An apology, and a story bit.

I had a lot of ambitions about writing about foxes this week, because that’s a topic that is near and dear to my heart. When I was a kid, foxes were my favorite animals; I decided this in the way that small children sometimes do: I read a story that I thought was cool and latched onto it. This was still a point where my friends and I were enthusiastically playing pretend every day, so of course when I had to pick an animal to pretend to be, it was a fox.

I meant to talk about that, and some of my favorite fox stories, but then on Thursday I started getting sick, and pretty much from then on it’s been a blur of sleeping a lot, taking meds, and wheezing pitifully whenever I was meant to talk. It’s not really conducive to any sort of focused time to sit down and write, so my plans for working on this blog post for today kind of fell by the wayside. I could talk about the home remedies that my family utilized when I was growing up — we never did chicken soup, though my mom would make <I>jook</I> whenever someone had stomach troubles, and while there were OTC medications, my parents’ first and foremost response was to make tea of some sort. Ginseng was the most popular, and also (for me as a kid) the most awful.

But that also involves being able to sit upright and focus. This post so far has already taken more concentration than by all rights it really should. Normally, getting words out isn’t a struggle for me; sometimes I drag my feet and mutter about it, but I don’t actually have that much trouble once I’ve actually sat down and omitted to working. But today I’m still sick, so I’m still honestly trying to stay focused and upright without degenerating completely into incoherency. Yikes.

So in lieu of anything like a full blog post, I thought I’d just go ahead and share a bit from a story that I’ve been working on, off and on between larger projects, over the year. (When I say off and on, I do mean off and on; this is the story that I wander back to when I am between working on larger projects. According to my outline, it’s about halfway done, which given all its roadblocks, is pretty exciting.)

And hey, it kind of ties back into what I was going to talk about this week — foxes. Though the fox itself doesn’t come into the story until much later. This is one of those stories that I’d classify as YA, except I think the protagonist is a bit younger than I think normally fits into the genre. Like nearly everything I write, it wants to be a fairytale, of some sort.

[ Cecilia and the Fox ]

On a particular day in the middle of April, an invitation arrived in the mail.

It had no stamp nor return address, but it was addressed to Cecilia directly, in neat careful handwriting. The envelope was a light cream color and felt soft to the touch, like the ones that cost twelve dollars at the stationary store. It looked so fancy that she decided to read it before throwing it out.

Inside was a square of paper with tissuelike edges. Faint pools of color blotted across the background, blending together into a warm sunset effect. In the same handwriting on the envelope, it read:

“To Miss Cecilia Han,
You are cordially invited to the wedding
of XX and XX.
Please come without further delay.”

XX and XX? Shouldn’t there have been names? she wondered. Perhaps it had been a very elaborate printed piece, even if it did look like everything had been written by hand, with a brush-ink pen. Since there was nothing else to be read, even when she turned the card over, Cecilia could only scratch her head before she crumpled the invitation up and threw it away.

When the paper hit the trash can, though, something marvelous happened.

There was a rush of rippling whispers, like the sound of flowing water, and the air shimmered like a heat mirage. Suddenly, instead of the living room wall, there was a forest in front of her.

“Oh, I see,” Cecilia said. She went to get the invitation out of the trash can, but none of the forest disappeared.

She looked at the clock. It was four-thirty, which meant it would be two hours yet before her parents arrived home. What would they say, if they saw something like this in their living room? “Cecilia, you need to be more careful with your sweeping. You’ll track in dirt that way.”

Or maybe they wouldn’t notice at all. Sometimes when they were very tired, all they did was order food and watch TV, and that hadn’t disappeared.

Cecilia thought for a few moments, then went to fetch her shoes. She carried them right to the edge, where her living room blended into forest, and then she put them on and stepped forward. It felt like passing through a thin curtain, and the air suddenly smelled like wet dirt and greenery, even though she’d noticed none of that, standing in her apartment. When she looked back, she could still see the living room, and that comforted her.

As long as it didn’t get too dark, she thought, she’d be able to find her way back home.

So Cecilia walked. It was dim but still light enough to see by, so she could find her footing without too much trouble. The forest was not precisely quiet. She could hear things in the bushes, small and rustling and fleeing before she could actually see them, and the wind was restless now and then in the trees. Now and then, she caught glimpses of what looked like deer rushing off before she drew too close. It reminded her of her uncle’s house and the forest behind it, where half of the time the deer would come almost close enough to touch, and half the time they would flee in droves at the first sign of humanity.

After she’d been walking for some time — maybe it had been hours, but she had left her phone behind, and there was no way to check — she passed into a clearing with a tree in the center. Its branches were empty except for a great raven, glossy black and elegant, like a drawing.of a bird rather than a living thing.

As she moved on, a voice called out to her:

“Human child, you are a long way from home.”

It was a low and croaky voice, the kind of thing one might expect to hear calling to you from behind a closed door, or in the dark spaces underneath a staircase. But it didn’t sound unfriendly, or even particularly scary, so Cecilia turned back at that. There was no only the bushes, the trees, the sky, and the raven. It looked at her with its bright black eyes and it opened its back again:

“Human child, you are a long way from home.”

“Not on purpose,” Cecilia said. She thought about it for a moment, then folded her arms behind her back as she looked up at the raven. Was there a polite way to introduce yourself to a bird? With dogs you could offer your hand, and with cats you might dangle a bit of string, but birds? How peculiar. “I received an invitation, and so I am trying to find out where the wedding is.”
“A wedding?” ┬áThe raven spread its wings, so wide and dark that they seemed to blot out a good half of the sky. Then it folded itself up again, and though it was not that much smaller, it was at least a little easier to look at. “Do you know for whom?”

“For XX and XX,” Cecilia said, and then she paused for a moment in surprise. She hadn’t even known there was a way to pronounce XX that didn’t sound peculiar, let alone two separate ways. It felt like she’d said actual names, in fact, and she was certain that she’d heard them clearly, but when she tried to recall them, she could remember none of it. “I don’t suppose that you know where I could find it, do you?”

The raven stretched its head on its neck and cocked it to the side, curling so far that it was nearly looking at Cecilia upside-down by the end. It made her own neck hurt a little to watch that happen.

“XX and XX,” it said, and again there was that strange moment when Cecilia was certain she heard proper names spoken, and could not recall them a split second later. “They’re certainly reaching, aren’t they?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Cecilia said, and she had to straighten herself up, because at some point she had started to tilt herself to try and match the raven’s movements. “Who is reaching, and for what?”

At first the raven did not answer. It only looked at her, its round black eyes unblinking. For a little bit, Cecilia wondered if it had turned to stone somehow. With everything else that had happened so far, she did not think it was a terribly farfetched thing to consider.

But eventually the raven straightened itself out. Again it opened its wings and refolded them. “A wedding should consist of family and friends,” it said. “Because you are not one, you must be the other.”

“I don’t remember any XX or XX in my family,” Cecillia said. “Or at all, so they cannot be my friends.”

The raven did not seem to even hear that. This time, it only unfolded one wing, pointing in the direction that Cecillia had been walking in the first place, before it had called out to her. “If you follow that path, you will find where you need to go. You must be careful, human child. There are those in these woods who would not take kindly to your presence at all.”

“I was already going that way,” Cecillia said, because she couldn’t help that brief surge of irritation at being interrupted just for that. “And if I am not bothering anyone, why would anyone be bothered by me?”

In answer the raven laughed, its voice creaking, but instead of answering it simply spread both wings and launched itself into the air. Cecillia watched as it vanished among the darkness of the overhead canopy. She could still hear the beat of wings for some time after it vanished, but she could not say which way it had gone. She lingered a moment longer and then sighed.

“That was not helpful at all,” she said, just in case the raven was still somehow close enough to hear, and she began to walk again.

Again, she moved forward for what seemed like a very long time. Surely it had to have been hours, but she had no way of telling. The sky remained a solid pale gray-edged white. If there was a sun, she could not see it. Nothing seemed to change, no matter how long Cecillia walked.

Eventually, the forest around her began to smell damp, the clean dirt and pine now edged with more rotting greenery. The ground slowly began to soften under her feet, until each step she took was physical effort. It wasn’t mud, though: when she did lift up, nothing stuck to her shoes, and she left no footprints behind.

Finally, after some time struggling, Cecillia stepped out of her shoes. The ground felt dry under her feet. When she tried to pick them up, though, even when she braced herself and tugged as hard as she could, she could not pick them up.

She could turn them, though, so that they faced in the direction from where she’d come, rather the way she was heading. They felt looser this way, but not enough that she could actually get them free. Finally she gave up and she let them go, stepping back. When she was barefoot, it was much easier to move. She tried to make a note of the area surrounding her, so that she would recognize the area when she came back. What would her parents say, if she came back without her shoes?

“Those cost money, Cecillia, we cannot be frivolous in these times. You cannot just throw them away.”

Something like that, she thought. But if she fetched them on the way back, it would be fine.

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