From A Little Book of Short Stories
When Eric was just a kitten, Julia wondered if she would ever come to love him. After all, it was not as though she had asked for another cat, and he would get under her feet so. Besides, she had never cared for kittens, preferring instead the luxurious grace and easy beauty of the feline adult. But she need not have worried. By the time Eric had reached his first birthday, he had so firmly forced his way into her affections that she would not have parted with him for all the world. And who could have resisted him? Affectionate yet independent, cheekily playful, yet never destructive, he possessed, in short, all the qualities of the perfect cat. And despite his lack of pedigree or breeding, Julia privately believed him to be the most beautiful creature she had ever seen.
One late afternoon in early October, Eric and Julia were lolling across the kitchen draining board besides the open window, just savouring the musty sweetness of the autumn air, when by and by a great red fox sauntered around the end of the fence and into the middle of the garden. Julia saw him first, gasped then nudged a sleepy Eric into alertness. The fox, hearing the hiss of her breath, froze in his tracks and looked over. Next to Julia, Eric, eyes wide open now, tensed, rose on his haunches hackles up and fixed his stare upon the interloper. Julia looked from Eric to the fox and met the deep amber beadiness of his eyes. The moment hung in the air like the last leaf of the season poised to fall. And then, with a wink, he was gone; his great bushy tail, a tawny smudge disappearing beneath the hedge. Next, all at once, and before Julia had any hope of grabbing him, Eric had sprung through the open casement and had streaked across the garden after him. “No, Eric, no” shrieked Julia in horror. But if Eric even heard, he was not for stopping. A nameless terror filled Julia’s heart. She had seen Eric stand his ground with dogs five times his size, but a fox was a wild animal, and she knew the damage they could wreak if cornered. In a heartbeat, she had scrambled onto the draining board and out of the window, in panting pursuit.
Julia followed Eric pell-mell down through the garden, along the flower borders and cramming herself through the gap in the hedge, into the neighbouring garden. Unable to keep up, she had already lost sight of the little cat, but ahead she heard branches rustle and so pursued the telltale noise as it rippled into the distance. On and on she went, clambering across compost heaps and trampling over neglected vegetable patches, Eric always just ahead and out of reach, until presently the gardens gave way to fields and woodrows, and fields finally gave way to an ancient coppice. Julia bent over, hands on knees and panted hard. Her throat was burning and tears were running down her face. She tries to call the little cat, but her voice sounded raspy and thin on the cold autumnal air.
Dusk was falling now, she edged around the coppice listening intently, but all she could hear was the rustle of dry leaves beneath her own feet, the sounds of the woodland birds tweeting their evensong and the hum of distant traffic. Eric was nowhere to be seen or heard.
Without announcement the pale orange disc of the sun slipped below the tree line and suddenly there was complete silence. Julia looked around, feeling suddenly lost and a tiny bit afraid.
“Do not concern yourself … I have him here, safe.” Julia’s heart thudded against her chest at the low voice. Peering through the gloom she spied a figure leaning against a tree, as if he had been there all the time. Julia made out the features of a handsome young man with magnificent red hair and moustaches, dressed in ragged scarlet and crimson, reminiscent of a troubadour of old. Around his feet were strewn what looked like pieces of pots or porcelain, which gleamed in the half-light. And in his arms, close to his breast, he held Eric. Julia made towards the little cat with arms outstretched, but the young man whipped him out of her reach and held him aloft. Eric let out a soft mew of dismay. “Not so fast”, hissed the young man with a curl of his lips that revealed a row of sharp white teeth.
Julia found courage she did not know she possessed and asked who he was and what he was doing with her cat.
“My name is Renardo, but you can call me Ren.” purred the young man, those sharp teeth glinting with a menace that Julia could only half sense.
“Nice to meet you Renardo” replied Julia with a stiffness in her voice she reserved for telesales personnel, “Now could I please have my cat back?”
“I said call me Ren” he chided, his eyes twinkling, “and I was thinking – something you want for something I want” and with this, he held up Eric by the scruff of his neck and gazed at him quizzically.
“And what exactly could you want?” asked Julia in a low voice, a shiver running down her neck and spine, that had little to do with the coolness of the air.
“I need a wife. It’s a lonely life here in the woods.” Ren locked her gaze with amber eyes that had an odd familiarity about them.
“But I don’t love you … I don’t even know you” stammered Julia.
“So what? You will learn to love me, just as you learned to love this little fellow.” and with this, he shook Eric, who mewed again pitifully.
“How do you know anything about me … about Eric? Give him back right this minute, I don’t know you and I certainly don’t want to marry you!” Julia was now waiting for her chance to jump up and grab Eric and run like Hell, but the young man, reading her thoughts, lifted Eric higher aloft and out of her reach.
“Well, I’ve tried to be nice,” he said, “ but I can see that is waste of time.” And as he spoke his lips contorted into a cruel curl. With a sudden snarl, he lunged at Eric opened wide his jaws and swallowed him in one gulp.
Julia screamed. All at once, it was as though the picture before had sharpened into focus. As the young man turned to stretch his white fur throat and swallow, she saw the tawny bush of his tail, the sheen of his deep russet pelt; she saw that the gleaming bits and pieces at his feet were not porcelain but the scattered and fractured bones of discarded prey. Sensing the very real danger she tried to force her feet to move, but in a blink of an eye he was upon her, and had dragged away into the depths of his lair.
Julia could not have said how many days and nights passed imprisoned beneath the damp, cold depths of the earth, but the sight of Renardo, as he returned each morning from his nocturnal wandering, came increasingly to disgust her. For it had to be said that, as handsome as he might be, he had the most appalling table manners, and smelt, well, like a fox.
Each morning she had to prepare his food, and clear out the debris and detritus from the night before. And each night he would take her, face down in the straw, gripping the back of her neck with his sharp little teeth, so that every morning she awoke with fresh bruising and swollen flesh. Yet always in front of her eyes floated the image of her darling Eric. For though she could scarcely recall the life that she had led before, still the memory of Eric’s dear little face and how he purred when she would stroke him, presented itself as warm and vivid as the spring sunshine. In these moments she would weep with the bitterness of her loss and her tears would water the seed of hatred that was growing in her heart against Renardo.
In the beginning of her captivity, she had, of course, tried to escape. On countless occasions, whilst she was supposed to be doing her chores, she had run off into the woods; but somehow, each time her path led her back to the lair, and the sight of Renardo leaning against the entrance, sharpening his claws, with an air of smug triumph, which smarted infinitely more than the cuff he would give up with his great paw. And so finally she had given up. And at first, she had searched high and low for a weapon, but it was useless. Renardo seemed able to sniff out her intentions, with his long keen animal nose, and besides he was as tough and as a fast as the devil himself, and would surely have torn her flesh and splintered her bones with those razor sharp teeth, long before she could get close enough to inflict any harm upon him with a stone or lump of wood. There seemed no hope.
Untold days of thankless drudgery melted into nights of bleak despair and silent tears. Time passed and the seasons changed. Just as the wood crocuses announced the Spring, Julia found herself in the family way, and one morning, gave birth to a litter of three fine russet cubs. For an instant, she felt her heart swell with tenderness as she held up each helpless mewling cub to inspect them. But then she remembered Eric and her heart stiffened like washing left out to dry on a frosty morning. One by one she drowned the fox children in the sink of water at the back of the lair, and by the time Renardo came home, their little bodies lay concealed and cold in the earth in one of the lair’s abandoned tunnels.
Spring turned to summer, and though the sun warmed her face and body, as she gathered wood, and she felt the light rain as gentle as fairy kisses on her bare arms, the sun could not reach her heart. Twice more she bore Renardo a litter of fine fox sons, and twice more, were they drowned and interred, secret memorials to her hate.
Then one afternoon, as winter crept on icy toes and fingers towards the entrance of the lair again, Renardo sent her out to gather firewood as usual, whilst he gnawed and belched on the bones of breakfast. The sun hung limply in the sky, as though it too had at long last given up the struggle. And indeed, it seemed impossible to believe that Spring would ever come again.
Julia tramped around her usual path, picking up fallen branches and twigs, barely aware of the surroundings that had become the backdrop to her daily resignation. But this morning, something tugged at her attention. Something was different. The woods around her had changed. Up ahead trees lay hewn and logged in a small opening, that had not been there the day before. Julia held herself statue-still in her tracks. She listened intently but no sound of man or saw or chopping reached her ears. She crept closer to where the trees lay felled. The clearing was deserted. But then she spotted an axe that a woodcutter had left lying idly on the ground, next to a pile of freshly spit logs. Without daring to breathe, Julia darted towards the woodpile, seized the axe and concealed it deep within in her bundle of kindling. With racing heart, she scurried back to the entrance of the lair, and placed the axe carefully in a dark corner, out of sight, all the while half terrified that Renardo would sniff out her guilty deed. But perhaps Renardo had grown complacent because he only started momentarily from his slumber with his usual low growl of annoyance, whenever she disturbed his peace and quiet by setting down the wood next to the fire, then fell back asleep.
That evening as Renardo sat eating his supper, Julia’s blood chilled, when she realised he was watching her. She looked across at him warily, but he was smiling, as sweetly as it possible for a fox to smile, and said “You are a good wife Julia. I don’t know what I would do without you.” She gave a half-smile and quickly lowered her eyes as she breathed a secret sigh of relief. But if this could have softened her resolve one iota, the memory of Eric quickly hardened it again.
That night, as Renardo lay sleeping, Julia clattered about the foxhole with exaggerated din to make sure he was truly asleep. Now and again he groaned and turned over, smacking his lips in his dreaming, but never roused. She tiptoed to the entrance of the lair and felt around in the dark until she felt the wooden handle of the axe. She picked it up with absolute stealth and made her way back to where Renardo lay, snoring gently now.
Grasping the axe with all her strength, she swung it as high as the low earth ceiling would allow and brought it crashing down right in the middle of the fox’s forehead. All at once the lair was filled with the sound of a terrific crack as Renardo’s skull split clean in half, and out jumped a small black cat; and then another and another. Julia choked in surprise and delight. But the cats kept coming, a tidal wave of fur and claw and dismayed mewing: a small black Eric for every day she had spent in her dank underground prison.
Cat after cat leapt out from Renardo’s cloven cranium and towards Julia until she felt herself stumble under the weight of so many tiny feline bodies. All became darkness as she sank unconscious beneath the depths of the furry tsunami, which bore her along and out through the mouth of the lair, down a forest track until it reaching a clearing, it spread and dissipated and deposited her like so much flotsam on a grassy bank.
“Now, now Miss, don’t panic …” A voice came through the darkness and the pressure of gentle hands restraining her, as she startled into awareness. “You likely took a trip on one of these here roots and knocked yourself out is all”. Julia’s vision began to clear. But it was still night time, and the stars twinkled between the twigs and branches overhead. Above her, she could just make out the kindly face of a local woodsman. She weakly returned his smile, then remembering, ran her hands searchingly down her body. And there she found Eric snuggled in the crook of her arm. She squeezed him joyfully and tried to sit up, and this time the woodsman helped her to her feet.
“Me and Bob here found you, Miss. The lord knows how long you had been here”. Bob woofed as if in greeting, and Eric suddenly wriggled out of her arms and bounded towards him. They touched noses, Bob wagged his tail and then Eric arched his back and bristled slightly, just to show he was not be trifled with. “I don’t think there is any harm done” continued the woodsman, once Julia was secure on her own two feet, “But can I suggest that me and old Bob just see you safely home, these woods can be a strange place at this time o’night.” And Neither Julia nor Eric needed any convincing as to that.
When they got to her house, Julia fumbled for the spare key she kept hidden beneath a plant pot and opened the front door. Everything seemed just as they had left it, save for the pile of junk mail and bills that had piled into a small mountain behind the letterbox in the hallway. Julia thanked the woodsman and Bob and they all made their goodnights. Once in and the fronted door was closed, she hurriedly locked and bolted all the doors and secured the windows. Then Julia looked at Eric.
But Eric just mewed ambiguously and headed for his milk bowl.
The following days and weeks Eric stayed close to Julia, never offering to go beyond the bounds of the garden fence. Whenever Julia did venture out, she seemed haunted by glimpses of small black cats streaking around corners and up alleys, or scampering down from fences as she passed. Some nights, when she and Eric heard a vixen bark or a dawn clattering around the dustbins, he would sneak beneath the bed covers and cower by her side, trembling softly in the darkness. Julia would hold onto him tightly and bury her face in his fur.
One morning following a particularly loud and sustained racket around the garbage bins just before sunrise, Julia decided to up sticks and move to a nice little flat right in the town centre. She got no argument from Eric.