Christian Fox (Nottingham Trent University, England)
Ghosts of the past fly over the city; its blinking lights, flickering electric stars that cast a spherical glow over the buildings like a cocoon. Dropping through the wet wispy clouds, watching spires and towers rise towards them, they zigzag around. Cold twisted metal reaches out like claws. Rubbish strewn pavements and streets rise to meet them. The city hums, vibrates, moves, even at night, even when the only sign of life around is beside a bus stop.
The boy. He knows one isn’t coming, it’s too late, but he’s not waiting for a bus. He puts his hand in his pocket, feels the dry smooth blade, pulls it out. The knife shines dimly and his reflection in it is muddy. Holding the knife in his hands he feels restless. His eyes move around the street, scanning. His ears are pricked. Come on, he urges fate. Bring me someone. But the street is empty. Far off to the right he can see the large square, great steps that lead down into the centre where a cherub fountain sits. He can hear it splish splash. The square that only a couple of hours ago had been brimming with people and cars, that loud static hum of life, is now empty except for the cherubs, standing there, vomiting their water, and trash; cans and bottles, chip shop newspaper and cigarette butts spiriting around like dust bunnies. And he looks up, sees the dark stacked buildings, windows covered by metal shutters, rows of rotting bricks eventually giving way to the faint warm glow of the city’s forever light. No stars. The boy plays with the knife, tossing it from one hand to the other. He scrapes it against the glass window of the bus shelter, etches aimlessly shapeless shapes, his ears still pricked, his eyes still scanning. All he can think about is what he wants to do.
Then a sound spins him round but as soon as soon as he spots where it is from, his heart sinks. A fox slinking between rubbish bins, its glowing eyes watching him, bushy tail swishing back and forth like it is cleaning the pavement. Without hesitation the boy picks up a bottle from the floor, hurls it. It shatters against a wall near to the animal. Then that crackling cry opens up the night, waking life all over the city. For a few moments dogs cry out across the rooftops then there is silence again. The fox is gone.
He is almost ready to give up, walk home, something else catches his ears. Whistling. It’s an old song, older than even he knows, and accompanying it the rhythmic tapping of a walking stick. A cool anticipation enters him. Perfect, he thinks, just in time. He slinks back into the alleyway behind the bus stop, waits. Soon enough, walking past the alley, giving a casual glance down it as he does so, a man walks. Instantly the boy is thrown by what he sees. He wants to laugh. Is he coming back from a fancy dress party? The boy can’t even name the type of clothing that this man is wearing, but he knows it is old. He looks like an idiot, a mental case, a nutter. And why’s he whistling? He thinks about this man’s walking stick. Will he use it? He doubts it. And without a second thought, he is pacing down the alleyway, knife tightly gripped, hidden in his pocket.
Already this man is across the square. He hears the plop as the man flicks a coin into the fountain. The grateful and gurgled reply of the cherubs. The boy paces quickly across the street to catch him but he takes his eyes off his target for a second and the man is gone. What? He runs full pelt across the square, past the sick cherubs, till he sees him again, turning into a small alleyway. He smiles again, cool and collected, struts towards him, tensing his muscles, clearing his mind for what he’s going to do.
The man is stood there, leant against his walking stick. It has the carved head of a fox in bronze, stretching back its jaws wildly, bearing its sharp fangs. The man whistles still. He is waiting. The boy wants to laugh, not just because of the way this guy looks, but now because of what is about to happen. And the man has no idea. The boy walks up to him with his readymade line, the opening.
“Scuse me mate. You got the..” but he’s cut off. Behind them both, echoing from the square, the bells of the town clock ring out. One. Two. The man swivels his walking stick then holds it out, pointing it to the square and gives a polite smile.
“Your answer, no doubt,” he says.
The boy doesn’t know what to do. He breathes inwards, pushing back his shoulders and building himself up, then steps towards the man. He pulls out the knife.
“You’re an animal,” the man says, a smile twisting its way across his face, and twirling his stick, watching the boy carefully. You better believe it, the boy thinks. He points the knife at the man’s chest, but he isn’t paying attention, looking instead over the boy’s shoulder, his smile becoming a grin. Behind him, he hears a familiar swish like a brush being dragged along the paved slates. Warmth against his leg makes him jump and looking down he sees a fox. The same one? It creeps past him, then comes to rest at the man’s feet, staring up at the both of them. He watches fixedly as the man leans down, takes off his tall hat and rests it on the ground, then reaches into a pocket of his long coat, pulls out scraps of some kind and feeds them to the animal. It laps at his hand and with his other he scratches behind its ears. Then he looks up. The boy takes a step back. The knife shakes in his hands. He can’t think. He just knows he has to leave. So he turns around and walks away, then the walk turns into a run and he’s once more speeding past the cherubs, still spewing out water and he’s suddenly aware that he’s completely alone. His eyes reach out imploringly as he runs. The tall dark steel and stone buildings that block out the sky. The expanses of littered streets and pavements. Glowing street lights. That static hum of distant roads. And then, cutting through the lonely city, whistling.
It chills the boy to the core and he’s still running again but the whistling grows louder and louder and in the back of his mind he’s remembering the song, placing words over the notes.
The purple-headed mountain
The river running by
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky
He keeps running, a stitch burning in his side, he gasps for breath. Dizzy, he reaches out. He is at the bus stop again, throws himself against the glass window, relieving his weight, sucking in air. All around him he can hear brushes shuffling to the rhythm of the whistling.
The tall trees in the greenwood
The meadows where we play
The rushes by the water
We gather every day
One by one the tiny beasts creep out of the shadows, slinking across the streets out of dark corners and hiding holes, until they surround him. He pulls out his knife desperately, still gagging for breath, stars dancing in front of his eyes, and weakly he throws it. It bounces, scraping the pavement, lands impotently with a clang.
Their eyes are on him, burning lights, snarling and licking their lips. They leap on top of him, he screams and thrashes ineffectually, and as they tear into his skin the whistling comes to a stop and he hears above him, above the frenzy of teeth and claws, a whisper.
“I could see you, could hear you, could even smell you, before you were even aware of me.”
He can’t scream or move. Above him the man watches as the animals rip into him, boring holes into his chest and arms and face and legs. Then he taps the walking stick on to the ground – tap, tap, tap – and they stop. They turn around, their eyes shining brightly, all fixed on him. The boy, with one final effort, one single minded and instinctive thought, tries to crawl away, his body seething with pain.
Tap, tap, tap. They begin to howl, a screeching wail that makes him clasp his bloodied hands over his ears and turning back he sees them all. They are racing around the man, howling, their tails dancing wildly behind them. And the walking stick, the mouth of alabaster fox twitches, twitches, then breaks into a howl of its own and before he can understand what has happened in front of him, the man and the stick are gone, replaced by a silver fox, its hair shimmering in the moonlight. It leaps on top of him and he feels his bones shattering underneath it, underneath his skin, his body collapsing in on itself like a dying star, rumbling to dust, as the foxes dance around and the silver fox watches. There is too much pain to scream as his body and his soul die and his consciousness ebbs away.
And then his memory is gone, his mind is gone. He doesn’t remember anything or know anything but the rumble of his stomach and feel of the wind on his fur, the pavement under his claws. He is one of them, an animal. He smells the whole city, the wet and dry stones, the cold steel. It is horrible. He wants to be somewhere else. And the voice appears again as once again stands the strangely dressed man with his silver fox walking stick.
“You can take the animals out of the wild…”
He spits on the ground, turns quickly, his coat-tails flying behind him and with a tap, tap, tap he presses on, out of the city. The boy, though he isn’t what he was anymore, behind him on all fours, filled with gratitude. And then like ghosts, they are gone.
.Christian Fox has, at the time of publication, only just finished a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University. He is currently a part time writer, poetry reviewer, student and trophy salesman. His favourite writers are Angela Carter and Kurt Vonnegut.