Have you ever heard a red fox cry, deep in the night?
It is something unearthly. People past took it for the cry of that herald of death, the banshee, and locked their doors and prayed all night for deliverance. I do not blame them. It is not unlike the scream of a severed hand, or a mother who has left a child alone in the bath too long. It is a shriek, if ever there was a shriek. It will freeze your marrow and you become fixated by the silence that follows; eardrums pounding. Unable to move or breathe. And it comes out of the dark.
It is terror.
When we heard it the cry, we knew it was no banshee, but it brought death all the same. We knew we would find bloody feathers strewn across the field and there would be no eggs for dinner.
The cattle would spook and try to run somewhere, anywhere. One, a mottled cow, broke its leg on a twisting rock and bellowed its agony until morning. My father shot it at dawn. Another time, one tried to escape through the barbed wire by the shore and managed to slit its own throat. The blood was dark and thick and the crows had already eaten out its eyes by the time we found it.
The worst were the lambs. We would often find one mauled in the field; wool clotted with dirt and blood. I would cry, because I would name each and every lamb that was born to us, and knew them all well.
My father set out poisoned chunks of meat for the fox and nailed shut every gap and tear in the fence, but it was no use. All we found was a couple of dead rats and, once, the sheepdog foaming and convulsing beside a chunk of half-eaten meat.
So it was. All things died, and all for a cry in the night. The red fox gives tongue to death for all the small things of this world.
The fox didn’t scare us during the day; it was only at night that his shrieks left us cowering.
In the sun, we would go hunting with our stick-swords and stick-arrows to find him. No bush or earth was safe from us. Once, we even wandered down to the sea shore, but all we found there was a crab with one claw. We pulled the other claws off, one by one, and watched it die before going inside for tea. And so the hunt went on.
When the snows came and the early lambs died under frozen drifts, my father assured us that the fox had frozen too. We would cheer, but a part of me remained uneasy. Who could we fight, with our stick-swords, if not the fox? Who could we blame for the stolen eggs, the broken fences, the missing calves?
And so it was that winter was a time of suspicion, a time to watch the neighbours from a curtained window, to count their herd each day and leave a lit lamp in the barn all night.
But come the melt, the smiles and the handshakes returned. The fox was surely the culprit, once more, and grudges were put away for a season.
But one of the grudges festered, an ancient one.
For generations, the farm next door had been both our closest neighbours and our worst enemies. Our grandfathers had fought, and our great-great-grandfathers had bickered, and we were no different. Arguments would swell and soften, swell and soften, and sometimes burst like a ripe old boil.
The fox got our chickens, and he somehow gained more eggs. We took a lamb or three from his fields in the night, and suckled them from bottles in the furthest barn. And so it went on, back and forth, back and forth.
Once, my father’s prize bull got loose and impregnated three of our neighbour’s cows. He said the gate had come lose, but my father was sure that it had been opened on purpose in the night. They fought for months, but my father managed to get the rights to any male calves born on our neighbour’s farm that year, so there was a form of peace, for a while longer.
The only true peace came in the spring and summer, the gentler halves of the year, when the red fox could be blamed for each and every wrong.
And so it was. And one November, when our neighbour dared to blame the fox for yet another missing chicken, my father took up his wood-axe and lodged it in his throat.
My mother saw it happen from the kitchen window. She screamed, a little, and clapped her hands to her mouth and stood there, panting. We ran to the window to see what had startled her so.
We saw my father, frozen still, and the neighbour, looking ridiculous with a wooden shaft sticking out at an impossible angle from his neck.
It was dusk, and growing dark, but when my father looked up, we all saw the flashing anger in his eyes which meant this was not our business. He gave us the same look when we were sent to fetch him from the pub, or when we tugged at his coat asking for penny-sweets while he talked to the priest after mass.
My mother pulled the curtains closed.
She went back to her range and stirred the stock so hard it spilled and hissed on the hot surface. She set us to chopping vegetables. I was in charge of the carrots; I liked to cut them a certain way and I would fuss and fret if one of my siblings was given the job. We worked in silence.
When the soup was done and simmering, my mother did not call my father in for supper, as she usually did. Instead we sat around the table and ate without him. She had set him a place, though, and his favourite chair seemed so wrong without him that we kept stealing glances at it to make sure he truly wasn’t there. The soup was burnt, that night. I remember. My carrots were perfect, as usual, but the rest had cooked too long. No one complained.
When my father came in, we were in bed, having gone without arguing this once. Our house was thin and creaky, and our rooms sat on top of the kitchen. The heat from the range wafted up and kept us warm at night, and the smell of eggs and fried bread would wake us every morning. That night, after he came in through the back kitchen door, all we could smell was whiskey, strong and earthy.
We saw no more of our neighbour, and spoke even less of him.
And so it was that the red fox was the death of more than just small things.
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