Afternoon of the last Sunday in September lay stretched out somnolently in the sun by the side of the house. Late-working bees kept up a steady thrumming past the sheep barn, homing in for landing, but I, needing a walk, set off past the hives for the bush down along the lake shore. September’s a good time to find out how goes a plantation of spring seedlings, for in this township the last week of September can bring down the first flirtation with fall.
That wasn’t my only reason for a walk: no countryman can deny the precious wonder and delight that slide down through September following the autumnal equinox, leading us into days of longer and longer darkness, as if preparing us in the pre-operative days, getting us built up for the finality of winter.
As I reached the bush the afternoon sun, warm and flirtatious, played a mischievous game of hide-and-seek, and a gentle breeze off the lake kicked up dust devils and fallen leaves into the faces of balm o’Gilead poplars.
White pine seedlings on the sand hill had a good grip taken. Spruce in the inner hollows carried the verdant green of a hardy Maritime race. The young cedars stood out orderly and alert as recruits on parade, and would make a fine regiment one day if severe winters did not force the deer to browse them to death first.
An hour and a half later, fully satisfied with the condition of the seedlings, I started back along a flanking trail and came to a small slope that led to a plateau near the entry to the sugar bush.
I had just started up the slope when a small conceit entered my mind and brought me to a stop: these few hundred acres, like many of their neighbours on the marge of the ancient Champlain Sea, abound in limestone, both in the seen and the unseen places. Thousands of boulders, varying in size from the handy-pack baseball rounder to rough brutes thrice the size of a bushel basket, stand about in mounds. Pioneers started piling them up here in 1821, and still the harvest goes on, mute testimony of the land’s determination to extract tribute from the harvester, the awful, dreadful tribute of the stone boat. Conceits do flit in and out when one’s alone in the bush: this one passed, and again I started up the slope.
Stop! An inner voice commanded: don’t move! There’s a fox!
Yes, I whispered. I see it. Oops, there’s a leap. Maybe it’s after mice, September’s mice.
Fox peered at the ground in front of its nose. Surprising thing, fox yet hadn’t seen me! True, a juniper bush stood between fox and me so that only my head would be skylined from the plateau.
Forty feet away, with fox eyeing the turf intently, I felt a solitary stillness, as if I’d found myself the sole spectator in the Roman Coliseum watching a gladiator who had entered the pit.
A kind of smile creased the face of the red devil, the smile of a card sharpie, light with implicit deceit. Fox’s back arched to the ready position. He sprang, upward and forward. Forepaws touched down, jaws snapped down. Rear paws came to ground, to complete a feather-light landing, except for the extravagant and long, elegant tail that lazily parachuted back to earth by itself through broken sun shafts. Strike one! I started a count.
Intensity now swarmed in the mouse pit. Again the arched back, the body’s recoil, the launch, up, forward and away; again a silent parabola of descent, the laggard tail parachuting a second time through spotty sun and shade. Strike two!
My thumb itched.
Fox paused to swing up each forepaw in turn to wipe dust off the card sharpie smile. Carelessly he glanced round the infield in front where the ground was all churned up and untidy. Evidently turf had been peeled back by a party of skunks, late-night revellers, no doubt, out on the prowl for larvae of the cinch bug. That brought a sideways crease to the sharpie’s face that would have made the demons dance. The master in the arts of sleight-of-hand seemed to be muttering: “Cinch bugs, eh? Coverin’ up, thinkin’ to escape discovery, eh? Friends, this time you’ve come up agin’ the master”.
“My name’s Fox! Hear that now, and don’t forget it! Fox!”
A third time the red-furred body arched and went into the wind-up. Eyes fixed on a spot in front of the juniper he prepared to launch. Hold on! Shock! Surprise! Struck dumb in one petrifying instant like Lot’s wife, fox went rigid as the pillar of salt in the desert. Like miniature pyramids, frozen into immobility, fox’s two small, sharp-pointed ears pierced the skyline over red-rimmed horror-struck eyes that bulged with amazement, and stared across the juniper bush at me.
I stared back. Unblinking.
Fox tried insouciance to hide eyes bulging out of their sockets. Fifteen seconds later, he concluded that wasn’t working. Mountainous surprise flooded his eyes, and around them began to distil into a leer of cold contempt. Incredulity transfixed their owner. Fox began to let his mind spin with calculated risk-taking.
“How in heaven’s name this guy ever got in here without my seeing him first, I’ll never know. But what I’m starin’ at ain’t no bush leaguer, that I can tell.”
One full minute we spent, staring at each other, challenging. Showdown time! With each second that ticked away the roaring silence across the juniper to the mouse pit increased, till…
Fox blinked first, and on that very instant the spell shattered. Only a pale remnant of the card sharpie’s smile creased the lines from fox’s eyes to nose end. Fox simply swung away from the mound, skipped over the peeled-back infield, and trotted down the slope’s far side, the long brush of tail struggling to keep up this unwanted pace. I watched fox hurry along the fence row, threading his way through hedge cedar and hawthorn until he entered into comfortable obscurity.
Strike three! Home run! I moved up the slope, rounding the juniper and made for the old sugar bush.
Surprise clung to me in conscious coverlets of sun and shade as afternoon declined on that last Sunday in September. The encounter had been sudden. Thumbed right off the bench to go up against the old master himself, surprisingly, I hadn’t come out second best.
September’s like that in the township. Often.John Dunn, 26th September, 1993.