The romantic impulse will one day be the death of me. Hopefully not in a similar way, as in literally, like in the cases of some of my favorite novels. Cormac McCarthy’s characters in his three romantic westerns, The Border Trilogy, find their tragic end in romantic ambition. In All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain, John Grady, a young cowboy, chases love that has been deemed off limits.. His romantic way of interpreting and acting in the world is shattered at the end of All the Pretty Horses. He builds it back up through rugged cowboy life , but by the end of Cities on the Plain he will have been killed by a pimp for his love of a prostitute. These novels confront an old theological problem going back to the story of Eden. Man has a filthy track record of choosing Eve over God. However, the romantic ideology carries over into other ways of life. The other book in the series, The Crossing, confronts these issues. The romantic impulse is about mystery and following the voice of heart. Billy Parham tracks a wolf across the plains and takes care of it, whispers to it, feeds it– falls in love with it. The grace and beauty, strength and terror, mystery and tenderness of the wolfs reactions and movements cause him to want be wolf-like, to live in the mountains and sleep under the stars. He and the wolf become one. And where one goes the other follows. They are meant for each other, or so he believes. When it is taken from him by authorities, it is nearly his death in rescuing it. When the wolf’s freedom is threatened and then finally taken, Billy kills it himself, his only love, unwilling to let anyone have her, his freedom. These quiet cowboys feel these things in their bones, they don’t argue with it, they just act. It’s the stuff of hero’s…but more often, of fools. I’m a fool, at least 99% of the time. Could be my imagination or just that my bones are extra sensitive. I don’t know. I’m not dead yet, and so far 99% of the time I follow the wind, or a fox, it blows me to a pretty neat place.
Following the Fox
You have to wake up early to see the foxes. I need four alarm clocks to break the spell of dreaming. Three on my phone. The fourth the bell on the microwave telling me the waters boiled in my mug and ready to receive the honey, milk, and tea. I take deep, eyes closed hipster breaths of my chai and ease into a contented Folgers smile.
The pathways around campus are still untraveled at this hour. No boot prints, only invisible paw marks and the leftovers of nimble squirrel feet scurrying over the surface of damp leaves. Now that the clocks have turned back the walk is in the dark. The silent foxes and their blurry red bodies easily seen are now just eerie glinting eyes and their sweeping white tails silver flashes in the glow of bending moonbeams crawling around the bone trees.
I tread slow. Heel. Toe. Unwilling to disturb this place that hasn’t yet been awakened by the yawning sun’s golden mouth and morning breath steaming over the frost and mud puddles.
Two sour yellow eyes paralyze me. The shadow of comically oversized ears poised on a small head is upheld regal by the kingly little body. I’m whispering to him, the same smile that came with my chai tea spreads across my face. This early in the morning it’s good no one is out. My hand is tractor beaming forward and swooning in circles like I’m petting him. They have whole hospital wings for curing this kind of behavior.
I hold his stare and as his head slowly lowers my knees coil just in case they need to unhinge like springs. For a faint moment in our contest, the final moment, I can’t help but think this fox, crafty as they are, is not bowing in submission to my otherliness, but instead has tricked me and through the shadow cast over his face he’s grinning and mouthing, Follow me. Faster than a twig snap, his tail, all silver, fans and vanishes from where he once stood. The darting mirage is illuminated by the moon, bounding soundless over the fallen trees and dead branches.
As if I already didn’t look like a lunatic pawing at the at air, now I’m mad dashing, mimicking my fox friend and following him into the forest on the impulse that I’m not chasing him, but he’s leading me.
Less than a minute, maybe only fifteen seconds later and he has disappeared, dragged me into a ring of trees, muddied my sneakers, and left me standing alone in the woods on a dark blue morning. Off in the subterranean world to which he likely escaped, I imagine the squeaks and cheers he receives from his fellows, the cakes, and the warm tea, all in celebration of thwarting another land lovers imagination. He will surely tell of the way I fondled the air, my tiger crouch, and the flamboyant eye with which I looked at him, as if I was the clever one. Deep in their mulch caverns, they are warm and triumphant, laughing at the sound of the dumb silence stuck in the thick mud up above.
For a while it remained quiet. Then the wind kicked up and trailed the heavy leaves in a merry-go-round high up into the trees. They rained back down a kaleidoscope of autumns end. The dainty branches plucked the air on invisible keyboards with each surging gust. Howls carried the notes of pipes and beat the tree bark like tribal drums, and the wind gasps hummed on the tree skin. The leaves danced to the tune, shimmying their veiny shoulders and shaking the chimes of the dew diamonds they wore around their necks.
I remembered the fox grin. I had followed him here, to this place where the wind plays the trees or the trees plays the wind. In the dark, mud caked and looking like a sugar donut from the mist that is settling on my jacket, I wonder about the maker of the music. Does the wind howl raise a bowstring and harp across the limbs of the birches? Or do the trees wait for the wind to come and then open up their organ pipes?
It’s not a miracle to listen to the wind, to wonder, to explore the sound invisible swirls whisper into the ears of termite holes. It’s a miracle to stop. To get muddy shoes on Tuesday, to believe a fox should be followed. It’s a miracle to listen for something quieter than the music among the branches. The miracle is listening for the breath of the composer.
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