The Fox and the Mourner

img_8066Dear Readers, I am off on an adventure at what is technically known as ‘stupid o’clock’ tomorrow morning, and so I am breaking with my usual habit and posting this on Friday instead of Saturday. The Wednesday Weed will (wi-fi willing) be posted on Wednesday.

Dear Readers, I had a long visit to St Pancras and Islington cemetery on Sunday, and, as usual, I found the human behaviour just as fascinating as that of the animals.  For some, the grave visiting has obviously just become a duty that can’t be shirked – I once saw somebody gently lob a bunch of flowers from their car window onto a grave and then drive off. For others, it’s almost a social occasion, with people gathering by the grave for a chat and a mini-party – this is the case with one lad who died when he was just  a teenager. His mother, still a young woman herself, comes every weekend, and assorted friends and relatives are always sitting next to her on the bench and chatting.

For the newly bereaved, dressed in tell-tale black, it’s the bleakest of times, a period when not even the sun will make an impact. My heart goes out to these people as they trudge along the still-unfamiliar byways of the cemetery, sometimes getting lost. I hope that in time the natural beauty of the place will provide some kind of solace, but for now, the colour is leached out of everything by the enormity of the loss that has been suffered. It always surprises me that the human body can sustain such sorrow without collapsing, but the will to live seems to be strong in us at a cellular level, and while we may wish to die ourselves, our muscles and bones say no, not yet.

Such a soul, wearing a black parka on this warm day, passed me as I walked towards the crematorium. I glanced at her to see if she wanted to speak but she was so deep in her thoughts that she passed without a word. She looked as if the weight of her sadness was physically dragging her down as she shuffled off down the road, too exhausted to even lift her feet. And in her I see all of us at some time in our lives, and though I know that  things will not always seem so overwhelming, her misery touched me deeply. I was brooding when I turned the corner into Sergeant’s Hill, an uphill section of the path that curves right the way up to the dual carriageway, and then loops back.

I am not sure if it was my encounter with the mourner that coloured my perception, but when I saw a lone man walking towards me, I was suddenly on my guard. On this sunny afternoon, with the roar of the traffic in my ears, he seemed like some kind of harbinger. He continued to walk towards me, but then suddenly stopped. I was going to have to walk past him. There was no one else around. Why had he stopped, and why was he looking at me?

And then, I saw the head of a fox less than twenty feet away, peeking round behind a gravestone. The man raised his eyebrows, gesticulated towards the fox and then to the camera around my neck. He was trying to tell me that there was something worth photographing. I apologised internally for all the things I had thought about this poor man, and raised my camera.

img_8071What an endearing animal this was. The fox had the long legs and skinny body of one of this year’s cubs, and I was sure that I’d seen her before over at the feeding station. But she seemed to be adept at finding her own food. There was an area between two graves that had been scratched to pieces – it may have been an ants’ nest, or it could have been a site where the fox had been digging for worms (which make up a surprisingly high proportion of their diet at this time of year). As we watched, the man and I, the fox went to a nearby grave and carried something off – I couldn’t see what it was at the time, but when I looked at my photographs afterwards it was clearly a small mouse. The little fox threw the corpse into the air a few times, then tossed it about with her front paws, until finally chomping it down. All the time she kept her gaze on us, but made no attempt to run away.

img_8073img_8078A young woman walked down the road, tapping away on her phone. She looked up and stopped. Now, three of us were frozen looking at the vixen.

The vixen moved off and crossed the path. I squatted down and she paused, looking at me with nervous interest.

‘Don’t touch her’, said the man.

‘I won’t’, I said. ‘It’s not good for them to get too close to people. Not everybody is kind’.

img_8087The fox moved on in a circle, paused to squat to urinate, crossed the road again and sat down in some bushes less than a metre from the road. That’s when I saw the mourner in the black parka again. She stopped when she saw us. Behind her spectacles, her eyes were bloodshot with crying.

‘How can I get to Lygoe Road?’ she asked.

I pointed her in the right direction – Lygoe Road is one of the main thoroughfares in the cemetery. The fox watched the conversation with interest, even turning her head to look at where I was pointing. Then the lady headed off, no doubt to visit the recent grave of someone that she could barely believe was gone forever.img_8088

I would like to say that she glanced at the fox and that that inquisitive pointed face brought the smallest of smiles, or at least jolted the lady out of her sadness for a split-second. But it was too soon. I doubt that anything could have penetrated her armour at that moment, and I’m sure that numbness is there for a reason, because if we truly felt the extent of our loss, we would surely collapse under the weight of it. But one day, I hope that she will notice a frosted russet face watching her from a hedge, and feel just the smallest of lifts, like the sudden warmth when sun breaks through the clouds. Nothing will ever be the same again, but life goes on, relentlessly, and the call to live is inexorable. As I watched the black-coated shape turn the corner and disappear from view, I wished her strength, and the slow-blooming of hope, and the birth of better days. I wish that for all of us.

All photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. The photos on this blog are free to use or share non-commercially, but please attribute and link back to the blog, thank you!

21 thoughts on “The Fox and the Mourner

  1. Sarah Finch

    A lovely piece, I too hope the mourner will find solace in the cemetery soon. On a mundane practical level, how can you tell the sex of a fox? I have two young ones in my garden and would like to know more about them.

    Good luck on your adventure

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks Sarah! The only reason that I knew this one was a female was because she squatted to urinate, and male foxes cock their legs, much as domestic dogs do. Females tend to be lighter in weight and smaller in size but of course this isn’t much help as there are lots of foxes in the middle range who could be either sex. I can recommend a little book called ‘Fox Watching – In the Shadow of the Fox’ by Martin Hemmington, who is the man who runs the National Fox Welfare Society and does sterling work in rescuing injured and mange-ridden foxes – it has lots of fascinating insights into the behaviour of foxes.

  2. Leslie

    Lovely post. Please consider that the person(s) gently tossing the flowers from the car may have been impaired and even a short walk could have been difficult or impossible. I just came through several months of excruciating back pain — so I can relate. The fox is gorgeous.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks for this, Leslie – you’re right of course, and I hadn’t thought of that reason for the car incident (even though I’ve suffered from sciatica myself). It’s a good lesson in not being judgemental, which I try to avoid, but which seems to creep in when I’m not looking.

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