A Necessary Mercy

By Darrell Petska

Henry Newton could scarcely believe his chicken-raising eyes: as if guarding his hen house, a fox lay half buried by snow beneath his hens’ frosted window.

He put down the hens’ morning water and studied the fox—a female, her narrow face and slightness revealed. She appeared haggard and weary, the severe winter having taken its toll.

The past summer, Henry had lost Miriam, one of his “ladies”, perhaps to this very fox. Yet this bedraggled animal posed no immediate threat, her only movement at Henry’s presence a slight perking of her ears.

Slowly, Henry approached the hen house door, his full bucket sloshing, and stepped over the icy sill into the straw-bedded haven. His hens ran clucking at his feet. Henry reached through the crush of feathers, upended the watering tray to rid it of the hens’ scratchings, then poured in the fresh water. Immediately, his hens jostled into position for a drink.

“Sophie, Greta, ladies, please: it’s just water!” Stepping back, he checked the roosts, nests, and feeders to make sure all of his Leghorns had come forward. Because of the fox, however, he didn’t linger. He exited carefully, making sure none of his charges could burst past him into the snow.

The fox hadn’t moved, though this time she raised her head as Henry reappeared. He pitied the animal, but foxes were every chicken’s nightmare. Trudging back toward his house, Henry glanced behind: two reddish ears jutted above the snow.

Seated at his kitchen table, Henry buttered some bread, dunked it in the coffee he’d brewed before drawing water for his hens, and ate slowly, thinking about the unwelcome visitor.

He rose, walked to the kitchen window, and peered toward his squat hen house occupying the middle of his farmyard. Snow had begun to fall again. The sky, the ground, his hen house—one billowy white cloth. The safety of his hens paramount, Henry decided to scare off the fox.

Snow pelted Henry’s face as he followed his recent tracks to the hen house. In his left hand he held a cooking pot. His right hand gripped a metal dipper.

The fox hadn’t moved. Only when Henry rapped the dipper against the pot did the fox raise her head. But she failed to rise and go.

Henry struck the dipper more forcefully against the metal, then raised his voice, “Go on! Get!” The fox looked alarmed but didn’t move, shortly returning her chin to the cradle of her paws.

Back to his house went Henry. Come midafternoon, he’d return to gather the day’s worth of eggs. By then, he hoped the fox would be gone, desperate to find a meal.

Though Henry occupied himself that afternoon by whittling chickens he’d sell at the summer flea market, his mind kept returning to the fox. When Henry again set out for the hen house, this time carrying a bowl for eggs, he could see only white where the fox had been. Drawing closer, he saw the fox remained, practically covered by accumulating snow. The animal seemed not to notice as Henry ducked into the hen house, then hurried out with his bowl of eggs.

Soon the fox would be totally blanketed. Henry placed the eggs in his refrigerator and considered its contents—bread, milk and butter, many eggs, a side of bacon, a jar of bacon grease for frying eggs and flavoring for his biscuits and gravy.

The thought of discovering the fox’s frozen carcass a day or two hence distressed him.  Perhaps the animal was too weak to go away. Just a little food, he thought, might give her energy to leave.

From his refrigerator Henry withdrew two eggs, a bacon strip, and some grease. After reducing a dollop of grease in his skillet, he added the eggs and bits of bacon, stirring until a thick, greasy scramble resulted. With a heaping platter of the impromptu meal, he headed back into the snow, pausing to grab a shovel from his porch.

Wind whisked away the steam rising from the platter as he approached the hen house. The fox didn’t stir.

Henry positioned the bacony offering on the shovel and slid it toward the fox. At first, he feared the inert fox had died, but at last she lifted her head, sniffing the frigid air.

“Eat, you sorry little vixen,” he said, getting the platter within a couple inches of the fox’s snout.

The animal’s nostrils flared, then her tongue came out to sample Henry’s creation. She licked the edges of the platter but would not eat. Only when Henry backed away did the fox stretch forward and begin to nibble, then wolf down the meal.

“Well, look at you! You’re not dead yet!”

He waited, wondering what the fox would do next. After licking the platter clean, she drooped again in the snow to slumber. Henry retracted the shovel and returned to his house for the evening.

Next morning, the fox wobbled to her feet as Henry approached with water for the hens. She didn’t flee but watched closely as he slipped into the hen house, then out again. The snow had stopped, sun appearing through the clouds, but the fox didn’t wander off. She merely settled once more into the snow.

Heartened that the fox had shown a bit of life, Henry returned to his kitchen, dunked and ate his buttered bread, then proceeded again to scramble eggs and bacon bits in his skillet.

The sun upon the snow almost blinded him as he left his house with shovel and platter of greasy nutrition in hand. Growing alert as Henry approached, the fox watched the platter nearing on the shovel. Slowly rising to her feet, she began to lick, then gobble, quickly finishing her meal.

“Now get going!” Henry waved his arms at the fox, which stared at him a few moments before easing once more against the hen house. “Time to move on!”

Henry passed the next few hours as he often did during short winter days: whittling, playing solitaire, or paging through seed catalogs for new varieties of vegetables to grow in his garden. When he finally crossed the farmyard for the midafternoon egg gathering, he found the fox still there, though she stood as Henry came and went. “Perhaps tomorrow...” Henry sighed.

The night stretched long, but Henry had his ladies to look forward to next morning. Rising energized, he carried more water toward the hen house. Where the fox had nestled, only some fox scat lay, dark against the packed snow. Relieved that his ministrations had succeeded—and a little sorry his unexpected guest had departed—Henry tended his hens, left them to bathe in the sunlight slanting through their window, and headed back to his house. Against his picket fence rested the fox, watching intently as Henry paused to smile, then pass inside.

Several times during the day, he glanced out his window. There lay the fox, showing no inclination to leave. She stood again as Henry made his midafternoon egg run, then curled into a ball once Henry disappeared inside.

That night, Henry paced restlessly, gazing often into the winter darkness. Spring approached. Henry’s ladies would soon want the run of the farmyard. Before then, surely the fox would leave to find a mate.

The fox hastened to her feet next morning as Henry carried his brimming bucket to the hens and she continued standing as Henry returned to his house. Foregoing his bread and coffee, Henry immediately readied another bacony treat, which he presented to the fox waiting at the fence.

With little hesitation, the fox set upon her meal—then raised her head toward Henry as if asking for more.

“Pretty pleased with yourself, huh?” The fox edged backward as Henry retrieved the platter.

Inside again, Henry buttered his bread, dunked it leisurely in his coffee, and considered how to proceed. The animal’s strength returning, soon she had to go. Perhaps she’s already wandered off, Henry thought, getting up to look out the kitchen window. But there the fox remained, dozing beside the fence.

What harm, bolstering her a bit longer? Her reddish coat added a welcome patch of color to winter’s overarching whiteness. He decided not to be hasty.

Henry greeted her on his way to collect eggs that afternoon. He kept his visit short, gleaning a few eggs from the straw-lined nests, and turned to leave, wondering what the fox saw in him.

In the doorway he slipped on the icy sill, toppling backwards into a mayhem of chickens. Dazed, Henry sensed movement across his lap: some of his ladies were venturing into the snow.

Managing to right himself and close the door, he prevented further defections. Four hens he saw, floundering through the snowdrifts. Back aching from the fall, he pursued his wayward charges, one by one. After catching the last hen, he scanned the snowy yard: no more hens, though now the fox was nowhere to be seen. Henry stepped carefully back inside his hen house and counted his hens. Astrid wasn’t there!

Darkness already threatening, Henry scoured his farmyard. Behind the granary, he found streaks of bloodied snow. He followed the blood to a shallow ditch and discovered Astrid’s remains.

All evening the calamity weighed heavily on Henry. He reproached himself, not for the mercy he’d shown but for foolishly feeling betrayed by a fox that could be nothing more than the wild animal she was.

Would she be nestled against his fence come morning, awaiting his appearance? Then he would not delay in frightening her off. No longer could he allow himself the small pleasures of watching her relish his concoctions or greeting her as her eyes followed his every movement.

As Henry thought deep into night of Astrid and the persistent fox, a stroke of inspiration buoyed him till morning’s sun—which again revealed the fox lounging against his fence. Excitedly, he prepared his coffee and tended to his ladies, giving the fox only the slightest glance in passing. At last, dunking buttered bread in his coffee, he marveled at the simplicity of his plan. The fox’s presence made him realize what he long had lacked: a faithful, vigilant dog.