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Fox Sleep

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On a road through the mountains with a friend many years ago
I came to a curve on a slope where a clear stream
flowed down flashing across dark rocks through its own
echoes that could neither be caught nor forgotten
it was the turning of autumn and already
the mornings were cold with ragged clouds in the hollows
long after sunrise but the pasture sagging like a roof
the glassy water and flickering yellow leaves
in the few poplars and knotted plum trees were held up
in a handful of sunlight that made the slates on the silent
mill by the stream glisten white above their ruin
and a few relics of the life before had been arranged
in front of the open mill house to wait
pale in the daylight out on the open mountain
after whatever they had been made for was over
the dew was drying on them and there were few who took that road
who might buy one of them and take it away somewhere
to be unusual to be the only one
to become unknown a wooden bed stood there on rocks
a cradle the color of dust a cracked oil jar iron pots
wooden wheels iron wheels stone wheels the tall box of a clock
and among them a ring of white stone the size of an
embrace set into another of the same size
an iron spike rising from the ring where the wooden
handle had fitted that turned it in its days as a hand mill
you could see if you looked closely that the top ring
that turned in the other had been carved long before in the form
of a fox lying nose in tail seeming to be
asleep the features worn almost away where it
had gone around and around grinding grain and salt
to go into the dark and to go on and remember

* * *

What I thought I had left I kept finding again
but when I went looking for what I thought I remembered
as anyone could have foretold it was not there
when I went away looking for what I had to do
I found that I was living where I was a stranger
but when I retraced my steps the familiar vision
turned opaque and all surface and in the wrong places
and the places where I had been a stranger appeared to me
to be where I had been at home called by name and answering
getting ready to go away and going away

* * *

Every time they assembled and he spoke to them
about waking there was an old man who stood listening
and left before the others until one day the old man stayed
and Who are you he asked the old man
and the old man answered I am not a man
many lives ago I stood where you are standing
and they assembled in front of me and I spoke to them
about waking until one day one of them asked me
When someone has wakened to what is really there
is that person free of the chain of consequences
and I answered yes and with that I turned into a fox
and I have been a fox for five hundred lives
and now I have come to ask you to say what will
free me from the body of a fox please tell me
when someone has wakened to what is really there
is that person free of the chain of consequences
and this time the answer was That person sees it as it is
then the old man said Thank you for waking me
you have set me free of the body of the fox
which you will find on the other side of the mountain
I ask you to bury it please as one of your own
that evening he announced a funeral service
for one of them but they said nobody has died
then he led them to the other side of the mountain
and a cave where they found a fox’s body
and he told them the story and they buried the fox
as one of them but later one of them asked
what if he had given the right answer every time

* * *

Once again I was there and once again I was leaving
and again it seemed as though nothing had changed
even while it was all changing but this time
was a time of ending this time the long marriage was over
the orbits were flying apart it was autumn again
sunlight tawny in the fields where the shadows
each day grew longer and the still afternoons
ripened the distance until the sun went down
across the valley and the full moon rose out of the trees
it was the time of year when I was born and that evening
I went to see friends for the last time and I came back
after midnight along the road white with the moon
I was crossing the bars of shadow and seeing ahead of me
the wide silent valley full of silver light
and there just at the corner of the land that I had
come back to so many times and now was leaving
at the foot of the wall built of pale stone I saw the body
stretched in the grass and it was a fox a vixen
just dead with no sign of how it had come to happen
no blood the long fur warm in the dewy grass
nothing broken or lost or torn or unfinished
I carried her home to bury her in the garden
in the morning of the clear autumn that she had left
and to stand afterward in the turning daylight

* * *

There are the yellow beads of the stonecrops and the twisted flags
of dried irises knuckled into the hollows
of moss and rubbly limestone on the waves of the low wall
the ivy has climbed along them where the weasel ran
the light has kindled to gold the late leaves of the cherry tree
over the lane by the house chimney there is the roof
and the window looking out over the garden
summer and winter there is the field below the house
there is the broad valley far below them all with the curves
of the river a strand of sky threaded through it
and the notes of bells rising out of it faint as smoke
and there beyond the valley above the rim of the wall
the line of mountains I recognize like a line of writing
that has come back when I had thought it was forgotten

W. S. Merwin, “Fox Sleep” from The Vixen. Copyright © 2000 by W. S. Merwin. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: The Vixen (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)

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This poem originally appeared in the October 1992 issue of Poetry magazine

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Fox Sleep

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