Tucson Festival of Books

Lindsey Pharr, 1st Place, nonfiction, 2024 Literary Awards

Unfinished Foxes

In 1952, Dimitri Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut selected the most docile foxes they could find in government-run fur farms scattered across Siberia. They had an idea for an experiment: to turn foxes into pets. By breeding the friendliest foxes, the experiment has now produced over sixty generations of increasingly tame foxes, some with dog-like physical features: shorter, broader muzzles, floppy ears, curly tails, and spots. These physiological changes are called domestication syndrome and include juvenilization, or prolonged adolescence, year-round breedability, and the feminization of features. To be domesticated, in other words, is to be a young, sexually available female forever.

There’s a scene from a fairytale I read over and over as a child while stretched out on my grandmother’s scratchy sofa under the glass-eyed gaze of a mounted buck’s head. I don’t recall the rest of the story, only this: Whatever happens, he said, do not let me go. So, she threw her arms around him, and he turned into a snarling wolf, snapping his bloody jaws in her face. She held on tight and did not let him go. Then he turned into a searing bar of red-hot iron, and she cried out as blisters formed on her arms. But she did not let him go. Then he turned into a pillar of ice, and she gritted her chattering teeth as her lips turned blue. But she did not let him go.

Mamaw’s house was full of cigarette smoke and her terrifying, wall-eyed husband. He’d bring me little presents from his hunting trips: a turkey’s beard, a doe’s fluffy, white tail. I took these scraps of once-living things in my small hands, stroked them, and told my step-grandfather thank you. Later, I would learn that he beat my mother viciously, that he threw her down the back steps when she got pregnant at seventeen, that she married another monster to get away from this one.

In The Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous treatise on witchcraft written by Heinrich Institoris in 1486, women are considered susceptible to the Devil’s influence because we were carved from Adam’s rib and are therefore “unfinished animals.” I wonder if I am frozen in a state of docility—forever agreeable, forever trusting— that keeps me trapped in a cycle of violence. Like the foxes, I am tame in all the ways that make men comfortable: a wagging tail, a laughing voice, a strokable softness. Is this why I fall for abusive men over and over, because they want a tame thing to pet and a wild thing to break? My mother escaped her stepfather only to be nearly killed by her first husband, and I wonder if she somehow passed this fate onto me. According to Walker, “fawn types are the most developmentally arrested in their healthy sense of self.” I wonder if I am forever suspended in a state of blind trust because my mother died suddenly when I was a child and left me unfinished.

In 2006, the year I graduated college and met the man who would become my husband, The Decemberists released their prog-rock-tinged album The Crane Wife. The album is based loosely on a Japanese Animal Bride story, in which a crane transforms herself into a woman for the love of the man who saved her from a hunter’s snare. While the man who would become my husband was in fact a hunter, he felt like a safe place. He treated the woods like his church, and he looked at me the way humans look at a wild creature in that heartbeat of stillness before it flees. We drove down backroads at night in his pickup, windows open to the cool air, oblivious to the foreshadowing of the tragedy yet to come as we sang along with Colin Meloy’s reedy tenor, “all I ever meant to do was to keep you.”