by The Somnambulist Society
The sound of a fox’s bark is so unnatural, so wounded in its tone that you can scarcely believe it came from such a discreet creature. Some say their cries are like the frightened wails of children.
Even though we have become accustomed to their presence amongst us, their shrieks set even the strongest nerves on edge when heard alone on a darkened street.
When I was a child, foxes were animals that belonged in stories; ‘Watership Down’ and ‘The Animals of Farthing Wood’. Books portrayed them as strange woodland hermits who lived only at the edges of our understanding, red streaks of movement that huddled under hedgerows within the forests of the world. Now that I have grown older, they seem to be everywhere in the city, as common to our metropolitan lives as stray cats.
I have even seen them in the daytime, on occasion. I once saw a thin, languid male lying in the sunlight beside a loading bay, in the old industrial estate by the canals. He was curled up in the path of a sunbeam, his eyes squinting from the glare. This red menace, the scourge of the suburbs, was happily catching rays upon the concrete, totally oblivious to the world about him. Almost cocky, you could say.
Perhaps they are becoming too ‘familiar’ with us.
That is a word that has so many subtle applications, don’t you find? You can find a place, person or object ‘familiar’ in ways that are comforting and clothed in reassurance; but sometimes familiarity can stir toxic memories that you wish to forget, things that you hoped had been buried deep in the subconscious.
You can find a ‘familiar’ face in a crowd; then again you can also find the tone of someone you perceive as subordinate to be ‘over-familiar’. Behaviour can be familiar; someone who disappoints you in their actions is bound to do so again.
And then there is an older use, that of a witch’s ‘familiar’. Strange creatures that acted as both servant and co-conspirator. Partners in crime, you could say. It is where the image of the witch’s black cat originates, its feline grace a mask with which to hide its infernal conception.
I have been reading a lot about witches, recently. In part, it has to do with geography. Half of my family grew up around Suffolk, which in the 1600s was the veritable epicentre of the English witch trials conducted by the self-proclaimed ‘Witch-finder General’ Matthew Hopkins. I have in all likelihood spent many happy childhood summers in towns that once were a seething hive of paranoid and petty malevolence.
Manningtree, Aldeburgh, Ipswich, Yarmouth. All names that I associate with the warm glow of childhood nostalgia. All towns where frightened men and women were vindicated by religious extremists and self-righteous, cynical charlatans.
One of the many so-called ‘pieces of evidence’ presented in the trials was that of a familiar spirit provided by Satan himself, to aid witches in their ungodly deeds. Most often these ‘familiars’ were found to be any living thing one could find in a country home in the 1600s; even a bumblebee drifting harmlessly into the room in sight of the ‘watchers’ sent to observe the accused could be taken for a sign of infernal intervention.
The names attributed to the familiars were either utterly mundane or completely laughable in their absurdity:
‘Newt’. ‘Peck-in-the-crown.’ ‘Sack-and-sugar.’ ‘Grizzle-greedy guts.’ How anyone could have uttered these with a straight face at the county assizes is beyond me.
The Witch-finder General, Matthew Hopkins, was by all accounts a thoroughly mediocre, ill-educated fraud, and in no way deserves the reputation that has been crafted around him. He belongs in the dustbin of history, with every other man who preys upon fear to line his purse.
Familiars came in all shapes and sizes, it seems. Witches themselves were said to be able to turn into a black hare upon the full moon, and even the devil sometimes appeared before his congregation as an upright, male goat called ‘Black Tom’. So many stories we tell are of men and women changing their form; perhaps deep down we all wish to become wild creatures, if only for a while. To run swift and fly high, to taste the blood of a kill and the warmth of an underground den.
We still find solace in forests and green places. My city has more parks than I can count, and the wetlands and marshes near my home are deep, magical places. It is as if we never left the trees, as we build our homes higher and higher, and surround ourselves with trophies of nature.
I met a black fox last year, coming back from a house party held by old university friends. It was a cold autumn night, and the air became brittle white mist from every breath I took.
My phone was all but drained of battery, and I was probably muttering under my breath, knowing that as I was now on the ‘wrong’ side of thirty, that what I had inflicted on my body at tonight’s party would be paid for doubly the next morning. I looked up to find my bearings, and there he sat, bold as brass, on the corner of the street.
I waited, as I have done many times, to give him space to get the measure of me, before he padded off into the front garden of some quiet cul-de-sac. Instead, he looked at me. His head twitched from side to side, and he yawned in a way that showed every glinting inch of his sharp teeth.
Impatience began to bubble inside my already ill-tempered body, and I walked briskly toward him, hoping that he would scatter in fear at my lumbering, bipedal approach. The closer I got to him, the more I became aware that he was not moving, and was looking at me in a way I found quite distressing.
I am deliberate when I say ‘met’ rather than ‘saw’ a black fox by the side of the road; because he introduced himself to me.
We stood there, in the halogen ambience of a streetlight, almost toe-to-toe. At that moment, he spoke to me. He introduced himself as ‘Vinegar-tom’ and bowed to me with his long, sleek, black head.
His voice was lilting, containing the Suffolk burr I had grown up around in my childhood; but there was something else there too. Something far, far older.
I told him my name, though for the life of me I don’t know why. He asked me what I was doing here, alone on a strange street in a distant part of town. All the time he spoke to me, he did not move from his spot upon the road. Only his head slowly dipped from side to side as he listened to me, a predatory wariness that appeared as natural to him as breathing.
I told him I had been with friends, and that I was going home. Then, quite stupidly, I asked him if all foxes could talk.
He laughed at this, a piercing bark that made my skin prickle with cold sweat. He assured me that no; he was unique in this regard.
He said that he had been the familiar to quite a respectable young woman, a very long time ago. It had been a time when this quarter of the city was nothing but fields, the houses squat and thatched with straw. She had been the local ‘cunning woman’, a role that was part priestess, part midwife, doctor and charm-crafter. She was feared and respected for her art in equal measure, and none in the village would have been foolish enough to displease her.
They had sometimes cavorted together in the moonlight: her taking the form of an elegant black hare that darted among meadow grass; him chasing her in a mock display of predatory lust. They would fight and thrash at one another till they were red-raw with blood, then lay panting in the light of the moon. They were lovers, after a fashion; it was as if their souls were bonded to one another.
But she had grown old, as mortals tend to do. Once she had passed over to the land of dust and ashes, he had no master left to attend. He was orphaned, left to fend for himself in a world that was changing so staggeringly quickly that he could not discern one passing century from the last.
I asked him what he planned to do, now that he was free. This question applied to my wellbeing as much as his; I was terrified of him. He yawned and blinked his narrow black eyes.
He said that he would head North. He had friends there, some old acquaintances in the hills who remembered him. They were creatures of the old world, black shucks and will-o’-the-wisps that served no master and would gladly take him in as their own.
He wished me luck upon my journey, then stood up on his haunches, and with a lazy, ponderous movement he padded off into the dark. For a moment his black fur shone in the light of the streetlamp, like a pocket of the night sky set in motion, and then he was gone.
These days, whenever I see foxes, whether, by day or moonlight, I am reminded of this moment on the corner of a dark street, a year past. And each time, I dread that I may see a familiar face amongst them.
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