“You should never turn down the offer of another man’s story,” the fox persisted, moving off a little further into the trees ahead. “Stories are the only thing that separates us from the animals after all.”
― T.B. McKenzie
The moment he laid eyes on Ling Fawk, Dr. Damien Brown was smitten. He didn’t think there was anyone aboard the Callidus that he hadn’t yet met, but she must have slipped his notice somehow—there were, after all, over ten thousand people aboard the vast ship. But now, looking into her brown almond eyes and watching her gently cross and uncross her long, delicate legs, he knew he would never overlook her again.
She smiled and he realized he was staring. Reluctantly, he pulled his gaze from her onyx-black hair and turned back to his screen. Did she notice the heat in his cheeks? He cleared his throat—an attempt to maintain his professionalism.
“So,” he said. “Abnormal allostatic load?”
She nodded. “It runs in the family. My father had it, and so did his mother and sister.”
“Protein supplements then.”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” she said demurely, as if afraid her request might be denied. He resisted telling her that, at the moment, if she had asked him for the nail on his pinky, he might have considered ripping it off and handing it over.
“No problem.” He started to print out the prescription, then realized the printed copy would go to the central print room, where he would either have to leave to retrieve it, or Nelly the medical assistant would have to bring it, interrupting this moment—whatever it was. Instead, he grabbed the rarely-used prescription pad on his desk and jotted down the prescription. “Take this to the pharmacy and they’ll have the tablets ready for you by the end of the day.” Then, before his nerve was lost, he added, “After that perhaps you can have dinner with me.”
She appeared to roll this over in her mind, looking from him to the prescription pad. He considered saying “just kidding,” but she spoke first.
“If I say ‘no,’” she said, “do I still get the tablets?”
“Okay.” She had a sly little smirk, as if she enjoyed making him sweat just a little. “Then I’ll meet you in the cantina at seven.”
Foxes are a symbol, you see.
From the earliest days of childhood we are taught about foxes. They serve as ambassadors for cleverness, cunning, and perhaps a cautionary tale of who to trust—or not trust. Foxes are never to be trusted, not even in tales for the smallest children. Foxes play tricks.
Let’s do tricks with bricks and blocks, sir.
Let’s do tricks with chicks and clocks, sir.
In America, every child knows the Fox in Socks, do they not? Mr. Knox plays tricks of the tongue with the Fox, until he becomes frustrated and shoves the Fox into the bottle of beetles and puddles. People tend to get frustrated with tricksters after a while, when their charm begins to wear thin.
Sometimes it seems a little unfair. No one forced Mr. Knox to play, after all.
The cantina aboard the Callidus was well-lit, noisy, and served some of the blandest affairs known to man. Much like the rest of the ship, the food was produced with maximum efficiency and minimum waste in mind, which meant optimal nutritional value, ease of digestion, and minimum flavor. Damien had never much minded the ship’s minimalistic accommodations. Even the tight, windowless accommodations didn’t bother him much—a person can only stare at passing stars so much. But the food had been difficult to get past, and the idea of spending the next decade of his life eating goop that tasted like wet cardboard smelled was undeniably depressing.
Still, with Ling across from him, the dreary meals had become tolerable, even pleasant. The goop was the farthest thing from his mind as she spoke, her voice carried lyrically across the table. It was not the most romantic of places for dates, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, and Damien found it difficult to complain about anything in her company.
“What made you decide to board?”
She swallowed a forkful of goop. From what he could tell, she didn’t mind the food nearly as much as he did. “I think it boils down to wanting a change,” she said. “Something about life on Earth felt stagnant, as if the world was changing and I was standing still.”
“A ten-year flight just for a change?” he asked. “That’s quite a commitment.”
“The same could be said for you. You volunteered to provide medical services on this ship because of a divorce. Doesn’t that seem drastic?”
“I have no immediate family. Both of my parents have passed. So when she and I couldn’t make things work, I felt like there was very little tying me to Earth.” He gestured to her. “What about your? Was it hard leaving your family behind?”
“Knowing I’ll never see my mother again isn’t easy,” she admitted. Though few spoke of it out loud, it was common knowledge that the Callidus was a one-way trip. A ten-year journey was not exactly a convenient ride for a weekend visit. “But she’s taken care of. My stepfather is a good man.” She paused to think and he admired the way her dark eyes cast off to the side, as if seeking something in the dreamy distance. “I will miss China. Flawed as it is, it’s a beautiful old country.”
“You lived in China?”
“For a good part of my childhood.” She gave him a teasing smirk. “Why? Do I not look Asian enough to you?”
He laughed. “No, no. I just assumed you were second generation or mixed. ‘Fawk’ doesn’t exactly scream Chinese.”
“Fair enough. It’s my stepfather’s last name. I never knew my real father. He didn’t want anything to do with us. So when she married my stepfather and took his name, she asked if I wanted to do the same. I didn’t mind. A name is only a name.”
“I hope he’s worthy of that honor from you.”
“He’s a good man. I know my mother married him for comfort and convenience, but they’re certainly comfortable together and I can’t say that’s a bad thing.” Her fork clinked melodically around her plate. “And there are far worse things than comfort and convenience.”
Aesop’s fables feature foxes frequently.
Foxes are viewed as sneaky, false, and untrustworthy. The fox mocks the stork by offering him soup in a shallow bowl that he cannot drink from. The fox tricks the crow into dropping its piece of cheese by feeding it flatteries. The fox convinces a daft goat to hop down a well so he can use it as a ladder. No matter the story, the fox is full of tricks.
But foxes, you see, are survivors.
Foxes are cunning for their own good. They are self-serving, but in the face of eat or die, who isn’t? We forget, after so many stories, that foxes are only animals like people are animals. They are not magical, only different.
Sometimes foxes lose, like in the case of the stork—trickery begets trickery. But the fox will dust itself off and find new tricks to play.
The viewing deck gave them a perfect view of the nebula. It would stay within viewing range for a few months before moving out of sight. In the early days of the voyage, the viewing deck was frequently packed. Now, eight months in, everyone had grown bored of the endless void of space.
Damien put his arm around Ling. She rested her head on his shoulder. This little walk after dinner had become something of a ritual for them, though neither of them ever suggested it. They watched the nebula together as the ship drifted through its slow journey.
“Do you ever think about what life will be like at the colony?”
“Sometimes.” Damien thought back to the hours and hours of orientation, training, and informational sessions. “I mean, they showed us enough videos, but I don’t think it’s going to be anything like we expect.”
“What do you expect?”
“For starters,” he said, pulling her close, “I think fifty thousand people on a whole planet is going to feel like very few. We are increasing the existing population by a fourth with our arrival. It sounds like a lot, but once we get there, with fifty thousand of us against a whole barren planet, we are going to feel very small and alone.”
“I don’t know,” Ling said, gazing up at the boundless sky. “There is a certain peace in knowing there is endless work ahead. Work that will not reach its end in our lifetime—not even close. Endless work and endless possibilities, all on a blank canvas.” She chuckled. “You know, my mother used to say studying environmental sciences was as good as throwing money down the drain.”
“How does she feel about you being a terraformer?”
“Mixed at best, I’d say. I’m sure she would rather have me stay close to home and give her some grandchildren.”
“The colony needs you. It takes all types to make a new world.”
“It does. And not just humans.” She wound her long fingers around his, and suddenly the new world didn’t feel like it was going to be so lonely. “Plants and animals, microbes and bacteria. So much that we don’t see or understand thoroughly. They’re all going to play a role. And I can’t wait to see this puzzle come together.”
The Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Foxes will outwit to survive. It is in their nature. Told from a fox’s point of view, it is seen as clever, even heroic. But if this story were to be told from the point of view of the farmer, it would be quite a different tale.
The moral of the story changes depending on who’s telling it. One can say the same about history, I suppose.
“A hundred and twenty?”
Nelly nodded. She was an absent-minded assistant on her best days, but this was too far off even for her. Damien scratched his head and looked over her inventory report again.
“How can we be short over a hundred tablets of protein this early in the month?”
Nelly gave a nonchalant shrug and Damien struggled to contain his frustration. “Are you sure you matched the numbers up right?”
“You wrote the prescriptions yourself,” Nelly said, handing over a messy stack of papers. “I guess you just prescribed a lot of them lately.”
Damien snatched the pile over and waved Nelly off. Then, pouring over the printed records, he found no discrepancies—until his eyes landed on the single written prescription. The only prescription he wrote by hand, when he wanted a few extra minutes with a beautiful lady who had become the highlight of this monotonous life aboard the Callidus. He squinted. The imitation of his penmanship was quite good, but he could tell the number had been altered.
He felt anger. Then confusion. Then, he understood.
The Chinese word is “hu-li-jing”—fox spirit.
The hulijing is different from the clever foxes of the west. They possess the ability to change, usually into enchanting women who captured the hearts of men. Old stories often claimed they did so in order to devour human flesh, or to make slaves of those who loved them. Many have loved hulijing, some even worshipped them.
Sudaji, who could be considered the queen of hulijing, was featured prominently in the Investiture of the Gods. She seduced the emperor, they said, and fell an entire kingdom. Though the king was a fool to begin with, was he not? She was merely another fox, doing what came with instinct—to trick, and to live.
Are tales of hulijing true? That depends on who tells the story. The chef and the chicken on his plate will tell you different stories. Hulijing, like foxes and humans both, only wanted to survive.
For many, survival has meant different things throughout time.
When he came to her quarters, she appeared to be expecting him. He sat down on her narrow bed next to her. She looked at him without fear or guilt, but expectant. She was clever, like others of her kind. She already knew he would find out.
“Was anything you told me true?”
“Most of it. We’ve always relied on humans for survival, one way or another.”
“Comfort and convenience. That is survival now, isn’t it?”
“Are you asking if I was using you?”
Ling shook her head. She was still beautiful to him. Enchanting, like she alway was. “No. I care for you. But survival, well, it’s important. It’s hardly considered appropriate to hunt for human flesh as a source of protein these days, don’t you think?”
“Did you ever do that?”
“Did you ever club a woman over the head and carry her back to your cave?”
Damien chuckled. She did, too. He wondered if she could change her form, but decided this was not the time to ask.
“Are you sure leaving Earth was a good choice? I can only get you so many protein tablets at a time. You will have to ration. You’ve got nine more years ahead of you on this trip. And once we get there, it might not be better.”
She nodded. He watched those clever eyes gaze into that dreamy distance and suddenly had no doubt that, like every fox in every story, she would find her way.
“I know,” she said after a long moment. “But it takes more than humans to make a new world.”
* * *
If you enjoyed this story, you can read more by JD Edwin in her new book, Maladaptive. This short story collection brings together some of her best stories from Short Fiction Break. Best of all, it’s free for a limited time. Download Maladaptive here »