The Foxes of Prince Edward Island

Matthew Ferrence

Nine months before I knew anything at all about the brain tumor, I drove through the slowly arriving spring of Prince Edward Island National Park. Winter had been rough that year in Atlantic Canada, socked hard by late heavy snows. Even in early May, the shady banks of the coast road still held massive snowbanks, cold and deep with surfaces crusted over and pocked with dirt and twigs. To my right, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence spread across the horizon, gray-blue, nearly as cold as the snowbanks. Lobster buoys dotted the surface, the fleet having finally been able to set traps after several delays to the season, the harbor ice melted and hacked out enough to get going. The ferry had just resumed running from Nova Scotia across the warmer Strait of Northumberland, it also beset by ice. Coastal shrubs still waited to bloom, their limbs dulled and winterized. Everything about the landscape seemed to be in suspension, everything on pause. New growth came slowly, and though spring carried its usual insinuation of relief and hope, this too seemed measured, cautious.
    I steered around a bend, and there in the middle of the road was a fox, one of the many that call the island home. He was a typical red, but even from a distance, I could tell his pelt was mottled and frayed. This could have been a sign of spring, the molting of a heavy winter coat in anticipation of summer, probably was. But I also knew enough about the foxes of my childhood farm in Pennsylvania to think about disease, about the slow death of mange, relentless mites causing an animal to turn its teeth upon itself. Invisible pain drives a┬┐icted animals mad, the tearing of fur and opening of flesh the result, false relief that leads often to infection and demise.
    The mottled fox waited, curious. I slowed my car, then stopped, and we watched each other. I noticed his eye, the glaucous, blind, all-seeing whitened magical dead eye, his right. Eventually, he moved out of the road, and I crawled forward. He watched from his good eye as I drove past along the coast road, and I watched in the rearview mirror until he disappeared from my view.

My wife, two sons, and I came to the island that spring for a half-year respite. I had taken a sabbatical from my teaching job, and it seemed the escape could not have come at a better moment. I was off kilter that spring, had been for a long time, feeling displaced by turmoil in the place I worked. The previous year, a colleague had been arrested by the FBI, and I’d had to negotiate both the burdens of his teaching load and the psychological crises his betrayal ignited in our students. His crimes had been against children, and the shortness of his eventual prison sentence seemed to me an outrage, as did the apparently blind support some of my other colleagues offered him. Maybe this was because I knew him less well, or because I had young children. Perhaps I carry less capacity for forgiveness, or maybe forgiveness is undeserved when a person collects and shares half a million images of children on a well-cataloged external hard drive.
    Elsewhere in town, the opioid crisis of the United States churned, a new meth bust it seemed every week. Addicts had taken to new methods of manufacture, a “shake and bake” system that involves throwing cold medicine and shaved match tips and lithium batteries in a pop bottle, shaking it up, then regulating the gas pressure by twisting the cap. From time to time, when the reaction goes out of control, the bottles are tossed in someone’s yard. One Sunday afternoon, someone chucked a smoking bottle into a four-year-old’s birthday party just a few blocks from our house.
    I’d been suffering strange physical symptoms as well, something I chalked up to stress. My face would flush, and my eyes would get hot, as though I were allergic to life itself. I’d be so tired after teaching that I’d just sit, exhausted, unable to move, think, or do anything at all. I had also started to notice that my glasses never seemed right for my left eye, but three optometrists over the past few years had checked and assured me that everything was fine, that the eye was healthy and there was nothing to worry about.
    Eventually, my wife convinced me to see my doctor about the flushing symptoms, which set off a long sequence of testing. I gave up vials and vials of blood, collected my piss for twenty-four hours in a giant bottle, gave more vials of blood, lay awake at night thinking about my boys, then two and six, and sobbed into my pillow. I endured therapeutic blood lettings, and I scraped my own shit into plastic jars, wondering how to gracefully drop off my urine and feces at the local lab, particularly after everyone there got to know me on a first-name basis.
    We found nothing, only curious results indicating, well, something. By the time we reached the island that spring, I was beginning to think of my health concerns as a matter of history. I doubted any future diagnosis and figured only that I’d be checking in with my new hematologist from time to time as a formality. I didn’t know yet about the tumor. I didn’t realize that I was living in the temporary stillness between “you’re fine” and “you’re not.”
    So, when we arrived at Prince Edward Island, I had some unarticulated goal of renewal. We were a thousand miles away from the troubles of home, and that seemed like an important separation. We moved into a cottage overlooking the Hunter River, tucked into a quiet dead end behind the New Glasgow cemetery. There was a rusting bus in the front yard, something our landlady apologized for but that I found appealing enough to post on Facebook as a sign of rugged northern beauty. Foxes had covered an old spare tire chucked in the bus’s interior with an impressive pile of scat, marking territory with a heavy musk. I imagined this as a war to claim the bus as a winter den.
    Evenings, I drove through the national park and looked for foxes, mostly for that fox. I thought about landscapes and recovery, about being drawn to this place that is not so different from the place I am from, western Pennsylvania coal country an analogue to the Maritimes even in the ways that the people are stereotyped as backward, and less, and hick. But I thought also about being always in exile, never belonging to either place. My parents were not from Appalachia, meaning it was not theirs by birthright. And living on PEI wasn’t exactly being a “summer person,” but I’d never be an islander. Still, the island is the upper tip of the Appalachian Mountains and is thereby geologically related to my hometown. In its rockiness, it felt completely like home and completely not.
    Some nights, I felt as physically worn as I did at home, experiencing no sense of relief at all. I’d lean against the walls of the shower and let hot water flow over me. When I read to my older son, I squinted harder and harder. I closed my right eye, left eye, right, left, and watched the images change, bright through the right, veiled through the left. Words were clear if I read with my right eye, hazy and gray through the left, an emptiness emerging in the center of my field of view. We were reading Calvin and Hobbes that summer, and I could make Hobbes disappear just by closing one eye.

On the night that I first saw the mottled and half-blind fox in the national park, I saw a second one, hardly more than a shadow, moving across the twilight road. This one wore a dark black mask, almost as if part raccoon, and the same ragged molting pelt as the first. The sum of these two foxes equated to a haunting, or so I felt. I wanted these foxes to be a symbol of some sort, a portent of something I couldn’t quite voice but desired.
    I sought a way to bring order to the disorder of the past few years. I needed a method to weigh, assess, figure out, to read the signs of my life and determine a path. More than anything, I wanted these foxes to mean something in a life that seemed to have just accumulated, and not fully in the way I’d hoped.

The truth is, the half-blind fox and the masked fox and the unseen foxes that set up camp in the rusting bus all live on Prince Edward Island as relics of a failed industry. Beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, a pioneering captive-breeding program had turned fox farming into a major boon to PEI. At its peak, nearly one hundred thousand captive foxes lived on the thousands of farms that dotted the landscape, each one valued as a pelt to be sold for significant cash or, even better, as a viable breeding animal that could be sold to speculators in or beyond the province.
    Much of the success of this fur enterprise lay in the breeding of a stable strain of the silver fox, the dark, melanistic phase of the red fox. These animals wear black fur flecked with silver strands, a normal variation within natural populations. Through careful crossbreeding, farmers established a predictable and viable source of silver fox pelts, which carried a much higher price than the standard red.
    Markets crash when growth outstrips demand. So it was with the Prince Edward Island foxes. Prices eroded as consumers turned away, fashion having soured on natural fur. Farmers were left with nearly worthless animals, liabilities that had to be fed or destroyed or simply let free. Silver fox genes still circulate on the island, and foxes themselves are plentiful enough to be both thrill and nuisance. They are the remnants of collapse, their success possible only because of a different failure. Foxes thrive on Prince Edward Island as a sort of accidental mercy.

That summer, I began tallying the foxes I saw on a piece of paper magneted to the cottage refrigerator. I saw the phantom silver fox twice, early in the morning, racing across the lawn. I passed the scratching, mosquito-mad red on the Confederation Trail, way out near O’Leary. The national park was home to foxes galore, anonymous reds and golden reds who lingered on the road. My tally sheet quickly filled up.
    One afternoon, while playing outside the cottage with our two-year-old, I turned to see a fox sitting on its haunches in the tall grasses beside the yard. Likely, it had been watching us for some time, curious and silent. As soon as I made eye contact, it darted into the overgrowth and then reappeared a little farther away. I couldn’t help the surge of quick fear, not for me but for my son. I felt embarrassed, a farm boy afraid of a tiny dog-like animal that had always thrilled me, an animal I wanted to think of as my totem. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder about the toddler wobbles of my son, how easily he could be knocked down, how a good-sized fox like this was as big as my boy.
    I grabbed my son and whisked him inside. I offered the pretense of getting my camera, but the truth was better described as fear. The fox bolted again when I moved but returned a little farther out, as fearful and curious as I was but not willing to give up.
    In the photos I took, the fox is a dark shadow, a silver fox, one of the rare and formerly valuable. One patch of light illuminates the right side of its face, the eyes visible only if I lean in very close to the picture. Both are clear.
    Of that day, I remember most when the fox disappeared, the longing I felt to see it again though it would never return. I wish I’d never taken its photo, had stayed in the yard with my son and watched it watch us.
    By Canada Day, tourists began to arrive on the island in numbers sufficient to push the foxes into deeper hiding. Though I still drove often through the park, I rarely saw foxes, there or at the cottage. I no longer bothered to stop at the beaches or overlooks to spend time at the water. There were simply too many people, the parking lots crammed with cars and the beaches filled. My preferred overlook was the worst, swarmed by tourists stupidly climbing down the edge of the red dirt cliffs or taking pictures of themselves with expandable selfie sticks. The overlook thronged with bus tourists who clogged the trail as they trudged to the water’s edge for a brief glimpse or quick photo, checking off a to-do list filled with things they imagined as having appeared in Anne of Green Gables, the only reason they bothered coming to PEI.

    Through the spring, I had seen the blind-eyed fox regularly. Always he had waited and watched me as long as I watched him. But the increased traffic had driven him away, as it had the other foxes. Or at least I imagine that’s what happened. Maybe I stopped looking as hard. Still, I slowed at the curve where the blind-eyed fox lived, hoping. When I rode my bike past that spot, I could smell the heavy musk of wet dog at the bend where he usually appeared, a sign of his invisible presence. But I never saw him again. And I doubt I ever will.

What I didn’t know that summer was how February would shape up, four months later when we returned to Pennsylvania because I had to go back to work. The things I might have worried about turned out fine. My hematologist was satisfied with my red blood count, high but not worrisome. My other symptoms seemed to improve while on the island, leading me to believe that stress was indeed the problem. But the nagging concern of my vision lingered. Reading in the dim light of my older son’s bedroom at night became much more difficult; entire frames of Calvin and Hobbes would disappear when I closed my right eye.
    By then, we had spent enough money on all of my other tests that we were close to the family deductible on our newly mediocre health insurance, so I decided to see an ophthalmologist. He confirmed the blind spot in my left eye by handing me a piece of graph paper and having me circle the emptiness. “Retinopathy,” he said, a minor kind of fluid bubble on the retina that a laser would seal. “Caused by stress,” he told me, and that made sense. But the retina specialist he sent me to looked at the results of his battery of expensive tests and was convinced there was no retinopathy. He peppered me with a series of questions.
    “Take any drugs?”
    He persisted. “Cocaine?”
    “A little Viagra for fun?”
    He was breezy, unconcerned, suggested that maybe an MRI was in order. In all his years of practice, he’d only once seen an issue like this wind up being neurological, but it would be worth checking out.
    That was a Wednesday. By Friday I lay in the vibrating thumps of an MRI tube. Monday morning, I spoke with my ophthalmologist about the tumor that had sprung to life on the lining of my brain, a pea-sized meningioma lodged tight against the optic foramen of my sphenoid bone, the tiny hole through which the optic nerve passes into the brain. The pressure was slowly killing my optic nerve. He said he’d call the Pittsburgh neurosurgeons to set up an appointment, who a week and a half later would explain their suspicion and make their recommendation: I needed brain surgery, and very soon.

A few weeks before I learned of the trouble with my brain, the novelist Cathy Chung came to campus as part of our visiting writer series. I taught her novel, Forgotten Country, which follows a sister facing her father’s cancer-driven death and the ghosts of the family’s Korean past. At the reading, she charmed my students with new writing, what she called a ghost story, really her own version of a kumiho story, a Korean legend about a shape-shifting sort of fox spirit that seduces young men by appearing as a beautiful woman who holds them in magical thrall while eating their hearts and livers.
    After the reading, we headed to dinner, where we talked of France, of swimming in dangerous seas, of Cathy’s near-drowning while trying to exit the water on sharp rocks. My poet colleague told a story of his own perils at sea, once when he nearly succumbed to a whirlpool in Greece, and another time when heavy California seas forced him to crash into shoals in order to free himself from a dangerous current. In his latter story and in Cathy’s, the tellers focused on the people on shore, blithely unaware of the danger and simply waving.
    When I think of that night, however, the cold darkness of February, snow coating our vehicles when we left the restaurant, I think most of all about the kumiho. I am spooked by it, and I wonder at the capacity to be deceived, to be consumed from within. Yet isn’t this what foxes are supposed to be? Always cunning? Always shape-shifting? The fox is a lesser trickster, not quite coyote, usually driven by ill intent. The fox is deceitful, slippery, deadly to know. The kumiho devours the young man. The Japanese yako kitsune possesses a human body, revealed only by the sudden onset of illness. The cock Chanticleer dreams of death arriving in the form of a fox but is assured by one of his wives that it is just a dream, only to be later captured by the fox Don Russel. Aesop’s fox can’t reach the grapes, then whines that they must be sour. Volpone pretends to be sick so people will bring him gifts.
    What, then, are my foxes? Are they apparitions, threats, warnings? Only foxes? I want to think of them as guardians, and though I neither belong to the system of belief nor yet fully understand it, I am comforted by the zenko or Inari kitsune.
    These are good foxes, symbols of benevolence and prosperity. Maybe foxes can be all of these things, as we all can be built of competing parts, frictioned for sure but made whole by the ways that joy and despair swirl within. Maybe this is why I cannot stop thinking about foxes. Maybe this is why I think the trickster can never be just evil, shapeshifting too, a sort of way of life.

A confession: Some nights on Prince Edward Island, driving the coast road, I thought about steering into the gulf. Sometimes, I stood on the rocks at the overlook and thought about wading into the cold water, or leaping from the eroding cliffs, about the shock of coldness when I entered the sea, how heavy it would be as it soaked into my clothes. Even now, I don’t know what this means, whether such impulses are the signs of depression, or that sirens do exist, and I heard them on those rocks. Probably, I was tired of feeling tired, of being worn out, tired of hopelessness and absences of happiness and satisfaction that—well, I don’t know. Maybe it was the tumor, my body instinctively reacting to the mad growth of cells that had flipped the wrong switch.
    I do know that driving home one night, navigating the curve just beyond North Rustico, where the bridge abutments creep in to tighten the road, and where the bay would later in the summer be filled with mussel farm buoys and, for one week, a dank blue-green algae bloom, I held the wheel an extra second. I never intended to hold the line long enough to fail, to hurtle off the pavement and into the water. But I held it. A second too long. Then veered back on course and headed home to my wife and children.
    I carried then a deep stupor, something I’d prefer to think of as melancholy but that might be less artful than I imagine. Why I hesitate to call it depression, I don’t know, but that’s probably as good an explanation as any. And this is a cliché of terrible commonality: we too often ignore our hurt psyches because they are invisible and because we count this as weakness. But we are captive to them, even when we remain steadfast in our commitment to denial.
    Blindness can be cultivated. It blossoms into a state of being, a fullness of misguided attention, nurtured and abetted by a desire not to see. Moving to PEI for half a year may not have been, in itself, an act of blindness, but my readiness to see it as some kind of pure escape certainly was. I carried deep wounds, and some kind of still unknown, flawed, frantic cell division that was itself both a propagating blindness and something easy to ignore, until I couldn’t.

They wheeled me into surgery a month and a half after I learned of the tumor. A team of nurses and residents chatted with me, all of us joking somehow in the whitened terror of a pristine operating room. I had seen my neurosurgeon an hour before, when he had written on my forehead with a magic marker an X that signaled the focal point of surgery. I told him it was the other eye, and he crossed out the first X and made another. It didn’t really matter where he went in, he said, but it did make sense to cut around the bad eye instead of the good one.
    I slept for eight hours, if that was something I can call sleep. The neuro-ophthalmologist drew a neat incision at the top of my left eyelid, in the natural crease. He stretched the skin open, sawed out a two inch rectangle from the front of my skull. This was laid aside, and the neurosurgeon retracted my frontal lobe and worked to remove tissue and bone. They called this a “decompression,” removing the matter around my optic nerve to make a void. Later, I would undergo radiation, and the tumor would swell, and this void was meant to protect my eye from further damage.
    What they could not do in the OR was remove the tumor. They found it on the inside of the optic sheath, too close to the nerve to allow even a biopsy. So they left it intact, replaced the hatch of my skull, wound in titanium screws, and sealed the cut with bone putty. The neuro-ophthalmologist sewed the incision tight, and I woke up later in the intensive care unit, still alive.

When radiation finally ended in midsummer, my wife and I decided to return to Prince Edward Island. Even a brief trip between treatments and the start of the school year seemed like an important act of recovery. Radiation had taken more out of me than I’d expected, leaving me exhausted and in bed for nearly as much of the day as I had been when still recovering from brain surgery. Two large patches of hair had fallen out, one the size of a half-dollar behind my left ear, and another on top of my head. My vision seemed worse, cloudier. We decided to go anyway. We needed to, and I needed to, even if we’d spend as many days in the car getting there and back as we would being on the island, six for each.
    I wish I could wax about the splendid magic of crossing the threshold of New Brunswick, driving off that land and onto the Confederation Bridge, the rolling hills of PEI laid out in front of us, beauty and grace and healing. There’s some truth in that, I suppose, or at least it is a story I imagine I might tell someday. Reality proved to be rainier, misty gray, and somewhat disappointing. So it is when you’ve been waiting months, lying in bed staring at ceilings, or lying in a Versa proton accelerator while ionized particles blast through your head and kill a tumor that will never shrink, never disappear, just, best-case scenario, stop growing. The damage done to the nerve—reduced vision and a blind spot and a veil and eye weariness when reading—serve as a permanent reminder of the dead seed that will remain tucked in my skull forever. I wanted the island to heal that, right away. Instead, the landscape felt dimmed, as everything had felt for some time, whether seen through my damaged left eye or the scarred lens of my own imagination.
    Of course, I also hoped for foxes, that great false symbol on which I have hung so much. For the first several days, I saw none. Tourist season had struck, and visitation was up over the summer, good for the island, bad for fox sightings.
    Worst of all, the first fox I saw was a dead one, recent roadkill. I was driving alone, and the fox appeared on the side of the road, a shock of fresh blood streaming from its mouth onto the pavement.
    “Did you see the fox,” I asked my wife a few days later.
    “Yes,” she said, understanding always what I really meant.
    I saw only one other fox before we left the island, a golden with a clear upper pelt and ragged molt on its lower third. It appeared while I strolled to the tee box of the golf course one afternoon. It seemed healthy, whole or nearly so, poised next to the tall grasses at the golf course margin with one foot in the air, its snout pointed into the thicket. It pounced, a foxy move, flashing its head into the grass and fishing out a large field mouse it soon dispatched, dropped, and ate. A metaphor, maybe, but if so, meaning what? Am I fox, and if so which one, or a mouse, or a man watching, or all of these?
    I want this to mean something. I want it all to mean something, even if I don’t yet know how to interpret the symbols I create.

My very first Prince Edward Island fox ambled out of the coastal shrub, long wisps of molting hair clung to his hindquarters like dandelion fluff, or a sheep sheared halfway and inattentively, as if someone heard the phone ring and just stopped and listened to a doctor explain something unreachable, impossible, dire. Or maybe the fur had been torn and rent because, how could that fox bear the pain of being etherized for eight hours, knowing that its mate would sit in a polyester and vinyl waiting room, her phone ringing and a nurse intoning, “everything is going well” and “they’re closing now” and “you can see him in the ICU.” Maybe its day had begun before dawn in a converted convent now a hotel in a seedy neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and he walked out with her in the cool air of a March morning, first hints of spring in the blooming cherry trees, just a distant hum of traffic, gleaming neon lights atop the US Steel building and the Highmark health insurance building, then on to the washed-out lights of the anxious registration room. He would lie all morning in pre-op watching other patients roll out, waiting six hours there pretending to be hale and healthy and joking and somehow apparently happy, dressed in a worn hospital gown, socks with rubber grippers on the soles, watching Top Gear on an iPad, eventually with an IV jabbed in each paw. How could that fox bear to hear over and over again the great cheerfulness of the OR nurse and the anesthesiology intern who came to roll him away, understating also how leaving meant opening a gaping emptiness for her, marked only by the clunking sound of hospital bed rails being locked into place and the oomph of two women pushing the bed away and the bed rolling away, gone, she left not knowing what or who would return. If ever there were a moment to shape-shift, this would have been it. But there were no foxes at the hospital, only a wounded man and woman, not ready for this.

On the last day of our July return to Prince Edward Island, we decided on a whim to look at a farmhouse up for sale. With a speed and surety that I fear indicates desperation, we offered on that house, eventually agreeing to buy it even though the foundation was shot and would need total replacement. Maybe I’m a sucker for reclamation projects, want to see the hope that comes with repair. Maybe we just knew we needed a place of refuge, and the island offered that to us.
    Regardless, I returned alone to PEI in October for a final walkthrough before purchase. Hurricane Matthew came with me, heavy rains soaking the province on Thanksgiving, coupled with winds blowing as high as 90 kmh. When I drove the coast that day, the air was heavy and claustrophobic; tall seas rumbling in, pounding the shore with irregular fury. I looked for the glimpses of beauty, trees in the middle of their autumn blaze, the pastoral landscape, and I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d been hasty. Everything was dim and murky and, dare I say, ugly. As with the July visit, I felt cut off.
    The storm passed that night, and Tuesday arrived as the kind of brilliant, crisp, high-pressure autumn day that inspires much clichéd poetry. I drove from Summerside to the house, running so early that I steered down a side road for a quick exploration. There, I passed an old farmhouse tucked in among linden trees, New London Bay stretching across the background, small waves shimmering in the morning sun.
    “This is me,” I said as a dopey smile arrived, meaning something self-deprecating and foolish, mocking myself for the grin: “Ha ha, ‘this is me.’ Look at the fool driven to joy, agape at the view.” But then my emotions welled, and I heard myself a different way, understood this statement not as mockery but as a declaration: “This is me” meaning “Here I am.” It was a declaration of joy, a recognition of my absence. This is me. This is me. Hello old friend, thanks for returning here to the island and to your life, from which you’ve been absent so long. Thanks for coming back, for revealing yourself as being here.
    Later, I drove to the national park, walked to the edge of the gulf, and watched the waves roll in. I touched my cap in a hokey gesture of honor, then turned back toward the lot and saw, right there, a fox. His pelt was full, ready grown for winter, and he looked healthy and powerful. I drove down the coast road, finding a second fox in the morning sun, near the spot where I’d often seen the blind one. It too was strong and whole. Do I need to mention that the blind fox was nowhere to be seen, that his absence might as well have been the absence of a ghost, the residue of a departed kumiho, the greatest gift I’ve ever known?

Matthew Ferrence teaches creative writing at Allegheny College. In addition to publishing essays in venues such as Blue Mesa Review, Colorado Review, and Creative Nonfiction, he is the author of one book of cultural criticism, All-American Redneck, and is working on a book of creative nonfiction focused on northern Appalachia (forthcoming in 2018). He and his family divide their time between northwestern Pennsylvania and Prince Edward Island.

"The Foxes of Prince Edward Island" appears in our Spring 2017 issue.