“The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and to guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, ibexes, and gazelles are in cages in our zoos.”
—Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Animal Powers
n the beginning—and still—Fox dances in his black stockings, tracing a perfect arc in Bear’s periphery. His nostrils sip the air, his only waking impulse the mouth-watering curiosity pulling him forward to the hindquarters of a deer sunk in a bed of pine needles or to the ripe, delicate layers of rotting fish buried in the bank of red sand. Bear’s secrets give way so sumptuously beneath Fox’s paws. He is exquisitely attuned to Bear, feels the air quiver when Bear turns again toward one of his caches, and Fox slinks off, just out of reach.
When the berries dry up and the snow sifts down through the trees, Bear disappears, and it’s a matter of principle for Fox to follow the thread of a scent on the cold air, to steal into Bear’s den. The redness of him, his intricate musk trickles into Bear’s dreams, and Bear moans as nimble black lips grasp and sharp white incisors drag a rabbit carcass from a cocoon of dried grass out into the snow.
Fox and Bear dream through the long winter nights, while the Storyteller describes them in stories made while watching from the patient underbrush, while praying for god to appear as a fat buck. Stories of Fox pilfering Bear’s honey, Bear’s fish; Fox tricking Bear into ice fishing with his tail, formerly bushy; Bear insisting, in tale after tale, that might is superior to wile—and proven wrong again and again.
Spring is when it rains and rains, and—like the stream that thaws and swells and overflows, moving everything in its grasp onward through space and time—the Storyteller, alienated now from the forces that made him, reaches in and makes a mess of things. Fox reaches for an easy fish but is caught in the roiling water and buffeted by the churning debris of Nature and Civilization—gravel, shards of clay pots, broken branches, the twisted frame of a loom, clots of winter leaves, a cracked coat of arms, a sodden map of the British Empire.
The Storyteller deposits Fox, weak and battered, far downstream. The unfamiliar forest reeks of Bear. The smell is coming from a heap of rocks, a castle, toward which Fox creeps until the door bangs open, and three male Bears emerge on hind legs, dressed in cloak, in tunic, in doublet and pantaloons. As they step onto the path, the Bears’ front paws dangle idiotically. Fox is pulled after them as if attached by a string, unsteady and disoriented, for he, too, is walking on hind legs, his nose exceedingly far from the ground, his luxurious tail wagging with unease.
The Bears notice him there and approach, and Fox cowers inside the sensory overload of them, three boars together. He bows low, drawing his foot back along the ground in keeping with a custom that has nothing to do with him but has somehow taken over his body, and the Bears grunt with laughter and call him “Scrapefoot” before going on their way.
Where has it gone—Fox’s supple ability to evade capture? In this unholy place, any of the Bears could have torn him to pieces while he bowed and scraped. For the first time, he wants to be free of Bear, and he wrests himself out of the invisible grip of the Storyteller, who has decided all animals must walk upright. Fox hunches now on all fours and feels more himself. And as the scent of the Bears fades, he is compelled to fumble with the door latch and slip inside the castle, for where Bear is, there is an easy meal. He ransacks the place, searching for the caches, but the Storyteller—unfathomably—has stashed nothing in the cushions lining the three thrones of rock, nothing in the wardrobe but costumes for dancing—red wool jackets, feathered hats, iron nose rings on long chains.
Finally, a delicate scent from the dining table: three bowls of milk. Fox dips a paw and licks. The first too sour, the second too sweet, the third just right, and he laps it all up. Then, swollen and milk drunk, he stumbles toward the biers layered with leaves and curls up on the one arranged just right.
His senses deadened by the milk and the thick walls of the castle, Fox is unaware of the storm stirring outside, of the Bears’ return, even when they exclaim, “Trespasser! Thief!”
He wakes only when they have him by the legs and are swinging him out the window and into the whirling wind.
And when the Storyteller finally drops Fox to the ground again, he finds his fur flattened by swaths of cloth that smell of Civilization, a scent adjacent not to delicious rotting things but to a creature that has died long ago and dried to a husk. There is something on Fox’s head, slipping down into his eyes—the Storyteller has dressed him with a nest of gray hair.
Someone kicks him in the side, oof. He tastes blood, smells fire, and looks up, terrified, at a man wearing a black coat, brandishing a stick.
“Can’t stay here, old woman,” the constable says, holding his nose, and Fox stands unsteadily on hind legs.
He has been hijacked completely now, gone from brother, mentor, god drawn on the cave wall to an object of suspicion, disgust, scorn. The Storyteller spots a Fox loping along the edge of the woods and sees a tricky chicken thief, a fur stole. An indigent old woman comes weaving out of the forest, a mirror of the Storyteller’s own failures, and he thinks witch. Fox totters away from the constable, in among the trees, his movement constricted by skirts and cloak.
Not far into the woods, a little stone house, and again, as though they’ve been waiting for him, three boars troop out, this time dressed in striped and flowered and checkered waistcoats with pocket watches. They hardly smell of anything now, more prop than animal. Tap, tap, tap, go their walking canes along the lane toward town.
Fox watches from behind a tree, cold in spite of his clothing, his stomach gnawing at itself. He’ll never catch a rabbit in this getup. Drawn to the little house inevitably, instinctively, in spite of past disappointments, for where there’s Bear, there’s food. But inside, the only edible thing is a small bowl of sticky gray gruel, but at least he can curl up in a warm bed.
He wakes to the Bears’ bellowing:
“A stinking vagrant! Call the constable!” says the great huge Bear.
“Let’s burn her alive!” says the middle-sized Bear with a gleam in his eye.
“Let’s throw her out the window!” says the little small wee Bear.
Once again, out the window—and into the midst of a miasmic cloud of creativity born in a human city. It gathers strength and mass over the river bobbing with the sewage and junk necessary to Civilization. The cloud carries Fox along until the Storyteller reaches in and plucks him out, throws him into a thicket far from the home he remembers and longs for with all of his senses.
He is wearing a short childish dress now, which his tail can’t help but lift in the back, exposing his haunches. He draws his testicles up even tighter against his pelvis, to keep them safe. The Storyteller has changed the nest on his head to one of golden hairs, which curl every which way and interfere with his peripheral vision. He peers out from the thicket into a clearing wherein stands a little house.
Again three bears come out, this time a boar, a sow, and a cub, dressed as father, mother, and child. Fox’s mouth fills with saliva, and he waits, drooling, for the boar to kill the cub and eat its meat. He scans the landscape to anticipate where the boar might cache the carcass. Instead, the Bears set out together at a jaunty pace along a path through the woods.
Inside, Fox ransacks, eats the paltry offering, and sleeps, only to be awoken by Baby Bear’s high-pitched voice in his ear.
This time, to Fox’s amazement, he escapes before even one curved black claw can graze the sash around his waist. An inkling of hope, then, that he might escape this story, this Storyteller altogether.
“I hope you’ve learned your lesson!” Baby Bear shrieks after him as Fox dashes into the forest.
Fox puzzles over what the lesson might be—perhaps that these Bears are not Bears at all. He crawls under the low branches of a dogwood to shed the golden wig, snags the cloak on raspberry thorns, gnaws through the waistbands of the skirts and leaves them draped over a log. Then he lifts his nose, tastes the air, sinks into the place inside him of Knowing, and sets off for home. ■