Don’t follow the tod.
That’s what his Nannan had always told him. She had made him promise but, of course, the young never listen and he had moved to the city and was invincible. And he had thought there would be more of a choice if it got to it.
He noticed the flicker of colour as he left, stepping through the door into the still winter evening. A moment of rust-red just at the edge of pale lamplight which seemed to sink into the gathering snow. Snow which muffles sound and swallows light and keeps its secrets. The pub had been bright and rowdy, and the silent, poorly lit, empty night spooked him for an instant. A city is not supposed to be empty. He trudged off uphill – only a slight incline but always a struggle after beers and fags with the lads. A shiver trembled his spine and ribs. It was colder now; his old duffle was threadbare and insufficient, but he pulled it close around.
And everywhere now flashes of red knitted around him.
Under a parked car, then on a roof across the way, then slinking around the next corner, then dashing over the garbage bins waiting for collection outside a block of flats. There was a shortcut through the green, one he often took although it wasn’t well lit. A well-paved path wound cursively around grassy mounds where hipsters picnicked and got stoned on summer afternoons. But the park was also bisected by a well-trodden trail, a straight line of erosion which revolted against the town planners’ fancies. Desire lines, they call them.
He saw the tod clearly half-way along this trail. A vixen. She sat, unconcerned and charming, as if waiting. He thought he saw in her an air of prim impatience, and she regarded him boldly. He shivered again. She took some deft steps towards him; he couldn’t tell if it was two or twenty. The tods on the farm were never so assured. Her eyes held his gaze. They glowed almost, he thought, like topaz catching sunlight, inlaid with onyx pips, contrasting against her fine russet pelt. Dazzling. She held him there for a second, as if deciding something, before licking her lips and sniffing the night air.
She asked the question with the merest tilt of her head and in the urgent yes of his response he forgot the cold and the lateness. He forgot Nannan and her warnings, and whoever he had been, and followed where she led. Untrodden paths he did not know and did not notice. At times she led the way and he followed; at others she wove herself between his legs as he walked, gently and insistently guiding his steps. Across roads and through parks, past sleeping terraces and late-night off-licences whose bored attendants might have helped him, if only they had noticed.
There was no telling how long they walked. A moment and an eternity; under a sky shedding snow of the lightest kind – powder really – hardly ever seen in the city. It really was a special night. And all seemed empty as she led him down alleys and steps and along canals that, come summer, would be lime green with algae but were now ink-black and still. The breeze was slight but biting and blew snow across his thick brown hair and across her long muzzle.
Finally she paused outside a building site. A new build; the kind that would have interested him earlier that night, an aeon ago. Again, she stared at him with those cold candle-flame eyes but he didn’t shiver this time. Slipping through a gap in the metal mesh fence, she turned to him. Mute and insistent. He struggled through the loosely shackled gate. A tight fit. He tore his duffle on a loose piece of metal and then his hand on another. The thin line of blood which appeared on his hand filled the air with the scent of iron. She licked her lips and whined almost imperceptibly before turning to lead him across the scree of the building site. Bricks, and sand, and tiles, into the shell and up bare concrete stairs. He could hardly see but instinctively knew her footsteps and followed them closely.
At the top she twisted through a roofless room and led him out onto the naked scaffolding. She sat quite still for a long time surveying the landscape sprawled below them. She liked gentle nights like this. The lights of a plane flashed in the sky ahead, too high for the engines’ drone to reach them. She looked up at him one final time. He seemed to understand but at the last the full moon darted out from the thick cloud cover, drowning the landscape in viscous silver light. He hesitated for just a second and stared uncertainly at the tod.
She answered his question by pulling back her lips revealing her maw, all incisors and canines. Not a snarl, but a clever grin. Fat and satisfied. He turned from her and looked up. There was more snow coming but for now the breeze stilled and he took a deep breath. And as the moon disappeared back behind the snow clouds, he stepped off the edge.
Oso Jones has been translated from Australia to the UK, swapping one obscure academic field for another. He lives with his partner in one of the quieter parts of Islington. If not scribbling, he bakes bread, makes ice cream, and drinks tea.