The Fox in the Ruins

There was a fox in the ruins that morning.

Yosh spotted it first in the corner of his eye, a blur of red and teeth. He recognized it immediately. He had read about foxes in books.

His father, however, had laughed when he’d seen it, and ripped off his holo to see better. “A fox!” he cried, almost jubilant. “That’s remarkable. I never thought I’d see one of those again.”

“Aren’t they dangerous?” Yosh asked, moving closer to his father. For the most part, the ruins were abandoned, but he often thought he saw movements coming from the million layered shadows that seemed to lurk in every corner, especially as the day grew short.

“They were, a long time ago,” his father said. “They might still be now. But we’re dangerous, too.”

He stopped to turn over what might be a large tin of food, or even a refridge, but it was an empty husk, crumbling to pieces between his fingers.

“It’s a good sign for other reasons, Yosh. If there are foxes, that means that there’s food. And if that poor animal’s still alive, she’s probably more afraid of us than we are of her. We’ll give her more trouble than we’re worth. But, foxes! This is sure to be news back in the enclave.”

He pulled himself over a pile of rubble and through a smashed-out hole in the wall. Yosh, scampering up the pile, followed him. He took one last lingering glance behind himself before disappearing into the building. The fox was staring back at them, perched atop a mound of collapsed bricks and fraying metal, as if daring them to give chase. After a long moment of stillness, its ears pitched forward and its nose in the air—during which Yosh was afraid it might lunge into action, teeth bared—the fox gave a tired yawn, its tongue lolling out, and trotted down the far side of the heap of trash.

It was almost sad, Yosh thought. The fox looked so royal, so clean and deadly. It should be out in a meadow, running at top speeds. And it, like them, was reduced to poking around the ruins.

Still, Yosh’s father had laughed. And his father knew more than anyone else in Zebulon, the enclave where they lived. That was why he was first appointed Scavenger. He was almost as wise as the Ones Who Watch. Yosh trusted his father more than anything—and so he had to believe that, for one reason or another, there was something good about seeing that fox. Maybe his father was laughing because he knew the fox had no chance, that Yosh and his father would find any food before she would. Or maybe he was laughing because the fox was still alive, and she’d made it this long…and maybe, just maybe, Yosh and his father and the rest of Zebulon would make it, too.

Yosh took one last glance over his shoulder at the mound of trash. The fox was long gone…and, he realized, he should probably get going, too.

*

Most days, Yosh spent his time running alone around the shelter and in the bush on the outskirts of Zebulon. Sometimes his father brought him outside the enclave, past the bush, looking for new holes to venture into and digging them a little bit deeper, trying to find out if anyone had reached the bottom yet, or if there was still something of value to be unearthed.

Yosh’s father Scavenged nearly every day in the outer reaches of the enclave. Most people rarely ventured outside of their tiny shelters, scared or suspicious of the world outside, but exploring the world outside Zebulon was Yosh’s father’s job. He was the Scavenger. He knew exactly what to look for, and he was big and strong enough to carry it back to the enclave, whether it was food, blankets, a TV or something else, and make sure it was divided fairly among the people. Sometimes there was a disagreement, or a scuffle, but as soon as Yosh’s father noticed, it ended. The people respected him.

This, Yosh knew, was a different way of saying they were scared of him.

Sometimes Yosh accompanied his father on his trips. They’d never gone too far away from the enclave. But you didn’t need to go far, his father said—just outside its borders, where the light of the Everlasting Fire could no longer reach, there were literally thousands of bunkers. Most of them were in ruins, having been picked over tens of times over again by marauders, bandits, and innocent people with growling stomachs, but virtually every empty shelter still contained something of value for Yosh’s father to carry home. Perhaps the contents of a metal shelf had been left, fallen behind a pantry against a crumbling wall, or sometimes it was tins of food. The marauders and bandits didn’t always know how to open them, but, said Yosh’s father with a twinkle in his eye, marauders and bandits didn’t have all of Zebulon depending on them.

“What about the other enclaves?” Yosh asked, lingering to sift through a hill of dirt and broken things, while he was out with his father one day.

“What other enclaves?” his father said quickly—and then he added, “Don’t dig through there, Yosh. I’ve torn up that stack a dozen times.”

“Well,” said Yosh, “surely there are other enclaves, right? Or else the Ones Who Watch would have nothing else to watch.”

The Ones Who Watch were a group of elders who swept through Yosh’s father’s enclave every full moon, on the night of the mootfire. They came to bring news of the greater world, to settle disputes, to survey what Yosh’s father had collected and to take a small share, usually nothing more than food for the next stage of their journey. The people in the enclave tolerated them, and made jokes and rude remarks when they weren’t around, but Yosh’s father always kept his silence. “They earn their keep,” was all he said.

It occurred to Yosh that his father thought of the Ones Who Watch much the same as the rest of the enclave thought of him: with equal measures admiration and fear.

Yosh’s father gave a laugh. It was brief and purposeful, just like everything else he did. “The Ones Who Watch will always have something to watch,” he said. “That is their business, and they make it so they will always be in business. Get your arm out of that crack, please, Yosh. I need some help with this refridge.”

Yosh’s arm was halfway down a crack in the cement trail outside. The trails had once been fixed in even, square sections, laid flat along the rows of shelters, but had long ago been ruptured and broken. Most of the squares were split into several jagged sections. Yosh had a theory that underneath them was a whole other city, identical to this one but for a subterranean roof instead of sky, and all the shelters there were fresh and unplundered, just like in the World That Was. If he reached far enough, Yosh thought he might uncover a pathway. As yet, Yosh was still not able to reach far enough.

“Sorry, Dad,” he called, withdrawing his arm. “I thought I saw some cans of tomato paste in there.”

He gave a glance inside the doorway, to where his father was already wandering, to see whether he would react. Tomato paste was in great demand. Yosh’s father used it, along with some other cans and kernels of food, to fashion something he called pizza—and when he made it, he made it in great quantity, and the whole enclave celebrated.

He laughed again. It was shorter, this time.

“You’re a funny little storyteller, Yosh,” he called out through the doorway. “I don’t know what you think you saw, but I’m sure it wasn’t that. Here, come inside and help me with this. There’s enough blankets here to clothe half the urchins in…”

He broke off suddenly. Yosh struggled to his feet, abandoning the crack for good, and ran inside to see what had silenced his father.

There was indeed a good supply of clothes—fresh and untouched, several drawers’ worth. It was the kind of reward they rarely found anymore, definitely not this close to their enclave. Clean, untouched and valuable.

The drawers sat behind Yosh’s father’s back, all but ignored now. He stood at a desk, staring in awe at a small silver globe, dirty and old, with flecks of rust adorning its crown.

Yosh didn’t want to sound immature, but he didn’t see what value an object like that could hold. It might be metal, but it wasn’t even a solid plank. It could barely help to barricade his sister’s ant farm, let alone their house.

“What is it?” he asked scornfully. “Some kind of food? Another device from the World That Was?”

“Not at all,” said his father, raising it up. Yosh could see that it wasn’t a globe at all. The metal shape only went down halfway on one side, then stopped in a sharp rim. It was more like a hat. Yosh’s father’s fingers danced along its rim appreciatively.

“I remember this well—as a matter of fact, it’s still plugged in. Here, Yosh. Think of a memory. Any memory.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Yosh. Or he started to, but he broke off as soon as the force of the machine hit him.

And then he was no longer alone in his mind.

 

photo: ezo red fox, s. brickman