Chapter 5 - The Old Fox Who Ate a Rat
The old fox had known Notail’s father when they were both young foxes.
Notail’s father had told him stories of the old fox.
“There is only one fox I know of who has never truly feared man,” his father had told him.
Notail had gasped.
His father had looked down at him with a smile.
“Does it surprise you that I say that?” asked his father. “I know what it is. You expect me to tell you that I don’t fear man. That I’m brave and fearless and would fight the world for you.”
His father laughed. It was a sad laugh.
“I’m quick like you,” his father had said, “but I’m not brave. Bravery is a gift given to few and the only fox I have ever known who had it is Hunter.”
His father took him to see Hunter. It was summer and they were full with the food his father had found. The day’s light lingered late into the evening but when the sun finally faded into the blushed horizon they padded along mantracks to a place where man brought their cubs each day. Man would leave their cubs in this sprawling manden for a whole day and no fox knew why. The cubs of man would come one after another. The air would awaken with ringing and the cubs of man would run inside the great manden. Later in the day they would come outside again but never go beyond the stone edge. They would run and play and their voices were never as hard as man’s voices. Their voices were soft and still untarnished by the stoneforest.
“Maybe they teach them how to cook foxes,” one of his brothers had teased him once.
“Yeah, they like foxes who don’t have tails,” said another brother. “Less chopping.”
His father did not know why man brought their cubs to the place.
“Will Hunter know?” asked Notail and his father laughed.
“Hunter might know,” said his father. “But I doubt he cares.”
They found Hunter sleeping upon a high stone edge. It was evening. The place where he slept held the scent of the cubs of man but it was empty now and without light. When they approached he did not wake.
“Isn’t he scared that man will hunt him?” asked Notail.
“I told you,” said his father. “Hunter isn’t scared of anything.”
His father called up to the fox and Hunter lifted his head. He had grey eyes and when he stood Notail saw the scars and old wounds that crisscrossed and marked the fox’s body. He had a thick neck and strong legs. He was larger than Notail’s father but when he saw them he smiled warmly and jumped down from the stone edge.
That night was one of the greatest of Notail’s life. They hunted with Hunter. They caught six mice and three rabbits. They even caught a young cat who begged to be let go.
“Don’t be foolish, cat,” Hunter said as he quickly ended it. “We are foxes and we are hungry.”
As morning broke Hunter showed them the place where he made man feel afraid.
It was a narrow mantrack beneath curved stone that was open at two ends. Sometimes there would be a clacking rumble as a great mancarrier passed overhead. Notail was scared in that place. It was morning and soon man came. Man after man after man. Some with dogs. Notail knew the dogs would smell them but he tried his best to be brave. To show Hunter he was brave.
“I come here every day,” Hunter told him. “I wait for the biggest man to come by. A huge man. It’s better when they have a dog but either way the hunt is good. When they come close to where I hide I leap out all growling and barking and I snap at them.”
“Do you eat them?” Notail had asked.
Hunter did not laugh at him.
“No,” said the fox. “I just scare them and chase them all the way to the river. They always run. Even the dogs run.”
They waited for a big man to come and when one appeared Hunter did exactly what he had promised to do. He leapt out of the undergrowth and barking like a crazy fox he went straight at the terrified man. The man was massive. Fat and broad chested. But as soon as he saw Hunter he ran. He ran faster than Notail thought such a fat man could run and Hunter ran after him. Notail and his father stayed in the undergrowth laughing and laughing and when Hunter returned he joined them in laughter. They ate the cat for breakfast and when Notail got back to his den he told his brothers he had met the bravest fox in the world.
Hunter was old now. Old and whitened and withered and a ghost of who he had been.
He was sitting on the same high stone edge where Notail had first met him. His legs were stick thin now. His neck too weak to hold his head high. His body was covered in so many scars.
He was gnawing on a rat when Notail found him.
He looked up as Notail padded near. Fear rippled through his fur. His stick-thin legs trembled slightly. His grey eyes were wet like they were always ready to weep.
“Man is hunting again,” Hunter said, his voice quivering with age and uncertainty.
A fresh cut ran across Hunter muzzle’s, wet and yellow with infection He had few teeth left.
“They don’t want us here, Notail,” said Hunter. “We should never have left the Manless Land.”
Notail was hungry. He eyed the rat. Hunter could not break through the rat’s bone into the meagre marrow beneath. It was wasted.
“Where do they take foxes?” Notail asked.
Hunter cocked his head and his tired eyes blinked slowly.
“They don’t take them anywhere,” he said.
Notail had known that but Hunter saying the words buried the last scraps of his hope. They were gone.
“Why do you ask me this?” asked Hunter.
Notail did not want to say the words. If he said them they would be true. They would be known.
“Man took my mate and cubs,” said Notail. “Man sent dogs to end us. They ended my mate and cubs.”
Hunter nodded. “Dark times have come,” he said. “I’m sorry for you, Notail. You should leave this place.”
“And go where?” asked Notail.
Hunter lifted his head slowly. He looked tired. An opening slammed shut not far away followed by the laughter of man. Notail glanced around the place where the cubs of man came but they were alone. The cubs of man were not yet awake.
Hunter went back to his rat.
“You should find the Pale Fox,” he said between gummy nibbles.
Notail remembered stories about the Pale Fox. In the Manless Land, in the always west, where the Pale Fox hunts and there is no dread.
It was an old rhyme. A poem to speak on cold nights to warm the world with words. It was a myth. It was a story for cubs and fools.
“There is no Pale Fox,” said Notail.
Hunter looked at him hard and for a very long time. He looked at him from his nose to his tail stub.
“You have no tail,” said Hunter at last. “When you were born I told your father to leave you out in the cold because a fox should be fully formed or he is no fox at all. I thought then that a fox born without a tail would become weak through his inadequacies, a burden on all foxes.. Your father would not listen to me. I see now he was right. You have lived to be strong, strong and quick. Yes, you are alive now but if you stay in the stoneforest you will end like your mate and cubs, like I will end.”
Hunter sighed. He closed his ever-wet eyes. When he opened them they seemed somehow less grey, more like the fox Notail had known all those years ago.
“Listen to me, Notail,” said Hunter, his voice no longer quivering, no longer weak. “You must believe in the Pale Fox, there is nothing else for you now. If you stay in the stoneforest there will only be darkness. There is light out there, I can see it still sometimes, such a faint and pale light. When I was young I often thought about leaving the stoneforest to search for the Manless Land. I knew I could do it. But I liked my stoneforest, I liked the fear I gave man. Now I am too old to go anywhere and Mother Vixen whispers to me so often these days. Her voice is soft and I want to go to it. Oh, Notail, you cannot imagine how she beckons me but that is how it should be. You are young still. Leave the stoneforest Notail, don’t let yourself end because your life here has ended. Find the Pale Fox for me.”
Hunter coughed. The fur around his mouth was red.
“Now leave me,” said the old fox. “I am tired of words.”
Notail padded away. At the edge of the place where the cubs of man came he looked west towards the lingering darkness. His father always said that the Manless Land was in the west where the sun slumbers and the sea softly whispers. Where man cannot tread and there is no dread. In the west. Always west.