by Fiona Melrose
I found a fox in a field, dead. I found him at that place in the land where more prudent crops surrender to the deep, cracked clay, ploughed and then dried like a great adder’s back. There lay the fox, dead.
The dogs sniffed him out, but finding no life in him and finding, too, his last great surge out of every orifice not worth investigating, they left him be. I considered strange this respect from my pack, who, on a different day, would have run him down ’till his legs gave out.
I prodded him with my boot. He was still flaccid, and this being morning and early enough that I could still taste coffee on my breath, I knew for certain he had died in the night.
I kicked him over a bit more, half expecting to find bullet holes or the mottling of buckshot. I found nothing, though there had been hunters out. No bite of the snare that let him go free but kept just enough that he would bleed out in the clay. The clay was dark. I would plough it soon.
The fox was in handsome form and, apart from some swelling of his tongue and mud and shit around his rear, he was what you might call a fine fox. I leaned forward so my beard grated on my collar a touch. I examined his tongue more closely but even before I completed the investigation I decided to keep him.
I am not prone to hoarding the detritus of the natural world, apart from one autumn when I collected rabbit skulls that littered The Tops like angry confetti. But, I was in a bad way then, and contemplating my passage to the grand hereafter formed a significant portion of my ruminations. The skulls were small and clean and offered neat amulets to mediate the end of life. Other than these, this fox would be my first trophy.
I decided to wrap him in my jumper, on account of the mud and mess. I escaped the old wool and laid it out like a great crucifix on the ground next to him, then lifted his front left leg and right hind one. He was weightier than I had expected. His nice arrow head rolled back as I lifted. He was an old boy; his under-snout was silver. We’re all getting old now.
He clung to the earth. I liked him for it.
I straightened up and whistled for the pack to follow. Two in the hedges, one rolling in something, one digging, one watching the digging, and Pup, sitting as usual a few yards from me, all lazy whiskers, gnarly toes, going nowhere.
It was well-nigh three miles home from where we were. The dogs were disappointed we were heading back already, but I didn’t want to leave the fox out with the crows getting hungry.
My Pa had always said, “Funny birds, crows, cleaning up the dead like that. They’d have to have some sense of humour, crows.”
But I said, “It’s their job, Pa. It’s not about a sense of humour, it’s about work. They take the meat to keep things clean and to eat.”
“Funny birds,” was all he said.
In the end, when Pa was bristly white about his face and his bones were poking out his chest and he had more beard than breath, he passed, quiet and thoughtful, as he would. We had to get the undertakers then, but I did wonder if he’d have preferred the crows. When Dog died, on account of a broken heart those few days later, I took him for the crows, up there to The Tops. It’s a good place for crows. They got stuck in to Dog. They cleaned him up in one swing of the sun.
By the time we reached the fences the fox was all lead so that he had weighted into my chest bones and rested heavy there. I passed the stables as a group of riders let their horses’ bell hooves sweep forward towards the valley. There were four. I could see them eyeing up my woollen bundle; I felt greedy about my secret and hoped my fox’s great tail wouldn’t unfold from the wool and betray us both. The riders would have no truck with that.
“All right, Midwinter?” the stocky rider said.
“Been out walking?”
“Been out walking.”
“Been colder. Nights drawing in.”
“Mmm, drawing in.”
I turned for the cold room, past the chickens, and left the pack to clean themselves and drink. I closed the room’s door behind me. I didn’t need prying folk. I was careful not to bump my fox’s head, and leaned on the light switch with my elbow. In here, the light was always disappointing. Still. I lowered him onto the table, and I’m not too proud to admit, undid his shroud with some awkward tenderness. He shed bits of muck onto the steel top.
I fetched a bucket, filled it with half cold and hot and got some sponges. New ones.
I cut the corner off one and saved it to the side. I touched my fingers to his forehead. Yes, he was a fine fox. I started with the feet, dousing and bathing. His nails and pads showed he was hardworking and old, but strong. I fancied him quite brave. The muck ran in great tides down the side of the table. Even under the light that cast my own shadow over him, his great cinnamon shape emerged. He was a big old fellow. His pelt was soaking from my sponges and made him seem smaller as it flattened with the weight of the water, but his form was still impressive.
I flushed out the bucket and wiped down the table so he lay on a great silver slab.
Then I took the blue sponge corner I had saved, and filled and squeezed and filled it again under the tap. I leaned into my fox’s face; our noses were nearly touching and his whiskers seemed to awaken in the space between us as my breath passed through them. I raised the triangle and passed it over his sleeping eyes. First the left, then the right, between his brows then back across one and then the other eye, making sure to clear any mud from the instep of each. I was holding my breath though I hardly knew it. Only when I was done did I breath out, heavy and straight, so my fox let loose a drop from his sponged eye. I stayed there, bent over, nose to nose with him for just a little while.
I fed the pack and washed myself a little. Never too much. “No need to overdo it,” Pa would say.
Drinking my coffee, my mind kept turning to the fox. I had all that fencing to fix, pigs to get to slaughter, but something also needed doing with my fox. I did leave him awhile, busying myself with jobs, but then curiosity got the better of me and I went back out to the cold room.
The bulb hummed up to light. He had mostly dried, and the copper of him near winded me. He was crazy red, like a bonfire, blazing alive on the cool metal with the light hanging over him like that. It was then that I decided what to do with him. So, I laid out a square of cotton from the cupboard, nice and straight on the table beside him, then lifted my fox on top, making sure to keep him neat. He lay smartly on the linen, paws crossed at the ankles, though he was starting to stiffen a little. I made sure his ears looked good; you’d want your ears to keep their look about them if you were a fox. Same for the tail. These are the things that define you as a fox. I wrapped him and tied the corners together to hold him safely in.
I had a long way to go. I could have slung him over my back; might have been easier, but it didn’t seem right. So I held him to me, across my chest as before, and started to walk.
Out past the horses we went, around the fields of early beet, and all along the hedgerows, where I knew we’d not be spotted. Through the gates and across towards the woods. They were good, these woods; honest, too. No hocus-pocus like you get with some. I’m always hearing about woods with troubles. Trouble with the animals, trouble with wildings, trouble with this and that and all kinds of mischief. Not here.
I spoke to the fox. Not loony talk, but I said, “Don’t you worry, we’ll be there soon enough,” and “Oh, mind your head now,” and sometimes, “Sorry about that,” when I nearly dropped him on account of his weight and the uneven ground and the fences.
At the base of The Tops I sat for a rest, laying my fox down on the grass, still wicked green and deep, and mused at a rabbit skull sitting near the opening of a warren on the bank behind me. Force of habit meant I leaned back to retrieve it and put it in my pocket with my knife and smokes. My arms ached. I did take pause to question my pilgrimage but decided to carry on. There can be no half measures with this sort of thing. You need to do a good job of it.
“Come on then, we’ll be there soon enough.”
The last push before we got through to The Tops required some exertion and by the time I felt we were where we needed to be I was all shaken and sweating. But I knew we were there and that was good. I put my fox down on the rabbit-shorn grass and sat with him awhile. Just sitting and thinking things through a little, as you do, and, I don’t mind admitting, letting my breath come back to me in a regular way after the irregular climb.
As a boy I would scamper up here every day, hunting creatures, finding this, hiding that. In one afternoon I’d be a pirate, a thief and a king, and I’d get home and Pa would say,
“What you been up to, son?”
“Nothing,” I’d say.
“Busy up there?”
“Not so much,” I’d say.
He’d wink at me and I’d be cagey, say nothing. Then later, when I was eating Ma’s stew, all hot and runny and sinking great big bread ships into the deeps, she would say,
“Fine day out, dear?”
I’d say nothing and shrug and Pa would wink again and I would have to think hard
so as not to smile.
Up on The Tops time passes differently. So after a spell, and I couldn’t say how long it was, I started to untie the fox from his bundle. I thought he looked a little shrunken but still magnificent. I lifted him off the square and placed him on the rock I had in mind, a nice wide slab. I laid him there and had a thought to cover him up with the linen, like a clean blanket over a sleeping pup. I folded it away to stop any of that.
It was cold. Up there, there are snide winds that come right off the sea. The air would taste of salt come winter. I turned away from the cool and so too my fox. I knew the crows would come and the longer I waited the longer they would, too, shuffling around on their starfish feet, restless for the feast.
When I got home, I let the dogs out and went to smoke on the wall that looks out over the pig arcs and across the woods. I hitched my turn-ups above the tops of my boots so they could swing more freely. I like it still and easy when I smoke, don’t like distractions like chat. The tobacco is enough. I scanned the trees. My smoke was done, and a good one it was. Just enough. He was right, that rider; the nights would draw in soon enough.