Artist: Katharina Rot
THE OAK AND THE HEATHER
by Mark Stewart
He had been running for a long time, so long that he could no longer feel his legs. His feet were cut and blistered, ripped by a razor wire mesh of brambles and thorns, and his body heaved with the effort of breathing. The fur on his throat and belly, once the colour of bridal satin, was now a tangled mane, matted and coarse: and though the mange was not yet upon him the chase had reduced his tail to a withered stump. Warily, he looked back along the length of the stream he stood in, listening for the sounds of pursuit. The hunt had begun yesterday morning and it was now dusk. He looked down at the water flowing over his torn feet and took a few sips from the stream, trying to fill his empty belly just to abate the nagging hunger that cramped his stomach. The dogs were close but he knew they couldn’t follow his scent in the brook and that if he reached the old farm house he could hide under the barn. It was a dangerous ploy; if they trapped him under the boards his running days were over. But he had to rest and sleep. But first there was the road to cross.
As he left the stream he thought for an instant of the mothering den and of his brother. The few brief weeks he’d spent in the den had been the happiest of his life. That too had come to an end with the sound of barking and the blaring horns. After that he had never seen his mother again. Or his brother. From that day forward his life had become a hunted thing. He had learnt to be swift and fleet and to court the shadows, even on a summer’s day. And he’d come to understand that most humans were dull creatures, devoid of imagination; they showed in his field of vision as dark silhouettes – blacker than a raven’s wing – without the aurora that accompanied other animals, even the ones that wanted to eat him. But in the ways of death the human mind was cunning and determined: they tried to kill him with snares, with poison, with guns, with clubs and with knives. And often with dogs. They had no respect for leaf or bough, stream or rock. Or for any living thing, not even each other. Once he had seen them shoot one of his avian cousins – the bright green birds whose wings flashed like mirrors in the sun – from a tree, laughing as it fell. “The first one of the season! Bloody nuisance. What a racket they make.” The killers had not collected their trophy but had left it on the ground to rot. Later, he had sniffed at the tiny body but had not been able to bring himself to eat it. The meat seemed tainted somehow.
In his short life he had known only one safe place, the tall oak that stood with two others at the end of a long garden. Under its roots he had made a solitary but inviolate home. He knew better than to venture into the adjacent plot even though it contained a great many hens, albeit all in cages. That was a place of death. Instead he waited for nightfall and the single figure that would walk, without fail, down to the end of the garden to leave meat and other scraps not far from the base of the tree, always on a sheet of newspaper. Sometimes in mid-winter and in early spring there was a whole carcass to eat; but mostly it was just the scraps, though these were always offered in abundance. He should never have left there. His mistake, he now realised, was to venture too far from the oak, into the adjoining fields. That was where the hounds had picked up his scent; and like a treasured bone they had refused to let it go.
Like the chicken farm the road was a place where life came to an end. He often saw the bodies of other animals at the roadside: the badger, the hare, the partridge. Death here was swift, faster even than the hounds, coming upon the unwary with bewildering speed. He paused at the edge of the road, so tired he had to sit, even though he knew he really shouldn’t.
He felt a sensation of warmth beneath his foot and looked down to see a small pool of blood. He studied it curiously, the way he had once peered at that tiny emerald bird, as if he couldn’t quite believe it was real. He suddenly felt drowsy, more tired than he had ever been and knew with absolute certainty that the barn was beyond him. Better to wait here a while and sleep. Perhaps the dogs had lost his scent or were as tired as he was, and had given up. He knew that wasn’t true but right then all he wanted was to close his eyes.
He saw the lights in the distance far off down the road; in seconds the beams were upon him and then just as quickly gone again, like the hunting wings of an owl or hawk. Or so he thought. When he raised his head to look – and what an effort that required – the beams had come to a halt. A single silhouette walked towards him, emerging from the light, and for a moment he thought he was back in that safe place, sitting beside the oak, waiting for the scraps to arrive. And, yes, there was the familiar smell; if he could just get to the food he would be strong again, well enough to take up the run once more. He limped towards the piece of newspaper on which the food rested. When the cage door closed behind him he was too tired to care. Slowly he gulped back the food. He was asleep on the floor of the cage, his body curled around itself, before he had fully swallowed the last piece.
The man walked between the heather, tracing a path that only he knew. He was far from the nearest road, further still from the closest town or motorway. In his hand he carried a silver cage, which swung gently with the weight of its occupant. He didn’t have far to go now – just over that small rise – and smiled at the thought of what was to come. The gorse, with it endless capacity for snaring hooves and paws, made this poor country for a hunt, which meant it was ideal in every other respect. There was plenty of wild fowl and the many highland streams ran clear and clean. At the top of the rise he knelt and put the cage down. He took one last look at its occupant, a moment of farewell, and then lifted the door. There was an instant of hesitation and then the fox was gone. The man watched it bound over the heather until he could no longer distinguish its russet coat from the surrounding countryside. The first of the season, he thought to himself. May there be many more.
Mark Stewart, May 2015, All Rights Reserved
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