Seventeen: An Interlude
Imagine, if you will, a young boy—about seven, say—who thinks he’s the cleverest thing in the whole damn world. Sadly for him, he’s not far wrong—but clever doesn’t mean wise.
This kid, this boy—this genius—has played in the bush behind the house forever, wandering all the way down to the pine plantations that line the highway that’s the lifeline of this little two-bit town called Jilamatang. Regional Victoria, back of the Snowy Mountains, over an hour to the nearest thing they’ve got to a city. He’s outgrown the place and he isn’t even in double digits. Good thing they have the internet, even though the connection’s slower than the post from Melbourne.
He wanders far and wide, spends the whole day exploring while his parents think he’s a good lad in school—an easy ruse because school’s also easy—and one day, he discovers something worthwhile. Not far from town, a couple of kilometres or so, there’s an old train line. Barely anyone remembers it, and even the real old timers hardly know it’s there. But he knows. It’s always been a sort of demarkation, the eastern border of his domain, and he’s had it in mind that he probably oughtn’t cross it. Crossing it, he feels, is maybe a step too far from his parents’ world.
But of course, one day, his curiosity gets the better of him and, breath held by tightly pressed lips that quiver with anticipation, he skips across old rails rusted to the colour of fox’s fur. At first, nothing seems to have changed. The air tastes the same, the same wind blows against his skin, and the same sun beats down upon his shoulders.
But then the trees overhead grow denser, gnarled eucalypts and wattles give way to lofty, straight-trunked pines, needles flared against the bright sun and crisp air of early autumn. Their leaves will not succumb to the on-coming cold. Never mind that neither will the eucalypts’; the pines would have everyone know that needles, at this altitude, this close to the highest mountain in the whole entire country, are superior, which is why their trunks are so tall and straight while the poor little natives twist and bend, backs crooked in submission to the wind.
The thick mat of rust-coloured needles devours the boy’s footsteps more effectively than any carpet, and for a while it’s eerily quiet. It grows colder, too, and the boy shivers, even though summer still lingers in the air in long, hot afternoons and the true bite of winter is months away.
Through the trees, something shifts, and he catches glimpse of something moving, something big—something alive. And although his heart pounds like it wants to escape his chest and run right back home to the safety of his kitchen, the boy continues. This, he knows, will be a sight worth seeing.
He follows the half-glimpsed beast for maybe thirty minutes, though it seems that either seconds or hours have passed, and then—at last—he reaches a clearing in the pines where granite boulders pile up high like someone has torn away the skin of the world and exposed its spine. And there, atop the boulders, head thrown high against the sky, antlers broad and strong enough to tear apart the clouds, stands the last thing he’d have expected to find in alpine Australia: a giant grey deer, easily as tall at the shoulder as the boy is himself—and he is hardly short for his age.
The stag tosses its antlers, and the boy can feel—feel—the words the stag would say, if it could talk—if it would talk.
Welcome, the stag says. Welcome to the home of the Winter King.
The boy bows politely, because it seems like that is a thing that should be done, and when he straightens up again, the stag is gone.
But he knows, now, the boy, where this Winter King lives, and now he'll never leave it alone.
Time after time he returns, at any hour of the day: the crisp, bright light of of a dew-covered morning, the frosty bite of a late autumn evening, the blazing hot midday summer sun as he runs through the bush, wild and free while school is out.
Time after time, the boy returns to the Winter King, and slowly, he begins to love him. Both hims, that is, come to love the other him, and they stand with each other for hours, foreheads pressed together or flank to flank, saying all the things the Winter King would say if the Winter King decided he wanted to speak.
The boy rubs the knot at the end of the Winter King’s spine, right before it turns into a tail, and brings him sweet carrots and apples and old-fashioned lumps of cane sugar. The Winter King whispers secrets into the little boy’s heart, right before it turns into his consciousness, and feeds him joys and delights too subtle for words to make out. Probably the Winter King enjoys it as much as the boy does, for although the boy is lonely—at school, at home—at least his has his parents, and they love him very much.
The Winter King has no one.
Well, that is not quite true, the boy learns. The Winter King has his storm foxes, ethereal spirits that ride the winds like hawks, soaring and diving and tumbling. The storm foxes love the spring storms best of all, when thunder splits the sky like canons and the lightning flashes strobe-like across the forest. They love the storms because storms bring freedom: the Winter King cannot contain them when the heavens open and rage, and through spring and summer his power wanes almost entirely.
Then, one day, the boy has no one either. His mother and father fought, and although that wasn’t unusual, the fact that his mother left and didn't come back was.
He didn’t realise until years later what the little plastic stick in the bathroom bin had meant; why his mother had cried for three days straight before the fight that ended it all; why his father had been so relieved to see her go. Not that he ever said he was relieved, and the boy knew his father missed his mother—but he also walked as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. An important weight. A weight of about seven or eight pounds, if the boy understood things correctly, that would last some eight or nine months and then the rest of their lives.
The boy thought he might have quite enjoyed that weight. It might have been just heavy enough to hold his family together.
But alack, the weight had vanished—from his father’s shoulders, his mother’s body—and so his mother vanished from their family, and the boy felt all alone.
That was the night it happened. The night he told the Winter King what he wanted—and the night he learned that sometimes, what we want is the worst thing we can imagine.
He was supposed to fly.
Instead, he thudded to the ground. And he learned that even foxes can cry, if they’re really, truly sad enough.
If you enjoyed this story, check out the That Moment When anthology, which contains the first part of Fox Red!