Fox lost her tail as a cub. The night it happened she followed a rich, warm smell of stewing meats and charring vegetables over a garden wall, through an open door. Took herself out of the frosting air and into the mouths of two slavering hounds begging for dinner. She scrabbled for purchase on the slippery floor and dove for the exit, but not before the stench of starving dog breath heated her haunches and the teeth snapped and clacked. The pain pulled at her neck, winched her shoulders together. It travelled hot down her spine and into her belly. It curdled her insides so she barely cleared the wall, instinct overriding agony to break herself free.
She cursed herself for a fool for missing the marks of territory that were plain in the yard. For a time her own blood mixed there with the heavy hound stink, and it was double the warning to every other wandering night animal. Now, when the humans see her, they nudge each other and say, ‘Look, there’s Fantastic Mr Fox’ – notwithstanding that she’s a lady of the night and a city girl to boot. They think her a neighbour, a local attraction to point out to guests.
The cubs that screech and squeal and keep her admirers up nights are her own family, hidden in the burnt-out shell of a pub at the end of an emptying residential road. Nothing ever goes in there except Fox and the starlings, and the starlings leave her be. They favour the old pub as a place for their chatter and choreographed landings because no cat or egg-stealing rat has claimed the territory. It’s unclaimed because the cracked walls and caving ceiling hold secrets even the cats and rats don’t want. Cats are sensitive and keepers of the dead, after all.
Fox doesn’t mind the dead. Kitsune No-tail, Lady in Red: she was born to outwit humans, wolves, witches and bears. She is beloved of the mischief-making gods. On the first evening, she sauntered in and marked the place as her own, squatting and musking the air. Here’s chairs untouched, sooty glasses, windows boarded and all the nooks and crannies. No mind the blood on the floor, no mind the ghosts in the booths and the burnt-fat stench of bodies – not when there’s a dry den and food to be had. The pub is peaceful if you do not care what humans did in life or do after, and Fox doesn’t. She has looked into the mouth of certain death and its leftovers do not worry her.
The first time Fox came here, concertina-ing through a broken board covering a window pane, the ghosts had crowded round her and wailed, lonely for fleshed company and breath in the air. She ignored them so completely that they took to crooning over her tailless rump and exclaiming over her long whiskers. She’d dismissed them with a flick of her ears, chosen her patch of ground and left them to gaze out the windows, straining to see where she went. They cheered, whisperingly, when she appeared again, cub in mouth. She gathered all her cubs one by one and carried them in, through the undergrowth, over the wall, dropping them into the building through the broken window – three trips in all. Now they live under the old piano, yelping and screeching if she leaves for too long. On those occasions, one of the ghosts sits at the piano and plays an accompaniment to the noise. The others moon and groom and move small stones for the cubs’ amusement.
Nannying a bundle of ungrateful fox cubs is almost like having dogs again. The calling and crying of hungry cubs is so much more tuneful than their own screams which, by agreement, they confine to the basement. The basement is where they hide, when memory comes on too strong, when the walls get too much and even starling conversation and bright eyes don’t keep the dark away.
Living in the burnt-out pub has its other protections. Now, when Fox goes out on the hunt, the cats and other foxes slink further into the shadows as she passes – even the older and bolder ones, the ones that step into the street to mock the leashed dogs and bring the cars grinding to a halt. Better yet, the empty pub is just a run and a jump from the overgrown yard where her cubs were born, where a well-meaning lady leaves out milk-soaked bread. The breads draws the rats out into the open, where they are easy to kill.
The months have rolled on since those early days. The cubs have grown rounder, quieter. They practise hunting by stalking the ghosts, who always let themselves be caught, and a few lost mice, who never do. Fox watches them, indulgent, and when they are exhausted from their learning she spits the kebab meat to the ground and presses the cubs, with their needle teeth, to chew and groan over their meal. The ghosts stand back, respectful and uncomfortable. The sighing chorus in the basement is always louder on nights when she brings home cooked meat. They cover their discomfort by sharing stories of favourite meals. What would they have eaten, as a last meal, if they’d known, if they’d had the choice? Salad, a sandwich, something vegetarian. For most of them, regretfully, the reality was watery boxed lasagne and chips like damp, feeble fingers, washed down with something warm and flat.
This is home. Fox goes to window to survey her kingdom in the light of the summer evening. Sleeps in that same light, which sneaks through the cracks and panels and mosaics the floor, cubs in a comfortable tangle close to her belly, the memory of her tail curled round them all.
The next afternoon, the light is gone and the pub more shadowy than usual. With the ghosts peering as close as they dare over her shoulder, Fox slips out of her usual window and finds herself nose to grain with a wooden wall, erected as they slept. Sawdust and man-smell hangs in the air. She jumps over the new boundary, with a moment’s balance on top of it – and there they are, pacing, conversing, laying tools and plans and tarpaulin.
A lesser animal might have panicked then, but Fox returns to the pub, hustles her family into the stringy, safe guts of the piano and leaves them, hushed. She slinks through the shade and dark and watches the men walk with their noses held against her own homely smell. They carry some furniture out. Make marks on walls. The ghosts play with the wind-snapping tarpaulin, taking it in turns to rustle and rumble. They follow the men and try to touch them, gathering to the beating hearts and the heat of blood in veins. The men leave as the sun rolls down the long slope to evening.
Experience has taught Fox when to run. Over the course of a night of furious barking and crying, ghosts and cubs all, she carries her family one by one back to the overgrown yard with the milk-sopped bread, where there’s the bushes with deepest mass of leaves, where there’s the old hole that her mate used. Tongue pressed against heavy mouthfuls of fluffy scruff, it’s a messy move. The surety of her feet is lost. She shifts and slides on the top of the wooden wall, fights the squirming of her heavy almost-grown cubs, trying to gain her balance against the nothing-weight of her phantom tail. The ghosts follow as far as they can, which is not beyond the walls. They beg her to stay, their pet, their love. She pays them no mind, set to her task. Once all is done, she sits with her cubs under the bushes and wonders at the forgotten quiet of an open yard. Cocks her head. Thinks she can hear the ghosts singing a lullaby, voices caught and carried by the light wind.
A week later the starlings are dancing where the roof of the pub used to be as it is smashed and crashed to its bare wood-bones, to its dark marsh-bottomed basement. There’s perturbance in the air. With the pub shut and the fire a legal nothing, the ground should be free now for the world and developers to do as they see fit. But after a week of the workmen shuddering in the sun and swearing to whispers in the dark corners, the place is showing its secrets, shameless, to the sun. The walls were down and mostly cleared, the soil lifted, and suddenly there in the basement is the hole. There’s the cracked and raised floorboards. There’s the rotted remains. They were so well hidden in the dark and dire, where no one dared to go.
Fox hunkers on a neighbouring wall and watches the ghosts, sunlight shot through them like watery glass, as they gather and claim. They recognise their teeth, their breaks and fractures. Here’s a pair of glasses, here’s a shoe. They wail their names to the police and the scientists, names they’ve just remembered, that they had lost through flame and murder.
The police tape goes up and the crowds gather. The ghosts, mistaking discovery for freedom, try to leave the grounds and find themselves dissipating and reforming again and again along a line of broken wall. Their cries are lost in the hubbub and eventually they sit in the pit that is their resting place and wait. They wonder what they will haunt next. Another pub? A block of flats? They bicker amongst themselves, feeling too exposed, not exposed enough.
That night, Fox creeps back to them. The ghosts, paled to nothing by light and air and indifference, rush to her, ask after the cubs, try to stroke her. She shakes them off. They follow her to the pit and show her, crying over each other: there I am, there I am. Her spine twinges in sympathy at the sorry tangle. She sniffs their wares and chooses carefully.
The ghosts, who never thought to see a garden again, gaze after her, uncertain as she pauses just beyond the demolished brick line. She flicks her ears and grimaces at their slowness, keeps walking, not even a trot. She reaches the road and one lucky ghost feels a thrill, like life, run through him. The pull of his bones. He drifts out after her. Passes through the was-wall, that just minutes ago was prison thick, with a cry of freedom – not a glance back to the other lost, who he’d gladly never see again. The others wail and cry favouritism. They make a frustrated game of trying to grab their bones and throw them to freedom; compare dreams of graveyards and nightmares of cremation.
Fox speeds up. Trots fast, back to her cubs, towing her spirit cargo. The shinbone she carries catches on bushes and taps the ground. It is dry and light. Not food, but it can be gnawed and jawed, and that’s good for sharp, clean teeth.
First published in The Lonely Crowd, issue five (October 2016).
An essay on what inspired the story – the real fox, the pubs – can be found on the Lonely Crowd website, here.