Manuel Lainez walked across the reddish sand of the Playas Valley. The sun almost touched a low mountain range that hid the town of Lordsburg from view, and Manuel picked up his step. He had lingered at the Navajo reservation for too long, in thrall to his uncle’s tales, and now he hurried back home, to the Pueblo, the crisp April air invigorating his every step.
His uncle Tobi tried to tempt Manuel to stay at the reservation overnight, and miss the Mass tomorrow morning. He could never resist making a dig at the Pueblo and their love of the Spaniards and the Spaniards’ church. Manuel would’ve agreed, if it weren’t for his fear of his mother’s ire. She was most vocal in her disapproval of Manuel spending time in the company of “that legless drunk.” Manuel did not think his mother cruel—she had been kind to Uncle Tobi when he came home from Germany last year. Manuel guessed that now she was angry because uncle Tobi had lost only his legs in the war, while Manuel’s father had lost all of him.
Manuel was determined to get home before dark, but he halted his steps once he noticed tracks on the sand. At first he thought it was a coyote, but the tracks were much too small. They led in the same direction as the Pueblo, and Manuel decided to follow them, as long as he did not stray from his path.
The tracks weaved between the sand ridges and circumvented the patches of cacti. This land was so dry that it was hard to imagine the lush farms of Pueblo that lay just a mile to the east. Manuel’s shadow grew longer with every step, but he kept his nose to the ground, following the delicate chain of small four-toed prints.
He crested a sand ridge and looked down, into the green of the valley and the scattering of the adobe roofs. From this distance, the village looked like a giant beehive, with its interconnected buildings piled on top of each other, most of them lopsided with the added rooms. Manuel adjusted the shoulder strap of his satchel, and noticed that the tracks ended abruptly. Manuel squinted, hard pressed to believe his eyes. A small fox, his fur as bright as a flame, sat in the shadow of the ridge, smiling at him.
The story of the Trickster Coyote and his companion Fox was still fresh in Manuel’s mind. Fox was the only one who was ever able to outsmart the Coyote, and the thought filled Manuel with respect. He knew that the Trickster and the company he kept were not friends of the people; on the other hand, if one encountered any malevolent forces, he should do his best to appease them—that was simple common sense.
“Here, Mr. Fox,” Manuel said. “Are you hungry?”
The fox wagged his tail and crept closer, the black rubbery lips curled to show his white teeth.
Manuel took his satchel off his shoulder, and felt inside. Uncle Tobi never sent him home without a snack for the road, and Manuel took out a half-eaten SPAM sandwich. “You want this?” he said to the fox.
The fox approached, in cautious mincing steps, and its white teeth snatched the sandwich from Manuel’s fingers. The fox ate as if he was completely famished—the sandwich was gone before it even touched the ground, and the fox licked his face with a small, red tongue.
Manuel laughed. “You want some more, don’t you?” he said. “I know it’s tough being a fox these days. Hardly any livestock around, and all the people going to and fro. It’s war, you see.” He looked for more food as he spoke, and the fox’s eyes never strayed from the satchel decorated with white and black glass beads.
“Sorry, Mr. Fox,” Manuel said. “All I’ve is some cornbread, but foxes do not eat that kind of stuff, I suppose.”
The fox’s tail drummed on the ground, as if he were trying to say, “I’ll tell you what foxes eat.”
Manuel offered a chunk of yellow bread on his palm, and the fox devoured it as enthusiastically as the first offering.
“That’s it, Mr. Fox.” Manuel heaved the satchel back onto his shoulder. “I know it’s not much. You better stay away from the village. But next time I’m coming this way I’ll bring you something.”
The fox backed into the elongated blue shadows of the ridge, and disappeared from sight. Manuel blinked, and realized that the sun had set. He ran down the ridge, toward the scattered lights of the village.
His heart fluttered with anticipation of a scolding as he opened the screen door that led to their first-story apartment. He half-hoped that he would be able to sneak to his room undetected and pretend that he was home hours ago, but he heard a female voice that belonged to one of the neighbors, and a low, resonant baritone of the village priest, coming from the living room.
Worried, he looked into the shadows of the living room, disrupted by a single flame of a kerosene lamp. “What’s going on?”
“Manuel!” the neighbor, an old Zuni woman with a smooth skin and a kindly face, said. “Your mother is not well. Where have you been?”
“Visiting Uncle Tobi,” Manuel said, his guilt washing over him like a hot wave. “What’s wrong with Mom?”
“The doctor said it’s a stroke,” the priest said. “There’s nothing he can do for her—it just has to run its course.”
“Will she be okay?” Manuel said.
The old priest steepled his wrinkled hands. “We can pray, Manuel. We can pray.”
Manuel prayed. He prayed to Jesus and to the Virgin, to the ancestors and other benevolent spirits, kachinas. Two days had passed, but still all sounds reached Manuel through a thick blanket of his shock, and seemed far away. With his mother laid up, he found himself caring for the garden and the house. His mother regained consciousness, but seemed to have lost much of her memory. She confused Manuel with her husband, and occasionally with her father. The left half of her body was paralyzed, and Manuel avoided looking into her face, slack and suddenly alien.
The neighbors helped the best they could—some brought food over, and one kind soul even let Manuel borrow his radio. The apparatus sat on the living room table, and distracted Manuel from his private, small grief by the reports of large and important events. His mother listened too, frowning every time the news from the front came in. There was also an unrest in the Japanese relocation center at Santa Fe; there was another one at Lordsburg. They were just a few miles west of the Pueblo, and as he swept the earthen floor clean, Manuel contemplated whether it was something he should be worried about.
His mother moaned, and Manuel came closer. “What do you need, Mom?”
Her right eye stared at him with unexpected lucidity. “What day is it, Manolo?”
“It’s Tuesday, Mom.”
“Why aren’t you at school?”
“I couldn’t leave you alone,” he said.
She lifted her right arm and wriggled her fingers in a vaguely dismissive gesture. “You have to be at school. If I need anything, I’ll holler and Mrs. Valdez from upstairs will check on me. Go.”
Manuel obeyed out of habit. He sat through an hour of English with Father Domenico. The thick whitewashed walls of the school still retained the chill of early spring. Manuel did not hear a word, too busy worrying. Last Christmas, when they received the news of his father’s death, Manuel bore it like a man. Maybe it was easier because he had died so far away, and in his secret heart Manuel could still hope that a mistake was made, and father would come home one day, when the war was over. Perhaps, they said that he was dead as a cover up; perhaps, he was recruited as one of the code talkers, all of whom were Navajo. He could not pretend the same way with his mother who lay in her room, her left leg and arm as useless as logs, her spit trailing onto the pillow.
“Manuel.” Father Domenico stood over him, his long fingers tucked into the sleeves of his brown Franciscan robe. “Are you paying attention?”
“No, Father,” Manuel said. The faces of his classmates all turned toward him—everyone knew that his mother was ill and perhaps dying. There were no secrets in the Pueblo.
Father Domenico nodded. “I understand. I won’t call on you today, and if you need to miss a day or two, go ahead. Just make sure that you keep up with your school work.”
“Thank you, Father.” Manuel almost choked on his words—if the normally stern Franciscan was so kind, then things were really bad.
Manuel contemplated going to the reservation to ask uncle Tobi for help. Then again, what could he do? Uncle Tobi was great for stories, but not much else.
Manuel daydreamed for the rest of the school day, and ran home as quickly as his legs would carry him. He burst through the door and ran to his mother’s room. “Mom, how are you?”
She opened her eyes. “I’m fine, Manolo. The girl cleaned the place, and made me some squash soup.”
“What girl?” Manuel asked.
His mother gave half a shrug. “I don’t know. A pretty girl, strange-looking. I think her name was Tomiko.”
Manuel was certain that there was no such girl, especially not with such a weird name. He suspected that mother got confused again, mistaking round Mrs. Valdez for a pretty girl. “Sure, Mom.”
The house was indeed clean—and much nicer than he would’ve ever accomplished. The floors were swept, the furniture was dusted, and a pot of sweet-smelling squash soup sat on the stove. He tasted it, and thought that it was unusual but good. He then went upstairs to thank Mrs. Valdez.
The woman rounded her eyes. “What are you talking about? I went downstairs once this morning.” She motioned toward the stove. “I was just baking some cornbread for your Mom.”
All the other neighbors also denied their responsibility for helping Manuel out. Moreover, no one had seen a girl matching the description.
The next day he left the school early, and crouched down as soon as he entered his yard. He bent low and ran through the garden to approach the house from the side. He peeked in through the kitchen window, and drew a sharp breath. There was indeed a young girl, perhaps a year older than Manuel. She sat by the kitchen table, mending one of Manuel’s old shirts, and sung to herself in no language he knew. Her golden face was bowed, and Manuel could only see her high cheekbone and almond shaped eye half-hidden behind the long eyelashes.
Manuel tiptoed back to the door, and entered the house as quietly as a mouse. He saw the girl’s shoes, black patent leather mary-janes, standing demurely by the wall.
She startled when he entered the kitchen, and stood, her white dress printed with blue flowers resembling a fluttering moth.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m Manuel. Thank you for helping us.”
The girl blushed. “It’s my pleasure. I’m Tomiko.”
“Are you new here?” Manuel said.
She nodded. “I’ve been hiding in the desert for the past few days.” She looked down at the sewing clutched in her small hands. “I was in the camp by Lordsburg.”
Manuel let out a slow breath. “You’re Japanese? You’ve escaped from the relocation center?”
Her sweet smile grew tense. “‘Relocation center’? That’s as much of an understatement as a ‘reservation’.”
Manuel opened his mouth to answer, and closed it again. The girl was right. “This Pueblo here is not really a reservation,” he finally managed.
“I know,” she said. “But you have relatives on the Navajo reservation, don’t you?”
“How did you know that?”
“I saw you a few days back,” the girl said.
“Oh. Yes, I do have relatives there.” Manuel let his mouth do the talking, but something did not add up. The girl seemed too clean, too pristine for someone who lived in the desert for several days. And why did she still linger here?
She must had seen the mistrust and apprehension on his face; she smiled, showing her white, small teeth. “I have family there, you know. I wish I could stay with them. But that place was too terrible. All the barbed wire . . . I just couldn’t.”
Manuel sat down next to the girl, and touched her smooth forearm with his fingertips. “You can stay here,” he said. “If you want to, of course.”
“Thank you. I think I might.” Tomiko’s face brightened. “Let’s go and see how your mom is doing.”
Tomiko stayed, and Manuel and his mother grew used to her presence. Content that Tomiko would keep an eye on his mother while he was gone, Manuel went to school every day. When he came home, he did his chores in the garden and around the house. With Tomiko around, he felt renewed and confident that everything would work out fine.
At night, Manuel told her some of the stories he learned from uncle Tobi—how Coyote caused the flood when he stole the Water Monster’s baby, and how he taught witchcraft to a maiden.
“You know your legends,” Tomiko said once. “I thought you might have forgotten, going to the Catholic school and all.”
“Most Pueblo have been christened,” Manuel said. “But we still remember our ancestors. And my father is . . . was a Navajo, and I know the legends of his people as well.”
Tomiko smiled. “People always bring their legends with them, no matter where they go. The Japanese have legends too, you know.”
“Tell me some.”
She regaled him with tales of ghosts and faceless spirits, of the werefoxes and the demons oni who caused the storms. They never noticed the passage of time.
One night they sat on the porch, trading stories and looking at the stars. The sky was clear and the stars hung over the desert, yellow and fuzzy and alive. Tomiko grew restless. She did not seem to hear Manuel, and sighed often.
“What’s going on?” Manuel asked.
Tomiko smiled and shook her head.
He let it go, and soon went to bed. As soon as he turned off the lights he heard a light rustling in the garden. He looked outside, and saw a small red fox. She stood a moment, her sharp muzzle raised toward the sky, gave a bark, and ran out of the yard, to the desert.
Manuel told himself that there was no need to worry, but anxiety gnawed at him. He went to check on his mother. She slept, her face peaceful and whole, mended by the dreams.
Manuel slept fitfully that night. Soon after the sun rose, he heard scraping at the front door, and then quick footsteps. He jumped out of bed, and ran to the living room just in time to see Tomiko put something onto the closet shelf and close the door.
He almost forgot about that episode when Tomiko disappeared again. And again. He could detect no pattern in her behavior—sometimes, a week went by without an incident, and sometimes she was gone almost every night. No matter how hard he pressed, she refused to answer his questions, and only begged him to trust her.
Her plea was enough at first; later, Manuel grew resentful that she asked for his trust, while she did not offer hers. One day, while Tomiko worked in the garden, tying the tender squash sprouts to the trellises, Manuel went to the living room and opened the closet door. He felt around in the darkness, unsure of what he was searching for, but determined to find out Tomiko’s secret. His hand groped in the back shelves until he grabbed a hold of something soft. A fox skin.
He took the skin out and marveled at the bright red color with white markings on the chest, stomach, and the tip of the tail. As small as Tomiko was, it was hard to imagine her fitting into this tiny skin; yet there was no doubt in his mind that she did – the small fox he had met in the desert, the fox in his garden was Tomiko. Manuel took the skin and stalked to his room. He hid the skin in the bottom of the chest under his bed, and went outside.
He helped Tomiko in the garden until the nightfall. They went inside to feed Manuel’s mother, and then sat on the porch, eating supper and looking at the moon. It seemed to look back at them, round and scuffed like an old silver coin.
Tomiko slapped her hands on her knees. “Well, it’s getting late. I’m turning in.”
“Good-night,” Manuel said. He felt a little guilty but at the same time curious at what Tomiko would do.
He heard her go to the living room, where she usually slept on an old army cot. He lay in his bed, awake, his eyes closed, smiling to himself as he imagined the frustration on Tomiko’s oval face. Her footsteps ran across the hall, and she stood in the doorway, basked in the ghostly moonlight. For the first time Manuel felt a chill in her presence—he realized that she was not human. He also remembered that Coyote and his company were not friends of people.
“Give me back my skin.” Her voice sounded calm, but he could detect the underlying white-hot anger.
Manuel pulled his blanket all the way up to his chin, in an instinctive gesture of a scared child. “I don’t have it.”
“Don’t lie to me, Manuel. Give me back my skin.”
He held his ground despite his unease. “Why? You won’t tell me what you’re doing out there. It must be something bad if you’re not telling me.”
“It’s none of your concern. Give me back my skin.”
“Or what?” he taunted.
He saw her shoulders slump, as if her spirit was suddenly knocked out of her. “Nothing,” she said in a breaking voice full of close tears, and ran out of the room.
Manuel reached under the bed and took the fox skin out of the chest. He felt rotten for making her so upset. Let her keep her secrets, he thought. She was just a young girl, not a monster.
Tomiko was not in the living room. He could not find her anywhere—neither in his mother’s room nor in the garden. His disgust at himself was supplanted by fear. What would she do out there in the desert, by herself and in human form? She had neither the fox’s endurance, nor its fast legs, nor its sharp teeth.
He stayed up all night, listening to the wind coming from the desert, and watching the moon make its solemn track across the sky. The moon set, and the first orange stripes of the sunrise reminded him of the fox’s skin that lay useless on his bed.
Manuel did not go to school, and made some tea for his mother. He went about the usual chores, but his heart was breaking at the thought of Tomiko alone in the desert. A million things could happen there at night, most of which he did not even want to think about.
He saw Tomiko from the kitchen window as he washed the dishes after lunch. Even from a distance he could see that her clothes were dirty, and her steps—tired. Her mary-janes were not meant for the desert.
Manuel ran outside, and threw his arms around Tomiko.
She seemed too exhausted to recoil—she just smiled weakly, her teeth gleaming in her dirty face. Her hair, long and black, was covered with sand and dust. Manuel took her hand, and studied the grime that covered it, the broken and stained fingernails, the bleeding fingertips.
“It’s hard to dig with these hands,” she said.
With a flash of insight, he realized that every night she were gone she went to the relocation camp, trying to dig a tunnel. It was a naïve, useless gesture, but the sincerity and selflessness of it brought tears dangerously close to his eyes.
He shook his head. “You should’ve told me. I would’ve come with you and brought a shovel.”
“I did not want to attract attention,” Tomiko said. “And it would’ve been too dangerous for you—what if you were caught?”
“I was about to give you your skin back,” Manuel said. “I’m really sorry.”
She smiled, a hint of mischief showing through her fatigue. “I should’ve told you a story about a man who married a fox girl and hid her skin. She was going to stay with him, but was so angered by his betrayal that she stole the skin back and left forever.”
Manuel looked at the ground by his feet. “I’m sorry.”
She laughed. “It’s a good thing we don’t live in a fairy-tale, isn’t it?”
He laughed too, relieved. “Does it mean you’re not going to leave?”
Tomiko took his hand. “How could I? If people don’t abandon their legends, why would the legends abandon them?”
They walked back to the house where the sick woman was waiting for them, and the fox skin lay crumpled on the floor.
“Tomorrow night,” Manuel said, “I’ll bring a shovel.”
E. Sedia lives with one spouse, two cats, two leopard geckos, and many fishes in Southern New Jersey. Her first novel, According to Crow, was published in May 2005 by Five Star (Thompson/Gale), and short stories sold to Analog, Surreal Magazine, Oceans of the Mind, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and Spicy Slipstream Stories, among others. Jigsaw Nation, an anthology she co-edited with Edward J. McFadden is due from Spyre Books in May 2006. More about her can be found at www.ekaterinasedia.com.