This is Sarah Wheeler's Competition Winning Story. Her inspiration was the prompt 'Be a good animal. True to your animal instinct.'
The first time he struck, we made our excuses.
Like the apologists, who take to Facebook and the letters page of the Western Daily Press, we tried to see it from his point of view.
He’s only doing what comes naturally, I reasoned.
Boy, eyes red, his voice choked with tears and snot, was less convinced.
We’ll have to bury her, he insisted, in between sobs.
So, reverently, together, we collected the shards of Beaky. There wasn’t much left, a few strands of tail, a white wing feather bearing her distinctive dark, non-breed-standard, patch. A trial of soft breast down was already rapidly blowing away in the late afternoon sunlight, like a cloud of dandelion seeds, but we gathered what we could, put the pieces in a shoebox, and saved her, for internment later.
As a parent, part of the rationale for getting a pet is this, I told myself; the small losses that foreshadow others, the gradual familiarisation with our own mortality, death in bite-sized pieces, if you’ll forgive the pun. However, confronted by the immediacy of Boy’s tears, and the shrieks of the traumatised survivors, who were still perched precariously on the shed guttering, refusing to come down, I was not so sure.
I don’t much care for anthropomorphism. Pictures of miniature pugs wearing polka dot bandanas, kittens in pink tutus, and the internet craze for pet shaming, leave me cold, and slightly uncomfortable. Mostly, I want to shake the owners, and tell them their Lasha Apso trashed the Phillipe Stark sofa, and gorged itself on toilet roll, because they left it alone all day, that, if it’s staring at the camera with those doleful puppy dog eyes, it’s because it’s bored and hungry, not out of some sense of Judaic-Christian guilt.
But, in the wake of Fox, I discovered that, if funny animal stories didn’t exist, like God, we’d have to invent them.
No longer in thrall to his wildness, in my retelling, Fox became more than the sum of his hunger, his lust to survive, to outrun hounds and spread his progeny. Instead, he was a lesson in parenting skills, extrajudicially killing, only because it was necessary, to feed his cubs.
The second-time Fox came, he took a Pekin pullet. At least, we thought it was Fox. We never saw him, just his calling card of feathers, a slither of bone, and fear.
Over the following days, and weeks, we lost more birds. As Boy grew more sanguine, I turned into an aproned vigilante. I kept the birds shut in if I was not around, and, when I was working from home, I took my morning coffee or lunch outside, sat in an old deckchair in the barn, and watched them through a gap in the wall timbers.
I never caught a glimpse of fox. Like a film noir serial killer, he regularly left behind a grisly totem, a curl of fur, or a strip of turf, incised by a frenzy of claw.
I couldn’t see Fox, but he was always there, like a thunder cloud, the threat of violence hung heavy in the air.
On All Souls’ Day, he took a broody hen, and left her clutch of eggs, cold and useless as stones.
That night, I lay awake, listening for the bark of dog fox, but all I could hear was the lashing rain, the distant hum of tyres on the wet road, and the isolated chime of the clock in the hall. I looked out of the bedroom window, but the night was moonless, the security light hadn’t clicked on, and I couldn’t even make out the barn, or the edge of the box hedge. The outline of all that was familiar was lost in the dark, our cottage adrift in the darkness.
Somewhere, in the blackness, a screech owl called. Ethereal, and insistent. I stood listening to her cries, my feet cold on the bare floor boards, my mind chilled with the recollection of myth and an old wives’ tale, the owl as harbinger of death.
Unsettled, I crawled back to bed, where I tossed and turned, and, in a semi-deranged, insomniac state, listened for the shrieks of chicken in her plaintive song. When I finally fell asleep, the owl had long stopped, a robin was cheerily cheeping, and sky was broken by a delicate pink band of morning sun, but still the spectre of fox crept through my dreams.
Opening the hen house up that morning, I held my breath as I, literally, counted my chickens. Despite the previous night’s portentous cawing, there were no casualties.
Later, at my desk, I checked the morning’s email. There was a message from Jared, our nearest neighbour and one-time gamekeeper.
Good morning, he wrote, I think I may have solved your fox problem.
I clicked on the attachment, and watched the JPEG unfurl. Slowly, it revealed the sleek outline of fox, caught in a shaky flashlight, her pelt warm against the earth, like a swath of ripped velvet, eyes luminous, unreal as glass, all-knowing in the darkness, perfect and still, frozen in death.
When I told Boy, he air punched the sky. Yay, he shouted, before running off to spread the good news to the chickens.
I felt relief, but something else too. Not sadness, or sorrow, exactly, but an absence, the loss of something, which challenged and vexed me, like the sting of salt on winter dry skin, or the creak of an old church door.
A few days later, hoeing under the reach of our beech hedge, I found a fan of grey feathers, not chicken, but a remnant of wood pigeon, its ribcage ripped and flattened, like some macabre dream-catcher. I pushed the remains back under a blanket of leaves, and kicked some soil over them, so Boy wouldn’t see.
I held the secret of Fox close to myself, where it chilled me, and warmed me, in equal measure.