If you like the story below, check out some more foxy magical realism.
by Rebecca Boeshaar
Mom always told me, after I had a nightmare, to close my eyes. Wrap the nightmare tightly in a pristine, white cloth, then imagine the deepest, most secluded forest in the world and leave it there. Far away. And that’s where my nightmares remained as I drifted back to sleep.
It was a comforting ritual until I wondered, I am safe, but is everyone?
Now that she was nine, Lucia O’Reilly didn’t listen to much of what her parents said anymore. That is until they said they were moving to a cabin in the Appalachian forest. From the moment Lucia put her feet down on the mossy earth, she felt content. The land was wild yet ancient, alive yet still, and she felt connected to it all.
Though it was her parents’ decision to move, they didn’t belong there the way Lucia did. Two smart people trapped in a confined space, they argued more and more about nothing. They offered to take their daughter into town with them on grocery runs or shopping trips, but Lucia never accepted. With her parents gone, she could trek deeper into the forest without their worried, trilling voices calling her back.
In the forest, Lucia observed. She experienced without any parents or teachers asking, “What do you think?” “What do you see?” The forest would be offended if anyone tried to sum it up in a few words. Nothing so primal should be reduced that way. The forest was there to teach people who would listen, and to make others feel uneasy.
I felt badly for what I did to young Lucia O’Reilly. I did. I should have dropped my nightmares farther away than New Hampshire.
On a foggy Thursday, Lucia’s parents decided to see a movie in town. They encouraged their daughter to come with them, but Lucia flatly refused. Her parents thought they should stay and talk to Lucia about her contented isolation, but neither could stand to remain in the cabin long enough to have the conversation. It was only an afternoon. She would be fine.
That afternoon Lucia ventured farther into the forest than she’d ever been. The deeper she went, the more the forest taught her how to be herself. It hid her and exposed her. She became alive and honest in a way she could only achieve there.
Lucia reached a spot among the trees where the moss grew thick and the stones were rounded from the moisture, and she abandoned her shoes in the crook of two tree roots.
As she walked, her newly bare foot kicked something small and unusual. It wasn’t rock or earth. She discovered, looking down through the fog, that it was a tightly wrapped white package. And it wasn’t the only one. More were scattered everywhere, barely visible under the mist.
The package looked clean and beautiful. She bent down, picked it up, and peeled away the gauzy fabric. The package’s shape evaporated upon opening. The fabric floated ghostlike down to Lucia’s feet, and the ground rumbled. She turned to find the source. It was not hard to find.
Thirty yards away from her stood a fox the size of an adolescent triceratops with bristly, untamed red fur. The fox stepped forward, a dead, reasonless kind of malice in its yellow eyes. The beast didn’t snarl, didn’t growl. It didn’t need to. Its wickedness took root from the deepest core of its being. The blood around Lucia’s heart chilled.
The mammoth fox took a step forward, halving the space between them. The wet breath of the fox rustled her hair. Lucia wanted to run, to flee, but her legs froze. Her own palpitating chest was the only part of her that moved.
The fox silently urged her to run, to play the game. The beast paced the ground and knocked into trees without shifting its gaze. Landing with an ominous thud in front of Lucia, the top of one of the fallen trees carved a sharp nick on her shin, but she didn’t move.
The fox eyed her then receded, gone.
Every hair on Lucia’s body stood at attention. The fox’s absence terrified her more than its presence. She knew it would return. It lurked invisible in the ether, waiting to pounce.
Lucia’s muscles creaked painfully back into use. She treaded past the arborescent ruin and gained confidence in her avowal that if she died, it would be in movement. In the forest.
The fox was my first nightmare. Its appearance brought with it the realization that darkness and solitude could terrify. You think you outgrow your childhood fears, but the nightmares you have when you’re small and vulnerable, that’s what most essentially scares you, even as an old woman. When you’re alone in bed, the dread finds you.
Twigs snapped under Lucia’s purposeful stride. The forest breathed around her and gazed stoically as Lucia’s feet once again hit soft white linen. The package’s form gave out under the weight of her step, and in the moment Lucia looked down, a gauzy sheet flew at her face.
She gasped in surprise, and the fabric infiltrated her open mouth. She choked. She grasped at her face, tearing the fabric away. She sucked air violently, but the fabric wrapped around her neck and flew back in her face. She cleared an inch around her nose, and another sheet of fabric cocooned her shoulders. She now couldn’t move her arms to reach her face, so she tried to shimmy and shrug the sheet off her shoulders. But more gauze constricted around her and pinned her frenzied hands to her chest. She couldn’t defend herself.
She started walking, then frantically jogging; movement, she knew, gave her power. And as the notion flitted through her mind, another sheet enfolded her legs, and that power evaporated. She tripped forward. The ground hit her hard, and more fabric encased her. The sheets grew tighter until all she could do was writhe.
The forest watched the oversized larvae squirm on its floor.
Something else watched her as well. The ground quivered beneath her and an immense, cold nose nudged and jostled the cocoon, but Lucia held deadly still. Her mummified form pulsed stiffly as the fox thundered away again.
The forest waited.
The girl rolled onto her back, a small sign of life, and a twig poked through the gauze and jabbed into Lucia’s lower back. Her chest heaved. She reeled and twisted, trying to widen the hole, but the twig lolled ineffectually.
Lucia pressed her body weight on the sprig to anchor the base into the earth, but the top drove defiantly into Lucia’s flesh. She inched her body up and down as much as her binding would allow. As she moved, the twig left a gash along her back that drew blood. But it tore the gauze—not much, just enough to spark a painful burst of hope.
She gritted her teeth beneath the gauze and slowly, resolutely, inched her body downward, slicing the serrated seam and the fleshy wound up her spine. A few inches below her shoulder blades, the pain in her back raged at her to stop, to give in to the cocoon and disappear.
Lucia let out a banshee scream, and carved the slit the rest of the way up her back. She barrel rolled to drag the twig across her neck. Bloodstained light slithered in around her face. She rolled again until the stick lodged below her jawbone and her fingers clasped it. She adjusted her whole body to give her better leverage. She clenched the sprig at its base, and used every muscle to wrench it free from the ground and spear it right through the gauze around her neck.
Any consideration of strategy abandoned her and she slashed at the cocoon with an animal voracity. She chiseled out a small opening, wide enough for her hand to emerge, then her arm.
With her arm free, Lucia slit the fabric from the outside. She squirmed out, beached on her stomach, and clawed herself away from the shredded gauze. She wheezed and panted on the ground so forcefully that her spine arced and the jagged cut there leaked. The hot blood dripped down the back of her torso and clotted only when Lucia’s breathing shallowed.
She propped herself up on her elbows, then up to her hands, and shakily she rose to her feet.
The forest blew away the bloody shreds of the cocoon. The wind steadied Lucia, and then with a stronger gust, it began to push her over. She shuffled forward to keep upright. She anchored her hand on a tree trunk. The tree’s intoxicating strength drew her in, and she leaned hard against it. But the ridges of the bark pushed back to dent and scrape her fresh wounds. She leaned away, and she stomped forward. Her fatigue gave her resolve. Every step endowed her with a sense of righteousness, of which the forest disapproved.
Lucia trudged back toward the house. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be there, but she needed to put something on these cuts. That’s what her mother would’ve told her. She took care not to touch the other scattered linen packages she saw along the way, but in the empty spaces between trees and packages, she closed her eyes. That’s when she felt the rumble.
The fox came at the smell of blood. It sensed Lucia’s weakness. She turned around slowly to face the beast. She could run this time, but she’d never make it.
Whenever the fox trapped me, I woke myself up. I escaped back into consciousness. Now the stiff tubes that penetrated my body and the incessant piercing beeps of monitors ensured that that escape was no longer an option.
The fox lowered its head, keeping its eyes on Lucia. She hung her head in resignation, and at her feet, she saw a clean, white package. With reckless desperation, she stomped the package. She waited for her fresh horror, but nothing happened. She gazed up to see a crowd around her in the forest.
The fox shrank back, away from the people, and sized up the interlopers.
Most of the figures had a presence but no discernable face, but mixed among these mobile mannequins were faces Lucia recognized. Nearest to her was her school art teacher strolling with a faceless man. Lucia cut in front of her teacher and shook his sleeve to get his attention, to warn him about the fox. He looked at Lucia, but she couldn’t form words, only grunts and whines with the inflection of the words she tried to say. Her teacher lost interest and left.
The fox rose and paced along the tree line, keeping eyes on the girl. Lucia frantically searched the crowd.
Her soccer coach stood with three faceless people, recounting funny stories. Lucia tried to interrupt, but her lips stuck together like old gum. She stretched her jaw, and the skin of her lips peeled slowly apart, but the words didn’t come, just discontinuous sounds. The coach finished her story undaunted.
The fox closed in.
Lucia spied her parents laughing contentedly on the periphery of the group. She tore over to them. Lucia’s parents would hear her. They would help.
Lucia cried out, but her mouth wouldn’t open at all now. She stretched her jaw wide like a snake. Her lips didn’t part. Her hand flew to her face, but she didn’t feel lips. Her skin had grown over them like a scab. Lucia heaved shattered breaths through her nose.
She pulled her parents’ clothes. She shoved their shoulders. Anything to get their attention. Lucia pulled her mother’s hair to hold her face in front of her own, and her mother finally saw her.
Lucia pointed madly to the fox, but her mother didn’t respond, instead her eyes glazed over. She pecked Lucia on the forehead and arose from her stoop. Lucia pushed her father’s stomach as hard as she could, but her father didn’t look down.
Suddenly the beast pummeled its way through the crowd toward Lucia. The mannequins fled. Lucia glimpsed herself in the black marble of the fox’s pupils. And she realized, it was only her the fox wanted.
So she ran—or tried to run—away from the crowd, away from the fox, though she knew it followed her. She wanted it to. The fox gained, pursuing her with a calm, unshakable resolve. She bobbed and weaved as enormous trees crashed around her. Lucia couldn’t keep the distance between them.
When hot, vulpine breath dampened her neck, Lucia dashed at a right angle. Changing direction, the monster’s paws slipped from under it, and it careened sideways. Lucia looked over her shoulder as a short, sturdy spruce impaled the creature.
The fox raised its head and scurried its feet, wrenching its body around the bloody evergreen. Its yellow eyes landed on the girl and tried to convey their original malice but instead winced in pain. The fox let out a begrudging whine.
Lucia’s whole torso shuddered in the aftershock. With shaking hands, she picked up a large branch, the length of a javelin. She took a running start and pierced the fox’s right eye.
Lucia wiped blood and snot from her face with her shirt. When the creature stilled completely, the girl took a cautious step toward it. She ran her fingers through the surprisingly soft fur behind its ear.
She lifted her hand away, leaving bloody traces. She staggered on without looking back at the animal, so she didn’t notice when the giant fox and the mannequin crowd disappeared in steaming wisps.
She headed back to the house through the demolished trees. She touched the splinters and mourned the honored dead.
My soul lightened in that moment. The fox was gone. I felt no more fear of the darkness, a peace given to me by a quiet little girl. And the grating beeps of the heart monitor slowed.
When Lucia’s parents returned to the house, they couldn’t find Lucia. Panicked, they ran out the back door to find their nine-year-old up a tree, fifteen feet in the air. Lucia stared blankly ahead. Her feet dangled in the air, caked with dirt and blood. Her shirt was torn up the back and soaked in crimson. A cut around her neck was freshly scabbed.
Her parents called to her, but Lucia seemed not to hear them. Her father planted a foot on the base of the tree trunk to retrieve her but slipped and scraped the bark.
They peered up as their daughter stood her tired, audacious feet on the tree branch. Her parents shouted to her not to jump, to wait for them to come get her. But Lucia O’Reilly didn’t jump. She opened her arms and lifted her gaze past the house, over the tops of the trees, and yelled a primal yell that came from the very base of her.
And the forest smiled back.
Rebecca Boeshaar is a writer and film producer from Kansas City. After studying at New York University, Rebecca has gone on to work on a number of independent documentary films. She is a big fan of KU basketball, psychologically thrilling stories, and tacos. This is her first short story.
Image: flickr / henry…