Tuesday, March 15, 2011

the fox cub : a short story

eileen soper
Between my mother’s poncho and the scratch on dad’s Bowie album is a fox cub. He was born the same day I was, a Taurus on the cusp of Gemini. Toothless and gumming for meat, he dug through my ribs and licked the protein from my stomach walls until he grew strong.

When the sky is yellow, he leaves through the cuff of my shadow and follows me into cafes. Licking his paws, he watches the friends, lovers, and chai lattes accumulate around my table. He keeps a respectful distance, curling in a corner to sleep with one eye open. A boy with a scarf and big-framed glasses reaches through him to plug in a computer. The fox does not move, but waits patiently until the boy withdraws his hand.

I write a poem on a brown napkin. The fox feigns disinterest. Stretching on matchstick legs, he follows me outside. His paws leave soot marks on the pavement.

The wind smells like the fox, a whisk of smoke and raspberry leaves. Cigarettes clog the cracks in the sidewalk. I turn down the street I used to know. A tree grows in the middle of the parking lot. I look back at the fox. “What is that?”

“When you were young, you rode your bike in circles. On the morning of your sister’s birthday, you fell and scrapped your knee on the pavement. The skin you left behind became a seed that became a root that became a stem pushing toward the yellow sky. Every time you exhale, the tree gets taller.”

The sky bruises, and lights wink on in the houses. My shoes pinch my feet. I’ve had blood between my toes from the day I found out heels make your legs look longer.

In ancient China, women bound their feet to make them more attractive. The pain, they attest, was unremarkable.

I sit on the curb next to the bus stop. Someone painted a pair of eyes on the glass. The irises are very green. “What is that?”

“The first time you kissed a boy was in this bus stop. You were wearing make-up you stole from CVS. He was wearing his brother’s Che Guevara shirt. He told you your eyes were the color of sun through a bottle. Later, you left him for a college boy and broke his heart. He painted your eyes on the glass so he would never forget them.

Every time you break a heart, your eyes get a little bit greener.”

Inside the houses, people are turning on their televisions. Light flickers through the windows. I keep walking. Water sloshes under the street. Flapping in the drain are the dirty, frayed pages of a book. “What are these?”

The fox’s eyes flash in the night. “These are the pages of your favorite book, published by your favorite author forty years before you began writing. You can take them with you, if you want, but you do not need them.”

I take a few pages but I do not take them all.

The fox’s breath is hot on my ankles. “Take off your shoes but do not throw them away. The pavement is still warm from the sun, and you must feel what you are walking on to know where you are going.”

I carry my shoes with the pages of my favorite book. My feet step on something soft and cold. A dead bird. The body is no bigger than a bumblebee. “What is this?” I cry

“Keep walking,” says the fox.

The sidewalk is littered with dead birds. From far away they look like rubies, but their bones break like toothpicks. I cannot walk without stepping on them.

“Let me put on my shoes,” I say.

“You cannot,” says the Fox.


“These are your insecurities. They are every country you do not visit, every boy you do not talk to, and every poem you do not send for publication. They are every minute spent in front of the mirror.”

“Please, my shoes.” I cannot see the moon. The telephone poles are a forest.

“You must know each one before you put on your shoes. They will never go away, but knowing them tames them. To know them is to live with them.”

“What is that?” A human skeleton hangs from a tree.

“Keep walking,” Says the fox.

Feather bodies crunch beneath my weight. “I’m killing them.”

“They’re already dead.”

My teeth are cold, my face hot from crying. I think of ways to kill myself. The fox growls. I keep walking.

Then I do not feel the birds anymore. My feet sink into wet grass “What is this?”

“This is the grass you set on fire the Fourth of July you got drunk because you didn’t know you were a light-weight. This is the grass you laid in for hours listening to your skinny neighbor play guitar. This is the grave of innumerable fireflies. This is your parents' backyard.”

“What are those?” In the middle of the yard are two urns.

“Those are your parents.”

I walk toward them.

The fox nips my leg. “You cannot touch them.”


“Those are your parents, and your parents are dead.”

I sit down in the grass. “No.”

The fox says nothing.

“I'm an orphan.”

“We are all orphans,” says the fox.

I’ve always been afraid of making eye contact, afraid that my eyes would betray all my weaknesses, the thousands upon thousands of dead birds crammed inside my skull. Lashes quivering, I look straight into the yellow-fox eyes. “What are you?”

The fox licks my nose. “I am the breath in your body and the green in your eyes. I am your favorite book. I am the insecurity that almost killed you. I am your sister’s birthday. I am music, grass, and fireflies. I am your mother’s poncho and the scratch on your dad’s Bowie album. I am hope. I am all you need.”

It’s been months since I could feel my bones through my skin, but my ribs, always protrusive, rise thinly through my shirt. “Then,” I say, pulling them apart, “You better get inside.”

The fox leaps into my chest. He nestles between my lungs and my breath swells. He tucks his tail around my heart. I close my ribs behind him and stitch the skin together with blades of grass. Dropping my shoes, I turn from the urns, take out the pages of my favorite book, and read.