Even the Fox

I had a lot of problems, so I decided to run away.

My life wasn’t working out. I decided to become a fox.

You can learn anything on the Internet these days.

I felt better immediately. My only concern was me. Surviving.

I hadn’t run since I was a girl, and now I could feel the running stored up in my legs.

I waited until dark because I didn’t want to alarm my neighbors. Then I left. Now I loved the night, and had no need of a house.

The air was so cold, it burned as I ran. On my fur, and in my lungs. This felt good. It felt right. All felt right—again, or, possibly, for the first time.

I ran all night. I ran toward the city. I never liked the city before. But I ran, guided by something new. Instinct.

I never knew that foxes liked the city. But they do: plentiful rodents.

I found a field to make my own. In the city it never gets dark. There is a halo, a glow. It spread from the city’s tall buildings, like smoke, and settled over everything. It was bright enough to count blades of grass. It was bright enough to see the tiny writing on cigarette butts. I recognized them, but it was hard to remember how to put the letters together, how to make a word.

I didn’t care. Reading meant nothing now. I cared about eating. I crouched down, chin on the ground, and watched the rats, so fast you couldn’t see their legs, so low they looked like wind-up toys. Then I launched into space, and the rat was in my mouth. It struggled. I clamped my jaws tight around its neck, tossed my head like a woman in a shampoo commercial, and the rat’s neck snapped. Quietly, but I could hear it. Its warm body went slack.

There are so many rats in the city. I ate until I was ready to sleep, and slept until I was ready to eat. It was a good life.

I forgot my old life. My telephone number, the date my credit card payments were due, my shoe size. Foxes don’t need numbers. I forgot heartbreak and I forgot anxiety. I forgot the men I had loved. I thought foxes didn’t need love, but I was wrong.

When I was a woman, I would have thought that field ugly: brown weeds waist high, plastic bags in bare branches like unoccupied spider webs, glass bottles like fallen fruit. As a fox, I didn’t care about beauty. I spent my nights avoiding other foxes, and by day I dreamt of leaping and running. When I was a woman, even sleep was complicated. I’d draw the blinds shut, put a towel on the floor to sop up the light that flooded in through the crack.

My sleep was untroubled, but everyone has problems. Even foxes.

Foxes live short lives. I had just become one. I thought of myself as a baby, but I was practically an adolescent. A few weeks later, I was grown.

When you are an animal, time is a different sort of thing. When you are a woman, time either seems plentiful or too short. It depends what kind of woman you are. When you are a fox, time barely exists.

Of course I only know all this now because I had to become a woman again.

One morning, men came to set traps. Black plastic boxes. They smelled familiar, sweet, like something I had forgotten. When I was a woman, there was a cake I liked to make: a coffee cake, a cinnamon swirl coffee cake, with a sugared glaze. It was the cake I’d bake when I had company, or when I went to see my mother in the home. Smelling this plastic box, I remembered my mother, the way you remember a dream in early morning, right when you wake.

Did she wonder why I had not come to visit? The women at the home had probably telephoned, or maybe the telephone company had turned off my telephone, so when you dialed my number it was just those three notes, that scolding beep. The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.

The boxes were for the rats, who would venture inside, and emerge slower, glassy-eyed. I killed one but something told me not to eat it. Things would have to change.

I ventured deeper into the city. I stuck to the dark corners, avoided cars. I dined on rats not smart enough to know I was a fox, and that they should be afraid. Maybe they had never seen a fox. I followed the path of the great big planes, lifting up off of the runway so quickly that you didn’t hear them until they’d already passed. I had to cross the highway, twice, to squeeze through a gap in one of those concrete barriers designed to keep crashing cars from hurtling into space. Fortunately, I knew about cars, and traffic. I had been a woman once.

I went on, the highway at my back, the noise of the traffic behind me. Cars gave way to tree-lined streets. This seemed better.

I came to a park. Even in a small park there are so many places to live. In a city park, there are so many secrets. I decided to stay.

I lived in the park through the winter. No men came with traps. The only people who came were walking their dogs, early in the morning. A fox is very nearly a dog. We could smell one another. We had an agreement, unspoken. Nature is a series of treaties.

This was a good time for me. I was able, dimly, to remember the life I had left behind. Anyway, I remembered enough of it to know that I was better off as a fox. I was contented.

This changed when I saw the boy. He startled me. It is not easy to surprise an animal, but he moved so quietly. It was the smell of him that surprised me. Boys smell differently than men do. The fur along my neck rose up. A growl surprised me, from deep within my throat.

The boy had red cheeks and hair that curled down his neck and over his collar. The boy saw me, and was unafraid.

“A fox,” the boy said.

I ran into the bushes. It had been so long since anyone had seen me. I lived that way so long I had forgotten that I could be seen. I felt something I had not felt before, as a fox. I felt shame.

I do not know how long it was, because time was not a factor. But I waited, and he came again. Eventually, he came.

He walked slowly, hands in his pockets. He did not whistle, he did not speak, he simply looked. And I knew only from looking at him that he was looking for me. I knew as clearly as if it was my own thought that his thought was: “Here. I once saw a fox here.”

He could not see me. His back was to me. I was on a rise, behind him, watching him through the branches of a hedge stained with the urine of the park’s dogs. I watched as he stood, watched as his narrow back slowly constricted and expanded again. Watched as he breathed. He turned to the left, his eyes blinking beneath his long lashes. His cheek was pink from the cool air. It was his beauty that I was noticing. The woman in me was still alive.

The boy walked away, slowly, following the asphalt path down the hill.

The boy came again. It was still cold. There were still few leaves. His cheek was still pink.

“Fox,” he called. He said it so softly, even the shuffle of his rubber shoes on the asphalt was louder. “Fox. I saw you.”

The boy sat on a bench. He swung his feet back and forth, because he was a child. The noise of it was deafening.

I was scared, but I wanted to know more. Again, I watched from above, from behind. I walked down the hill. The air was thick with the smell of him. Like meat, like peat, like mushrooms, like nuts. Rich.

The boy turned, and saw me. He sat on the bench, very still. He looked unafraid, but the sound of his breath grew louder, much louder, and faster too.

There was no way for me to tell him not to be afraid. Any noise I could have made would surely have frightened him. I myself was frightened. My heart had never beat faster. I looked at him closely. He was so beautiful.

“Fox.” The boy seemed unsure what else to say. “Fox. I see you.”

I stepped closer.

The boy stood, and it startled me. I ran back into the brush, up over the hill, the air filling my lungs like joy.

When the boy came again, it was warmer. There were leaves once more, and bugs, and the light had changed, too. My fur was thinning in anticipation of the new season.

The park was big enough, but I could not resist that place, that rise, that bench where I had met the boy. I should have avoided it, but I could not. I went almost every day.

Then one day, there was the boy again. His soft arms were bare. His hair curled up against his neck, which looked longer. He had grown. His smell had changed, only barely.

“Fox.” The boy smiled. He stopped on the asphalt path. He crouched down on the path, hugging his knees. “Fox, I hear you.”

I stepped onto the path. It felt strange, to stand in the clear. I looked at the boy and he looked at me.

“Fox,” the boy said. “Don’t be scared.”

I walked toward the boy, sitting cross-legged on the path. The light was softening. Soon it would be night. I could hear nothing but the boy’s breathing.

“Fox.” The boy smiled. “I knew you were real.”

I breathed in the smell of him. I let him touch the fur on my neck. I fought the instinct to claw at him, to make him bleed at the neck, to run away into the park.

The boy came again. There was a gentle rain, and he had a hood pulled up around his head so he looked different but smelled the same.

“Fox,” he said. “I brought you something.”

The back of my neck tingled. My legs got ready to leap.

The boy had brought me food. A chicken, cooked, half eaten, the skin golden, the flesh stringy, the bones gray. The smell was overwhelming. I couldn’t look at him, couldn’t see him, could only smell the bird.

“It’s for you,” the boy said. The chicken was wrapped in aluminum foil. He unfolded it carefully, put the carcass on the ground.

I jumped onto it, and it was in my mouth, and I started to run. I wanted to run. I stopped. I looked at the boy, for one second, for two seconds, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I found a place beneath a bush, near a statue of a man, and ate.

The boy came often, and he told me things. He understood that I had questions I could not ask.

“I am thirteen,” the boy said.

“I don’t want to go to school,” the boy said.

“When grow up, I will be a baseball player,” the boy said.

“In 1969, we walked on the moon,” the boy said.

Coming to him, listening to him, I was betraying some part of my nature. I was not truly a fox, and maybe I never had been. Now, I was some in-between thing, fox and woman too.

“My dad, he died,” the boy said.

A fox cannot weep. I killed a bird that night, thought of the boy as I ate it, thought of his father, dead, as was my own. I couldn’t remember my father, had an idea that there was gray hair, maybe a cane. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between what you remember and what you think you remember.

Then it was summer. The boy came, all slender arms and legs. I did not make him nervous anymore, which meant I had ceded some essential part of being a fox.

“We lost our last game of the season,” the boy said.

“My mom is probably going to get this other job,” the boy said.

“NASA launched the Curiosity rover in 2011,” the boy said. “It will land on Mars this month.”

I had almost forgotten about space. The stars make a noise. In the city you can’t hear it but, if you’re in the country and very quiet you can. It might be a noise that only foxes can hear.

“I wish I could bring you home with me,” the boy said.

Even the fox in the night has her problems. Even the fox in the night falls in love.

It was hotter. I lost most of my coat and I drank from the puddles on the playground, where during the day babies came to splash in the fountains. I could slip right through the black bars of the iron fence.

There were more rats than ever and more food—discarded boxes of pizza, spilled hamburgers. I should have eaten as much as possible, it’s important to eat as much as possible, because it would be cool soon, and harder to find food, then cooler still, and I’d need my fur and my fat. But I stopped obeying instinct.

Love was dangerous, because if I didn’t eat I would be weak and if I was weak I would be eaten myself. There were dogs, and there was worse. But those frail arms, that face, and the things that he told me made me want once again to be a woman, even though as a woman I’d never see this boy again. The woman I was could have been his mother. The woman I was didn’t know his name.

“I’m starting a new school this fall,” he said.

“I never knew a fox before,” he said.

“There’s a constellation called the fox,” he said, “but I’ve never seen it.”

I looked at the boy. I wanted to bite him. Something would have to change.

So I left the city. I did not say goodbye because foxes do not say goodbye. Maybe the boy waited for me, one day, the next. Maybe he thought I was dead, killed by a dog or a car. I ran out of the park and across the highway, I ran past the airport and beyond. I tried to remember how to turn back into a woman but if I had looked it up on the computer, had written it down on my notepad, I had forgotten. I was not sure what to do next.

I hunted. I ran. I slept. I played, even, because foxes do play, sometimes with their prey. It’s not meant to be cruel though I know it seems so. I was further out of the city when I heard it, again, the noise the stars make. It’s like a hum. It made me think of the boy, and I wept, and the weeping made me into a woman again. That’s what it was, that’s what I had written down, that’s what I had forgotten, that weeping makes you a woman, weeping makes you a man, weeping makes you a human. I forgot most of what being a fox meant, and I could barely picture the boy, either, just a suggestion of his lips, his long eyelashes, his heavy smell. I went back to my cinnamon swirl coffee cake , the overdue credit card bills and the calls from my mother’s retirement home that had gone unanswered for months.  

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