Last night a sound woke me that I haven't heard in a very long time. The first time I heard it it scared me terribly, and it's always carried with it, for me at least, a deep sense of loneliness, and that sound always jabs me right in my primal memories.
I must have been around 6 or so, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, asleep in my room with the curtains that scared me and the movies on the televison that scared me and the bullies at school that scared me, and sleep being a frightening time anyway. I woke up in my big, empty room to hear a sharp crying and moaning right outside the big window that overlooks the front yard; a noise that sounded like feral children playing, or something thin and infinitely evil making keening sounds out there, preparatory to insinuating itself through a crack in the wall to drag me away, screaming silently. Overcoming my fear just enough to flee across the hall I woke my parents (which was probably back then a near-nightly experience for them,) telling them tearfully that something incredibly scary was outside my window.
Now ordinarily my mother, being the more forgiving soul, would be the one who would get up, administer whatever was necessary and then stay in the room in a chair until I fell asleep again, but this night my father for some reason was the one who rose. He followed me into the room, listened to this horrible keening, screaming sound, smiled gently, and said "It's a pack of foxes hunting in the field. They're calling to each other." At least that's the wording I think he would have used. It's been far too long for me to rememeber it with any sort of accuracy, but that's how it happened as I remember it now. I do remember him putting me back in my little bed and covering me up, and sitting there in the straight back chair in my room, wrapped in his old brown tattered robe, listening to a sound that to him, a rural boy from Mississippi, who grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing, must have been as natural and comforting as me listening to the hum of an air conditioning unit.
Since then I've only heard that noise a few times, a high keening yiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii sound repeated over and over, layered by many different voices, different tones and lengths, but the same yip and keening yiiiiiiii. I heard it last night, at 1:30. I woke up to one keening in the back yard, and stepping gingerly over the cold floor to the bathroom I heard the rest of the pack. The bathroom is fairly small, and the window placed high, so it seems to make a natural echo chamber, making the sounds outside louder and crisper. I stood there for a few minutes, listening to them course around by the sounds of their voices, high pitched almost-screams, long arching calls and short sharp barks. From the sounds I would tell you there had to have been 20 or more, but I'm sure it was more like four or five, the same four or five whose many-times-great grandparents roamed this same patch of land, hunting frogs and mice, and making more foxes under the moon.
I've only seen them twice since I first heard them, and then it's only been one fox, and a brief stolen glance at that. The first time I saw one I was driving home very late from work, years and years ago, and caught sight of what I thought was a dog in the field to my left. There are always animals roaming at night, cats and dogs, possums, armadillos and deer, and I always try to keep an eye open for them. I saw what I thought was a dirty grey and orange dog, until my eyes adjusted a bit to the huge fluffy tail and the sharp face with it's radar-like ears. As soon as I realised what I was seeing it was gone into the cotton field, swallowed up like a memory of dusk. The second time was almost the same; late night drive home, tired, eye catching a glimpse of what I think at first is a dog, but then my mind reconciles the bright red and white of cartoon foxes with the dusky greys, browns and oranges of the real thing, and the unmistakable tail nails it home in my mind "Hey, it's a fox!" before it leaps and bounds to cover.
My mother told me this morning, when I asked her if she had heard them last night, of the time when we were living here in a small trailer while my father built the house, in 1970-71. She said that her and my father woke up one night to hear them all around the trailer, and the next morning, she related, the dirt where the concrete was due to be poured was filled with fox prints. Kinda makes me feel good, to know that just under my own feet are permanent reminders of the foxes that live out here.
So this morning I listened to them until I got too cold to hang about anymore, and returned to bed. The strange thing was that I couldn't fall back asleep--ordinarily I fall asleep again instantly, but this morning I lingered. I could barely hear their sounds anymore, I'm sure they were moving steadily in search of food, and the high ceilings make a poor resonance, but as I lay there thinking about my childhood lying in a bed panicked, I heard the long, mournful whistle of the train out by the interstate. The house is about 6 miles from the I-49 corridor, and Southern Pacific railroad runs their lines along the same right-of-way, and in the still night you can always hear that long low whistle, quite clearly. I fancied it drowned out the gleeful barking and calling of the foxes with it's long, breathless scream, and the 4:4 beat of steel wheels on steel track echoing underneath that whistle served as a drummer's counterpoint. I lay there and listened to that for a while, wishing the foxes would come back, thinking about how machinery has outdone nature, and yet in some ways has replaced nature with it's own loneliness. There are few things as lonely as a train whistle in the wee dark hours of the morning. I heard the long case clock in the other end of the house bong twice at the turn of the hour, itself a lonely sound in the silence of the house, and the thermostat chose that moment to click loudly in the hallway, and after taking a small break to gather it's breath the heater came on and erradicated all noise but it's own.