by James Tadd Adcox
Toward the end, the grandmother began leaving offerings in her backyard each night for the fox. Her family told her not to; but each time they confronted her about it, she claimed she had no idea what they were talking about.
“There isn’t any fox out there,” she would say. “And I wouldn’t leave anything out for it if there were.”
And to the fox, each night, she would say: “I will give you my grandson, who I love, if you will stop them from sending me from my house.”
Because she knew they were discussing what to do with her. “She’s getting so much worse,” the mother said.
“You don’t know the half of it,” the aunt said, and the uncle agreed: “You don’t live here, you don’t have to deal with her every day.”
“What if she leaves the stove on, and burns the house down?” the mother asked. “And what if it causes the house next to it to burn down? Poor Mrs. Ashani. She didn’t ask for any of this. She’s never been anything other than nice.”
At Thanksgiving the mother came down with the grandson, her son, so that they could take the grandmother with them to look at other options. The night they arrived, the grandmother and the mother and the grandson and the aunt and uncle all had dinner at the grandmother’s house. The
grandmother had insisted on cooking dinner but had forgotten to do so, so the aunt brought leftovers from what she and the uncle had cooked for lunch, and they cooked them in the microwave and allowed the grandmother to set the leftovers on some plates she had bought at the “antique store.” All during dinner, the grandmother kept telling them how much she loved her house. She would point to things in her house, her cabinets, her mirror, the table they were eating on, and tell them how much she loved each thing. “Love it, just love it,” she would say. “I don’t know how I would live without it.”
“Mother, what are you doing?” asked the mother, towards the end of dinner. The grandmother was separating out some of the food from her plate onto a smaller plate.
“Nothing,” the grandmother said.
“She’s getting ready to go feed that fox,” the aunt said.
“Now you listen to me,” the grandmother said, as the mother scraped the food from the smaller plate into the garbage bin. “I have no interest in going to look at any of those places. I have no interest in being any place but right where I am. Do you hear me? I love my house and I don’t want to leave it, and if you put me in some home somewhere I will die, I swear to God I will. I will die and you will have killed me.”
“A lot of these places are really nice,” the grandson offered. He was in his twenties, and beautiful, but an idiot. He needed a haircut. “Like, nicer than where I live. I’d probably end up coming to visit you more often if you lived in a place like that, instead of here, in the middle of nowhere.”
That night, after the aunt and uncle were gone and the mother and grandson asleep, the grandmother retrieved the food her daughter had wasted from the garbage, and put it back on a
plate, then slipped into the grandson’s room and took a shirt from his luggage. She was so light that, with her shoes off, she didn’t make a sound. Outside she set down the plate and the shirt and called out softly: “Fox, my fox, I have a gift!”
The fox approached, took in the grandmother’s stockinged feet, then sniffed at the plate. “This is not your grandson,” he said.
“It’s chicken parmesan, I think. It might be a little chewy from the microwave.”
“Is this your grandson?” the fox said, sniffing at the shirt. It was a very ugly t-shirt, from a band that she assumed sounded very bad.
“Part of him,” the grandmother said. “I will give you the rest if you uphold our deal.”
“Listen to me, in that case,” the fox said, between bites of cold chicken. “Tomorrow, on the way to the old folks’ home, you will see three doves—”
“You mean pigeons?”
“Doves are what people call pigeons when they want them to sound fancy. Disgusting things. Trash birds is what they are.”
“Do you want to stay out of the old folks’ home or don’t you? Okay, I thought so. Tomorrow, three doves, or pigeons, or what-have-you. One of them’s going to be choking. On a golden ring. You getting all this?”
The grandmother was looking off at the walking path that passed by her house, beyond the creek and just in front of the woods. The fox made a hissing sound to get her attention.
“Gold ring,” the grandmother said.
“You’re going to take it from the dove’s mouth. Or beak.”
The grandmother shuddered. “And then what?”
“That’s all I got. After that: magic.” The fox chomped up the last of the chicken parmesan, then daintily licked the tomato sauce from its chops before taking up the shirt and beginning to trot off.
“Fox?” the grandmother called. “When I give you my grandson—you won’t hurt him, will you?”
“He’ll have a grand time,” the fox said. “Out here with the foxes? What could be better?” And he disappeared into the night.
All the next day the grandmother kept her eye out for the pigeons. At each old folks’ home they visited, she would linger on the sidewalk in front of the door as long as she could, in case she spotted them. When she saw groups of four, she stared, brow crumpled, willing one of the birds to fly away. When she saw birds in pairs, she held her breath and readied herself, in case another bird should join.
The third old folks’ home they visited was a tall building in the city, many stories taller than any of the buildings out in the country, where she lived. They were standing on a little patch of sidewalk in front of the building’s gleaming glass doors, which were decorated with paper cut-outs of Christmas trees and wreaths and white beards wearing red hats. The building manager—the “resident coordinator,” as she called herself, a middle-aged lady with very fixed hair—met them outside.
“It’s important that you understand we are not a nursing home,” she said to the mother and the grandson. She kept glancing at the grandmother, who continued to scan the parking lot. “Of course we have certain age-in-place features, but nonetheless, as you will see, we are a thriving a
nd extremely selective community—”
“Are you tired, Grandmom?” the grandson asked, in his dumb, brutal voice.
“We started very early this morning,” the mother explained to the resident coordinator.
The grandmother was counting birds under her breath.
A group of three had settled a little ways off from the sidewalk, on the strip of lawn that bordered the parking lot. “Excuse me,” the grandmother said, and approached the pigeons, trying to discern which was choking.
“Age-in-place features,” the mother prompted. The resident coordinator tapped the side of her extremely fixed hair, as if composing herself.
The grandmother stooped down and grabbed one of the pigeons. The other two flew off in a burst of feathers. She was surprised how easily she’d done it, and told herself: it must be the fox’s magic.
There was, predictably, a chorus of shouts behind her, but she was used to this. It seemed it was impossible for her to do anything without her daughters or her grandson or her son-in-law snapping at her. In a way, this gave her a certain freedom: if everything she did was wrong, she might as well do what she wanted. She carefully worked a finger down the pigeon’s throat. She felt it, some warm and metallic, nestled among the soft membrane. Behind her, the resident coordinator was talking animatedly on her phone, and the mother and the grandson, recovered from their initial surprise, had started towards her.
A moment later the ring was on her finger, and she was once more in her house, her lovely own, exactly as she ought to have been.
She wandered around for a bit in a happy daze, understanding that now, no matter what they did, they couldn’t take her home away from her—anytime she wanted, she could close her eyes and immediately find herself returned. Through the windows the sun was just beginning to set. Some time had passed, or perhaps it was later than she’d realized when she’d put on the ring. She looked inside her refrigerator and found some tuna salad she had made at some point, stored in a Tupperware. She smelled it, and determined it wasn’t too far gone.
“Fox, oh my fox,” she called out, softly, a plate in her hand. “I have a gift!”
The fox emerged from the woods, jumped the creek, and approached the plate she held out to him. He sniffed. “This isn’t your grandson.”
“They’re in the city,” she said. “I expect them back shortly.”
“I see,” said the fox, starting in on the tuna salad.
“Nothing terrible will happen to him though, isn’t that right fox? You’ve held up your part of the bargain, I understand that, but I just want to make sure everything’s fair.”
“Fair’s fair,” the fox said. “You got your home, I get your grandkid. What I do after that is my business.”
“But you’re not going to eat him, for example, are you?”
The fox looked up at her, between bites of tuna. “I might.”
“Oh fox, my fox, that would be the worst thing I could imagine, if you chopped up my darling grandson, who I love more than anything, and ate him up.”
“Would it now,” the fox said, leaving off the tuna.
“Why the only thing worse,” the grandmother said, “would be if you murdered my dear daughter, his mother, and ate her up too.”
“Or her sister! And my son-in-law! If you ate them all up, you and your fox friends! If you made a feast of them! And then—”
“And then?” said the fox, lifting, unfoxlike, a single eyebrow.
“And then you came to live with me, in my house, amongst my things, forever—eating tuna salad and chicken parmesan, and sleeping next to me, in my warmth.”
They heard a car pulling into the driveway, angry shouts from the grandmother’s family.
“Fox my fox,” the grandmother whispered, “run. Return to me tonight.”
James Tadd Adcox's work has previously appeared in Granta, TriQuarterly, and n+1 online, among other places. He is the author of a novel, Does Not Love, and a novella, Repetition, and editor at the literary magazine Always Crashing.