The paths of light and darkness never converge: fox-spirits stand somewhere between the two.
The first time we met, he was loping up the shadowy path behind the house. I was splitting kindling in the oak grove. I saw him first—a graceful rusty red banner, from arrow nose to white-tipped tail, angular ears and chin, frosted cheek tufts. When he saw me, our gazes locked: his face, simple, sad, sympathetic, his yellow eyes zealous, vibrant. He spoke first, nose twitching, ears flicking: “Join me, brother, I’ll lead the way to a stream teeming with brook trout. And a meadow swarming with field mice, rabbits, chipmunks, and pine squirrels. Run with me, brother, taste the wind.” “But I eat my supper cooked and sleep in a soft, warm bed.” I whispered. He trotted off, confused, dejected, tail sagging, paws barely touching the fragrant earth. I watched his silhouette disappear into shadows. Next day I was weeding tomatoes when I saw him on the path. He stood silent, patient, then said, “Join me, brother, it’s time. I’ll lead you up the ridge to the wild berries. We’ll feast on hen pheasant and fat young grouse. Sip our fill from the gurgling, cool spring.” I sighed, “My supper simmers on the stove. Don’t you see? My world is here.” He spoke calmly, “Sometimes I go hungry. Sometimes my den is damp. Often I am hunted. But, brother, I am free. Follow me!” Speechless, I shook my head and watched his somber retreat, looking back just once, before silently vanishing into the darkness. I didn’t eat supper that night, but sat alone on the porch gazing into the night. At midnight I crawled off to bed, but I never fell asleep.
I am torn from restless sleep by a loud, shrill yap and cackle from the moonlit barnyard. The old border collie paws wildly at the screen door and yowls to get out. The fox is raiding the henhouse, slaughtering more than he can eat. I have seen before that dusty lather of straw and feathers, the bleached white mounds of dead chickens, bloody throats ripped open. I will kill that fox tonight and fix the chicken coop tomorrow. I grab the twenty-two rifle from its ragged canvas case behind the bedroom door, and race barefoot across the frosted yard toward the scene of plunder. Suddenly the fox is running—phosphorescent fur aflame in autumn moonlight. I lift the rifle, smell the gun oil, draw a bead, and lead him just enough. My finger tenses, the world seems frozen stone-still in my sights. But I cannot shoot, sensing strange tufts of orange fur sprout from my fingers and jaw, feeling the triangulation of facial features, bushy drape of tail. And then I am running too, deeper and deeper into my own alluring, darkening woods.
Author of four published novels and over a hundred published poems, stories, and articles, Jerry McGinley edits and publishes Lake City Lights, An Online Literary Anthology. He is working on his sixth book, a collection of stories and poems, tentatively titled When the Storm Hits and also a book of detective stories titled Lake Redemption.