Jolley Prize 2012 (Shortlist): 'Tended by Foxes' by Ngiare Elliot

My sister watched the river drink me, and offered not a finger to pull me free. She was a colder creature than the water on my skin, and I should have known there was no turning her once her words were thinned, and her eyes dusk-rimmed. She watched me bob and nod to the river, her skirts clotted in her fists, and I don’t think she cared if I became wood or stone, or if the scraps of me lay beneath the swagger and curtsy of crow, as long as the river washed me gone and ever from her sight. She wanted no sketch of sister left on wind or water.

My sister would have her world unmarked by me.

The river coughed me to the banking, and folded me into the black earth there, and the soldier found my throat full of mud, and my shoulders clouded and bruised with the buds of unfinished wings. I was a find unmatched, a woman snug-snared in the beginning of a swan.The man was well crafted in the carve and score of tree. The turn and bow of me were guiled and tranced to wood, and then I could sing my sister’s willing me to water.

I didn’t take the shape of harp, though, as the ballad told. A harp was too fragile for the nesting of my bones. A harp is always open, standing in surrender, uncluttered by secrets. As a woman, I couldn’t breathe for the weight of its songs of the shine and glitter of kings. Only so much gold can settle on fingers before they can no longer pick the words from the strings. A harp was a yielding thing, and its speech was too soft for my mouth. Its music would round my words, when I wanted them hard, bevelled and varnished by teeth and tongue, so that the sounds of my story could be rolled between my father’s fingers like beads.

Not a harp, then; a cello instead, to be pressed against the hidden pulse of thigh, and the pull of bow to shape my words. It would bite into the strings, and hitch my voice from then, to now. He hewed the bow from yew, and from the hair of brave horse’s tail, so that it would drag soft along my belly, the dark blush of myrtle under my skin. He fashioned me from pine, too, so the smell of north skimmed chill beneath his fingers each time he played me.

It wasn’t such a difficult thing, to turn from flesh to wood; a little sad, perhaps, but no sadder than my sister growing smaller with my sinking.

My sister always longed to leave the swoon to the river; she believed that her own waters were of a richer flux. She knew that her own compass, the grain and grit of her, would take her far from our home, and that by the time she left, all crimson-grimed from loss of heart, I would be no more than a wrinkle in the river. She would go to higher ground, where the air was too slender to hold the cloy of crows and the lush of their cries. She would go north, where she would have the birds like parchment, unfeathered and scrabbled in the leaves.

In the north, those crows were unreckoned by my sister. I think she forgot the heat of crows, the girt and gravity of them. She wanted the north to be bird-bare, and paled with the scant of them.

North is the slowing of all warm things. North is silver, because gold is bruised brown before it has the chance to mirror men. The ones who travel there see themselves in the halt of the hurry of water. They rest between the trees, fear stiff in the wood that won’t burn, and in the spokes of their fingers above it.

Even the songs up there are sunless. They creep close to the ground. They are wolven; there is hunger in them as they wait for hands and heart and mouth to hold them close, then push them back. The words in those northern songs are a graze on the tongue, so that the singing of them dries your teeth and blues your lips.

I caught those cold, bare songs by the river: all north-skinned and iced to the bone, they were. My sister didn’t care for their winter-root, but they suited me fine. I could pick them from the river like flakes of ice, and rock them fragile in my hand until their edges melted endings on my skin. She would stare with spite enough to stay the river’s run, and she would watch those winter songs thawing in my skirts, frost blossoming in the damp wool.

How could her hands have been so warm, then? There was fire in the thrust of her upon me when she gave me to the river, and I know I’m remembering that right and true; it was the last heat I knew between chill of water and the rub of the miller’s son. It was as if she held something of the sun in her arms, even as the north wind was in her hair.

Even as a child, her hands never knew quiet; they were always twisting and turning stem and hair alike. Her hands were unworn by brush or comb. She was a chafing in my sleep, a scouring of all the soft of me that was half-grown, half-made, so that the shush and sweet and mute of me were unstitched, and all the time her fingers were unthreading her heart from my own.

My sister had summer hands, and eyes of winter. She would walk in the stark and spare of it, bare headed, her toes and fingertips nibbled by cold, leaf-litter pasted in the crooks of her knees, the earth tender in her valleys, but nothing growing, nothing moving, save the gather and tether of forest to her back.

She wouldn’t have me with her in the woods, not when there was such a quiet on me, such a stillness in my bones. My sister felt nothing for me – nothing that the river couldn’t fetch away. She was true only to the straight and tall of the mountain trees, where things are unnamed by men but sheltered in the nestle of women. In such a place, sheathed in snow, she’d scratch her bearings, and smudge the marks of home. Was she afraid that I’d try to follow her?

 

As if I could, with the thick of river in my boots and hair.

 

Her hair was a rope of coiled night, yet still I couldn’t reach it from the water.

 

My sister watched me catch those northern songs, the river half-forgotten near her feet. She watched, and saw, and all her hard seeing grew a pebble in her throat, and she could barely swallow for the hinder of it.

My sister saw. I know that now, as well as I know the weight of water on my bones. Her wanting: it was as heavy as that, and the shifting of it grew another kind of river, too cold to taste.

A man kneeled on the river bank. He was all rumpled and tangled from travel and sleeplessness, and he wet his mouth and neck with the water. For a breath he filled my eyes, the all of him, stitched from crowed night as he was. I went on with my work, as he seemed to mean no harm. He wasn’t a village man, I thought, or I would have known his face and hands and stance. His boots were a slurry of battlefield. Perhaps, then, he was here to slant his own story to the water, as I was here to meet it.

I plucked the songs from the reeds with care, brushing them from my lips and cheeks with the backs of my hands, winding each one around my rowan twig. Some songs were unfinished, and they sat misshapen and ragged like raw lumps of wool snagged on branches. These were songs of cloud and harrow, of grey and brown and bone. Other songs were no more than beginnings; the whisper and roiling of green around the reed roots. Reeds, and river, and the earth that held them, and me with a skein of songs tumbling through my fingers.

He made the very slightest of noises: no more than a beak upon a crust of bread. My sister turned, and the river with her, and I saw him through the web of her hair. I barely felt the songs unfurling then, and they spilled into my lap as I crouched in my sister’s wake. At first, I thought he was like her, or how she wanted to be: his hair and hands were fringed with north-night, and I could see the old snow in his beard. Then I spied a puddle of light around his ankles, and it folded into a fox, fierce and bright. A fine, pale creature she was, all point and bow and white fire. A softer child has never been seen in this forest. She was a skeything, all a-judder, her face pressed into his thigh so that the nub of her was hidden from my sister. She was folded into his legs, and he in turn was doubled above her, as if to keep the cold from her.

The man and fox were silvered and seamed by the river, and the water was a swirl around my knees.

And just like that, I knew: this man was not like my sister. Her night fell unbroken, but his dark was scattered with the shine and sleight of fox. My sister knew nothing of snow-dusted fur, for she never peered beneath the lowest branches. She didn’t have the language of warm, wet fox, frosted by ice and promise. For her, there was no life in the winter of the woods, in this home of ours. She seized each word brought to her on the rush of northern air, in every gust of wolf and bear, as if it was only the bulk and heave of such creatures that could hold her cravings.

My sister had long ago spent the trees here, and her arms were empty. Her heart was too still for the wind to finger her hair, here in our father’s hills. I think that when she saw this man, the stagger and sway of there struck my sister hard, so that the here of those hills was no longer a spill of shadow, teeming with what might be. I think that’s the moment she left us, truly and completely: all of us, sister and father, and the bind and bridge of the woods.

The man reached a hand to the fox’s back, to steady her I think, or to better feel the river through her body.

 

Some bones bear songs within them.

 

 

The dark began to stroke the water. We left theriver, my sister and I. I beckoned to the soldier to follow us, and he saw warmth and food in the shaping of my hand. There was a melding of stone and night, and some kind of mending of the man, too, his eyes upon the reel and stumble of the stories in my arms.

The fox led him, and his fingers were burning in her fur. She was an ungolding of our hearthfire, and a rusting of the rushes on the floor, but I think our house was made the lovelier because of her.

 

 

There were waxed wood plates, cake-crowded, flat and sugared and crumbling in his fingers. The oat morsels dusted the fox’s coat where she curled, yellow-eyed and night-tipped, at his feet. Her tail was stirring the mild of sleeping trees, dreamed by the fire.

My sister’s eyes were closed, but I knew that she saw the man watching me. Our father leaned against the door, and watched us all. He read the scratching of her fingers on the wood. Her speech was steeped in cold as she spoke behind her hand and hair, singing the soldier back to the river, to its first seep from the chill of the stones.

She forgot her mislaying of me, though, and she mistook me.

She didn’t mark me as she should have.

I wouldn’t let her stand the man chill beside her northern stone. She promised something like snow: something laid warm and beating beneath it, but I knew better. It was without life, and unhatched from clouds.

My sister stood there in that room, made soft and sable by my father. She’d set herself hard between wall and table, but close enough to touch the swell of fox and fire. The light of them were a seeping under her skirts to spill between her toes.

When she stepped back, she thought the fire would forget her name.

My father always said she was the forest’s rant; a rage of wind gone wrong. She wanted this man to point things true again. My sister would have the hale and heart of him, and of me. She wanted the pluck of the woods, and the mettle of their trees.

 

 

 

The myrtle creeps beneath my skin, and I’m bigger in than out. As pine, I’m hemmed by the forest, and crowned by its birds. Those birds are throated with the low and sigh of the voices of women.

Our house is burnished with heat. The fire melts the snow from the soldier’s clothes. My tongue loosens with the warmth, but my breath is burnt brown.

As wood, I long for the bindings of winter.

The man presses me close, and I draw in a musk of myrtle as he pulls the bow. The chitter of fox leaps among the brightest notes. In this way, I tell my story to all small things; all things berry-bled and lichen-laid.

My sister is always hunting. She binds the stories of northern queens to the bramble of her hair. She ties the cries of their kings to the softness of her thigh.

She is never here to listen to me sing.

 

 

 

 

Our father rode out the morning after, still worrying at the knot that was his elder daughter. The river led him south. He rode away from my sister, and dark in the doorway she stood, with her marked hands and mouth, forest-damp. When she spoke, her lips couldn’t shape the light from the fox’s eyes. There was fear in those eyes, and in those words.

Fox would have eaten my sister as she was, with her warp of hair and bones, and her story a rasp against the fox’s teeth. That fox’s hunger nursed a hallowing, I think. I thought it might have brought her back to her beginning. My sister wouldn’t be swallowed by the woods, though. She had too much to lose. So my father went south, to hunt the tales that still spooled there, loose among the leaves. He didn’t want the drift of her, but her grounding.

My father didn’t know the will and would of her.

 

 

My father followed the river road, and the soldier followed me. I took him to the burn, the hair of the river, and I was swathed in sister’s need and father’s longing. I was somewhere in between.

I looked back to see my sister framed now by the farthest window, like a fleck of night caught in stone. Our grandmother was from that country, the one where my sister would take herself. Her name meant given in one of those tongues of the north, where consonants were too precious to be exposed to wind and snow. The word was a howl, or a bark begun long deep down, where all stories grow.

 

 

The burn sang to the town, then the mill spun the words into the songs of children’s games. The dark water was always in their voices; I could hear the lilt and rhyme of thorns and oranges and blackened bread, and a thread of silver through them all. Whenever the river held me, I let them float between my legs, to swirl and pool in the lean and lay of rock.

The other songs, the ones tangled in mane and knotted in fur, swayed to the surface. They were a rising of memory, weed-woven and warm to a kiss.

 

The man didn’t speak. He crouched to the tremor that was fox, cupped her muzzle between his palms, and touched his lips to her ear. There, then: a coax of fox on the banking, and me with the sinew of story lacing my fingers. If I braided those tales, perhaps fox could feed them life again.

 

 

I think my father went to gather kings. Every village held its hoard of tales. Some were bagged and rolled, velvet things of glow and gleam, while others were a wander and a flicker at the windows. To him, each story was a golden thing, an egg precious with promise. My father reeled the smoky voices from the hearths, and they coiled around his hands, and nested in his beard. In each one, he tried to find the sough and smooth of daughter. The stories settled on his cheeks like spider web, lifted by the breeze each timea cottage door was opened. They were the thick and curl of grey, and the smudge of pawprints. They were a cat’s cradle crossing the weave of his fingers, and where the tale was strongest, so the spun storm was darkest in his hand.

My father listened to the stories, and saw kings in his berried tea, and in the eyes of the cottage cats, wisdom-flecked. He drained his cup, and the tears of king’s daughters were wet on his lips. There was a snarl of wolf in his beard, but my father understood that these animals were a lightness on the paths through the woods. He could trace the wending of those wolves with warm breath on frosted glass.

My father’s hands were pearled with snow, and he understood why his younger daughter saw, always, men in kings. I saw things as they were, beneath this wood’s hide. They were incomplete, and unlaved by the fell of that winter.

When my father returned to us, he would be laden with the pelts of stories, like gold fur beaded with rain. His horse’s eyes would be washed with silver.

 

 

We’ll wait for him, for his bootsteps on the stone of stairs. My father is broken from the hurt done to me, but I will have the gist of him furled around the wood of my neck, my belly. I would have the grain of him in mine.

Each callus on the soldier’s fingertips is my sister’s hand against me. My strings are rivers, yielding to her as the wintered water pulls me down.

She would have the sunlight leave me, and my face undrawn, her tongue unworn by my name.

My sister would have me laid on the river’s bed, cradled by fish and frogs, and my very bones washed clean of me.

I am singing, yet, sister.

 

 

Now there was a beckoning of fox, and the man was answering her in smile and nod. My sister had crept from tower to tree to river-rush, and now she stood stone-still as I took the man’s hand. My skirts were heavy with water as he pulled me to the banking. The sleep of fish was a weighty thing, full as it was with the longings of all women.

I would go with him only as far as the first curve of the hills. This was the place where my father’s horse stopped to drink, and I’d feel safe there, watching the memory of her face, long and soft in the water. Her speech was the nuzzling of leaves among stones. Every woman has a keep for those words, in moist and dark and swell.

 

My father holds the songs of his horse most dearly, and they fly from her mane as she runs.

 

My sister watched, but never ran. The trees caught only the slightest of her breaths in their leaves, for she wouldn’t have them tinged with her. My sister would hate to mingle with the wood-things.

It was too cold for horses in the north, but I knew that she would have this one carry her, so that the stories of snow and ice could slip behind them in white clouds with this horse’s plodding, skidding, stumbling. She would bear my sister’s yearning, but not in the silence of such snow. She would abide only my father’s breath upon her neck, for he always tells her of kings’ unbidding, and a stand of horses in the hills, far above men. My sister would never smooth the cold from her mane, nor pick stones from her hooves. She would let the winter cover her, grow upon her, soak into her skin. If my father were to see his horse then, she would have winter-brimmed eyes, and my sister’s words unwarmed against her cheek.

My sister would have this horse, but the naming would hurt her. The north would kill her.

 

 

My sister leaves without horses.

First, she trails their dreams with her fingers, then hems their stories in her skirts, as she walks from the south, to the mountains. In this small way, she carries a thing of soothe and magic

In my father’s country, in mine, the voices of horses can be heard beneath the river, and in the rub of fox on wood.

In the land of my sister, the only language is scratched in the sky, and birds weave between the marks. They can barely be read from the ground. Perhaps, when I travel there, rolled and pulled by the river, those words will be known to me.

 

 

The soldier took my face in his hands, and said, she’s following.His fingers were gloved with earth and heath, and there was a snare of bracken in his hair. He turned from my sister’s face, and she was all ice and ribboned roads. She was a mapping of all things lost or hidden. My own hair was alive between his fingers, hedged and puckered with nest. There was a crease of winter in each strand. My mother’s hair was the same: in the both of us, there was the spin of season, and the twist of tree within.

My sister would never stop following, though. Last night, in the room mellowed by him, she’d seen him dark before the fire, the nettle threadbare on his arms, and she’d not forgotten those tracks of the woods on his skin. When she’d filled his cup with water, the resin was sharp on his breath, and she’d thought, this one is storied sweet and deep. My sister knew that he had walked in the mountains, and that he wasn’t afraid of the tales of ragged red girls in warmer lands. He didn’t fear her.

 

I knew, though, that he’d come to take me home, to the land that named my grandmother.

 

 

My sister would tell our father, and the river would hear, and no horse in this land could keep the water from me.

A fox, though – there. A fox could hold the river in shallows at my feet. I would never drown in a fox’s embrace. Her voice would carry mine, no matter how cold the mountains. We would follow this man, the fox and me, and if my father rode to catch us, the woods of the north would already be a growl in our bones.

 

 

It is the miller who finds me. He holds me, and sings those half-lost songs, twig-torn and churned in brown water. He wrings the river from my hair until his fingers drip with dark, until his own clothes are sodden with the ghost of me. Somewhere above him, the turn of millstone shakes light from a fox’s coat, so that there is a quiet in the way the evening wears me.

All the time, my father is tumbling back to me, his ear close to his horse’s mouth, trying to gather her words before they’re driven to the cold of the mountains and the steep of the trees.

Here is the grace of fox on the miller’s cheek and hands, to powder me with sleep.

My sister once slept beside me, and I could smell her hair. Skin upon skin, and I knew her for my own. She’s broken with me, now, and the miller strokes her marking of me. Her anger wells beneath my cheek. Even the wolves don’t welt me so, and them with their fur bristled and barbed with the fear of men.

The miller sets me under stone, with sun and stars long cold above me.

 

 

Why this way? I asked the soldier. Why this path? I could hear the beat of my father in the earth beneath me, and the quiet of my sister in the trees.

 

All women are northern creatures. Wrap yourself well, and the cold won’t take you hard. The stones will mind you, and the fox will heed you.

 

 

I stepped in the places where his boots had been, and I breathed the air that he’d left behind. I watched for the shimmer of sun on red fur, and I listened for my father leaning north.

More than all of these things, I heard the murmur of my sister’s feet around me.

She was a flower of frost on the leaves, and her words were cutting clean.

 

My sister is untended by foxes.

 

 

I wondered if my father trailed the scarlet of her as she wound through the trees. Was he following now to send her on, or to pull me back? Both of his daughters gone, and the one girdling the other ever nearer to the river beside them. Did my father’s storied kings fray on the sticks thrown by his horse’s hooves? Even a tatter of kings might be enough for a tale to keep its bite.

My sister was night on the water, though.

My sister was a waning of crow, and a tumbling of stone.

When my father stopped to drink, his elder daughter was a shard in the rivered pebbles in his hands.

So she shoved me from the stone, and she was unshaken, untrembled, as the water shrouded me.

 

 

The miller leads my soldier past the stone of mill and the wood of wheel. Their steps are jagged, unmeasured. The place where I lie is uncounted by noblemen, and gauged by stone.

Only the fox is a glide above me, her throat aligned with mine, so that the words are soft between us. She smells me through the earth, and when the men lay straight the scale and stone and bone of me, she curls inside my arms.

The soldier touches the bloom of bruise on my chin. It is a dark blush, black as the streaks around the fox’s eyes. He feels the forest’s edge in the line of my jaw. The fox shows her teeth, but as he strokes my hair her storm is sinking to a rumbling in my breast.

The miller wipes his hand across his mouth, his lips apart, so that he can catch his words before they’re loosed. There’s nothing written, nothing can be said, for a woman drowned deep in her own sister’s need of night.

The man nods, and looks past the river to the twists of myrtle, and the strokes of pine, and he teases the last story from my mouth. Unravelling, it settles on the fox’s fur, and she takes that story inside her with the lifting of her chin. He peels the leaves from my arms, brushes the dirt from my legs, and all the time the fox is watching, and the brume of her breath is a rising of the quiet.

Who knew that a tree could sprout from the scraps of a girl, and all her memories and musings grained and marrowed in the wood? So he made me up again: my hair unknotted for the strings, my knuckles for the taut and lax of them. He shaped me to the velvet of the wood, and it to the last of my light. He laid me on his back, and brought the woman to the song, all pink-tinged and red-rinsed from the fox upon her.

My sister would filch the very crows from the trees to feather the marks of her feet, but even she doesn’t know the steps, or the song, for hiding crow bones, or for shawling her sister with stone. She doesn’t move with the trees, and she speaks only for herself. She leads no horses. She is a skirting of wolves, and an edging of birded oaks.

I think my father knows me, even in this shape of fine wood. He never tires of my song. When I finish, he nods as the man lays me down again, gentle against the fox’s rump.

This man is a fine creature: all stir and shift on the surface, and hush beneath. If he can make music of my bones, I’ll dance at the fox’s wedding.

 

'Tended by Foxes' by Ngiare Elliot placed third in the 2012 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Click here for more information about past winners of the Jolley Prize.


CONTENTS: SEPTEMBER 2012

Published in September 2012 no. 344
Ngiare Elliot

Ngiare Elliot

Ngiare Elliot lives with her husband and son in the south of Tasmania, and works as a speech language pathologist with the Education Department. She is currently studying for her Masters in Communication Disorders. She has been writing for several years, and enjoys weaving the themes of European folklore and ballads into her stories.