Spiders crawled across Grandma’s eyes and spun a web too thick for her to see through. Her eyes, which had been light blue, grew yellow and cloudy. Cataracts, the doctor said, too advanced to operate. Sean remembered this word because it had “cat” in it, but it was Grandma who told him about the spiders. Where had they come from? From Grandma’s hair, which used to be orange but was now white. She had stopped colouring it after she went blind, although she still wore red lipstick. Grandma said that she had worn lipstick every day of her life and she was not about to stop now. Sometimes she got a little smear on her teeth. It looked like she had been eating something bloody, like a raw steak.
Sean hadn’t eaten steak since Dad left and Mum stopped cooking on Sundays. Now Dad lived in America with his new wife and Sean hadn’t seen him since he turned six. Grandma came to Sean’s birthday party with her dog and sat in the shade with Mum drinking Five Alive and eating Zoo biscuits. Dad bought Sean a Superman watch. He said Sean would need a watch no matter what he wanted to be when he grew up. I want to be a fox, Sean said. Fantastic Mr. Fox was Sean’s favourite book. Dad laughed and rubbed Sean’s head with his knuckles. He fastened the watch to Sean’s wrist. The watch stopped ticking three days after Dad flew back to America. Sean hid the Superman watch in one of his socks so Mum wouldn’t see it and get upset.
This is what it must be like to be blind, Sean thought. He had a white crocheted pillowcase over his head, one that his Mum was mending for Mrs. Callington. He had found a bowl of cherries defrosting on the kitchen counter. They were the last of Grandma’s summer cherries. This was the first time in five years that there were no worms in the fruit. Mum saved the last bag of cherries to hand out on Halloween. Mum seemed to have forgotten that no one knocked on their door last year. Sean knew that no one would knock this year either. He ate the cherries under the pillowcase.
Mum sewed with her back to him. The hum of her sewing machine joined the buzzing of the washers and dryers downstairs. He couldn’t see her head through the pillowcase but he knew that her hair was wound in the familiar thick knot at the base of her neck. Mum’s hair was brown and soft, like the grass birds use to build their nests. Grandma had two birds: Raymond and Sam. They lived in a cage in Grandma’s kitchen. Sam was a girl bird even though she had a boy’s name. Grandma bought them before she went blind. She told Sean that God had sent her Raymond and Sam to brighten her mornings. The birds squawked more than sang, but at least they didn’t frighten Grandma’s Seeing Eye Dog. Sean hadn’t seen Grandma since the summer. Mum said Grandma went to live in a hospital because they served breakfast in bed and you didn’t have to pay for heating.
Sean snuck up behind Mum. All he could see through the crochet was her bent back and her round shoulders. Mum always said: sit up straight! But she hardly ever sat up straight. Not when she sewed, at least. She bent over her work and jammed her glasses up against her eyes. At bedtime she hunched down over the lamp to read Fantastic Mr. Fox, holding the book up to her face. She told Sean that soon he’d have to read to her, but he liked it when she read because she would do all the voices. Some nights Mum fell asleep before finishing the chapter. Her head would drop back against the pillow, her mouth sliding open so you could see her molar teeth. Sean would bury his face in her shirt, shaking her until she woke up. Mum always smelled of sunlight soap from the laundry downstairs.
“You folding?” Mum asked Sean without turning around.
Sean shook his head.
“Order has got to be done by five,” Mum said.
“I want to be a fox.”
“I can only take you out if you help with the order.” Mum turned around.
“Take that off!”
“I want to be a fox.”
Mum snatched the pillowcase off Sean’s head. She stared at Sean, her lips white. A vein ticked in her throat. She turned the pillowcase inside out. There was a pink smiley and cherry dribbles down the front. Sean looked at his hands. They were pink too. Bad, bad, bad! He waited for his mother to say it, but she didn’t say anything.
Sean looked up. His tummy hurt. Mum was mad but she still didn’t say anything which made Sean’s tummy hurt even more. He started to cry. Mum pulled the fabric she’d been working on out from under the sewing machine’s needle. It was a red velvet pajama suit—furry and shiny with little ears sewn on the hood.
Sean didn’t move. He kept staring at the ears in Mum’s hand. They were small and pointy like Grandma’s Seeing Eye Dog’s. Mum reached over to her desk and picked up a pair of scissors. She snipped both ears off the hood. They fluttered down to the floor, looking like little red flags.
“I want to be a fox,” Sean said quietly.
“Bed!” Mum shouted. The washing machines hummed downstairs. Outside the sun had begun to sink below the apartment blocks. The tree outside the window glowed orange and brown in the last hour of sunlight. The people from the factory next door were leaving for the day. Sean could hear someone crying “trick or treat” and a woman laughing. Sean got down on his knees and crawled between Mum’s legs.
“Yip-yip-yip-yip!” he barked. Mum took the scissors and ripped open the fox suit, snipping little pieces off the arms, legs and belly. Bits of velvet fell on her shoes and on Sean’s shoulders.
“Just like your father—greedy, rude—ruining everything!” Mum hacked the head off the suit. Sean crawled under the hem of her skirt. Her legs were smooth and cold. He bit into the skin above her ankle. She dropped the suit. Her skin tasted salty. The flat of the scissors came down on his head.
“Yip-yip-yip!” Sean ran to the door, the scissors following him, snipping the air above his ears. He jumped onto the staircase and climbed: one, two, three, four, five. When he got to the top he turned and saw Mum watching him from the foot of the stairs, the scissors hanging from her right hand. She was crying quietly. Sean crawled into the bed he shared with Mum. He dug into the covers and huddled in the middle of the bed, under the quilt Grandma made him before she went blind.
“Yip, yip.” The burrow was warm and dark. He could hear the storm raging above him.
“Best stay low,” he whispered, and the other foxes agreed.