The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first. Through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists. By the vibrations, he learned also that the road had grown coarser. He stretched up from his boy’s lap and sniffed at threads of scent leaking in through the window, which told him they were now traveling into woodlands. The sharp odors of pine—wood, bark, cones, and needles—slivered through the air like blades, but beneath that, the fox recognized softer clover and wild garlic and ferns, and also a hundred things he had never encountered before but that smelled green and urgent.
The boy sensed something now, too. He pulled his pet back to him and gripped his baseball glove more tightly.
The boy’s anxiety surprised the fox. The few times they had traveled in the car before, the boy had been calm or even excited. The fox nudged his muzzle into the glove’s webbing, although he hated the leather smell. His boy always laughed when he did this. He would close the glove around his pet’s head, play-wrestling, and in this way the fox would distract him.
But today the boy lifted his pet and buried his face in the fox’s white ruff, pressing hard.
It was then that the fox realized his boy was crying. He twisted around to study his face to be sure. Yes, crying—although without a sound, something the fox had never known him to do. The boy hadn’t shed tears for a very long time, but the fox remembered: always before he had cried out, as if to demand that attention be paid to the curious occurrence of salty water streaming from his eyes.
The fox licked at the tears and then grew more confused. There was no scent of blood. He squirmed out of the boy’s arms to inspect his human more carefully, alarmed that he could have failed to notice an injury, although his sense of smell was never wrong. No, no blood; not even the under-skin pooling of a bruise or the marrow leak of a cracked bone, which had happened once.
The car pulled to the right, and the suitcase beside them shifted. By its scent, the fox knew it held the boy’s clothing and the things from his room he handled most often: the photo he kept on top of his bureau and the items he hid in the bottom drawer. He pawed at a corner, hoping to pry the suitcase open enough for the boy’s weak nose to smell these favored things and be comforted. But just then the car slowed again, this time to a rumbling crawl. The boy slumped forward, his head in his hands.
The fox’s heartbeat climbed and the brushy hairs of his tail lifted. The charred metal scent of the father’s new clothing was burning his throat. He leaped to the window and scratched at it. Sometimes at home his boy would raise a similar glass wall if he did this. He always felt better when the glass wall was lifted.
Instead, the boy pulled him down onto his lap again and spoke to his father in a begging tone. The fox had learned the meaning of many human words, and he heard him use one of them now: “NO.” Often the “no” word was linked to one of the two names he knew: his own and his boy’s. He listened carefully, but today it was just the “NO,” pleaded to the father over and over.
The car juddered to a full stop and tilted off to the right, a cloud of dust rising beyond the window. The father reached over the seat again, and after saying something to his son in a soft voice that didn’t match his hard lie-scent, he grasped the fox by the scruff of the neck.
His boy did not resist, so the fox did not resist. He hung limp and vulnerable in the man’s grasp, although he was now frightened enough to nip. He would not displease his humans today. The father opened the car door and strode over gravel and patchy weeds to the edge of a wood. The boy got out and followed.
The father set the fox down, and the fox bounded out of his reach. He locked his gaze on his two humans, surprised to notice that they were nearly the same height now. The boy had grown very tall recently.
The father pointed to the woods. The boy looked at his father for a long moment, his eyes streaming again. And then he dried his face with the neck of his T-shirt and nodded. He reached into his jeans pocket and withdrew an old plastic soldier, the fox’s favorite toy.
The fox came to alert, ready for the familiar game. His boy would throw the toy, and he would track it down—a feat the boy always seemed to find remarkable. He would retrieve the toy and wait with it in his mouth until the boy found him and took it back to toss again.
And sure enough, the boy held the toy soldier aloft and then hurled it into the woods. The fox’s relief—they were only here to play the game!—made him careless. He streaked toward the woods without looking back at his humans. If he had, he would have seen the boy wrench away from his father and cross his arms over his face, and he would have returned. Whatever his boy needed—protection, distraction, affection—he would have offered.
Instead, he set off after the toy. Finding it was slightly more difficult than usual, as there were so many other, fresher odors in the woods. But only slightly—after all, the scent of his boy was also on the toy. That scent he could find anywhere.
The toy soldier lay facedown at the burled root of a butternut tree, as if he had pitched himself there in despair. His rifle, its butt pressed tirelessly against his face, was buried to the hilt in leaf litter. The fox nudged the toy free, took it between his teeth, and rose on his haunches to allow his boy to find him.
In the still woods, the only movements were bars of sunlight glinting like green glass through the leafy canopy. He stretched higher. There was no sign of his boy. A prickle of worry shivered up the fox’s spine. He dropped the toy and barked. There was no response. He barked again, and again was answered by only silence. If this was a new game, he did not like it.
He picked up the toy soldier and began to retrace his trail. As he loped out of the woods, a jay streaked in above him, shrieking. The fox froze, torn.
His boy was waiting to play the game. But birds! Hours upon hours he had watched birds from his pen, quivering at the sight of them slicing the sky as recklessly as the lightning he often saw on summer evenings. The freedom of their flights always mesmerized him.
The jay called again, deeper in the forest now, but answered by a chorus of reply. For one more moment the fox hesitated, peering into the trees for another sight of the electric-blue wedge.
And then, behind him, he heard a car door slam shut, and then another. He bounded at full speed, heedless of the briars that tore at his cheeks. The car’s engine roared to life, and the fox skidded to a stop at the edge of the road.
His boy rolled the window down and reached his arms out. And as the car sped away in a pelting spray of gravel, the father cried out the boy’s name, “Peter!” And the boy cried out the only other name the fox knew.
—Sara Pennypacker, Pax (Balzer + Bray, 2016)
Some thoughts about this book:
• Just rereading this bit almost makes me sob out loud, even though I’ve read the story and know it turns out just as it should. I loved this book. But it haunts me.
• Here’s the blurb: “Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day, the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild. At his grandfather’s house, three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox. Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.”
The book was a longlisted for the National Book Award in 2016.
• Juddered. This book is intended for middle grade readers, but it is filled with absolutely delicious words for kids to discover and learn. Like juddered. And the writing, as you will have seen, is exquisite. Exquisite!
• It’s a very powerful story—about the uncertainties of war, about what happens when families are torn apart by death and duty, about the natural world and what we must do to preserve it, about friendship. But most of all, it’s about doing what is right. Publishers Weekly says, “It takes less than a night for Peter to become overwhelmed with remorse—by morning, he is hiking hundreds of miles to the spot where he reluctantly abandoned Pax. The aftermath of that separation is told in chapters that alternate between the fox and the boy’s points of view.” Pax will not leave you unmoved. One of the reviewers in this trailer says, “It is a privilege to be destroyed and rebuilt by this novel with every read.” That’s exactly how I felt.
• Writers in particular will find much to interest them in this interview with the author, Sara Pennypacker, in which she tells us that Pax is tightly structured along the classic Hero’s Journey plot.
• There isn’t a single wrong word in this book. It’s beautiful and perfect. Read it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”