The first time he struck, we made our excuses.

Like those anti-Hunt letters in the Western Daily Press, we tried to see it from his point of view.

He’s only doing what comes naturally, I said.

Boy, eyes red, voice choked with tears and snot, didn’t sound convinced. 

We’ll have to bury her, he insisted.

So, reverently, together, we collected the shards of Beaky. There wasn’t much left, a few strands of tail, a white wing feather bearing her distinctive dark, non-breed-standard, patch. A trial of soft breast down was blowing away in the late afternoon sunlight, like a cloud of dandelion seeds, but we gathered what we could, put the pieces in a shoebox, and saved her, for internment later.

As a mother, part of the rationale for getting a pet is this, I told myself; the small losses that foreshadow others, the gradual familiarisation with our own mortality, death in bite-sized pieces, if you’ll forgive the pun. However, confronted by Boy’s tears and twenty traumatised hens, perched precariously on the shed guttering, all refusing to come down, I was not so sure.

I don’t much care for anthropomorphism. The internet craze for pet shaming, leaves me cold, and slightly uncomfortable. But, in the wake of Fox, I discovered that, if funny animal stories didn’t exist, like God, we’d have to invent them.

No longer in thrall to his wildness, in my retelling, Fox became more than the sum of his hunger, his lust to survive, to outrun hounds and spread his progeny. Instead, he was a lesson in parenting skills, extrajudicially killing, only because it was necessary, to feed his cubs.

The second-time Fox came, he took a Pekin pullet. At least, we thought it was Fox. We never saw him, just his calling card of feathers, a slither of bone, and fear.

Over the following days, and weeks, we lost more birds. As Boy grew more sanguine, I turned vigilante. I spent my mornings in the barn, watching through a gap in the wall timbers.

I never caught a glimpse of fox. Like a film noir serial killer, he regularly left behind a grisly totem, a curl of fur, or a strip of turf, incised by a frenzy of claw.

I couldn’t see Fox, but he was always there, like a thunder cloud, the threat of violence heavy in the air.

On All Souls’ Day, he took a broody hen, and left her clutch of eggs, cold and useless as pebbles.

That night, I lay awake, listening for the bark of dog fox, but all I could hear was the lashing rain and the distant hum of tyres on the wet road. Somewhere, in the blackness, a screech owl called. Ethereal, and insistent. I listened to her cries, my mind chilled with the recollection of myth and an old wives’ tale, the owl as harbinger of death. Somewhen, I drifted back to sleep, haunted by her plaintive song and the shrieks of dying chickens.

Morning came, the sky broken pink like a flamingo’s wing, but still the spectre of fox crept through my dreams.

Opening the hen house up, I held my breath as I counted. Despite the night’s portentous cawing, no casualties.

Later, at my desk, I checked my email. Just the usual spam, and a message from Jared, our neighbour and one-time gamekeeper.

Good morning, he wrote, I think I may have solved your fox problem.

I clicked on the attachment, and watched the JPEG unfurl. Slowly, revealing the sleek outline of fox, caught in a shaky flashlight, his pelt warm against the earth, like a swath of ripped velvet, eyes luminous, unreal as glass, all-knowing in the darkness, perfect and still, frozen in death.

When I told Boy, he air punched the sky. Yay, he shouted, before running off to spread the good news to the chickens.

I felt relief, but something else too. Not sadness, or sorrow, exactly, but an absence, the loss of something, which challenged and vexed me, like the creak of an old door or the sting of salt on a broken lip.

A few days later, hoeing under the reach of the beech hedge, I found a fan of grey feathers, not chicken, but a remnant of wood pigeon, its ribcage ripped and flattened, like a dream-catcher trodden into the earth. I pushed the remains back under a blanket of leaves, and kicked some soil over them, so Boy wouldn’t see.

I held the secret of Fox close to myself, where it chilled me, and warmed me, in equal measure.

An earlier version of this (I’m a compulsive re-editor) won the Winter Solstice Challenge on Wild Words. I subsequently rewrote it to read on my Avron course.

Image: “Another fox portrait” by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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