A Fairytale Reading to Blow Up the Dinner Party
"Fable" by Ethan Rutherford, recommended by Jill Meyers
INTRODUCTION BY JILL MEYERS
Farthest South, the collection in which this story “Fable” appears, has been an extraordinary companion to me during the pandemic. By that I mean, though Ethan Rutherford wrote these stories before the pandemic hit, and I acquired the collection for A Strange Object at the tail end of 2019, we worked on them together throughout 2020 as the book came together. The work on these intimate, sublime, and strange stories sustained both of us and somehow told us about the time we were living through. None of these narratives are about the pandemic, of course, but they feel oddly prescient in the way they describe our fevered domestic lives and isolation, something looming just outside domestic life, beyond our control. These are stories of the joys, exhaustion, and surprises of parenting—but they are also stories about wolves at the door, and the beckoning, terrifying world beyond.
Rutherford’s stories have a delicious simultaneity, an exhilarating feeling of being in more than one world at once. In “Fable,” there’s a frame, and then there’s a story inside the frame. A group of old friends gathers at a house to dine and reminisce and, as it turns out, to remember those who have died. As the night wears on, the group grows more testy but also more frank with one another; in these moments, “Fable” has the feel of a late-era Raymond Carver story, full of patient witness to human frustration and desire.
Inside the frame, Karen, the new addition to this group of friends, reads aloud a fable she has translated. “It begins as a love story, but it becomes something else, too,” Karen tells them. In the fable, a fox steals a human child to raise with his partner. When someone adds that she’s read fables like this one as a child, Karen snaps, “This is not a children’s story.” And she is right. The fable, which touches on the desire for children and moral reckoning, as well as the approach of oblivion, is absolutely spellbinding but also harrowing and deeply ambiguous. It has an ancient odor.
We have, then, the gathering of friends and the story of the foxes and the baby. The frame and the story inside exist side-by-side—distinct animal and human worlds—but the boundaries of those realms start to shift. The inside story, with its moral trouble, threatens the frame—it leaks, it skips, it crosses over. And this encroachment, to me, is part of the magic of Rutherford’s stories, the gesture that suggests the headlong messiness of life. Stories that do that, they absolutely have my heart.
– Jill Meyers
Editorial director of A Strange Object
A Fairytale Reading to Blow Up the Dinner Party
“Fable” by Ethan Rutherford
It was Saturday night and the four of them were sitting around the dining room table at Sasha’s house, telling stories. Do you remember, do you remember?—that was the song they were singing. Nils and Anna hadn’t seen Sasha for years—they’d missed the wedding, and didn’t know Karen, his third wife, at all. But there were no hard feelings; they drank, had some mood-loosening hash; it was like no time had passed. At dinner, Sasha had clapped and rubbed his hands together, blown through his fingers as though he were holding dice. He’d sung of the friends they’d had in common and spoke of their great adventures. He’d told the stories of their youth in such luxurious and precise detail that the episodes began to seem new, as if they’d happened to someone else.
Dinner had been delicious, ram and ewe, heaping platters of food. Now they were into the wine, and it seemed no one wanted the night to end. At some point, Karen stood and wandered around the kitchen, where she spent half an hour opening and closing drawers as Sasha held forth. “I feel like a sultan,” Sasha said. “This is Homeric. We’re riding the lightning here. Pass the lute, for this has been the best night yet.” He reached for his cup and began talking again.
“He never listens,” Karen said from the kitchen. She had the refrigerator open and was staring into its gray light as though it held some sort of secret scroll.
“Have mercy,” Sasha said, and clutched at his heart.
The house was deep in the country, and it had taken Anna and Nils almost an hour of driving narrow, winding roads to find it. When Nils had tried to apologize for being late—trouble with the kids, a new babysitter—he’d been waved off. “Old friends,” Sasha said, wrapping him in a bear hug so tight his neck hurt. “And Anna, still so beautiful. Welcome.” He’d made them little paper hats, which he placed on their heads as they stepped through the door. “Remember these?” he’d said.
“Of course,” said Anna. It was something he’d done when they were in grad school. Each hat, when unfolded, revealed some sort of blessing or fortune you would take with you into the good, cool night. It was, in fact, how Nils and Anna had met.
“I see you’ve got your hats,” Karen said.
“We’re playing along,” Anna said.
Nils folded his and put it in his jacket pocket.
“Fine, fine, you don’t have to look now,” Sasha said. “Save it for the drive home. But don’t forget. Or it’ll never come true.” He shut the door and began pouring drinks. This was how things had always gone between the three of them. They took themselves to the dining room, and the night unfurled like a dark sail around them.
Karen returned to the table as Sasha was winding down. With some shock, Nils and Anna had come to realize that a number of the old friends they’d been talking about—not close friends, but still—were now dead: one or two heart attacks, a ski accident, cancer. A great spin on the roulette wheel, the marble magnetized, succinct, final. Sasha pushed out his chair and walked down the hall to the bathroom. “It’s unendurable,” he said when he came back. His cheeks were flushed, and Anna thought he might’ve been crying. “They stand on the banks,” he said. “They’re in this very room.” A thick, heavy silence fell over the group. As though recounting a dream, Sasha then began to list his own reversals in fortune, which had been great—he’d built and lost companies, an accident had left him unable to have children—and what he had learned from them, which was almost nothing. “Except for this: if you find a beautiful woman, you hang on, you hang on, you hang on,” he said, looking at Karen, “and you never let go.”
The effect that these stories had on Nils and Anna was immediate and strange. As their old friend spoke, each scene, familiar and not, had emerged as though from some shrouded, timeless woods, taken physical shape on the table in front of them, and said: study me for the clues to your life. And what did they see? Only that they, themselves, had been lucky, happy; they’d been content. They were not dead, they’d had their children. There was nothing wrong with celebrating that, but that’s not what stories were supposed to do, and the idea that they’d arrived at some point where all had been said was, somehow, horrendous. Who would want that?
Karen reached out and rested her hand on the crook of Sasha’s elbow. Anna and Nils reluctantly folded their napkins. Outside, the wind picked up and blew little gusts of snow against the kitchen window, and for a minute it seemed as though no one would ever speak again.
“Karen tells stories,” Sasha finally said. He coughed into his hand. “It’s what she does for a living.”
“Translates,” Karen said.
“Really?” Anna said. “I didn’t know that.”
“Why would you? I’m the odd man out.”
“We haven’t asked you a single question,” Nils said. “We’ve been rude.”
“She’s incredibly smart,” Sasha said. “You, I mean. You are incredibly smart.”
Anna turned to Karen. “Perhaps you could tell us a love story,” she said.
“Yes,” said Nils, and patted her hand. “If you have one, it’s the best way to end.”
“They aren’t really love stories,” Karen said. “They’re more like fables.”
“Surprise us,” Sasha said. “We can switch gears. I think that’s something we’re ready for.”
They cleared the table, and took themselves to the spacious living room, where they sat on an L-shaped couch that faced an enormous gas fireplace.
“This is our first time out in who knows how long,” Anna said. She sat close to Nils on the couch. The night was approaching its natural end, of course, but Anna felt as though something important was on the verge of passing between her and Nils, and in that sense the evening didn’t feel finished. She took his hand. Their babysitter would be wondering where they were, but she knew to call if something was wrong.
Karen returned from her office with a stack of loose paper, which she arranged messily on her lap. She read silently for a few minutes and no one said a word. “This one,” she finally said, “is new. It doesn’t fit with what you were talking about earlier.” She rubbed her belly with an open palm. She was frowning slightly. “But it’s been bothering me, and I’d like to try it out.”
“Is it a love story at all?” Anna said. “Will we be scared?”
“Yes,” Karen said. “No. It’s about a forest, and two foxes, and a wolf.” She hesitated. “And a woman,” she finally said. “You might find it upsetting because you have children. But it is about love. It begins as a love story, but it becomes something else, too.”
“Okay,” Sasha said. He was fiddling with the fire. He couldn’t get it to work, and there was a brief silence as Karen regarded him. He quit fumbling and sat down. Then she began.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “in a tall, thick forest that grew next to a northern village, a small fox lived with his wife. For many years they’d been content, their days together long and full. But when it came time to have a child, and they found they could not—for each child they conceived arrived stillborn, some fur but no breath, and left a stain of blood upon the snow—they were visited by great sadness. Over time this sadness bloomed a shadow, and soon grief hung on their door. The forest fell dark, the nights became long, and the joy they’d previously felt in each other’s company could no longer be found. Days passed with no words of comfort. When, at night, they reached for each other, it was like touching air. This cannot go on, thought the fox. And so, one day he left his tired wife sleeping and returned only as the sun was going down with a human child they could call their own.
“His wife met him at the door. He handed the bundle to her as though it were a great gift, and the small child seemed to glow in her arms. He cried softly, he cuddled, he burrowed directly into his wife’s neck. He was unafraid. She let out one happy sob and brought the swaddled child inside. That night, they fed him milk and meat, poured water from a basin, bathed him with their tongues. He grabbed playfully for their bristly fur. They made a bed out of branches and sang him asleep in a tidy corner of their den.
“In bed that first night, she reached for her husband. I didn’t know what I’d do, she said quietly. Before long, she stole from their bed and returned with the sleeping child in her arms. They listened to the wind outside. It began as a whisper, then grew louder and more fulsome. Boughs cracked and fell. Then it stopped, and it seemed the forest was as quiet as it had ever been.
“In the morning, the child stirred, stretched, and opened his eyes. Welcome, she said. We have been waiting for you our entire lives, and we have so much to tell you.”
Karen cleared her throat. “However,” she said, “bringing this child into their home did not come without complication. For in doing so the fox had broken the oldest rule in the forest, which was this: the separation between the village and woods must always be maintained. This meant that no matter how happy they were, they would always have to hide this child. Any transgression, even a slight breaking of this rule, meant death.”
“By whom?” Anna said.
“Wolf,” Karen said. “He patrolled the woods and kept its boundary. He’d been around in one shape or another for a long time, and killed whomever he pleased, including, years ago, the fox’s father. And the second complication was this,” she continued. “The fox had not found the small child by the river, abandoned for the nuns, as he had told his wife. He’d stolen him from a small house near the edge of the forest. This was not an impulse. He’d watched for weeks from the woods. He’d heard the child’s cry, seen his mother soothe him, and waited patiently until one day, as he knew she would, the woman left her child alone on a blanket on the porch. The fox didn’t hesitate. He slipped on his father’s magic cloak, took on the form of an old man, and, breaking the rule, stepped quickly out of the forest. As he ran away with the child in his arms, he heard the woman calling for him; her cries were like the screaming wind. It was the most desolate sound imaginable.”
Here Karen paused. Sasha had started fiddling with the fireplace again.
“He’d taken the child and left the woman, who had no one else, no husband, no parents, all alone,” she said. “But he thought: what is her unhappiness, compared to ours? This was something he could never tell his wife, for she was kind and knew something of loneliness, and would not forgive him for his cruelty.”
The child grew quickly. He learned to turn over, and soon he was sitting by himself. Wherever the fox’s wife went, the child followed her with his eyes, and if she was ever out of sight, he balled his fists and cried quietly until she returned to him. Goodness, she’d say, and sweep him into her arms. I’m not going anywhere.
Each morning, the fox woke before the sun, warmed milk on the stove, brought the sleeping child to his wife. Just a little longer, she’d say to him with the child in her arms, and then I will come help you gather wood and wool for the winter. As the sun went down, he’d return to their den in time to hear his wife humming the child to sleep. They clipped his fingernails, put them in a jar, cleaned the wax from his ears. They bathed him in the brook, sopped the folds of his legs. Gently washed behind his neck, wiped him clean and dry. They sang late into the night. Soon he fell ill with his first fever, and a fearful stillness descended on the home: perhaps, they thought, this was how they’d lose him. But the fox’s wife dipped a cloth in cool water, spread it across his uncreased forehead, hushed his cries, and waited for him to return to himself. Soon he did. Now you are ours, she said.
And so their early days as a family passed. They were careful, they kept to themselves. There was no before, only after. They were as dear to each other as could be imagined.
“But nothing lasts forever,” Karen said, “and soon the weather turned and a sharp feeling began to nag at the fox. He didn’t know what it was. Or, he did know— he had lied to his wife, and he dreaded being found out; and he was afraid that Wolf, who had killed his father, would hear of what he’d done and come for him. No one in the forest had seen Wolf in ages; that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.
“But there was more to it than that. There were days when he spoke to no one, and no one spoke to him; when the child would cry if he held him; when his wife became impatient with him. He felt excluded, and soon began to feel sorry for himself. He wanted to say: you should be grateful for what I’ve done! I put my life in great danger for your happiness! But then, of course, he would remember that he’d lied to his wife and told her he found the child by the river.”
Karen turned a page and continued. “She too noticed the distance growing between them. There’s no such thing as too much happiness, she told him one night. She picked up the sleeping child’s arm and dropped it gently. Everything else sorts out.”
Nils adjusted his legs. It seemed that the couch had grown softer, and now curled around them in the dimly lit room. Anna had her eyes closed. Suddenly, the fire whooshed to life, and Sasha sat down next to Karen. He put his arm around her. “There,” he said. In the low firelight, and sitting beside her, he looked older than he had during dinner. “That’s better, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Karen said. “Much.”
With winter came darkness and snow, the sense of an ending, but also the turning and blossoming of something else, and one cold morning the fox wandered a great distance from home. He stepped lightly, followed a path cut by a frozen stream through the woods. He had no destination in mind. Bare branches, encased, glistened with ice. There was no sound that was not muffled, and the gray winter sky felt dense and close.
Soon, and for reasons he couldn’t understand, he began to feel light-headed. He paused to catch his breath. Suddenly, he had a vision of the forest from a great height, as though he soared above it. He shook his head. Next, he smelled summer grasses, though they were buried in snow. This is strange, he thought. I must be very tired. He found a small hollow under a great oak tree and soon fell into a deep sleep in which he dreamed he was wandering the forest, looking for a handful of berries he’d lost. Then he dreamed of his wife before their child—he saw her in bed, waiting for him. His body began to quiver. It was not a dream he wanted to end. But soon the image of his wife began to drip at its edges, and he felt fear rise in his throat. His wife gave way to a vision of Wolf, lurking in the forest, watching him with his viscous, yellow eyes. He could smell Wolf’s decaying breath. His father was there.
When he woke, it was to the sound of anxious chirping. What have I done? he thought. When he arrived home, his wife met him at the door. Where were you? she said. I was worried. Nowhere, he said. Well, she said, we have news. With this she stepped aside. The child sat in the middle of the floor. Then, with one chubby arm, he reached for a stool, pulled himself standing, and began to take his first steps.
He’s been working all day just to show you, his wife said. She was beaming.
The fox knew it wasn’t true, and that she’d said it only to include him. She rested her head on his shoulder.
He will want to go outside, the fox finally said. It’s too dangerous.
I know, his wife said. I’ve thought of that.
She stood and retrieved a child-sized vest she had sewn from the fox’s own cloak, and with a flourish she draped it gently across the child’s shoulders. Now, rather than a human child holding on to the stool, there appeared a small fox. My father would not have liked this, the fox thought. Then he said so to his wife.
Your father isn’t here, she said. And no one will ever know.
“The child grew,” said Karen. “His hair was black and knotted, his eyes were like little dark stones. He was sweet-natured, curious about every little thing.” She coughed and adjusted the pages in front of her. “Every morning, before leaving their den, they dressed him in his vest, and every night upon returning they hung it near the fire to dry. They were wary of the magic contained in this cloak, but it allowed them to leave their den, and with the child appearing to all like a fox, perhaps they wouldn’t even warrant a second glance. The child clung to the fox’s back, and they ran through the cold in the falling snow. They trotted, they gamboled, they hunted together. The forest in winter was beautiful, and there were mornings where it felt to the fox and his wife as if the trees and sky and rolling hills, the blue-lit afternoons and evenings, had been created for them alone.
“But still there were some nights the fox could not sleep, and on those nights he found himself wondering about the child’s real mother. Sometimes she appeared to him in his dreams, walking through the forest, calling for her child, heartbroken, bereft. In these dreams, she moved through the woods, looking behind every tree, in every den. Other times he imagined her as a pale, long-fingered ghost who came into the forest not to find her child but to kill whomever had taken him. She moved like the wind; she would not stop. Often, he’d wake just as she had found them, and he would go and stand at the door and listen to the night sounds in the forest until he calmed down.
“This small, small child,” Karen continued. “His wife could not be without him, nor he without her. He would not eat unless it was she offering food. When the fox held him, singing, he would not sleep until his wife gently took him back into her arms. Time passed; they were content.
“But one night, looking directly at the ceiling while his wife slept, he thought: she is wrong, there is such a thing as too much happiness. If it announces itself too garishly, someone will come to snatch it away.”
Sasha stood up to get a drink.
“What do you do with a story like this?” Nils asked. “When you’re done, I mean.”
“I suppose that when I have enough of them, I’ll put them all together and make a book.”
“I read these stories when I was a kid,” Anna said. “I couldn’t get enough.”
“Right,” said Karen.
“I’m back,” announced Sasha, and sat down near Nils.
“So,” Karen said, and looked down at the pages in front of her. “He can’t stop thinking about this woman, the child’s mother. There are some days when, for reasons he can’t quite explain, she enters his every waking thought. It’s alarming to him, and unexpected. He doesn’t know what to do.”
“Right,” Sasha said. “We got that.”
“No,” Karen said, “like, he really thinks about her.” She stopped here and looked at Anna. “This isn’t a children’s story. It’s something else.”
“I’m sorry,” Anna said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Excuse me,” she said, and stood. She walked down the hall to the bathroom. While she was gone, no one spoke. The fire was blue at its base, and licked the fake logs in a hypnotic, predictable way. When Anna returned, she sat near the edge of the sofa, close to, but not touching, her husband.
“Where were we?” Karen said. She looked at the page in front of her for where she’d left off.
“He’s thinking about the woman,” Nils said. “The child’s mother.”
“Yes,” Karen said. “Right. Time passed, and this unsettled feeling did not go away. It felt to the fox as though the woman were reaching out to him across some other plane, some dark dimension he couldn’t quite see. He was deeply bothered by this feeling. It would not let him go. And so one day, even though he knew it was not a great idea, he left home and went in search of her.”
Though he knew where the woman lived, the fox was apprehensive about returning. He walked for most of the day and then paused at the edge of the woods. With a backwards glance, he drew the cloak over his shoulders. He felt the transformation in his chest, painful but quick. The child’s house was as he remembered: red door, peeling shutters. The garden grew untended and wild.
Dry sticks lay across the brittle lawn and he was careful with his steps as he approached.
It appeared that no one was home. He looked in one window, then another. He saw the woman’s bed was unmade. The kitchen smelled of rotting food. The child’s room was untouched, as though he were expected back at any moment.
Then he saw her: thin and dressed in her nightclothes, she sat alone in front of the fireplace. He couldn’t see her face. He cupped his hands to the window, and then, as if she knew he was there, she stood and made her way across the room. She moved slowly and gracefully, walked as though she were the ghost he’d seen in his dreams. Leave, his thoughts commanded him, but he could not. She pulled at him with a strange gravity, and he found himself wanting to speak to her. Her hair was matted and rangy, the hem of her nightgown was stained with mud. She had been in the forest, after all.
He retreated to the woods until night fell. He tried to clear his head but could not: it felt as though his brain had become gauze. When it was dark he returned, stood by her window, and watched as she lay down in her empty bed, closed her eyes, and slept. He did not know what to do. Finally, he wrapped the cloak around his shoulders, climbed through the window, and slipped into the bed next to her. She smelled like an animal at the end of its life. Her very breath was sorrow. Even in sleep she must’ve known he was not her child, but nonetheless she curled around him, pulled him to the hollow of her rancid chest, and fell into a deeper dream, the deepest there was. She called to her child, wanting only him. He remained in her embrace and listened.
Finally, he pulled away. He left through the window, closed it, and swept his footprints from the garden’s bed. On the front porch, he left the child’s blanket, and on top of that a pile of small bones. It would hurt at first, he knew, but it was better this way.
“Time passed and the fox just…did nothing,” Karen said. “Now and then he returned to the house and lay with the woman, but that soon stopped, and soon he found he could live with the pain he’d caused, and the lie he’d told his wife, simply by pretending he hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, it was a secret he liked keeping. Occasionally, a vision of the woman haunted him, but mostly she didn’t, and the fox family lived happily for a while. They kept to themselves, but their old friends understood, and soon stopped visiting. All families turn inward over time. It is what happens when a child arrives. Habits are broken, and new habits are formed, clung to. It’s one of the old stories. It’s how you stay safe.”
There was a loud sound from the kitchen, followed by a rush of water. “That’s just the dishwasher,” Sasha said. “It’s a piece of garbage.”
“Anyway,” Karen continued, “soon the leaves began to change and the days grew cold and short, and the fox, in his state of contentedness, forgot about the woman in the village and what he’d done. But one winter morning he woke early and knew something wasn’t right: the forest was a little too quiet, the sun late in rising. He crept out of bed and went outside. When it should have been light, it was dark. Where he should’ve smelled a crisp winter morning, he smelled something animal and foul. He blinked his eyes and swatted at his nose to clear the stench. And when he looked up, he saw that Wolf had come, and now sat near his door.
“Wolf was enormous and lanky. He moved rarely, and only when he felt like it. His eyes were yellow and depth- less, unblinking; he thought in a slow and deliberate way. The fox hadn’t seen him in years, and he felt his stomach drop in fear.
“It’s so strange, Wolf finally said. A human in the woods.
What is she looking for, I wonder? The fox shook his head. He could not speak. I know you’ve seen her, Wolf said. And I know where you go at night. Then he stood. His mouth was a black gaping pit. It’s not something we can have, he finally said. It just isn’t.
“The fox felt urine stream down his rooted leg. He was remembering his father. He closed his eyes and prepared for his own life to end. But when it didn’t, he slowly uncovered his head. He opened his eyes and with relief realized that Wolf hadn’t mentioned his wife or the child. He nodded at Wolf and said he would not see the woman again. At this, Wolf laughed. And then he opened his mouth and commenced with a great yawn. We’ll see, he said. And with that, he turned and walked slowly back into the forest.”
“Hmm,” Sasha said. “That was easy.”
“No, no,” Karen said. “A visit from Wolf is never that simple.”
That morning when the child woke he was unhappy and listless, wan, full of complaint. Soon, he caught a cold and slept for two days. When he woke, it was like something inside him had shifted; as though the little machine of his heart fluttered here and there irregularly, and as a result different chords were pulled in his mind, and the song he sang changed its key. Some days, he was content to play on his own. Other days he was inconsolable. On these days, the fox could feel his wife’s sadness returning. It was like a low fog sifting over the forest floor, pushing at the windows of their den, trying to get in. Month after month passed, and they became exhausted, short with one another, angry themselves.
If the child cried for more than a day, sometimes the fox’s wife took the cloak from its peg and transformed into a young woman. Her paws became fingers, her brown eyes turned blue. From the door she would glide to wherever the child was and take him in her arms, sing softly, wipe his tears with her thumb. This always calmed him. And once he was asleep, she would remove the cloak, lie down next to her husband, and quietly weep on his shoulder.
“For months,” Karen said, “this sadness afflicted them. They began to feel…helpless. There was nothing to be done. The forest was heavy with snow, the light was flat. The child wanted nothing to do with either of them. He sat cross-legged in a corner, stared at the wall. He walked in small circles in the center of the room. When picked up, he thrashed and screamed. Sometimes he would cry for hours, and the crying would make him vomit. He stopped eating.
“And then one day,” Karen said, “they woke up and the child was gone.” She paused. “They looked everywhere,” she finally said. “They had not left their door open, and the child could not unlatch it. There were no windows left ajar. A child like that could not just disappear, but that seemed to be exactly what had happened. For a week they walked the woods, calling his name. They left the door open at night in the hope that he would return on his own, left food in places around the forest, they begged and cried and prayed, but he didn’t return. Soon a winter storm arrived. The temperature dropped, and the wind picked up, and the forest floor was covered even more deeply with snow. It was the worst storm they’d seen in years. Neither would say it, but they knew all hope of finding the child was lost. Soon, his wife took to their bed and would not leave it. When the fox tried to talk to her, to reassure her, it was like talking to an empty box. She’d gone vacant. When he brought her food, it remained uneaten.”
Karen cleared her throat. “When the storm relented, he left her and resumed his search in the woods. He crossed the stream and traveled farther than he ever had, to the darkest parts of the forest, asking everyone he met about the human child. The answer was always the same. He knew the woman had not found and taken the child back—every night he ventured to her house to peer into her windows. She sat alone in her living room, staring into whatever dark space unfurled in front of her. The child had not returned.”
“He just disappeared?” Sasha said.
“You need to stop interrupting,” Karen said, and looked at him with what appeared, to Anna and Nils, to be genuine anger. “The three of you have been talking all night,” she said. “You asked for a story, it’s almost done.”
“Sorry,” Nils said,
“Yes,” said Anna, “please continue.”
Eventually, with his wife still sick in bed, the fox went in search of Wolf. After two days of walking and calling for the child even though he knew all hope was lost, the forest opened, and he found Wolf standing at the mouth of a great cave. Near the entrance, a heap of blanched and cracked skulls were stacked like stones. Enormous worms wound around his paws. Wolf nodded to the fox. He grinned, then dropped his head and returned to licking the pile of bones at his feet. I have, he said, no idea why you’ve come.
The fox was struck dumb. The darkness that orbited Wolf stretched its living fingers and beckoned to him. But then he felt anger surging from his shoulders like an old thought. He crossed the distance between them and lunged.
Oh, ho! said Wolf, surprised and even slightly pleased at the fox’s stupidity. He bit again and again at Wolf’s neck while Wolf stood to his full height and did nothing at all. The fox felt the large worms wrap around him. They squeezed his legs, his hips, his chest. Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding,
Wolf finally said. Tell me when you are tired, and then I will show you something. Eventually, the fox could no longer stand, and with great heaving gulps of air lay down. With a yawn, Wolf turned and stepped into his cave without a backward look.
The fox felt as though he’d left the earth. He no longer cared about anything at all. The walls of the cave were wet and putrid, and as he followed Wolf, the sounds of the forest receded behind him. It was as though he were slowly entering a cold and unforgiving afterlife. With some sadness, he realized his memories of his own father had been wiped clean: when he tried to think of him now, he saw only a dark and bending absence. Finally, the tunnel opened up to a great cavern, lit by torches. He was met by the smell of decomposing leaves. There was no sound at all. The floor was piled high with bones. You see? Wolf said, and shrugged. There are no children here.
Karen adjusted herself on the couch and looked quickly around the room.
“His wife did not recover. In the morning he brought her tea, breakfast. She refused to eat. She refused to leave the bed. She refused to allow him to move the child’s belongings—the cloak she’d made, the toys. His clothes. In the evening, he crawled next to her and sometimes it was like sleeping with a statue. Other times, she talked in her sleep, thrashed, and nested; she roamed her own unconscious, dark roads that did not end. One night, she opened her eyes, looked directly at her husband, and said: That’s not true. The fox didn’t know to what she was referring. He knew that he had brought her great pain, but he had not said anything for days.
“And so they moved carefully through the fraught and fragile months. They searched the forest out of habit. They took no pleasure in the passing hours. During the first year, the child visited them both in their sleep, and in these dream visions the fox saw a young man standing near the edge of the forest, one arm raised in greeting. His wife saw him running through the woods, with sunlight at his back. Neither saw him for what he was.
“As time passed, the fox found he could no longer remember what the child looked like. When he tried to imagine him, all he saw was a large white stone that gave off a shimmering light and vibrated with hatred for him and what he’d done. His wife remembered, though. She could describe the child’s chubby legs, and the constellation of his birthmarks, his thick black hair, the feel of his toothless gums on her outstretched wrist. His smell. She removed the cloak from its peg, transformed into a woman, and sat in the middle of the room for days as if to call him back. But it was for naught. The boy, the fox felt, no longer existed, and after his disappearance they’d invented and replaced him with a different child made from memory—it was this they were mourning, and warming themselves by. It was not enough, but it was what they had.”
“And so,” Karen said, “that was how they aged.”
“And he never tells her,” Anna said. “Not about Wolf, not about the woman, not about the child.”
“Well,” Karen said. “It’s complicated. One of the things he’d seen in the cave were the small bones of their stillborn children. So he was shaken, and he tried hard to forget that, and did his best to keep that knowledge from his wife. If you keep one secret, you can’t tell another—eventually all of it will come out. Many years passed, however,” she said. “And finally, when they were old and near death themselves, and all of this was a distant memory, and perhaps he thought he’d be forgiven, the fox confessed to what he’d done. He began on the day he brought the child home, and he told her about the woman, and his visits to her house, and how, one spring morning, he’d opened the door and seen Wolf. She listened patiently. Her face made no expression he recognized. He felt unburdened, like a weight was off his neck and shoulders; but he also felt deep shame at the way he had kept this from her. She did not rescue him from this feeling.”
“Good,” said Anna. “That seems about right.”
The next day, he woke to an empty bed. He sat up and saw she’d cleaned their den. Everything was in its place: the floor swept, the child’s toys tucked neatly in the corner, the clothes she’d sewn for him years ago folded and stacked. She stood near the fire. Take me to her, she instructed her husband. She opened the door and stepped out.
By the time they got to the village, the sun was going down and the sky was gold-streaked and orange. They shared the cloak, now old and moth-bitten, and felt the quickening of their transformation: a short old woman and a fat, ugly old man, shuffling together, arm-in-arm. No one paid them any mind. They passed husbands, wives, children; through open windows they heard dinner conversations, spoons on plates, the sounds of family happiness. Finally, they reached the house they were looking for. It was as he remembered it.
The woman answered. She’d had little company over the years, and her face betrayed neither shock nor recognition at the sight of this odd couple at her door. She was polite and invited them in. She led them through the small house, and they sat facing one another in ratty and dirty chairs as the sky dimmed, banded blue, then went dark.
I’d offer you tea, but I have none, the woman finally said. She was old now. Her features were like carved wood, and her eyes were as dark as night. She studied them closely, violently cleared her throat, and resumed staring. I’ve been waiting for you, she finally said, and I know why you’re here. Then she said the child’s name. The fox’s wife began to cry. Are you here to bring him back? the woman asked.
When neither the fox nor his wife spoke, she had her answer. She sighed and looked out the window. She composed herself and dabbed at her cheeks with a large square of blue cloth. The fox recognized it as the blanket he’d left on her doorstep years ago.
Finally, the fox felt his wife tug at the cloak, and saw the woman startle at their change in appearance.
His wife spoke first. She described their den in the forest, the light of the seasons, where they lived and how. She described how they’d made the child’s bed, taught him to run and burrow and hide. She talked of the long nights when he had a fever and the relief she felt when it broke. The woman listened closely. Was he very happy? she finally said. Did he sleep through the night? Did he pull his ear to soothe himself like he used to?
This is some sort of trap, the fox thought. He tried to look for her teeth, to see if she’d sharpened them, but she kept them well hidden, and he found that he could answer these questions, and that talking like this settled his mind. The woman leaned forward in her chair.
You’ve brought him back to me, she said.
No, the fox’s wife said, and let out a soft cry. No, we haven’t. He’s gone.
The woman spread her arms.
You’ve brought him back, she said. She seemed to grow in her seat. It was the not knowing, she said. It was imagining the darkness, and his pain. That’s what it was. That’s all it is. This is the end of your life. That’s all it could ever be.
And then she wept too.
“And that’s the end?” Sasha said.
“Yes,” Karen said.
“They just cry?” said Nils.
“Well, there’s another version,” said Karen, “in which there is no reunion. And another version, where the woman reaches for the fox and squeezes him to death with her bare hands for what he did. And a third version, where the child returns, now a man.” Karen was sweating slightly. She seemed relieved to finally put the story down, ready to go to bed. She had one hand on her belly and rubbed it as though it might bring her luck. “The three of you. You should see your faces,” she said. “Do you want to hear what Wolf originally said? It’s an old poem. He said: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy. Pain is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Trust the physician and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility. I didn’t include that this time, though. Even though I like it.”
“Huh,” Sasha said.
Karen was looking out the window now. “This is the end of your life,” she said.
It was late. The fable had taken them long into the night, and there would be no more stories. Anna and Nils knew their babysitter was most likely asleep on their couch, the television quiet and casting a blue light across her tranquil, young face. For a long time no one moved, and the four of them sat as though rooted to the couch. To someone standing outside the house, peering in, they would’ve appeared as a still life in which each solitary figure was lost in thought, flat-lipped, as though on the verge of hearing the answer to some private riddle. But of course, they had heard the answer. Finally, someone coughed and the spell was broken.
“Did you ever open your hats?” Sasha said.
“We didn’t,” said Nils. “I forgot mine completely.”
A young snow began pelting the roof. They would need to leave soon; they should’ve left hours ago. Perhaps now, Anna thought, they would never leave. But just then, there was a thunderous crack, and the lights in the kitchen cut out. The fire sputtered, hissed, and went out as well, and the room was plunged into complete darkness.
“Here’s the scary story you were asking for,” Sasha said. He stood. “We’ve got candles somewhere.”
“Don’t bother,” Nils said. “Our eyes will adjust.” But Sasha was already knocking into furniture as he crossed the room.
“I liked that story,” Anna said. “Very much.”
“Thank you,” Karen said.
Nils reached for his wife in the darkness, but when he grasped, he felt nothing but air. Had she moved? He heard noise from the kitchen, cabinets being open and shut. It sounded like an animal was rooting around. “Anna,” he said, but she didn’t answer. Finally, he saw her and was struck by a pale fear, though he didn’t know why. She had stood and was at the window. “Anna,” he said again, but she was thinking of something else. An image had come to her: their first child, in her arms, in the early morning, both of them lost in those tired happy days that never seemed to end but could not be remembered, and would not come again.
“I’ve got one,” Sasha said from the kitchen. “I’ve found a candle. Hang on, hang on, hang on. Nobody move. Soon there will be light. Nobody move a muscle. I’ll be right there.”
They waited, but he never came.