—Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene II
Once upon a time in Cincinnati, my great-grandmother left her two children one morning after breakfast. She fed them, sent them off to school, and vanished.
Later that afternoon, my grandmother and her brother — thinking she was hiding from them in a closet, behind a cabinet, under a bed — giggled together the way children do when they believe a grownup is playing a game with them.
Mama, where are you?
The story could be explained in many ways, but I prefer this:
My great-grandmother Edith ran home to Sweden and became a fox.
A fox could be your wife or mother, your brother or uncle, could have as many as nine tails, is impervious to the domestic but seeks it sometimes out of curiosity or is made to,
because it wasn’t the body she took with her, but the lack of one she left behind.
If I ask my two-year-old daughter, “How does a fox go?” she wouldn’t be able to answer; in our language there’s no word for the sound a fox makes.
In Japanese a fox says, gon gon.
In 1887 Kataro Shirayamadani abandoned “The Village” — a traveling installation featuring seventy Japanese men, women, and children pretending to live and work inside it — when Maria Longworth Nichols Storer convinced him Cincinnati was the Paris of the West where, she said, Your kind is divinely worshipped! She let him design whatever he wished for Rookwood Pottery, and so he did — vases and bowls, even a little orange fox paperweight, the fox in a crouch as if it might pounce or play or stretch.
Rothko painted “Orange, Red, Yellow” in 1961 after having subsisted solely on alcohol for six weeks and complained to his doctor of vision problems, ghostly afterimages, blights on his eyes. The paintings he made, in other words, were manipulating his sight so all he could see were the paintings.
The red line the orange line the yellow
depending on the path you follow
will lead you to your dead or away from it.
My mother lost her mother in the cemetery
and her voice lifts in worry to a childish pitch.
Forgive her. She was just twenty-five when she died
and hasn’t been back since.
One must be disinterested to see the beauty in art. Art must be disinterested in its own
beauty to be art. It takes concentration and boredom to become disinterested
enough to find the art-potential in what isn’t, at first blush, art.
It takes losing something, tedium
of practice, a space in which to grow
I’ve grown so bored of my mother’s forgetting
I can see:
A ceramic fox on a stack of bills on a desk in den in a house I loved,
dyed hair and saddle shoes,
a photo of a woman riding a horse through a field after a fox,
a print of a painting that looks like how it feels to be eaten by the sun as it falls into the ocean.
You learn how to be a mother by how you were mothered, my mother tells me. Her mother-in-law, she says, must not have been loved by her own mother to refuse to come home from vacation when her young son fell out of tree at a neighbor’s house, broke his leg, burned with fever. She must not have been loved by her own mother to let her fifteen-year-old son run away from home and not chase after him. She must not have been loved by her own mother to make one son travel to Boston to collect her other son’s body, alone. A fox would make a better mother, she says.
She forgets she’s told me these things many times before, so when she tells me for the tenth time, she says the words with such conviction I’m horrified all over again.
My grandmother went to a funeral for a woman friend of hers from church whose two grown sons — Wracked and Howling — rent their good suits, blubbered and spat, looked like they might jump right into the grave with their dead mother. Disgraceful, she said.
I was ten when she told me, and I did that sort of thing still over little things — like going to school or bedtime, having to wait in offices. I did it dirtying myself by tramping through woods in dresses. She was trying to tell me I better grow out of it someday.
Better to be like the graveyard all done up for autumn, long slats of sun barring the lawn. Better to hear easeful weeping by the grave, to be the daughter’s discrete gloved hand to her mouth, then those two sons, knocked about by pain, the sound from their collective jaw unhinged, without a name.
They were twin foxes, those animals they say kill our pet cats, those animals they say live in our cities.
The woman who bore them, she sang out loud in the Baptist choir, Grandmother said, but otherwise was a quiet, gentle thing.
An angry fox came looking for you, the mother in Kurosawa’s Dreams tells her son.
A little boy has disobeyed and left the house during a sun shower when animals are said to be married — this according to almost every folkloric tradition the world over. Often it’s a fox but sometimes a wolf, a bear, a hyena, a jackal — depending on what fauna and where — nearly always, it seems, a predator.
A fox may indeed be married, but only under the right conditions like
Naked rain. Ghost rain,
the sun, improbably, shining through rain, rain liquefying the sun.
There are no photos of my parents’ wedding. My mother, pregnant at eighteen, eloped with my father to North Carolina or Tennessee or West Virginia. Whoever may have witnessed their marriage is most likely dead: A judge, a court recorder, a woman in stockings downtown to pay a fine,
a little boy who was curious and disobeyed his mom,
running to the forest where he found a wedding procession among the trees. He saw: A fox bride, a fox groom, their retinue. He heard drums or thunder. He felt rain or tears.
He tried to hide himself, to watch without being found out, but of course he was found out.
Once he was home again, his mother handed him the knife a fox left. Out of remorse for his offense the boy was meant to kill himself with it. His mother, resigned, offered him this one, small chance: Ask them to forgive you, she told her son, though, she warned, they don’t often forgive.
She shut the doors of her house behind her but not before she told him where he’d find the foxes.
Under the rainbow, she said, as in
the room where my parents slept, featured often in my dreams, double-doors shut, down a long hallway, longer than it really was.
Kurosawa’s dream might lead you to believe the boy was innocent, foolish in his blithe mishandling of secrets. There are rules to the universe, after all, and he should pay for flouting them,
but he wanted to see foxes get married so he’d know for sure:
The bride in her nubby cream suit, the groom in his Air Force uniform, the fetus in her “helix of hope and fear.”
Children aren’t really children, no matter what the stories say. We may be laboring under the illusion children are unambiguous, clear as a lake, minor as a shallow pool. It’s not true. Or maybe we’ve misnamed them and in our empirical juggernaut, placed them, erroneously, with the animals.
And maybe we were wrong about animals too.
In some versions of the old English song “Reynardine” the narrator is the fox Reynardine himself and in others she is some passer-by taken with the maid’s beauty on a mountaintop. This stranger hears the maid deny Reynardine at first, convinced he’s “a rake,” but “Oh no,” Reynardine says, “No rake am I / Brought up in Venus train / But I’m seeking for concealment / All along the lonesome plain.”
My grandmother’s brother — I think his name was Jack — I imagine him this way after his mother left:
While grownups made love behind the cowshed, while the sun hung high at night and the blooms of seven varietals arranged themselves like luxuriating men
on Swedish girls’ pillows, he dreamt of girls but no girls dreamt of him.
I’m the mother of two small children so I must make peace with home, with being home, with staying home. I straddle that negligible gap between homily and homily by homing. Home. Stay home. Home is an ohm, a minor curve at the back of the tongue, a lifting of the palate, an opening of the throat, a meditative still-point, the state of being inside the outside of it, a perpetual conclusion.
The most famous rendition of “Reynardine” is probably Fairport Convention’s, released on their 1969 album Liege and Lief. Sandy Denny sings from that third perspective, the moment’s drama unfolding before her as she pauses in her ramble to listen. She’s been travelling for days, unwashed, sunburnt, wind-whipped. Her sex is an omnibus of various attractions. She is both terribly ancient and delightfully young. She sings what she sees in an old-timey affectation, but you might find her dressed in tartan miniskirt and thigh-high boots. She is free.
The first time I heard Denny’s voice I was twenty-something and in the habit of hanging around record shops. The owner of this particular store must’ve asked me what kind of music I liked or must’ve guessed from what I tended to buy. Have you ever heard Sandy Denny? No, I said. He held up an LP with her picture on the cover. She had a round and smeared, petulant face. Then he put the record on the turntable.
Whether Reynardine devours the maid, marries her, or leaves her to starve on a mountaintop, the song doesn’t say,
but I do know Sandy Denny gave birth to her only daughter in July of 1977, the month and year I was born.
Her heavy drinking proved fatal.
Linda Thompson, her band mate, said, “When I went to see her in the hospital after she’d had the baby, I was terribly worried. The baby was premature. She’d abused herself during pregnancy — and she said, ‘They’re giving me such a hard time, telling me off. What about me?’ And I thought, ‘God, that’s so peculiar.’ When you've just had a baby, you don't think about yourself at all.”
The spray of blooms Shirayamadani painted on a prototype Maria Storer then fired in her kiln doomed him to a life of perpetual capitulation — the potter in the village, the naïve shape, the humble flower over and over again.
Mama, where are you?
Children, don’t blame Edith for her ravenous need, and don’t blame the black cabinet. It swallows whole the cup once it’s cleaned and put away by the sort of women who tidy up after spillages, after holidays, their hands plunged in the dishes. Edith’s just too busy drinking from her cup.
And don’t blame the cup or the stars in it. Some of us aren’t meant for little skies over little forests. Some of us want sparkly, connect-the-dot narratives about this god or that fox (vulpecula) or that cup, big or little, dipped into a stream of stars. Edith was so bright no one saw, threw a fit once then thought better of it, made sun tea out of hyphens and drank all the in-betweens so they sloshed their chopped up, liquefied sentences in her white gut no one dared touch. No one. It was so pale. And so soft.
Women like Edith don’t make good. Women like Edith are in their cups. Women like Edith die and rise up to drink with more Ediths in Walhalla. They drink from their cup of stars, their absent bodies crammed into sad little houses. Women like Edith, when they cry they make the ______ sound foxes make. Women like Edith don’t have babies. But Edith did. Twice.
There’s an Aesop fable about a fox that can’t reach the grapes he wants to eat; they’re hung too high on an arbor so he convinces himself he never wanted the grapes in the first place:
Out east was an old riding stable called Red Fox, its pastures punctuated by horses and fence. I rode a little bay mare there called Genie who loved starburst mints and Coke-a-Cola. I mostly trotted her around a ring, but once I was given permission to gallop her over a field the way I might have had I been foxhunting. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
If you ride in the English-style you’re by definition imitating the foxhunt. It’s why you train a horse to jump fences and hedges; it’s why you sit forward in your saddle — looking for the fox, listening for your hounds,
free as a painter stockbroker organic farmer poet pensioner
rambling mama Etsy store starlet four-alarm fire junk shop operator,
but for the imminent kill.
Picking through a dead fox’s brain we find:
Baby spoons so oxidized we miss our face.
Chairs so waterlogged when we sit they cry.
Sheaves of records from the soft-focus age.
A framed Hopper (as an aside).
Cimmerian pants, loose-fitting and bleu.
A wooden apple so wooden,
it’s bitter barbeque.
Filaments unattached but hopeful.
A baby doll.
This last we kneel beside and speak to. Listen, we say, your eyes shut when your torso’s tipped back. You open them again when we straighten you.
I know better than to call my mother after a certain hour. I can hear it in her voice. And the things we talk about then she won’t remember when I call again.
A friend once told me, “Live all four seasons in a house before you throw a party there,”
so as a hunter in winter on the taiga with his knife pares a branch to girlishness, plying the spring for mink and fox, I prepare to tell you a story — but there are no good stories to tell; they’re all used up.
Instead, I’ll tell you about foxes caught in my deadfall trap, the child fox especially.
I’ll tell you about an old woman who once drove herself to the hospital after a stroke but couldn’t remember how to get back home again. It may be tricky, she warned the nurse.
She read Dostoesvsky in Russian while waiting for the doctor. I knew him, she told the doctor, referring to Dostoesvsky. Oh? And what was he like? the doctor asked, humoring her because no one is so old. A strong man. A sad man, she said — easily said about anyone.
Now you must imagine all the strong, sad men you’ve ever known crowding the back of that Ukrainian’s Seville, a fox at the wheel and no home to go back to.
In Antoine de Saint-Expuréry’s The Little Prince, the Prince begs the Fox to play with him, but the Fox tells him he can’t because he hasn’t yet been tamed. The Prince doesn’t know what the word tamed means, so the Fox tells him it’s a way of establishing ties.
Domestication has physical consequences. Over time ears become floppier, snouts shorter and wider, fur mottled and multi-colored. Vocalizations adjust and recalibrate. Tails wag.
There’s a difference, however, between tamed and domesticated. What Russian geneticist Dimtry Belyaev hoped to achieve was long-term change, not just momentary connection. Curious, docile foxes were bred to encourage those same traits in future generations but foxes deemed too fearful or aggressive were killed for their fur.
To keep his research alive, Belyaev gathered up his assistants and his foxes and took them to Siberia. Under Stalin, Belyaev could have been sent to a work camp or even executed for his research.
For Belyaev’s foxes and for Belyaev himself, it was either change or die.
It’s early morning in my liberal Columbus neighborhood. A man lets his tamed fox off her lead. It’s summer now but he still wears his leather bomber jacket from the war, his hands shoved in the pockets. Around them the street contracts to enlarge their holiness, and the fox runs ahead; she runs ahead into an alleyway’s stippled fist of roses. He calls to her, Buddha! Come! when she runs too far, then stops to plunge her head in a trash can. She sniffs, like the great spiritual leader she is, the beautiful excrement.
I think I’m going to cry, says the Fox, to which the Little Prince replies, But you asked me to tame you!
There are scientific studies that say motherhood changes a woman’s brain. Restructuring happens in the prefrontal cortex, like new additions to an old house. Stern and rinsing love floods every lobe,
but sometimes neurons misfire and solicitousness becomes anxiety, self-sacrifice becomes self-obliteration, love turns menacing.
The body changes too: Ears become floppier, snouts shorter and wider, fur mottled and multi-colored. Vocalizations adjust and recalibrate. Tails wag.
We notice animals everywhere — animals in nursery décor, in children’s books, in children’s movies. We cock our heads to one side sometimes while straightening the living room, gazing with distrust at the stuffed fox, owl, bear.
God took her and gave me you, my mother often says. My presence is her absence then, a counterweight and reminder we’d never meet, poles on opposite ends of the spectral field, unless my mother believes that Heaven can be tipped back like a bassinet by God’s right foot, where we’d pitch a little toward its mathematical heart, rocked by the Lord’s golden, distracted love. He believes in hands-off parenting, in: Let them bumble into fireplaces, let them pull the fox’s tail, let them know forfeiture and see if I care.
Before my daughter was born, I bought her a bigger plush fox that came with a smaller plush fox from a big-box store. On our first night apart, I kept the smaller and she the bigger. In my hotel bed, I hugged the smaller so very close to my chest still somehow in the night it escaped.
I wonder if my daughter — while she naturally hugged the bigger fox so very close to herself — also found in the morning the bigger fox had up and gone someplace.