by Wen Wen Yang
The legend is only partially true. I had already hidden away my fox-skin, already decided on Jack when he saw me naked in my human-skin. I am not the huli jing from San Francisco, whose fox-skin was stolen by a human man. One newspaper called it devotion that she returned nightly to her husband. She was devoted to her fox-skin as one is devoted to one’s hands.
Fox spirits capture the low hanging fruit. When these men come upon a naked woman in the wilderness, they would not hesitate to lie naked with her. I had hunted in Central Park but the police had started to notice the missing men.
Some spirits had lived in the Wilderness when it became Chinatown. When humans carved their way into the forest and turned trees into their homes, we determined some use for their village.
Some of us can walk upright and sit in human-skin for hours in service to those who cannot. I had learned to tolerate the confining sensation and the dizziness from having only two connections to the ground. My mother wanted us to pass as human, though she later moved into the Wilderness to be closer to her family.
I spoke unaccented English, staring at the mouths of the humans on the television and mimicking their movements. I brushed my hair into tight braids that looked nothing like a bushy tail.
I helped those in our apartment building who could not walk as humans. Madam Snake is too old to hunt rabbits. The ghosts want new clothes but cannot wait until the new year.
Jack knew me from the market. I admired his wide shoulders, his long sinewy arms as he unloaded his truck and set up his stall in the mornings. He has a hawk’s nose but when I asked how the view was from up there, he only laughed. I belatedly realized he thought I was joking about his height.
He opened my jars and inhaled the scents before deciding which to buy. I told him where I gathered the herbs and how I brewed the ointments for aching muscles.
I learned that he worked his land alone, that he considered it his because his grandfather had passed it down. I wondered if he knew how lucky he was that his grandfather had been able to buy land without intermediaries to sign contracts. He was never startled awake with the sound of gunfire from neighbors.
I did not tell him that the land before his grandfather’s time belonged to everyone, not just humans. The Wilderness that surrounded his farm was precious now, worth millions for its location to the city. It was one of the few places I could roam without my human-skin.
When they’d first built into the Wilderness, the humans had pasted wards across every threshold, stopping weaker spirits from entering the city. Some were weak or forgeries. Another fox spirit in our building, Raina, makes them for tourists and companies. But others were authentic, stronger than the signs of “No animals allowed.”
Walking under the new wards felt like my bones were trying to erupt from my skin. Shamans had blessed these papers, but the magic came from the ink, made from the burnt bones of spirits.
I had given Raina a small sample of my fox hair for her brushes, in exchange for training my stamina against the strongest wards. It took months before I could walk through her wards without crying out in pain.
Another resident, Joro, walked underneath it and said it made her exoskeleton itch. Her glamour shimmered and you could almost see the markings on her abdomen underneath.
I learned to unclench my fists and teeth, to speak without a hint of distress. Eventually, I could walk into any store or restaurant and be served.
“I want to help,” I told Raina one night when the news showed private schools putting wards at their entrances. I couldn’t imagine a child trying to learn while the wards’ magic whipped and burned them.
She returned the brush made with my hairs and gave me a pot of ink. I did not ask her what she had used to make the ink, but I knew others in the building had given up a piece of themselves too. Nightly, I walked our city wearing a glamour Joro had created and added a stroke to render the wards’ magic impotent.
One vengeful ghost had escaped the cemetery’s wards, crossed the bridge and chased her husband out the window of their apartment. The humans thought grief had driven him to leap from the same window and land in the courtyard where they had found his wife’s broken body.
* * *
One spring day, I noticed a bandage around Jack’s wrist. Could he not smell the infection? I asked how he had hurt himself. He had been placing barbed wire around his property. “A coyote got to the chickens.”
I wondered if the pup was injured.
I offered a bit of honey balm. He accepted it, and I watched him discard his bloody bandage.
My mother had taught us to bring our bandages home, to burn them on the stove.
I smeared the honey balm onto his wound, wrapped his hand with clean gauze.
He joked that if he knew he could get my attention with a scratch, he would have hurt himself earlier. I imitated a succubus’s laughter. That evening, as we closed our stalls, he came and asked me to dinner. We exchanged numbers, and I suggested he should try again next week.
Raina was grinding her inks that evening in the basement laundry room and fuming when I told her I had turned him down.
“You call him right now. I can wash the bottles myself.” She had her empty bottles soaking in the sink beside me.
“I don’t know if I want him yet.” I was washing my new jars, then her bottles. If I washed her bottles first, the jars would be tinged with ink and my creams would be murky.
She tested the ink with a clean brush on scrap paper. “Cheap gray ink,” she muttered and continued to grind.
“Who is that for?”
She shrugged. “Came in through the website, fireproofing. As long as it isn’t dragonfire, mine should work.”
“Aren’t there fire resistant stuff?”
“Some like science, some like magic.” She chuckled. “It’s better than the one that asked for a love potion.”
I grimaced, wrinkling my nose. “What did you give them?”
“A bottle of colored saltwater to sprinkle whenever they were kind to someone else. I told them it attracts love to them.”
Many footsteps cascaded down the stairs. Joro in her white silk robe nodded to us as she gathered her laundry from the clothesline hanging overhead. In the building, she didn’t wear the glamour that made her appear human, hiding her extra legs and eyes.
“Joro,” Raina sang her name. “Tell Miss Picky here how you decide on your next human.”
Joro smiled and said in a husky voice, “If they’re there, I want them.” One elegant eyebrow rose. “You aren’t mating for life, my dear.”
* * *
For dinner, Jack selected a vegetarian restaurant. Across the street, I saw another restaurant with taxidermied heads of wolves and lions at the entrance.
When he asked about my family, I did not tell him about the family who lived in the Wilderness. I had blended in so well, no one had asked to see my papers to prove my residence. I knew mothers who lost children to trophy hunters.
He laughed with me when I told him my mother didn’t use my own creams. Instead, she asked me to buy her a particular face cream and send it to her because no stores near her stocked it. I didn’t mention she was a smuggler for those who wanted what the city offered without risking their lives.
He had dreams of a large family, because the world had given him every sign that he would never lose his home. I did not tell him about my cubs, who had thrived in the Wilderness. They had decided to leave the humans behind entirely.
That evening, he walked me home, holding my hand. As we passed the large piles of trash for pickup, he drew me close to him, an arm around my waist. He smelled of my ointment for aching muscles.
I did not invite him into the building. I could see curtains fluttering in the windows. “Nosy neighbors.” I nodded to the first floor. We exchanged a chaste kiss, and I retreated inside.
Joro caught up with me by the time I was on the stairs.
“My dear, those muscular arms, those brooding eyes.” Leave it to the Woman Spider to admire arms and eyes.
“And you wore that!” She tsked. Our resident seamstress always wanted us to be in our best form. Her glamours could make Bigfoot look like a babushka, but her pride was in her clothing which, along with Raina’s faux wards, I sold at my stall. Spider silk, silkworm silk, the humans couldn’t tell the difference.
“If you’d like me to introduce you,” I offered.
“Only once you’re done with him.” She grinned, fangs flashing. “I don’t intend to give him back.”
* * *
Before the next date, I cleaned my apartment of anything that would reveal me. No pictures of family, and I even cleared my internet history of spirit forums.
I had asked the forums if anyone knew of the Wilderness by his farm, and there hadn’t been any attacks on us recently. They didn’t like the barbed wire but it at least wasn’t electrified.
When he texted, I asked him to pick me up. Joro decided she would open the door for him and led him to my apartment. When I opened my door, she was still appreciating his body with her eight eyes behind the glamour.
“Oh, damn, you’re early.” I made myself breathless, flushed. I stepped aside, and he stepped in without a word like a puppet pulled on a string.
Joro winked at me as I shut the door. She had loaned me the robe, white and smooth against my skin. My hair was damp as if I’d just jumped out of the shower. His jaw was still loose, and I wondered if the effect was too much.
“We could stay in,” I managed and he nodded. I’d never seen a man disrobe so quickly. No wonder the Woman Spider never starved for mates and meals.
I remember the strength in his hands. These hands had plastered wards across his stall. These hands had held mine as if he were cradling a hatchling.
Afterwards, he had one arm draped across my body as if we had been lovers for years. Once seduced, would he remove the wards? Would he share his land with the demons who had lived there before his grandfather’s time? Could I invite my mother and friends to visit the space between the Wilderness and the city? Could I introduce him to my cubs?
I heard his phone buzz from his pants. He ignored it, but it buzzed again a few seconds later. Puzzled, he climbed out of the bed and found the phone.
“Sorry, I’m just going to reply.”
“Is it work?” I asked, trying to memorize the strain on his legs, the crease of his spine.
“No, a couple buddies are going on a hunt this weekend.”
Goosebumps erupted across my arms.
“Deer?” I kept my voice light, careless.
“There’s a beast in the forest, luring men with a baby’s cries. They say it’ll eat our hearts and livers. But if we eat it, we will be immune to poison.”
My body went cold.
I muttered something and retrieved my phone from my nightstand. I texted the building a distress signal and put my phone down as he climbed back into bed.
“Are you cold?” He rubbed my arms and the callouses scratched my skin. I burrowed into his warmth, willing my heart to stop pounding.
I should have poisoned his jars.
I acted surprised when someone started knocking on my door a few minutes later. We dressed, and I answered to two small children and a woman.
“Oh my darling, could you watch the little one?” She bounced a toddler on her hip. “The big one’s gotten into the cabinet, and I think he’s swallowed the whole bottle.”
“Of course.” I gathered the toddler from her.
Jack had made it to the door and stopped in his tracks when he saw the child in my arms.
“Oh, you have company!” the mother said and reached for her child. “I don’t want to–”
“Don’t be silly. Go to the doctor.” I smiled, rubbing the toddler’s back. “I’ll be here.”
The mother and her son creaked their way down the stairs.
I had some satisfaction in causing Jack’s loss for words. “Raincheck?”
He looked at his watch and grimaced. “We could still make the fair’s last concert.”
I shook my head. “She might be gone for hours.” I pressed a quick, dismissive kiss to his cheek. “Go. Enjoy the fair.”
* * *
After he left, I removed the toddler’s glamour and tucked a heating pad around the sack of spider’s eggs. I texted Joro, and she returned.
“I hope that was enough,” she said. “Jiao wanted to break a pipe in the basement, but I think they just wanted a swimming pool.”
Joro’s neighbor, a shark person, was able to spin seasilk, and the quality rivaled Joro’s silk. They also had been asking for a swimming pool since the YMCA had put up wards.
“I’m very glad you didn’t flood the basement.” Raina would have had all our heads if her inks and papers were ruined.
Joro pressed one hand to my knee. “Was he such a bad lover, my darling? People that are pretty may not think of another’s pleasure.”
I snorted. “I wouldn’t have asked for an exit plan if it was that.” I held out my phone to the forum page where I’d warned other users of a hunt. “He’s going to hunt fox spirits.”
Joro blinked her many eyes.
“And his surprise second date was going to the fair.”
I had leased a stall once during the yearly fair. Captured spirits headlined a freakshow with wards wrapped around their metal collars. That year’s main attraction was a sky serpent, crashing lightning and fire against the blackened top of the tank. In the next town, audio feedback from a band’s sound check had fractured the glass just enough for the serpent to escape.
Joro seethed. “I should have fed him to my children,” she said, nodding at her bundle of eggs. She squeezed my knee.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “I did not give him my heart and he gave me what I wanted.”
Joro drew me in for a hug. “I’ll see you in six months then? Do you think you’ll be able to come back?”
That morning we had watched the news of bills going through Congress to track everyone passing through to the Wilderness and sending beasts back to “where they came from.”
“I won’t be microchipped like a dog,” Raina had said before leaving to work in her studio.
“I think I’ll stay.” I held Joro’s hand in mine. “Maybe the cub can play with your brood before they leave the nest.”
* * *
After that night, I leased my stall to another vendor, telling the neighbors I needed to care for a sick relative outside of the city. I had no desire for Jack to see my expanding body.
Each day, I smeared every ward on the Lower East Side with ash and pig’s blood. I rode the subway, then the train as far north as they could take me, defacing wards as I went. I crossed paths with demons seeking to eat a holy man for immortality and tree spirits eager to water their roots with human blood.
Through smugglers, I passed a message to my mother, along with gifts for her and my aunts. I gave her several jars of face cream. It had become too dangerous to try to see her, but I reassured her that Joro and Raina treated me like a porcelain doll.
Two new moons later, I had my son.
He has his father’s shoulders, but we share the same fur. His is dark, soft as shadows. I’ve seen him sit in the inbetween-skin, pulling on his fox-skin and watching his reflection in the mirror. His human features melted into pointed ears and a bushy tail.
Jagged tufts of white fur circle his right foreleg. He had wandered out of my sight for a moment in Central Park and a trap caught him. We’d managed to escape before the humans came, but this paw is weaker than the others.
Each trap steals an acre of our safety while the humans hide behind their wards.
In four months, he decides if he wants to venture into the Wilderness or start training to pass as human. Raina and Joro could provide him with convincing papers and glamours, train him to withstand and desecrate the wards.
In four months, I will return to the market.
* * *
The legend would have you believe an invader of our home could seduce a fox spirit into hiding her true nature. In one legend, when he found her fox-skin, she abandoned him and their child.
The legend ends with the human’s forgiveness because the huli jing is his son’s mother. Imagine! She is saved from the hunter’s killing, the taxidermist’s beheading and the furrier’s skinning, because she has given him her child. A child who will never wear their fox-skin and never hunt between the moving shadows of a forest, is that a fox spirit lost without bloodshed?
I do not seek forgiveness.
I dream of walking into the market in human-skin again and tearing the wards down. The panicked humans will gape as the Wilderness sweeps in like a thunderstorm over the horizon. I will find Jack by his scent. My son will meet his father. I will ask him if he would eat his son’s flesh.
* * *
About the Author
Wen Wen Yang is a first generation Chinese American, raised in the Bronx, New York. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University with a degree in English, Creative Writing. Her work can be found in Fantasy Magazine, the Fit for the Gods anthology and more. Wen Wen currently lives in Texas. She tweets @muteddragon, and updates wenwenwrites.com.