Southwords

Year of the Fox

The subtle magic of a different kind of circus

By Ashley Wahl

My sweetheart and I share a birthday in February. Last year, same as the year before, we took each other to the circus to celebrate. This year we are training a fox.

OK, the fox is actually a dog. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we think she might be training us. The point is, it’s a different kind of circus this year, and a timid red dog with large, pointy ears is showing us a thing or two about magic.

In our former life, Alan and I spent the coldest months in Florida, near Sarasota, where the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus maintained its winter quarters for over 30 years. There, the circus arts are still alive and thriving, and each year — with the exception of this year — its Circus Arts Conservatory puts on Circus Sarasota Under the Big Top, which always falls on our birthday. The show is fantastical. No wild animals, of course. Just a dazzling display of human potential. For us, it felt like the ultimate celebration of life on this strange and beautiful planet. 

Although we were technically living in Asheville (as in, that’s where we got our mail), our Florida home was a no-frills camper van equipped with the bare essentials, including a single-burner camp stove and a portable fridge. Rarely did we stay in one spot for longer than three days, and on weekends, we set up our canopy tent at art and craft festivals up and down the coast, vending our wares alongside fellow travelers.

Suffice it to say there was no room for a dog in our traveling carnival. 

But life twists and turns like a master contortionist. When we put down our stakes in Greensboro last fall, we felt it was time to add a member to our troupe.

Back when we thought we were looking for a guard dog, we hooked up with a German Shepherd rescue that had recently taken in a mama with eight pups. The dam wasn’t exactly a Shepherd — or any other breed that was easily defined. She was smaller — maybe 50 pounds — with a short, red coat and large, pointed ears. Someone found her dodging traffic on a busy road in Fayetteville and, as it turned out, had an unneutered German Shepherd waiting at home. You can guess what happened next.

The whelps were darling — half Shepherd, half whatever their mother was — each one adopted as soon as they were old enough. We brought home mama.

This is a good time to mention that Alan and I are first-time dog owners. And while we had binge-watched several seasons of Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, nothing can prepare you for bringing home a shy little fox of a dog who is, quite literally, scared of everything.

And everyone.

While she isn’t exactly the guard dog we envisioned — at least not yet — we named her for the Hindu goddess Durga, protective mother of the universe often depicted perched on the back of a lion or tiger. Talk about a circus act. As for the name, we figured she might grow into it.

Admittedly, watching Dog Whisperer before adopting a dog is a bit like reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods before hiking the Appalachian Trail, but our big takeaway is that, often, a dog’s behavior hinges upon its human’s energy. We are witnessing firsthand that Durga’s trust and confidence starts with our own. It’s a wonderful practice — leading by example rather than trying to “fix” what’s “out there.”

And what a beautiful lesson on patience.

Our only expectations are that of our own reactions and yet, by some miracle, our shy little fox is blossoming. 

No, she’s not jumping through hoops or walking a tightrope yet, but what is the circus if not a celebration of the extraordinary?  And isn’t it extraordinary to live life fully and without fear?

We’re getting there.  PS

Contact O.Henry editor Ashley Wahl at awahl@ohenrymag.com.

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