One cold Midwestern night, I turned the cards over and there it was — the image of a fox. “See I knew this would be there,” exclaimed my Dad. Several spirit animals were revealed by the cards, but the fox fit me, clever, I hoped, cunning not so much, but a nighttime creature, definitely. My Dad often reminisces of seeing foxes when I was young. On a camping trip, a fox slipped by while I was crawling among the pine needles. Later, on a hike, a fox ran over the trail in front of us. Inspired by these stories, I searched for foxes in the woods by our house, an expanse of abandoned farmland being slowly reclaimed by forest. Bushes and straggly pines dotted fields of grasses and prickly thorns. A natural conquest, messy, inelegant, but that one day would transform — to ancient oak trees, and groves where sunlight struggled to pierce the canopy. In the meadows, and the paths winding along the marsh filled with squawking geese, I wandered, always hoping to see a fox. But I never did.
Then one day, deep in the woods, with snow falling gently on the pines, that changed. I was in a desperate moment of flight, away from an insufferable pain. Falling to my knees, I could go no farther. I lay down, feeling the centuries of winter seep into my bones. Tears rolled icily down my cheeks, as I slowly melted into the dark earth, cold rivers, and pale skies that showered frozen bits of heaven. A return to the frigid, immovable ground that had borne me. I could have stayed there forever, an antithesis from all constancy. But the Earth turned slowly, rumbling like an old machine, and jarred me with its sparks. I felt someone was watching me, and I looked up. Certainly nothing was here but eternity and my fragile warmth. Yet in this castle of silence and ice, I felt a breath of life. And I saw a fox, standing nobly, simply watching. The spirit of the forest, embodied. Then it turned and walked away, leaving only tracks on the snow-covered ground. I wiped my tears, and felt the ice cracking. I stood up, and the tracks had vanished.
Had the fox appeared at just the right time? To tell me, in some way, that the shattering I felt so distinctly along lines of my chest, was just an image in my head? A message from the divine that this would diminish, like the snow melting in springtime. Slowly at first, and then in torrents gushing free from their wintry prison. But nature speaks softly, in shades of the setting sun and winds stirring restlessly before a storm, blurring all lines drawn in the sand.
Years later, in a field station in the misty mountains of Costa Rica, a colleague of mine reproached me for startling him — I had approached unheard. “God you’re so sneaky.” The spirit card of a fox popped to mind. I was worlds away from my icy homeland, surrounded by troops of monkeys, and toucans calling through the fog that rolled over the lush, green canopy. Trees, covered in epiphytes and cascading vines, towered overhead, greedily snatching the sunlight from the red, muddy earth below. One was made of a strangler vine that had woven around its host, killing it in the process. It was a strange kind of embrace, beautiful yet suffocating, leaving its very core hollow. The forest was overwhelmingly abundant, untamed, and raw, like the Earth was supposed to be.
One summer morning, I was hiking through the forest to collect samples. An ordinary morning, on an ordinary day. That is, until thunder rumbled in the distance. Torrential downpours struck the forest with fury, unleashing the powers of an angry god on its wanton creation below. Storms could last for hours, flooding the little wooden bridges over the streams, washing away everything in its path. I had to return to the field station as quickly as possible. But moments later, the black clouds poured in, somber and irrefutable, for even the most unfaithful of believers. The forest darkened like night.
In taking cover, I tripped over a root and twisted my ankle painfully. Even the forest had betrayed me in my time of need. I ducked under a tree, and the gates opened like a deluge from heaven, a pagan baptism of fire and sky. If only it could wash away all the broken shards in my past, filling the early dawn with their sharp edges. Or sweep away my footsteps that had veered off path, all those words that circled inside my head, unsaid. Raindrops struck relentlessly, sliding down my spine. I was a paper doll, all neat edges and blonde hair. I dissolved into the mud below, the red earth soaking me up ravenously, with a primeval, tropical hunger. And my spirit soared, freed from the interminable passages of daylight. A boom and then a flash illuminated the forest, and I looked up. Nothing but darkness surrounded me, a palpable embrace of warmth and humidity. I sunk back down to the origins of the Earth. Another flash, like a burst from an old movie projector. Down the path, I saw a small gray fox. For just a moment, one paw was raised, its head turned toward me. Then darkness fell.
Had it come to the right place, at precisely the right moment? The sky lightened just barely, and the storm weakened. And then vanished, swept back to the heavens above, as quickly as it had come. I stood up gingerly. My ankle ached but felt stronger, I could walk. Perhaps a forest sprite had come to heal me, a magic balm to soothe the shredding I carried deep inside. A quick transformation from my life of fire and ice, with just one pill taken at bedtime. Even the angry forest gods could be toppled in their rage.
Years passed, and I started to wonder if the foxes had been real. Maybe I’d been delirious or dehydrated or just prone to seeing small carnivores. What if it were a trick of my imagination, in a time of distress? Maybe none of the promises of adulthood were real. Instead, the path of time was demanding and riddled with pitfalls hidden in the undergrowth. The transformation never appeared, and I was left with just myself, idealistic, and prone to falling.
Fate had brought me to the Sonoran desert, a land of extremes. Of beauty, yes, and all the brutality the heavens could bring. The desert sun was merciless, tugging at your life, drop by drop. But the nighttime was different, warm and enveloping, a plea from the gods to forgive the blind cruelty of day. Like a living thing, it glided among the mesquite trees that swung overhead, singing songs of nighttime.
On a hike on a desert trail, the saguaro cacti towered above, like sentinels across the landscape, eternally watching, soaking up wisdom with the desert rain. They stood silently, like their home, stark and unsympathetic. I stumbled on without guidance, feeling the weight underneath my ribcage, of all that wasted life. I sought solace in this ruthless landscape, but found only subtlety. And a bewitching absence of all sense. A lizard darted in front of me and I stopped, the trail had slipped away from me. How long ago had it been? Certainly it could be recaptured, brought back by my longing. And I searched in the desert wilderness, but I found just the sentinels and the curve and undulation of the sandy landscape. And who was the fool to believe. I should have watched where I placed my feet, been that stronger version of myself. But I was left with just the same clay, drawn magnetically to the Earth below.
I sat down on a rock, heavily, my head swimming from the heat. I was unprepared for a loss like this. With the thirst of a thousand years, I soaked into the baked earth below. And the air made its claim, drawing me up, molecule by molecule, until all that remained was an imprint in the sand below. Of the being I had once been, vibrant, beating, and flawed. And there was a type of harmony in that end. Then I heard something, barely audible. A head peaked out from behind a cactus. The landscape shimmered but, without doubt, it was a fox. I stood up shakily and walked over to the cactus. The fox was gone, but I saw a thread winding down the hill, the path.
The next day, I woke up in the morning light, and realized I was whole – the cracks had disappeared, the jagged edges, smoothed over. There was a weight to my flesh that hadn’t been there before. Things had changed a little, maybe a lot, and the realization dawned, that I was never really shattered at all. And I remembered the foxes that appeared at just the right moment, at just the right place, to help me along the way.
I've never told my father about the foxes. Perhaps he wouldn't believe me. A Midwesterner, he had little use for magic or superstition. But I do, and all the other nighttime creatures. They were sign from the natural world that I truly belonged there, that this was the only paradise we'd ever know. That much was true. And the tales of my father, and a spirit card on a cold, Midwestern night.
Merci pour la lecture!