Father told me not to fall in love with a man but I was young and no one could tell me anything. The world of foxes was little hunts, little gossip, the little victory of stealing a cardboard take-out box of Moo Shu Pork. The world of men was so large that they men would come home in the evening and the dirt on their shoes would smell different than our dirt at home.
He had a beard the color of rust. In the mornings when the air was thick with the smells of earth and plants he zipped through the cul-de-sac on his bicycle. I sneaked up close to him, as close as I could manage without being seen, to feel the wind from the slipstream on my fur.
I used to go with other young foxes to the parking lot at the grocery store, or the parking lot at the mall. We liked to watch the static electricity between couples halfway between fighting and not fighting, that would spark in a second into “You were looking at her, though” and “I can’t pretend I don’t have eyes.” We found a tunnel in a corner of the parking lot that snaked down underneath the moving theater. Down there, the speakers boomed at us with the voices of men and women falling in love.
One by one my friends found other foxes to pair off with and left to build their own dens. I went by myself and sat under the movie theater, and made plans.
On a rainy morning I dashed out in front of his bicycle. He swerved, skidded. The bike leaned hard, then fell. I darted into the undergrowth and changed my fox skin for a skirt and a silk blouse and shoes with heels that lifted me just a little off the ground. My skin I kept with me in a sky-blue leather handbag that I had stolen from a distracted woman in a parking lot. I wanted to pick it up in my teeth; I had practiced my human voice before, but not my human hands.
“Are you alright?” I said. I liked the way my new voice sounded in my ears. Feminine but not too high-pitched; grown-up. He was lying on the ground next to his bicycle. The pavement had scraped the skin from his nose, his cheek, his palms, and I wanted to reach out and snatch up his hand and lick the sharp tarry bits out with my tongue.
“A little banged up.” He pulled his bicycle out of the road and for a few minutes occupied himself with spinning the wheels around, tweaking the saddle and the gears. Feeling for dents and nicks on the surface of the polished yellow carbon fiber. “Bike’s okay, I think. I don’t know if my insurance covers dodging wildlife in the road. I didn’t even know we had foxes around here.” I was not prepared for him to be more interested in the bicyclethat thing than in me, but I kept on tilting my head and fluffing my hair at him until he said he had to go home and get himself cleaned up for work—but he winced when he tried to get on the bike, and he winced when he tried to walk alongside it with his raw skinned hands on the handlebars.
“I’ll walk it home for you,” I said.
“Not going to steal it, are you?”
“Wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
“Sell it, for one. It’s worth—” He shook his head. “You don’t know how to ride a bike?”
“It wasn’t the kind of thing my family did.” We walked alongside one another with the bicycle sandwiched between us. The neighborhood had no sidewalks and he walked along the shoulder of the road, while I walked in the grass, stiff and unsteady in the shoes that I had scavenged from a bin behind the Payless.
“I’ll show you, if you promise not to take off with it. This weekend, maybe?”
“Sounds perfect,” I said.
“Can I get your number?”
For a solid minute I froze up, working it out in my head that he meant my phone number, that I didn’t have one to give him, that I was going to show myself to be the sort of extremely strange person who didn’t even have a phone number, that no matter what excuse I could come up with I had still stared into space for a minute when he asked me what my phone number was.
“I lost my phone at a party the other night,” I said finally.
He shrugged. “You know the park on Oleander? Next Sunday at ten?”
We parted in front of his house, which was brick and vinyl, half swallowed up by its garage and identical to every other house on his street except for the way the garbage smelled like him. I walked down the side of the road, and glanced back three times to make sure he had gone inside before I put on my fox skin again. I was thinking that I needed a phone. and a watch—or maybe you could get a phone that told you the time, too? I was thinking that he had to know there was something strange about me.
Foxes have our own arts and our own charms and the men or women we set our eyes on rarely understand how to resist. Bruce would have liked me regardless, I think; he liked the many things he had to explain to me. He liked when I lost the feeling of my human skin in his bed, and yapped and nipped and lapped his blood up with my tongue.
“You have to keep your voice down,” he said one night, a harsh whisper. “I’ve got the kids this weekend.”
It seemed like a long time before I met them—a young son and an older daughter, who his ex-wife brought to his house on alternate weekends. They didn’t like me. I was strange, too young. The daughter kept trying to catch me in a lie. When it was only us he didn’t mind my strangeness, and when he had left for work I put my skin back on and hunted voles and snuffled weeds, but with the children I had to feign being an ordinary woman. The lines I had learned from movies failed me, and the noises of the house—two televisions on at once, the blips and bleeps of text messages and Candy Crush—turned spiky in my ears.
That night I was too growly and snippy to be out in public. I told him to keep to the plan, to go out for Chinese food with the children, but he insisted on us doing something as a family, threw together a stir-fry out of freezer-burned vegetables and sauces that had been sitting in the refrigerator door “since Mom still lived here,” according to the girl.
“Amelia, put the cell phone away at the dinner table,” Bruce said. She hid her hands under the table. “Really away, or it goes in your room.”
She stuffed it in her pocket. “If I were home right now I’d be hanging out with my own friends.”
Bruce spooned out cubes of meat, peppers, green beans, all covered in a brown sauce that smelled strange and chemical.
“I don’t like green beans,” the boy, Hunter, announced.
“You gotta eat your vegetables, buddy.”
Bruce had put the pan in the sink to soak and sat down at the table with a beer. He took a long sip and shoveled up a mouthful of food with the grimness that only humans and cats have when forced to eat without enjoyment.
“Summer isn’t eating green beans,” Hunter said.
It was a name that I heard in a movie, and the longer I lived with it the more I hated the way it rang in my ears, making me feel silly and young.
“Summer is done growing tall.” Bruce shot me a look that I couldn’t read right away. His eyes were saying, don’t make trouble. Don’t make this hard. But the beans were soggy, gluey, glistening with slimy sauce. I was not an eater of vegetables to begin with and I kept pushing the vegetables around the plate as I pulled out the tough little bits of meat.
“Are you on paleo or something?” Amelia asked, raising an eyebrow. Hiding my hands under the table I typed “paleo” into the phone that Bruce had bought me.
Amelia snorted with a contempt that filled the dining room, that flooded the house. In an instant I was leaping up in my chair – lips pulled up over my bared teeth, forehead furrowed, a snarl building in my throat. I came back to myself then. I sat down and said I was sorry and ate every green bean on my plate. But Bruce understood what I was. Or he had understood before, and what he understood now was that he couldn’t ignore it.
Later that night he asked for my fox skin and I gave it to him.
A tongue prods at the place where a tooth has gone missing. A fingernail picks at the tough brittle part of a scab. With enough time, these things are forgotten. But my skin was a dull ache that ebbed sometimes and then returned, sharper, painful. I thought of seizing my skin and going home—thought also of the snickers of my siblings, the bored pity of the foxes who, once, might have thought me pretty.
There were times when I walked for three hours in the woods and wondered if I had been wrong, feeling the thrum of the movie-theater music in my chest and thinking about the beauties and the mysteries of the world of men. Maybe there were things I’d not yet discovered. Maybe I couldn’t give up until I’d seen them for myself. Or maybe I could wait until I had gorged myself on every human pleasure. The restaurant downtown where the crispy pork belly singed my mouth with spices. The roller coaster at Six Flags that I rode twice beside an embarrassed Amelia and once alone, almost forgetting myself and yipping with the thrill of the hard drops.
In summer an early hurricane swung up through the Atlantic, turned left, barreled toward us. The chyrons on the bottom of the television screen blinked Flash Flood Watch and then Flash Flood Warning, Crabtree Creek overflowing again like it did with every heavy rain and washing over the mall parking lots that had the misfortune to be built in the flood zone.
I flung a raincoat over my shoulders and headed out. The full strength of the storm had yet to hit; the animated logo on the television map hovered hours east of us. Still the wind blew stiff, tugged at the hems of my coat sleeves, battered my hair. The vinyl was clammy on my skin.
In the rain, in the red-clay mud, on my tall woman legs, I hardly knew how to find my way home. I wandered for half an hour until my mouth filled with a smell of mother and father and kits—and then there it was right in front of me. The deep puddles had just reached the mouth of the den, cunningly built to stay dry even through hard rains but not to withstand this weather that provoked words like “state of emergency,” “mandatory evacuation.” I was trying to find again my fox voice. It’s me, it’s me, it’s all right, come out.
I got down on hands and knees, felt palms and elbows sink into mud. The kits cowered, their bodies pressed against the back corner. I tried not to wince at the little needle-teeth and the kicking paws as I grabbed one, then two and three, by the scruff and pulled them out of their den, all of them yapping with the terror of being grabbed by a strange human and not an older sister or half-sister who might have been a stranger but still smelled of her own home den.
I had nearly got them tucked into my jacket, where they scrabbled and clawed at my chest, when Mother approached from my side, a low growl in her throat.
“It’s me,” I said, still trying to find my fox voice. “The creek is flooding.”
She looked at me coldly. She said a word I didn’t understand.
I put the kits down and drew back from the trees and brush to the side of the road. Behind me a car swished as it plowed through rainwater and splashed my calves. I meant to stay until I could be sure they’d gotten safely out of there, but as Mother trotted forward with the kits following, she kept looking back at me. I didn’t know if she meant to thank me or scold me or just protect her children from this bad-smelling intruder.
When I got home there were four inches of water in the garage. I stripped my muddy clothes off, thinking of a hot shower, but as I crossed the threshold from the garage to the kitchen I paused, hit with an unaccountable fear; and suddenly I was rummaging through the metal racks piled with paint cans and light bulbs and remnants of unfinished home improvement projects, until finally I found my own skin in a waterlogged cardboard box sealed with packing tape.
I held the fur in my fist and thought of fox kits in my hand, warm, squirming. This fur wasn’t like theirs. It was cold to the touch. I ran to the bathroom for a hair dryer, for warm clean water to clean away the mud that had already soaked through it. But my fingers, prodding fur and skin, found bare patches and brittle cracked in the seams where it had been folded, and places where mice had gnawed and moths had chewed.
It still fit over my body, though I could feel the tightness around my shoulders, around my breasts. But something had happened to the magic that had once bridged the space between my fox-self and my woman-self. I was only a human being sitting on a toilet, wearing a ragged wet fox skin draped over me.
Bruce nudged open the door some time later and saw me that way. Our eyes met but he said nothing.
The next day I got on a bus without knowing where I was going. I got to Memphis before Bruce gave me a call that I could come home if I wanted to come home but otherwise he was going to cancel my phone plan and the credit card I’d stolen from his wallet.
I got a job waiting tables at the diner near the bus station because they didn’t ask for my Social Security number. I still have all my fox charms and fox tricks, so the tips are good, and when they dry up I know how to pick a pocket. I like to watch the people who come in right after they step off the bus, wearing backpacks or rolling suitcases behind them, dazed with exhaustion or dreams or heartbreak.
Sometimes a woman comes in who I almost recognize, one who barely has her human voice, one who doesn’t yet understand the world of men. Running from something or running to something. I give them a menu greasy with fingerprints and a cup of milky coffee and sometimes, when I am feeling lucky, I speak a word or two in the language of foxes.
I think that one day I will hear an answer.
Emily Horner is the author of the novel A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend as well as short fiction in Pea River Journal, Quantum Muse, and elsewhere. She hails from Montreal and North Carolina and New York, but currently makes her home in Ames, Iowa, as a student at Iowa State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment. You can find her on twitter as @emhornerbooks.