He was a fox and he was born without a tail so they called him Notail.
The first snows of winter were falling as he stalked the stoneforest.
The snow was soft under his paws, a welcome change from the hard stone of the mantracks beneath. He sniffed the air. This was his world. He knew every part of it. He had trod it all his life. He was a sleek shadow, unseen and unnoticed.
He kept to his father’s rules.
“You need the rules more than any other fox,” his father told him when Notail was still a cub.
Even then Notail had known what his father meant. He had no tail. He was different. Incomplete. If he was to grow to be a true fox, if he was to learn to hunt, to feed a mate and cubs then he needed all the help he could get.
But Notail needed no help now. He was a hunter. He was half-glimpsed in the night and gone.
Always hunt at night. That was a simple rule. It was near-impossible to hunt in the day. Too many mancarriers. Too many man eyes. Not enough left-over and unwatched manfood to scavenge at if the need arose. Not enough rats about. No shadows to move through.
He padded into the darkness. He kept to the trees that enclosed the open land where his den was hidden and followed them until he came to the place of firechanged chickens. He stayed within the bushes for a while just watching the world.
He could hear the distant cries of speeding mancarriers. It was a hard song.
He saw a man staggering and swaying. The man was drinking the stinking water. He was shouting at the moon. Notail looked up to the moon. The moon was bright tonight but there were fat snow clouds that would soon obscure it. He looked back to the man and shook his head. What fools man was, he thought, man expects all the world to listen. Even a fox without a tail knew the moon never answered back.
The man passed on, his sound faded. This was it. This was Notail’s time. He could hear any whisper of sound that came. Any bird fallen from its nest, struggling in the undergrowth. Any rat nosing through the undertracks below. Any cat scratching itself, purring in ignorance. Man’s noise faded into the background as he focused on his hunt. The scents grew purer too. Now he could smell the place of firechanged chicken more clearly. It called to him. He looked to it. It was darkened and without man. He shook his head.
Hunt first, scavenge only when you have to. He had never liked that rule.
“But isn’t scavenging hunting?” he had asked his father once.
“Hunt first, find truefood before you turn to manfood,” was all his father would say until the night his father had taken him to the place where man firechanged chickens. The smell of hot chicken flesh called to him but his father made him stay in the bushes and watch as man after man came and took away chicken after chicken. When at last his father told him to follow they moved slowly down a shadowtrack and there they were. Thrown away chickens. Abandoned. Still warm. Delicious. Notail had moved to take one but his father stepped in front of him.
“No,” he had said. “This is a lesson. We only scavenge when we cannot hunt.”
That night Notail had dreamed of warm firechanged chickens. Of biting through crisp skin into moist meat. Of having one all to himself like a man might.
Notail knew his father was wrong. It took as much skill to scavenge, to find the right places, to avoid man, to beat other foxes to the prize pickings, as it did to hunt a rat.
He turned away and padded along a mantrack.
He moved silently down shadowtracks behind mandens. He saw abandoned manfood, over spilling and near rotten. There was so much of it. It was food, good food. It would feed him well. From habit he marked the places in case his hunt failed. He smiled at the thought. His hunt had never failed.
He moved deeper into the stoneforest. The night grew colder but he did not shiver. He was too focused on the sounds around him. The heavy slamming of an opening made him freeze. Man voices made him slink against a stone edge and wait. He saw two cats fighting, their cries chasing away all other sounds. He watched them fight. Maybe I can hunt the loser, he thought. But there was no loser. Eventually the cats stopped fighting and Notail moved on past sleeping mancarriers.
He came to a wide mantrack. He knew this place well. It was a place of danger. He watched the mantrack. Beyond it were great mandens with open spaces separating them and wild rabbits everywhere. He had hunted there from time to time, found lazy rabbits dozing, full with grass. It was a good place to hunt.
Huge mancarriers came thundering along the mantrack. They were fox-crushing mancarriers but he knew he was too fast for fox-crushing mancarriers. Always be quick, that was another of his father’s rules, never linger on the mantracks. The mantracks of the stoneforest were open graves for many of the foxes Notail had known. When Notail hunted he would see their ruined bodies crumpled against stone banks. Broken. Ignored by man, left to rot or be fed on, whichever came first.
As another mancarrier roared past he ran. He could hear more coming but he was so fast. They would not crush him. He felt their lights, bright as the sun at dawn, burning at him, but he did not fear them. He ran and soon their din was lost behind him.
He padded away from the mantrack and came to a large manden. He could hear man voices inside. They were laughing, he thought as he watched their silhouettes, they are happy. His stomach rumbled and he roamed some more.
He saw crows perched high up on the spike of the strange manden where man came to kneel. He watched them. They watched him and knew he could not hunt them. Crows are tough meat, that’s what his father always said, tough and bitter.
“Dark,” he heard one of them call.
“Dark,” a second crow answered.
One after another they called. Just that one word over and over. Dark, dark, dark.
The moon was hidden now. Yes, they were right, it was dark. A darkness that pressed down on the world and seemed likely to never lift. Foolish crows, he thought, the world was like this every night and morning always followed.
Notail moved on. He padded along a perfect line of man-planted trees onto a swathe of snow-whitened grass. Ahead of him was a great manden. He could smell meat firechanging and there was smoke rising out of the manden, gentle wisps of smoke that said it was a warm place.
He sniffed as he padded closer to the manden. He could smell no dogs, no cats. There were no rabbits dozing. Just the beckoning scent of manfood, hot manfood.
Never feed from man’s hand. Notail often wondered how much easier his life would be if he disobeyed that rule. There was a woman here in the stoneforest who fed foxes. He had watched foxes feed from her hand. Lick at her hand. They were no better than dogs. He was a fox.
He crouched low beside a stone edge and looked inside the manden. A woman was holding a cub of man. The cub of man was very new. It was naked and she held it to her body. It suckled at her. It closed its eyes. It was content. He watched the cub of man feeding and his stomach growled.
He remembered the one rule his father told him never, ever to forget.
Never hurt the cubs of man.
“We are foxes,” his father had told him. “This place, these mantracks and stone mandens, your den where you sleep each night, the dark shadowtracks, the undertracks beneath us, the great shinestone cliffs of light and silence, it is all man’s world. If a fox hurts man they will hunt that fox and end them. But if a fox ever hurts a cub of man we would all be hunted, man would seek to end us all. No, son, even if you had not eaten for a year you should never hurt them.”
Notail knew there were other foxes that did not live by his father’s rules. Foxes who scavenged and rarely hunted for truefood. Foxes who had grown sluggish and unafraid of mancarriers. But he had heard no stories of foxes hurting the cubs of man. Even those foxes who fed from man’s hand never broke that rule.
The mother laid the cub of man down. She wrapped it. It looked warm. Notail’s stomach growled again but he ignored it.
He stayed watching the manden. It looked such a warm place and the night was growing colder.
He watched as a man joined the woman and leaned down to the cub to nuzzle it. Notail shivered. Snow had settled along his back. He shook it off. He watched the man and woman hold each other. His stomach growled.
The man and woman made the place where the cub slept darken. They came to another part of their manden and then he saw it. The opening. Just slightly ajar. He looked to the man and woman. They were eating, they did not even know he was there.
He moved closer to the opening. Still the man and woman did not hear him. A few paws closer. He could hear his father telling him to never enter a manden. But his father had not been as stealthy and silent as Notail. His father would have been caught. But there was so much warmth within the manden. His paws were cold. He could feel the manden’s heat. He knew he could move inside unseen and let that warmth fill him. Just for a moment.
He was so close to the opening now that he could hear the man and woman talking. Their strange manwords were cloaked in safety. They were man, what could hurt them? What did they have to worry about? Their cub was safe and warm, they knew that, so they laughed and ate and were happy.
He was a fox. All life was danger and hunger. All life was opportunity and chance.
He ran quickly through the opening.
He was inside a manden. He knew he should not be there but there he was and no man came to stop him. He could feel the cold being chased from his body by the manden’s heat. He moved deeper into the darkened place, deeper into its warmth and came to the place where the cub of man slept. Notail barely breathed but he could hear the cub of man breathing. Soft, gentle breaths. This was the warmest place in the manden. His paws felt like they had never been cold.
He watched the cub of man sleeping. He came very close and sniffed at it. Its man scent was weak. It smelled clean.
The cub of man made a soft cry. Notail listened for the man and woman. He glanced back to the opening, ready if they were to come. He would be fast. He would run from them. That was good, they would know their world was not safe. But they did not come. The cub of man slept on.
His stomach growled. He looked once more at the cub of man. He closed his eyes and sighed. No, he could not do that.
He was a fox.
He turned away from the cub of man and moved on silently out of the manden.
He moved between the scraping branches of trees. He paused and listened. Light flashed from the manden and he saw his shadow cast upon the snow-whitened grass. He looked away from the tailless shadow.
He had no tail but he his father had taught him to be quick, to think fast, to be a better hunter than any other fox. A tailless hunter could be as successful as any other fox if they were the quickest, the cleverest, the best. If they were all they could be and more than any other fox could hope to be. If they never gave up.
He found a wild rabbit and ended it quickly. He padded back the way he came. Birds called down to him from the bare trees but he did not hear their words. He did not care for their words. He was going home.
At his den he dropped the rabbit. He looked up at the moon.
“I am sorry, father,” he said.
“Never forget the rules,” is what he knew his father would have said. Never forget them. Never put them aside. Never question them.
He picked up the rabbit with his teeth and padded inside.
“You’re back,” said his mate.