Across clearings, an eye, A widening deepening greenness, Brilliantly, concentratedly. Coming about its own business. Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox”
May 28, 2012. I turn the manuscript over to my editor. I enter a lull. Mornings I sleep until eight, drink green tea until ten, dress by noon, at which point I am ready to sit on the back porch and watch the song birds. This June is unseasonably cool for Raleigh and the birds still dance at mid-day. Two male cardinals vie for space between the fence and hedgerow. A chipmunk runs down the sidewalk, freezes for a moment, takes me for myself or a piece of furniture, darts past. It’s time to turn to afternoon tea: iced with lemon. I put on the tea pot. Before long, I will eat a pimento cheese sandwich. Not much later and I will stretch out on the lime-green couch in the living room.
Our house sits on a hillock, a corner lot providing a view of the neighborhood. The front yard is deep and wide, the back yard abbreviated into one corner of the square-ish third of an acre. Montclair our neighborhood is called, behind the more famed and increasingly sought-after North Hills. We remain a little ragged around the edges, these homes built in the early to mid-nineteen sixties.
The malaise continues for days. Symptoms include the need to sleep every two hours. Even eating tires me. So does talk. I avoid the telephone. I ache down through muscle into bone. When I stand I feel faint and have to sit again. The hint of a sore throat presents itself when I swallow. A fullness dips into my chest, sensations portending a summer cold. But nothing develops. Instead, these are constant sensations of deep exhaustion. The end of the teaching year at N.C. State, six years of writing this book, the on-going tightrope I walk as a transplant patient. If I push against this state of being, I develop a slight nausea.
Recline. Rest. This may take weeks.
I am protective of our split level, a feeling almost primitive, as an animal might experience when its territory is being invaded, trees cut, fields shorn, creeks rerouted. Not far from us, other split levels are being torn down and replaced by newer, larger homes. This advancement is an offshoot of the renewed, North Hills. What I am talking about is basic shelter.
One afternoon I wake from a nap, sit up, gaze out the window into the back yard. An awfully large cat has entered our song bird paradise. I watch as it circles the base of a tree. Moving to the window, I see my mistake. Not feline but canine: gray fox, snout and tail and heavily bristled back; the ends of the fur dark; inner fur a lighter gray; dark streak down the back and along the top of the tail; rusty orange along its neck and hind legs. Wild. For a moment I am too astonished to react. My languid hours, his silent stalking. And the fox is here in my yard, ringing round the pine tree’s base, his nose now here, now here, now.
By the time I slam out the back door, the fox is gone. The neighbor’s cat, arched like a moon, side-steps backwards. So I saved her, I think. And just then I see the fox, the comma shape of mouse or chipmunk in his maw. Delicately he retreats, quiet as midnight, tail down, the yard now blank and blazing in the sun. Too late and yet I take off bare-footed, awkward and limping across bramble and pinecone. “No,” I cry, waving my arms like a lame bird.
Gray foxes are native to North Carolina while the red fox was brought by the British. In spite of hunting and trapping and urbanization, gray fox is probably as common in the state today as it has been over the past million years, trapping small prey, but also foraging on berries, peanuts and corn. And anything we humans leave around in our Raleigh yards and streets: an apple core dropped, the cat food, a teen-ager’s lunch remnants tossed out a car window. An adult gray fox is nine to eleven pounds, about three to three and a half feet from nose to tip of the tail.
There are things I have not told yet that lead to this malaise. These are the harder things. A misunderstanding with a friend that goes on for months. We are both stubborn as old captains. My ninety-two year old mother who needs me every day now. “Everyone has left,” she says over the phone. I am stretched out on the couch. Her voice pleads. “Where have they gone?” I say. “Isn’t it a holiday?” she says. “No,” I say. “Well, they’ve gone somewhere,” she reports from her apartment at Magnolia Glen on Creedmoor Road. I wonder if she means not her co-dwellers, but her husband, my father, her college friends—all dead, six of her seven brothers and sisters gone. She wants my attention. I am too tired. It weighs on me, her need for a different kind of shelter.
A fox’s home range might be a square mile or less and the fox may spend its entire life in this small range. The gray fox seeks brushy woodlands and hardwood forests, is generally nocturnal in its roaming, and chooses its den location based on proximity to water. The den might be a hollow in logs and tree trunks, crevices between and under rock, a space the fox and its mate will line with grass, leaves, or shredded bark. Our split level on the hillock in Montclair is within one hundred yards of a creek. I’ve tried to follow that creek. It goes down along Wimbledon, which Collingswood Drive (our street) intersects, coursing gently through front yards. In some yards, it disappears into a huge pipe and comes out the other side, into the next yard. And then somewhere in the curve of the road, it disappears. I’ve thought of cutting through yards, trying to find where the creek goes. Wimbledon comes out to Shelley Road and the last three blocks of Shelley decline steeply, coming to the larger creek that flows out of Shelley Lake and ripples along the greenway. So our creek must link up with it. But how and where I don’t know.
“Who will you eat dinner with?” I say to my mother. “Oh, Dot is gone,” she says. I wait. “Are there other friends you can join?” I say at last. “Well, the other three are here,” she says, meaning the other three women she usually dines with. So only one friend is gone but she feels everyone is gone. ‘Oh good,” I say. “I’ll call you again this evening.” She seems better now. We can end the call. I turn over, pull up the white afghan, sleep.
The fox comes back one mid-morning. I am on my usual schedule in this lull. I spy him out the window that looks onto our enormous fan of a front yard. He stands in the middle of the road but turns, looking over his shoulder, back in my direction. I call my husband. “Look,” I say, “the fox.” “Where?” he says. “There,” I say, pointing. We stand close to one another, looking out. The fox circles, comes onto our lawn. We walk out the front door. The fox is unfazed, though even the most domesticated dog would have reacted to us by now. In a moment, he trots over to the neighbor’s yard across the street. “That’s a bold fox,” my husband says. A few minutes later, rinsing the dishes, I catch a glimpse of the fox out the kitchen window. “There he goes again,” I say. He makes a path just where I saw him before, alongside the hedgerow. Then he is gone and we don’t see him again that day. Only later do I consider how he must have circled our house, only later learn that gray foxes climb trees, can jump from limb to limb with ease, have occasionally been spotted sleeping in owl or hawk nests.
Time passes. July 8. It’s sixty-seven degrees at nine a.m. I shiver on the porch in my pajamas. A sweater would help but I am too indifferent to re-enter the house, climb the stairs, and retrieve it. I nibble on a breakfast of aged cheddar cheese and sliced avocado. A bright towhee lands on the back lawn. Members of the wren family that had a nest atop an upturned broom on our carport flit from pine to shrub and back. Light falling through leaves angles into the yard. A chipmunk comes running down the path, sees me, skedaddles into the grass, over to the fence and along it. From where I sit, I view larger oaks, two variations of pine, a pecan tree, a maple. Here appears a tiny young bird in the grass, its markings so indistinct, I don’t recognize its kind. A toady mushroom has sprouted in the night.
Gray foxes breed between mid-February and late March. Gestation takes about seven and a half weeks. When the kits are young, the male will hunt for the female, who remains in the den, which is why I call this fox He. This time of year the kits are likely still in the den with the mother. The father is hunting by day and by night and our cul-de-sac, a relatively quiet neighborhood, with many old trees, over-grown back-yards, near a greenway and a creek, is a promising area from the fox’s point of view. In our bird-feeder we leave a mixture that includes berries and nuts, which the fox will eat if he misses the bird.
My back aches. Otherwise I feel fine until I begin to move toward a project, say cleaning out a closet or organizing my books. Immediately I feel the revolt, dizziness, a sense of weight, a resounding “no” from the body. I remain on the porch, feet cool on the concrete slab.
A cardinal lands, pecks among the pine straw, then sun bathes.
Approaching ten o’clock, the air is still cool.
At two thirty, the back yard itself is in a lull and it’s only eighty degrees. My eyes shift to the shining high oak leaves on the other side of the neighbor’s house. A small flying insect of some sort has hatched by the hundreds and darts about three feet above the grass, looking like spits of snow. Suddenly a wind rustles the day, tender against my skin, and I recall bodily pleasure but only as memory.
A week later I begin reading a novel, my first intellectual activity in weeks. I make a good start. It’s a fine novel, a little discouraging because the life of the primary character is discouraging. And this condition of life seems not about to change for him. I keep at it, at least a chapter a day. I get half-way through and then leave the book on the coffee table. Several times I pick it up but do not read. I sit on the back porch instead, even at ninety-five degrees. Summer has finally arrived with a vengeance. Mid-afternoon the sun begins its decline. I focus on the hedge, the one the fox trots by. My vision goes hazy. My brain begins to rest. This is more than physical rest. It feels as though the curves of my gray matter are unfolding from a long tightness, unfurling like fern. The sensation is lovely. I wonder if I’ve ever felt it before. The neighbor’s yellow-green lawn shimmers through open spaces in the hedge.
Like other canines, the fox has red-dominated retinas and sees better in the dark than humans do. His vision is dichromatic, meaning he can pick out two colors: blue and yellow, and shades of gray. He uses other clues to see: smell and sound primarily. His eyes, set at a twenty degree angle, increase peripheral vision but compromise his binocular vision (which humans have—the field of view of each eye overlapping). His depth perception is less acute unless he looks straight ahead, which is just how he does look in jumping, leaping, catching. He also has less visual acuity than a human and must be within twenty feet to see me as well as I can see him at seventy feet. Motion sensitivity is the critical aspect of his vision. Is this why the fox turned his head when my husband and I stepped out the door? He heard sound and saw motion.
The third time I am on the back porch talking on the phone with a friend. It’s eleven a.m. My friend and I are both tired. If we aren’t careful we will try to outdo each other with our complaints. The day is bright, though I am sheltered so that anyone looking from the neighbor’s yard would see me, if at all, as a figure in a hollow: the bright surround of daylight and me in deep shadow as of a cave.
I glance up and there is the fox, sitting, staring, twenty feet away, just there at the break in the hedgerow, where he could, in the dark of night, make a choice: this way behind the hedgerow, or this way through the yard.
Did he smell me first and then see me? Does he see me yet?
“There’s my fox,” I say to my friend on the phone, just above a whisper. I am almost as startled as I was the first time. Startled by his presence, his calm, his gaze. I try to explain to my friend, keeping my voice low: “This fox. I’ve been seeing this fox; he’s been coming through our yard.” I try not to move. “How exciting,” she says. “A good omen.” Exactly, I think, which is why I don’t want him to move. For now, he sits with the patient, regal demeanor of a cat, peering and peerless. What did I do? I don’t remember. I looked away for a moment and he was gone. I kept watching for him all that day but he didn’t show himself.
Why do I desire the fox? Killer of birds, a chipmunk’s beating heart laid open. Imagine him stepping silently into the road, looking back over his shoulder. Moving across my lily bed, he licks water from a leaf. He ambles near the coneflower; a spore attaches itself to his tail. Later it falls near our creek, a stretch where sunlight hits. Next season, it germinates. By July the pink flower blooms. Just so, our Raleigh neighborhood—if we can keep it a little ragged; if all the split levels are not cut down and all the trees with them—we remain an ecosystem. We haven’t yet destroyed all natural means of distributing seed and sustenance, even though with these new houses, nothing appears to happen naturally. The entire lot is shorn. Every blooming thing—dogwood, azalea, iris—cleared out so that rolls of grass can be laid once the house is built. To the fox’s eye and nose such a space is neutered.
Aug. 28. We have come through a season of limp gray skies, warm temperatures, and rain into mild sunny days of late summer, temperatures in the sixties in the morning, sunlight filling the morning, every color of the outdoors heightened.
I seem miraculously healed, waking with energy and desire, thinking—“What will I find today? What can I do?” I experience that deep pleasure that comes with interest in my own life, in what I will create. Our neighbor has acquired a rooster and chickens. Now we hear a rooster in the morning. We also hear him mid-day and evening. Lie down for a nap and I am sure to be awakened by the rooster. The chickens cluck. I can hear them moving about on the other side of the fence. It’s a tall, solid fence, so we can’t see into the yard. I imagine, grinning to myself, that they are free-range (good for them), and part of our somewhat haphazard, less-than-scrubbed-and-polished neighborhood. At first I imagine they will be safe from the fox next spring but then I remember that foxes can climb and jump.
My mother calls. I ask her how she is doing. “I’m not doing very well,” she says. When I ask what’s wrong, she tells me that she doesn’t have any energy. She doesn’t feel like doing anything. “I need to ask my doctor about it,” she says. “Surely I’m not going to feel like this the rest of my life.” “You won’t,” I say, hoping for her. “Remember, you had that long day Sunday, going to church and then to lunch with friends, and then that musical program in the afternoon at Pullen Baptist. After a day like that, your body has to recover.” She doesn’t answer directly. “It’s such an artificial life,” she says. I don’t have a clue what she means. “Eating dinner and then coming back here to sit through the evening,” she says. I haven’t heard her say this before. She has been largely content in her living. When I asked her about moving in with me after my father died, she graciously declined. “Can you take a walk with a friend after dinner?” I say. And add: “I could come over some evenings.” “You have things to do,” she says. She is right, of course. My semester is started up. Like the fox, I’m on a schedule. She is beyond schedules. I have rested and rebounded. She may have some more energetic days but in general, her slope is downward. “I can come walk with you,” I say, “at least once a week. She would like more.
Gray foxes inhabit all parts of North Carolina, from the Outer Banks to the Appalachians. Even as coyotes expand their range and displace the red fox, the gray fox holds its own. Is it this species’ ability to climb that helps it survive a coyote’s stalking? Folklore has favored the red fox for cunning, but the smaller gray fox is surviving better against intrusion, the human factor, the larger canine factor.
After years of debating and deferring and sometimes arguing over it, my husband and I have decided, against a realtor’s recommendation (“Why not sell your house and buy one that already suits your needs?” –apparently split levels, even near North Hills, are not ever going to become fashionable again) to remodel our house. We are staying put in our sixties suburban dwelling with the small bathrooms and narrow hallway, three bedrooms squeezed together in the upper level, a room that will never escape the nomenclature of “den,” and a carport rather than a garage. We are within reach of what we need: the greenway and a grocery store, shaded groves and the airport, open sky and my husband’s office, bluebirds and Peking Garden Restaurant.
I haven’t seen the fox for weeks. My husband saw him one more time, trotting his line behind the house, on the other side of the hedgerow. I was disappointed that I had not been chosen to see him that last time, as if some divine spirit had been choreographing these “chance” meetings and had somehow erred at the last. Surely the kits have now matured and he is not required to hunt as often. It’s doubtful the fox and his mate have moved to another location. They generally remain put so long as food and water and shelter are adequate. They mate for life.
I won’t see the fox until next year and only then if I am exhausted enough to be required to sit on my back porch for a month of mornings.
If the fox were writing this essay, he would report more sightings of me than I of him. But he would take less interest. I am only a slow and occasional inconvenience. His interest is elsewhere and his knowledge of Montclair is both more complex and more complete than mine. He knows it better than the realtor, better than the children who play basketball in the cul de sac. Human dwellers see separate yards. He sees zones of safe passage. We see surfaces. He sees in the dark. We enter our dens at night. He leaves his. We are surprised to hear the ripple of the creek. His ear perks to know its depth and coolness after a rain. He passes easily through a bed of poison ivy, maneuvers over or under oddly angled fallen trees left in back yards, knows in his certain, steady trot just where our creek intersects with the larger creek on the greenway. He knows the habits of the birds, and the habits of the large, unfurred mammals who periodically and unwittingly feed him. He walks by the moon and slips, knowing everything, at the edge of my perception.
Elaine Neil Orr is the author of A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa (Berkley/Penguin, 2013) and a memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (UVa.P, 2003). She was born and grew up in Nigeria. She publishes in such journals as Image, Shenandoah, South Writ Large, Blackbird, and The Missouri Review, and her work has been widely anthologized. Her memoirs and stories have been nominated for the Pushcart; she has won grants from the NEH and the North Carolina Arts Council, and she is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: How much it revealed about my own need for shelter.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Read great literature. Yes, I have followed it. My day job is teaching literature at N.C. State University!
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Thoreau’s Walden, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own? (Remember, I’ve been there! Hahahahahaha!!!)
A: My writing space is a desk in front of a window in a room with a door closed behind me. I have a computer and a journal and books and green tea. The “window” can be a view of the yard from a back porch as long as I’m alone.