By: Natalie Blake
The first time the fox appeared, I’d been twenty-three and hiking with my father. My boots were two sizes too small and pinched at the ankle, so I’d rested against a pine tree to drink. The lid of the cantina bobbed against my chin. I think any other fox would have been scared away by the sound, but as I later came to learn, little scared her except loneliness.
Before this, I had been at college in the city which had ended with no great fanfare. After somewhat crawling across the finish line and earning a second-class honors, I’d sat alone at the graduation ceremony in a cap and gown, feeling like a fool.
My mother, I remember, had missed me dearly during those college years, though she tried not to show it. My father disapproved of her doting behavior: You’re a grown man now, too much affection from your mother’ll do things.
That was how I’d ended up following him through the forest. It was what you might call a half-hearted attempt, but I had wanted to prove to the old man that all them books had not severed my connection to the land. That I still knew where each trail led, how to locate prints in the soft earth, and when to pull the rifle trigger.
Unlike my father, I had little interest in shooting anything. So when he’d declared he was heading west and taking the dogs, adding come or don’t, as you like, I had not replied, and sat on the needle-covered ground to drink.
The fox was not the first of its kind I’d seen; in fact, there was nothing remarkable about it at all. It bore the typical markings of a vixen: black limbs to above the elbow, a broad, white tuxedo, and the signature pumpkin/goldfish/monarch-orange body. I’ve listed a few color variations as I’ve only seen her a handful of times in my life, and she was not always covered in fur when I did.
My father did not see the fox this first time, for which I remember being grateful. I didn’t tell him after the fact either, about the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, because he’d have expected to be handed the pelt which was quite frankly impossible. As was returning his cantina at the end of the hunt, because she’d stolen it.
Those years living with my parents had felt akin to slowly drowning; where college had given me structure, at home there was only long, empty hours. Under my father’s supervision, I circled job ads in the back of the newspaper, then rang around local businesses to lukewarm response. He regarded this ongoing failure as a result of my fancy college degree, that a real man worked with his hands and people judged me overambitious, so didn’t take me on.
But when darkness fell and my folks slept, I would drive up the mountain. Up there I could breathe, break the surface of my existence and drink in the universe in all its magnitude.
I walked the same trail and leaned against the same pine tree — with a bottle of whisky instead of water — and waited for my problems to shrink into insignificance. It was during this period that I saw the fox for a second time, and though she had changed somewhat I knew it to be her.
She walked toward me on a pair of lithe, human legs, swaying her body and flicking her tail, as unreal as the blue moon that cast her form on the ground. If my whisky bottle had remained unopened that night, perhaps a naked woman with a tail approaching me through the forest would have struck as a rather peculiar occurrence. As it was, I reached out and stroked her fur. It was coarser than I would have imagined, but she blushed and seemed to like it, so I continued.
Perhaps she couldn’t tuck her tail away. Perhaps she forgot to. I like to think she kept it so that I had something to recognize her by, because her markings — the black covering to the elbows, white tuxedo chest, and monarch-orange fur that should have covered her body — had all receded and given way to smooth, buttery-soft skin, warm beneath my palms.
I had not had a girlfriend in college so was not confident in how things went. Despite my lack of experience, however, when she straddled my lap and wrapped her tail around me, I was pretty sure it didn’t usually go like that.
The fox liked shiny things, it had turned out, because that second time I saw her — and I admit, I had been in something of a daze after the fact — she took both of a tin of mints and the keys to my truck. I had been alone and ill-prepared for her tricks, which she had probably taken advantage of. But the next morning, finding my clothing ransacked and the whisky bottle empty, I could be certain something had happened that night, even if it had seemed too incredible to be true.
At some stage, I made my father happy and got a job in a printing factory. The hours were long and the labor tiresome, but the volume of the machines was such that none of us could really talk to one another, which gave me time to think. During solitary lunch breaks I kept busy by sketching the fox, and reading books about foxes that I had borrowed from the library; I wanted to learn everything I could. Occasionally, I bought color wheels from the hardware store so I could more realistically capture her likeness. I even visited the taxidermist once to quell the horrific notion that I might find her in there. I was harboring something of an obsessive ideation about her by then, but if you’d seen her, kissed her as I had, you’d understand why.
There’s so much magic in this. I love how much I feel like I know the protagonist and his backstory and am cheering him on already. The ending leaves me curious on what might happen next. Lovely writing!
Great piece! There are so many questions that rise up about the fox and the mental state of the narrator, but that’s what makes it so intruiging… Thank you, Natalie!