About ten days ago, I was sitting at my computer after lunch, writing, when I happened to glance out of the window which looks out over our front yard–and to my astonishment, saw a long, low, and instantly recognisable shape pass rapidly right in front of the pawlonia tree, right in front of my eyes. The fox was utterly oblivious to my presence behind the glass, utterly intent on one of our hens that was calmly scratching away near the front gate. It was only the flash of an instant that I was transfixed by the sight; and then I cried out ‘Fox!’ to David and rushed outside, yelling my head off. As I barrelled out of the door, the fox hardly deviated in his path, heading straight for the hen that still didn’t move, though the others were flapping around in panic, in my mind crying ‘Oh help! Oh fire! Oh fox!’ (a quote brilliantly expressing chooky panic which I’ve never forgotten, from Patricia Wrightson’s wonderful short novel, A Little Fear.) Then the fox suddenly seemed to clock me and my shouting and yelling, turned smartly, and ran out through the garden gate, splendid tail high, abandoning the chook hunt, and disappearing in a flicker of a moment in the long grass across the road.
All the chooks were safe, if a little nervous, except for the bird that the fox had zeroed on, which hardly even appeared to notice that she had escaped certain death. But if she had no apparent idea what had happened, I found the images from it kept popping into my head. Living in the country as we do, over the years I’d seen more than a few sad aftermaths of fox attacks, including on our own poultry; but I had never seen an attack in progress before. Indeed, I think it is a rare sight, though sometimes foxes are surprised in the middle of a killing spree. And I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Of course I’d not had any time at all to snap an actual photo of him (I say ‘him’ because the fox’s size clearly indicated it was a male), and never even thought of picking up my phone before I rushed out 🙂 . But my mind’s camera was clear and bright and vivid. And it clicked through snapshot after snapshot of those instants: it was simply extraordinary, to see that intentness, power and speed, expressed in one superbly built, supremely healthy and confident red body, ears pricked, tail streaming, sharp eyes fixed on that tempting plump prey. And it was also simply surprising–and reassuring, in a funny sort of way!– to know that my reaction, after that very first flash of stunned astonishment at the bold presence of the fox, was to rush out, without hesitation, to confront him and stop him in his tracks. I might be impressed by the sleek, deadly beauty of the fox, but I was certainly not going to let him get his teeth into our hapless, helpless cluckers.
But the fox thriller wasn’t yet finished; its star was not going to let us have the final word, with the thwarted predator sent packing once and for all. We kept the chooks locked up for several days, thinking that the fox would get tired of waiting and would move on to greener pastures. But the chooks weren’t happy, though their pen is large; they’re used to roaming around the block, eating grass and worms, pecking and scratching and dirt-bathing. Besides, what’s the good of having free-range birds if you keep them locked up like prisoners, even if it’s for their own good? So after a week, David let them out, just for a few hours a day, in the little orchard which is fenced and close to the house, and which he can keep an eye on when he’s working outside. All seemed well for a couple of days, and then one day we both had to go out on separate errands, and didn’t think of locking in the chooks. David got back before me–but the fox had got there before him, climbed the fence into the orchard–and well, one chook wasn’t so lucky as that first one. A young rooster lay dead and half-gnawed (ironically one we’d been raising for our own eventual chicken dinner!); but the carnage wasn’t as great as it might have been, because all the other chooks were unharmed, so the fox must have been spooked by something and taken off before he could add to his predator’s tally. And, oddly, the surviving chooks seemed hardly perturbed, no sign of any post-traumatic reaction, despite the fact they must all have been present when the fox killed their brother. Our own reaction of course was quite different to that first episode when the fox had been successfully routed; shame at forgetting to lock in the chooks added to shame at misreading the capacity both for patience and cunning of our vulpine adversary.
So of course now the chooks were locked up, and they’re still locked up. But the foxy tale hasn’t quite ended; because yesterday afternoon, working at my computer again, I happened to look up–and there he was again, a bit further away than the first time, creeping through the long grass near the pine tree, heading for the chook pen, bold as brass again, clearly still intent on checking out opportunities. The chooks were in no danger, the pen is utterly impregnable, as it is enclosed by netting wire not only on all four sides but on top as well: the only way he could conceivably get in is by digging underneath, a risky and time-consuming process that normally only a desperately hungry animal would take on, and this particular one, with his sleek body and shining fur, looks neither hungry nor desperate, but rather carries the air and the M.O of a boldly opportunist gourmet 🙂 But the sight of him still persisting in his campaign, despite the odds, was a signal to us that this isn’t over, not by a long shot, and that this outwitting–outfoxing!–tale was certainly not complete. And somehow, this episode seemed at last to really rattle the chooks, who last night at a time when they should have been cosily in bed on their perches, were pacing about anxiously outside in the pen, making the disturbed clucks that let you know something’s wrong. We went out to check of course, several times; there was no obvious sign of the fox, this time, but somehow there was a sense of his presence, hidden, watchful–waiting.
So my foxy tale ends there, for the moment, maybe waiting, like the fox, for the final twist. And it made me aware of course of our own conflicted reactions to what happened, and to the fox itself. It’s not exactly uncommon, those mixed feelings. People have always had an ambiguous relationship to foxes: seen both as bloodthirsty adversaries, like wolves, but, unlike wolves, traditionally also admired for their patient guile and effrontery. Fiction and poetry are full of that ambiguous image of the fox, from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, where the fox is clearly the hero, to the disturbing English folktale, Mr Fox, a version of Bluebeard, where the main character is basically a serial killer. But it is perhaps in medieval French literature that we see the most compelling and extraordinary picture, in the shape of the anonymous episodic novel Le Roman de Renart. This represents its fox anti-hero, Renart as the very epitome of the clever, unscrupulous, risk-taking outlaw who preys on the stupidity and herd mentality of the geese and chicken mainstream, but also outwits, through a combination of hypocritical flattery and daring moves, the much more powerful and dangerous, but much less smart, wolf and bear lords. So hugely popular and influential was this novel–which is still both remarkably entertaining and highly disturbing in equal measure–that it changed the very name of the animal itself in French. In Old French, the word for fox was ‘goupil’, but after Le Roman de Renart, that name changed to the given name of its main character. And so ‘goupil’ became ‘renard’, which is still what it is today.
A few years ago I wrote a retelling of the classic Russian folktale, The Rooster with the Golden Crest, where the tables are turned on the crafty fox by the nice but stupid rooster’s resourceful friends, the cat and the thrush, which was published in my picture book with David Allan, Two Trickster Tales from Russia; and it’s certainly more than possible that one day some fiction of mine will come out of these recent personal foxy encounters experiences; but right now I’d like to finish with a poem I wrote a couple of years ago, after hearing a fox’s screaming call late one night whilst at my father’s place in France. The poem was published later in The School Magazine. In this poem, it’s a vixen, not a dog fox, that’s prowling…