Chapter 20 - The Clearing in the Forest of Never-Can-Be
“The song of the west is the sound of the sea,” his father had said when he was very old and Mother Vixen was calling him. Notail had brushed the words off then. He never thought that one day he might have to leave all he knew and loved for the west. For his father’s song of the sea.
Bone made to settle down for the night beneath the cover of a fallen ash but Notail told the young dog to stand.
“We have work to do before we sleep,” he said.
Bone looked longingly at the entangled branches of the ash. Notail yawned, he was just as tired as the young dog and he too looked to the branches and saw the cover they would have there from the night’s biting wind and the comfort of a soft bed of mulched leaves. But the snow had stopped falling, a fresh, unmarked shroud lay all around them and there was work to be done.
“Walk ahead of me,” he told Bone. “Walk straight and keep going until I tell you to stop.”
They walked far. Their paws made clean marks in the snow. Bone would glance back occasionally with eyes that begged Notail to tell him it was time to rest but Notail would only shake his heard.
At last they came to a mantrack. It was empty and quiet now, in the darkness, but the snow that covered it had been crushed by mancarriers into gulleys of ice and slush. Beyond it Notail could hear the sea more clearly.
“Now we can go back and sleep,” said Notail.
“Back?” said Bone. “Can’t we just rest here?”
Again Notail shook his head.
“We go back,” he said. “Back to the fallen tree. Back the way we came.”
“Then why have we come here?” asked Bone, scratching with frustration at the icy surface of the mantrack.
“Because we could walk along this mantrack for many pawfalls, and leave no marks, and little scent behind.”
“Will we?” said Bone, hopefully.
“No,” said Notail. “Not now, not tomorrow either.”
Bone shrugged, and started to turn around, but Notail stopped him.
“And we go back exactly the way we came,” he said. “We go quickly and quietly. We tread only in the same pawprints where we trod before.”
Bone did not look convinced by the plan but he followed Notail all the same, treading as carefully as he could in his own pawprints.
When they came to the copse Bone dashed beneath the fallen ash.
Notail settled down on the soft laves beside him and waited for Bone to ask him one of his questions. There was always a question before sleep.
“Will I ever have to find a man to look after me?” asked Bone.
“No,” said Notail. “You are a wild dog now.”
“Good, I’m tired of man,” said Bone, closing his eyes. “I’ll be a wild dog in the Manless Land.”
He was in a lush forest upon rolling hills and it was summer there. There was no hard snow. His paws were warm. The leaves were green upon the branches and they would never fall.
The Pale Fox was there. He looked as Notail had imagined he would. As white as the snow that the Manless Land had cast off with eyes that shimmered with flecks of gold.
“You found me, Notail,” said the Pale Fox and then he was off, running through the forest, zigzagging his way through trees. An owl hooted. Notail ran after the Pale Fox.
They ran for days. Sometimes they ran side by side and sometimes one was ahead of the other. They saw no sign of man. All about them the world was awash with green. An endless forest. An endless and evergreen world. Tree and leaf and grass and moss and all of it free from the choking grey of man’s world. Sunlight fell gently through the canopy. It painted the world with its light. It made the world ever wakeful, never tried, never darkened. He felt no weariness as he ran. It was as if the land he ran through carried him. He could run forever.
When the Pale Fox finally stopped running they had reached a clearing in the forest, a carpet of green.
Notail saw foxes everywhere.
They were foxes he knew. There was his mother and father. He saw Hunter sleeping beneath a tree. His mate was there. His two cubs were sleeping and he nuzzled them as they slept.
“Don’t wake them,” his mate said softly so he nuzzled at her. They nuzzled for a long time.
His mother looked at him like she had always looked at him, with a wonder that he was there, that he not given up.
“The west is close,” said his father.
Notail looked about the clearing for the Pale Fox but he was not there. There were only the foxes he had always known.
“Where is the Pale Fox?” Notail asked.
Nobody answered him.
His cubs woke and ran to him. He nuzzled at them. He watched them play.
“Will you stay here forever?” his mate asked.
Her voice was a faint murmur like the sea. He could barely hear her.
“Yes,” he tried to say but no words came from him.
The clearing faded. The foxes he had always known faded. The Pale Fox was there again.
“You should wake now,” said the Pale Fox, golden eyes shining.
A paw was jabbing at Notail. He opened his eyes and saw Bone.
“It was here,” Bone said, his voice quivering with fear and wonder. “It came right by us.. But it followed our trail and passed on through.”
It was morning. Throughout the copse the snow was marked by huge paw prints. The only sound was the wind crying through the trees. And Notail laughed.
“We tricked it,” he shouted and his tail stub wagged like an excited cub. “We tricked it, Bone. We tricked him.”
Bone frowned and stared at the marks in the snow.
Notail ran from the cover of the fallen ash and darted this way and that about the clearing until his own paw marks had wiped away the Black Dog’s marks and as he ran he knew there was a chance now they would make it. A chance that they would find the Manless Land, that the Black Dog would not have them. I tricked it, he said to himself almost in disbelief, I tricked it.