The river snakes around the Manor like an open vein, bridges like sutures.
Inside, there is a poem hanging on the foyer wall, the title of which reads: “The Chace” by William Somerville (1735), full of verse hoary and strange. To Reynard they are mere words – words that make his father bear his teeth and puff his chest, certainly – but mere words all the same.
Taught to speak
The proper dialect, with horn and voice
To cheer the busy hound.
That’s how it begins.
Outside, the forest floor crunches like gravel beneath Reynard’s boots. It was not so very long ago that autumn was traffic-lighting the trees; gold, green, purple. Now the branches are bare. Skeletal. Think further back – to springtime – and the whole estate smelled of fresh grass and peppery flowers. The grounds were freckled with new life. Now there’s a barren look about them, the hoar-frost spider-webbing the fields like something abandoned. Suspended somewhere between life, death, beauty.
The Manor is Reynard’s home. Has always been. Will always be. All his memories are held there. All his dreams, too.
Somewhere in the distance, a horn sounds.
Reynard looks at his feet. They look small even to him. When he’s older, he’ll go riding with the rest. But for now it’s forbidden; an adult, you-wouldn’t-understand, when-you’re-older tradition. It’s all too familiar to Reynard.
For these nocturnal thieves, huntsmen,
Prepare thy sharpest vengeance.
Oh, how glorious ’tis to right the oppressed,
And bring the felon vile to just disgrace!
A robin redbreast flits from bush to branch, branch to bush. Somewhere overhead another bird chirrups conversationally.
Reynard holds out his hand. His mittens have bright red berries stitched into the wool. He makes a noise with his pursed lips, like sucking on a sweet: come on, thinks Reynard to himself, come get the berries. But the little bird just tilts its head, lets out a short, sharp whistle: what is that boy doing?
Behind him, Reynard hears a crunch in the ground. He turns to find a man, his face covered with a balaclava. He’s got dark trousers and sturdy boots, a jacket the colour of soldiers, a camcorder pointed nowhere in particular. He looks at Reynard and winks through an eyehole, puts his finger to his mouth – shhhh – before sloping off back through the trees.
With nostrils opening wide, over hill, over dale,
The vigorous hounds pursue, and with every breath
Inhale the grateful steam.
A mouse shuffles shivering through the thickety scrub that scatters the ground like rust. Reynard knows better than to pick it up. His father did that once: its fur dishevelled, its body stiff; all wild eyebrows and staccato fingers, a great big toothy grin. He had waggled it around by the tail; an odd sort of game, revelling in death.
The horn blares once more, closer this time. Wings scatter from trees and in the open field, a bolt of orange fizzes over the grass like a lit fuse.
The wily fox then views, escaped,
With inward ecstasy, the panting throng
In their own footsteps puzzled, foiled, and lost.
At the riverbank, Reynard sits, wonders about the fish; can they breathe beneath the thin, glassy ice? Or is he just watching them drown? He taps the surface with his boot; it weeps like a sore.
Suddenly, the ground vibrates beneath him; rat-a-tat-tat, rolls on a drum. Horns and hounds. Hounds and horns. Ominous crescendo.
Across the silvered blades of the open field, Reynard watches as the pack sweeps along the hedgerow, noses to the ground, tails to the air. In tow, the horses stampede under orders, their eager riders clad in red: doesn’t stain.
Reynard hoists himself up, his bobble hat lolling back and forth as he stumbles on the hard, uneven earth. Off to the side he can see more men like the one before; tattered army, hidden faces. Now the camcorder knows exactly where to look.
Out of the chaos, a cloud of steaming breath rises like smoke, a single glowing ember thrashing brilliantly at its heart. But as the thrashing becomes a wriggle, and the wriggle becomes a flicker, still the ember glows.
The farmer, who beholds his mortal foe
Stretched at his feet, applauds the glorious deed.
Reynard approaches with caution. The dogs are yapping and frenzied, herded away by farmers’ whips as the men in red coats crowd around; hearty laughs and slaps on backs. Through the sea of straps and crops and brass, Reynard spies the rug of orange upon the ground, unmoving.
He edges through for a closer look. The fox’s eyes are open, but its soft brush hangs limp against the harshness of the frozen floor. Undead: a kick, a flinch, a throe; two pairs of dark, spindly legs convulsing erratically. Laughter ripples, smirks flicker, a rifle barrels down with a click.
So unreprieved he dies, and bleached in the air
The jest of clowns, his reeking carcass hangs.
The shot reverberates, the air shatters, a fine mist of red hangs in the air and comes to settle over Reynard’s face and lips. Through it all, the ringing in his ears, the taste in his mouth, he can see that grinning spectre – all canines and rabid eyes – as his father lowers the gun and throws back his head.
Tottering away unblinking, the ground crunches like gravel beneath Reynard’s boots and a single tear rolls down his fox-stained face, drops to the soil, and surrenders itself to the Manor.
In the distance, the red light of the camcorder blinks; once, twice, and stops. The loss of innocence immortalized.
Matthew lives in Oxford in the UK, where he works as an editor for an academic publisher. In his spare time he enjoys reading, football, countryside, food, and reading again. He works mostly on short fiction, but is also in the process of writing his first novel.