You must always bow when you see a fox, for the fox is a gentleman.
Every countryman knows that, and every countrywoman too. But the farmer’s young wife was not yet wise to country ways. She was a daughter of the town, that the farmer had spied when he drove his stock to market, and smitten by her shy smile in the crowd across the pens, determined that she should be his. And the girl, tiring of the work her father put her to keeping house and scrubbing pots and brushing the hearth since her mother was taken from them, determined the same. For the farmer, though rough in his country ways, was a prosperous man, and proud. And when the new bride made her way to the farm sat high on the back of the hay wagon, as was the custom in those parts, all the folk that came out to see her and cheer her on her way agreed that the farmer had made a mighty good match and a lasting one, for her belly was full and round for all to see.
Beauty was there, and a will to work, and they knew that wisdom must come with time. Surely when the child she bore brought forth his own sons and daughters, it would be she who would verse them in the names and uses of the herbs that grew thereabouts, and the signs of the air and sky that mark the changes of the weather and the seasons, and the tracks that each beast will leave in a new-driven snowfall. But as yet the girl was young and fresh, and knew little of country ways.
So it came that on an evening late in the harvest, when the light that still lingered stained the sky with red, that the goodwife stepped outside of her kitchen to admire its colour. Though she knew not what it portended, she was filled with joy to see it nonetheless, for good day’s work was behind her, and she had not yet tired of keeping a new house, and scrubbing new pots, and brushing a new hearth. Besides, there was a bright bonny new baby sleeping in his cradle by that very hearth, and it seemed to her that all was good in the world.
All save for one thing. For into that farmyard at that moment, skulking low along the great black wall of the cow byre where the farmer nailed up the corpses of each mole and crow that dared trespass upon his pasture as a warning to their brethren, came creeping a fox. And when he saw the farmer’s wife stood in her doorway he did pause, as a fox will do, and stand his ground wary, waiting to see her move.
She made no bow. And she, poor silly girl, did worse: for she let her disgust show upon her face, and spoke out loud, saying “get away, you dirty thing,” and she stooped, picking up an old boot of the farmer’s that lay upon the doorstep, and she flung it across the yard at the fox, shouting “be off with you, go on.”
Well, fox he was too quick for her, and beside, the boot fell short, and he received no hurt from it, but as he darted into the lee of the barn and lost himself in shadows he fixed the goodwife’s face and actions in his mind, and he determined that he should have his revenge.
“Ho,” said he, “so that is how it is upon this farm.” And he said to himself, “So as it is, so shall it be.”
No sooner was the fox gone from the goodwife’s view than he was gone from her thoughts, and she never would think to speak of him to her husband when he came in from the fields once the land was fully lost to the dark. Great was the joy with which she greeted him, and soft the kiss, and she ran to stoke the fire and laughed to see her husband pluck the baby from his cradle to dandle on his knee.
But old fox was out there in the night, and he was brooding on the injury that had been done to him.
The evening’s red sky brought a bright, sunny morning as it will, and the heat grew great through the day, until the men in the fields ran with sweat as they toiled and the goodwife threw open every window in the house to try to find a breath of air. But deep, deep beneath the ground where fox he slept, all was dark and cold, and the coldest thing of all was the ice in his heart.
And that night fox again comes creeping and creeping, this time not sticking to the shadows but bold out across the middle of the yard, and up to the farmhouse, dark and silent, where every soul is asleep. And quick as fire leaps foxy up and in at the open casement, and picks his way across to the hearth where the baby lies contented in his cradle. And fox with quick and clever mouth he gathers up the shawl and blankets and he carries baby gentle as a gentleman can be – for a fox, when he puts his mind to it, can carry an egg unbroken in his mouth from the henhouse, though seldom he does, for a fox loves chaos and destruction most of all – up and out at the window, and back across the yard and through the fields to the top of the hill and down, down, down into the heart of the earth where creatures of his kind do dwell.
“Ho ho,” says his vixen when she sees what he carries. “This is a pretty chicken you have brought me.”
And the pair of them roll back the blankets and pluck back the shawl and they watch the baby stir where they have laid him on the damp earth. And they watch as he wakes and blinks into a darkness the like of which his young eyes have never seen before.
“Well,” says mother vixen, licking the baby’s head as a mother fox will do to put her scent upon him, and calling to her cubs to come and meet their strange new brother, “here you be, and here we be, and here you stay, my pretty.”
A child that grows in the country air, with the sun on his face each day and the wind to sing him to sleep of a night, he will grow into the best kind of a man, happy and healthy and hearty and hale. But a child that grows in the darkness of the ground, never seeing the light of the sun or feeling the breath of the wind, well, he will grow up into a strange and stunted thing: a child of earth. And so it was with the farmer’s child. His arms and legs grew long and thick as roots, and if he lay in one place too long they would creep out and wind themselves into the soil, so when he woke he must pull and shake himself free. All rosiness faded from his skin until it was as dark as deepest loam, and his wide blue eyes for want of seeing became dark and glinting like the water in the deepest well. Yet he grew big, for the soil in that part of the country was a good and nourishing one, and soon he was of such a size that his brother and sister cubs feared to tumble with him, as fox cubs will at play, lest they be crushed beneath his weight. For want of space to stretch and stand upright, he became a crooked thing, his head hanging low beneath his shoulders and his back bent double. Yet the den beneath the earth was the only world he knew, for though when his cubs grew old and strong enough fox would let them each up into the fresh air of the fields to gambol in the evenings and learn the hunt beside him, he forbade the child of earth ever to follow.
So he remained down, deep beneath the ground, beetles and worms his only playmates. And though his voice, through lack of use, had become as strange and ragged as the rest of him, he would sing a lullaby to himself in the darkness for want of company. And there is many a countryman and woman thereabouts who has stopped still as evening draws in, frighted by a sound that seems to come from deep beneath the earth, a strange, mournful song that chills their blood and sends them hurrying home to draw their loved ones near, and make sure to fasten every door and every window against what the night might bring.
Save for one woman, who would seek the sound out, and walk the fields each night until the darkness took them, ever crying for her baby that had been taken away.
Though mother vixen did treat him kindly enough in her animal way, the child of earth knew in his heart that he was not of their world. And a part of him, buried deep inside, that was still a child of men, remembered his mother up above, and he felt how she would never give up searching for him. So each autumn, when his brother and sister cubs grew old enough to take their leave of the den, he would ask the fox why he might not follow. And at first, the fox would reply: “when three summers pass, and three times your brother and sister cubs have grown and flown this den, then you may go up into the world of sky and air and seek your family.” So the child of earth bided his time, and when three winters had passed, cold and drear, and three summers with their harvests too, he said again to the fox “Now may I go up into the world of sky and air and seek my family?”
But the farmer had laid cruel snares that year to catch the rabbits that feasted on his crops, and fox’s favourite daughter had been caught in one and died most painfully, and he was filled with anger towards the world of men, and one man especially. “When three more summers pass, and three more times your brother and sister cubs have grown and flown, then and only then you may go up into the sky and air and seek your family,” said fox baring cruel teeth, and he would say no more.
So the child of earth bided his time for three more winters, and three harvests and three summers more, though by now he was grown so big that he could no more move about the den, and his arms and legs had stretched and grown and spread into the earth around him. And, because he could no longer go to the fox, he cried and called until the fox came to him, and he said, “three more times my brothers and sister cubs have grown and flown: now can I go up into the world of sky and air and seek my family?”
But the farmer had enjoyed good fortune those past three harvests, and he had grown rich and fat, and as men do when such times come upon them he had clad himself in hunting pink and ridden out with hounds that had driven down fox’s favourite son in the thicket and torn him in pieces. And fox bared his teeth again at the child of earth, and said “when thrice three times your brother and sister cubs have grown and flown, and only then, that is when you may go up into the world of sky and air, and not before.”
When nine full years had come and gone, the child of earth was grown so at one with the soil that slugs crawled on his skin and worms burrowed deep within him. Yet deeper within there was still a part that remembered his life above the ground so long before, and the sound of his mother’s voice as she sang over his cradle. So he cried, and he called, until fox came to him, moving himself much slower now, for he was old and lame, the bright fire of his coat patched with grey, and his vixen dead and gone, and he was weary.
“Now thrice times three your cubs have grown and flown,” said the child of earth in a voice that was hoarse from lack of use, “may I go up into the world of sky and air, and be free?”
And old fox he looked at what he had made, and he smiled with sharp teeth. “You may go up into the world of men,” said he, “though you will never again be of that world.” And with that, he dropped his front legs in a bow, and with a sigh he sank to the ground, and never got up again.
The child of earth flexed limbs that had not moved for many months now, and he felt the strength that had flowed into them through rich soil that had been nourished by nine summers’ sun and nine autumns’ rain. And he stretched, and he felt the earth begin to crack around him and the soil crumble away, and he raised his head up, up, up for the first time until it broke full free of the frosty ground and burst into the cold darkness of a winter’s night. He felt the wind icy upon his face, and the stars that twinkled so far above burned his eyes, for they were the first light they had seen for longer than he could remember.
The child of earth heaved his shoulders, and he thrashed his long arms, and he pushed with thick, strong legs, and bit by bit he fought his way free of the earth and came up into the world of sky and air. And though there was no moon that night to see him by, so great was the child of earth that when at last he stood not within but upon the land, you could make out his shape by the stars that were hidden behind him.
Slow and heavy, he stumbled through the fields, and clods of earth fell from his body as he came, and worms and beetles scurried from his footprints. Every living creature fled at his path, and the only eyes that would look upon him were those of the old hare deep in the thicket. He had seen much in his travels between worlds, and he knew what the passing of the child of earth portended, and he too was sore afraid.
The child of earth came to the top of the hill, and what part of him that had once been a head turned, and what was left of eyes squinted towards the lights of the farmhouse piercing the darkness in the valley below.
The dogs set up a howling in the farmyard, but no human ear could hear them. It was Christmastide, and the house was filled of revellers, for the farmer was keen for his good fortune to be seen and appreciated by all. The wassail cup was being passed from hand to hand, and a hearty carol was being sung by every man and woman present, save for the farmer’s wife, who sat alone on the hard settle by the fire, her face pale, her hair white, and old beyond her tender years. But the company took little note of her, for they were used to her ways by now, and she had refused to join the festivities for nine long Christmases gone by.
The child of earth feared the lights and the noise, but they drew him to them too. As he made his way down the hill, more soil cascaded from his body, and it began to seem a little less monstrous: the roots that were his arms seemed to draw back a little, their ragged ends stiffening into shapes like splayed and bony fingers. He left a long trail of wet black loam behind him as he crossed the yard, passing the barn with its grim warnings displayed, and he came to the farmhouse step just as the carol came to its end and the crowd, after giving a great cheer, fell silent. Slowly, for he was only now learning how, he raised a thick arm and knocked once, twice, three times upon the wooden door.
There was a moment’s stillness before it was thrown open, and the light that spilled out suddenly blinded the child of earth and sent him reeling back, raising both broad arms before his face. The sound of screams startled him: his ears, long plugged with earth, were not ready for the hubbub of shouting and shrieking that erupted from inside and he let out a loud moan of his own, which only served to frighten the revellers all the more. He knew no language with which to offer comfort: his mouth was like a jagged crack in the dried-up bed of a stream at summer’s height, and the noises that came from it were like the shrieks and howls of foxes in the fields in spring, and just as unwelcome to those who heard them. There were cries of “bar the door”, and indeed the light of the house had almost been snuffed out before he heard another voice rising above the tumult, one that he knew at once as his mother.
“Stand aside, all of you,” she commanded, more words than most of the guests had heard her ever utter. “Let me see him. Let me through.”
The child of earth was still blinded, confused, fearful, huddled in the shadows beyond the light that spilled from the now wide open door. But he lowered his branch-like arms to peer at the woman who stood on the step before him, and though she was almost as much changed as he was, he knew her just as she knew him.
“Fetch the wassail-bowl,” she commanded in a trembling voice. “Our son is returned to us.”
A low, fearful murmur spread through the crowd inside, but the bowl was swiftly filled and passed hand-to-hand, forward to the brave souls who lingered nearest the open door.
A low, fearful murmur spread through the crowd inside, but the bowl was swiftly filled and passed hand-to-hand, forward to the brave souls who lingered nearest the open door.
“Here,” said the woman, taking the bowl and offering it to the figure that shivered in the yard. “Take, and sup, and return to us.”
Slowly, hesitantly, the child of earth reached out its arms towards its mother, and as it did so, its back straightened and the last clods of mud that stuck to its body fell away. Fingers like twigs stretched out, but as they touched the proffered bowl it seemed to those watching that they curved and swelled, and began to resemble something not so much different from the hands that held it by its other side.
“NO!” roared the terrified farmer, bursting forward from the crowd in the doorway. “This is no son of ours, and never can be.” And with a great fist he dashed the wassail bowl from his wife’s hands, to shatter on the stones of the farmyard. “Begone with you, and the devil take you, for you’ll never be welcome here.” The child fell back with a howl as his mother was dragged back into the house and the door slammed and barred against him.
When after some time the guests plucked up the courage to go to the casement and look out, nothing remained save a black, puddled trail that stretched from the open field gate to the doorstep, and then back from whence it came.
No one that lives has seen the child of earth again. But there is one that will always be searching for him, walking the fields each night until the darkness takes them, ever crying for her bairn so cruelly snatched away. And there is many a countryman and woman in those parts who has stopped still as evening draws in, frighted by a sound that seems to come from deep beneath the earth, a strange, mournful song that chills them to the marrow and sends them hurrying home to draw their loved ones near, and make sure to fasten every door and every window against what the night might bring.
And you must always bow when you see a fox, for the fox is a gentleman.