by Brian Lee Cook
As a kit, you spent hours each week lying on the lawn overrun by dandelions, staring up. Up. On sunny days, streaks from jets and airplanes crossed through the blue world surrounding your home. “Foxes belong on the ground,” your mother told you time and time again when your thoughts carried you away, up into the atmosphere. Even rain clouds closing out the sun excited your mind as imaginary fighter pilots swam around the dark puffs and lightning bolts.
School brought you together with other dreamers. “What do you want to be someday?” asked Miss Farrow, the collie who looked tall enough to touch clouds. Little voices chimed in—a doctor, a race car driver, a soldier. The small room in that brick building throbbed with imagination. When the skunk in the corner said “a pilot,” you hated him. Three days later, you were best friends.
Despite what you learned, the sun eagerly spun around the earth as you grew, whirling on with clockwork sunrises and sunsets. You moved to a small town where the stars were brighter at night, where the sky was mostly empty. You left your friends but made others. Maple trees in your yard grew to twice, three times your height. You grew too, but not as much as those at junior high, at high school. Society sifted you away from the strong as other possibilities appeared. Three times, you stood on a stage, nervous under the lights. Yet you shined.
Your world revolved around dreams in the sky.
“There are no more wilds,” an English teacher told your class. “We only have the urban and the pastoral.” When you sat down on your porch, staring at the white house across the empty street, you believed him. You had never seen an animal that lived outside of civilization, and though your body had traces of those feral ancestors, the pads on your hands had never been used for walking. Some days, you stared at the machinery in the sky—streams of white trailing their hollow bodies—and wished that something organic, something real could traverse that endless sea.
Clouds collapsed over the town, lacing everything with a white chill. You were sixteen, and you met the wolf walking home from school. Powdered snow lay adrift the sidewalk as you both kicked up the whiteness, a spray of glitter in the sun. Somehow, he knew of you, even though you had never talked. He asked you to visit, and like a beautiful fool, you picked Persephone’s flower.
You sit on the front porch, looking out across the lawn through the maple trees to the abandoned road—a concrete ghost. Your books lie scattered across the cement steps as if you had looked at them. As if you care about studying. “Are you alright?” your mother says through the screen door. But you don’t turn. Instead, you stare, forgetting what you see, your mind drawing its own screen closed. She leaves after a minute, and you stare.
A clicking sound, and your ears flick—the sound of an unbroken claw tapping against the cement. You draw your paws up, clenching, folding, hiding them. Even though weeks have passed, the keratin snap still sears through you.
“What happened to your claws?” your mother asks as you sit at dinner, a single light bulb hanging over the table casting shadows around the room. You say nothing, even as her paws squeeze yours. The bare digits burn. Trails of smoke streak through the naked world above the table, through the ceiling and tree leaves, and you know there is no room for you.
Gray and blue skies sail away, a gyroscopic sun spinning around the earth, your thoughts spinning away through lost years—your mother standing at the wooden counter, stirring a bowl of brownies as she cries into them; the sight of two cars colliding on the interstate, wrapping around each other in an inseparable embrace; an old fox’s face pruned up, dried out as many surrounded his casket. You try to remember faces, surroundings, but all slip away to one memory.
Even in the winter, the house swells with rank heat, wood walls twisting through hallways. You sit in his room on the bed, forgetting why you had even stepped into the house as the wolf pins you down. You scream. You kick. But most of all, you cry, claws breaking off in his flesh, your own flesh ripped apart by his. “The pastoral is a joining of the urban and the wild,” says your teacher, “a place where we can experience nature without fear.” But your fear stems from this hybrid microcosm, the intertangling of two that never should have been coupled.
“I feel like I’m losing you,” your mother says as she looks out the window, her tail, ears sagging on her body. She looks older, and so do you. The house fills with dusty magazines and unopened letters. Boxes. The sun-faded wooden plane you had played with as a kit. Even with so much color, everything is gray through your eyes. “Tell me what happened.”
She won’t say anything as she stares at you, as you stare at her, the blue in her eyes glowing above the dreary world around you. A glass will fall to the floor—hit, rebound, roll, stop. In the silence, nothing will break.
She will hug you, and as she does, her hugs will pinwheel you through the yellow-brick of glassy-eyed councilors’ offices, through saturnine tears matting fur, through those bitter accusations that you could have done something, that for some reason it, everything, was your fault. Hugs through the seasons, barrel-rolling through falling snow until the sky finally awakens. Hugs across crested mountains and famished valleys, across raw cities and dendritic pastures. Hugs reminding you that your problems will be great but your future will be greater.
One morning you will wake up, your body ruffled from sleep but flowing with energy as you step outside. You will be alone that day, yes, but as you arrive at the airport and walk through the gate wearing your winged badge, you won’t feel alone. An old ferret sitting in the lounge will lick her lips as she gazes up at you. Realizing what she’s doing, she will widen her eyes then look back to the ground. You will laugh because you will know how to laugh.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you that foxes belong on the ground?” a grinning vulpine will ask you, nudging you with his elbow. You’ll nod, and that ground will journey with you through the skies.