I apologize for the delay with today's piece of The Fox Went Out! It's Mother's Day weekend (appropriate, considering Anise Clare is a new mother) and I spent the better part of my waking hours cooking a veritable Middle-Eastern feast for my mother. She's the best. She deserves it. But I didn't forget about posting Part Two for you, and I can't tell you how excited I am that you are enjoying it so much thus far. May this second sampling not disappoint.
The Fox Went Out
by Rachel Heffington
John O’Grady soon got used to the idea of me not giving him a son. I don’t believe you can will a baby not to come, but I out-willed myself anyway, working to not give a boy to that man. Because of this, our family was just John, Duck, and me. My rebel-self took heart as the years rolled slowly by. I found little ways to own myself and now that I had Duck, I had one ally. John wanted me to dress pretty for him: reds, blues, pinks. I chose Quaker-gray. Lady redbirds don’t dress gaudy and their nests stay secret as badger’s dens. I felt safe with my forest-creature neighbors and put myself in their ways. And my life—every bit of it—was stuck on keeping my Duck away from her Pa. I got hit for it more often than not, but it made me glad to see Duck go quiet when John came home of a night. It was right she saw him as a stranger. Someday we’d break free.
When Duck was four years old, gossip started round. I first heard it while waiting in the silver-wood wagon with my feet propped on John’s load of corn bags. Bandy-Joe, the break-easy man, leaned against a hitching post, chewing a straw.
“Fox’s runnin’ round the country again.”
I didn’t know then what I know now, and my blood still ran chilly. Why’d the mention of a brush-tailed fox turn me giddy? All I knew is that I didn’t know half enough, so I pulled my knees into my arms and rocked a little.
“If there’s fox-trouble, why don’t somebody hunt it down? Don’t anybody want a nice fox-pelt?”
Bandy-Joe removed his straw, snorted, and looked me over admiringly. “I surely doubt anyone’d want his sort of pelt edging up their winter coat or linin’ their wife’s mittens.”
My baffledness must have showed through, for Bandy-Joe stepped nearer and looked me straight in the eye. “He’s a fox...and a man.”
“Shut up, Joe. You’re scarin’ Duck.”
More than likely I’d just told a lie—Duck never scared half as easy as I did, but she didn’t mind me pulling her close. She slid her little arms around my neck and laid quiet against my shoulder, good as you please.
“Quit foolin’ around with your haint-stories,” I said.
Joe shrugged and put the straw back between his teeth. “The Fox has got a taste for blood. Sharp, sharp teeth. Runs on all fours. Wears a tail.”
With each new description, my stomach shuddered. “Quiet, Joe!”
He saw me spook and drew close. “Hair like fire...eyes like coals. And sometimes he’ll come up close to a lonely cabin and cry at the windows.”
Joe’s hand slid along my forearm, pressed into the skin. “I’d ask your husband to keep close of a night if I were you. Just till someone runs the Fox out of the way.”
“I think it’s a bunch of nonsense.”
“You think that, Miz O’Grady. You think that.” Joe stuck his jaw out by way of farewell to me and greeting to my husband who now approached.
My husband raised great, goldy-brown eyes to me. Duck had the same eyes, only hers didn’t burn like his. “What was all that?”
Heaving himself onto the wagon box, John took the reins, clicked to the mules, and pulled our wagon into the dust-white street. “Heard about that.”
“He’s just tryin’ to scare folks.”
I pulled Duck’s bonnet farther across her face. She’d fallen asleep and her chubby arms grew heavy around my neck. John drove our wagon out of town, round the edge of the lake, and well into the forest before saying anything.
“If you hear any more foxes, Anise, let me know.”
Though it wasn’t much like me, I laughed. “Not you too.”
John slid me a look half-humored, half-daring. “I can let you handle that old Fox yourself if you’d rather. Didn’t know you liked chillin’ things.”
I jerked my chin above Duck’s bonnet and faced him. “It isn’t true, what Bandy-Joe said.”
We rattled down the road as the trees yawned overtop our way.
“All I know,” John finally said, “is that every man from Breckwater to Fletcher-town is sittin’ up nights. The Fox takes things.”
“And why fuss over a couple stolen sheep or a hen or two? Why, that’s hardly more’n a real fox would take.”
“Oh,” John said. A world of meaning in that oh. It beat up on crow-wings and swooped over my head like an August storm.
“What does he take?” I asked. I didn’t want to know but his silence pulled the question from me without my sayin’ yes to it.
John’s unnerving eyes settled on me again as he shrugged. “He don’t take those sorts of things. He’s after more.”
That’s all John would say. I knew that’s all he’d ever say. So when I heard a fox bark, same as I’d heard so many times since the Duckling came, I kept quiet and locked the cabin door. But I didn’t tell my husband and I didn’t mind a hoot. I’d grown used to rebelling.
Two nights later I sassed John O’Grady and the gold in his eyes turned to rivermud. He beat me with a closed-up fist, tore my grey dress top to bottom, and left me in a heap on the floor.
The cabin grew out of the clearing’s center, sturdy as if it had put down a tap-root. Thinking of it, the little hairs along the back of the Fox’s neck pricked. The Man had passed this way recently. The blood-smell was thicker than it had ever been. Spooked by such a desperate scent on the air, the Fox trotted the last little bit to the hill-crest and peered down the clearing.
Something was different.
The cabin-door stood open and cried on its hinges.
He took a half-step forward, knowing that if he showed himself now, the Gray Goose would sound the alarm. Half the Tennessee territory was looking for his hide already and it was just this sort of thing that brought their skinny hounds on his trail. It was too dangerous and the Fox turned to go.
Then he heard it: a song. A tattered-up, tear-stained, poor excuse for a song, but a song still. Nothing had ever made the Fox lose his instincts before, but that song did. Or perhaps his instincts weren’t lost at all. Perhaps the song awakened the part of him that had shunned anything but the deepest shades of the forest these long years. Perhaps he’d never known what instinct was until the woman’s tattered song limped up-wind and wrapped like a fox’s own ruddy-gray brush around his throat.
The Fox cast a reel at the moon. Too bright. His shadow might take her notice before he hid himself in the bigger shadow of the strong-rooted cabin. But tonight it didn’t matter because tonight he’d come for her. And when the Fox had come for something, why he intended to do what it took to have it.
These kind of nights were the worst because I hurt and because Duck had seen John O’Grady’s rage from her corner-cot. But in their own cracked-up way they were the best ones too, because he’d be gone all night and the next day.
With no real reason to move, I burrowed into the cabin floor best I could and stayed there. Not that I could have moved, I was that bruised. My brow-bone had taken a shine from the table-leg and the blood shimmied down over my right eyelid. The chilliness of the outside came in through the door and ran up my torn dress.
“Mama?” Duck’s voice crumpled at the edges. “Mama?”
“Stay in bed, Duck,” I told her. Stay in bed. Like staying in bed would rub away all she’d just seen. Like staying in bed would save from the life that was ours to keep. I was sorry it wouldn’t do that. Sorrier than I’d ever been about anything.
Duck dropped her stubborn feet onto the wood boards and pidder-pidder-pattered as she trotted from her end of the room to mine. Little rebel, just like her mama.
“Pa’s a mean man.” Only four years old but I’d never seen an owl look half as solemn.
I opened my mouth to say no, her Pa wasn’t mean, he was just a little frustrated. But I couldn’t lie to her. Best to know meanness when she saw it and take a good dislikin’ for anything wearing similar colors. I patted the floor next to me. Duck plopped down, scooted my skirts to the side, and ruffled her fingers in my hair.
“You hurt bad, Mama?”
Tears came up. “Not real bad, Duckling.”
She moved her finger to my face, smoothing my cheek. “My pretty Mama.”
I turned my head and kissed her fingertips. The bruising already burned a little less. My head had stopped bleedin’. Duck had magic in her fingers. Baby magic. The kind the fox had barked at the night my Duck was born.
“You settle on down, Duck,” I whispered, and shifted so her head laid in the curve of my waist. “I’m gonna sing you a song.”
“Is it an old one?”
“A new one.”
“Good.” She flipped over to face me and her bottom lip pushed out pink as strawberries.
I eased my arm around her and bit my own lip as pain grappled with my shoulder. John O’Grady had dislocated it this time, I was sure. Still, holding onto Duck was like holding onto all the goodness in the world at once.
“O, the fox went out on a chilly night,” I sang. My voice didn’t stand too strong on its legs, but it was for Duck I sang and I knew she didn’t care.
I sang what words I remembered, made up others to fit the tune. “He 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.”
Duck’s eyelids flickered and finally closed and her sleeping-breath came on, slow and heavy. I pulled her dark curls through my fingers and kept singing to comfort myself.
“First he grabbed the gray goose by the neck and he swung a duck across his back...”
A wind freshened in the doorway and fluttered my torn dress.
“...and he didn’t mind the quack-quack-quack or the legs all dangling down-o, down-o, down-o...”
Shadows dragged across the yard, driving hard before the wind.
“O, he didn’t mind the quack-quack-quack or the legs all dangling down-o...”
The Fox went in to her, into the place that smelled of blood and desperation, fear and fevered pride. Silent at first, and on tip-toes. She still sang and he stood above her, his breath quivering.
The moon shifted and his shadow came to dance.
No more song.
Caught in the trap of intruded-on pain, she blazed gray-eyed surprise and the duckling blazed too, a smaller, in all other ways identical, version of her. Right then, the Fox forgot how to speak. Hours of practice, only to forget again.
“Come with me.” The invitation tottered like a drunk from between his teeth, fell down his beard, tripped into the gray cotton which pooled around her battered body like a stream round a fallen willow. A graceless offer. But had the Fox formed words at all? Neither his Gray Goose nor the duckling seemed to understand. Stiffening like opossums, they stayed where he’d found them, unblinking.
“With me. Come with me. Going to sweep you away from here.”
Words had come out that time, however chewed-sounding. Frustrated, mistrusting, the Fox reached down for her arm to help her up and carry her away from the man who, he suddenly feared, would return before they’d looked for him.
He reached a paw down. The Gray Goose bit it, pulling a surprised snarl from him. He jerked away, uncertain now.
“Leave me be!” she vixened.
He watched her chest flash like the sides of a baby rabbit. Fear. She feared him; that he would not suffer.
“You will come!”
Though he made careful to keep well away from her red lips and the teeth they shielded, the Fox raked her into his arms. Strong he was, accustomed to carrying many kinds of loads away from the places they had once belonged, but the burden of two…this he had not expected. The duckling must remain behind. He had no need for her; one was enough for his plain kind of happiness. Two he could not imagine caring for.
Hitherto, a catamount’s wail seemed the worst sound in the forest, but this other-worldly howl was worse. A one-word punching of his well-attuned eardrums, scalding his forearms like oil. His grip on the woman trembled. The Gray Goose had claws. They dug into his shoulder blades.
“Let me have her!” she cried.
Quaint thought in both their hearts. Let me have her. Let him take this Gray Goose to his den. Let him have her. Let nothing, least of all a duckling, stand in his way. He made to leave the house but the woman’s teeth sank into his the skin round his collarbone. Yelping, he flung his burden to the ground.
“Let me have my Duck and I’ll go with you,” she gasped at him.
The childish side of him resented the idea of sharing the Gray Goose, even with her own child. “I don’t want a baby.”
“Bring her or I’ll raise Cain till th’dogs chase off th’buzzards for a chance to worry your bones.”
Hesitation blew in with the night air, cooling the Fox’s brain. What trouble was a Duckling? He grabbed the child then, holding her damp weight against his hip and flung his Gray Goose over his back once more. Then, hearkening to some part of him that understood as the animals, the Fox went his dark way back through the forest: a different trail than that he’d come, so the threat of hounds might have more trouble manifesting.
Two thoughts uppermost in my head:
It’s happening again.
Oh, dear God, it’s th’Fox.
I’ve said it twice now: life and I kept hold of one another pretty tight. I didn’t faint. I stopped thrashing. I stopped weepin’ and simmered all of it into a shaking in my core: a sugaring-off call for help, more plea than prayer:
Dear God, The Fox.
Dear God, The Fox.
By an’ by it stopped being The Fox, like a name. Became something a little less crazed and more like plain fear: The Fox, a fox. What was the fox, really? His eyes, though bright and funny-looking, hadn’t glowed. He didn’t bite me. In fact, it’d been the other way round. And as far as I could tell, though his pace hadn’t let up one mark, he was standing only slightly bent over, much like any man would have, carrying a full-grown woman and a hefty toddler. The awful truth stuck around, though: I’d been taken once more, against my will, by a man I knowed only by the bad taste his name left in the mouth.
Couldn’t see much what with bouncing and being slung over his bony shoulders like a sack. My shoulder was still out and half-killing me with pain. Still, I fumbled over the Fox’s left arm and found my Duck’s hand. She held it back and didn’t make a sound. If I hadn’t had the proof of her bein’ all right in the way she squeezed my fingers, I’d of had a hard time believing she was even alive. Right about the time I wondered if the Fox intended to trot us clear to Kentucky, he turned of a sudden and dumped us onto a creek bank.
“You’re hurt.” Curious fingers prodded my shoulder.
I whimpered at his touch and kicked him away, feeling the damp, mossy earth ease into my stiff body.
He drew back on his haunches a teeny space and cocked his head. “It is a dislocation. I’m afraid I’ll have to hurt you a moment to fix it.”
“Don’t touch me!”
My words didn’t seem to bother that foxy gentleman one bit. He eased his left hand under my shoulder and felt. Then he extended my arm, braced his bare foot in my armpit, and in the space of my one desperate scream, had fixed me.
The moon, bein’ bright this time of month, showed the Fox to me plain and I took a good long look at him. His panting chest was so thin and white and bruised-looking, I almost couldn’t believe this was the same creature who had carried my child and me hours through the woods. But when I looked, I saw muscles all over him. Callouses on his hands. His arms though...why they were strong, but bandy as frog’s legs with just enough skin to cover ‘em and no more. Not anywhere on his body a pinch of fat. Reddish hair covered the foreparts of his arms, the back of his neck, grew in a thick beard on his face. The hair on the top of his head was darker, almost coffee-colored and grew down into a widow’s peak above clever eyes. Didn’t have too much on for clothing: just buckskin breeches and a vest covered with a dozen pockets. For thieving, I guessed. He wore no shoes, which was less than strange, for I had none, nor did Duck. The Fox could have looked scarier. He could have looked handsomer. Above all, he didn’t look—
“Is it well with your shoulder now?”
His question cracked my peace. My blood burned. I’d almost forgotten the Fox could speak, he seemed so odd. But if he was not people-ish, he was even less like a fox.
“You got a tail?” I asked.
An alarming smile sprang out of his beard. A handful of seconds before, he’d been haunting. Now he looked happier’n Duck with a pink-striped candy stick. He didn’t answer right then, just raked hard fingers through his dark hair and smiled. The wind stirred something out behind him and my blood thickened: a fox’s tail. Then the moment passed and he turned and I saw it wasn’t attached to his rear but to a belt cinched around his waist. A fox’s brush that swung right to left as he slid down the bank of the creek and scooped a handful of water to his mouth.
He turned, flicked silver beads of water off his wrist, and scrambled back up the bank. Then without saying anything, he grabbed me and Duck and hurried off again into the wilderness.
It was dawn when we got to his nice, warm den. Somehow he kept totin’ me and my child all through that night and into the pinky morning. First thing I knowed of gettin’ near his homeplace was a yelping sound, a sharp singing-whining sound that dug into my ears and pulled me out of my gritty-eyed tiredness. Through the gloom, I made out eight or nine wriggling, spade-eared creatures pelting toward the Fox. He stopped at a break in the bottom of the woods. The oaks went quiet and the birches grew lace. He gentled me and Duck onto the ground. Then he dropped to his knees and romped with the fox-kits. The sight of my kidnapper on all fours, false brush swinging while he played with the pups, scared the life out of me. I pulled Duck into my lap. She was awake now (if she’d ever been to sleep at all) and watched the Fox with round, wondering eyes.
“Mama, who is he?” she whispered.
I flat out refused to call him the Fox any longer. He was done frightening me.
“What are you called?” I asked.
The Fox stopped, rose to his knees, and considered me. The kits round him gnawed on his elbow, his breeches, the edges of his vest. Another time I might have found it funny. Not now.
“They call me the Fox,” he finally said, wary.
We weren’t playing this way. “What do you call yourself?” I heaved Duck to my hip and stood so he’d know I belonged to me and no one else.
“I am Reynard.”
I had no reaction. Folk had a lot of strange names. Wasn’t my place to laugh at his.
He fondled a fox-kit’s ears and shrugged. “It means fox. It is what gave me the idea to...live like this.”
Then he hadn’t always been the Fox. I wondered what had made him like this, so unhuman, so ghostly. But if I was to be his property now, like I’d been John’s, there’d be plenty of time for askin’ that question and everything else.
“This where you live?”
“It is.” Grunting slightly like his arms and legs were punishing him for his long night, the Fox, Reynard, got to his feet. “Come inside.”
He led us through shy morning light to a cave split into a rocky hillside. Moss grew all around it and vines covered the top half of an oak door held together with wood-pegs. Leather hinges creaked to let us inside. I found a room filled with willow-wand birdcages and the birds that lived in them. Duck’s eyes went even rounder as she walked up to one and put her finger through the bars to a little, red-headed finch.
“That is Audubon,” Reynard said. There was something a little tetched about his voice. “You may not want to bother him. He nips.”
Sure enough, the finch darted at the cage and caught Duck’s fingertip in his hard, orange beak. Duck cried and set the whole bird-village to twitterin’ and squawking. Reynard shushed them with a low, tuneful whistle and took Duck’s hand.
My hackles rose. It was one thing to touch me but to touch my Duck without my say-so...I ground my teeth, crossed the floor, and knocked Reynard’s wrist. He yelped and backed away, nursing the hurt limb.
“Never touch her again.” My voice sounded as gritty and stinging as my eyes.
He saw I meant it. He gave me a curious, smart look and shrugged. “Best get some rest.”
Leading the way to the back of the cave, Reynard showed me a stone bench cut into the wall, piled high with sheepskins. Probably stole the fleeces from one of my old neighbors. I backed into the crevice and pulled Duck in with me. Before I realized what he was about to do, Reynard pulled the skins over, tucked them around me, and set his pale-skinned hand on my head. Despite my guess that he would try no tricks just now, panic fluttered around my lungs. But Reynard ruffled my hair as I had so many times ruffled Duck’s, smiled again, and left me.
He whistled amongst his birds a while, tail swinging, then settled on his haunches before a tiny stove. After a moment, he rolled onto his side and fell asleep. How he could fall asleep so easy, so gentle, when he’d just dragged a stranger overland eight hours and dropped her in his bed confused me.
I whispered my fox-song to Duck and waited for sleep to catch me unawares. For sleep, like everything else in my life, never came when I expected it.