Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
Fiction

HAL ELLSON
Fox for Sale

Dust-spouts whirled like fixed tornadoes on the windless landscape. Their hazy apparitions danced where nothing else stirred. Marvelous, Stuart thought, counting the spouts. The car he was driving moved at a snail's pace and finally stopped.

The road stretched emptily ahead. Twenty miles back he'd stopped at a tiny, nameless village for a few drinks in a cantina. Since leaving it he'd seen no habitation, no man, no woman, no child in this vast waste.

The next village that bore a name lay sixty miles away. He glanced at the dashboard, checked his gas and stepped from the car. Hot, white and deadly silent, the desert surged at him. Blinded by the sun and unsteadied by the mescal he'd consumed, he felt himself sway, then caught himself. Lying prone, a giant yucca, dry and rotted, came into focus, encircled by flame-red cacti flowers, yellow poppies and mesquite catkins-all in an explosion of violent white light. Stunned, he leaned back against the car and pressed his hands against his eyes. His head ached, but he managed to laugh at himself and his foolishness for drinking too much.

Now a dozen dust-spouts spiraled up from the desert's blistered floor and danced before him in he windless sky. "Senor?" a soft voice addressed him, and he turned, but no one was there. The sun had dropped low in the west, and the desert was a vast moat of silence. Climbing back into the car, he recalled the barman's remark as he left the cantina in the nameless village: "Don't stop till you reach Lima, senior. Bad things have happened along the way."

It was the barman's voice he'd heard a moment ago. Another warning? he wondered, and smiling at the thought, started the car and drove off, his head still aching from too many mescals.

As the highway slipped under it, the car trembled, sun vanished and swift shadows stalked the smouldering landscape, chilling the hot breath of the desert. It was almost dark when he noticed a man standing beside the highway; ignoring the barman's warning, he slowed down, then braking to full-stop, he asked, "Are you in trouble, my friend?"

His face shadowed by the brim of his sombrero and his arms folded oddly across his blouse, the man stepped forward and said, "No trouble, senior. but I have a fox for sale."

Stuart was about to laugh, but it was true. In this incredibly lonely place, the man had been awaiting a buyer for the vixen whose small, pointed head appeared from within the blouse. Again about to laugh, Stuart stopped himself, for the man was dead serious, perhaps in desperate straights. Touched by his apparent plight, Stuart wanted to help, but buy the fox?

"I'm sorry, but I have no use for the animal," he said, and reached for his pocket, but the man, offended by the gesture, stepped back, and averting his eyes, searched the highway for another car.

Embarrassed, Stuart shrugged and driving off, smiled to himself, amused once more that a man would wait in the middle of nowhere with a fox for sale. Back home, this would be something to talk about, but who would believe him?

No one, he thought, and on impulse, he braked the car and turned it about, wanting the fox now. A foolish idea? Perhaps. Or was it a need to justify himself and award the desperate faith of another man?

It was darker when he reached the spot where he'd met the one with the fox, but the man was no longer there. Had he given up and gone home? But where could that be? Not here. No one could possibly live in this lonely waste. Certain of that and about to drive off, he changed his mind and stepped from the car.

Massive cacti lined the road and extended back into the desert. Hesitating, he plunged forward and minutes later came upon a group of primitive hovels with roofs of thatch. Oil-lamps burned in several, but he saw no one and heard no voice.

The dark was quickening, the huge clumps of cacti assuming ominous shapes when a girl suddenly appeared from a shadowed doorway and came toward him, her stride graceful, body slender-perfect. Even in the fastfading light he noticed that, and then her face; her beauty startled him.

"You are looking for someone, senior. she said, and her soft, black eyes suddenly flashed fire. Almost gasping, he asked if she knew of a man who had a fox for sale.

"I know him," she answered, "but don't buy the fox, senior. It'll bring you bad luck."

"Bad luck or good, I believe in neither," he laughed.

"Nor evil? This is a place of evil. You should never have come here. I advise you to leave."

Here it was again, an echo of the barman's warning back in the cantina, but he wasn't fazed. All these people were entangled in fearful superstitions that didn't exist for him. "The man with the fox, which is his house?" he asked.

He might not have spoken, for the girl appeared in a trance. Then her eyes flashing again, a strange smile lit her face. "Go away," she said softly.

"This is a bad place." When the warning failed to move him, her voice took on an insinuating tone. "There's nothing to do here. Take me with you and I'll take care of you, do anything you wish."

She reached for him then, and he stepped back, having no desire to become involved with her. A moment later footsteps sounded behind him and he whirled around. The man with the fox confronted him, the vixen clasped in his arms. Its eyes flashed, as if ignited by fire. Startled, he thought of the girl's eyes, and turned back to her, but she was no longer there. Listening, he heard nothing and turned back to the one with the fox.

"You were looking for me?" the man asked.

"Yes, I want the fox. How much are you asking?"

The man named a price, but it was merely a feeler. Haggling followed, the price finally fixed, and Stuart returned to his car, tied the vixen in back without the least idea what to do with it. As he drove off, night flooded the desert with an enormous, unrelieved darkness.

The car raced on, and finally the moon came up, the road whitened, the desert paled, and as the mountains heaved up around it, the lights of Lima began to pulse in the distance.

Twenty minutes later the car entered Lima between two rows of tall Jacaranda trees in full bloom, their lavender flowers hanging like clouds overhead. A church-bell tolled the hour just as six burros loaded with enormous stacks of straw came jogging through a narrow street where music blasted from a cantina.

Braking the car, Stuart stepped from it, his mouth parched and lips cracked. Glancing at the fox in the back seat, he hurried into the cantina and asked the barman for mescal with a beer to chase it. That should have been enough, but, foolishly, he ordered up again, then once more, and finally turning to a grizzled old man at the bar, he asked him if he knew how far it was to Palmas.

"Seven leagues," the old man replied, touching his ragged sombrero, and added, " Take care, senior. The road is bad in the dark."

The warning was explicit enough, but seven leagues? How far is that? Stuart wondered, and pushed away from the bar. Swaying from the drinks he'd had, he went out to the car and climbed behind the wheel, ignoring the fox, but feeling it stir behind him.

Once out of the town, the road wound steadily upward, for Palmas lay at seven-thousand feet, and approaching it, the road grew narrow, its turns sharpened, the car's headlights revealing cliffs on one side, and nauseating space on the other and somewhere far below the lights of a town that flickered and vanished. Making another sharp turn, the flickering lights reappeared, and at that moment, coming from the back of the car, Stuart heard a whispered, senior. It must be the mescal playing tricks, he thought, but the whisper came again, followed by a movement. An icy chill sweeping his body, he turned his head and there on the back seat was the girl he'd last seen back in the desert village. Startled by her presence, he asked her what she was doing in his car, and she laughed.

"Frightened? Don't be, senior. she answered, reaching for him and he turned away to guide the car, but too late. The front wheels were already off the road, and a moment later the car, hurtling into space, he again saw the lights in the valley below. They were brighter now and rushing at him like rockets piercing a black sky on a fiesta night.

In the morning, high above the valley a flotilla of buzzards rode the sky on invisible air currents. They glided effortlessly in circles without moving a wing. Hungry late-comers, they observed others of their kind far below in the valley clustered like black-robed judges about a wrecked car that had toppled from the mountain's highway.

A boy herding goats, attracted by the buzzards gathered around the shattered vehicle at the cliff's base, discovered Stuart's body still inside the wreck. In the back seat, oddly enough, he noticed a small, dead fox.