The Fox Went Out
By Rachel Heffington
John O’Grady is a man of his word. If, in a fit of the tempers, John says he’s going to kill you, why he just does. I never knowed an honorable man half as holding to his word as John O’Grady.
It was a poor day for justice when that man rode into our clearing and declared his mind..
“Anise Clare...” He pronounced it “Annis,” tasting my name like it was something he’d gone and invented. “I’m fixin’ to marry you.”
I snapped a wet garment against the side of the wash-tub and looked him right in the eye. Took all my willpower, I was that frightened of the man, but I knew better than to show my scared.
“Well, I’m not fixin’ to marry you, John O’Grady.”
The soft place between my shoulder blades turned tighter than January as he swung off his horse. He had powerful-shaped legs—giant’s legs—and they took him over to me in four paces. His arm went around my waist. I planted myself in the muddy ground.He uprooted me into his embrace.
Panic sudsed to my head, feebling my knees.
“Hey, Pa?” I called.
John’s face, which leaned in close to mine like he was trying for a kiss, went still. No answer from the cabin. If Pa had chosen to go out hunting or fallen drunk, I knew John Grady’d have his way.
“Pa, git out here, please.” The very end of my voice choked on itself.
John’s arm tightened. His face advanced.
I got dropped and scrambled to the other side of my washtub, out of reach.
Seemed funny to hear John O’Grady calling my Pa “Mister Clare.” Why, Pa weren’t ten years older than him, and only half his size.
“What’re you doin’ here?” Pa asked, leery-voiced.
“Just sweet-talking Anise.”
Pa squinted at O’Grady. I knew he couldn’t see good with the morning sun singing glory in his eyes. “Whatcha want with her?”
John’s laughter shot out. “Lots a’things, Mister Clare.”
The tips of my ears tingled shame-bright.
“More to the point, I’m wanting to marry her.”
Pa’s tired eyes scooted from John to me, to the soggy laundry in the trough. “Best stop foolin’ around, Anise.”
Did this mean Pa’d send John O’Grady off for good? But Pa jerked his chin, inviting him into the cabin. Can’t say I was surprised. Pa never was one for protecting. I knew, even without sneaking to the window-ledge, what would happen: Pa’d pour whiskey into two big mugs and slide one rumble-slosh across the table. As the drink dwindled, so would his caution, and John O’Grady’d get what he wanted.
So I didn’t spy. I didn’t run off into the cool, friendly forest.
I washed Pa’s shirts one by one: red checks gone pink, green stripes gone moss, blue and brown gone gray. I wrung them with a wish to wring O’Grady’s neck and pegged them to the dancing clothesline by the hen-coop. Really, just like any other morning. Except for that shag-bark laugh...and the chair crashed over...and the front door slammed against the side of the cabin. I turned around only because he forced me, and took the kiss full on my mouth without looking at him once.
He tipped my chin with his finger. An empty-feeling finger, it was so calloused. “Lookit me, Anise-girl.”
I went cross-eyed trying not to.
His snarl scared me but I still refused to look at him. That decision was simple-foolish, but it was the only way I knew how to rebel. I would not give it up. I’d just been sold over a glass of whiskey. My first kiss had been snatched by a brawler. But I still belonged to me and I didn’t have to look at him.
“You’re gonna die like a devil,” I snarled.
“Don’t mind. Angels don’t have no fun anyhow.” Laughing again, even though I could hear the anger rush up like floodwaters, John O’Grady stalked across the clearing and swung onto his horse.
“Have a good day, sweet-pea.”
I hope your horse trips and breaks your neck.
“I’ll be back soon, sugar.”
Hope he falls in the river and drowns you.
“And I’m gonna marry you, Anise Clare.”
He left it at that, and Pa left it at that, and in two weeks, I married him.
You’d think I would have done something desperate after the wedding—killed myself, run away—but life and I kept hold of one another pretty good. Of course I hated to be married to John O’Grady. Trouble was, people supposed his wife was just like him.
I could take my new, solitary world of John’s clearing and John’s laundry and John’s cabin and John’s dog. Everything was John’s—he even thought I was his, which fact I was reminded of many nights. I could take all these things because they had nothing to do with who I was. But when we rode into Fletcher-town in the silver-wood wagon and the women made way and the men made jokes, that’s when life and I got to scrapping.
No one liked John O’Grady.
No one liked me.
And sometimes I near split with an ache to tell ‘em that me and my husband were not one flesh. We were summer and snow, wet and drought. But since when do devils marry angels?
They all believed what they wanted to, and I grew to know that the reason they steered clear of thinking anything else is so’s they never have to consider the badness behind other solutions. It’s easy to forget a bad man with a bad wife. But a sweet young girl handed like a heifer to a blackest-hearted man...that’s a lot to swallow in good company.
Eventually, I found myself burdened with living secret. If John didn’t know, It would be safe and quiet in the dark place inside me. I did not have to tell him, though It was partially his. Another small rebellion. Another piece of me that did not belong to him. So I kept my secret for several weeks till the violent vomiting-spells told on me.
“You’re gonna give me a son, ain’t you?”
John’s bare excitement petrified me. I had never known him to be so worked up about anything. He moved too quickly for my dizziness and threw himself on his knees beside the bed. He swept his hand into my hair, pushed the strands out of my eyes.
“Don’t you drop this baby,” he warned. “You rest. You grow it strong.”
I pushed his hand away and closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see the energy in his face. I had none of my own. I’d emptied it six or seven times into the wooden bucket beside my bed.
“Water, please,” I whispered as another wave of sickness crawled its clammy paws over my gut.
For once, my husband served me. He whistled out to the well, returning with a jug of the clear, cold water. Even tipped some of it into a blue china mug and placed it in my hands.
“Best news I’ve heard in an age, Anise-girl. Water that son.” The over-brightness of his eyes, declared him already familiar with the inside of his gin bottle, though it was only midday.
“Thank you.” I sipped from the mug and tipped back. “Just let me sleep.”
John took a kiss and his hat and slammed the cabin door. I listened to his dog bawl the length of the clearing, probably hunting up a rabbit to chase, and thought long and hard. My sickness had stole the secret. I needed a new defiance. And then it came to me.
Lurching out of the bed, I pressed my fingertips to my wrist. Be still, stomach. On my knees, I rested my forehead against the humid mattress and breathed. The stench of vomit swirled around me and my stomach flopped.
Dear God, I prayed. Give me a girl. He wants a boy, but this is my child. Give me a girl, if You love me at all. That didn’t seem quite fair, suggesting the Lord God didn’t love me, but I thought He’d see the heart of it. See that I couldn’t give John O’Grady a son. A girl, Lord, I repeated, just in case He hadn’t been listening. A girl.
Eight months later, I birthed my baby. John was drunk and the midwife refused to come. I birthed that baby alone and talked myself through the miserable pains same way I had once talked Pa’s cow through a hard calving. That is, when I could talk. Most of the time I yelled and tried not to pray to die. I didn’t want to die. Not truly. If life and I split apart now, my baby’d have none but John O’Grady for a parent. I’d deserve damnation for leaving an innocent child to fend for herself. Besides, I believed it’d be a girl and that she would be mine and I’d have won that battle against John, at least.
In the sticky night, in my sticky bed, I pushed a bawling, sticky child into this hard, hard world and lifted her onto my breast. She was a beautiful girl, small and perfect and squalling.
John took one look between her legs, cursed, and left the house.
The door stood open and the night air flooded in. Was it bad for my baby? But no, it couldn’t be. It was the night, friendly and smiling with stars. It would not, could not hurt my baby. Good things came out of the night. Things like sleep, and unconsciousness, and a rest from the world staring at my troubles.
I thanked God for a girl, for a few hours to belong to myself and my baby. Somewhere, deep down in the quiet part of me that I’d about forgot since my mother died, the part of me that danced barefoot in a thunderstorm and skipped rocks at the riverbend—in that part of me way, way deep down, the rebel-ness strengthened.
And somewhere outside a fox barked.
The Fox watched her for three years, craned his neck, caught the moon, and laughed.
Tonight, standing in a loamy hole on the hill, he sniffed the air and scented her. She smelled of stubbornness and wood-fires, wildwood honey and sadness. Her small one smelled of protection. Sometimes he sensed blood, too, and on those nights the Fox crept close to the cabin, confident of remaining unseen. He sang to them in his crying-voice through the cabin walls and wished She could hear. He never feared the man, because the man had brought the blood and would be gone all night in his rage. What he feared was the woman—the Gray Goose, as he liked to call her—discovering his presence and forcing him away.
There was no blood-smell tonight and no reason to skulk closer to the cabin. The Fox settled down on his haunches...felt the wind in his autumn hair...watched another year.