heard before.
In that awe-inspiring sound, all the howling of wind and rushing of water shook the fox’s bones and soul and all within him. In it, he remembered a time before that silent, lonely existence. In it, he remembered the warmth of a mother and a family and a life that he had forgotten and longed for. The fox turned to the west and stared wide-eyed across the hills and plains and wondered what the bird saw on that horizon. When he turned back, the bird had gone, leaving not even a single feather or print in the dusty ground.
The fox stared at the dust where it stood, coming down from the agitation of that painful, broken memory.
His life had been spent hiding from the too-hot sun that beat upon the land, emerging only to eat when night had chilled the earth. There was no one to talk to or play with, only things to hunt and to hide from. That strange and alien longing filled the fox’s soul like the reverberation of a rung bell. Most days, the sky was flat—an expanse trapping him upon the earth, but there were nights when the moon was low and shining light onto the tops of what little clouds the sky could muster, and he would measure just how far he might have to jump to get there. He lived for those fleeting moments when he was sure he could escape his lonely life.
He looked toward the west again, seeking solace from the perdition of the ignorant, lonely existence; of the endless sleeping and hiding and hunting and eating. He remembered a time before that life, wrestling with brothers and sisters in a den just like his own, only less lonely. His parents would hunt for them and guard them and keep them warm and safe. He let the word—family—ring in his head. He was going to find his family. The idea startled the little fox, for his whole life, he had thought very little. Without a glance back toward the land that he had inhabited in solitude, the fox began his journey towards that memory of home, of love.
The little fox ran as if he had been asleep all along and, finally, he had woken up. He barely slept during the day, instead choosing to journey until the heat of the sun overtook him. Thoughts of family hovered in the background of all his waking hours. He could remember their faces and the sound of their cries and yips.
At night, he tried to hunt but found food scarce. There were fewer and fewer rocks for things to hide under and even scarcer was the shrubbery that the fox knew all the little creatures sustained themselves on. On the first night after leaving, he had a meager dinner of mice. Then, nothing.
The landscape was unfamiliar to the fox. Before, he had been surrounded by low hills and rocky areas and mountains, but there was nothing around him for miles except flat lonely earth. The fox thought, perhaps, he had made a mistake in leaving the life he had known, but the idea of going on as he had been was worse than any starvation or death he might find in this unknown. Instead, he relied on his other senses to guide him: his smell and the halo of shadows that kept him from straying towards the north or the south.
As sunset drew nigh on his third day, he came upon a valley. Jutting out from the usual sand and dust were great rocks that looked like a set of ancient, rainbow teeth. Carefully the fox climbed down the jagged hill. In its maw was a small pool. He approached it in awe— he had never seen so much water before.
Gingerly, the little fox peered down into the pool, finding, in the honey depths, ghostly white fish. They moved around and around like clouds in the wind. He watched the thick, cloudy water for an eternity, and when night came, it blackened into tar and the fish disappeared somewhere into its depths. He stared for longer still, willing the fish to come back, wishing he had dared to dive in for a bite. Whatever had awoken within the little fox pushed all those hungry, animal things inside him to his corners, and he couldn’t find it in him to coax them out.
The fox stumbled away from the pool, skirting around it with a wide berth like it meant to swallow him. He scrambled up the cliff and over the other side, running as fast as he could and wasting all the precious energy he had left. When daylight broke over the horizon, the fox hid in a makeshift den and dreamed that the fish were swimming down his throat, squirming about and choking him.
That night, he felt no need to hunt, hunger pangs no longer wracking his body as he stumbled through the desert. He grew thinner and thinner, and yet he could not find it in him to seek out sustenance, the memory of those fish squirming about within him too fresh.
Two days after the little fox had escaped the pool of fish, he came upon a rocky hill like that from his old home. Hidden in all the shadowy nooks and crannies, he knew he would find creatures to feed on. Guilt rippled through the little fox as he stalked a rabbit. It nibbled on dry grass, poised and ready to run, yet still ignorant of its spectator. The fox pounced, capturing the rabbit in mouth, his jaw clamped tight upon its head, crushing the little creature.
He set to the tearing and ripping of flesh with claws and gnashing teeth. The little fox looked upon the bloodied and broken body of his meal like he never had before. He looked away from its body and up at the lonely orange colored sky and wondered if he would ever reach his family, or if perhaps he would die and be blown away and become like the dust that shifted beneath his feet, or like the rabbit, mangled and alone. The fox had always left his kills when he finished eating, but this time it felt different, wrong. He wondered what kind of life it lived. If the fox could produce any tears, he knew he would cry for it. It did not deserve to die, but, then again, neither did he, the fox reasoned. All night and all day after, he slept beneath some rocks, close enough to the rabbit to keep an eye on its remains. He knew of no other way to pay his respects to its life.
The little fox left the body of the rabbit the next night, forcing himself not to look back as he went. He found himself walking down, down a steady slope. The ground grew softer and soon he was surrounded by that same rocky terrain populated by little shrubs and trees and cacti he knew well. He felt almost at home.
As he came to the bottom of the slope, dawn just washing over the land, the fox saw in the distance a looming figure of some alien creature. He stood frozen, staring at it as if broken from a reverie. He approached the figure slowly, as the sun rose, and he thought perhaps his eyes were playing tricks on him.
The creature stood, dressed in golden wheat and purple blossoms, its back turned to the fox. He ran to it as fast as his ragged legs would carry him, but when the fox reached it, he found it had been transformed into a blossoming cactus, giant and unmoving. Behind it, a field of wildflowers shifted in the wind and more spiny grey cacti rose like fingers from the red sands. They seemed to stretch, trembling and tense, for the open universe above.
A fog rolled over the hills into the valley and by some miracle, it began to rain. The little fox stared up at the sky in wonder, opening his mouth to catch anything he could. He thought he must have been dreaming or hallucinating. Still, he gawped at the sound of pitter-patter against the hard, long-dead earth.
The little fox turned all around. Before he had time to recover from the shock of the desert rainfall, there appeared in front of him a short, straggling little tree. On the lowest branch perched a giant white condor and a little black songbird. Both stared at the fox with incessant, doleful eyes. The tree had grown too used to the aridity, so no leaves gave them cover. Drenched with rain, they were forced to sit and endure, unable to fly away or find any comfort.
He looked around for some way to help them but could find no way to give them cover. Instead, the little fox walked slowly up to them. The little black songbird kept its eyes closed as it shivered, but the great white condor held the fox’s gaze as he approached. As the two watched one another, an understanding passed between them.
The white condor was too big to carry, so the little fox knelt in front of the little black songbird and allowed it to rest upon his head. Water tumbled down the condor’s face. It looked as if it was crying, and the fox’s heart almost broke at the sight of something so beautiful made so sad.
I will take good care of your friend, the fox said, hoping the old pearly creature understood that too. It bowed its head and closed its eyes, huddling into itself like a ghost. The little fox stared at the creature, almost incapable of leaving it there alone, but he did.
I promise I will never let anything hurt you, he told the songbird as he walked away, looking for cover from the cold rain. He could hardly stop himself from looking up toward his forehead, toward where the little songbird sat, every few moments just to make sure it had not been a dream.
The rain stopped sometime after the valley and the tree and the beautiful white condor had disappeared from view. Night fell, and the pair came upon several large rocks. They lay under them together, the little fox curling around the bird. He kept watch and warmed it all night long. As day broke and warmed the earth once more, he took the little songbird out to dry, and they began their journey together.
That evening as the fox ate, he kept the songbird close by, watching as it dug in little shrubs to pull out bugs and twigs to eat. Every moment he spent with the songbird, he grew more and more in awe of it.
The little fox talked to the songbird all the time, having found a joy awoken within him that he hadn’t known even in his memories of his family. The songbird never sang, but it moved about in the hair on the fox’s head, so he knew it was all right. Still, the fox grew more and more restless for his family, for a companionship that he could know, not simply enjoy from afar.
On their third night together, the little fox dreamt of a deep, dark expanse rising around him and swallowing him. The fox startled awake, feeling hollow and rustling the little songbird. As he settled down, trying not to wake it, he was struck with the persistence of that memory.
As the fox stayed awake all night long, unused to the schedule his companion kept, the bird slept among his limbs and his warmth, providing nothing but comfort to the fox. He thought of how blue that expanse—that emptiness—might be, how black or how white. Would it look like the sky? He found himself making friends with the stars at night, watching them as they twinkled gold and silver, winking and forming familiar shapes.
The fox thought his body must be made of those same ancient things and he hoped that when he died, he would become one of them and return to those far off galaxies that made him and join their friendly faces that he might look down upon the Earth with them, never alone. The little fox hoped he would not turn to dust, but it would not be so much of a waste. I would make a nice bed for someone, he thought.
The songbird and the fox traveled cheerfully all day long. It was cooler in the valley. The shrubs and grasses grew more freely, and a breeze blew around the dust and sand every so often like it was inviting the little fox to dance.
He came upon a place blanketed in soft green moss, every rock a cushion. The fox set the little songbird down upon a rock where it nestled into the mosses there. The fox ran about, feeling the plush greens beneath his feet. Calm washed over him as he romped, turning every so often to check on his friend as it rested, eyes closed.
He heard a gentle peep and turned fully to look at the songbird, broken from his trance. The little songbird sat peacefully still where the fox had left it. Perhaps he had misheard the wind or dreamed up the sound. They stayed the night there, shuddering in the cold that the damp mosses produced.
As dawn broke, the little fox made to let the bird onto his head as always. Instead, he watched it shudder in the breeze. More urgently the fox nudged at it, trying to get it to return to its place upon his head. It simply opened its eyes and stared weakly into the fox’s eyes and for the first time, he thought it was trying to speak to him, and the fox thought, perhaps, he might have understood it. It closed its eyes once more and would not open them again.
The fox stared down at the little creature. Its dark feathers shifted around as the winds tried to breathe life back into its little hollow bones to no avail. His face screwed up, but no tears came, and he wished at that moment it might rain that the world might cry for him, but no rain came either.
So, the fox sat and stared at the little lifeless creature until he could no longer stand it. He took its body in his mouth and gently laid it upon the nicest rock he could find. It almost looked asleep, nestled in the lush greens. Then, he covered it in a mound of rocks and pebbles—a monument to its dear little life. He didn’t want to leave it behind.
I will find my family. I will not be alone, he repeated like a mantra until it had pulled him out of that heady sadness into an out of body nothingness. The fox allowed himself a glance back to make sure the monument still sat safely where he had left it.
As he walked, he was haunted by the sounds carried in the wind. He heard cries and screams and even the little peep. The fox looked around frantically, all the time feeling as if he could not possibly be alone. Yet, he was more alone than ever.
He ran, moving with the singular purpose of reaching his family. There was nothing else left for him.
The shadows of a mountain range rose up before the little fox. He remembered the mountains to the east and thought he had dreamt up his whole journey and everything, and that he would find himself back at that distant, rocky hill that he knew well.
Squat trees scattered around the area, and hills rose up and surrounded the fox, almost ushering him towards those shadowy mountains. He imagined his family awaited him at the end of the way. He imagined them embracing him and ushering him toward that warm den from his memory. The fox ran onward until his legs were too weak to carry him and his lungs burned.
As the sun was disappearing over the mountains, the little fox saw them for what they were. Pillowy clouds rose as mountains beyond the edge of the desert and over a cliff. Sounds of birds and water and winds could be heard from the open air beyond the land’s edge. The little fox examined the mountainous clouds and the cliff’s edge, listened to the sounds of life overwhelm the empty space beyond. His legs moved as if on their own volition now, taking him further and further and over that cliff’s edge into the open air, to follow the little black songbird and to follow his family.