Three weeks after the flu takes my last child, I load the old dog in the car and drive to the shelter. After sizing me up, the woman working the desk leads me to a cage shared by three dogs—a small terrier mix and two medium-sized mutts.

“I really only wanted two,” I say.

But they’ve already shoved their wet noses into my hand, snuffling at me like they’re starved for human scent. I’m starving, too. I sign the paperwork. The dogs are mine.

On the way home, I stop at the store for more food and extra bowls. When I slam the car door and walk toward the entrance, I look back to see the little terrier peering out the window at me. Her paws splayed against the glass, she shakes with anxiety. I know then that she’ll be the one under the covers with me that night, her furry warmth pressed into my belly as we sleep.

That afternoon, we take our first walk. Down the street and into the woods, up the trail by the abandoned rock quarry. The path arcs up a hill beneath a heavy cover of maples and oaks. It’s February, so the forest is thinned of leaves, the bare branches reaching up into the gray sky. At the top of a steep incline, the land flattens out and the trail divides, north and south, circling a patch of land adjacent to the quarry. Barbed-wire fencing separates the trail from the quarry property, but holes have been snipped here and there. Several of my neighbors, in the course of their own mourning, have chosen to put an end to it with a plummet to the rocks.

The dogs and I walk both loops of the trail. First the one that wends through dense deciduous forest, where the trail is a soft bed of mud and dead leaves. The dogs sniff and squat, lift their legs to mark the undergrowth. Then we do the second loop, exiting the cover of trees. The path turns from leaf to dusty rock. It creeps near the barbed-wire boundary, then curves around a sprawling field of blackberry bushes. The thorny vines crawl over the land, obscuring what’s beneath. From under the tangle of creeping stems comes the skittering of unseen creatures.

One summer, I spent an hour plucking fat, dark berries for cobbler. I paused to taste one, then found myself overwhelmed with anxiety. What if these weren’t actually blackberries? What did I know? What if I’d just poisoned myself? Had I been about to poison my whole family? I dumped the bucket. Hours later I was still alive, but I never went berry picking again. We bought our pies at the store, left the berries for the deer.

At a bend near the midpoint of the blackberry loop, the little dog begins to growl. I look up to see an animal moving slowly toward us. Before my rational brain kicks in, I think: tiger. Then, less absurd: fox.

It’s possible. There is a den in this forest. In the midst of a stand of pines, the earth curves into little hills. Among these I once found a couple of large holes, invisible until I was standing right over them. I imagine the creatures underneath, huddled together to sleep out the day. A few years back, one of them haunted the woods by our house for a spell, disrupting our sleep with its horrific bark. Like a giant bird being tortured, or a woman screaming in pain. I saw the fox twice—once at night, a set of gleaming eyes crossing the dark yard. The second time was just after dawn. I stepped onto the back porch to see the rust-red fur glowing in the morning mist. We locked eyes, then it darted away, a ghostly, bloody blur.

The animal before us is neither ghost, nor tiger, nor fox. Only another dog. A long-bodied mastiff mix with collar and tags, it must belong to one of the houses nearby. It moves slowly toward us, oblivious to our presence. As it approaches, I see the swollen teats drooping from her chest. They sag heavily beneath her.

I jerk four leashes and reverse our direction. We retrace the loop and head home.

Later that night, with the dogs settled around me on the couch, I put on a nature documentary. Since the deaths began, I haven’t been too keen on ingesting human drama for sport. Insects and amphibians and geology I can take. Tonight the documentary fails me, though. A mother bird, a fairy tern, assumes a laid-back parenting style, like the one I always prided myself on. She doesn’t even build a nest, simply rests her egg in the crook of a tree branch. I first suspect gravity as the culprit, the one coming to teach this mother a lesson, but I’m wrong. Another bird spies the exposed and unattended egg. Hungry, it swoops and pecks, consumes and departs.

The mother returns. She doesn’t immediately realize what she’s lost. “She knows something’s not right,” the narrator intones, “but the brooding instinct is powerful.” The tern tries to settle back on the branch, coating her snowy feathers in the goo that was once a child.

Later in bed, I wish I were rid of the dogs. I think about the bottom drawer of my nightstand, where I’ve gathered a decade’s worth of prescriptions for pain. I imagine a drowsy slide into sleep. I consider the quarry, imagining my frenzied leap, the fall.

But what I really want is the fox. Her teeth. Her fur. A final, hungered embrace.

Tomorrow, I think, I will take the dogs to the den beneath the pines, lay us down on the needled ground, and wait in peace for dusk.

Kelly Wisdom is a writer and community college English teacher in North Carolina, where she lives with her family. She holds an MFA in Children’s Literature from Hollins University and an MA in English from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Her writing has been featured in Atticus Review, YARN, and Sanskrit. You can find Kelly on Twitter @kellywisdom.

© 2018 Kelly Wisdom. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, November 2018.

Images from The Noun Project (credits: Alina Oleynik).


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by Kelly Wisdom
The Fox