Remember, you must never touch the fox fur.
It looks tempting, doesn’t it? Thick, smooth; a thousand and one fallen leaves stitched together and made soft as snow. Autumn always was your favourite time of year. Chilled air and terracotta sunsets. But you mustn’t touch. There are other things within reach that you like just as much. Clothes and makeup, jumpers and lipsticks, all in tawny reds and ochres and cinnamons, warm and sweet on the fingers and tongue. Mama’s hair. She often lets you brush her hair, long and heavy down her back, exactly the same shade of rusted jewel as the fox fur. It shines when you’ve finished, slips through your fingers like water. All these are things you can touch, but remember you must never touch the fox fur.
Never go into Mama’s bedroom when she’s putting the fox fur on. She won’t say anything, but you’ll know by the look in her eyes. They shine green and hungry, brighter and brighter and more and more restless until she goes to her bedroom and shuts the door. But you mustn’t follow, not now. There are other times when you’re welcome in there. She likes a cup of rooibos tea in the mornings, brought hot and steaming and brewed to the copper-red of a penny before she’s even properly awake, and she likes you to sit with her while she drinks it. Just like when you were little, and used to pile into bed for a story. Back then you would use these precious, intimate moments to ask about the fox fur, but you know better now. You’re old enough to know the rules. There are hundreds of other things you can talk about, because you can tell Mama everything; in fact, she expects you to tell her everything. What you’re thinking and feeling, your deepest secrets. After thousands of mornings drinking tea, because you’ve been making it for her since you were old enough to boil the kettle and not get burned, there isn’t anything about you that Mama doesn’t know. There isn’t much about her that you don’t know, either. Except the fox fur. Remember, nothing is off limits except the fox fur.
Never follow Mama when she leaves the house with the fox fur draped around her shoulders. You know she leaves only by the soft click of the back door, because you’ve remembered not to look and not to touch, and you’ll swallow your disappointment because you know this is Mama’s time for herself. You’re welcome in every other moment of her day, from that first cup of tea in the morning to brushing her hair out at night; in fact, she likes you close. She likes to know you’re safe. You know by now not to wander beyond eye’s reach, and you’ve discovered over the years that eye’s reach is about the same distance as the drift of her perfume. The scent reminds you of a sunset, faintly tangy and smoky, a sky burning down to embers. You know that if you can’t smell her perfume then you’ve strayed too far, and so you make sure it’s always there. Even when she leaves in the fox fur, it’s still there. It lingers in the walls, creeps under the warp and weft of the rug, crackles in the fireplace. It’s how you know she’ll always be back. She’ll never abandon you, not if you’re good. Not if you remember not to follow when she’s wearing the fox fur.
But you aren’t good. There is one day – one day, out of all the thousands of days of being good – when you can’t be good any more, when curiosity snakes too hot through your body. Just a stroke, you think, won’t hurt. You listen carefully to the water running in the bathroom as your fingers run guiltily over liquid flame, and you feel an echo of wildness over your skin. Frost and pine forest, dark nights lit only by stars. You’ve noticed that Mama never goes out under a moon. Already, you understand why she’s told you not to touch, but you can’t take it back. You keep touching until the shower stops, and then you tell yourself never again.
But then you watch. There is one night she leaves the bedroom door open just a crack, and you don’t stop to think that it might be deliberate, that she might be testing you. You don’t realise that something of you has seeped into the fox fur, that she knew the instant she put it on that you’d touched it. Your feet take you silently to the shaft of light that spills orange into the hallway, and you see slivers of her body. Pale skin and deep russet fur, one twisting around the other until it’s impossible to tell which is which. Her eyes are greener than you’ve ever seen them. Sharp green, like the edges of fire.
You follow. You can’t help it. You think you can feel her fury; it washes over you in waves of anticipation, and you think you can sense every harsh word, every blow that hasn’t yet landed. But you follow anyway. You think that maybe, just maybe, after so many years of being good, she’ll forgive you this once, and it’s that which encourages you even though you know it’s a lie. You follow her footsteps through mud and frost, through the softened moss of leaves until footprints become pawprints. Above you, the stark branches of trees brush the sky. Your eyes have adjusted to enough to see dark shadows and lighter ones, but no more. This is Mama’s world and you’re trespassing.
When you finally see her ahead in a clearing, the slaughtered rabbit steaming on the ground like the rooibos tea, you feel a sickening kind of guilt. You shouldn’t be here. You know you shouldn’t be here, because you understand now that she’d wanted to wait until you were ready, until you’d proved beyond all doubt that you were hers. It’s too late now. She never told you that once you touch the fox fur, there’s no going back.
She looks at you, mouth dripping, and you realise for the first time that fox fur is the colour of dried blood. There is enough time to see the disappointment in her eyes. There is enough time to see the betrayal, and the hurt. There is enough time, before the world turns to fur and teeth, to know that you’ve made Mama angry, and the punishment is worse than you ever imagined.
Elodie Barnes is a writer and editor living in the UK. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, where she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. Find her online at elodierosebarnes.weebly.com, or on Instagram @elodierosebarnes.
photo by Gary Bendig (via unsplash)