Rose woke with a start, eyes wide, throat dry, her heart thumping. For a moment she didn’t recognize her own ceiling. She knew the white paper lantern, hanging over the end of the bed by a chord in the centre of the room. But it glowed as though powered by a low wattage globe and she knew the light did not come from the globe. She reached out to the vacant space beside her. Yes, no Felix. He hadn’t been there for months, not since she told him to go. She turned her head to look at the pillow beside her, saw the window bright with moonlight. It was that which caused the lantern to glow. She recalled her dream: Felix painting a wall, a beautiful wall of handmade house bricks. Felix using a wide paintbrush, slapping a thick coat of white paint on the old red bricks. She trying to stop him, asking him not to. Pocked bricks with flecks of blue. Paint seeping into the cracks in the bricks, the soft sandy mortar. Felix continuing with a determination which excluded her, his mouth set in a firm grimace.
Shaking off the dream she heard the chooks’ cackles, rising in alarm. A fox. But the chicken coop is safe, the chooks are safe. The cackling eased for a moment, then rose in another chorus of panic. It was warm under the covers, Rose was reluctant to leave the protection of her quilt. If she disturbed the fox it would only wait for her to leave, return later, or another night. It was her curiosity which urged her to slip from under the covers. Leaving her cocoon she hoped the warmth would still be there when she returned. She pulled on her wrap, pushed her feet into slippers and made her way through the house to the back door. Her living-room-cum-studio was flooded in moonlight. Her empty easel cast shadows on the polished wooden floor. A geometric pattern unconcerned with gravity. In the kitchen the clean dishes on the drainboard were eerily lit in shades of grey. Opening the veranda door, she was surprised to see the fox just feet away, its nose almost touching her chair. She could see the steam of its breath, the individual hairs of its thick coat glistening. It turned its head, slowly, to look at directly at her, unthreatened by her close proximity. Their eyes locked for a few moments, her breath shallow, before the fox licked its lips and moved deliberately away.
The chickens’ cackling had settled. Rose took a few steps to the veranda edge to watch the fox trot away. She looked up at the full moon, a wisp of cloud passed by and she felt the cold air against her face, easing into her body through her wrap. She shivered and retreated inside.
Back under the covers there was only a remnant of warmth. She curled into a ball and waited to warm up. Even when warm she couldn’t sleep. Eventually she rose again, pulled a jumper over her wrap, stoked the stove and made tea. Sitting at the kitchen table with one foot tucked under a thigh, she wrote her dream in her journal. Remembering Felix’s stern face and intent to cover the wall made her sad.
Opening a sketch-pad she pencilled the fox’s face, slender snout, erect ears, knowing eyes. Male or female? With a red biro she coloured the lips, added a snarl, rimmed the eyes crimson. Male, she thought, adding spectacles in black biro, then hatched the lenses to solid black. The moon was beginning to set when she climbed into her cold bed.
When she awoke late in the morning Rose let the chooks out, collected the eggs, checked the coop for loose wire, rotting boards. There were less eggs; they were spooked. But there were plenty, for she, and for Felix who would come later with bread to swap for eggs.
The afternoon sun splashed gold across the hills beyond the creek. Cool air was settling through the valley, promising a cold night. At the kitchen table, sipping tea, Felix eyed her drawing. “Got a fox?” he asked.
“The coop is safe.” Rose answered, examining her tea cup.
“I know,” Felix said, smiling. “I built it.” Rose met his eyes, then looked at the floor as heat rose in her face. He reached to touch her, she flinched and he pulled back.
That night the chooks were quiet, but Rose couldn’t sleep.
The morning grass was wet when she let the chooks out. She packed a thermos, biscuits and oranges in her day pack, adding a small sketch-pad and pencils. She tied a rug to sit on to the top of her pack and headed off to the creek. The mud track was slippery and she walked carefully in her gumboots. She stayed out all day, moving between the shallow rapids and deep pools, drawing bare branches, jagged rocks, fallen logs.
The fox returned that night. She heard the chooks’ cackle, rising with their anxiety. Listening in bed her heart thumped as she stared at the paper lantern in the dark.
After breakfast the next morning Rose cleaned the coop. She raked out the soiled straw, filling the barrow several times and used the thick humus to mulch the pear and peach trees. She scrubbed their drink trough and feeder treadle, gave them a fresh feed and water, a thick bed of dry straw. In the afternoon she pulled out her oil pastels, tracing her fingers over the bold colours. With Bach loud on the stereo and she filled pages with colour. Swathes of ochre, russet, chestnut, ash grey, gentian blue, merging into each other in muddy rivers. Finally, she washed her hands, placed clean paper on her easel and using pencil tentatively sketched a fox sitting and staring at her. She added colour delicately, building up the layers to a warm brilliance. Looking outside a few hours later she noticed it was dark, and rushed to close the coop, to secure the chooks.
When Felix brought quince jelly and bread two days later he admired her work. “Your new subject? Colours match my jelly.” He smiled at Rose, she looked at him suspiciously, chewing her lip.
Some nights Rose walked in the damp grass, sensing the fox. Once, returning to the house, he was at the back door, peering through the glass panes. Another time he was by the front gate. He cocked his leg, urinated on the gate, watching her watching him. She was mesmerised. She hadn’t known foxes cocked their legs.
The studio became cluttered with fox images. Charcoal, pencil, pastel. Vibrant colours, haunting eyes. Felix brought apple pie. “You’ve been working.” Rose’s smile was tight.
Rose stretched a huge canvas, coated it with gesso. The next day she sketched her subject in pencil before squeezing colours on her palette. Burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, titanium white. She took a deep breath, running the bristles of her brush against her palm before dipping it into clean water. She smiled as she worked, singing snatches of Patti Smith songs.
The next time Felix came he brought duck terrine. She raised her eyebrows in appreciation, and opened a bottle of wine.
“Cheers,” she said, smiling shyly. Felix’s grin was wide.
“Cheers,” he said, “nice to have you back.”
“Nice to be back,” she said, and clinked her glass to his.