The Hunt – a short story

June 21, 2012 was to be a long day in Oxford; it began at 4:46, when few but insomniacs were awake. Old Joe was among the light sleepers who greeted the new day. He had been homeless for years dating back to the death of his ten-year-old son and this June he bivouacked in an abandoned garden shed. It stood in a large detached overgrown plot which faced a residential street on one side and on the other meandered down to a small stream. Since he had been homeless he had lived in many places including some homes for the indigent but he had never lasted long as he was a grumpy old loner unable to conform to rules. He was never known to smile and now his face had taken on wrinkles which resembled a permanent frown which did nothing for his interpersonal relationships. Not that he cared for he liked his independence and had convinced himself that he preferred solitude in which he could revel in his long term grief. Sometimes, particularly in the summer, he would go for days without speech, foraging for food in dumpsters and fighting for scraps with the urban foxes. On this June morning he felt sick and weary and his bones ached from the dampness of the unusually cold and wet summer and the inadequacies of his make shift home. He arose from his bed on the floor and opened the door. He relieved himself without crossing the threshold.
He gazed through the trees of the wild garden in which he was camping and saw that the sunrise was obscured by heavy rain clouds. Its emergence was confirmed by a glorious chorus of birdsong. He stood immobile and listened to the birds and tried to take some comfort from this communion of exuberance at the break of day.
That morning there were three boys sleeping in the house across the street; the house which owned the garden. All three missed the dawn and its accompanying birdsong as they enjoyed the uninterrupted slumber of youth. They had stayed up late the night before playing an interminable game of Monopoly. Mark and Tom liked having their cousin, Peter, to stay; at eleven years old he fit between them and bridged their three year age gap. At times he empathized with Mark the elder of the two brothers and at times with Tom. At midnight, their heads whirling with the excitement of rents and mortgages, they had been lulled to sleep by a gentle patter of rain, just as its later cessation had soothed and pampered them into deeper oblivion. They slept on, but not the house cat, an sleek white feline, who slipped out through her cat door jumped up onto the fence and walked with ease along it before leaping onto the ground and from thence to slip, ghost-like into the shrinking darkness across the road; into the wet wild woods of the garden opposite. She would be back, damp and triumphant, before breakfast, before the boys arose. Then she would sit and purr while she watched them eat.
Her excursion into the woods was not unobserved for Joe saw her as she slipped through the undergrowth. In his semi-somnambulant daze he saw her wispy white form as a morning spirit or an omen appertaining to his life. Perhaps even the ghost of his lost son. He called to her:
“Here, come to me. Daddy is here.” But he got no response as she slipped off into the misty depths of the woods. He sighed wondering whether the white shadow was responsible for the overwhelming fatigue which he felt on this morning. He turned and went back into his makeshift abode for a few more hours of rest.
Almost sixteen hours later, weather permitting, the boys planned to venture out through the woods and across the golf course to watch foxes at sunset. Sunset was to be at 9:27 and the boys, now fully awake, planned their excursion to occur after dinner.
It had rained off and on during the day but the evening was magical with gentle light and misty air. The three friends ate supper together and then bidding Mark and Tom’s mum goodbye struck out through the woods entering at the same point that the cat had used. They walked in single file following a narrow footpath. Mark led the way followed by Peter with Tom, as the youngest, in the rear. Everything was green with the verdant hue only seen after rain. The wet grasses and bushes hung toward the ground laden with moisture while the damp earth exuded an odor of fertility. Their gum boots squelched in the mud and they smiled in joy at this contact with the ground. Their path wove between the trees, past the abandoned shed, to a small stream swollen by the rains but still contained within its banks. The waters gurgled and sang in continuous movement. The boys followed the path over a light wooden bridge and paused to stand in a row to gaze at the stream and to listen to its song. All three wondered if there were fish it its cool depths. Tom spoke, “A fish, there, I see one!” His voice broke the damp air and sent a heron that was standing in a pool further up the stream into flight. They watched it rise ponderously as it beat its large wings to lift itself into the air. They heard its curious call as it sounded an alarm. Soon it was merely a dark shadow soaring over the trees, and then it was gone. As they watched it they heard other strange bird calls including a loud “caw-caw” of a Raven accompanied by the distinct sound of breaking twigs.
“What’s that?” whispered Peter. His blue eyes were filled with alarm and his hands clenched tight on the bridge handrail.
“Nah it’s probably a badger or something.” scoffed Mark. He quickly led them away from the stream to follow the narrow path as it climbed the opposite the bank. The path soon reached the abrupt edge of the woods and struck off along its perimeter towards the north. The boys left it to scramble towards the setting sun up a grassy incline onto a golf course.
Their stalker, Joe, for yes the broken twigs had not been a badger, paused at the edge of the woods reluctant to venture further into the open where he could be seen. He watched the three boys – their silhouettes, still in formation one behind the other, haloed by the setting sun. He identified with Peter and, in his trance-like state imagined the boy to be his lost son. He made no allowance for the intervening years for his son remained frozen in his mind at the age he was when he was lost. Joe told himself that the morning’s apparition and now this boy were omens that he was approaching a longed for reunion. He watched from the shadows of the wood’s undergrowth until his boy with his two companions disappeared over the ridge and then he too climbed the incline until he could see them as they meandered across the links. He could see where they had passed – a trail of disturbed damp grass – one trail as they still walked in single file.
“Surely,” he thought, “surely that one in the middle, the one who they call Peter, the one who heard me is my son. I saw him this morning and now he has come back to me.”
When they reached the west side of the golf course Mark paused and changed course to head for a stand of trees about half way across the west side. He turned to talk to his companions, “This is the place. We will sit under these trees. We must be very quiet.”
They spread a piece of plastic on the ground and sat on it to wait. They luxuriated in the peace of dusk, in the stagnant air, and in the expectation of what they hoped to see. Their nostrils flared at the perfume of damp grass and earth and although they could hear the remote purr of traffic they were more tuned into the bird calls in the trees and shrubbery on the west side of the golf course. An increase in bird calls heralded the emergence of the first red fox. It emerged about fifty feet from the boys and began to move cautiously across the golf course. Peter gasped as he marveled at its form. It looked barely larger than the white cat with sharp nose and long bushy tail and sported a beautiful red brown coat. It was hard to think that this elegant creature that moved with the grace of a cat was actually of the canine family. Peter’s involuntary gasp of delight was heard by the fox who turned to face the boys and then slowly, but decisively, retreated into the bracken from whence it had emerged.
The sun continued to set in the undisturbed procession of the universe and the boys waited and Joe waited hidden in a sand trap. At last their wait was rewarded and a second fox emerged to pass to their south to hurry towards the east woods. Then they heard an announcing bird call and a third appeared close to their clump of trees. It made its way quickly across the open golf course. It veered slightly when it came close to Joe’s sand trap and disappeared into the trees on the far side. The dusk was intensifying but the boys kept their post in the hope of seeing a fourth fox. Suddenly they heard a cacophony of bird calls arising from the woods behind them. They turned to see what they believed to be the third fox making a hasty retreat across the links followed by a pair of squawking wood thrushes. The smaller female kept diving upon the fox and attempting to peck his back. Her rage was apparent to all four observers and they shuddered at this brave display of maternal protection.
Joe accepted the scene as another omen heralding the reunion of children with their parents. To him it validated his obsession with his son for he knew that he had to make contact with the boy. He considered his options with amazing lucidity and eventually decided that he should return to the shed and make himself known as the boys passed by. This way he thought that he might be able to lure the boy he wanted into his abode without undue struggle without his having to expend energy in unnecessary force.
The boys trekked back across the golf course and retraced their path down to the stream. They all felt jumpy for Joe’s presence had invaded their sub-consciousness and filled them with foreboding. It was almost dark in the woods and the moon cast lurid shadows onto the ground. Mark saw Joe’s large footprints superimposed on their trail and thought it odd, but comforting that they led in the same direction in which they were travelling, led in a direction towards houses.
When they got to the shed Joe emerged, he staggered and waved his arms,
“Come here my boy. Come to me.” He attempted to shout but his voice was a whisper. Mark turned to his companions,
“Ignore the old man. He is harmless. But hurry. Let’s get away.” He began to run. But Peter paused and looked at Joe for something made him stop. Tom ran and grabbed his brother’s hand. Joe and Peter were silhouetted in the moonlight. the man and boy looked at each other without speech. Joe staggered and fell.
“Leave him. He is drunk.” said Mark.
“He is ill, not drunk. He needs help.” said Peter. He knelt beside the fallen figure. Mark stopped; he had never heard Peter talk with such authority but for some reason he believed him.
“You and Tom must go for help. I will stay with the old man we cannot leave him alone,” said Peter.
“Will you be all right? Are you sure?” asked Mark
“Yes, I am sure. Now go. Go fast.”
Joe heard the exchange between the boys as in a distant dream but now he looked up into Peter’s face, and marveled at the way in which the moon silhouetted the boy’s head. He felt for Peter’s hand and held it in his.
“You are real, you are alive.” he said.
The boy’s intense blue eyes looked troubled but he spoke in a kindly reassuring voice, “Yes, I am alive, and so are you. Mark and Tom have gone for help. It won’t be long; their parents live right across the street”
Joe sighed, breathed gently with a hollow echo in his chest. He felt no pain, no anguish. He smiled. His smile illuminated his face with seraphic kindness and made his whole body glow, “Beside you I am at peace.” He whispered. “I always knew that we would be reunited. Stay with me.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Mark and Tom will be back soon, and they will bring help.”
Mark and Tom were not long gone but when they returned with their parents Joe was dead. His face was bathed in a frozen peaceful smile differentiating him from the lonely sad old man that he had become.

6 thoughts on “The Hunt – a short story

  1. I thnk that you posted your compliment some time ago and I, being fairly new to the intricacies of blogging missed it. Anyway thank you for your kind remarks, I hope that we stay in touch, Cheerio, Jane

  2. What an interesting story, Jane.

    I need your advice, so that I don’t get egg on my face making mistakes again.

    Please confirm the name should read as – “Jane Stansfeld”
    Cheers, Eric
    P/s You posted a comment sometime ago about a typo I made, but as it came in as “Anonymous” I believe I deleted it after another comment came in with your short name showing.

    • There is NO egg on your face! The name is Jane Stansfeld . Yes, you were absolutely right to delete Anonymous – that was egg on my face when I wasn’t sure how to post comments. I think that I am getting the hang of it now and it is good to communicate with such an expert as yourself.

  3. Thank you. I found your site yesterday and read and read. I had a hard time finding my way to adding comments and have many positive ones. My favorite is the Stupidbaker – lovely. Your blend of exotic and humor is masterful while giving a taste of each place that you describe.

  4. Appreciating the time and effort you put into your blog and in depth information you provide.

    It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old
    rehashed material. Wonderful read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google
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