SECOND HONORABLE MENTION
The 2016 Screw Turn Flash Fiction Competition
By STUART RIDING
You find yourself in a wood surrounded by bracken and undergrowth, the moonlight dappled between leafless branches. You are thereby mildly inconvenienced – pausing for a moment – but you soon untangle yourself and start moving. Moving on all fours.
On all four paws.
Fast. You are fleet-footed.
You pause again to look down at your fur . . . dirty dark-auburn moonlit brown. You look back around at your off-white tail.
You think: Fox.
Again! Yes. We are going for a little walk, you think. Escaping a dim memory of vague, intangible threat you take yourself down to the beach. The moon’s still out. It is low tide.
“So let’s get this straight, you’ve been having these . . . ”
“Well, the one last night was sort of a dream, yes. It was a vision I had whilst asleep, so, if you want to get technical about it . . . ”
“And always at the end of the dream you’ve been . . . what . . . waking up?”
“But it’s never you—you’re never ‘you’ in the dreams?”
“Visions. No, well, yes I am me—but I know I’m not exactly myself. Like in other regular dreams; talking, walking, trying to get somewhere, playing football, etcetera . . . ”
You’d been hoping for a dog. You like dogs. Thinking about dogs last thing at night, head angled to your favoured left side on the pillow, but you never ended up as one. Foxes were surely the next best thing. Sleek and fast. You were beginning to enjoy it.
But then you glimpse a flicker, a memory that you fail to grasp hold of . . .
You put it out of your mind without much difficulty. That’s why you were down at the shore anyway. Darting fast along the river into the estuary, deep into the salt-marsh. Natural instincts take over for a while: running, skulking, hunting. You begin searching for crabs.
You dive paws-first into moon-shaped reflections in rock-pools. Lunge, bite, crack!
Mmm . . . Spongy, hairy crabs.
“And . . . how do you know this?”
“Well, it’s usually obvious. For example, early this morning I was a fox. And the other day, in my dad’s new ‘movie’ room—he’s converted the spare room and filled it with old DVDs and VHS tapes—I was in the middle of Das Boot and the next thing I remember I was some kind of migratory sea-bird, a slender-billed curlew I think, judging by the length and curvature of my beak . . . ”
“Oh. I see.”
“Plus we—that’s myself and the rest of the flock—ended up in Egypt. And then we, almost, made it right over the Mediterranean.”
”But, how did you know where you were?”
“I could see the pyramids.”
Your appetite temporarily sated, growing more confident—forgetting recollections of “last time” altogether—you infiltrate the tip, stalk the graveyard and saunter down the high-street in the quarter-light of dawn. Instinct takes over and you go back to searching for food.
Proper food. From bins. No more of this seafood crap.
You think: Quite a picky eater, for a fox.
But your sense of direction is terrible, generally. You often get lost in new, unfamiliar environments even with a map. The fox has no map.
You try to make your way back to the car-park next to the beach, but you take a wrong turn and end up crossing some fields. You try to find the shoreline again to get your bearings and end up in more fields.
That’s when you hear the pack of dogs.
“What do you mean, almost?”
“I remember the flock being—we were shot at—over an island. Maybe one of the Balearics. Or Minorca. Mallorca? One of those. It was terrible, losing folk left, right and centre. Then they got me—sharp pain and then . . . falling. Falling and falling.”
“And then—let me guess—you woke up?”
“That came secondary to the dying, yes.”
“And the fox?”
“I’ve been doing some reading around that, actually. Research.”
“Did you know the Japanese believe foxes have magical shape-shifting powers and some of these Japanese foxes are thought to have three, six, or as many as nine tails? Get this: They have been known to possess humans! The greater the number of tails, the greater the powers of the all-seeing, omniscient fox.”
“OK . . . so, how many did you—I mean this Japanese fox—have?”
“One. Just one.”
The sound of howling is getting closer.
You run for your life—you didn’t see this coming at all—except . . . except for those dim recollections of . . . something both terrible and mysterious, uprooting you briefly to some distant recess of your inherited memory, then returning you, fleeing desperately into the present.
Now the memory is clearer.
Being pulled at, splayed and torn limb from limb by a pack of hunting dogs kept hungry for days, their overlords behind them: “The Unspeakable in Pursuit of the Inedible.” You are the inedible.
“What if I’m possessed by a shape-shifting fox demon?”
“Unlikely. I think I know what’s going here. I think you’ve got empathepsy.”
“Shut up . . . What do you mean?”
“Yeah, you had an empathetic attack. You’ve empathised so much with these poor creatures, you’ve actually become them for a little while.”
“Well, that’s what you would have, were you not making it all up. Telling porkies. You’ll probably be a pig next.”
You wake up dirty and disoriented on the floor next to your bed, half-wrapped in your bedsheets. Arms and legs splayed out on every direction, your limbs and joints aching, the clammy smell of blood lingering in your nostrils, an acrid taste on your tongue and recriminatory
accusations crossing swords in your mind.
You could never have saved that fox, you think. It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
Stuart Riding is a teacher, writer and nature-lover based in Edinburgh, Scotland.