I’m having a go at writing something longer and in a slightly different style to usual. So, in the spirit of getting this blog up-and-running again for the New Year, I thought I’d share some of it here…
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Five days after the fox was first sighted on the island, I awoke to a dreadful clamour coming from downstairs. I heard the voices of the children crying loudly, and that of the master – his usually restrained tones raised in anger.
Throwing on my day dress and tugging my shawl about my shoulders, I hurried down and was surprised to find the family, as well as a number of the villagers, crowded in the kitchen. In front of the hearth, slumped in the wooden ease chair near the hearth, was Mabel Cowden, her hair filthy, and her pale face covered with a sheen of sweat.
Her dry lips moved against one another, shivering and humming but making no sense as the master paced back and forth and Anna, who stood closest to Mabel, tried to coax her into taking a few swallows of water.
“I saw it.”
For a moment, none of us realised it was Mabel who had spoken. We looked around, each of us staring at another. My eyes met with those of the master, whose dark brow was furrowed with tiredness and frustration.
“I saw it,” Mabel whispered again, lifting a pale, crab-like hand towards Anna, who took it in her own ruddy palms and chafed it gently for warmth. “It came to me in the night; it brought me such terrible dreams.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Margaret usher the children quietly and firmly from the room. Mabel’s papery eyelids fluttered closed against her cheek and, for a moment, I thought she had fainted. But, after a moment, she opened her eyes once more and continued with a story that trickled into the room like foetid water.
She had been asleep, she said, tucked up in the small room at the back of her son’s cottage, when a strange noise woke her. She couldn’t explain why, but it frightened her, this sound, summoning up nebulous, half-buried memories. It wasn’t anything she could put her finger on; all she knew was that it unlocked parts of her memory that would have been better off staying tucked away.
Seized with fear, she lay in her bed, trying to decide whether to stay there or to get up and investigate. Finally, overcome with fear for the safety of her son and his wife, she crept out from her bed and across the floor of the main room.
Lit by the dying embers of the fire, she saw the shapes of her son and his wife in their bed against the wall, sleeping soundly and apparently undisturbed by the sound that had wakened her.
Outside the door of the cottage, with only blankets and a nightgown to cover her, Mabel had stood in the buffeting wind and listened again for the sounds. Minutes passed but they did not recur; only the thunder of the sea and wind could be heard.
But just as she was on the verge of going back to bed, and attributing the strange noises to old age and an over-active imagination, she heard the sound again – a faint wailing sound that trembled and rose over the wind, as though an infant were being shaken, its cries distorted. The sound was coming from the coastal path.
By this point in her story, Mabel’s face had become reddened – whether from the strain of remembering or her proximity to the hearth. But when Anna stepped forward, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder to move her back, Mabel tore herself away and huddled over in what I realised must be the same blankets from the previous night. Clutching her hands tightly around her, she continued with her tale.
She had walked away from the door of the cottage, she said, feeling as though she were in a dream. And as she neared the path, from the long grass at the top of the coastal path there emerged a shape – that of a slender fox, which curled back on itself to look at her, its eyes flashing with a reddish glow.
Like an eel, it slipped soundlessly down over the edge of the cliff toward the beach. And without knowing why, she followed it. The cold air and the rough stones underfoot hadn’t bothered her, she said, and she soon found herself picking her way down the cliff in a way she hadn’t dared for many a year.
At first, when she reached the sand, she couldn’t see a thing. The moon had shifted behind the clouds and she stood there in the dark, the sea growling and hissing on the sand far to her left. But as the moon emerged once more, and the beach was lit up, she saw that the fox was there, not five feet in front of her, its red eyes staring at her with something akin to malice.
Extending one dark, slender paw, it dipped its head and made to creep towards her. Weak with a sudden and inexplicable terror, she had turned to run only to feel a tearing pain on the back of her calf, then again on her thighs and buttocks. Wheezing out only the barest of screams in the frozen air, she had lost her balance and fallen headlong on to the sand as the snapping, tearing pains continued and, finally, she had lost consciousness.
When she awoke, it was to the feel of soft rain on her face. Opening her eyes, she found herself looking up at the vast, dove grey skies of early morning, her body rigid and half-buried in the sand as though she had burrowed down into it. At first, she thought she must have wandered in her sleep, though she had no history of sleepwalks. But as she struggled to lift herself from the damp cradle in which she lay, she had felt terrible burning stings all over her skin.
Lifting the blanket, which was twisted around her, she had looked down at herself to see where such terrible pains could be coming from. And there, all over her arms, legs, and God help her, her body, beneath the wet sand that clung to her skin, were the wide and unmistakable bite marks of a man.