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February 6, 2021

Grandpap’s Birthday Foxes

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joe Brehm @ 1:03 am

It’s cold this morning, single digits, and the powdery snow sparkles better than a million diamonds. Frost erupts from even the blandest old stems of goldenrod as tiny silver ferns. Mabel takes off on her usual rounds, inspecting the neighbor’s farm with great enthusiasm. Song sparrows erupt from the frosty fern-covered field as she runs past, nose low to the ground and tail raised. I look down and see a neat set of tracks, then another. I stoop closer to get a better look: red fox (Vulpes vulpes). The tracks circle part of a dead cow that Mabel found the other day; she came trotting across the field (using a side trot) with it in her mouth and laid it at my feet.

I measure the tracks carefully and determine there were two foxes

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, quite possibly a mating pair traveling together. The foxes investigated the bovine fragment but did not drag any of it away. Crow tracks paced all around it. Rabbit tracks interlace through the pasture and old-fields, some in great bounds several feet apart. The foxes had clearly worked the area well, circling around and weaving through the forest edges, open fields, and goldenrod kingdoms hot on the big hind rabbit heels. Both canines used a variety of gait patterns–walks, trots, “c” lopes, gallops, t-stops–and I was lucky enough to find a scat and not one, but two places where one of them urinated. I get down on all fours to take in the musky aroma.

I cross the creek to see if Mabel is bawling because she’s trailing the same creatures I am. One fox has crossed the creek and somehow slipped through the barbed wire fence and two barberry shrubs without leaving a single hair from its plush winter pelt. Mabel’s barking flushes a dozen or so robins foraging wherever the morning sun had melted snow and thawed some soil. American tree sparrows fly between tall ironweed stalks–the only plant the cows let get that big–and peck at their starry seeds with bi-colored bills

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, the old plants bouncing and swaying under their meager weight. The birds are like a bunch of kids playing on a high ropes course.

Mabel is a beautiful dog, but her tracks look like lazy slop compared with the measured, concise, and furry feet of these quiet foxes. Her trail kicks up snow with big blunt claws as she zips across the land haphazardly and back again, whereas the foxes have an almost palpable order to each measured footfall. You can tell their trails apart from a quarter mile in the bright snow. As Mabel pursues the foxes with such enjoyment, I can’t help but think of Grandpap.

My grandfather, who we called Grandpap, was above all else, I think, a hunter. He trained hounds like Mabel and together they hunted rabbits

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, raccoons, and foxes. Later in life, after he stopped hunting, he would sit for hours in his backyard, watching the goldfinches (he called them canaries) forage in his giant sunflower patch and hummingbirds battle over sugar water, and he would gaze out over the valley and wooded hills beyond their home. Grandpap once told me that he replayed old hunts in his mind, like an athlete might replay certain games or plays. A highlight reel, of sorts. I suppose he recalled rather perfectly the dogs baying, which he could easily interpret to know what animal they trailed, and anticipating that animal’s movements across the land. He recalled getting into perfect position to make a good shot. And sometimes, he just watched the animal. He once saw a fox, with barking dogs not far behind but out of sight, walk to the edge of a fallen log, then walk backwards along the same log, and leap off to the side, throwing the dogs off its scent.

Everyone who knew him spoke highly of him, and easily. He always had candy on hand for neighborhood kids, took good care of his family, was quick to laugh, and had an enduring sparkle in his eyes like a creek in the winter sun. He had a sterling reputation for training good hunting dogs. One of his dogs loved hunting with him so much, that when Grandpap tried to leave her behind, she jumped out the garage window to be at his side.

One of my earliest memories of him: we were outside playing and heard the garbage truck coming. He ran into the basement and quickly poured two cold glasses of Old Milwaukee’s Best from his kegerator

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, and together we met the sweat-covered garbagemen at the end of his driveway with cold beers. He talked with them easily while they drank hastily, not wanting to fall too far behind. They beamed with honest appreciation as they said so long.

I would not go so far as to say that Mabel is my grandfather, reincarnated, but some things she does make me wonder if she didn’t somehow wind up with a piece or two of his spirit. She sometimes sways her head quickly to the side, just like he did after telling a dirty joke or saying a cuss word in front of my grandma. She is most at home in the woods, chasing the same animals that Grandpap hunted, and has a similar charisma, in canine form. At the very least, spending time with Mabel helps me remember him.

When Grandpap died

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, he simply drifted off to sleep and never woke up. A peaceful death that so many deserve but so few experience. I like to think he was replaying an old hunt in his mind

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, and never stopped following those old hounds of his, who led him straight on into whatever lies beyond. Tomorrow would have been his 97th birthday.

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