B. C. Matthews battles mad scientists at a laboratory by day and finds sleep deprived moments to tend to her reptile herd, play her ukulele, and pen her stories by night. She is published in Triangulation: Lost Voices, the upcoming Spark: A Creative Anthology VIII, STRAEON, and an anthology of Lovecraftian-romance Eldritch Embraces. You can find her meanderings online at: www.bcmatthews.blogspot.com.

 

The Star-Tailed Fox

by B. C. Matthews

 

From the letters of Madeleine Wagner

January 19, 1940

Dear Keiko,

Papa said to me, “Madeleine, you’ve got smarts, so make sure you use your head for something besides a hat rack and an ornament.” Like it’s an old bit of Wagner wisdom he’s passing down to his little girl who’s flying the coop. Heck, I always wanted to fly.

Off to California.

Papa still can’t understand why I want to leave, but I know you do, Keiko. Like when we were little and I had to climb Mrs. Brown’s apple tree just because it was so big, so impossible.

California’s my apple tree now.

And it’s nothing like our farmhouse in Nowhereville, Washington.

So I guess it’s not so hard to understand now why I packed my bags, said bye to you, Mama and Papa. Even Henry, who pretended not to cry, of course. That’s what brothers do. You know that annoying twin of mine still insists he was born first? The damn rascal.

I wish you could have come with me. I think your inner fox finds all of this funny as hell.

I promise to write you all the time. Maybe you can come visit me soon.

Your friend,

Maddie

*

From the letters of Keiko Nakamura

March 16th, 1940

Dear Maddie,

Already I miss you.

Things here at the Wagner estate are as hectic as usual. Henry decided that with his twin sister gone, he’s now man of the house. He’s named himself King, and I am to be his Queen of course, which quite scandalized Mrs. Brown when she heard Henry declare it at your mother’s church luncheon.

“You can’t marry the help!” she hollered. “Oh my, Mr. Wagner, but you cannot let this continue. Henry might get the wrong idea about those people. It would be morally wrong.”

“The only wrong idea,” your father said, “is your idea, Mrs. Brown. Keiko is one of the finest and most humble ladies I know.”

Me? Humble!

The doctors say Henry’s spine is getting better. At times he doesn’t have to wear the back brace, so I don’t have to help him move around quite as much. And the kids don’t laugh at him when he isn’t wearing it, though he always makes fun of himself. I still tell him to quit doing that.

I’ll stop chattering on now. I want to hear about you. What is it like there in California? They say it’s sunny all the time, and everyone is beautiful.

It sounds like the perfect place for you.

Sincerely yours,

Keiko

*

From the letters of Madeleine Wagner

May 3, 1940

Dear Keiko,

Oh, Keiko, I never thought I’d say this but I met someone. He’s tall, big, strong, a great dancer, and, well, dreamy. He knows how to dance so well that I feel like a complete idiot when he asks me to dance. Who knew a Navy man could dance so well? Sometimes when we dance, I feel almost drunk, as if my head will spin clean off my damn shoulders.

You once told me it feels like that when the moon is full and the fox inside you comes out to play. You still let that happen, don’t you? You’d better.

I sometimes dream of foxes jumping about in the yard at home. Their eyes always seem to glow, as if they knew something that I didn’t. Do you remember when we’d to play out in the fields, and the kits would run up to us all crazy? It was like they knew you were like them.

I have those dreams every time I think of you. Do you still swing on the tire out by the lake until you make Henry laugh?

Give all my love to Mama and Papa. And even Henry.

Always,

Madeleine

*

From the letters of Keiko Nakamura

November 21st, 1940

Dear Maddie,

It’s Thanksgiving here, but somehow it doesn’t feel the same without us stealing away at night after your mother and father are asleep. Henry’s been reluctant to continue the tradition of our midnight wanders, but I can’t help it, Maddie. I really can’t. I have to play beneath the stars sometimes. It really hurts to keep the kit inside me, not let it come out to play, and it’s when I don’t let my inner fox out that I get in trouble.

I miss you, and not just because you encourage me to shift whenever it becomes too hard not to.

Henry is so morose now. Most of his friends have joined the Army, and I think part of him is jealous and ashamed that he can’t serve. He calls himself a cripple, and he gets so angry when his spine seems unwilling to work with him and I have to help. He’s yelled at me a couple of times to just leave him be, though he apologizes profusely afterward.

A few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but play a trick on him. We were walking along the lake side, and Henry was being so shy and quiet that I wanted to throw him in the water! Instead, I slipped away from him behind a tree and out came the white fox. How good it felt to feel the grass graze along my face, smelling the thousand scents that I can never understand except as the inner me. It’s like watching a movie, but all with smells.

When he saw the fox-me, he was shocked. I bounded high in the air, letting all four paws land in a big muddy puddle. The mud flew up and splashed right into his face! I made that laughing sound you always tease me about, that fox-squeak like the kits make when they’re excited and playing. I bounded away from him, and pounced into the puddle again. This time the mud covered his clothes and completely caked my white hide.

I hope you’re laughing as much as I was.

Henry got mad, but not for the reason I thought. He swiped the mud off his face saying, “Keiko, you can’t do this. Someone might see. And then what? They’ll hurt you. And I can’t stand the thought of anyone hating you, fearing you, and doing something to you.” He looked so serious and worried. His voice sounded that way he does whenever he’s trying to sound like your father. “Promise me you’ll never shift again. Not even for me.”

How could he even suggest that? Doesn’t he know that it hurts when I bury the fox? He used to insist that I run free in the fields, chasing rats, barking loud, jumping and running, and feeling the wind against that other me. How could he suddenly hate what he used to love about me?

Honestly, Maddie, it hurt my feelings. So much so that I hid out near the barn for a couple of days. I hate to say it but I chased your father’s chickens all across the yard. They didn’t lay eggs for nearly a week! But I couldn’t help but chase them, not when I stuck to my otherness out of stubborn pride. When I finally slinked back to the house, your parents were furious.

I’ve never disappeared on them before. They asked me if I was running about with boys. Or doing something else young ladies shouldn’t do. Drinking, I think. I can never tell them the truth. I was sure you father would fire me, and then throw me out, despite promising my mother that he’d look after me. Only you and your ridiculous brother know.

You don’t agree with Henry, do you?

Oh, Maddie. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to go on like this—especially not on Thanksgiving.

How are you and your dashing Navy man?

Please come home for a little while, or I swear I’ll change and run the whole way to California.

Missing you,

Keiko

*

From the letters of Madeleine Little neé Wagner

March 3, 1941

My best friend,

I didn’t get your letter originally, because I moved again. Rick and I eloped! I wanted to call to tell you, but I was afraid Papa would get wind of it and put his foot down. He’s always wanted a Wagner girl to marry one of those idiotic, good for nuthin’ Barrow boys. But Rick is wonderful, and I’m having a wonderful time just being Mrs. Little.

As for my stupid brother…No, Keiko. I don’t agree with him. But then again I usually don’t. Mama said we fought like angry bears even in her belly.

He’s just scared. He’s always been scared for you, you know. You’re just too stubborn to see it. And he’s always liked you more than any girl around.

I think if you’re careful, you can change every now and again. I know how much it pains you to hold back. Maybe you should remind Henry how much it hurts. Be honest with him and he’ll appreciate it. He might even keep look out when you change, as long as you promise not to play tricks on him.

Just be careful, Keiko. A lot of things are happening right now. Papa says that he’s lost a lot of patients because our last name is Wagner. He says someone in town busted out the windows of his medical office and wrote some really horrible things on the wall outside. He wouldn’t tell me what, and that means it’s nasty.

I want to bring Rick home to meet you all, but his ship is being deployed. And oh, you should have heard him the first (and only) time I accidentally called his ship a boat. Whoo boy.

Do me a favor, and don’t keep lying to Henry about how you feel.

Gotta’ run. I’ll try to get home for Christmas.

All my love,

Maddie

*

From the letters of Keiko Nakamura

August 22nd, 1941

My Maddie,

I’m so confused. Oh, I want to blame that ridiculous brother of yours, but at the same time I want him to tell me that he doesn’t hate me. Or what I am. You could always get him to talk when he gets all quiet like a good Wagner man does. But sometimes he just looks at me with those steely gray eyes of his, and he firms that proud jawline, and I feel just so wretched for having made him scared.

I convinced him that I need to shift so it doesn’t hurt so much. I told him, “It’s like your back, only all over. It hurts sometimes so much that it’s all I can do not to scream and just run around all the time as a fox.” Being like this—a person I suppose—sometimes just seems so wrong, as if my skin isn’t real, as if the change is the only real thing. I just feel so helpless and different.

I wish I didn’t have an inner fox.

I convinced Henry to sneak out of the house at night. He wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but reluctantly agreed to keep a look out. I was so eager I didn’t hear when he gasped, “No! Keiko don’t!”

I shifted in front of your father.

For a moment your father just stood there, his eyes wide open. With my swiveling ears I could hear his heart thudding in his chest a little faster. Then he slowly sank to the ground with his head hanging down, and his fingers rubbing at his forehead.

Your mother told me that you had some sort of special fox-spirit in you. But I didn’t think…” Then he blinked again, his hands shaking. I’ve never seen his hands shake, not ever. “Oh God… I’m crazy as a bedbug…”

I sprinted away from his shock, running as fast as I’ve ever run. I don’t think that any red fox can run as fast as I can. Before I knew it, and before I even got tired, I wound up in the next county. And it felt glorious. I just wanted to stay out in the middle of nowhere beneath the winking stars, the smell of dust and growing wheat in my nose.

It wasn’t until I huddled up cold in the dew that I started back.

Henry had been out looking for me all night, long beyond his physical limits. I felt more than guilty, Maddie. I’m the one that’s supposed to look after him.

At first, your father tried to ignore what happened. But I could see that stubborn interest in his eye. You know the one. He asked me all sorts of questions, and boy was he surprised to find out that you and Henry knew since before my mother died. After we were finished talking, we went out to find Henry.

He was by the lakeside, and could barely move. But when I went to touch him, he snarled at me. An actual snarl as if he were a big angry dog barking at this little silly fox. Spit flew from his lips as he yelled at me, “What if it happens when someone else is around? What if they take you away and experiment on you? Why can’t you just be normal?”

It hurt so much to hear him say that. Part of me has always been ashamed of the inner fox, even though my mother insisted that it made me special.

“Why don’t you just run away?” He was screaming now, those muscles on the side of his neck straining even as his face turned red. “It’s what you want to do! You want to run away and never come back, don’t you dare deny it!”

Your father helped him to his feet, told him he was being childish. Henry’s been taller than your dad forever now, but your father still seemed so surprised his boy was a big, tall, heavy man.

I told him—and your father—that the only reason I hadn’t run away was because of them. Your family means so much to me, Maddie. I love them all. And you. I can’t tell you what it means to me that you and Henry could see the real me. The inner me. That stupid hated fox.

Your father insists that we not talk about it, in case other people overhear. But really I think he doesn’t want to deal with it. Part of him wants to forget it. And Henry…

Your brother isn’t talking to me. And in that silence I can’t help but hear him saying, “Why can’t you be normal?”

I ask myself that all the time.

Please, Maddie. Come home. Only you can sway these Wagner boys. Or if you can’t, tell me where you are now and I will ride the rails and run in the fields to be where you are.

Your desperate friend,

Keiko

*

From the letters of Madeleine Little

December 21, 1941

My dearest friend,

I desperately want to go home to you, and Mama and Papa, and even Henry. I called, but you weren’t there. I talked to Mama, and I hope that she gave you the message from me.

But I will write it down.

Rick’s ship was stationed in Hawai’i, and I had flown out to see him. I am so glad I did because that was the last day I ever got to see him, and the last day that he ever got to say that he loved the baby. You can’t even see me showing yet, but he’s in there, kickin’ like a mad little bear.

And now he’ll never get to see his daddy.

We were married for such a short time, but it seems like an eternity to me. And honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do without him. You know I’m not the type to go about weeping, but everything I see reminds me of him. Every time I hear any kind of music, I remember how we danced. He was such a good dancer. Always the gentleman. He once brought me flowers from the fields just because I said wildflowers reminded me of home.

Every time I smell flowers, I think of him.

I’m not eating much, which I know isn’t good for the baby. The doctor will get angry with me, I know, but just everything makes me cry like a little girl. I cry like that time you and I snuck into Mrs. Brown’s barn, and I broke my arm falling out of the loft. I just feel so alone, Keiko. My world is disappearing, and the whole wide world is just so full of hatred and madness.

We’re at war, and already the war has taken everything from me.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this, Keiko, it’s that you have to fly to where you’re loved as fast as you can. If I hadn’t decided to see Rick, I wouldn’t have gotten to say goodbye. Don’t be stupid, Keiko. Mama and Papa love you like one of us crazy Wagners. And Henry…

My brother loves you. You know it. You’re both too stupid to admit it to each other. I don’t want to sound like Papa, but you need to use your head for something besides a hat rack. Take what you can from this world. Do it now. I want you and Henry to be as happy as Rick and I were.

I wish I could go home, but no one is flying out of here right now and probably won’t for some time.

All my love forever,

Maddie

*

Return to Sender, incorrect address

March 6th, 1942

I’m writing this quick, Maddie. Mrs. Brown has been spreding spreading hateful lies about me. That I’m the reason for all the crime in town, as if it weren’t those Barrow boys running around a busting up things because of the war. Mrs. Brown has been yelling cursing at me every time I see her. She calls me a “no good evil Jap” and other hateful things. Maddie, I’m so scared. What will I do? Henry says that we can run away together, somewhere else, but I don’t know where. I’m so sorry about Rick. I wish I could fly to you so we could be together through this, so I can be there for when the baby comes. But your father says that they’re gathering together people to send them away. I don’t want to go, but I don’t know what else to do.

*

From the undelivered letters of Mrs. Madeleine Little, FBI Archives

April 6, 1942

God, I’m so worried now. I had two big G-men wearing black suits come to my door, and that they wanted to talk to Miss Wagner. I informed them that I was still Mrs. Little, even if Rick was gone.

For a moment I could only think of one thing—that somehow Rick was alive and they had found him, and my baby would have a daddy. But I knew it couldn’t be, otherwise someone from the Navy would surely tell me.

One of the men, a mean son-of-a-you-know-what, started asking me all sorts of questions. He asked me why I was writing to you. I told him in my most imperious Wagner voice, “I don’t see why it’s any of your business who I write to back home.”

Then the other one, the smaller fellow and ugly-as-sin said, “Who is Keiko Nakamura, Miss Wagner? What do you write about?”

When I said I’d known you for most of my life, growing up with you, and then living with you when you came to work for us, they started insinuating our friendship was some sort of horrible ploy to send messages to Japan. His ugly little face pinched even more when he told me, “You probably married Rick Little because he was part of our Navy. What did he tell you in confidence, Miss Wagner? Do you have any communication with anyone in Germany?”

I got so angry that the little one in my belly seemed like he was doing back flips. I stood up and told him they could go to hell in a handbasket if they thought I’d put up with that nonsense. How dare he suggest I didn’t love my Rick? How dare he say such things about Rick, and me, and you?

I don’t know if any of my letters are getting to you. I think that they might be taking my letters and reading them.

I will just tell you to become your inner self. Run with the wind and the stars above, and just live as that inner you.

I love you, Keiko.

*

From the undelivered letters of Keiko Nakamura, Tule Lake Relocation Center

June 5th, 1942

Maddie,

I don’t know if any of my letters are getting to you. I’ve sent letters to your family, but part of me wonders if the guards aren’t opening them first, because of your family name.

So, I’ve finally arrived in California, not quite the way I wanted to run off to gold county. I’m exhausted, and herded in with so many strangers, though many of them are nice enough to me. I can’t even begin to describe everything that happened. God, Maddie, they tagged me to come here as if I were something sitting in Mr. Gary’s antiques shop. I could only take what I’d shoved in my bag, and honestly it wasn’t much.

Henry insisted that I shift. Told me to save myself, that I had to stay forever as the fox. That he could come to visit me when I was prowling about the fields, hunting rabbits with predatory instinct. He grabbed me, Maddie, and he held me, saying that he loved me too much to let me be taken away like I was some horrible criminal. That I was a good person, and that he loved me as I was, and as I could be, and that the fox inside had always made me special.

I kissed that great fool. I couldn’t help it.

Yet all I could think of was that if I became the fox I would be her forever. When I spend too long as the inner me, I start to forget things—people, places, reasons to think like a person. All I can think of is the twitch of my nose, the smell of wet green things growing, the dusty, quick scent of a rabbit bounding in the underbrush. I forget everything but the foxness.

Because if I live forever as the fox, then it would mean forgetting you all. And I couldn’t give up you, or Henry. But the fox in me still beckons as it always did.

Here among strangers, I wanted to change. But couldn’t. How could I? Then I found out I’ve grown another tail.

I’m housed with the Kirin family, and they’re very quiet and nice people. To while away the hours, I tell their little boy, George, stories and I even write some of them down. I tell him about the white fox hunting in the fields who’s looking for her friends, but all her friends were far away and she’s unable to talk to them. Patrick Kirin, George’s father, told me that it sounded like the stories of kitsune that his grandfather used to tell him. And even though Mom always referred to the inner me as that, it surprised me a little.

The need to shift became too great, it hurt so much, Maddie. I tried to hide in the corner of the room, under the cot, away from everyone else while they were out to view the night’s newsreel.

So I changed. And that’s when little George saw me. He just came up to me, placed a hand on my back, petting my fur, and said, “You can talk to me. I’ll be your friend, and I’ll listen. I know you’re looking for your friends far away. So am I.”

I didn’t know that I could cry as the fox. I also didn’t notice until just that moment that I had two tails. When they came together it was almost like a soft silver spark, as if I’d caught a winking star between them.

Then George said, “If I could leave with you, I would, kitsune. Can you fly like the other foxes? Why don’t you fly to find your friends?”

I want to fly to you. To Henry.

Keiko

*

From the undelivered letters of Mrs. Madeleine Little, FBI Archives

September 11, 1942

My Keiko,

The baby is here, and growing so fast. He’s beautiful and quite a crier. I’ve named him after his daddy, and I know he’ll live up to the name. I’ve moved back home to be with Papa and Mama, but it isn’t the same without you here.

Henry’s a complete wreck. He’s so quiet and sad, and I know it’s because he can’t be where you are. With you. The doctors say he has to wear the back brace again because he simply sits in the corner all day, staring out into the fields as if looking for that familiar fox we all know and love.

I’ve enclosed a picture of us. I insisted on it, even though little Ricky is making a face and snot is coming out of his nose. I took one of Henry all by himself, and I even managed to get him to smile a little.

Waiting until the day you return,

Maddie

*

From the undelivered letters of Keiko Nakamura, Tule Lake Relocation Center

December 23rd, 1942

This is going to be the last letter I try to send. Either I make it, or I don’t.

I’m going to say goodbye to little George, and then I will try to fly to you.

This shift might be my last. Once they find out I’m missing they’ll come looking for me, and if they find me as a person, I’ll be right back here. I just don’t know if I’ll be able to change back after being the inner me so long.

It doesn’t really matter. I can’t stay here. Not alone, not hearing all of the sick coughs, not listening to all of the kids crying themselves to sleep, not wondering if all of the older men and women are alive inside, as if they’ve lost something vital.

Two tails, Maddie. Patrick Kirin says that means the fox knows magic and is getting older and wiser, that the kitsune gain tails as they age.

I don’t know about wiser.

Here I go, flying as only I can. On four feet. Flying to you, Henry, Papa, Mama, and your little one, who must be born by now. I bet he’s just as handsome as his dad, and just as perfect as his mom.

Four feet. Better than two.

*

From the diary of Madeleine Little

August 3, 1947

It’s Ricky’s birthday today and he asked me if I’d seen a white fox jumping around the field. He’s seen her before, but he’s really too little to remember. In fact, she’s led him back to the house on a couple occasions when he’s slipped out to go play with the chickens, despite that Papa scolds him gently whenever Ricky messes with his favorite hens.

Every time that Henry sees her, it hurts him. I know that his surgery didn’t work for his back, and that he couldn’t leave us crazy Wagners (and two Littles). He’s stuck here with us. But he’s being the best Uncle that he could ever be. Honestly, Ricky has taken to Henry, and the few times that I ever hear Henry laugh anymore is when Ricky is chattering at him, telling his Uncle stories that only make sense to a child.

I wish Keiko could’ve been here to see Ricky’s cheeks puff up as he blew out his candles. I know she would’ve stuck some frosting on his nose, and laughed her yipping laugh.

That twin of mine met my eye, and I could tell he was thinking the same thing.

*

From the diary of Madeleine Little

November 28, 1947

I went out into the field at midnight yesterday, like we used to every Thanksgiving, wandering under the stars right next to the lake. I didn’t expect it, but Henry was there too, and he smiled when he saw me. He pointed to the mud splattered on his clothes, and then to the three-tailed white fox with just as much mud on her fur.

Come back to us, Keiko,” I told the fox, hoping as I do every year for her to understand me.

Her tails made silvery sparks in the air, as if she were laughing at us.

Maybe she was.

Then her dark eyes looked at Henry and she flicked her three tails against his side, splattering more mud on his pants. The sparks—that crazy fox-fire—blazed, and it seemed to engulf Henry. I was scared and Henry cried out in surprise, but then his back arched.

He started to change. Before I knew it a bright red fox was standing next to her.

They ran off into the field together with all of the happy cries of wild foxes.

I have a feeling that Ricky and I will see them again when spring rolls around.

 

Copyright 2016 by Bethany Mathews