by Altivo Overo
Naryssa sat in the entrance to her den, staring out into the long meadow grass with distaste. Time for a change, she thought to herself, then curled her black lip and spoke aloud, though there was no one around to hear her. “Stupid vixen,” she growled with an angry whip of her tail. “You’ve been thinking that for years, but you never actually do anything about it.”
Scuffing the earth with her back paws just to take out her irritation on something, the fox slipped out into the tall summer grass with idle thoughts of stalking some unsuspecting vole or perhaps even a young bunny if she were lucky enough. Boredom makes for poor hunting, though, and after spending the morning half-heartedly stalking shadows and wind rustlings, Naryssa laid herself down in the shade of an elderberry bush and tried to collect her thoughts. While she was pondering her humdrum existence and wondering whether she really ought to gather enough courage to set out for a new place to live, an odd sound made her right ear stand up and swivel.
Soon Naryssa’s left ear followed the example set by her right, as both focused on a distant noise, somewhere off among the daisies and thistles that obscured any long view of the meadow. It was a gentle but persistent crunching sound that drew her attention, like the noise of a thousand thousand caterpillars busily consuming an entire mulberry tree. The vixen had heard caterpillars before, of course, but there was a difference in this sound, a consistent rhythm that suggested something other than voracious leaf chewing.
Ready to seize upon any novelty, the fox put aside all thought of hunting for the moment and slunk silently through the grass and flowers toward the source of the sound. It grew louder, and with the increased amplitude came a growing sense of familiarity. When at last Naryssa poked her sharp nose from the taller meadow growth into the area surrounding the pond, where the grasses were shorter and softer, she fully expected to find one of the spotted cows who normally spent their days in a fenced pasture on the far side of her meadow. Being upwind of the creature, she was not surprised that her own nose hadn’t advised her of its presence sooner.
The old vixen looked at the source of the crunching sound to which she had been attending all this time. She froze wide-eyed. It wasn’t an ungainly cow dragging great cloven feet through the grass. Instead, it was something she had never seen before. At her age, that was saying quite a bit, really. Naryssa had a lot of experience, a sharp memory, and an excellent analytical mind. But she had definitely never seen anything like this.
The creature was nearly as large as a cow. It was grazing single-mindedly on the sweet grasses near the pond, as a cow might do and several had done in Naryssa’s memory. But there the similarity ended. This beast, for clearly it was a beast rather than bird or vegetation, had all the grace and sleekness of a fox, or so it seemed to her. Its small feet rounded upon the grass without the sharp ungainly cleft in those of a cow, and she could see no claws or sign of toes. The dark feet and legs resembled her own sleek black stockings, but the head and body of the beast glowed golden in the daylight, sleek and shiny, bright as the sun’s reflection in the pond. As it chewed down the grass, a tail as broad as her own woolly brush swept gently through the air, as quiet as the breeze in a grove of aspen.
The wind shifted, carrying Naryssa’s scent to the stranger. The creature startled, lifting its elegant white muzzle from the grasses and flaring huge nostrils to better sample the air. Its lip turned upward, revealing pink linings and square teeth stained green by the ichor of the grass blades upon which it preyed. The vixen flattened her ears politely and stepped all the way out of her concealment, brush raised to show interest, eyes attentive without offering threat.
The stranger seemed to relax, nodding his head once to her as he (for she could now see clearly that he was a male) lowered his muzzle to resume his interrupted meal. “Hello,” she ventured, just the one word.
Halting in its grassward descent, the great head turned so that a single eye, dark as spring earth and nearly as soft in appearance, regarded her with solemnity. “Fox,” he said, in a voice deep yet somehow nasal in character. “If you are hunting, I’m afraid I’ve flushed your prey from here with the sound of my hooves.”
Naryssa blinked and let her tongue loll red before answering. With white-toothed smile she said, “You have the better of me, for you know who I am yet I do not know you. Though you eat the grass and have hooves, yet you are neither cow nor deer.”
The stranger nodded slightly and answered, “Indeed, I am neither cow nor deer. I have come a great distance, so you have never seen me before today. I am called Horse, and my home is anywhere there is grass and warm sun.”
The vixen sniffed. “Is it not a chancy sort of existence to have no den in which you can sleep warm and cozy to wait out the rain and snow?” She had to find something to criticize because she was so taken with the horse’s graceful appearance.
The golden stranger laughed, throwing his head back with a long and undulating chuckle. “I have no need of a den,” he said. “I can outrun the wind and rain as I outrun my enemies.” With that he reared up on his hind legs, waving his front hooves briefly in the air high above Naryssa’s head. A massive kick of his hind feet sent divots flying as he took off in a sprint, galloping hard toward the horizon and then, just as the vixen thought he would disappear, making a sharp turn and racing back toward her. He stopped, rear hooves sliding on the grass, and stood barely winded, eyeing her mildly.
The old vixen stared back at the horse, considering what to say. To be truthful, she thought he was rather full of himself, but she had to admit as well that she had never before seen such grace and elegance of movement, let alone so much speed in one who lacked wings. He actually had the audacity to wink at her and continue his breakfast.
Naryssa felt, for some reason, that she ought to say something, though. She considered complimenting the horse on his speed but rejected it because she didn’t want to admit that she wasn’t quite as fast. When finally she did open her mouth simply to bid him a good morning before returning to her own hunt, the words that came out were not at all what she intended. “Would you care to join me for a small treat, say this evening, about sunset?” she heard herself asking. The vixen knew she was often of two minds about something, but she didn’t recall ever having the other mind take over her tongue like that. Nonplused, she still managed to put the best face on it, perking her ears and grinning as the horse raised his head to look at her again.
“I’ll accept,” he told her, swishing his tail, “but only if you tell me why you are inviting me.”
The vixen blinked, wondering what to say even as the answer tumbled over her tongue anyway. “I would like to hear more about places far away from here that you must have seen, but I will not interrupt either of our breakfasts for it.” The horse nodded as she continued. “Come to my den if you will, just before dusk. It is easy to find, and I will be waiting.” She pointed with her muzzle, back the way she had come.
The horse made a chuckling sound deep in his throat. “My nose will help me find you,” he rumbled. “I will be there.” With that he returned to his grazing.
Not knowing what else to do or say, the old fox wagged her brush tail twice and slipped back into the taller weeds in search of an unwilling breakfast.
The sun made its usual trip across the sky, and if it had any opinion of the happenings below, it kept its counsel. As the orb approached the horizon to take its rest, its slanting beams illuminated Naryssa, who sat before her den awaiting the arrival of the golden horse. She had neatly laid out a brace of fat voles for herself and a thoughtfully selected stack of vegetable foods for her guest. Guiding her choices by what she had seen the cows and deer eating, the vixen collected sweet meadow grasses, a stack of small apples not quite ripe, and some wild daisies and buttercups that the cows seemed especially to favor. She hoped they would do.
Ears pricked attentively, the fox awaited the arrival of the visitor, listening for his heavy hooves against the ground. She heard nothing and was about to give up and eat a solitary supper when a slight movement in the tall grass caught her eye. Just as the sun began to slip below the world’s edge, a sharp nose poked out of the grasses, followed by the most handsome dog fox she had ever seen in her life.
The stranger’s black velvet ears were perked her way as he approached on the most elegant of paws, gold red coat illuminated by the rays of the fading sun. His hugely fluffy tail lay leveled behind him. “Am I late?” he asked in a deep voice that she had heard just that morning, and she stared at him open mouthed. The golden fox chuckled, with the same chesty amusement he had offered at their last meeting. “I thought you might feel more comfortable with this form,” he offered. “Was I wrong?”
Naryssa found her tongue in time to reassure him. “No, you were not wrong. I just wasn’t expecting it. Pray tell me how you can change your shape so completely.”
“Oh,” her guest answered, “it is nothing really. Just a trick of the mind and the light. I am still the same horse you met this morning.”
The vixen politely nosed one of the voles toward him, nudging it away from herself, but the dog fox shook his head slightly. “I will leave that to you,” he said, flattening his ears politely. “Though my appearance has changed temporarily, my tastes have not, and I see you had provided some delightful fare in anticipation of my arrival.”
Thus they set about their supper politely enough, the stranger eating apples and daisies with relish while Naryssa watched this incongruous spectacle from the corner of her eye. When she finished her own dainty grooming, he was already lying comfortably in the grass and watching her by the light of the rising moon. “Now,” he said quietly, “what was it you wished to hear?”
The vixen faced him, sitting on her haunches and curling her tail catlike over her paws. Ears lowered in deference, she answered. “I perceive you to be both a traveler and a shaman of some sort. Certainly you have powers to trick the eye or persuade the mind that exceed any I have ever seen before. I confess that I have never ventured into the world beyond this meadow and the fields immediately next to it. Tell me something of what lies beyond these narrow horizons that have fenced my life.”
The horse who seemed to be a fox turned his muzzle to point at the full moon suspended just a tail’s span above the eastern horizon. “My name in the speech of my own people is Hana’anto, and I have been to many parts of the world as you guessed,” he said in his rich voice. “Wherever I have traveled, the moon and the sun make the same arcs through the sky. The water is cool and wet, the grass is green unless it has failed to rain for many days. The wind blows through the leaves with the same sound. And yet…”
His pause seemed to trigger an anticipation in Naryssa that she could barely contain, and the visitor played upon her heartstrings as upon a golden harp when he continued, describing places where there were animals she had never seen nor smelled. He explained what mountains were and how their tops could be white with snow even while the summer heat made ripples in the air of the hills below them. The golden fox who was really a horse told of the ocean, how it moved of its own accord unlike the waters of her familiar pond and crashed upon the rocks of the shoreline with a sound louder than a summer thunderstorm. She was particularly enchanted when he tried to describe the scent of the sea air and the cries of the waterbirds who lived and presumably nested near the ocean. Visions of fresh eggs and succulent chicks crossed her mind, but she fought to suppress them. It was the idea of a different smell, different sounds, what surely must be a difference in the light itself that held her attention tightly.
It seemed to Naryssa that the dog fox drew near to her, whispering directly into her ears about the wonders of the far places he had visited in his powerful horse form. At last he lay next to her, his silky fur entwined with her own dusky red coat, the warmth of his body curled about her. She remembered him saying, “You have only to choose. Will it fully. Come with me, and I shall show you all these things and more.”
She must have dozed in his warm embrace because she awakened in the half light just before dawn. Dew speckled her fur and the brush of her tail, and the moon was setting in the west. The golden fox was gone, but in the grass before her there lay the impression of one rounded hoof. Even as she stared at it, torn by a sense of loss and abandonment, she realized that the morning dew was gathering in the depression, filling it with moisture.
Without thinking what she was doing, or perhaps because that other self within her was doing the thinking, Naryssa stretched her neck and sniffed at the hoofprint, catching just a hint of the horse’s scent about it. Of its own volition, her tongue stretched out to taste the dewdrops in the bottom.
Her heart wrenched within her, and for a few brief moments she thought she might be breathing her last breaths. Throbbing pains shook her body, and the grass beneath her seemed to recede. She looked out at the setting moon, and knew what she had to do.
Naryssa did not cast her eyes back even once toward her former home, but with a long shivering cry she launched herself on dark hooves, galloping toward the moon, racing to catch up to Hana’anto. Surely he would wait for her, had he not asked her to come? Sorrel mane and tail streaming in the breeze, nostrils flared to take in the air in great roaring gulps, she ran over her meadow, past the pond, past the cows drowsing in their pasture.
On a great open plain of grass, as the first rays of the rising sun shone from behind her and over her head to illuminate the landscape and outline her long shadow running ahead, she saw him standing on a hilltop, waiting. Without hesitating, the blood bay mare galloped to join the golden horse who reared upon his hind legs in greeting. He called her to himself in a trumpeting and joyful summons before the two of them raced each other over the horizon and into a world hitherto unseen.