Early this past Easter morning, my mind sifting though what I was going to talk about at church, I opened the door to retrieve something from my car when there, not 20 feet in front of me, was a large red fox with my favorite white cochin rooster in his mouth. I had been thinking about new life. …about how Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus in his blinding white robes after being resurrected to new life. But my white rooster was locked in the jaws of a fox, screeching, feathers flailing. The fox stared at me. New life faded to no life. The fox tried to run. My rooster fought back, slowing the fox’s pace. I ran after the fox, losing my black ballet slippers, nearly tripping on some rocks. I screamed and threw rocks to make him/her? release the bird. My rooster broke free, but the fox chased after him. One of the rocks just grazed his tail. The fox stopped, turned back and stared me in the eye. It wasn’t so much an angry eye as it was a confused eye. My rooster scrambled back towards the barn. I didn’t see where because I was not going to move until the fox disappeared into the woods.
Afterwards, I searched and searched, but I couldn’t find my rooster. Sometimes chickens go into hiding for a period until they think its safe to come out. Maybe I would never find him. Maybe he had gone off to die by himself. I hung on to something about Easter light. I hoped.
Did I have to forgive the fox for being hungry? I couldn’t just then. I wanted my rooster back. But then I wondered what I would have felt like if the rock I had thrown had actually injured the fox? Did something in me control my arm from throwing the rock too hard? Once I told my husband that I wanted a gun after a coyote killed my sheep. I was going to call our friend, Mike, who said he could get me one. My husband didn’t answer me. He hates any killing of animals.
That’s the problem. I have trouble with the killing part too. It all began with the bear. Many years ago when we lived in Virginia, I looked out the window early one August morning to find the grass behind the house littered with feathers. I rushed outside to the chicken coop and saw the slaughter. There were dead chickens everywhere, some without heads, others just laying there bleeding. I lost count at 20. I knew that I had shut them up the night before. What had happened? I saw then that the bars on the windows had been bent and crumpled and the door lay on the ground as if someone had busted it down. Who or what had been strong enough to bust down a locked door?
I learned from the animal warden that a young male bear was most likely the culprit. He explained that young males go through puberty at around 2 to 3 years old at which time they go crazy. In fact, the warden warned me to keep the dogs and the cats in at night and to watch myself if I came home late. In this state, the young male will attack anything. So the bear didn’t eat my chickens because he was hungry. It was about an impulse, a powerful, frantic impulse.
I had an explanation, but it didn’t help me accept the devastation. I had raised these chickens for years. So many gifts I had been given, gifts of feathers and eggs, of eyes and wings, of strut and scratch. All now gone because of an impulse.
I mentioned the bear to some hunters who hung out on the mountain behind our house. They said they would keep an eye out for the animal. Then I found one of my goats lying dead in the field. On closer inspection, I saw the bear print where he had gouged her out. I’d had enough. I told the hunters they needed to get the bear.
A few months later on a cold, dark October night, I was cooking dinner when I was surprised by a knock at the door. I peered through the window and recognized the hunter. I opened the door to an exuberant young man who announced my fears were over. They had killed the bear.
“Come out. Come out and see for yourself. He’s a prize! We are going to fill our freezer with bear sausage”, he exclaimed, shining a fat beam from his big flashlight towards the driveway.
I hesitated. But something, maybe it was the light, maybe it was adrenaline, maybe some vague sense of revenge, or maybe even simple curiosity drew me out of the door. I followed his beam of light to where his friend, grinning from ear to ear, was waiting by the trailer.
“We got ‘em for you alright! Check him out. I bet he weighs 600 pounds. He’s a beauty! That head will look so fine on my wall, “ he gushed as he shone two more big lights on the trailer.
There lying on an open mesh bed was an enormous, dark, fur covered mound. One of the flashlights ricocheted off the bear’s wide, open eye and sparks flared. I saw how his lips in a smile revealed a row of bright white teeth. His small wet nose gleamed. He was the most magnificent creature I had ever seen.
I wanted the bear to get up. I wanted him to flee off this trailer onto the mountain where he had stashed honey and berries. But he was dead. I had killed him. My words had killed the bear. I could hardly breathe. I didn’t want him to have to die. Tears I could not stop began rolling down my cheek. He wouldn’t ever run across a meadow in knee deep green grass or inhale the warm moonlit nights on the mountain. It was my fault that he was dead because I had told the hunters to get him. I backed away slowly. My throat tightened. I ran from his huge still form. It was my entire fault. I couldn’t forgive myself. And now all these years later I still dream of him. I see his eyes and his soft wet nose inhaling the dark.
I remembered the bear when I drove to church. In me there was still something that needed to be said about the hope of new life always available to us who believe in hope. How could I preach about new life when all I could see was my dying rooster? I hoped I could find a way to think myself towards a God who loved us. All my rooster had been doing was enjoying the sun rising and warming his feathers on this April morning. He didn’t deserve to die.
I stood up and stared out at the pews of kind hearted people sitting there waiting for a word of hope. The fox filled my mind. He was hungry. These people were hungry. I reached deeper into myself. I could understand why they wanted to hear a word of hope. I still hoped I would find my rooster. If I concentrated on the hope, maybe I would be able to string together some words. I remembered what the late great preacher Peter Gomes had once said. “Easter is not about past, its about future. Easter is not about death, it’s about life.”
Later I watched the sun going down all gold and pink and joy filled. Still no rooster had appeared.
The wind picked up one white feather twirled it. I wanted my rooster to come home. I wanted the fox to go away forever. I didn’t want any more killing. The feather kept rising in the air until it was out of sight.
My rooster never did come home. I found more feathers out back of the barn. When I told this story to someone they laughed and said didn’t I know that chickens were the appetizers in the wild. I didn’t laugh. I haven’t forgiven the fox. My rooster grew up sitting in my arms, his head tucked under my chin. Who else made time to do that? His care for me pressed between the pages of my heart remains where he left it.
Fall has arrived on the Maine coast. Yesterday about noon I took the dogs for our regular 3-mile walk. It was one of those fall days that felt almost as if it has been polished. Looking up I saw the expanse of pure blue sky pierced by peaks of dark green needles of pine and spruce that grow along edge the road. The sun was thick and warm on my back. Occasionally silky threads of milkweed drifted by floating in the cool air. As the dogs nosed the still green tangle of grasses beside the road, I looked up to see waves of Queen Anne’s lace swaying in our neighbor’s field
Wesley tugged ahead on his leash and Puppy and I followed him breaking into a brisk trot. A neighbor waved. Another stopped us to let us know she and her husband would be leaving at the end of September for points south. I knocked into tiny powder puffs perched atop the long stems of what? I couldn’t remember and I made a note, as I do every year, to try to memorize what grew where so I could remember when those banks were hidden beneath the snow. The leaves had only just begun to show signs of color, but the fields and the roadside were a riot of goldenrod and purple aster.
As we began to climb the hill to our house, I was feeling so grateful to be able to be out enjoying the day when suddenly, beneath an old apple tree, I spotted what looked like the rump of an animal. It stopped my heart. Was it alive or dead? What was it? A dog, a cat, a small coyote? The dogs saw the body too and slowed down. When we came closer to the still animal I backed them away. They did not resist my leashing them back, as if they sensed a gravitas. They sat quietly as I stepped into the weeds to get a closer look. My mind had already gone through the list of neighbors who owned dogs. I decided it couldn’t be a dog from this neighborhood. But maybe it was a stray?
I could feel the heat of its body as I leaned forward to get a closer look at its head. My foot stubbed the rump. It was still supple. Whatever happened had just happened. But there was no blood. I still couldn’t get close enough to see its head. Just then a truck came roaring down the road and the dogs and I had to dart out of the way. The dogs started to pull towards home on their leashes. I didn’t resist their pulling me away, but I felt a huge sadness come over me. I wanted to go back later to witness…to witness what? To witness to a dead animal along the road? If it were a possum or porcupine, would I think to return to it? Was it because the animal so closely resembled the shape of a dog? I walked faster until I was even with Wesley and Puppy. I stroked them both.
All afternoon I thought about the animal. I have never understood those people who when they see an accident stop their car to gawk. Was I just being a gawker? I didn’t think so. I felt more as if I needed to witness something. But what?
When my friend, Sherry, dropped by I told her about seeing the animal lying there. I said I felt like I wanted to go back to see the animal. She paused and looked at me.
“I think we should go down and find the animal”, she said quickly. I knew she understood. I had listened to her stories about the dogs she had loved.
We walked, looking carefully along side the road, talking softly, both of us alert and both of us solemn. And then there it was, the rump facing the road, just as if the animal was napping in the shade of the hedgerow. Sherry spotted the telltale mark right away, the black stripe down its tale.
“It’s a fox, a big beautiful red fox,” she said softly.
A fox, I thought to myself, very likely the fox that ate all my chickens, lay there motionless, front paws cocked as if it were running, back paws following. We wondered if it had dragged itself off the road into this spot. I touched its rump again, holding it’s soft reddish blond fur between my fingers. I did not think about forgiveness. I felt loss…the loss of its strong blondish red body streaking across an open meadow, covered in tiny white flecks of Queen Ann’s lace. I blessed it, making the sign of a cross. It was a cross that signified both death and life. To bless its death was to acknowledge the sacredness of its life.
To bless life, to feel compassion towards a fellow creature. It seems that was what came up for me. I do not forgive the loss of my rooster’s life. But I don’t blame the fox. I understand the urgency in the fox’s need to feed its young.
The death of the fox doesn’t reconcile the death of my rooster. But like the life of my rooster, the life of the fox mattered and its death too will leave a small tear in the fabric of the woods along our road.
Forgiveness is not about fairness. There is no equal sign, no two sides of the story. It is about untying ourselves from the dark tangled knot of blame so that we can be free to live fully and joyfully.