Readings — From the February 2019 issue

Fox

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From a manuscript in progress. Carson’s collection of performance pieces Float was published by Knopf in 2016.

The aunts sit along the wall in their narrow stone chairs that smell of stone polish, lemony and cold, with overtop a layer of something like celery, the aunts themselves. They sit upright, tails curled around their feet. Aunt Rob always spoke first. She had a carrying voice. Her s’s slid softly down the air. Animals differ in violence, she began. This is not a mere wrinkle, as some persist in believing, it is key to our way of life here. There was a sudden rutting smell. A lion ran sideways down the hall. The lions liked to do this sometimes, friezelike, a sort of hermeneutic dash, body sloping forward, head turned, to sense the mood in the den. The lions are racist, nervy. They think everything south of Paris is Arab, everything east of Poland is Chinese. Towel off before you come in here, said Aunt Rob crossly.

The aunts run the den. Foxes are pretty animals. They enjoy being pretty animals. This creates a poise that is easily mistaken for judicial distance. But does it really matter who makes the decisions? As long as somebody does. Community can be such a mush. Let’s get this show on the road, Aunt Rob called out, time only moves in one direction! Actually that’s not true, said a small fox at the back of the den, adjusting his spectacles. Shut up, Young Tennyson, it’s just a manner of speaking, said Aunt Rob. Now where’s the witness? Can somebody
bring in the witness?

Out of the place where darkness was bunched at the back of the den the witness came forward.

Witness, state your name and occupation.

Flora Bundy, singing and movement coach.

Describe the incident as accurately as you can recall it.

Oh just, oh just blood everywhere [Sobs], the jugular shooting off like fireworks.

Start at the start, witness. Facts helpful, analogies less so.

Yes, okay, well. I was running a workshop for singers who do long-duration pieces.

You train patience.

But patience is physical, physiological.

How many singers?

Five humans, two deer, a very calm bear, and a lion.

Morale?

Everyone is getting along fine, we’re in the midst of a ninety-minute walking meditation, the deer a bit frisky but they both settle down—

And?

And suddenly it’s a box of maniacs—another lion shows up, the first lion jumps on one of the deer and tears its throat out, the bear faints, the humans are screaming 9-1-1.

Sure it wasn’t a hyena, that second lion?

Pretty sure.

Notice the manes?

In fact yes. Hardly any mane at all on the first one—it was blond, almost white. Looked like a choir boy, I thought.

Ah.

But the second had a big black and gold cardiac engine of hair on top like his head was on fire. Testosterone, I guess?

One theory.

But the deer—

Just collateral.

Collateral what?

Choir-boy nerves. That fawn should have skedaddled.

And this is what I tell its mother and father?

Send the relatives to me. There’ll be a lot of them. All hysterical. Can’t have them heading into town in droves like last summer, you people getting out your guns and bylaws and God knows another cull debate. We notice you all on a real short fuse, now it’s rush hour most of the time in and out of town.

The deer always come to a meeting in a unit of three, like an embassy in Homer. Deer appreciate Homer, who appreciates deer—the doomed fawn worked on the gold of Odysseus’ belt, for example, in Odyssey Book 19—and Aunt Rob has learned how to listen to them with this in mind, a deeper background. They keep their presentation neat, with a classical regard for balanced argument; Deer 1 states the case, Deer 2 plays devil’s advocate, Deer 3 stands in tears. It went something like this:

1: all you do is hurt us

2: in a democracy conflict is robust and productive

3: [—]

1: you do not explain to us what we’ve done to deserve punishment

2: moral reasoning is a contradiction in terms

3: [—]

1: I remember when we all used to love one another

2: I am the devil

3: [—]

Aunt Rob is being hissed at by Aunt Marie–Kaw–Kaw from one side and Aunt Bang from the other. All along the wall the aunts are restive, some straining to listen, leaning forward, cupping a paw to an ear. The deer typically speak too quietly. And like to see themselves as victims, is the general view. But then often they are victims. The highway a city of corpses, and so on. The lions no longer predictable, and so on. Economy of life a joke, and so on. Did it help to go back to Homer? The deer often took this tack in negotiations, especially Vigilancia, a pale old doe who’d picked up some Greek at school and fancied herself a classical scholar. The relevant passage, one she’s read aloud to Aunt Rob on other occasions, is Odyssey 19.223–232, where Odysseus (in disguise) is describing “Odysseus,” whom he claims to have met on his travels:

Odysseus wore a cloak of purple wool,
a double cloak. And on it a brooch of gold
with double prongs. And on the brooch
a curious design:
in its front paws a dog has hold of a dappled deer,
the deer gasping, the dog gazing at/ barking at/ gripping/ devouring greedily the deer.
Everyone marvelled that, although they were made of gold,
the dog kept gazing at/ barking at/ gripping/ devouring greedily the deer
as it choked out its life,
the deer kept writhing with its feet to be free.

Victima es obvia! says Vigilancia. Deer lose. But the attitude, the ethics, the very action of the predator is linguistically unclear. Does the dog gaze at, bark at, grip or greedily devour its prey? There is a verb, it occurs twice, no one knows what it means. Λαων, λ
αε: etymology obscure, semantic field dubious. And anyway, why does Homer want us contemplating the afternoon of a fawn at this point in his Odyssey? Book 19’s purpose is to escalate tensions; Odysseus has infiltrated his own house and is stockpiling weapons to slaughter the suitors the next day. Odysseus is a hunter. The dog-and-fawn brooch he describes to Penelope is the actual brooch he wore on his cloak the day he left for Troy so many years ago, and he is proud of it. Often identified with dogs and dog ways throughout the poem, “his heart inside him barks like a bitch standing over her pups” whenever he thinks of the suitors (Od. 20.13–16). But the hour is not yet right for at
tacking them. Killing waits. In the house. On the brooch.

Sometimes when she and Vigilancia lay on the mulch pile at the back of the den talking of Homer, Aunt Rob felt her entire skull clear out, like the first breath on a winter morning. Homer’s noble language makes issues fall open on right and wrong, she said to Vigilancia with emotion. But Vigilancia just sighed. You know he has on a deerskin coat the entire time, she said and Aunt Rob said, Who? and wakes with a start from her dream of Homer. The deer have sunk to their knees. She calls for tea. Soon Flora Bundy will return for her second witness interview and a lion or two may lope through the den, checking on how the inquiry is going. Aunt Rob does not regard herself as a dispenser of justice, as tallying blame. To keep things in motion is the best she can do. Stasis no good. Stasis not livable. Offer them tea. Dry their tears. Send them out to face it all again. Against humans, sharpshooters, a double cloak with double prongs, they’ll have no chance. But there may be days when lions are sleepy, dogs distracted, Odysseus hesitating in a doorway, and a deer might go flicking off into the bush, carefree. That day will come as welcome as a pile of fresh towels or a bite of rabbit lung. She’ll invite Young Tennyson over for tea, chat about time and contradiction.

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