New Fiction: Roman de Renart by Bethany W. Pope
Vixen does not know that she lives in a cemetery. She knows that this is a place of plentiful food and many strange stones. She knows that humans leave their bodies here; she has seen them do it. They make quite a fuss, exactly like the crows that gather around the cold, black corpses of their nest mates, bobbing and cawing, without bothering to eat the protein that lies right there at their feet. Such waste is baffling. She ate one of her own kits, once. It was born weak and died early. She felt no guilt, a little sorrow. Mainly, she felt the weight of her own full belly.
Vixen tried to eat a human body, once. For some impenetrable reason, they put it in a box and dropped it deeper than her burrow. Then, they covered the raked soil in a layer of liquid that hardened to stone and scattered shiny-sharp green splinters atop the stone. She watched all of this happen from the wide roots of a yew. The shards caught the light, smelled like nothing and hurt her paws when she tried to stand on top of them.
Maybe, she thinks, they are making a cache. But then, she grooms the soft fur between her footpads, savouring the taste, why haven’t they come back for any of the others? Why let all that food go to waste? Maybe they are like squirrels that know how to plant but forget how to reap.
By the time the sweat-smelling danger-men who scooped the earth with their cold shining shells (tools that were shaped like half an oyster) had gone away again the sun had gone down.
Vixen could see as well as ever. She started her tunnel at an angle, to the left of the shiny-sharp strewn stone. The earth has settled a bit, but it is still loose enough to give her little trouble. Though, honestly, she would not bother with this effort if the rewards did not promise to be very great. Mice are easier to catch and those black seedpods the humans scatter around at intervals (the hollow ones she cannot chew through) are easy enough to tip. She knows that they are not really pods. The humans make them. They almost always contain something manmade inside of them, savoury or sweet. But a cache of human meat is an attractive object. The creatures weigh a lot. They are composed of substantial amounts of fat, and marrow.
Vixen salivates. Her drool stains her black-lined jaws. She can taste the grave-dirt, granules grit between her teeth.
She reaches the box after midnight. The tunnel has begun to smell like herself (she has, of course, been laying waxy scent trails to keep other foxes out) but now the air is permeated with something else, a sharper, more repugnant odour. It is indescribably nasty. Her delicate nostrils can detect no sweet, inviting rot, just an awful stench like the one that lingered after one of the black seedpods burnt. One night a few human kits (their second-skins black and loose as crow feathers, their narrow-white faces daubed with layers of black, as though they were becoming badgers) lit it on fire and then leapt around it, making cries that could have come from pain or mating.
The pod burnt, she remembers, but the smoke was terrible. Unnatural. And the pod did not reduce to ash. It melted and left a shining black puddle that hardened as it cooled.
She knows that there is a human-corpse in here, inside of the polished brown-wood box. She saw it when she looked through the shiny-clear-stone that grows in the walls of the big cave the humans sometimes den in. The humans were sitting on long benches. Some were making sad-smells. All of them were producing loud sounds, like kit pain-sounds, but they lasted longer. One man was hitting his fingers against the top of a tall piece of wood that had huge metal branches springing from the top of it. When he struck the keys, her ears hurt. The box with the dead human inside of it was sitting on a flower-decked table. The dead human was a male old-one. She knew that he was dead because he was lying in it, very still. She could not smell his death, there were too many other competing scents, but his stillness was unmistakable. His fur was grey, his flesh was florid. He must still be fresh. She sat, unnoticed by the shiny-clear-stone, until four men banged the lid closed. She watched as the herd of humans followed behind the four who carried it out. She watched the herd stand by as they buried it.
Vixen pauses now, considering the puzzle.
They might be marking their scent. They might have different scents, like she does. They might have rubbed their danger-scent all over this box to keep her out!
Vixen grins to herself in the dark. She admires the intelligence of humans, and congratulates herself on besting them. She finds a lip of wood where the lid meets the box and begins to gnaw. The wood splinters between her teeth. Every few minutes she spits out a mouthful of bitter pulp.
By three in the morning, she has chewed through.
She thrusts her head through the hole, her whiskers clearing the ragged, tooth-gouged edges. The nasty-scent is worse in here, thicker. The closed space is magnifying the unwholesome stench. She has to push herself through the opening she’s made, denying her urge to recoil. This old-one hardly smells human at all.
She finds a patch of exposed flesh (the face) and licks it. Her tongue scrapes open an eyelid. The skin feels oddly hard, as though a layer of stone has been inserted beneath it. She whines in fear. She piddles. The old-one tastes of Death. Not the good, feeding variety, flesh-food, but the kind that will kill her. She cannot eat this meat and live.
This planted food-garden is a trap!
Vixen bashes her head against the wooden walls in her blind panic. She yelps again, soaking the soft lining with her rank urine. The scent of herself is enough to calm her. It clears her head enough for her to find her hole. The trail leads her safely back out.
Vixen’s nose has hardly cleared the rim of her hole before she starts running. She takes great pleasure in the strength of her body, the springing leap, the powerful pounce. She leaps joyfully from hummock to hummock, delighting in the way the moonlight dances off the flat faces of standing stones that surround her. She is forgetting her fear already, though she keeps the knowledge of the trap. She will tell her next litter to avoid the tantalising human caches.
The stars have shifted overhead. On her way to her yew-burrow she spies the fleet black body of a rat. She yelps for joy; real food at last!
Vixen springs and snaps it up.
This flesh is untainted, tender. The marrow exactly as sweet as it should be (though small in amount). The blood feeds her blood. It gives pleasure enough.
Vixen curls in her den, examining her sharp black claws. She cleans the earth from between her footpads with white, sharp teeth. She sleeps, at dawn, and has no nightmares.
Copyright © Bethany W Pope, 2015.
Bethany W Pope is an LBA winning author and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards, the Cinnamon Press Novel competition, and the Ink, Sweat and Tears poetry commission. Placed third in the Bare Fiction Poetry Competition she was also recently highly commended in this year’s Poetry London competition. She was recently nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012), Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014) and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). Her first novel, Masque, will be published by Seren in 2016. Her work has appeared in: The Galway Review; The Prague Review; Sentinel Quarterly; The Writer’s Hub; Envoi; Poetry London; New Welsh Review; Poetry Review Salzburg; Sentinel Literary Quarterly; The Brooklyn Voice; And Other Poems; Magma; Tears in the Fence; Ink, Sweat and Tears; The Antigonish Review; Bare Fiction; The Lampeter Review and many more.