The Wedding Dress and the Dead Fox: A Memory in Southern Gothic

Hannah VanderHart

The fox was dead before my mother shot it.

Dead before it staggered through the chicken yard.

I must go further back. It was a school morning in what must have been spring because I was wearing a wedding dress.

That is not far enough back.

The woods were dark and deep around our house in Opal, Virginia. It was an average, homeschool morning. My mother took a walk as a school break, and I went with her. I wore a wedding dress.

This was not the first-time drama happened when I was dressed in something other than ordinary clothes. The winter our Chevrolet Suburban had slipped on black ice, veering off the road and landing sideways in a ditch, I was dressed in a long, diaphanous lingerie set—sensibly layered over a turtleneck—and had on my Little Red Riding Hood cloak. At that age, I lived for finer fabrics, and I began sewing my own dresses around eleven years. I had my own pink, vintage sewing machine from a thrift store, and visited Jo-Ann Fabrics with my mother regularly, running my hands over the bolts of crushed velvet and the stiff but bright cotton prints. (I loved the rows of threads and needles, cards of rickrack and buttons called “notions,” and I collected pretty, shaped buttons: hearts, flowers, tiny pencils).

The morning of the fox I had on a wedding dress and was taking a walk with my mother down the road, through the trees.

If there is a presence I feel most throughout my childhood, it is the shade of trees in Virginia. That, and a moisture that always smells damp and mossy, but that tends to have the scent of mildew trailing closely behind it.

I think now about what it would be like to go for a walk with such a decadently dressed child. Never one for half-measures, I remember a beaded tiara with a veil, and a lace parasol. Yard sales in the 1990s—one of my mother’s favorite weekend activities—were a trove of 1980s wedding finery, satin prom dresses, plastic pearl beading that had only partially lost its luster. It shined to me.

On this morning, halfway down the road with my mother, my older sister Laura came running down the road behind us, yelling and waving her arms. We could hear her shouting about a fox in the chicken yard. My mother started to run, and I picked up my dress and ran, too, net veil and seed pearls floating behind me.

“That fox is sick,” my mother said, her hand shielding her eyes (does this actually help a person see better, or is it theater?). “A healthy fox doesn’t come out in the daylight like that,” she said, pointing to the fox’s mange-eaten coat, its physical uncertainty and bewilderment.

Observing extra precaution, my mother shot the fox from the kitchen window, with my father’s revolver balanced on the sill. With her first shot, the fox toppled over, sick and ill target. It had not touched a chicken, huddled as a flock in a corner of the yard. I’ve tried to write a poem about this scene before, it’s so odd—the shady walk, the wedding dress, the shooting of a fox. It seems like a braid of my childhood. I wonder that my mother was still my mother to me after seeing her shoot an animal like that, now that I knew what she was capable of. The best encounters with rabid animals are just that, though—nonevents. Not Old Yeller. Not Their Eyes Were Watching God. But the fox going quiet, into the light of death and nonexistence. I don’t remember how we dealt with the body, but almost certainly a large shovel lifted the dead fox into the woods and covered it over.

The saying “you cannot see the forest for the trees” suggests a problem of perspective—an eyeball that never quite wobbles onto its stalk in the field, that doesn’t get a God’s eye view, that never transcends itself. In other words, you are not visiting the forest: you were born here. That’s what living in the rural South and the shadow of the Southern Gothic is like. Life, with its darkness, blood and strangeness, is itself Gothic. But when I watched the first season of the television show True Detective, set in Louisiana, with its mellow greens and golds, the vines and the Spanish moss on the cyprus and oak trees, the complicated fields with fences and debris, the violence done to animal bodies—it was a visual return to home, to childhood. Yes, I felt in my body as the show flickered on the television screen. The weirdness of being a young girl in a wedding dress, running down the road in fear with your mother, and then watching her face and jaw line set into hard lines as she shoots an animal out the back kitchen window. The wildness of her first and only shot; the loudness of its crack.

The memory of the fox rests in a Virginia summer’s humidity, a moisture that curls lace and makes curls fall, that steams up the glass door panes; the moisture I once watched, long months across a summer, dissolve the body of a dead cat in a honeysuckle thicket. In this memory, the Christmas ferns still thrive with the May Apples in the woods, covering the ground and a fox’s grave with their green fronds. I see the forest only by going to the edge of it, by circling it, by parsing what does not belong there and also what can only belong there. A gun fired around children, in the kitchen. A second-hand wedding dress.


Author Bio


Hannah VanderHart lives in Durham, North Carolina, under the pines. She has poetry, essays and 
reviews published in The Boston Globe, Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review, AGNI and 
elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry collection What Pecan Light (Bull City Press, 2021).