It was a sweltering summer’s evening in Scotland. The moon was like a round of soft, golden cheddar cheese and the night sky was sprinkled with thousands of sparkling stars as distinct as freckles on a face. A winding road, warmed from the heat of the afternoon sun, disappeared into the hazy distance, lined with chartreuse conifers that wafted the delicate scent of pine on the balmy breeze.
Deep within the towering trees, obscured by holly bushes and gorse, a vixen lay crouched. Her amber gaze was fixed on a lolloping rabbit, grazing nonchalantly in a nearby clearing. Sensitive, triangular ears pricked, and moist, black nose twitching alertly, she moved forward, a lithe shadow swallowed up by the dark. Placing her plump paws with precision, her taut muscles bunched and rippled beneath her satin, russet coat. She tightened herself until she was rigid, ready to spring with deadly accuracy. It was the crackling of a twig that gave her away. The sharp sound pierced the silence. And then the rabbit was off!
Flying over roots, it dashed through the undergrowth as if it had wings. The ravenous vixen sprinted after it, teeth snapping viciously, jaws drooling with anticipation. The rabbit bounded over the road, its fluffy tail flashing a bright white. Without a second thought, the vixen tore across the tarmac.
A blinding light stopped her in her tracks. It blazed its way closer. A thunderous roar filled her ears. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. She was hypnotised. Brakes hissing, wheels churning, it bore down on her. There was a dull thump, and her limp body was hurled into the gutter. The vixen was dead.
Once more there was silence in the forest, apart from the sombre hooting call of an unseen barn owl and the whirr of the moths as they danced in the silvery ribbons of moonlight streaming down from the heavens above.
PITTER PATTER. Raindrops trickled down the car window, pooling at the ledge. Hester McMillan sat hunched over, her ginger hair falling over her face. Her emerald eyes were raw and red, and her cheeks were stained with tears. Her father glanced over at her through the rear-view mirror, his face in a concerned frown.
Her distraught gaze strayed to the furry fox at her feet. His topaz eyes met hers and he stretched his soft white throat upwards to lick her chin. She smiled despite her sadness and rubbed his pricked ears. As she stroked him, her mind wandered back to the day when she had first found him, a lean cub, mad with fear.
She recalled on that day that her eyes had been on the lush, green fields, speckled with sheep, as the bell rang, signalling the end of school. “Class dismissed!” called out her History teacher, over the deafening scraping of chairs and excited children’s chatter. “Don’t forget that your homework is due on Wednesday!”.
She was gathering her workbooks, eager to get into the fresh air when there was a sarcastic “Oops!” and someone sent them all toppling to the floor. She bent down, glowering, to pick them up. Armenia Davis. She should’ve known.
Sweeping back her tangled mess of auburn hair, she glared at her. “Maybe you should pick on someone your size next time.” She snapped. Armenia gave a high-pitched giggle and pranced pompously away. “Witch!” Hester called after her.
Hauling her battered pack onto her back, she headed down the corridors and out of the building. The icy blast of autumn air always took her breath away. She lifted her face to the grey, grey sky and sighed deeply. The dampening smell of rain teased her nostrils and fallen leaves crunched under her boots. She shrugged off her bag and sat on a worn tree stump to organise her things. As she was shifting through her papers, a shrill squeal from the bushes beyond caught her attention. Heart thumping, she turned and gazed past the metal fence, into the distant forest. “Who’s there?” She called hesitantly.
The only movement she could spot was a distant flock of ravens, bursting from a nearby tree and cawing loudly. Ignoring a large WARNING sign, she inched her way through a gap in the wire. She paused on the other side, looking back at the deserted lane. Summoning her courage, she slipped and slid down the muddy bank, crossed the rickety bridge that swayed in the frigid wind and headed in the direction of the mysterious sound.
All the while, she was aware of the scrub becoming thicker and the street behind her growing smaller as she ventured deeper into unexplored territory. She burst into a clearing, where a gnarled oak stood majestically, its verdant branches reaching up to the heavens. Beneath the tree was a hole in the damp soil, entangled with roots. And beside it, whimpering with pain and fear, was a lanky fox cub, struggling fiercely, its neck stuck in a harsh noose that tightened every time the cub yanked away. Its skin hung loosely off its bony frame, its ribs showing clearly under its grimy fur. Pulling off her hoodie and using it to protect her hands, she inched towards the trap and used it to subdue the cub. Slowly and surely, she began to untangle the noose and removed it from the fox’s neck. It had left a deep gash in the flesh and fur, which oozed blood. Bundling the fox up and carrying him like a baby, she felt his trembles die away until he rested quite contentedly in her arms.
She clambered through the fence again, which was now much more difficult because of the cub, and placed him, snuggled up and sleeping, into her backpack. Then, she deftly hauled the bag onto her back and began the long and tiring journey home. When she arrived at their little mossy cottage on Baker Street, trailing mud and icy water into the kitchen, squelching, her father was there, chopping fruit, his face stony. “Where have you been, young lady?” he demanded. “School ends at 4 and it’s already 5:30!”. Without speaking, or even trying to explain, she opened her backpack and presented the tiny fox. Her father’s face was a mixture of shock and surprise. Their dog, a sweet collie called Twinkie, sniffled and snuffled at the fox’s tail and eventually lay down at Hester’s feet, crossing her paws.
Her father was lost for words. “But…but…” he stammered. “All right,” he said finally, crumbling beneath his defiant daughter’s blazing gaze. A ghost of a smile dawned on his lips. “What are you going to call him?”.
When Hester’s dad came in to say good night, Hester was dozing lightly on her bed, the fox curled up on her stomach, its brush curled around its nose. Her hand was resting on its silken back, the fingers caressing the velvety fur.
“Sweet dreams, Hestie.” Her dad whispered.
“Good night, Dad,” Hester whispered back. She slept well that night, she and the fox rolling into a tide of sleep together, side by side, as if they had known each other forever.
The change in the speed of the car jolted Hester back to the present. They were slowing beside a forested bluff, trees and bushes surrounding them. They were completely immersed in the wild.
Steadying her trembling hands, she opened the car door and stepped out onto the forest floor. The fox bounded ahead, his ears pricked. It was the first time he had stepped out onto wild soil since that fateful day when Hester had found him, alone and unprotected. “Okay…are you ready, Hestie?” her dad said. She nodded, fighting back tears. She turned to the fox at her feet and gave him one last kiss on the muzzle. “Go.” She whispered. When he didn’t move, she yelled out, “GO!”. Brushing his whiskers against her leg, he stepped away from her and gazed into the trees. With a last, fleeting glance back at Hester, he bounded away into the undergrowth. Hester yearned for him as she watched him leave, yet in her heart, she knew she had done the right thing. “Goodbye.” She murmured to herself. All was silent in the forest once more, and as Hester entered the car, a barn owl swooped overhead, in broad daylight, singing its haunting song.