When Fox Was Five
Jean-Renard De la Tour started life with two big problems, possibly three depending on how you count his Grand’Mere. The first was the time in which he was born: 1873. The second was the place: a blighted little backwater village in France called Val des Mines.
Of course to be born in Val des Mines was a handicap even for its most fortunate sons (which were not many), but Fox’s circumstances were particularly grim. Regarding Grand’Mere, more in a minute.
|Fox at Five|
Those Val des Minians who bothered to speculate about Fox’s father said that Coco De la Tour was surely the guilty party. However, since Coco was the youngest son of the Royal Prosecutor in the district they didn’t say this too loudly. Naturally, the De la Tour family had not dignified these rumors with any acknowledgement. Neither had they bothered with a denial. There really wasn’t any need as everybody in Val des Mones quite properly (as they thought), blamed the situation entirely on Jeanne, Fox’s young mother.
In any case, even if Coco had been willing to admit his part in producing little Fox, even if he claimed him outright, the boy would never be recognized as a true De la Tour. This is because Jeanne and Coco had never been married. The very idea of such a union was ridiculous. Jeanne was a barefoot girl who sold geese and things that could be made of geese in the market. Coco was a De la Tour.
It’s almost impossible to imagine today what a calamity this husbandless status was for Jeanne and this fatherless status was for Fox. Grand’Mere said frequently - and loudly - that both would have been better off dead. The people of Val des Mines did not like Grand’Mere, but they generally agreed with her on this point. Like every other rural village the world over, then and since, there were many mouths in Val des Mines to talk, and very few heads to think.
You might be thinking, however, that at least poor Fox had Jeanne and vice versa – and you’d be right - but also wrong.
When Fox was five, Jeanne stepped on a wooden board that had been dislodged from above the doorframe of the stable of their little farm. The board had a nail in it that had been hammered into place in the year 1528. Jeanne was barefoot. She had spent her whole life, short as it was, trailing along barefoot after the geese. This had made her feet hard as leather, but that rusty iron nail - with its load of bacteria from more than three hundred and fifty years of farmyard existence - punctured soft spot on the arch of her right foot. It poisoned her blood. It locked her jaw. In three weeks she was dead.
So, having started life as a despised, illegitimate child, poor little Fox managed to drop another rung down the ladder of misfortune to being an orphaned, despised, illegitimate child. Worse, he was then left in the sole care of Grand’Mere.
Fox had no real notion of what he had lost by not having a father, never having laid eyes on Coco himself. (Coco had married a wealthy Italian widow a few weeks before Fox’s arrival and had promptly moved to her home in Venice). The boy understood, however, or at least he felt, the full, crushing disaster of his mother’s death. Fox spent the first days after Jeanne’s bewildering disappearance hiding in her bed – seeking her lost warmth, breathing the smell of her on the pillows.
You will not be surprised to hear that Fox soon became ill himself, deathly ill. There are germs that know how to exploit bewilderment, that can creep in via a broken heart. On the third night of his illness his fever was so high it seemed to Grand’Mere that the bedclothes might burst into flame. On that night she was afraid. Not so much for Fox, but for herself. There might be trouble, she thought, if she didn’t fetch a doctor and the boy, you know, died.
She held her nerve, however. The thought of the Doctors high fees put some starch in her spine. Also, she thought, truth be told, it would be a blessing for her and, really, for Fox as well, if he were to exit the scene at this point. So many problems would be solved! A plan she had been hatching for years, many years, was coming close to execution and Fox was wrinkle in that plan. It would be fair, given the disappointments she’d known and the fate she had suffered, to be given a clean slate. She could do what she wanted with what sliver of life remained to her now, without a brat in tow, bleeding her dry.
And then, leaving herself aside, she would be doing him a favor to let him slip away. What future was there for such a one? She would be blameless - nature taking its course and all. She could tell the doctor his illness had been sudden, which was not altogether untrue... She got back to sleep that night by mentally rehearsing the story she would tell the doctor the next day.
When the next morning broke Grand’Mere rose quietly and crept across the room of their cottage. Was he breathing? She pulled the tangled covers back from his little body with a trembling hand. She nearly jumped out of her skin when he rolled over. He sat up. He blinked at her, wordlessly. It was as though a bony finger had tapped her heart and turned it to stone. She gasped. She stared at him. He stared back.
She saw that he was changed. He had a new, peculiar beauty in his baby face. She could not read his expression and this unsettled her. His continued existence was going to be a problem, an expensive one, no doubt. This made her angry. Anger brought the pulse back to her temples. She shouted at him to get up and fetch the water.
He did not stir. It was as though he had not heard. He only stared at her some more, blinking. She grabbed the bucket from the table and shoved the rope handle into his little hand. He tried to grasp it but he couldn’t get his swollen fingers to close. His hands looked just like two balloons. She clouted the side of his head. He opened his mouth as if to say something. Only a strangled grunt emerged.
Grand’Mere shouted at him again to fetch the water, but he did not react. She stepped back and considered.
He had gone deaf with the fever, she reasoned. He had gone mute. She had heard of such things. At five years of age, it seemed Fox’s catalog of misfortune was complete.
Grand’Mere picked up the bucket again and forcibly closed Fox’s stiff fingers around the handle. He managed, only just, to keep hold of it. She mimed pumping. Fox understood. Water fetching had been his job since his mother’s death. Barefoot and in his nightshirt he took the bucket to the pump in front of the stable from which the fatal board had dropped. He set it down beneath the spigot and pumped the handle. When the water started flowing he marveled at its soundless fall into the wooden bucket. He pumped and pumped until the bucket overflowed and pooled around his feet. He ran the cold water over his swollen hands, which seemed to deflate a little with the exercise and cold water. He might have gone on like this all day but as the water neared his ankles he heard a raspy voice say, “You’re getting your feet wet. That can’t be good for you, in your condition.”
Fox looked up. There was no one near. He scanned the farmyard. Nothing. He was about to return to pumping, when he caught a movement at the edge of his vision. There, in an old oak tree on the far side of the cottage, on long leafless branch, low down on the tree, stood a large crow. It was not unusual to see crows in that oak. They were always there. In fact, the “crow oak” had given the cottage an evil reputation in the neighborhood. This Crow, however, was very odd. It was quite large for one thing, and unusually ragged. It was also paying close attention to Fox. The boy and the bird locked eyes. The crow flapped its wings.
“So it has transpired. Mon Dieu,” the bird said, though there was no motion of its beak.
Fox rubbed his eyes and looked again.
“Yes. It’s me!” the bird said in the same mysterious fashion. It spoke in the voice of an old man with a strange accent. It’s unreadable, birdy expression did not change. Fox tried to say, “But you’re a bird. Birds don’t speak.” He opened his mouth, but again no intelligible sound came out. Nevertheless, the bird answered him.
“Of course we speak! It’s true we don’t usually speak to people, but you, little Fox, are a special case. Mon Dieu, it has come to pass. I suppose we must begin. Where to begin. Why don’t you step out of that puddle, Fox.”
Fox tried to say, “But crows don’t speak words – you just say, “Crôa Crôa Crôa” (which is French for, ‘caw caw caw’). Just as he formed this thought, one to which he found he could not give voice, the bird swooped down off the branch and landed on the ground at Fox’s feet.
“Just because that’s all you’ve ever heard crows say doesn’t mean that’s all we can say.” The bird shook his black head. “Humans. Always going wrong in the same way.”
“Pardon me, Monsieur Crow,” Fox tried to say, more politely this time.
“Never mind that,” the bird said. “It’s of no consequence. Just try to remember. You don’t need to bother with that kind of vulgar throat talking now. I can hear your thoughts, at least when they are directed at me. If you go around mumming like that people will avoid you more than they already do.”
“Yes, Monsieur Crow,” Fox thought.
“Very good” said the Crow. “Now, let me say that I am pleased to meet you and allow me introduce myself. I am Doctor Davies.”
“Pleased to meet you Monsieur le Docteur.” Fox said, remembering not to try to say it aloud.
“Excellent. You catch on quickly. That will be helpful. We have work to do and not so much time to do it.” The Crow hopped a little closer. “We are going to help you, Fox. We are going to help you turn things around. At least that is our plan. Well, strictly speaking it is my plan but the others will come along.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Fox said, looking around, “who are you talking about? There is only me and Grand’Mere here.”
“No, you are most definitely not the only ones here. Now, take that bucket into the Spider - that is how we call the old woman. You don’t mind do you?”
“Carrying the bucket in or calling Grand’Mere, ‘Spider?’”
“Both I suppose.”
Fox shook his head “no.”
“Good. Now take the bucket inside and get something to eat from the Spider if you can. Then get a blanket and come meet me in the stable. I shall introduce you, properly at last, to your friends, and you shall find out from whence you came and where, I hope, you are going.”