The waters around Ghost Point are some of the most treacherous known. Not a year goes by without one ship or another foundering in the shoals there, and a good double handful of boats; on either side of that rocky prominence, ten miles to the north is Broadham, and about fifteen south is Walcott. Between them nothing but some of the worst countryside you've seen, a weird mix of rocks and marsh. Nearest human habitation to Ghost Point is a good six miles straight inland, a cluster of houses known as Plinth which sits on the first solid ground you'll come across in that direction.
There was a road, of course, straight through the marsh, but taking a ship is faster and safer. The ground in that bog is unpredictable, even on the road. People generally don't use it.
Especially in winter--and that winter was a bad one. That was why Perkins had broken his leg; he'd been scraping ice from around the light's windows, and had slipped. Fell only ten feet but landed badly.
Perkins' partner was Aldous Hardy, who was a big man, built like a lumberjack but not quite all there, mentally. Tending a light doesn't require a lot of brains; just the ability to follow instructions and keep a schedule. Hardy did that handily. And when he'd seen that Perkins was hurt, he'd carried him inside and got on the radio and let the Admiralty at Walcott know there was a problem, and within a day I was there and Perkins was in a hospital.
Twenty-four hours later and that would have been impossible; a blizzard hit that lasted a week and shut the road down for a month.
Still: the light was well-supplied and two men could winter there without trouble. I was unhappy at being away from my family, especially with the holidays looming, but it was an emergency, and couldn't be helped. My long-suffering wife had understood the need; my children, probably less so, but they were used to me being away for a couple of weeks at a time. This would just be a bit longer, is all.
My job was to manage six lights, up and down the coast, overseeing their operation and maintenance; that territory also covered a number of other navigational aids, things like buoys and jetties and so forth, ensuring they remained in good repair. Winter was when I was least busy.
In any case, some two weeks after I'd taken over for Perkins, one night, Hardy disturbed my sleep.
"Boss, there's a boat out there."
"The hell you say," I said groggily. "Give me a minute." I pulled on a sweater over my sleep clothes, shoved my toes into my slippers, and followed him up to the light itself. I habitually ran my eyes over the mechanism, closing them as the lens swiveled around and bathed me in bright light, reopening when the beam had swept past. An old habit.
Hardy pointed. "There, boss, there!"
Sure enough, a small craft lurched shoreward on a swell, listing badly, its mast broken. At that, it was an amazing sight: how it had gotten past the rocks in that good of a condition was mystifying.
I got dressed, and we hurried down to the shore. By the time we got there, the boat had found the beach, and it lay on its port side, the surf heaving it up only to lay it down again. Hardy threw a grapple at the keel; once he was sure it was fast he brought the cable up the beach to me. We belayed it around a boulder, and when a wave would lift the boat, we'd pull on the cable with all our might and then haul the slack around the boulder. A few repetitions of this served to get the boat most of the way out of the surf, making it safer to approach.
Hardy boarded the craft; and after a few moments he came out bearing something which--once he returned to me--turned out to be a woman.
"She's the only one aboard, boss."
"Let's get her inside."
We put her in my bed and stoked up the stove, and after perhaps an hour or so she woke up.
"Where am I?"
"You're safe, ma'am," I said. "This is the lighthouse at Ghost Point."
"The last thing I remember was...," she began, and stopped, her face radiating confusion. "Why, I don't remember anything."
Now that she was awake, I lit a couple of lamps. She looked young, maybe eighteen or twenty. She had smouldering green eyes, and fire-red hair that had two odd peaks in it, one on either side of her head, which--I'd observe, as time went on--would not go away no matter how she brushed it. It was a thick mane of red hair that she had, falling to her shoulders quite naturally. Now that she'd begun to warm up, her porcelain cheeks had a hint of rosiness about them. She was very beautiful, with a pixie-ish face, and if I hadn't been a married man--well.
"Have some tea," I suggested, pouring a cup for her. "You've been through a lot. Sometimes memory can be tricky right after a busy day."
"Oh. Thank you," she said, sipping from the cup.
"Do you at least know your name?" I asked.
"Jezebel," she said, with a bright smile.
And that was how it all began.
* * *
Three days later she had Hardy wrapped around her little finger. He got tongue-tied in her presence, and she kept him hopping with little requests, having him do favors for her. She never treated him badly, but all the while she had him waiting on her, it was me that she kept paying attention to.
I was bemused by that. I'm not a handsome man, so receiving such attentions was new to me; but to my surprise, I found that I was not at all tempted by them. Every time she tried to put a kiss on my cheek, I remembered that that was where my daughter would kiss me goodnight; when she tried to hug me, her scent--delightful as it was!--was not that of my wife, and I would demur.
After a few repetitions I could see that it frustrated her; but I could also see that it frustrated Hardy. He began to be surly--not actively insubordinate, but short and sulky.
And so it came to Christmas Eve. Dinner had been a quiet, sullen affair, even though I'd opened a ham and made a feast for us. Jezebel, dainty as she was, had quite an appetite, and seemed to prefer meat to anything else.
"Aldous? Be a dear and give me another cup of tea," she said, and the lunk immediately did as she asked, leaving his own meal to take her mug to the stove and pour her a fresh cup. He'd just sat down when she said, "Oh, poor Aldous, you forgot the sugar." Up he got again, to get her a lump of sugar; and once he was seated and had a morsel on his fork, she said, "Ah! Aldous, dear Aldous, did you forget I like two lumps?"
And on, and on, like that.
That night I retired an hour before midnight, as usual; and after a little while there was a rustling from the door to my room.
I sat up; by the dim light of the fire in the fireplace I could see Jezebel coming into the room. She smiled at me.
"What do you want, Jezebel?" I asked. "Hardy's awake and on watch."
"I want...something only a man can give me." Smiling, she crept toward me, lifting her skirts.
I sighed. "We've been through this. I'm a married man."
"But your wife isn't here right now, is she? She doesn't have to know."
"Hardy would be more than willing," I said to her. "Though I am flattered, I must decline."
"Aldous is a dear," she said, "but tedious. You're interesting."
She flung herself onto the bed then, hands grasping at my shoulders, trying to lever herself close enough to kiss me; and at that moment the door burst open.
"I've had enough," Hardy snarled. "Jezebel, get out of here." He turned to me. "It's time we had a man-to-man talk, boss."
Then I saw the knife, the very one he'd used to carve the ham, in his hand. Jezebel rolled off the bed and backed into the corner, her eyes shining with excitement, as Hardy lurched toward me.
"You can fight me, or you can just lay there," he said dangerously. "It's all the same to me."
"Hardy, get hold of your senses," I snapped, rolling to my feet. "What's gotten into you?" I circled around towards the door, intending to flee, but that brought Jezebel into my view, and that's when I noticed something very, very odd.
Her hair--those two peaks, they were twitching, and I could swear something was going on under her skirt, the way it rustled back and forth; so instead of leaving the room, I grabbed the coal scoop from the fireplace and said, "Jezebel, what is that?"
Hardy turned, and I coldcocked him with the shovel.
He was scarcely on the floor when I leapt over him and seized the girl. The quivering of the hair, and the oddness about her backside--I savagely yanked up on her skirts.
"Oh, no! Please be gentle," she cried, but I turned her over and yanked up layer after layer of cloth until--
I was sitting on the bed, the still-protesting Jezebel sprawled across my lap, her exposed posterior raised, allowing me a good view of her underwear and her very shapely hindquarters...and a thick, red, bushy tail sprouting from her lower back, just above the waistband of her panties.
She looked at me then, mouth open, looking as if she were going to cry. "You're a beast," she said tearfully.
"I don't know what you are," I replied.
But her form seemed to shimmer and twist, and after a couple of moments her clothing went limp, and she began to struggle; and after a couple of seconds a fox jumped out of the clothing, walking in a loose circle and shaking itself out.
"Oh, hell," the fox said, in Jezebel's voice. "It's Christmas Eve, isn't it?"
"It surely is," I said, consulting my watch. "In fact, it is just now Christmas Day."
"Midnight on Christmas! Ohhh." The fox sat and closed its eyes, lowering its head.
"What are you?"
"I'm Jezebel, fool." The fox laughed her musical laugh, but now it was tinged with cruelty.
I stared at the animal for several seconds, then closed my mouth and stared some more, utterly dumbfounded.
Jezebel sighed, holding up a paw and looking at it. "Still, I guess that's the end of it."
"The end of what?"
"Fool. Humans are stupid," she remarked casually. "I put on a pretty disguise, and had Aldous at my beck and call for three days. You fed me all that good food, and treated me like a princess, just because you thought I was pretty," she added in a sneering tone. (At least, I think it was. I don't think a fox's face can sneer.) "And Aldous in particular, he was so eager for mating I could make him forego his own meal. And it was pathetically easy to get him to challenge you for me."
"You're a fox," I said.
"Brilliant. You must be a genius. Fah! I don't know how many years I've done this. It doesn't take much, and I eat well. But you've ruined it!"
"Me?" I asked. "How?"
"Midnight on Christmas Eve is a magical moment, the time when animals can talk, when spells can be cast; but also the time when a spell might be undone. It's the time when the old world was cast away, and the new world began; the angels sang that night.
"And at the one moment that my disguise was vulnerable, you saw through it," Jezebel said disgustedly. "Seeing my tail at that exact second!"
"If you're a fox, why act so...romantically...towards us?"
"I needed only a small portion of a man's life energy to maintain the spell," she said. "I had months before I needed more. It's pleasurable, and he doesn't mind, or even notice, what I take from it."
"But surely he sees the tail...?"
"Of course not! As I said, there's one moment out of the entire year that my disguise is less than perfect--just one!--and because you saw me as I am, now I can never disguise myself again." She sighed. "Ah, it was such a fun time. But after the sun rises tomorrow, I'll be mute, too."
"So, what do I do with you?" I asked her. "I wouldn't feel right throwing you out into the cold, but isn't that where you belong?"
"It is. But I'll probably die," she said. "It's been a very long time since I lived that way. I scarcely remember how to do it."
I made a decision, and told her what it was. "Teere will be some rules, though."
* * *
"You missed Christmas!"
"I did, but I got a present anyway," I said. "Jezebel, come in," I said, and the fox trotted into the house, and sat down in front of the fire.
"Oh, it's a fox!"
"Daddy brought home a fox!"
"Is it for dinner?"
"Are we keeping it?"
My wife sighed and shook her head with an indulgent smile. "A fox? For a pet?"
"This is the best-behaved fox you will ever see," I told her.
And, true to her word--and in exchange for room and board--Jezebel was as faithful a watchdog as one could ever hope for. Every Christmas Eve since then, we've spent the night in conversation; and although she's still haughty, she's come to love the children, who lavish her with affection, and has even told me that she no longer regrets losing her ability to transform, having traded it for a kind of happiness that she never thought possible.