The boy is walking through the late afternoon, cutting across a field and into some woods, not far from Stanmer House. He might trip over a root, or fall into a dip, if he didn’t know this way home to his house in Falmer village by heart. Lucky for him that his heart can know things like that, for his head is buried in a Gameboy and the leafless beauty is lost on him as his thumbs press towards victory against the robot spiders.
There is ice, clinging to the orchard trees, not far from where he steps, apples long since picked or claimed by the Autumn-into-Winter earth. These shoes he wears were not made for forest steps, and his gait is more of a plod, each foot placed on the ground to the rhythm of his angry thumbs and concentrated grunts. He doesn’t see the fox, that is a fox that would have made him stare, wide eyed in wonder.
There would normally be no such fox, sitting here, on its recently warmed haunches, staring at this boy as he almost rolls past on feet lost in captured fingertips, immersed in his battle, born of electrical pulses and wildly dancing minds. The fox doesn’t see a boy at all, but a thing on wheels. This fox has learned to know the wheels of man, the fearful things that have taken the life of more than one of its kin as they tried to reach the safety of these woods, from places of strange but alluring food in the realm of the Two-leggers.
This fox sits, ice-still, watching the boy as he passes through the wood. Its eyes reflect the glow of a rising moon as afternoon is quickly claimed by the quickfall of December evening, more night than twilight, even at this early hour.
This fox would transfix the boy with its snowy whiteness, a full pelt from toe to ears of moonlight ivory. A white fox in the heart of this wooded haven, so close to the city; never before has such a creature been seen.
The creature turns away from the child, and begins to trot confidently towards its den on the hillside, but then it pauses as the boy cries out in alarm, his hands clutching desperately at the icy air as he stumbles, head first into a thicket and then is still. His small head has struck the bark of an oak, hardened by the encroaching freeze, and without even a single tear, his mind has fallen into oblivion.
The fox, curious, waits for the boy to get up, yet there is not a whit of movement and this white prince of the trees knows in its heart, not its head, that something is very wrong, as if one of its own pups were lost or in desperate need of protection.
The fox was only a night before, clothed in the fur of reddish brown, like Autumn’s own proud skin. Then, as the moon had risen full and restless, she had cast her glow upon this favoured creature, and whiteness had dripped from the sky and the fox had run through its territory, from ruddy brown into a whiter white than new fallen snow, and felt something stirring within its breast that had first quickened, and then slowed its heart.
And now it stood, in momentary command of all and everything it could see, including itself and this poor creature on two legs, now lying cold and shivering and seemingly fallen into a worrying sleep upon the freezing ground, a trickle of blood falling from his pale-golden forehead.
The fox steps carefully forward, right up to the child, and after sniffing the night air, and finding warm confirmation from the moon’s confident glow, which animals can smell on a crisp, clear winter evening, he leans over the boy and licks his wound, and as fox-tongue touches human skin, the wound is healed. And at that moment the fox finds its ears pricking up, not to the sounds of the forest around, but to the thoughts of this little cub of a boy.
In that breath of time, it understands the words, just for a moment, it hears his fears, so like the frightened fox cub this white Regent of Nature once was himself. Yet amid the fears, the snow-coloured fox is blessed to bear witness to the words of a Christmas Wish, nestled safely inside the scurrying thoughts of this boy in a sudden faint.
The fox raises its head and again, sniffs the night air. At that moment, the fox makes its gift known, through a loud and strong call into the space all around. Soon the replies can be heard, replies of confirmation as wish is relayed from owl to owl, from squirrel to squirrel, even badgers rise from winter drowsiness and nod their gorgeous striped heads in approval. And each offers up a little portion of their being to the little child’s Christmas wish.
Then, as before, all is silent.
The moon is rising, full, now nearly at the height of the tops of the tallest trees, and the fox darts away.
If you were hiding behind an oak, you’d see the whiteness of that fox become, once again, the warm reddish brown, as she runs back to her mate and a trio of cubs, warm and safe in a den well hidden from all but the friendly ranger, who leaves well alone.
A few wind-breaths later, the boy opens his eyes and his hand immediately rubs a sore brow. He gets up slowly, confusion soon giving way to a firm wish to get quickly home to a warm fire and his supper, ready as always at the table, and a hug from his father.
He retrieves his game, thrusting it safely in his jacket pocket and quickens his pace out of this place, though, try as he might to fear, he feels only welcome and kindness on this moonwashed winter night. He pauses a moment and is sure he can see a pair of eyes staring at him through the trees. But a wisp of a moment it is there, and then it is gone.
The boy turns away and walks towards a line of street lamps. Soon he will be home, and little does he know how his Christmas wish will be granted. Only when his mama walks through the door on Christmas Eve, stepping gently and carefully from the taxi – only then will he see his winter wish has come true and that mama is well enough to come home. A gift of trees, and animals and the hope that lives at the heart of Life itself, quickened on the darkest nights of the season of ice and snow.
And mama will be smiling, a pair of tears falling on her cheeks like dew drops on a forest Yuletide morning, her red hair looking white under the reflection of the moon’s kiss and the melting water of snowflakes on her head.
Then she and his papa will wrap him up in a hug as warm and sure as a white fox’s winter fur. And then the boy will know.