A double rainbow had changed the course of my relationship with the fox. I had been jogging when I realized that he would live only a few years in this harsh country. At the time, I believed that making an emotional investment in a short-lived creature was a fool’s game. Before the jog ended, a rainbow appeared in front of me. One end of the rainbow slipped through an island of tall dead poplars drowning in gray sky, their crowns splitting and spraying into each other. I stopped. A second rainbow arched over the poplars. How many rainbows had I seen in this one valley? A hundred easy, and I always paused to watch. I realized that a fox, like a rainbow and every other gift from Nature, had an intrinsic value that was quite independent of its longevity. After that, whenever I questioned devoting so much time to an animal whose lifespan barely exceeded the blink of an eye, I remembered rainbows.
• • • • • • • •
For twelve consecutive days, the fox had appeared at my cottage. At no more than one minute after the sun capped the western hill, he lay down in a spot of dirt among the powdery blue bunchgrasses. Tucking the tip of his tail under his chin and squinting his eyes, he pretended to sleep. I sat on a camp chair with stiff spikes of bunchgrass poking into the canvas. Opening a book, I pretended to read. Nothing but two meters and one spindly forget-me-not lay between us. Someone may have been watching us—a dusky shrew, a field mouse, a rubber boa—but it felt like we were alone with the world to ourselves.
On the thirteenth day, at around three thirty and no later than four o’clock, I bundled up in more clothing than necessary to stay comfortably warm and went outside. Pressing my hands together as if praying, I pushed them between my knees while I sat with my feet tapping the ground. I was waiting for the fox and hoping he wouldn’t show.
Two miles up a gravel road in an isolated mountain valley and sixty miles from the nearest city, the cottage was not an appropriate arrangement for a girl on her own. My street was unnamed, so I didn’t have an address. Living in this remote spot left me without access to reasonable employment. I was many miles beyond reach of cell phone towers, and if a rattlesnake bit me, or if I slipped climbing the rocky cliff behind the cottage, no one would hear me cry for help. Of course, this saved me the trouble of crying in the first place.
I had purchased this land three years earlier. Until then I had been living up valley, renting a cabin that the owner had “winterized,” in the sense that if I wore a down parka and mukluks to bed, I wouldn’t succumb to frostbite overnight. That was what I could afford with the money I’d earned guiding backcountry hikers and teaching field classes part-time. When a university offered me a one-year research position, you might think I would have jumped at the chance to leave. Not just because I was dodging icicles when entering the shower, but because riding the postdoc train was the next logical step for a biologist. But I didn’t jump. I made the university wait until after I had bought this land. Then I accepted and rented a speck of a dormitory room at the university, 130 miles away. Every weekend, through snowstorms and over icy roads, I drove back here to camp. Perching on a small boulder, listening to my propane stove hissing and the pinging sound of grasshoppers flying headfirst into my tent’s taut surface, I felt like I was part of my land. I had never felt part of anything before. When the university position ended, I camped full-time while arranging for contractors to develop the land and build the cottage.
Outside the cottage, from where I sat waiting for the fox, the view was beautiful. Few structures marred my valley; full rainbows were common. The ends of the rainbows touched down in the rolling fields below me, no place green enough to hide a leprechaun but a fair swap for living with rattlers. Still, I was torn. Even a full double rainbow couldn’t give me what a city could: a chance to interact with people, immerse myself in culture, and find a real job to keep me so busy doing responsible work that I wouldn’t have time for chasing a fox down a hole. I had sacrificed plenty to earn my PhD in biology: I had slept in abandoned buildings and mopped floors at the university. In exchange for which I had learned that the scientific method is the foundation for knowledge and that wild foxes do not have personalities.
When Fox padded toward me, a flute was playing a faint, hypnotic melody like the Pied Piper’s song in my favorite fairy tale. You remember: a colorfully dressed stranger appears in town, enticing children with his music to a land of alpine lakes and snowy peaks. When the fox curled up beside me and squinted, I opened my book. The music was still playing. No, it wasn’t the Pied Piper at all. It was just a bird—a faraway thrush.
• • •
Having slept since midmorning in the shade of his favorite boulder, the fox woke to the heat of a sinking sun. Pointing his butt skyward and his nose windward, he stretched his neck along a foreleg that was naked as a newborn mouse. The fur wasn’t actually gone, just misdirected. Turning tailward, he discovered his fur blowing flat back, leaving the hide on the front of his legs exposed but warm.
A mouse was scraping through the gravelly soil with footsteps as heavy and hesitant as a pregnant female’s. The mouse was almost close enough when a wind whip cracked the dried grasses and wiped out the soundtrack. Weasel pee! And his day was just starting. Below, on Alfalfa Flat, the wind was not blowing. A tangle of mice tumbled under a shadow of shrubs, and partridge bustled in the hedgerows. But not for him. The flat belonged to his mother, and she permitted access to only her mate and their freshly weaned kits. Her permission, however, rarely got in the way of the fox’s plans. He was a yearling now, with agility enough to test her vigilance. In fact, trespassing forays frequently topped his agenda.
For now, he planned to avoid his mother’s territory and visit the house with the shiny blue roof. The house perched on the hillside below his den and above his mother’s. Its roof appeared to sit directly on the ground, with sagebrush and juniper spilling over its north and south flanks. In fact, it was situated much like his own den. Both homes burrowed into the same mountainside and exposed themselves fully to the rising and setting sun. Both faced the curvy, glinting river and hid from the cold north wind.
He scanned the hillside checking possible routes that led to the house. The dry channel was noisy, but he wasn’t on a covert mission and it presented fewer challenges overall. Picking up the channel trail required traversing a windy ridge. Ahead of the wind, a gigantic cloud was colliding with Round Hill. Crouching between a couple of chin-high cactus blades, he nearly stopped breathing to keep their spines from poking his chest. Fair price to watch a cloud performance. After crashing into the hill, the cloud burst open and flew into pieces. On plan!
Thick clumps of perennial grasses rattled in the dry channel, their stalks bending under the weight of ripe seed heads. Long and thin as fish bones, grass seeds matted his fur and pierced his hide. Stopping at a small rose bush, he combed himself against the thorns. Now lighter, he skipped down the draw, tilting side to side as if he were a vole-thieving hawk on low glide.
Cactuses, wind whips, fish-bone seeds: these were not optimal digs. The Alfalfa Flat foxes were probably half-asleep on their green field, mouths open, waiting for some errant mice to run blindly across the short soft grasses and impale themselves on undeserving canines. Those were optimal digs. Well, they would be if you were one of those foxes whose only purpose in life was commanding a hunting ground with a high density of dimwitted mice.
• • •
Stuffing my backcountry Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad into a canvas cover, I converted it into a camp chair. The pad had accompanied me during hundreds of nights in the wilderness, and, like a racehorse retired to a riding saddle, it bucked domestication. No matter how I threw it down, the pad landed on the most distressing piece of ground. Fox trotted into the shade of the cottage, then curled up and flattened down like a rug, nothing but two meters and that one forget-me-not between us. He waited motionless on his smooth spot while I floundered around on the soft, spineless chair that left me off-balance and rocking. “The little prince,” I said, opening a waxy-covered paperback, “by Antoine Saint-Exup ry.”
For a long while, my life had been a skunk’s tail. A question mark. Now that I had decided to leave this place, the question wasn’t what to do, but why I wasn’t doing it. The answer, I am ashamed to say, had something to do with the fox.
We had been zigzagging along for months—the fox and I—before arriving at our current level of comfort. I had not bothered to map out our exact route, but a reconnoitering was on the horizon, and in wild, open country, the horizon is hard to avoid.
“The little prince asks Saint-Ex to draw him a sheep. Saint-Ex obliges because . . . well, I think it’s about graciousness, Fox.” I had fallen into a pattern of reading and talking to Fox, and then looking at him in silence for fifteen seconds. The fifteen-second pause simulated his turn to speak.
“Prince doesn’t like any of the sheep drawings, so Saint-Ex hands him a drawing of a box and tells him there’s a sheep inside.” I shrugged. “It works. An invisible boxed sheep. All along, Fox, a sheep in a box.” Then it was his turn for a fifteen-second count.
People buy, cage, license, and leash all kinds of animals. The animals live in boxes like the prince’s sheep. Whoever holds the box imposes their imagination on the confined animals. They can humanize or dehumanize their boxed animals, depending on their own discretion or indiscretion.
I pulled a clump of dry wheatgrass out of the ground with one bare hand. The stalks split and splintered into my palm. Fox opened his eyes wide, staring while I shook out my injured hand. We had almost reached his average sitting time of eighteen minutes. He tilted his head back in a wide yawn and poked out a tongue, rubbery and pink like an oldschool eraser.
Would you listen attentively for eighteen minutes while a duck quacked? A cow mooed? A dog barked? Those feelings are mutual. We animals recognize distinct vocal signals from our own species and relegate the sounds of other species to background noise. Mostly they hear “blah blah blah” and we hear “quack quack quack.”
Mostly. Even before meeting the fox, I suspected that red foxes might be an exceptional case. Dr. Dmitri Belyaev, a Russian scientist, spent fifty years taming red foxes to respond to human voice commands. His experiments suggested that foxes, like dogs, distinguished discrete human sounds. In other words, foxes could identify the differences between zzz, mmm, shhh, and so on. If Belyaev was correct, Fox heard words but did not understand them. Like me at the opera.
The unboxed fox and I were still reading when the landline interrupted. I tried ignoring it, but I didn’t own an answering machine and my caller had limitless patience. After listening to about a dozen rings, I went inside and picked up the downstairs phone, leaving the door open so I could keep an eye on Fox. Jenna, my supervisor from the local college’s continuing education program, wanted to review details about my upcoming wildlife class. The job, thirty miles away, kept me employed for about ten weeks a year. But what to do about the fox? I had never walked away from him before. Our times together had always ended by his choosing. He left first; that was our custom. And yet, there he sat, seven meters away, beyond the possibility of eye contact, beyond visiting distance in any culture, pulling the blue forget-me-not forward with one paw and rubbing his nose back and forth across the captive stalk.
To create the impression that I was not abandoning him, I stepped closer to the door, shouldering the handset so Jenna couldn’t hear me tell Fox that I wouldn’t be long and that he should wait. When I put the receiver back to my ear, Jenna was asking who I was talking to.
“Nobody. It’s just me here. How many students do I have?” Fox released his fading flower and scanned the ground for an insect to menace.
“Didn’t I just tell you? Thirty-two. So, you have a pet.”
“I do not. I am here alone. You know I mutter and talk to myself.” Fox turned around to see if anything more interesting was happening on his butt.
“Do you know that when you talk to yourself you don’t mutter?”
By the time the call ended, Fox was “mousing,” by which I mean hunting for both mice and voles, two distinct species that are indistinguishable when viewed from a propitious distance. A gifted hunter, Fox couldn’t eat everything he caught. He scattered caches about, thoughtfully including the area around my camp chair. A week after Fox decided to become a regular visitor, I built a cobblestone wall to delineate a mouse-free zone (MFZ) around my sitting area. I planned the MFZ as an area free from the burial of mutilated, flat-dead, stinking mice and, more importantly (at least in my presence), their exhumation.
Fox had different ideas. When he buried a carcass inside the MFZ, I pointed to the Lilliputian cobblestone wall and explained that mummified rodents were not copacetic. Then I discussed the meaning of copacetic. Sensing that I was not saying anything entertaining, he translated it all as “blah blah blah.” Although the little wall did not change Fox’s behavior, it did on one occasion mitigate the embarrassment of my harboring a fox.
“There’s a putrid rodent festering on your walkway here.” The UPS driver handed me my monthly office supplies.
“Another mouse? Geez. Some animal . . .” I shook my head and looked down at my bare toes curling up at me. “It’s been happening for a while.” I looked straight at the driver. “Maybe . . . ahhh . . . skunk?”
“Oh, no, it’s fox. Nothing but fox.”
Like all country people, I was resourceful. Out here there weren’t any trash-removal or snow-clearing services. My sheriff lived thirty miles away. We all took care of our own houses, lawns, and roads. But we did not deliver mail. Neither did the US government. Apparently, our isolation made mailboxes impractical. The UPS driver kicked the ground, and a puff of dried clay exploded onto his cordovan dress shoe. “Tear up the place and stink. I sure wouldn’t allow any fox on my place.” Without waiting for him to finish shaking his head, I pointed to the cobblestone wall. “I do not allow him. It. Allow whatever it is. I don’t.”