They say dark painted walls make a room look smaller but these, the color of blackberry juice, contain multitudes. There’s a dog in the corner snoring, a hound resting his jowly face and heavy ears on wide, wrinkled paws. I stand by the wooden table with unfinished edges, two slabs joined together by butterfly joints. Someone laid a sheet of periwinkle muslin across it and dotted it with their dishes. A stew still so hot it’s bubbling, the chunks of carrot and potato bobbing up to the surface then sinking out of sight. An intricately woven loaf of bread someone has lovingly strewn sprigs of rosemary atop. A pot of rice that had been tipped over onto a platter so you could see the crisped bottom, golden and glistening with oil. A bed of greens torn by hand then tossed in vinaigrette and topped with walnuts and dried cranberries. A quaint blackberry pie with a ceramic dove bursting forth from its center. A large crystal bowl of steaming wassail dotted with orange slices. Even at the edges of the room farthest from the heat of the food, this party was uncomfortably warm. People were standing too close to one another. Pink scarves were draped over lamps so they’d cast tinted light. The hum from the stereo was familiar modal jazz. A tall red fox stood in a tweed three-piece suit. I wasn’t watching when he came in but recognized immediately that the sage green scarf hung on the coat rack by the door was his. Tight double crochet. Someone made that scarf for him. They used their own two hands. They bent over the yarn for an hour or two. They held it up every once in a while to see if it was long enough, good enough for him yet. And he had taken it off and hung it on the coat rack. He did not talk to anyone on his way over to me. He did not look at them. He looked at me, looked down his long, straight snout at me. When I was four feet tall, I would let the screen door slam shut behind me while my mother chopped onions for dinner. We had a great big fence of rotting wood and grass too tall. On a more stable picket, a tendril of green garden peas grew. I would pick as many as I could fit in my sweaty palms and wait for it. When it came, a bag of bones and red fur with a tail like a switch flicking behind it, I would turn to make sure my mother wasn’t looking and stick my hands out at it. It ate the pea pods one by one off my hands. Once, it caught my skin with a tooth and stared at me with big brown eyes, ashamed, before running off. I’d tell my mother I had given myself a paper cut from turning the pages too quickly on my big, beautiful animal encyclopedia. I’d bandage it myself and she’d give me a sippy cup of juice. She didn’t bother to check for herself what it looked like and I would go back to the fox the next night, pretending like what happened hadn’t happened. This fox, the one standing on two feet in oxfords, lifted a paw to tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and sighed, “I’m probably going to head out. I can’t do the whole potluck thing. I want to be able to sit down and take my time, y’know? And I hate talking to these people, y’know?” He looked off at the crowd around us and I thought I did know but wished I didn’t. “Okay. I said I was going to go back to hers soon anyway for that other thing.” That night the fox of my childhood bit me, I sat up in my twin bed and prayed for 5 minutes more than I usually would. I prayed for everything I knew just in case. I prayed for the fox. That he’d get more food. That he’d find a good home. That the cut on my hand would heal well. That when the scab became a scar and I kept growing someday I would barely see it. That no one would ask where it had come from. That he’d come back tomorrow even if he bit me again. That he’d keep coming back even if he bit me every single time. When I told the fox, the one wearing the kind of jacket with patches on the elbows, that I would be leaving too, just as he had told me he planned to a moment before, he breathed out a little laugh. “What?” I said it as quietly as I could, so maybe he wouldn’t hear and I wouldn’t have to find out. “I just think it’s really fucked up. How often does this sort of thing happen and you’re just, what? Making other plans at the same time?” I went to school the day after the bite and told anyone who asked that it was a paper cut. Some of the other children were talking on the playground about their pet dogs. A german shepherd that lives outside and really isn’t allowed inside ever. A pitbull, but we have to say he’s a mix because of that law – have you heard about it? A black lab with a graying face who sometimes plops down on the ground so hard we’re worried he won’t be able to pick himself back up. So, I told them I had a fox. My fox was faster and stronger than their dogs. No, it’s not, they would argue, because my dog runs around Kennedy Park on the weekends or totally once lifted the couch up by itself or can carry me on its back for actually a really long time even though he’s pretty old. Come over to my house and see, they’d say. I would go over to their houses and see their dogs. They were just dogs. Then they would come over to my house, but the fox was never there. They’d have to take my word for it. I can’t look this fox, the one wearing a plain, gold wedding band on his finger, in the eye, but it doesn’t matter. I do not put up a fight. “Okay, so then I won’t. No, you’re totally right. I should have thought like… I can go over to hers for that thing any time. Whatever you were originally thinking.” He made the noise again. A little laugh that isn’t a laugh that says, “You are fucking up. I am smarter than you. I still love you but I do not like you right now. However, I will never love you and protect you the same way I love and protect myself, but explain to me why I should when you are fucking up like you are right now.” The first time they put me in the booth, I begged forgiveness for lying about the source of the cut on my hand. The man on the other side of the lattice window stared straight ahead as he listened, giving no indication of his thoughts. I stared at his hands clasped in his lap, large but unmarred by calluses. The assumption, I take it, is that you will find your closure in the absolution. The act of contrition got caught in my throat. I exited the booth to perform penance with a locked jaw. The next time I saw the man it was on the school side, the sisters’ dominion. He had come to see how the winter fundraiser, dollar hot cocoa for the victims of one of the disasters, was progressing. He approached me with recognition, knew my name, and asked if I wanted one of the steaming styrofoam cups. I said I didn’t have the money and he knelt down to strike a deal. He’d buy it in exchange for a hug, during which he whispered in my ear how bright I was. His hands, unblemished, clasped too tightly and lingered on what hips I had, still four feet tall. I had no compelling argument for this fox, whose red fur thins at his temples. Why expend the energy explaining yourself to someone who is always right? I walked him to the door quietly, watching as he draped the scarf over his shoulders. Why wear it if not to bring you warmth? When we stepped onto the porch and were out of the party’s sight, he wrapped me in a tight hug. I did not cry. Nor did I as he walked away. He did not look back. Eventually, I did show my mother the scar on my hand. She cried and insisted, if she had known, she’d have repaired the rotting fence ages ago. We don’t live in that house anymore, but the fence still stands. On quiet days, I drive past it to see if the peas still grow. The fox is never there. Sometimes, during conversations which have little to do with that old life of ours, my mother will suddenly announce, “Isn’t it good that he stopped coming around? We never had to tell him to, he just did. On his own volition.” I don’t know if it’s good. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop driving past the old house to see if he changed his mind. When this fox, the one who put on wire-rimmed sunglasses as he walked down the sidewalk, faded into the horizon, I turned on my heel and entered the party once more. I did not talk to anyone on my way to the wooden table in the back. I did not look at them. I served myself a plate and walked right back out the door. I sat on the brick stoop with my legs uncrossed, quite unladylike. As I adjusted myself to get comfortable, my stockings caught on the uneven caulking. I did not fawn over the rip, I tucked into my meal. I picked the cranberries and walnuts out of the salad first and placed each leaf into my mouth gingerly with my thumb and forefinger. I spooned the stew over the rice and, when it was done, sopped up the boozy, fatty liquid with a chunk of bread. I ate my slice of pie with a great towering dollop of whipped cream. It was a start.
Marina Ramil (any pronouns) is a student writer and a lifelong reader of all kinds. They and their writing very much live in Miami, Florida, for now.