Fieldwork: Loving a difficult father

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A fox stalking ducks in the heath. Engraving by T. Landseer Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A fox stalking ducks in the heath. Engraving by T. Landseer after E.H. Landseer. By: Edwin Henry Landseerafter: Thomas LandseerPublished: -Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ —Engraving by T. Landseer via Wellcome Images, London; Creative Commons

On my desk sits a faded color photograph of my father. Holding a slice of white bread, Dad reaches across Georgica Pond’s brackish water toward a pair of swans. Tortoise-shell glasses hide his dark brown eyes, but he looks up, perhaps at my mother, and smiles. The two swans, white necks tightly curved, look wary, but I know it’s just a matter of time. Even the fiercest cobs ended up eating bits of bread from my father’s hand and coming when he called.

Dad loved all birds, but he had a particular affinity for swans. He admired their loyalty, how they mated for life and returned to the same nesting spot year after year. In a logbook Dad kept for most of his 89 years, he recorded the swans’ spring arrival to his cove, their exact nest site, the numbers of eggs laid and hatched, the date the cygnets learned to fly, and finally the family’s autumn departure. Each successive pair he named Oscar and Nestor for reasons I’ll never know. This entry in his distinctive, fierce scrawl was typical: “Swans nesting on east side of my little pond for the very first time. Nestor dropped 3 eggs two days ago. 4/5/90.”

For Dad it was simple. The swans and other birds were his friends. The foxes, snapping turtles, and other predators were his enemies. Red foxes are plentiful on Eastern Long Island. Ever since I can remember, there have been at least two dens in the woods near my father’s house. So as soon as the swans returned in the spring, Dad slept with his bedroom door open so his two English Setters could keep any foxes at bay. In case the dogs didn’t do their job, he kept a loaded gun in his bedside table. Still, he couldn’t always help. “Sad news. Our cygnets were born on time last Sunday, almost 45 days to the day. The foxes have been very active. So last night door was open. To no avail. This am by 5:30 all 10 cygnets were gone. The pen and cob seemed resigned. No sign of a struggle, as was the case four or five years ago. The answer is the fox knows birth time, so a dog must be put close to the nest. 5/29/86.”

For most of my life, when the phone rang early, it was Dad. He’d launch into the weather over Georgica Pond, tell me when I should expect it on Martha’s Vineyard, fill me in on swans, dogs, foxes, maybe a new girlfriend, and then abruptly hang up. Standing in my nightgown, covered in goose bumps, holding a dead phone, I longed for a smidgen of that energetic tenderness Dad gave so freely to the swans. Three days before 9/11, Dad had a stroke, which offered us a late chance to become close. With hard work and time, he learned to speak and even drive again, but he needed help. To get to the swans’ nest to count the eggs, he had to rely on a cane and a sturdy arm. That arm was often mine.

Seven years ago, on a gloomy March afternoon, when I arrived to visit Dad, he no longer had the strength to pull himself up from his red leather chair. “Go right out,” he whispered gruffly as I leaned over to kiss him. “The swans have nested just to the right of my dock. Check for eggs.” He paused and looked away; “You’ll need to go alone.”

The nest was in a warren of brittle cattails. I was afraid of the pen, and she must have sensed it. Instead of moving off the nest or begging for the bread I’d brought with me, she rose to her full height, hissed, and beat the air with her powerful wings. I dropped the bread and backed away. I was pretty sure there were four white eggs, but there might have been five or six. I trudged back in, knowing Dad would be irked by my vague report. “Oh dear,” he said sadly, and turned his attention back to Fox News.

Sunday afternoon, as I was climbing into my car to give my uncle a ride home, he touched my arm and pointed. A pair of fox cubs was emerging from the scrub oak along Dad’s driveway. Dazzled by the buttery light, the kits took cautious, tentative steps. “This must be their first time out of the den,” he whispered with excitement. I knew the mother must be nearby, but it took me awhile to find her. She lay in the shadow of a huckleberry bush, smoothing the long hairs of her fluffy tail with her tongue. She watched her children wrestle and tumble in a pile of dry oak leaves, then after several long minutes, rose, shook, and stepped back into the woods. Her kits followed. All evening I carried their wildness inside me. I didn’t tell Dad, and it was just as well. Four nights later, arms wrapped tightly around his dog, Dad died in bed.

When the family gathered to put Dad’s ashes in the ground a few weeks later, storm-force winds obliterated power across the entire 100-mile length of Long Island. We huddled under a makeshift tent in the East Hampton Cemetery in the blinding rain. The minister tried to say something soothing, but his words were swallowed by the wind. After each of us darted out to prod a yellow daffodil into his small square hole, we waited for the honor guard. They were lost. So finally, my oldest nephew put Dad’s simple box into the wet earth, and covered it with a lump of sod.

Long shadows stretched across Georgica Pond by the time my sister Snowden and I got back to Dad’s house. The rain had stopped, and I stood in the grass outside the kitchen, trying to commit the flat pond and huge sky to memory. Along the pond edge, a tawny flash pierced the gray. A fox. I yelled for Snowden, and together we ran at him, waving our arms and screaming at the top of our lungs. Lanky and long-legged, the fox loped directly to the swans’ nest. We heard honking, wing flapping, and then utter silence.

Snowden and I shuffled back to the empty house, and locked the door for the first time. Later I slipped outside with a flashlight. Bits of shell littered the nest cavity, but not a single egg remained intact. Near the dock, two white forms curled into balls like ghosts in the silvery moonlight. Swans will often try again, but not this pair. They still came to us for bread, but seemed as lost as we were.

Drawings of six species of foxes and jackals. —Courtesy The New International Encyclopedia

The next spring, when Snowden and I met at Dad’s house to continue the slow work of emptying it, another swan couple had claimed Dad’s cove. This new pair was wary of us, which was just as well. Our tenancy wouldn’t last much longer. Dad’s house was for sale.

Georgica Pond was lower than we’d ever seen it. We could walk along the shore to places we’d never been. One morning, rounding an unfamiliar bend, we almost stepped on the new swans’ nest. The pen hissed at us, but didn’t move. When we moved inland to give her a wide berth, I tripped over something in the wet sand. Peeling away long strands of seaweed, I uncovered the half-buried carcass of a fox. Flesh and fur had largely been stripped and eaten, but the bones were intact. Suddenly, I dropped to my knees in the damp sand, and found myself twisting the head with my bare hands. It snapped off with a crack. A few segments of vertebrae and a piece of trachea drooped from it.

“That stinks,” my sister said.

“I want it,” I replied, and later hung my trophy on one of the long nails outside Dad’s kitchen door, where he used to hang and season his mallards.

A few days later when I packed to leave, I put the fox bones in a plastic bread bag, tied the bag with a loose knot, and drove them to my home on Martha’s Vineyard, a place with plenty of swans, but not a single fox.

I left the fetid bag on the Windsor bench by our front door. Each time I went in or out and saw sweat beading the sides of the plastic bag, I’d feel a swell of pride. I could already picture this talisman, clean and white, perched on our bookshelf next to other bits of nature I’d collected or claimed. My husband asked if the bones were visceral payback for the swan’s eggs I hadn’t been able to protect, but it felt bigger than that.

The soft May evening I put the last of the lilac and a fistful of lily of the valley into a vase, I knew it was the time to tackle the fox skull. I set a large pot of water on the stove to boil and added several cups of bleach. When the water was hot, I sliced open the plastic bag with a paring knife. The smell of decay made my eyes water and turned my stomach, but I pulled out the skull and plunked it into the pot, like Dad would have. The rancid steam was oily. The stench clung to my hair and skin. After a few minutes, I had to put a top on the pot and go outside.

I let it boil an hour, then carried the pot to the porch and made myself grab the skull with a pair of tongs. Somehow the piece of trachea was still attached. I stabbed at the carcass with a fork, but the tough gristle held on. I moved to the jaw. Yanking at the dead flesh, trying pull it off in strips, I noticed the fox’s teeth. A canine was missing, and several of the back molars were rotten and brown. I dropped the fork. It clattered on the wood.

I put the fox skull down on the porch railing and studied it closely. This creature had had terrible toothache. Eating must have been painful. She probably suffered. My hands shook as I picked up the carcass and heaved it into the puckerbrush. A vertebra snagged on a strand of cat briar so the skull swayed and quivered in the evening breeze. Heedless of the brambles, I plunged into the thicket and pulled the fox down. After running to the garage and grabbing a shovel, I dug a small hole, lined it with grass clippings, and buried the soggy fox bones under a thick blanket of bittersweet, wishing I’d left her on the pond shore where I found her, on familiar ground, close to home.

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