THE GRAY FOX EPISTLES
These thirteen stories, originally sent out from March 2013 through April 2014, are all re-tellings and re-wildings of old fairytales and myths. All Epistles are retellings of a deep old myths and fairytales, the kinds that have been passed on through centuries, through many different wild landscapes. These retellings are re-rooted in the wilds that I know well— redwood forest, tule marsh, northern coastal scrub. They are walks into the mythscapes & landscapes of the soul, and are also very tangibly and vividly rooted in the wild cycles of the edge of the central coast of California.
About: The seeds of The Seven Dwarves of Mt. Diablo stirred in me for many months, somewhere deep down in the tunnels of my mind—this vision of the dwarves of Snow White as true elemental mineral rock-made mountain-beings, somehow guarding the hearts of these Coast Range peaks, the worlds of geological uplift and creation made tangible, and close at hand. When I visited the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in December of 2013, and peered down the gated old coal mine shafts, breathing that cold clay dankness of the underworld, the story began to unfurl again, this time with strands from Orpheus and Eurydice, far older than Snow White, tangled in.
Excerpt: When he came up out of the underground at dusk with coal dust in his hair and walked the dirt path down to Nortonville, the black locusts planted between the old black oaks clicked their leaves. He wiped coal dust off his nose and forehead, his hands on his pants, knowing he would be home again soon, knowing he would kiss her then, at the door, she rising to meet him from whatever she had been doing, a warm smell of sagebrush as she came. He did not want the black dust of his days to touch her. He did not want any shade of that dark powder on her skin brown and bright as the acorns fallen across the path where he walked home nightly, swinging his metal lunch tin, breathing, thinking of her.
About: The making of The Honey Mill was alchemical in itself, from beginning to end, and is its own sort of fairytale. In brief, I went to visit a place on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, called Honey Grove. There I met honeybees and red cedars, a kindred spirit, the crisp chill of October. I went there to write about bees, whose place in myth and tale and magic is truly profound, truly holy, and ended up feeling like a bee myself, who had just gone and gathered a bit of the sweetest nectar.I wrote this story early in the morning, while it was still dark, and a few misty afternoons. In between I helped to tuck bees in for winter, walked the fir and cedar woods, tasted honey and pollen and propolis, felt the seasons shifting just a little bit earlier in that northern extension of the Pacific Northwest. I based this Epistle on the Grimm’s fairytale, The Queen Bee, but I combined it, because they seemed to want to be together, with another Grimm’s story called Mother Hulda. Joined, they are a tribute to the regenerative magic of bees, and also to the shift toward the dark season.
Excerpt: Once, the old stone structure had been a lumber mill, built around the time when the whole forest surrounding the town of Martine, just west of the Comox Bay, was clear-cut. Roofless, windowless, doorless, surrounded by thickets of fast-growing alders, a few young red cedars, most people had forgotten the building ever existed. Now, no one would have recognized it as the old mill at all.
The yawning roof was covered with wax, the windows filled with glimmering honeycomb, dense and pale as winter sun. Propolis sealed every edge, from the amber resin of Douglas firs, the gentle sap of cedars. The alders grew so close to the mill that their branches seemed to interlock, like woven baskets, shielding the wax comb and the windows that oozed burnished caramel-colored honey from cold, from marauding black bears, who grew crazed with that sweet smell and the faint salty musk of the three sleeping sisters who dreamed inside.
About: The Children of the Land Under This Land is a re-telling of the old Welsh “The Children of Lir,” in which the four children of the sea god himself, old Lir, are turned into swans for nine hundred years by a jealous stepmother. My own retelling, set along the wild California coast, begins when the famed pirate Sir Francis Drake drops the anchor of his Golden Hinde along the shore of a Point Reyes estuary in the year 1579, altering the lives of the Coast Miwok who have lived there for millennia. Like the bridge made between the ancient Tuatha Dé Danaan and the Christian era in the original myth, this story creates a thread of continuity between an indigenous past in which the whole world was “alive,” and a future at once familiar and strange. The wild landscape bears witness and actually narrates this tale—eelgrass bed, island, swan.
It was a wood and steel body, curved as the beak of the dark moon as she moves and pulls the waters under and over us. It was tired, tired as a big creaking animal when it has been long at sea, and needs to rest on sand in the sun. It tore past our many slippery arms and disturbed the perfect herring eggs nestled there, a million subtidal planets of plasma and green. The sea hares, the skeleton shrimp, they fed and in their feeding we saw the colors of that wood and steel body passing above, black and gold, orca-dark but with the sudden shivered brightness of blood and sun, and a golden deer at the front. The whole body was spiked with a forest of trunks, of wings, of men. Nothing yet, in the long green flanks of our past, growing and moving in the tides of these muds, these inlets, had groaned past us so heavily, so tired, so big, trailing a sadness and a danger that killed the herring eggs there in our arms all at once: a million stars going out.
About: I have long been drawn to the mythologies of the far North—Inuit, Saami, Chukchi. In the myths of the circumpolar Arctic, the animals seem to reign supreme, as life-giving deities and holy spirits, as the very source and essence of survival. In many of these cultures, reindeer herds are the sun, the moon and all the stars, so to speak, of life. Amelia and the Elk Tallow Moon is a retelling of “Deer Woman and the Velvet-Antlered Moon,” told originally by the Chukchi people of Siberia; I’ve used the version retold by Dr. Martin Shaw in his A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace of Wildness. My setting, however, is not the far North at all, but Point Reyes, that beautiful, whale-shaped Peninsula hitched not to North America but to the Pacific Plate, and rifting a little further North every year. It is a place of great biodiversity, wild strands, and thriving, re-introduced herds of tule elk. My story takes place among these elk, in a mythic future in which the world has gone dark and cold; the milk, meat and wisdom of these magnificent ungulates becomes both lifeline and holy scripture.
Excerpt: Aunt Piper told it all through the smoke of the fire, and only when the moon was full, so he could hear the story too. First, she swallowed an elk heart all dried and candied with thimbleberries and honey.
“Come sweetie,” she said to her grand-nephew Cole. He was a skinny boy, tanned dark from all that time outside, but always alone, sticking his ears to the sides of abandoned cars and tall trees with heron rookeries in their top boughs, forgetting about the herds of grazing elk and the hazel stick he was meant to wave to keep them together. “Into the belly of the cow.” That’s how Aunt Piper always started. She told him that stories were in the four stomachs of the elk cows, the old ones especially who scrape the alder bark with their incisors and scent it with their necks. Stomachs have wisdom, she told him, especially the third one, the omasum, where water gets absorbed into a thousand little folds like pages.
About: This is a tale of shape-shifting, of metamorphosis and the magic of frogs, specifically the red-legged frog, an endangered species native to the ponds and marshes of central and northern California. My version of Tsarevna Frog, a Russian fairy-tale steeped in the shamanic undertones of an older, tribal world, in which women can become frogs and animals come to the aid of the wandering hero-fool, is set in a post-apocalyptic version of Fort Ross, a Russian fortress founded on the Sonoma Coast in 1811 as a base for fur-hunting around the Farallones. The story moves inland, to the source of so much of our water, the Sierra Nevada mountains. This is a tale about skins, about transformation and a changing land.
Excerpt: Weekly she eats the silver husk of her skin. It starts to come off first at her eyes, then shoulders, feet, back, dorsal stub, the red along her legs. It lies beside her in the marsh-lit dusk, her own ghost. She swallows it in three bites and remembers herself again, new and wet, red-thighed, glowing. Underneath her new skin she is also a girl in a kingdom with kitchens that bake bread, hands that sew linen into shirts. She is a girl beautiful as new skin, full of eggs like a million little pearls. Once a month the girl in the kingdom under the frog’s wet skin menstruates. She catches the blood in snowy linens. She pushes out of her kingdom and the frog becomes a girl with a red flush along the insides of her thighs, skirting her bare ankles like a blush. Every month it hurts all the bones, amphibian to mammal and back. Every bone changes and remembers each body between frog and woman—lizard, songbird, shrew.
About: Hearth is a re-telling of two somewhat similar stories—the Eastern European “Vasilisa the Wise,” in which the innocent Vasilisa must retrieve fire from the hut of the fearsome Baba Yaga, and, more vaguely, the old German classic, “Hansel and Gretel.” In Hearth, I wanted to explore all of these themes—fire, the quintessential crone-woman, while also delving into this idea of a fully animate world, from the birds and trees to the houses we live in and the tools we use. Finally, I must bow my head for the strand of inspiration that has come from the incredible mythologist Martin Shaw. In March I heard him tell (and got to re-tell myself) an old Siberian tale, The Old Women and Her Five Cows, out of which our Old Mare’s Tail Woman and her carnelian-red embers walked.
Excerpt: On a street called River there lived a house painted pale green like the lichen that hangs from oak trees. The house was built by an Italian family in 1887, the Biasotti’s, whose cousins and twice-removed aunts soon moved across the street to build their own Victorian homes in the style of the day, rough at the seams but sturdy, with proud, ornate molding. They all stomped grapes in the middle of the street and threw down blankets of dry polenta to dance the old dances of their hometown a continent away. In the 1920’s, the basement of the pale green house was a speakeasy, and full of those barrels of homemade wine. Two dozen rabbits lived in the garden, and the Temescal Creek still flowed nearby, where Mrs. Biasotti did the washing and then hung it on a line from the window to the black walnut tree. Three streets over the steam train passed daily, following the old telegraph route, whistling and snarling and shaking the ground.
About: When I was sixteen and seventeen I spent two separate three-day periods fasting in the Funeral Mountains of Death Valley. Hungry, lonesome, very weak, I lay around on the sharp ruddy rocks, talking to crickets and staring at the striped ridges like I was feasting upon them. Such experiences are difficult to put into words. But the Death Valley that you see here, in this strange little tale, is the northern canyon I, briefly, slept in, dreamt in, hungered in (minus the blue winged man, of course…). It is held very close to my heart. My parents both grew up in the Mojave Desert, and when I was a girl, particularly from ages 7 to 12 or so, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt, with the cat and owl and hawk and jackal headed deities, the desert and the flooding Nile. So, as much as I am a woman of the coastal hills and ocean and fir forest, a part of me has always lived in those desert landscapes, spare, spiritual, sun-bared. Desert Isis is based upon that essential Egyptian myth of the deities Isis and Osiris, the details of which I will not give away here. It is a tribute to the great dry mountains and canyons of Death Valley, place of dreaming, of rebirth.
Excerpt: Set up your easel there, by the creosote, on black stones flecked with the white fossils of shells. Set it up facing north, facing the ridge layered red-orange-cream-black, where in your dreams white coyotes stalk and howl. Set up your easel, your heart, on its three spindly legs. Open your cigar box of paints after staring at them, unable to make yourself begin, for five days, only to find them hard and dry as the ground. Do not give in to despair, to the emptiness without paint, without that smoothing of brush to canvas turning the land around you to a fire in your chest. Walk slowly barefoot toward the place where two washes make a crossroads. It is not far. Watch for rattlesnakes sleeping arrow-headed under the sagebrush. Stand at that crossroads, where the floods move with the rains. Now the washes are just rivulets and trenches made in stone and sand.
About: I’ve apprenticed myself on and off to the study of bird language, a lineage of nature-study that came across the country via the wilderness-awareness educator Jon Young, passed down to him from Tom Brown Jr. and the Apache elder Stalking Wolf. “Bird Language” as such is about developing an awareness of the alarms, songs, and calls of the birds all around us, learning to understand what they mean, and through them, the stories of the living land. This form of awareness has been practiced and known by indigenous peoples the world over, for the purposes of survival and deep relationship to the wild. More generally, birds have long been considered holy messengers between heaven and earth, their organs divined, their feathers and bones used in sacred ceremony. So when I came across the Russian folktale, “The Language of the Birds,” an older thread of shamanic (perhaps Siberian) resonance was clear in it, and I was drawn deeply in.
Excerpt: Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)
I have never stayed so long in one place. The stars have moved all the way from spring to summer to autumn to winter to spring, and I couldn’t follow them. Now the air tastes soft again, and green is a glow everywhere under the gold grass. I can smell my beloved in the blackberry thorns out the window. I can hear the ghosts of her little calls. I sing for her through the window down toward the nest we made last spring, deep in the blackberry canes. I sing my most beautiful song, the one that made her slow and turn toward me when I chased her tawny swaying tail, turn toward me with dark eyes and those perfect spots on her breast, a scattering of stars to lead me home.
About: The Estonian A Tale of the Tontlawald, upon which this story is based, is a strange scrap of a fairytale, an old abandoned piece, it feels to me, of a large body of myth now lost. I can find nothing else at all about the tontlawald, though it is a place the teller of the original fairytale knows well; a place, I think, we can all recognize. It is a tale of the enchanted wood right over the fence, the meadow whose borders are always shifting, the otherworld inside this world, through its sidewalk cracks, through its tumbledown white houses in overgrown lots. It is also a tale of wild and ragged people-creatures who feel, in the original story, like demoted nature spirits, like gypsy-others whose music and whose revelry upsets the order of the “civilized” world, deliciously, strangely, rather terrifyingly. This is the place we all wish (I think, somewhere deep in our child-hearts) that we remembered the way to, the language of; that we still had the eyes for. And it is a very wild place, one that protects itself from the harm of human axes, of human measurement, of human ownership. This, I like about it best of all.
Excerpt: Somewhere between the four lakes at the southern edge of the Point Reyes Peninsula, there was a thick fir wood and in the middle of it an exceptional meadow. Newspaper reports claimed contradictory descriptions from hikers as to the precise whereabouts of the stretch of oatgrass and orange poppies wherein several parties glimpsed a tumbledown white house and a cluster of ragged men, women and children around a bonfire. Authorities at first dismissed these reports as hallucinations or practical jokes, due not only to their fantastical nature but also to the fact that all remnants of the Lake Ranch buildings were destroyed in the 1960s when the coastline was turned to National Seashore, and no other such white dwellings had ever existed in the area. An old white house, they reported, Victorian and broken-roofed, with dark empty windows and an elderberry tree thrusting through the front porch, as well as hundreds of bats around its attic come dusk. A fire lit amidst the tall grass and a dozen or more women in bright rags, threadbare and layered—mustard yellow, old red paisleys and boxy blue muslin skirts, bare feet, hair long and knotted with thorns and white milkmaid flowers.
About: While settling in to a new home in Oakland—a new urban landscape scattered still with fruit trees, with flycatchers and starry nights and sidewalks here and there uprooted by coast live oaks—I heard mythteller Martin Shaw’s rendition of an old British tale, Midwife to the Fairies. This story moved me because it seemed to suggest that the beings who live under and between and above and around us, who have alternately been called fairies, elves, trolls, nature-spirits etc., somehow need a human midwife to birth their children. At the same time, I was doing some reading about the Temescal Creek, buried beneath this part of the city, one of the most important perennial creeks in the area pre-culvert. The creek began to sing out in my imagination, buried under the sidewalks and freeways, a wild-spirit who actually needs us, somehow, to be midwifed back into the world. In this era of environmental dissociation and catastrophe, we humans often carry (rightfully) a lot of guilt, and also (speaking for myself) this sense that we don’t quite belong any more in the wild fabric of the world. The old stories of humans midwifing fairy babies, and my own rendition,The Midwife of Temescal suggest that the wild ones, and the wild land, long for us as much as we long for them.
Excerpt: In a scrap of marsh left at the edge of the Bay, beyond the freeway, a great blue heron stalked and speared fish as the first rain of the winter began to fall. She shook her feathers and the silver drops of water slid down the long curve of her back. Under her gray feet there were shells in the mud, and bones, and sometimes she could hear the faint memory of a deer dance song, the clattering of dried hooves at the waistbands of young men. Underneath the shopping complexes near the culverted stream mouth, where the Temescal Creek spilled a modest dirty current into the Bay, there was a leveled shellmound as big as a village. Inside the shellmound were 9,000 years of human bones, bird-bone awls, obsidian and mortar bowls and antlers buried ceremonially. The shellmound was a village, a hundred hundred generations of village, built beside the mouth of the Temescal Creek, and like that creek it let the tendrils of its memories seep out into the Bay under the heron’s spearing beak.
About: Our Lady of Nettles is based upon one of my very favorite old tales, The Six Swans, as the Brothers Grimm called it, or The Wild Swans, as it was retold by Hans Christian Anderson. Besides the nettle, a dear plant friend of mine, the two biggest strands of inspiration outside of the source-tale are as follows. The first is the string-skirt, found depicted on Venus figurines as far back as 25,000 years, and again in the preserved grave-sites of several bronze age women, including my second strand of inspiration, the Danish Egtved Girl, buried in roughly 1390 B.C. at age eighteen. Because her coffin was laid in an area that became a bog, her string skirt, some 3,000 years later, was still intact when she was found in 1920, as was her woven shirt, a sprig of yarrow laid inside her coffin, the birch-bark bucket for grog, still with pollen spores of lingonberry, linden, honey, bog myrtle, inside. Nobody is quite certain what these string-skirts were all about—symbols of fertility? One theory floats around that I love best—they were for dancing, for the swaying of hips that is not just about fertility, but also about the joy of the body.
Excerpt: For the first year you may not pick the nettles with your own hands. Every morning for a year, when the dew is still touching the nettle leaves in glinting speckles, you will brush your fingertips to the stalks in order to be stung like she was stung, in order to bring life and blood to your hands for the day’s work. The spines shine with dew, delicate as glass, and your fingertips will become strong. You will choose a patch of nettles to touch, to pray beside, to sit with daily. You will learn about more than nettles, this way. You may touch the tops of their leaves, and their seeds when they come pale-green and hanging in soft coils, but you may not pick. You may ask the nettles for the story of Nain, but only once you have given them your own story.
About: The dark face of a sea lion or harbor seal floating in a wave trough just offshore has always caught my heart and kept it—what is it like under those waves, where her people are? What does she see with those black eyes? What salted wisdom does she hold in her teeth, what songs of island and shark? I’ve lived near the wild Pacific Ocean my whole life (save four years when I lived near the Atlantic), and it is medicine to me, as are the tales of seal-women, the legendary selkie (to the Scottish) or roane (to the Irish), who remind us that we have kin inside the sea, as well as an ocean each inside our own souls. This story is for the seal-people of the world, for my Irish and Welsh ancestors who might have met a few of them in their time, to the Scottish & Nova Scotian ancestors of my beloved, Simon, who were long ago fishermen and lighthouse keepers.
Excerpt: To begin where it begins. Coyotes grass-gold as summer lope the hard Olina blufftop roads sniffing the night fog air of July for stray tabby cats, new raccoons trundling after their tired mothers, ripe wild plums falling all over the streets: red, yellow, dark purple, big pits and tart skin. The gray foxes are out too, sleek-trotting the silver shadows, avoiding the coyotes and seeking primarily the plums, but also the dreams of the sea lion woman who has just gone home with the man who lives in the red cabin under eucalyptus trees at the corner of Cherry and Nymph. Down below, the beach called Agate is full of tidepools: starfish purple, anemone green, abalone shell-iridescent, all the colors of the night moving toward sunrise. The sea lion woman’s dreams smell of fish, and the four gray foxes on patrol tonight along the roads of the blufftop, all trotting his or her own region and avoiding each other by smell and sound, stop separately to listen.
About: I began the writing of this re-telling of the marvelous Scottish folktale, Tamlin, only a handful of days after moving to a cabin in the fir forest of West Marin. This tale was a love-song to my new home; it was as if Tamlin himself, the Tamlin of my place (and I believe there is a Tamlin of every place, in a sense), tugged me along to the steep meadows where creamcups bloomed and required that I write every last word in the open air. And so I did; the tale before you is thus literallyawash with the fir pollen, the hot April breezes, the orange poppies, wild roses and wandering does of all the places I sat as I created it. As I got into the writing, the most extraordinary things began to happen—one day, while walking up to my hillside “office,” I found gray fox prints, fresh, right along my path. The next, a series of deer beds surrounded the place where my own body had crushed the grass down as I wrote. Toward the end, a raven landed right on the deck. They seemed (I hope) to be saying—yes, we approve, carry on.
Excerpt: A mourning cloak butterfly the color of weathered bronze landed on the other side of Janet’s windowpane. I am dull, she had been thinking in that moment as she lay on her back on the blue bed unmade and flannel, turning a quarter over and over in her hand. The sheets seemed to move under her as the wind and the sun in the Douglas firs shaded, shifted, sprang. I am dull, I am forgotten, she thought, and the shadow of the butterfly fell across her, tattered, a rag of a creature with wings torn by the lazy bite of a doe as she reached for the thick stems of scotch broom all yellow with blossoms. I hate you, she was thinking, about her father, about the house, all scrapped together pieces—a dormer, another room, a deck, stretched across the path from the driveway, balanced precariously between two slopes where the miner’s lettuce and wild onion grew rampant. All her father’s tools were piled by the front door and on leaning workbenches in the driveway, where the 1963 white Valiant he was always tinkering with in old blue rags was parked, wheels flat.
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