The vixen was waiting.
Dappled sunlight fell around her onto the soft dirt beneath the orange trees, gilding her russet fur and striking an occasional brief gleam from her yellow eyes. She had waited here in the orchard since dawn and she was prepared to go on waiting until moonset if necessary. She required only one child, but that child must be alone, and there must be no other human on the street to bear witness.
She was very tired.
At last the front door of the house across the street opened. A ripple of tension went through the vixen’s body, starting at the tip of her tail and racing upward to set her sensitive whiskers aquiver. Her silken ears strained forward as a figure emerged from the house.
It was the young one, the smallest one. And she was alone.
The vixen’s teeth clicked together gently.
Claudia was on her way to the mailbox. It was a cool Saturday morning in December; her father was reading the newspaper, her mother was in the darkroom, Alys was playing tennis, Charles was still in bed, and Janie was—well, Janie was doing whatever it was Janie did. So Claudia, who always had free time, had been delegated to get the mail.
She never saw the animal until it was upon her.
It happened all at once, just as she was taking two handfuls of letters out of the box. It happened so quickly that she had no time to scream or even to be frightened. With one smooth motion the animal sprang at her, and she felt the brush of hard teeth against her knuckles, and then it was past her.
Claudia sat down hard and unexpectedly, biting her tongue. The pain of this brought tears to her eyes as she looked at the creature which had frightened her.
It was a fox, or at least it looked like the foxes she had seen at the exhibit in Irvine Park. A fox had jumped on her. Claudia’s first impulses were to run into the house and tell someone about it and to cry.
Two things stopped her. The first was that the fox was beautiful. Its glossy fur was red as fire and its eyes were like golden jewels. Its slim body looked lithe and strong and very, very competent. The wildness of it took her breath away.
The second thing was that the fox was trotting off with one of her letters in its mouth.
Claudia’s mouth opened and shut. She looked around the street for someone with whom to share this extraordinary sight, but there was no one. When she looked back at the fox, it had stopped and was facing her again, watching her with its golden eyes. When it saw it had her attention, it turned and walked a few steps away, looking over its shoulder.
Slowly, Claudia got up. She took a step toward the fox.
The fox took two steps away.
The fox stopped.
“Hey,” said Claudia. She couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Hey,” she said again.
The fox dropped the letter and looked at her, panting gently.
This time it let her get within arm’s reach before it moved, and then it nipped the letter from the ground and scampered down the road.
But always it looked over its shoulder, as if to make sure she was coming.
It led her down Taft Avenue and up Center Street. It led her past the orange grove, past the quiet houses, and past the vacant lot, until it came to the hill. And then it disappeared.
There were no cross streets here, only a tall iron gate. Behind the gate was a gravel road which led up to a huge old house. Claudia hesitated, standing first on one foot, then on the other. Children weren’t allowed to go near the old house on the hill, not even on Halloween. Strange stories were told about the woman who lived there.
But the fox had Claudia’s letter, and the fox was beautiful.
Claudia squeezed between the bars of the gate.
The gravel road was long and steep as it climbed the hill. Tall trees overhung it, and Claudia had the odd feeling as she walked that the trees were closing in behind her, cutting her off from the rest of Villa Park.
Rising above the trees at the top of the hill was the house, with its massive walls of gray stone and its four tall turrets. Claudia slipped through another gate. In the distance she caught a glimpse of red, and she followed it all the way around the towering house to the back. And there was the fox, caught between Claudia and a huge wooden door. If it ran, she thought, it would have to run toward her.
But, as Claudia hurried forward to trap it, the fox darted through the half-open door into the house.
Claudia clapped her hand to her mouth. Then she crept to the door and peeked inside.
The house was dark and still. When her eyes had adjusted to the dimness she saw the fox sitting in the middle of an enormous room looking at her, the letter between its front paws.
A tingling feeling started between Claudia’s shoulder blades and spread down to her palms and up her neck. Sunlight and open air were right behind her, and for a moment she thought she would just run back down the road to Center Street.
Instead she put one foot inside the doorway.
The tingling feeling grew stronger. Outside, the wind seemed to hold its breath. Inside, the house was empty and echoing, and the air was cool.
Claudia looked at the fox and the fox looked at Claudia. And then Claudia took another step and both her feet were inside the house.
“Right!” said the fox. “Now stay in!”
© 1987 Lisa Smith