The first fox I saw in Asturias was one evening at dusk, on a walk with my father-in-law, Luis, who pointed it out standing on the far edge of a field. “Raposu,” he told me, giving the name in Asturian, a very different word from the Spanish, zorro. He also told me the Asturian word for weasel, fuína, which I saw signs of during the years when my boys were small and we had pet rabbits. The rabbits came inside to play but then returned to a fenced yard at the back of the house where they had a hutch to sleep in. Their lives might be shorter living free in the yard than caged, the boys and I decided, but they’d be happier. Also happier was my second fox, one I didn’t see but heard at 6 a.m. one morning, just as I was sitting down with my coffee. I went to the back door to investigate the noise. All was quiet in the rabbit yard. Not a puff of air to move the few tufts of fur, the only sign left of one of the rabbits.
Over the course of several years, I saw two more foxes, both of them in the ditch beside the road, struck and killed by cars. Then one late afternoon I heard the dogs barking, and I hurried to the window. The rabbits, guinea pigs, and chickens had all, one way or another, met their ends—through disease, old age, determined escape, or accident. So the fox that I saw slinking across our field had come too late. Don’t bother to come back, I wanted to tell him, there’s nothing for you here.
He stopped at the line of laurels edging the field. More trees, more brush, and a rivulet were at the gloomy lower end. Even keeping my eye on him, I missed the exact moment that he faded into the dark cover. Perhaps my last fox, I thought. All I seemed to see anymore were wild boar, and I went several years without a fox sighting.
Then this spring, on a trail with a friend in search of Guanga Falls, a fox crossed our path. “Look!” my friend said. But I looked too late; the fox had spotted us and already turned off the trail, into the undergrowth among the beeches, chestnuts, and oaks. Undoubtedly, we were not his first human beings nor would we be his last, though I don’t imagine him bothering to keep a tally. He probably sidestepped us as you’d skirt a pothole in the road, without a thought or backward glance. He’d be after his dinner.
A little later, my friend pointed high above us to the tip of a peak where a goat stood silhouetted against the sky. It took no quick reflexes to see him, and I looked long enough to see other goats in the herd appear and then retreat from the pinnacle.
Soon we heard the gurgle of running water, then the louder gush and splash of the falls. We went carefully, clambering along the hillside trail, moving parallel to the stream, stepping over roots and fallen tree trunks and many rocks, avoiding the stinging nettles, admiring the twists of the stream and the glint of the water, until we came upon some flat stones that made the broad rim of a pool where the water from above cascaded down. We climbed down to them and sat a while and rested.
Then, back on our feet, we saw a derelict stone hut ahead in a tangle of growth, and then another. Getting closer, we saw that the second was an old mill, itself just a stone hut, with a diversion canal of mossy stones still in place though no longer carrying water. When was it abandoned, I wondered? How long ago did people farming their mountainside plots pile the harvest on the backs of a donkey and bring it over the trail to this mill? Cows grazed in some patches of field, but the buildings we’d seen were falling apart. “Don’t bother coming back, there’s nothing left for you,” the fox might have told us.
But in the quiet away from the river, new sounds bubbled up. Shadows were thick off the path. Somewhere out there was the fox I’d missed. Maybe his mate too. And who knew what else among the sunken, shaded, relics of what once was? Deep in the growth around us I spied white splotches where the wind flicked aside a branch and the sun slipped in. Patches, circles, darts of light that trembled, flitted, and bounced through the undergrowth, following the breeze, hunting in the depths. You, fox, I’d tell him, you are just one of the things beyond my ken in the teeming undergrowth. You aren’t my first missed fox and won’t be my last.
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