By Julian Harvard
On a hot August night that felt like December, he came across a crippled fox on an empty street. Its back paws had been crushed, and its hind legs were a mush of exposed muscle and blood-matted fur. It gargled there in the crook between curb and road, but it had surely wanted to scream like they do in January when they mate.
He had been walking back from Soho, and his ears felt stuffed with mud. The ghost of a baseline still pounded between his ears as his feet gently zig-zagged him towards the suburbs. If he’d known this was to be his last time drinking with those friends he’d have stayed out until daylight.
But he’d thought all that would be forever, and instead, he was now alone on the road that his mother had told him he must avoid at night. He was beyond the park, passing the three gray towers and their patchy greens and dim car parks. The drink had dulled his sense of danger. It was only a faint echo now; it didn’t press on him as it might.
It was the hush that made him think of December—it reminded him of the snow that muffled everything one Boxing Day when he was seven, of orange clouds pressed low over a city that felt emptied. The only noises he could hear were the clumsy slap of his shoes, the throb in his ears, the morning call of confused birds, a fox’s dying note.
Five years after this night, he would qualify as a vet in a Northern town. Before that, there would be a lesson in which he would slice down the skin of a pickled Alsatian leg. It would appear clean under the surgical lamp. Tendon, bone, flexor, vein, artery, fat. Delineated neatly like the textbook diagrams and nothing like what he’d seen in the vague sulfur light on the road he should have avoided.
When he reached the fox, its eyes were wide and anxious. They took in all of the sky and never turned to him. He’d wanted to soothe the fox, to heal its messy wounds, but the damage was too great, and it was too late. There was nothing to be done, and it would suffer until it died.
Too slowly, the life was draining from it. He hadn’t the strength to take a brick and help it in the way he should, although he knew that would have been kind. Instead, he walked on. By the time he turned into the next road, he could no longer hear the fox. Perhaps it had passed. The leafier roads stretched ahead of him, and he sped up, sober now. The birds were singing too soon; the thud in his ears was ebbing.