Little Foxes

All that summer we played Mercy. We tried other games, at first: gathering red pinecones as small as fingernail clippings into mounds large enough to bury ourselves in, or convincing each other to eat spoonfuls of the sand that collected around the circumference of the cul-de-sac, blown in from a beach none of us had ever seen and most of us didn’t believe in. But it was Mercy we loved. We grappled in the grass, twisted and squirmed like the neon fish ribboning the river overhead. It was a good game, a fair game, since even if you weren’t the strongest you could still win by tolerating the pain without screaming. How ferocious we were, how wily. At night our wrists ached. Our fingers lengthened, pulled from their roots. We learned to read each other’s faces, to know how much effort a nonchalant expression required, what it meant when someone gazed across the clearing, toward the water unspooling through the birch branches. There was language, too, in the secret swipe of a thumb, the angle of a braced thigh. Our lips turned plump and dark from biting. If our parents saw the game from the windows, they must have told themselves we were learning a complicated dance, stiff arms and mirror images. Anyway, we were quiet, and we didn’t need them. Relief. We splinted our own broken fingers.


That summer a preacher, or maybe a scientist, made camp in the woods on the other side of the clearing, then walked among us, singing what she claimed was the truth: the river ran from our mountains and kept going, going, all the way to the sea. She’d seen it twist and hurtle upside down, said at its mouth you jumped in, not up. She drew pictures in the sand, but the wind erased them, or we did when we locked our bodies to play. This was also the summer of the falling tent caterpillars. I hated their weight in my hair, the sparkle of their tiny spiky hairs that gave me alone a rash. I squished them, as many as I could find, under my turquoise jelly sandals, and then tossed them up into the river to rinse off the treads—after the great rains the water hung low, almost reaching the ground. I didn’t mind squelching home. The parents wanted to burn the caterpillar nests, but didn’t want to offend the trees by their action or inaction. At night birds and bats came to feast, rending half the tents we could see to pieces. But it wasn’t enough. The caterpillars kept falling until one afternoon the ground was a seething mat. We were withdrawn indoors. Left to listen, denned, while the parents spoke of prayer. When the tornado siren blared we played marbles in our basements, watching the dragon eyes whirl and roll on the uneven floor. They collected along the seams of other trapdoors. In the tunnels we could identify each other by touch alone: the wells in our palms, calluses from rings, the shape of the nails we remembered digging into the backs of our hands. Who took the preacher in I don’t know.


We two were the best at Mercy, you because you liked to withstand pain, I because I was strong enough to inflict it. Sometimes at night, as bats winged along the river looking for caterpillars that had survived the tornado, we would climb down through the tunnels and meet in the clearing to play. You brought wintergreen candies. In the dark I could taste them whenever you exhaled slowly, pretending I wasn’t hurting you. When you won you cracked them with your teeth to celebrate. The sparks they made lit up the glimmer-glisten of your wet mouth. One morning you helped me ice the tendons in my wrist. Yours was still broken. You said, or I did, Maybe the scientist was right, maybe the riverbed really is a bridge from the mountain to the sea. And the reply was cool: But who would cross it to know? So it was your idea, or mine, but we decided. We braided ladders out of something I can’t remember—in those days every house was a museum of attachments. We waited for the burnt orange hour to pass, for night. When we got a good look at the riverbed’s layers cutting through the sky, I heard you crunching in triumph. We set a ladder against a birch and climbed to where the rock began, then kept climbing, up and up, one hand each, the rope between us. I bit my lip until it bled. But in the morning we were a chain of two links on top of the river. We have been walking ever since.

CAROLYN OLIVER is the author of the poetry collection Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, 2022), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Her writing appears in The Massachusetts Review, DIALOGIST, Copper Nickel, The Common, Ninth Letter, Cincinnati Review, 32 Poems, SmokeLong Quarterly,, The South Carolina Review, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. Carolyn lives in Massachusetts with her family. Online: