Until Thyself – Beloved
fiction by Joseph Bathanti

The fox, as if summoned, had trekked from Valle Crucis, toward Vilas, along a shank of the ice-throttled Watauga River. A poor swimmer, he loathed water. As a kit, he’d nearly drowned when an iced tarn he and his mother attempted to cross sundered, and he’d been swallowed. His mother had knifed in, plucked him from the frigid murk, then held and petted him on the bank until his trembling ceased. She taught him to hold his breath underwater, but his dread never lessened. How he’d loved her.

Undeniably, he was the red fox of lore – Vulpes vulpes in Latin, Alopex in ancient Greek – invoked, adored, despised in Genesis and Aesop – a stealthy trope across all of literature: sly, unctuously clever, often unsavory, seductive, disastrously handsome, eyes of the cultist. He trotted a forgotten boreen – nary a print of man nor beast, a rusted sledge of petrified cordwood hoarded in the pelvis of the valley’s first Sycamore, planted three centuries earlier – then long-fallow cabbage fields robed with snow still falling, falling, in frill white alms. 

He kept to the shadowy drifts, sinking, clawing up – nine pounds and dwindling, a featherweight, cloaked in a red plush chemise. There was abundant light – a foolhardy time to be abroad – but the snow had muted time and he was wholly unafraid. He passed into the churchyard of A Glass Darkly, a white-block pillbox chapel, cowled in a knoll of graves; then crept between the oily bays of the falling-over Fina, and stopped short of Hwy. 421. No traffic. The distant tring of chained tires spun a mile off on Charlie Thompson Road, and county slag trucks gattled useless salt onto the mantled blacktop. The fox’s breath was white. It froze in the ether. The one color: white. 

Once he crossed 421, he had no more consort with the road. He dropped into the gully past the first fork of Linville Creek where it floods mighty of a spring. It spun silver, seized in ice. The meadow clouted in snow. Only ironweed pierced it – a storey of purple swale. Pods of exploded thistle – indeterminate from the one white. The fox lifted his mask: woodsmoke. The hearths of Vilas gobbled fire.

He hiked the ridge, fiery brush heaving icelets, and halted at the ancient black walnut he worshiped. Every year, it threatened to die. Every year, it leafed later in its season, yet its yield remained prodigious. The fox looped chaplets of urine about the tree – to drive mad the coyotes – and convened his descent from the ridge peak: a balletic slalom he relished. Nothing of alarm on the wind. No matter. When pressed, he outpaced the wind – even over blizzard snow. The sky glistered iron as it darkened: snow flung itself to earth, as if it could not bear another moment.

The fox was a tad blue – so misunderstood, so misread, in heraldry and verse. He had come a distance since, earlier, he’d been fetched from his den by instinct – stronger now as he reached the ridge-bottom. Distance. It recalled an Emily Dickinson poem: “Distance – is not the Realm of Fox / Nor by Relay of Bird / Abated – Distance is / Until thyself – Beloved.” Perhaps, thought the fox; in his head beat the poem’s steady iambs. 

Suddenly appeared a cottage, on stilts, at the lip of a tiny frozen pond. A massive single-paned window spanned its length. Inside danced, sans music, in courtly fashion, an ancient, white-haired man; and a woman who looked his twin, voluminous alabaster braids at her neck. He wore a tuxedo; blinding, Super Blue Moon snow-white shirt; lethal black bowtie. She: long white lacy frock, like a bridal gown, a thousand garnets stitched into its bodice. Her head rested on his shoulder, eyes closed, pleated lips pursed in whisper. The fox heard clearly the second hand of the man’s gold pocket watch as it ticked in revolution over the solemn face of Roman Numerals.

The fox was desperate to enter the cottage, the thrall of that ancient couple. But such folly is forbidden, save in disastrous fairy tales where foxes don mourning suits and opera hats, smoke imported cigarettes, behave like cads, and deceive children. 

The old ones in the cottage: they might have been ghosts. They almost looked like foxes – the ghosts of foxes. They approached the window and pressed against it: they were indeed foxes. Kind old foxes: his beloved mother; and his father, whom he’d never known, had seen only in daguerreotypes, murdered by a bright blue El Camino on Beaver Dam Road – his brush lifting from the tar in the hot wind like a head of wildfire.

Perhaps he had indeed stumbled into a fairy tale, a fable. In such tales, beguilement remains the ploy – to bait prey with nostalgia and cheap sentiment, then watch it gnash off its leg. But there they were: his mother and father – psychopomps – illuminated, iconographic, gazing longingly at him beyond the cloak of the wild and desperate snow. They both wore spectacles and smiled. His beautiful mother’s eyes prismed with fox mother tears. She beckoned.

A scholar of such deception, the fox had pored over the annals of cunning. Yet he could not forswear cunning – his lot, his archetypal birthright. Hadn’t it kept him alive? This man and woman were apparitions, his signal to pivot and run. Unconsciously, he had minced onto the lip of the pond and stood now at its epicenter. He felt the vibration before the groan and keen-lament, like whale song – like the Kyrie – as the ice, so very predictably, deformed and cracked.

Joseph Bathanti is the former North Carolina Poet Laureate (2012-14) and recipient of the North Carolina Award in Literature, the state’s highest civilian honor. He is the author of twenty books. His latest volume of poetry, Light at the Seam, from LSU Press, won the 2022 Roanoke Chowan Prize, awarded annually by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association for best book of poetry in a given year, as well as the 2023 Brockman-Campbell Award, given annually by the North Carolina Poetry Society, for the best book of poetry published by a North Carolina poet in the previous year. The Act of Contrition & Other Stories, winner of the Eastover Prize for Fiction, from Eastover Press, was published in 2023. His novella, The Stranger, is forthcoming in 2024 from Regal House Press. Bathanti is McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He served as the 2016 Charles George VA Medical Center Writer-in-Residence in Asheville, NC, and is the co-founder of the Medical Center’s Creative Writing Program. 

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