Fiction / November 2012 (Issue 19)

The Fox Princess

by Grace Andreacchi

There was once a fox princess who lived deep in the deepest part of the forest, where the shadows are long and green and the footsteps of men are never heard. Was she a happy little fox princess? I believe she was. She dined on pigeons and fat, juicy hares, she played wild games with butterflies and glittering golden beetles, she was quite in charge. In summer, she lay down in a pool of bright sunshine and fell asleep, all the while humming to herself some fox tune or other. Fox music is very fine and resembles something you might hear if you were to stand beside an ancient monastery on a summer night while the monks are chanting, temple bells are ringing, cicadas are singing, birds are whistling and babies are crying. In winter, she hid herself in her private den, a most secret place under a rocky hill, surrounded by great grey boulders and tall pines. The winter wind made a sound in the pines like the loneliest child in the world, crying for its mother: Come back come back come back … The snow fell thick and white here and covered the entrance to the fox princess's den. She didn't mind—she liked it that way.

Let me tell you a bit about the fox princess. If you think of an ordinary fox, you've hardly any idea of her at all. She was small, red and slinky slim with a coat so thick and so soft men longed to touch it. But one must never touch the fox princess! This is strictly forbidden, and if you try it, she'll bite your hand for you that quick, with teeth so sharp you'll not forget it soon. Her eyes are green and tilt up at the corners, they glow in the dark, too, like bright green fire. Her feet are finicky and fine, and when she cares to, she can rise up on her hind legs and dance a wondrous fox trot. When she runs on all four feet, she is as swift as the wind. No one could ever catch her, unless it be old Fujin himself, but they are the best of friends and always run together.

Now one day, a young farmer went to the forest to gather firewood. The snow was especially deep that winter, and he found nothing but a few small sticks along the well-trodden paths. The boy wandered deeper and deeper into the forest, and soon the short winter's day was already darkening into night. Little did he know, he had wandered into the kingdom of the fox princess.

Overhead an owl cried out, Hoo hoo! shattering the white silence. A shower of snow fell to earth, landing just at his feet. Frightened by the cold and dark, the boy began to cry.

The fox princess poked her head out of her den and pricked up her ears. "What's that?" she thought to herself. Then she caught sight of the boy, and despite his tears, she liked the look of him. "Here's a game," she thought. The truth is, life can be a bit dull in the deepest part of the forest, especially in winter.

There was a sudden rush of wind, the boy turned round and there before him on the path stood a beautiful young girl. She was dressed in a robe of rosy pink silk and had the elegant bearing of a fine princess. The farmer was astonished.

"What are you doing here, deep in the wood, Miss?"

"I'm looking for a husband," she replied, tossing her long hair to show off her loveliness. "What are you doing here?" And as she spoke, she lay her small, delicate hand on his arm and looked up at him so sweetly that his heart melted and he forgot completely his fear of the forest and of the night.

"Well, if it's a husband you're after, come home with me and be my wife," he said. The fox princess thought she might as well, so off they went.

When they got to the farm, the house was cold and the pot was empty. The fox princess set about making things right. Soon a bright fire was burning and a fat chicken was simmering in the pot. They ate a fine dinner and went to bed. The farmer's son stroked her rosy fox fur till she squealed with delight, all the time he thought he was making love to the lovely girl. Delighted with his attentions, the fox princess nipped the end of his ear off, but the boy barely noticed he was having so much fun. And so it went on, night after night.

So they were married, and you can imagine what happened next, can't you? That's right, a little boy was born to the fox princess. Now the farmer was happier than ever—he had a son! So what if its ears were pointed and twitched by themselves, he was a beautiful little boy and could already run when other children were still learning to walk. At the very same time that the child was born, the farmer's dog also gave birth to a single black haired puppy. Now this puppy hated the fox princess, and every time she came near him, he seemed to go mad, bearing his teeth, growling, snapping and barking till he almost fell over sideways. The fox princess simply couldn't bear it anymore.

"Either that dog goes or I do!" she said to her husband. But he was fond of the dog and refused. "So that is how little you love me!" she thought.

That night while her husband was asleep, she cried bitter tears. Then she took the sleeping child in her arms and slipped out of the house. She was halfway across the field that led away to the forest when she heard the yapping of the black dog. By the light of the moon, she saw it running towards her, closer and closer it came, as far in the distance the tiny figure of her husband ran after it. Soon the dog caught up with her, for it's difficult to run on only two legs and with a child in your arms. She placed her son gently in the long grass, just before the dog gave a terrible growl and leapt at her throat. The fox princess gave a cry and ran off on four legs into the forest. When the farmer arrived on the scene, he was just in time to catch a glimpse of her bushy tail as she vanished into the pine trees.

"Come back! Wife! Loveliest of women, come back!" he cried, but she did not.

Now the farmer lived alone with his little boy, and the tears of the one and the heartbroken cries of the other filled the night air with sadness as thick as a thundercloud. But what of the fox princess, far off in her forest den? At first, she was mad with joy to be back home where she could run wild, dig, dance and hunt again. Gladly she shed her silk gown for a coat of fur, gladly she buried her naked face in the earth, gladly she drank the warm blood of pigeons and hares. But when she lay down in her den, she sometimes missed her husband's embraces, sometimes thought of her child.

One night, she slipped once again out of the forest and across the field to the remote little house. She stood outside in the moonlight with her ears pricked to catch the slightest sound. At first, all seemed to be quiet within. But then she heard it, the voice of her husband, chanting softly in his sleep: "You filled me with love … and left me. You gave me a child ... and then you vanished. My heart, my soul, longs for you. Oh come to me again, my love!" Moved with pity, drawn by love, the fox princess crept into the room and lay down beside him. The young man stirred in his sleep, then opened his eyes. There she was, smiling up at him by moonlight, just as she used to do! He gathered her up and covered her soft body with kisses.

After that, the fox princess came every night to the house, but every morning she slipped away again in her rosy gown. As she left, her husband would sing of his sadness:

O dream wife the colour of dawn
you slip away on fox feet
leaving your tiny prints on my heart.

So by day she lived the wild life of the forest, and by night she enjoyed the delights of love with her adopted husband. Sometimes she brought him a treat from the forest, a fat hare or a necklace of gleaming beetles, sometimes she bit him when he stroked her fur the wrong way and sometimes she laughed at him when he tried to make her stay.

The son grew up to be every bit as foxy as his mother, but that, as they say, is another story.


Author's note: This story is based on the Japanese tale "Come and Sleep" or "The Man Who Married a Vixen," written down in the 8th century in the Nihon Ryoiki by the monk Kyokai. In this version, I have told the story from the fox's point of view, whereas the traditional tale follows events from the point of view of the husband.

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