Late in the afternoon, just as the little fox was about to rouse herself for her evening hunt, something pricked her.

A flea, she thought, sitting up to scratch.

The shadowy den was filled with the warm, rusty odor of half-rotted leaves and her own muskiness. Outside was bitter winter.

As she scratched, the itch became worse, in just that spot she couldn’t reach at the center of her long, limber spine, no matter how she bent and twisted. The itch became intolerable, and she whined as she scratched.

The itch could only mean she had been Chosen and that she was being Sent somewhere with an urgency that bewildered her. Young as she was—in her first round of seasons—she was accustomed to being bewildered. She obeyed.

* * *

Alma wanted to turn over. Just to turn over. If she could stretch her arm out she could reach the button and call the nurse and get her to help her turn over. Which nurse was on duty this time of day? The quick one with jangly earrings and bad teeth who was too rough to trust with fragile old bones? No, that was the one who brought breakfast. She’d had lunch already, hadn’t she? Maybe even dinner. Hard to tell which was which with the slop they kept bringing. No taste, no smell. She wanted to turn over, to stretch out her spine, to get rid of the pain in her spine. Maybe she’d go back to sleep.

* * *

The fox burst from her den and hurtled down the mountainside, aware that she was conspicuous in the late-day glare, a red streak with black-tipped feet and a white-tipped tail flashing across a snow-white world. She tried to keep to cover. The tender smell of mice and rabbits and other prey rose up from dens and burrows and hollows around and below her; she could sense their trembling anticipation, their need to guess what she would do to be ready to escape her. Before she could sort out the enticing aromas, her stomach knotted painfully. Strange—she should be hungry, but That which had her in its grip wouldn’t let her think about food. Her keen ears caught the faint gasps of little animals breathing again as the angel of death passed over.

At sunset she reached the treacherous black stone path on which humans rode their metal beasts. She crouched in the dead weeds choking the ditch and watched and watched and watched until no metal beast had roared past for many beats of her racing heart, then forced herself to dart out onto the path.

A metal beast immediately rumbled around the bend, its eyelights falling upon her, all but burning her—she thought it would surely pursue her. She leaped and threw herself toward the ditch on the opposite side, landing heavily and painfully so that the breath was driven from her.

Filthy wind buffeted her and stung her nostrils as the beast roared past, but it stayed on the stone path and ignored her.

Farther down the mountain she had to cross the stone path again, for it switched back and forth on its way to the plain. Nine times altogether she braved the path; she came to feel contempt for the metal beasts, knowing them for lazy and stupid hunters. Letting herself run on the open ground beside the path as it leveled out, she made excellent time.

When she reached the last wild tree she threw herself onto the ground and lay panting, trying to revive herself after her headlong flight. A dead metal beast, its sides ripped open, its heart stilled, lay beside a ruined human dwelling. She could smell rats and knew they were curled asleep somewhere among the metal bones.

Her breathing had almost returned to normal when she felt the stabbing, intolerable itch. Stifling her cry, she jumped to her feet and ran down the center of the stone path, knowing by instinct where to go but trembling nonetheless.

She approached a second human dwelling, huddled lightless in the snow. A dog barked and howled in outrage as she passed. Around the dwelling the snow was so foul and trampled that the trails of both human and nonhuman animals were unreadable. She wondered how any species could survive in such disarray.

Soon the dwellings of humans were numerous on either side of the path. All around she saw things warped to human uses. The smell of the creatures sickened her even though she knew they were safely asleep.

The guiding instinct stopped her where a clump of scraggly cedar bushes had been permitted to grow in the yard of a great, long, dark building. The bushes couldn’t offset the bleakness of the building or its yard, bare except for a blanket of filthy, foot-chopped snow, but they might shield her from hostile eyes. She crouched in the meager cover. She was terrified, cold, exhausted. Her paws hurt. She longed to circle out a bed in the bare earth under the bushes and bury her nose warmly in her tail and sleep, but she feared the punishing itch.

The building was grimmer than any human habitation she had yet seen. When she sniffed the frigid midnight, the air carried the stench of disease as well as a sound that made her want to cover her ears with her paws—the moaning of souls that should have been dead but were still living. No place on earth could be more appalling to her.

This, she knew, was the place to which she had been Sent.

* * *

Alma wanted . . .

Roast chicken. She could remember the taste, the texture, the smell, the feel of it sliding down her throat. You hardly had to chew chicken if you’d cooked it long enough, filling the house with rich, warm, appetite-teasing smells. She remembered crackly, papery skin, where most of the spices were. Salt-and-peppery grease on her lips and fingers. The last shreds of meat clinging to the succulent, suckable bones.

They wouldn’t let her have roast chicken. She couldn’t chew it, they said. Of course not. Not when they wouldn’t let her have her teeth. Her dentures didn’t fit right, they said, because her gums had shrunk. Her teeth, they warned, would rub her mouth raw and give her sores. Besides, they said, she might choke on them when she fell asleep. She was always falling asleep.

* * *

Preparing to leave the scant protection of the scrub cedars, the fox shook herself from sharp black nose to bushy white-tipped tail. Abruptly she began to feel another strange thing on this night of strange things—rearrangement was taking place, a burning, turning, yearning that began in the soles of her feet and pierced her guts and made her ears ring and her eyes water.

She sneezed.

She lifted her forepaw to lick the burning pad and wffffed in horror. Instead of her own dainty black paw she saw a tiny palm and fingers, the hand of a human child. She was compelled to stretch upward, her head and back rasping painfully against rough bark and sharp-needled branches.

She looked down and saw her beautiful red-and-black-and-white body transforming into something hideous, defenseless, pink and naked. A human child. Female. A bushy red mane, useful neither for attracting a foxy mate nor for protecting her from the cold, fell to her shoulders.

Strangely enough, she didn’t feel cold. Light seemed to emanate from the pink skin, and although it was cold light, it seemed to form a barrier through which the cold outside did not enter.

That which had Sent the child pushed her forward, urging her to walk. She tried to bound foxily on her toes but instead crumpled forward, the little hands and knees smarting as she landed on them in the dirty snow. She reached up, made the tiny fingers grab the cedar boughs, then pulled herself upright. Holding the bush for support, she taught herself to keep her balance, to put one foot in front of the other and to rock from heel to toe. The strange prints the little pink feet made in the snow were terrifyingly human but reassuringly small.

* * *

Alma wanted . . .

Peppermint ice cream. Pink as a party dress. She’d had a pink organdy party dress once, pink with little white flecks on it, just like peppermint ice cream. Her daddy couldn’t take his eyes off her when she wore that dress, and he’d take her down to the drug store after church and buy her peppermint ice cream in a dish. A dish because cones always leaked, and she didn’t want ice cream on her dress.

She wanted to turn over, but her body seemed to be made of wood. She needed to call the nurse to get some help straightening out her legs, which hurt, and her feet, which were numb except where her heels were rubbing against the rough sheet. What did they make their sheets out of? Sandpaper?

* * *

A stone-but-not-stone path, similar to the ones humans made for their metal beasts, led up to the tall double doors in the front of the great grim building. The shining child forced herself onto the dirty snow of the yard, crossing from bushes to path in a quick burst.

The intimidating doors that would let her enter the heart of the building were latched with a metal contraption with a long stiff tongue that she would have to depress with her tiny thumb while pulling with all her weight on a vertical handle. She struggled and struggled with the latch—it was more than a small child could manage, especially a child who had spent all her life up to that very moment as a fox.

The hideous roar of one of the metal beasts ruptured the frigid silence.

The child looked frantically for a hiding place, but the featureless building offered none. She huddled in what she hoped was a shadow, heart thudding, painfully aware of her radiant pink skin.

The beast’s farseeing white eyes raked the front of the building as it drew close to the cedar bushes and came to a halt. The eyes lost their light. The beast’s side opened to let a man emerge, then closed with a shuddering k-chunk.

The man bustled toward the building, hard-heeled shoes beating an irate tattoo on the path, hand outstretched toward the door handle. He didn’t seem to see the child—although he would certainly be expected to notice a tiny naked child out alone on a snowy night, a child who glowed like the full moon—

He opened the door explosively, angrily.

The child held her breath and darted through the dimly lit opening at the same time the man did, close enough to have nipped him.

Pfffgh! The stench that assailed her when she took her first breath inside the building made the child rub her nose with both hands. The building stank of urine and droppings, but the animals that had left these signs were old and ill—so ill, her fox instincts told her, that their bodies could no longer heal themselves and wouldn’t be fit to eat. The child hoped she hadn’t been Sent all this way for her talents as a scavenger. Although she loved rabbit and field mouse and other fresh kill, she would also eat carrion; the child knew That which had Sent her especially loved foxes for being both predator and scavenger.

The man walked rapidly through the middle of the wide, dimly lit room and disappeared down a dark tunnel in the opposite wall. His sharp footfalls echoed and disappeared a moment later.

The shining child looked around her. She was in a large, open room filled with objects her budding human sensibility told her were “chairs” and “tables” and “couches.” In addition to the corridor down which the angry man had disappeared, corridors led off to both the right and the left. The corridor on the right was brightly lit and lined with doors that stood open. The corridor to the left was dark and lined with closed doors.

The child felt herself compelled toward the corridor to the right. Rather than instantly obeying, she defied That which held her in its grip, twisting around to see what kind of fastener the front doors had on the inside. Instead of the frustrating handle, each door had a long bar across it at about the height of her nose. She reached up and grasped one of them. And pushed. Nothing happened. Perhaps it was locked. She tried the other door. Pushed. Pushed again—

The bar moved and the door opened! She was looking out at the yard, watching the first flakes of new snow begin to fall. She knew now that her exit, like her entrance, had been arranged. She let the door swing shut and darted down the right-hand corridor, expecting the intolerable itch to punish her lapse of faith.

But when she stepped into the corridor she only felt alone. Nothing told her where to go or what to do next. She peeked into the first open door, then the door across the hall, and the next door, and the one after that. Each room held two beds and each bed held an old human male or female. Most were thin, barely more than skin stretched over bone. They rolled and moaned in their beds, eyes closed, and the child could feel no being radiating back from them. They didn’t seem to know who or what they were. If they lived on the mountainside, she thought proudly, some predator would have granted them the boon of death long before they reached this pitiful condition.

* * *

No, Alma thought, it was her daughter Lee Ann that had the pink party dress and her husband Ray, damn old fart, who always took his little girl out to get peppermint ice cream. That girl had Ray wrapped around her finger. What was it about girls and their fathers? Neither of them would come to see Alma here in the joint--that’s how she thought of it, the joint, her prison, her punishment. Nobody ever came on visitor’s day.

They wouldn’t let her have ice cream. It gave her the runs. They said her system couldn’t handle milk anymore.

* * *

The shining child crouched, ready to flee, as a woman wearing white and carrying a small paper cup appeared around the bend of the corridor. She smelled healthy enough, although she was too fat to stay that way for long. The child glared defiantly, half expecting a cry of outrage. The woman, who had a kind face, walked past without seeing the child and disappeared into the room across the hall. The child felt the urge to peek in to see what was going on in the room.

The first bed was empty.

An old man lay in the second bed, close to the curtained window. Although death was creeping through his body, his smell lacked the tang of fear. From the look on his face, the child would have guessed he was listening to sweet keening from the Other Side. She crept into the room and stood by the foot of the old man’s bed.

The woman raised the man’s head with one hand. She poked a pill into his mouth with the other and held a cup of water to his lips so he could wash it down. “Come on, baby,” she crooned. “Take it on down like a good boy.”

The old man swallowed, but the shining child could tell that he took no more notice of the woman than he did of the wallpaper. He looked straight at the child and his face broke into a beautiful, welcoming smile.

“So glad to see you, pretty little thing, pretty little thing,” he said. “And ain’t you a bright little girl? But I’m not the one, no no no no, not me, not yet. Gotta say goodbye to someone—she’ll be here tomorrow—then I’m coming Over. Soon . . . ” His bony old hands shook uncontrollably as he nodded his head and his wispy cloud of hair.

The woman in white wiped the man’s mouth with a quick flick of cloth. “Who you think you're talkin’ to, baby? Your daughter?”

He ignored the woman in white. “Keep going down the hall. On down the hall.” He rolled his eyes to show the child the way. “Turn left. Know it when you see it.”

The woman turned with a mock frown and looked right at the shining child and laughed and shook her head. “Honey, you're a scream. You always think you're talkin’ to somebody and nothin’s there but air.”

The child slipped back into the hall and kept going until the corridor turned left. All the doors were closed, and the overhead lights had been dimmed. The door, unmistakably the door, looked like all the others along the corridor except it glowed with the same cold light that the shining child saw coming from herself. She lifted her little hand and knocked.

Too lightly—there was almost no sound. She forced herself to knock again, harder.

A muffled reply came from inside.

The shining child reached up and grasped the doorknob and turned and turned until her little fingers ached and finally the catch clicked and the door slid open. Leaving the door ajar, the child stepped inside.

* * *

Alma saw the little pink girl step hesitantly through the half-opened door. Well, at last. Her granddaughter. Naked as a jaybird. What was the matter with Lee Ann, sending the kid over without any clothes on?

The child brought an eerie light with her—but at least it offset the harsh fluorescents in the ceiling. The kid had developed sort of an animal look since the last time Alma had seen her, something Alma couldn’t pin down. Well, that guy Lee Ann married had that same foxy look. What was his name—

Alma cleared her throat. “Some granddaughter you are!” Her voice was raspy, jerky. She hadn’t used it in a long time. “I’ve been in here a thousand years, feels like, and you only come to see me now.”

The dam of silence broken, a torrent of words flooded out. “Didn’t you bring me any ice cream? Cookies, a pie? A nice chicken leg? If you knew how bad they feed us in here . . . but no, it’s just you and that flaming red hair—funny, I don’t remember you had red hair before. And look at you—naked as the Garden of Eden! Haven't you got any shame?”

The child’s perplexed smile revealed a mouthful of jagged teeth.

“What sharp teeth you have!” exclaimed Alma. “You always were a pretty girl, with those sharp little features, but those teeth! Why didn’t your mother ever get ’em fixed? Awful for a girl to have such foxy teeth.”

The child stepped closer to the bed.

Alma caught a faint, rusty, rotten-leaf odor mixed with something sharper and muskier. “And you stink! Don’t you ever take a bath?”

The shining child raised her shoulder and sniffed at it with her small nose. She frowned and shook her head, as though trying to make sense of what Alma had said. Obviously she failed to do so—the frown deepened, and she blinked and took a breath to speak. She pursed her lips and swallowed as though not quite sure how to use them. “I . . . for-give. You,” she said, too slowly, too distinctly.

As though that was all there was to it, Alma thought. As though that made everything all right! People thought they could get away with murder as long as they said sappy things like I’m sorry. I forgive you. I love you . . . It always made Alma furious. “It’s not that easy,” she said.

The child took a deep breath and looked sharply at Alma, just like the lawyer at her divorce hearing. “You want—what?”

“I want to get out of here and go on with my life.”

“You want to live forever.” The child’s speech had lost its halting quality and become effortless. Smooth. Like that damn lawyer.

“I got a right to live. I got another ten good years in me. I always thought I had another ten good years left—”

“You could try, I guess.” She shrugged.

“What are you talking about—what unnatural kind of a child are you, anyway?” Alma tried to raise her stick of a body and grimaced with pain. It took her a moment to recover her breath. “We’re fighters in this family. Pioneer stock! Indian fighters! We don't give up.”

The child leaned close to Alma's face. “Death's not always the enemy," she said.

"How dare you talk to me like that!" Alma couldn't stop her voice from shaking.

The child cocked her head like a bright-eyed puppy and said, "You were a good daughter. And a good wife. A good mother, a good grandmother."

"You don't mean that," Alma said. Although I was, she thought. Sometimes I was. At least some of the times I was.

"We all love you. And thank you."

Alma's heart felt tight and tears started in her eyes. Why didn't they ever say it? Why didn't I ever say it?

The child scrambled up on the bed, leaning even closer. Her breath stank the way Alma remembered her old dog Pug’s breath used to stink. "Don't you remember what Alma means?" she asked. “Did you forget why they named you that?”

“My daddy said it was because I was a poor little soul without a pot to pee in and they didn’t have anything to give me. They never gave me anything. I never had anything I didn't get for myself."

The child looked frustrated, irritated. “I have something to give you,” she said, and quick, quick, quick like a fox, she sank her sharp little teeth into Alma’s throat.

Surprised, Alma tried to scream but couldn’t. She panicked, fighting to catch her breath, feeling as though tons of invisible water were crashing down on her. But then she realized she didn’t need to breathe. Didn’t want to breathe. She could see the red, red blood spurting out. Not only was there an amazing amount, but it seemed happy, glad to be released. The blood was warmer than she expected, and sticky. The warmth running down her chest, between her flat old breasts, puddling on her belly, wasn’t unpleasant.

“Let go,” the child was saying. “It’s time.”

Alma had something she desperately wanted to say if she could only force her voice through her throat. Tears were budding in her eyes and blooming on her cheeks. She felt rearrangement taking place, a burning, turning, yearning that began in the soles of her feet and pierced her guts and made her ears ring and her eyes water.

She sneezed.

In that moment, without meaning to, she slipped out of the tree-trunk body, rising to the ceiling. She bumped gently and bounced once, like a balloon, before she came to rest. Looking down, Alma could see the shining child bending over the body that used to be hers, covering her face and upper torso. Bright red blood puddled on the white sheets, shimmering in the cold fire around the little girl.

She was scared but forced herself to let it go. She realized what she wanted to say to the child: I’m glad to be released.

Alma hoped her face was smiling, although she feared it was twisted and ugly. The rage she’d felt moments before belonged to someone else. She couldn’t feel anything except the cool, slightly rough plaster she was bobbing against and into and almost through—

I’m glad to be released. She started to slip through the ceiling.

* * *

The shining child pulled the sheet up to the woman’s chin, smearing her tiny hands with blood. She jumped to the floor. She could feel the unpleasant churning of rearrangement starting deep in her guts, and the blood made her hands ache and burn.

Darting through the half-open door, she ran down the corridor as fast as the little pink feet could carry her. What would humans do if they caught her in fox form?

* * *

Alma, in the crawl space under the rafters, could look down through the ceiling, which she could tell had no real substance, and see foxiness overtaking the child as she fled through the winding corridors. For the first time in more years than she could remember, Alma felt beautiful, supple, able to do as she pleased. Releasing herself like a breath, she passed through the roof. Looking down through the building’s tissues, she saw the child running through the corridors, running for her life—

* * *

The child reached the room of chairs and tables and couches. She grabbed the bar across the door and pushed with all her might. That would be impossible for a fox, she thought—

The door burst open. She fell through, landing painfully on her hands and knees on the stone path.

* * *

The doors flew open, and the Soul saw the child, who by now had a fox’s long tail and black paws, explode through, stumble, then scrabble rapidly, awkwardly, painfully, on all fours across the yard. The rust-red form that landed in the bushes with a faint thud was a fox, a child no more. In a moment the creature shivered from the black tip of her sharp little nose to the white tip of her bushy red tail. Springing to her feet, she raced through the sleeping town, heading toward the distant mountain.

Snow had been falling for some time, making the building’s roof and the ground around it clean and white. The only color was a trail of blood-red paw prints across the yard, so beautiful they made the Soul ache.

As they vanished under new snow, the Soul turned at last toward home.

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