Happy Samhain, Halloween, or whatever name you give to the changing of the seasons. Today is the last day of our Foxtober celebration, and we’re sending it off properly. Two wonderful authors have donated their time and talent for your enjoyment in a story and a poem based on this prompt:
Please enjoy, and surely the authors would love a quick note to thank them for their work.
By Edie Montreux
Once upon a time, fox shifters had magic. They were known as kitsune, powerful spirit masters with nine tails.
No longer. Bijou was a fox shifter. He had one tail, and no magic. Hell, after all the bullying at school, he had very little spirit left.
Only his best friend Remmy, who was a cat shifter, understood why he smelled scents his human classmates, neighbors, and now coworkers could not. Remmy also understood why he avoided the men who smelled like gunpowder and death. Hunters. Bijou hated them.
The stench preceded them everywhere, so Bijou felt safe in the woods. He would have plenty of time to escape before a hunter came near.
He met Remmy in the usual clearing. A redwood downed by a lightning strike lay beside its hollowed-out stump. The fallen tree left a hole in the canopy, allowing sunlight to bathe the native grasses and flowering shrubs. The sky was an autumnal shade of dark blue overhead, the shade of Remmy’s cat eyes in his calico face.
“Had to work the morning shift.” Since graduating high school, Bijou worked at the gas station on the outskirts of their rural California town, north of San Francisco.
“You closed last night,” Remmy said. “What did you do, stay all night?”
“There’s a cot in the back room. Elsie’s going into labor, so Chuck needed the morning off.”
Remmy rolled his eyes. “Chuck wouldn’t do a damn thing to help you.”
Remmy had a point. Bijou didn’t want to waste any more time on fruitless conversations about his stupid job. He stripped out of his clothes and willed himself to change. It was easier now, easier without the fear of the first time, when his bones shrinking and popping felt like death. Now, all he had to do was focus on the pine needles and leaves beneath his human-shaped feet, and his paws transformed, taking the rest of his body with them.
“I thought I saw something up here,” Bijou heard someone say below them. His fox ears gave him better hearing than his human ears. The voice was maybe a mile away, and the person didn’t smell like a hunter. Still, Bijou remained cautious. He raced Remmy to the hollow stump of the fallen tree, where they could scamper through the gaping lightning scar and listen to the humans below without being seen.
“Not hunters,” Remmy said, confirming Bijou’s assessment. “All men, though. And one of them smells divine.”
Divine. Heh. Bijou didn’t know what humans could coat themselves with to smell…
His nostrils flared. He sniffed Remmy, and then sniffed the air. “Another cat shifter. Must be your lucky day.”
“Not just a cat,” Remmy purred, rubbing himself along Bijou’s side. “A leopard. Now I get to see if leopards really have spots everywhere.”
Bijou chuffed. “You would care.”
“Scientific purposes.” Remmy had always been better at school than Bijou, but neither of them had the money it took to go to college. At least Remmy had a family to go home to after his long days working road construction, so he could save his money for a bio-chemistry major. Bijou didn’t know what that entailed. He’d always avoided the strong stench of the chemistry lab in school.
The scent of cat on the prowl was strong, but two other strange scents permeated the woods, mingled with the smells of soap and leather. One seemed awfully familiar, almost like a fox, but Bijou couldn’t place it. The other, he feared. Wolverine.
“There’s a mean badger shifter with them,” Bijou said, using the nickname he’d given the creature with sharp teeth, claws, and attitude before he knew its true name. Bijou had gotten too close to a wolverine’s den on a winter run, deep into the woods. Wolverines were rare in northern California, and Bijou was thankful he didn’t run into them on a regular basis.
Remmy sat in one of the zags of the stump’s scar, grooming his paws. He looked down at Bijou in the center of the stump with his tongue lolling out of his mouth, paused: Remmy’s way of rolling his eyes in cat form.
“Wolverines aren’t that bad,” he said, and returned to grooming.
“Easy for you to say. It wasn’t biting your tail.”
Remmy stretched up the scar, extending his claws above him and raking them down the tree. “You should get cleaned up. Our new friends are almost here.”
“How do you know they’re friends?”
“They’re shifters,” Remmy said, like they’d never met a shifter they didn’t like. Well, so far, that was true. Remmy was the only other shifter Bijou knew, and they were best friends.
Bijou groomed his ears and whiskers, and brushed the pine needles from his tail. Cursory grooming would have to do.
By then, they heard the crunching of leaves beneath three sets of human hiking boots.
“Hello, friends!” one of the shifters called. He had an interesting accent, one Bijou couldn’t place. “I know you’re here somewhere. We are just passing through, and need a good run in your forest before we get on another plane.”
Remmy jumped out of the tree stump and landed with a hollow thunk on the fallen tree below. Remmy’s jumps were usually silent, so this was to grab attention. Bijou scrambled up to the scar so he could see, and intervene, if necessary.
Remmy leapt down and pranced to a man in a white shirt, staring up into the redwood canopy. The man was shorter than his friends and smelled like a cat to Bijou. The man had an attractive face, accentuated by light green eyes.
Bijou watched with interest as the three stripped out of their clothes. The wolverine was the most sensibly dressed for Northern California, with long sleeves for an autumn evening in the desert. The one with the walking stick, with the familiar scent, had a tattoo of a fan on his back, the base of which looked like a tramp stamp, but the blades of the fan stretched up to his shoulders. The nine blades resembled fluffy tails. Fox tails.
The wolverine shifter changed first, dropping to all fours. The white V in his hair framed his pointed, bear-like face. The claws, though. Bijou couldn’t get over the long, sharp claws now protruding from the wolverine’s paws. He also respected the powerful jaws beneath the adorable little bear face.
Remmy’s leopard kept his green eyes when he shifted. His black coat still showed the beautiful leopard spots Remmy wanted to count. For Science.
Last, the man with the fan tattoo shifted, dropping to all fours as the ink took on a life of its own. The silvery, white gleam of tails separated and danced above the back of a silver-colored creature the likes of which Bijou had never seen. As Bijou studied the creature, he realized he was rudely staring at his backside. Worse, the creature caught him staring. In two bounds, the creature with nine silver tails was on top of the fallen tree, and then inside the hollowed-out trunk, face to face with Bijou.
“Hi.” He was the one with the strange accent, the one who’d spoken of running through the forest before getting on a plane. Bijou knew he shouldn’t respond to the urge to reach out and touch noses with the beautiful silver fox with nine tails, but he couldn’t resist.
“Hi,” he said. The other fox’s nose was cold and wet. Bijou didn’t know what to do when he twisted his snout and left a scent imprint on Bijou’s jaw.
“My name is Kenshin, but you can call me Ken,” he said. “Where are the rest of your tails?”
“I’m just a fox. One tail.”
“You have forgotten,” Ken said under his breath. Louder, he said, “I need exercise and water, and some fun before we fly back to Japan. Do you live in these woods?”
Bijou nodded. Too many times of late, the hollowed-out trunk had been his home. He wanted to ask questions, to get to know Ken better, but he was too dumbstruck by the world traveler. Even so, Ken reminded him of home, a home he’d never had.
Instead, Bijou ran. Ken followed. Their fox feet carried them out of the hollow trunk, over the downed tree, and off through the woods toward the stream.
At one point, Bijou smelled a squirrel. Normally, he would chase his prey, but today he was more focused on the joy of running with another fox. Ken followed his every move, even the practiced jumps from tree trunk to tree trunk and over fallen trees and tangled roots.
They arrived at the mountain stream, panting from exertion. Ken drank first, lapping at the fast-moving water as it rushed past the bank. Bijou dared to jump onto a slippery rock in the middle of the stream, where a pool of cool water stayed still long enough for him to enjoy his drink. There was barely enough room for two foxes on the rock, but Ken joined Bijou, his tails giving him uncanny balance. Ken took another drink, watching Bijou as his tongue lapped the water.
“You are kitsune,” Ken said. “Your eyes. I see magic, but it’s blocked somehow.”
“I’m a fox,” Bijou insisted.
“Come with us to Japan. The masters of the forest will help you.”
A home. A new, exciting friend. A possibility to be something more. As tempting as it was, Bijou liked his woods, and he would miss Remmy.
“I don’t have a passport,” he said.
Ken laughed. “I have a pass for a therapy animal. You can be my therapy fox. Most humans will think you’re a dog, anyway.”
Bijou frowned. He hated when people assumed he was a dog. And he’d be seen by many people on a journey to Japan. Too many people.
“It’s okay,” Ken said. “You don’t have to decide now. We come back to San Francisco several times a year, and these woods, though dry, were too beautiful to ignore. We will meet again, little one.”
“Bijou,” he said. “My name is Bijou.”
“A jewel, like your eyes, and your beautiful red mane. It fits you.”
Bijou had never thought about the meaning of his name before.
“Kenshin means truth,” Ken continued. “Kitsune value words as oaths. My parents chose my name with care. My older brother is a liar and a trickster. You have probably heard the stories. Kitsune is synonymous with trickster in Japan.”
Bijou shook his head. He knew nothing about kitsunes, other than basic anatomy and magic.
“I will not bother you with my troubles. They are unimportant,” Ken said. “We should return to our clothes.”
They ran, slower this time. Bijou had a lot on his mind, and Ken seemed saddened by Bijou’s indecision. Ken’s tails dipped as they stepped into the sunlight. He seemed to carry an increasingly heavier burden with each step toward his clothes.
“Finally,” Remmy said, his ears pricked up with excitement as he ran to rub himself along Bijou’s side. “I have great news! Theo is taking me to Japan.”
“What?” Bijou couldn’t hide his surprise. He’d wanted to discuss Japan with Remmy before making a decision, and now Remmy was leaving him. Remmy, his only friend in the entire world. “What about college?”
Remmy sighed. “Even if I could afford it, who says I’ll get in? At least this way, I’ll get to see the world.”
“What about your family?”
“I have time to say goodbye, Theo promised.” The leopard nodded from his spot in the sun, by the stump. “I’m just a burden to them, anyway. This will be better, you’ll see.” Remmy rubbed along Bijou’s side once more, before returning to Theo. “You’re coming with us, right?”
“College?” The wolverine said, still stuck on Bijou’s previous question. “They are too young,” he said. “Too young to be caught up in our war with the tricksters.”
“War?” Remmy and Bijou asked.
“They are tricksters, not soldiers,” Theo the leopard said. “Once we teach our new friends some magic, they will be able to defend themselves.”
“War?” Bijou asked again, turning to Ken, who had shifted back into his human form and now stood, fully clothed, leaning on his walking stick. Ken shrugged and pointed to his human ear. He could no longer understand Bijou’s fox words.
Bijou hopped onto the fallen log and changed into human form. The need for conversation won out over his modesty. “What does he mean, war?”
“If you join us, you may be caught in the war with my brother,” Ken explained. “It will be dangerous, but it would be worth it if you could fully shift into a kitsune after meeting with the masters of the forest.”
“Worth it to whom? You or me?”
Ken sighed. “I come here every year, looking for my promised mate. You are the first fox shifter I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. I hoped it would be you.”
Bijou didn’t know how to feel about that. Ken smelled familiar, like home, but not like Remmy’s claim that Theo smelled “divine.” He also didn’t know of anything worth war with supernatural beings in a foreign country.
“Why did you stop in these woods?” Bijou asked, suspicion making his spine tingle, even in human form.
“We smelled shifters in town, and followed you from the gas station,” the wolverine, now in human form, shared. Remmy and Theo shifted, too, still entwined with each other as they leaned against the hollow tree trunk.
“Will you join us, even if there’s a war?” Theo asked as he caressed Remmy’s cheek.
“Why not?” Remmy said. “I always wanted to travel the world.”
Bijou nodded. Remmy would be at home in Japan, or anywhere, for that matter. Bijou had no home, not in rural California, where he’d lived all his life.
“Come with us,” Ken said, sitting down beside Bijou on the fallen log. “It’s a long flight, but the woods are lush and beautiful, and the masters of the forest will guide you home, to your true self.” Ken’s eyes never left Bijou’s as he caressed his back with firm, soothing strokes.
Home. There was that word again.
Bijou sighed and leaned against Ken’s side. He wanted comfort. He wanted a home.
LOST FOX WOODS
by Regine Allison Claire
By one and one and one they come,
from human to fox they’ll come undone.
The wild scent of autumn crisp in the air,
with sun so bright and soft and fair,
steps tread softly, crunch, snap underfoot.
On the tip of my nose, a dash of soot,
its fire long gone though the spirit remains,
whispering hope like the warmest spring rains.
One and one, we found them each,
freedom and flight within our reach.
Curiosity in play, they followed us here
to search and think and secretly peer
into the heart of the Lost Fox Woods
and find its deep magic, if they could.
Magic will find them if they wait but a star;
come the night sky, they’ll need not go far.
One to one, up, up they’ll go,
to sway and dance and flutter like so,
as leaves on branches for years come,
releasing the foxes to where they’re from.
Fur so red, so soft and real,
paws and whiskers and all to feel,
no longer trapped by a cage of bark.
Breaking the spell shines light in the dark.
“One soul for one soul,” the curse once spoke,
always in debt to the sorcerer we woke,
buried within the soil so fine,
nudged and clawed before his time.
Bitten by anger and quick to grumble,
his spell came forth in a quiet mumble.
Of all the words spoken, no others had left
a skulk of foxes so alone and bereft.
“One fox for one wink makes a good trade.”
Up, up and away their bodies he bade,
“Into leaves they shall hang for all to see,
until craftier souls can set them free.”
Off he went, a puff of bluebird cloud,
with a huff and a grunt and all manner of sound.
Foxglove petals scattered where once he stood,
littering the floor of Lost Fox Woods.
One by one, and once more again,
each new autumn, the same old aim:
bring home a guest, and do what you must,
to keep them from fleeing like windborne dust,
for when darkness falls and stars are alight
on this the night of most magical nights,
leaves trade souls, two legs for four,
to bring home our kin forevermore.
Regina Allison Claire’s FB