The Fox Went Out
by Rachel Heffington
Rest of that week, the air was sweeter between us. We both knew John would come and that he would come before the snow. We both knew that soon I would go. Not all the wishin’ in the world could keep the Fox and me side by side. Also, I was no longer a’feared of the Fox: I understood him. I was able to enjoy his company as Duck did: as the friendship of a creature innocent as the finches in the willow-wand cages.
And so the days passed, each finer than the last. The Fox slipped into his happiest mood, his singing-mood, and sang to us in a sweet, clear voice while Duck and I danced. We helped him gather the last of the autumn harvest from the secret places he knowed. He only disappeared one night more and this time I let him be, let him have his dignity.
“Will we never have to go back to see Pa?” Duck asked me, right in the middle of dinner one afternoon.
Reynard shot me a “We don’t mention that here” look so I only smiled at Duck. “What on earth are you troublin’ your pretty little head about that for?”
“Cuz I wanna stay with the Fox forever an’ ever, Mama.” She flung her arms around Reynard’s neck. “He’s nice and he smells good.”
The Fox picked her up. “You will stay for as long as I need you.”
We’d never spoken again of his forcing me to stay. We both knew my time was coming to an end, so there was no use in it. But the way he said it today made me turn to him with cheeks burning. His bright eyes took their time looking me over, then nodded.
That night, when Reynard had tucked Duck into her fleeces and draped another over my shoulders, he settled down behind me and wrapped me in his arms. It was the same as the first night, only this time I did not mind the feel of his hug or the way he rested his chin on my head. It was odd, but it was him. He was happy and it made me so.
“I went out last night,” he said finally.
“Don’t see any new bruises.”
His jaw pressed into my hair as he spoke: “I went back to where I found you. To the Man’s place.”
My blood prickled.
“He’s not there. He’s looking for you. I found his trail...it was headed strongly this way.”
I swallowed. “John’s a good tracker.”
“I won’t let him have you. Anise. He made you bleed. I can’t let you go back to someone who hurts you for fun.”
“Only when he was angry.”
Tears slid down my face before I could wriggle my arm out to wipe them away. The Fox wiped them for me.
“My sweet gray-goose,” he said, “you won’t go back.”
“He’s comin’ to kill you and take me. I know you don’t wanna hear that but that is what he’s comin’ to do. He’ll come here and find me and—”
“He won’t find you.”
“You won’t be here.” Reynard released me, creakily moved to a shelf cut in the wall where he kept all his clay pots and jars. He sorted through them and brought one back. It was heavy. It clinked.
“This is money.” He smiled at it funny. “Don’t need much of that back here, do we?”
“Anise, you’re to wake the Duckling up and take her with you. Quietly now. Take the money and the sheepskins too. Nights are getting colder.”
I stared at him across the table. “Are you sayin’ we can leave?”
“I am saying that...you are no longer my companion.” He shrugged loosely. “So you do not have to belong here.”
My heart cracked. Suddenly I wanted more than anything to be his companion.
“You are a clever woman no matter what they say. Get away. Be safe. Be merry and gentle like you are when you think no one can see.”
He shoved the money jar roughly at me. I knew it upset him past reason to let me go. He just sat there, starin’ at me with a world of pain in his eyes. I wrapped his big, cold hands in my rough, smaller ones and looked at him. So many things needed sayin’ and there were no words to say ‘em with. Instead I picked up his clenched hands and kissed them, pressin’ into that kiss all my fears for his safety and my wishes that things went different with us.
“I’ve left your breeches mended,” I choked through the tears. “And don’t you forget to put salve on your hurts.”
I let go of his hands because if I stayed a second longer, I might never make it out. Half of me felt relief, half scaldin’ guilt. How could I leave the Fox, more child than man, to handle John O’Grady?
“Can’t you come with us?”
He snapped out of whatever sad dream he’d fallen into and shook his head. “If I come with you, you’ll never be safe. I will stay and I will take care of the Man. Hurry, now.” His voice sharpened on the end and I jumped to action.
I scooped my sleeping Duckling out of her warm nest, wrapped her round with the skins. The Fox took strips of rawhide and tied her to my waist, indian-fashion.
“Can you manage?”
He threw a satchel of food over my neck and tucked a blanket around my shoulders. “Well...goodbye then, Gray Goose.”
I couldn’t say goodbye. No words.
He walked with me to the ridge, and the fox kits, up for a nighttime romp, rolled about his feet. Couldn’t afford to draggle-tail time. John might be someplace close by now. I took the Fox’s hands again, kissed them hard once more, and prayed that God might strike John O’Grady dead before he could touch my fiercely-gentle friend.
“God bless you, companion,” I said, using his own terms.
He rustled his fingers in my hair and I heard the smile in his voice, felt the kindness in his touch. “Companions...we were, weren’t we?”
He put me from him and I took to the hillside.
“Godspeed, beautiful friend. Christ watch over you.”
“And you,” I called as I gained the ridge. And when I turned back, I saw my Fox among the foxes and he waved his silly, trusting hand. And then I ran hard, tryin’ to outstrip the terrible thought that I’d nevermore see him this side of heaven.
She dropped over the ridge and the Fox lost her scent. All the goodness, all the grace, all the gentle things of his spirit stumbled and brought out a trembling all over him. Tears would come if he wanted them, but he did not. He picked up a fox-kit and ran its ears through his fingers. He prayed that the Duckling might grow to be like her mother, all silver-kind and wide-eyed truth. Then he put down the foxling and said goodbye.
The moon, he noticed, had grown shy and smiled only with her lips: a thin-lipped moon, three-quarters dark. A ways down the breeze came the scent of the Man.
Calmly, the Fox entered his cave and gathered his willow-bound friends: the red-headed finch, the others. He took the cages outside, opened them, and watched the feathered things wing into the darkness. Goodbye, friends. Godspeed.
Then, because words-on-page soothed his soul, the Fox waited for the Man and wrote in his book all the things he could remember about the Gray Goose, her Duckling, the way they’d helped him live. Little marks on the page spoke the bleeding furrows in his heart.
Companions. They had been companions. And the Fox smiled because, as far as dying went, this was a rich way to go. A way to care for the Gray Goose, a way to love her. And above all, a way to die that did not involve falling prey to his mind, to the sickness that pillaged and paralyzed. This would be clean, violent, human.
A very rich way to go.
The Man’s scent came strong.
The Fox put up his story-things.
He smiled, he stretched, and prepared for a fight.
From the ridge of the wood came a fox’s song and he felt comforted and called back to them, to the foxlings who trusted too freely. They would be well. All would be well. For there was a Being that watched over all innocent things and let no harm come to them. No real harm. No harm that lasted beyond the rim of this world.
So he would see the Gray Goose again, and pray God her Duckling too. And he’d call her name when he saw her in Heaven’s fields:
Anise, my love. My companion.
And the scent of the Man came upon him. The other side of that door.