“Mother? What’s over that hill?” Peregrine and her mother were were peeling potatoes. Peregrine was looking out the window at the large hill that the sun always set behind each evening.
“Oh, you don’t want to go over that hill. You don’t know what scary animals could be waiting for you. You could get hurt.”
“Oh. Okay,” Peregrine muttered, but she couldn’t take her eyes off that hill for the rest of the day, even while they were sitting down to eat with Father. What could be on the other side? Maybe a lost treasure, she thought, or a town where there are knights and horses and princesses. They would all ask her who she was and she would say she came from beyond the hill and she would be their guest of honor and dine with the fairy king and queen.
The next morning, Peregrine woke up early and fed the hogs and the chickens. Her mind kept wandering, though, and she kept having the feeling like the big hill was watching her. A fox walked right up to the pens and sniffed at them. At first, Peregrine was terrified. Maybe the fox was going to eat the hens and then Father would be really angry with her. Peregrine sucked all the air in her lungs she possibly could and told that fox to “shoo!” Strangely, the fox didn’t growl or run away like Peregrine expected. Instead, it calmly cocked its head and stared right into Peregrine’s eyes. She swallowed a lump in her throat and stared right back. Adults were always looking over her head, but she really felt like this fox was staring right into her heart. It made her uncomfortable. She wondered if she should go get help. But just as she thought that, the fox got up off his haunches and slowly walked away. Peregrine watched it until it disappeared down the winding path to the big hill.
“Phew!” Peregrine said to herself. “I better tell Father!”
Peregrine ran toward the stables where Father was saddling the horses for his ride out into town.
“Father!” she cried, then slowed down when she saw his face. Father would probably say she was running around like an animal and that she should act like a lady.
“Father, I, um…”
“What is it? Did you feed the animals?”
“Um, yes, but…” Peregrine paused to catch her breath. She wasn’t sure what to say to Father. He was busy saddling the horses and he probably didn’t want to be bothered. He grabbed his gun to take with him in case of animal attacks. What would he do to the fox? Peregrine wondered. Father would most likely shoot the fox, like he did that one stray dog. Peregrine would feel terrible about it. “…I just wanted to say good luck at work today?”
“Girl, why are you wasting time like this? If you fed the animals, go inside and see what your mother needs help with.” He cinched the last strap and climbed onto the Clydesdale. “Go on, now! Get yourself back in the house!”
She walked toward the house like she was told, but she looked back as he rode off. Peregrine always wondered about what Father’s days were like in town. She had been there a few times, but she was mostly supposed to just stay at home with Mother. She was afraid to ask him about his trips. Whatever she said to him would probably make him disappointed in her, anyway, so it was better for Peregrine to just keep her mouth shut.
The sun was high over the big hill. Peregrine wondered where the fox was right now, whether he was going back home or playing with his animal friends. Peregrine looked to the big hill and made a promise to it that she would never tell her parents about the fox. She turned an imaginary key over her lips and tossed it away. A gust of wind shook the trees and made the grass on the hills shimmer like ripples in a pond. In her imagination, the key had been blown away into the trees far away.
The fox came by to visit every day that week. At first, he would just walk around and sniff at things, but then Peregrine began talking to him. The fox would sit and appear to listen as Peregrine talked about her parents and her chores and the games she liked to play. Then, the fox would slowly walk back down the winding path to the big hill.
Peregrine began bringing treats for the fox, like apples and honey cakes. The fox ate them and listened to her, then he left. She would always watch it until it vanished into path up the hill. Peregrine found she desperately wanted to follow her new friend. But that would be silly. She had errands to do and what would her parents say? For a moment, a breeze blew clouds over the big hill. It was almost like the hill was winking at her. Each day, she found herself waiting longer after the fox had left out of view.
Though she never mentioned the fox to her parents like she promised, Peregrine began to ask both Mother and Father about the hill any chance she got. Both of them were worried and told her not to concern herself with it. This only made her more curious.
The next morning, Peregrine hopped out of bed and took her handkerchief from by the washbasin. She grabbed some day-old honey cakes and apples and tied them up like a little lunch sack. When she went out, she fed the animals extra so they wouldn’t be hungry. She didn’t know how long she would be gone.
She had gotten up so fast, it was still before the sun was up. She stood there, thinking a hundred different fears in her head. What if her parents found out? How much trouble would she be in? What if the fox never showed up at all? Would Mother be okay at home without her help around the house? The sun began to rise behind her and let up the big hill in reddish-gold. The fox came down, earlier than usual. His fur coat looked like a golden fire in the dawn light and he squinted at the rising sun.
“H-hello,” Peregrine said. She expected the fox to sit or sniff around, but instead it cocked its head, paused for a moment, then spun around back toward the big hill. “Hey! Wait up, fox!”
Peregrine looked back at her house below and thought about her parents, but she didn’t want to lose the fox today. It was fast when it wanted to be.
The hike up the hill was longer than she thought. “I’ll just go up to the top and come back down. It will be faster on the way down,” she told herself. She kept thinking the fox was going to wander off into the trees, but he kept to the road. Peregrine felt like she was being pulled by an invisible string. When the sun was up high, she stopped to sit on a rock.
“It’s noon,” she told the fox. “My parents are probably worried about me,” Peregrine unwrapped the handkerchief and splitting a honey cake with her friend. “They might be angry with me, too.” She sighed, reaching out for the fox’s coat. He allowed her to pet him, something she found strange now that she started. Maybe he belonged to someone? “I wish you could tell me what’s on the other side. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so curious.”
When Peregrine was rested, she picked herself up and climbed toward the top. The trail became smaller and filled with all sorts of brambles and weeds. At one time, had to crawl through some bushes after the fox and got her arms scratched up. Peregrine tried to dust off her dress, but the dirt was all caked into the front like clay.
With twigs in her hair, Peregrine climbed higher and higher and wondered if she would even be back before dark. It must be a few hours past noon now and who knows how much more she would have to climb. Maybe this hill would go on forever all the way up to Heaven. She looked back down the hill and couldn’t see her home anymore. She figured it was somewhere in the valley, but she wasn’t exactly sure where.
Soon, though, the path finally opened up into an open range of grass and white heather flowers. How pretty. The road leveled out a little more and she could see the top. “Just a little more and I can see what’s over the hill,” she said. “Then I’ll go home.”
The top of the hill was windy and cool. She still felt dirty and scratched but the breeze was refreshing against her skin. Peregrine took an apple from her handkerchief and bit into it. Almost there, she thought. Almost to the top. The sun lit up the grass and the birds that were singing in the morning had come back to their homes and were chattering away in the trees with their families, probably about where they’d flown and what they’d seen that day. Peregrine figured birds must have a lot to talk about since they get to see everything.
The view made Peregrine forget to breathe. From way up here, she could see her house again, but it didn’t even look like a house anymore. It looked like a tiny button sewn into the valley. She wanted to go back home again to her family, but even more, she was curious to see what was on the other side of the hill, and she wasn’t going to turn back now that she was almost there. The fox lay down to rest in the sun among the grass and the white heathers. His ears flickered as Peregrine raced past him.
Peregrine’s breath caught in her throat. The other side was even more beautiful than her side of the valley, more beautiful than she could have ever imagined. There was a great, big river flowing through the valley, and the trees below were all flowering with shades of pink and yellow and purple and red. An apple orchard full of pink apple blossoms stretched out as far as the eye could see. Up above, the wind caught falcons’ wings so that they floated on the warms updrafts rising into the sky.
“Is this your home?” Peregrine turned to ask the fox.
The fox rubbed his nose in his paw.
“I guess that was a silly question to ask,” she laughed at herself. Peregrine broke off a heather stem and smelled it. It smelled fragrant like the apron her mother used to bake. She wanted to share everything she’d seen with her parents, but they would probably be too mad to listen. She looked up at the falcons, listened to the little finches in the trees. Peregrine wished she was a bird and could just fly away somewhere special.
She went over to crouch by the fox, ground with her flower stalk. She felt such excitement before, but seeing the other side of the hill just wasn’t enough now. For some reason, she’d expected more to happen. Now that she was up here, she already had to go back home.
“What do you think I should do now?” she asked the fox. “I really should go home. But my parents will be so mad at me. I don’t even know what Father would do.” But in reality, Peregrine knew exactly what her parents would do. Father would spank her and send her to bed with no supper. Mother would keep a close eye on her but refuse to talk about it. Life would continue in much of the same way, only they would trust her less and keep a close eye on her. One morning, Mother or Father would eventually see the fox coming to visit. Then Father would take his rifle and shoot the fox and skin her only friend for his pelt.
“Maybe we could run away.” She raised the heath stem like a royal scepter. “We could go to the farthest reaches of the world, see far away cities and live off the land. Just you and me.”
The fox’s ears perked up. He licked his snout.
“All the way—” Peregrine’s hand stopped as she pointed out toward the gorgeous valley below. “But this is your home, isn’t it? Don’t you have a family?”
The fox stretched and yawned.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know if I want to go back to mine. All they do is ignore me. And, well, if they ever see you, Father will…” Peregrine’s eyes start tearing up. She wipes the heather against her face. “We can’t see each other after this. If you come back to the pens, I’ll throw rocks at you. Do you understand?” The fox cocked its head. “Do you understand, you dumb animal!” She throws the heather at the fox, who leaps away. “I hate you. I hate you!” Peregrine’s shouts turned to sobbing. She collapsed in the field of heather, turning spots of her soiled dress into mud.
The fox walked up to her and sniffed her face. She opened her eyes and looked back into his honest brown eyes. This was Peregrine’s first and only friend. The one she knew who had never judged her or ignored her or made her feel small. “I…” She sprang up, bolting back down the hill toward her home. She barely noticed the brambles and bushes tearing at her skin and at her clothes. Down and down the hill she ran. And all the way her only thought was, I love you. I love you. I’ll always love you.