I wonder if things had been different if I had said no almost thirty-five years ago.
Growing up, my mom had a closet full of clothes. The usual–dresses, blouses, dress trousers– but this story isn’t about that. We were not interested in those. What we were interested in were the things she’d exiled to a far, forgotten corner at the bottom of her closet. We would wait for her to go to brunch or something, leaving David in charge so that we could raid it. There were so many beautiful things we never saw her in. We took turns using the Hippie clothes, the bandannas and the miniskirts as props, but we each had our most beloved items.
My sister Dana was most interested in Mom’s gold platform sandals. They were made of what looked like mahogany wood and gold mesh. I guess they were already out of fashion in the ‘80s, but they were definitely pretty– though somewhat ridiculous on my sister’s little child feet. She would strut around carefully, lifting her feet as she walked around the wallpapered room, rather than gliding in them, as I imagined Mom would.
I was fascinated by the Sari. It was emerald green, with intricate patterns stitched with silver thread. Whenever I put it on, I felt so exotic and unique, like one of those countless Indian goddesses my dad once told me about. He had brought the Sari back on one of his travels to India as a diplomat. I would wear it and trot around the house, dreaming of leaving DC and travelling the world, finally achieving world peace with my unparalleled eloquence and elegance.
Being the only boy and oldest sibling, David wasn’t interested in dressing up, but he was obsessed with the fox stole. As soon as we saw our mom drive off in her red Ford Mustang, he would rub his hands together in excitement, giving us the smug look that officially commenced our session of furtive fun. Dana and I would dash up the stairs and into our parents’ dimly-lit room. David, however, would go wash his hands first. He didn’t want any child grime on the revered fox. I must say, that thing was like nothing I’d ever, or have ever, seen before. It was mostly white with grey streaks here and there and a long, bushy tail. The scraggly legs dangled as if the once-mighty fox were tired and utterly resigned to its fate. It definitely didn’t look dead at all. The softness and fluffiness of its fur were nothing like the countless teddy bears we had in our rooms. But most of all, it was the eyes! Whoever made the stole must’ve decided that it wasn’t at all creepy for women to wear things that had eyes. Those must’ve been the only fake part. They were yellowish-brown glossy glass and very real looking. I felt a kind of unease whenever David was playing with the stole. I remembered what they’d say about the Mona Lisa and how her eyes seemed to be quietly watching you no matter where you were in a room.
For a few seconds, I would compulsively watch him drape it around his neck or use a throaty, sly voice to make it talk about the weather or some chickens it’d devoured whole. The stole had a hidden metal clamp designed to act as jaws to clench the fluffy tail keeping it around the wearer’s neck. He would sometimes slip his hand under the emotionless fox’s chin, opening and closing its “jaws” to scare Dana and me. We would pretend to run away from the fox attack squealing in mock fright, Dana in her ridiculously high heels and me in my green Sari draped over my pajamas.
I wasn’t scared of the thing per se, but I didn’t want it touching me. I found it eerily live-like and somewhat repulsive. I remember wondering how David could enjoy it or even handle it. David had been the most scared child of us three, despite being the oldest. He was ten, almost eleven, at the time and was still afraid of the dark. He would get Dana to check for things he’d lost under his bed. He was convinced that there was always someone or something under the bed waiting to grab his hand if he ever reached it in there. At night, he would always keep his door open and his little light on. If he desperately needed to go to the bathroom during the night, he would wake me up to turn the bathroom light on and check if there was “anything” in there.
I remember once casually asking Dad if we could keep the bathroom light on during the night so that David wouldn’t wake me up almost every night. My dad’s face turned red, and his eyes bulged. He turned to David and hissed through gritted teeth, “You wake up your little sister to hold your hand to go to the bathroom?”
Blood rose to my face when David cast his eyes down while giving me a furtive look of shame mixed with blame.
One day, Mom went to the mall with her friend, leaving David and Adam, her friend’s son, in charge of the house. As soon as we heard the car drive off, David gave us the look that would initiate the dress up session. He didn’t rub his hands in excitement, though, because he couldn’t abandon his guest for “dress-up”.
Our ritual didn’t seem complete without his teasing and chasing, so we soon started putting everything away like Mom had kept it.
“Let’s prank David and Adam!” Dana suggested with a naughty smile revealing several missing teeth.
“How?” I asked, already laughing.
“We take Foxie downstairs and hide under the couch and let him bite their feet,” her grin widened and her eyes twinkled.
I hesitated. Something about this idea seemed wrong. I wasn’t sure back then what it was. Was it that the furry fox had never left my parents’ room and it seemed wrong to take him out of it? Or was it because if Mom came back sooner than usual, we wouldn’t have the chance to hide it and leave her room in time? Or was it that David was the wrong kid to play such a prank on?
Thinking about it today, and almost every day ever since, I try to convince myself that I was just a stupid nine-year-old who couldn’t see farther than my nose. Dana’s idea seemed hilarious at the time. So we did it.
We tiptoed down the stairs, putting our hands to our mouths trying to suppress our giggles. It was so stuffy and loud in the living room from the two boys playing on the Atari, jumping up and down. We came from behind the couch they were sitting on, and Dana stealthily slid under the leather couch with the fox in her hand. The boys were so engrossed in their Atari game that they didn’t see me stand in front of them. So, I had to block their view of the game.
David looked at me incredulously, “What are you doing? MOVE!”
I tried so hard not to burst out laughing while Dana waved at me from the dark floor behind the boys’ feet.
“Oh, you two spilled juice under the couch!” I exclaimed in mock alarm.
Both boys absentmindedly swiped the ground beneath their feet with their socks while craning their necks to see behind me and yelling for me to move.
And just like that, Dana swiftly clamped the fox’s metal jaws on one ankle each.
Adam jumped out of his skin, then looked under the couch and laughed at the sight of little Dana hurrying up the stairs.
Not David. With a look of sheer horror on his face, David uttered a low, guttural noise that sounded like that of a wounded beast. I flinched as he dropped his joystick and dashed to the downstairs bathroom, tripping over the big plant pot on his way. He was in there for a long time, so Adam shrugged and continued playing alone. I stood there, out of Adam’s view of the game, staring at my feet. I still remember realising that I was wearing one of my socks inside out, all while panicking about poor David and what he must have been doing in the bathroom for over fifteen minutes. Was he crying? Was he trying to regulate his breath? Now I imagine him staring at himself in the small mirror above the washbasin, wondering what was wrong with him, telling himself that he was a weakling—a coward of a big brother.
I went over to the bathroom and knocked on the door. I pretended that I needed to use the bathroom.
“Go upstairs,” he said as loudly as he could without being heard from the living room.
“Come on, David!” I pleaded, “I really have to go!”
At that moment, I heard a key turn in the lock, and Mom and her friend came in laughing, carrying big shopping bags.
When he heard her voice, David hurriedly unlocked the bathroom door and bolted towards her, burying his head in her chest.
The next morning, I woke up to Mom’s exasperated voice coming from a nearby room, “No! Not this again!”
I got up and tiptoed to my door, ascertaining that she was in David’s room. Dad had joined her.
I peeked through the door crack and saw her whispering something to him.
He growled, “David! I thought we’d stopped doing that!”
“Just go,” Mom urged him, “let me deal with this.”
“He’s nearly eleven, damn it!” He protested as she gently pushed him out of the room. When he moved, I could make out David’s frame shrunk into a ball in the corner of his bed. My heart sank. I loved David so much. He always held Dana and my hands on the way to school. When his friends passed us on their bikes asking if they should walk with him, he always waved his hand grandly, saying he couldn’t let his little sisters walk to school alone. He used the fifteen-minute walk to school to tell us all of the little boy jokes he’d heard from his friends or stories from the books he’d read.
I got out of my room and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and get ready for school. Mom came in carrying David’s Superman bed sheets. I felt a tightening in my throat and a knot in my stomach.
She hesitated for a moment. Then she asked, “Did the boys watch a scary movie yesterday when I was out?”
“No,” I said barely audibly.
She nodded, “Did something unusual happen?”
“Unusual like how?” I looked up at her. I desperately wanted her to ask if a certain someone brought a certain fox stole to prank him with it, so I could say yes, but she didn’t.
I was still thinking about what to say when Dana rushed in, hopping from one foot to the other and planting herself on the toilet.
“Nevermind,” Mom said as she took the wash basket out of the bathroom to get the bed sheets washed before they stank up the whole bathroom.
It took David another two years of sunny day/cloudy day charts, rewards and punishments to stop wetting his bed.
He had just stopped shortly before his tenth birthday, and I had to play that stupid prank and get it all started again.
Dana doesn’t remember this story at all. It seems to be that it is my ill fate to be the only one who remembers, not even David. David is an engineer now. He manages a team of fifty people. He still tells me childish jokes he’s heard on the site and stories from books he’s read. He walked me down the aisle ten years ago and he’s my son’s favourite person.
“You’re too good to me!” he always says whenever I offer to babysit his kids so he and his wife can have a date night or when I bring him lunch to the site because I “happened to be passing by”, or when I insist on driving him to and back from the airport every time he travels for work or holidays. I always shake my head with a rueful smile.
And I still hate foxes.
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Great story Rama.
So kind of you read and comment on a story that went unrecognised! I really appreciate it!
This story is about guilt but one thing you're not guilty of is bad writing. It rocks, and that's from a fox lover.
Awwww! I'm really grateful for your encouragement!