It wasn’t a cat, though it moved like one as it leapt from the low door of the chicken coop into the darkness behind the barn. This was an interloper, and its wariness meant fox, although by the time I’d had the thought the animal itself was gone.
I closed the chicken door and went through the human-sized door into the barn, switched on the light to the coop, and scanned for blood, feathers, a carcass. Nothing but a couple dozen hens and Governor, our one rooster, jostling each other on their roosts, settling for the night. I brought in some hay for the goats and collected a couple eggs that had been missed earlier by the children from the preschool. I went inside. My two sons chased each other around the living room. This was when the Hare was five and Pliny the Elder was two. My wife and I wrangled the boys to the table. If I told my family about the shadow that had darted farther into shadow, I now no longer remember. We ate our dinner and then it was time for bed. I read to the Hare from My Side of the Mountain, about the falcon Frightful, or maybe I read from one of the books in the interminable Warriors series, about the clans of talking herbalist cats. Pliny the Elder chose Busy, Busy Town, and it was my wife who read it to him. He loved that book, but I had long since turned my back on Lowly the worm, Huckle Cat, Mr. Fixit the fox, and all the other instructive animals of the Richard Scarry classic.
Later, lying together on the couch, my wife and I heard the squawking. I realized immediately that I’d failed to count the birds, and that at least one had been stranded outside when I shut the door to the coop. Now, in a light snow, in my long underwear, I stood over a black and white speckled hen flopped sideways, her wing moving uselessly. I stooped and examined the bird quickly, decided she was too far gone to consider rehabilitation, picked her up, placed her neck between the knuckles of two fingers, gave a quick yank to sever the spinal cord, dropped her back onto the snow. In our driveway—mouth open, tongue lolling, sitting on its haunches and watching me with no particular urgency—was the fox. I set the heel of my muck boot on the hen’s breastbone and stood there, waiting for the tremors to be done.
Some years later I had occasion to adopt the trappings of the tourist—camera, map, zip-off quick-dry trail pants—and to brandish these accoutrements in the service of a brief excursion to France. Accompanying me was the Hare, now age nine. With him I had spent the previous months in thrall to the awkwardness of attempting to learn the French language, an attempt that had brought me, despite the fact that I had failed the subject two or three times during my adolescence, an unanticipated amount of joy. So we were off, two fumbling-tongued sapiens traveling by air during an interesting and fraught moment in the life of the species—les touristes—a position, a role, an occupation which became more interesting in light of the various species-other-than-human we encountered while we were traveling. This is to say that we went to France to speak French and found ourselves among a bunch of animals. They were on the walls and in open air, made of stone or tile, ink or other pigment. They were stuffed and arranged in familiar or unfamiliar positions. They were cooked and piled on our plates, the gizzards and livers of various fowl. They were alive. In Paris we went to the menagerie at le Jardin des Plantes and to the bird market on l’île de la Cité; in the south of France we spent hours at a privately owned preserve for Barbary macaques, where we fed the monkeys popcorn and got in their way. In several famous prehistoric caves we saw images of bison, mammoths, rhinos, and horses painted and drawn by our late-Pleistocene ancestors. Off of rue des Écoles, tucked under a shrub, were Romulus and Remus sucking the teats of mother wolf. In Sarlat-la-Canéda, a boy emerged from an alley with a pigeon in his hands.
Some of these encounters had to do with traveling with a child. The menagerie, for example, I would, if I’d been traveling solo, certainly have skipped. Some of it had to do with our own sensibilities, our built-in predilections. And much of it had to do with our occupation as tourists. It was our job to notice things. I, being the adult, took the role of bumbling ambassador; my son was the critic and advisor and antagonist. Picture us on a street corner at Place de la Madeleine, the Hare standing above me, irate, pleading, while I squat on the pavement, relaxed or trying to be, speaking in the hushed tones of the semirational parent.
The Hare: Who comes all the way to Paris and doesn’t go to the Arc de Triomphe?
Me: C’mon, man. We just spent the whole morning at the Eiffel Tower. Let’s do something else.
The Hare: The Arc de Triomphe is something else.
Me: Dude, I’m sorry, I just truly don’t give a shit about the Arc de Triomphe.
The Hare: Poppa, it’s so close.
Shortly after this exchange we stood across the roundabout from the Arc de Triomphe, where we encountered a man who would have been, if a song had been sung about him in previous centuries, identified with certain characteristics, as exaggerated and confounded by humans, of Vulpes vulpes, the red fox. I want to tell you about this man, about the ring he slipped onto my finger, but first let me describe the actual, dead, contorted fox we saw at Deyrolle, the famous taxidermy shop in the Latin Quarter. This fox, too, carried a ring. He was the only animal at the comprehensive store that had not been arranged into a position in which, as a living self, he would have taken rest. Among scores of animals—lions, polar bears, civets—many whose species are threatened or endangered, the fox stood in the posture of a man, its torso erect, jaw tucked so its gaze was level, its forelegs now employed as arms wrapped around the large wooden ring into which, presumably, the eventual owner might place a bowl of pretzels or nuts. He was a model of subservience. He was mesmerizing, but he was not inscrutable. By means of metal and foam and formic acid, thread and wire and wood and glass, this fox had been made into a butler.
The traffic was mad. For our lives we could not figure out how we were supposed to transport ourselves across the roundabout that separated us from the Arc de Triomphe. We walked this way and that, crossed the Champs-Élysées where it emptied into the traffic circle, crossed back again, stood there laughing and perplexed, les touristes, when a man walked past us, turning, pointing—a ring on the ground—picked it up and held it out, asking if it was mine. I shook my head. He turned the ring over quickly in his hands, peering closely. “Gold!” he said in English, delighted, pointing at the imprint on the underside of the band. He tried to slide it onto his ring finger, making a show of how—his expression suddenly disappointed—it did not fit. Then he took my hand, slid the ring onto my finger, smiled. Everything works out, his expression said. I looked down at the large band that seemed, in fact, to be made of gold. I began to take it off, signaling I would give it back to him, but he stopped me, smiling. “C’est pour vous,” he said and reached out to shake my hand in good-bye. “Wait!” I pointed at the Arc de Triomphe. “How do we get over there?” He gestured toward what we’d thought was an entrance to the Metro, his brow raised, and said, in English, “The tunnel.” The Hare slapped his own forehead and began to laugh. So obvious. The man said au revoir and turned to walk away, but suddenly he was back, his hands open, supplicating, saying if only he had some money for a sandwich. I reached into my pocket, gave him four euros. He took the coins and frowned, shrugged, “Please, coffee and a sandwich.” I gave him a few more euros, but he was shaking his head. I began to take off the ring, but he said no, no. I told him no more money. He again opened his hands to express the sheer inadequacy of the sandwich he could purchase with this measly quantity of euros. “No more,” I said, and this man, this fox, stared at me, frowning. And then another man who sat at a nearby bench stood and nodded his head at the fox, signaling that he should leave. Who, I wondered, was this second man? Ringleader? Undercover cop? It didn’t matter; the fox ran off. We stood amidst the other tourists walking every direction, blare of traffic noise, vehicles streaming onto the roundabout, the Hare looking at me, squinting, smiling, saying, “Poppa, I think you’ve been bamboozled,” while I turned from him and made my way toward the tunnel that led to the Arc de Triomphe.
Here’s the thing about humans and foxes: we both like chicken. This simple fact—a shared predilection for a tender, easily nabbed piece of meat—has led to plenty of grief on the part of both species (not to mention the chickens!). It’s also engendered plenty of stories, many of which were once sung and told by adults, for adults, though now they are made mostly for children.
The Hungry Fox and the Foxy Duck, Adventures of Reddy Fox, Hattie and the Fox, The Fox and the Hen, The Chicken Thief, The Three French Hens, Jemima Puddleduck. I could go on, but there’s little need. Each story carries the suitcases of its predecessors and arrives promptly at the station to remind the next batch of children what the sly, admirable, loathsome, enviable fox and the clever, clueless, snobbish, innocent hen are up to. Fox and hen, in each other’s business like nobody’s business, and that’s the way it’s going to be forever.
The next morning, I told the boys about the fox and our dead, speckled hen. The Hare—a kindergartner at the time—cracked up and asked a few satisfied questions, his only urgency whether or not he would be allowed to see the carcass. Pliny the Elder was excited, too; he looked out the window to where I said the fox had been sitting. For both my sons, the thrill of the act of predation far outweighed any sense of remorse about the bird.
Later, downstairs in his preschool, Pliny the Elder told his teacher the story:
Momma looked outside.
Poppa looked outside.
They had a book in their classroom called Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, written and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provenson. It is the best book about farm animals I’ve ever read, every page saturated with the quirks, the imperfections, the fleeting pleasures that make living with sheep, goats, chickens, horses, cats, pigs, dogs comforting and mysterious and annoying. There’s a multipage spread about the many hens and the several roosters, Lovelace and Big-Shot. On a page with twenty separate drawings of hens going about their business of nesting, arguing, looking for worms, there is a single image of a fox with a hen in her mouth. The thief is in motion, clearly making a getaway. Like hens themselves above a patch of spring grass, Pliny the Elder and his friends gathered that morning in a tight group and fixated upon this image, pointing and clucking, pecking at it with their fingers: fox! fox! fox!
Facing extinction. That now inescapable phrase, although I confess I’ve become confused by what I mean when I say it, seeing as how species do not, in an important sense, have faces; only an individual has a face. The mottled brown around the eye. A torn lip or nostril. The particular, minutely personal geometry of tusk or beak. Genetic permutation and the exigencies of an individual history make a face, and it is with that particular face that a singular animal encounters and attends to the specific factors—heat, toxin, disease, competition, theft—which lead to the annihilation of its entire kind. Sumatran elephant, western lowland gorilla, Williams’s bright-eyed frog. As the population of a given species dwindles, any survivor’s face at once carries the weight of the collective while becoming, paradoxically, more singular.
Strange what happens to the human face during moments of great embarrassment. Take for instance the moment in southern France when my son walked headlong into a plate-glass door, fell to the floor, and all the middle-aged ladies gathered around him, cooing. Picture the scarlet flush on his neck and forehead and cheeks. Or take the time the not-unattractive woman behind the counter laughed when I asked, in garbled French, something along the lines of whether I could go home and use her bathroom. Witness the inopportune rampage of oxygenated blood coursing across my face. When I am angry. When I am desirous. When in my mind I confront a person committing a perceived injustice, just to imagine myself standing before that person and speaking: the blood in my face.
Humans themselves do not face immediate extinction. Rather we face the prospect of a catastrophic extinction that’s been brought on by our own individual and collective action. And we turn toward this prospect, which is no longer prospect but fact, with our individual faces.
At le Jardin des Plantes, at the zoo, le menagerie, that hardly updated relic of the project of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonialism, the Hare and I came face to face with an orangutan. She was an older female, almost forty years. She sat on a blue plastic barrel before a plate-glass wall, long auburn hair hanging over the barrel’s rim, while a steady stream of humans came before her, taking pictures with their phones, holding up their children for a better look, pointing enthusiastically. Chin on her hand, fingers curled over her mouth, she blinked occasionally, but otherwise hardly moved. Dull eyes, dull hair. The Hare was delighted. He read her expression and her posture as one of bored disdain. To me the situation looked altogether more harrowing. Her proximity to the glass suggested she was there to look at us, but she was not, in fact, looking at us; her gaze landed—despite the phones and cameras and children just inches from her finger-clamped mouth—somewhere beside or behind us, or perhaps nowhere at all.
I have never looked at a living animal’s face and found it anything less than inscrutable. Even our dog, who wants breakfast, a run, a squirrel, a belly scratch, who carries my dirty underwear from the closet to the couch, I look in her desirous eyes and, really, I do not know what is happening there. And certainly I did not know what this forty-year-old female orangutan was thinking, but she appeared to be miserable, deeply unwell, hollowed out of a self. She seemed to me to be gone.
The art historian, essayist, and novelist John Berger, who died in January, saw zoos themselves as the training facilities in which modern humanity perfects its triumphal disregard for the nonhuman world. We go to zoos not to see animals, he argued, but to practice erasing them. “However you look at these animals, even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you, looking outwards in the public direction, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal, and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralize it.”
The Sumatran and the Bornean orangutans, Pongo abelii and Pongo pygmaeus, maybe forty thousand left in the wild, drinking rainwater that cups in tree leaves, threatened by habitat loss, the palm-oil industry, poaching, the pet trade. Facing extinction in as few as twenty years.
Being a tourist, my camera ever at the ready, I took some shots of this orangutan. The Hare and the dozen-or-so other primates/tourists on my side of the glass also enthusiastically tapped or clicked away, almost as many cameras as people. It was an opportunity that none of us could pass up, but what exactly that opportunity was I am not quite sure, and looking back at that day I now find it curious that I would blush when asking a woman a garbled question about a toilet, but that I felt for the most part unabashed while participating in the enthusiastic photo-shoot of what seemed, to me at least, to be a miserable living being.
I have some questions about animal misery, which means I also have some questions about animal happiness. To ask my questions I’m going to employ a fox. Mr. Fox, to be specific: newspaper columnist, father, poultry-thief, hero of Wes Anderson’s deliriously inventive adaptation of the (sort-of-mediocre) classic by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Here he is, sitting with his friend Kylie, a possum, whom he’s about to get into a whole heap of trouble.
Mr. Fox: Who am I, Kylie?
Kylie: Who how? What now?
Mr. Fox: Why a fox? Why not a horse, or a beetle, or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more as, like, existentialism, you know? Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?
Kylie: I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it sounds illegal.
A toast, then, to a “fowl” sort of happiness, and to Reynard himself, foxy-whiskered gentleman, foul-mouthed trickster whose salacious grin and conniving ways go way, way back into the folds of human memory.
It fell ageyns one moone-lit nyght / The fox yede to with all his myghte.
That’s him in one of the earliest known versions of “The Fox and the Goose,” aka “The False Fox,” or simply “The Fox,” sung most famously, perhaps, by Harry Belafonte on his 1954 debut album. He grabbed a grey goose by the neck / Throwed a duck across his back / He didn’t mind the quack quack quack / And the legs all dangling down-o.
Now here he is again, on the Discovery Channel this time, hunting for mice in wintertime: he leaps high into the air and comes down nose-first into a two-foot-thick bed of snow, only his rump left above the snow line, his tail wriggling (the Hare and I cheer; our narrator voices his approval).
And here again on TV, a show called Hillbilly Handfishin in which, in this episode, the human protagonist is given the challenge—in a henhouse that our fox has ostensibly been tricked into entering—of catching the fox in his bare hands.
And here: a starring role in Busy, Busy Town. It’s a fine morning in Richard Scarry’s classic. Everyone is rushing to work, including the black-eared, bushy-tailed Vulpes vulpes. Let’s see how our fox is employed. Ah, he is a telephone worker and a furnace repairman. He is a wheel inspector, a freight-train engineer, and a librarian. He is (this one is funny) a dentist. He is, of all things, a farmer:
Farmer Fox plows his field. Then he plants wheat seeds in the field. When the wheat grows tall, he harvests the grain with his combine. He takes the grain to the miller, who grinds it into flour.
Among the many astonishing events that occur on this double-page spread (a fox driving a Farmall tractor, that fox selling grain to a cat/miller who in turn sells the flour to a pig/baker) the most remarkable is the fact that just across the page-fold from all those glutenous transactions there are a couple sheep who are raising a flock of hens. The sheep are characters, just like the cat and the pig, but the hens: they are just hens. Rhode Island Reds, maybe, and a bunch of White Leghorns. Laying their eggs, scratching at feed. Plump ones, juicy; you can almost smell the chicken fat. And there’s that fox, so close he could spit on them, driving his Farmall, growing his wheat, happy.
Our trip to France coincided with the grand opening of the latest example of one of the more curious cultural artifacts of Western Europe: the fake cave. There have been several such caves constructed over the last few decades, each more ambitious than the last, physical replicas not only of caverns and rock formations, but also—and this of course the reason for all the effort—of the images of animals that were painted and engraved on the walls of these caves. The newest entry is Chauvet, the original of which was discovered in 1991. A cave widely considered to contain the greatest examples of upper-Paleolithic art, its surfaces are adorned with over four hundred images of mammoths, horses, rhinos, lions, cave bears, aurochs, snow leopards, ibex, megaceros, bison, and other species. Thirty-six thousand years ago, when the paintings were made, it was these animals that roamed the glaciated landscape now known as the Massif Central region of France.
John Berger was one of the first people allowed into the cave at Chauvet, which upon its discovery had been immediately closed to all but a few select viewers. Berger brought a pad and attempted to sketch the motion of the animals that was so powerfully conveyed by the original artists in the contours of the rock. He wrote about his experience, comparing the slickness of the cave walls and rock formations to human bodily fluids. He was interested in the play of surfaces, internal and external, the outside world and the recesses of the cave. He was curious about what might have been considered normal for the makers of the images he was witnessing. “The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals,” Berger wrote. “They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life.”
“Beyond every horizon were more animals.”
The replica of the Chauvet cave, a massive, concrete building covering seventy acres, was built at a cost of fifty-five million euros during a period in the life of the human species in which that norm has been entirely flipped. Beyond every horizon is another project of humanity, including, of course, a structure on a hillside in south-central France where thirty-six thousand year-old paintings of now-extinct mammals can be viewed, if you are willing to pay the eighteen-euro entrance fee, in replica. Bison T-shirts, plush mammoths, and lion-adorned coffee mugs are available in the gift shop, a multitude of souvenirs manufactured in Sri Lanka, China, and/or Vietnam, transported on container ships which also convey to each next port numerous of the so-called invasive species of rodent, fish, insect, and bacteria which threaten the integrity—and, in many cases, the survival—of the “native” species of the world.
Chauvet was, blessedly, far outside our driving range, but the Hare talked me into visiting another cave replica in the Dordogne department: Lascaux, the most famous of all the Paleolithic caves, at least until Chauvet came along.
Every tourist region engages in the project of essentializing itself. This project, far beyond all efforts to provide coded hierarchies of accommodation (restaurants, hotels, etc., ranging from luxurious to cheap), is the work of tourism; this is how a tourist region survives. Southern France has perfected the project of its own essentialization. “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomic heritage of France,” states French rural code L654-27-1, a law put in place to regulate the production and presentation of this food item which is, at once, a delicacy built on the force-feeding of corn to geese, and a code for everything that is desirable about having the resources and the discrimination to become a tourist in France.
On our drive up the hill from the town of Montignac, after eating foie gras and magret de canard in a riverside cafe, after purchasing the tickets for our scheduled tour of the fake Lascaux, known as Lascaux II, we passed a massive, fenced-in construction site, dotted with bulldozers and cranes and vast slabs of concrete. A banner hanging on the road-side fence bore the name of the new construction: Lascaux.
“Hmm,” I said to the Hare, “it looks like they’re building another one.”
“I think they’re competing with Chauvet. They must feel threatened. They must think they’re going to lose all their tourists.”
“Is it called Lascaux III?”
“Next time we come,” he said, “we can go to that one.”
The tourist occupies a curious position in our current global cultural economy. Viewed sometimes as a potential salvation for many of the otherwise economically devastated regions of the planet, sometimes as the rightfully appointed behavior of members of the world’s burgeoning middle class, and sometimes as a rash that threatens to infect and permanently spoil anything having to do with authentic cultural experience, tourism, as a condition, does not make a lot of sense. One thing that’s clear, however, is that it’s spreading. With over a billion trips abroad taking place each year, with almost 10 percent of the world’s jobs devoted to some aspect of the tourist industry, with over $7.6 trillion spent annually on plane fares, housekeepers, plastic mammoth souvenirs, government-issued permits to kill elephants, and the other necessities/extravagances of travel, tourism plays an ever-greater role in what it means to be human. This is true whether one is on the giving or receiving end of the equation, although it’s worth pointing out that which is which, giving or receiving, is in the case of global tourism never at all clear.
Something of a backlash has begun to take shape. As recently reported in the New York Times, a number of cities and regions have begun to resist certain of the terms of the touristic transaction, taking a partial stand against the wholesale inundation that the increasing number of individual visitors represent. In Barcelona, the mayor recently announced a ban on all new tourist accommodations. Bhutan has restricted the number of tourist visas it will annually permit. In Charleston, South Carolina, residents sued to restrict the number and size of cruise ships allowed to dock at the city’s ports. Although both the methods and the ultimate goals of these efforts are muddled, the reason for such acts of obstruction is not complicated. Tourists are assholes. The rich ones, the not-so-rich ones, the emphatically not-rich ones: each of these subsets presents its own version of the boorish, the clueless, and the entitled behaviors that the local inhabitants find intolerable.
In her great book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert takes on the fraught task of being deeply interested in circumstances that are appalling. She loves the science, and she admires the composite acts of investigation that lead to an ever-more-coherent picture of our current mass extinction event. It is by way of such curiosity that she routes us from the plight of the Sumatran rhino, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis (fewer than a hundred individuals left in the wild), to the massive die-off of the earth’s great megafauna that occurred worldwide starting about forty thousand years ago. In geological terms, these megafauna died out nearly instantaneously, so quickly that many scientists have claimed the animals’ extinctions must have been caused by changes in global climate. But as Kolbert reports, a close examination of the fossil evidence shows that the marsupial lion and the giant, short-faced kangaroo of Australia; the mastodons, giant beavers, and saber-toothed cats of North America; the aurochs, mammoths, and giant elk of Europe―all these species were not, in fact, wiped out simultaneously, but rather in successive waves that mirror exactly the flow of human migration across the planet. Kolbert, reporting on the conclusions of numerous paleobiologists, thus locates the inception of the current mass extinction event not in our own industrial era, but “way back in the middle of the last ice age.”
The processes by which these extinctions occurred, though presumably having to do with predation on the part of humans, need not conjure some of the more gruesome and appalling images of American westward expansion: prospectors shooting buffalo from trains for sport, say, or millions of passenger pigeons shot from the sky in the span of a few days. As the paleobiologist John Alroy tells Kolbert, the extinction of the megafauna was “a geologically instantaneous catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.” Merely by picking off one or two individuals a year, Kolbert notes, bands of humans could in a matter of centuries send the population of a large, slow-breeding species into total collapse.
What all of this indicates, of course, is that humans have always been bad tourists. Not on purpose, necessarily. Most tourists do not set out to be insufferable by design, and the human migrants, by all evidence (including the paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux) held a firm admiration for the parade of fauna displayed before them. So let’s just say it was the intoxication of being newly arrived; all that interesting flesh in every direction, not the humans’ fault the reproductive mathematics were entirely on their side. And such heady times! Such wonderful country! The visitors, as visitors do, simply loved the place to death. And even as they did so they committed that most egregious of all touristic offenses: they decided to call the place their home.
Lascaux II had nothing on Pech Merle, the entirely real cave we visited in the Lot Department that same week. The cave itself was stupendous, a winding concatenation of corridors and vaulted chambers, the surfaces of the limestone formations wet and glittering in the artificial light. Our guide at Pech Merle was a Frenchman, short in stature, who provided a tour in English for our group, maybe twenty-five in all, made up mostly of Brits, Australians, and Americans. Because I was one of those Americans and thus came preloaded not only with a rather limited range of cultural references but also with a predictable imagination, our short, French guide reminded me of my idea of Napoleon. He spoke in a heavily inflected English; he did not appreciate questions, but he was our guide, and what he had to say was interesting as he led us from chamber to chamber, pointing out numerous paintings of mammoths, aurochs, and bison that we otherwise would have missed.
He showed us the red and black negative images of human hands—there were dozens of them in the cave—that the artists had made by placing their own hands upon the rock, taking pigment (iron oxide or manganese dioxide) into their mouths, and then using their lips like the orifice of a spray gun to blow the paint upon the rock surrounding their hands. He had a laser-pointer, our Napoleon, and he used it to call to our attention images on distant surfaces. At one point, with the entire flock of us gathered close under a narrow passage, he pointed out a human figure, a woman, amidst lines and splotches signifying the more familiar bodies of animals. We couldn’t see it, so he took his pinpoint of light and ran it slowly along the contours of the image of the female body. “Here are ze breasts,” said our Napoleon, his light moving along the black lines on the rock. “And now ze thigh . . . and here we have ze bottom.”
We stood there a moment in silence, until a middle-aged man, a fellow countryman of mine, said, “Could you do that again?”
“Oui, of course,” said Napoleon. “Here we have ze breasts . . . ze thigh . . . and ze bottom.” He nodded once, quickly, and then we moved on through the low-lit limestone corridor. Now we stood before a painted mammoth, long hair hanging down from its neck and forelimbs, alongside the trunk, like tresses. An odd and distinctive rendering. To encounter several dozen meters under the surface earth of an image of an extinct mammal, an image that stands as an irrefutable record, a cord uniting that mammal to us in human time—even amid all the fakery of directional lights and chuckling tourists and our Napoleon urging us along—made for a surprisingly real experience. I felt it like an ache: the evidence laid out before me, the fact of missing out on something that grand.
“We need to speak some French,” I said, and so, after our dinner, we walked through our tiny village, looking for someone, anyone, to talk to.
I have now forgotten their names. A man and a woman, neighbors to one another, catching up just before dusk. He, white-haired and wearing a white shirt, considerably older than she was. I don’t remember what she looked like, only thinking that if she had children, they’d be almost as old as me.
They spoke almost no English at all, a blessing. We stumbled through our introductions. I explained to them where we were staying, how long we’d been in the village. I did most of the talking while the Hare stood by my side, correcting my pronunciation, feeding me vocabulary. We were standing beside some flower beds. Est-ce votre jardin? I asked. Was this the man’s garden? It was a phrase I’d worked on with our twenty-year-old tutor at home. Oui, he said, nodding proudly. The woman asked if we were on vacation. Oui, I said. But where, she asked, is the rest of your family? It’s just you and your son? I told them I was a farmer from Massachusetts. The woman raised her eyebrows and asked what I was doing there, in France, at the height of the spring. Ma femme fait tout le travail, I said. My wife does all the work. This too was a phrase I’d practiced, and there, I’d said it, and this man and woman were laughing. I had told my first French joke! The delirious exposure! She asked how long my son had been studying French, and the Hare stepped forward to speak for himself. She nodded approvingly. I asked the man if he had any animals. Oui, he said. Les poulets. I said we also kept chickens. He opened his gate to show his to me, three or four birds in the last light of day. Garbled creatures, among the most pathetic fowl I’d ever seen, more skin than feathers, whether rooster-pecked or mite-ridden or just plain old I could not tell. He acknowledged the situation regarding their plumage, proud of them and embarrassed, too. He said a word I did not understand, laughing, nodding at the birds. I shook my head, uncertain, and he said it again. He held his arms out from his sides and gave his torso a shake, and now the woman was laughing, too, but I still didn’t get it. He said the word a final time, shook himself again, a strange gesture, and finally it sunk: he was speaking in English, a single word in reference to his half-naked chickens: striptease.
He is wearing a cheetah costume made for us by a friend. He is three years old. It is Halloween, we have been trick-or-treating, and he is so jacked on sugar and corn syrup solids that I realize I must quickly provide for him some quality sustenance, or else things will go terribly awry. We step into a cafe. I order two bowls of turkey soup, and we sit across from one another, cheetah-child and man in a rubber pig mask. He blows on his soup. When it is finally cool enough, he takes a bite, chews, swallows, and looks at me with a sudden expression of great concern.
“Poppa,” he says, “whose turkey is this?”
He thinks we have not gotten permission. He thinks I’ve stolen this animal and shredded its flesh into his broth. He thinks that we are like two vixen with the bodies of fowl hanging limp from our mouths. He pictures our tom turkey at home, whose name is Lafcadio: the snood over the beak that contracts and distends, the caruncles along the neck that engorge a deep red, splayed legs, and dinosaur-gait and fanning tail. He looks at me guiltily, reproachfully. He’d placed his trust in me, his father, and now I have gone and made for us all of this trouble.
OK, Reynard. Let’s accept from the get-go that the humans have largely failed you. We have made of you a rapist and a miscreant, ascribed to you the worst of our worst nasty habits. Worse even than that, we have made of you an instructive pilot, a sincere furnace repairman, a successful farmer. And worst of all, we have constructed buildings scattered across the continent of North America in which we currently raise enough poultry in a year to keep you and your kits happy for a million lifetimes. Nine billion fucking chickens! Can you even fathom that, Reynard? And you can’t have a single one of them.
Reynard, let’s go ambling. Let’s find ourselves some pleasure.
You could show me your den, though of course I would stink it up mightily. I’d let your kits chew my thumb. I’d scare off Bubo virginianus, the great horned owl. Or we could go to France together. Let us be lovers and marry our fortunes together! I’d show you a cave I’ve only read about. It’s in the south. There are pictures in this cave made by humans, but that’s not what’s most interesting. There are also prints there, close to the cave wall. A fox’s paws and, close behind, the footprints of a child who appears, by all the available evidence, to be chasing the fox into the cave. Let’s go, Reynard! On the plane, I could wear you like a scarf. No one would notice. I could whisper into your ear the names of all the species that are going down: Panthera pardus orientalis, Diceros bicornis, Elephas maximus sumatranus, Gorilla gorilla gorilla. But not you and me, Reynard. We are in this together, for one and one reason only: we both like chicken. Who’s the boss? I, naturally, am the boss. No one can begrudge us our happiness.
When I was a kid, a teenager, the first summer I ever worked on a farm, I used music to summon a fox. The circumstances were, by my standards at least, extraordinary. This was in Virginia. I lived in a yurt sided with burlap coffee bags. I owned a small African drum, a doumbek, I think it was called, which I had bought in New York City and played at unpredictable intervals until my hands were sore. With what racial codes built on centuries of oppression and misapprehension am I colluding when I tell you that I played that doumbek, emphatically, like a white boy? One evening I sat on the rudimentary porch of my yurt, enthusiastically slapping the doumbek that was squeezed between my knees, when there appeared, from out of the nearby weeds, a young fox. Or I assumed it was young, but what did I know about foxes, other than the fact that there was at least one in the world that was now interested in the sound of a doumbek? He or she stood with head tilted and watched me for two minutes, maybe more, and then he or she shifted his or her weight and slipped back into the weeds.
When my son was almost two, he sat at a toy piano and made a joyful, raucous noise in praise of the plastic animals he had carefully arranged before him. When I was seventeen, I made a racket on a drum and drew, by accident, a fox into my otherwise human orbit. What that fox was thinking I have no idea, but I’d be willing to make a guess. It’s a phrase that originates in the mammalian limbic system and travels the contours of the canine body, evident in the fox’s posture and most particularly the twenty-degree tilt of the head, a phrase roughly paraphrased, in English, as the following: What the fuck?
I thought of that young Virginian fox only a couple weeks ago, on a day when a different fox ran out of the scrappy woods at the edge of our farm. I didn’t see it, but our housemate described to me the scene, chickens scattering everywhere. That night, when I fed the goats and closed up the barn, I discovered that Governor was not perched on his usual roost. An eight-year-old rooster of the breed Araucana, with iridescent blue tail feathers and spurs as long as a lizard’s tail, Governor was an old bird. Earlier this year we thought he was done for when my wife found him, one morning, bloody and upside down, hanging by one of his spurs, which had become caught in the branch he roosted on. For a week after that he sat in the bedding of the coop, hardly moving at all. For another two weeks he remained in the coop, hobbling around the feed container. Then for a couple months he limped along, moving slower than the hens, until one day I stared at him and realized he was walking just fine. Not long after that, the fox appeared.
Members of my family, when I told them Governor was probably dead, were unperturbed. He was old, and he had never (we all agreed) been much of a guard rooster.
Then again, I said, he didn’t attack people’s legs, either.
“If you’re a rooster,” the Hare said, “to get eaten by a fox: that’s a noble way to die.”
So I walked around looking for Governor for a couple of days. Not continuously, not even very often, but when the thought crossed my mind. I half expected to find him dead under a stairwell or a stack of crates, a place to which he’d escaped after an initial injury from the fox. He didn’t turn up, but while I was searching I was thinking about Governor’s eight years. He had lived a life. Not necessarily a “good” life. Certainly not a “productive” life. Just a life. Fantastic achievement. Every individual animal I’ve mentioned here, they’d made it, too. The orangutan, the macaques, the fox in Virginia, even that taxidermied fox who’d turned up as a butler in Paris, he’d had his time, however short and/or miserable it had been.
And what of the fox who gave me my gold ring? What to make of him? It’s in my pocket now, this ring, because I asked the Hare to find it for me so we could figure out whether or not it was real. We went online and learned about the bite test (passed). We looked for the official karat stamp (passed: 18). We learned the specific gravity of gold (19.32) and—using our balance, a graduated cylinder, and a calculator—we attempted to ascertain whether or not the ring displaced just the right amount of water to be proven pure (passed, but with a wide margin of error). We convinced ourselves that we had 10.47 grams of 18-karat gold, and we learned online that this amount of Au was currently valued at $276. We decided—the Hare, Pliny the Elder, and I—that whatever cash we eventually received for the ring would be spent on the most awesome fossil we could buy with that quantity of money, including shipping. Again we went online, and now we found a fossilized mammoth tooth for $250. This was it.
We walked to the jewelry store on Main Street. The boys argued over who would hold the ring (I held the ring). Just inside the door, we were greeted by a well-appointed woman who took the ring from my hand, placed it under a microscope, and told us that it was gold. The boys made victory motions with their arms. The ring would need to be assessed further, the woman said, and then she placed it in a wooden tray and handed it to another woman behind an armored counter. Pliny the Elder explained to our hostess that we were going to buy a fossilized mammoth tooth. She smiled. We tried to identify all the gemstones in the jewelry cases. The second woman reappeared and conferred with our hostess, who removed the ring from the tray, came back to us, said, “I’m sorry, we’re not testing gold all the way through,” and placed the ring in my hand.
Conniver! Swindler! To think we’d been so bamboozled!
But, of course, we’d assumed all along it was a fake, right up to the last day, when we’d tricked ourselves into believing otherwise. The only bamboozlers present were ourselves. A Parisian fox had given me a fake gold ring, and both he and I had known the score. That he had slid the ring onto my finger in an almost nuptial gesture means very little. He merely wanted a sandwich, a better one than I was willing to provide for him. We are not wed, this Reynard and I, but in the soundtrack to our wedding, which never happened, the Memphis Jug Band is playing “Stealin’ Stealin’,” their famous tune of 1933: If you don’t believe I love you, look what a fool I’ve been / If you don’t believe I’m sinking, look what a hole I’m in.