I was in London when I first encountered a fox. When it happened, I was expecting to be spoken to by a cat.

One of the most wonderful things about walking through north London in the early mornings is the many outside cats who loiter around. Sometimes when they’re perched in rows on top of houses and walls, I feel as if they’re welcoming me into their realm. Other times, they seemed to be judging me for encroaching on it.

Walking through this imagined animal kingdom feels more surreal on nights I’ve been out partying with friends. The walk home becomes an intoxicated glide through the streets, alone but for a few individuals coming back from work and others leaving for early shifts. On those nights, I feel as if I’m lingering on the edge of some wonderland, a magic world to which I might be granted access by a sudden word from one of the cats, that I might suddenly hear one asking me calmly if I had lost my way.

Weeks before I met the fox, still hoping for a cat to speak, I told a friend about my love for foxes. To my surprise she said there was a good chance that I’d run into one in London. According to her, it’s harder to avoid foxes than to encounter them; they’re so numerous in the city that some people see them as equivalent to rodents. They dig through trash and sometimes attack cats, which naturally angers home and pet owners.

I had always thought of foxes as creatures of the wild. In stories and nature shows about foxes, humans are rarely seen. It never occurred to me that to meet a fox, all I had to do was go to one of the most populous cities in the world and simply walk down the street. A conversation with a cat felt more possible.

But there are reportedly over 10,000 red foxes in London, because urban expansion has destroyed their habitat over the years. In order to survive, the foxes moved into the city and learned to live around humans. City life has its benefits: there’s always plenty of wasted food to go around, and it’s easier to find shelter with so many structures and alleyways. But the city comes with unique dangers, from traffic to the violence and cruelty of its human inhabitants. The same human race that took away their natural homes still punishes foxes for adapting to their new urban life.

Photograph by Ben Aviston on Flickr

The fox is a “fictional animal,” the folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther once said; there are “more tales of the fox than of other animals, such as the dog or the wolf.” While in the modern Western world the fox seems to have become the incarnation of the cunning trickster – in the figure of Reynard and others – it has a vast and diverse literary history. Tricksters survive and thrive by manipulating others – friends, family, and enemies alike. The trickster is amoral and only works for its own self-interest: depending on perspective and outcome, it can be hero or villain.

Early Christian and medieval thought painted the fox as a symbol of evil, as demonic when it wasn’t mischievous. As Saint Dunstan prayed, the devil tried to distract him by changing into a fox, to which Dunstan responded: “You are revealing how you usually behave: by your tricks you flatter the unwary so that you can devour them. Now get out of here, wretch, since Christ, who crushed the lion and the dragon with his heel, will overcome you by his grace through me, whether you’re a wolf or a fox.”

I knew a great number of fictional foxes before I ever met a real one. There was the fox Tod from The Fox and the Hound, Swiper from Dora the Explorer, the Fantastic Mr. Fox, Disney’s Robin Hood, the foxes from Redwall. And Japanese culture has myriad fox creatures, from the playful fox to the shape-shifting vixen and their own culturally specific evil and demonic foxes. In the anime Ushio and Tora the antagonist, Hakumen no Mono, is a gigantic silver fox with nine tails, over two thousand years old, who is the physical embodiment of evil. During the final battle, one of the protagonists says that Hakumen tends to have his face down with his eyes looking upwards – a posture that an individual or animal takes when he’s ashamed. Hakumen doesn’t deny it. He tells the story of his birth, that when the world was created, good energy floated upwards and formed humans, and bad energy floated down and became him. His hatred of humanity comes from his envy that he was made corrupt and ugly, that he couldn’t be like them. In response to the revelation, he blinds himself and rages against the heroes.

In The Blue Fox by the Icelandic writer and musical artist Sjón, the idea of the fox as immoral and cunning is flipped when the fox engages with a human. The fox’s deceptive and clever nature suddenly becomes a way to avoid and survive the hunter. In encounters with humans, it is the fox who is the vulnerable one:

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up and pokes her snout under her thigh, lowering her eyelids till there’s the merest hint of a pupil. And so she keeps an eye on the man who has not shifted since he took cover under the overhanging drift, here on the upper slopes of Asheimar, some eighteen hours ago. The snow has drifted and fallen over him until he resembles nothing so much as a hump of ruined wall.

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

The night I encountered a fox, I was coming home around three in the morning, walking down a small street toward a passageway that usually had cats watching from the tops of both walls. I swayed along, hoping as ever to be invited into their world. In that blissful state of mind, I met a wounded cat going the opposite way. I took about three steps before I stopped. I knew what a cat looked like. What I had walked past was not a cat.

I turned slowly, not to scare the animal, and saw that my suspicion was right. It was a fox, an injured fox at that. It limped for a few steps before it also stopped and turned to look at me. I crouched in front of it. In that moment, it seemed that time was frozen, even as my heart was beating so fast. I had been so entranced by the idea of a magical world guarded by cats that I almost forgot the fox I had hoped to meet. The encounter with something fictional made real, the possibility of touching a real fox, was suddenly more enticing to me than anything.

Knowing about a fox, learning its behaviors and life through shows and books, was much different from seeing one. I had its different fictions in me, while inches away was the living flesh.

I knew that the fox was a wild animal. No matter how close it had been to humans in the city, it was not tame. Even the domesticated foxes I saw in videos retained a danger, a wildness, to them. That closeness to humans might have even made it more dangerous. Its injury was likely the consequence of being so close to human life, the continuation of that violence that destroyed its countryside home and pushed it to scavenge for survival. The small fox must have tangled with a human or a dog, or come in contact with a car. I knew that if I moved to touch it, it might well attack me in defense.

Yet how badly I wanted to reach out my hand and feel its fur. To touch its body, its face, its nose. I wanted to scoop up the injured, lonesome creature, to carry it back with me and nurse it to health. It needed help, and the more it limped down the street, the more likely it was to encounter further danger. I wanted to save it. To reach past the barrier of the fictional to the real. To truly know what a fox is.

Even as I wanted to avoid it biting me, I wanted to feel its teeth. I wanted to be rejected by the wild. For the fox to remain a fox, wild and unattainable, even in the streets of London. For the blood it would draw from my hand to be evidence of the permanent barrier of strangeness, of human and animal, the line between fiction and reality, that existed between the two of us. I wanted to know a fox, and at the same time, to know that I could never know him.

The thrill of the encounter was part of enjoying the trickster, of not knowing its intentions. Would it come to me or betray me? Is betrayal even possible for a creature who was never meant to be grasped? The delight is in the horror of being lured into a trap, and the gratitude in being chosen to be part of its plans. The pain of being bitten and the joy of possibly knowing what it feels like to be bitten by a fox. Not only to see one, but to be marked by one.

I don’t know how long the fox and I looked at each other, but it finally broke the connection, turning and limping away. I was no use to it and its survival in the unforgiving concrete jungle. I stood and watched until it was out of sight, just as the cats sometimes watched me.

I’ve seen many foxes in person since then, on other late nights as well as in the daytime. Once I’d seen the first one, the rest were revealed. I’m glad that I never touched it. To do that would somehow have been to take away what I admire most about the creatures, their elemental strangeness. Maybe that’s just another fiction, but I feel that it was correct to resist the human urge of contact, that drive to grasp and dominate every creature and part of the world. It was faithful to the nature of the animal to respect the distance that has inherently remained, even as more and more foxes move into the human world.