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
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.