I saw a fox in London,
standing stock still
on the cobbled roadway
that runs under London Bridge.
I had been walking too late,
looking for London—the one Dickens
wrote, the one I crossed
an ocean to find. It was late,
after midnight, and the steps
beside London Bridge were old
and steep and cooling—
here Noah Claypole eavesdropped
on Nancy in Oliver Twist (betrayal
and darkness and the river-mist).
Earlier I had wandered the Borough,
found the old Marshalsea wall,
laid flat my pilgrim hand—
cool stone on my hot, hot palm—
but here I was, hours later,
still walking, still looking.
London compels us to walk,
forces us flaneur, voyeur,
strings us along and shifts us
somewhere in the seeing.
Deep in that labyrinth, our feet
are quills in an urban inkwell,
rewriting myth and memory
until sunset and skyline plunge
us down rabbit-holes where
we quicken into possible.
When I came down off
Nancy's steps in the wee hours,
feeling the lateness, the river chill
of a big foreign city, apprehensive of
course, but not yet ready to train
it back to the B&B in the suburbs,
there was this fox. The cobbled
street under his paws was a slice
of Victoria, a pocket of time trapped
beneath the bridge, older than I,
and grittier. The fox stood profiled
against darkness, staring at something
off to my left. To my right leaned
the smoking slope of a man,
glow of cigarette, cap pulled low,
shabby and native and dark-inured.
We three held the street. Tableauxed
in the streetlight shadows, we
fellow travelers held breath,
held potential until I took the last
step into the scene, and the soft scrape
of my foot served a suitable
spellbreaker and the fox vanished.
I mean, of course, that it ran, sprinted,
into the darkness of the underpass,
a dirty little fox with a grimy
matted tail. I turned to the troll
under the bridge, overcame
my fear because I felt the need
to capture and quantify, to reify
the moment by saying something
profound. I said, "Was that a fox?"
and the swarthy face lit up
as he inhaled. Without looking
at my question he barked a laugh.
"Yeah," he said, "that's central London, innit?"
And I understood him. It was only later
I learned that foxes are a common
urban blight, scavenging Soho trash bins
and thriving on rats and refuse. That what
my Cockney Marlin Perkins was trying
to tell me had nothing to do with wonder,
was more a knowing shrug about vermin:
"What you gonna do? We're overrun."
That I hadn't stood for a moment
in a fairy tale, that Reynard
hadn't looked me in the eye
before scampering off to commit
trickery and literature. And what
I felt at this knowledge was not
chagrin but disappointment
and confirmation. The world
is solid and seeable and everything
else is fiction. Don't let them outfox
you—the writers—they dream
and dream and can't feel
the concrete under their feet.
And then, eighteen months, four
thousand miles away, I took
the trash to the curb in suburban
South Carolina and stood
barefoot by the big green bin,
working my toes into the gravel
at the edge of my driveway.
On the fresh blacktop
of the warm soupy night
stood a fox. He was in front
of the neighbor's house, still
and staring in the twilight.
And though I knew he was no trick
of failing light, he seemed
insubstantial as coal-smoke. I stood
straining my eyes long after
he vanished, the gravel cobbling
into the sole of my pawing foot.