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She wears a shirt sometimes, my daughter. One with a picture of a mustachioed fox. People say children don’t understand irony, but I don’t believe that.
I like your shirt, people say to her.
I like mustaches, she says in reply, with a smile.
She does not fess up to her true nature. Beneath the picture, a well-known fact in black font: sly as a fox. It bothers me, the metaphor. It is unnecessary to describe her in terms of something else, because she is the something else.
Before she was born I spent nights with foxes. My partner worked late, sometimes until two or three in the morning, hours not worth counting to. I ate baked potatoes and beans at the table, crammed into the space between the washing machine and the door to the garden. On summer nights, when the nautical twilight soaked everything in indigo dye, I sat, overhead switched off, waiting for the foxes to appear. Sometimes they were already there, stealing the last warmth of the afternoon sun from the slate slabs. They watched me with bored, dull eyes, while I washed up plates at the sink. I talked to them through the window.
It’s a beautiful night.
Or: How was your day?
They never acknowledged me, except for the few times I tapped on the glass and waved. They would not cower or flee. They looked through me, the plain girl interrupting the jocks recounting their glory game.
Some nights they did not appear in the garden until I had gone to bed, and those were the nights they howled a cartoon coyote whelp. The first time I heard it I thought the neighbor drowned his cat in the bath. Or a car hit a child in the street. Such a piercing horror of a cry. But it was just my foxes, calling for me. I did matter, they did notice. I tried to sleep through the noise, but by the end of the summer I found it difficult.
On the last night of August I went out in my nightgown. The moment I stepped on the paving slabs the howling stopped. By fall I let them lick lilac body lotion from my fingertips and toes. By winter I knit them wool body warmers.
My partner noticed the change. Why do you smell so gamy—is that the trendy perfume now? I think I preferred your patchouli phase.
What could I say to him? You widowed me, and I have found someone else. I did not say that. I told him the perfume was all the rage. Fox in Heat, I called it.
Musky, he said.
That’s right, I am scented.
I know what you are thinking. No, I did not sleep with the foxes. I did sleep with my partner and wonder what the foxes would think of this, if they saw it. So one spring night, one of the rare nights he was home, I seduced him in the kitchen with shepherd’s pie and cider. He did not know what to make of me undressing before the garden door, but he liked it. We used the table as a bed. I made sure I was on top, so as to give the foxes a good view. They were quiet, but I knew they were watching.
My breasts announced the pregnancy. Overripe pears ready to snap from the branch. Each morning as I rolled from my stomach to my back, they ached with fever. Soon, I got sick. Often this happened in the kitchen when I smelled the plate scrapings from the night before. As I vomited into the sink the foxes mewled and whined outside. They would hold my hair back if they could. They would not say, You’re fucking pregnant? if they could talk. They would bring me ginger tea and plain biscuits in bed.
Some people see a sprouting bean, an alien, a tadpole on their first scan. I saw a fox. Its broad head bowed in towards its unfurling tail. A she-fox, I found out. When I went to the garden at night, she would squirm and press toward her brethren. As she got bigger I could see her fox feet and snout pass across my skin, phantoms behind a curtain.
When the midwives set up in the bedroom they encouraged birthing on all fours. My partner went into the kitchen to drink lager. I roared and bellowed and grunted. Afterwards, I wanted to lick my she-fox clean but the midwives tutted. We clean baby, bring her back. They took her away before I could see, and put human skin on her. I knew because it was red and blue and had white glue stuck everywhere.
You can’t fool me, I told them. I want my she-fox. Shed her now.
They tutted again and dropped the human onto my chest. The creature lifted its head and screamed.
I don’t blame you, I said.
Feed, she wants to feed, the midwives said. They pushed the creature’s face onto my left nipple and it clenched hard. She was still fox.
Other babies smell of lemon cake. My baby smelled of loam and leaf. This is how I knew she was mine. Her favorite place to play was in the kitchen by the garden door. The foxes would visit and she would coo.
We need to get rid of those rodents, my partner said. But he was no longer my partner when he called the pest control. I was napping, I didn’t hear the conversation. They came and sprayed the garden.
What are you doing? I asked
Protecting our daughter, he said.
Those filthy vermin, the urban foxes. They are not even real foxes.
He came home on a Monday in May and put the paper in front of my face. A picture of a woman weeping in front of a terraced house just like ours. Twins Mauled by Fox, the headline read.
See? She left the garden door open and they came in. One of them ate the face off of the child. Do you want that to happen?
He doesn’t know, but it was his fault. He put the poison outside. He clouded their thinking.
Someone must have encouraged them, he said. They would not have gone inside otherwise.
At his ankles, my daughter nibbled his socks. From then on I knew the world would not understand. I had to hide my she-fox. Put up curtains to cover the garden doors. Smile and nod when people remarked on my beautiful daughter. Stop myself from telling them how beautiful she is underneath. Sly. Canny. Game.