A Fox Becoming - Chila Woychik

            As children, we used to sneak quarters and dimes and nickels out of Dad’s blue coin collection booklets, buy a pack of cigarettes for thirty-five cents at the little store around the corner (and tell them Dad sent us), then ride our bikes down to the cemetery in our small town, sit on a gravestone and smoke, careful to duck out of sight before the rare passing car spotted us. I must have been ten or twelve, my brother two years younger, both of us acting grown up and imitating Father who smoked, before he quit years later. We were sly, but our deviousness rarely went beyond that. I don’t think our parents ever found out about our smoking escapades. But of course, they’ll read this now and know what we did. Maybe ask for reparation for those stolen coins, with interest. We’re too old to punish with a time-out or by missing dessert. No, but what they’ll do is laugh over being so absorbed in living that they were oblivious to the fact that their children slipped away and engaged in such forbidden activity.
            Fox holes line the steep summer ditches of eastern Iowa, and at least one fox has been causing mischief. Five chickens lost in two weeks here where Subdued Nature meets its rougher cousin Wild. I can hear the mama fox telling her young ones in fox-speak: “Dinner’s up! And it’s chicken again!” I’m surprised I didn’t see the mounds of feathers earlier; three in a back pasture I rarely visit. But a pile of bright white feathers finally appeared where I could easily spot it from the house. When I went to investigate, the chickens were cackling loudly, and a few were dancing skittishly on top of a Jeep. Then I saw a long fluffy red tail disappear around a corner of the house. I followed it, lost it, and eventually saw the dirt mound ‒ its entrance across the road. It was covered with white feathers. I set up a lawn chair within easy viewing distance, and watched. Two kits came out of the hole and frolicked, their hunger satiated, their spirits buoyed. (Do foxes put barbeque sauce on their chicken?) I went back to the house and grabbed my camera, shot photos and short videos of the Vulpes vulpes family prancing around the burrow and in the farmyard beyond, in a wild and worshipful foxtrot to the god of happy fox tummies. Mama fox lay in the tall grass nearby. The rest of my flock now clucks behind sturdy concrete walls and wooden doors. And we’ve yet to figure out how to outfox a fox other than secure its prey inside a predator-proof enclosure.
            Clayton B. Seagers wrote in 1944, “The red fox is the best-loved and most hated, praised, berated, wisest, dumbest, smelliest, daintiest, thinnest, sleekest, most flea-bitten and most controversial creature ever to occupy the ardent attention of hound, hunter, trapper and hennery owner in this nation.” Add scheming, ingenious, and indomitable, and he has it about right. The male fox will conjoin with the female, then about two months later the vixen gives birth, and both parents do what we all do when survival is on the line for us or our family: find, struggle, supply.
            It’s been three full weeks. Like one of my favorite Far Side comic titles, my “chickens are restless.” The sprawling area cordoned off for them easily accommodates the dozen birds left, but what’s scratching around in thick pine bedding compared to fresh green grass, bugs, and a sun beating down on shiny feathers? The barn was made for sheep, once fed a hundred in its three rows of double-sided troughs. My farmer and I configured nearly a third of that into a chicken housing complex. Six nests on one side and nine on another. The roosting poles are long and staggered so each hen has room to spread out without feeling crowded by her neighbors. I added a tough netting to the top of the plywood walls to prevent animals from climbing over; even our two barn cats can’t manage to wrangle their way in. There are four nice-sized windows, a screen on the top half of the split wooden door, and thick airy netting on another side. It’s a paradise meant to protect fowl from all things cunning in heaven and earth, Horatio.
            So I spoke to a neighbor about foxes. “They’re even showing up in town,” she said, “in record numbers.” One ran along the road in front of her house about a week previous, she told me, then it ran back in the other direction. Shortly after, a smaller one half the size, a kit, she assumed, followed the same path. Another neighbor lost a few chickens in the same timeframe as mine. “Think they’ll leave anytime soon?” I asked her. “Can’t happen soon enough.”
            Canis Minor is a small star system in the northern night sky. It contains the seventh largest visible star, Procyon. The Greeks associated this constellation with their mythological Teumessian Fox, an animal eventually turned to stone by Zeus. The ancient Egyptians saw it as the jackal god, Anubis. Unlike its brighter, larger, and more obvious brother Canis Major, the small dog, the fox, is subtle and delusive, a little “dimmer.”
            I think about rivers here because the river outside my truck window is wild but tamed, held within boundaries. Unlike a river, a feral fox doesn’t follow the lays of the land, but goes where it pleases, takes what it wants. How do you put a boundary around a den that may stretch seventy-five feet and have several exits? How do you tell the fox, “No, no! Bad fox!” like you might a domesticated dog, and make it hear you, make it hang its head and feel at least a measure of shame at the scolding?
            To exist in this life, we’ll be caged by duty and hounded by disappointment. Corralled and tamed, or simply observed for suitability. Ultimately, we’re declared a disposable foe or cute friend, or maybe, if we’re lucky, a usable ally.
            I bring in handfuls of fresh green clover with its purple succulent blossoms every day my twelve fowl remain prisoners. It’s the least I can do. Feeding only grains and water to these chickens must feel like the bread and water treatment for the incarcerated of old. But these are good gals, laying green and brown eggs, tasty good, which I collect regularly. I’ve even supplied them with two large tubs of dirt from our own land, dirt they’re used to, to fluff in or peck at or scratch in. To search for bugs in. This isn’t punishment; I tell them; this is love; this is me keeping you safe. I’m not sure a chicken’s brain can comprehend that, but if a hen named Jokgu can peck out the basic notes of “America the Beautiful” on America’s Got Talent, then maybe they do.
            Every day isn’t like these perfect 70-degree hours lacking wind or rain or movement of any kind, any stirring from above or below. These days remind me of something just out of reach, something I long for. I think we’re born probing; we want answers; we crave a certain degree of shock, wires hooked to our heart and temples, close encounters with something perilous, something dimly lighting an evening sky, but not so bright as to blind. We try to drag the stars down, want to turn them over in our hands to discover their secrets, want to catch what will make us happy or fulfilled or just plain full, at least for a while. We seek what we need, want, even at the risk of losing something else, of pushing beyond boundaries, or worse, being caught and made to pay for our audacity. Calculating and slick is what we ultimately become to make life work.

Chila Woychik is originally from the beautiful land of Bavaria, was born in a flat above a chocolate haus, and speaks very little German but has inherited an intense love of fine chocolates. There’s nowhere she’d rather be than along an ignored hiking path or commingling with the wild and free in a rustic setting. And though a nature gal at heart, she can easily adapt to peopled settings and jam-packed venues; she “cleans up well.” Taking care of her one-use body, trying to demonstrate an unusually authentic love, and putting her efforts into bettering this globe – these are her waking moments and her prayers for the future.