The Fox and the Choir
William VanDenBerg

Two monks -- one old, one young -- crest the ridge and look into the valley below. They see a village down there.
The community is small and little known. The occupants were converted by traveling clergy a decade ago. A wooden cross rises on one side of the church. The parish minister that sent for them vanished days before their arrival.
The men have no record of the town's faith before the conversion.
The minister sent them reports of a monstrous fox in the area. An infant was stolen from its crib, smudged blood found on the stone floor. Lambs were slaughtered outside their fences -- their shepherd discovered the remains on the last snows of early spring. Only two villagers have actually seen the fox. They reference its large size and hunched back. It resembles nothing they have ever witnessed. But it is a fox, they are sure.
The monks see the fox as a penance. The old man explains: there is a time before people are aware of their sins, but this period is still judged. We must fight the demon and show our worthiness -- God tests us, he says.
They gather provisions and two crossbows. The men leave town, follow the animal's winding tracks into the foothills.

At night the fox comes and talks to the young man. It whispers in his ear as he falls asleep. It tells him about the time before. It explains that the child was murdered and thrown down a well. The lambs were killed by a disturbed adolescent.
I have been forsaken, the fox whispers.
The young man views the fox not as a hulking beast but a sleek, red blur seen only in motion.

The old monk grows thinner on their rations. He laughs as he ties his robe tighter and tighter. Days pass; his gray hair knots.
The young man tracks the path of the sun through the sky and is sure that they are lost. He sees messages and patterns in the budding branches. He reflects on forces and signs. The tracks of the fox are looping, incongruous things. When the young man tries to hold their path in his head his vision blurs.

The old man whispers: see, there it is. The fox sleeps twenty yards away on a sunny, moss-covered rock. The creature's openness shocks the young man. It should be in a nest or a shell, a corner or a burrow.
The old man raises his crossbow and tells his companion to do the same. The young man closes one eye. The red dot of the fox notches into the sight at the end of the weapon. The young man hears voices, hundreds of them. The fitful murmurs rise into a choir. He turns and brings the end of his weapon into contact with the old man's temple. The voices fall silent, revealing a background noise like water running over glass. The old monk turns. His mouth is a wide O.

The young man walks into town in robes half soaked red.
The inhabitants watch. He lacks his backpack and weapon. He looks transformed into an earlier version of himself.
He approaches the church. The cross hanging outside is rough and old, as if made from driftwood. The young man passes through the threshold. The pews are empty and covered in dust. Debris skitters across the floor. Light rains in though a pattern of holes in the roof. This is a long abandoned place.

The fire rises and lasts all through the night.