Fox

A mother fox dug under the old barn now used as a storage shed. Some of us think she has eight kits; one person counted nine. She’s raising her little ones beside a well-used path to the arena where riders on horseback pass several times a day. The boldest of the kits sun themselves as we stare, mystified that their mother isn’t threatened by us or our massive, stomping companions. She quietly leads them to the automatic watering bowl of the mini horses, who watch, stupefied, while the red-brown troupe marches past.

She has given me a lot to think about. One thing that comes to mind is the infamous story of an American girl who traveled to Italy and became, by way of the tragic fate of another girl, the pariah of a nation. “Foxy Knoxy,” the seldom used childhood nickname of Amanda Knox, was recycled in order to demonize her in the press. I was one of those obsessed with the case for a while. The regular mansplaining of Amanda’s “behavior,” the magnification and analyses of her facial expressions and vocal tones (so reminiscent of the treatment of Lindy Chamberlain, the Australian woman whose infant was taken by a dingo), and the cocksure misogyny of the public discourse surrounding the case all contributed to a personal feeling of loss that I could barely articulate at the time. The Foxy Knoxy headline contributed to an image that was brazen, beautiful, and deadly. It had done its job.

…foxes in Korean folk tales are not always female, but they are predominantly so, and almost always evil. They are generally seductive creatures that entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang — their masculine force — and leave them dissipated or dead…In Korean the term for fox, “yowu,” also refers to a conniving and cunning woman, quite similar to the term “vixen” in English, which is not quite as pejorative. Although Americans will use the modifier “foxy” to describe an attractive woman, Koreans would only use that term for its negative connotations.
 
Heinz Insu Fenkl, “Fox Wives and Other Dangerous Women”

The Italian press were pejorative as hell. They understood, whether consciously or not, the potential of fox power for good or ill, casting Ms. Knox as both dangerously attractive and conniving–like a witch.

There is a general belief in witches taking the form of foxes. Witches are said to go out at night as fox souls, do much mischief in this form, and then return to their bodies, which have lain as if dead on their beds meanwhile.
 
Marie-Louise von Franz, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales

In real life, foxes have both doglike and catlike qualities, masculine and feminine aspects, making them perfect archetypal material. Foxes are rarely neutral in fairy tales and folklore; indeed, they appear as tricksters or, more commonly in European and Asian fairy tales, as vampiric characters taking either masculine or feminine form.

“Mr. Fox” is an ancient example of one such tale. English in origin, it was collected by Joseph Jacobs and is a kind of anti-tale to “Bluebeard” (I urge you to real Katherine Langrish’s wonderful article about this). It tells the story of Lady Mary, a young woman who chooses Mr. Fox from among a group of suitors. He appears to her as a wealthy gentlemen with fine manners and a wonderful castle as his dwelling. One day, while Mr. Fox is away and her brothers are otherwise occupied, Lady Mary, driven by curiosity, seeks out and finds the abode of her intended. On the gate is written: Be Bold, Be Bold. Over the doorway she reads: Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold. Upon entering the house and mounting the stairs, she comes to a door on which she finds the words: Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Heart’s Blood Should Run Cold.

Lady Mary is a cool customer. She enters the room and finds a bloody chamber full of the remains of young ladies. When she tries to leave, Mr. Fox appears in the yard, dragging the body of yet another girl. Lady Mary hides and while she watches, Mr. Fox attempts to remove a ring from the dead girl’s finger. When he can’t do that, he cuts off her hand, which flies into Lady Mary’s lap. When Mr. Fox fails to find the ring, or Lady Mary, the latter rushes home, carrying the evidence of Mr. Fox’s crime. Later, at a supper laid by Lady Mary’s family, she confronts her betrothed with the evidence by telling a story about a dream she had in which he had killed and dismembered a young lady, and when he denies it, producing the hand! Lady Mary’s father and brothers immediately kill the murderer. Mr. Fox is cunning and deadly, but Lady Mary is more than his match.

Heinz Insu Fenkl recounts a tale from Korea (by way of China)–”The Fox Sister.”

A man with three sons dearly wishes for a daughter, “even if she is a fox.” His wish fulfilled, the baby girl is the darling of all the household. When she is six years old, horror befalls them when one of their cows is killed each and every night. The father sends his eldest son out to keep watch. The young man tells a terrible tale: “It is our little sister who is killing the cattle. She came out in the middle of the night and I followed her to the cattle shed. By the moonlight I could see her as she did a little dance. Then she oiled her hand and her arm with sesame oil. She shoved her whole arm into the cow’s anus and pulled out its liver. She ate it raw while the cow died without a sound.”

The father banishes his son for his lie, and when the cattle slaughter continues, he sends his second son to watch. This young man tells a similar story and is also banished. The third son, keen to remain with his family, declares that the full moon is killing the cows and that his sister is innocent. The delighted father rewards him, declaring, “You shall inherit my lands when I have gone to join our ancestors.”

The two elder brothers wander until they are taken in by a Buddhist master. After years of study, the master tells them their sister is likely a fox demon. He gives them three bottles–white, blue, and red–and instructs them on their use. When the brothers finally reach their old home, they find it utterly destroyed. All that remains is their sister. When they attempt to leave, she serves a sumptuous meal, which leaves them lethargic. The eldest awakens in the night to hear his sister chomping on the bones and slurping up the blood of his brother. He flees in terror and the girl gives chase. It is only when he remembers the master’s instructions that he uses the three bottles to finally defeat the fox.

I am in awe of the mother fox under the barn. She is at once familiar and mysterious, coming and going as silently as the breeze. And though her choice of abode seemed foolish to me at first, I now realize it was perfectly sound. The cat is lazy and so there are plenty of mice. Pigeons abound. Horses don’t mind foxes. And the people seem hardwired to admire her, or fear her, depending on the watcher.


Some extra Foxy reads:

  1. “Fox,” a poem by Adrienne Rich
  2. “‘Kitsune’, Fox,” a short story by Brittany Warman
  3. “The Fox Sister,” a web comic by Christina Strain (currently on hiatus)
  • Fox image by werner22brigitte at Pixabay.com
  • Mister Fox image by Joseph Jacobs [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Moon image by mikhsan at Pixabay.com

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