High in a Gothic tower on the abandoned Princeton University campus, a lone student sits in front of an open window. He eats his lunch from a Styrofoam box. A fox is sniffing around at the foot of the tower, his bushy orange tail behind him. Eagerly he looks upwards.
The scene reminds me of the fable of the raven and the fox by Jean de la Fontaine. “Learned Lord,” I hear this clever Reynard shout up, “How handsome you look with your glossy black cape. If you can speak as smart as you look, you would be the star of the campus.” And then hope that the flattered student accidentally drops his chicken.
Now that almost all people are gone, the foxes have taken over the university. In broad daylight they roam the grounds, up the monumental stairs and through the ornate iron gates. Previously, if you were lucky, on an early Sunday morning you could see a single fox sneaking around. Now there are whole families. A handful of remaining students send each other updates about the animals. The group’s fox app keeps track of which routes they take and when little kits are born.
In one of the photos a student shows me, a fox is quietly eating a ground squirrel in front of a lecture hall. No, they are no longer shy.
It takes some getting used to. Normally at this time of the year the campus is full of partying students. With their exams and theses handed in, the relieved seniors still have a few weeks left before they pick up their diplomas. Hip-hop music blares from the open windows of the dorms. They say long goodbyes to each other, and their carefree days are over and serious life begins.
But the students had to leave when the virus broke out. The board was unable to take responsibility for their health. An American university is like a cruise ship on dry land, including the luxurious gym and the all-you-can-eat buffet. People talk, eat, and dance day and night.
Only the handful of students who did not have a home or were unable to travel were allowed to stay. You see them moving like skittish shadows across the campus, often still in pajama pants, on their way to the only cafeteria that is open.
Face masks hide serious faces. Their eyes look gloomily at infinity. They run fast, as if the devil himself is on their heels. They take turns going inside and then reappearing outside after a few minutes clutching a Styrofoam box. Not until they are back in their dorm do they see what has been cooked up for them.
Every day now I walk on the haunted campus. I miss the cheerful atmosphere the students bring. Tanned legs on the way to the tennis courts and football field. Throwing Frisbees or running laps on the track. Where are the rowers pushing their skulls into the lake? And all those beautiful uniforms, with that orange “P” and the striped tigers?
Meanwhile, at the foot of the tower, the fox is still staring up at the student with his lunch box. He has plenty of time.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.