Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Dance of the Fox

An excerpt from one of my novels, Children of the Lie.

Someone was shaking her, calling her name, "Come on, Jo, wake up.  It's time to go."  It was her father, his face fleshy, alternating from shadow to a blurred yellowing in the moving glow of torchlight.  He helped her into thick trousers and a  heavy woollen jumper.  She always hated the feel of wool on her bare skin, but she could not find her shirt and he was in a hurry to go. The jumper was far too big for her and each sleeve needed to be folded back twice.  Grandma Blackman had knitted it for her sixth birthday, with plenty of room to grow.  She was now seven and she seemed to have done very little growing.
"Hurry up and finish,"  her father said, "and meet me out the front.  The Nelson's are already here...I just heard their car.  It's after one already."
She had begged to be able to go rabbiting  with him for so long and today he  had said yes.  Bill Nelson's son, John, was coming along, her father told her,  and he was the same age as her...they would keep each other busy so they did not get in the way.
The house was in darkness as she walked up the hall.  The door to her mother's room was tightly closed, but she knew she was awake, lying in the middle of the bed, her head resting against the veneered back; listening.  There was a sense of adventure to the moment,  a joyful turning of excitement in her stomach, replaced for a moment by a stab of fear.  What if her mother should call through the door and say she could not go?  The living room seemed to stretch before her,  dark and empty,  a no-man's land. She had  been tip-toeing and now she ran, not caring how much noise she made, wanting only to be out of the door and onto the verandah before her mother could call and demand that she stay.
Everyone was in the car  waiting for her.  "Hurry up, Jo or we'll leave  you behind," her father said,  half joking as he lifted her across his lap to sit beside John,  who was huddled, half asleep in the back seat.
He was a wiry boy, John, although some would have said scrawny, and his  pale skin was heavily freckled.  He had an unruly mop of bright red hair which earned for him the nickname  of  Blue,  but only in  the schoolyard,  since neither the teacher nor John's parents approved of the name and therefore it did not follow him into the classroom or home. Jo was in the same class and, although she did not know John well,  she liked what she had seen of him.  He was a quiet boy, serious and shy and remarkably good at his school work.  They both sat up the back of the classroom; Jo because she thought that such a position made it easier to avoid the attention of  the teacher and thus she would not be called upon to answer questions and John simply because he preferred to sit somewhere that he could watch everyone and everything that took place.
 He didn't look very excited,  thought Jo, as she moved in beside him.  In fact, he looked as if he desperately wanted to be anywhere but  where he was.   "Are you okay?"  she whispered.  He nodded.  "Yeah,  just a bit tired," he replied,  burying the words in the thick woollen scarf which he wore around his neck.  The night was cold and the words arrived in a frosting of breath.  The beads gathered on the window and Jo watched as John traced his finger  through the misted glass.
She giggled as he quickly wiped away at the icy letters B-U-M, taking a quick,  guilty glance at her father as she did so.  He had not noticed.  He was drinking from a bottle which Mr Nelson had passed over from the front seat.  John rubbed at his trousers with the wet sleeve of his coarse-knit jumper.  He gave Jo a conspiratorial grin.  He was beginning to look more cheerful and she was glad of that.  She felt as if she had a true and noble companion on this night of great adventure.
She turned back to look at her father, hoping that he was not still drinking from the bottle.  She did not want him to drink, not tonight and yet already the sour smell of beer was rolling from his breath.  His eyes glittered in the silver light.  She turned back to look through John's window instead.  The night was black, but the moon was full and the stars shimmered in an icy sprinkle, high up, on the roof of the world.  Along the side of the road, trees like ghosts, stark and straight, the bark silvered by the lunar light.  The gums hung twisted arms across the road and, from time to time,  a  flash of quick-bright eyes and a fluttering of shapes, as the  birds rose and re-settled, disturbed by the lights from the car and this unexpected passing.
The voices grew louder.  Jo was glad to see that her father had passed the bottle back to John's uncle.  The men were taking about the last time they went hunting...retelling past times, past lives.
"Can you find the saucepan?" John whispered.  She leaned across him, staring into the glittered black,  but the shape eluded her.  "There it is...see," said John, pointing across the top of the sleep-humped hills.  She followed the line of his finger: "I see it.  I see it!" There was a sense of wonder,  as always,  in finding  some meaning in the stars.
"That's what God cooks in,"  she said to John.  "Don't be silly,"  he replied.   "God doesn't eat!" Jo began to feel distressed at the thought of a hungry God.  "Why not?" she asked.  "Because he doesn't need to," John replied,  in the tone of voice he usually reserved for his much younger siblings.  "He's God and he can do anything he wants, so why should he eat?"
Jo was not prepared to let the matter slip quite so easily.  "Well,"  she said, forming her  words carefully, "If he did want to eat...  then,  well then, he could cook in the saucepan...if  he wanted to.  It's there, just in case he needs it!" she finished, with a triumphant edge.
"Guess so," said John, conceding defeat in the face of such logic,   although sounding more than a little uncomfortable about the outcome of the conversation.
It was then that the car turned off the sealed road and drove onto a bush track  with a resounding thump.  They began to bump and slide, with an ominous rolling from side to side,  the dust rising in a thick belching outside the windows.  The men were all laughing as the car wallowed and drifted in the soft dirt,  throwing up rocks and stones  which clattered beneath them.
Jo felt frightened.  She looked at John...he was frightened too.  His freckles stood out, sharp-edged and solid against his pallid face,  and his lips had all but disappeared, clenched as they were between his teeth. "We're going too fast,"  Jo whispered, trying to sound unconcerned and  hoping desperately that he would contradict her.
"My dad always drives too fast.  He likes it.  I don't,"  John replied, hugging his arms ever tighter around the rough wool of his jumper.  Both children sighed when at last the car came to an abrupt halt.
"You two stay here,"  said John's father."We're just going to load our guns and open the gates to the paddock."
The men set up a spotlight on the front bonnet and then took their rifles from the boot, loading and checking them in the light of a portable lantern, before returning to the car.
"Now for some bunnies," said John's father, as he drove off the track and into the paddock.  "You two keep to that side and stay quiet,"  he added firmly.   "With any luck,  you'll have baked bunny for tea tomorrow night."
The car lurched across the open paddock like some wild beast trying to break free.  John's uncle and Jo's father leaned out of their windows, rifles cocked and ready, waiting for the flash of bright, red eyes ... caught for an eternal moment in the glare of the spotlight.  Jo felt John's arm creep around her and slid her arm around his waist at the same time.  She was glad that she had someone to hold on to.
The car heaved and thudded across the roughly cleared ground, tearing its way between the great, dry sods of fallow soil; the wind  screamed bitter cold through the open windows,  biting and chewing at her face.  It was like riding some great, groaning monster, rising and falling on the swell and  the surge of the earth's wild waves. Through the front window she could see the phantasmal world which had  been stolen from the night by the cruel brilliance of the spotlight; a world of spectral shapes and blinded eyes, of small pounding hearts and sudden death.
The rifles cracked in short, hard blasts.  Jo hid her face in John's bony shoulder.  When she raised her  head again, hands crushed over both ears, she could see, over the rim of the  door, a flash and twinkling of small, red stars,  scattered across the shadowed night and then,  for a moment,  something new,  a yellowed narrowness, larger than the other eyes, still for a moment, as if watching, waiting...then gone in an explosive instant.
"Got him!" roared her father.  "I'll bet that's the fox you boys have been after!"
"Smart bugger, that one," said John's father.  "He's had a good run though, done his fair share of damage.  Bit of good luck, him choosing tonight to chase bunnies too!"
When the car slowed and both men pulled their rifles back through the window,  Jo knew it was over.  She was glad.  She would not ask to come again.  It wasn't much fun, at all.  She didn't see why her father liked it so much. They retraced their path, collecting the carcases as they did so, pushing them into a large hessian sack, which had been fixed to the side of the car.
 It took them a while to find the was not where they had expected.  It  did not die instantly, but had managed to drag itself almost to the fence, despite the mortal tearing in its belly. As it lay, folded onto the dry, barren earth, lit by the glow of the lantern, it  seemed, thought Jo, as if it were asleep.  A black, wet lingering trailed from the soft and lifeless body and disappeared beyond the pool of light.  Jo had not felt sorry for the rabbits, she knew they were a nuisance to the farmers and, anyway, she liked to eat them.  But the fox,  that was different, she did feel sorry for the fox.
It was the first real fox she had seen,  apart from the one around Great-aunt Sisi's neck, but that didn't count, she told herself,  because it had no insides.  This  one had insides, but it was just as dead.  The small, pointed teeth shone bright sharp and she wanted to reach out and touch them...but maybe it wasn't really dead,  maybe it was just fooling and, as soon as she reached out, it would bite her. She stepped back,  hiding just a little behind her father's leg as he reached out and picked up the fox by its tail.  But it did not bite, not even when it was shoved unceremoniously into the sack.  It must really be dead, she said to herself, even though it hadn't looked like it.  It wasn’t such a big hole in its belly and nothing was falling out...she didn't really understand why it had to be dead.  She hadn't realised it was that easy to be dead.
When the last, warm, soft body had been gathered, the car pulled off  to the side of the paddock, near a small but tenacious scrub of trees.  Jo and John were sent to gather wood for a fire, while the men set up extra lanterns and polished their skinning knives.  The fire lit, the billy set to boil, Jo sat with John on a log pulled close to the warming flames and watched as the rabbits were skinned. The knives shone, moon-sharp, sliding through the shadows; a tearing and wrenching and then, the limp, pink body thrown to one side onto a damp hessian sack, the still fur-dressed head,  lolling open-mouthed.  The men  worked quickly, stopping only to stir the tea and then to pour it into chipped enamel mugs.
Jo held both chilled hands around her mug, even though it was almost too hot to bear.  Despite the fire which blazed and crackled at her feet,  she felt frozen,  all the way inside.
They had had a good night,  the men said,  some three-dozen rabbits, some for eating, some for selling.  The skins would be sold too, hung first on the wire fence at the farm to dry, crisp and hard on the flesh side, while the fur remained grey,  silk-soft.  Jo wondered if they would skin the fox.  She hoped not.   She didn't want to see that happen. Because her father had shot the fox, it was his to keep.  The pelt was valuable, she heard them say, and this fox was a good one, not like the usual moth-eaten pests which hung around the place. This fox had fur that was rich and titian-thick.
Jo began to doze, falling against John's shoulder as she did so when she heard the men begin to laugh; she looked up and saw her father, standing on the edge of the glowering firelight, the body of the fox draped around his neck, a trickle of blood dribbling between the pointed teeth onto the front of his shirt.  He began to dance, wild and taunting, around the rise and reach of the red-gold flames, laughing as he did.  She could hear the bright-burned crush of leaves underfoot; the  thin, brown scales of the shedding gums.
He twirled and turned like a woman dressed in long, swirling skirts, raising the tail of the fox to rest coyly beneath his eyes.  Jo watched his face.  This was no-one she knew.  He seemed unaware of the blood, which continued in a slow, black  drip, down the front of his clothes.
"Come on Charlie, you're making a mess of yourself,"  said John's father, after taking a quick look at the stricken faces of the children.  "The damn thing is  bleeding on you.  Get it off and stop larking around."
With a quick sweep of his hand, her father swung the fox by the tail, onto a  blackened tree stump and within a few flashes of the knife, had raised the shining red-gold pelt,  high into the air. "What a little beauty!"  he roared.  "That deserves another beer."
The carcase, raw and naked, lay across the stump, until John's father  walked over and chopped it into pieces, ready to take back to the farm to be fed to the dogs.
Jo felt as if some sacred violation had taken place, but whether it was because of the fox or because of her father, she was not quite sure.  She looked up at the sky, fearing the wrath of the gods, but the night had no frown for the face of the moon.


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