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In 1938 Thoroughbred Foxy Socks came in at 33:1. Giddy with what would turn out to be a solitary lifetime win, my grandfather bought my grandmother a fox stole. A large beast, it covered Gran’s shoulders, head and hindquarters meeting on her chest. The velvet muzzle, four legs and bushy tail hung down in the front, swaying as she walked. Gran adored it. Sixty years later, I inherited this fashion relic. Lucky me.
I hadn’t seen the stole in years. It had been Gran’s winter wardrobe staple until she went into the nursing home. When the first leaves fell in autumn, she’d brush its fur and polish the amber glass eyes, readying it for another season. As a child I helped her, stroking its long body, whispering secrets into its ebony ears. Whenever Gran put it on, my mother’s eyes became distant, her banter ebbed into silence. “Why don’t you like Gran’s fox?” I asked but never received an answer. During my teen years I once left PETA pamphlets on Gran’s kitchen table, lecturing her on fur farm cruelty. “It’s already dead Love.” She smiled and patted my arm before slipping the corpse over her old wool suit. I gave the PETA information to my mother, but later found the pamphlets cast aside with old newspapers.
"My vixen,” Grandpa said whenever Gran put on the stole. “She’d still turn heads.” Gran kept the creature in its original box inside a locked drawer. She wore the key on a gold chain around her neck. “Temptation is a terrible thing.” She’d give me a wink, secreting the fur away. My mother said the same thing when she removed the racing forum from Grandpa’s newspaper. He and I watched the big races together on the TV, betting raisins. That ended when Gran caught us one afternoon. Grandpa began taking me to the forest.
My mitt folded into Grandpa’s rough palm, we walked into the heart of the woods. Pine trees reached for the azure sky, breezes amplifying their swaying whispers. Dry needles crunched beneath our feet. Ivy clung to fallen logs. Grandpa pointed out ravaged pine cones. Squirrel chewed, they lay abandoned among piles of woody scales scattered on the forest floor. After releasing sweet nuts from the cones, Grandpa told me the squirrels kept them safe in a covert winter store.
"When your mother was your age, I used to bring her here all the time.” He squeezed my hand. “She was a great little helper at setting squirrel snares.”
"What do you mean?” A quiver ran along his cheek. He cleared his throat. “Never mind that now. See the log? I’ll bet there’s some mushrooms growing along the side. Let’s take a look.”
At home I asked my mother about the squirrel snares. “Squirrel is what you eat when all your money is gone,” she said.
After Gran’s funeral, the fox arrived. My mother delivered the bequest to my apartment. “They say a fox is lucky, but that one brought nothing but heartache.” She shook her head and left.
I stared at the white box tied with twine, afraid to renew our acquaintance. It had a musty smell, furred corners. With my right index finger I traced the looping gold font: J. Gale & Sons. I tapped the top, but left it unopened and went to bed. That night I dreamed of running through the undergrowth, breathing in the smell of damp earth and pine. Fallen branches glowed blue green, guiding my path to a rocky crevice. I woke panting, my pillow damp from sweat.
Arriving home from work, I thought I could smell it before I put my key in the lock: dank and mushroomy. When the door opened, the odour drifted out, swirling around my head. Gagging, I lifted the lid off the box. Curled into a C, Gran’s fox stared back at me. It’s fur just as rich as I remembered, but the eyes now scratched and dull. I swallowed. Closing my eyes, I placed a hand on its head, fingers sinking into the deep coat. A tremor ran through my arm and I jerked my hand back.
That night dark images flooded my dreams: a penniless man, a proud woman, a little girl scratching a cabinet, mewing from hunger. I woke gasping, my cheeks wet. In the bathroom, I splashed cool water over my face. Rising, dripping, I looked in the mirror, seeing Grandpa staring back. I pulled on jeans, a sweat shirt and hiking boots. Grabbing car keys and a flashlight, I placed the white box on the passenger seat, driving to the forest.
The sky seemed starless, a blanket of solid black as I followed a spot lit path into the woods. Carrying the box under my other arm, the fox odour caught in my throat and nose. I forced myself further into the trees. Ivy caught one foot. I stumbled over a log and fell. The box spilled its contents, flashlight rolling away. I lifted my palms: deeply scratched, the blood mixing with mud. A neon blue-green glow illuminated the damage. I turned, searching for the source. There growing along the fallen tree and ivy, clusters of fungi glowed bright. Foxfire. I trembled and grabbed the fox stole, clutching it to my chest, kneading it with my hands. The fur, soon damp from my sobs, grew heavy. I didn’t stop. I cried for my grandfather, grandmother, mother and for the fox in the iridescent green light.
The fox became warm and full in my arms. Tawny legs flexed and stretched. Turning, it’s amber eyes met mine, blinking twice before its sandpaper tongue licked away my tears. Sweet breath bathed my face. The fox leapt off my lap, disappearing into the night.
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