Wolves and foxes are figuring prominently in my life these days, due to my three-year-old grandson’s obsession with “The Three Little Pigs.” He’s not afraid of the wolf. He loves the wolf. We build block towers over and over, which he designates as houses built of straw, sticks or bricks, and then proceeds to huff and puff until he blows them down. Even the brick ones, which strictly speaking are supposed to withstand the wolf’s huffing and puffing. The blowing is supplemented by head-butting in order to get the job done.
Wolves are akin to foxes, those handsome animals that are forever prowling about looking for poultry to devour. In picture books, the fox often gets outfoxed in humorous ways. A favorite of ours is “The Rooster and the Fox,” (Helen Ward) in which the proud and arrogant rooster Chanticleer is seized by the neck by the equally proud and arrogant fox. Chanticleer does some clever thinking, tricking the fox into opening his mouth to declare his own cleverness. When the fox’s mouth opens, Chanticleer escapes. Another fox story is “That is Not a Good Idea!” (Mo Willems), in which the fox concocts a plan to seduce a fat goose into coming to his house to help him make soup. The fox intends for the goose to be the main ingredient, but in a delightful twist ends up in the soup himself.
But I have another tale in mind, a story about actual foxes and chickens on the farm of my childhood.
Each spring my mom ordered one hundred fluffy yellow chicks. They were delivered to town on the train, brought home, and kept warm in the house for several days under brooder lamps. Our kitchen was temporary home to a delightful mass of peeping cuteness. We kids knew the chicks were meant to be eaten eventually, and it didn’t bother us. That’s life on the farm. After a few days they were relocated to the chicken coop, and thus began the long season of raising them to juicy adulthood. They were allowed to run loose around the farm yard during the day, scratching and pecking for bugs and worms. At dusk the door to the coop was left open, and they all went home to roost.
The summer I was nine or so, there were several hungry foxes lurking in the tree rows at the edge of the yard. Dad would report seeing them in the fields when he was cultivating or spraying for weeds. As the summer wore on, one or two of them made the bold move of taking a midday foray into the yard and snatching a chicken. Unusual, because this is normally a nocturnal activity. Which is why the chickens were safely ensconced in the coop at night.
It was a night in late August, a week before the planned chicken butchering party, an annual event for my mom and her sisters. That night my parents attended a different annual event – the grain elevator meeting and dinner. This was a huge social gathering as well, not to be missed. A sweet, grandmotherly neighbor lady arrived to babysit my brothers and me. Careful instructions were given to her to remember to let the chickens into the coop before we all went to bed, and off Mom and Dad went.
I don’t remember anything about what ensued, except for what I was told later. My parents returned from their partying well after midnight. As they drove into the yard, they discovered a sea of plump, feathered bodies littering the yard. Can you see it? White feathers glinting under the full moon, the bodies still warm from the kill (I have no idea if the moon was full or not. But it makes a better story). An entire summer’s worth of chicken-raising in anticipation of an entire year’s worth of chicken and dumplings, gone. And the fact that the chickens would have been plucked, gutted and in the freezer in just a few days made the whole affair so much worse.
There was nothing to do but leave the corpses lying in state until morning. Except that by morning every chicken had vanished, dragged off by the foxes. The exception was one traumatized hen who’d flown into a tree during the massacre. She refused to come down for three days.
Our poor grandmotherly neighbor was horrified at what she’d forgotten to do. But honestly, herding around four kids must have taken all her concentration. Plus, she was almost deaf (I remember, because her hearing aids were always whistling), and didn’t hear the chickens’ frantic screams for help. So I don’t see it as her fault, and neither did my parents. Somehow we got through that winter without chicken. And during spring plowing, Dad unearthed piles of chicken bones.
In real life we don’t always outfox the fox. But life goes on anyway. There will be another spring, bringing a new batch of fluffy yellow chicks. But in the world of stories my grandson and I celebrate either the demise of foxes and wolves, or their victory, depending on what mood he’s in. Which is exactly how it should be when you’re three.