Fleeting glances and a quick step
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Fleeting glances and a quick step

The date of our first meeting is difficult to recall, but I remember it was during the winter. The new neighbour stood on a street corner up near the oak patch under the misty glow of a street lamp and I could see the quick white plumes of his breath while he paused, mid-step, to meet my eye.

We exchanged a fleeting glance and then he was gone, his footsteps light, so swiftly I was left wondering if he was real or a figment of my imagination. A page from the children's book I'd read my sleeping son a few hours earlier, the character of a nursery rhyme or fable. I zippered my jacket to my chin, pulled my scarf in an extra loop, and walked on in the cold.

And so began our meetings, every other night in the quiet lull after midnight.

And so began our meetings, every other night in the quiet lull after midnight.

Photo: Chris Hopkins

I was listening for owls, searching for their silhouettes in the oak branches.

But then there he was again, a few nights later, on the same street corner, a little more brazen and curious this time. We watched each other for a long moment and then he did something unexpected. He turned on the spot, letting the lamplight paint a silver cape across his back, paused briefly and then vanished.

He turned on the spot, letting the lamplight paint a silver cape across his back.

He turned on the spot, letting the lamplight paint a silver cape across his back.

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And so began our meetings, every other night in the quiet lull after midnight, in various streets around the neighbourhood. Wandering under trees, I'd see him appear up ahead and await my approach. Other times, he'd wander past me from a distance, looking back over his shoulder as he went.

I told my neighbour about these nocturnal encounters and she was aghast. Vermin was the word she cursed over and again, growing more enraged with each repetition. And why are you roaming the streets at night, anyway? Who knows what's out there?

I tried explaining the magical spell of the early hours, when the neighbourhood lights are out, the roads are empty and world smells like damp earth and trees breathing. The wild chorus of night-time creatures, the percussive hoot of the tawny frogmouth, the hiss and cackle of possums, the loud flap of bat wings, the ripple and chant of cicadas. But she was having none of it.

Spring came and then summer. I saw him on the clifftops, by the roadside, in the tea-tree, both of us watching lights glint over the bay. Then he was gone, my friend the fox, leaving nothing but the memory of his magnificent red tail.

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