Zachary Fine

Robert and the Fox

It had taken Gottfried two short days to climb the pecking order, and now he was cock of the walk, strutting the yard in his turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey. He belonged here, in Tuscany, and was glad to be rid of Pescara, with its jagged mountains and sea ice. From the edge of the enclosure he could see the long soft hills, the rows of cypress and pine, the olive trees, the oil mills. "Belinda, Vittoria, Delia, Francesca, and Marguerite," he said, under his breath. He was still learning their names.

Gottfried had a large muscular chest, a comb that rose up in red shards, and tail feathers that glowed coal black-green. He was bigger than the other three cocks, and none had challenged him. There was Matteo: a Paduan with a slim strawberry comb, who avoided eye-contact and walked around praying to St. Anthony. And then Agnolo and Simone: two castrated pea-combed capons; they kept to themselves and shuffled about meekly with empty tote bags, talking mostly about star-patterns and weather.

In the afternoon, they all lined up against a fence to watch Matteo chase Delia around the yard, weaving in and out from under the hen house, and Delia, cross-eyed, running into the cedar stilts. Matteo’s wattles turned bluer and bluer from lack of oxygen until, tuckered out, he gave up and squatted in the shade of an olive tree. Gottfried shook his head and decided to peck around the fence, alone, and look for worms.

"What a pathetic lot," he thought.

He struck on something thicker and stiffer in the dirt: a stillborn field mouse. He made a joyous squawk though he quickly stifled it. With his spur, he started to bisect the mouse, repeatedly stabbing its side, but then stopped. He cocked his head to listen. There was a hum coming from the hen house. With his beak, he picked up the mouse and walked closer, and the hum grew louder. Slowly, he climbed the footbridge and saw, through the doorway, a hen in the far corner, singing. A warm light from the window covered her slender toes and hind joints.

"Oh Rob-ert, oh Rob-ert," she crooned. "So soft your wings! so sweet your beak! so sad your barren master-piece!"

Gottfried could see she was crying. He put down the severed mouse.


She jumped, screeching, "Gottfried, is that you?"

"Belinda, why are you crying?"

She turned around and dried her eyes on her white cape. She was embarrassed and changed the subject. "How are you coming along?"

"Oh I’m fine, thank you. Trying to get the lay of the land still. I’ve brought something for you," he said, nudging the field mouse toward her with his toe.

"How very thoughtful of you, Gottfried." She looked at the mouse, and her eyes began to water again. The air was tense and brittle, and Gottfried felt a surging desire to mate with her.

There was a muffled crunch, a squeal of hinges. The roof swung open. Sharp light flooded the room, and a man’s face appeared overhead.

"Ahhh Belinda! Gottfried! Getting acquainted I see?"

"Good morning Michelangelo!" Belinda chirped, looking up.

"Good morning to you, my dear," said Michelangelo. "How are things coming along Gottfried? Are you finding everything just fine?"

"Yes, thank you Michelangelo," Gottfried said, rigidly.

"Well good then. I am unfortunately in a bit of a hurry today, so if you don’t mind Belinda, I’ll grab your eggs and be off."

She stepped aside, and he leaned down and kissed Belinda on the cheek. "Thank you, dear," said Michelangelo. "You know your eggs are the best, don’t you?" She blushed. His hand reached into the house, patted Gottfried on the head, and grabbed the two eggs.

Michelangelo closed the roof and began walking back up to the villa, the eggs cradled in his right hand. He kept the other limp, swinging at his side. All day, he’d been under the spell of a possible sonnet and was testing lines under his breath. He looked at the cloudless sky.

"My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in..."

He paused, and tugged playfully on his rolls of stomach fat.

"My loins into my paunch like levers grind..."

He laughed, walking again, and picked at a piece of black bread stuck between his front teeth.

"My buttock like a crupper bears my weight, and my feet wander to and fro....to and fro!" he howled, his voice melting off into the countryside.

He reached the villa and twirled on his toe, shouldering his way inside. The room had low vaulted ceilings made of brick and two windows on the northern wall. He quickly searched for a piece of charcoal on the long banquet table and scribbled the words on a piece of parchment. They were disappointing now that he saw them. He crumpled up the parchment and put it in the fire, jabbing it with a poker, and went back to the table. He laid out the two eggs, and cracked one over a small clay jar, passing the yoke between the half-shells until the whites had run off. With a needle, he pierced the film of the yoke, letting it drizzle into a bowl, and, when it was fully drained, he slurped the yoke’s membrane off his palm. "Haaazza!!" he shouted. "A meal for a king!" He burst out laughing and coughed, choking slightly on the membrane.

A wooden stool next to the fire had a basket of bones, mostly thighs and wings, and Michelangelo went over and rummaged through the stack, choosing three. He placed them carefully, side by side, on an iron rack in the fire, and used the tongs to turn them every few minutes.

"Oh Rob-ert, oh Rob-ert!" he sang. "Oh Robert, oh Robert!"

The bones whitened, looking more like ash, and he pulled them out to place them on a slab of porphyry stone. With a smooth river rock in his right hand, he ground the bones together, working them first into large granules, and then finer particles. He swept the bone-dust into a clean bowl and began to hawk saliva up from his throat into his mouth, repeatedly spitting into the dust, and stirred the bone mixture with his thumb.

There was a stack of figwood panels on the table, and, after shuffling them around, he chose the largest one. He smeared the bone mixture onto the panel with his fingers, crossing back and forth in broad strokes, until the surface was ash-colored. He knocked the back of the wood with his knuckles, ensuring the wet dust had adhered.

"My buttock like a crupper bears my weight!"

He ground up an ounce of stiff white lead and a bean’s worth of vermillion, and joined them with water and yoke, stirring the emulsion. He took the stump of charcoal and began sketching the outlines of a figure, occasionally using a hen’s feather to smudge the shapes.

"My loins into my paunch like levers grind..."

He took a sip of wine and started filling in the lines with light and watery brushstrokes, and the more wine he drank, the more he felt drawn into the emulsion, the cream of the paint.

"My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in..."

He stopped and dipped his finger into the bowl and applied some of the paint to his lips, massaging them. He stood up, and forgot why he was standing, so he walked over to the window. It was dark. His vision blurred, focused, and he saw his face in the glass. "You idiot Michelangelo! You idiot! You and that stupid face!" he screamed, and lunged at the window with an invisible sword. He laughed, slapping himself on the cheek, and picked up a piece of torn cloth to dry his lips. He sat down and looked at the panel, staring at it for a long time, silent, stroking his beard. There was a plate with a small pile of salted giblets. He grabbed a handful, chewed them to a pulp, and stored the pulp in his lip, where he could suck on the salt. He went back to the porphyry stone and began grinding vitreous green and lapis and smalt, and then returned to the plate, still peckish, to finish the giblets.

The night went on, and slowly from the figwood an old man emerged, stroke by stroke. Near dawn, Michelangelo stood up and yawned and stretched, and walked three times around the table. He sat down again in front of the panel, covered his eyes, and then quickly drew his hand away, to surprise himself.

"Show me your breast, young boy," Michelangelo said in a deep voice, imitating the voice of the old man in the painting.

Michelangelo took a sip of wine and slowly, up from his stomach, lifted the thin tunic he was wearing with a mischievous smile.

"I have no nipple, old man!" he shouted. "No nipple at all!" He sprayed the wine across the table and laughed violently. He picked up the panel and broke it cleanly over his knee.

The snap would be heard far out in the yard, past the olive trees, past the rows of cypress and pine. A small queer red fox had broken into the enclosure and was in the process of mortally wounding all five of the hens.



*The first sentence is adapted from Robert Lowell’s "Waking in the Blue," and Michelangelo’s poem is adapted from his sonnet "On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel."