I want to submit Foxtails and Soup for a few competitions. Could anyone help me out with some critique?
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.
Dying is easy. I practice it, sometimes. Do you want to try? Think. Find your centre. You have to seperate the mind from the meat. Fuck Descartes; he got it right but didn’t even realise it. If you do it right, you can be a bundle of pure thought, controlling a slab of meat. But it takes practice.
I dont mean any of that breathe-in-breathe-out-find-inner-peace stuff. Me mam tried that for a while; went to classes in with the french lady in block 44. She’d come home and tell me about downward dog and leaping lion and some other shite. Sounded like an orgy to me, but I didn’t tell her that. It made her happy for a while, and sure isn’t that what matters. She stopped going when her back gave out, but she still tried to keep it up. I’d find her frozen in some stupid pose in the kitchen, arms stretched out and legs splayed like a new-born foal. And then one day I came back an hour later and she was back in her usual one, curled up in a ball under the table, shivering. Took me longer than usual to coax her out that time, but I put her in the shower for an hour or so with a bottle of wine and she seemed ok after.
Dying. I’ve done it loads of times. It happened a few times by accident before I learned to control it. The first time time was at the beach when I went out too far, dived under and got confused about which way was up. I panicked and tried to swim to the surface, but it turned out it was the ground. Hit me head bad. I was seven when I died that time.
Then there was the time when I bet myself that I could beat the trains coming out of the tunnel near the canal. I’d leave it til the last moment and duck across the tracks. Their horns where the best part, and the horrified glimpse of the driver I’d get. I always beat them. Except one time, I ran too fast and could’t stop and I fell off the wall and broke my back over a railing. I looked like a half open book, except backwards; with the leather spine bent the wrong way.
Now I can do it whenever I want. I just think in, and find the places that matter. Lungs, heart, brain. The liver is another good one. And the spleen. They get ignored sometimes, but they can do the trick as easy as the others. The hardest one is the muscles. Did you know that every muscle has the strenght to crush bone, if the brain lets them off their leash? So you have to trawl through the brain, try and find that bunch of nerves and convince them that it’s ok, they can take a break and go out for a smoke. The hard part is to make it all happen at once, one giant convulsion where every single muscle cramps violently and shatters the bone it was meant to protect. There’s not much of you left after that one. Just a pinky bag of flesh and tendons and bile and organs.
But that’s not really the hard part. The hard part is putting it back together.
These weren’t woods out of a nightmare; no slaughter had stained this earth, no spirits roamed the hills, nor were they full of moon-speckled ponds and endless spills of flowers. They just were. Trees and earth and sky met in this place and bled into each other without issue in a glorious blur that led the eye upwards, ever upwards.
It wasn’t easy to see the forest for the trees. Even though he could smell the sap and taste the green in the air, the trees seemed more like soldiers in a guard of honour lining the way, lifting their boughs in respect, and saluting the night sky. It felt rude simply to brush stray branches aside, after they had come all the way out here just to watch him pass. So he stepped around them, and tipped his hat in polite respect every time he did.
He hadn’t been walking long. Or had he? The sun was gone and the moon was doing its best to stop the world from drowning in black. It did seem colder. But sure what did it matter. The bottle in his hand remained empty, though. Jesus hadn’t seen fit to show His Almighty Mercy and do a quick refill. Couldn’t blame him really, he must be busy, what with all the freaks infesting His own Church. Must take it out of a guy, even the Son of Himself, chopping off traitorous dicks and sewing up dripping ball sacks with thread pulled directly out of the Holy Spirit’s arse. At least that’s what he hoped Christ Almighty was at, because Christ Almighty, a quick refill wouldn’t have been asking for the world.
The bottle in his hand was heavy, though, too heavy for a bleedin’ empty bottle. Definitely must be some left in there. Raising it to eye level, he craned his neck backwards, the twist moving creakily down his spine while he did his best to squeeze his throbbing eyeball all the way down the bottleneck, in case some cowardly drop had hidden in the corner while its fellows had given their lives to the watery cause. His hands shook and spasmed relentlessly.
Ah. There was the source of the extra weight. Obvious, of course, when you thought about it. The moon had somehow slipped into his cheap bottle of scotch while he wasn’t looking and was huddled down at the very base, rippling and twitching in fear. The whiskey had stained it a dirty brown, but that was all right, he supposed, sure doesn’t it stain us all.
“Howdy-doody,” he crooned. “God bless. Not rightly sure what you’re up to down there in my fine bottle, but you’re welcome, I’m sure. Settle in. Best place to be on a night like this. Here’s hoping tonight does find you fine?”
He put his ear to the lip of the bottle, in case the moon was afraid and could only whisper back. Poor thing.
“S’all right. S’all right. Just you and me here.” Wasn’t it? No one else around here except his guard of honour, but they were loyal. And Christ himself, he supposed. Sure wasn’t he supposed to be everywhere.
The tremors took him again. When they passed, he glanced upwards in case his new friend had stolen back home while he wasn’t looking. But no, the moon wasn’t peering down. Of course it wasn’t. It was nestled in his very own hand, but it wouldn’t even give him a howdy-doody. Bastard. Slacking off. Should be up there in the sky turning the tide and causing earthquakes and whatever the effin’ hell the moon did.
“Get out now, get back up in that sky and stop weighing my bottle down. It’s heavy enough, y’see. I’d leave it here but it’s my effin’ bottle, mine, and you ain’t getting a free ride. Don’t nobody get a free ride. So, Mister Moon, back up you go”
Raising the bottle again, he peered down at his unwelcome passenger. It shivered, but stayed put. He shook it. He tried to pour it out. But it didn’t budge. He threw it onto a patch of down and it rolled to a stop, the bottleneck a pointed finger, accusing him, always accusing him.
“Out,” he roared, “OUT!” his voice echoing down through the glass and bouncing around the innards before echoing back at him.
“OUT out out. OUT out out”
His hands shook again. Carefully, oh so carefully, he crouched, reached out two fingers and dragged the bottle towards him. The moon was gone. Deserted him.
And the blood-blue rage came upon him again. It began low in his shrivelled balls and hummed and revved its way up through his guts and clawed at his skin, tearing wide gashes in his belly as it fought its way out. He grunted, a quiet gunshot of a sound, the force behind it spewing the air from his lungs and the bile from his belly out into the night air. And the fury came with it, in a soundless contraction that shook all thought from his clouded brain and flexed and tested its claws in the air. His fingers convulsed around the dirty brown bottle, spasms twisting his fingers into the painful shapes that sent agony bleeding down his veins towards his centre. But still it held firm, and he held firm, till all of Creation flew by.
Ah. Here now. Here was the crux of the thing.
And then, a shifting.
And then, a shattering.
To pieces, to razor blades that sliced the trees and the earth and the sky to fragments of sensations; a taste, a noise, a burning.
He was hollow now, no hands to hold him up. He let the large glistening shards of once-brown glass slide from his fingers, and twitched, as they cut deep once more. He held his hand palm up, and the moon looked balefully back at him from the puddle that was forming there.
The moon in my hand, my hand in the moon, he giggled. Christ Almighty, I’d better keep you safe, Mister Moon. So he clenched his fist tightly, this time not even flinching as the left-over shards pierced his palm. The trees swayed with him in an endless chorus line.
Keep it safe, he thought vaguely, as he sat down with his back to a friendly tree. Or was it a soldier? Didn’t really matter. He wanted to sleep. But someone should watch over him, watch over his dirty thoughts and dirty hands, no matter what. Christ, his guard of honour, all those bastard stars – surely someone would keep him safe. Watch over him, he and the moon, the moon and he, and keep them safe.
It is not one in a thousand, it is simply one plucked from a thousand; nondescript, stale. The cover is bright - unbearably so - slashes of colour that spin and intersect in vicious angles, then spin off into their own personal futures. It hurts the eye to follow, leave them be. The title is illegible, in stark, dark red, hidden behind the joyous loops and swirls of the blues and greens and yellows. They seek to bury it, bury it alive, drown it in the saccharine sweetness of colour, make it lose its way along the rainbow trail. Odd, but no matter.
The dedication page is blank. No one to thank, it seems. But the peer reviews are good, adjectives sliding into their quotation marks like obedient dogs, slinking home late at night to gaze up at you beatifically. You do not notice their bloodstained gums.
The first page does not disturb, simple random strings of words; amino acids creating endless chains of DNA. Nothing remarkable, nothing strange, nothing strange. But a pulsing behind the eyes begins. Barely noticeable, surely not worth throwing two ether-drops into a glass to sizzle and melt. An itch, even.
By the end of chapter one, the words have passed straight through the mind and left but a faint, tacky, sweet-smelling residue. No matter at all. But the itch has become a scratch. And so you scratch. Gently, at first. Surely your clumsy fingers can draw out the poison, but no. Harder.
To continue, to the topic at hand: For you are not one to leave a book unfinished, oh no. They are only words, and words are your friend, and friends are your words.
You fly through chapters two, three, four, five, skimming over the paragraphs, for that vague sense of unease you began with has become not-so-vague at all. Rather, it is coming into focus - the lens adjusts as it takes root. Your gorge rises. Imagination, quite sure, quite sure. But swallowing will not clear this tightness, nor this itch. You scratch at your eyes again, but the pain swells twofold for every fingernail you claw across your raw and tearless brow.
A break, your body cries, take a break! Leave this behind. Close the covers, leave no bookmark. Leave it under the bed to gather dust with the rest, with the words that were not remarkable enough to endure. Put it away, away, away.
Yet you persevere. Why not? A book can cause no stir, no ripple in the wider scheme of things. Yet you do ripple. Waves of blood wash up from your feet to come to rest on the top of your brain, joining the rest and adding to the weight that has suddenly appeared, building and swelling behind your eyes. Turn the page. Scratch.
The next few chapters are hard, the pressure builds and builds, but you must finish. Scratch. You enlist your index finger to help you wade through the words, clawing at each sentence; a frustrated toddler again. The pages bleed ink; your fingers scythe through the words and leave raped and abandoned phrases in their wake. Yet the ink is red, not black. Curious. Scratch. The pressure builds, you must hurry. Pages fly, you fly. Everything is frantic, frantic, no time to pause, to consider, just scratch, and go, and scratch, and run, and -
Relief. Sweet relief. The final chapter is here, and it is but a page long. You gaze at the block of type as a whole, unwilling to begin dissecting the words just yet; revel in the moment of success. But your eyes ache still. Scratch. Again. But the end, the end –
Something bursts - a rupturing abscess, releasing the steam and screams that had been building up, and up, since the very first sentence. Darkness. There is a whistling in your ears. How distracting. But the itch has passed. The words have vanished too, washed off the page by a sea of blood. Vexsome, vexsome. So close to the end, to the who-knows-what sort of revelations.
But perhaps the darkness is better.
I want to hunt out the virus. Stalk it, find the root of the darkness. Begin inside, and dig. Find that bright black marble that weighs a thousand suns and yet fits snugly in the pit of the belly.
I want to follow its poison, track its course through the arteries and veins and watch the heart strain to pump the toxin from the crown to the toes. And further.
I want to follow its progress to the brain, track its effects. I want to write what it feels like, deep, deep down. I want to capture every sick stray thought that flits by through the day, every thought that is too dangerous, too perverse, the ones that never can be spoken aloud. And I want to track those thoughts, hunt them down through the Serengeti of the mind, see where they start, split, fizzle out, and end.
I want to work from the inside out. Discover how it spreads and flows and comes pouring out with each touch. How the fingers, the tongue, the eyes become carriers, how the it bleeds out into the world and affects the people next to you, down the street, in your life.
It’s in the home. It’s in your mother, father, friend. It’s in the day to day. Its in those little twitches and flinches that add up to a horror more unbearable than a knife in the dark. It’s already here, it’s always been here.
I will hunt it down. And when I have tracked it through the forests of years, watching it, imitating its moves, following where it leads, I will find it. And I will have become it.
I might use this older piece as a start off point… Is it any good? Potential for a whole story?
Once, in a pile of late spring snow, I found another dead thing.
I had half-closed my eyes to save them from the glare, daring myself to keep them closed for longer and longer each time before snapping them open in fright as I stumbled or felt a shadow looming across my path. There never was a shadow, only the pale lightscape of the early morning. Last night’s skyfall had not yet frozen, only recently gathered; it was soft and gave easily beneath my boots. The first perfect snowflakes that had come with the first fall had long gone; this was white sand, the delicate shapes shattered again and again by the freeze into tiny grains of ice that flew easily before the wind. All white, horribly, eye-searingly white.
Then, a blotch of brown, darker still than the dirty street that could be seen in the tracks of the few early cars. Crouching, I exposed my treasure, scraping and dusting and brushing and clearing. A foot. Another. A tail. I stopped, but only to pull off my thick woollen gloves. Dark red, with patches of white, and cream, and tan, and brown, and all the colours of the sandpit. Two more feet. A head, creaked backwards in an eternal yawn. Its – his - eyes were open and glassy, the viscous fluid behind them frozen solid.
The world itself froze solid, as if in sympathy. Its fur was crystal, the slightest touch would shatter it, shatter the moment, shatter the morning, break the world clean in half along the horizon line, opening a yawning abyss that would suck all down, down, down.
The old saying goes that the last thing a man sees is imprinted on his dying eyes. In all my life I have been afraid to look, afraid to see the fear in the eyes of the ones I loved, and even the ones I didn’t love. I wondered if it held true for foxes, because deep in the centre of each pupil, there was a spark, a spark of light, of white. I pondered what this poor beast had seen in its dying moments, and if the cold had taken him before he even knew it, and if it had been swift.
I remember bending low to inhale; expecting to taste that same sweet-rot smell that had followed the dead things in my mother’s garden. But the air had been fresh, brisk even.
A spare flurry of icy wind, left behind by gusty orgy of the night before, raced down the street; funnelled by the steep roofs and tuned by the narrow streets. The village was an organ, and last night the wind had raped and plundered every hole. Another gust tinkled down the street and down my spine.
I stood then, and saw that full dawn had come. Without looking down, I kicked at the loose snow, leaving my treasure to his powdery tomb. The thaw would come. Till then, the ice would keep him fresh, unsullied, ready to accept the tears of some lonely widow or child who had left the back gate open one night too many. The thaw would come.
The thaw comes for us all.
Sometimes, I wish the men in the white coats would come to take me away. I wish they’d come and break down the door with their syringes and straightjackets.
So I could fight them. So I could tear out hanks of hair and rip off ears with my teeth and break noses with my forehead. So I can bloody them as they have bloodied me.
So I could fight the people that say: you are sick and we will fix you.
I am not yours to fix.
And when I would stand, triumphant, over their broken and bleeding bodies, I would take a piece of newspaper, gather them up in it like the flies and parasites they are, and flush them down the toilet.
Come, come, come, take me away-oh
Take me away, away, away, away-oh
Let’s play, play, play, play-oh
Come and set me free.
I tried to drown myself in the bathtub, once.
Mostly out of curiousity, I must confess. The underwater world had always intrigued me - the clanging of filled ears, the blurred vision, the world in slow motion. It took an age for a limb, a wisp of hair to move from one side to another. The sounds that filtered down were blunt; edges shaved off by the layers of water. And when I screamed and screamed until it turned to laughter, all I heard was an echo, echo, echo.
I held my head under the water for as long as I could. I forced mysef to keep my eyes open, to document every second of my death. It hurt, oh it hurt. But it was a good pain. My lungs contracted, my veins tried to squeeze every last piece of oxegen from their midst, and my vision darkened.
I tried to die.
But the body always choses life. The Descartian struggle never ends; it is not a partnership but a constant battle between body and mind, mind and body.
The mind can choose death, but the meat choses life. The meat will always choose life.
I was ten.
Start far away, in the great OutThere, in the place of mind-wrenching vastness.
Zoom in, in. Faster than thought, faster than light. Further. Through all the walls and trees and people. Outlines blur, boundaries melt away. There. Target. A figure, a lone figure in a landscape. Fall through the flimsy barriers that the human body pretends to. Skin, teeth, nails. Focus.
There. See? There is a tar pit, inside. It clings tightly to the stomach lining and makes its home there. Black, syrupy, foul-breathed - early man knew it, feared it. Death to any who wade into its midst. A mass of darkness.
Sometimes it lies still; a child giggling, trembling and frozen in a cupboard, praying the seeker will walk past her hiding place. It even seems to shrink, then, while it lies hidden; pulsating smugly, secure.
Other times it explodes into life, doubling, tripling in size until it grazes the top of the throat. It is alive then, and it is angry. Clawing its way out, it rips gashes and slashes from the innards. Huddle, foetally, clutching desperately at shreds of flesh to try and keep lifesblood from leaking out. Freezeframe. In that moment before the last vestige of consciousness slips away and the subjective world dissapates into objectivity, anonymity.
And there, we leave. The camera spirals out, a slumped figure centred on a tiled floor. The pattern is red and black, repeating in a gentle vortex. In the centre, something twitches.
Face down, eviscerated, waiting to die.