A short story wherein a son attempts to find meaning in his relationship with his mother, a woman who drew relevance from even the most trivial occurrences in life…
by: Matthew Fort
My mother believed everything was a sign from God. Good or bad, God transmitted messages — invisible to the rest of us — that she received and decoded. When my father checked out of our family two weeks before I turned thirteen, mother said God had spared us from father’s alcoholism. My sister and I assumed it was a sign that our father had grown tired of hearing about the signs. Or, when my sister dropped out of pre-law at the University of Minnesota to read palms in a used bookstore in Dinkytown, mother said it was a sign that her prodigal daughter would have to feed the pigs before returning home to a welcoming feast. When my ex-wife left me for some jackass she found at her gym, mother read this as another good sign.
“This is God telling you that you would have never found happiness with that woman,” she said. “That woman,” the only name mother ever used for my ex-wife.
Two months after mother died, I started running again. I had put on some weight since her funeral and there was a paved trail close to my apartment that I liked. The trail formed a series of L-shaped segments, which appeased my sense of geometrical order. The first one ran adjacent to a busy highway, the second parallel to a middle school and a water treatment plant where the scent of eau de cesspool lingered for a city block. A crosswalk signaled the start of the last L. This final segment left civilization and plunged into a protected forest where every hundred yards or so a metal sign reminded me there was no hunting or collecting allowed. The trail, lined mostly by jack pines, maples, sumac, aspen, the occasional box elder, and white spruce, allowed me to forget that I lived in a city, as I could barely hear sirens or the sound of tires humming along the interstate. The paved part of this L ended in the middle of the woods and only a gravel path poked deeper into the forest. It was clear there were plans to pave the path one day. Surveyor stakes outlined its future boundaries and dunes of class five gravel rested in spots next to brush piles. A rope blocked the entrance to the gravel path and a sign warned not to proceed. I saw no one behind me, so I stepped over the rope and continued on the gravel. I had jogged about a quarter of a mile when I saw it standing just at the edge of the tree line: vulpes vulpes — the red fox.
I stopped and caught my breath. The fox stood silently, eyeing me dispassionately. If mother had been alive and standing next to me right then, I wondered how she would interpret this chance encounter with one of God’s creatures. For longer than I had wanted, I entertained the absurd idea that the fox was mother’s way of sending me a sign that she had made it successfully into the kingdom of heaven she was so certain existed. Or, that she was the fox. This idea became too amusing to abandon. I even noted how the fur on its cape bore a similar shade to my mother’s hair when she was younger, before she had received the gift of interpreting signs, before my father had grown wary of hearing them. Its coat was the color of a wood lily, the muted orange of a summer sunset, bright copper. Only the animal’s legs and nose, which looked as if it had wandered and sniffed its way through a coal bin, didn’t fit the comparison. I didn’t know if it was a dog or a vixen, but it wasn’t scared of me and waited for me to say something. I spoke to it as if it were mother, and when I did, the tips of its ears shifted like an antenna trying to receive my voice.
“This is a pretty elaborate stunt, even for you,” I said. “Don’t they have a gift shop where you are, everything being as commercialized as it is?” The fox lowered its head. “Are you playing nicely with others? Not running with scissors, I hope, or plunging them into Uncle Frank’s back (if he’s even where you are) for screwing us out of an inheritance?” The evening light left long shadows, thin as arms, on the ground. “This sounds stupid to even say, but the first question I had after you died, the first thing I wondered was where you’d gone. Where were you now that you were so obviously not here? Tumbling through black holes in space? Telling St. Peter what to do? I wanted to see something. Can you believe that? You and your goddamn signs. I wanted an answer. All those years of forcing me to find meaning in every single thing. Is it any wonder I needed a sign that you were safe? Your signs are a hard habit to break, almost as hard as quitting drinking.” A rustling noise from my right caused me to break eye contact with the fox. A fawn with newly stamped spots stumbled into our conversation. I watched the fawn retreat and heard it stumble through the brush before it stopped to listen. When I turned back, the fox was gone.
My mother was a beautiful woman when she was young. In the only picture of her I own, she’s eighteen, standing on a train platform. The train stretches out in a diagonal line and mother has her back to it. She’s in the foreground and behind her people rush about — men in business suits and hats, others only smears of color. Mother is holding her suitcase, the same one I found in the old house while sorting through all the things she’d forgotten to sign away while she was alive. She’s posing for this picture — a half-turn toward the camera, her bright, coppery hair falling far below her shoulders, her eyes, deep set and green, sparkle with the half smile she gives my father, the unseen photographer, the man behind the camera. She doesn’t know all the stings of disappointment that will come. She’s just eighteen and boarding a train and the man she’s currently fallen in love with has said or done something to make her smile.
By the time I came along, her bright coppery hair had retreated to a thin salmon-colored stripe in the back, suffocated by wooly, calcified hair the color of white sagebrush. She kept her hair cut well above her shoulders. Her eyes had turned muted green, signs of the trauma that comes with birthing two children and tolerating an alcoholic husband.
I didn’t want to see the fox again and waited two weeks before giving running another go. This time, it appeared near dusk in a different spot on the gravel trail. It stood and waited for me to speak again. I had been dwelling on the photograph — the only picture of mother, the only real proof that she had once been alive, had once been young and beautiful — about to board a train with a crowd of people who were also alive, and also rushing toward their futures.
“Why didn’t you write anything down about your life?” I asked the fox. “You know you could have written down some of your memories. What it was like growing up during the Great Depression? Who your friends were and what they were like? When you got in trouble and how lenient grandpa was with your transgressions? What did dad say to get you to smile in that picture?” The fox, as it had done before, steadied its gaze on me. “Maybe I wouldn’t be drinking myself to death if you had actually left a real sign that you’d once existed.” The fox moved into the middle of the gravel path, some ten yards in front of me and stopped. It stared at me intently, knowingly, the way mother did when decoding her signs. “Why didn’t you write anything down? Like how you could be so goddamn certain about everything. How could anyone be that certain? Your convictions frightened me, they still do. They’re a force ten, blowing everything to dust. You were always so certain, even when everything crumpled around you — the inheritance gone, dad gone — and you were so goddamn certain you could see what it all meant. How does that feel? I want to know how that feels.”
The last time I saw the fox, some time had passed. The leaves changing colors signaled the inevitably of summer conceding to fall. The maples turned cardinal red and then the aspen followed suit with their daffodil-yellows. The sumac looked like rows of chili peppers drying in the sun. On one lonely stretch, jack pine needles — the exact hue of mother’s once coppery hair — covered the paved trail.
This time the fox appeared in the same place I’d seen her the first time, standing next to a red maple, just feet away from the edge of the gravel path. She looked tired, weary, and ready to turn and leave.
“I’m sorry, mother” I said to her, “I’m sorry about what I said last time. Is that why you didn’t show up for so long? Look, I was just frustrated and angry. I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that one minute you were here and alive and the next you were gone forever. Is anyone ready for that?” She shifted her weight slightly, staring intently. “I’ve only had one drink in the last week, so that’s a huge improvement. You can’t say I’m turning into him. If I had one beer on a hot, summer day that was the first thing you’d say: ‘you’re turning into him.’ Well I’m not. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
The fox turned and walked ahead of me down the path, slowly at first, then crossed into the tall grass. I saw the white of her tail bouncing just before she disappeared into the darkest part of the woods.