Once upon a time there was a large red fox named Phinneas P. Phoxmore. Phinneas lived in a lovely forest just outside a small village. The forest was green and lush and home to a delightful variety of creatures.
Phinneas was most definitely not an ordinary fox. He paid very close attention to the condition of his fur and kept himself scrupulously clean and neat at all times. But beyond that, Phinneas had developed the marvelous ability to walk upright on his hind legs, and he did this so frequently that he had lost the ability to move like a lowly four-legged beast. Although Phinneas was on civil terms with his neighbors, he was not particularly friendly with any of them. Of course not a soul in the forest would consider addressing Phinneas as “Phinny” or “Phoxy,” and Phinneas kept pretty much to himself.
One fine summer morning, Phinneas rose from his soft featherbed and stretched a great stretch. He proceeded to dress himself with his usual attentive care: grey trousers, white silk shirt, black vest with a pocket for his gold watch, black velvet jacket, finely knit black socks, and shiny black leather boots. After he combed his whiskers until they were glossy and straight and spritzed himself with rose water, he strode out into the sunshine.
As Phinneas walked down the path that led from his perfectly shaped oak tree home, he noticed a squirrel precariously hanging from a branch above him and considered how undignified he looked. Next, he noticed two chipmunks dashing around bushes. “How fortunate that I take my time to walk this forest and breathe this fine air,” he mused. As Phinneas reached the stream that bisected the area, a startled frog hopped into the water. Phinneas gazed at the ripples created by the frog’s entry into the water and shuddered at the thought of being green, slimy, and required to swim in cold water. He had never learned to swim and couldn’t think of any reason why he should. And as Phinneas noticed a robin gracefully fly from one tree to the next, he thought, “It might be nice to fly, but not if I had to be naked like that bird!” A ground hog popped his head out of a hole. Phinneas didn’t really hear his friendly greeting as he considered the poor ground hog’s disheveled whiskers, filthy nails, and clumps of dirt that clung to its fur. Phinneas quickened his pace and turned toward home. Soon he came upon a bear taking a drink from the stream. As Phinneas neared, the bear lifted his head, water dripping from his tongue and mouth and wetting the fur under his chin. “Doesn’t he know to use a gourd cup and leaf napkin?” Phinneas asked himself.
Phinneas arrived home and spent the remainder of the day tidying his cozy den, sunning himself, trimming the tip of his sparkling white tail, and roasting a brace of quail he had caught in a trap (of course he would never risk getting his fine clothes messy). He enjoyed a quiet supper and a good book before washing his face and paws, removing his day clothes and donning his night clothes, and going to bed. Phinneas immediately fell into a deep sleep.
As Phinneas slept, tragedy struck in the nearby village. After sundown, the villagers gathered for their annual midsummer festival. A huge bonfire was lit as the music began. In the excitement, a young girl raced too close to the fire, and the rag doll that swung in her hand caught fire. In terror, she ran to her mother, who grabbed the burning doll and flung it from them as far as she could. The doll landed in a small pile of hay which quickly caught fire, and in a blink an entire row of cottages was engulfed in flames. The dry brush along the edge of the village soon caught fire as well, and before long flames extended into the forest.
Phinneas awoke to the sounds of frightened animals and tree branches crackling and crashing. He arose, and grumbling about the disturbance, looked out his window. What he saw brought him to a full state of wakefulness: he hurriedly dressed himself and dashed out of his tree just as its outer branches caught fire. It was impossible to see clearly in the dark and with all the smoke, but the encroaching wall of fire was unmistakable, and Phinneas joined the other residents of the forest in fleeing from its path.
As he fought his way through the dense underbrush of the forest, Phinneas noticed a family of squirrels wildly swinging from branch to branch and tree to tree as they avoided the confusion underneath them. The chipmunks he had observed that morning were still running, though now with purpose. With their speed, agility, and small size, they were soon out of sight and well out of harm’s way. When Phinneas reached the stream that divided the forest, he watched enviously as frogs and snakes and other creatures plunged into the water to swim to the other side, and safety. He began to grumble as he considered his long hike around the forest, and the fear of not making it out of the forest in time began to creep into his mind. He began to move as fast as his two legs would carry him.
The fire was moving faster than he was! Close to panic now and becoming hot and breathless, Phinneas admired the birds flying unencumbered overhead as he threw off his jacket; he rounded a corner and encountered a wall of thick shrubs. He squeezed through a small hole, knocking his hat off, but before he could break completely free, the chain that held his watch caught on a protruding branch and would not release him. He tugged and tugged but finally had to detach the chain from his vest, leaving it and his watch hanging in the shrub. He staggered forward and hurried on, driven by the wall of heat and smoke that was catching up to him. Before long he encountered an immense tangle of thorny vines. He would be shredded if he attempted to push through it, but the fire was right behind him. What to do? At the last second, he noticed a small, dark tunnel that another animal had carved through the earth to tunnel under the thorns. Phinneas hesitated for just a second, and then cautiously put his front feet down onto the ground, crouched low, and lowered himself into the tunnel. It was quite a tight fit, and Phinneas felt like he was going to suffocate. The second’s hesitation entering the tunnel had cost him, though, and the white tip of his tail was singed as the proximity of the fire reminded him to press on.
Phinneas came to the other side and once again encountered the stream. He understood that he needed to get across the stream, but he couldn’t swim! He staggered along the edge, sometimes on two feet, sometimes on four, trying in desperation to put distance between himself and the fire. But as long as he was on the near side of the stream, he would not be safe. He removed his boots from his blistered feet and hobbled forward. Finally, he came to a makeshift bridge made of stones and boulders. It appeared dark, slippery, and unsafe, but it was Phinneas’s best chance to escape the oncoming flames. Standing upright, he put one tentative back foot on the first boulder. The rock remained in place, and Phinneas started to make his way across the stream. It didn’t take long for him to start to slip and slide, and before long he was on all fours, wet and muddy and clinging to any surface he could. It was a slow and terrifying journey, but he eventually made it to the far side of the stream and to safety.
Phinneas collapsed on the stream bank and caught his breath. His thirst was overpowering and without a second thought he plunged most of his head into the cool water. He took a long, long drink, and then with water dripping down his face and throat, Phinneas retreated to a soft bed of brush and curled into a tight ball. Although he could hear the rustlings of other animals who had fled the blazing forest, he could not keep his eyes open, and soon he was in a deep sleep. He awoke several hours later to a bright, sunny day. The once lush and green forest was charred and smoking. Nothing was the same, and neither was Phinneas. He was filthy and unkempt; he was half-dressed; his whiskers were crumpled and his tail was singed. But he alive and able to appreciate the strengths of his fellow creatures, who, he was grateful to discover, were kind and helpful. And so Phinneas lived happily ever after.