The beauty of our new home, the street upon which we lived, was that it was the crossroads between city and country, sandwiched as it was between Paris and le Forêt de Notre Dame, Notre Dame Forest, the first a half hour train ride from the local station, the latter a stone’s throw from the house and a place where we spent many an autumn afternoon, gathering chestnuts and mushrooms and catching the occasional glimpse of a deer or a lumbering wild boar. We had just moved back from Italy to France, settling in a new home in the suburbs, a home perched atop a hill with a wide expanse of a lawn stretched out behind where the boys could play and romp with the dog.
The house was a pieced-together contraption of drafty windows which let in the winter chill, a staircase that squeaked and groaned under even the lightest footstep, a cathedral-ceilinged living room that made it impossible to heat the house when the cold seeped in and a monstrosity of a stone fireplace taking up one entire living room wall, obviously fulfilling the owner’s cock-eyed dream of playing feudal lord. Many a winter evening was spent huddled around that hearth, warming ourselves, while cooking sausages over a wild blaze. The backyard, quite possibly the major reason for our decision to rent this house, was a boy’s dream, and as our two were 8 and 10 years old, it was the ideal new home.
Access to the backyard was either down one level from the main floor of the house and through the garage, or from the double French windows that opened up from the dining room, windows that gave onto a crude cement slab platform – a sort of jerry-rigged terrace that sat atop a dune of damp dirt and rocks that sloped down into the yard. Ideally, this terrace would have made a lovely spot for a summer breakfast, a small table and chairs for two set up facing the trees, but this unadorned gray slab was no idyllic perch but rather a blot on the landscape, bland and derelict. Over the long years since the house had been built, the ground beneath this terrace had evidently shifted, the rocks moving, the earth compacting or loosening with the seasons. By the time we had moved in, a series of cracks had appeared, crisscrossing the slab, adding to our discomfort and fear of spending too much time standing out there. It soon became a repository for old flowerpots, gardening tools and muddy rubber boots and sneakers, an observation deck for the dog.
Breakfast has always been a special morning ritual for my husband and me, a quiet tête-à-tête over steaming bowls of café au lait before waking the boys to join us and start their day. Our diningroom table with the view onto that old terrace and the trees edging the cement block was the perfect setup for muted conversation, husband and I sharing our day’s plans, the occasional witticism or a random thought as we sipped our coffees and ate our breakfast.
During the summer months, the sun already entering the house through the French windows, thrown open to catch the warm breeze, one of us would invariably flip on the radio to listen to the news, the weather report, a bit of music. The invigorating light flooding into the house, the whiff of the countryside invited activity and inspired bustle, the terrace an early-morning playground for tiny birds hopping after food and the vibrant lively cluck-clucking of a neighbor’s chickens, the random cocka-doodle-doos of their rooster rousing us and exhorting us to move.
But winter mornings were so much more conducive to silence. The morning sun rises late during the winter months here in France and, half-asleep, we would eat our breakfast quietly in that diningroom in the light of one single bulb hanging over our heads, the mysterious night still pushing against the panes. Bundled up against the cold that seeped in between the cracks in the frames of those old French windows, I would peer out into the darkness, through the winter mist, to look for signs of our dog snuffling in the bushes, but to little avail. The blackness was always so dense, so complete in those early hours that all I would see was my own reflection staring back at me. All outside was deathly still in the thick inky pre-dawn dark that swallowed up even the pale gray of that cement slab.
And then one cold, quiet morning as we sat together over breakfast I heard something: a faint scratching noise, a quiet shuffling. Odd, mysterious, the scratching and shuffling would start and stop. Start and stop, breaking the silence of the early hours. It was difficult to decipher where it was coming from, whether inside or out. We strained our ears trying to figure it out until, just minutes later, it would disappear. We were utterly baffled.
We noticed the noise again the following morning, the eerie scraping sound filtering into the dining room, pushing closer then pulling away, just lasting a few seconds. And, as autumn shifted into winter, it quickly became a ritual, our breakfast ritual, sitting at the table under the one dull bulb, near the tall glass panes giving out onto somber obscurity, straining our ears for the dark morning silence to be broken by those mysterious snuffling, scratching sounds as we sipped our coffee and ate thick slices of brioche. Sometimes my patience and my own silence would be rewarded with a faint noise; some mornings were filled with a disappointing nothing. We came to understand that something had crawled in among the network of tunnels under our feet and created a home close to the warmth of our own. But we still could not understand what.
Once the sun was up and my husband had left for work and the boys school, I would run around to the back of the house and, crouching down at the edge of the terrace, peer into the many tunnels that had formed over the years in the pile of earth, trying to see something, any form of life. But whatever it was making the noise, living under the terrace, remained still and sleeping during the sunlight hours, winning our little game of hide-and-seek.
Until finally we saw her, if ever so briefly. A fox. Sitting on the edge of the terrace before scuttling away out of sight. A fox had made her home, her nest under the cement of our terrace. I was charmed! Once I knew that it wasn’t rats or mice, I fell in love with the idea of a pretty little fox sleeping underneath our feet, close by! How very Beatrix Potter! I loved being the first out of bed, running down to set up breakfast and waiting by the window, quietly listening for that fox’s morning greeting! But pragmatic old husband saw it in a completely different light! Once he realized that our uninvited houseguest was a fox and as the scratching noise seemed daily to be getting closer, he begin worrying that she was not only burrowing further under the floor but also creating wider, larger tunnels under the terrace. He was haunted by visions of the whole terrace just caving in, cracking the supporting structure of the house – accompanied by visions of a crazed landlord materializing unexpectedly on the doorstep demanding we pay up for the damage. He was also scared that the fox would attack one of the boys or get in a tangle with the dog, and so decided enough was enough and he called the city for help.
The city put us in touch with a garde-forestier – a forest ranger – who arrived the following day and set up a fox trap in our backyard, looking for all the world like our own large metal dog cage. He placed a couple of eggs inside the trap and left. And so a new ritual was added to my day: every morning as I ate breakfast, I would listen for the noise of the fox and after the sun rose, breakfast dishes washed, I would scuttle around to the back of the house with my sons and we would look to see if the cage contained a fox or if the food inside the cage was still there. That garde-forestier, as silent and invisible as the fox he was chasing, would show up I never knew when and take out the old food and replace it with fresh. Sometimes we would find the trap empty and wonder if our old boxer had somehow succeeded in getting out whatever meat that ranger had stuck inside the cage. But the fox, much to my own delight, succeeded in avoiding getting caught. Every morning I greeted that empty cage with a mixture of admiration of that fox’s wily ways and relief.
And as the days flew by, between listening for the fox under my feet every day before dawn and checking the cage just after the sun rose higher in the sky, a new chapter unfolded. Suddenly, that early morning scratching began to be accompanied by a low mewling, as if kittens had found their way under the terrace. My husband listened closely, looked up at me and exclaimed “She had pups! Our fox is a mom!” Husband promptly called the forest ranger and had him take the cage away. Every morning, sitting at the breakfast table I listened for those babies between mouthfuls of coffee, heard the voices getting stronger joined by more movement. I tried to picture what they looked like, guess how many there were and prayed that one or the other would gather his or her courage and make a bold appearance on the terrace, but it never happened. The utter silence during the day made my breakfasts more special as those pups made their faint but distinct daily presence known.
Towards the end of that winter, as the nights grew shorter, the days longer and the sun begin to make its appearance at our breakfast table, the sounds suddenly stopped. I listened hard morning after morning, but after about a week, I had to admit that Mrs. Fox and her growing family had left to find a new home for the spring and summer. Four more years past, and though I waited for her to return each winter or a new fox family to move in, those tunnels remained empty, the morning silence only broken by the clatter of coffee mugs, the kitchen radio and the distant clucking of hens goaded on by the rooster’s crow, the only movement in the yard our dog snuffling in the bushes, my husband my only breakfast companion.