On Foot: This Is Not a Fox

Following a fox through the empty streets of London
Empire of Light (1953-1954), René Magritte

At dusk, I watched a fox trot under my window. She slinks down my street almost every night, on her way to Old Finsbury Town Hall. During evenings of the lockdown, the cozy stretch of pubs and restaurants from St. John Street to King’s Cross Road was mostly clear of Londoners, since they had presumably gotten their hour’s-worth of exercise in the afternoon, when it’s warm. By nightfall, the foxes had the streets to themselves. 

She was elderly, though I wasn’t quite sure how old. I was new to London when I met her, and I had had little experience with foxes. The only way I could guess at her age was by the amount of rough graying hair that blended with the bright orange of her back, patchy from the tail to the top of her head. It didn’t seem like mange, as far as I could tell; the last tufts of orange on her back were more brilliant than the coats of many younger foxes—a final swell of color before its fade, like dusk itself. More telling was her loped gait: she ambled slowly, less assuredly, not the same quick step I noticed in others of her kind. 

She did not seem to mind me walking beside her. I kept my distance, about fourteen feet or so, while she circled the town hall, doubled back to empty Skinner Street, and walked past the Co-op, which had closed early for sanitation and restocking. I followed her toward Spa Fields park, where I was certain I would lose her; she had instinctively quickened while crossing the road. When she arrived at the park’s locked fence, she paused, then sniffed a flowering bush. The park was shut at dusk, the enclosure too high for me to leap. And given the circulating police, newly suspicious of anyone out at night, it seemed best to give up on her here. If they caught me, what would be my excuse? 

I have never understood the UK’s murderous fascination with foxes. Country Tories love fox hunting, which involves fleets of horses and dogs running down such a small helpless thing, and even city people seem to mistrust them. When I moved to London, in early January, I lived in a temporary flat behind the Royal Courts of Justice in Westminster, near a pub called the Seven Stars. On my first night in town, while walking the empty campus of the London School of Economics, a fox trailed me, presumably curious about the smell of warm chicken wafting from my recyclable Waitrose bag. 

He kept his respectful distance, sticking to the opposite sidewalk. I wondered whether it would be safe to feed him. I had just flown in from New York and was jetlagged. Anything seemed possible in my new home, even dinner with a wild animal on the steps of the Royal Courts. When we passed the Seven Stars, where a few men stood drinking, they nearly dropped their pints to shout and wave their hands in the air. I leapt back, thinking I might have done something wrong. One man shook his head to assure me I wasn’t their target and pointed to the fox. By then, he had slipped through the fence surrounding the Courts. 

At Spa Fields my friend sat patiently once she noticed I had fallen behind. I crossed the street to meet her. She lifted off her haunches, a little shakily, and strolled down a side street, toward one of my favorite parts of the neighborhood, where the flats draw close along streets that shoot out from one another like misfired arrows. The evening sky had deepened in its golden, pinkish hue to dark blue and the streetlights flicked on. These days, the air is the freshest I can remember of any place I’ve lived; reports note it’s nearly as good as the Alps, with so few cars and jets and freighters clotting London. I say this with a little melancholy since it only underscores that the world is most pleasant without us. A miserable triumph, really.

The fox kept on, deciding against the park in favor of a side street. Trailing behind, I wondered about her theories of the lockdown, or if animal intelligence only measures the world by degrees of threat, and so the difference between this spring and any other was not a matter of absent people but missing danger. We aren’t gone, she must have known, since she had seen me following her, only most of the things we do. The vast moving complex of the city, with its many ways of killing her, had finally stopped moving. A stay of mercy. Fewer trucks careening down the streets, no angry drunken pubgoers, no foxhunters. Her sense of time must have shifted as a result, too, subtly at first, then more richly, just as ours had. For me, the long stretches at home swirled into a pudding of indistinct time. I tried, in the initial days of lockdown, to chop my days into distinct parts—hours for working from home, reading, writing, sleeping, talking on the phone—but soon they went leaky and liquid. Nothing could be kept separate. Meanwhile, thousands died (and continue to die) outside of the lockdown, in the Other World of NHS hospitals and Operation Nightingale tents. It is almost unthinkable. Only that division felt fixed and real, not morning, afternoon and night: the people hooked to ventilators and the people who were not. 

She stopped at my favorite house. At first glance, it looks like all the others on the block behind Spa Fields, with handsome creamy white walls, a painted door, a tree in its square of yard. But what attracts me is the side of the house, which faces a small alley. Two concrete steps lead to a bright green door, which is fitted into an enclave. On the first floor, there is only one window, with three additional cavities where other windows might have gone—one to the left and two to the right. Whenever I walk past the house at night, most of its side is cast in shadow, except for the green door, thanks to the dim penumbra of light from a nearby streetlamp. The fox looked up at the house and squeaked. I had never heard a fox’s voice before—tinny and high pitched, closer to a mouse than a small dog. I wondered if it was waiting for someone to toss scraps. 

The house reminds me of Rene Magritte’s series of late paintings of dimly lit mansions, Empire of Light (1945–1967). In those works, a streetlamp illuminates a single front door in the Belgian suburbs. Above each roof, the sky is blue of day, with huge fluffy clouds. Is it dusk? Or early morning? Neither description feels right, really, since the whole point seems to be that time’s linearity is mostly an illusion, and day sits alongside night; the world is round. That’s the strangeness of modern life! Magritte shouts. Look close enough and all the usual things—apples, hats, pipes, and houses—clash and threaten to disentangle from shared reality. This is not a house, Magritte’s paintings say. This is not a place where you can imagine yourself taking out the trash and going to bed, it is a painting. As a painting it argues that time and space are just a trick of perspective. Its strangeness builds the longer you stare at it, just as with Magritte’s other paintings, even if the Empire of Light’s optical funny business is far less obvious than his usual Surrealism. In this way it neither escapes nor worsens the general embarrassment of being a painting by Magritte. But it is something I think about, especially when I stare at my favorite house in Islington, behind Spa Fields. 

In the first days of the coronavirus, images of people kissing while wearing face masks circulated online. They were meant to evoke Magritte’s famous painting The Lovers (1928), where a couple whose heads are wrapped in white cloth press their covered lips to one another. These memes were bad examples of thrifty “creativity” in time of crisis; an image already overly reproduced and too often referenced had found itself at a new low. Appropriated by couples in lockdown, The Lovers suggests the problem of the crisis, at least for the relatively healthy, is just a matter of restricted romantic contact when it more severely one of dislocated time and place—the breaking up of lonely days as all of us slide in and out of a shattered timeline. We are told we are “behind Italy,” but “ahead of Canada.” If any of his paintings strike me as relevant to the isolation, distance and world-turning anxiety of the coronavirus in spring 2020, it is not The Lovers, but the Empire of Light

Foxes are said to be cunning, sly, tricky. This wasn’t my experience with the one I followed, but then I’ve never lived inside a myth, where one outsmarts me on my journey to the castle or through the ancient forest. Perhaps it is because I was going nowhere in particular that I am of little interest to her. To have a destination, a place to be, might be all she requires of her mark. Instead, we walked circles in the neighborhood, bidden to the same circuitous logic as a painting by Magritte. It is day, and it is night. The world is turning, and the world is still.  

She pressed her paws to the house’s wall and mewled with her head raised to the sky. No one appeared in the window to drop bacon or a chicken leg. She seemed to have done this before, and when the window failed to open, she turned to me with a look of expectation. Why are you standing there? Can you do nothing? It was late, now, and the nearby grocery stores were closed; the lights in the windows of the house weren’t even on—perhaps the residents had absconded elsewhere. By the time I managed to open my phone’s camera to take her photo, which seemed the only thing I could do, the fox was gone. A good meal would come from someone else, she must have reasoned, and I wasn’t much use as a walking companion if I couldn’t be bothered to call out for it on her behalf.  

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