She became a fox at night. When the moon rose and cut across her skin, it prickled, sprouting fur until she was sleek, so sleek her fur shone in the moonlight. Not like those other foxes, those feral, urban foxes that rummaged through scraps and rubbish. No, she rose from orange flames sleek and elegant, reeking only of wily composure. Then she slipped beyond her fence and into the woods beyond, away from porch lights and street lamps and into the hazy moon glow of the forest.
She saw only as a fox sees: everything illuminated in the dark. And she could smell. She could smell the peat, the fungus-rich rot of saturated wood, the spice of bark, and dying leaves. She went deep into the trees until even the light of the moon left her, and she cried out as foxes do—that cry something between a yip and a wail, a baby and banshee.
She ate dirt sometimes in her human form. When the baby was inside her, she was compelled to it. But after the baby came out, she didn’t stop. “I’m glad you’ll get your regular appetite back,” her partner had said once the baby was born. But she still yearned for earth. She ate it in secret, away from her love, away from the baby and anyone else who might see. The ravens and pigeons on the roof saw, but they said nothing.
She’d heard once that sometimes people become delusional when they are unhappy. They shapeshift in their minds. She was not unhappy. The baby was happy, an “easy” baby. Her partner was supportive, wholly involved when at home. She had no reason to shift shape, and it wasn’t happening in her mind.
In the mornings, when she woke in her human form she still smelled the forest, and the soles of her feet were stained with earth and moss. She woke with dirt on the tip of her nose, the taste of fur and blood in her mouth. She always woke first, before her partner, before even the baby, and washed away the evidence.
She was not delusional. If she was, she’d tell about her shapeshifting and her wandering. But she was put together and logical, so she could not tell anyone. No one except the baby, because he could not speak and had no sense of logic, of reality or delusion. “I’m becoming a fox,” she whispered to the baby.
“Things become stranger after you have a baby,” her mother had told her. “You become stranger. You speak in ridiculous ways, you speak of things not polite in mixed company. Who talks about shit and vomit nonchalantly in public?”
She wondered if her mother ever became a fox too. Perhaps it was inherited. Somehow she didn’t think “becoming a fox” fell under one of the strange things that happened after having a baby.
“I still eat dirt,” she confessed.
At that, her mother paused, but only for a moment. “Well sometimes it takes a while to get back to normal.”
It had been six months. Already the baby was sitting up on his own. He could push himself up on all fours. He had two teeth.
“Maybe after you stop nursing,” her mother said.
Her mother’s assurance emboldened her to finally speak her truth. “I’m becoming a fox at night,” she said.
“I had crazy dreams when you were born—so vivid,” said her mother. “Most of them were much more maleficent than yours.”
“What did you dream?” she asked.
“The usual,” said her mother, and the doorbell rang.
The baby pulled at her. He wanted milk, and she wanted dirt.
Once upon a time, she would wake early—but not too early, take her time to coif her hair, line her eyes, drink coffee, read books as she waited on buses and trains. She wore shining shoes with sharp heels. She put out fires and quelled storms. She gossiped and socialized. Now, in passing bus windows, she saw old reflections of herself in those sleek power suits. In the day, she was Mother, Mama, Mommy. In the day, she nursed and pumped, tummy-timed and nursery-rhymed and park-played.
“How perfect he is!” Everyone cooed at her child. “How good you look!” They said to her. “It suits you.”
It suits you. It suits you. It suits you. She could hear the rattle say as she shook it just out of the baby’s reach.
“I feel like I’m becoming something—someone else,” she told her mother.
“Things will get back to normal. You’ll start to feel more like yourself; just give it time,” her mother said.
You are still sleek and sly and shining, she told herself in the mirror. But she only drifted further from her standard self.
Her excursions, once only occurring at night, slowly began to linger into the day. At nap times, she’d close her eyes and feel herself shift, wavering between human and animal.
When he went down for a nap, she lay on the couch, the curtains drawn against the sun. But a sharp beam fell through, sliced her skin, and she felt that familiar fire crackling at her skin, the diminishing of her bones, the litheness in her haunches.
Then one afternoon, drying herself from her shower, she found she’d sprouted peach fuzz all over her skin. The next day it was tinged orange. She contorted in the bathroom mirror, watching for fur to spring up along her spine. She sprouted whiskers. She had to tilt her head side to side in the muted white light of the bathroom mirror to see them, but the whiskers were there. She twitched her nose. Her partner said nothing.
“Does something about me seem different?” she asked.
“You look fine to me,” her partner said. “You’re still adjusting to the changes in your body.”
She watched the baby as he learned to balance on all fours and wondered if he too was becoming a fox. If she’d passed it on to him. Alone with the baby, she stripped him bare and turned him over, ran her fingers over his soft skin. Was it covered in fuzz too, or was he always that soft? Were there whiskers prickling from the creases of his nose? Was he, too, tinged orange? She scrutinized until her eyes crossed and she second- and third-guessed herself.
When the baby slept, she sat and waited for him to wake again. Amid the stack of books she’d promised to read, the toys she said she’d keep contained, the cross stitch she had yet to complete, she waited, ears perked, whiskers twitching. She forced herself to eat something, anything else when she felt the urge for dirt.
“Did you ever feel like you were becoming something else?” she asked her mother. “After I was born, did you feel yourself changing?“
“Of course,” said her mother. “But that comes with the territory. You’re still you, just a new you. There’s more of you—I don’t mean physically, darling, I mean . . . Well, things change. That’s motherhood. You’re supposed to change.”
Her partner began to work late in preparation for a big project release.
“Will you be okay?” her partner asked.
She answered yes, but from dawn to late in the night, she was alone with the baby, and she could not leave him by himself. She tried to hold back when she felt herself slipping into her other form. She plucked her whiskers, scrubbed the fuzz from her skin until it was red and raw. She lay awake in the dark, afraid to close her eyes—ears tuned to every grunt and sigh of the baby in his cradle. But that other form tugged at her. She could not resist forever. She felt it coming for her. She stood over her son’s sleeping form and wept.
“I can’t control it,” she told him. “I am not meant for this form.”
He is so happy. I am so happy. We are so happy, she told the vixen.
She could put it off no longer.
A vixen rose from the slip of moonlight on the duvet. She leapt with grace from the bed, slinking through the kitchen, out the back door, and dug into the earth, covered herself in soil. She breathed deeply that scent of damp, musty earth. She sensed the earthworms and moles, their movements vibrated in her whiskers.
Somewhere in the distance, a baby mewled. Something in the vixen quivered and paused. It was an alien noise, and she could not answer it. Instead, she twitched her nose, and her tail shivered. She smelled the earth, felt the pull of the forest heart. She thrust into the depths of the night.