The Fox moved silently along the wooded path. She was not being chased, which was the very definition of a good day for the Fox.
She was not being chased so the Fox trotted slowly along on her dainty white feet. It was late in the morning and the Fox was hungry. The Fox had been searching for food since dawn, and had found much that might have been good to eat – but since she was not being chased, she was easily distracted.
Around her the forest bustled with the sounds of unseen life. Birds sang out their good mornings to one another. Butterflies flitted from flower to flower. Nearby, a stream made laughing sounds as it flowed along. The sun warmed the air, and the scent of pine was everywhere.
But now her hunger had gained an edge, and the Fox’s mood had too.
She spied a clearing ahead on the path; some promising smells emanated there, and the Fox sped up, all about the business of food now.
Peering ahead the Fox could see the source of the wonderful smell: fire burned in the clearing, next to a little blue tent. On the fire sat a pan, and in the pan was a nice fresh trout. Some lucky camper was planning on having trout for breakfast.
“Some lucky Fox is planning to have trout too,” thought the Fox, and grinned her sly grin. There were other smells at the campsite; the rich brown scent of tobacco, the complicated smell of the man who had left his clothes by the tent, the friendly smell of his tall rubber boots. Hiding under these smells was another, a stinging black smell that made the fox think of angry wasps.
But the smell of trout was strongest, and the Fox was very hungry. She started forward to but realized the path was blocked by a web, the biggest spider web the Fox had ever seen. It stretched from one end of the path to the other.
The Fox did not care to walk around the web; the path was all scratchy brambles to either side, which would tear at the ruff of her fur and prick at the pads of her paws. The Fox could not go under the web; it was as tall as it was wide .
“Very well, I will go through it,” said the Fox to herself. It was not ideal, of course – the web would be sticky and cling to the Fox’s sensitive snout in that annoying way that webs had.
But what choice do I have, thought the Fox, and she tucked her tail beneath her belly (she was very proud of her tail, and did not wish to gum it up with webworks). But just as she stepped forward, a voice came from above.
“Go around,” said the voice. It was a sharp sound, that voice, with smokey undertones. A dark blue voice on a light gray morning.
The Fox looked all around, but did not see the owner of the voice. She hesitated – the voice had been quite authoritative, after all – but when it did not speak again, she re-tucked her tail, which had bushed up and out in her surprise and fear at the dark blue voice – and prepared to push through the web.
“I said, go around,” said the voice. “What are you, stupid? I know you’re not deaf. You heard me the first time, I could tell. Or maybe you’re just crazy. That must be it. Crazy like a Fox, isn’t that what they say? You’d have to be, to wreck my home just to protect your fur coat.”
The voice had a sly bit of humor now, like a shiny silver streak running through all that dark blue.
The Fox looked around while the voice made this speech, and with her good sharp eyes she quickly located the owner: a large black Spider perched on a palm shaped leaf to the right of the path. It was without a doubt the biggest Spider the Fox had ever seen. One long hairy leg rested lightly on a guidewire that led to the web, the better for the Spider to feel when prey had hit its mark.
“If you want to keep your web intact, you should not have built it across the path,” said the Fox. “So maybe you’re the one that is stupid. Stand back, Spider, I have no wish to harm you. I just want my breakfast.”
Again the Fox tucked its brushy tail beneath its belly.
“The path is not yours, Crazy One. It belongs to all woodland creatures, and none more so than he who can make the best use of it. My web is built with honest labor; I have no other way to catch my food than to stretch a web from some likely branch to another likely branch. You, however, can accomplish the theft of your breakfast by going through the brambles as well as the path.”
“I see no reason to snag my coat and bloody my feet simply because you were too lazy or stupid to spin your web in a better place,” said the Fox. She was angry now. She did not like being called crazy; it made her feel a little dizzy. Also, she was feeling quite hungry. The smell of trout made her mouth water.
“You can slink around the web – it’s your normal approach to food, is it not? To slink?” The Spider’s dark blue voice contained another of those bright silvery streaks of sly humor.
“It’s a shame that nature did not see fit to give you more noble means to capture your food,” said the Fox. “She could have given you fangs like the snake, or speed like the tiger, or courage like the lion. She could have given you flight like the hawk, or talons of the eagle. All of these credible creatures, like me, hunt our prey, and must use our wits and cunning to catch it.
“You, however, she did not see fit to gift with anything that makes you compete for your meal. She has given you neither wing nor fang nor claw nor courage.”
The Spider moved to the center of the web, lifting each leg with a delicacy that went oddly with her bristly black hairiness. The Fox stepped back a few steps, the better, she told herself, to see the whole situation. She continued her speech (one of her better ones, she thought modestly).
“She has given you the tools, I fear, she felt were worthy of you – the lazy tools of a creature that sits back and indolently waits for its dinner to come to it, and then has the colossal nerve to try to bully other, more worthy creatures, to abandon their own search for food so that you might eat more comfortably. Truly you are a contemptible creature – it must be why nature made you so ugly.”
The Fox sniffed at the Spider’s long bristly legs, then lifted its pointed chin and proudly bushed its glossy tail so that it stood up like a red bottle brush.
“You are a vain and silly creature, as well a stupid and selfish one,” observed the Spider.
“Sticks and stones would break my bones but sticky thread will never hurt me,” taunted the Fox, and with that she walked through the Spider’s web, laughing as she went.
The web broke apart, streaming around the Fox like a tattered white scarf as she made her way to the campfire. She lifted her long snout and sniffed at the air. There was man smell everywhere; her nose led her to a pile of clothes on the ground, where the smell was strongest.
The Fox wrinkled her lips and bushed her tail in anxiety; she was accustomed to roaming the night like a queen, but the daytime belonged to this two-legged king with his stick that hurled the death-thunder, which lay propped on a log next to the man’s clothes and from which emanated the angry black wasp smell.
The Fox sniffed it cautiously; she’d never been close to such a thing. She did not care for it, did not care for it at all, and for a moment she considered turning her beautiful tail and running off. She almost did it; the angry black wasp smell was that strong.
But of all the smells the smell of trout was stronger, and the Fox was overwhelmed with her hunger. She batted at the pan with her paw, and the pan tipped over and the trout practically landed in the Fox’s mouth.
“Better be sure the coast is clear,” said a voice in the Fox’s ear. It was the Spider, of course; she’d jumped from her web, or been dragged, and now rode on the fur that tufted at the entrance of the Fox’s pointy ear.
The Fox raised a paw to swipe at the ear, but stopped. What if the Spider crawled into her ear? Could it spin a web down there? It was an interesting question, the kind that would normally cause the Fox to sit down in her thinking position, her big bushy tail coiled neatly around her dainty white paws.
“The hunter approaches,” warned the Spider.
“Nonthenth,” said the Fox, her mouth full of trout. “I dote thmell eh-ee-hink!”
“Fool. You can’t smell him because your nose is full of trout and your head is full of empty space,” said the Spider. “I could spin a web down there.”
Well, that answers that! thought the Fox.
“You can’t smell the man because he is naked, he has just washed in the stream,” said the Spider. “Better hurry or you’ll have to pay for your breakfast with your lovely tail.”
It was true, the Fox’s nose was filled with the steamy smell of fresh baked trout. But her ears were quite sensitive and swiveling them this way and that (the Spider tickling a little as it hung on) she could hear the crackle of the man’s footsteps, and even the little tune he was singing under his breath. It was pretty, that….
“Oh you fool,” said the Spider, the Fox felt a sharp nip that sent her into the air in a startled jump. She turned to run the way she’d come, and felt another nip.
“Not that way, he’ll have a clear shot,” said the Spider. “Run right at him. He won’t chase you when he’s naked. He’ll want to get his gun first.”
What a strange thing to know about the man, the Fox thought. How could the Spider know such a thing?It must be because the Spider has so many eyes, she decided.
She did not stop to think that the Spider’s web had stretched across the path for many days, giving the Spider plenty of time to observe the man, but in this the Fox could not be blamed, for it was difficult to stop and think when she was dizzywith the smell of food and the need for a quick escape.
Another nip sent the Fox skipping forward, shaking her head vigorously to dislodge the Spider. But the Spider hung on, and nipped the Fox again when the man, large and pink and singing and smelling of soap (a smell that caused the Fox’s nose to wrinkle in disgust), came striding into the clearing.
“Ho!” the man yelled when he spied the Fox.
“Go!” the Spider yelled, and the Fox, fearing another nip, ran straight between the man’s legs, which caused the man to drop his soap and fall backward and get himself all dirty again.
“Faster,” said the Spider, who was unexpectedly relishing the sensation of speed as the Fox streaked in a liquid orange blur through forest paths. The Fox jumped over logs and climbed to the tops of rocks and sprang across water and bounded around trees and the Spider quite enjoyed the ride, never having imagined the forest was so large, or so beautiful.
Also, she was hungry, and there wasn’t much food to be had where she’d been. She hadn’t realized there were so many other options off the path.
After what seemed a very long time to the Spider (who rarely walked more than eight or nine inches at a time and then had to rest), the Fox paused. She took a deep breath: no black smell of angry wasps. She twitched her ears from right to left; no sound but the skitteirng of little creatures watching them curiously from the underbrush.
“You did it!” exclaimed the Spider.
“Thank you, Spider, for your warning,” said the Fox.
“You are welcome,” said the Spider. “Thank you for the ride. It was a pleasure, and a privilege.” There was a light tickling sensation on the Fox’s ruff as the Spider walked gingerly to the ground.
With that the Fox dropped the trout and set about eating its well-earned lunch. When she was finished, she dug herself a space in the fragrant leaves under a nearby fallen tree for a well-deserved and very satisfying nap.
When she woke, it was early evening, the shadows of the trees lengthening themselves across the forest floor. All around her the Fox could hear the sounds of the forest coming to life, for this was the home of nighttime creatures: the insects chirped and the bats flapped. The rabbits made a last scampering search for food, the skunk waddled distantly and odorously past, and the mice began to circle amongst the leaves.
The Fox stretched and then set off down the path; time to look for dinner.
“Go around,” said a voice. It was a pleasant sound, a light gray voice in a dark blue evening.
Is it you, Spider?” asked the Fox happily.
“It is I, Fox,” said the Spider. “I am having my dinner, thanks to you. The bones of the trout did a lovely job attracting flies, so it appears that I am indebted to you.”
“Flies for dinner, ugh,” said the Fox.
“To each his own,” said the Spider, and there was a streak of humor in her voice, a sound that was to the Fox like a sparkling phosphorescent fairy trail glowing in the soft evening air.
The Fox gazed at the web that stretched across the path. It really was quite beautiful, she saw. A work of art, one might even say. The Fox edged carefully off of the path, tucking her tail securely under her belly to ensure it did not snag the delicate-looking web.
“Take care, Fox,” called the Spider, as the Fox picked her way through the brambles and brush.
“Take care, Spider,” called the Fox. She turned, her tail bushing proudly into the air.
“I am sorry that I said you were ugly,” she called. “You are not as lovely as my tail, it is true. But you’ll do.”
“Vain and silly creature!” said the Spider, but mostly to itself, and with a smile.