St. Ex's Boa

For 13 consecutive days the fox arrived at my house no more than one minute after the sun capped the west hill, lay down in a spot of dirt between the powdery blue bunchgrasses, tucked the tip of his tail under his chin, squinted his eyes, and pretended to sleep. I sat on a camp chair with stiff spikes of bunchgrass poking into the canvas, opened a book, and pretended to read. Nothing but two meters and one spindly flax plant between us. 

 

###

    Having slept since midmorning in the shade of his favorite boulder, the fox woke to the heat of the sun sinking into the western sky. He uncurled and rose, pointed his butt skyward and his nose windward, and stretched his neck along a foreleg that was naked as a newborn mouse.

The fur wasn't actually gone, just misdirected. Turning tailward, he discovered his fur blowing flat back leaving the hide on the front of his legs exposed but warm. 

    He heard the scraping sound of a mouse’s footpads on the gravelly soil, coming closer and closer and closer….And then a wind whip cracked the dried grasses and wiped out the sound track. Weasel pee! And the day just starting.

    Below, on Alfalfa Flat, the wind was not blowing. Grasses rippled above a morass of mice and partridge rolled along the hedgerows. But not for him. The flat belonged to his mother and she permitted only her mate and freshly weaned kits. Her permissions, however, rarely stalled the fox's plans, not now that he was a yearling with agility enough to test her vigilance. In fact, trespassing forays frequently topped the fox's agenda. 

    Today he planned to keep far above his mother’s den and visit the house with the shiny blue roof. Not far below his own den, the roof appeared to sit not on top of the house but directly on the ground with sagebrush and juniper spilling over its north and south flanks. It looked much like his own den; both homes burrowed into the same hillside, exposed themselves to the setting sun, hid from the cold north wind, and faced the eastern mountains.

    He was heading across the windy ridge to pick up a trail to the house when he spied a gigantic cloud cruising toward a collision with the round hill. He wouldn’t pass up fair price for a good show so he crouched between a couple of chin high cactus blades and nearly stopped breathing to keep the spines from poking his chest. When the cloud hit the summit, it burst open and flew into pieces. On plan!

    He hurried to the dry channel and jumped in. It was a challenging route to the house, but the one he preferred when he wasn't on a covert mission. Thick clumps of dry grasses shouted at him, their stalks weeping under the weight of dry seed heads. Partway down and heavy with seed matted fur, he rubbed against a small rose bush to remove the seeds—long and thin as fish bones—before they twisted into his hide. Now lighter, he skipped down the draw tilting side to side like the great flat wings of the white-headed eagle.

    Cactuses, wind whips, fishbone seeds: these were not optimal digs. The Alfalfa Flat Foxes were probably half-asleep on their green field, mouths open, waiting for some errant mice to run blindly across the short soft grasses and impale themselves on undeserving canines. Those were optimal digs. Well, they would be if you were one of those foxes whose only purpose in life was commanding a hunting ground with a high density of dopey mice.

 

# # #

    Fox curled up in the shade of the house and flattened down like a rug, two meters and that one flax plant between us. I stuffed my backcountry Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad into a canvas cover and converted it into a chair by snapping clips on the top edges of each side into the corresponding clips on the bottom edges. But the pad had spent hundreds of nights in the wilderness and like a racehorse retired to a riding saddle, was bucking domestication. No matter how I threw it down, it landed on the most distressing piece of ground. That pad had spent hundreds of nights in the wilderness, and now, a racehorse retired to a riding saddle, ill suited for domestication; no matter how I threw it down, it landed on the most distressing piece of ground. Fox waited motionless on his smooth spot while I rumbled around on the soft, spineless chair that left me off balance and rocking. "The Little Prince" I said opening a waxy covered paperback, "by Antoine St. Exupéry."        

    Fox and I had zigzagged along for months before arriving at our current level of comfort. I had not ever bothered to map out our exact route, but a reconnoitering was on the horizon, and in wild open country, the horizon is hard to avoid. "The little prince wants a sheep. He asks St. Ex to draw him one. St. Ex obliges because… it’s about graciousness, Fox. St. Ex holds the higher position and that’s how it goes.” I had fallen into a pattern of reading or talking to Fox, and then looking at him in silence for fifteen seconds. I meant for the fifteen second pause to simulate that it was his turn to speak.
    "T.L.P. didn't like any of the sheep drawings, so St. Ex handed him a drawing of a box and told him a sheep was inside." I extended my arm out to the fox, fingers spread wide open. “It worked. The invisible boxed sheep was what TLP wanted." The other arm extended, palm up, "All along, Fox, a sheep in a box." Then it was his turn for a 15 count. 

    People buy, cage, license, and leash all kinds of animals. The animals live in boxes like TLP's sheep. Whoever holds the box imposes his own imagination on the characteristics of the confined animal. He can humanize or dehumanize his boxed animal depending on his own discretion or indiscretion. 

    "Boxed sheep live down valley. Yes, I know you are familiar with sheep. Up valley, mountain sheep, unboxed."

    Fox turned his head, lifted his nose, poked a bubble gum pink tongue out of wide yawn. I pulled a clump of wheatgrass with one bare hand. The stalks split and splintered into my palm. We had almost reached his average sitting time of 18 minutes.

    

    Would you listen attentively for 18 minutes while a duck quacked? A cow mooed? A dog barked? Those feelings are mutual. We animals recognize distinct vocal signals from our own species, and relegate the sounds of other species to background noise. Mostly they hear 'blah blah blah' and we hear 'quack quack quack'

    Mostly. Even before meeting the fox, I suspected that theory did not apply to red foxes. Not to all of them anyway. Dr. Dmitri Belyaev, a Russian scientist, spent 50 years taming red foxes to respond to human voice commands. His experiments implied that foxes, like dogs, distinguished discrete human sounds and could identify, for example, the differences between zzzz, mmm, shhh, and so on. If Balyaev was correct, then Fox heard words but did not understand them. Like me at an opera.

    The unboxed fox and I were still reading when the landline interrupted. I planned to ignore it, but my caller's limitless patience and my inability to master either a cell phone or an answering machine foiled me. I picked up the downstairs phone and left the door open so I could keep an eye on the fox. Verna, my supervisor from the local college, wanted to review details about my upcoming wildlife class. I had never before walked away from the fox; our times together always ended by his choosing. And there he sat seven meters away, beyond the possibility of eye contact, beyond visiting distance in any culture, pulling his blue flower forward with one paw, rubbing his nose back and forth across the captive stalk. When he released the fading inflorescence, he scanned the ground for an insect to menace.

    I turned the handset into my shoulder, talked to Fox, took two steps towards the door, and pulled the phone off the table. One foot surfed on a piece of the shattered phone, the other foot caught a loop of the ten meter phone cord. I ended up on my butt with one leg lassoed into the air. A cloud of unsavory insects flew in through the open door and considered my contorted body. The fox took only a momentary glance at me before twisting his head around to see if anything more interesting was happening on his butt.     

    "Verna?"    
    "Who were you talking to? I didn't know you had a pet."

    "It's just me. How many students do I have?"

    "Didn't I just tell you that? Thirty-two. So, you have a pet."

    "I do not. I am here alone. You know I mutter and talk to myself."

    "Oh yes, I know you do both of those things. And, when you talk to yourself, you do not mutter."

    But how much better a professor who mutters then one who talks to foxes?

    By the time the call ended and I had disentangled from the phone cord, Fox was mousing. A proficient hunter, his stomach could not accommodate all the prey he amassed, so he scattered caches about, thoughtfully including the area around my camp chair. Besides the obvious problem with sitting on dead mice, there was hanta virus to consider; field mice are common carriers. A week after Fox decided to become a regular visitor, I built a cobblestone wall to delineate a mouse free zone (MFZ) around my sitting area. I planned the MFZ as an area free from the burial of mutilated, flat dead, stinking mice, and more importantly, (at least in my presence), their exhumation.

    Fox had different plans. The day after I completed the project, I caught him burying a carcass inside the MFZ. I pointed to the Lilliputian cobblestone wall and explained that mummified rodents were not copacetic. Then I discussed the meaning of 'copacetic.' Sensing that I was not saying anything entertaining, he translated it as ‘blah blah blah.’ Although the little wall did not change the fox’s behavior, it did on one occasion mitigate the onus of harboring a fox.

    "There's a putrid rodent festering on your walkway here." The UPS driver handed me my monthly office supplies. 

    "Another mouse? Geez. Some animal…," I shook my head and looked down at my bare toes curling up at me, "It has been happening for a while." I looked straight at the driver, "maybe ahhh…skunk?"

    "Oh, no it's fox. Nothing but fox." He kicked the ground and a puff of dried clay exploded onto his cordovan dress shoe. "Tear up the place up and stink. I sure wouldn't allow any fox on my place."

    Without waiting for him to finish shaking his head, I pointed to the cobblestone wall. The U.S. Postal Service did not deliver mail to my isolated home, and the nearest Post Office was seven miles away. “I do not allow him. It. Allow whatever it is. I don't.” 

    Next morning I was making plans. For the fifteenth consecutive day, the fox would arrive at my house at 4:15 p.m., lie down in a spot of dirt between the powdery blue bunchgrasses, tuck the tip of his tail under his chin, squint his eyes, and pretend to sleep. I would sit on a camp chair with stiff spikes of bunchgrass poking the canvas, open a book, and pretend to read. Clearly, we had earned a celebration. Those two weeks of reading rendezvous—six months in fox time—had not come to us easily. Mutual espionage had devoured hours of our time. Interspersed with all that spying, we had run through an obstacle course of sundry and haphazard events, either inevitable (sometimes misunderstood), fortuitous (sometimes ignored), or planned (sometimes failed). But how to celebrate?

    I decided to ditch him.

    It cost more than I had already paid—the privilege of consorting with a fox. People whose social circle included wild animals were accused of anthropomorphism, which meant imagining that animals had qualities only humans should have, which meant figuratively or literally turning animals into people. In other words, humanizing animals. By 'animals', I mean the unboxed kind. It is common to humanize domesticated animals and pets, whether they are horses, hawks, or leashed skunks. What folks feared was the image of real wild animals acting like people. 

    The reverse image was feared even more so.

    You didn't need much imagination to see that society had bulldozed a gorge between humans and wild animals. Maybe they built it to protect us from being assaulted by alliteratively named mice wearing baggy white gloves and singing off key while tapping shiny bulbous shoes. Still, it was far too wide and deep. You might as well have worn Christopher Robin shorts with white bobby socks and black Mary Janes as been accused of anthropomorphizing. No one but Winnie the Pooh would associate with you. I would not encourage anyone to suffer such humiliation, but instead to remain on his own side of the gorge. As for me, I was bushed from crossing over and climbing out of that gorge so many times. 

    I spilled coffee grounds from a red can into a pot of boiling water, clipped on a backpacker's pan handle, flicked it under the cold tap, decanted cowboy coffee into my stout glass mug, decided the fox might not return anyway. I opened the door of the fridge, "I've mistaken a coincidence for a commitment, haven't I?" 

    The refrigerator had not food or wisdom. I unchocked the two-door hatchback and headed to town with a list of groceries and enough chores to keep me busy until dark. Town was 30 miles down valley and I had to drive with my blue southern sky behind me. Ahead, black bottomed clouds with white faces chased each other into the eastern mountains. Below, in the revolving shade, Angus cattle, lambing ewes, and rough horses conspired to render each passing mile as indistinguishable as the preceding. I tracked my location counting bends in the snaky river, my time watching the clouds shift, my fortune spotting golden eagles. Seven was my record; four earned a journal entry.

    That day, busted loose from the fox conclave, returned to my mercurial habits, I drove too fast to census eagles. Imagine: a straight open road with no potholes and not another rig in sight. I straddled the centerline to correct the bevel towards the borrow pit and accelerated into triple digits. Never mind the adjective, I was mercury itself: quicksilver, Hg, hydro gyros, living silver, ore of cinnabar, resistant to herding, incapable of assuming a fixed form. The steering wheel vibrated in agreement.    

 

    A couple of firm white mushrooms in one hand, one of those slippery plastic sacks in the other, my inside wrist exposed. The Timex read forty-five minutes shy of 4:15 p.m. I shook the bag several times, but it refused to open, so I jammed it between some oranges and rolled off towards the registers.

    While calculating the time needed to drive the thirty three miles home through a gantlet of white tailed deer along a two-lane road, I somehow ended up in the empty Express Lane with forty-three items not two seconds before a cowboy rolled in behind me. The clerk looked at me, smiled, observed my full cart, raised her eyebrows, said nothing. She was supposed to ask if I had found everything I was looking for; she wanted to ask whether I couldn't count to eight. 

    "Yes. Thank you," I answered the former unasked question, "but I regret abandoning some mushrooms at the last minute."

    Eyebrows dropped. Eyes rolled.

    I pulled a wallet out of my back pocket. "Shame about the mushrooms," I said, flipping through the cash. Then I turned to the cowboy and noticed he was about 110 years old.
    “Goodness. Just a little bunch of bananas.” I bent over his cart and peered inside hoping to find another couple dozen items stashed away. Nothing. Just bananas. “Didn’t even need a cart for that did you?”
    “Needed something to hold me up,” he replied, “while waiting.”

    Waiting? My first face-to-face interactions with people in almost a month shut down because of a single word: waiting. I may have left my change on the counter. I had an uninvited guest on his way to my house. Uninvited guests could not be kept waiting. In this way they were quite unlike invited guests whose entitlement led them to overlook their host’s temporary tardiness. Invited guests would let themselves in, call ‘yoo-hoo!’ and without waiting to see if ‘yoo’ was even home, saunter up to the fridge, and grab a drink. But uninvited guests were fragile and needed to be greeted punctually to minimize the discomfort inherent in their ambiguous status. Most problematic was the uninvited guest who knew he was expected.

    Unless I were home in 40 minutes, a red fox would trot his reasonable expectation of commitment down to my house, scratch the dirt, sniff the air, feign preoccupation, and expend his tiny reserves of patience and humility. Then he would slip away in a dreadful sulk. This could not be explained to a 110 year old man falling into a five banana cart, but it was true nonetheless.

 

    As I pulled into the garage, the resident golden eagle launched itself above the fox's trail. Leaving the groceries in the cargo cooler, I ran upstairs, leaned onto the window ledge and searched for the fox. When the tip of his tail breached the wheatgrasses, I led him with binoculars as though he were a grouse in my shotgun scope. His tail bobbed brazenly down the fall line. My college textbook claimed that animals possessed 'predator defenses' and would elude their natural enemies. That may be true for a generic fox, but this specific fox was not eluding the golden eagle; he was bounding down the hill to the tune of the William Tell overture.  

    Then I remembered that in my rush to watch for him I had left the garage door open. One of my tenants, a black widow spider, would be gathering up her web from the garage doorsill and high stepping it over to the interior near the light switch. If that happened (and depending upon how fast I could find an old sneaker), she would meet the same fate as her seven wind-averse and widowed sisters. I would not hesitate but she was the last of my charismatic spiders.

    When the eagle telescoped into a dark speck in the lightest part of the sky, I went down to settle my spider. The activated garage door roared, the spider clung to her billowing plumes, and I glimpsed the west end of an eastbound fox.

 

# # #

    Across the draw from the fox den and facing the river, there sat a chubby hill upon which lay, like an elegant pillbox hat, a black vertical cliff with a sassy tilt to the north. From a silver colored pleat in the middle of the hat, a golden eagle rose from its nest and began its afternoon hunt. Hundreds of feet below, a fox started its daily journey down the draw. Just as it reached a blue roof house, the fox turned sharply and ran along the only clear path to the river, a dirt road adjacent to a rivulet lined with cottonwoods. On one side of the rivulet, an alfalfa field as green and neat as a pheasant's neckband, on the other, hummocks as mottled and messy as a pheasant's tail. Across the river, fields bounced into hills, hills rose into forests, forests slid off steep cliffs, cliffs tucked underneath snowcaps. Rows of mountain ridges stretched endlessly beyond the snowcaps. Where the mountains ended, if they ended at all, the eagle could not say. The muddy river itself tumbled wide and plain, drowning last autumn's braided channels, spits, and gravel shoals. Not even a moose would try to cross now. A fox? Never.    

    Later, two animals appeared outside the blue roof house. The eagle quartered low over its potential prey: a fox moving west towards the sagebrush hills; a person moving east toward the river. Quartering lower still the eagle decided they were not moving separate directions, they were walking—the two animals—towards each other.

 

# # #

    The fox trotted back from the river along a trail that swung below my house. He could have either stayed the course and avoided me altogether, or broke trail and marched uphill to meet me at the rendezvous site. I had been on the lookout and as soon as he came into view, I walked directly towards him, stubbing my toes on mud-mired rocks the size of melons, stepping into the skunk pit and through the pea thicket. Clover vines clawed at my burr covered shoelaces. He stopped and watched from about nine meters away. Had I wandered around obstacles instead of through them, turned my gaze toward the singing meadowlark, or stooped to pull a weed, he would not understand that he was expected. When I reached the end of my meadow, I wrapped my arms around my chest, dropped and tucked into my thighs and waited for him to start towards the rendezvous site.

    

    He curled up in the shade of the house with two meters and one little flax plant between us. I continued reading The Little Prince out loud from where we had left off the day before. After a few minutes, I held up the open book and showed Fox the picture of the prince with hair as blond and spiky as an antelope fawn. Then I began summarizing. “The little prince lives on an asteroid―it's a miniature planet. The planet has one flower―a rose―very vain. TLP loves the rose." My throat, prone to laryngitis, tightened against the hot, dry wind.  

    "The rose was demanding. She could be swollen up with water," I held up an imaginary beach ball, "and still, she would make the prince fetch more water." I tossed the beach ball over Fox's head and reached for the glass of ice tea sweating next to me. As the glass moved toward my lips, the fox's eyes followed. When he twitched and startled, I set the tea down without drinking. "He polished her single thorn just to appease her vanity.”

    Fox winked and stared intermittently. I coughed, stared back while counting to fifteen including the "one thousand" pauses in the middle, coughed again. “I know what you are thinking, Fox, the rose is not in love with the prince. She is wasting his time.”

    Fox sat up and cocked his head in the classic pose of canine inquisitiveness. This encouraged me to continue summarizing. I pointed to the single flowered blue flax and explained that a rose, like a flax, was a plant: a small, sessile, autotroph with a short life span and limited emotive capabilities.  

    “This obviates the question about whether the rose is really in love, Fox.”    

    I paused and counted. No sign that he found that last comment flippant, so I continued recapping the plot. “TLP propelled off his planet, traveled all over the universe, ended up on Earth, and wandered through the Sahara." I told Fox that the prince stumbled upon the delusional St. Exupéry who was trying to patch a broken airplane and a relationship with a woman he had left behind. "The woman, like the rose, was spoiled and vain.”    

    At the time I was reading to Fox, there were 50 million copies of The Little Prince in circulation. You could read it in 160 languages. The book’s author, Antoine St. Exupéry, a pioneer in the field of aviation, wrote Night Flight, winner of the French Grand Prize in Literature, and Wind, Sand, and Stars, at that time considered the world’s third best adventure book by the National Geographic Society. During St. Ex’s heyday—the 1930s and 40s—he would be welcomed by all the world's rich and cultured elite.
    But he preferred places where he was not welcomed. The Sahara, for example. St. Ex could do without Civilization, and maintained a desultory relationship with it all his life. Despite having access to the world’s most sophisticated people, he preferred talking to baobab trees, roses, foxes, and God. 

    You mean he talked to himself? 

    No. I mean he talked to baobab trees, roses, foxes, and God. I imagine he also talked to himself. He socialized with people, plants, and wild animals who were unashamed or unaware of their unconventional appearance: lopsided haircuts, wilted leaves, rumpled trousers, mouse tails stuck on their upper lips. St. Ex didn’t give a cat’s ass about social facades. He liked being around people who were not afraid to play back their childhood imagination. He vetted potential companions by showing them a copy of a child's drawing, a beast in situ, and asking them to identify it. Everyone quickly and confidently identified the beast—as a hat.

    No one but the little prince correctly identified St. Ex's drawing. The ‘hat’ turned out to be a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. The little prince was an extraterrestrial. In other words, St. Ex, French war hero and fearless explorer of the Sahara, had imaginary friends.
    In 1935, St. Ex’s single engine plane exploded over the Sahara, and he leapt from the cockpit. Able to walk, but without communication, food, or water, he became a “prisoner of the sand.” With death imminent, he occupied himself observing the survival strategies of animals. He interpreted the activities of foxes, when they hunted, ate, and paired, from their sign. This led him to a den where he could have killed a fox, ate it, drank its blood; it might have saved his life. Instead, he thanked the foxes for their friendship in his dying hours.    

    Eventually rescued by nomads, St. Ex survived the desert but not the Second World War; his P-38 Lockheed Lightning reconnaissance plane crashed into the Mediterranean Sea in 1944.

 

    After hunting, the fox stretched himself into a long thin line on the gravel driveway, stomach down, shoulders and both front legs stretched back towards his hips, palms up. The wind licked his gray fur cross—one streak down his back and one across his shoulders—into calico. When he got up, I hiked with him up to the den. Despite the presence of a well-worn route, he gerrymandered the trail to avoid facing the sun. He was already inside the den when I said goodbye and promised to return in half a fortnight.

 

     Next day I arrived at class hoarse. "Talking the ears off a visitor," I told the students. Luckily, no one asked if my visitor talked back, because Fox, runt of his litter, had been born mute. He made only one sound—qwah—and it was faint and altogether like the last gasp of a dying duck.

    Our classroom, built as a resort lodge, sat inside a semi-circle of shiny varnished log cabins stuck together two by two, each pair surrounded by freshly mowed lawn. Between the lawn and the river, a cobblestone beach and a band of perpetually waving pink stemmed coyote willows. Outside the cabins: long wooden decks; inside: rough-hewn pine furniture, wildlife patterned upholstery, TV sets, and 32 students, anxious to augment their knowledge of natural history.

    The first evening, my presentation. Wildlife slides flashed on the screen, and I narrated the stories. Antelope: In a placidly feeding antelope harem, one doe makes a run for it. Out to the perimeter, the buck chases her down, rounds her off, and trots her back to the other does where the runaway resumes feeding in the harem. A second doe takes off in a terrific charge for the hinterlands; the buck responds as with the first, but before he has time to quit panting, a third sister is off. I interpreted the expression on the buck's face as "total exasperation." The students laughed even though they thought they shouldn't. 

    Elk: In the middle of a meadow, female elk sit in a circle with their butts in the center, and their faces looking outward for predators. On a sunny hillside in deep snow, a pair of bull elk sit tail to tail, rotating their heads to enjoy 360 degree vigilance in an area dense with predators. One of those bulls shirks his responsibility, lays his head in the snow and falls asleep. The following slide shows coyotes and ravens tearing into a bloody elk carcass. "Males tend not to engage in behavior that is evolutionarily stable." Again, I heard their muffled laughter.

    Buffalo: A bison herdlet is grazing over thinly frozen ponds when one falls into a hole too deep to climb out of. Slipping backward while attempting to climb out the opposite side, she submerges in the freezing water. Dog paddling back to where she fell in, the cow secures both front legs on the snowy edge of the hole, and with her backbone twisting like a black python pulls herself almost onto the snowy meadow. Slipping back again she exhales loudly. Her entire herdlet approaches within five meters. One particular cow watches from the very edge of the hole. For three hours until the drowning cow sinks, the sentinel stands by, at all hazards. I ask the class if she is loyal, brave, or stupid. 

    I talked while the students shuffled and scribbled, pointed while they leaned and whispered, paused while they coughed and sneezed. After asking a question, I waited while counting to 15. For most of my life, with the exception of these sporadic lectures, I spoke in soliloquy or not at all. Uncomfortable with dialog let alone group conversations, I blocked out the extemporaneous composition filling the auditorium and listened instead to an inherent rhythm: stories spoken slow and steady with intermission for questions: mine. Their style was fast and jerky, anticipating a finale for questions: theirs. No one ever answered my question about the sentinel bison cow, but I considered the talk a success anyway since I remembered not to use words like 'fortnight'.

    When I got home, I told the fox all about my lecture. "I am an a capella singer," I told him, "and I have been trapped in a jazz band." 

    After the presentation, a student walked me back to my cabin and asked about my pets.

    “No pets,” I shook my head, "not now." We stopped at my cabin door.

    "That's funny about not having a pet."

    Fussing with a stubborn door lock kept me from making eye contact. "Really? Funny?"

    "There were a few animal slides…," she said and turned to walk to her cabin in the dark, "I was sure you were going to call the little fellow 'Foxie.'" 

    Foxie? Like a pet? Like hanging around a fox was tantamount to decorating a terrier in tartans or teaching a parrot to solicit crackers. Foxie? How did that come out of a few slides? There was nothing special about any of his poses, the angle of the shot, or even the magnification. There were plenty of similar shots of other animals. If I had known Fox's expression would reveal our relationship, I would have left those slides home. Yes, I knew he was not Mona Lisa, but he only needed to look enigmatic enough to fool 32 sleepy students.

    At breakfast Verna and I caught up on each other's lives and reviewed logistics: hiking distances, bus schedules, the impending rain, whether normal people spent all that much time talking to foxes. Then the bus arrived, and we hadn’t even finished our cereal.

    “Talking to foxes,” Verna said, scribbling letters on the sandwich bags in the cooler, “is not something that normal people do much.” She knew I wasn't trying to emulate normal people. I liked knowing what they were up to, that's all. 

    On the bus I told her about the 'Foxie' comment and she suggested I talk to the class about the fox. Awful idea.  

    I reminded her about the author of The Little Prince and his funny boa constrictor drawing. "There are things that people do not want to understand. I am going to ignore those things."

    "But this is your job and you need to try."

    "St. Exupéry didn't try. He ignored people whenever he wanted to." 

    "Don't you think that's a lonely way to live?"  

    "He was not lonely. He had the little…"

    "I know what you're thinking,” she interrupted. "But you? Don't you already have enough make-believe friends?”

 

    Back in my cabin, I turned the big armchair from the television set to the sliding glass doors. Verna was right for the wrong reason. I could not keep my relationship with Fox a secret, because I wanted my privacy. One thing a private person cannot afford is secrets. I also knew I had no idea how to explain my relationship with Fox. 

    I picked up a notepad and my chunky seven dollar pen, threw my knees over the wide western motif arms, let my legs dangle over the side, asked myself how to explain the fox. Start at the beginning. I tried to imagine when Fox and I first became more than just two itinerant animals crossing each other's path. Wrote 'April.' Realized there were no eureka! moments in our relationship. No exclamation marks at all. Maybe the relationship segued so smoothly that I never doubted that all was as it should be, or maybe it segued rapidly enough to keep me perpetually confused. Crossed out 'April.' Wrote 'March,' closed my eyes, listened for the river. What I actually heard was the TV from the attached cabin and the voices of its married occupants. Crossed out 'March.' Having never acquired a TV or a spouse, I wondered how to illustrate my fox with enough clarity that no one would mistake him for a hat.