Animals' dreams, and dreams of animals

I'm pretty sure when I'm dreaming. But who can say? Maybe I'm a recurring image in some poor fox's nightmare, a gray-haired little man always looking dumbfounded.

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Sometimes early in the morning or even at night when I'm reading in bed, I hear the shriek-whoop-yelp of my hens from their dark roost, a hullabaloo that wakes me or makes me pause midsentence, suddenly alert with fear. Fox!

And I see one, bushy red tail low, whiskered nose high, sniffing the air. I see it through the dense brush - behind my eyes, of course. The chicken coop is too far from the house to see even in daylight. For a minute or so I go still, listening. The hoots and hollers, clucks and squawks settle back into dreams, mine or theirs or some author's into whose world I settle, my feathers all straight and warm.

Do chickens dream of foxes? Are these nocturnal vociferations just the fowl's nightmare made real to the world? And when they wake, do they know what their ballyhoo was all about?

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I have a cousin who talks in his sleep; at least he did when we were boys. Often he would sleep over, taking the lower bunk in my basement room. When we'd conclude our talk in the dark, his breathing would come thick and labored. Then out of whatever deep place I'd fallen, he'd startle me with guttural tête-à-têtes, whole conversations with some dream companion, long strings of half-intelligible words.

If humans can talk in their sleep, why not chickens? Why not foxes, too? I watch Gus, my terrier puppy, in his slumber, and I can tell when he's dreaming. His thick, bushy body tenses; his front legs do a parody of running, the curved paws clawing at the bedspread. His nose twitches for the cookie or the blown leaf or the squirrel darting up a tree.

I've never dreamed of a fox, but on a few occasions they have appeared as though in dreams.

Seventeen, hiking through Caratunk, a wildlife refuge in Seekonk, Mass., I come across a large round hole in the side of a hill. A mush of topsoil, small stones, pine needles in a ring around it. My first thought: some kind of archaeological excavation. Then I see the long, whiskered snout poke out, sniff the air - this strange new scent is in his little yard. He spots me and darts back inside the black maw.

Twenty-nine, walking across the campus of Iowa State University on my way to Ross Hall on my first day of graduate school. There must be a thousand backpack-laden, sandal-wearing students. I'm exhilarated, feeling younger than I am, feeling important because I'm a poet and there on a fellowship, feeling so far from New England that anything could happen. Then it does.

Trotting past me is a red-tailed fox, and no one seems to notice it but me. Am I dreaming this? I want to shout out. I want to tug this tall blonde girl by the elbow. Instead I point dumbly. Maybe they all think it's a Pomeranian. But it's red and thin, and it's got a tail like a Golden Retriever's. It turns to look at me, then disappears into the rhododendrons by the museum.

Thirty-five, strolling out in cold morning fog on Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland. I'm poet-in-residence at the Heinrich Böll Cottage, and I've woken at first light this late February day because it's my first one on the island. My wife is still sleeping. The smoke of our turf fire, unreeling like a ghost's rope from the chimney atop the cottage, is pungent and sweet, a smell completely new to me. I can hear the surf crashing on Dugort Strand, sheep somewhere bleating. The fog is dense, and amid these sounds and smells I could be in a dream; I could be a character in a novel. At the end of the driveway, I turn left, and there it is crossing the road - a small fox looking surpassingly content, almost smiling, and it looks at me, almost nodding, and then disappears into the fog.

On each of these occasions there has been no corroborating witness, no one I nudged and to whom I said, "Check it out!" In some mythologies the fox is a shape-shifter, cousin of the trickster coyote. They're cunning, deceitful, sly. Did I dream these foxes? Does the fox, as my Jungian friend, John, would have me believe, stalk our collective unconscious? Aesop might concur. My chickens might, too.

My real dreams, or the ones I know I've had, have been filled with other strange animals. Just last week a rhinoceros lumbered through an early morning dream. I remember waking up thinking, "Was that a rhinoceros?" Had my cousin been sleeping in the bunk below me, he might have said I was grunting some weird pachyderm language.

Since then, I've been trying to figure out why this horn-nosed beast leased out my thoughts. A few weeks before, I'd seen a stuffed rhino head in an antique store, its gray wrinkled face and horn so lifelike that it made me pause. I'd even had a fleeting thought that I'd like to buy it, but then I realized what a ridiculous idea that was.

But my Jungian friend says it wasn't ridiculous at all. He claims that the rhino signifies self- acceptance and inner wisdom, that as a solitary animal and an ancient species it is the embodiment of "know thyself."

"What about the fox?" I ask him over the phone.

"A fox lurking in your dreams represents cleverness and resourcefulness. Alternatively, it might represent a period of loneliness or isolation."

"What about if I didn't dream one, but really saw it?"

"Clever," he says.

"No, really. On several occasions it's happened."

"Were you alone?"

"Yes."

"Were you lonely?"

"No! One time there had to be a thousand people around."

"Did they see it?"

"They ... didn't seem to."

"I see..." he says.

I think I know myself. I'm pretty sure when I'm dreaming and when I'm not. But who can say? Maybe I'm a recurring image in some poor fox's nightmare, a gray-haired little man always looking dumbfounded.

Whatever the case, one thing is true: We lurk around each other. Maybe foxes lurk around my chicken coop, too. But lately, I imagine them at the edges of my property, trotting through the fog toward something larger, something horned.

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