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In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County, Georgia. The disease was carried principally by foxes and was reported first by farmers, who, in the months of April and May, shot more than seventy of the animals and turned them in to the county health officer in Cotton Point.
The heads were removed, wrapped in plastic, and sent to the state health department in Atlanta, where eleven were found to be rabid.
There is no record of human beings’ contracting the disease—the victims for the most part were cattle—although two residents of an outlying area of Cotton Point called Damp Bottoms were reportedly bitten.
One of them, an old man known only as Woodrow, was found lying under his house a day later, dead. He was buried by the city in a bare, sun-baked corner of Horn Cemetery without medical tests and without a funeral.
The other was a fourteen-year-old girl named Rosie Sayers, who was bothered by nightmares.
Rosie Sayers was tall and delicately boned, and her front teeth lay across her lips like sleeping white babies. She was afraid of things she could not see and would not leave the house unless she was forced.
The house was flat-roofed and warped. It had five rooms, and the wallboards that defined them were uneven, so you could see through the walls from any of the rooms into the next.
She lived in this house with her mother and her brothers and sisters. There were fourteen of them in all, but Rosie had never counted the number. She had never thought to.
The brothers and sisters slept through Rosie’s screams in the night—it was a part of things, like the whistling in her youngest brother’s breathing—but her mother’s visitors, unaccustomed to the girl’s affliction, would sometimes bolt up in bed at the noise, and sometimes they would stumble into their pants in the dark and leave.
Her mother called the dreams “spells” and from time to time stuck needles in the child’s back as an exorcism. Usually after one of her visitors had left in the night. Rosie would stand in front of her, bare-backed, allowing it.
On the day she was bitten by the fox, Rosie Sayers had been sent into town to buy a box of .22 caliber shells from Mr. Trout. Her mother had a visitor that week who was a sportsman.
Mr. Trout kept a store on North Main Street. There was a string on the door that tripped a bell when anyone walked in. Colored people stopped just inside the door and waited for him. White people picked out what they wanted for themselves. There was one light inside, a bare bulb, hanging from a cord in the back.
He came out of the dark, it reminded her of a ghost. He glowed tall and white. “What is it?” he said.
“Bullets,” she said. The word lost itself in the darkness, the sound of the bell was still in the room.
“Speak up, girl.”
“Twenty-two bullets,” she said.
He turned and ran a long white finger along the shelf behind, and when he came back to her, he was holding a small box. “That’s seventy cent,” he said, and she reached into the tuck of her shirt and found the dollar her mother had given her. It was balled-up and damp, and she smoothed it out before she handed it over.
He took the money and made change from his own pocket. Mr. Trout didn’t use a cash register. He put the box of shells in her hand, he didn’t use bags much either. She had never held a box of shells before and was surprised at the weight. He crossed his arms and waited. “I ain’t got forever,” he said.
SHE WALKED TO THE north end of town and then followed the Georgia Pacific Railroad tracks, east and north, back to the sawmill. Damp Bottom sat behind the mill, built on rose-colored dirt, not a tree to be seen. It made sense to her that trees wouldn’t dare to grow near a sawmill.
There was a storage shed between the mill and the houses, padlocked in front and back, with small, dirty windows on the side. Her brothers said there were dead men inside, but she never looked for herself. Rosie’s grandmother had died in bed, her mouth open and contorted, as if that were the route her life took leaving her, and that was all the dead people she ever meant to see.
She passed the windows wide, averting her eyes, and when she was safely by and looked in front of herself again, she saw the fox. He was dull red and tired and seemed in some way to recognize her.
She stopped cold in her tracks, the fox picked up his head. She took a slow step backwards, and he followed her, keeping the same distance. Then he moved again, closer, and seemed to sway. She heard her own breathing as she backed away.
The movement only seemed to draw him; something drew him. “Please, Mr. Fox,” she said, “don’t poison me. I be out of your way, as quick as you seen me, I be gone.”
She knew foxes had turned poisonous from her brothers. Worse than a snake. She stopped again, and he stopped with her. Her brothers said when the poison fox bit you, you were poison too.
The fox cocked his head, and she began to run. She didn’t know where. Her legs were strong; but before she had gone ten steps, they seemed to tangle in each other, and she was surprised, looking down just before she fell, to see the fox between them. Then she closed her eyes and hit the ground.
She never felt the bites. The fox growled—the sound was higher-pitched than a dog, and busier—and then she kicked out with her heels and felt his coat and the bones beneath it. He cried out, and when she kicked again nothing was there.
She opened her eyes, and as fast as he had come he was gone.
She stood up slowly, collecting her breath, and dusted herself off. She was thorough about it, she didn’t like to be dirty, and it was only when her hand touched the inside of her calf and felt blood that she knew that he had opened her up.
She saw the bites then, two small openings on the same leg, closer to her ankle than her knee. The blood wasn’t much and had already dried everywhere except near the tears in the skin. She sat back down on the ground and began to cry. The clay was scorched, but she didn’t feel that either.
She cried because she was poisoned.
In a few minutes the crying began to hurt her head, and she stood up again, shaky-legged now, afraid her mother would know what had happened. Afraid of what her mother would do.
She spit in the palm of her hand and wiped at the blood on her leg, over and over, until her mouth was too dry to spit. Then she rubbed both her hands on the ground, picking up orange-colored dust, and covered her legs and her knees, not to draw attention to the one that was injured.
She put dust on her elbows and some on her cheeks and neck. Her mother would be angry, to have her walk into the house dirty when she had a visitor, but she wouldn’t know about the fox.
She remembered the visitor.
She turned a circle, looking for the box of shells. It was a present for him because he was a sportsman. Her mother said he might shoot them rabbits for supper.
The box was gone. She looked all around her and then back toward the shed. She traced her steps past the shed to the spot she had been when she looked up and saw the fox. She searched the ground and the weeds growing around the shed, looking up every few seconds because she was afraid the fox would be there again.
The fox was gone, though, and so were the bullets.
She stood still and waited, she didn’t know for what. The sun moved in the sky. She stopped crying; the scared feeling passed and left her calm. She wondered if her mother would allow the visitor to whip her.
She had done that before.
Her thoughts turned again to the bullets and then from the bullets to the place she had gotten them. Mr. Trout wasn’t as frightening now; it felt like he might be glad to see her again. And when she finally moved away, feeling a tightness at first in the leg where the fox had bitten her, it was back in the direction of the store.
ROSIE SAYERS COULD NOT tell time, and her sense of it was that it belonged to some people and not to others. All the white people had it, and all the colored people who owned cars. Her mother’s visitors had it, they would mention it when they left. “Lordy, look at the time.…”
She worried now that the time had run out for the stores to be open. She hurried her walk, following the railroad tracks. The tracks curved and then fed themselves into a bridge on the edge of town. A train was stopped there, car after car of lumber as far as she could see. The smell of fresh-cut pine.
She climbed the embankment to the bridge, using her hands, and when she came to the top the whistle blew, and the cars banged against each other as the slack in their couplings was pulled from the front, and then, together, they began to move slowly up the track.
And she watched the train from the top of the hill, standing on the bridge that led to town, and she thought of jumping, down into the dark places between the cars, and being taken in that way to the end of the tracks. And for a moment there seemed to be another person inside her too, someone who wanted to jump.
She remembered time then, and the stores and walked away from the train and back into town. She wondered if other people had another person inside them too.