RICHARD AND THE FOX
by R.K. Thompson
Richard first saw the fox the day his wife told him she was pregnant.
He was eating a bowl of cinnamon cereal at the kitchen table, staring into the clover patches overtaking the lawn, when she slid a white sheet of paper across to him and leaned back on the doorjamb in expectation. The paper was folded in half. He took another bite. It wasn’t a bill; those she paid with assiduous punctuality, stroking checks and filling out their corresponding half-slips before even removing her jacket. Perhaps an advice column?
Issue #95 soundtrack: Eric Gagne "April"
Richard stood to rinse out his bowl.
“He turned to retrieve his glass of juice, and that was when he saw it: a flash of orange along the hedge, gone so quickly he wasn’t sure he’d seen anything at all.
“Did you see that?” he asked his wife.
“Don’t deflect,” she said.
He picked up the folded paper and started to read. Today, it said, your baby is the size of an onion. Bones and fat, the paper said, fingers and toes. He went back to the beginning, searching for the tell. How Big’s the Bump? the title asked him.
He looked to his wife. She was still leaning on the doorjamb, smiling nervously.
“I don’t understand,” Richard said. “Is this hypothetical or metaphorical?” Sometimes she tried to communicate with him in this matter, and he’d long ago stopped guessing at her meaning – he was never right.
She rolled her eyes and leaned forward to snatch the paper from him.
“Neither,” she said. “I’m trying to tell you I’m pregnant.”
He stared at her. Her fingers fluttered over her belly and then to her side, as if by rote. Had she done that before?
“But, I mean, an onion?”
“I meant to tell you when it was a raspberry.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe two months.”
Richard felt a great suctioning panic in his chest. It was a raspberry two months ago. Today it was an onion. He stared at his wife’s middle, willing her to prove it. Where was the evidence? How had her organs shielded a tumor of that proportion for so long?
She unzipped her suitpants and raised her shirt, as though to oblige. There was, he admitted, a new fullness below her naval. The skin pulled taught.
“It’s pretty concrete at this point,” she said.
She opened the fridge, removed the Pyrex container that held her lunch, the orzo and arugula salad they’d been chipping away at for three days, then hoisted her briefcase from its shelf by the garage door. She turned to look at him.
“I’m aware you need some processing time,” she said. “But I hope you’ll be ready to talk about this when I get home. There are some books in the guest room if you have any questions. We’re on week seventeen.”
The door shut behind her. Richard looked out the sliding glass window to the hedge. His eyes glazed slightly as he stared, the colors melting until he felt cross-eyed. He blinked. When he opened his eyes, the fox was there, as large as a hound but light, light on her paws, her eyes wide, alert. She shot off and disappeared into the drainpipe at the end of the lot. Richard stood perfectly still. Come back, he said to the fox with his heart. I’ll show you my onion.
Richard met his wife in grad school, through a mutual friend who thought them a perfect match despite their apparent incompatibility; he submerged himself in phycobotony while she waded through Contracts and Torts. But she didn’t laugh at him when he talked about the multivalent appeal of algae.
“It’s the soybean of the sea,” he told her at their first date at a pizza joint near campus. “You watch, in fifteen, twenty years, we’ll be filling our tanks with algae ethanol and finally be rid of corn subsidies.”
She thoughtfully chewed her vegan pie (which was terrible, he’d thought, pointless without cheese, but he admired her strong moral stance) and then pressed a neat napkin to her lips before she spoke. Polite, he remembered thinking.
“I like seaweed salad,” she said at last.
He didn’t have the heart to tell her that wakame was recently listed as one of the world’s most invasive species, so he nodded enthusiastically.
“Yes,” he said. “Seaweed is an alga.”
Five years later, Richard remembers that night more from the retelling than from the memory itself. It’s a story they used to tell at parties, by way of explanation: Algae! Vegan Pizza! And we still had a second date! But that bumbling meet-cute couldn’t be further from the reality of their current selves. His funding at the university stalled when the recession hit, and he suddenly found himself not only off the tenure track, but adjuncting at two or even three colleges a semester, piecing together a living teaching entry-level biology. It was demoralizing, painful, but mostly it was boring. His wife, conversely, landed a job with the largest law office in Southeastern Virginia right out of law school, and within four years was a real contender for junior partner. She couldn’t seem to understand his situation. If he just worked harder, wrote more grant proposals, agreed to do postgrad work for a couple semesters until the economy improved – he never heard the end of the sentence. He found a way to wander out of the room, to take a phone call, to drop a glass on the ceramic tile.
Now, Richard refilled his glass with a third serving of orange juice and wandered back to the window to look for the fox. He crumpled the white paper in his fist. He was determined not to resent his wife’s success. But it had been a hard, stupid slog from semester to semester, and when he quit in December, he felt brave, justified, entitled, for three full hours, before he finally made it home, drunk and fight-happy. I quit, he told his wife, and just her look was enough to tell him he’d made the wrong choice, that he was, yet again, less than she’d expected he would be.
The fox had two kits of her own, though they only appeared from the drainpipe after dark to hunt bullfrogs and rabbits. He watched them grow as the nights warmed and the insects crescendoed to an early-summer shout. The larger one was also the smarter, watching his mother stalk and attack her prey and imitating her motions with big-footed exaggeration. But Richard worried about the little one, his white feet like socks nerdily pulled up to the knee. He was forever in a daze, wandering into the street for a better view of the squirrels in the pine branches, oblivious of the world around him until his mother shooed him to the cover of the hedge.
The house was built at a slight diagonal, so that the glass-walled atrium protruding from the kitchen gave equal views of the street at the front of the house and the pond that curved scythe-like around the back acre of the lot. They’d bought the house for the pond. While his wife flushed toilets and checked the water pressure in the showers, he squatted at the edge of the water, poking at the filmy green surface and remarking aloud to the old man on the porch: “Are you using barley to control proliferation of this filamentous algae?”
Richard took to watching the foxes from the glass door of the atrium, lights off and wrapped in the curtain so they wouldn’t see him and be afraid. At first, he would only stay for a few minutes, but by the end of June, he was hardly sleeping. The kits were growing, and he knew them, their personalities, their intelligent faces. Their mother refused to hunt for them, snapping lightly at them if they whined, and he cheered silently for the little one when he emerged for the first time from the pond, frog legs dangling from his snout. If only he wouldn’t linger in the street like that, moon-faced under the light of the streetlamp. Don’t let anyone see you, he wanted to tell the little kit. We are all so dangerous.
His wife threatened to call animal control whenever she saw them in the yard.
“It can’t be safe to have them in the neighborhood,” she said. “I mean, no one would ever stand for wolves running around in the yard.” She rested her hands on the orb of her pregnancy, rubbing absently as she made threats against the kits. “They could be rabid, for Christ’s sake. And the children – I mean, what if they think they’re puppies and try to pet them?”
“They’d never get close,” Richard said. “The foxes are too fast.”
Richard tried to understand her anger, but its locus seemed just out of his reach. He felt nothing for the neighborhood children, even resented them for leaving little piles of cat food to lure the foxes out of hiding. Biking families clad in neon helmets began to linger at the edge of the yard at dusk, trying to catch a glimpse. This he understood: the wonder of something so wild existing in such close proximity, the concurrent desire to interact and preserve. He wished there were a way for him to observe the baby in this way, through a glass wall, with a lush backdrop. He imagined he would feel something like love for it. He closed his eyes, trying to picture the little thing, but could only conjure up vegetables of varying size.
Coming to bed in the small hours of the morning, Richard watched his wife’s body distend into alien roundness. Her limbs, yanked tight from 20-minute power walks at lunch and Yogalates classes at the gym, remained slim and long. She was transforming into a spacecraft, parleying safe passage of this fetal passenger from its galaxy to their own. In their bed, he huddled next to the fat, flatulent nucleus of her ship and imagined the onion unravel, layer by translucent layer, to finally reveal a tiny fox curled deep within its warm circumference.
“Hello, Socks,” he whispered into the dark sheets. “Can you hear me?”
Sometime at the beginning of July, there was an ultrasound, and Richard accompanied his wife to the antiseptic little stall on the fourth floor of the medical tower downtown. There was hardly enough room for the two of them in the cramped space, and when the technician arrived in her awful koala scrubs, Richard started to feel sick.
He watched his wife lift her blouse and tug down the elastic strap she wore to keep her pants up. The technician, whose fatness had nothing to do with procreation, gasped for breath as she set up the equipment and squirted gel onto his wife’s stomach in a wet plop.
“I love the 4-D ultrasound,” she wheezed. “You can see everything so clearly. And you get a little DVD to take home with you.”
She went through a series of measurements, moving the probe around his wife’s lunar middle and clacking one-fingered notations on her keyboard. Richard closed his eyes as she recorded the speedy whumpwhumpwhump of the heartbeat, feeling his own heart hammering against his eardrums. Finally, she turned the screen in their direction and pointed at the semi-triangular head wedged at a 60-degree angle to the curled body.
“Look,” she said, pointing to the baby’s face, “At twenty-seven weeks, you can see the eyelids open and close. Your baby can see the light and dark now.”
Richard’s wife started to cry a little. She gripped his hand, her fingers like talons in his palm. He squeezed back.
“Our baby’s eyes can see,” she whispered to him. “Isn’t it crazy?”
He looked at the baby’s face on the little screen. The nose was flattened and distorted against the uterine wall, but the eyes he could definitely see, black dots wide on the milky face. They blinked.
Richard remembered, in that blink, the night he’d fallen asleep at his post by the window. He woke suddenly, disoriented and chilly despite the heat, and felt himself at a level of animal awareness in the darkness. He moved only his eyes, taking in the curtain around him and the damp glass he’d sweated up during his sleep. The fox was on the other side of the glass, not a foot away, regarding him with curiosity and – was it? – understanding. The fox blinked. Then he blinked, and the fox was gone.
Richard looked back at the ultrasound screen. His baby could see light and dark. His baby had eyelids. He squeezed his wife’s hand. Yes, he had to agree: it was pretty fucking crazy.
In August, Richard’s wife went to stay with her mother for a week. She claimed it was the heat she was escaping, but he knew otherwise; she’d grown tired of his insomniac vigils. He’d triggered the motion sensor light accidentally. For this, he blamed himself. He knew from months of observation that you had to stay wide of the Japanese maple in the side yard to avoid detection, but Socks had cut through the drainpipe and the only way see him plunge into the pond (which was hilarious – the abandon!) was to cut in front of the porch behind the kitchen. The light flashed on, illuminating the yard: Socks with his head plunged under the surface of the water, the larger kit already scrambling for cover, and the mother staring disapprovingly from the drainpipe. Richard was watching from a safe distance – he wanted the foxes to remain wild – in his boxers and mud boots, in the middle of the yard. He turned, hearing a sound, and saw his wife standing in the doorway, both hands on her disheveled head, her white robe like a ghost in the fading light.
The next morning Richard made tofu scramble and pancakes as an act of contrition. He knew what his wife thought of him. She was observant, smart. These were things he liked about her. She politely ate the meal, folded her napkin, and leaned across the table to take his hand.
“I’m going to go stay with my mom for a little while,” she said.
“Goddammit,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “It’s just so hot here, I think a few days in the mountains will do me good.”
“But is it safe to travel? So late, I mean.”
“I’m driving, so it’s fine.”
Richard gripped her hand. “I think you should stay,” he said.
She stood, tried to pull her arm free, but he held fast.
“Let go,” she said gently. She pulled a business card from her pocket and slid it across the table to him. “I think you should talk to someone.”
He left the card where it was.
“Is that one an onion or a raspberry?” he said.
“You’re right,” she said. “I should have told you right away. You just seemed so…I don’t know. It didn’t ever seem like the right time.”
“I want to be a good father.”
“I know,” she said. She put a hand briefly on his head. “It’s just a week.”
The next morning, Richard was in the shower when he heard barking and yelping. He pushed the shampoo out of his hair, blew his nose and slicked the mucous off of his fingers before turning off the water. In the new silence, he heard the cry again, a loud protestation from the side of the house. He dried quickly and pulled on a t-shirt and gym shorts from the folded piles on his side of the closet. The barking was more insistent now, more desperate. He jogged down the hallway and out the sliding door to the yard. It was quiet for a minute, and he lifted his face to the sky, as though he could track the smell of danger to its source. He walked toward the front of the house, cocking his head this way and that.
Rounding the corner of the garage, he saw his next-door neighbor kneeling by the crape myrtle at the far end of the yard. He motioned for Richard to come closer.
"It's that little fox," he called. "Got his head stuck down in the tree somehow.” Richard felt his heart surge to his throat, and he ran across the yard. The neighbor rose, standing back to allow Richard to assess the situation. The little fox looked up at him, his frightened eyes rolled high into its skull, and whimpered again, softly. The tree was a beautiful myrtle, its slender trunk divided at the base into two long boughs reaching upward and splitting again and again, woven arms reaching skyward. The smooth limbs were marked with knots of varying size, the largest a few inches above the ground. The little fox had somehow managed to wedge his head in the opening below the knot, his right paw trapped above his neck. He struggled, but couldn't free himself. He yelped again, his sides compressing and expanding with effort and panic.
"Think he maybe fell from up there and somehow slipped into that crook neck-first," Richard's neighbor said.
Richard shook his head and tried to push the twin trunks away from each other. They barely moved. The men stood, arms crossed across their chests, mouths frowning in concentration, for a few silent minutes. Richard took off his shirt.
"Careful getting close," the neighbor said. "Don't want to get bit."
Richard crouched by the little fox, talking quietly. "I'm going to feed my shirt through the crick below him. You grab it on the other side, see if you can spread it out to support his body. That way he can breathe at least."
The neighbor set about the task, gently lifting the fox's hindquarters into a bundle in the t-shirt.
"Try to lift," Richard said.
They worked silently, trying several times to leverage the animal out of the wedge. The fox mewled a bit, but seemed to understand that he was not in danger. His head would not budge. Richard signaled to the neighbor to stop. He studied the situation, the position of the fox and his white-socked paw, the angle of the nub and the slant of the opposing branch.
"Again," he said.
This time, as the neighbor lifted the shirt, Richard reached toward the fox. He met the fox's eyes. I won't hurt you, he said with his heart to the fox. He lifted the fox's paw and pulled it over its skull, gently easing it free of the myrtle's knot. The neighbor grunted and lifted his end of the shirt; Richard nudged the kit's face toward the opening, and the fox popped out of its trap, sprung from the fabric cradle.
It teetered for a moment, studying the men, who were breathless and suddenly on their guard. It looked at Richard with an expression he decided was gratitude, then turned and fled away along the fence. The men smiled and wiped their hands but did not speak to each other as they went their separate ways.
Richard felt buoyant, even optimistic, the next day. He had saved the fox. He went to the grocery store after work, chatted with old ladies in the cereal aisle, made dinner for himself. After nightfall, he kept his post at the draperies, watching over the foxes while his mind meandered toward his impending fatherhood. He pulled the books out of the guest room and read them, week by week, from onion all the way through to watermelon. He took notes. He imagined cradling the tiny thing in his arms, singing it songs about woodland animals, tucking it into the wooden bassinet he had spent most of Tuesday afternoon constructing. They would go for long walks in the woods, catch rabbits in their jaws, fetch them home to be cooked with herbs and potatoes for dinner.
It was late, but Richard wasn’t tired. He stood at the window, loosening his curtain cocoon and stretching his back. He was going to stay inside. He would remain an observer; there could be no harm in observation. He would explain that to the shrink tomorrow, and the doctor would make his wife understand. He imagined their first joint session, them all laughing about her paranoia, her hyperbole. “Wolves!” they would chuckle. “What imagination.”
He used the bathroom, removed his shirt and shorts, climbed into bed. An hour passed, and he couldn’t sleep. He thought about the foxes dashing around the yard. He didn’t bother getting dressed. It was a dark night, and he would only stay out for a little while. The grass was cool and damp under his feet. The white-footed fox sat in a peaceful stupor in the middle of the road, staring up through the pine fronds above him. The moon was so large that night. He imagined how wide and wonderful it must look through the branches of such a mighty tree, and to such tiny eyes. He would sit under that same tree with his own kid, he thought. He would make up stories about the tree and moon, tell him about the foxes and the frogs.
An engine sounded from somewhere up the street, shifting aggressively into a higher gear as it approached. The fox lazed in the middle of the street. Richard ran towards him, shouting and clapping all at once. The fox looked amused, but did not move, and Richard reached him at nearly the same time as the car. The impact was terrible. He felt his legs snap beneath him, his body slap first against the hot metal of the hood and then the much harder macadam. The car screeched to a halt. The driver jumped out of his car. “What the hell are you doing?”
Richard groaned, turning his head from side to side, looking for the fox.
“Socks,” he cried.
“Socks are the least of your problems, man,” the driver said. “You ain’t got pants.”
“No.” Richard struggled to explain. “The fox. Socks.”
“I’m calling an ambulance.”
Richard struggled to pull himself up. He couldn’t see clearly.
“Yes,” the driver was saying, “he’s conscious. But there’s something wrong with him. I mean, he jumped in front of my car.” There was a long pause. “That’s right. No clothes.”
Richard’s legs refused to hold him upright. He sat down hard. He thought about returning to the house, or maybe just to the drainpipe. It wasn’t far, maybe fifteen feet. But it occurred to him that the fox might be trapped under the car. Lowering himself to his stomach, he wormed his way under the car, reaching blindly and calling for the little animal. Time seemed to contract in the darkness. He couldn’t find the fox. The ambulance sounded in the near distance.
“He’s crawling under the car,” the driver said into the phone. “I think he’s looking for his socks.”
Richard’s hand slopped through something warm and wet. He felt his stomach heave. The bullfrogs called out from the edges of the pond: calm, low bellows, as though the world were not imploding around them. The ambulance was here now, its lights flashing red and red and red under the streetlamp. Someone was next to him with a flashlight.
“Sir? Are you all right?”
He could see the dark lump now. The fox was dead, its intestines scattered out a few feet from its body, blood seeping from its broken jaw. Body deflated, eyes closed, its little tongue –
“Sir, we’re going to pull you out.”
“I swear,” the driver said. “He crawled under there after. I didn’t run him over.”
Someone touched his ankle, sending a shock of pain through his leg.
“I’m coming out,” he said.
Richard pushed himself slowly backwards. His chest scraped against the pavement. The paramedic helped him to his feet and guided him to the stretcher.
“I’m fine,” Richard said.
“We just want to make sure.”
A police car turned onto the street and coasted to a stop behind the ambulance. The neighbors were starting to appear in windows, on porches.
“He killed the fox,” Richard told the cop.
“He’s nuts,” the driver said. “He jumped in front of my car. He’s making up rhymes about his socks.”
“He ran the fox down.”
The cop leaned to look beneath the car, sweeping a wide arc with his flashlight.
“Yup,” he said. “That fox is dead.”
A month later, Richard will be at his wife’s side as she descends into labor. He will hold her back and grip her thigh while she sweats and pushes. He will count the measures of her pain and tuck the hair out of her face while she rests between efforts. He will watch the long lips of her vagina part and wait for the baby to become real.
“It’s only a few more pushes,” the nurse will say, nudging him to the edge of the bed. “Go, you should see.”
Richard will circle the bed until he is standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctor. The midwife will whisper encouragement into his wife’s matted ears. He will watch as she pushes, her legs raised above her in a wide V, and think of the alabaster spindles of the crape myrtle, see her knees like the knuckles on their long boughs. A curl of hair will appear, and then a head, a shoulder, and finally, a body, and he will cry in awe as everyone exclaims and his wife weeps and the baby makes its first mewling cry, its ribs expanding and contracting with shock and effort.
“It’s a boy,” the nurse will cheer, and his wife will deflate in happiness and relief, and he will reach for the bundle all swathed in blankets.
“Hello,” he will whisper to the little red face, to the blinking eyes, “Can you hear me?”
R.K. Thompson is a writer and Spanish teacher who lives in Portsmouth, Virginia, with her husband and son. She leads creative writing workshops through the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia, and is on the board of the Seven Cities Writers Project, a non-profit bringing writing workshops to underserved populations. She earned her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Justin Brown Durand grew up in central Massachusetts. He got his BFA in 2004 from Montserrat College of Art, and now lives and works in Northampton, Mass., with his wife Ashley. Justin sells drawings all over the world and has had work featured in group & solo shows across the U.S. For more drawings, visit justinbrowndurand.com. For his music, visit heartpumparts.bandcamp.com.
Eric Gagne is a musician formerly and currently of Redwing Blackbird, Death to Tyrants, and Dweller on the Threshold. He can't stop writing songs, so here he is, electric guitar and stoney / fuzzy balladry. Besides writing, recording, and touring, he is a co-founder of The Glass Museum, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization that presents the Thing in the Spring, an annual weekend-long freak out in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Watch for Passerine New England tour dates in April and the Thing in the Spring on June 11-14, 2015.