FLY RED FOX
by Desmond Fox
Red Fox circled the coyote, tossing cold Mojave sand with her jagged steps. Sweat beaded on her face, painting streaks of dirt and blood down her blunted features with each salty drip crawling down her skin in rivulets. Half of her head was freshly shaved, the other half was ornamented with long black dreadlocks. The rest of her was only clothed in decorative hempen ropes and animal-blood warpaint. The coyote stared back with its one blue eye, bearing a toothy snarl.
This was not how she intended to use her head start, and she truly hoped the coyote would back away and run off as soon as it identified her scent, but it was hungry. She could see it in the creature’s lean body and hear the hunger pangs in her head. It was nervous too, too anxious to pounce first.
Red Fox seized the opportunity. She leapt forward into the air; her body took a shape not its own. Her jaw extended, amber hair packed her dark skin as she reconstructed herself into the shape of a diminutive kit fox. She snapped at the creature’s neck with her comparably meager muzzle, crushing its windpipe in a cloud of flesh-musk. Surprise was the last thing the animal felt before it died.
Red Fox turned back into her human shape, dipped a finger in the dead animal’s wound and painted a small mark on her face in the shape of a spiral. Suddenly she was aware of how much time she had wasted, and set back to her gait, deeper into the desert in search of civilization.
There was nowhere to hide here, everything was flat and sparse. Her only way out was to find someone willing to protect her and hide her from her tribe, but outlanders usually kept their hands clean of local traditions.
The other option was to hide as an animal, take refuge in a warren or den, but she would ultimately be rejected by the indigenous families, and use of her shapeshifting only made her easier to find.
Others had fought. She had been with the hunting parties before as a child, and watched skinwalkers chased down until they turned and bore their teeth in defiance. She had seen throats ripped out of strong men by fierce wolf-women, but in the end they were slain the same. They were painfully skinned alive then burned as a tribute to their nuclear gods.
She wished she had ran sooner. She wished she could sprout feathers and take to the sky like a sparrow, but she could not. Like all hunted, she had been hexed, feet bound to the earth. She would only fly again in her death.
On the wind she could hear the trot of horses and the calls of their riders. She had been careless, slow and now she would die for it. She ran hard. She barreled through dirt and sand, past yuccas, juniper and white firs, when she saw her only hope.
In the distance she saw a tent and a fire. There was a man with skin the color of hematite feeding oats to an elderly painted horse. If the gods were kind and their bellies full, she would find some sort of sanctity here. She raced onward, allowing her arms to become legs, and her feet to become paws. Her muzzle stretched and her body-hair thickened into a red coat. She barreled between the man’s legs into the tent, hiding in his fox furs, twitching in fear.
Osiah watched a naked woman turn into a fox, then race into his tent. He stared at the whisky bottle in his hand incredulously before he heard the roar of horse hooves beating in thunderous rhythm.
A wise man once said speak softly and carry a big stick, and Osiah’s ICS-191 GLM grenade launcher was about the biggest stick he had found so far, so he picked it up from beside his tent and prepared to wave it around a little. The weight of it always surprised him. He did a few curls, until it was as natural in his hand as the bottle.
With his other hand, he took the switchblade style comb from his pocket, brushed out his grey moustache to an appropriate bushiness, before sheathing and popping it back into the pocket from whence it came.
Osiah stepped into the tent just long enough to grab his white stetson from the pile of whimpering furs, placing it on his head.
The roar finally caught up with him, a party of ten Mojave warriors and a young female shaman were at his figurative doorstep, twenty-feet or so from his little cookfire and pot of beans.
The men wore long black braids, with coal streaks across their eyes. They wore axes slung from their hips and stared unblinkingly into the dirt-filled void beyond. The woman who rode with them wore feathers in her hair and on the ropey black rags that hung around her shoulders and waist. In her hands she held a round bottle, roiling with green liquid that seemed to jump and boil in the direction of Osiah’s tent.
“She’s in there.” The shaman muttered just loud enough for Osiah’s ears, holding her bottle high for the warriors to see.
“Should I kill this man?” one of the men asked.
“No, he won’t be a problem,” the woman responded coolly. “Our prey is in your tent, outlander. Allow my men to retrieve what is ours and you will not be harmed.”
Osiah smiled, twitching his moustache back and forth. He peered from under his hat and spoke with authority.
“Now, I ain’t normally one to tread on ceremony, or get in the way of local tradition, but I know a fair fight when I see one. And this, little lady is anything but fair.”
“There’s more to her than you know.”
“Oh, I’m sure, but ten armed men against one naked woman ain’t much better than ten armed men against one little fox in my book.”
“Then we’ll take her,” the woman snapped. Her eyes smiled, without a twitch in her lips.
“Now, I figured you’d say something like that, so-” Osiah heaved his grenade launcher in front of him, trying not to let its weight show as he put his other hand on the secondary handle. “so maybe today’s the day I get to fire this thing.”
“You wouldn’t.” The woman contested, keeping her face the image of placidity.
“No, I would. So what are you gonna do? What’s your hunt worth?”
“It’s worth the lives of our people. She had her chance to escape, she failed. She belongs to our gods now.”
“Fine.” Osiah replied. “Let them come get her then.”
“You hungry miss?” Osiah held a spoonful of baked beans out to his guest. Red Fox was in her human form, wearing an old military canvass blanket. She shook her head.
“I’ve eaten. What you did was very kind. Most outlanders wouldn’t involve themselves.”
“Most outlanders ain’t Osiah Warren. A wise man once said, courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.”
“Wisdom, courtesy and courage are uncommon today.”
“That they are miss. That they are.” Osiah finished the pot of beans by himself, paying attention not to get any sauce in his moustache.
“They’ll be back.” Red Fox suggested, staring into the cookfire.
“Mmhmm. They want to kill you I suppose.”
“And why’s that? You seem a perfectly moral young woman.”
“It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of sacrifice.”
“A sacrifice you’re not too keen on then huh?”
“I want to live.”
“We all want to live sweetheart, it’s what you die for that counts. What do they want you to die for?”
“For our people. They would feed me to our gods to barter a year of harvests and game, free of plague and murder. My suffering would promise healthy babes and rain water that doesn’t burn or make ill. My death would protect my people from violent outlanders and the hulking beasts that lurk in the night sands.
“And they let you leave?”
“The ceremony is in the hunt.” Red Fox wiped a tear from the side of her bulb nose, then scratched it as if to conceal the behavior.
Osiah plucked a bottle of whisky from the dirt and gravel at his feet offering it to Red Fox with a gesture. She declined, so Osiah took a swig himself. “Ain’t that something. So you tell me then sweetheart, if you really believe all that, you’re being selfish ain’t ya? Fatman and Little Boy are popular gods these days, yours aint the first people I seen out cuttin’ each other up for ‘em. You’re hunted for what you are, not what you ain’t. You’re a shape changer and you ain’t selfless, so why not just fly away?”
“I can’t fly.” Red Fox muttered with a wavering voice. “I’m cursed.”
“Mmm. Could’ve fooled me. I don’t know much about magic or what it is that you people do, but if that’s the way of it… What about when you were young? You knew what’s in store, why didn’t you fly then?”
“The Bleeding Ceremony.”
Osiah cocked an eyebrow in response, toying with the whiskey bottle in his hand.“Bleeding ceremony?”
“When a girl’s first blood comes, there is a ceremony. The priestesses and crowmen come to your home, drawing in intoxicating spirits with sage and feather. They sing to the gods and the phases of the moon, then a sacrifice is made by the child. If she turns, she is a skinwalker, made to live life in a cage, awaiting her turn to be sacrificed.
A cage is all I’ve known. I’ve never flown up to meet the sky, to kiss the clouds and scoff at the earth below.”
Osiah twisted his seat in discomfort.
“So what, they’ll just send more men with bigger sticks till they get what they want, huh?”
“So I guess all that really does is put the pressure on. You gotta find something good to die for little miss,’fore someone decides for you.” Red Fox was silent. “What’s the blood about, all that paint?”
“It’s a promise.”
“What kind of promise?”
“It’s a promise to the animals whose forms I take, that their deaths were not in vain. It’s a promise that I will use everything that they have given to me, that I carry the weight of their deaths everywhere I go.”
“Mmm. Now, that woman with the bottle in the black rags, she the one who cursed you?” Red Fox nodded. “Bet it’s her kind brought Fatman and Little Boy to ya’ll in the first place. Them death worshippin’ types with their nuclear gods, they know how to play a crowd.”
Osiah shared the bottle of whiskey with himself for a while as Red Fox stared into nothing before he asked. “So, from how you understand it, how’s this curse supposed to work? What’re the rules?”
Osiah rode into town on an elderly painted horse, trotting down what used to be an asphalt road between what used to be concrete buildings. Time had worn down the rough edges, and everything looked like stone now, almost natural in their desecrated glory.
He smiled and tipped his hat as he came upon some children playing hide and seek in the ruins. They ran in fear as scared children are like to do and he followed them deeper into the city’s corpse to find the new life growing from within.
Homes had been raised where there were none before. Cornfields replaced empty plots of irradiated earth. People lived and laughed where before there were only ghosts. Osiah’s presence gave to alarm as he met with large men; spears and black face paint.
“Slow down now fellas, I ain’t here to cause any trouble. I got your little girlie here, I’m just bringin’ her back. Go on, git yer shaman, she’ll confirm it.”
“He’s not lying.” The shaman stepped from her pavilion. Smoke poured from her lungs as she spoke. She ashed her pipe with one hand and lifted the bottle of green liquid with the other. The liquid inside jumped with agitated vigor in Osiah’s direction. “Where is she?”
Osiah moved forward, ignoring the impatient gladiators who surrounded him. He reached into his bag as he rode, moving his hand over the grenade launcher, grabbing a small handful of cloth. He unfolded it, revealing a dead black-throated sparrow.
“She turned into this after ya’ll left. Her little heart stopped right then. Wasn’t hard to pick up yer trail, all the mess you made.”
“Why are you bringing her back to us?” The woman’s face was still and emotionless.
“Well it ain’t my place to argue with tradition. I had a knee-jerk reaction, I’ll admit it, don’t mean I can’t be cordial an’ bring the poor girl back home.” Osiah thought about his grenade launcher, then he thought about all the children playing hide and seek staring on at him, like he was some folkloric beast.
“Well we appreciate it. Our gods are not patient ones. Would you like something for your troubles? We could provide you with a fresh horse, this one looks as though it has one hoof in the rot already.” The woman placed a hand on the horse’s neck as Osiah dismounted.
Osiah replaced the bird and pulled the grenade launcher from his bag, swinging it towards the warrior men who greeted him at the village’s mouth. At the same time, Red Fox changed shape from the elderly horse to a half-blind coyote and leapt for the shaman’s throat.
Women and children screamed and the men looked on in disbelief as their priestess died silently in the red dirt. Her face was unflinching, showing neither surprise nor terror as the life left her body through her neck.
Red Fox turned back to her human shape and spoke to Osiah in a low voice as she crouched over her victim. “What do we do now? We’re surrounded, we won’t make it out of here alive.”
“I won’t. You can fly.”
“What if I can’t? What if the curse isn’t lifted? It’s only a rumor, whispered between branchwood bars.”
“No no, you made a promise. You made a promise to that little bird and to my horse, you owe him one, you owe him your life.”
“Your stick, you can shoot-”
“No no, too much collateral damage. My life ain’t worth theirs, it’s that witch what’s the problem and she’s taken care of now.”
“Don’t matter now. You don’t try you ain’t gonna live anyway, ain’t got nothin to lose.”
“I’ll die for somethin’ I believe in, that’s better than the alternative.”
The warriors were moving in slowly, disbelief becoming overwhelmed by rage.
“Go. Git!” Osiah shouted.
Red Fox sprouted feathers from her arms. Her feet curled up into talons and her mouth turned into a beak. She shrank into a little sparrow and fluttered up towards the sun.
Osiah smiled up at her as she disappeared into the enveloping light of the blue sky. His smile faded when he heard, “No, don’t. She’s gone, we’ll use him for the ceremony. Skinwalker or not, we’ll have a sacrifice for the gods.”
The days blurred together, flickering away in the wind as Osiah was starved, naked in his wooden cage. He could see that the shaman had not named a predecessor, and those who remained seemed to be making things up as they went along.
There was no magic, there were no spells or potions or promises. They only prayed to their nuclear gods, that they might accept this sacrilegious sacrifice.
Men would visit him day and night just to explain again in detail how his skin would be flayed and his pink body seared, so that Fatman might feast upon his soul. They joked that Fatman preferred skinwalkers because they taste of every animal they had ever been. They joked that Osiah would be a filthy, tasteless morsel, that Fatman might destroy them just as he destroyed the world before theirs in response to such an insult.
Osiah only smiled wishing for his comb and a bottle of whiskey, twitching his whiskers in a starved delusion. Some nights as he stared into the bleakness beyond his cell, he thought he saw a dog, or coyote with one eye looking back at him.
A thought cycled through his mind as he was captured, a quote, something someone wise once said. It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move onto better things. The words kept Osiah at peace as the nights passed, until the evening of his execution.
Osiah was strapped down to a stone slab in the shaman’s pavilion. Four old men surrounded him, each looking down at his face with a thin flaying knife in their hand.
“Stop you fools.” A still voice disturbed them, unwavering despite urgent words.
“Priestess! No, this is not possible, we watched you die.”
“And the gods gave me back. You cannot sacrifice this man, to do so would call down a reckoning from the gods our people would not survive.”
“But my lady, we must give them something.”
“And we will.”
Osiah sat up as soon as he was unstrapped, turning to see the shaman Red Fox had killed. In her hand she held a black-throated sparrow, the same one Osiah had presented to the shaman days ago. He held his breath as he snapped out of his stupor by the incredible circumstance he found himself in.
“I did not truly die. When the gods gave me back, my curse returned as well. The skinwalker died in a tree not far from here. I retrieved her body to save us from the gods’ wrath.
“My lady, you are truly wise and all-powerful, but this man attacked us, what would you have done with him?”
“He did not attack us. The skinwalker did. He could have destroyed our village with his weapon, but he chose not to. He acted justly to his nature, he’s not at fault for his misunderstanding of our traditions and culture.”
“But he deceived you!”
“He also brought us the skinwalker. That, he did not lie about. Were it not for his blundering, we might all be irradiated ash tomorrow. Instead we are saved. Would you argue with my judgment?” The men were silent. “Give him his things and a fresh horse. See he leaves the village alive. Tonight’s sacrifice is very important, the gods shall impart with me new knowledge. I’ll not have his blood soiling their wisdom. And you-”
The shaman stepped towards Osiah, face placid and still as she spoke. “It has been said that courtesy is as much a mark of a lady as courage, but you’ll find no such courtesy should you intrude on my land again. Is that understood?”
Osiah tried not to smile. “Yes ma’am.”
“Good. Now get out of my sight.”
Osiah sat by his cookfire, feeding handfuls of oats to his horse. Slowly, a fox crept up to his camp. He smiled at it and stirred the contents of his pot. The fox trotted up to him, then transformed into a young woman, dressed in hempen ropes and red paint.
“Hello friend.” she said with a smile.
“Good to see you again miss, I wasn’t sure if I would. Now, you never told me your little trick worked with people.”
“I didn’t know. I’d never had to kill someone before.”
“No one else knew either?”
“No. They knew only what they were told by the priestess. They trusted her implicitly, with all aspects of their lives.”
“How about now? They still trust her implicitly?”
“Yes. More so even now that she’s survived death.”
“And what do the gods have planned for those poor people? What great wisdom did they impart on their shaman?”
“No more sacrifices. Skinwalkers are to be embraced, used to hunt, help us survive, not chained under lock and key.”
“Slowly, the god’s protection will fade, and the people will have to protect themselves.”
“They will know peace, and eventually memory of the shamen and their nuclear gods will fade away.”
“Peace through deception eh?”
“Is there any other kind?” They smiled at each other for a moment. “I’m sorry about your horse.”
“Yeah. Well, Sterling was a good horse. He was sick though, and old. There was no gettin’ around it. That night you found us, that was sorta our last hurrah. I was gonna have to put him down either way. He woulda’ liked how things turned out.”
“Good. Thank you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m just glad it’ll all work out.”
“You taught me how to fly, Osiah.”
Osiah took a drink of his whiskey and made a face as it went down, showing his teeth. He stared into the cookfire and said, “Then fly, Red Fox.”
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