There is a moment in Kristin Livdahl's novella A Brood of Foxes, when our heroine—a girl-not-yet-a-woman named Joey Napoleon—sits on a log by the river. A perfectly normal thing to do, generally. Very soon after making herself comfortable, though, Joey finds herself tumbling through the air and splashing into the river. She looks about in a confused manner, and then she sees, back on shore, an obviously disgruntled log-type object, tired of being sat upon perhaps, walking away into the shadows of a nearby forest.
Upon dry land, Joey tells her companion, Fox (who is a fox both in that he is handsome and in that he has a tail which he sometimes engages in conversation), that a log threw her into the river. Fox says, "It must not have been a log."
Joey says, "You sat on it last night."
Fox says, "It seemed like a log then.” (p. 29)
This is the sort of thing one should be prepared for when entering the fairy-tale-cum-fable world of A Brood of Foxes. Perfectly normal actions and objects often get nudged into something whimsical, frustrating, and, on occasion, horrible. Tails, and tales, have a mind of their own. Rocks turn out to be very emotional and contagious. Well-meaning persons nearly destroy an entire village of people and animals because they do not fully consider the consequences of their actions. A Brood of Foxes recalls and enacts what G. K. Chesterton had to say about the inexplicable and unbalanced horror of fairy tale logic: "A box is opened, and all evils fly out. . . . A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone" ("The Ethics of Elfland," Orthodoxy: Centennial Edition, p. 51).
Joey comes to this strange world of not-logs and talking tails from a world similar to ours. We know this because she has memories of a time before: of parents and a boy with "dark glasses and sweet, gentle kisses that taste[d] dangerously of cigarettes" (p. 2). She has mostly forgotten our world, though. What she knows is a small cottage where she has spent some time under the care of a magical, matronly, and feathered woman named Mudhen. Joey came to Mudhen after Mudhen threw a rock at Joey from across reality and through her garden gate. Mudhen calls this "casting stones." Once struck, Joey felt something less like pain and more like interest and invitation. She slipped the stone into her pocket and walked through the garden gate into Mudhen's world. That Livdahl does not bother explaining how such things work is part of the story's charm.
With Mudhen, Joey begins a fairly positive stint in something like step-daughterhood, embarking on a series of lessons and chores in the stuff of life and the machinery of growth: caring for herbs and plants, turning and sifting compost, and dusting the intricate, hidden contraptions that allow Mudhen's cottage to feature a door made of mist and a room made perfect for Joey. Through this apprenticeship, Livdahl seeds the environmental consciousness that permeates Brood. Not only are the characters aware of their environment, but their environment is often aware of them—in the manner of an exasperated log, for instance, growing tired of people never bothering to think that it might not want to be sat on.
Eventually, Joey—still dreaming of her boy and his kisses, and hungering for a wider experience of life—runs away and back to the world she left behind, just beyond Mudhen's garden gate. She meets Fox there, but does not recognize him as a fox. After kissing him, though, she spots his tail and becomes scared. She runs back to Mudhen, but Fox beats her to it. Mudhen's feathers fill his mouth. He says he didn't eat her, and that the feathers were all that was left when he arrived. "I tasted them to find out what happened," he says (p. 14). It turns out he is telling the truth, and so Fox and Joey begin their journey to find what has happened to Mudhen.
Livdahl writes Brood—in all its twists and turns and foxy backtracking—in a language cleaned of judgement or affect. She tells of her exasperated logs and emotional rocks in sentences built of nouns and verbs and little else. It is a language suitable both to her world and her narrator. Joey is a character at once likable and frustrating due to her habit of doing things simply because she wants to do them, without giving much thought to context or consequence. Something akin to the elemental hunger she fears in Fox also seems to possess her. One morning on their journey to find Mudhen, after waking up in Fox's arms, Joey strikes out at him with her distrust, and then kisses him because it had been, after all, a lovely night. That such actions might cause Fox no small amount of pain or bitterness does not seem to concern her.
Structurally, A Brood of Foxes is divided, in the manner of an egg, into three parts. In a short prologue, Joey explains Mudhen's ability to transform an egg into a metaphor for everything: the fragile shell that protects a hatchling from the world; the white that provides nutrition and comfort; and the yolk that is a heart waiting to be touched by something outside of itself, so that its true and vulnerable wonder might unfold and break free. This is the shape and story of A Brood of Foxes. Joey, once enshelled and nourished by Mudhen, unfolds—in her journey with Fox—into an understanding of her true form. She discovers, among other things, that she is not as human as she thinks. And, in the "yolk" of the story—after she and Fox have come upon Mudhen being held captive in a village populated by the dead and disturbed—she is forced, finally, to deal with the consequences that arise from carelessly dumping into the world one's emotional, and literal, waste.
When it comes to the overlapping worlds of fairy tales and fables—dark, enchanted forests populated by incomprehensible horror versus fairly recognizable landscapes populated by anthropomorphic animals whose job it is to teach us something—my predilections run more toward the indifferent and horrible. In my yolk of yolks, I prefer a raven plucking out a child's eye over that raven, however British or wise, telling me that children should not be greedy. This may be why the resolution of A Brood of Foxes was somewhat disappointing. In revealing the source of the deadly and emotionally disturbing contagion that afflicts the town in the book’s final section, Livdahl veers away from the inexplicable charms of much of her story and enters territory nigh-scientific and very nearly pedantic—territory that encompasses a couple of well-intentioned entrepreneurs and a dump truck full of rocks charged with negative emotions. It is a move that serves the moralistic tone of a fable (and some of its ultimately not all that subtle ecological concern) but undercuts something of the whimsy—and even some of the horror—built into the rest of the story.
It's never really clear how all of that evil got in Pandora’s box, or why, once opened, Hope is the last of the evils to leave. The things I loved in A Brood of Foxes—everything being alive and aware of you, conversations with one's own tail, Joey wanting to eat Fox as much as love him—all had an aspect of this fairy tale inexplicability. As much as A Brood of Foxes is a finely written and enjoyable tale, I wish Livdahl had found a way to maintain the frustrated and occasionally dark whimsy of her earlier pages and pushed her conclusion towards something more elemental and akin to the hunger of a fox—something at once more simple, brutal, and inexplicable.
Chris Kammerud is a writer and teacher living in Seoul, South Korea. He enjoys believing in things. Previous work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons (see our archive). For more, visit his blog, The Magnelephant Review, or follow him on Twitter.