The Fox Went Out
by Rachel Heffington
Where’s Duck? I flung myself out of bed half asleep but awake to the fact that the skins beside me were cold and flat. Reynard, too, was gone from his spot near the squatty-looking stove. I turned a few circles in the room looking for Duck. My eyes wouldn’t focus enough to let me be sure she wasn’t in the cave. She was gone, of course. I’d known that from the minute I woke up. Till now, I’d been all right with being taken away from John O’Grady. Not overjoyed, not unconcerned, but Reynard the Fox was more man than creature. It was better than my fancy had him.
But now he’d done it. My knees jittered and my hands too. I pushed my way out the front of the cave wanting to murder Reynard for darin’ to take my child away while I slept. Maybe Duck wandered on her own, you’ll say. Could be, but didn’t make it any less of a problem, since Reynard had gone after her and had done God knew what with her.
The valley sunlight showed me an early afternoon. Light came blinking down slant-wise through the lacey birches and the stick-straight pines behind them, broken here and there by elephant-shadows from the oaks. Seemed like a bad idea to yell, but I didn’t know how else to find where Duck had gone.
“Duck!” I shouted. Gracie Mae is what her Pa had called her, but that was his name for Duck and she never would come to it. “Where are ya’, Duck?”
A hand clamped hard over my mouth. It pulled me backward and dumped me on a log. Reynard removed his palm and sprang over the log onto his knees beside me.
“Don’t yell,” he said. “It would be unfortunate if someone heard you.” His smile jumped out again and startled me. It was too bright for the situation, just like his eyes. And what was it about the way he spoke?
“You won’t yell, will you?” he asked again. “Because I would rather give you the choice than force you.”
I glared. “What’d you do with Duck?”
His gaze wandered into the woods. “Sent her to play.”
“At the trayne.”
He fluffed himself like a bird fluffing its feathers. “I will show you instead. You will live here, so you must know everything about our homeplace.”
Without much of a warning, Reynard stood, hauled me off the log, and twined his fingers through mine. His skin which had looked so pale in the moon seemed almost blueish now. With bruises or its natural tint I couldn’t say. I had never liked holding hands and the Fox’s fingers placed just so between each of mine sent a sickness through my arms. Why didn’t he hit me, kiss me, handle me? Nothing but holding my hand...and this I didn’t trust. He was strong and I was at his foxy mercy. If he would mistreat me, I could hate him.
“Hurry, please,” I whispered.
“If you’d like.”
Together, we climbed the hillside his den was chipped into and shuffled through a fernglen. At the roots of an upside-down oak I saw my Duckling romping with the fox-kits. They worried her dress, nipped at her knees, and tumbled head-over-heels between her legs. Duck, too young to be afraid, laughed and played with them. When she saw me, she called my name and ran forward with a flurry of foxes at her heels.
“Come see, Mama! There be fox babies!”
Reynard released my hand and I let Duck pull me to the den—what he had called the “trayne.” We sat with the fox kits and though their gnawing and nipping startled me, I was happy to see Duck happy. The Fox climbed a tree that leaned to one side, took a leather-bound book from his pocket, and wrote in it. I watched him. What did he write about? Since I never learned my letters, I wouldn’t know unless I asked. Maybe one day I’d ask. For now I counted myself glad he was happy to sit in a tree, writing secret things.
Duck patted my face with her hands till a kit knocked her over. “Mama, how long are we gonna stay here?”
I smiled my brightest for Duck. “We’ll have to see, Duck. We’re surely bein’ taken care of, ain’t we?”
She wrestled a stick from one of the foxes. “He gave me thome bread and honey.”
At mention of a meal, my stomach churned. It had been at least a full twenty-four hours since I had eaten and I’d drunk nothing since John’s beating. Hunger’s always worst when someone else has just eaten. Doesn’t matter how hungry you were before, your belly chooses then to throw back its head and howl.
“Is there any food?” I called back to the Fox.
Reynaud put his book away and dropped to the ground “What would you like best to eat?”
He helped me to my feet. It was October and not too much grew in the woods in October. I hadn’t seen any barnyard. Guess Reynard wouldn’t have poultry since he kept foxes. Maybe there was a pig or two roamin’ the woods. My options would be wild game or same as what he’d given Duck, then.
I shrugged. “A little bread and honey wouldn’t be too bad.”
“Then you shall have it.” He said it like he was king, I his queen. Half expected he had a big old feast set up under the birches and a crown for my head.
Reynard loped down the hillside and Duck and I, a bit slower, followed. Inside the cave again, he bustled around with an energy I had not guessed was in him. Last night he had been desperate, dark, mysterious. The mystery hadn’t gone away, but the darkness left. He was too bright—odd and sparkling—and desperate in a different way. I ought to have been less afraid of him than before, but somehow I was not. Crazy people don’t make for quiet companions.
“Would you take this to the table?” Reynaud put a bowl into my hands.
Though I hadn’t noticed before, I found the wooden table spread already with the butt end of a bread loaf, a pot of honey, and a tin cup. Duck wriggled onto the stool at the head-place and swung her short legs. It must be the Fotx’s stool, I shooed her off it, but the Fox stopped me.
“Let her sit. She is shortest anyway. It is harder for her legs to reach the floor.”
He and I settled onto the floor on opposite sides of the table and the Fox grabbed my hand again. The sickness which had drifted away outdoors flooded back in, doubled because with his right hand, Reynard also took hold of Duck’s chubby fist. What was he about? What sort of devil-brewed mischief did he mean to start in this fusty little den of his? Reynard bowed into his chest, skin even bluer in the natural dusk of his cave. He took a deep breath, let it out, breathed deeply again, let it out again. I forgot to breathe at all, I was that curious to see what would happen.
Duck tried to wriggle her hand out of his, but his grip tightened and I saw how his fingertips pressed into her wrist. He closed his eyes now and murmured things to himself. What was this? Fright birthed in my bosom. I pounded the table with my free hand.
“What are you doin’?”
One eye opened. “Shhh.”
“I won’t shush till you tell me what sort of spell you’re castin’.”
The other eye opened. “Do not speak of casting spells, lady. I am praying God to bless this meal and unless you would rather Divine punishment on your head for blaspheme, you had better sit quietly.”
Oh. That was all. A blessin’ on the food. Been so long since I’d seen anyone do it, I’d forgot the custom. My own prayers happened without much plannin’. I prayed now while Reynard muttered to himself—to God, rather. He finally released my hand just when the quietness got awkward and Duck had begun to fidget.
No one said much of anything at the meal. I had never been what anyone’d call talkative, even if I felt like becoming friends with my companions. And I did not hanker for the Fox’s friendship. I was grateful he didn’t seem intent on murderin’ us first things first but that only goes so far. He had yet to show us what plans he brewed for Duckling and me. I meant to have them out of him.
I broke a chunk of bread from the loaf. “How long you been hidin’ out here?”
“I don’t hide. I live.”
“Have any friends?”
He brightened. “I now have a companion. Two, if we count the Duckling.”
He took the bread from my hand, opened a little clay crock and spread butter thick and yellow. Did he have a cow hidden in one of the ferny places or was this my neighbors’ butter, same as the sheepskins I’d slept so comfortable on had probably once been my neighbors’ sheep? But so hungry I’d gotten in the long day and night before this, my stomach out-yelled my conscience. I ate well from the food Reynard sent my way. I could never spread my own butter or drizzle the wildwood honey or choose berries from the wooden bowls. All this he did by his own hand. Wouldn’t let me touch a thing unless it was to serve Duck.
At last, Duck got tired of our silent meal, crawled into my lap, and fell asleep with her arms around my neck and her curly head nestled under my chin. Now it was just me and the Fox and I could ask the things I wanted to know. I watched him lick his fingertip and collect crumbs off the wooden table, then square off the loaf of bread and scatter the shavings to the finch with the funny name and its kin in the other cages.
“Why’d you take me?” I jumped at the sound of my own voice and put a hand over Duck’s head to settle her back to sleep.
Reynard cocked his head and knelt on the floor beside me. What he intended to do, I didn’t know. Then he put his arms around me and Duck and rested his chin on top of my head. Just rested it there. Didn’t move an inch, just settled his head on mine and possessed me.
“You were in trouble, weren’t you?” he explained.
“How did you find me?”
He must have shrugged, for his chin briefly sank deeper and hurt the top of my head. “I heard you crying. And I smelled blood.”
My stomach filled my mouth. “You can smell things like an animal...but you are a man?”
“Of course I’m a man. Fully man. Living in the backwoods—especially alone—is dangerous work. One’s senses become heightened from necessity.”
I wished I could see his face now in his place across the table, but he held me tight and talked straight through with his chin waggin’ against my hair and a woodsy smell like crushed acorns and green moss risin’ up all around him, me, the little cave.
“I wander some nights,” he explained. “Sometimes I get....strange turns...and I wander those times because if I stayed, why, the animals wouldn’t trust me. I was wandering the night I found you.”
What he meant by strange turns, I didn’t dare wonder. Stories of wolf-men and evilness prowled in the corners of my mind, but I talked myself out of them. It just didn’t fit to think of this fierce and gentle man maraudin’ all around the mountains with a taste for blood.
“What do you mean by strange turns?” I asked. Might as well clear that one out of the way.
“Nothing,” he quickly said, and though I couldn’t see his eyes, I felt the annoyed-ness tensing in his body behind me. He let me go too, and went back to his bird cages. I knew I’d broke some of his good humor by asking about the wandering moods. I’d hate to make him mad. Maybe he’d turn on me. Should have kept my mouth shut. Was that always goin’ to be my downfall?
Off by himself, Reynard whistled some low little tune to his birds and peeked around the side of the largest cage. “I’ve watched you many years.”
Somehow I was not surprised. I hugged my daughter a little tighter and remembered the first night the fox barked. “Ever since Duck was born?”
He stilled.“You didn’t see me.” More of a protest than a question.
A dusky shiver ran up my neck. “I didn’t see anythin’. I heard a Fox bark.”
His laugh was short, like the sound. “Then yours was only a lucky guess, a coincidence. I never made a sound while I watched.”
“Then who sang at the windows?”
He dropped to his haunches and stared at me. “You heard my songs?” This time it was a question, like he didn’t want it to be true and gave me a chance to change my answer.
I stared him straight in the eye and made my next jab: mockery. “Livin’ in the backwoods is dangerous work. One’s senses are heightened by necessity.” His words tasted odd in my mouth. I hungered to spit them back and make a wound.
Instead, Reynaud nodded, cast himself on the floor, propped himself up on his elbow. “Were you ever taught?”
I frowned. “Taught what?”
“To read? To think? To...learn?”
I rocked Duck and blushed that the man to kidnap me was the only man to have ever asked me this. I felt shamed, too, over the obvious answer that no, no one had ever taken a lick of pains with my education. Wrath sizzled just under my skin and shook up my breath a little. I’d never even had the choice to learn whether or not I might have been clever. All these things poked each other in the side with pointed elbows and fought to come out my mouth. Instead, I answered the Fox calmly:
“No, I never learned anythin’.”
He got up so suddenly, seemed like he was made of vapors. “Then I will teach you.”
“Did you ever learn anything?” And soon as I asked it, the strangeness of his speech knocked me under the jaw. He talked like a book-learned man. Used words I’d barely heard of, spoke long sentences where men like John O’Grady’d use a grunt or two. The Fox was a smart man. Smarter, probably, than anyone I’d met in my life. At some point he must’ve lived with normal folks. Like as not he’d been rich, too, if he’d been able to spend time and money on an education. I remembered stories of a few young men in town who’d tried for fancy schools and come home broke and bitter. It wasn’t everyone who could do it. So at some point in his lonely life the Fox had been a rich and smart man. Oh, what drove him to this strange life? And what drove him to want me so much he’d risk the fury of John O’Grady?
My left arm tingled up and down where Duck had slipped and hung heavy for the last twenty minutes. “I hope you realize what you’ve done.”
“How so?” The Fox grinned, all easiness again.
“You’ve knocked over a nest of hornets by takin’ me away. And golly Moses, does this batch sting terrible.”
“Pah. Your husband—and I shrink to call him that—will never find you.”
Was that supposed to be a comfort? I couldn’t tell which felt worse: being beat on by John O’Grady or kept like a pet by the strangest, most addled man in Tennessee. But I knew that John swore to destroy anyone who got in his way. Even the trickiest animal in the mountains couldn’t hide from him if he set to looking.
“I wouldn’t rest in that, friend,” I said.
“We are, aren’t we?” He smiled on me shyly. “You called me ‘friend.’ Aren’t we?”
It was lucky I’d turned away to lay Duck on the ground. I waved for the Fox to hand me a sheepskin. This he did, and smiled overtop Duckling while I cozied the fleece around her warm little body. I stood, bones aching, and looked down on her too. A quiet moment, and a peaceful one. The first moment for me and my Duckling that I had not worried John O’Grady would bust through the door.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Reynard said.
“N...no. I can’t just leave Duck here.”
“She will be well.” He slipped his fingers through mine. “The animals are with her. They will not let anything pass.”
“A bunch of baby foxes and tiny birds?” I worried as he led me through the valley. “What if a panther comes? Or some wanderin’ crazy-man.”
“You have much fear in you, haven’t you?”
Tears nipped at the backs of my eyelids when I shut them against his simpleness. Course there was much fear in me. Fear had got so big these days, I thought it would about eat up anything else and then start on my own insides.
“Duck is my life,” I whispered at last. “I hope your finches keep an eye out.”
The Fox helped me over a stream. “They are friendly things and add much beauty to the woods. There are others in this forest who will see that nothing disturbs them.”
And though it feared me sorely to leave Duck asleep in the cave, what choices did I have but to trust to the Fox’s promise that all was well? Little as I trusted his ways, he was enough like the animals to know risk when he smelled it. Besides, I thought, let a bad man try to cozy up to the wild things: they won’t let him near. These wood creatures had accepted the Fox as one of them. He was gentle in his fierce way. Duck would nap peaceful.
We wandered through the forest a long way. October sun squeezed me tight where it fell ‘tween empty spaces left by fallen trees. The smell of ripe grapes swirled around me, giddy and purple, and mixed with the husky scent of the Fox which was like acorns and things growing and...honesty. I frowned at this thought and let him lead me to wherever it was he meant to go. We’d come far from his den and I couldn’t help riddling over what he meant to do with me.
I thought I knew.
I steeled myself for it in the playfulness of the world around me. When my nerves had run their length, the Fox stopped at a wild, rollin’ stream. The stream chattered water-words as it frothed up against some flat-nosed rocks flung off the hillside into its path. Out to these rocks the Fox led me, and though I couldn’t see no path, his sure feet picked the way out for me on stones sunk in the chilly streambed. The sunnied rocks glowed against my soles after the stream. I drew my feet up under my skirt and sat for a while. Reynard put his arm around my waist. He scooted next to me, then leaned his head on my shoulder. For a weird moment, I fancied it was Duck nestled up close and not the man who had carried me over his back through a wild and weary night. His touch burned me. Wished he’d get on with whatever he had planned.
“It is a beautiful thing,” he said in a fiercely gentle voice.
“The stream?” Where it wound away from us, damselflies danced over its surface and trout rippled in the calmer spots by the banks.
“You. Me. Companionship. It has been long years since I have had a companion. I thank you.” He raised his head and stared off downstream, seeing things I guess I couldn’t. “I am not beautiful, I know, but do you like me?”
I ought to have said something. A childish question that wanted answerin’, for it was a question and I knew enough of men to know that when they did you the courtesy of asking for something, you answered. But my thoughts ran like water off a grassy bank. They swished through my fingers before I could catch one for a reply.
The Fox took my hand again and smiled his too-bright smile. “You are a beautiful thing. When you are mothering the duckling, sweet gray goose...” He circled his thumb on my wrist and his voice floated easy. “I don’t know of any more beautiful thing in the world. You are pure and lovely and...you are like the Mother of Christ. You remind me of wonderful things. Good things.”
I anticipated his kiss before it came...and then it did not come and my panic widened. He stayed unmoving beside me, his head against my shoulder. Wave after wave, his particular brand of peaceful washed over me and the stream rumbled between. Sleep pulled my eyes and when I checked, I saw it almost had the Fox in its mouth too. What spells had this man cast on me? This creek? Himself? Late sunshine reached a hand down my back, worked out all the knots between my shoulders. Relaxed. I was relaxed. Reynard too. And I ought to have every sense tied up, looking for a way to run.
“Just do it,” I spat.
He shook himself from his drowsiness, stretched, and yawned. Then he shifted to look at me. “Do what?”
My face fired. “You’re an educated man. Do what we’ve come here t’do and let it be done with.”
“What have we come here to do?” His smile and the tilt of his head were purely mad.
“Oh, let me die.” I half-groaned, half-prayed. “Kiss me. Touch me. Do whatever you will do and do it quickly for th’love of God.” I bent in half, crying now and hatin’ myself and him and John O’Grady. Oh, that God would take me now and take Duck too, quietly while she slept. Couldn’t bear this world and its ugliness any longer.
“I beg your pardon.” The Fox frowned and shook his head. “I don’t understand you.”
He pulled away, put his hand on his knees. The Fox’s tail he still wore curved around his upper leg. Beads of water, like crystals, stuck to the long hair covering the tail. Questions formed lines between his eyebrows and he flicked looks my way. Confused looks.
“Did you want me to kiss you?” He sounded tepid, a little hurt.
His bright eyes stared a little shy, a little confused, but good-willed. “Why would I kiss you?” And now he really was curious.
“If you didn’t want to....kiss me....then why’d you bring me here?” I asked.
“Because it is beautiful.” He shrugged. “Because you are beautiful. And beauty should always befriend other beauty. My favorite thing in my favorite place. Companions.” He bumped me with his shoulder, laughing at his joke, and dabbled his feet in the water off the edge of the rock.
I shrunk into myself with a muddy mixture of relief and old panic. The Fox was a not a man after all. He was an overgrown boy. Was it connected to his strange turns? He knew an awful lot—more than most men, and acted more like a growed up fellow than anyone I knew. But somewhere, something had gone childish. It was chilling. I meant to know what it was.