How to Skin a Fox
Girl is a Fox a Fox is a Girl
Tell the girl and a fox a creation story in the moment before they are born. Lead them to their mother den, an empty space in the face of rocks, an opening to a pathway down, a place dug out by claws with eyes closed. A dirt womb. Show them that they don’t have a past, which will make it hard for them to imagine a future. Speak ill of their ancestors. Tell the fox that she is less than cunning, chicken bound and bred. Tell the girl she’s a burden in the coop, eggs cracked in hands. Watch them while they sleep until you can’t tell them apart, fingers and paws twitching. Tuck stolen coins behind their ears so that they dream of geese and rabbits, scissors and sewing needles. Throw rocks at them while they slumber, crack a plate against their bed. When they wake, they will wonder at their form. Paws, palms, tail. Breasts, snout, calves. Send them out into the world.
Tree a Fox
Plant a plum tree on the hill past the water tower. Use a seed or a propagate a branch broken from a storm, when there used to be storms. Tend to it with water. When a chicken dies, plant its body under the branches. Bring seaweed to the tree. In the spring, watch the birds pull blossoms to the ground. Some will grow fruit. Dead chicken and seaweed plums, fragrant and soft. The fox will find the tree. She will pace within its shadow. Claw at its trunk. Eye the branches. Eventually, the fox will extend its retractable claws and move her way up, eating plums. Later, the fox will drag bones into the tree. She will hang spines and pelvises, drop a cloven hoof in the crook of the trunk. She will sleep in the tree, her nose pushed up against the skull of a badger.
Send the Truck
Move the fox low across a field and under barbed wire, past the hanging udders and heavy legs of cows. Maneuver the fox over the exposed earth where it’s been pulled apart by tectonic plates, catching water, throwing nettle and hemlock to the sky. See to it that the fox moves quickly, but not as quickly as the 1991 GMC Syclone. Stack this truck with three bales of hay and racing tires. Pay for these tires by farm work done in the dark, shift done by the dawn of day. Place the fox between the yellow of the center divider and the yellow of scotch broom. Press down with a right foot to accelerate. Catch the light so bright against the night. Screech the barn owl above the vole tunnels. Prick her ears towards the sound. Because you have mercy, ensure she never saw the truck coming.
Undo Her Wrists
Take the girl and place her in a bed, lay a man beside her. Have her wonder as to why a simple man cannot be brought to love her. Have her ask, repeatedly, why he wouldn’t want her. Have him say, repeatedly, that she will leave him. Let her fall asleep against his body as she promises herself to him. Have her wake with a start as the moon dips behind the water tower just as the fox dies. It will feel like a snap in her heart, so use this moment of distraction to loosen the stitching that keeps her hands attached to her wrist. Let her reach across the bed for the man, to feel his smooth back, but have her notice in the dark how her hands drag heavy across the clean white sheets. Do not let her see blood or fox bones.
When he finally wakes, there will be no cream for coffee. They will fight, but she will lose the fight, unable to gesticulate and slam her fists to prove a point. She will drive them away from their shared space, tracing The Bay with a smooth acceleration out of each corner, a slight lean. She will notice her wrists loosening as the man says that she’s too good for him. He tells her that he can’t love her because she is prone to vanishing. She will wonder about her ability to steer the car with her hands hanging limply off her wrists as fur blossoms from her exposed lunate.
The man is looking at nothing as he says all of this, not even at her.
See Me See You Fox
She will see the tail and pull the car up against the pushing forward of time. She will step out of the space held by the metal doors and the man’s silence. She will step into the time of The Bay. A perched osprey leaning forward on phone wire, the shadow of a vulture tipping across sky, pickleweed expanse across the road.
She kneels to look at the fox and sees herself.
She wraps the fox into a blanket, the body cold but no longer stiff, and places the fox in the back seat of the car. She lets the time of The Bay and the silence of the man mingle before she closes the door and starts the engine.
She will do this all on her own, as if she has agency.
Prepare a bed of poppies taken from serpentine fields. In this way, the fox will lay with the spirits of whales. Pull the fox from the freezer and unwind the black plastic from her body. Lay her in the four petaled poppies, bright orange against her red and grey fur, bristled with ice. Wait for her body to soften, then roll her to her back.
Use the fine Japanese cutting knives, yanagi ba. The long blade will cut smoothly.
Pull to cut, bringing your wrist to your belly with each incision.
There will not be tattered flesh.
As you prepare your knives, it is recommended that you stop referring to the fox as her.
Start with the front feet. Cut from the back of the paw to the armpit.
Separate the skin from the bones. The bones will hold to the skin. Be patient.
Cut from the back paws to the anus, pulling as you go. Then, grasp the tail bone and pull out the tail. You may recall her tail, how it brushed against the cows and led you to her body.
Catch yourself and don’t refer to her as her until you’ve pulled the entire skin from the body.
Pull down and down till you get to the ears, which you will cut along. All the places she heard. The sound of grass. The sound of The Bay. Cut along those edges, then the eyelids. The places where she slept.
Pull the yanagi ba towards you with every incision, and do not worry, the skin will not fray.
The Work of a Girl
Degrease the pelt in the clawfoot bathtub. The skin floats, the fox swims.
Have the girl pull the fox from the water and hang the fox from twine above the fireplace. Have her build a fire, steam the smell of wild out, dry the fur into the night. Allow the girl’s hands to rub eggs into the skin. Encourage her to do this work alone. During the day, she will rub, and she will scrape. She will pour salt and herbs and prayer into the places that held muscle, blood and bones. At night, make a bed for her just feet from the skin under the plum tree, so that she may protect it against scavengers, predators, those who would steal skin.
The girl will nail brown butcher paper to the wall. She will cut plastic bags down the center seam and lay them on the floor. Light candles. Pour a sea of black paint into the plastic pool. Blast the room cold. Let them sip plum cordial, naked. Introduce tension. The man who gave the cordial to the girl is not the man who is here now. The girl undresses. Let her reflect to herself, my body is best when I am cold. The man will say out loud, “You should be with someone like him, someone who picks plums and makes you cordial.” He will not see that she is naked, even though it is an offering.
When they lay down in the paint, they do not look at each other. They stand at the same time to press dripping bodies onto the wall. Turn her face away from him on the paper, a heat rising. Push her harder into the paper, place a burning want to go through the wall, into the forest outside, into her forehead and sternum.
When they step back, less paint will be on their bodies, shadows caught on paper. She sees his form, barely. A faint outline of chest, upper thighs. If he had looked at her body print, he would have seen the form of a fox. The fox face sideways against the paper, a tail curving up and around shoulder, the whiskers caught. But he is already walking towards the shower, dripping black paint as he goes.
Resurrection of a Fox
The man will wander the garden, screaming. Snot will pour from his nose and he will break one-hundred-year-old stones that held in the tiers of the rose garden against the side of the house, where she is pretending to be asleep. He will find her in bed and pull the sheets off to batter her body with wet words. He will yell at her until she begins to snarl, which will calm him. He will stop, noticing her, the way fur has grown along the back of her thighs, her snout peeled back, a low growl between her teeth. He extends a hand, she snaps. He screams again, her tail grows. He delights in this trick. He screams and screams and screams till she’s all whiskers and hair on end, darting across the floor and out the front door.
He is standing on the wooden porch screaming, but the fox is gone.
The man turns his attention to the house. Peels her art off the walls. Tips over a chair, threatens the cat. Kicks a door, shattering the frame. The house is motionless. He takes a glass jar, walks into the bathroom, throws it against the clawfoot tub. Glass shatters against towels, plants, toilet. He collapses with the broken, feeling at home, at last.
The fox will subside, except for one place, the original loosening around her wrists. The incision from her paw to her armpit, visible.
The girl enters her home. The man is not there. It is safe for her to go to the bath, to turn the water on. She will add salt and herbs. Take off her clothes, fill the room with steam, dampen the plants. Then she will remove her human form, hanging her skin on the hook.
At first the water is too hot, so she just stands on all fours, waiting. Then dropping in, floating, the fox in the tub. Herbs catching in her fur. Her tail moving the water side to side. Her face resting on cool porcelain.
Small circles of blood blossom. The water turns pink. With a quick breath she is all girl again, using her hands to feel the bottom of the tub. It is filled with shattered glass and her legs are bleeding.
It was the girl within me who calmed our body, who laid our narrow form down for mock death on dirt.
Murder in a Plum Tree
I don’t know if I ever loved him or if it was only important to get him to love me. Or maybe, in his fits and rage, that’s where I felt most myself. He would keep me in a small cage, my teeth broken from gnawing on metal. I could not dig my way out. The sounds that would come out of me would leave my throat raw, my jaw and spirit unhinged. He would walk past my cage every morning to ravage the plum tree in front of me. He would shake it, pull at its branches, spit curses into roots. Plums undone, bruised and splitting, their thin flesh. A wound to my home, rolling past me.
He hung rope from the tree. Two hooks. Across the grass he pulled a long table, placed thin bladed knives upon it. A bucket under the hooks. A bag of salt.
I understood he meant to kill me.
When you are a fox, you do not crave the things you cannot have. You do not feel a cage as injustice, only a temporary way of being to thrash against. It was the girl within me who craved the plums. It was the girl within me who calmed our body, who laid our narrow form down for mock death on dirt. Slack jawed, tongue bloodied.
When he noticed, he stopped shaking the plum tree. He approached the cage. He screamed. A fly on our nose, but not a twinge. He kicked the cage. Not a flutter as our ribs rattled. A spider crawled out of our mouth, blood on her delicate spider paws. The girl did not allow us a shudder.
He knelt to unlatch the cage. He was sobbing, having lost the opportunity to take our last breath. He held us in his hands, our head and tail limp. He held us up to his ear, his face on our chest, listening to the sound inside of us…
In that moment we plunged our teeth into his neck meat. He screamed, throwing us against the tree, almost knocking us into two. We scrambled up past the badger bones and the spine of a squirrel, heaving and weak. He ran towards the tree, slipping on slick fruit, and we flew down, sinking our mouth deep into his neck wound, our hands wrapped around his throat.
As we tore jugular, we knew that we came from nothing, from the original dirt wound. Our ancestors are dead chickens, their eggs cracked in our hands. We felt The Bay reaching out, holding us in, as we dragged his body towards the expanse of pickleweed, the vultures tipping in the sky above us. Stolen coins fell from our ears, and we walked out into the world.
Kelly Gray (she/her) is a writer, naturalist, and educator living among the redwood trees on occupied Coast Miwok land in Northern California. She has been published in The Atticus Review, Dime Show Review, Burning House Press, The Account Magazine, Bracken Magazine amongst other publications. At home she has a fiery daughter, an untamable dog, and two perfect cats. On her time off she volunteers with birds of prey, telling stories of falcons, vultures, and owls to all who will listen.