Long ago, there was a poor brother and sister who grew up at the edge of a large forest. They did not have much in the way of toys, but hardly had a need for them, as they spent most of their days playing in and around the forest. The forest had all the sights, songs, and special places they needed to nourish their play. The children came to know many different animals, from curious squirrels to timid deer. But there was one animal that they came to know best, over time. She was a vixen, a lady fox with a glossy red coat. If you are lucky enough to see a fox today, you’ll notice that its four legs are elegantly covered in short black fur, almost like stockings. But in the time of our story, foxes were golden-red almost all over, from the tips of their ears to all four paws. The vixen had raised her first litter near her den at the base of a hickory tree. As summer deepened into autumn, the last kits left the den to find mates of their own. The children would leave bits of food for “their” vixen by hickory tree, scraps saved from their dinner plates, wrapped in leaves. She didn’t come when called, she never let them stroke her golden-red fur, but the fox had a way of showing up when the children least expected to see her, looking at them intently with her amber eyes.
One gray autumn day the children took off for the forest as usual, some bread in their pockets. They explored further than they ever had before. The mist that had lingered over the forest for hours suddenly gathered into heavy rain, then sharp sleet. The day turned ferociously cold, and they could not find a path back home. Brother and sister huddled in a low cave, trembling and waiting for the weather to improve. The sky darkened. The sleet did not stop. It soaked through their flimsy leather shoes and well-worn socks. It was hard to see very far. The children had no choice but to shelter in the cave for the night. They tried pushing some leaves together for warmth. Still, they shivered. They picked moss off the edges of the cave walls to make a soft place to rest. Still, they shivered. There was no question of building a fire with the forest wet all around. They shivered, one next to the other, and waited for sleep to ease their tired bodies. Rain and sleet continued. Neither brother nor sister heard the footsteps of the vixen pad into the cave. She curled her warm pelt around the childrens’ icy-cold feet. They stopped shivering, and fell into a deep sleep.
At the break of dawn, the siblings woke, stiffly stretching and yawning. Curiously, their feet were no longer cold—no more sodden socks, no stiff, damp leather shoes. They each had lovely, sturdy slippers on their feet, lined inside and out in soft, golden-red fur. The same golden-red fur as their dear vixen still laying at their feet. At the sight of her, they nearly shouted with excitement. But the fox didn’t move. Brother was the older, and bravely extended a hand to stroke the fox. The fox didn’t move. Brother and sister began to cry, seeing their old friend on the dirt floor of the cave, still as a stone. Their tears seeped into the dirt. Where they fell, a small green shoot sprang up. It grew and grew with astonishing speed. Sister, acting on impulse like younger sisters do, plucked one a vivid sprig from the plant and placed it gently between the jaws of the vixen. The fox started to cough and shudder. Their friend revived, shook herself, and gave the children a long stare before turning and padding out of the cave. The children just had time to notice that she trotted away with an altogether different look–her four legs were no longer the same golden-red as her splendid pelt, they were slender and black, as if someone had taken off her boots. So this is why foxes today are mostly golden-red all over, save for their feet. As for the white fur that we see extending from the foxes’ sensitive noses and covering their bellies, that is another tale for another time.
(revised 09 january 2023)