Foxes

Whitney Templeton

Whitney Templeton

I am driving down my rock-strewn mountain road when I spot the silver fox sprawled on the asphalt, limbs twitching.

Weeks ago, I glimpsed this very set of eyes outside my window. I focused on the amber stones as his exhalations fogged the glass between us. The rarity of our encounter was a treasure, this wildling spending a moment with me. After remaining still for several minutes, I rose from the couch to move closer. When I approached the window, he vanished. Over coffee one morning, I spotted him peering into my kitchen before he darted away. Our eyes met again once on my driveway as he peeked out from behind a pine. For months, he was my fox.

On the road, I phone my neighbor, the farmer. If the fox can be saved, I assume she will know how. She meets me on the gravel, and we kneel beside him to examine the damage. He was struck in his youth, and his pelt is black as tar. He is not yet silver, as these foxes turn with age.

*

For a moment, as I kneel, I do not see a fox before me. It is you again; the black pelt is your black hair, glossed with gel, when I found you after school that day. Your body was chilled and convulsing. I fell to my knees beside you.

Don’t call 911. Don’t call Mom, you burbled.

I was nine and knew little. I knew you were my brother. You’d been to jail. You sped in your car and got into brawls and did three-sixties on the Jet Ski— laughed as you flung your friends to the alligators. You took me to the mall once to show me how to dress like a high schooler. As we left a store your dark eyes softened and you told me I looked pretty— the words dispersed in a sweet waft of menthol smoke.

Your girlfriend pulled into the driveway and flung herself through the still-open door. She shooed me aside to ask you about the pills. The pills: when did you? The pills: how many?

It’s okay, she told you, breathlessly. It’s okay.

I let go of your arm. Weeping, I drew away into the setting of the scene, keenly aware that I was just a child. My back against the sofa, a hum in my ears, and a blur in my eyes, I held my knees and rocked.

*

As I kneel with my fox, my knees are older. The world is wilder. I have watched the dead pass before me. I have fingered the lace on our grandmother’s nightgown minutes after she drew her last lungful. A chicken has been slaughtered before my eyes. I have seen a woman shoot her sick dog in the head.

As I kneel with my dead fox, I know you survived the pills. I have seen how skilled you are at survival; how years later, hammered, you drove your motorcycle into a tree. Twenty-something stitches across your scalp, where your hair will no longer grow. I know you are among the living somewhere, occasionally peeking in, but you are careful to remind us: we cannot keep you.

I’m going to save the fur and tail, my neighbor tells me. She doesn’t wince or snivel. She assumes a rugged sense of practicality as a chill whirrs through my hair.

Later, she will pierce the skin with her knife and peel back the pelt. She will turn him inside out. I have no right to forbid her, no right to stop her from saving what she can.

It’s okay, I say to my fox and blink hard, my cheeks wet and salty. It’s okay, I say, but my voice is foolish and small. I am a bystander, a witness. I’ve known no pain like his. The animal is rigid as she bags it— stiff as the stone in my gut.

*

Your girlfriend’s sunburned hair swept over your face, and I watched it puff with the gusts that left your lips. I felt cold in the Florida heat, not sure if I would regret not dialing our mother or an ambulance, not sure if you would live, not sure of what power I had to do anything but cry.

Instead of calling for help, your girlfriend pressed her breasts against you, and your spit strung in her hair. I knew that was the closest you had let anyone get. She was trying to hold you there for as long as she could.

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