Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Meeting Mr Fox

Arabian Red Fox picture taken in Al Sukhnah, J...
Arabian Red Fox picture taken in Al Sukhnah, Jordan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote this simply ages ago for Jordanian website/writer's collective Project Pen, but the site's down nowadays. So I'm putting it up here, just so's I can link to it when I want to and stuff. Enjoy!

Meeting Mr Fox 

The shell that almost killed them all came with no warning, sounded no different to the thousands of others scudding around the blue summer skies like little birds. Baba was reading a newspaper, his shirt sleeves rolled up. Ahmed was sitting under the wooden kitchen table, playing. The shell exploded and suddenly Ahmed wasn’t under the table anymore. There was a lot of dust and smoke. Baba looked asleep, but mother was holding her head in her hands and crying. Ahmed wanted to go to her but his legs wouldn’t work. Baba had eventually woken up and Ahmed had walked with a limp ever since.

After the shell, they had a big piece of orange plastic sheeting over the hole in the wall. It stretched from the floor to the roof. Now summer had fled and the winter had come, it billowed and flapped in the wind and let the cold in. Finding wood for the fire had become very difficult. The winter took everyone by surprise. This proved, Ahmed’s father growled as he hunched over the mean fire in their damaged kitchen, they were all donkeys. Winter always came, this year was no different. Except this year they were distracted as the fighting became worse, the houses shaking with relentless concussions. Ahmed didn’t go to school anymore, so he was at home when the soldiers came.

His mother was making bread, the bakery having been shut by an explosion that took away ovens and bakers alike in a single savage wrench. Baba had salvaged a sack of flour from the ruins before the flames took hold and the stock room collapsed on the heads of some thirty men trying to do the same. They ate bread every Friday to try and make the flour last. Baba was out looking for fuel and food. Foraging, his mother called it. Jamal said it was called looting, like taking the flour, but everyone had to do it because there were no shops. And anyway, nobody had money.

The soldiers shouted a lot and one of them punched Ahmed so stars came. His mother begged them but they didn’t listen to her. She cried as they held her arms and pushed her onto the floor. She screamed when they pulled at her clothes until one of them hit her too and she was quiet.

Ahmed ran and ran through the streets, his ankles twisting on the rubble strewn on the pock-marked ground. He called out for his baba but nobody replied. There was fighting but Ahmed didn’t care about the bullets and they seemed not to care about him, either. None of them plucked at his skin. They buzzed, whistled and spattered on stone. They called out to him. But he didn’t want them, he wanted baba to come and stop the soldiers hurting ummi.

He left the city behind as he tired and stopped running. He walked now, no longer certain of where he was going or why, but impelled by some instinct to get away from buildings and the soldiers and the vague idea that perhaps he would walk and walk until he found his baba. Perhaps God would help him. He started mumbling God’s names, just in case he was listening. He had learned ten of them when school had stopped.

There were soldiers on the road. Ahmed was tired and scared. His legs hurt. He bit his lip when he saw them and slipped off into the woodland. The light was fading and it started to snow. There was a big tree that hadn’t lost its leaves and the patch of ground around it was clear of snow. Ahmed sat down on the damp ground, shivering. He pulled up his knees and wrapped his arms around them, listening for the soldiers in case they had seen him. The woodland grew darker. The silence ached. Occasionally there would be a creak. There were no shells or machine gun fire here. Ahmed could hear his teeth chattering, the shivering convulsions making his weary body ache. The snowflakes became bigger.

Light-headed with exhaustion and cold, Ahmed tilted his head to catch a faint scratching sound. He noticed a hole in the ground. The scratching was coming from the hole. Something glittered in the darkness of the opening. Eyes. A head emerged, red fur and a snout with a black nose.

‘Good evening,’ said the fox in fuzha, the formal Arabic like they had taught at school.

Ahmed closed his eyes and shook his head as if it would make the talking fox go away, but it was still there when he opened them.

‘You’re not a very polite little boy,’ the fox pointed out as he came out of his set and padded over to Ahmed. He sat down a few feet away and cocked his head.

‘I’m sorry,’ Ahmed tried to remain calm. ‘I’ve just never met a talking dog before.’

The fox sniffed. ‘I am not a dog,’ he said pointedly. ‘I am a fox.’

‘Sorry,’ Ahmed mumbled.

‘And don’t mumble. There’s nothing worse than people who mumble. It’s the height of rudeness.’

Ahmed stopped shivering. He felt very calm. He fancied he saw the fox smiling, but he couldn’t be sure. The woodland was serene, the snowflakes calming and soft as they touched his cheek. ‘Where did you learn to talk?’

The fox rubbed his snout with a forepaw. ‘What sort of question is that? Where did you learn to talk? Humans really do take the biscuit. You’re an arrogant bunch aren’t you? All superior, yet you’ll not find us animals killing each other with weapons like you do.’

‘I don’t kill people. The soldiers kill people.’

 ‘Same thing, child. It’s your species kills people. Whether they wear uniforms or not. They kill foxes, too, when they can. They kill for sport. I wonder you don’t get sick of killing. You don’t even do it properly, to eat. You just kill to kill. Nasty lot, really.’

Ahmed wanted to cry. It seemed so unjust yet he didn’t have an argument against the wiser fox. ‘The soldiers do it. Not me.’

‘You’re just a child. You’ll grow up to it. All those soldiers were children once. The men who came to the wood with spades were children once. Mind you, the chickens were worth the trouble. Delicious.’

‘So why are you even talking to me if you hate humans so much?’

‘You looked lonely.’ The fox shifted and flicked his tail. ‘Where are your parents?’

‘In the city. I ran away from the soldiers. They were hurting ummi. My baba was out and they came.’

‘Shouldn’t you go back? It’s cold out here and you look blue.’

Ahmed nodded. The fox was right, yet he was too tired. He tried to move, but he was frozen to the spot. He felt frozen, too, like a chicken. They used to have a freezer in the house before the electricity went away. It had chickens in it. Ahmed’s eyes started to close, sleep overwhelming him. He moved to lie down and the fox came up to him.

‘Here,’ the animal said, not unkindly. ‘You can have some of my heat. I have it to spare.’

The warm little body snuggled against Ahmed's chest. He smiled. The fox had an animal pungency, his fur was soft. Ahmed closed his eyes.

Later on, the sky black and the moon casting shadows in the white woodland, the fox woke. He turned to the boy’s face and sniffed it. The warmth had left the still form. The fox licked the child’s soft cheek.

After a while, he started to eat.

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