Fox, Húlí

By Kelly Werrell

“The landscape is a moment of time // that has gotten into position.”
     —Lyn Hejinian, “The Guard.”

In each moment, she was digging a smaller and smaller hole until she came upon a skeleton, and time for a moment stopped. The skeleton was a curved, small body, and it lay there at the bottom. The holes Julie had been digging lay around them like craters. The holes were shallow and the dirt was not compact, so digging was easy. The skeleton lay at the bottom and appeared mostly intact. She used the fingertip of her glove to dust off the skull. The skull was small and round, about the size of her palm. She held her palm over the skull comparing them. There was energy in her palm. It came up from the skull in waves then retracted back inside. She removed her glove. The skull sent out activity, electricity, magnetism, and it shot through her hand up into her body, into her own skull, and that was when the ghost arrived inside her.

The ghost filled her up like a handful of marbles rolling around through her appendages then settling. When it settled in her head she felt the tiny glass balls clink behind her ears and eyes, resting in the lacunae. The glass was cool. It gave her a headache.

The sun dipped behind the mountain and the work bell sounded. Julie looked into the hole and the skeleton lay there inert.

1. She lifted the skeleton into her apron and draped her jacket over it. It fell apart instantly and the bones clacked together in the big pocket as she walked. She walked deliberately around the holes.

2. She covered it loosely with dirt. The hole appeared complete, so she left it.

3. The wind blew, blowing dust into her mouth. The dirt spun in the hole like a tornado and lifted the skeleton up. It stood on its own in the tornado until the tornado died. Then it sat down and aimed its eye sockets at Julie. She imagined threading a black ribbon through the sockets.

Húlí, said the ghost. It spoke from behind her eyes. She felt its mouth cup around her brain. The valley was wide and yellow. It spread out until the mountains then turned brown and rose sharply upward. The holes faded across the expanse. Dust blew and the sky was gray. The dust blew up into the sky and the sky blew back down onto the earth, spreading the soot and particles like a film over the ground. The mountains were dark and heavy. The mountains loomed high, went outward for miles, and blocked the rise and set of the sun.

1. The ghost used its powers to reassemble the skeleton in her pocket. She could feel it shifting and hear it clicking into place. The ghost showed the inside of her pocket in her mind’s eye. Bones wiggled together. It formed into the shape of an animal. The bones were very, very small. The ghost was pulsing in her, warm. It felt like the ghost was reaching out.

2. She looked back to the hole and the dirt appeared dark, loose, and convex above it.

3. The skeleton looked at her. The landscape was frozen in time. There was no wind, no sun. Her coworkers, spread out along the valley floor, were motionless in work. Shovels were in the ground or hovering above it, bodies bent over or standing. The dust in the air hung. She imagined picking up the little skull and holding it in her hand, wearing it as a talisman. The skeleton looked at her. Julie stood still, unsure of whether or not she was mobile. At once her body rose, her feet off the ground, and then she was set down again. The skeleton copied the motion. It raised its little arm and Julie raised hers. It tilted its head and so did she. Time was passing in small, infinite increments. Nothing was happening. Julie looked at the skeleton and the skeleton looked back.

Everywhere was dust. A fox walked along the valley floor looking for prey. It dug at holes and sniffed small, hearty plants.

Kelly Werrell has an MFA from the University of San Francisco. She lives in Colorado. “Fox, Huli” was partially conceived while traveling in China and reading Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling.