Foxfire and Motherhood
When I consider my life through the lens of myth and story, themes become much clearer. It is, after all, the way we humans have found meaning from our time on Earth for thousands of years. As children, we are taught and come to understand the rules of the world through story, imaginative play, and mythic resonance with otherworldly tales. Then at some point in our growing years, stories are often tossed to the wayside, and we find ourselves instead ushered to the altar of science and logic. As we come into adulthood, we are asked to sacrifice the playful map of story and instead, turn to the grid of intellect. No more are we interpreting the stories of others and using our interpretations as guideposts for our own life. Now we google it, and we read the studies, and we buy the nonfiction books, and we find our answers there.
This realm of science and academia indisputably has given much to humanity; diseases cured, crisis averted, the world mapped so no one gets lost. And for these miraculous advancements, I am grateful. However, there are times in life when this factual pool of knowledge begins to feel shallow and full of unfulfilling whirlpools. Sometimes, we long for deeper waters. And so today, in the spirit of this longing, I bring you a story.
This story is adapted from Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women by Sharon Blackie. I highly recommend this beautiful compilation of thought-provoking tales. If you have never explored the work of writer, psychologist, and mythologist, Sharon Blackie, I encourage you to; it is fertile ground for feminine insight.
The tale is called Foxfire. It revolves around a supernatural being of the forest called the huldra. The huldra legend comes from the Scandinavian tradition; the word huldra, a Norwegian word, means ‘covered’ or ‘secret’. The huldra is the keeper of the forest; stories about her differ though themes remain consistent. According to Sharon Blackie,
“It is often said that seen from the front, she is a stunningly beautiful, naked female with long hair; from behind, she is hollow like an old tree trunk. In Norway, she may be depicted with a cow’s tail, and in Sweden, she may have that of a fox. In contemporary Iceland, stories still abound of the huldrefolk. It is said the work crews building new roads will sometimes divert the road around particular boulders which are said to be the homes of the huldre. In many folk tales, the huldra lures men into the forest to have sex with her, rewarding those who satisfy her, but driving mad or killing those who don’t.”
In Foxfire, a woman catches a glimpse of a fox while out in the woods. She becomes instantly enamored with the sheer beauty of the graceful being, the “epitome of all that is wild and free”. The woman begins to visit the same spot in the woods each day in the hopes of again spying the fox and over time, they cultivate a relationship. Eyeing each other through the trees, the woman even brings gifts of raw meat for the fox to devour. She describes how the fox always managed to bring a smile to her face, a smile that had been lost as she suffered miscarriage after devastating miscarriage. She says, “With every child lost over the years, I’d lost more of myself. In the months leading up to that winter in our dark northern wood, I didn’t know who I was anymore, I didn’t even know why I should care.”
The fox lights a tiny spark within the woman’s darkened spirit, a spark that grows over time. In the woman’s words, “I didn’t just love the fox you see- I wanted to be her. Longed for it, as I had never longed for anything in my life. To be sleek and fast; to be beautiful and fierce, feral and unconstrained. To run wherever I wanted to run, to make my dark home in the belly of the fecund earth, to hunt at dawn in the wildness of a moonlit wood.”
As the story goes on, the woman’s husband enters the drama and upon seeing the fox for himself, he becomes intoxicated with her as well. One day, it is the husband who quietly sneaks out to the woods in hopes of encountering the fox, the wife follows secretly behind. When the man sees the fox, the animal transforms before his eyes into a beautiful woman with red-gold hair and amber eyes. Her husband falls for the fox woman immediately and the wife flees the scene.
The next morning the woman follows her husband and secretly witnesses his clandestine meeting with the fox woman, the huldra, in a ramshackle cabin deep in the wild woods. Then, the wife hatches a plan. She decides to confront the huldra and creeps out at first light the following day straight to the dark, hidden cabin. The fox woman is there, unperturbed by the woman’s arrival, greeting her with a raised elegant eyebrow and a smile. The woman fights the tears in her eyes and struggles to find her voice, finally saying, “So you’re a huldra”. The fox woman only smiles again and replies, “You shouldn’t believe all the fairy stories you’re told, and not all of us are what we seem. Perhaps not even you.” In Blackies’ words, “Then she stood- red of hair, white of skin, long-limbed and heartbreakingly beautiful. She turned around and began to walk over to the farthest dark corner of the room. And as she did so, I gasped- for her naked back above the foxtail was sleek, and entirely whole.”
The fox woman proceeds to light a candle, hold it between the human woman and herself, and beckons the wife to look at her own body in the mirror of the tall wooden wardrobe. The fox woman says, “Now turn your head, and look, and we will see which one of us is empty.” The wife writes, “I stretched my neck and looked over my shoulder into the mirror. I looked, and I saw, and then I screamed. For in the place where my back should be was a huge gaping hole, hollow as a long-rotted tree trunk.”
It is then that the woman sits trembling by the fire, sipping a nourishing broth given to her by the fox woman, and weeps. She weeps for all the children who were lost to her, for the vacant years she’d wasted, for the way she’d allowed her center to become hollow and her heart to become closed. The fox woman says nothing more and disappears, leaving only a fox tail behind.
The remainder of the story is about how the woman learns to become full again. She finds her wholeness in the forest, talking to the trees and burrowing herself into the mossy, dark, earthen floor. The power of the wood remakes her. She rediscovers her own wildness. And after a while, when she again dares to creep out to that fateful cabin and gaze at herself in the mirror of truth, she finds the hole at her heart almost closed.
In the retelling of this story, it is my hope that you, dear reader, will find your own unique meaning from it. I hope you discover a truth for yourself and give that truth space to settle into your heart. As a mother of four young children, the path of motherhood is an immense part of my life, and I couldn’t help but consider Foxfire in relation to my experience as a mother. For just as the fox woman first takes, and then ultimately gives to the wife, I find my children have done the same for me.
The other day I slipped on a princess dress strewn upon the kitchen floor and fell to the crumb-covered tile with a thud. I picked myself up, cursing fake satin fabric, condemning my three-year-old’s tendency to change her clothes thirteen times a day. In a rage I am certainly not proud of, I grabbed the dress and hurled it at my daughter, “Clean up your clothes!!” I yelled in my mad mom voice. She looked at me, her face fell, her shoulders slumped, and as the tears began to fall she spoke out in her small toddler voice, “but mom… that breaks my heart.” Her voice cracked and she turned away sobbing. Watching her walk away, I glimpsed myself reflected in my kitchen window, hair disheveled, face scrunched in anger, eyes ablaze with contempt; one word came to mind, hollow.
It is incredibly difficult to witness your children being genuinely hurt by something you said or did. I crumbled to my knees and beckoned her back, apologizing and hugging, my stomach aching with remorse and guilt. How can a princess dress turn me into a monster? Who is this woman who screams at her child over clothing? Any mother can tell you that when you bring a child into the world, they become your biggest fan. No one has ever been more excited about your birthday than your children will be. Nobody laughs harder at your jokes than your toddler, and nobody has bigger ears to hear what you have to say, no matter what it may be, than your little ones. You are mom superhero, able to cure all ills with a gentle touch, magical maker of all things good. And yet, it is also part of the spiritual practice of a mother to have your worst self reflected back to you on an almost daily basis. Being entirely responsible for another being pushes us to our limits and our monster heads inevitably rear up.
After our hug, my daughter quietly, confidently proclaimed, “See mom, you’re a nice mom.” Calling me back to myself. Small hands, simple words gently encouraging me to drop my burning anger before it scorches us and instead turn to peace. Always inviting me back into a space of love, a tiny teacher in a princess dress.
There are many times when I am so exhausted, so drained, so tired of doing dishes in my pajamas that I feel as though I am literally hollowed. I pick my kids up from school, smiling at the neighbors when they ask how I am and say, “oh we’re fine!”. If only they pressed the issue and broke through the facade, they’d see my hollowed out back. The pieces I lost while up nursing a baby for the fifth time last night, while wiping yet another butt that isn’t mine, while eating another hasty lunch of whatever my kids didn’t finish on their plates. And yet, just as I have lost parts of myself in the process of being a mother, it would be an oversimplification of the tale to say my children have only taken, just as in the story of Foxfire, the narrative is more complicated than that.
Were one not to take in the story in its entirety, they might assume the fox woman a guilty antagonist, stealing what rightfully belongs to the other woman, bewitching her husband and making him her own. But we know that is not what happens at all. It is the fox woman who gives the wife a grand gift. The gift of seeing oneself in truth, missing pieces and all. And just so, it is my children who have given me back my wholeness. It is they who have asked me to gaze into the wardrobe mirror and see the truth of my hollowness, it is they who have inspired me to acknowledge all the ways I let myself be emptied by my people-pleasing tendencies, by our patriarchal culture, by perfectionism, by egoic falsity, by succumbing to the white-hot blaze of my own irrational anger. My children have called me to the woods, beckoned me into a dark cabin, and shown me Truth. Some days, it is a hard sight to see. But in seeing myself honestly, I can grow. My authentic reflection is fertile ground. It is earthen ground, where crumpled brown leaves fall and new life emerges, where the wild fox abides.
Written by: Olivia Gonzales
Olivia is a mother of four, doula, birth photographer, and writer. She sees the journey through birth and postpartum as a sacred rite of passage, and believes every woman should be honored and nourished as they traverse this path. She is a lover of mystical texts, loose leaf tea, and fine fabrics. Olivia can often be found taking ridiculously long walks in all weather. She lives in the mountains of North Idaho with her husband and children.