The Fox Went Out
by Rachel Heffington
Many days passed between me and the Fox. Duckling got herself adjusted right quick to this new home deep in the forest. She was glad for the fox-kittens which were the only playmates she’d ever had the chance of knowin’. Even made herself friendly with Reynard’s birds. The Fox himself had even got past my jealousy for Duck and hers for me. He brought her pretty things from the woods: dogwood berries, beech leaves, a flinty arrowhead. She would laugh and let Reynard ride her on his knee, singing over her a throaty, silly song he brought from ages back.
As for me...well, the bruising and batterin’ from John O’Grady had healed over thanks to a yarby-smelling salve given me by the Fox. Don’t know what kind of secrets he put in it, but my skin healed like magic. My shoulder stopped aching too. Sometimes I’d catch the Fox watchin’ me as I spread the salve over the blue spots left by John’s raging fingers on the inside of my arm. Everywhere else I’d healed up but the fingerprints stayed, like as to say, ‘John still sees you. And he’s coming.’
These times the Fox looked a little sad, like he was thinkin’ of things he’d rather not and wasn’t sure quite how to handle them. He never mentioned John, which I guess I was glad for. If there was no one around to speak of my husband, I didn’t have to mention him and it made not-thinking easier. But while October toddled off toward winter, a feeling growed up in my heart that scared hoar-frost into my bones.
John would come. He would find us. He would kill the Fox.
I tried more than once to warn Reynard of the terrible badness he’d stuck himself into by takin’ me. But he would only smile, grab my hand, and haul me off to see one more of the pretty places he found when he wandered. Sometimes we’d bring Duck, sometimes she’d stay with the birds and foxlin’s and the secret someone the Fox said kept ‘em safe. But always, always he wouldn’t hear no talk of John O’Grady.
“Shhh,” he said, and put his grubby finger to my lips. “Don’t speak ugly things into the beauty of here.”
I wondered if he’d seen himself lately, seen the way fresh bruises and scrapes turned his chest to a welterin’ wilderness of blue and red and purple and the way his hair and eyes mismatched the rest of him. If anything was ugly, it was him.
“I’m afeared for you.” I hurled a handful of acorn shells into the same spot of wild stream he’d brought me the first day.
We were friends now, the Fox and I. Don’t quite know how it got to be that way, but that’s how things was. My heart still planned on runnin’ but I could wait a while. The Fox would never hurt me, I felt sure. In that way, he’d took me someplace safe when he took me here.
I feeled toward him like he was my cousin. He knew lots of things better than I did and there were times I still felt mortally afraid of his strangeness and wildness. But it always came back to his bein’ simple as Duckling and just as gentle to me. I couldn’t find it in me to mistrust him.
“I’m afeared John O’Grady’ll hurt you.”
“You aren’t allowed to speak such things here, you know.” He stretched his back long and lanky on the sun-warmed rock. Duckling climbed onto his belly and bounced. He grunted as she used him for a hobby-horse.
I jiggled more acorns in my hand from the unhusked pile and flicked them one by one into a turtle shell bowl at my side. “If you don’t start taking care of yourself,” I teased, “why, I’ll just have to run away. It’s not good for you for me an’ Duckling to be here.”
Reynard got real still then. His quietness forced me to look his way. What I saw shivered the guilt in my gut: his heart had broke all over his face, messed it like cracked eggs.
“You cannot leave,” he rustled. “Oh no. You can do anything but leave.”
“But if I wanted to leave, you surely wouldn’t force me to stay here.” That’s really what I’d wanted to know ever since we’d got to be friends. My heartbeat stopped, listenin’ for his answer.
His eyebrows crowded together and he shook his head. “You will not try, though,” he said. “You would not want that. We are companions.”
He sat up, clearing Duck off his lap, and rocked himself, hugging his knees.“If you left, we would both be alone. I will never let you leave.” He did not look at me but kept his eyes fixed on the rumpled water around us. “You will not want to leave. I would not leave you. We are company for each other. You would be alone,”
I would have Duck, which is all I want. But I said nothing and in a moment the Fox’s strange, unbending humor had passed and he had caught a lightening-shy lizard with swift hands to show Duck its pretty patterned skin.
So I’d got my answer now: I might be safe with the Fox, but I weren’t free. And safe and free, when standin’ opposite each other, might as well call it war. What was it that had made Reynard the way he was, so gentle-fierce and wild-minded? What strange kind a’trouble had rumpled his brain same way the big flat rocks disturbed the path of this mountain stream? It troubled me like few other things ever had. I needed to know so’s I could form my plan to break away.
Right there, in a mud-puddle of late afternoon sun while the Fox played with my Duckling, I made the first step: a fight against my new friend. I determined to follow him next time he took to his wandering-ways and see what I could make of the terrible thing that had made him this way. Don’t know what I worried I’d find, just had to know. As much to settle my own spirit as to understand his. If it was evilness, I’d like to face it head-on. If it was somethin’ kinder, I was still against letting it sneak up to tear out the back of my neck.
I cast away the rest of the acorn shells, dragged the turtle shell into my lap. With a round stone I crushed the nutmeats. The Fox’s familiar, woodsy smell rose up under my mortar and I smashed the acorns like they’d been his heart. And who knows? Maybe they were. Because it was decided and done now and for always: I had to leave. Nothing he could say, no little animal cries and human pleas could keep me from my purpose.
The moon grinned out big and corn-colored that night. Something about the Fox made the moon a fast friend a’his. Seemed like it was always in its fullest stage over his homeplace. Go anywhere else in the mountains and it might change, might let itself be nibbled back to a shy little fingernail moon, but pinched in the sky above our green saddle-back, it glowed like a pumpkin. Not that I’d know what it looked like right now elsewheres since I wasn’t allowed to leave.
We had all gone to bed shortly after the sun set, which I’d got used to. We did this every night and tonight was different to nobody but me. Nothing seemed unusual except that something was. I’d learned that when livin’ by your wits, the smallest thing is everything. Your whole life is small. Can’t afford one piece of the smallness falling apart unless you want to be torn to mincemeat. I had watched the Fox even before my decision to follow him. Guess I knew I needed to know his habits well as I knew my own, well as I’d known John’s. And I’d noticed that on the nights he took his strange turns—even in the daylight hours, sometimes—his birds were all manner of upset.
I laid now on my stone bench in the cuddlesome touch of the sheepskins. Duck snuggled by my side, sucked her thumb, drooled on my dress. In their cages, Reynard’s birds twittered and scratched. That old king-finch, Audubon, acted curious, hopping from one side to the other, flyin’ at his cage and hangin’ upside down. The birds flickered like dark candle-flames in the butter-colored moonlight making stains on the floor. I had nothing to do but sleep, and sleep surely wasn’t on the menu.
Breathe in, listen to the scratching, breathe out, listen for the footsteps.
Didn’t even hear Reynard till he was right beside me, a pale, leggy shadow. I couldn’t stop the little jump and scream that came out. He spun at me. The moon caught on his strange tail and the strange light in his eyes. He was not himself—that was easy to see.
“Anise?” His eyes fixed straight ahead on the cave wall behind me and he felt for me, sightless, like a raccoon a’washing of his supper in a stream. He found me, pushed my shoulders back against the sheepskins, patted my head.
“Rest there, Anise. To sleep my love.”
An odd, half-strangled sound caught in his throat like a fox-call as he turned away and my skin tingled with terror. Were the wolf-man stories true? Were all those horrible things the folk said in town true?
Hair like fire...eyes like coals. And sometimes he’ll come up close to a lonely cabin and cry at the windows.
Life has a funny way of pointing its shivery ghost-finger at things. The Fox turned once more as he opened the door. The moon shone all around him, picked out his sorry, bony body, and his face that should have been in shadow but was not. His eyes scraped up some of that light and cupped it like ruby-red fire-coals.
God in Heaven. It was true.
I don’t know how I forced the courage into my legs, forced myself out of my warm bed, patting the skins around the Duckling and askin’ the Lord God to keep watch over her. I thought about what the Fox had said, about the strong things in the forest that watched out for innocent things.
In the light places of my mind I thought angels.
In the dark places such as right here, I thought of a great sooty panther with eyes like pumpkin-moons curled up on the stone-outcrop above the door.
I kept close on the Fox’s heels after that thought, slipped out the door right behind him and shut it tight. Everything in me told me not to look back to see Duck’s guardian, but I couldn’t help it. I looked back over my shoulder and tripped on a root: a dark shape huddled high on the outcrop. Muscle-lumped shoulders, trailing, flailing tail. Then the fear shook down and I realized it was ivy growing bushy around the doorsill, one leafy strand kicked out by the wind.
I hurried on and the farther I got from Duck, the more I wondered what sort of death I was headed to. I prayed the twenty-third Psalm under my breath, using it like a charm against the moon-eaten darkness all around us. It was dark even with the moon as we trailed up out of the valley-glen, made the circuit of our usual hills, passed through a creek and a briar-patch, and thick, grabbing woods. I thought I knew now where he got half his scrapes and scratches. Reynard was reckless in his determined wanderin’ but I knew his mind had gone someplace far off. His eyes didn’t see the ground beneath him. He sob-cried now and then and leaned himself into the trunk of a tree. His legs wobbled. And though I kept far enough back he wouldn’t notice my footsteps, I kept close enough to see that his hands had gone stiff and his fingers curled up like bird-claws.
All at once he stumbled, didn’t even put his hands out to catch himself. Just fell like a sling-shotted squirrel into a slot between two trees. I bit off the sharp sound of my breath and ducked behind a tree, resistin’ the thing in me that wanted to help him. What if he turned into a wolf right there? What if that tail grew into his back and his ears went sharp and foxy and his stiff hands grew dew-claws? I imagined the feel of them on my neck, ripping into my soft flesh.
Then the sounds began. I don’t rightly feel that there’s any sound outside of Hell to compare with it. Wailing, crying. Hoarse, horrible barks that don’t rightly belong to anything in this world but surely not a man. He vomited the sounds into the forest and I stood there listening because I could not go back. Maybe I could find the way—we hadn’t come so far and I knew his territory pretty well by now—but I would not leave the Fox to whatever demon was riding him piggy-back. I don’t remember ever bein’ as truly terrified as I was then. For certain a dark terribleness had crawled with us into the woods and I was that afeared it would leave him and climb onto me. Still I couldn’t leave him.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” I chanted under my breath. The night was ice-prickle cold. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
One final wail and the Fox froze and my heart froze. Had it killed him then? Was it coming for me? I hissed my prayers with what little breath I had left and took some feeble steps toward him. He laid stiff as a frozen puddle. Then the convulsions began and I knew, whatever ailed my friend, it was medical-natured. It needed doctoring. Serious doctoring. This relieved me till I realized I would have knowed what to do with a devil. But what did I know of doctoring?
Reynard’s body thrashed between the two trees like a trout thrown up on a riverbed. I could feel in my own body the merciless way the bark cut into his poorly-protected chest, ripped into his bare arms and belly.
“Christ save us!”
I ran to him. I didn’t care half a second what he might do to me in this state. All I knew is that he’d kill himself if he went on like this. Plumb kill himself. I couldn’t let him. Somehow I forced myself down in the crack too and tried to keep hold of his body. I’d misjudged how slippery he’d be, all slick with sweat and leaf mould. He slid out of my grasp, foaming at his mouth, eyes rolled back deep in their sockets. All the tears I’d held back swelled in my breast and squeezed out my breath. I pulled the Fox’s poor head into my lap, stroked his hair with my fingers. He slammed his head repeatedly into my thighs till I thought I must have near as many bruises as he did. I braced myself against the ground and held his head till the thrashing slowed, stuttered, and finally stopped. He just went limp all of a sudden, a sight less disturbed-looking than the rigidness from before. I sat there with his senseless head pillowed on my lap and stroked his torn-up face and whispered to him. And finally the whispers became a few notes and the notes became a song and pretty soon I was lying beside him on the ground singing the song I’d made for Duck:
“Oh the Fox went out on a chilly night, begged for the moon to give him light for he’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o. He’d many a mile to go that night before he reached the town-o...”
I woke up with a twitch and the feeling that somethin’ was different. Then I saw the Fox, and he was sitting up and looking back to normal, except more bruised and torn than ever. He watched me. I groaned and pulled my stiff legs into even stiffer arms.
“You should not have done that,” he said. “You should not have followed me.” He stood and pulled me to my feet too. “I wish that you had not.”
I shrugged. “I needed to know.”
The look he gave me next was pitiful in its huntedness. Huge black circles punched themselves into the poor skin under his eyes. He looked sore in need of water.
“Was it a very bad one?” he husked.
“It looked bad.” I jerked my head to the other side so I wouldn’t have to see his tired face. “But I’m not sure how bad. What are they usually like?”
He brushed trembly, stupid fingers at his face and shrugged. “I’m...I’m not sure.”
“You don’t have no memory of your...fits?”
“Well I’m not exactly at my best during them, am I?” He was angry and hurt like a wounded animal. Hurt I’d seen him like this, angry he was like this at all.
“We’d best be getting home,” I said.
“You left the Duckling?” he asked after me as I forged the way through the dark woods. “What if your husband came while you were gone?”
It was the first time he’d ever offered to speak of John. I tramped along and knew that Duck was all right.
“John didn’t come.”
Reynard trotted to catch up. He seemed to be recoverin’. “But he will. I can sense it. He is coming.”
“I did warn you,” I said, and the Fox and I hurried back along the rim of the mountain to the place where it fell into our valley.
I had to know one thing before we got back to the cave and to Duck and the animals. “What is your ailment?”
Reynard paused, one foot lifted and the turned back to me. His eyes glowed again but this time it was just the moon’s reflection. “I would rather not say.”
“You are keeping me here against my will. I have to know.”
“We are companions, though.”
“Because you want us to be. Because you’re making us be.” I hated to hurt him, but hadn’t I just braved goodness-knowed-what kinda horribleness to keep him company? And he wouldn’t even tell me what it was I’d watched him go through.
He glared at me a moment, then shook himself. “A long time ago I did not live here.”
He would let me in.
“I had a lot of money and high intellect. But I began to have seizures like this. Doctors told me that...that it would deaden parts of my brain. That I would not get those parts back and that eventually my whole brain would...malfunction. And I would die.
“I came to the woods so that people would not ridicule me or see me lose my wits. I did not want to be watched when I was in that state. It is frightening...I had seen it in others before it became my thorn.”
He was panting again and I wondered why he could speak so clever sometimes and be so childish others. Guess it was the the different parts of his mind already gone or strong as ever that stepped forward to say their piece at different times.
“I soon learned that the animals could sense my strange turns before even I could, and that it broke their trust to see me as you did tonight. So I made a point to trek as far away as I could when my auras came.”
“What’s an aura?” I asked him.
“A presentiment. A change in the chemicals of my body that inform me a seizure will soon follow.” His eyebrows pinched together painfully and he shrugged off the words like an arm he didn’t want around his shoulders.
“Few times a week.”
I crossed my arms. “And what do they call your sickness?”
“It stiffens up your brain?”
“Not exactly.” He shrugged. “More or less.”
I sniffed. “Well, it can’t get much stiffer’n my body is right now. Let’s go home.”
And then, same way a dog’s bad humor passes quickly, he was smiling again and reaching for my hand. We walked back to his cave and entered on fox-silent feet. The birds had settled back and Duckling was just like I’d left her, burrowed in the white sheepskins. Reynaud was all for going to bed straight away but I forced him to sit on the stool while I cleaned his wounds and fixed them with his yarby salve.
“ ‘Night, Fox,” I whispered after he’d curled himself gingerly in a pile near the stove.
But soon as I was sure he had fallen asleep I let the tears loose and ‘bout flooded myself out of bed. I had seen such pitiful things tonight. I’d seen the Fox as he must have been all those years back: gentle and smart and kind. Maybe the seizure had cleared the murkiness out of his mind for the moment, but I’d seen him: the kind of man he had been once and would be now if the terrible sickness hadn’t killed off places in his brain. Everything had come clear now like a window washed fresh by rain.
Why Reynard was such a pile of contraries. Where he’d learned to talk so smart. Why he wandered, where he went. What caused him to be downright crazy. Why he didn’t have no concept of civilized rules and common graces. How he thought he could keep me here because he wished for it. How, if things were different, I could have easily learned to love him.
I rolled over and scooted Duck toward me, buried my face in her dusty-smelling curls, let the tears cry themselves out. And far-off-sounding from the trayne above us, one of Reynard’s foxes yipped high, then low.