The Heart of a Fox by T. Isilwath



        “Sign here, please,” the man behind the desk said as he pushed a release form towards her.

        “What’s this?” Joanna asked, skimming over the long-winded legalese. ‘Trust lawyers to take twelve paragraphs to say what could be said in two. It’s no wonder the People didn’t develop writing until after the Anglos got here.’

        “A release form limiting our liability in the unlikely event of a mechanical failure,” the man replied with a lopsided smile.

        He looked like a geek. He was wearing a pair of thick, black rimmed glasses, and a starched white shirt with a pocket protector and at least four pens, so the odds of his being a geek were pretty high.

        “Translation please?” she requested.

        The geek rolled his eyes. “Basically it says that if the thing goes wonky and sends your luggage to Mars and you to Taiwan, you can’t sue us for damages beyond the value of the luggage and its contents.”

        “Ah. I understand. Thank you. That wasn’t so hard was it?” she answered, reading over the last four articles of the document to make sure there weren’t any loopholes before signing her name along with the date: May 6, 2012.

        “Tokyo, huh?” the man noted, reading the destination she had listed.

        “Yes. I’m going for a summer exchange with Tokyo University,” she said.

        “Well, Ms. Joanna Tindall. Your trip to Tokyo will be the furthest we’ve set the Gate to go within the Private Sector. Congratulations.”

        His smile made her a little nervous. It was too sweet and looked fake. “Ah, I hope that isn’t going to be a problem,” she said carefully.

        The smile widened and she wondered if he was patronizing her. “It shouldn’t be. Although there is a meteor storm going on right now, and there is a remote possibility that one of the relay satellites could get hit…”

        “What?” she hissed, trying not to draw attention to her sudden panic.

        Geek-From-Hell gave her an exasperated look. “Most meteors aren’t any larger than a grain of sand. The chances of one of the satellites getting hit by one is one in I-don’t-know-how-many billion. Plus we have backup systems in place to protect the Gates if something happens. You’ll be fine. You can have a seat in the waiting room, and they’ll call you when they’re ready,” he told her, giving her a half-hearted wave towards a set of conjoined plastic seats.

        Glaring angrily at him, she picked up Iris, grabbed the handle of her rollaway suitcase, and made her way over to the closest chair. There were about six other people in the room, all with luggage of their own, although she saw that she was the only one there outfitted with a guitar and a camping backpack. Putting Iris down on her left side, and making sure the guitar wasn’t about to fall over, she pulled her arms out of the backpack frame and set it down by her feet with a sigh. It was too heavy. That meant that Michael had shoved the frying pan back into it sometime that morning while she was busy elsewhere.

        ‘Sneaky pain in the ass,’ she grumbled to herself.

        She and her fiancé had argued heatedly over the inclusion of the cast iron pan. She was adamant about not taking it with her, and he was just as adamant that she would. Five times she had taken it out of her bags and five times he had tried to sneak it back in.

        ‘Six, obviously,’ she mused darkly. ‘If it’s in there.’

        She didn’t understand. She didn’t need the frying pan. She had other, lighter, cookware in the pack that served just as well. Granted none of it was a frying pan, but she didn’t anticipate doing much hunting and fishing in Japan.

        Still, she’d put up with reconstituted Army rations if it meant she could spend time in the woods. Tokyo was one of the most overcrowded cities in the world, and she knew she’d go crazy if she wasn’t able to get away. Even if all she could manage was a couple of days a month, it would be better than nothing, although she was hoping for at least three long weekends.

        She kicked at the backpack, trying to tell definitively if the frying pan was in there, but her foot only made a dull “thud” on the nylon casing. She frowned. If it was in the pack, it was buried deep under other things.

        ‘But I wouldn’t put it past him. And he did insist on carrying my bags to the car this morning. Damn, what do I need that stupid pan for? I’ve got the bare essentials. It’s not like I’m going to be in the middle of nowhere. The most I’ll have to do is hike four miles and I’ll run into a town. There’s no reason for me to need a heavy cast iron pan like that. He’s just being stubborn. He’s got his mind set on something, and he won’t let it go for anything, even if it’s pointless and stupid,’ she fumed silently, then looked at the pack again, her eyes softening a little. ‘Or sentimental.’

        The frying pan had been the first piece of camping equipment they had bought together as a “couple,” and it had accompanied them on every trip since. Over the course of the eleven years she had known Michael, the pan had seen a great deal of use, especially as they grew older and spent more and more time in the forest. Looking at it from his point of view, for her not to have the pan with her on such a long adventure would be almost sacrilegious.

        ‘Okay, so maybe I won’t send it back postage due if it’s in there.’

        “Robert Blanchard?” a female voice called, and she looked up to see a heavyset White man stand up and approach the woman.

        The woman gave him a smile and directed him to the platform and archway. Joanna watched as the man stepped up to the platform and waited while the Gate operator put in the coordinates or made the right prayers or sprinkled pixie dust or whatever it was that he did to make the thing work.

        ‘So that’s the Quantum Gate.’

        It didn’t look all that high-tech. In fact, it looked a lot like a glorified security scanner; the kind her friend Jonas always had to make sure he removed his stainless steel nipple ring for in order to avoid unnecessary, embarrassing situations. It might be a little taller and a little wider than the scanners she was used to, but for all intents and purposes, it looked exactly the same as the checkpoints she’d walked through dozens of times.

        She watched curiously as the man approached the Gate. The lights on top of the archway blinked in a sequence of red and green, the air in the archway shimmered, and then the lights came on steady green. At the woman and the operator’s nods, the man stepped up onto the platform and walked through the archway. There was a flash of light and the man was gone. He didn’t come out the other side; he just vanished into thin air. Joanna swallowed hard.

        Even if it did look familiar, the thing still gave her the creeps. She knew it had been used for military purposes for the past three years (with phenomenal success), but it had only recently been approved for civilian use and was still in testing. She also knew that she was one of the ones playing guinea pig for it, but she was getting a free trip to Tokyo, and that was a huge plus.

        When she was accepted into the exchange program, she’d been both overjoyed and crushed. Her grades had made her a winning candidate, but the price tag had been astronomical. The life insurance money she had received after her parents’ deaths had been spent years ago, and, even with the yearly tribal stipend from the casino, her scholarship fund, and her survivor’s benefit from the US government for relatives who had lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001 attack, she didn’t have enough money for her to be able to go to Tokyo and still be able to continue renting the apartment she shared with Michael in Cullowhee, pay for tuition to get her bachelor’s degree at Western Carolina University (and possibly go on to Graduate School), and have cash to live on.

        She knew she couldn’t expect the tight-knit traditional community she lived in to put forth any funds. It wouldn’t be right to accept money for something that wouldn’t ultimately help the whole tribe, and what money her people did have was better spent on paying for services that would serve everyone.

        So what was a poor, orphaned, half-Cherokee to do?

        Sign up as a lab rat and pray she didn’t end up as Rat X who didn’t make it.

        It was Bobby from Asian Studies who had told her about the program. A new form of transportation, pioneered by the Army, was being tested for public use. Anyone willing to sign up would get a one-way trip to their destination and a regular airplane ride back, free of charge. Being that airfare was one of the most expensive parts of the trip to Tokyo, the opportunity seemed like a godsend. And when the researchers found out that their new volunteer was a 24-yr old woman of mixed Indian blood with Type 1 diabetes, they’d snapped her up faster than she could say “Sayonara.”

        The grad student who had done the screening interview had been practically drooling with eagerness. A genetically diverse female of breeding age with a congenital disease had been handed to him on a platter. When he found out that she was on subcutaneous birth control too, he’d almost gone through the roof.

        Needless to say, they were overjoyed at her willingness to participate in their research, but now that she was actually there, and watching the thing in action, she wasn’t feeling so great about her decision. She really didn’t know much about the Gates, and their technology was a very closely guarded secret. From the best she could understand, the Gates used the principles of Quantum Physics to bend space, creating a stable, but temporary, wormhole. Destinations for the Gates were relayed through a series of satellites that were programmed with coordinates, and the terminus for the Gate could open up pretty much anywhere on the globe and a few places off of it. There were rumors of using the Gates to send military personnel up to the International Space Station.

        She didn’t really understand the physics or science behind the Gates. For her, they looked like something out of a Sci-Fi movie or Star Trek episode. She remembered Michael pointing out that the computer components Spock was using in the original Star Trek TV series looked an awful lot like the floppy disks that would later be used in real computers, and that had been just too weird for her. Even though she’d been brought up in a time where technology was the driving force behind almost everything, she still viewed it warily. Not that there was anything wrong with technology, computers and machines; they had their uses and their place, but she wasn’t as comfortable around them as other people.

        “Kathryn Simms,” the woman called, and Joanna watched a thin African American woman stand up, shoulder two bags, and walk over to the platform.

        More lights, more flashes, the green lights said the Gate was “Go,” and Kathryn Simms blipped off to who-knows-where.

        ‘I wonder if it’s too late to change my mind,’ she thought, gripping the edge of her plastic seat and quelling her sudden certainty that something was very wrong. ‘Jo-Jo, you’re being silly. If you back out now, you won’t be able to go to Tokyo and all the plans you made for the summer will get flushed down the tubes. Not to mention that they’re expecting you there on Monday and your host family is waiting for you. Pull yourself together. Besides, Michael said it would be okay, so everything will be fine.’

        It seemed naïve to many of her non-Indian friends, but she trusted Michael’s opinion implicitly. He had an uncanny gift for knowing things, and she often wondered if he had gained the Sight from Crow because his Native name- at least now that he lived with the Eastern Band- was Crow Dancing. But Michael always denied being able to See the future, and strictly rejected all claims that he was clairvoyant. He would only say that he had a “feeling” about some things; that he just knew things and how they would come to pass. In all the years they had been together, she had never known him to be wrong.

        So when she found out about the research on the Gates, it was only natural for her to ask him what he thought of her becoming a test subject. They both knew that if she couldn’t find some way to offset the cost of the trip, she would have to bow out and give her spot to someone else. The chance of negating the expense of the airfare was exactly the break she needed, but she wasn’t about to go forward with it if he said it was too dangerous.

        Michael had thought long and hard about the risks and benefits before answering carefully that he thought it would be okay. His approval had been all she had needed to agree to participate in the study.

        “Maxwell Pratchett,” the woman called, and another White man stood up to approach the platform. This time she noticed that the woman was placing something around each subject’s neck before ushering them up to the Gate.

        ‘Must be some kind of transceiver,’ she decided.

        Red-green. Red-green. Flash. Flash. Green. Flash. And he was gone.

        Joanna looked away to hide her nervousness and cast her eyes about the room to see how many more people were left. It looked as if it was just her and three others now, all waiting for their turns.

        “Christina Keffer,” the woman called and a petite redhead stood up.

        Two others.

        Looking behind her to the large observation window, she did a double-take and almost fell out of her chair when she saw Michael standing on the other side of the security glass. He hadn’t realized that she had seen him yet because his dark eyes were on the woman who was going through the Gate, and his mouth was drawn into a deep frown. He brightened the moment he noticed her looking at him, however, and gave her one of his signature smiles.

        ‘I should have known that he would stay to see me off,’ she mused as he waved and shot her a thumbs-up.

        Michael had been her best friend for eleven years, worming his way into her heart with the tenacity of a bull dog; even at the beginning when she was lost and grieving and angry at the world for taking her family away. She’d been so mean to him those first two years, taking all of her rage and anguish out on him because he had let her, and there were times when she had wished he would leave her because she didn’t deserve his devotion, but he never did.

        When they were fifteen, he gave her a fake diamond solitaire ring he’d bought from Wal-mart and asked her to marry him. She’d worn his ring with pride, as she had worn every ring he’d bought her, until he had finally presented her with the real deal two years ago when he had officially proposed. He’d even gone through the whole tradition of asking Elisi’s permission to court her, and then proclaimed his intentions with a gift of meat. She’d known what was happening the moment he showed up on the doorstep with a haunch of fresh venison and a velvet ring box.

        The diamond was small, but she didn’t care. It reminded her of all the saving he must have had to do in order to afford it on his laborer’s paycheck. Michael had graduated from high school, but had never gone to college. He seemed perfectly content to build houses and work odd jobs.

        She looked at him, knowing it would be the last she would see of him for many months, and tried to memorize how he looked. They were the same age, although technically she was seven months older. His skin was darker than hers, but he was a full-blood Cherokee while she was the daughter of a Cherokee woman and an Anglo man. They did share similarities though. They both had the thick, straight black hair, dark brown eyes, and strong chins of their Native ancestors. Her own mother had been a full-blood, although she had tried to deny it. She had married an Anglo man and moved to California as soon as she could. Joanna had only found out about her maternal grandparents when her grandfather had died, and her family had flown back East for the services.

        But while her face was finer and showed her Anglo heritage, Michael’s face was classic Indian, high browed and cheek-boned, with just a hint of something feminine in his features. Stoic and proud, it was also a malleable face, full of expression when he wanted it to be, and people of both sexes found him attractive. He would often say that he was the looks of their pairing.

        “You’re the brains of this outfit,” he would joke, with a waggle of his eyebrows and a twinkle in his eyes. “I’m just pretty.”

        Yet no one could deny, least of all her, that he was undoubtedly male, and could be very masculine if the situation called for it. He was the one who had taught her how to street-fight to protect herself and how to throw a knife with deadly accuracy. He was also the one who had taught her everything she knew about woods-lore. She had always enjoyed the outdoors, but it was Michael who had taught her to love it, to need it like she needed air to breathe.

        She noticed that he had left his long, black hair loose, and his blue jeans and black “Outlaw” T-shirt molded to his chest. In one ear he had a dangling silver and tiger-eye earring, and his short sleeves revealed one of his numerous tattoos. Around his neck he wore the one necklace she never saw him take off: a handcrafted choker made from the claws and bones of a large red fox.

        Fox had been his animal totem when he lived in Oklahoma, and his Native name had been Fox Whose Eyes Are Open. It wasn’t until he had moved to North Carolina to live with a relative in the Eastern Band that his name had been changed, and she often suspected that the name change was more to reflect his new life with the Eastern Band Cherokee rather than anything else.

        Contrary to popular belief, the Principal Cherokee did not embrace animal totems for individuals the way many other tribes did, and traditionalist Cherokees would readily point that out. However, after the forced relocation of the People to Oklahoma, many Cherokee found themselves in close quarters with other tribes of differing beliefs like the Seminole, Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw. As a result, some cultural traditions had bled over and been adopted by some of the Western Cherokees. Michael’s family had a few Choctaw relatives as well, and they believed strongly in their totems. He had also once explained to her that his family had other reasons for claiming fox as a totem; reasons that dated back to events that had happened on the Trail of Tears.

        So Fox Whose Eyes Are Open had left the Plains and moved to the ancestral home of the Cherokee, leaving behind the life he had known in his childhood. In that way, he was very much like herself: uprooted and relocated under circumstances beyond their control, and she was certain that common bond had drawn them together in the beginning; before they were friends, then lovers and life-partners. But while Fox Whose Eyes Are Open might be Crow Dancing now, he never lost his Fox totem and Fox was always with him.

        “Mark Sanders,” the woman called, but she didn’t look to see which of the remaining two stood up to approach the platform. Her eyes were still on Michael, who was still looking back at her through the glass.

        She bit her lip to hold back a sudden rush of emotion. She saw him make shushing motions with his hands and knew he was telling her not to cry. She had cried that morning when they held each other in bed, and again when he had walked her to the security station. She didn’t want to cry anymore, but she didn’t know if she would be able to keep the tears at bay.

        “I will miss you,” she mouthed silently, knowing he couldn’t hear her through the glass, even as her eyes filled up and a tear rolled down her cheek.

        He gave her a sweet smile and put one hand on the window, miming that he would miss her too. She held up her left hand and wiggled her ring at him, making them both smile.

        “Ann Filetti.”

        ‘That’s it. I’m next,’ she realized, looking over her shoulder to see the brunette approaching the platform.

        She turned her gaze back to Michael, knowing that her time was short.

        “I love you,” she mouthed, and he responded with the universal hand signal for the same.

        He pantomimed using the telephone and writing.

        ‘Call. Write.’ She nodded. “I will.”

        She would also write about all her experiences in Tokyo in the brand new journal Michael had bought her. He’d even taped a picture of the two of them in full dance regalia inside the front cover. It was a sweet, sentimental gift, but also a practical one. The Storyteller expected Stories from Japan for her collection, and Joanna was loathe to disappoint her.

        “Joanna Tindall.”

        Mustering her courage, she stood, shouldering the backpack once again, picking up Iris in her right hand while her left hand took the rolling suitcase, and approached the platform.

        “That’s a nice looking man you’ve got there,” the woman commented.

        Joanna blushed. “My fiancé.”

        “Lucky boy. Okay, this is your GPS transceiver. If you don’t end up where you’re supposed to, it’ll give off a signal and we’ll find you almost instantly,” the woman said, slipping a chain with a small gray box on it around her neck.

        “Okay. Thank you,” she said, examining the pendant.

        “Now step up to the platform and wait for the signal to go. Then all you do is walk forward and the Gate does the rest.”


        She glanced over her shoulder to the observation window. Michael was still there, but he looked nervous. In front of her the Gate was clicking and whirring, and she felt the platform vibrate under her feet.

        “Okay, Ms. Tindall, you can go ahead,” the operator told her.

        She gulped and looked at the Gate. She couldn’t see anything at all; there was just a shimmer in the archway, like a film of water running across glass.

        “Like this?” she asked, taking a step forward.

        “Just walk through and don’t stop until you get to the other side.”


        She glanced at Michael, who waved, then resolutely stepped into the Gate.

        She didn’t know if she should expect some kind of resistance when she passed through the aperture, but she didn’t experience any. She only felt a slight pulling as she was drawn in. It was dark in the Gate, but if she looked behind her, she could still see the waiting room and the control booth even as the opening seemed to get farther and farther away.

        ‘Well, this isn’t so bad. Kinda weird, but not bad,’ she thought, feeling a little more confident.

        At that moment the Gate pulsed and bottomed out.

        ‘What the?’

        From the small doorway to the waiting room, she heard an alarm go off.

        ‘Oh no! What does that mean?’ “Wait! I’m still in the Gate!”

        She tried to turn back, to head for the exit she could see, but the Gate bottomed out again and she lost her footing, falling to her knees. In the waiting room, she could hear more alarms going off and heard shouting voices.

        “Help! I’m still in here!” she cried.

        The Gate lurched, sending her tumbling backwards, then the surface underneath her vanished, and she plummeted through black nothingness. She screamed as she fell, watching the light from the exit get smaller and smaller until it blinked out entirely. Her body hit solid ground with a crunching thud several agonizing moments later, and she blacked out from the impact.

On to Chapter One...

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