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THE SUN WAS only just peeking over the peachleaf trees, but the heat was already crisping the leaves and steaming the creek and making the dying fields too bright to look at.
Roa, Marley, and Mia trotted toward the dappled shade of the Eavey Wood, tongues lolling. The grasses buzzed deliciously around them, but on these high-sun days, the grasshoppers were as dry and sour as birch bark.
“Whaddaya think we’ll learn today?” Roa said.
“Hopefully about shadows and holes and how to take naps in them,” said Mia, panting.
Marley was busy rolling in something smelly and didn’t hear the question.
“Come on, Mar,” Roa said. “We’re gonna be late.”
Every morning, when the sky woke white and watery, when the owls were tucking into their trunks and the snakes had not warmed up yet, the kits gathered beneath the Learning Tree for their lessons. Their teacher was called Miss Vix, and she taught them what they needed to know while their mother tended to the hunting and the den.
In their first few weeks outside the den, Miss Vix had taught the kits how to swish their tails through the reeds to stir up a buzzy explosion of insects, which they could snap out of the air. She taught them how to point their muzzles northward when hunting, waiting for the claw of the Sky Fox to draw a hazy ring of purple around their prey.
She taught them the birdsong for “eagle” and “snake,” so they knew whether to duck or jump when a predator was near. And when there were no birds in the treetops to sound the alarm, Miss Vix taught them how to perk their ears and listen for the sounds of large feathers brushing the wind or golden scales parting the earth.
Months from now, after the breath of autumn blew red into the leaves, the kits would celebrate their Golden-Eyed Day, and they would set out to claim their own territories. But until that day came, they would learn how to become proper foxes.
Something flopped fatly across the three kits’ path.
Roa sniffed the creature’s damp skin and pond breath, and gagged. “Blech. Toad slime.”
“Catcher gets belly!” Marley said, hips in a wiggle.
Mia collapsed in the shade of a wilting rosebush. “Too hot.”
Marley bounded after the toad while Roa gazed toward the Learning Tree and sighed.
“Don’t worry,” Mia said, fixing him with her blue-swirl eyes. “Miss Vix won’t get any less pretty, and your eyes won’t get any less blue.”
Roa scowled. He tried to think of a comeback, but instead his ear twitched.
This sent Mia into hysterics. “So it’s true!” She rolled onto her back and addressed him upside down. “You wanna marry Miss Vix and start an adorable little den with her!”
He tackled his sister, and they lashed at each other with their milk teeth. But the day’s heat quickly made them both give up in a panting puddle.
There came a wet plop in a nearby pond, and Marley came bounding back, shaking mud from his muzzle. “It was too slippery.”
“Psh,” Mia said, rounding to her paws. “That jumper was as dry as dust.” She trotted toward the Learning Tree and called back to Roa. “C’mon, Mr. Vix!”
Roa followed, grumbling.
It was true that Miss Vix had honeyed eyes and lush black ears and golden fur that smelled like butterfly dust. And it was true that the tip of her tail was as white as cloud fluff and her boots were as black as the space between the stars.
But Roa didn’t want to start a den with her. He wanted to be like her when he grew up. He admired the arc in his teacher’s back whenever she pounced on her prey … the way she could sniff out a scuttling from a distance of three hundred tails … and how she had once stolen a badger’s feast, piece by piece, by nipping at the badger’s ears and getting it to chase her.
The three siblings continued on, panting. They passed the sluggish river, fish glittering in the sun. They passed the bush with shriveled raspberries that tasted as bright as lightning. And they passed Lumpy Prairie, where cottontail season had finally come to an end. The grass was growing brittle, and baby bunnies were no longer as easy to pluck as blackberries off the vine.
“Melting,” Marley said.
“Evaporating,” said Mia.
Roa just panted.
No birds sang in the Eavey Wood that morning. The leaves rasped like an old, dying snake.
AFTER A SHORT, sunbaked trot, Roa, Marley, and Mia leapt atop the tumbled oak that bordered meadow and wood.
“Huh,” Mia said, curling her lip. “Does something smell”—snff snff—“funny to you guys?”
Roa blinked away the shadows left by the sun. He sniffed the trees. Miss Vix’s butterfly scent was lost on the wind. It had been replaced with something darker. Something … yellow.
Snrrrrrt! Marley snorted thickly. “I don’t smell anything.”
He bounded off the tumbled oak. Mia and Roa gave each other a look and then followed. The three arrived beneath the shade of the Learning Tree, stopping at the hawthorn bush where Miss Vix greeted them every morning.
Their teacher was nowhere in sight.
Bizy, the kits’ alpha sister, sat in front of the bush, head tilted. Every morning, when they left the den, she sprinted ahead, like reaching the Learning Tree was some sort of race.
“You win again, Biz!” Marley said, out of breath.
Bizy glanced at them. She didn’t brag about her win like she usually did. Instead, she stared back into the hawthorn bush. Its branches were trembling.
Roa sniffed—snff snff—and the yellow stench crept up his nostrils and roiled his stomach.
Text copyright © 2019 by Christian McKay Heidicker
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Junyi Wu