“WHAT’LL IT BE tonight? The Snow Ghost? Mr. Scratch?”
“Ugh. You guys choose Golgathursh every night.”
“Fine. Golgathursh it is.”
The Farm was shrouded in darkening blue save two sources of light. The farmhouse flickered with candle flame, small and inviting against the window lace. Across the yard, the wire dens buzzed with sharp red lines, making the fur of the foxes within glow like flames.
“Ready?” B-838 whispered from her wire den.
She was a beta breeder, pregnant with the next generation of Farm foxes, though her belly wasn’t showing yet.
“Ready,” O-370 said. He was an omega kit. His den was beside B-838’s.
“You have to tell it right this time,” R-211 said. The runt’s den was behind O-370’s, on the row closest to the wood that bordered the Farm. “Uly never bit the Golgathursh on its thousand butts. Golgathurshes don’t even have a thousand butts!”
B-838 raised an eyebrow. “Where do you think the food from its thousand mouths goes?”
O-370 snorted. He had never seen anything with a thousand mouths before. Let alone a thousand butts. But that didn’t stop him from gazing through the mesh of his wire den, deep into the trees, where he imagined an impossible creature with enough mouths to fill the shadowed spaces.
“You have to make it scary,” R-211 said. “Like this.”
He clacked his teeth in a dozen directions, trying to imitate the many mouths of the story’s swamp monster. But instead, he looked like he was trying and failing to catch a fly.
O-370 laughed. “Don’t hurt yourself, Two Eleven.”
R-211 leapt and pressed his paws against the wire mesh between their dens. “You’re lucky I’m not over there, or else I’d Golgathursh your face!”
“I’ll Uly your thousand butts!” O-370 said, throwing his paws against his own side.
The two battled through the twisted wire holes, fangs clacking, trying to use the flimsy wall to bounce the other onto his back. Like most fights, this one ended in a draw, and the kits fell into their dens, howling in feigned injury.
“My face!” O-370 cried.
“My butts!” R-211 whined.
They fell into hysterics.
R-211 was O-370’s cousin, but he was also his best friend. The fact that their dens were right next to each other had decided that more than anything. But O-370 was convinced he had been placed next to the coolest, funniest fox on the Farm. They gobbled up the stories about Uly and Mia more ferociously than the feed they ate twice a day. And when the other foxes fell asleep, the two tried to re-create the adventures as best they could in their wire dens, which were two tails wide and two tails deep.
“A-hem.” B-838 cleared her throat.
R-211 lay down, bundling his legs beneath him, but O-370 remained standing. He liked to be up on his paws during the exciting parts.
As the trees creaked and swayed, B-838 narrowed her eyes. “The swamp opened its dripping maw, and it devoured Uly and Mia whole.”
“Heh heh heh,” R-211 said evilly.
O-370 blurred his vision with his eyelashes and imagined the trees drooping with gray and pools of black water oozing up through the leaf bed.
“In the tangled branches high above,” B-838 continued, “ghost-white birds spotted the kits and clacked their bills toward the sky.”
Through O-370’s lashes, the moonlight on the bare branches seemed to grow feathers.
B-838’s voice became a snarl. “And in the bottomless depths of the slimy lake, something began to bubble.”
O-370’s legs felt as tense as a grasshopper’s. He ached to break through the mesh and hunt the scaly Golgathursh, escape the howling Snow Ghost, or battle the bloody fangs of Mr. Scratch. He wanted to sniff out the yellow stench—a curse that turned foxes into mindless cannibals—and he wanted to guide the helpless kits of the world back to the safety of the Farm.
“Quit messing up the story!” R-211 snarled, making O-370 realize he’d stopped listening. “The raccoon never told Uly he had beautiful fur, and she never asked him to move into her swamp nest.”
B-838 lifted her muzzle disdainfully. “Did so. That raccoon wanted to cover Uly’s blackberry spots with slimy swamp kisses.”
“Ugh!” R-211 rolled his eyes so hard he almost fell over.
“You insult our ancestors,” a deep voice growled.
B-838 flinched while O-370’s ears perked.
It was A-947, two dens down—a hazy silhouette through mesh walls. The alpha was three winters older than the kits. His fur was as bright as acorns, his ears were tipped as black as night, and the end of his tail was as white as the moon. The red of the heaters burned bright in his eyes.
“The Golgathursh would have crunched up that raccoon like a baby mouse,” A-947 said, lips peeled over his fangs. “It would have turned its jaws on Mia and Uly and ended their lives in a flash of fur and blood. Uly was lucky to exit that swamp missing only a paw.”
O-370 grinned at R-211, who grinned right back. This was more like it.
“If you knew what life was really like out there, Three Seventy,” A-947 growled, “your tail would not be wagging.”
O-370 jerked to attention and sat on his wagging tail.
The alpha fox stared between the trees into the gaping darkness. “Your ears would freeze, your paws would bleed, your tail would snap in two. A hunger would tear open inside you, so deep your ribs would crackle when you breathed.”
“Yeeshk,” B-838 said.
A-947 fixed his red gaze on O-370. “Every creature in the wood would come sniffing after you. Every badger. Every owl. Every coral snake. All waiting for you to drop your guard for a single moment, before they dragged you into the darkness, opened your belly, and feasted on your insides. RRAAAA!”
The alpha lunged forward, jostling the mesh and making all three foxes—even B-838—jump.
“Ha ha ha!” A-947 gave a deep laugh, and O-370 snorted in relief. “That’s how you scare the wild out of them, Eight Thirty-Eight,” A-947 said. “That way they’ll be grateful to enter the White Barn when their time comes.”
O-370 gazed through the mesh toward the Barn, which stood on the edge of the lawn opposite the farmhouse. Its paint was as bright as September clouds. Its shingles beamed golden, even at night. Once the snows fell and the foxes’ coats thickened red, the Farmer would take the runts and omegas into the Barn to join their ancestors. There, R-211 and O-370 would feast on peaches and centipedes and be forever warmed by the fur of their mothers and fathers, their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Some of the alphas and betas would remain in the wire dens to tell Mia’s and Uly’s stories to the kits who came fresh from the whelping pens.
“We do not tell these tales just to chill you,” A-947 said. “We tell them so you’ll know what life was like before the Farm. So you’ll realize how lucky you are to be here.”
O-370 shifted his focus from the forest to the wire mesh that protected him from the cruel things that lived there. He felt the heaters toasting his ears against the chill of autumn’s dying days. He tried to summon gratitude for the Farm and its many comforts. But gratitude wouldn’t come.
The alpha fox gazed across the Farm with pride. “Mia’s and Uly’s sacrifices brought us here. A place even more precious than the Eavey Wood.” He nodded to the farmhouse. “Humans like the Farmer and Miss Potter provide warmth and a roof over our ears and plenty of food to eat. For that, we owe them our tameness.”
Of all Mia’s and Uly’s stories, O-370 liked the Beatrix Potter one the least. The kindly woman had taken Mia in from the dark of the wild into the light of her cabin, where she fed and cared for the young fox kit before sending her back on her adventure.
It was boring.
In his most secret moments, O-370 worried that the White Barn would be boring too. That it was the end of all adventures.
“I know you still have some wildness in your whiskers,” A-947 told O-370. “But don’t worry. We’ll get it out. By telling the stories the way they really happened. Blood and guts and severed paws and all.”
O-370’s mouth ticked into an almost smile, and A-947 released him from his red-tinted gaze. “They’re all yours, Eight Thirty-Eight.” The alpha settled in his den.
“Okay, fine,” B-838 whispered. “The raccoon never professed her undying love for Uly. But if Uly had looked deep into her eyes, he could have seen a hint of longing, as if only he could fill the bottomless swamp of her soul.”
“Wake me up when this is over,” R-211 grumbled.
O-370 gave one last sniff toward the trees, hoping for a whiff of yellow or lilac, of snowy fur or swamp breath. But adventure always seemed just out of sniffing rage.
KLANG KLANG KLANG KLANG
“Finally!” R-211 said, leaping to his paws.
The sound of the scoop against the feed bucket brought the Farm foxes fussing and whimpering to the fronts of their wire dens. O-370’s mouth began to water as his ear began to itch. And all thoughts of the White Barn faded among the hungry yips of anticipation that echoed across the Farm.
Fern, the Farmer’s daughter, walked along the wire dens with her bucket, tossing wet scoopfuls of red through the mesh while the foxes nipped up the bloody bits—a gill here, a chicken foot there, and something that might have been an eyeball.
The Farmer watched from the farmhouse door—a shadow against the rectangle of light.
“Check the mesh!” he called to his daughter.
Fern hooked her fingers through the wire holes and gave it a jangle before continuing down the dens.
O-370 whimpered and pawstepped as Fern and her clinking bucket grew near. She gave double rations to B-838 and her unborn pups, then finally reached the end of the dens. The scoop flashed, and feed rained down around O-370 and his cousin.
R-211 fell to feasting, but O-370 pressed his ear against the mesh.
“Hiya, baby boy!” Fern said.
She reached around the wooden structure that held up the dens and hung her bucket from a nail that jutted from the side. She reached up and slid her fingers through the mesh to scratch around O-370’s ear tag.
A grumble escaped O-370’s throat while his eyes fluttered in relief. Fern’s fingernails were long and smelled faintly of chicken grease. He was tempted to lick them clean, but the itch on his ear was more urgent than the pit in his stomach. He pressed his head into her fingers.
“Aww,” she said. “You’re extra snuggly tonight, aren’t ya?”
The area around O-370’s tag had itched since he could remember. His first memory was a puncture—sharp and white—that had wrenched open his eyes. While his ear throbbed and bled, he had blinked at the bright-blue sky, waking to the pain and the beauty of the world.
The itch wasn’t quite extinguished when Fern stopped scratching. O-370’s hind paw started to thump, and he dug around the base of his ear, trying to finish the job. But his clumsy claws couldn’t get around his tag like Fern’s fingernails could.
“Dad?” Fern shouted toward the house. “Can we keep this one?”
O-370’s ears perked. Would he go to live in the farmhouse instead of the Barn? Fern was nice. Her voice was as pretty as the autumn wind, and she always smelled of lemon soap. Being her pet would come second only to going on an adventure.
The Farmer shook his shadowed head. “You know the answer to that.”
“Please?” Fern cried. “I’ll really train this one! I’ll teach him not to pee on the carpet!”
The Farmer stroked his chin. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you still haven’t sewn up my pair of thermals the last one destroyed.”
Fern wrinkled her nose and gave O-370’s ear one last pinch. “I would’ve named you Peaceblossom.”
R-211 snickered, and O-370 flashed his fangs at him. O-370 would put up with a name like Peaceblossom for a lifetime of ear scratches.
“Forget something?” the Farmer called, holding up a shovel.
Fern’s shoulders drooped. “Do I have to?”
The Farmer pointed the shovel’s handle toward the three tails of space between the ground and the wire dens, held up by wooden posts. “You know if we leave the waste too long, the smell damages their fur.”
Copyright © 2021 by Christian McKay Heidicker