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When A Fox Skull No Longer Points Home

By Catherine Reid

It is the quiet time of year—no leaves, no insects, no nattering of squirrels, no birds asserting claims over small lands and new broods. In these woods, the snow cover is deep, and it contains and subdues most sounds, an absence that has its own weight and against which my snowshoes rattle and shirr.

The few noises arrive with the first fall of flakes—a just-audible nick of cold-sharpened crystals against branches and needles. Then comes the shift of new snow off limbs, off my coat, off the stiff beech leaves that won’t drop until spring.

I snowshoe on and locate an animal’s slide—not long like an otter’s and nowhere near water—and figure the track to be that of a fisher, an animal that’s not supposed to be here in the Northeast, at least according to any guidebook published before the last decade. Fishers, dark and powerful members of the weasel family, are supposed to inhabit the far northern boreal forests, not these hills rising between the Connecticut River and the taller Berkshires to the west. Yet one has been here, and it has been busy, zigzagging back and forth in search of prey, then wandering through deeper snow, leaving a long belly scrape. I follow the trail another fifty feet until it disappears under a hemlock branch so laden with snow that it rests on the ground like a hand.

I lift the branch and feel as though I’m entering the privacy of a bedroom. I can see where the animal curled in sleep, the curves of its body imprinted on snow that its heat melted. Its smell fills the small chamber, a musky scent so rank and strong that I know it would take but seconds for it to coat me were I to drop the screen of needles and roll onto the bed. Instead, I snowshoe home, startled at how ready I was to move into the animal’s realm.

˜

For a long time, I thought I could live anywhere, that home was wherever I found myself—a town, a city, an island, a tent, a rented apartment, a fixer-up house.

Then I set down roots with a partner on several acres with an old house, a barn, and a brook, and my definition of home became larger and more specific. It became the nest we made of foods and smells, the garden and flowers and the best rooms for views, and the pleasure in knowing where the wild grapes hang, the red fox dens, and the ladyslippers reveal their erotic pink selves.

Home became a happiness so wide I couldn’t see anything outside my field of view. The sweetness of kale picked after the frost! The number of stars on the coldest night of the year! The first fist of rhubarb, signaling spring!

It took at least a year to realize that the person I most want to share this with could no longer afford to stay; the cost to her heart has become too great, and I have no idea how to prepare for the possibility of leaving here.

˜

Each time I fly to south Florida, for the first day or so I see only bougainvillea in bloom, orchid trees laden with blossoms that look ready for flight, and gardenia languid with scent in bushes taller than I stand. It takes far longer to see the streets, the high-rises downtown, the pink stucco and tile inland, and the ever-changing styles.

When the noise and speed become too much, I scan sky. I count vultures, sometimes three dozen or more riding the thermals between tall apartments, an occasional frigatebird soaring among them. Below them, cars and horns and alarms jam the air. On the sidewalk, people give me a quick once-over—I am tall and blonde, maybe a movie star, maybe someone famous in this world of revolving chic—then the look shifts. I’m not dressed quite right, I haven’t taken the proper care, and I become just another body in the fast-moving crowd.

Everywhere people are talking, though little of it to those in view. Cell phones and thin microphones send their stories and hot deals around the world, with no time to lose. Everyone has a scheme in this city of speculators, and they travel at the future’s near edge. The present is already passé, and the scenes speeding by offer little relevance.

I move slowly in the heavy heat. On the shaded streets, banyan trees lace earth to sky. An opossum rocks across a backyard, its rolling gait welcome as a friend’s laugh. In the cool of evening, shadows create narrow alleys out of otherwise large walkways, and the roadsides become less visible. I feel the shuttle and chirr of insect life; I sense how the land that isn’t paved teems.

Near my stepdaughter’s new house, skinks leap leaf to leaf, a walking stick separates its thin body from twig, and the city becomes more bearable and green.

˜

On a ridge in Florida, Massachusetts, one of the coldest areas of the state, an old forest ages quietly, its granite ledges softened by a thin layer of lichens and ferns. Under one such rock ledge, porcupines have lodged for years. Their scat litters the floor, messiness typical of an animal that can sleep near its own shit or leave it in such heaps in the doorway that it sometimes spills back into the den.

In a corner of this particular cave, there is also a pile of quills, an intricate tangle, like a child’s stack of Pick-up Sticks. It’s an odd arrangement amidst the den’s disarray, as though the animals had groomed themselves and swept up afterwards, setting aside anything that might be dangerous to the softer-skinned young. But porcupines don’t indulge in that kind of tidiness; something else created this spiny mound.

Twenty feet away, I find one dying, its feet curled against its sides, each blink of its eyes slow and labored. It may have fallen off a high branch, a not-uncommon fate for the clumsy animals, or it may have been forced off by the jabs of a fisher, the animal best designed to kill this well-armed prey.

I keep my distance, aware that the animal might give a last heave and swing its tail, setting quills that are designed to go deep and cause havoc. With barbs like those on fishhooks, extricating quills means tearing more flesh. No animal wants to risk such a wounding, and only the fisher has evolved to deal with them.

Its method of killing is slow but efficient. The fisher slashes at the porcupine’s face and then beats a retreat. When the porcupine spins in an attempt to hit the fisher with its tail, the fisher leaps out of reach and slashes the porc’s face again. And so they go in a kind of danse macabre, slash and spin about, slash and spin about, until the loss of blood takes its toll and the porcupine no longer keeps up.

My arrival may have ended the dance. Had I not appeared, the fisher would have flipped the porcupine over and then skinned it, a slick everting of fur and quills, exposing an easy meal of soft body parts. And had that whole scene been played out in the den and the hide left there to rot, surely it would have left a pile of quills, just like the one in the far corner.

That’s how I imagined it anyway, though the ranger stationed at the state forest headquarters can’t confirm it; nor can the environmental police officer, with whom I talk a few days later. Even the famous tracker who lives nearby can’t say with confidence that a pile of quills means a fisher kill. “Too little is known about these new arrivals,” he says, “other than that they’re fierce and efficient and showing up all over the northeast,” and I think again of the comment made by a friend who has caught fishers in traps intended for coyotes. “Their return is like having another piece of our wilderness back.”

It’s a wildness I want as part of my idea of home, but wildness to Holly means violence, of which she’s had enough.

˜

On past visits to Miami most of what I saw was artificial excess on an isolated stretch of waterfront, with little connecting the city to the rest of the United States. Everything seemed man-made, former swampland tamed by concrete and steel, by artificial turf and reprocessed coral reefs, a place where people spent most of their daylight hours inside, in air kept dry and well chilled. I work to find the places where wild inhabits the city; it’s the only way not to feel rent between the way I want to love and my love of the land. It’s the only way to keep grief from filling the rift.

For Holly, however, this city now seems comfortably tame, compared to the chaos that erupted when she was first there with two small children. The changes began when they were sleeping, or when she was arranging daycare for them, or while she was carrying home bags of groceries. Suddenly a car exploded at the turn of an ignition key; a mailbox detonated when kids were crossing the street; a helicopter dropped low and hovered overhead, people scattering under the bright lights as sirens wailed up her street.

It was the late seventies and early eighties, when drug dealers were defending turf, Anita Bryant was assailing gays, and cops along the Miami River were discovering how valuable were smuggled goods and how dispensable the smugglers. Extremism was in vogue and was the only acceptable reaction when Castro toyed once again with this great country, as in his allowing a mass exodus of Marielitos—criminals, the insane, the frightened, the poor, an untidy wave of people in boats large and small.

Holly still looks stunned when reciting the short list of killings that occurred in those years—a man shot in her backyard; a friend’s child murdered; a friend’s husband murdered; a friend’s fiancé murdered; a car bomb that blew the legs off a man for being a traitor to the anti-Castro forces. The gulf between the classes had grown so wide that rage was one of the few ways to cross it. Meanwhile, empty rafts drifted onto the beaches, Haitians who struggled ashore were sent home, and paperless Central Americans became the new slaves of the wealthy. For Holly, the imperious Orlando Bosch, selling fruit on the sidewalk in his court-ordered bracelet, was one of the last straws. The self-proclaimed terrorist had bombed a plane and a cruise ship, many people had died, and yet passers-by honked and cheered when they passed him in their cars, and the law dragged its heels because of its own complicity in aiding and abetting his crimes.

She wanted a safer place, where her nightmares could run their course and all the risk a person should need would come from the depth of her imagination. A few years after we met, we moved to a town with fewer than 2000 people, a hundred miles due west of Boston. Two brooks passed near us, quiet woods stretched to the east, and within a short while we knew most of our neighbors. It seemed a good place to recover from the trauma of mingling cultures.

Yet she still hovers over a map of Miami; I can feel it. When her son calls on his cell phone, she asks where he is so she can imagine the intersection, the sights from his car window, the blossoms of frangipani, mimosa, and royal poinciana littering the ground, the air sweetly scented. “What are you having for dinner?” she’ll ask, so she can know where he and his new wife have shopped, what smells waft through their kitchen, what blend they’re creating of Cuban and Anglo ingredients. The two move between Spanish and English as they speak— pastellitos, croquettas, fried bananas, ripe mangoes, Little Havana, the Grove, Calle Ocho—and I smell the hot, cement-block buildings and see the big skyline and long crawl of mangrove roots, the heaps of relentless green hacked back with machetes, and the wild things beating a fast retreat from long blades.

˜

I enter the woods that I may soon leave, walking as though my body were unzipped and raw. It is not easy to love a person and a place in equal measure; it’s tough to admit that my desire to be near her will mean severing my roots from this earth. I work to take heart from the fisher’s return—change happens and that’s a good thing—though in this waning fall air, hope is an elusive thing. Respite comes in the demand of my senses. I need to pay attention; I want to sense brook and deer and pine for as long as I can.

And then I see a fox skull atop a scattering of oak leaves. It’s clean of fur and facing south and looks tenderly, deliberately placed, and I don’t know how I missed it earlier in the season. I had only to look a few feet to the left and I didn’t.

I squat to see under the reach of low plants and find pelvis and ribs, lumbar strewn like beads, and a section of lower jaw, stained from oak tannin. Under a thin layer of dirt lies a triangle of teeth, startlingly white and scarcely worn, as though the animal were barely a year old, and I can hardly explain the odd pang I feel. I missed the moment when the fox breathed its last and that hurts far more than seems reasonable.

I scrape away earth but can’t tell what caused its death. No bones seem cracked or shattered from impact; no bullets appear amidst the detritus. Instead, the curve of spine suggests a death in sleep, an animal tucked for the last time into the warmth of itself.

It seems it was just a few months ago that it barked outside the house, sometime in the night, and I didn’t step outdoors to see what it wanted. And now I can’t tell whether it was poisoned or weakened by disease, or whether a life spent as a fox was just too exhausting and hard.

The den is barely one hundred feet away, under a canopy of white pine and black cherry trees. In this late autumn day, needles rain down in the breeze, a sound as thin as sleet but softer on my skin. I start to leave and then turn back, kneeling to fit my hands under the skull. I don’t know where I’ll store it or why I want to hold it. I know only that the animal died in the months when the den was active, when I watched a healthy fox carry in a ruffed grouse one day, a gray squirrel the next, and I forgot to watch what else was happening a short distance away.

I cup the skull in my hand as though it could help me know how to leave when the time comes. And then I pass the hollow where the fisher once slept, and I try to take heart from the way its map has grown. But on the long walk home all I can see are bones—in splintered mushrooms, in pale fern fronds, in the thin beech limbs that stretch across the trail.

———

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Linda McHenry January 20, 2010 at 11:11 am

This is a wonderful contrast between the heart’s beat and the head’s ache. Lovely images and a powerful sense of place tie the contents together in a neat little package of loose change. I loved it.

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