Featured Story • April 2016
A Trade at the Fox Wedding
It starts with a girl in chase of hope.
It starts with broken fingers and ragged dreams.
It starts, as these things tend to, with someone looking where they shouldn’t.
* * *
When rain and sunshine slips into the slits of your eyes, you will see it. The fox wedding. Once you see, you cannot unsee. Once the Forest knows you have exposed her, she shrugs off her coat for good. Then, the trees yawn and glowing roots snarl the wooded paths. Then, a hundred true names exchanged for wishes wriggle on the forest floor. Then, lullabies not yet rhyme-wrangled of their magic swing from the trees, ready to sing and snare.
The girl stares at me. Her eyes are wide, hands shaking on a stolen kitchen knife. I admire this because at least she’s in the posture of bravery. She has stumbled into the wedding. I stand guard, leaning out on a cane I do not need. I sweep my tails beneath my robes. My ears twitch in the attitude of listening. Or hunger. I do not yet know.
“Please,” she says. “They—” the girl stops, swallowing the memory.
I tilt my head because I think this is what one does when you want to show pity. I also do this when I am hungry. The girl raises her gaze.
“Please. Help me. I had to escape.”
* * *
I remember escape. Dimly. Animal hair has grown over the memory. But I sense it, an old wound. I stare at my once-hands through the velvet-nap of clawed paws. They flinch from the memory of a dropped pot. No need for that, I tell myself dully.
There was no need to flinch, dream or yearn after I stole into the sunshine rain.
* * *
A hundred years ago, I possessed a flat line of tomorrows. My tomorrows were shaped like an ouroboros, bent cyclical with pain. I knew tomorrow would suck the violet from yesterday’s bruises and dust them yellow. I knew that tomorrow the mistress’s baby would wail thorny-cries. I knew I would rock the child back-and-forth even though its weight on my fingers—snapped once for dropping a pot, snapped again for licking the burnt skin—conjured blooms vermillion and cadmium with pain.
When I escaped, no petrichor lit up the earth. There was just the smell of alive things wailing in the rain. I had not yet seen Fox Forest. But the wind knew me. And the wind warned, blowing cool against broken fingers clamped around a stolen knife. The wind clucked her silver tongue, shaking her head of all the squalls and gusts and blusters resting in her feathers.
“Dear child, do you think I have not seen this before?” puffed the wind. “Do you think I have not held the hands of stolen girls and borne them back home? Do not venture into these woods. Wait to die. Wait a little longer and I will take you as my own, sweet orphan. I will make you a zephyr and wreathe your hair with clouds and together we will blow cold-shouldered gusts at the people who will forget us.”
“No,” I said. “The wedding party will take me away, for I have a name I do not want. The foxes will take my name offering and I will never need to return to that place.”
The wind laughed and it was a terrible thing.
“Oh child. Do you think your name is all they want?”
* * *
I look upon this girl before me with the trembling lip and wide eyes. She is me and I am her, both of us speaking our words around throats clogged on words bitter and unsaid.
“I will give anything to join the wedding party,” she says, holding out the blade. “My blood, I will part with. My heart, you may have. My name. My skin. My hair—”
“Little girl, do you think that is what they want?”
* * *
When I escaped into the forest, the wind had forsaken me with a sad shake of her blue head. She left a winter chill against my breastbone. A token of warning.
When I escaped into the forest, I crossed the fields of the unburied dead. I stepped over deflating bodies, purple as storm clouds. I did not stop until I came across the Jubokko. The tree lowered the thorny tangles of its branches. Fat drops of blood hung from its branches, fruit from the dead themselves. It spoke from hidden mouths scurried beneath blood red brambles:
—girl thing, what hell do you seek in the wedding? Why not
—recline in my branches, I will stroke your
—hair and empty that burdensome blood of yours, how much more merciful I
—am than the wedding party . . .
I shook a broken finger at the Jubokko.
“No. I am saving my blood for the fox wedding. That is the trade for my freedom.”
The Jubokko rumbled a laugh.
Oh, girl thing—
—do you think that is what they want?
* * *
“What do they want? What must I give?” exclaims the girl.
Whatever dull human memory scraped at my mind is fading with the sun, but I remember what I gave.
* * *
Once, I too had stumbled into the fox wedding. I too had stood out of place among the lanterns of teeth, the bone-harp, the mandolin of changelings, the rice cakes gleaming, the maiden hiding her jealous horns. I too had waited at the entrance, my knees raw and scorched from kneeling.
“Please. I must escape. What must I give?”
Hope, murmured the forest. We want your hope.
“But—” I started, brows furrowing, “that is why I came here. For hope.”
You have it. And now you must part with it.
“What will become of me?”
You will become as one separated from hope.
* * *
The trade burned my throat, tugging out little memories I never knew had sunk their teeth in my skin: soft apples bright as dawn, a cherry blossom in a bowl, a stolen afternoon of sleep, light ribboning through a lace of trees, rainfall, snow drifts curtaining temple edges.
The trade razed my body, pushing my jaw into a muzzle, broken fingers sharpening into claws, spine now supple for a hunt.
I became as one who had been separated from hope.
I became a beast.
* * *
“No price is too great,” says the girl.
Wisps and blinks, my memory is a moth-eaten thing. What are hands? Had I not always had paws? Sunset turns the ground livid red with fury—a scream unshaped and spread wide on the earth.
But still I recall. I recall something needling. Regret? Hunger? I know not. I am an echo of a memory made flesh and striped with fur. My claws dig into the ground.
“Please,” says the girl.
My tongue is heavy, for I am sad, I think, or perhaps I am too hot in the summer rain. My muzzle lengthens. I paw the ground. Eyes hectic. Time to hunt. I glance at the knife in the girl’s hand and wonder at her speed. I remember the wind’s words. And before my teeth lengthen, before the light claims this tame form, I answer the girl. I answer as one who remembers the price of hope, as one who remembers enough to recognize its absence—
“I am sorry, child, but the guest list is full.”
Roshani Chokshi writes fairy tale retellings with Asian twists. Her work has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons and Book Smugglers. Her debut young adult fantasy, The Star-Touched Queen, comes out on April 26 from St. Martin’s Press and is a retelling of Hades and Persephone.
About “A Trade at the Fox Wedding,” she writes: “In the South, we have a saying that when it’s raining and sunny the devil is beating his wife. In less violent parts of the world, they say that rain and sun means the kitsunes are celebrating a wedding. Guess which explanation I liked more? But I still loved the strange violence of the South’s expression, and decided to explore that.”
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