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I just saw your beautiful fox: my neighbor texts me on her early morning walk past my house.
I’ve seen the fox many times, usually over the first sips of my coffee – a stunning dash – gone before I can gasp, let alone call my husband to witness it. When I last saw her, she burst from the gray spring fog, her radiant orange tail and black boots barely tapping the grass as she flew across the lawn. She likes my yard. I feed the birds, but inadvertently also feed the squirrels who love the seed that I toss on the grass because I’m always in too much of a hurry to fill the bird feeder. My wild, untended garden is a buffet for rabbits that gorge themselves on hot pink begonias and tangles of cilantro. I am a small, foolish gardener and so I have a lawn full of small, foolish animals.
They are my workday animals. Seeing and hearing them is as constant as the mail being delivered or the alarm clock ringing. Their cries and calls make up the looping daily soundtrack of my life. The fox, however, is a holiday.
As a child, I pictured a fox as slightly larger than a house cat – a silky fairy tale villain who tricks the sweet, unsuspecting forest creatures. In reality, she is large, so swift and strong that she does not need to connive or convince. Her prey is crushed beneath her jaws as quickly as the thought “fox” flits in and out of their consciousness. She is getting into the yard through a hole that she made for herself exactly one week after our new fence was installed. This is the fairy tale part of her that holds up in adulthood. She appears and disappears as if she’s been summoned for a plot twist.
To say she is my fox is to say I own the wind that blows across my lawn. As people, we say these things. There are many things that I believed were mine, and I was wrong. I believed the space between my front porch and the mailbox was mine, and that because it was mine I could always safely inhabit it. That I could stand, barefoot and smiling, my baby daughter on my hip, her weight shifted so I could use a free hand to open the little bronze mailbox door, and peer inside without worrying who might have touched it or whose breath might be trapped inside of it. I believed I would plan her first birthday party: cupcakes/balloons/crustless triangle sandwiches, and that my greatest fear would be rain or an untamable cowlick in her hair. I believed that I could hug my parents as long as they were alive. I believed, with great relief and satisfaction, that the wars, holocausts, depressions, widespread terrors, and plague-level illnesses were neatly typed in books, permanently filed alphabetically under “P” for “Past.” I believed that only in science fiction would someone like me put on a medical mask and rubber gloves and sanitize a box of Wheat Thins with a pounding heart as if I were performing open-heart surgery without any training instead of preparing a snack.
When your beliefs evaporate, they leave behind white noise. It can get very loud, that buzzing, confusing, nothingness.
There’s a day when I forget to put the birdseed out.
There’s a day when I forget what day it is, what month, what year.
There are many days when I remember the birdseed, but it’s too much for me to lift the bag, put shoes on, open the door. Where I once had nimble arms and legs, I now have empty flour sacks that dangle and won’t help me lift myself out of bed. I can barely feed my child, and sit my sorry face in front of a webcam so that work registers me as alive and in attendance. I’m on mute, but I’m here. I think.
The birds and squirrels come to the yard even when there’s nothing new for them. They take what’s left from the days before, accept second-best seeds. Then third best. When those are gone, they hop back and forth on the empty patch of lawn as if to say, “It will be back. Any minute now.” Hop. Hop.
I want them to stop coming. I don’t want to see their needs.
Idiots. There’s no food for you.
Still, they flit in and out, sitting in the trees above the house. They will wait forever. They have no concept of time. All they know is there were once seeds in this place, and there may be again. I can’t stand them. Eat up, fox.
Then I imagine them weak, too hungry to fly away, and I groan.
Pity forces my hand, slides open the door. I drag the bag of seed to the yard, let it spill out everywhere. It’s a feast to be seen from the sky. Back inside, my clothes are misted with drops of chilly morning air. As I brush myself off, my husband hands me coffee in my favorite mug. He’s added cream and cinnamon as if we’re not in purgatory. As if we are just a family choosing to stay tucked inside the house for months at a time because we’re comfortable. Not because to leave means facing the worst end for a human: a painful death alone. He already accepts the truths I resist, but he mourns for me just the same. I can see in the gentle way he hovers that he feels compassion for me – a woman who thought her world was so tame that she laid down and let it bite her.
I don’t recognize my life. Perhaps it doesn’t belong to me? Can someone check the tag? This might not be mine. This life is too small. There must have been a mistake, because this life is just a house and a square of lawn. The one I had before was much bigger. It had family, friends, farmer’s markets, carnivals, holidays, parties, grocery store shopping trips, work, school, and a vast swath of land available for new development. There was so much space in my other life that I brought a baby into it. Now it feels like everything has shrunk down – small, smaller, smallest, until all that safely fits inside is the house, the lawn, my husband, the baby, these birds, and sometimes a fox.
I purchase a book for my daughter (really for me) called Backyard Bird Sounds. At the press of a button, we can hear each distinct call in our yard. The cat absolutely hates it. Sometimes, I hear the birds outside respond to the book. I press it again and again, risking waking my daughter from her nap for this singular pleasure of communication. Over weeks, the cacophony outside untangles. I can hear the mourning doves, cardinals, finches, chickadees, and blue jays for who they are. They separate themselves from the airplanes overhead and the garbage trucks in the street and the chattering of the squirrels, and then finally from each other, until one day I listen to a mockingbird and she is singing a tune that I swear I know. She sings it again, and again, and I realize that she’s repeating the song from my daughter’s favorite toy piano.
I upgrade to multiple bird feeders and a bird bath, with a rainbow of perennials to serve as a dining backdrop. More elusive birds arrive: goldfinches, sapphire tree swallows, Northern flickers, sometimes a hummingbird. One morning, when the sun is still a sliver in the lavender sky, my daughter and I are staring out the kitchen window as a blaze of tangerine squeezes through the hole in the fence.
“Look, honey! See the fox?” I ask the baby, excitedly.
“Dog,” she replies, clapping her hands.
I don’t correct her.
There will be a time for her to learn the proper names of everything that wanders the earth. She can learn how the moon moves the ocean, how a machine moves a lung, how a fox moves across a quiet lawn. But not now. Right now she and I are the same: two people unable to define the borders of our existence. If we stretch out our arms in the darkness we could bump into the drywall or we could reach and reach and reach until we realize there is nothing at our fingertips but open sky. It will be a surprise. All that we own, all that is truly ours for sure, are the bodies we sit in and our feelings of anticipation. The world is starting over, or maybe it is what it always was, and only I am starting over. All I know is there was once something beautiful here, and there may be again.
I can wait.
Sara Maria Greene is a fiction writer living outside of Philadelphia. She is currently working on collection of twenty interconnected short stories featuring women exploring the depths of the female experience with a mix of dark humor, fairy tales, and pleasant absurdity. You can read her work in ROOM, TulipTree Review, Dandelion Years (the Best of Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2023), NPR, and other places. Find out more about her at SaraMariaGreene.com .
Sara Maria Greene
Sara Maria Greene’s most recent work can also be found in TulipTree Review, The Bath Flash Fiction Award Anthology 2022, and ROOM Magazine. She is currently working on a collection of moderately magical short stories that explore the heartbreaking, bittersweet, and darkly humorous complications of motherhood. She lives outside of Philadelphia with her husband and young daughter.