3. Fox in the MountainsThe apple tree stood tall and proud, rafters matching the beech on one side and towering over the holly hedge that grew along the garden wall. When she ran out of apples the man cut her down. Years later the seeds from the last few rotten fruit grew and the roots of the new forest tore his house down. In the middle of the garden the stump of the old tree dried and grew solid. The next owners thought she was ugly but their six-year-old son couldn't keep away from her; climbing and running and poking with a stick. They decided to keep her and cut a little bench into one side. They sanded and waxed, and carved a dedication to the tree she once was. The boy sat for hours on end until he couldn't stand anymore and his grandchildren carved the initials of the man he once was. Halfway up the mountainside the trees parted and the boy held his breath when he saw the fox standing in the enclave beyond. The two stood taking each other in for a good while until the fox, tail twitching, fled into the bushes. The boy chased the streak of scarlet for a while, imagining he could see her small white ears, hear the patter of her paws on the fresh, dewy leaves. He ran until he was out of breath and stood dizzy while the world span, slowed and stopped and he could breathe again. He looked around him and couldn't see the fox anywhere so he closed his eyes tight and imagined her standing proud and elegant, one foot raised. Or was it? He screwed his hands to his eyes and thought of nothing but her soft crimson fur. Or was it brown? Did she have black paws? Or white? The fox looked up at him and narrowed her eyes. 'I'm sorry,' he mumbled, 'I can't remember if you were crimson or brown.' The fox turned in a small circle and stood upright with the bush of her tail bunched around her small feet. 'Do you have black paws, or white?' But the fox wasn't listening now. She was carefully cleaning the fur along one slender leg and the boy was patient. He sat on a stump nearby and pulled his legs up, wrapping his arms around his knees and pulling them close. Now the rush of the chase was over he found he was quite cold and his coat was thin and his boots were damp and the sun didn't quite cut through the mist or the trees like it had done a week before. Autumn would still be green in this country but it already felt white. A hill, grassy with small flowers. Quick feet carry the child up to where the apple tree stood proud at the crest. She smiled when the child reached the top, panting and leaning bent on knees. She had watched the tripping and tumbling that began in the field beside her and went on, slipping and climbing up her hillside. Now the child looked up and gleaming eyes fell on the fruit that hung on the lowest branches, just where she'd spent the spring flowering. When he went home later that day he stoked the fire, stretched out on a thick rug close to the warmth and closed his eyes. The fox padded gently into the room and stood by the door, alert, taking in the boy, the flickering hearth, the glowing light, the shadows bouncing across the walls, the smell of burning wood and the faint hiss as the boy's boots dried by the fire. She crossed the room quickly and silently and sniffed at the soft face that showed no strain but smiled as it slept. Tucking into the arm of the boy she lowered her head into the soft pillow of her own thick fur. For a long time she watched the dying fire, reflected in the one sharp black eye she kept open, until she slept. With a grunt from the effort she tried again, leaning lower and lower. Her thick trunk creaked as she strained to bend her branches down towards the child who jumped to reach the fat red apple. If only I was was like Willow, whose slender arms brush the ground, or Yew, whose bows paint graceful arcs in the wind, springing back after the harshest gusts. If this child could jump just a little higher... A piercing noise brought him back. A scream, sharp and full of pain, loosed itself into the trees around him. Jamming the heel of each hand against his head he jumped to his feet and ran. The noise followed, throbbing through the ground and into his body. He ran and ran until the sweat made his hair fall angrily into his eyes and finally he stopped but the noise continued. The shrieking grew louder and louder. He thought he would faint, blood pounding in his ears. A warmth against his hand, he pulled it away and blinked rawly at the bright red drops. He tried to yell, to scream for help as he felt the blood trickle against his hot flushed cheek. Blood and sweat. But when he tried to open his mouth to shout he found his jaw locked, locked open, his cheeks stretched, tongue tensed against the back of his teeth, air rushing out and out over and over. He could taste the scream pulling from deep within him, fleeing from his shaking frame at any cost. With his eyes shut tight he pushed upwards with his jaw begging the pain to end, until with a snap his mouth shut tight and the howling stopped. The noise of the forest drifted over his heavy breath which came in a pushing sniff. He kept his eyes closed, listening to the soft, low leaves shuffling while the wind and the open air danced above the trees. There was water nearby, he could hear its drip and gurgle. With slow steps he was carried to the trickle of a stream that ran fast and deep, though not wide. It bubbled and chattered, splashing up and over stones smoothed to a flat gully that ran deeper into the forest. Concentrate. Ignore the birds that nest in my higher reaches. Ignore the ants that crawl over my thick roots. Ignore the wasps that bite and tear at my bark for nests. Ignore the sun that blushes my scooping leaves less and less as the days go by. Shaking blossoms scatter as the branches inch towards up-stretched fingertips. He dipped one foot into the cool stream. As his foot slid into the rush, frosty drips began to run up his bare ankle. More and more drops spiralled into the flow until he stood with one leg a network of frigid streams, joining and strengthening. The water surged upwards and soon he stood, the figure of a boy, drips and drops scrambling about him, slipping through his clothes without wetting them, finding each and every inch of skin to touch. The thin tracks reached his neck and circled around and around in a spiralling scarf that wrapped up and over his aching jaw, soothing the cheeks and bones. He felt his tongue relax, his jaw loosen. Slack open and breathing, the water held him. The branch snapped with a ripping crack and fell, with a flurry of bouncing leaves, to the grass below. He walked a while between the trees until he came to a place where the branches opened up in front and above him and he could see right across the valley that stretched for miles and miles from the foot of the mountain. Such a view. He pictured it as it was in front of him. Then closed his eyes and pictured it again, opening one eye to check he had it right. Then he turned away from the view and pictured it again. First with his eyes closed. The sweep of the fat river at the base, the plains that swung out on either side of the bend, the trees and open sky that framed the panorama. He could see it well enough and tried with one eye open, and could see the trees in front through right and the river behind through closed left. He tried the other side and the trees flipped with the plains and then with both eyes open, which was the hardest of all. He stood frowning, the image of what was behind fading into what was in front. After a few seconds he lost it completely and had to turn back to get it again. While he turned something shot out of the bushes to his left and sprinted in a ruddy streak across the path and into the thicket. Each leaf touched the soft earth for less than a second, less than half. Every brush of green an avalanche as the thick branch crushed and breathed out a whispering sigh, then slowly drew back in deep and rose, before softly settling. The girl stood by, apple clasped in two hands, her back turned to what had been.
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