Ruscena Wiederholt 

of foxes and failure

     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 hopefully, cunning not so much, but a nighttime creature, definitely. My Dad often reminisces of seeing foxes when I was young. Inspired by his stories, I searched for foxes in the woods by our house, an expanse of abandoned farmland being slowly reclaimed by forest. A natural conquest, messy, inelegant, but that one day would transform — to ancient groves where sunlight struggled to pierce the canopy.  In the meadows, and the paths winding along the marsh filled with squawking geese, I wandered, 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.  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 fragile warmth. Yet in this castle of silence and ice, I saw a fox, standing nobly, simply watching. 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.

 

     Years later, I was in a field station in the misty mountains of Costa Rica. Worlds away from my icy homeland, I was surrounded by troops of monkeys, and toucans calling through the fog that rolled over the lush canopy. Trees, covered in epiphytes and cascading vines, towered overhead, greedily snatching the sunlight from the red, muddy earth below. The forest was overwhelmingly abundant, untamed, and raw, like the Earth was supposed to be.

 

     One summer morning, I was hiking through the forest.  An ordinary morning, on an ordinary day. That is, until thunder rumbled in the distance.  Running to take cover, I tripped over a root, twisting my ankle painfully. I ducked under a tree, and the gates opened like a deluge from heaven, a pagan baptism of fire and sky.  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 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.

The sky lightened just barely, and the storm weakened. I stood up gingerly. My ankle ached but felt stronger, I could walk. Perhaps a forest sprite had come to heal me, 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 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 cruelty of day. Like a living thing, it glided among the mesquite trees, chanting songs of nighttime.

 

     Hiking on a desert trail, the saguaro cacti towered above, like sentinels across the landscape, soaking up wisdom with the desert rain. I stumbled on without guidance, feeling underneath my ribcage, the weight of so much wasted time.  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. I searched in the desert wilderness, but I found just the sentinels and the curve and undulation of the sandy landscape.   

 

     I sat down on a rock, heavily, my head swimming from the heat. 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. 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. And I remembered the foxes that appeared at just the right moment to help me along the way. 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.

10 March, 2021

Ruscena spends her days as a biologist and her nights writing. She often writes about ecology, cuddly species, and South Florida where she makes her home. Not all of her writing covers science, but somehow an animal or two always appears. You can find her Instagram @ ruscena_wiederholt