The year the world changed forever was the year the foxes changed colour. Well, it didn’t happen as quickly as that, within a single season, but it might as well have. One year they were white, the next they were red. Bigger too, and bolder. Out on the tundra she called home, a long way from any other living soul, the old woman known as Aapia found a red fox carcass, its belly slashed and open to the cold skies. She took the carcass home and made a coat from its fur. In the old days, its russet blaze would have been fatal for hunting, but the snow had gone along with the white foxes.
The last white fox was shot as a pest by a man from the concrete town to the south. The old woman was out gathering fernweed when she sensed the fatal shot. She felt the frantic pulse of the fox’s heart as it lay in the mud, its fur turning slowly red and then black. Her fury rose at this witless slaughter. She reached out across the plains, inside the bloody bower of the fox’s ribcage and she scooped up its spirit and brought it back to her house. The spirit shivered, frail and confused to find itself within four walls. Seeing its terror, Aapia thought about killing the man. But he was far away. Instead, she sent a battalion of snow geese. The geese took up her anger. They pursued the man across the concrete town, diving and swiping at his head, screeching the old woman’s rage.
That same spring, the camera people returned.
* * *
They had first appeared ten years before. Aapia was younger then, although age was beginning to make itself felt, and she had the dogs. They were a pack of six, grey and tan and white, with powerful torsos and eager tongues. They bundled about her, barking excitedly as she listened to the camera people’s spiel. They wanted to make a documentary. It was to do with the ice, they said. It was to do with the oil. They were looking for personal stories - only that could make a difference to the collective global mindset. Could they have her personal story?
Aapia was not convinced they knew much about stories, and asked why they wanted hers.
She was the last, they said. Genealogically. They had done studies. Her voice would be valuable.
But Aapia did not wish to be in a documentary, and the camera people went away disappointed, to search the tundra for other tales.
* * *
Ten years on, the mission of the camera people had not changed. They spoke earnestly about their cause. They asked about Aapia’s dogs. What had happened to them. She told them the dogs were gone. Without snow, there was no sled, and without sled, there was no purpose for the dogs. She had buried them one by one, their howls cast to the winds, their meat wasted to bone in the unyielding earth. She had hoped that the dogs’ spirits would stay with her, although she did not tell the camera people that. How she missed their warmth. Their solidity. The dogs had gone wandering in search of their ancestors, or so she guessed.
The camera people wanted to photograph the sled, unaware that the white fox’s spirit was perched on the runners, watching them suspiciously. The white fox was suspicious of all people now, except for the old woman. Even with Aapia it was prone to melancholy, having realized that none other of its kindred were trapped in the hinterland between life and what lay beyond it. The camera people said the sled was an iconic example of how rising temperatures had wiped out indigenous culture. They wanted to know the word for sled. For the dogs. For snow. Oh, I don’t speak that old language, she told them. They looked mournful then.
They would be back again next year, they said, and they left on a quest to find white hares. The old woman could have told them this was a fool’s errand, but they would not have listened.
* * *
The spirit of the white fox was good company for Aapia. During the day the white fox curled up in the embers of the stove, and at night it went out through the chimney in a silken whisper, to run among the stars. It was not a dog, but it was somewhere close. But then something happened to upset their balance.
The man from the town had not learned his lesson. The following spring he shot another fox, a red one. Once again Aapia reached out over the plains to collect the fox’s spirit and bring it home. Once again, she sent the geese to punish the murderer. This time she dispatched a goshawk alongside them, although the geese did not appreciate this intervention as much as she had intended.
The old woman thought the red fox would be a companion to the white, but her second rescue was not so successful as the first. The white fox was aggrieved to find itself billeted with its genocidal cousin, and the red fox proved unruly. It tumbled through the house, causing disturbances in the air and sudden breezes that knocked the old woman’s possessions from shelves and made the windows rattle in their frames. The white fox, convinced that the red fox had eaten her brother during their time amongst the living, fell into a terrible depression and refused to come out from behind the stove. In the end Aapia was forced to banish the red fox from the house. The red fox, not particularly upset, took up residence in the sled outside.
One morning, not long after the cotton grass had flowered, the old woman woke up to find a dozen foxes outside her door. They had come to complain about the antics of the red fox spirit. The red fox had been playing tricks on its living brethren, swooping into burrows to tickle the paws of terrified kits, conjuring winds to scare rodents at the moment of the pounce, and stealing slivers of the northern lights to disorientate migrating birds. As the sun rose higher, the number of complainants grew. The white fox spirit sat beside the old woman, grooming its beautiful tail. I told you it was trouble, said the white fox. There was a certain smugness to the white fox now.
Other animals joined the congregation. Aapia began to feel guilty. Perhaps she should not have brought the fox spirits home. But she had been lonely.
The camera people arrived next, drawn by the spectacle of hundreds of foxes. Where had they come from? Why were they flocking to the old woman? A great grey owl landed in a flurry, furious because the red fox spirit had been singing to its embryo chicks in their eggs, describing how it would eat them when they hatched.
The camera people went crazy when they saw the owl. Abroad in daylight! What a thing! Well, the old woman could hardly tell them that this was a parliament. They would never understand. She went inside and shut the door. The red fox spirit danced gleefully on the roof of the house and the fox parliament began to yip in an angry chorus. The camera people filmed the scene, but after a while the yipping and the stink of a hundred foxes was too much even in the pursuit of science. When the great grey owl raised its wings and lofted into the air, they sent a drone in its wake, running clumsily after it on foot.
* * *
With the onset of winter, the red fox calmed. The cold made it drowsy, and docile. The white fox patrolled the skies at night in search of snow to roll in. Finding none, it returned to the house. An uneasy truce settled between the two foxes. They lay at the feet of the old woman as she made cowberry jam, and Aapia felt the shiver of their spirits against her calves.
The last spring that the camera people came, they brought news. A mine was to be built, and around it a town. It would be much nearer than the concrete town to the south, and larger too. Industry was coming to the region. Hearing this, the old woman felt suddenly very tired. She thought of the man who had shot the two foxes, and imagined him multiplied a thousand fold.
The camera people asked once again if they could have her story. She was the last, they reminded her. They were obsessed with this idea, the last of things. And yet they could not see that the last of the white foxes was right under their noses, sitting in the embers of the stove, surveying them quietly. The white fox, hearing talk of the mine, gave a mournful yip. It did not like change. It was already in a gloomy state, having tried switching its coat to all manner of colours in an attempt to keep up with the changing tundra, but without success.
The camera people pleaded with the old woman. In the end she consented to be filmed. The camera people were delighted. They set up their tripod and boom, trained their lenses upon her. But when the time came to speak, Aapia found she had nothing to say. What words could she offer? How could she describe the sadness of the white fox spirit when it could not find snow, or the feckless glee of the red? She sat, and the camera people filmed, and she said nothing. She thought they would be disappointed, but found that nothing could disappoint them now. Silence, they agreed, was the most eloquent weapon. Her silence spoke for millions.
After they had left she sat down in her chair in front of the stove. The white fox shook ash from its paws and stretched out on the rug. The red fox slunk inside, seeking warmth. The old woman let her hand drop, wishing to feel the life-force of pumping blood, the cold press of a canine nose. But they were only ever whispers.
The old woman did not bother to light a lamp. She let the darkness of the night wrap around her. When it was fully dark, she went outside. Something was being stolen, something other than the breath from her lungs or the steady beat of a heart. Aapia looked upon her country and found she did not recognize it. Dizziness took her. The white fox and the red flanked her on either side, sensing her uncertainty. Then she nodded, suddenly resolute. She went inside and got into bed and vowed she would never leave it again.
The fox spirits did their best. They brought her the intestines of rabbits and goose feathers for her thin white hair. They consulted with the terns and the great grey owl. They caught rodents and brewed clumsy pots of labrador tea. Nothing tempted her.
* * *
Days slipped by. The old woman could feel her heart winding down. The cotton grass flowered, but even in the snow-free land she felt a chill that would not abate. The geese brought news; there was a great scar in the land where the mine was being blasted. The town was advancing. Lying in her bed, the old woman’s breathing became shallower and shallower, until one day her chest dipped, and did not rise again.
The two foxes were ready. They worked together, gently lifting the old woman’s spirit from the cage of her body, and up through the roof of her house into the crisp starlit air beyond. They held her tightly, lest she become overwhelmed by the vastness of the celestial world. Then they opened her eyes, and showed her the tundra spread out below. They began to run. Aapia ran with them. She could not believe how light she was, how fleet of foot. She could run faster than when she was a girl. In the distance, she heard something, a familiar sound, beloved. It was the howl of a pack. The old woman ran.
E.J. Swift is the author of Osiris, Cataveiro and Tamaruq, a series set in a world radically altered by climate change, comprising. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies including The Best British Fantasy and the digital book Strata. Swift was shortlisted for a 2013 BSFA Award for “Saga’s Children” (The Lowest Heaven) and was longlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for “The Spiders of Stockholm” (Irregularity).
Art by 12 Orchards.