The small, ragged fox trotted along in the dry brush near the train track, head low and ears flattened. His scruffy, dirty, brown coat ruffled slightly in the cold mid-October wind. His alert, dark eyes were half-closed, giving the fox a sharp, hooded gaze. Though barely a foot-and-a-half high, everything about him was tough and quick.
He was hungry. The fox lifted his slim muzzle to the wind and sniffed deeply, hoping to catch the whiff of a mouse or a fat starling waddling along the tracks. No other animal was nearby, but there was something tantalizing in the air…
He leaped out of the dry bracken and onto the great ridge of white gravel, upon which the railroad tracks lay. Here the fox could have a better view of his surroundings and could better smell more distant odors. Again he snuffed the breeze, short, stiff whiskers trembling. Yes, he could smell it, quite clearly now. It was coming from a small grocery store, from its open garbage cans.
The fox left the tracks and with a steady, quick dog-trot headed towards the store. He didn’t mind scavenging—it was certainly easier than hunting, but he preferred fresh meat any day. Still, there were some foods in those garbage cans that he couldn’t get enough of—like the salty potato chip crumbs at the bottoms of those funny crinkly bags.
As he neared the grocery store, his ears pricked at the sound of a terrific crash. The fox pushed aside the dry brush, rather startled, but curious.
A big male raccoon sat in a jumble of aluminum canisters, banana peels, old eggshells and moldy bread. In his paws was a half-eaten ice cream cone, which he gnawed on with relish. Glancing up for a moment, the raccoon spotted the fox standing in the bracken. He dropped his treat and growled, ready to defend his supply of food.
The fox barked back his challenge, teeth bared, and moved forward. Brute strength would not be enough in this battle, he knew. The raccoon was much larger than he. But wit and agility were also valuable traits, and these the fox had.
The two wild creatures circled each other, occasionally making experimental snaps and lunges. The raccoon was stronger, younger, and larger than his adversary. But the fox was wiry, swift, and experienced in fighting. For a minute there was no sound except for the cold breath of the wind. Then the raccoon sprang.
The fox easily evaded the attack with a leap of his own. He sailed clear over his enemy’s head, landed on the other side, then whirled back and nipped his hindquarters. The raccoon squealed. Claws out and ready, he made a swipe for the fox’s head. But it only connected with hard ground. Again the smaller, quicker creature spun about, then returned, nipping and tormenting.
A second time the raccoon dashed to get away. Then, he made a maneuver that was surprisingly quick. He turned swiftly and made a dart at his rival’s side.
Teeth sank into the fox’s leg and warm blood spilled onto his paw. Wrenching himself away, the fox leaped on the coon’s back, clawing and snapping.
Suddenly he was rolling over and over, gray fur in his mouth, claws in his face, teeth in his shoulder. He lashed out with one front paw, but it found nothing. Then he kicked sharply with both hind legs, slashing the raccoon’s belly.
There was a sound somewhere between a growl and a shriek. The coon untangled himself from the fray and bolted for the underbrush.
The fox stood still for a moment, panting, as he watched this retreat. When he was sure that the enemy was not returning, he licked his new battle scars and settled himself down for an excellent meal.
* * *
It was a quiet, misty autumn twilight when the fox began to make his way towards his den. All day he had scouted his territory, checking boundaries and making sure that no intruder fox had invaded. It was not a large territory, but he knew every inch of it well—the best places to hunt, the deepest shadows where he could lie undetected, the busy streets where cars roared constantly. The latter he avoided. The fox only saw humans at a distance and concluded that they did not concern him much.
He pressed on, paws flashing back and forth in that mile-eating dog-trot. He sniffed the fine drizzly rain, listened to a few bedraggled sparrows chirping in the brush nearby. He did not stop to hunt them, though. His belly was full.
As he approached the small tangle of young trees, the fox halted and peered nervously over his shoulder, making sure no creature saw him. But he was alone.
The fox gracefully leaped through a gap in the thicket and tumbled into his close, grassy den. After a moment, he lay down and curled into a ball. He nosed at the rags and dry leaves on the ground, tucking them around his ragged fur to keep warm. Finally, he fell into a deep sleep.
* * *
The next morning, he slowly awoke to sunlight filtering into his den. Rising, and shaking his fur free of dried leaf bits, he stepped freshly out into the cold early morn.
A silver fog blanketed the world. No birds twittered; not a breath of wind stirred the fallen leaves scattered about the ground. The dry, bare plants seemed to shiver, though they did not move. At that moment the sun’s edge peeked over the horizon, tinting the eastern sky with gold. The light spread wide into every corner. The air itself glittered, as if thick with golden dust. The fox lifted his head, breathing in the magic of the silent dawn.
A late robin suddenly let his flowing melody loose. It was as if a cord had been snapped. The mist cleared, the magic faded, and small morning sounds pervaded the air. The fox swept a dingy tail across his legs and licked his chops, ready for breakfast.
He first headed towards the railroad tracks, ears forward and listening. He could hear many birds singing in the brush, but what he craved today was a sweet, tender mouse. The fox crept silently through a gap in the bracken. Then he leaped gracefully onto the white gravel ridge and crouched down upon the rusty train tracks. The fox lay stock-still—and waited.
There! A tiny brown mouse flitted nervously from shadow to shadow only a few yards away, approaching a discarded, muddy hot dog bun. The fox shifted his gaze to the rodent, and his muscles tensed imperceptibly.
The mouse skittered closer. A train whistled in the distance.
The fox never let his eyes off his prey. The mouse seemed faintly aware that she was being watched, and for several moments froze and sniffed the air. But the fox was downwind and undetectable. The tiny creature crawled near the hot dog bun and began to eat.
Another train whistle pierced the air, closer this time. Though the ground trembled faintly, the fox did not move. The mouse continued to nibble, shiny, dark eyes peering nervously round. A third time the train shrieked, and the tracks shook under the fox’s feet. But he barely noticed. The rodent, however, was unnerved. She sidled away.
Now! the fox thought. He leaped into the air…
Suddenly a great force slammed into his hind legs. He was whirled off the tracks, skidded across the gravel and into the underbrush. For a minute the fox lay there, his hind legs numb from impact. Then pain, unbearable pain, shot up his paw like searing fire, blotting every other thought from his mind. His sight wavered—and went dark.
* * *
When the fox awoke, everything was strange. It was dark and stuffy. The ground underneath him was of unknown material, and everything vibrated violently. His hind legs throbbed in agony. Where was he? Feebly, he sniffed the air.
The overwhelming scent of humans filled his nostrils, bewildering him. Why was he trapped? Never before had he been this helpless.
The fox tried to stand, but his legs utterly and painfully failed him. At last he curled up in a corner of his strange prison, whimpering as the world around him shuddered and jolted.
* * *
After some time, the vibrating stopped. He sensed the movement of an unseen creature outside, and suddenly the box was lifted up. Where was he going now? He felt a faint breeze through a crack in the box and heard a familiar sound—cars rushing back and forth over a road.
Suddenly a door creaked open, and a light shone through the crack. There was an urgent babble of human voices as his box was whisked through a new, strange-smelling world. After a few moments, he was set down. The box opened, and two white-gloved hands reached inside.
He was too weak to fight. The hands snatched him up and placed him under an unbearably bright light. Then he felt a sharp sting in his shoulder.
Suddenly he felt quite drowsy. The light and the two humans faded from sight. Darkness blurred his mind.
* * *
The next morning, the fox awoke to warm sunshine. For a moment he fancied he was in his cozy thicket—then his paw scraped against cold metal.
His eyes opened wide with fear. He was sitting in another box of some sort, but its walls were made of thin, metal bars. Two bowls stood in a corner. Where was he? Sniffing at the side of the strange box, he scratched at it with his claws. The wire rattled, awakening a small, fierce kitten in the adjacent cage. The tiny feline hissed, green eyes shooting sparks. The fox retreated. A terrier somewhere below him began barking incessantly. The fox’s mind spun as he looked out on the scene in front of him.
Rows upon rows of cages lined the walls of the large, white room. Behind the wires were whining puppies and wide-eyed cats. The noise was unbelievable. Where had all these animals come from? Why were they trapped?
At last, bewildered and frightened, the fox shrunk into a corner and curled into a ball, trying to shut out this alien world.
At that moment a door swung open and he heard human footsteps. All the dogs began barking at once.
“Breakfast’s comin’, pups, just wait a sec,” a cheerful voice called. The fox heard cage doors opening, then closing again. What was going on? Carefully he peeked out.
A human face loomed over him. Her golden-brown hair lay in soft curls about her shoulders, and her brown eyes sparked with laughter. She spoke kindly, but the fox considered her only his captor. Fur bristling in terror, ears flattened, he pressed against the side of the cage.
“Hey, little Red, I won’t even touch you. Here—hungry?” The woman took one of the bowls, filled it with something, and put it back. “It’s all right,” she murmured. Then she closed the door and moved on.
Suspiciously, Red began to move forward. His back legs felt strangely stiff, though they no longer pained him. He turned and sniffed curiously at them. Both his hind legs were covered in a peculiar, hard material. The fox scratched at it, but the encasement would not come off. Whimpering, he stumbled across the cage floor until he reached the bowls.
One was full of water, which he lapped at nervously. The other was filled with strange brown pebbles that smelled faintly of meat. Having an empty stomach, Red tried a mouthful.
Dryness coated his tongue as he attempted to swallow the strange food. It nearly choked him. He quickly drank again, then retreated to the back of the cage and slept out his fear.
* * *
Over the next week or so, Red learned the routine of his new life. In the morning, the woman would come, fill his bowls with water and the dry, crunchy pebbles. She would come in the evening, too, and do the same. The rest of the day he spent lying listlessly in his cage, biting at the hard covering on his hind legs. He longed to run once more with the breeze, and stalk again in the shadows. But here, there was no waving bracken, no small, timid prey—and he could not run.
He was so downhearted that he stopped eating and only drank when his throat pained him from thirst. Red slept away the unchanging days.
So he was greatly surprised when the woman, one morning, picked him up out of his cage and carried him away. He did not struggle in her arms—he had long since learned that she would bring him no harm.
After traversing a maze of flawlessly clean hallways, the woman entered a small room and set him on the table. As the bright light from above focused upon him, the fox remembered his first experience here. Then, just as before, there was a prick in his shoulder—and all went black.
* * *
When Red awoke, he was in the dark, stuffy box that jolted and bounced. But he was no longer frightened. Nor was he glad to be away from his wire cage. He simply no longer cared to live, if it was a life in imprisonment.
Then suddenly the jolting stopped. After a moment, the woman opened the box and lifted him out.
“Here we are, Red—your new home. It’s not what you’re used to, but maybe— you’ll like it.” She stepped out of the van and set Red on the ground.
The fox stared around him in amazement. He stood at the edge of a snowy forest. The sky was cloudy, and a small breeze played about his muzzle. The wind! He had almost forgotten the feel of it. He let out a bark of joy and leaped into the crisp, clear air.
As he landed, it suddenly struck him— his legs! He turned and softly licked them. No longer did they pain him, and the hard encasement had been removed. He could run!
Red was about to dash off into the still, silver woods, when the woman stepped up quietly beside him. The fox turned to her. He now knew—and was grateful. He looked into her soft-featured face, while his dark eyes silently said—thank you.
The woman did not respond, but she understood. There was a moment more of quiet… then at last she turned and climbed back into her van. “Goodbye, little Red,” she whispered. Then the motor rumbled to life, and she drove away, leaving the fox alone at the edge of the forest.
Red looked into its shadowy depths and thought about the dangers here—other foxes, wildcats, perhaps even bears. But he was free. And for now, that was he all he needed.