With his snaggle tooth reflecting the full moon’s burr, he whispers a plume of breath into the chill, pulls the neck strap to his crimson velvet cloak and starts along the track. Buckles on uncomfortable shoes clunk with each step. Halting under a bowed elm, he bends down to release his tightbound leather and gilt strapped paws. Nobody will see them anyway, not in that light, not until it is much too late.
Every night he walks the track, from his den to the edges of the glade. Every night he waits in the shadows, watching, listening, sniffing the air. He curses the forest, curses the track and the night, the illuminating constellations. He curses the ground and the sky. Curses himself.
He stands for hours under the limpid moon as the trees behind him rustle and creak. In front, the wheat field undulates like a tranquil sea in the breeze. It is peaceful and quiet out here. An ominous sort of quiet.
Potential quarry wanders past, unseeing, unknowing. Here, a young couple, entwined like nuzzling honeysuckle. Best to leave them be, for now. And there, a shawl headed old lady waddling down the hill. She carries a basket covered with muslin, bound for somewhere in the village. She’s no good, someone is expecting her. She’d be missed too soon. Let her pass. Let her go into the twilight. Wait, wait, while the mist kisses the evening and the darkness amplifies the chattering forest.
Later, a staggering man, singing, whistling up the track. A pipe by his side chuffs thin arcs of smoke with each enebraited arm swing. At first he looks like a promising catch, but as his rotund, heavy silhouette unmerges from the gloom, it becomes clear that he won’t do. He’s fat and far too heavy. No, he won’t do at all. Be patient, wait, and the right one will come. They always do.
“Just one more. Just one more…”
Three short words etched into his memory with sharp pointed sticks. “Just one more..,” but many have been taken to the glade since he first heard that phrase. Women and men, children, each one the last until the next, and the next. He wonders how many it will take, how many more final times he’ll have to entice, charm, masquerade, lie. He thinks briefly of them all and tries to remember what came before. There is a timelessness about this cycle, this prison. He can barely remember his life before he stumbled upon the glade a lifetime ago. Just one more then, and maybe this time his cubs can come home.
The moon is low and shines yellow behind a veil of cloud. He watches it, as if expecting some kind of change to occur, some kind of movement, but the constance is historical. Every full moon is the same, has been the same, will be the same, until his grim task is complete. “Just one more.” He says to the moon, as if the deal has been struck between them, but the moon behaves anonymously, silently existing in antipathy.
This contemplation, however, is distracting. So distracting in fact, that he almost misses his prize. Crunching towards him, a young woman, alone, on foot. She is almost upon him when he finally snaps out of his melancholy moon dream. She doesn’t see him emerge from the hedgerow, nor does she notice the beguiling glint which his eye has trained upon her. He removes the hood of his cloak and speaks. His voice is deep and calm. Fathomless.
“Good evening miss.”
Alarmed, she drops her purse. Jet black hair frames a pale and soft looking peach shaped face, perfectly centred in consternation at the creature before her. She glances at the ground. He mustn’t allow her to bend down, lest she sees the paws, the claws, but she’s already kneeling. He edges back a little to hide his feet, crouches down quickly, retrieves the money bag from the ground. Their eyes meet as they ascend together. Hers are blue. Deep and wide. They look upon him with entrancement and surprise. She does not see the long foxlike snout, the pointed ears, the teeth. What she sees is the kindly, round, fresh face of a young man, curls of blonde hair on the brow and over the ears. She smiles as this illusion offers her the purse.
“I’m sorry miss, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Well startle me you did!” She says. She’d wanted to berate him for surprising her like that. She was going to say “and what the hell are you playing at, jumping out of the bushes at women, at this hour too…” but she doesn’t. Instead, She says, dreamily, “it’s alright” and “thank you.” As she cradles the purse into a fold in her blouse.
He moves himself a little closer. Not too much, just a step.
“You going across the river, are you, miss?” He asks, to which she nods.
“I’m sorry, but the bridge is out. You have to go round..” and he turns, gracefully, his outstretched arm inviting her into the forest. “If you would follow me,” he says with a bewitching lilt, “I know the way.”
She peers cautiously into the blackness beyond the woodland edge.
“In there?” She says. “Are you sure? It’s very dark.”
He moves a branch aside to reveal a narrow cutting.
“Oh no miss, it’s not dark at all. Can’t you see the torches along the pathway there?”
His eyes glimmer brightly for a split second. She blinks and takes another look. A flickering line winds through the trees, point after point of little fires lighting the way under the cathedral like branches of beech, ash, hornbeam, and oak. “Come on miss, it’s not far.” And he steps inside.
She shivers slightly in the breeze. The forest does look comforting. It would be nice to escape the chill. She looks around at the silent track, the field of wheat. She feels a mesmeric compulsion to trust this man. Even the low hanging curd-yellow moon seems to be urging her on. He turns around to face her. One of his teeth appears longer than the others. It reflects the light from the flaming torches as he smiles. She thinks it no matter, gathers up her skirts and follows him in.
The forest floor is soft underfoot. Spongy. Spring-loaded. Patches of emerald lichen glow upon the treebark. The light which shines from them as she moves through the trees, seems to follow her like the eyes of a portrait. She asks him about the bridge.
“Water damage miss.” He says, convincingly. “They’ve had to pull up the decking. It won’t be safe to cross there for a few days yet. And what are you doing out so late miss, if you don’t mind me asking? All sorts of characters about at this time. You’re lucky you ran into me when you did.” He doesn’t turn to look at her, but trudges ahead with purpose. She doesn’t see the urgency in his face, nor hear it in his voice.
“I came from the inn.” She explains. “I work there. I live across the river in Cheverton. Have you been?”
“To Cheverton miss? A few times yes.”
She laughs a little.
“No silly, to the inn.”
He slows the pace, allowing her to come closer. Turning to address her from over his left shoulder, to conceal the errant protruding fang on the other side of his face, he tells another plausible lie.
“I’m not from round here miss. I came with the timber gang. They sent me down to light the torches. I’d never been further than the bridge, until today.”
“Well it’s a lovely little old place” she says, as if remembering a dream she had. “It’s called the Fox and Goose.”
He smiles under his disguise, then catches himself. A pitying thought runs across his mind.
“Yes, you poor thing…And you’re the goose.”
“Just one more…”
That insistent whisper. He hears it everywhere. He hears it in the windswept canopy, as the branches ache and stroke against each other. He hears it with every tread of paw digging into the moss. Hears it in the worming ivy. It’s in his breath, his skin, his teeth. He feels it. The forest is calling him, reminding him, “come on.., come on..”
“Come on miss,” he says, “we haven’t got much time…”
But she’s stopped, sat with her back against the trunk of a tree, one leg bent, foot in hand.
“There’s a stone in my shoe…”
The word “shoe” works like a trigger. She wakes, momentarily from her hypnosis, enough to look down at his feet, his shoes, but he isn’t wearing any shoes. Those feet, they look like animals paws, don’t they? Like a dogs paws. Is that the white tip of a claw glinting in the torchlight? She looks up at him, the silhouette of his round face against the tingling procession of fires. In a snap, in a blink, his face morphs into something snoutish and doglike, with a snort of breath, and violent, blood red eyes. She’s about to see him. She’s going to scream, so with an invisible flicker the vision is gone, this dream, and he’s helping her up with his strong arms and boyish smile. What she says next surprises them both.
“Where are your shoes?”
“Excuse me miss?”
“Where are your shoes?” She repeats, although she doesn’t quite know why. It feels like the echo of a memory.
He motions for her to look down at his feet. A pair of leather straights with tarnished buckles which her eyes can barely detect in the murk.
“I’m sorry” she says, shaking her head, “for a moment there I could have sworn you had… oh never mind, it’s silly..”
He doesn’t speak. He’s unsure how many more illusions he can perform. It’s becoming harder for him to hold his form in her mind. He mustn’t break out too soon; must maintain the illusion for just another minute or so. He holds out his arm for her to take, and leads her off along the little path, with its little torches fluttering the odd spark or two into the air. Sometimes his eyes follow those tiny orange dots up through gaps in the trees, catching brief snaps of the big yellow moon, which has presided ambivalently over his reluctant proceedings all too often, but soon it will be over. Just one more, this one, this time.
There’s a feeling of completion about things now. He senses the end of it all. A hesitant look of relief washes over his face as he turns away from the torchlit path and delivers this beautiful young woman into the glade. He recognises a quivering expectation all around him. When they reach the centre of the clearing, he brings his mouth to her ear.
“I’m sorry.” He whispers, and he means it, but then releasing her hand, slowly he moves away.
She looks about with a bemused face.
“Where is this?” She tries to speak, but the thoughts do not connect with her mouth. “Why am I… what have you…” she mumbles to the sky, as the silver trail of a falling star grazes the edge of the world, vanishing behind the black treetops.
The breeze has ebbed away to nothing. The trees are dead still. Their branches do not creak or bend, their leaves do not whisper. Like a painting, nothing moves, unlike a portrait, no eyes seem focused upon her. There is nothing but silence and stillness, as if the air itself is made from glass and everything is encased within it. There is a peace here, she feels. A deathly kind of peace.
Then she sees them. As her eyes become accustomed to the moonlit gloom, in the trees, in the bark, she sees the faces, people’s faces, and bodies, and parts of bodies. She recognises arms, heads, feet, fingers, all contorted into the shapes of branches and twigs, a jumble of petrified torsos and skulls forming the matter of the trees themselves, all of them pictures of agony and terror, twisted legs, teeth and eyes and fingernails, howling faces that melt and merge into each other like unnatural mutations. She begins to wake from the dream haze cast upon her. The illusion is breaking.
She feels something moving at her feet.
Fine tendrils slither across the open ground towards her. One has reached over her foot, inside her shoe. She stamps on them, snaps them away, pulls off her shoes which the serpentlike vines greedily envelop. Seeing her opportunity, breathlessly she turns in her stockings and runs with a silent scream back towards the path, where the path used to be, but the lights are out, the torches are gone.
She is quickly felled by something sharp at her ankle.
On her back now, writhing in the dirt, desperately kicking at the growling snout which has taken hold of her foot, claws digging into her legs, she flails her arms downwards, scratching her nails at the foaming, gnashing face. She reaches for a weapon, a stick, anything. Theres a fallen branch nearby. Her grasping hand finds it. She slashes across the biting face again and again. Splinters break off and embed into skin. The slashing branch makes contact with an eye and the snout face yelps. The moon in the darkness makes the blood appear like syrup trickling down golden jowls. The beast rears up in pain then fixes it’s violent eyes upon her, snatches the weapon from her hand and tosses it into the undergrowth. Her cloak is lying open, the fastenings torn away.
She tries to edge herself back but it’s no use now, he has her. His snarl reveals, reflecting in the moonlight, one tooth longer than all the others
“Please no, please!” She cries, cradling her belly with both hands. “My baby! My baby!”
He looks down and recognises the tender swelling of early pregnancy.
“A baby” he says, with a voice from the distant past. He looks up, cocks his head, snorts hot stink, then returns his eyes to hers.
“Please” she implores. “Please don’t.”
He moves back a little, a step or two. His face is lost in a forest of memories. He looks behind him in the direction of the glade, then to her, her abdomen, her peach shaped face.
“Go.” He growls. “Go now and don’t look back.”
Quickly, she heaves herself up and staggers bleeding out of the forest, out to the track and the wheat field under the moon, and uphill to the bridge. She doesn’t stop for breath until she’s far, far across the river.
Back at the glade, the trees seem even quieter. The tendrils have discarded the shoes and receded back to the tree line.
The figure standing in the centre of the glade, with his torn velvet cloak and wounded eye, winces with each breath. His stomach hurts. He has failed. He looks to the trees for understanding, but they are motionless as death. Silent all except one.
One tall, ancient and gnarly oak which slowly moves a branch to one side, revealing, fossilised into its bark, the glacial faces of his two fox cubs.
“Remember…” says a crackling voice. “One more. Just one more.”
J. R. McMenemie
J. R. McMenemie was born in Cheshire and studied architecture before relocating to London to follow his passions for music, food and literature.
His writing has appeared in The Cabinet of Heed and Sovereign Magazine, and been long-listed for the Sandstone Press short fiction competiton, and the Leicester Writes short story prize, where it was published in their print anthology.
He lives in North London with his partner and their daughter.
Follow him on Twitter @cheshire_cactus
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