By Charlotte Symons
In the night, he half-wakes, rises, and goes downstairs. He opens the front door. The moon is caught in the branches of the bare oak, and a low wind moans. He shuts the door behind him and steps out into the dark. The stones of the lane are sharp under his bare feet, but he hardly notices the pain. By the time he reaches the field gate, his feet have changed, so that the stones don’t hurt them anymore. He slips through the bars of the gate, his nose twitching at the odours that come to him, borne on the damp night air. Everywhere is the smell of earth, of grass and sheep. Here is a faint scent trail where a dog passed by earlier that day; there, a few hours ago, went a fox. The grass is wet with dew; it soaks his feet. He runs in the light of the moon, twisting and leaping with the elastic motion of a hare.
When Joseph wakes the next morning, his neck and shoulders are stiff, as if he’s wrenched them performing some unaccustomed athletic movement. He tries to think what he might have done. Perhaps he carried something awkwardly yesterday—those boxes of books could be heavy. He massages his neck, stretching it until he can feel the pull in the muscle.
Laura’s already up and in the shower. Joseph can hear the water sloshing as it merrily pours down the drain. He keeps asking her to turn it off while she uses the shower gel, but no, she can’t do that, that would be too sensible. It will be lukewarm by the time it’s his turn. Again.
He retreats under the duvet. Might as well stay in bed until the bathroom’s free. He stretches out his feet and then stops. Instead of their usual smoothness, the sheets feel gritty and damp. He sits up, throws back the duvet. On his side of the bed, the sheets are smeared with mud and scraps of grass. His pyjamas aren’t much better. He stares at the mess, perplexed. Could he have been sleepwalking? So far as he knows, he’s never done so before.
He puts his dressing gown on, looks down. No, that’s no good. The trouser hems, the worst part, still show underneath. He takes the pyjamas off and hides them under his pillow, pulls up the duvet to cover the mud. But that’s no good either—Laura will make the bed while he’s at work. With one eye on the bathroom door, Joseph begins to strip the sheets.
The next morning, the bed is muddy again. This time, Joseph has a vague memory—hazy, like a dream, but somehow real—of running across a field, fleet of foot—of bounding, in great, supple leaps. He shoves the sheets in the washing machine while Laura’s still in the bathroom, knowing she’ll think his sudden keenness for laundry strange, but not wanting to face the alternative.
Work passes in a daze. The library and its world of stacks and reference numbers seem unreal, unimportant. He feels a longing to be outside, in the sun and the air. Sounds, smells, seem louder, more insistent than usual. Mid-morning, someone drops an armful of books two aisles away. He startles, feels his muscles brace to leap.
On the bus home, the noise of the engine is almost unbearable. He crouches lower in his seat. When he reaches his stop, he jumps off, breaks into a run. Needing to get away from the noise and smell of the traffic, he veers off the road, pushes his way through the hedge, tears across the ploughed field under a suddenly wide and open sky.
When Joseph doesn’t return, Laura reports him missing. There isn’t much for the police to go on: they struggle to link his disappearance to a sudden enthusiasm for housework. She doesn’t mention the other thing she noticed that last morning. The muddy, animal footprints all up the stairs—the long back feet of a hare clearly showing.