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Fox in the Field

by J.M. McDermott

5444 words

1: Every Father Will Protect his Chickens

High growing season is no time for running around in the dark. Going out after dark, there are wild dogs, badgers, all kinds of hungry things. The bugs alone can drink a quart of red liquor and leave welts all over. The ticks lounge in the grass, just waiting, bobbing like divers on a board, for all us walking by.

High country, when darkness comes, we stay inside. We watch TV, if we must remain awake. I clean my rifle once a week by the flickering television screen. The moths flitter against the mosquito netting, and the girls are in bed by eight, before even the bats come out.

We got in the habit of locking them in, too. They were such restless horses in the dark, wandering to the kitchen, flipping on lights, and seeking out their toys when they should be in bed. My wife had a sister that did that and got killed back in England when a wild animal took her in the night and she was wandering around late and no one knew. She instituted the rule. We tuck the girls in. We close the door. We lock it from the outside. The screen is unchanged. There isn’t a way to get the screen out without pulling them off the nails that hold them down.

So, how did their shoes get so dirty at night? When I unlocked the door in the morning, their shoes were covered with an inch thick of fresh mud, and lined up along the windowsill like they were innocent. The girls acted innocent, too. They put on their shoes like nothing had happened, and tromped through the house, making screams and confusion before breakfast, tracking mud. We had to mop every morning. The animals suffered empty stomachs in dirty pens on account of those muddy shoes.

“They’re up to something,” I said to my wife.

“You always say that,” she said. “I’ll handle it. Just because they made a mess…”

“We hosed down after working in the chicken yard. I hosed down their shoes before dinner. We set them out to dry by the window. Remember?”

She was stirring something. It was going to be cheese, someday, I think. “They must have got up and out before we noticed. No matter, old man. I will fix it all tonight.”

But the door was locked, right?

My four girls, my pride and joy, my beautiful ones, all out in the yard with the cows. They were responsible for putting all the hay down today, and then they had to weed the garden patch they were keeping with their mom while school was out. They each had their mother’s black, tightly-curly hair, and her delicate, wide-eyed Jamaican face. Their pale blue eyes, like the sky itself, were all mine. It was their eyes that told me truth, when they were lying. I could see their little brains working behind their huge, pale eyes.

“Hey, Philomena, get in here!”

She turned, my youngest, and the least honest. If anyone was going to start lying, it would be her.

“One second, Da!”

She brushed the hay from her dirty overalls, and looked down at her shoes.

“You’re a mess, girl. Stay outside. I will meet you with the pigs.”

She seemed to perk up at this, and then she brushed back her hair with her hands, tidying up her dark curls as best she could. “Okay, da!”

She jogged over to the pig pens, poking at her hair like she wanted to clean herself up a little. Her ma does the same when she’s nervous. I never noticed it in Philomena before. I asked her nicely how she got her shoes so dirty.

She said she was sure her shoes were always so dirty. Look at them! They’re dirty now!

“When you went to bed they were clean.”

“Nu huh. They were dirty, da. Everything here is always dirty. I don’t want to live on a farm when I grow up. I want to be a ballerina. I want to live in Paris and dance all night instead.”

She wasn’t good at lying. I knew something was up.

I let them get on with it, but I had an eye out for them. By mid-afternoon, they were green around the gills and drooping. They hadn’t slept enough lately. We cleaned their shoes before letting them into the house, and let them drip dry on their windowsill.

By dinner, they were hanging their heads and dropping asleep at the table.

“Y’all had too much fun last night. You need to get to bed early to get the whole day right.”

“We know, Dad,” said Esmeralda. “We can go to bed early tonight, though, right? You don’t got more for us to do?”

“Don’t take that tone with your father,” said Ma. “Do the dishes.”

Aw, Ma, and nothing to it. They stumbled up to the sink and got washing.

She winked at me.

“Too tired for any mischief tonight, I reckon. How anyone has time for mischief in this world is beyond me. Goodness.”

Deep down, I was so tired from a day in the fields. After dinner, I sipped weak coffee from the couch, and nodded off, watching my girls and my wife looking over them, and everyone so tired.

Through the window, where the sun still hadn’t completely tumbled below the alfalfa fields, I saw a fox running through the yard, around the chicken wire and out to the street.

Tomorrow, I’d have to check the wire, make sure it’s deep enough.

I woke up long enough to get the girls into bed, and shut the door behind them.

The lock turned, and the wife and I stumbled off to bed and a sound, dreamless haze. Whoever heard of a farmer that can’t sleep like a stone?

Come daybreak, we was up and moving already. When we went to wake the girls, we saw their shoes on the windowsill, filthy as a pigsty, more mud than canvas, and oozing all over the wall and floor before their window.

“Huh,” I said.

“Yup,” said my wife. “I thought it might be that. Esme is as old as I was when my sister died. You have to let me handle this, Old Yeller. I know this like I know you ain’t listening to me, and you’re going to be foolish, but you need to let me handle this.”

“I will tan their hides like leather,” I said. “They’re ruining good shoes. We ain’t made of cash.”

“I know, old man. Don’t I know that. You have to let me handle this. There’s a fox in this field, I reckon. I wanted to lock ’em in myself and be sure before I did anything drastic. There’s some deception afoot.”

“I got to spray today.”

“Go spray, then. Go on,” she said. She turned to her girls, all sleeping deep as dead pigeons. “All right. Everybody up. Right now. Now, girls. Little Mena, you too. No one sleeps in. No one gets breakfast and no one leaves this room until you explain the mess of your shoes over there.”

“I’m going to check the screen on the outsides,” I said.

I went outside and checked the nails, and they were holding the screen in place.

From there, I saw footprints in the soil of four legs and claws. Foxes sniffing around, right up by the house.

Ma gave the girls the riot act, but none confessed, and I had to go before the rains got close. Oh, they were hiding something, all right.

Out by the hen hutch, I checked the chicken wire. Something had pulled at it, but it was buried so deep that it couldn’t be just pulled like that.

All the chores had to be done, but the girls feigned illness and limped in from the summer heat. I left my wife to the invalids and got out some heavy stones from the rubbish pile. The chickens looked out at me like they had no idea I was doing anything to them at all. They wanted feed and pecked around the ground where the rocks settled.

By nightfall, the wife and I were both ready for a long night. I put on a thermos of hot coffee, and she already had her big cup of tea.

“Flip ya for it,” I said.

“Get on to bed, old man. You got to be in the field tomorrow, and I don’t. I’ll watch my girls. My sister and I did the same, we was their age. You can check on us if you wake up early.”

She went in with her tea where the girls were already exhausted in bed. That night, I thought of foxes at the window and frustrations and got my rifle clean and ready. I used to have a good hound to go to ground and flush, but she got hit by a semi a while back. I never had the heart for another dog after that much pain.

I sipped my pitch black, cold coffee and got my eyes used to the flood light above the barn.

I waited, then. I thought about my beautiful girls. I listened to the chickens rustling hay in slumber and animals roaming their pens and night music from all the field frogs and summer bugs.

I’d hunted foxes before. My father-in-law, when he was alive, taught me how. He was Jamaican, but had spent thirty years in England working on country estates. He had loved the baying hounds, the thrill of the chase. They had always done it on four-wheelers, with a pack of mutts that were mostly beagle. I missed him.

The world wants to lull a weary body down.

A fog rolled in off the fields. It was not the season for mist, but there it was, and I was ready. I got up and took the flashlight from the wall. I left it off for a while, and walked past the garden to the chickens. I heard the restless animals, and something wrong moving among the fog like a red hornet in the night.

Movement, and the flashlight went on. A white-tipped tail low to the ground. Slowly I raised my gun.

In this fog? There was no clean shot, and my girls’ shoes were so muddy. I’d rather lose every chicken, every pig and horse and cow, than take one shot and I’m not sure where the bullet ends in the long acres of the night.

I lowered the gun.

The fox was gone through the fog.

Frogs’ sang like bells in the dark. Crickets made creaking laughter.

I raised my rifle again to shoot the ground. At least I could scare the beasts for the night, and come back when there’s clear moonlight.

The rapport boomed into the darkness. Dogs howled and every beast trembled and moaned from the power of the gun. The fog shattered like being blown from a mighty wind.

Out in the alfalfa, in the clear view of the moon and the stars and the floodlight, the startled fox looked at me, the light reflecting in its animal eyes.

I had one shot, clean as the moon reflecting in a still pond, and nothing but empty night out beyond the creature.

• • •

2: Mother Knows

My husband hasn’t got a clue.

My father will tell you this, and most will think he is exaggerating. He says that the reason they hunted foxes was because the fox was a dog that had sworn allegiance not to mankind, but to the nephilim. The fox was a servant of fallen angels. Its fiery pelt, and its beady eyes and the way it ran alone when proper dogs preferred the pack were all signs of its evil nature. To hunt the fox was to protect the farm, to protect the fields, and to remove the influence of the devil from the world.

And the foxes were evil. The farmers all knew it. They raised their hounds and sounded the trumpet to flush the beasts from their wicked warrens. They prayed to god for a glorious hunt, and chased the beasts over field and fence and forest.

When we moved to America, because my father could buy lots of land there, we carried with us the memory of foxes and fox hunting and there were still foxes in America. There were foxes everywhere. Even Australia has her devil dogs.

My father told the same story about foxes at every gathering until the day his lungs collapsed.

His boss had been losing chickens. Da had been setting traps. He said that he went out and saw the fox in the trap, and it was chewing its leg off. It was swallowing as it chewed and growling about it. It was eating itself to escape a trap, to bleed to death in freedom, and kill anything it found along the way. He shot and missed. He decided to use the butt of the rifle instead. He walked up to the beast and rose his weapon and the fox escaped before the gun could swing down. The rifle fell upon the quivering stump. The fox attacked and locked its teeth upon Da’s boot. The flesh beneath was torn. He showed off the scars. It formed two horns across his shin with jagged teeth. He said that the demon haunted him always, and nearly every night he dreamed of death.

He was from Jamaica, and had carried a strong faith all his life in the will of the Lord. He had worked on farms to save money to go to school for a degree in divinity, to become a preacher, but by the time he was nearly there, he had my sister and me to worry about, and he had spent so much time out in the fields that it was hard to imagine cooping himself up into the cavernous stone tombs and dusty books.

The sky is the first cathedral, he had told me. The sunrise is the first prayer on the first day.

With my girls, I told them I would tell them a story about a fox.

They sat bolt upright. They looked at me as if I had said there would be no dessert for a year.

“I am going to tell you a story about the fox,” I said. “The reason he’s here is because he is a wicked liar who wants to cause us all great pain. He enjoys tricking us. That is what he does. Foxes are dishonest creatures, determined to play dangerous tricks on beautiful little girls.”

Esme answered, “Ma, we just want to go to sleep. Do we have to hear a story?”

“I thought my girls loved a good story. Don’t my girls love good stories?”

“We’re so tired, Mommy,” said Hope.

Charity concurred with her sister and said it slower and moanier.

“You can close your eyes if you wanna,” I said. “People hear stories better with their eyes closed, anyhow.”

“We don’t need you to trick us into going to sleep, Ma,” said Esme.

“Oh, the story is not really for you,” I said. “The story is for the fox. He is listening right now, isn’t he? That nasty ol’ fox is right outside the window. I want him to know what I know about his awful race.”

Now they were rattled. Philomena started sniffling.

“You’re scaring Mena!” Shouted Hope. “Can’t you just leave us alone?”

I sipped my tea and waited until their little storms passed.

“The fox,” I said, “is a liar. The only thing he is offering you is death. I should know. Foxes have no honor, and their mothers even less. Never trust a fox, my little chickens. Only trust me, because I love you more than him.”

“Ma!” shouted Charity. The fog was all the way up the window, now. I knew it wouldn’t be long.

“Close your eyes and go to bed, girl. We’ll all have dirty shoes come daylight.”

And I kept going on about foxes, telling them what I knew.

• • •

3: The Fox Interrupts the Story

The fox is the wickedness of dogs incarnate. It is a creature of sin and deception. The greatest deception the fox ever committed was convincing the world it was only an animal.

In fact, they are the descendents of fallen angels that mated with dogs in ancient Sumeria, before the flood. By day they stalk the chickens. By night, they stalk for souls.

Not just any soul will do, either. It has to be an innocent. It has to be someone young and pure and sweet, like Hope and Charity and Esmerelda and Philomena.

Foxes come in the night and knock on the window. Knock knock knock. You hear it? There it is. I know that sound because I heard it when I was young and sweet like you. I am a bitter, mean, hard soul now, but I was young once. My sister heard the fox at the window, too. She went to the window and saw the fox standing on two legs. He was wearing a dandy top hat and he bowed to us as if we were princesses.

He said he was lost and alone and cold and was wondering if my sister and I could offer him some hospitality.

Well, we were such sweet souls, and we were so excited. We were pleased to invite him in from the fog. He sat down at our little tea table. He poured himself a glass of tea. He asked if we could join him.

“Ma,” said Esme, “you don’t have a sister.”

I used to. When I was very small. She was the sweetest one. She was so sweet. She never came back.

First, he told us that he had been out in the farm a while and starving. He was so hungry, and everything was set up against him. There wasn’t anything for a fox to eat and weren’t we neighbors? Mr. Fox had a silver tongue in that red body all right. I started pulling at the chicken wire. I started fiddling with the rabbit hutch. My sister told me I shouldn’t but the fox told us he would have to leave if he couldn’t find anything to eat. And then we wouldn’t be able to go dancing with him.

We did like dancing.

I was the one who pulled at the chicken wire and loosened the rabbit hutch.

And for a few nights there was dancing. We walked out unto the moonlight, out into the fields. The crickets chirped and birds sang high and long while beetles thumped upon each other like castanets. We danced with the fox, we whirled around the yard. By daylight our shoes were muddy.

We feasted in the dark. We ate roast pigeon, wild grapes, pickled dormice dipped in marzipan, sweetbread shaped of hedgehog, and corn stolen from our own fields. The fox complained that he could not offer us better. He had so little. He begged us to open the rabbit hutch. My sister wouldn’t do it. She told me not to, but our friend the fox was so handsome.

You are still handsome, Mr. Fox. This is no place for your tricks.

—I adore new friends. Are you their lovely mother?

It is my place to protect my girls from devils, Mr. Fox. I have dealt with devils before. Do you know what I did to the fox that came to eat my sister’s soul?

—You stabbed it through the throat with a spike. It didn’t help, did it?

So, I’m saying to you, Mr. Fox, that I know what you’re doing, and I want you to leave my girls alone.

—We can make a deal. Tell me what you want and I’ll tell you what I want.

I want you to leave and never come back.

—I want to stay forever with my friends.

Their souls belong to God, not you.

—You are, of course, a mother and responsible for their souls. You are authorized to deal. Which one, then? Who do you think will come with me, and who will stay and be obedient to you? You offer them nothing but work and suffering and school, and I want only to dance in the night, feast well, and see the big, wide world, in all its wonders.

Illusions of a feast in the dark, and waking up hungry. All you offer is a fog. Girls, listen to me, the fox will only betray you after you betray me. It is the nature of fog to reflect the sins of the observer. Look upon this fog and know it for what it is. When I stabbed the fox in the throat, I held my sister’s life in my hands.

• • •

4: Esmerelda, Like Her Father

My name is Esme, and I am nine years old. I am the oldest and I am supposed to look out for my sisters. My mother was going on and on, and I don’t quite understand her. There is no way talking is going to work.

This is why I had a good fish knife in my sleeve, from the dishes we had done.

Ma was going to make a deal to keep us safe, but that isn’t what Da would do. Da would shoot the fox as soon as it came close to the chickens.

I knew what he were doing was wrong, even if it was wonderful.

I knew Philomena was pulling at the chicken wire for our visitor. I knew the fox had to be some kind of monster that wanted all our little chickens. They were our chickens. We don’t just kill them for anybody, and only when the season is right. Besides, I like eggs. I like eggs every morning. I go out to the hutch with Charity and we hunt for them together.

I didn’t think Ma and Da would believe me.

So I had a knife under the covers. I’d taken it from washing dishes. I thought Da would be brave enough, fast enough, and tough enough to fight back.

My bed was the closest to the window and I would wait until the fox appeared. The fog pushed through the cracks in the wood. It was thick in our room. Then the fox stepped out of the fog. Then, it bowed for us gracefully, sweeping the top hat from its head and invited us to another grand party in the alfalfa field.

I shouted in a pause in the argument.

—Mr. Fox! Maybe we can play games in here. How come we can’t just stay in the room tonight. What if it rains?

—Well, I am so hungry. I do not know how I will get through the night playing silly games in this empty bedroom. I much prefer dancing with tea cakes close at hand. Are you quite sure games in a bedroom is more fun than dancing and tea cakes?

—I like tea cakes, said Charity.

—And I like dancing, said Philomena. My favorite is the grand waltz.

—Well, my duckies, let us go play your lovely sister’s game, at the very least, and then we shall waltz and eat tea cakes and howl to the moon like wild dogs. But, we shall stay far from the alfalfa field. On my honor, we will never touch a single blade of alfalfa.

—No games, Mr. Fox, this is the last night you come around. You will never get what you want here. My girls are good. They listen to their mama. If I tell them to leave you alone, they will. I demand truth in the fog. I demand it and it is my right to demand on my sister’s blood.

—Chickens would be nice. They are such delicious creatures, wouldn’t you agree?

—You don’t give two shits about chickens, fool. No games. No. Tell the truth to the girls or we go nowhere. What do you actually want to eat?

—Oh, I am sure you have already told them.

—You say it.

—Souls, madame. But, I do not hurt anyone. I am always the victim.

—I used to have a sister. She believed you, too. One night you had us play a game where we stood on fence posts and tried to wake the sleeping hogs with rocks. He would charge the fence when he got angry enough and we were supposed to be up out of reach. But, when he struck the fencepost was loose and my sister fell in. The hog we saw every day of our lives crushed her dead. The fox said she was just catching up on lost sleep. And, he pulled her out with me to a little bed he had set up in the barn. We tucked her in. We sang lullabies together. Come morning they found me out there, with her gone and mauled and me next to her mangled body like everything was just fine and she was going to wake up any minute. I killed him the next night. It wasn’t him, though. It just looked like him.

But, we wouldn’t play the game I wanted if ma kept talking. I knew we wouldn’t. I was counting on the game. Marco Polo, anywhere at all. The fox would like it because blindfolds meant he could play his tricks. We always did something to break the farm, why not the bedroom? We stomped through the alfalfa the very first night. The second, we waltzed straight to the generator and knocked it over and gasoline spilled and it’s probably busted and Da won’t know until winter comes and he’s trying to work the lights.

Every little waltz ends not when the music stops, but when we tumble into something.

Ma is here. She says she won’t leave the room, in fact, and neither will we. She says whatever fun the fox has, will have to happen right here in the room, and nobody runs into the fog at the edge of our little world.

—That’s not fair to the girls, he says, because there is only so much fun one can have without the orchestra and the spotlight moon.

—I am their mother, and they must obey me. It is a law as old as your wicked ways. Honor thy father and mother.

I walked right over, as if going to get my shoes from the windowsill. I had a clean shot, right behind the fox, where I could cut his throat like a carrot.

I’ve pulled skin and fur from dead rabbit meat. I’ve wrung chicken necks in anger and been grounded for it. I moved so carefully. He saw nothing.

—Well, if we’re going to be stuck in this miserable little room of dullness and drear, do tell me what deal you had in mind, dusky maid, and I shall consider your offer.

I had a clean shot. The fox was distracted. The beast must die.

—You are a creature of great power, I know. I remember my sister and what happened to her when I was young. I knew right away when I saw my daughters’ shoes. My husband doesn’t know. Take me. Take me and leave my girls alone. Ain’t I enough? One tough old soul to make the next taste so sweet?

—No mama, I said. I jumped on the fox’s back and grabbed his throat. He yipped with laughter.

Ma was on us so fast, then.

—Ma, why you stopping me like this? Ma, I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill the monster before something bad happens!

—I know, girl, but don’t! Don’t! You have to let me handle it! Thou shalt not kill!

She wrenched the knife from my hand.

The fox, as if this was all a big game, was laughing and laughing. It sounded like a hyena laughing. He was rolling in a big, long belly laugh.

• • •

5: The Ballerina

I am Philomena, and I am going to be a ballerina when I grow up.

I love to dance the waltz. I love to dance.

Da says that I can be anything I set out to be if I work hard enough. The fox says that I have amazing potential, not to be squandered on the backbreaking labor of gardening and farming. I would be better off anywhere but here. I could waltz in Wallonia under the glittering starlight. I could tango in Andalusia, where horses dance like savage lovers to the music of guitars.

My favorite tea cake is the lemonpoppyfrog.

The little tadpoles are sweet and tangy.

We aren’t supposed to tell anyone about the fox, or he will go away.

If Ma knows, then why doesn’t she tell someone? If she really wants the fox to go away, she could just tell someone. That’s what will get rid of him. She must want him to stay, too, and she’s just being mean. She’s always so mean to us. We never get to have any fun.

I want to tell Da, but I don’t want the fox to go away. I don’t care if all the chickens get eaten. I don’t even like eggs. I hate eating anything that comes from an animal’s butt. That’s where eggs come from. Ma says it’s not the butt. She says it’s the cloaca, and it isn’t anything to worry about. I think it’s gross. I want to dance the vigorous mazurka in the royal palace of Warsaw. I want to sing the happy polonaise in grandfather’s England, where the irises fill the night with perfume.

I have a better solution to make the fox go away, but nobody listens to me.

What I did was, I wrote a letter to my grandfather and stamped it and everything. I told him what was happening, and I decided that if the fox didn’t take me before the letter got to my grandfather, he probably wasn’t telling the truth. Esme says we have to be careful because we don’t know if he’s telling the truth, and sometimes people lie to get what they want.

I don’t think the fox is lying. I want to go dance all night and eat tea cakes in the moonlight, and never, ever come back, except to visit because I know it would make Ma so sad.

I don’t want anyone to hurt the fox. He’s going to take me to Paris.

I get in between Ma and Mena and the fox. I get in the way and raise my hands and I shout, and then I run out the door and into the night world the fox has opened for us. I run and howl and bay and call out for everything in the world to hear.

—I want to dance!

—I want to leap with the frogs!

—I want to eat tea cakes in the moonlight!

—Stop fighting and come play!

The moonlight is there for us, as bright as the sun. The stars are our Christmas lights, the fireflies our applause.

Oh, there is such music, here, and such beauty in the night.

• • •

6: The Fox Always Escapes

This is an old story, my precious duckies.

The princesses go dancing when they are supposed to be asleep. Their shoes wear out. In the story, a young man stalks the darkness after the mystery, and watches his future bride dancing in the moonlight with the devils of the hidden world.

What they never tell you in the story is that I told the story first, so you would know me when I come to your window.

The boom cuts all illusions with its suddenness.

The death, when it comes, is a fox in the moonlight, shattering into blood and sinew, and bullets need no silver in their hull to boil illusion off the skin.

I escaped, of course. I always get away scot-free. Away with the lifted fog.

Charity, Hope, you who never betrayed me, come.

For us, the world will always be dancing.

I blew in on the fog. I blow out on it, too.

• • •

7: Epilogue

The farm lies fallow a long time.

Already the squirrels are burying nuts against the winter, sowing their crops where the sunflowers and pigweed grow wild, as the bindweed lurking beneath the alfalfa rises and chokes out all the weaker seeds. Old timers look out at another fallow field turning wild, and see nature in all her yellow amaranth sadness, her jagged red pokeweed rage. The soil itself will be devoured here, and that right soon.

J.M. McDermott is the author of six novels and two short story collections, including Maze, Never Knew Another, We Leave Together, and Straggletaggle. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and an MFA from the University of Southern Maine.

Issue 26

December 2014

3LBE 26

Front & Back cover art by Rew X