Paul Knight

The Fox’s Tail

The moon has set and the Pleiades:
it is the middle of the night,
and time passes, yes passes-
and I lie alone.
- Sappho

Disorientation sets in. It is another bleak east coast morning and the first light paints the rooftops in empty shades of grey. People with jobs are starting to get up for work; I can hear the first cars droning to life somewhere outside. I am having trouble sleeping. Not exactly trouble; it’s not that I can’t sleep, far from it in fact. I just seem to be sleeping at strange times, and for odd lengths of time. I am also having strange dreams. Stranger than normal; more real. Disorientation sets in. Last night I dreamed of a party filled with people in shiny evening wear. Some of the people were old friends of mine, who I haven’t seen in what seems like a very long time; in a couple of cases because we have lost touch or even because they’ve died. I was walking around with a drink in my hand talking to little clusters of partygoers. I don’t remember what about. When I awoke it was dark. Disorientation set in; was it before dawn or night time? A phone call established the time as 10pm. I had been asleep for just under 23 hours.

In the time before dawn I visited a friend who was just on her way to bed, then I returned home and read a book. On the way home I saw several cats. Cats normally like me; they recognise a dreamer when they see one. People are often surprised when cats do things like cross roads to get my attention or leap out from behind bushes to say hello. Last night I saw three; they flitted away like little ghosts as I approached, as if they could sense my confusion. Then I thought about writing, which I often do when I am confused, and which often is the original cause of my confusion. I crossed to my window for a cursory glance into the street. There was a fox in my front yard. It looked up to meet my gaze and we shared a brief moment of non comprehension, then it very calmly and elegantly walked past the trailer and the bin bags and all the other assorted filth and left through a hole in the gate.

The night before last I dreamed of a conversation about a very fine coat. It was dappled with the colours of the sunlight through spring leaves and embroidered with tight blue and gold whorls of knot-work. More than real, it shone with a magic that the grey English morning now cannot match. I wonder if I am a man recently woken from a strange dream about a coat, or a man with a magical coat dreaming of the dismal greyness of a winter morning. The cold bites. The little heater barely holds it at bay. Are these things but fictions in the mind of a person sleeping in a world more wonderful than this one? Have I fallen asleep on one of the sofas at the party?

The night before that I dreamed of school. Back onto familiar territory. I often dream of labyrinthine school buildings, even though I left school a number of years ago. I did not particularly enjoy my time there, but the dreams set there are always very calm. The school I dream is not my old school you understand. It sometimes has elements of it; a doorway here, a room there but no more than that. Then there are entirely fictional parts which seem to recur from one dream to the next; certain halls, libraries, views from windows; the sometimes empty and sometimes populated shower rooms seemingly acres big. When I don’t dream of the school I dream of a rolling British countryside filled with ancient oak-woods and winding paths. There are rarely any people in my countryside dreams.

Was the fox real? Reality is not what it used to be; it has lost the hard edges. One day seeps into the next like paint on an over used palette, turning everything grey. I long to know what is real. Some tribes believe that when you photograph something you take away a piece of its soul. To me, everything is like a copy of a copy; blurred and indistinct. My soul feels like a fax of a fax. If only I could be sure I was awake, that would be something. Disorientation seeps in insidious. It begins with small things like a funny sleeping pattern and ends up here.

Foxes have been on my mind of late. The hunting ban’s all over the news and pompous arseholes in red jackets have been huffing and puffing about tradition and other such rot. (I would bring back more traditional customs, don’t get me wrong. There’s rough musicking for a start. This is an archaic British tradition set for a revival, if I get my way. What you’d do, is get dressed up as woodwoses with your mates, that is to say, you and your mates would get naked, cover yourselves in mud and foliage and goats horns and stuff to look like these things. They represent nature and what have you. So then, you and your pals wait until the dead of night, go over to a local wrong-doers house, (some twat in a red coat perhaps), kick down the door and beat the fuck out of him with newly cut stout leafy branches. This is highly symbolic. Might not stop him fox hunting, but it’s fun and you can always try it again. Most people will do something if asked correctly. But like Marv says, sometimes you’ve got to ask pretty hard). My mind is lingering on the subject of tradition. Traditions about fox hunting are not as old as traditions about foxes themselves.

Was the fox real? For foxes embody trickery. In my current state of mind I can no longer be sure if it is a fox or a dream of a fox, or the ghost of an idea of a fox. Such is fox’s magic. To the Celts he represented skill in diplomacy and was invoked as an advisor. The Incas named the constellation we call the Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters after him. It is easy to imagine why that would happen when we look at them. They have a nebulous quality to them and can only be seen properly from the corner of the eye, like catching a fox’s tail disappearing around a corner. In a Native American tradition of the Miwoks, fox sang the world into being, sang all the deserts and forests and mountains and plains and lakes into existence, and danced until the earth grew about him. I think that will silence our red coated friend when he speaks of the long history of his own practices.

Fox is cunning and subtle like cat, but has two interesting differences, firstly he is clearly canine and secondly, he is not domesticated. It is as if at some distant point in the past, dog decided to serve man, but fox replied a polite ‘non serviam’ and went about his ways alone. This slight caused a rift between man and fox, and therefore dog and fox. They have been at war ever since. The Catholics don’t like anything very much if it won’t serve and so they equated fox with the devil, along with other entities not much interested in serving either such as cat or the god Pan. Fox carries this stigma until the present day, whereas Pan and the cats have shaken it off somewhat. As I have no particular interest in serving anyone, particularly Catholics, I can empathise with fox. Catholics tend not to like me either. This is fine in this day and age, where we can share a deep and profound dislike of each other like adults, but not even very long ago those bloodthirsty sons of bitches were roasting people like me alive for family entertainment. When the Protestants weren’t at it as well; or all the Christians at each other. Paganism is now more socially acceptable than Islam, which seems strange to me. They all worship the same God, after all. It is strange that Christians are more worried about Muslims than they are about Satanists as well. Nobody knows where anybody is, or what the hell is going on anymore. So this is me, with a bit of nature magic meant in fun, sticking up for foxes in a kindred sort of a way.

All of this brings to mind a tale I heard once. I have never been able to think badly of foxes since. It concerns a fairly obscure bit of folklore relating to a time when foxes and men and dogs saw past their differences and comes from County Meath, in Southern Ireland. I love Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and all things windswept and Celtic, and I think this story beautifully illustrates something almost impossible to put into words about the Celtic way of being. Like all fox stories it is nebulous and intangible, this intangibility only increased by association with otherworldly and dream-like Irish storytelling. It is a genuine tale with many historical elements which may be verified by the interested or curious. So if you are ever in County Meath, go to Gormanston Castle, now the Luke Wadding College, and look at the coat of arms of the family of Viscount Gormanston in the hall if you don’t believe me.

The story then; it is said that whenever the Viscount is dying, scores of foxes come and stand vigil around the castle, and sing laments at the point of death. Sounds far fetched I know, but listen on. In 1907, the fourteenth Viscount died and one of his sons was holding a night vigil in the family chapel when he heard a scratching at the door. Upon opening it he found several large foxes there, just sitting and seemingly unwilling to go. He then went to the main door and found two more foxes there. But the story goes back much further than that. In 1860, Jenico, the twelfth Viscount lay dying, and foxes were seen about the castle for several days prior to his death. The foxes came in pairs out of the woods and sat under the dying Viscounts bedroom window and sang up to him, returning to the woods like smoke after the funeral.

It is said that it all began three hundred years ago, when a young Viscount saved a vixen and her young who had been out manoeuvred and trapped during a hunt. They came to him as he lay dying years later. It seems that while foxes certainly will not serve, they may honour the passing of a friend who has done them a good turn.

Outside my window in the clear, cold winter morning I thought I just saw a flash of rust, but my mind is filled with ghost foxes; there’s nothing there. That’s enough tales around the campfire, I might get some breakfast. I look outside again and notice the Seven Sisters glimmering from the corner of my eye, not yet rendered invisible by the first grey fingers of sunlight. And maybe there was a fox outside the window after all. Or a ghost fox. There’s not much of a gulf between the idea of the thing and the thing itself. Well, if it was there, it’s gone now, leaving the morning and the cold and a trail of morning star-shine behind it. But that’s always the way with foxes.

Paul Knight

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