The Luckiest of Colors
Katrin glowered at the two messy braids trailing down either side of her shoulders. Their coppery tones were even more bright with the fire casting its orange glow on them.
“It is your fault I’m out here,” she muttered.
She was the only child in her village with red hair, and that’s why her parents didn’t like her. Her mother would look at her, sigh, and tell her that they should have used black tea and sage to darken her hair before anyone saw her flaming locks. Her father thought she was bad luck and would blame every accident or ill fortune the family had on her. If Katrin caught a cold, it was because she was redheaded. If her brother fell and scraped his knee while playing with her, it was because of her hair. If a storm blew through and blew the shingles off the roof, if the crops didn’t grow well, if foxes came for their hens, it was all because of Katrin’s red hair.
And that’s why Katrin had to run away. She knew she was too young to be on her own—only eight—but she couldn’t stand anymore disgusted looks from her father and pitying ones from her mother. She would prove that she wasn’t “bad luck.” She would live on her own for a few days, and when no illness befell her, no trees fell on her, and nothing else happened that could be blamed on her hair, then that would prove that it must be someone else bringing the bad luck.
Katrin pulled a leaf from one of her tangled braids. She threw it into the fire, hoping it would give it a little more life, but the dying flame hardly seemed to notice Katrin’s offering.
“This is bad luck,” Katrin whispered to herself. She desperately searched the ground within the fire’s ring of dim light, but didn’t see any twigs she could add. Katrin gave a nervous glace at the shadowy trees around her, beyond the firelight. Her eyes played tricks on her, making the darkness wriggle and slide in way that made her sure something was out there, watching her.
As much as she didn’t want her only light to fizzle out, she was terrified of going out there to gather more firewood.
Katrin hadn’t been scared when she left her house before dawn, or while following a deer trial through the woods, or even as the sun began to set as she gathered firewood. But now that the moon was just a sliver in the sky and the sparks from the fire the only stars, she wished more than anything that she hadn’t left her house.
She may not have been allowed to throw wood in the fire (because her father thought her bad luck might cause the house to burn down), but at least there was a fire.
She wished she had gathered more branches, but hadn’t expected the wood to burn so quickly. She had been so proud when she lite the fire with the matches she took from the house, just like her brother showed her when her father wasn’t around. She had watched the flames leap unto the branches she collected and wished her parents could see her now. He father couldn’t say she was bad luck. She started a fire and nothing bad happened!
Katrin curled up in a ball and squeezed her eyes shut. She should go to sleep before the fire went out. Then she couldn’t be afraid of the dark because it was dark when she slept anyway. But Katrin didn’t feel any safer with her eyes closed. She kept imagining shapeshifting animals from the stories coming for her. They would start as tiny bunnies coming out from the shadows, then they would morph into wolves that howled and snarled.
When the sun rose, she would go straight back to her house. Being left out of every game the other village children played and having adults scowl at her when she walked by was better than being eaten by shapeshifting bunny-wolves.
Katrin bolted upright as an owl called out. She loved listening to owls from her bedroom at night, but out here they sounded menacing, like they were calling her to step out beyond the fire’s light so they would swoop down on her.
“Forget sleeping,” Katrin said. She made herself stand and inched toward the edge of the fire’s light. She froze. Did something move out there?
She listened, but didn’t hear any rustling.
Katrin took a deep breath, like she was about to dunk her head in the creek, as she moved from the fire’s small ring of orange light.
She squinted at the dark ground and let out a breath of relief when she found a stick. She swooped on it and kept looking.”
“One, two, thr—” Katrin let out a yelp.
Two silver eyes peered from the darkness just a few feet from the stick she was about to grab. She withdrew her hand and clutched her two sticks to her chest like they could shield her from whatever it was the eyes belonged to. A raccoon? A wolf?
There was the soft rustle and the eyes began to move. Towards her.
Katrin held the sticks out, one in each hand.
“Don’t come near me or I’ll hit you!” she said, even though she knew animals didn’t understand words.
The eyes kept moving.
“Ahh!” Katrin yelled and thrashed the sticks through the air, hoping to scare the animal. It stopped coming towards her, but it didn’t go away. Now that it was standing just in front of her, she could see that it wasn’t a very big animal. Bigger than a raccoon, but much smaller than a wolf. It hardly came to her knees. She could make out a slim body, pointed ears, a slender snout, and a long fluffy tail.
“A fox?” she asked. The silver eyes blinked at her. It’s tail twitched and Katrin thought it might pounce, but that isn’t what it did at all. Instead, it stayed where it was at, but it was definitely still moving.
The shadowy figure of a fox began to waver, dark shapes bubbled and morphed in the darkness in front of her.
Katrin walked backwards until she was back by the fire, still holding the sticks out. It was a shapeshifter. She was sure of it. Maybe the little fox was about to turn into a bear.
Her heart was beating so hard that she heard it in her ears. She was about to run, when a boy stepped into firelight.
He was about her height and looked to be eight like her. His hair and eyes were silver.
“You have red hair,” the boy said.
Katrin forgot to be scared. “Red hair? You’re a fox who just turned into a boy, and that’s what you are worried about? My red hair!”
“I’m a boy who turns into a fox.”
“I know that!” Katrin sputtered, still miffed that he pointed out her hair right away. Apparently, even forest animals didn’t like girls with red hair.
“You said that I’m a fox who turns into a boy, but I’m a boy who can turn into a fox. There’s a difference.” The boy smirked like he said something clever.
“Great. But you are still a fox boy. That’s weirder than having red hair.”
“I didn’t say your hair was weird.”
Katrin was about to say, “Yes, you did,” but then she realized that he actually didn’t say that. “Why did you say I have red hair then?”
“Because you do.”
“You have silver hair,” Katrin shot back, still not sure if this boy was insulting her or not.
“Yep.” The boy looked very pleased with himself.
“And silver eyes,” Katrin said as if that would get to him.
The boy clapped his hands slowly. “You know your colors. Good for you. Or at least red and silver. What about the color of that tree over there.” He pointed to the darkness beyond the fire.
Katrin clenched her teeth, trying to think of something to say back. Oh, this will make him mad. “I see why you are a fox. I bet no one likes you when you are a boy.”
“I bet no one likes you either.”
Katrin smacked his shoulder with one of her sticks. “Go away!”
He held his hands up. “I didn’t mean that they shouldn’t not like you. I just meant that they don’t. Because of your red hair and everything.”
Katrin could feel tears prickling eyes. Even out here in the woods, she couldn’t escape people who teased her because of her hair.
The boy’s silver eyes widened a bit, then darted to the fire. He looked uncomfortable. Katrin wondered if he saw that she was about to cry. “I didn’t mean…I meant that people don’t understand us.”
“Us?” Katrin’s voice came out wavery.
“Yeah. Us shapeshifters.”
“I didn’t know they were people,” Katrin said. In the stories, they were always animals who turned into bigger, scarier animals.
The boy’s sliver eyes blinked and he cocked his head to one side. “Aren’t you a shapeshifter?”
“Of course not. Why would you think I am a shapeshifter?”
“Because you have red hair,” he said at the same time.
“What does that have to do with it?” She, frowning.
“People with red hair turn into red foxes. Just like people with sliver hair,” he pointed at himself, “turn into silver foxes.”
Katrin wished she could turn into a fox. Then she wouldn’t be afraid of being in the forest at night.
“I can’t turn into a fox,” Katrin said, shaking her head.
“How old are you?” the boy asked, tilting his head in thought.
“Yeah, you have plenty of time before your awakening.”
“What is an awakening?”
“It’s when a shapeshifter first turns into their animal. It happens around eight, nine, or ten.”
Katrin wanted it to be true. If she could be a fox, then the woods could be her home, and she wouldn’t have to go back to her parents. Weather she was bad luck or not.
“Someone would have told me if I was a shapeshifter,” Katrin said. “My parents never told me that one day I would turn into a fox.”
He shook his head. “They wouldn’t. Normal people are afraid of us.
“They aren’t afraid.” Katrin sighed. “They’re just mean.”
“Nah, they act mean because they are afraid of what you can do.”
“I can’t do anything.”
“Yet.” The boy gave a her a smile.
Katrin shook he head. “I need to go back home. Can you take me there?” The woods would be a lot less scary with a fox boy beside her.
“I can. Or I can take you to our village.” He turned and stared walking.
“Wait.” Katrin didn’t want to be alone again, but she wasn’t sure she should follow him. “What village?”
“The one all of the shapeshifters live in.”
“But I’m not a—”
He turned back around and rolled his eyes at her. “If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be out here.”
Katrin hesitated. Maybe she was a shapeshifter, and that was why everyone acted so strange around her. They were scared she would one day turn into a fox, right in front of their faces.
But maybe she wasn’t a shapeshifter. She could get him to take her home and then tell everyone that she’d survived a night in the woods without anything bad happening. That might be enough to prove that she wasn’t unlucky.
“Can you take me back home?” she asked.
He shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”
She smiled at the thought of going back to a big warm fire and a bed and all her dolls.
She frowned. Back to her mother’s disappointed looks and her father’s blaming of her for everything that went wrong.
Katrin stepped up beside him. “Let’s go to your village.”
The boy grinned and his silver eyes glinted in the dying firelight. “Are you going to keep those sticks the whole way.”
“Yeah,” she grinned and whispered, “There are foxes in these woods, you know.”
“Yep. Two of them.”
Katrin liked the sound of that. She wasn’t the only one with an odd hair color anymore.
Katrin put both sticks in the single flame left of the fire and watched them light. She handed one to the boy.
As they walked into the darkness, flaming sticks held high, Katrin looked down at her messy braids. They reflected the flame’s orange light.
She smiled. You’re the reason I’m on my way to a new home.
As Katrin skittered through the shadows, listening to the boy describe her new home, she thought of something that she’d never thought of before. Maybe red hair was the luckiest of colors.