Sawyer Smith - Non-Fiction
by Sawyer Smith
Everyone eventually gets used to their own “house sounds.” The constant hum of the radiator combines with the random ticks in the wood and the occasional hoo of your backyard owl to create a sort of melody that no longer disturbs you in the quiet of night. Everyone always gets used to them, but it takes me longer to hear the lullaby underneath the noise. I’ve always had an overactive imagination and been prone to nightmares, so “house sounds” never start out as such.
The radiator is a growling dragon that paces the basement, waiting to strike. The random ticks in the wood are termites methodically eating away at my childhood home. And the owl, well, he’s just an owl, but owls are ominous as is.
Because of this predisposition to assume the most sinister, the first time I heard the call of a red fox, I thought I made it up. My boyfriend and I were watching science fiction television in the basement of his parents’ home in Kirkwood, Missouri, which butts up against a great expanse of trees and wildlife, when I heard the distressed scream of a person in peril.
“Did you hear that?” Tim excitedly jumped off the couch to look out the window.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice weak with genuine fear. “Should we go check it out?” I looked around for my coat and a possible weapon. Seamus, the Decker’s burly Tibetan mastiff mix, lay sleeping, unfazed and of no help.
“No.” My boyfriend gave me a look. “It’s a fox.”
The red fox, scientific name Vulpes Vulpes, is present in almost all parts of the Northern Hemisphere and can thrive in forests, grasslands, deserts, and mountains alike. They are omnivorous mammals that only live, on average, two to four years in the wild. They are listed as “least concerning’ in regards to endangerment. In regards to the noise they make, however, I have listed them as “most concerning”. The sound they emit, which is used for both mating purposes and to call their young, is truly horrifying. In fact, it’s so unsettling to hear, the sound designers for Jurassic Park, partially used the red fox call to create the screech of the baby raptors.
Not that there is a setting in which I would find this sound necessarily normal, but it is especially jarring to hear it within the confines of the Decker’s house. With it’s the floral patterned curtains, cozy, hand-knit afghans, and the scent of Wendy’s fresh baked cookies wafting throughout, the Decker house is immediately recognizable as a home.
Unlike any that I’ve lived in.
Upon first entering the house, I was taken aback by the sheer warmth it emits. There is a strong, non-discriminating feeling of welcoming that exists inside those walls, and I was almost as shocked by it as I was by the fox call.
The Decker’s are no longer troubled by the sound of the fox – the sound of an innocent soul fighting for it’s life. It’s just one of their “house sounds”.
There is the rush of water that travels through every pipe in the house each time someone flushes a toilet. There’s the soft woosh of clothes being sent down the laundry shoot. There’s the heavy tread of the two youngest Decker’s as they begrudgingly get ready for bed. And, occasionally, there is the bone-chilling wail of a red fox, searching for her kits in the dark.
I was starting to get used to the Decker’s house sounds. I was starting to get too comfortable. Without the red fox, I may have accidentally crossed the threshold from welcomed guest to part of the family. That shriek in the night awoke me from a daydream in which I had a home again. Just in time.
Now the Decker house and I are in a sort of stalemate. It stands consistent and inviting as ever, daring me to forget where I come from, forget who I am, and settle into its embrace. Meanwhile, I play the call of the red fox on repeat in my head, hoping it might drown out the small, hopeful voice that’s telling me to trust.
After my parents got divorced, their respective living situations became a representation of their parenting styles. My mother, unpredictable and unreliable, never stopped moving. While my father, stagnant and strict, kept still. He remained steady and rooted until we, meaning both him and I, were ready to move. My father’s house was a constant, while mother’s houses were a facade.
I was shuffled back and forth, dad’s to mom’s, house to house, on a weekly basis for eleven years.
My father’s house was purchased while I still dwelled inside my first home; my mother’s womb. Three stories and nestled in the Federal Heights neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah, the house was originally built around the turn of the century. It had good bones.
My father kept it for sixteen years – until the day I asked if we could move to California, and he said, “why not?”
It underwent a few renovations, as did my family.
I saw that house through multiple basement renovations, a complete kitchen renovation, the addition of a master-bath, new dark-wood finishes, and a very in-depth landscape revitalization.
That house saw me through my parents’ divorce, my mother’s new marriage, my dad’s new marriage, my dad’s incredibly painful second divorce, as well as all the less substantial trials a person faces in their first fifteen years on the planet.
My memories of that house are warm, bright, and heavy. The snapshots I have from 1442 Federal Way drip with emotional significance, and ache with nostalgia. What I would give for a record of those house sounds.
Track one: the squeal of strain our ancient, moldy swing set would breathe each time one of my brothers swung too high.
Track two: the sizzle of pancake batter on a hot pan, every Sunday morning.
Track three: any one of ABBA’s greatest hits my dad would play full blast in the living room as he, my closest brother, and I would dance with childish abandon.
And so on.
I grew up in my father’s house. I was forced to “grow up” in my mother’s.
Red foxes are remarkably adaptable, and are able to live in a wide range of environments and cope with an impressive range of conditions. From salt marshes to high mountains to even urban, city areas, red foxes can flourish. They live in “lairs”, which they make by digging underneath tree trunks, clearing out hollow trees, or recycling abandoned birds’ nests.
Red foxes are experts in making homes for themselves.
I was four and the restlessness was just beginning. Sleeping troubles that would follow me the rest of my life were sprouting inside my subconscious, like determined weeds about to poke through what I thought was an impenetrable concrete path to slumber.
My parents were separating, a fact unbeknownst to me, for all I understood was that I was getting a new bedroom.
And new house sounds.
Except, I only remember my mother’s first house visually. Three silent memories.
The image of my brother trying to entice his pet rat out from under the bed, like a mother trying to entice her child from the pool on a hot summer day. The rodent had gotten loose, and deciding it liked the taste of freedom, refused to leave its cool, dark refuge.
My unexpected run in with death, when, walking out our front door before school I saw a small bird impaled on a spike of my mother’s beloved Joshua tree. I call that one “dead on arrival”.
My mother and I standing in a foot of water after our basement flooded. She hands me a box she found while clearing out others from the storage room. Inside is a teddy bear that would later become my fellow soldier, who accompanied me to war against the nightmares.
That’s it, that was that house – a rat, a bird, and a bear. No fox.
Wendy Decker was telling me about the small gray creature she saw the other day, and I couldn’t help but make a connection between myself and the ashy outsider.
“I wasn’t sure if it was a fox or a coyote,” She explained, while pointing out the massive window that makes up the south-facing wall of their kitchen. “I’m pretty sure it was with another fox, the mother maybe, but it was not red at all. Just gray.”
I discovered later, that red foxes can sometimes have gray coloring – not to be confused with an actual Gray Fox (scientific name: Urcyon Cinereoargenteus). And gray foxes look almost identical to young coyotes (scientific name: Canis Latrans).
I wistfully dig through wikipedia pages, on the edge of an identity crisis. Wendy has returned to her busy life as the matriarch leader of the Decker skulk – a family made up of kits, cubs, dog foxes, and vixens, all deep auburn in color. I’ve returned to my life as an indistinguishable tangent of this fox family, like the gray anomaly that may not even be of the same species.
The second move came two years after the first. My mother was getting remarried and was itching for change. Although those two years had been sculpted by house projects, with never their ending cycle of changing paint colors, and artistic experiments that left each room wildly unique, my mother was anxious to get her hands on something new.
I cried; more upset over the soon-to-come shift in parental dynamics than the relocation, but my six year old mind could not compartmentalize the two. I created a monster of the new house. The promise of a new bedroom could not console me this time. Like a rookie following her commanding officer, I followed my mother out of our safe, familiar foxhole and out into the line of fire. I had no choice but to trust that she knew what she was doing, and that she was making the best decision for all her little soldiers, and not just for herself. I felt so out of control in the new house. I began to lose more ground in my battle against insomnia, even with the aid of my furry partner in arms.
After months, however, the sounds finally became a song and the house a home.
The stairs creaked and the heavy front door slammed no matter how gently you nodged it shut, but it’s the call of the mourning dove I remember best. The smooth moan begins low, then makes a quick octave leap, and comes back down – if this were a visual memory, I would see mini hills drawn by the gray birds sound waves. Although the dove’s dirge drowns most of my auditory recollection, I do remember that house having a rhapsody of joyous noise.
As opposed to my mother’s first, I remember this second house with all my senses.
Visually, it was a playland. It had a bright purple door, the kitchen was painted a different color on each wall, and every shelf held some crazy vintage toy or a piece from my mother’s most recent artistic endeavor. The latter included everything from paintings of jackalopes to action figures with their head swapped for that of Elvis Presley. My friends used to gape at the mid-century, lime green egg chair I had in my room and our staircase, which was carpeted in a deep purple print with bowling pins on it. It was chaotic, it was amusing, but most importantly, it was not to be touched.
Remembering that house physically is to remember a lack thereof. My mother, the insanely imaginative, manically creative wonder woman, is also an addict. Having kicked the hard stuff before getting pregnant, she swapped cocaine for cleaning. That house, and each of her houses after it, was and is truly spotless. Anything that might have threatened said spotlessness, i.e. anything fun, was simply not allowed.
Any natural smells of the house would have been overwhelmed by the constant stench of 409 cleaner and paint. The amount of brain cells that have died by the hand of my mother’s hobbies I’d rather not dwell on, but it’s probably her fault I’m so bad at math.
Canned vegetables – that’s what the house tasted like. I was making most of my own meals in those days, which meant a lot of microwaved corn, green beans, and sometimes the occasional can of black beans for protein. I never learned how to cook, but I learned other important food lessons – how to scavenge, how to mooch, and how to go without.
Red foxes rely mostly on their excellent hearing and sense of smell. Their eyesight is nothing to brag about, and although there have not been extensive tests done, it appears their sense of taste and touch are also quite poor.
Red foxes have very diverse diets, and are incredibly adaptable when it comes to food. As omnivores, they eat a variety of all things plants and animals, though they are natural born hunters. Given the choice, they prefer dining on juicy critters such as squirrels and rabbits, but in times of scarcity, they know how to subsist on berries, grass, insects, and in some areas, even crayfish.
Baby foxes, also known as kits, are typically expected to leave the liar, and venture off on their own at the ripe age of 7 months. While females tend to stay closer to their birth place, males have been known to wander as far as 150 miles away.
I now live roughly 1,320 miles from my hometown. All four Salt Lake houses I lived in have been sold. The beloved trailer I shared with my dad in San Diego has been sold.
My mother and her husband now live a tiny structure, around 1,000 square feet, in the middle of the Mojave desert. I’ve stayed there once. It’s lovely, it’s beautiful, and of course, it’s colorful, but it is not my home.
My dad shares a downtown, two bedroom San Diego apartment with a good friend of his. I’ve stayed there once. It is clean, it is warm, and the blow up mattress was surprisingly comfortable, but it is not my home.
I currently rent a room in a house in the Central West End of St. Louis that is most definitely not my home. It’s been months, but the sounds are still only sounds. The clunk of the AC coming on still makes me jump. Everytime one of my roommates slams the front door, I still let out a deep sigh. The gunshots, which I hear every few weeks, in the dead of night, always cause me to think the same thought, What am I doing here?
I have yet to find my liar.
Wendy is a member of a community-wide email forum, within which her and her neighbors can relay news, discuss community events, and, most importantly, air neighborhood grievances. This month’s topic of conversation: the foxes. The little sparky inhabitants are nothing new, but the gray one is cause for concern.
“Some people swear it’s a coyote, and they want to capture it,” She tells me, wearing her disappointment like a cozy sweater. “Even if it is, I don’t see what the big deal is.”
There is talk of the fate of outdoor cats, small dogs, and young fawns – whom, it should be noted, the entire neighborhood complains about when it comes to their backyard plants or road safety, but when it comes to this gray menace, suddenly everyone has a bleeding heart.
Wendy grabs me a glass of water, without me having to ask, and continues. “Everyone is overreacting. As far as I’m concerned, the coyote, or fox, is harmless.” She starts placing food in front of me, worrying herself over not having enough vegetarian options. If she knew what I manage to live off when I’m not at her house, she would probably try to legally adopt me. Like the fox settling for insects and muddy crayfish, my body is typically running on a spoonful of peanut butter and crackers.
I don’t feel like a member of their amber fox family. It’s abundantly clear that I grew up in a shockingly different household – one that looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds different. It’s abundantly clear that I’m gray. I wouldn’t be surprised to find there was an email chain completely devoted to that one girl with tattoos and crop tops who is often seen slipping out of the Decker’s basement door past midnight. She’s cause for concern, alright.
“I don’t even think she’s a member of the Vulpes Vulpes species!” Someone might write.
“What if she’s a member of Urcyon Cinereoargenteus!?” Another person demands. “Are neighborhood isn’t suited for gray foxes.”
“You know, I don’t think she’s a vixen at all. I think she’s one of those Canis Latrans! You just watch, when she gets full grown, no one will be safe!”
Wendy would read everyone’s comments with calm consideration, she might put her two cents in, but probably not. That night she would make sure she cooks enough side dishes to satisfy the one and only herbivore at her table, she would listen for the foxes call as she takes the dog out, and before she goes to bed, she would say her prayers – careful to include one for the lost and hungry toupe mongrel.
Her whispered graces are this house’s best sound.