The Innocent Fox
Only to a magician is the world forever fluid, infinitely mutable and eternally new. Only he knows the secret of change, only he knows truly that all things are crouched in eagerness to become something else, and it is from this universal tension that he draws his power.
-- Peter Beagle
Since man first saw an impossible visage staring upward from a still pool, he has been haunted by meanings -- meanings felt even in the wood, where the trees leaned over him, manifesting a vast and living presence. The image in the pool vanished at the touch of his finger, but he went home and created a legend. The great trees never spoke, but man knew that dryads slipped among their boles. Since the red morning of time it has been so, and the compulsive reading of such manuscripts will continue to occupy man's attention long after the books that contain his inmost thoughts have been sealed away by the indefatigable spider.
Some men are daylight readers, who peruse the ambiguous wording of clouds or the individual letter shapes of wandering birds. Some, like myself, are librarians of the night, whose ephemeral documents consist of root-inscribed bones or whatever rustles in thickets upon solitary walks. Man, for all his daylight activities, is, at best, an evening creature. Our very addiction to the day and our compulsion, manifest through the ages, to invent and use illuminating devices, to contest with midnight, to cast off sleep as we would death, suggest that we know more of the shadows than we are willing to recognize. We have come from the dark wood of the past, and our bodies carry the scars and unhealed wounds of that transition. Our minds are haunted by night terrors that arise from the subterranean domain of racial and private memories.
Lastly, we inhabit a spiritual twilight on this planet. It is perhaps the most poignant of an the deprivations to which man has been exposed by nature. I have said deprivation, but perhaps I should rather maintain that this feeling of loss is an unrealized anticipation. We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.
I am not the first man to have lost his way only to find, if not a gate, a mysterious hole in a hedge that a child would know at once led to some other dimension at the world's end. Such passageways exist, or man would not be here. Not for nothing did Santayana once contend that life is a movement from the forgotten into the unexpected.
As adults, we are preoccupied with living. As a consequence, we see little. At the approach of age some men look about them at last and discover the hole in the hedge leading to the unforeseen. By then, there is frequently no child companion to lead them safely through. After one or two experiences of getting impaled on thorns, the most persistent individual is apt to withdraw and to assert angrily that no such opening exists.
My experience has been quite the opposite, but I have been fortunate. After several unsuccessful but tantalizing trials, which I intend to disclose, I had the help, not of a child, but of a creature -- a creature who, appropriately, came out of a quite unremarkable and prosaic den. There was nothing, in retrospect, at an mysterious or unreal about him. Nevertheless, the creature was baffling, just as, I suppose, to animals, man himself is baffling.
An autumn midnight in 1967 caught me staring idly from my study window at the attic cupola of an old Victorian house that loomed far above a neighboring grove of trees. I suppose the episode happened just as I had grown dimly aware, amidst my encasing cocoon of books and papers, that something was missing from my life. This feeling had brought me from my desk to peer hopelessly upon the relentless advance of suburban housing. For years, I had not seen anything from that particular window that did not spell the death of something I loved.
Finally, in blundering, good-natured confidence, the last land tortoise had fallen a victim to the new expressway. None of his kind any longer came to replace him. A chipmunk that had held out valiantly in a drainpipe on the lawn had been forced to flee from the usurping rats that had come with the new supermarket. A parking lot now occupied most of the view from the window. I was a man trapped in the despair once alluded to as the utterly hopeless fear confined to moderns -- that no miracles can ever happen. I considered, as I tried to will myself away into the attic room far above the trees, the wisdom of a search, a search unlikely to yield tangible results.
Since boyhood I have been charmed by the unexpected and the beautiful. This was what had led me originally into science, but now I felt instinctively that something more was needed -- though what I needed verged on a miracle. As a scientist, I did not believe in miracles, though I willingly granted the word broad latitudes of definition.
My whole life had been unconsciously a search, and the search had not been restricted to the bones and stones of my visible profession. Moreover, my age could allow me folly; indeed, it demanded a boldness that the young frequently cannot afford. All I needed to do was to set forth either mentally or physically, but to where escaped me.
At that instant the high dormer window beyond the trees blazed as blue as a lightning flash. As I have remarked, it was midnight. There was no possibility of reflection from a street lamp. A giant bolt of artificial lightning was playing from a condenser, leaping at intervals across the interior of the black pane in the distance. It was the artificial lightning that only one of several engineers with unusual equipment could produce.
Now the old house was plebeian enough. Rooms were rented. People of modest middle-class means lived there, as I was to learn later. But still, in the midmost of the night, somebody or some group was engaged in that attic room upon a fantastic experiment. For, you see, I spied. I spied for nights in succession. I was bored, I was sleepless, and it pleased me to think that the mad scientists, as I came to call them, were engaged, in their hidden room, upon some remarkable and unheard-of adventure.
Why else would they be active at midnight, why else would they be engaged for a brief hour and then extinguish the spark? In the next few days I trained high-powered field glasses upon the window, but the blue bolt defeated me, as did the wavering of autumn boughs across the distant roof. I could only believe that science still possessed some of its old, mad fascination for a mind outside the professional circle of the great laboratories. Perhaps, I thought eagerly, there was a fresh intelligence groping after some secret beyond pure technology. I thought of the dreams of Emerson and others when evolution was first anticipated but its mechanisms remained a mystery entangled with the first galvanic batteries. Night after night, while the leaves thinned and the bolt leaped at its appointed hour, I dreamed, staring from my window, of that coruscating arc revivifying flesh or leaping sentient beyond it into some unguessed state of being. Only for such purposes, I thought, would a man toil in an attic room at midnight.
I began unconsciously to hang more and more upon that work of which, in reality, I knew nothing. It sustained me in my waking hours when the old house, amidst its yellowing leaves, assumed a sleepy and inconsequential air. For me, it had restored wonder and lifted my dreams to the height they had once had when, as a young student, I had peeped through the glass door of a famous experimenter's laboratory. I no longer read. I sat in the darkened study and watched and waited for the unforeseen. It came in a way I had not expected.
One night the window remained dark. My powerful glasses revealed only birds flying across the face of the moon. A bat fluttered about the tessellated chimney. A few remaining leaves fell into the dark below the roofs.
I waited expectantly for the experiment to be resumed. It was not. The next night it rained violently. The window did not glow. Leaves yellowed the wet walks below the street lamps. It was the same the next night and the next. The episode, I came to feel, peering ruefully from my window, was altogether too much like science itself -- science with its lightning bolts, its bubbling retorts, its elusive promises of perfection. All too frequently the dream ended in a downpour of rain and leaves upon wet walks. The men involved had a way, like my mysterious neighbors, of vanishing silently and leaving, if anything at all, corroding bits of metal out of which no one could make sense.
I had once stood in a graveyard that was a great fallen city. It was not hard to imagine another. After watching fruitlessly at intervals until winter was imminent, I promised myself a journey. After all, there was nothing to explain my disappointment. I had not known for what I was searching.
Or perhaps I did know, secretly, and would not admit it to myself: I wanted a miracle. Miracles, by definition, are without continuity, and perhaps my rooftop scientist had nudged me in that direction by the uncertainty of his departure. The only thing that characterizes a miracle, to my mind, is its sudden appearance and disappearance within the natural order, although, strangely, this loose definition would include each individual person. Miracles, in fact, momentarily dissolve the natural order or place themselves in opposition to it. My first experience had been only a tantalizing expectation, a hint that I must look elsewhere than in retorts or coiled wire, however formidable the powers that could be coerced to inhabit them. There was magic, but it was an autumnal, sad magic. I had a growing feeling that miracles were particularly concerned with life, with the animal aspect of things.
Just at this time, and with my thoughts in a receptive mood, a summons came that made it necessary for me to make a long night drive over poor roads through a dense forest. As a subjective experience, which it turned out to be, I would call it a near approach to what I was seeking. There was no doubt I was working further toward the heart of the problem. The common man thinks a miracle can just be "seen" to be reported. Quite the contrary. One has to be, I was discovering, reasonably sophisticated even to perceive the miraculous. It takes experience; otherwise, more miracles would be encountered.
One has, in short, to refine one's perceptions. Lightning bolts observed in attics, I now knew, were simply raw material, a lurking extravagant potential in the cosmos. In themselves, they were merely powers summoned up and released by the human mind. Wishing would never make them anything else and might make them worse. Nuclear fission was a ready example. No, a miracle was definitely something else, but that I would have to discover in my own good time.
Preoccupied with such thoughts, I started my journey of descent through the mountains. For a long time I was alone. I followed a road of unexpectedly twisting curves and abrupt descents. I bumped over ruts, where I occasionally caught the earthly starshine of eyes under leaves. Or I plunged at intervals into an impenetrable gloom buttressed by the trunks of huge pines.
After hours of arduous concentration and the sudden crimping of the wheel, my eyes were playing tricks with me. It was time to stop, but I could not afford to stop. I shook my head to clear it and blundered on. For a long time, in this confined glen among the mountains, I had been dimly aware that something beyond the reach of my headlights, but at times momentarily caught in their flicker, was accompanying me.
Whatever the creature might be, it was amazingly fleet. I never really saw its true outline. It seemed, at times, to my weary and much-rubbed eyes, to be running upright like a man, or, again, its color appeared to shift in a multiform illusion. Sometimes it seemed to be bounding forward. Sometimes it seemed to present a face to me and dance backward. From weary consciousness of an animal I grew slowly aware that the being caught momentarily in my flickering headlights was as much a shapeshifter as the wolf in a folk tale. It was not an animal; it was a gliding, leaping mythology. I felt the skin crawl on the back of my neck, for this was still the forest of the windigo and the floating heads commemorated so vividly in the masks of the Iroquois. I was lost, but I understood the forest. The blood that ran in me was not urban. I almost said not human. It had come from other times and a far place.
I slowed the car and silently fought to contain the horror that even animals feel before the disruption of the natural order. But was there a natural order? As I coaxed my lights to a fuller blaze I suddenly realized the absurdity of the question. Why should life tremble before the unexpected if it had not already anticipated the answer? There was no order. Or, better, what order there might be was far wilder and more formidable than that conjured up by human effort.
It did not help in the least to make out finally that the creature who had assigned himself to me was an absurdly spotted dog of dubious affinities -- nor did it help that his coat had the curious properties generally attributable to a magician. For how, after all, could I assert with surety what shape this dog had originally possessed a half-mile down the road? There was no way of securing his word for it.
The dog was, in actuality, an illusory succession of forms finally, but momentarily, frozen into the shape "dog" by me. A word, no more. But as it turned away into the night how was I to know it would remain "dog"? By experience? No, it had been picked by me out of a running weave of colors and faces into which it would lapse once more as it bounded silently into the inhuman, unpopulated wood. We deceive ourselves if we think our self-drawn categories exist there. The dog would simply become once more an endless running series of forms, which would not, the instant I might vanish, any longer know themselves as "dog."
By a mental effort peculiar to man, I had wrenched a leaping phantom into the flesh "dog," but the shape could not be held, neither his nor my own. We were contradictions and unreal. A nerve net and the lens of an eye had created us. Like the dog, I was destined to leap away at last into the unknown wood. My flesh, my own seemingly unique individuality, was already slipping like flying mist, like the colors of the dog, away from the little parcel of my bones. If there was order in us, it was the order of change. I started the car again, but I drove on chastened and unsure. Somewhere something was running and changing in the haunted wood. I knew no more than that. In a similar way, my mind was leaping and also changing as it sped. That was how the true miracle, my own miracle, came to me in its own time and fashion.
The episode occurred upon an unengaging and unfrequented shore. It began in the late afternoon of a day devoted at the start to ordinary scientific purposes. There was the broken prow of a beached boat subsiding in heavy sand, left by the whim of ancient currents a long way distant from the shifting coast. Somewhere on the horizon wavered the tenuous outlines of a misplaced building, growing increasingly insubstantial in the autumn light.
After my companions had taken their photographs and departed, their persistent voices were immediately seized upon and absorbed by the extending immensity of an incoming fog. The fog trailed in wisps over the upthrust ribs of the boat. For a time I could see it fingering the tracks of some small animal, as though engaged in a belated dialogue with the creature's mind. The tracks crisscrossed a dune, and there the fog hesitated, as though puzzled. Finally, it approached and enwrapped me, as though to peer into my face. I was not frightened, but I also realized with a slight shock that I was not intended immediately to leave.
I sat down then and rested with my back against the overturned boat. All around me the stillness intensified and the wandering tendrils of the fog continued their search. Nothing escaped them.
The broken cup of a wild bird's egg was touched tentatively, as if with meaning, for the first time. I saw a sand-colored ghost crab, hitherto hidden and immobile, begin to sidle amidst the beach grass as though imbued suddenly with a will derived ultimately from the fog. A gull passed high overhead, but its cry took on the plaint of something other than itself.
I began dimly to remember a primitive dialogue as to whether God is a mist or merely a mist maker. Since a great deal of my thought has been spent amidst such early human and, to my mind, not outworn speculations, the idea did not seem particularly irrational or blasphemous. How else would so great a being, assuming his existence, be able thoroughly to investigate his world, or, perhaps, merely a world that he had come upon, than as he was now proceeding to do?
I closed my eyes and let the tiny diffused droplets of the fog gently palpate my face. At the same time, by some unexplained affinity, I felt my mind drawn inland, to pour, smoking and gigantic as the fog itself, through the gorges of a neighboring mountain range.
In a little shaft of falling light my consciousness swirled dimly over the tombstones of a fallen cemetery. Something within me touched half-obliterated names and dates before sliding imperceptibly onward toward an errand in the city. That errand, whatever its purpose, perhaps because I was mercifully guided away from the future, was denied me.
As suddenly as I had been dispersed I found myself back among the boat timbers and the broken shell of something that had not achieved existence. "I am the thing that lives in the midst of the bones" -- a line from the dead poet Charles Williams persisted obstinately in my head. It was true. I was merely condensed from that greater fog to a smaller congelation of droplets. Vague and smoky wisplets of thought were my extensions.
From a rack of bone no more substantial than the broken boat ribs on the beach, I was moving like that larger, all-investigating fog through the doorways of the past. Somewhere far away in an inland city the fog was transformed into a blizzard. Nineteen twenty-nine was a meaningless date that whipped by upon a flying newspaper. The blizzard was beating upon a great gate marked St. Elizabeth's. I was no longer the blizzard. I was hurrying, a small dark shadow, up a stairway beyond which came a labored and importunate breathing.
The man lay back among the pillows, wracked, yellow, and cadaverous. Though I was his son he knew me only as one lamp is briefly lit from another in the windy night. He was beyond speech, but a question was there, occupying the dying mind, excluding the living, something before which all remaining thought had to be mustered. At the time I was too young to understand. Only now could the hurrying shadow drawn from the wrecked boat interpret and relive the question. The starving figure on the bed was held back from death only by a magnificent heart that would not die.
I, the insubstantial substance of memory, the dispersed droplets of the ranging fog, saw the man lift his hands for the last time. Strangely, in all that ravished body, they alone had remained unchanged. They were strong hands, the hands of a craftsman who had played many roles in his life: actor, laborer, professional runner. They were the hands of a man, indirectly of all men, for such had been the nature of his life. Now, in a last lucid moment, he had lifted them up and, curiously, as though they belonged to another being, he had turned and flexed them, gazed upon them unbelievingly, and dropped them once more.
He, too, the shadow, the mist in the gaping bones, had seen these seemingly untouched deathless instruments rally as though with one last purpose before the demanding will. And I, also a shadow, come back across forty years, could hear the question at last. "Why are you, my hands, so separate from me at death, yet still to be commanded? Why have you served me, you who are alive and ingeniously clever?" For here he turned and contemplated them with his old superb steadiness. "What has been our partnership, for I, the shadow, am going, yet you of all of me are alive and persist?"
I could have sworn that his last thought was not of himself but of the fate of the instruments. He was outside, he was trying to look into the secret purposes of things, and the hands, the masterful hands, were the only purpose remaining, while he, increasingly without center, was vanishing. It was the hands that contained his last conscious act. They had been formidable in life. In death they had become strangers who had denied their master's last question.
Suddenly I was back under the overhang of the foundered boat. I had sat there stiff with cold for many hours. I was no longer the extension of a blizzard beating against immovable gates. The year of the locusts was done. It was, instead, the year of the mist maker that some obscure Macusi witch doctor had chosen to call god. But the mist maker had gone over the long-abandoned beach, touching for his inscrutable purposes only the broken shell of the nonexistent, only the tracks of a wayward fox, only a man who, serving the mist maker, could be made to stream wispily through the interstices of time.
I was a biologist, but I chose not to examine my hands. The fog and the night were lifting. I had been far away for hours. Crouched in my heavy sheepskin I waited without thought as the witch doctor might have waited for the morning dispersion of his god. Finally, the dawn began to touch the sea, and then the worn timbers of the hulk beside which I sheltered reddened just a little. It was then I began to glimpse the world from a different perspective.
I had watched for nights the great bolts leaping across the pane of an attic window, the bolts Emerson had dreamed in the first scientific days might be the force that hurled reptile into mammal. I had watched at midnight the mad scientists intent upon their own creation. But in the end, those fantastic flashes of the lightning had ceased without issue, at least for me. The pane, the inscrutable pane, had darkened at last; the scientists, if scientists they were, had departed, carrying their secret with them. I sighed, remembering. It was then I saw the miracle. I saw it because I was hunched at ground level smelling rank of fox, and no longer gazing with upright human arrogance upon the things of this world.
I did not realize at first what it was that I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face looked shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in a gull's cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parent must not have been home from hunting.
He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at me invitingly. There was a vast and playful humor in his face. "If there was only one fox in the world and I could kill him, I would do." The words of a British poacher in a pub rasped in my ears. I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.
Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion around to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for the careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox's den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of the bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.
But I had seen my miracle. I had seen the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child's universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the nearest ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would be already trotting home.
A little farther on, I passed one on a ridge who knew well I had no gun, for it swung by quite close, stepping delicately with brush and head held high. Its face was watchful but averted. It did not matter. It was what I had experienced and the fox had experienced, what we had all experienced in adulthood. We passed carefully on our separate ways into the morning, eyes not meeting.
But to me the mist had come, and the mere chance of two lifted sunlit ears at morning. I knew at last why the man on the bed had smiled finally before he dropped his hands. He, too, had worked around to the front of things in his death agony. The hands were playthings and had to be cast aside at last like a little cherished toy. There was a meaning and there was not a meaning, and therein lay the agony.
The meaning was all in the beginning, as though time was awry. It was a little beautiful meaning that did not stay, and the sixty-year-old man on the hospital bed had traveled briefly toward it through the dark at the end of the universe. There was something in the desperate nature of the world that had to be reversed, but he had been too weak to tel1 me, and the hands had dropped helplessly away.
After forty years I had been just his own age when the fog had come groping for my face. I think I can safely put it down that I had been allowed my miracle. It was very smal1,as is the way of great things. I had been permitted to correct time's arrow for a space of perhaps five minutes -- and that is a boon not granted to al1men. If I were to render a report upon this episode, I would say that men must find a way to run the arrow backward. Doubtless it is impossible in the physical world, but in the memory and the will man might achieve the deed if he would try.
For just a moment I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It is the gravest, most meaningful act I shal1 ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own, there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.