foxes
Type
Fiction

The cartography of foxes

She was unaccustomed to the light. The screen door banged behind her as she rested a burnt frying pan on the rail. A cloud of dust rose over the paddock where the men were harvesting. She shaded her eyes. By the tank the farm dog started up its barking and paced in a circle, marking out its own dirt track at the end of a chain. She threw it a burnt sausage. The dog gulped the offering and resumed its pacing.

At dawn she’d been out there, in the paddock, among the onion crop, with Geoff introducing her as Sarah-my-wife, as though it were one word. As they’d walked the rows, the harvesters had risen from the soil, one by one, and shaken her hand. Then they sat down again, filling the air with the clipping of their shears as they topped and tailed the onions into baskets.

All those men sitting in the dirt like children; it wasn’t what she expected.

She turned back inside to cut cheese, corned beef and bread for their lunch. Through the open kitchen window she was sure she could hear the blades slicing at stems and roots.

 

They came in just before midday, twelve of them, Geoff herding them in. She could only remember a few names: Gunny Bill, two Johns and Alberto. Geoff kissed her cheek and brought the fan out from the kitchen. She should have thought of the fan.

As soon as they sat down, she knew there wasn’t enough.

She stood in the kitchen doorway, smiled, and swallowed hard. Geoff patted the empty seat next to him. She shook her head from the kitchen doorway. The platter was almost empty.

‘Great lunch,’ Geoff said.

Gunny Bill prised open a corned-beef sandwich. ‘Tastes a treat, but you could do with a bit of saltpetre in that beef. It’s a bit grey.’

‘Oh.’ She half smiled.

‘What the hell would you know?’ said a short man with a shock of red hair. ‘Don’t listen to him: his taste buds got blown off in Crete. These are delicious.’

‘He’s probably right,’ said Gunny Bill, laughing at himself.

Sarah smiled.

Their appetites seemed boundless. The men turned back to each other and debated cures for onion thrip. Sarah laid out a platter of apples, oranges and dry biscuits. She laid out three pots of tea. After a while Geoff pushed back his chair.

‘We’re back out.’

The men got up, filling their hands with the last of the apples and biscuits. Geoff kissed her cheek. ‘Great lunch,’ he said and squeezed her shoulder.

They filed out saying thank you. Their smiles were open.

She sat down among their plates and serviettes. The fan whirred. It was suddenly very quiet.

 

They’d only been married two months. They’d met in the lean-to tobacco shop where she worked for her stepfather, Hank. She liked the smell of tobacco, her customers. She hated Hank. How he came in at the end of each day and took the cash box. ‘Gotta earn your keep since no-one wants to marry ya.’ He’d been saying the same thing every day since her mother died.

Geoff had arrived in the shop dripping with rain. It was a Thursday.

‘I need matches,’ he’d said. ‘I’ve been walking around with this thing hanging out of my mouth for hours.’ He grinned crookedly around the cigarette.

‘I think I can help,’ she’d said, laughing.

He’d stood in front of her with a sideways smile holding the white stick between his teeth. His stubble was short and his face sun-browned. She fished under the counter for her matches and slid them across to him. Then she slid him a dry cigarette.

‘You’re a wonder,’ he said.

He took the damp cigarette out of his mouth and smiled at her. His smile stayed uneven without the cigarette.

‘Do you mind if I smoke it here?’ he asked, holding the match over the flint.

‘No, of course not.’

He struck a match and leaned into the little flame. He drew in. As he exhaled, the edge of his smoke brushed her face; she wanted to reach through it and touch his lips.

‘That’s better,’ he said.

‘Good,’ she replied.

While he smoked he told her about travelling to Perth to find a buyer for his onions. She imagined a life of harvests and seasons and sleep. He asked if he could take her for a walk after closing. She nodded.

Later that day, as they walked by the river, she wanted to bury her nose into his skin and smell him. He was leaving. Back to the farm. But before he left it seemed as if something between them was already settled.

Three weeks later he was back. He wanted to show her the farm. As they drove he pointed out a new crop, a weed outbreak, where ownership lines started and ended, signs of old floods. His dog barked occasionally from the tray, baring its teeth. The dirt road fell away on both sides, fence posts ran side by side, meandering away from the road. Sarah wondered who owned the no-man’s-land between the road and the fence. Geoff held her hand and occasionally squeezed it.

After a couple of hours he pointed west.

‘That’s Gunny Bill’s place,’ he said. ‘He helps out with the harvest, but he’s more of a sheep man at heart. He’s got a good aim for the foxes. You’ll like his wife, Jean.’

‘Are there lots of foxes?’

‘Enough.’

Gunny Bill’s farmhouse was painted white and sat on a rise behind a recently ploughed paddock. Sarah made out a woman on the front porch, dressed in a loose shirt, reaching up to prune a fruit tree.

Later that day, when Geoff took Sarah’s hand on his front veranda and asked her to marry him, it was the timelessness of the pruning woman, the possibility of it, and the smell of his skin that made her say yes.

As they walked back to the car, the dog snapped at her heels. She jumped.

‘She’s a mongrel,’ he said. ‘Don’t take it personally.’

‘They’re working dogs,’ he added. ‘She’ll get used to you.’

 

The dishes were endless. Twelve of everything. Outside, the dog started up its yapping in twos then threes. Yap-Yap. Yap-Yap-Yap. When the last plate was done, she went outside. The dog was flopped down, bored and exhausted, its tongue hanging pink in full sun. Its ears pointed towards the paddock, tracking Geoff.

She approached the stake. ‘No wonder you’re a cranky dog,’ she said, keeping her voice low. ‘How about I move you to somewhere with some shade.’

She walked into the dusty circle and began to haul at the stake. It was hard into the ground. The dog got up and growled. ‘Easy, easy,’ she said. The growl became louder. Snapping and barking, the dog lunged at her ankles. Scrambling backward, she kicked up dust. Just out of reach she fell hard onto her hands. The dog barked in large snaps and strained at the end of its chain. Sarah ran inside, slamming the door behind her.

Her heart thumped.

The dog was still pulling at its chain, barking and crazed.

Through the safety of the screen she yelled, ‘Die in the sun, you mongrel dog!’

Then she collapsed onto the couch. Her wrist throbbed.

Outside, the dog barked and barked and was then silent.

Her words echoed foolishly in her head. She hated her unease in this place – and how she yielded to it. After a while she got up and returned to her work, using a handkerchief to wipe away a small drop of blood that was turning dark on her grazed wrist.

 

That night she sat at a small dressing table and shook out her hair. She flinched as she picked up her brush.

‘What did you do to your hand?’ Geoff asked.

‘Nothing really,’ she said. ‘I tried to move Chase into some shade.’

‘Did she go you?’

‘A bit.’

‘Let me see.’

He picked up her hand and gently examined it.

‘No bite marks,’ he said.

‘No, I fell.’

‘I’ll take her with me tomorrow.’

Geoff picked up her brush and pulled it through her hair. They both stared at her reflection. Her face was round, her features soft. Too soft for this place.

‘I tried to move her myself once,’ Geoff said still brushing. ‘Stupid dog spent the day straining at her chain trying to get back into the sun.’

She smiled at him in the mirror.

After a while, Geoff put down the hairbrush and ran his fingers over her hair and onto her shoulders. He slipped his hands into her nightie. She buried her nose into his forearm. Earth and onions.

 

In the early hours, a cry woke her. A woman’s screaming. She shook Geoff.

‘What?’ he mumbled.

‘Someone’s hurt.’

He rose up to his elbows and listened.

Arh. Arh. It was high, shrill, pained.

‘It’s a bloody fox,’ he said, shuffling back under the sheet. ‘Go back to sleep.’

His breathing resumed slow and even.

Arh. Arh. Arh.

Sarah slid into slippers and padded past the kitchen and out onto the porch. The cry came from everywhere. The moon was almost full over the horizon. She played absently with a box of matches on the table.

There was a small movement by the pines. Her eyes scanned low, below the branches. Nothing. Perhaps just shifting dark. Then she saw it: a long dark shape under the shadows, unmistakably a fox. It smelled the air and, in one movement, ran along the fence line and was gone. She breathed again.

She snuck back into bed; Geoff rolled towards her.

‘I saw it.’

‘What?’ he asked sleepily.

‘The fox.’

‘Tell me next time and I’ll shoot the thing.’

She lay awake until dawn, watching shadows and listening into the dark for a phantom bullet.

 

By early summer the onions were harvested, clipped and bagged into hessian sacks. For three days Sarah worked alongside the men in the grading shed, sliding a large needle in and out, closing the bags, listening to the lilting talk of the Italians and the banter of the rest. Her hands were dry and her skin itched. At night, she slept long and deep.

‘We’ll take them to Perth next week,’ Geoff said.

‘I’d like to stay here,’ she said.

Geoff looked taken aback.

‘Why?’

‘It’s something I can do,’ she said, ‘take care of things.’

‘But I can get Gunny to look after the place,’ he said.

‘I can do that now.’

He looked searchingly at her. Then his face relaxed a little.

‘I’ll leave you Chase,’ he said.

‘I’d prefer you didn’t.’

They laughed.

‘I’ll make sure Gunny and Jean look out for you,’ he said.

It was only for a few days.

 

At 4 am, she watched him drive off. She waved from the gate until the tail lights disappeared and Chase’s barking was taken over by silence.

She leant on the gate. The stand of pines spired against the morning sky. In the distance a bird called, too early for dawn. She wanted to see the fox. But the place was still beyond still. She went back to bed and slept wide and alone.

She woke late. There was a car pulling into the driveway.

She got up, wrapped her dressing gown around her, and went outside barefoot.

Gunny Bill was pulled up at the gate, his arm hooked up on the door and the ute running.

‘Everything all right here?’ he said.

‘I slept in,’ she said. ‘Sorry about my state.’

‘Good on you love. Do it while you can.’

‘The hens’ll be hungry,’ she said.

‘Won’t hurt ‘em.’ He played with the gear shifter.

‘Jean wanted me to invite you for dinner Sunday,’ he said. ‘She’s doing a roast.’

‘I’d like that.’

‘Right then,’ he said, shifting the car into reverse. ‘Pick you up at six.’

And he was gone.

The day disappeared with chores. She fell into bed early. She woke just before dawn from a dream about picking burrs from woollen socks. Mice were scrabbling behind the kitchen walls. She pulled a pillow over her head. Too hot. She sat up and dumped the pillow onto Geoff’s side of the bed. A mouse trap snapped somewhere in the kitchen. She shuddered and got up. Then she walked past the kitchen, skirting the far side of the hall as though afraid the mice were going to fling themselves at her.

The cotton cushion of the porch chair was cool and slightly damp on her legs. She picked up the matches. The small box was sweet in her hands. She turned it over, felt its flint. Pushed the tray out and in again with her index finger. She could just make out the outline of the redhead woman on the front. She pulled out a match, struck it and watched the flame flare, dim and then creep down the match. When the fire was at her fingers, she blew it out and smelled the plume. She pressed her fingernail into the soft wood at the base, split the small piece of wood into two pieces and threw them into the dark.

After three matches, the smoke started to make her giddy.

Maybe she could sleep here. Away from the scratching mice. She could make out the dark posts of the fence, lines of wire threading the posts together. The fox appeared, moving down the outside of the fence. It slid under the wire in one smooth movement and stopped in full sight on the driveway.

It was wiry. Its ribs pressed through its fur, thin and beautiful.

Then it slipped back under the fence.

Sarah got up, ran down the small path to the side gate, quietly opened it and followed the fox.

She trailed it for about a hundred yards along the track that led to the chicken shelter. Her slippers were filling up with the sandy soil. The fox looked back at her – just once – and kept moving.

Sarah stood at the end of the track, stopped by the fence, straining to see in the sepia darkness. A shape moved at the edge of the disused paddock. And then it was gone.

Sarah stood alone at the edge of her known world. The moon cast her shadow into the no-man’s land, over the fence behind the chicken shed, and into the weeds.

She lifted her nightdress above her knees, took off her sand-filled slippers, turned back towards the house and ran.

 

She woke on the sofa. It was late again. The rooster cried: the chickens needed feeding.

 

She reached in to collect the eggs. One was still warm. The intimacy of it made her grateful to the hens.

She set the eggs in the scrap bucket. Behind the henhouse, she leaned on the fence between the barbs in the wire, looking out to where the fox had been. Behind her, she saw her barefooted prints trailing in a panic back to the house. She parted the middle wires and ducked through the fence.

She walked through the weeds, jittery for snakes. There were clumps of daisies, unexpected yellow. She walked between the gold clumps as though the gaps were stepping stones across a river. She blinked into the sun and looked out past the paddocks, towards the back country, trees curved through the landscape to distant hills. It was beautiful. Fox country.

 

Mid-afternoon, after sweeping the carpets, she found some butcher’s paper. She took a pencil and traced out a simple map of the house, the henhouse, the dog’s circle, the rain-water tank. Then she drew the fence. She cross-hatched the no-man’s land and swept in the hills. She marked the area of yellow daisies. She wrote small cursive labels at the edges. Then she lightly dashed her own tracks across the page. Over the fence line.

Suddenly it was 5 pm. Gunny would soon be picking her up.

Before she got dressed, she found a chipped pudding bowl, poured in powdered milk and mixed it with water. She went outside and placed it under the pines, near the fence.

Gunny picked her up at 6 pm. When they arrived, Jean was waiting for them on the porch. She wore a man’s shirt, loose trousers and an apron. Her hair frizzed, slightly grey, out of a twist at the back of her neck.

‘Welcome, my dear,’ she said, and gave Sarah a hug.

During dinner, Sarah told them the story of her and Geoff meeting over tobacco. Jean wanted to know if she missed the shop.

‘No, I don’t,’ said Sarah. It surprised her to say it.

‘Did it close?’ Jean asked.

‘My stepfather found someone else to run it,’ she said. ‘A distant cousin of his.’

‘His loss, our gain,’ said Jean. Gunny nodded in agreement.

‘We need young people like you here,’ said Jean.

‘Not just like you, in fact: you in particular,’ said Jean, reaching over and squeezing Sarah’s wrist.

‘Hear! Hear!’ said Gunny.

After dinner, Jean and Sarah went outside. Gunny retired to the lounge to listen to the transistor.

‘He’ll be glued to that thing. Up all night. Then he’s so tired the next day he is completely ridiculous,’ said Jean, handing Sarah a brandy.

‘To the harvest being over,’ Jean toasted.

The brandy was strong and warm. Sarah coughed.

They looked across to the hills. They were indigo at night. A sulphur-crested cockatoo screeched across the sky.

‘Always last to bed, those pests,’ said Jean.

Jean drank her brandy in swigs.

‘How much saltpetre do you add to your corned beef?’ Sarah asked. The question sounded more serious than she intended.

‘Goodness,’ said Jean. ‘I don’t know you well enough to share that information.’

‘Oh,’ said Sarah, laughing awkwardly. She looked across at Jean who was grinning behind her tumbler.

‘I don’t use it, dear,’ Jean said. ‘Why?’

‘Oh nothing,’ said Sarah, ‘someone just mentioned it.’

‘I’m betting that someone is my husband,’ she said. ‘He got a taste for it in the war and says that nothing tastes the same without it. He really is ridiculous about it.’ Jean took another swig of brandy. She drank like a man. ‘But I’ll tell you what,’ she added, laughing, ‘I wouldn’t use it if I were you. They say it affects a man’s ability in the bedroom.’

Blood flamed up Sarah’s neck, under her chin and into her face. She pressed the cool glass to her cheek, grateful for the dark.

Jean reached over and patted her leg.

‘Sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.’

‘It’s just me,’ said Sarah.

‘Don’t mind me,’ Jean said. ‘I always say too much, and William speaks a lot of nonsense. It is why we tolerate each other so well.’

‘Here’s to tolerance,’ said Sarah, raising her glass.

They laughed together.

‘I think I am going to like you,’ said Jean and poured another brandy.

‘I’ve started feeding a fox,’ said Sarah.

‘A what?’ said Jean.

‘A fox,’ said Sarah. ‘She’s beautiful. I left her some milk before I came. She’s so skinny.’

Jean put down her drink. She looked serious.

‘Dear, there are things …’ She paused. ‘ Things like feeding foxes, that it’s best you either stop or don’t mention to Geoff.’

‘But I tell Geoff everything.’

‘Yes,’ said Jean. ‘It’s early days. I suppose you do.’

 

The next morning, despite the brandy, she woke early. She made tea and checked under the pines. The milk was gone. The morning was cool and her tea steamed in the aluminium mug. She walked through the front gate and followed the line of pines towards the onion paddock. She took a shortcut across the ploughed soil until she came to a river bed.

It was bone dry. She dropped into the sandy bed, spilling her tea. Along the sides there were thistles, occasionally a clump of grass. A couple of willows drooped at the first bend. She walked for a while and then stopped at a clump of stones under a lone willow.

She wondered if the fox knew this spot. She looked across the open paddock to the distant farmhouse. The light was so clear. It occurred to her that the farm had little shelter. Only a few trees by the farmhouse. Her fox would know this place – cool, a respite from the sun, a place of insects and lizards that rustled between the stones.

Geoff was due back that afternoon. She spent the rest of the morning putting on fresh sheets, cooking and picking the early plums from the tree. They smelt like the sun.

As she ate lunch she unrolled her map and marked in the onion paddock, the gate, the creek, the stones. She stared at the page. She took a needle from the dresser and pressed its sharp point into the paper, dotting the tracks of the fox. She dotted in the spot underneath the pines. She ran her fingers over the paper, feeling her own Braille.

 

She heard the dog and then the hum of the truck. She went outside, opened the gate and waited at the end of the driveway.

Geoff got out and held her hard. He smelled her hair, kissed her. They said nothing.

The dog started barking.

‘Bet you didn’t miss that idiot,’ he said.

‘How did you go?’ she asked.

‘Sold the lot. Got a good price. You’re my good luck charm.’

‘It’s good to have you home,’ she said.

‘I wanted to turn around and come back to you as soon as I left,’ he said.

While he showered, shaved and changed, she cooked dinner. They sat down at the dining-room table to chops and vegetables.

‘You tell me something about what’s been happening here,’ he said.

‘Then you,’ she said. He nodded with a mouth full.

She told him about dinner with Jean and Gunny.

He told her about the auction at the markets.

She told him that she started exploring and drawing maps of the farm.

‘It’s silly,’ she said.

He pushed back his seat and patted his thighs.

‘My Sarah,’ he said as she sat on his lap. ‘I like anything that attaches you to this farm and to me. I still think I’ll wake up and you’ll be gone.’

She unrolled the butcher’s paper. She told him about daisies and finding the dry creek.

‘What do these show?’ he asked, dragging his fingers across the tiny pin holes.

‘Oh nothing,’ she said. ‘I was just playing around.’

 

They fell back into a routine. Sarah began waking just before first light. She liked her hour in the farmhouse alone. Once the bread dough was rising under the sink, she would make tea and then head outside. In the china-blue dawn, she poured milk powder into a pot, mixed it with tank water and slid it under the pines. Some mornings she would hear the cry of the fox, just before first light. She’d sit on the cane chair, lighting matches. Only rarely would the fox appear. Always from different places: the side of the house, under the pines, from behind the shed. Always wild. Always thirsty.

Then she would creep back to bed. Geoff would stir. He’d tell her she smelled of dough and camp fires. He would ease his hands across her back and press hard against her. She loved his hands over her skin. After a while Geoff would get up, and Sarah would half doze, feeling the length of her body under the sheets and imagining the fox roaming over the paddocks.

 

The heat of the summer came late. They were in the middle of days of heat. Geoff was up early to mend the fence by the chicken coop. Sarah was peeling potatoes at the sink, smelling the earthy peel. Too hot to make bread. The cool of the linoleum settled on her ankles.

The screen door slammed.

‘Tea?’ she asked, not looking up.

‘A fox got into the coop,’ Geoff said.

She turned and looked at him.

‘It got everything.’

‘No,’ she said.

Sarah wiped her hands on her apron and stood by the sink. It was hard to know what to say. She didn’t move.

‘Those bloody foxes,’ said Geoff. She watched his jaw twitch by his ears.

He walked out of the back door, slamming it behind him.

Shortly he came back in, put a rifle on the dining-room table and shook two bullets from a faded box. They fell heavily against the wood.

‘I’ll have that tea and then I’ve got to bury what’s left,’ he said. ‘There’s guts everywhere.’

She made the tea. She felt hot and sick.

He took a couple of sips and got up.

‘I’ll be late for lunch,’ he said.

He tucked the gun under his arm and turned outside.

‘I’ll wait for you,’ she said.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Theresa Layton was born in Adelaide, and now lives in Canberra. Her short stories have won numerous awards and have appeared in Award-Winning Australian Writing (2010, 2011) and other publications. She lives in Canberra. She is currently writing a novel.

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