An encounter with a sick fox brings a young woman to the heart of her grief.
She was tired when she got home from work. Her neck ached and her hands felt stiff from the repetitive motion of working the keyboard. She poured herself a small glass of white wine and walked out onto her porch. Megan lived in a small village in northern Vermont. The porch was screened in and large enough for a table and chairs and a daybed, where sometimes, on hot nights, she would try to sleep. It might be one of those nights tonight. Thunder and lightning had pierced the last few nights but the air had not cleared. The sultry weather kept on. Even when the weather was fine, she rarely slept a full night.
Megan worked as a typesetter at a printing company in town and the office had been hot, the air conditioner on low, as required, to save energy but she knew that the real reason was that her boss was a cheapskate and didn’t care if they worked in uncomfortably hot conditions. Because the air conditioning was on, the windows were sealed shut. She sometimes felt lightheaded, as if she couldn’t breathe but she was a good worker and kept on, her fingers flying across the keys, words appearing on the screen swiftly and without meaning. She never complained. She kept to herself and never mentioned her discomfort, even when those around her bitched about the heat. At noontime, she walked by herself around the parking lot that surrounded the large, flat-roofed building. She went round several times before going back inside, taking her place at the computer and resuming her work. She looked forward to coming home, to the quiet and the cooling breezes that moved through the porch.
Late sun angled in as she stood beside the screen. The porch faced west, looking out onto her narrow lawn. On the other side of a rock wall was the town cemetery. It was full of old, moss-covered stones, tilting, leaning. Recently an old man from the village had been buried there but that was the first time Megan remembered a burial there. In the past week, the bright, almost doll-like colors of the burial wreath surprised her every time she walked out onto the porch.
On the other side of the cemetery, her neighbors were roasting meat on a grill. She could smell the smoky-sweet barbecue sauce and she felt a sensation of hunger, but she made no move to fix supper. She was too tired and there was nothing pushing her to feed herself except that naked hunger and that was not enough. If Tom were alive, she would be busy in the kitchen and the prospect of dinner would be near but since he died a year ago, she found that cooking was something she no longer enjoyed.
The sun was setting and the heat was letting up a bit. She put her glass down onto the table and stretched out onto the couch. She shut her eyes and listened. She heard an occasional distant voice from across the cemetery. A car passed by slowly. Then it was just the birds and a hot bug making its rhythm in the grasses.
She must have dozed off because when she heard the cough, it woke her up. It was an odd sounding cough. At first she thought it was her neighbor but it wasn’t really a human sound. It was loud and raspy and unrestrained. Persistent.
Megan got up and went to the screen. It was still light out but dusky. In the brush across the road, she saw movement and then, clearly, a fox. It moved slowly across the road. She had seen foxes before but never in the village. And she had never seen a fox move so oddly. She thought of foxes as swift and nimble. A car came and slowed, its headlights shining against the thin animal. The fox did not hasten. Instead, it stood at the edge of the road and turned toward the car, watching it pass. When the sound of the car was gone, the fox turned toward the cemetery and passed through the wicket of the iron fence. He paced nervously among the headstones.
Megan had never been this close to a fox before. She sometimes glimpsed them, coming home late at night. They leapt swiftly in front of her headlights. She admired the red coat and elegant black feet. The bushy black-tipped red tail made her want to touch it. In the twilight, now, this scrawny fox seemed as close as a picture in a book. He stood still beside the rock wall and she studied the color of his coat. It was dull, barely red. He looked tarnished and wasted.
She opened the screen door and walked out onto the lawn. He turned and his beady black eyes met hers. He froze as she moved slowly toward him. “There, there,” she said, almost in a whisper. “Hello, it’s me. I’m OK. We can be friends.” She didn’t know why she was saying this except that she felt as if this were a stray cat or even a dog. This animal had that feeling, as if it were lost or looking for shelter. She thought he would run away. He surprised her by coming up over the wall, his eyes looking directly into hers. He moved in slow motion, like a cat after prey, one leg at a time. She said, “Hey,” and then turned and went inside the porch, turning as she did to watch him through the screen.
He sat down, like a dog, and barked. It was the same cough that had awakened her, a raspy, gagging sort of a bark. He got up and came closer to the screen and barked again. She felt sure now that he was sick, maybe rabid.
She felt frightened and went inside to the phone. She wasn’t sure who to call. There was a man in town who was in charge of stray animals, dogs that ran loose or tom cats that fought. But this didn’t seem quite the same. The village had a part-time policeman, Chuck Ouelette, that was all. If anything really big happened in town, the state police would come but as far as she remembered, nothing big had ever happened. She looked up Chuck’s number and dialed it. It was the first time she had called the police for any reason since Tom died. She knew Chuck only inside his cruiser. “Hello, this is Chuck,” the message warbled. “If you’ve got an emergency, call the staties - that’s 555-1234 - and they should help ya. Otherwise, I’ll be home in due course and we can talk about it then.”
Megan waited for the beep and then told him about the fox. After she hung up she thought it sounded strange, “A fox is barking on my lawn,” she had said. So what? she thought and went back out onto the porch. The fox was gone.
The moon came up orange behind the hills that evening and stayed bright all night. In the still heat, Megan slept lightly on the couch, listening for his bark.
At work the next day, she thought about the fox. She thought about his coat, how scraggly it was. Whenever she had seen a fox, ever, she had always wanted to touch it, the fur looked so brilliant and soft. She had not wanted to touch this fox. On her lunch break she called Fish and Game and told them she thought she might have had a rabid fox in her yard. “It might be mange,” Megan said. The woman on the other end of the line told her that they get a lot of calls now. “We can’t go out just to check. You could hire a trapper to get rid of him,” she told Megan. “People do that with pest coons and skunks.”
“But what if it’s rabid?” Megan persisted.
“There are so many now,” the woman said, a somewhat tired tone in her voice. “It’s very expensive for us to run the tests so we only do it if someone has been injured.” Almost like an afterthought the woman said, “You can shoot it. You can do that. If it’s on your land and it’s bothering you, you have the right to shoot it.”
Megan thought of Tom’s .22, the barrel resting upright against the corner of their closet. She didn’t have any ammunition, not that she knew of, and, even if she did, she wasn’t sure she could remember how to load the gun. Tom took her to shoot rats at the dump, once, years and years ago.
Megan stopped at the sporting goods store on the way home and purchased a box of ammunition for the .22. The yellow plastic box was heavy and the bullets rattled sharply inside, sounding like a baby’s toy. She took the short way home, driving a little too fast. She was more anxious to get home than usual. When she turned into her driveway, she looked to see if the fox was there. The way she remembered his visit, it felt as if someone had been there, like a person. Strangely, like a friend. She went right out onto the porch and sat facing into the cemetery. It was the same kind of night as the last, the hot sun setting from a dim yellow sky.
The phone rang. She went inside to the kitchen and picked it up on the fourth ring.
“Hi, this is Chuck. You know, I work during the day so I can’t always get right to you when you call but anyways, whatcha got?”
“A fox,” she said. “I think he might have been rabid. I wasn’t sure what to do. I called Fish and Game this afternoon and they said I have the option to shoot it if it comes back but. . . .”
“You can not shoot it!” Chuck said, cutting her off. “You live in too highly populated an area to discharge a firearm. You have to be 75 yards away from the nearest house to shoot a gun. And you’re not.” He spoke with clipped authority, as if he relished the opportunity to recite the regulations. “If you see that fox again, call me and I’ll come right over.” He paused, and then said, “I’ve got just the weapon for him.” When he said that last sentence, his tone changed to a kind of muted jubilation, as if this were something he would enjoy.
While he spoke, Megan was trying to figure out how far it was between herself and her neighbors. She had not wanted to shoot the fox but she liked the idea of doing it herself better than having Chuck come over and do it for her. Tom would have shot it, without a lot of discussion. Once, she was in the garden and a coon came out from behind the shed. It was just after noon, not the right time for a raccoon to be out and about. She had called to Tom, who was working on the lawn, and pointed. The coon was advancing toward her in the same ominous way she had noticed in the fox the night before. Tom went inside, quietly but swiftly, and returned with his .22, raised it to his shoulder, took aim and squeezed the trigger. The coon fell dead. They went over and found flecks of froth around the edges of its small mouth. The incident was over in a matter of minutes. But Megan remembered it now, remembered how safe she had felt, how quickly Tom had resolved it.
“OK,” she said, “I’ll call you if the fox comes back.”
She went back out to the porch and then onto the lawn. She walked up to the cemetery wall and scanned the lot. It was still and quiet in the last light of the day. At the end of the driveway, she pulled the evening paper out of the tube and returned to the porch. She walked carefully, feeling as if she were being watched. On the porch, she opened the paper and began to read. The headlines were about the hot spell. Continued record-breaking temperatures were expected for at least another day, when the weather was expected to break.
She heard the bark again, coming from across the road. She saw him then, crossing the road in the same place as he had the night before. His coat was ragged, like a shedding dog. There were tufts of hair at the edge of his mouth, she thought, or maybe that was froth. The light was fading and she couldn’t see that well. She went out onto the lawn. “Hello,” she said. Once again, he stopped and their eyes met. He crouched down and gave a short growl. She walked backwards, slowly, keeping her eyes on his, until she reached the porch door. He came close to the screen and gave that eerie rasping cough-bark that had kept her awake the night before.
When she called Chuck again, his answering machine came on again. “The fox is back,” she said, after the beep. She hung up and went upstairs, to the closet, and got Tom’s gun. She brought it back down to the porch and took the box of bullets out of her purse. The fox sat and watched. He stopped barking as she cocked the rifle and slid the smooth copper missiles into the magazine as Tom had taught her to do. She looked up. He was only a few paces from the screen and he had sunk down onto his haunches, settling into the grass like a dog on a hot afternoon. His deep eyes watched her. His tongue hung out and he was panting. Maybe he is thirsty, she thought. She put the gun down on the table and went closer to the screen. For an instant, his eyes seemed gentle and soft. Wise. It was as if he was trying to tell her something. “It’s OK,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, not sure whether she was or not. “Go home, you don’t belong here. Go home.” The fox got to his feet and barked. He moved off, head hanging low, barking as he went. He disappeared into the woods across the road. She listened as his bark grew fainter and then was gone. If he was sick, she should shoot him, put him out of his misery.
When it got dark, Megan went inside. She glanced around the kitchen, not sure she was hungry enough to bother fixing anything. She knew she should eat something. But everything she thought of brought small waves of nausea. Outside the window, she saw headlights in her driveway, which was unusual at that hour. Then a pound-pound-pound on the back door. Megan tried to see through the window whose car it was but it was too dark. She opened the door cautiously.
It was Chuck Ouelette. He was wearing a tight black t-shirt, emblazoned POLICE across his chest and a ball cap that spelled the same word. He had a belt full of dark weapons. In his hand he was holding a large searchlight which he was sweeping around the yard. “How’s that fox?” he asked.
“Gone now,” she said. A big orange moon was just cresting the trees at the edge of the field.
“Well, I stepped out for a bite to eat and got yer message when I got back. Headed on down soon’s I got it.” He swept the yard with his light again. “Might come back.”
“He went up toward the ridge,” she said.
“I could wait,” he said. “Might come back.” He folded his arms, tucked the big searchlight under his arm and rocked back on his heels. “Looka there, that moon, bright as a headlight. I say. Must be hard bein’ here alone. I know. Wife just tossed me out.” Chuck Ouelette gave a laugh, more like a snort. “Fool woman. Mind if I come in?”
“Yes,” Megan said. “I mean, the fox is gone. I don’t think it will come back tonight but I’ll call you if it does.”
“All righty then,” Chuck said, moving back toward the town cruiser. He turned, his hand on the door handle. “You call me, you call me any time, pretty lady.”
Megan went back inside. She felt a shiver of fear and locked the door. She locked the porch door, too, which she never did, took the gun upstairs with her and went to bed. The white light of the full moon came in through her windows. It was so bright, she could see everything on her bureau without turning on the light. She slept in little bursts, falling into a deep sleep and then waking and falling back asleep. In one of her sleeps, she dreamt that the fox was asleep, curled on the end of her bed, his slight body warming her feet. Someone pounded on the back door and the fox leapt off the bed, barking menacingly. She woke and heard the bark. It was not her dream. The fox was under her window, barking. She got up and went to the window. In the bright light, she saw the fox, sitting beneath the window, his head tilted up toward the glass.
Once, shortly after Tom died, a mourning dove appeared, sitting on the branch of the apple tree outside Megan’s kitchen window. The dove came every morning, for several months. He sat and cooed and looked toward her. Mourning doves usually travel in pairs, she knew. This dove was always alone and came as if he knew where she was. Megan didn’t like it when people assumed that animals thought like people, as if their world were a human world and their thoughts would be like ours, if only they could speak. Still, this dove seemed to mean something and she began to think it was Tom, or Tom’s spirit. She didn’t tell anyone about the dove. She would have been embarrassed to let on that she even thought such a thing. But that was what she thought, every time she saw the soft grey dove, looking sadly through the glass.
Now, she wondered about this sad-eyed fox. He was so thin. She felt ashamed that she had thought of killing him, that she had called the police, that she had been frightened of him. If not for his illness, this fox would be a glorious being. She wanted to bring the fox inside, feed him and nurse him back to health. She got Tom’s big plaid flannel shirt from the hook and put it on over her nightshirt. Since he had died, she had used this as a bathrobe. She went downstairs, her path lit by the moonlight. Outside, it was another hot night but the grass was cool under her bare feet.
The fox was still there. He was nothing like what he was supposed to be -- smart, sure-footed, quick, watchful. All those words came to mind when Megan thought about a fox. But not this fox. He cowered on the grass as she neared and then he rose up and turned and crept, almost staggered off. He scrambled up over the stone wall, losing his grip once and slipping back but then up again and over the wall, into the cemetery. She followed him, one step at a time, hoping not to frighten him. After all, she kept thinking, he was the one who had come to her.
The fox lay near the new grave. The bright wreath gleamed, almost as if light came from within. She crept to his side, her heart pounding. She knew this was crazy. This fox could be full of rabies. He could have just enough life left in him to leap at her and sink those needle teeth into her. And she was here, all alone, in the middle of the night. The thought of calling Chuck made her cringe. She also knew that this fox was not going to hurt her.
The fox lay on his side, exhausted. His ribs heaved in and out, the fur, like frayed cloth, moving lightly in the night air. She thought of how thin Tom had been before he died, how he labored to breathe, the tumors crowding his lungs. She had always felt his strength was her strength. She used to love to lay her head on his hard chest and listen to his heart, a strong rhythm, like distant drumming. Lying there, those days and nights before he died, he was nothing like what he was supposed to be. After he died, Megan had cried for days, weeks, wept for the theft of his young life, for the children they would never have.
She reached her hand, slow as a dream, toward the panting animal. His eyes moved low, to see her, and then shut.
She stayed like that, her hand on his side, for what seemed like a long time. His fur was coarse, dry and sick-feeling. His breathing slowed and the hot panting stopped. His head shuddered and he gave a small squeal, like a dog lost in a dream. And then he was quiet.
She stroked the still animal as if that movement could send life back into him, bring him once again to his shiny, black, sure-footed paws and make him scurry away in the underbrush.
She stood and took off Tom’s shirt and wrapped it around the dead fox. The moon was just as bright and high, as if no time had passed. She lifted the fox, surprisingly light, and carried him to the edge of the field. From the shed, she brought Tom’s shovel and in the moonlight, she dug.
Tom had been buried in a cemetery far away, in the town in Ohio where he had grown up. His parents had wanted him there and she acquiesced. After all, she had only been married to him for five years, what claim did she have on him? But it felt like another theft. His parents’ request had made her feel cut off, as if she had no right to her grief, as if she had no right to the memory of him. They had not been there the night that he had died. They had not seen the look in his eyes.
The earth was soft and surprisingly easy to move. She worked for a while, in the hot still heat, placing the newly dug earth in a mound beside the hole. She went deep. She didn’t want other animals to unearth her fox. She wanted him to stay here, nearby. Gently, like an offering, she placed the fox into the hole, leaving Tom’s shirt closed around the thin carcass, and pushed the earth back into place.
She was suddenly very hungry. She went inside and showered, using pumice to remove the dirt from her hands and watched it twirl down the drain.
In the kitchen, she brought the black skillet down from its hook, set it onto the blue flame, and poured a small pool of oil into the center of the pan. She chopped an onion and let it sizzle in the hot oil while she cut up potatoes. She whisked eggs and from the freezer she brought out a loaf of bread she had been given by a neighbor, months ago. “You look as if you could use a little something sweet,” this neighbor had said. Listlessly, Megan had put it in the freezer with so many other gifts from well-wishers and friends. The bread had a tag on it that stated that the loaf was made with raisins and cardamom. She cut two thick slices and put them into the toaster oven. The smell of its yeasty sweetness filled her kitchen.
She opened the door to the porch and a strong, cool breeze came in, the first she had felt in a week. A front must be coming through, she thought with relief. Big white clouds drifted past in the light of the moon. She served herself the eggs and the potatoes, golden and fragrant, buttered the toast and took her plate out onto the porch where she ate as if she had not eaten in days. She ate until she was full, scraping the plate clean and licking her fork twice, and then she went upstairs and slept, a deep and dreamless sleep.