Some foxes to pursue graduate studies in human culture, some literature, Reynard, Aesop, that sort of thing. And you have played hooky. It is a schoolday, no? I believe it is Tuesday. I am not quite up on what day of the week it is. I have lost such details…”
by brian doyle
It had long been his dream to travel in remote alpine areas, a dream that became pressing emotionally after his wife died, but he loved their children dearly and did not wish to be separated from them for even a day while they were of an age that an attendant and attentive father was, in his eyes and theirs, more crucial than before. But when the boys enrolled together in college in the east, and their sister was ready for her senior year at a university in the west, the four of them decided that circumstances were such that he could fade from view for a year; the children could live with aunts or friends during the winter break, and should an emergency arise on either paternal or progenic side, a call to an appointed friend would serve as a flag for immediate contact. The children pointedly did not ask where he was going and he did not know himself. In late August he drove them to their campuses, sweet last road trips filled with music and laughter and tears and milkshakes, and then he drove up into the mountains to catch the last days of high summer – the redolent weeks when the days were hot but the nights brooded on winter.
He slept in motels, dusk to dawn, and was in the woods early, aiming always for high reaches, timberline or above, where he could be washed by the shocking light. In late October the first snow fell above timberline; by December snow was everywhere in the woods. He supposed he should go south, following the light, but something about the mountain had him by the bone now, and he stayed. By Christmas he had learned to snowshoe. In January he rented a cabin, and late that month he haltingly set a trap line, something he had never done and previously had abhorred. Over the next two months he learned to kill and skin marten, bobcat, and coyote, the pelts of which he sold to a purveyor in town. He did not hunt but he did learn to use a small pistol to dispatch animals struggling in his traps; once it was a young elk, which he shot and left in a snowy clearing for ravens and coyotes to find.
In early April he found a fox in his traps. It was very young, was caught only by a toe, and it did not struggle when he approached. Its coat was lustrous; not at all red, but a deep dark russet – burnt umber, as his wife would have said. He removed his gloves and readied the pistol. The fox stared. His hand shook. He fired and missed. The fox didn’t flinch. He fired again and missed again, the shot echoing through the snowy firs. He braced his right hand with his left and fired again and missed again. The fox stared at him. He put his heavy gloves back on and put the pistol in his pocket and knelt by the trap. He caught the fox’s needle jaws with his left hand and popped the trap with his right hand. Keeping his left hand on the snout, he gathered its legs with his right hand and stood up. It weighed nearly nothing, no more than his children had weighed as infants, six or seven pounds, perhaps. It did not struggle but continued to stare at him. He stared back, utterly absorbed by its astonishing eye, the quilt of its coat, the eyebrows as black and fine as the ink sketches his wife had so loved, the huge ears the size of a child’s hand.
“For Every Thing that lives is Holy,” he said to the fox. “That’s Blake, you know. With the initial caps and all. Exuberance is beauty, that’s Blake too. The fox condemns the trap, not himself, Blake said that too. He was a chatterbox, old Billy Blake. He liked foxes. He must have seen foxes all the time. He lived in England, as you know. Everyone likes foxes. My children loved foxes. I told them fox stories when they were little. They were just your size, the size of bread-loaves or cats or whatever. We’d make up stories about foxes in the dark. My wife said we should write them down but I never wrote them down. Who writes down the stories they tell their kids? You just tell stories because they’re your kids and you want to talk them to sleep. You just wing it in the dark, storywise, you know what I’m saying? You just wing it in the dark. Metaphor for everything. I forget those stories now, though. So they’re lost. Everything gets lost in the end. That’s the deep story, my young friend. Things fly apart. First rule of the universe. Entropy. But the second rule is that no energy is lost. This gives us the hope of resurrection. You know what I’m saying? I assume you know your physics. Energy and mass. I assume there are physics classrooms for foxes in the boles of trees. Specializations of discipline after the first year of studies. Some foxes to pursue graduate studies in human culture, some literature, Reynard, Aesop, that sort of thing. And you have played hooky. It is a schoolday, no? I believe it is Tuesday. I am not quite up on what day of the week it is. I have lost such details. And here I am discussing physics with a fox. A pup, a kit, a child. And I am frightening you, child. Certainly I am. Instead of soothing you. Your heart is hammering. The selfishness of an old man. A garrulous one too. I must ask your forgiveness as we part. It has been a pleasure making your acquaintance. Perhaps we will meet again. I do hope so. My very best wishes and regards to the family. I suggest that you make tracks right back to class and buckle down to your studies whatever they happen to be,” and on the word be he bent his knees and tossed the fox as far away as he could, to be safe. It twisted in the air and landed silently in the snow and shot away so fast that for a second he was unsure it had ever actually been there until he noticed that his gloves were soaked with its nervous urine. All the way back to his cabin he grinned at the intense scent and tried to remember fox stories and by the time he arrived he had remembered the bony outlines of twelve, which he thought was pretty good, all things considered, and he took his snowshoes off before stepping inside to make notes but instead of entering the cabin he turned and got in his truck and drove to town and called the appointed friend.
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr )
Brian Doyle is a muddled male mule who has committed eight books rather like a series of venial sins: five collections of essays, nonfiction misadventures about hearts and wine, and a collection of “proems” that the great American poet Pattiann Rogers says darkly will ruin the word poetry for ever and ever. More from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke. (bio/2007)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.