Bess is an arthritic golden labby, with just two teeth left in her slovenly jaws. She lives for Evelyne and the scraps from Evelyne’s plate but hates peas. So whenever Evelyne scrapes mash into her bowl, she would spit peas out passed those teeth as she slops away. Evelyne in turn, describes Bess as her ‘heartbeat’ but scolds her for not eating her greens. It’s a hangover remark from when her children were young. Together, old girl and old dog, live in Evelyne’s father’s weather board, in a suburb on the eastern rail line. The house is surrounded by a veranda and unruly grounds which slope away to an open drain. This drain had once been a creek winding though the floodplains of the Swan River and the state of her yard, with regards to the drain, attracts the council’s concern, but whenever they approach, Evelyne argues from behind a screen door. ‘Never you mind my yard, clean up your drain. And what about the platypus, you drongos?’ They leave perplexed, for there are no platypi in WA.
Once every six months, Evelyne would take that rave to therapy which the government insisted she attend to justify her disability pension. Childbirth had impacted her mind and the courts had placed her children, now young adults, with their father.
Most mornings, rising to the sounds of the magpie’s dawn chorus, she and Bess would walk through what remained of the floodplains to the river. These remnant wetlands are thick with reeds and rushes where heron, ibis, spoonbills, egrets and snakes abound. On islands of higher grounds, Flooded Gums and melaleucas provide homes for these and other creatures, and despite the proximity of the high-rise city, Evelyne has seen foxes. Her father had told her stories of foxes living in the parks of London and she felt disappointed that the community didn’t feel privileged that such magical creatures would choose to live among them. For there had been letterbox drops, warning pet owners they should have their dogs immunised. But Evelyne was not fooled; she knew the pamphlets were put out by the local vets drumming up business.
She told her own children about the London foxes, but they were not interested in ‘pommie’ stories.
At the start of their walk was an illustrated council sign enlightening the community as to the life in the wetlands and showing a photograph of a platypus. Evelyne reasoned that it must have been a drongo who put up such a sign, and a bunch of drongos who allowed the ignorance to continue. There were, she thought, lots of drongos and galootes in what was to her, a disenchanted world.
Her first close-up with the foxes came when localised flooding had swollen the drain, causing her yard to be sodden up to the shed which Bess, late one evening, was sniffing at intently and ignoring Evelyne’s hissing for her to come inside.
“Bess you old silly, come here…come on now, quick!” She called in whispers so as not to alert the neighbours. Bess wagged her tail strongly hoping that her much loved bi-ped, would get the message and come and check her interest.
Evelyne sighed and resignedly went down to bring her ‘heart beat’ in. As she reached the shed she stopped at a sharp, acrid smell prior to hearing the slightest rustle. Instantly she was as alert as Bess.
‘Is anyone there?’ She whispered, thinking it might be one of the station kids. ‘It’s alright. I’ve got a spare blanket.’ Cautiously she eased open the grass entangled door through which Bess pushed and padded across to an over-turned carton.
‘Ah, must be a nest of rats,’ Evelyne thought relieved. She had never been afraid of creatures; it was people that put her in therapy.
At first she thought they were kittens, for she could see bundles of fur, but when she crouched, she saw two fox cubs huddling there. Bess whined and nosed them and they soundlessly, open-mouthedly, snarled.
‘Careful.’ Evelyne cautioned, thinking foxes can have rabies but dismissed it immediately for she trusted Bess to know these things. Realising that they must have been bought here to escape the flooding, she reached to pick one up, stopped in doing so and looked about. Where were the dog fox and the vixen?
‘Na, Bessie would know if they were close.’
She thought the cubs old enough to eat solids and started back to the house to get them some but instinct caused her to pause on the veranda and she peered back. She and Bess waited for half an hour and when there were no signs, she went into the kitchen and spread peanut butter on dry biscuits.
Bess watched with heightened interest. She loved peanut butter.
As did the cubs. One of them licked Evelyne’s finger.
There was no going back from that.
In the following days the cubs ate any scraps Evelyne could get from the supermarket bins. This extra scavenging was to Bess’s liking and besides, the cubs ate peas. By the end of that week there were still no sign of the adults but Evelyne was sure they were visiting through a broken board which had traces of hair scrapings. By the end of the second week, the cubs were frolicking around Bess.
At midnight into the third week, Bess scratched at the door to be let out and immediately hurried down the yard to stop and stare into the darkness over the drain. Evelyne quickly followed and stopped beside her. There, staring back at them from the other side were two sets of unblinking red eyes. They remained staring across at each other in assessment till Evelyne became aware that the cubs were at her feet, but showing no inclination to move forward. When she looked up the eyes were gone.
Intuitively she knew that they had trusted her with their cubs and the realisation so overwhelmed her as to set every cell in her being a-tingle.
‘Whew’ she exhaled. ‘That was special.’
Bess gave a long slow wag as Evelyne stood treasuring the experience.
In the following days at the library, Evelyne learnt that foxes could be legally raised as pets but had no intention to do so. They were wild creatures and she would honour this. How she would do this in an inner suburb was another matter.
‘They eat chooks’ was the cry from a populace that ate chooks.
There came renewed calls for baits to be scattered, but after the local vet announced that they had treated two dogs for bait poisoning no further announcements were forthcoming.
For their bit, the adult foxes sprayed the shed corner, which drove the kelpie next-door to frantically racing round and round the yard till its perplexed owner grabbed it and took it to the vet. This neighbour had asthma attacks, which Evelyne thought might kill him, and in desperation she counter sprayed the shed with eucalyptus oil which, when Bess wagged approval, put the problem to rest.
She bought a whipper snipper at a garage sale and offered her son a few dollars to trim the grass. ‘To keep the drongos off my back,’ she explained.
Now a young man, he rejected the money but did the work to encourage what he hoped was his mother’s community compliance. She, not wanting to deceive her son, showed him the cubs and told him how the adults had left them in her care. ‘They trust me.’ she said. ‘Which is more than your father ever did.’
In defence of more sighting Evelyne slipped out at night with her own letterbox drop that read ‘Foxes should not be held to blame because, they were bought out here in cages’.
But soon after, one set of eyes was absent and the remaining adult, the vixen, looked accusingly at Evelyne.
‘I reckon the galootes got him.’ Evelyne told her. ‘You had better stay here for a while. The footy’s started and there’s always plenty of scraps.’
Her anxiety was heightened knowing that the cubs were ready to leave and that wild things couldn’t and shouldn’t be bound. And leave they did. However, as Evelyne and Bess were setting out to look for them, they returned, with the vixen leading them along the inside of the drain’s culverts.
‘You clever girl.’ Evelyne remarked.
Using Evelyne’s shed as a hide, the group got through two footy seasons to a time when Bess’s arthritis got so bad, she could no longer manage the walks, and one mid-morning she hobbled over to Evelyne and laid her head in her old friend’s lap. After a few minutes she sighed and on her out-breath, died. From then on the foxes spent their nights on the veranda.
Evelyne told her son that she wanted Bess’s bones to go in with her when her time came.
This was the first time his mum had talked about ‘her time.’ Sure, she frequently repeated herself, which he put down to aggravation from the ‘digital age’ but ‘her time?’
‘How will you get the meat off the bones Mum? It’ll smell.’
‘I’ll leave that to the ants’ His mother said and had him put Bess’s body on an ant colony which immediately swarmed over it. She upended a shopping trolley over the mound saying she needed to do this or the foxes might eat her before the ants did.
‘Mum, you can’t pinch shopping trolleys.’
‘I didn’t pinch it. I pulled it out of the drain.’
Her son grimaced resignedly and at her suggestion disguised the trolley to look like a kennel.
‘You’ll have to get another dog, this won’t fool anyone.’ He said.
‘Oh, I couldn’t replace Bess; anyway I’ve got the foxes now.’ She said in a manner that didn’t fit the subject.
There was much about his mother that didn’t fit he thought, but conceded that having the foxes in her life had somehow settled her.
He gave her a hug and said he was proud of her. And having a fly-in-fly-out job up in the mines, he encouraged his sister to look in when he was away.
‘She doesn’t go to therapy anymore, and I don’t think she’s taking her medication, but she seems better somehow.’
‘What are their names?’ His sister asked.
‘They’re wild creatures, they don’t have names.’ He said. ‘And be careful who you talk too.’
‘Ah come on,’ his sister protested. ‘I’m not a kid.’
The foxes moved out about the time the ants had picked Bess’s bones clean. Evelyne washed and put them in a shoebox on the mantelpiece from where she continued their conversations.
With the foxes gone and her mother talking to bones, her daughter brought home a small black and white dog from animal rescue.
The little fox terror looked up at Evelyne, gave an approval wag of its stumpy tail and set about a sniff survey of its yard.
‘I don’t know about this.’ Evelyne said.
‘I thought you could take her on your walks.’ Said her daughter.
‘Oh! Yes, I suppose I can.’
‘Tell me about granddad’s foxes.’
There was no going back from there.