Spring has a way of resurrecting memories.
I found the fox on the far side of the river. At first, I took it for a kitten—it was young, too young and slight to mistake it for a dog. With all the leaves about it, colored to its shade by the passing touch of winter, I probably never should have seen it, but some motion caught my eye. A twitch of the ears or a flexing of the bushy tail.
Either way, it was already dying by the time I got across.
A child’s thought: someone hit it, someone left it to die. My first dog, a chocolate lab named Rufus, had been not long in the ground by then—a passing memory of love that ran until his hips gave out, disease rattled his bones, and it would have been crueler to let him live than to let him die. I had not come to terms with that yet, and there, then, another animal lay before me on its side, curled into its haggard self.
Leaving it was not an option. Though the words of others rattled my head like wind in the trees—“If it’s wild, don’t go near it; it might have rabies, it might be angry, it might…”—they were about as effective, and I hunched over it and pressed my hands into its fur. What I realized then was that there was no blood, no open wound—just a child in the grass. It stirred at my touch. A little thing—its paws moved, like my dog’s used to; like it was dreaming of a hunt time denied. Nightmares maybe, dampened with earthen sweat.
High noon beat down on us, teased the frost away from the rot. The fox’s eyes looked at me, little gold slits leaking liquid light. I started, sat back on my heels. There were many things I might have done. I had my backpack, and he was small enough to fit inside. Still, I hesitated—my mother, I thought, would know.
Instead, I gathered a pile of leaves and sticks, made a bundled pillow of the earth that I could balance between my outstretched arms. I do not know what I thought to do with it. Mother loved animals—by that logic, she could help him. She would know what to do, by needle and thread or a doctor’s hand. Wildness mattered nothing. Its body still held the warmth that endears life to a child.
Lethargy benefited no one. I slipped both arms under it, careful to come between its sagging claws as I lifted the fox off the ground. Our world thrummed with the passing thunder of a car on the roadway, maybe a few dozen feet over and away—worlds separated by a hill and some trees. It was enough to waken me to the coolness that slicked from the lipless breaths. Water, I said. Frost and dew and whatever else condensation wrought.
Blood, by the stain, leaking from the pointed, open teeth—teeth as small as mine had been, for the tooth fairy’s gifts.
It took a moment to sink deeper than my skin. The head could not remain risen into the crook of me—it flopped against the side of my arm, drooping down as if to reclaim the lost soil.
A haze of freedom carried us forward, past one tree and another. Another car brought the wind through the trees and I realized for the first time that afternoon, truly realized, that I was alone. Shade clung to the leaves still drooping from the canopies above our heads, silent as statues and every bit as cold. Even this close, the cars were muted, lessened for what stalked the trees. One might have believed themselves in a different world, with their toes in this heady soil.
It was dead in my arms. Slowly, I came into that reality. I think the shadows had moved by the time I set it down again, laid it at the foot of an ancient oak overlooking the river, where time and erosion might one day wash both into the rest of something else. Something bigger. I had nothing with me. Nothing that meant anything. So I buried it in leaves that crumbled in my hands, weighted them down with sticks someone might use for a bonfire.
Yet I dared not touch its eyes. Instead, I closed my own as I sat beside the river and began to wash my arms. It took a long time.