“junior year prom, mom had to unzip my dress because i was having a panic attack and couldn’t breathe”, Evelyn Staats
On the day that Miles turns into a fox, I wake up sneezing. I lay curled on my side, facing the nightstand. According to my alarm clock, it is 6:18am. I switch on the lamp on my nightstand. I think, god, who gets allergies in November, and then I notice that the topography of our mattress feels all wrong, and I think, where is Miles, and then I roll over. For several seconds, I stare at the arctic fox on my boyfriend’s pillow. The arctic fox on my boyfriend’s pillow stares back. I try to build a reasonable sentence in my head. It falls apart. I blink it back together. I need to say something, but for some reason all I can think is, well, at least it’s not seasonal allergies.
“How’d you sleep?” I ask, finally. The fox doesn’t say anything.
I get up. I make coffee. I take antihistamines. I pour milk into two cereal bowls on autopilot before I catch myself. The fox watches me from our bed, his ears tracking my movements like lazy, triangular satellite dishes. I google, what do I feed a fox. The internet suggests chicken, tinned dog food, and maybe some cheese or fruit, on special occasions. I catalogue the relevant contents of our refrigerator – leftover peach cobbler, a chicken sandwich Miles snagged from a work lunch, and three wedges of spreadable cheese. I stick a post-it to the freezer door: Grocery shopping ASAP. Also PetSmart?
“Should I call in sick,” I ask the fox, “or will you be fine for a couple of hours?” He flicks the tip of his tail, indifferent. I feed him another cheese wedge and leave the cobbler sitting out on the edge of the coffee table. On my way out the door, I hesitate. The fox has moved to the armchair. There’s something in his stillness that’s so Miles it almost hurts. “I’ll be home soon,” I say, “I love you,” and then I step outside as fast as possible, before his silence catches up to me.
On the day that Miles turns into a fox, the bus I take to work comes seven minutes late. I stand at the stop and stare at my reflection in a shop window. I tell myself: It’s okay. These things happen. They must happen all the time.
Ji-hoon is already at his desk by the time I get there. He is labeling DNA gel scans in fine-tip red marker and drinking what looks like a half-gallon of black coffee. Ji-hoon is a postdoc, a self-proclaimed insomniac, and (according to Jenny) an all-around “friendly lab gremlin”. Sometimes, he disappears for days on end. Occasionally, he pulls sixteen-hour shifts and we find him napping in the department mailroom. I wave hello. His gaze flickers over me, contemplative. He nods once and turns back to his papers.
I check my email. I skim three abstracts. I forward one of them to Miles, for when he turns back into a person. I do not google arctic fox behavior, or woke up with a fox this morning???, or boyfriend transformation help. I plate mutant yeast colonies on nutrient deficient media and do not imagine the fox licking three-day-old peach cobbler straight out of the Tupperware. I pour several protein gels to run in parallel. I label seventy-two Eppendorf tubes and color-code all of them.
Jenny takes one look at my army of culture tubes and asks me if something is wrong. She is perched on the edge of the heating unit. Gusts of warm air lift her hair in golden clouds. “No,” I say, “of course not.” She can probably tell I am lying. She is hard to navigate around, these days.
My cells have begun to run out of nutrients. I split all eight of my lines into fresh culture plates. I do not think about how last night Miles did the dishes while I showered, or how afterwards, when we went to watch half a John Oliver episode, he shrank into the frame of our couch and missed most of the punchlines. I count out centrifugation times in my head. I do not think about warning signs.
In the week following the transformation, I take out subscriptions to twelve zoological journals and set up text notifications for every fox-related keyword I can think of. I read about kit-rearing behavior, wintertime metabolic shifts, and the ways in which foxes apparently interact with Earth’s magnetic field. There is no precedent in the literature for my situation.
I also register for a vulpine enthusiast internet forum, which promises to deliver daily fox facts to my email inbox. I read them out loud to the fox every morning, and he snuffles politely in response. Arctic foxes’ bones are 30% lighter than dogs’; their paws are meant to spread their weight out like snowshoes; the weird chuckling sound they make is called a gekker. This last one makes me smile, if only because it feels kind of like a bad Geico product placement attempt. Apparently, foxes gekker all the time, in a broad range of social contexts, but the fox who naps in my boyfriend’s favorite armchair has never gekkered in my presence. I am not sure what to make of this anomaly.
“Did you know,” I ask the fox, “that you guys are the only tree-climbing members of the dog family? That’s pretty cool, right?” From his perch on the sun-warmed windowsill, the fox yawns. I am in our bedroom, building a fox-sized nest out of blankets. The fox is not big on late night comedy, but can be persuaded to tolerate our pre-transformation tradition of Monday night Daily Show re-runs if kept suitably comfortable. I am not sure if his reluctance is a function of taste – even in human form, Miles had mixed feelings about Jon Stewart – or merely of frames per second. There are lots of studies on canine visual acuity and flicker fusion, but as far as I’m aware, there is no fox-specific literature on the issue.
The weekend before Christmas, it starts snowing and doesn’t stop for two days. The Chemical Biology Department cancels its annual Non-Denominational Holiday Extravaganza, which spares me from having to fabricate an excuse and from Jenny’s inevitable disappointment. The fox stands painfully still on the back of the armchair and watches the wind lift snow in sheets of white. His claws dig into the upholstery. I want very badly to make him — laugh? gekker? — or at least to smooth the uneasy stiffness of his shoulder-blades.
“I think maybe we should go walk around,” I offer, “If you’d like to.” He turns to look at me, as though surprised. In the five weeks since he became the fox, we have not ventured outside of our apartment.
By weekend standards, it’s early. There are only three other passengers in our subway car. One of them, an older woman with horn-rimmed glasses, gives me a look, like kids these days and their exotic pets. “He’s a husky,” I tell her, “just kind of smallish.” The fox makes a sharp huffing noise. If I didn’t know better, I might call it indignation.
The Boston Common is basically one large snowbank. I brush off a bench and sit down. “So, um,” I say. In the face of this much white, I feel suddenly very small. “This is nice, right?” The fox glances up from nosing at the snow. He opens his mouth wide and pink, and the sound seems to come out of nowhere. It’s this weird, high-pitched chitter, like laughter left to rattle at the bottom of a well. The gekker goes on for maybe ten seconds, and then the fox takes off running in a blur of white on white.
I freeze. I forget to exhale.
The fox is gone.
I can hear my pulse frothing up inside my ears. The fox is gone. The fox is gone. I line up words for the things I am feeling like molars in my mouth. I spell them forwards, and backwards, and forwards again, but I can’t get them out fast enough, the letters of panic climbing down to obstruct my esophagus. The air rises around me in a ragged howl, and then the fox is skidding up in front of me, and it’s only when the wail stops that I realize the sound was me, and that I am crying. My fox is looking up at me. His eyes are sad, and guilty, and endlessly dark.
“It’s okay,” I am saying. “It’s okay.” I am not sure which one of us I’m trying to reassure. The fox rests his head on the toe of my shoe. The weight of it feels strangely comforting. In the sprawling, we watch the outlines of early morning joggers drift past us like ghosts.
After Christmas, we fall back into a kind of evening routine. I reheat hasty meal preps for myself and low-sodium chicken patties for the fox. I switch on all the lights in the kitchen. We eat sitting on the rug. As altitudinal compromises go, it’s our best available option. I ask the fox, how was your day, and he doesn’t answer. Instead, he meticulously transfers half a dozen bite-sized pieces of his dinner to my plate, stares pointedly at me until I’ve eaten them, and refuses my attempts to feed him bits of meal prep in exchange. It’s a very Miles thing to do.
I tell the fox: Ji-hoon came down with a cold last week, but keeps showing up to work regardless. Most of us have pretended not to notice his discreet sniffles, although a biohazard sticker did materialize on the corner of his desk sometime today. Jenny has denied involvement, but I think she’s lying. (I do not say that I am worried about Ji-hoon, or that the tiredness he carries in the set of his shoulders makes me think of Miles in the weeks before he became the fox. Last night, I do not tell him, I dreamt that Ji-hoon had turned into a single yeast cell, and that I had to pour caffeine-infused agar plates for him to proliferate on.)
I tell him: I told Jenny about the transformation. She sends her love, and offered to knit you little fox shoes for the winter. I told her about fox fur’s insulating properties, and she said I needed to stop treating my personal life as a literature review. (I don’t say that part of why I hadn’t told her earlier was because at last year’s non-denominational holiday thing, after Miles and I had met but before we’d settled on exclusivity, Jenny had kissed the corner of my mouth, and I had not not kissed her back. I do not tell the fox that I hate the way we’ve never talked about it, or that sometimes, I am struck by the urge to make Jenny smile. I do not say: I am sorry, or: I wish I could tell you this.)
I tell him: Will from the separations lab has started dating my boss’s daughter. My boss has been privately freaking out about this for days. I think you’ve met Will, I tell him, at the Alvarez lab’s Fourth of July party last year. He was the one with the experimental cupcake recipe, remember?
(What I do not tell him is this: Last week, the Washington Post ran an article about a female arctic fox. According to scientists in Norway who had outfitted the fox with a tracking collar in February, she had spent the winter walking along stretches of sea ice from the Svalbard Archipelago to Ellesmere Island in Canada. Her trek, which clocked in at 2,700 miles, was the longest fox journey on record. On the ice floes of Greenland, the fox had managed to travel more than 90 miles a day.
I do not say that, when I read the Washington Post article, I remembered the way the snow had soaked through my shoes while I’d sat on the edge of the Common and tried to talk my heart back into my ribcage.
I do not say: I have seen you with your front paws on the windowsill.
I do not say: This scares me.
I do not tell the fox that I have this recurring dream in which I wake up and I am also a fox. In the dream, the fox and I leave the apartment via the fire escape. We walk to South Station and look at the departures board. We cannot read, because we are foxes. In the dream, I say to the fox, where are we supposed to go now. The fox opens his mouth, and I wait for Miles’s voice to come out in a weird, gekker-type register, but I always wake up too soon.)
Instead, I say that today, one of the postdocs gave a lecture in which he argued that TFIIH was not a canonical helicase. “It’s a translocase,” he told us, his laser pointer dancing wildly. “Look, see? It’s tethered to the rest of the complex here, and when it tries to walk away along the helix, the DNA bunches up and gets forced open.” It was about tension, he argued, not torsional force. I couldn’t picture it – all those tiny hydrogen bonds, peeling open under threat of distance. The fox, who has long since finished his chicken, shifts to rest his head on the side of my knee. I ghost my hand along the sleek curve of his back. His eyes drift shut. I ask him: How would you even imagine that?
In mid-March, the fox starts shedding. This is surprising, according to Wikipedia, which claims that early May would be more typical, but climate and physiology apparently move in mysterious ways. His fur turns patchy and brown in places. He shifts in and out of irritability and avoids his own reflection in the dishwasher door. I want to attribute this to self-consciousness, but it could just be a general fox thing. I email myself a reminder: google scholar search for fox reflection studies. Tufts of white fur drift in clouds across our kitchen floor. I take to vacuuming the air vents every night to keep them from clogging. The fox, who hates the vacuum, scrambles under our bed with the angry clatter of claws on hardwood.
“I’m sorry, dude,” I tell him. “Claritin can only handle so much.” He stares back at me from under the curtain of our duvet, dark-eyed and strange.
The shower drain clogs up with fur. I find strands in my hair, the dryer lint trap, and my cereal bowl. Static electricity gathers it onto my clothing. My boss asks me if I’ve gone and adopted a cat, and I laugh politely. I say, “Not that I know of.” He means well, I remind myself. He doesn’t know about my fox, just that Miles is away on business, and that I’ve been home with headaches a lot this winter.
Jenny brings me one of those spiky glove things people use to brush golden retrievers and maine coons. I offer to do all her cloning for the week, and she looks at me strangely. “It’s a glove,” she points out. “You could just say thank you.” She’s cleaning glassware in the sink. Her bangs have gotten just long enough to fall uncomfortably into her eyes.
“Yeah, sure,” I say, “but cloning sounds easier.” Jenny very deliberately peels off her nitrile gloves to hit me upside the head, but she’s laughing.
(Ji-hoon doesn’t say anything, but he does buy me my favorite non-dairy creamer — french vanilla, made with real sugar — and leaves it by the coffeemaker. It feels like a sympathy gesture, which is weird, because I haven’t told him enough to really warrant one.)
The fox spends most of late March sleeping, his chin pillowed on the fur of his tail. I’m pretty sure it’s not just a nocturnal thing. Maybe it’s the atypically cold spring weather, or some quirk of fox neurotransmitter regulation. I have heard of dogs and cats taking antidepressants, like Miles did before he was a fox. I can only assume that some foxes also spend the occasional greyscale winter caught behind a kind of mental screen, but I am a yeast biologist with no real zoological training. I want to ask the fox what it is I should be doing that I’m not. For all the articles I’ve read and highlighted, I know very little about vulpine psychology.
Most mornings, the fox sleeps through my alarm. I take to copying the daily fox facts that continue to arrive in my email inbox onto post-it notes in my neatest handwriting and sticking them to the refrigerator door at what I assume might be eye-level for a fox. I do not address or sign them. The fox hoards the notes in a little cache under our bed. I try not to read too much into this. Maybe all foxes are prone to this kind of stockpiling.
Jenny starts dating a marine biologist. She tells me this over lunch in the break room with a kind of casual precision. I say that I am happy for her, which is mostly true. The marine biologist comes to our department happy hour. She tells us about these two whales she’s been tracking – one Atlantic, one Pacific – whose calls are approximately seventeen hertz higher than those of other whales. She stirs her iced tea with a straw and says, imagine. Only one other whale in the whole world who can hear you, and they’re in the wrong ocean. Christ, says the marine biologist, it’s got to be lonely.
I take a careful bite of my sandwich and do not say anything. On my left, Ji-hoon coughs quietly. He tells the marine biologist that it was nice to meet her, and then goes back upstairs to check on a western blot. I start to type out a text — hey, you ok? — but decide not to send it. If I push too hard, it will only put him on the defensive.
That night, I sit at our kitchen counter with the fox asleep on the stool next to mine and catalogue the collection of magnets on the lower half of the refrigerator door, which the fox apparently rearranged while I was out. I time my breathing to the low hum of the dishwasher and curl my fingers into the fox’s mottled brown fur. I think, I wish I knew what you were trying to tell me, and then I think about whales, and how some things float across incredible distances. I imagine building a tin can telephone and slipping one end into each ocean, so that when the lonely whale in the Pacific says, hello, can you hear me, the second lonely whale off the coast of New England can say: Yes, I’ve heard you. I hear you! Hello!
Ji-hoon’s son tells me that he intends to be a penguin when he grows up.
“Why a penguin?” I ask. It’s an in-service day at the elementary school, and Ji-hoon’s wife is away on another business trip, so the second grader has been deposited in the tech room. I have been charged with stalling the kid at his dad’s desk and keeping him out of the lab. Thus far, it has proven surprisingly easy, because Ji-hoon has a swivel chair and keeps a side drawer full of candy.
“Because they’re cute,” he answers, through a mouthful of caramel. “My mama is like a penguin,” he adds, “but not really.” I’ve never met Ji-hoon’s wife, but I’ve seen photos of her. I can’t say I’ve noticed anything particularly avian about her.
“Really?” I ask. “How does that work?”
“I dunno,” says Ji-hoon’s son. “Did you know that penguins can stay under water for twenty whole minutes? How cool is that?”
“Pretty cool,” I say, “but did you know that foxes can make forty different sounds?”
By the time Ji-hoon comes back to retrieve his offspring, we’ve gone through three months’ worth of fox forum emails. The kid’s attention span is pretty exceptional. “She knows so much about foxes!” he informs Ji-hoon, delighted. I manage not to wince.
Later, I tell Ji-hoon that he’s raised a future zoologist. I start to ask him what his son meant when he said that Ji-hoon’s wife was like a penguin, but he cuts me off. He tells me to start four new kinase assays. He’ll be leaving for three weeks, starting next Monday. We have deadlines to make.
On a Friday in mid-April, I come home to the smell of paint thinner and a stripe of forest green on the inside of our front door. When I go to I toe off my shoes, I happen to look down. There is a line of pink paw prints tracked over the doormat.
The fox is in the kitchen when I find him, asleep in the epicenter of a giant paint splatter. Reds and yellows rise in arcs over the dishwasher, the oven door. “What the fuck,” I say, more bewildered than angry. The fox wakes with a start, sending empty jars of sparkly acrylics that I purchased for Ji-hoon’s son’s ninth birthday rattling across the floor like dice. He blinks up at me, wide-eyed and careful. His paws are caked in paint, fur dried in clumps of red and blue. There is a streak of green on the side of his nose, giving his whiskers the appearance of a terrible dye job. It’s the green that really gets me. He’s dragged it into lines that curlicue across the floor, the refrigerator, even the windowsill. It’s like some weird alien script.
It’s like a toddler’s first attempt at scrawling their own name in dull crayon, pressing nearly hard enough to split the wax.
“Writing,” I whisper. “You’re trying to write to me.” The fox inclines his head a little. I think of whales and tin can telephones. I think of how, in the dream where I am also a fox, we cannot read the departure board, and of that space after waking up in which I try to remember if this time, the fox had spoken to me. I kneel down beside him. I almost reach out to touch him. “Miles,” I start to say, but my throat closes on the word, and I think, no, don’t say Miles – say fox, who was and will be Miles, but isn’t Miles presently, because if I say the fox is Miles, then I am saying that the Miles from before the fox will not come back, and if I say that, then –
I think: hydrogen bonds, splitting open. I think: threat of distance. I think: 2,700 miles from Svalbard to Ellesmere. The letters of grief rearranging themselves like refrigerator magnets to obstruct my airways. The red acrylic paint I will wash from the fox’s fur in the shower, until the drain clogs up again and the water overflows.
On the afternoon before he leaves for his three-week holiday, I finally get Ji-hoon to tell me his destination. We are imaging one last batch of western blots, but the exposure times keep coming out all wrong.
“Cuba?” I ask him. “Seriously? You’re taking a solo vacation to Havana?” I leave all my other questions — why aren’t you sleeping at home, why does your son spend every weekend with your sister, why won’t you talk to us — as subtext.
He smiles wryly. “How are you holding up,” he asks me, “what with the fox?”
I freeze, replay the question in my head. I break it into its component parts. The meaning does not shift. Ji-hoon is almost certainly watching my non-reaction out of the corner of his eye. “Who told you?” I ask. “If it was Jenny, I might have to kill her.”
“No-one told me.” He flips the membrane over with enviable precision and deposits it on the imaging platform. “My wife taught me to do western blots,” he says, abruptly. “We did twenty-five of them in the first week of my rotation. She said I had steady hands. I said, no, it’s that your hands are shaky, and she said that was because she was nervous, and would I like to get coffee with her sometime.” He feeds the tray back into the machine and starts the cycle.
“My son told you that my wife is like a penguin,” says Ji-hoon, “because my wife has been an osprey for three and a half years.” His voice is perfectly level, but he’s staring intently at the gel reader display screen. His left thumb rests against the wedding band on his ring finger. It’s maybe the most heartbreakingly unconscious gesture I’ve ever seen.
“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t know.” In my head, I page through sixteen months of little inconsistencies and try to separate the clues from mere coincidence. His strange work hours; his bird-themed laptop screensaver; his wife’s weird winter business trips down south. “Cuba,” I realize. “That’s why — it’s not a solo holiday, is it? It’s migration.”
Ji-hoon tells me that most ospreys fly to Brazil in late fall, guided by the Earth’s magnetic field. Each bird returns to the same location every year, within a small margin of error. Ji-hoon’s wife is apparently a scientific anomaly. Most ospreys closely follow the Atlantic coastline, but on her first trip south, something — maybe thirty-five years of human existence, or even sheer meteorological chance — jammed up her internal compass and sent her east, out over the Atlantic, into gale-force winds that blew her down to Cuba by some miracle. Ji-hoon had not accompanied his wife on the journey. Instead, he had outfitted her with a homemade GPS tracker. For most of that October, in lieu of sleeping, he had watched a little green tracker dot drifting out to sea.
“It’s a stupid trajectory,” Ji-hoon tells me, “and now she’s stuck with it. I can’t make her do that alone.” He is spraying down the imaging tray with ethanol. I am standing very still and trying not to imagine the Svalbard fox and her lonely walk along sea ice. Instead, I picture the fox skidding up to the edge of the Boston Common, and then choosing to turn back. I picture Ji-hoon mapping out an itinerary through Havana, the Outer Banks, and the Delmarva Peninsula, keeping time with his osprey wife. My mouth is so full of questions that I cannot separate them far enough to ask. Ji-hoon zips up his laptop case and switches off his desk lamp.
“Hey,” I say. “Hey, Ji-hoon. How could you tell? About my fox?”
“That’s easy,” he tells me. I think of possibilities — the fur on my clothing, my increased reliance on antihistamines, the fox fact emails I used to distract his child — but Ji-hoon just says, “It’s mostly that your western blots are so neat that it hurts to look at them. That, and the dark circles. Believe me, I know the signs.”
That night, I open all the windows in our apartment. I switch off all the lights. I lay very still with my eyes pressed shut. Six floors down, the street is a river of sound, but up here everything feels somehow far away. The air is thunderstorm-heavy. I imagine it pouring through the windows and winding in dark purple ribbons around all our furniture.
The fox is curled up in the armchair, and so I cannot feel his weight displacing the mattress. Today, as Ji-hoon locked the lab door behind us, I almost asked him a dozen almost-questions, all of which would have ultimately boiled down to: do you think they’re coming back? The thing is, when Ji-hoon talked about the osprey who lives in his apartment during the warm season, he did not refer to her by species, but by name. He did not say, the osprey migrates. He said, my wife flies to Cuba in October every year. In the context of the question that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him, I am not sure what to make of that.
I think: since I cannot feel the fox’s fox-weight on the mattress, I cannot prove that, in the minutes since I last opened my eyes, the fox has not turned back into a person. In my head, I am building parallel universes around this hypothetical. I call him by name in all of them. Miles is sitting cross-legged on the mint-green chair cushion; Miles is lazily flicking his tail. Miles is reaching out to switch on the lamp; Miles is about to bump his cool, wet nose against my elbow.
The air has gone cold. It might have started raining. I tell myself: In just a second, I’ll get up to close the windows. In just a second, I’ll open my eyes.
About the Author
Natalia Orlovsky · Princeton University
Natalia Orlovsky is a third-year undergraduate in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University. Her work has been featured in After the Pause, Epigraph Magazine, and Cicada. “Fox Studies” first appeared in The Nassau Literary Review.
About the Artist
Evelyn Staats · University of Minnesota
Evelyn Staats is an artist based in the twin cities who works across mediums, specifically drawn to ceramic art and film photography. Their work is playful but also personal, raw and vulnerable. They graduated in 2020 with a BFA from the University of Minnesota, with recent bodies of work exploring the complexities of memory, desire and identity.