Reynard limped along the leafy path, his wounded hind leg folded up. This was a part of the forest he traveled rarely, but from the splashing up ahead he knew his destination was near.
Pressing through a flowery thicket, he came upon an emerald-painted lagoon. Wading within was a tall white figure whose golden tresses curled upwards towards the sky.
She turned. The dark shading around her eyes gave her an appearance almost like a raccoon. But from her beauty and regal bearing, he knew her to be a mixture of deity and human flesh.
She held a large leather-bound volume pressed against her breast. Though he had never before seen one, he knew from the legends that it must be a book.
“What is that musty smell that impinges on my afternoon solace?” she asked.
He limped forward. “It is I, my lady, a humble fox. I am called Reynard.”
“And I am Fenna, Nereid of the Black Forest. I take it you have sought me out?”
“I have indeed. My leg was injured in a trapper’s snare. I seek your aid, my lady.”
The nymph emerged from the pond and stepped upon land with her webbed, stork-like feet. She approached Reynard and gazed down at his constricted limb.
“Does it hurt?”
“The gnawing in my belly hurts more, my lady.”
“You cannot hunt?”
She sat down on a tree root, setting her book on her lap and draping her slender arms over it.
“I sometimes grant the wishes of forest creatures. But you, sir, are a predator. Any boon I grant to you is at the expense of my other subjects, birds and field mice who are your prey.”
“Is there no hope for me, then? I can’t subsist on grass and berries alone.”
She gazed at the Fox with a mixture of compassion and wariness. “For this favor, I will require something from you in return.”
“Tell me what it is, my lady. All I have is yours for the asking.”
“It is your natural cunning that I am in need of, my dear fox. Behold.”
With that she took hold of the book and opened it. A wraith of flames sprang up from the pages, forcing her to turn away. She quickly slammed the book shut. The flames disappeared, leaving behind only wisps of smoke.
Reynard cowered at her feet; like all forest dwellers, he was afraid of fire. “My lady, what was that?” he gasped.
“It is the curse of Zeus. Because I shunned his affections, he has taken away the one pleasure of my life. I crave to be transported into the epic histories written in these pages; but with the blinding flames, I cannot read them!”
She held the book out to Reynard. “So, my crafty friend, what would you have me do?”
Reynard was aghast. Was this creature mad to think that he, a mere fox, could subvert the will of Zeus? But groping desperately for a reply, he began speaking.
“My lady, I’ve sired two cubs, Nadine and Thomas. Like you, they dearly love tales of adventure. But unlike you, they possess nary a book, nor do they even know how to read. Instead, they have me.”
“Yes. I know nothing of the exploits of great and powerful heroes. But I do know the ways of the forest and its denizens, and I have many anecdotes of life and death struggles, ghastly fates and exhilarating triumphs.”
“Indulge me, dear fox,” said the water nymph. “Please narrate one of these anecdotes.”
And so Reynard told her about the young fox who hunted down a rooster gone astray, only to show mercy on the creature and rescue him. He went on to talk about the robin who believed he was a mountain lion, and the hedgehog who never forgot anything. He related tales that were half true and others that were completely invented for Nadine’s and Thomas’s amusement.
And with each new story the water nymph leaned forward a little more, and her eyes grew more deeply immersed in vicarious marvels. And Reynard felt a healing warmth flowing over his hind leg, straightening it out and making it whole, and stronger with each new chapter that he narrated.
The shadows grew long in the forest clearing, and finally, as Reynard concluded his latest tale, the water nymph raised her hand. “It grows late, sir fox. No doubt you have a long journey home. With enormous gratitude I will dismiss you now.”
“Farewell, my lady,” said Reynard. He turned and disappeared into the brush with a flying leap.
Many weeks passed, and one day Fenna detected a familiar aroma in the air. She scanned the clearing and saw the little fox emerge from the bushes.
“My dear fox,” she said, “why have you sought me out again?”
“My lady, it’s as simple as this,” said Reynard. “I have more stories to tell.”
Joe Zabel is a comic book artist and writer living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He is best known for his work illustrating American Splendor, by the late Harvey Pekar. He has recently been published by Every Day Fiction, and has done illustrations for Story Shack.