I look to the left and see a fence across a wide grassy field.
I look to the right and see the place where the field is narrowest.
A short sprint along the edge of the forest gets me there. I pause for a moment, my ears swivel while my body holds totally still. I hear nothing and my black tipped legs propel me to the fence where I duck under before pausing again.
This time I see a little trickle of smoke past a wooden fence, the boards are all the way to the ground. I see one place where I might be able to dig my way through. I make my way over in short pointed dashes with pauses to listen in between. It only takes a few seconds to enlarge the gap under the fence. When I’m through I skirt the edge of the fence until I find some tall grass to hide my red coat. I see a square building, its the place the smoke was coming from, and I see several smaller buildings to the right of it. I timed it so the last light of the day would allow me to see the compound before the darkness came to hide me. As I waited for the sky’s reds to turn to purples and then finally to dark blue I licked my lips and thought about dinner.
The light had hardly left the sky when I silently padded around the fence line until I reached the back of the small building with the faint sounds of ruffling feathers. I looked back the way I came one last time before running up the little ladder into the long awaited feast. Immediately my world was filled with feathers, beaks and frantic shrieks. It was glorious for a few moments before I started to notice the shapes of wings and scaly feet were clearer than when I entered. I whirled around to see that a shaft of light was streaming through the door, I focused past the birds around me and heard a large animal moving outside. I was trapped, fear sent its signals all through my body and before I knew it I was hurling myself through the only way in or out of the chicken coop. I was fast but the light was blinding, I ran into the rubbery foot of the huge animal. It kicked out and I went flying a little closer to the stars than I was comfortable with. Luckily I landed away from the beast and unluckily the kick had done something to my rear right leg. It wasn’t a pretty run but I was running. The fear was making any pain in my leg irrelevant for the time being. I was out the gap in the fence before the light found me. I didn’t slow down until I was well into the woods on the other side of the field.
Now I felt the pain in my leg, it throbbed angrily and I knew it would stop my movement soon. I set my sights on the little river that flowed its way through the thick forest before merging with the great river to the south. I had explored the many hiding places when I was younger and I wanted to be somewhere safe before my leg slowed me down.
I was limping badly and many other aches had appeared as my body calmed but I was still able to move when up ahead I spotted a fine hiding spot. A great willow with long branches that formed a kind of natural fence. I knew I could curl up in between a fork of the roots or a hollow of the tree. The brilliant green of the vine-line branches would hide me while I recovered.
I slid through the branches and was amazed to see a dark opening in the trunk, it didn’t even smell like anyone’s home. It was a small opening but when I pushed through It opened up. There was enough room to curl up comfortably in the rich, soft soil. I was aching terribly at this point, and my leg was causing me to whimper in pain as the throbbing turned into a sharper pain. The pain was intense but I couldn’t help but feel an incredible gratitude for the safety of my temporary home. I whispered a “Thank you Willow.” before laying my head down on my tail. “You’re welcome fox.” My head shot up causing a great deal of pain such that it was a few moments before I could speak. “Who is that?! I can’t smell you.” The voice came again, “Ah, but I doubt that. With a nose like yours I’m sure you can smell a squirrel five feet underground even with a swift wind.” I couldn’t hear where it was coming from, I sniffed the air again. “But I cannot smell any squirrel. Where are you hiding?” I asked as my eyes searched for what my nose could not find. Again the voice came “That’s because I’m not a squirrel and I’m not hiding. It seems like you are though”. It was impossible to tell where the sound was coming from, it sounded like it was coming from everywhere. “May I ask what you are hiding from?” the voice asked. “Only if you tell me who and where you are first” I said as my eyes gave up the search. The voice laughed, “I’m the walls sheltering you and the roots you’re curled up against”. “You’re the Willow?!” I blurted out. “Well don’t you think its a bit presumptuous to say I’m ‘The Willow’ on a riverbank full of Willow trees?”
Could this be some kind of hallucination from the pain? I thought, and out loud “Okay Willow, I’m not sure if this is a dream but could I please stay the night? You see I’m in bad shape and I’m not sure if the man is searching for me”. “Don’t be silly, of course you can stay the night, and many more if you promise me two things.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Tree’s don’t usually talk to animals, they talk too slowly to understand. Somehow this Willow was talking at animal speeds, that or the man’s kick had rewired more than just my leg. Whatever it was I was curious “What do you want me to promise?” She began hesitantly ” Well, I’ve always wondered what was beyond this forest. If you promise to tell me stories of the lands beyond this little glen and to not sharpen your claws on my skin than I will let you stay.” “If all you want is stories then we have a deal. However I don’t sharpen my claws like that, that is a cat thing.” I said.
“Very good, now rest. Trees are patient, when you are ready to talk I will be ready to listen.” I drifted off before really being sure that the whole conversation hadn’t taken place in a dream.
I opened my eyes and blinked away the last remnants of the first good nights sleep in days. I had spent the last three nights inside the Willow. At first I couldn’t sleep deeply from the pain but with time and a couple trips outside to scavenge some goose eggs I was beginning to feel myself again. “And how are we feeling today?” I still wasn’t used to the way her voice seemed to come from all around me. “Still stiff but I may be out of your hair soon.” I said as I stretched my right rear leg, I winced and laid back down. “What do you mean? I don’t have hair.” she asked in a puzzled tone. “I just mean I think I’ll be able to leave soon.” I said as I looked up into the Willow’s cavern. “Oh but don’t you know that the time you spent resting is barely a blink in the life of a tree? I could watch you grow from a pup to an adult in what feels like a few deep breathes” She explained. I had never thought of it like that. Truth be told I hadn’t known trees could be like this, none had ever tried to explain what it was like being a tree. “Can you remember when I used to explore these banks after I first left home?” I asked. “Well of course, you don’t think I’d make the effort to talk to just any creature do you?” she answered. I thought about that for a moment “So why did you answer my gratitude when I first arrived?”
“When you were still a pup I could tell you were too curious to stay in this forest forever. I have wondered for a hundred years what its like past my neighbors. When you thanked me for a service I can’t help but give I got the last piece of information I needed to begin to talk” I marveled as I tried to understand what it meant to know a place as well as this Willow knew this forest. How many lives has she seen come and go? I wondered. “Is it hard to talk?” I asked. “No, not so hard. Much like chewing for you is easy but finding food to chew on is sometimes quite hard. It was hard to find your mind, even with years to do it. You see I have no mouth, I can’t just speak my words into empty air like you animals. I have to know who I’m talking to first.”
“I’ve never waited that long for anything. I wish I could be as patient as you are. You were right to see my curiosity, I can’t hold onto my wonder. I swam the great river and crossed the mountains to the west but how could anything compare to watching a hundred generations grow and die? Tell me what it is to be a tree” She answered, ” If you tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine.” So began a conversation that lasted for days. The only breaks were when my hunger or weariness would get the best of me. Those days ran by, the Willow would tell of the little miracles she had watched. The time a family of owls lived with her or the time the little stream almost knocked her over after the snow melted in the mountains. I would tell of the men I had outfoxed and the endless fields of grass full of hoofed beasts. I could sense Willow’s eagerness to see the distant plains and mountains, she began to speak more and more of what she would do if she could run. At the same time though I longed to have a hundred arms and a thousand toes, to eat sunlight and drink the deepest well water. I longed to shelter a hundred tiny lives under my branches and not have to fear the mans kicking feet.
One day on an excursion closer to the mans home I heard the clucking of the birds. I decided the man couldn’t still be on guard after so long. Maybe I could slip in. I very cautiously moved closer, I paused at every change of cover and sniffed the air for any sign of danger. I knew the layout better this time, I maneuvered along the outside of the fence until I was right behind where I remembered the coop being. I would dig here so I wouldn’t have as far to run once I got inside the compound. I dug slowly, taking care to pause to listen. It was well into the night by the time I had finished the hole under the fence. I had to pause anytime I heard sounds coming from inside the fence. The man was in the yard and there were a few other animal sounds I didn’t recognize. It was quiet now and I expected the man to be fast asleep. I ducked under and moved to the front of the little bird house, I didn’t recklessly charge in like I had years ago. I was older and wiser now. I slowly stalked up the ladder, when I reached the top I peered in before sliding in with the sleeping birds. I only needed one, I stood still as I scanned for the fattest of the birds. It was a hen in the back of the building, but the ground was soft and I thought I could make it there without waking any of the birds. I took one step and heard a loud sound behind me. It was nothing like the noises the man made but it was coming from the mans house. I was instantly reliving my last experience in this yard. I turned and leaped out of the hen coop. As I leaped I could see the door to the house opening, as the light spread across the yard several big animals were pouring out the with it. They were making a terrible noise. I could see they weren’t men, they were like me but much bigger. They could not have heard me, but if they were like me maybe they could smell like me. I knew then that all my time outside the fence had been my undoing, even an average animal nose would have sensed me.Despite my dire circumstance I grinned, I still had one advantage. The animals were too big to fit through the hole under the fence. It was my only exit. As I landed my claws dug into the earth and I just managed to shift my direction despite the momentum I had from the jump. I was running for the hole in the fence when a sound like cracking rock erupted behind me, no time to turn, I was through the hole and into the trees.
As I trotted back, feeling very lucky and very foolish, I felt rain started to fall on my back.
I looked up and saw a sky full of bright stars, it had never rained without clouds before. Then I realized the wetness on my back wasn’t coming from without, it was from within. I hadn’t made it out safely. My legs were starting to go numb and I almost fell. All I could think about was home, Willow. Nothing in me questioned what was happening, there wasn’t even any fear. I just kept moving towards Willow. The pain wasn’t bad and I knew the way very well. When I arrived I went straight to curl up next to my old friend. The pain was beginning to numb my mind and burn my body. I still wasn’t afraid, I was home. Uncertainty is scary but certainty is calming. “Fox, what is happening?” Willow asked. I didn’t answer her question, it was unlike her to ask unnecessary questions. I knew she could see the blood and feel me slipping. “Thank you.” I said. “No, no. You are here, stay here!” Willow pleaded. “How many lives have you watched? How many deaths? How can you of all creatures be afraid of death?” I asked her through my thoughts. I had learned to speak this way over the years, as my body lay dying, it was now the only way I could speak.
“Too many to count, but I’ve never thought of death like this before. Trees see life as life, no life is more than any other. A death always makes room for more life so we rejoice as much as we mourn.” Her mind was wavering, the words seemed more fuzzy. “But you are specific, you are you and the place you will give up will be filled by someone else.”
“What is a fox to a tree?” I teased. Something broke in me then, I felt it all at once. I was terrified, I was devastated, sorrow was pouring from me like the blood from my back. It just wasn’t for my death, somehow I still couldn’t fear that. These emotions were for Willow’s pain. “I’m sorry to joke, I’m sorry to have such a greedy apatite for the mans birds and I’m sorry for having such a short story to tell you.” Tears were tickling the edges of my animal eyes on their journey downwards. “You stupid fox, don’t be sorry.” She said with compassion. “You may have lived a short life compared to a tree but your story is no less long.” She was crying now, not water like animals but little pieces of herself. They were gently falling around me, forming a kind of death bed. I imagined the way some of her would grow up through me and in a long off way I would continue helping her grow. “Do you remember the hole in my trunk that you first crawled inside?” She asked. “Of course, it fit me like it was made for a fox.” I answered. “What if I told you it was made for a fox? What if I told you that I made it in the hope that by making a place for you, maybe, you would eventually find your way into it?”
“Then I’d say you better thank the man for giving me a reason to need your safety.” I said looking up into her branches. Breathing was becoming heavier, the pain had stopped and in its place was a deep cold. I couldn’t feel my body, I couldn’t move except to rattle out shallow breathes. “Goodnight Willow” It was time. “Goodnight Fox” I knew she was holding so much back to say those words. “Thank you” I whispered aloud.
I let go of something then, I couldn’t tell what it was. It was like dreaming, everything made sense. I let go without seeing or feeling or sensing but I still knew I let go. I expected that I would become invisible to myself at that point, like a shadow in a dark room. The dream kept going though, nothing happened for a long time. I was dreaming but there was no plot line, it wasn’t boring. It was new but nothing about it was surprising. I had no eyes, no ears, no feet, no hands, but I had something. Part of me began to wonder what it looked like, I couldn’t see or feel though so the shape eluded me. Slowly there was more of it, more substance. The dream began to have rules again, there was up and down. I pointing the closest part of my substance to a top towards the up and the closest part of myself to a bottom I pointed down. Now the growth felt fast, I began to have skin again, and toes. I was wondering where my fingers would be when suddenly my top was blinded by light. I tried to look around but soon realized I could not see, still I knew there was light all around my head. I tried to stand and walk but I was too heavy. I remembered a long time ago when I was a very, very young fox my first steps were like this. I waited for my body to catch up, slowly though I felt my skin’s roughness. As it grew it became very hard and there was no hair at all. I counted my toes, I knew there was something wrong when I counted past four but when I counted thirty six toes and tried to count my left rear leg I found that I had seven legs. I counted again, and it was still the same. As I puzzled over whether to be glad to have so many legs or sad to have an uneven number I felt more toes sprouting out of the legs and some were even growing out of other toes. At this point my first arms were coming out of the part of my body that was in the light. ‘I’m not a fox’ I thought to myself. I knew foxes only entered the light once they have all their legs, no fox got new arms or legs after they were in the light.
‘A tree! Tree’s grow new arms all the time!’ but then I wondered how I could be a tree, I was a fox. Then I wondered how I became a fox, I couldn’t remember. I settled on knowing that I must have became a fox at some point, and if I became a fox maybe I became a tree the same way. ‘Willow!’ I shouted in my mind. ‘Willow is a tree, maybe she can tell me how I became a tree.’ Thoughts were flooding in and my mind could hold all of them, then I realized the thoughts weren’t flooding in. My minds space was growing and the thoughts were able to expand as the space for them was growing. I could think more clearly as my mind grew. ‘I went to sleep next to Willow, I don’t know if that means I am still close by but Its worth a try to reach out to her. I tried to remember which way I was facing when I went to sleep. ‘No the the way I was facing when I died’ I wondered how I could have forgotten that. ‘Does she know I still exist?’ I wondered. I couldn’t tell which way I was facing now, I had no front or back. I decided to reach out in all directions, that seemed like the advantage to having so many arms and legs.
I found a root and held on, I think it helped connect me because my hello Willow thought was answered with “I’m a reed, but hello.” I apologized for the confusion and asked where the nearest willow might be. He said he had heard from the other reeds that willows were all around but he said he didn’t have a very good sense of direction. I thanked him for the help and continued spreading out. I had learned one other thing from the interaction, reeds and willows almost always grew near water. I had learned that when I was a fox. It was a good sign that I was near some kind of water. From this information I knew to spread my legs or roots in the general direction of the reed. I needed to stop thinking of my body as an animals body, I kept getting confused with all my names. I had no feet, hands, toes or eyes but I kept using words like see or I’d call my largest part my body instead of my trunk. It was very new.
I kept expecting to become impatient with my blind search, I knew back when I was a fox it would have been maddening. As a tree it felt okay to wait. I was calling out and stretching out until the snows came and I buried my energy deep in my roots where it wasn’t quite as cold. I couldn’t feel cold the same way, but it seemed natural to hibernate. When the days started to lengthen I started moving my energy upwards again. This time though I was sprouting many new leaves from my many new branches. As my leaves opened I saw, not the way I used to see. It wasn’t the same colors or feeling but it was seeing. I strained to make out shapes. If I could see I could find Willow so I send as much of my energy into my leaves as I could. They opened wider and my vision started to clear a bit, I could see some shadows around me but one in particular caught my eye. I reached out and found a hold.
“You know you don’t need to touch anything you talk to right?” She said quietly.
“Willow! I found you!” I said with glee. “I’ve been here the whole time watching you grow. I could hear all you said, I’m glad you finally found your voice.” Willow said in an amused tone. “Oh, how do I talk without touching? I don’t think I quite have the hang of this yet.”
“Of course not, I didn’t know how to speak for a hundred years. I would have waited that long for you to learn but I am happy that it wasn’t that long.” She said ” But about speaking, its hard to explain. You have to find something to hold onto in your mind, the way I found your gratitude when we first met. Once you know it, its easy to find again.”
Willow taught me how to speak and how to listen to the other lives around us. She showed me how my leaves worked like eyes, they were all little light receptors. Little by little she helped me learn how to be a tree. We were finally moving the same speed. The winters came and heaped snow on the ground, Willow helped hold some of the snow off me. The summers were dry so Willow showed me how to drill a deep taproot. The fall came and with it sporadic storms, they scared me but Willow would tell me to reach my roots wide so I could brace myself against the wind. It went on like this for years, I grew stronger and I needed less support with every season. I could tell that Willow still wanted to see the world.
One fall there was a particularly bad storm coming our way. I could feel the thunder when it was still miles off. It hit hard, Willow tried to hold some of the wind off me but it was still nearly uprooting me. The lightning was striking all around us, and our leaves were falling around us like a green blizzard. Suddenly there was a sickening crack, I looked up with the few leaves I had left expecting to see one of Willow’s branches broken but there was heat and a flickering light. It was fire, it was lightning. Of course it struck her, she was the tallest tree now. “Fox, I’m okay. This is okay.” Willow said. I knew she wasn’t feeling pain, I had learned that trees don’t feel like that. We just feel without pain. If our bark is cut we sense it so we know to send sap to keep out infection. There isn’t a need to feel pain since we can’t move the way animals do. There isn’t the same immediacy when all action is slow.
“What can I do?!” I shouted as if the wind affected the clarity of my voice. “Not a thing. I’m so happy, I have grown all my years so that someday I would be tall enough to catch the lightning instead of you. Even if you could stop the fire from setting me free I would not want you to. This is right.” Willow said in an ecstatic tone. I knew then that she was right, I could not save her and even if I could it would be selfish. “But are you sure you can find another life?” “If a 8 year old fox can do it don’t you think a 300 year old willow could also?” Willow said in a teasing tone. I knew she wasn’t sure and covering up her uncertainty with humor but at the same time I knew it wasn’t as much of a joke as Willow thought. I had found another life, Willow would too. I had to believe that. I looked up at her with the eyes she taught me to use. It was a beautiful scene in a tree sort of way. She was so bright and the fire made it looked as though Willow was dancing, all the flickering of her halo. It would slowly end her life but trees die slowly. If a tree could smile I knew Willow was smiling. “Fox, you’ll be a good willow.” she said as the ashes fell around me.
“And you’ll be a good animal, whatever life you find”
Willow didn’t die right away, we talked in the hours she had left. I told her again about being an animal. “Is it really as grand as it sounds?” she kept saying. “Even grander” I would say. Her voice kept getting fainter as if she was getting farther away. Eventually it slipped away entirely. “Willow, I’ll make a place for you!” I shouted out towards the place that she used to live.
The day after a storm is always the same, it felt too quiet the way it feels the moment after hearing a loud sound. It felt like that ringing in the ears. Some small animals crawled out of their holes to scavenge the fallen leaves and nuts. A few birds started to rebuild damaged nests, some even had to make entirely new nests since the storm had pulled the whole thing away. A dark bird landed in a pile of ash next to Willow’s scorched trunk. It began to take a dust bath in the ashes. It was hard to distinguish between the feathers and the charcoal, they were both the same glistening black. After the bath it picked up a twig and flew up to one of Willows branches.
I watched the scene and began to feel a sense of excitement. ‘See you soon Willow’.