I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in its secret places, a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you this so that you will know that the tale I tell you now is true, just as it happened and just as it was told to me, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth.
The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have. The tale I tell you now happened not so long ago, but very far away, out in the sunward forests, where golden light shines slow along golden boughs.
In that land there was once a little fox who was not at all like the others. Where other foxes were sly, he alone was honest. Where other foxes were sneaky, he alone was kind. Where other foxes were clever, he alone was forthright. And so, despite the love between them as a kind will have, they could not long abide his company, nor he theirs. In the end, it was quite impossible for them to live together. So he left the company of other foxes and spent many years wandering the woods, wholly apart from his fellows.
Left to himself, he learned in time the languages of the birds and other forest animals, hoping, perhaps, that they would understand him better. But once he learned their languages he discovered that he had even less in common with them than with his own kind. He was at last left in his solitary burrow beneath the roots of an old birch tree, left with only his thoughts for company—thoughts of rights and wrongs, justices and exploitations, goods and evils—strange thoughts to the mind of a fox or, for that matter, the mind of a man.
One cold day in late summer, he came across a tall stone wall, heavy with mosses and ferns. “Surely this must be a work of man!” he thought to himself, “For what else could it be? See how it slopes so unnatural from the earth? What a wondrous animal is man, to craft such nests!” The fox had never before seen the works of man, although he had heard tales told from the lips of wider roaming creatures. And, for a while, he walked alongside the wall, marveling at its height and regularity. But, although he was a strange fox, he was still a fox. As he looked again and again at the wall, unable to see over it, he began to wonder what it could be hiding. Finally, his curiosity overtook him, and he scratched and scrabbled his way up the loose stones alongside the wall, until at last he reached the top.
The land he saw beyond the wall was like a forest, but such a forest that could have only come from the mind of man. There were rows upon rows of leafy particular trees, each branch laden heavy with apples. “Apples,” thought the fox to himself, “apples are my favorite.” He had never seen such apples, or so many, row and row of trees, layer and layer of branches, flecked pale red and green and golden in the light of evening. He knew—he knew!—that if he could just eat one, it would be so crisp and clean and sweet. But the other side of the wall was steep and straight, with no piles of loose and ready stones. There was no way for him to travel down it. So, instead, he nestled himself into the weeds and wet moss atop the wall and watched the apples sway in summer’s soft and evening light, until the sun had set and there was nothing but darkness over the forest. Only then did he pick his way back down the wall and make his way to his solitary burrow beneath the roots of an old birch tree.
After that, the fox would walk every day alongside the old wall, although he never again climbed it. As he walked, he would recall the apples that lay just over the wall—those apples!—swaying in the golden light of summer’s evening. He would imagine the softness and the flavor of them. But he did not dare to cross the wall, or even to look again inside.
• • • •
One day, a raven noticed the little fox walking alongside the wall, and then the next day, and then the next. She wondered why a fox would walk the same route every day, and why he would walk it beside this wall-of-man. In all the ages of the sky, there has never been a raven that once defied its curiosity, so no sooner did she wonder than she called out to the fox, saying:
“Little fox who walks along the wall: I come from the air where the winds blow wide and long; I come from the air where all below is seen; I come from the air and there are things I would ask of you, things I wish to know.”
The fox stopped and addressed the raven respectfully. “Cousin Raven, you may ask me any question that you will, for foxes and ravens are more alike than different, and surely you are close as kin to me.”
With a flutter of wings and rustle of feathers, the raven took perch on a small bush beside the fox, cocked her feathered head, and regarded him oddly.
“Why is it,” she asked at last, “that while all other foxes hunt and run and play on their own paths, you alone walk beside this wall-of-man, far from your fellows and their company?”
“Cousin Raven,” answered the little fox, “you have asked me two questions where I have only granted one. But a truth shared is not lost, and so I will give you two answers and any others that you might require.” And he explained the differences between himself and his brother foxes, and how, despite the love between them as a kind will have, they had become estranged.
The raven cocked her head, blinked twice, and regarded the fox for a moment. “Be that foul or be that fair,” she replied, “I shall regardless let it as it may. But why do you spend all your days beside this wall-of-man, and not in your own places in the forest, where you may hunt and play?”
“Ah, my cousin,” said the fox, “That is is another matter altogether.” And he explained to the raven about how he came across the wall-of-man, how he scrambled to the top of it, the trees and apples that lay beyond it and how he knew—he knew!—that if he could only taste just one it would be crisp and clean and sweet, how the wall’s other side was too steep for him to travel it, and there was naught for him to do but walk along this wall of man, dreaming of the gold-lit apples just beyond his reach.
“Well,” said the raven, “that’s simple enough. These wings of mine are not so large, yet that wall-of-man is no hindrance to me, and the weight of an apple is not beyond my capacity. For the price of the tale you’ve told, I will retrieve you an apple, that you might know for certain it’s crisp and clean and sweet.” With that, the raven hopped three times, stretched her wings, and set into the air.
“Wait, wait, wait!” cried the fox, but the raven did not stop. She was already flying beyond the reach of the fox’s cries. “That’s not it at all! Not even a little bit!” But the raven was already gone, over the wall, so the fox ran off into the woods, away from the wall, without even looking back, for he knew that if he looked back, he might see an apple in the clutches of the raven, and if he saw an apple, he could not help but taste it, and that would be the worst thing, the very worst thing of all, because no matter how much he wanted, those were not his apples.
For three days the fox hid in his burrow beneath the roots of an old birch tree, waiting and waiting. In his dreams he saw the apples that the raven would have brought him, cool and crisp and sweet. He kept to his burrow—not going back to the walk along that wall nor out into the forest to hunt and play. But after three days had passed, he thought surely that the raven had moved along her sky-paths to a new world altogether, and so he made his way back to the wall to walk along it.
But the character of his meandering changed in the days after the raven heard his tale. While before, he moved happily along the wall, imagining the wonderful feasts that lay beyond it, the raven’s offer had laid bare his anxiety: It would not be so simple, for him to eat an apple, for they were not his to eat. So now he walked along the wall bedraggled and sighing in a sadness thick and deep. “Oh me,” he would sigh again and again, “oh my.” Day after day he would walk along the wall, full of fear and hunger, and there was no end to it.
• • • •
One day, as he was walking the wall in his own anxieties, the little fox heard a voice coming from beneath the earth, speaking to him in the language of all things that squirm and crawl and burrow.
“Little fox who walks along the wall: I come from the earth where the rots grow deep and ancient; I come from the earth where all above is heard; I hear you through the dirt and there are things I would ask of you, things I wish to know.”
Startled, the little fox leapt into a crouch, but he recognized the voice as the voice of a rat, and no enemy of his. Relaxing his jaws, he addressed the rat respectfully. “Cousin Rat, please come to visit me and ask of me any question that you will, for foxes and rats are more alike than different, and surely you are close as kin to me.”
And, with a shuffle of earth and a nuzzling of noses, the rat dug her way out from the earth and set her bright eyes on the fox, wrapped her naked tail around herself, and regarded him oddly.
“Why is it,” she finally asked, “that all the other foxes hunt and run and play on their own paths, but every day you walk alone beside this wall-of-man, far from your fellows and their company?”
“Cousin Rat,” answered the little fox, “you have asked me two questions where I have only granted one. But a truth shared is not lost, and so I will give you two answers and any others that you might require.” And he explained the differences between himself and his brother foxes, and how, despite the love between them as a kind will have, they had become estranged.
The rat twitched her whiskers, sniffed twice, and regarded the fox for a moment. “Be that foul or be that fair,” she replied, “I shall regardless let it as it may. But why do you spend all your days beside this wall-of-man, and not in your own places in the forest, where you may hunt and play?”
“Ah, my cousin,” said the fox, “That is another matter altogether.” And he explained to the rat about how he came across the wall-of-man, how he scrambled to the top of it, the trees and apples that lay beyond it and how he knew—he knew!—that if he could only taste just one it would be crisp and clean and sweet, how the wall’s other side was too steep for him to travel it, and there was naught for him to do but walk along this wall of man, dreaming of the gold-lit apples just beyond his reach.
“Well,” said the rat, “that’s simple enough. These claws of mine are not so large, yet that wall is not so deep as it may hinder me, and the width of an apple is not beyond my capacity to burrow. For the price of the tale you’ve told, I will retrieve you an apple that you might know it’s crisp and clear and sweet.” With that, the rat turned three times, scritched her claws, and dug into the earth.
“Wait, wait, wait!” cried the fox but the rat did not stop. She had already tunneled beyond the reach of the fox’s cries. “That’s not it at all! Not at all or even a little bit!” But the rat was already gone, under the wall, so the fox ran off into the woods, away from the wall, without even looking back, for he knew that if he looked back, he might see an apple in the burrows of the rat, and if he saw the apple, he could not help but taste it, and that would be the worst thing, the very worst thing of all, because if he let himself taste that apple that he wanted so much, he would be just like all the other foxes, who did whatever they liked without a care for the harm they left behind.
The fox ran off into the woods, where he waited and waited and in his dreams he saw the apples that the rat would have brought for him. He kept to his burrow beneath the roots of an old birch tree—not going back to the walk along the wall nor out into the forest to hunt and play. After three days had passed, when the rat had surely moved along to other tunnels in other earths, he was sore so tempted to walk along the wall again, dreaming of those apples. But he knew that, if he went back, he would see the rat again, or the raven again, or some other manner of animal that would not, could not, would never understand. And so the little fox summoned up his spirits, summoned up his will, summoned every purpose he had at his disposal and with them he swore a great oath on the world, that he would never again go back and wander along the wall, that from that day forth he would hunt and play on his own woody ways, and leave off with this apple foolishness entirely.
But the character of his living had changed in the days after the rat had heard his tale. While before, he had hunted fearlessly, and played happily, confident in the character of his joy, the wall and its apples had laid bare the fear and doubt inside his heart. Now, he wandered the forest bedraggled and sighing in a sadness thick and deep. “Oh me,” he would sigh again and again, “oh my.” Day after day he would wander aimlessly, as always solitary but now alone as well, full of sorrow and hunger, and there was no end to it.
• • • •
One day, as the little fox was wandering in his hermitude, he spied through the woods a skulk of other foxes through the trees, whisperingly wickedly amongst themselves, cackling at their plans and schemes, slippery and self-satisfied, and although the little fox was different from his fellows and did not keep company with them, he was lonely and tired and hungry and afraid, and so he called out to his fellows for company.
“Brother foxes,” he cried out, “brother foxes who slink so slyly through the forest, I would have a thing to ask of you, a thing I wish to know.”
The other foxes stopped, regarded the other fox, so starving and wretched and ragged, and snickered as they addressed him respectfully. “Brother Fox, please come to us and we’ll tell you of our schemes and tricks, so you might join our bounty and have some sup for your thin bones, for we are more alike than different, and surely you are a brother of ours. But first, if we may, a question for yourself.”
The little fox approached his tricky fellows, keeping himself back and cautious, for he knew well their bearing and their character. He sniffed the air and paced back and forth before he nodded for their question.
“Why is it,” they snickered, “that all us other foxes hunt and run and scheme and sting altogether, on our own paths, but every day you hold yourself separate and apart from us, as if you were some other creature than a fox, our plans and tricks beneath you?”
“Brother foxes,” answered the little fox, “truly you ask me a question that I would prefer to leave unanswered. But a truth shared is not a truth lost, and there is no harm to things speaking things as they are, so I will give you your answers just as they shall be, and any others that any you might require. It is not that I am some other creature than a fox, nor that I am above your plans and tricks. It is simply from a difference in our temperaments that I may not keep your company. Where all of you are sly, I alone am honest. Where all of you are sneaky, I alone am kind. Where all of you are clever, I alone am forthright. And so, you see, although I have love for you as kind will have for kind, it is absolutely impossible for us to spend our days together. It is from these circumstances that I hold myself apart.”
“Brother,” the other foxes replied, “truly you are too kind to us, and too hurtful to yourself. You call us sly! You call us sneaky! You call us clever! Surely, we are but common foxes, and unworthy of your praise. At the same time, what insult do you heap upon yourself? You call yourself honest! You call yourself kind! You call yourself forthright! While it perhaps is true that you are not as capable as we in sneaking and slying, you cannot truly be as wretched as all that. Developing your skills is simply a matter of practice and determination. With those two treasures firmly fixed between our jaws, we foxes may all someday swindle as well as Old Longtail, who stole the warmth of the winter sun and the darkness of the summer night.”
“It’s not like that,” the little fox whispered under his breath, but his brothers were so focused on their flattery that they did not hear him, and kept on and on their own effusions.
“To that end,” the other foxes finally concluded, “we are embarking on a most excellent expedition, a simple one-five job that will be of no account at all even to a fox of your limited ability. In the heart of the woods, there lives alone an old man, who keeps behind his wall-of-man a harvest of golden apples, sweet and clean and crisp as you’ve never tasted before. By the authorship of Thin Stripes here, who is truly the best among us in such matters, we have obtained a simple method by which he might be rid of them, and ourselves commensurately gained, with no more than three betrayals, a handful of lies, and one simple sneak of eight feet at the very most. So if you’ll come with us, brother, know that you’ll get the best meal you’ve ever tasted, and nothing for it but a few deceptions that will surely be even within your limited capacity. Now let’s along, as the sun goes down autumnwise, and the old man sleeps and rises on it.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” cried the honest fox, but his brethren did not stop, and hurried off into the woods, chuckling to themselves at their own wickedness. “That’s not it at all! Not at all or even a little bit!” But the foxes were already gone, out to their schemes without the hinderance of conscience, leaving the little fox crying after them to no end at all. His heart beat as fast as it ever had. What could he to do? Then, without a moment more of thought, he made up his mind, and ran at once towards the wall.
He and ran and ran toward the wall, as if he was running from a wolf or from a man: a long, straight dart with a single destination. It was only minutes before he found what he was a looking for, a little man-nest of piled and sorted stones, built alongside of the wall, the place where the old man must live. The fox stopped still right outside, staring into the hovel, catching his ragged breath.
But, in that moment he gave himself, he had already begun to doubt.
“What if the other foxes have already come?” he asked himself, “he will surely think that I am another fox along to trick him. He will strike me and beat me and maybe kill me in his anger. What if they haven’t come, but he is learned in the nature of foxes, and suspects (as he should rightly suspect) that my warning is simply a deception? He will think me to be evil! No, no, no! It will not work.” With such nervous thoughts fox worried his way through hours and hours, until at last, as the sun was making its last embrace with the horizon, a little old man hobbled his way out of the hovel, making a final round before taking his night’s rest. The fox had by then convinced himself fully of inaction, and so he sat still outside the old man’s house, not moving nor making any noise.
“Perhaps if I’m very very quiet,” said the fox to himself, “he won’t notice me.”
But his silence did not save him. The old hermit, whose eyes were quite bad, glimpsed some tuft of the little fox’s hair in the cold light of autumn’s evening. “What’s this,” he said to himself in the language of men, which the fox could also understand. “Is this a little fox I see out in front of me, ragged and wretched, half starved and half frozen, shivering outside my door?”
What could the fox do but reply? “Yes, sir,” he said, “I am a fox, true as you can see it.”
“May I ask a question of you, little foxling?”
The fox trembled in fear, for he knew that the man would think him a liar and huckster, but he replied nonetheless. “Cousin Man, please ask of me any questions that you will, for foxes and men are more alike than different, and surely you are close as kin to me.”
“How is it,” asked the old man, “that you have come in the dark, in the night, shivering and half dead, all alone and separate from your fellows, to visit this old man?”
“Cousin Man,” answered the little fox respectfully, “you have asked me one question with two answers. But a truth shared is not a truth lost, so I will give you your two answers and any others that you might require.” And he explained the differences between himself and his brother foxes, and how, despite the love between them as a kind will have, they had become estranged.
The old man smiled at the fox’s response, and the fox thought that he did not believe him, but drew his courage and continued on regardless.
“As to how I have come to your door, that is another matter altogether.” And the fox recounted the whole story of how he came across the man’s wall, and over it glimpsed his orchard, of how he had walked along the wall every day, dreaming of the apples beyond, of the raven and the rat who had offered to fetch apples for him, and finally of the skulk of foxes he had met in the woods, who planned to trick the man and steal his entire apple crop, and how he had run and run and finally come to warn the man of their sneakery.
The man smiled sadly when he heard the end of the little fox’s tale. “I’m afraid,” he said, “that you have come too late to warn me of your brothers. Already their tricks have relieved me of my entire apple crop. In truth, it is not so great a price for me, and they could have had them for the asking, but foxes shall be foxes. I shan’t grudge them their particular methods. All that remains now is a dozen-and-one that I had reserved for my own consumption.”
When the little fox heard this, he began to cry.
“But,” said the hermit, “in truth even twelve-and-one apples is too much for my old appetite, and your diligence and decency deserve word and reward. Set your feet into my home, then, and we shall eat the apples together. For I have heard it said, and found it true, that a friend is a better companion to me than a full stomach.”
The fox trembled and shook in doubt and anticipation. But what could he do? The man had freely offered his apples; he could not refuse. He walked slowly into the man’s stone nest, and there his friend gave him an apple, red and gold and good. And the fox bit into it, and the taste was crisp and clean and sweet and better by far than he had ever dreamed.
And that is the story, the whole and the heart of it, just as it happened and just as it was told to me. If any man call me a liar, he has only himself to blame.