I killed a fox, last week. I hadn’t meant to, only, once it had begun to drag its one rank hind leg from under the dogwood and across the lane, I was already going at around forty or fifty, and I just didn’t see it. Jack did, even from the back seat, and, just prior to the moment of impact, I heard a soft ‘fff’ noise come from his mouth, as the full horror of the impending collision was laid bare to him.
I’d picked him up from school only an hour or so after I’d checked out of the clinic. He had been reading one of the books we bought him for Christmas: the hardback annuals full of facts and trivia and records, of men with eyeballs that pop out of their skulls, and women with nails like beige coils of measuring tape. He’d been trying to show me something, in the car.
As we stopped to get out and check the now mutilated orange carcass spread across the road, it occurred to me that I might have missed my chance to swerve because I’d been looking at Jack in the mirror.
Naturally, he was horrified and fascinated all at once, as is the case with all seven-year-old boys.
“It had a bad leg. I saw it running funny.” He said.
I could smell the mange on its body, and its insides threw up little wisps of steam into the cold air. He asked me if it was dead and, since it wasn’t moving, I said it was.
“It might not be dead, you know.” He had said, peering at its slack, wide jaw. “It could be just asleep and really hurt. You don’t know all about it because you’re not a vet.”
I assured him it wasn’t sleeping. After he had bent down to inspect the thing one last time, his book still pressed to his chest, we got back in the car. It had just started snowing.
Later that afternoon, Jeff called from the office, while I was getting tea together.
“How are you?”
“Fine, it’s fine.” I said.
He asked me if I’d been alright on my own, after all, and how he had wished he could have been there. For me.
“Well, it’s done now.”
I pictured him listening to the sound of me chopping carrots.
After a pause, he asked, “How’s Jack? His mum wants him this weekend. I said that was fine.”
“He’s fine, that’s fine.”
“They’re going to her sister’s. Anyway, I thought it might be nice just the two of us.”
“… Especially now.”
“Right. I’m making the tea.”
I could feel the phone, like a hot brick, clamped between my cheek and left shoulder.
“It really is for the best, Helen. To be born …” He started again, but before he could get out the word ‘disabled’, I said the potatoes were boiling over, and put the phone down.
I could hear Jack in the living room, and the familiar clicking sound of him sifting through his Lego bricks. I tried to think about all of the different sets we’d bought him. Making lists is a habit I’ve had since childhood. Sailing Boat, Deep Sea Diver, Helicopter and Landing Pad, Downtown Fire Station, Fire Truck with Real Battery-Operated Siren. That last one had cost seventy-five pounds.
I wondered whether they made other types of sets. High-Rise Flat. Dole Office. Mortuary. Off-Licence. Women’s Refuge. Asylum For The Criminally Insane, with Real Battery-Operated ECT Kit.
Jeff said it was the right thing to do. Fair. Ethical. Scrupulous, even. As I listened to his son play, I listed those words out again.
At tea, Jack sat swinging his legs and waiting to be let off the hook with the rest of his food. Jeff spoke in high tones. He asked questions about school.
“Helen killed a fox today.”
Jeff told him to eat his tea.
“It was when we were in the car. She killed it with the car and I didn’t think it was dead. We could have put it in the garden, though, and buried it like when Rex was dead.”
Jeff shifted in his seat.
“Rex was a dog, Jack. Foxes aren’t pets.” He explained.
I watched Jack weigh the comparison in his mind, as he poked his tongue between the gaps in his teeth, flecking tiny specks along his gum line.
“Foxes are wild animals. They’re different to dogs, and sometimes they get killed because they don’t have owners to look after them. It’s normal, Jack. Nothing to feel bad about.”
I could tell Jeff was looking at me a lot at that point, because Jack had begun to follow his eye line back to me. As I turned to look at him, a loud smile burst across his face.
The snow continued to fall all that day and through the evening, the moonlight turning everything outside to silver and bone. Long after he had drifted off, I crept into Jack’s room and stood by the bed, watching his small chest swell with each slow breath. Across the landing, I could hear the hack of Jeff’s snoring and I knew that, when I came to join him, he would pretend he hadn’t slept either. But I wasn’t tired.
I was thinking about a story Jeff had told at the dinner table. It was one I had heard before, about a wounded starling chick that had fallen from the roof of his childhood home. Jack had listened to the story intently, it being new to him, as Jeff described the anguish of watching his own father land a brick down hard on the tiny shattered body.
“I realised, I learned then, Jack, that sometimes the kinder thing to do, is to let a thing die.” He’d said.
“Yeah but, you didn’t let it die, though, Dad. You killed it.”
As the story had unfolded, I remembered hearing it myself, at a dinner party, years earlier, not long after we’d first met. I had sloshed my wine around in my glass, my free hand resting on Jeff’s strong arm, and smiled at him, proud of him for telling it, and of both its sensitivity, it’s simplicity, and its faultless morality. But, that night at tea, as Jack had puzzled the fable out, forking pathways between his shunned vegetables, I felt sick at the thought of that bird’s tiny head beneath the brick, and of its unheard cry of ignorance. I tried to visualise its broken body, having fallen from the rooftop, in order to credit the situation as hopeless. But, no matter how hard I tried, its body did not seem so shattered, nor its cry so feeble, as to justify the story’s end. As the full image slid into focus, the bitter gall of concession rose in my throat and tripped from my mouth in a gasp that half-woke the sleeping boy.
As he lifted himself into a new position, and murmured in the sleepy way of children, I closed the bedroom door with silent precision, and turned into the dark corridor before me.