The Girl by the Fire
        If you take in the view, far below the mountains and the full silver moon and the shining stars, you will see an endless plain, full of shadows. The night moves in quietly down there. At dusk, no thing walks or speaks. Only the ghosts of marauding crows flap and caw until they merge into the slumbering landscape. The day is spent.
        Yet a single, curious flame flickers down in the darkness.                           
        Once, a great city rested here, where men had argued, traded and struggled; and where women had dreamed of better times. Just occasionally, some heinous deed was done, so that human blood was wasted in the grass and sand. That was a thousand or ten thousand years ago. Now, only a few stumps of chimneys and lowly remnants of stone walls dot the savannah. The great plain is silent and empty, mile upon mile.
        Drawing closer, you will see the distant outline of pine trees. They seem strange in this flat place. Then, closer still, tall sun-dried grasses. In the blackness, they are shot-through with a ruddy light and amongst them is a fleeting form of silky blue. Sometimes, it drifts closer to the flame. Later, it fades against the shadowy green foliage. At first, busy; then squatting and swaying gently.  
       A young girl. There she sits. From time to time she tends her campfire. And, in her arms, she holds something with love. Something tiny and red and furry.
        She lives in a broken-down old ruin of a house that surrounds the camp-fire. The walls are barely knee-high with a single window propped on top. Though she hardly needs a window. The wild country surrounds her on every side and the wind blows through every corner of her home.
       The fire keeps her warm enough. It's a strong fire tonight. The split logs radiate at its base over a glowing pan of embers. The flames burn and waft towards her.  Every time the wood cracks, sparks cascade into the evening
  Her name is Powla. She is not afraid of the dark nights and the howling wind. She knows this place. She knows the trees on the far side of the plain. She knows the hilly country to the north.
  She thinks she may even know about the odd lands to the south but that remains to be seen.
        She knows where to find the best fruits and the plants that provide nutrition.
       She has most of the things she needs but Powla is often alone. Perhaps a little sparrow perches outside her window and every so often, sends a lost message in its song. Perhaps a  Roe Deer strays by and  then leaps away in fright.   Even an earwig makes its way across the dusty floor. These are her only company.
    One day ~ she knew it was towards the end of last winter but she couldn't be too sure of the exact time ~ ­­  Powla had been out trekking in the hill country. It was certainly cold and she remembered wrapping herself in several layers of clothing.  Snowdrifts could still be seen on the leeward side of the slopes.
      Under an icy crust, sharp blue-ish and impenetrable, she found a strangely warm-looking and rounded shape. She could only get at it by digging into the hard-packed snow with her bare hands and then had no choice but to lug the frozen package home.
    She put it close to the fireplace but by now the fire had become just dull embers, so the object melted quite slowly. The outer layers got smoother and the object became an oval. In fact, it was a kind of ice-egg.
    Powla thought something was bound to grow out of the egg. As the water melted between the stone slabs and into the earth floor, the fire began to flare. She watched the frozen oval acquire patches of  damp ruddy hair which dried fluffy in the warmth. She was sure it would suddenly wobble and roll. She was a little nervous. She gently poked the inner mass of sodden hair in one of its drier spots. It was quite soft.
       Summoning courage, she carefully held the ice-egg in her palms. She had large palms for a girl and it was easily big enough to fill them.
       Would it squirm? Would it stretch? She tried to stay brave. Would it breathe? Was it alive or dead?
       It was at that point - as the egg started to dry out to its core - that she decided to examine what was inside in more detail.
What was this? Thread? Stitches? Amber beads? What a frightened fool she could be. The thing was neither live nor dead. It was a toy! A cuddly toy!
       Anyway, from that day, she had kept the toy. True, she was a bit too old for a doll but it wasn't really a dolly was it. It was a special discovery. There was something particular about it: A certain quality that helped her to feel not so lonely.
       The afternoon sun beats down warmly. It is now late spring. The cherry blossom in the glades near the forest has long since grown and fallen. Powla sweeps the grit and sand out of her house. She makes repairs to the paltry makeshift brick that she inhabits. She mends a gap in the floorboards.
       The toy is still there. It sits dumbly, on one of her hopelessly collapsed walls. She sits down next to it, more than a little sad herself. For an instant, it seems to play her a glance.
        She holds the toy close. Its rich hair, its tiny petal ears and one amber glass eye dangling from a frayed cotton yarn. Its little sharp claws!
        She puts it close to her cheek. It could almost scratch her if it wished to. It's so ~ real...
        But its not real! How angry she is with herself... to believe that an inanimate comforter could be her friend. This is not even solace! She's angry with it too.
        Powla snatches the toy by one sprout of a leg. Callously, thoughtlessly, she tosses her dumb friend toward the fireplace. It's of no use to ME! Let it....... BURN!
   So it burned. As she turned away, in a sort of dancing tantrum, she caught the memory of them sitting together. It was like a picture in the sky. She couldn't forget it. Nor could she forget that glimpsing eye.                    
   The toy did not fall into the centre of the fire, as she first thought. She was a little relieved to see this. After all, its insides were made of straw. It was a bit damp and it smoldered well into the evening. The fire died down. It was a toy, nothing more.      
  A crescent moon appeared on the eastern horizon. The rising night brought a greenish tinge over the plain. Powla watched her fireplace intently. The embers turned to ashes. Possibly she had been wrong.                       
        She wondered if her pretend friend had been better than having no friend. She had certainly lost her temper. 
        Still the toy smouldered away. She wondered what she was losing. Then nothing of the toy was left but the amber beady-eye and the clear point of light within that.  
        Powla stared for a long time, until she could see nothing but the point of light and the glowing purple darkness around it. The fire was almost out but still the tiny light shone.
        It moved! Did she see it move or was it just a final spark lifting into the evening? There it was again! An amber fragment tracing a rapid path, one, perhaps two feet into the air. Then a deep violet shadow, following below, no... above... in fact all around it!
        And then the fire roared.            
                                                                                            The Firefox
       A giant figure suddenly filled the space above the fire! A wheeling, prancing invader. A phantom dressed in red waistcoat and beige britches. A marauder in her house.
       The flames leapt and danced around it and its arms flailed as if it would spin into flight. Was it human? It seemed to float there for minutes. The limbs were mere wisps of black smoke. The head was wolfish and the snout pointed to something: an amber eye, detached and drifting by a thread.
       In a moment the figure collapsed, just as quickly as it had appeared. It was a heap of fur and bones slumped down in front of her. Her lip quivered.
           "What are you?" she enquired.
       The heap quivered too. It might be alive! Or was it? One amber eye scrutinized her while the other amber eye dangled death-like.
           "What do you mean, What?" groaned the heap.
       Its voice was shakey, if not painful. Powla checked herself.  Was this real?  She was talking to a shape that had materialized from her fireplace.
           "I'm not a What, I'm a Who!" groaned the heap again.
       It shuffled irritably where it lay and its hairs bristled a little.
           "Do you not see vigour and energy? Do you not see my amber eyes shining? Yet, you doubt my existence."
           " Well," Powla countered, "you certainly seemed very dynamic a few moments ago, although one of your eyes was falling off, but now your just..."
           " A pile of bones?"
           " Well, yes." she admitted somewhat shamefully. She watched the steady rise and fall of the shadowy form, that was breathing, almost like a cat on a rug. 
           "And the sound of my voice, ringing harmoniously from this pile of bones? Do you not hear that?" asked the heap, humming a bit.
       Powla felt primed for a debate. "I wouldn't say your voice was very harmonious. Moaning like that down in the dust, it sounds as if you're suffering. I can't see you properly. You might even be a corpse."
             "A corpse!" Now the heap was most definitely aggrieved. "Madam, there is an identity here!" it asserted. "Besides, I currently have a bad case of rheumatism."
       Powla felt she should apologize. "I'm so sorry," she said ~ and then thought to add, more politely ~ "Who are you?"
       At that point, the heap slowly began to assemble itself and after hearing a variety of agonising creaks and moody grunts in the dark, she saw the figure stepping quite daintily into the lamplight before her.
             "I think we can introduce ourselves now," said the masculine and rather haughty voice. "They call me the Firefox."
       By way of friendship, he held out one sooty paw.
      It was a totally mind-boggling idea. That the cuddly toy she had destroyed in a fit of anger could turn into a living, breathing fox.   Certainly the toy had been fox-like but her age, and her reasoning, told her that things such as this just should not happen.
     Now, they sat facing each other. He, perched on the low, brick wall with legs crossed nonchalantly and nose held high; she, crouching on her small stool and leaning forward with amazed and shocked curiosity.
     The Firefox had procured a slender stick which looked more like a riding cane.   He rested his arm on it, which she thought was rather pompous and also unnecessary. He had regained his dubious stature so quickly that she doubted he was respectable.
           "You are wondering how I arrived here, are you not?" said the Firefox, with an accomplished air. His voice was gruff in places. She put that down to the effect of the fire. Though mostly, his tone was quite high-pitched, somewhat sharp at times and occasionally whining.
           "It's all a bit strange, to say the least," Powla replied. "Are you......
           "Am I the same creature that you held in your arms such a short while ago?" he interrupted, anticipating her question. "Am I the silly little toy that helped you to feel not so alone?"
       Powla was irritated  again by the intruder's audacity. She rallied, raising her finger as she answered.
           "I don't believe I had a live creature in my arms. Anyway, even if you are...... uh... were a toy, you are not silly."
       She felt a bit defeated by her last comment, as if it was an own goal. She sounded as if she was praising the Firefox when in fact, she had meant that it wasn't silly for a lonely girl to keep a toy.
       The Firefox put down his cane and folded his arms. He crossed his legs too, making him a tad less intimidating. He was a changeable, mercurial character.
       The fire still burned steadily and the massive, crescent moon now cast its own shadows at their feet.
            "Let me tell you a story," his voice piped musically.
            "Years and years ago, I lived in the hills - near where you found me in fact." He paused. "Oh, ofcourse, you, young lady find it difficult to accept that it was really me whom you found. No matter. We'll come to that bit later."
        She was more than concerned that he explain that bit later. Nevertheless, she settled down to hear what the Firefox had to tell. He resumed undaunted.                                                            
             "I was making a good living there. Plenty of game to keep my stomach full: rats, mice, even the occasional partridge. I had a nice, warm Earth, deep and hidden, in a remote valley. On sunny, summer days, just like you, I would stretch-out and bask in the heat. I'd lay out in the dry tussocks of mountain grass, every afternoon, and snooze.
        One day, when I was dozing like that, I was wakened from my reverie by a distant clamour. I knew by instinct that it was a threat to me. The image of grinning and snarling muzzles came into my brain at once.
        Then, not much further away, I heard the short but insistent tremor of a hunting horn.
        I had kept clean over the previous few days, licking my coat all over and scrupulously sniffing for unpleasant odours that might betray me. Those swine-dogs; they must have been practicing. Priming their noses with rotten flesh and plotting my demise, even while at leisure in their kennels.
        The hunt didn't ride often in the hill country and on the few occasions this had happened before, I'd had little trouble in finding a safe retreat: A lofty pad above shifting scree or a cairn of stones, where the wind blew so strong that the slightest scent was a mile away before those domesticated scoundrels even had time to dilate their nostrils!
        This time though, I decided to head for the river. As all foxes know, it would be easy to criss-cross the water a few times and the hounds would lose my trail.
        Already, I could hear their baying and barking coming closer. They knew they were on to me.
        I sent off at a canter. The hunters and the pack must be have been on the far side of the valley. I calculated that it would take them some time to find a passable route to my side of it. All four of my paws paced the ground. Down the tussocky slope, across the wet meadow; feeling the dew cold upon my belly, under the spars of the old wooden fence and soon I would be crossing the stream. It all seemed to be going smoothly.
        But wait! Something was wrong. That vile noise of the hounds was louder than it should be. What if it had come from this side of the valley? If so, the pack would be on my side of the river. They would be on top of me in no time.
        I looked at the beautiful stream that graced the hills. My forefeet were already tentatively testing the waters. I was sniffing the cold clean air along its banks. It had become a torrent. Recent rainfall, wild and mountain-fed, swelled its course.
        The pack was closer still. I could hear the calling-card of each dog now. One yelping here, another whimpering there. There was no doubt about it. They were on this side of the river. They must be in the next field!
        I couldn't swim across the river here. I might be dragged under by currents and whirlpools. However, there was a large, flat-topped boulder in the middle, where the river divided into two separate channels. Maybe I could jump it.
        Then the first slobbering mongrel appeared at the fence, less than twenty feet behind me, scraping and scratching at the ground in a frenzy, forcing its corpulent body through the barrier and craving my blood. Then another, further down the riverbank. Soon, they would all descend.
         It was a long leap. I would be lucky to make it. Risk it? Or risk being slaughtered? A third hound announced its presence, growling with menace at the top of the bank.
         I seemed to pondering the problem for far too long; perhaps for an eternity. The weakened muscles in my back legs were trembling. I felt an alien canine breath panting at my tail. Gnashers were closing on the hairs of my brush.
         Then suddenly I was flying. Flying effortlessly on the breeze above the waters. Coming down to rest on that flat-topped boulder like a feather. There was no way they could follow me here. The river was too strong and deep. I'd found a middle-way, an escape back to paradise.
      I wheeled around, ready to gloat on their disappointment, ready to snigger at those tame lap-dogs but the scene which greeted me prompted nothing but horror.      
     Something very strange had happened. It was as if time had slipped backwards. I saw myself, still stuck on the riverbank, with the hounds driving down on me!  I saw the horsemen at the fence, ready for the kill. I saw the Master of Hounds raising his mount to clear the style. Whip held high while, open-mouthed,  and brandishing his ill-fashioned whiskers, he goaded the rest of the field to follow him.  The riders waited expectantly.  One baulked at the brink.  Another looked shocked at his Master's savagery.
    The big, stocky first hound was on my back, pawing at the flesh. I was almost down. Specks of crimson life-blood passed before my eyes. The second hound lunged at my throat. It was all over for me."
    Powla sat riveted at the Firefox's story. A misty chill had infiltrated the ruined shack that she called home. The night was growing older and colder. She drew her thin, cotton dress closer around her shoulders.
         "Those funny clothes you were wearing when you turned up here," she said. "Where did you get them?"
         "Ah, the waistcoat and jacket of a small huntsman."
    His tale moved on and he began to explain.
          "As I perched on that boulder, recovering only partially from the gruesome scene I had just witnessed, I happened to bow my head for a second. I noticed that I was dressed as a type of human. I had never worn a garment or costume in my life and considered them to be in the domain of circus animals or beasts of burden. They were totally inappropriate for a wild adventurer like myself.
        Just as I was considering how these clothes came to be wrapped on to me, the whole scene changed once more. I was no longer sitting on a boulder in a river but in a kind of gloomy attic or to be more precise, a cramped platform above a workshop.
         It was a roof-space used for storage. I was squatting as before, but it was far too small for me. There was a middle-aged man doing various jobs below but he seemed unaware of my presence. My form, still clothed, was out of all proportion to the size of the building. It was all very strange, weird in fact.
         Looking carefully at the man, I realized he was none other than the Master of Hounds, with his tweaked moustache. He was occupied in the most grizzly craft and the workshop was more like a torture chamber.   
         Initially, the corpse of some poor creature was dragged through the door, from the pretty flower garden. My dear girl, I have to tell you, the white petals outside were already stained with crimson. The body was strung-up to let the blood drain and the bowels, plus other innards, were extracted with most vicious looking sabre.
         Stage two required the Master to ascend steps and work along a wooden landing. There the empty skin was dried and tanned. This charming tyrant was quite close to me then, so close that I could almost have reached out and tanned his hide!
         I was depressed and distraught, yet still he could not see me. Stage three saw him change from butcher to taxidermist. The dead creature was stuffed with straw, sewn-up and furnished with certain external adornments and niceties.
      But how could these various transformations  be achieved in so short a time? How could the carcass cool, pelt dry and a new shape emerge – all in the time that I watched?
      And then it struck me! It was my corpse that I observed. In reality, these tasks that he performed would have taken days, perhaps weeks. So, they must be happening in a place where I no longer existed. I was a ghost at my own funeral. Time, for me, was cheap and I had endless hours to watch and wonder why.
       Now Powla thought she understood.  "So the costume was part of your experience. You were stuffed. You saw your body being dressed-up in these ridiculous clothes and that image sort of grew on you?"
        "Not quite," said the Firefox. "After he had swaddled me in the red waistcoat and britches. After he had sewn on glass buttons for eyes...."
     A wave of pride overcame the Firefox. It shifted across his face in a wilting smile. "Let me tell you, they were very distinguished eyes of a particular hue...." Then he stopped himself  and coughed politely.
         "Ahem... when the Master had added all these extra refinements, which he considered to make me more attractive and life-like and included tiny leather riding boots, he did the dishonesty of hawking me around the towns and villages of the area, presenting me to the local children as a keepsake to be traded for a few shillings. This was the awful image that I was obliged to follow and observe, in order to trace my progress: A proud fox masquerading in the garb of a pathetic little huntsman. I was a sad pilgrim indeed.
     A sickly boy owned me for a while, always coughing and sneezing all over me: Then a careless child who left me in a dusty corner. None of them wanted me really. They sensed something sinister; bad things in my history. They knew a victim when they saw one and there was literally nothing I could do to change that!
     My mock uniform fell-off in tatters and one of the glass eyes became dislodged.  I had become a wreck and a waif stumbling blindly through the unknown.
     Finally, on a winter's day, I was thrown to a gang of youths. To pass the time, they played a game of football for a while. Yes, you've guessed it. I was the ball!
     Indolent fools! When they got fed-up, I was kicked into the snow, halfway up a hill,  and then they all went home for tea.
     I was alone again. An orphan alone."
                                                                                   Powla has an Idea       
    She could see the picture now. All this explained her cuddly toy and the 'ice-egg' she had found. It was still difficult to accept that the toy and the Firefox were one and the same. The toy had been a cuddly comfort but the Firefox sat there large as life. He was real!
    Or was he? Perhaps they both needed to find out.
    The following morning Powla rose early, half expecting the Firefox to have been a figment of her imagination but he was already wide awake. He was staring longingly into the deciduous trees on the south edge of her house.  Here were young oaks, quite tall though, the kind of trees that might store his lunch: grubs, woodlice or even the occasional squirrel. She saw him lick his lips.
     From where he stood, the ground dropped away quite sharply and out of sight.  The landscape slipped away into uncharted territory and to places she had never been. He could be gone in an instant.
     Watching him stare into the misty distance gave her an idea. What if the pair of them were to embark on a journey together? Their aim would be to answer those troubling questions about his existence. Was the Firefox real? Was he an hallucination? Was he a ghost or a spirit? Was he an animal or human?
      It would be foolish to waste time debating all these matters before setting off. It seemed to her that he had a wild imagination and might spend days inventing dubious explanations for his condition.  Here, it was only possible to bounce theories back and forth between themselves. What if she could present the Firefox to others along the road? How would they perceive him? Would they believe in him at all?
      She must act quickly and say little. Those clothes, they were soiled and torn. Anyway, it would invite suspicion to tramp around the countryside with a renegade, dressed in crimson. He was generally in such a sorry state.
            "How would you like to go travelling?" she asked in as casual a manner as possible. The effect was quicker than a potion.
         "Would I!" said the Firefox, wheeling round to face her as if she were a fellow prisoner holding the keys for their escape. "Just this minute, I was thinking of heading off through the trees," he added.
              "Why didn't you?"
              "Believe me. I would have been gone hours ago," he said earnestly, "but you interest me."
        She caught herself blushing. Under the locks of hair that had fallen across her cheeks, she blushed a little redder. The fox too - he turned a shade more russet.
              "You brought me to your home and protected me," he said with a sudden, feline softness that she had not noticed before. Then toughening up, he added indignantly, "Well, you did try to throw me on the fire! But I've forgiven you for that." The Firefox finished with a look of optimism and a grin which displayed one ageing canine tooth.
              "Come on then!" urged Powla. "We will go! But first we must get you dressed suitably, with some clean clothes."
   Powla had a video camera; an old relic from more prosperous times. She thought it would be fun to have some pictures of the Firefox,  just for old times sake. She had rigged it up so that everything the camera saw appeared on a laptop computer. She was a actually bit of a technician though everything had to run on batteries.
    By some sort of wizardry and numerous trailing wires she had also managed to capture their images on a large, round mirror above her dresser,  so the Firefox would be able to glimpse his new apparel. Perhaps it was really all down to the angle of the mirror.
   Sorting through the dresser drawers, she found a bright, green felt waistcoat. The Firefox was beginning to look worried. Next she pulled out some mauve britches. He winced.
     To complete the illusion, the only remaining window in her house was suddenly animated with the faces of daft, mocking dogs. Yet more canine ridicule, thought the Firefox.
     She stripped off all his clothing except his cotton underpants. He was less put-out than you might think but he did start to shift his weight nervously from one foot to the other. Then it came to the eye.
     The amber bead still hung useless on a tattered thread. His right eye was fine but the left was a problem. The obvious solution was to sew it back into place. At the bottom of another drawer she found a big, old, rusty sewing needle.
     This was the final intimidation. Nobody was going to carry out further surgery on the Firefox after his experiences in the strange workshop. She placed a gentle hand on his cheek but he was literally hopping mad!  He was jumping around on the spot and was feeling highly uncomfortable - there in the open with practically no clothes on except for his knickers!
     He felt like flesh and blood to Powla. Those eyes though. They were nothing but coloured glass, surely. She tried to examine them more closely but his furry head squirmed and his jaws yawped wide-open. She wondered if he might bite her!
      Finally his exasperation exploded.
          "Leave me be – eeeeeee!" he screamed.
      With that she placed the needle safely back on the dresser. Then she grabbed each end of the length of thread that had stayed intact since he first appeared.  She pulled tight. The glass eye sprang into place. Instantly, both eyes were shining in the morning sunlight. He was as real as any real fox can be!
      After a few minutes, he had calmed down and while she made ready for the journey, he resumed his sentry-like position, scanning the landscape to the south. The Firefox could scent the slightest danger and, if it came too close, those glinting amber eyes would now flicker and turn to locate it in a second.
                                                                                  The Mansion House
      They began their journey that same day. Setting off in the southerly direction that the Firefox had found so compelling, they soon found themselves on the high point of a road that led to unfamiliar landmarks.  Ahead lay cultivated fields that were drained by a mighty river. A distant estuary showed its waves winking to the rising sun. There was a stone bridge far away and a tiny yacht wending downstream.
       The Firefox took all this in his stride. By now, he had lived and loved. He knew a great deal more about the world than he used to ~ or so he thought. Then he gestured with his cane.
           "Here, to the south-east," he asserted with a pompous growl. "This shall be our new domain."
           "I thought you were helping me by carrying our provisions on the end of  that riding cane, not gesticulating like some mad conductor," said Powla, to remind him that they had agreed to take turns carrying the small knapsack that contained most of their worldly goods. It was going to be a warm day. All this hiking had made her a bit fraught.
      His gaze, with his handsome reconditioned eyes, was more sweeping and confident now. He noted other features. Marshes, ponds, little farmhouses, the course of the road ahead - and beyond that, perhaps six or seven kilometres away, a great, grey church that dwarfed everything around it.
      He pointed to a milestone at the side of the road. "There, you see, that's our destination."  Carved on this antiquated object was the word Canterbury. An arrow pointed the way.
             Powla was not so sure. "What about that big mansion house on the hill over there? It's closer. Maybe we could stay there tonight."
    The Firefox looked at her quizzically.   Of all the clothes she had foisted on him, he had preferred only a jockey cap. Despite his aloof manner there was a good humoured side to him. He was game for a ride and was prepared to trot somewhere else for awhile.  But where was this leading them?
        "Ah, Down House!" he said abruptly, seeing a footpath marker that she had missed. A short wooden pole on the left indicated the mansion. "I fancy 'tis more up than down!"
    He considered the steep path they would need to traverse.
         "Well come on m'girl. Come along," he announced. Starting off on the steps that led to the grand house, he gave every appearance that it had been his own idea to go there.
     The footpath was little more than a dirt track, first falling, then rising to the brow of a hump-back hill. The soil was backed up with planks and stays on the steeper sections. The two adventurers slowly wound their way downwards and then upwards for the best part of half-an-hour. The morning sun was rising higher. They were puffed-out and sweating by the time they reached the old-fashioned gate. It had once been the entrance to the gardens. Now, only a few marbled, granite steps and the stunted remains of gateposts kept them from the summit.
     Green lawns, flower beds and ancient trees covered the brow of the hill.  Set amongst them was the fine, Victorian country house with its pillared doors and wall-creepers.                  
     As they waited to get their breath, wondering what to do next, they were astonished to see an eccentric person careering across the finely-clipped grass at high speed. He was a crazy-man, veering left and right, bouncing over humps and paving stones with his coat-tails a' flapping, on a kind of crude bicycle!
              "You there! Where do think you're going?" cried the man through his long, thick beard. "There are creatures here that you might disturb."
     With legs outstretched and still balanced precariously on his saddle, he hurtled towards them, whiskers flying in the wind. Then, digging in his heels, he came to an abrupt halt.
      He looked at them sternly. His mouth was a solemn horizontal line, the lips almost hidden by the mass of grey-white hair. Yet his eyes were kind and gentle.
       Powla, though still startled, felt they should explain themselves. The man did appear to have some authority.
               "This is the Firefox and I am Powla," she said tentatively, glancing at her friend as if prodding him to respond.
       The Firefox nodded in a reluctant and functional way. She continued. "We came here on a quest." This was news to the fox but she persisted. "To meet people, to exchange ideas and even to learn about our individual nature." Perhaps she should slow down. It was beginning to sound like waffle.
       The man said nothing. Instead, he examined the lawn beneath their feet as if searching for some sign. The fine whispy hair framed his rosy cheeks and extended along his temples to a balding crown.
                "They're very active at this time of day," said the man. "You might have trodden on them and I need some for    my experiments you see."
        Powla and the Firefox were flummoxed. The man was completely unfazed by the presence of a sentient fox and seemed to be talking nonsense.
                      "Worms!" exclaimed the man. "Worms! I wanted to collect some for my studies and it's easy to pick them from the surface when there is still dew on the grass." He looked directly at the couple again. His large, absent mind was now ready to tell them off – but only a little.               
                             "You've frightened them away," he admonished. Then his wise eyes moistened. "Anyway, you must come up to the house and we can get acquainted. "Come," he said, pushing his bike. Suddenly, he was warmer and beckoning them with a chumly palm.
               They walked to the welcoming door. The walls had a  criss-cross of trellis work on which grew variegated ivy and passion flower. Powla was still curious about the strange looking bicycle.
                       "Do you not have a car or a carriage?" she asked. "That's an odd form of transport you have there." She surveyed the vehicle, with its uncomfortable saddle, leather tyres and inadequate front pedals.
            The man looked surprised. "This young lady is one of the modern inventions of our day. The Velocipede or as some call it, the Boneshaker."                                       
            Where on Earth were they, she wondered? Perhaps it was a different time to her own. The venerable fellow continued.
                       "Many a ploughman has seen me shooting down the lane, head above the hedgerow and thought me a veritable zephyr."  
            He laughed.
            When they reached the house, he looked carefully at both of them and his serious, intelligent expression made it clear that he was pondering as to why they had come to visit him. He proffered a handshake.                                                     
                       "I am Mr.Charles Darwin, scientist, naturalist, fellow of the Royal Society and a justice of the peace for this locality." He paused theatrically and glared at the Firefox. "You are welcome in my home but let me forewarn you, I am neither shocked nor overly impressed by a tame fox!"
     Later that day, Powla and her foxy friend were walking quickly along the corridors of Down House. To further her academic interest, she took a peek at the titles on the picture frames they passed,  'Unusual Sea-Lizards in the Galapagos Islands – as observed by Mr. Darwin', 'The Galapagos Turtle – as observed by Mr. Darwin' and 'The Dodo – Extinct'. As observed by Mr.Darwin no doubt. Charles seemed to be a well-travelled, educated and famed person.
     The Firefox, untypically, was stumbling along on his weary legs and muttering to himself. "Tame fox," he whined. "Tame fox indeed. I've roamed farther and seen more species of phenomena than that charlatan."
     They were approaching Charles' Study. The scientist had agreed to meet Powla there in the early evening. She would discuss those matters relating to her companion and he would offer the benefits of his great knowledge concerning the natural world.
        "I'll show him," scowled the Firefox. "I'll show that worm-raising dabbler!"
     Charles Darwin's Study was the  model workplace of a nineteenth century man of learning. Dozens of bones, animal skulls and fossilized discoveries littered his oak desk. Overdue correspondence from near and far, bulged in cabinets. Sent by Bishop of Bath & Wells or the Curator of the Natural History Museum or Chief Laughing Bear, the letters and memoranda spilled out.
     A terrestrial globe sat proud in the room but its ornate mounting failed to incorporate the Earth's tilt. The great man's technical aids provided scant protection against the unpredictable forces of nature. The wild world beyond the garden could be seen through a fragile patio door and, as night fell, that world threatened to enter at any moment.                  
    Cheekily, Powla had decided to wait inside the Study. Darwin had not arrived yet. The Firefox curled up cosily by the large fireplace, taking in the warmth. After a few minutes, the great man came in with a flurry, shaking dust from his cloak and fidgeting with some papers.
     He was surprised to see them there but only because his mind had been preoccupied with other matters. "Umm," he started, raising a forefinger to his lip in trepidation. It was obvious he had forgotten their appointment and had come only by chance.
              Powla took the initiative. "Mr. Darwin, I know it was rude of us to enter your private space without asking but
the hallway was rather cold." Gaining confidence, she added "Do you mind if I call you Charles?"
      For a few seconds, he was taken aback by her informality but, being a free spirit of his time, he let it pass. Then he thought to correct her.
             "Young lady I have detected from your manner, that you originate from a different culture to my own. You have introduced yourself to me simply as Powla but you may address me as Sir or as Mr. Darwin."
             "Yes sir," she responded automatically, as if in school.
     Darwin shuffled about the room sorting various items and casting a wistful eye over the paraphernalia of his science. Then, oddly, he took a seat next to her, in the very corner of the room. He was at least making an effort not to seem too grand.
             "What precisely is it that you wish to discuss with me?"
             "Mr. Darwin Sir, you have met my friend the Firefox..."
     He stopped her in mid-flow. "I have seen you with an example of the species Vulpes Vulpes or common Red Fox, yes. In fact, I see that animal at this very moment enjoying the benefits of my hearth but I fail to see how such creature can be your friend."
     The Firefox seemed to be sleeping but she was sure she saw him bat an eye.
               "Did you not see him nod when I introduced you to him?" she said.
               "A mere reflex, my dear. The animal is nothing more than your pet."
     The Firefox snarled under his breath.
                Darwin started to expand his point of view. "No doubt you've managed to teach the fox a few tricks but this is
nothing more than the modification of instinctive behaviour..."
               "No, no, no," Powla interrupted. "You don't understand. The Firefox has done amazing things. He appeared from nowhere with a terrible story to tell."
               "Oh, indeed," remarked Darwin mockingly, "and I suppose he danced the polka and drank cocktails in his finest riding boots!"
       The Firefox was still curled meekly by the hearth. His brush gave an angry quiver. Even so, there was little to indicate that Mr.Darwin was incorrect. Surely this was just an animal dressed in silly clothes; the fecund imagining of an adolescent girl.
       Powla felt confused. "That's not what I mean either. Anyway – yes - he did do something like a dance but he didn't like wearing riding boots." She was struggling to avoid being patronised but it wasn't working. The learned scientist was folding his arms, ready to give a lecture. She tried again.
               "Let me explain. The Firefox, he... it... the fox," she said pointing to the sleeping figure, "was very small at first but then he was suddenly life-size, talking to me and walking to me, telling me about his previous life."
       Darwin raised his palm like a stern peacemaker. "Stop right there, he said. "In my early days as student at Cambridge, I studied theology and looked at many aspects of the supernatural but I never heard of a speaking fox." He continued in a steady, rational tone. "Later, I grew skeptical of all such phenomena. Your fox is a product of evolution, nothing more. He has come to be here through a process of natural selection.  Look at the fossil exhibits and specimens in this room." He waved his arm to draw her attention to a stuffed bird on the far side of the study. "A King Penguin from the Antarctic and here the skullbone of a Diplodocus. They come from various places and times but all are evidence of the slow progression of nature from one generation to the next, the gradual move from simple forms to more complex ones. There are no sudden changes."
       Charles Darwin unfolded his arms, placed his palms on his knees and leaned forward to be closer to her. His tone was firm but benevolent. Powla became subdued. Her eyes were moist.
              "Your mind is prone to invention, my dear. A creature is not one thing and then another a moment later. Possibly you dreamt those events. Come back to reality. Your fox is a pet, a tame fox!"
       At these precise words the snoozing form by the hearth had pricked up his ears.  The phrase tumbled through his dreams and ruined his slumbers. Tame fox... tame fox...
       In an instant, he sprang upwards in a wild leap. As fast as lightning, the whole room was flickering. Gas lamps on the walls threw out an eerie glow and then faded to a glimmer. Small objects began to move. A random wind blew open the doors on to the garden and something mysterious began to happen around the hearth. The Firefox was outraged  -  and mad. 
       Darwin gripped the small, circular table at which he and Powla were seated. She needed to say something but the wind outside howled.
              "Charles," she shouted, "Charles, you've made the Firefox angry. I've no idea what will happen now!" Darwin glanced at her in a steely way but he was worried and the events to come would prove his anxiety to be well-founded.   
          Nightime had come over the garden and the distant hills. The stars were beginning to show. The Firefox was floating and dancing above the great hearth. The study was darkened except for a strange phosphorescence in the fireplace and chimney-breast.
          Above the fine, marble mantelpeice was a large mirror that almost filled one wall. The Firefox hovered in front of it but it did not show his reflection, only the strange manifestations that were unfolding around him.
    Charles Darwin was aghast. Throughout the room, creatures from his past travels and studies were coming to life. A marine iguana, a tortoise and a sea-lion lazed on the carpet. A smiling chimpanzee held taught a fishing line. On the end, was an angler fish whose tendril lit up the fire-place.
     The fire had turned to a brimming pool that gave-off a greenish light and the pool was filled with small fry. The stuffed penguin that stood to one side started to move in a mechanical way, shuffling on the spot. Tucked under its residual wings were the long cords which operated the gas lamps. This made the lamps flare again, sending frightening shadows across the walls and ceiling.
     Darwin rose to put a stop to the mayhem but his sleeve caught the rim of a glass bowl on the table. Samples of seaweed, crustacea and small fish flipped out. Darwin was fooled. He sensed that he was moving, walking towards the mirror but when he looked back, he saw himself still seated.
     This was all the Firefox's doing.
     A massive sea mammal, a bottle-nosed dolphin appeared miraculously in the wake of the water spilling from the bowl. It arched into the air at the Firefox's command and the fox almost patted it on the head!
             "Down into the fiery pool my beauty! There are plenty of fish for you to eat!" intoned the Firefox.  He was in his sing-along mode now.
     Darwin stood staring into the massive mirror. Yet he was also still sitting at the table. There were two Darwins. No! There was another at the patio doors. He was outside now, on his primitive bicycle, desperately trying to force his way in. There were three Darwins. One African, one Asian and one European.
      Charles number two studied his reflection. He leant on the fox's cane to steady himself. Everything had gone haywire. His reflection was a hairy ape but with the same calm, knowledgeable expression as himself. Then beyond that, deeper into the mirror, was Charles in his middle years, looking more confident and sure of his life. Beyond that, Charles Darwin the youth, full of wonder but turning hesitantly to see who or what might follow him. Perhaps there were a hundred or thousand Darwins waiting faintly in the misty recesses of that mirror.  The naturalist balanced precariously between terror and amazement.
              "Well, my fine scientist and rational thinker," whispered the Firefox, resting his haunches on the mantelpiece, his formidable screetch rasping in Darwin's left ear, "Pretty impressive for a tame fox don't you think!"
       That weird voice. Darwin had heard it before but not from this individual. It was oddly human-sounding. The gentle and perceptive man rummaged through his memory to find an explanation.
       The voice sounded-off again. "So, you've travelled the world, over land and sea have you, but I'll bet you've never seen anything like this!" the Firefox goaded.
       Finches, red, green and yellow appeared miraculously from the pages of a book and flew around the mirror. Darwin had studied the peculiarities of the bird while visiting the Galapagos Archipelago, years ago. They cascaded past beastial trophy heads that he had never laid eyes on before, upwards and onwards,  through the gap between the patio doors,  over the bowler-hat of  Charles number three on his bike, towards the far-off downs.
       That was it! The naturalist remembered where he had heard that voice. After his return from the Pacific, he had been out cycling in the lanes and by-ways near Down House. At dusk, freewheeling along a murky, dingly dell, he had been jolted by the most unearthly scream. It sounded like the whooping and wailing of an insane young woman. So much so, that Charles nearly fell off his bicycle, while his bowler was sent rolling along the path. He had pondered this for a time and deduced that in fact, his confusion had been totally unnecessary.
        It was the call of a Vixen or perhaps a dog-fox! It didn't matter which. Regardless of gender, the animals were capable of producing an extraordinary range of hair-raising noises. This was the quality he had detected in the voice of the Firefox!
        With this realization, Charles Darwin Three burst through the patio doors. "Leave my study at once!" he roared, pushing the front wheel of his bike on to the carpet. "Your habitat is the woodland and the heath, not this house! Cease this nonsense at once, you....you... fox!"
        Powla was pushed forward on her chair by the force of his entry.  Then all of the Darwins were reunited into a single person and the room went black.
      When the lights came on again, all was restored. There were no ghoulish heads of beasts above the mantelpeice. Skeletons which had become living creatures reverted to inertia. There was not a finch or a monkey to be seen, and the King Penguin was cold and stiff inside its fading plumage.
       Powla was quite surprised to inspect herself in the mirror and see nothing untoward. Likewise, Darwin felt his arms and legs, then looking down, patted his sides with inquistive podgy palms, to make sure everything was there. The study was back to normal but where was the Firefox?
       Powla lifted her arms slightly, in an upturned gesture of resignation and embarrassment.
         "I'm so sorry Mr. Darwin....."
         "Stop right there, my dear," apologies can come later. "I must give this whole strange phenomenon some thought. You must be exhausted. Sleep on it, my dear, sleep on it."
       Just then, they both glimpsed something in the corner of their eyes. It was as if the room had been swept clean. Something red and furry moved swift as lightening out of the study.
       A cunning russet brush had slipped out through the door and into the hallway.
       The following morning Powla and the Firefox decided it would be sensible and polite to leave. They would find the great man, thank him for his hospitality and then continue their journey. They met him outside the house again. He was on his knees, pruning some rose bushes.
      Seeing them approach, he got up with a start, still looking a bit anxious. He told Powla that he had considered the events of the previous evening from every conceivable angle. He could clearly see that the girl wanted her canine companion to have the attributes of a person - even if it was a supernatural one. Sadly, this was impossible.
      The only logical conclusion was that Powla and himself had suffered from some rare kind of hallucination, possibly brought on by the summer heat and the narcotic effect of some unusual spore or perfume wafting in from the surrounding countryside.
       After giving the experience a great deal of thought, the basic facts were still unavoidable. The fox was a fairly primitive mammal with none of the creative potential of man. A fox that could speak was out of the question. He was pleased to have made her acquaintance and hoped that these points eased her dilemma.
      Powla thought it all sounded rather unconvincing. For her, the chaos had been very real. As for the Firefox, he just scowled and retained a certain pride in his mischief.
      They set-off to the south, down the steeper side of the hill, picking their way through the tussocks of grass, like mountain goats.  It was another fine day.  When they looked back, Charles Darwin was a small figure, high above them, on the brow of the hill, like a garden gnome.
      The sun beat down, he smiled and waved, removed his new straw hat and gently scratched his head. He was still wondering. He sighed a little. It did seem extraordinary to see a fox walking on its hind legs.
                                                                                    The Great Church
           "It's my plan now," insisted the Firefox. "You wanted to find out more about me by consulting that dithering professor," he continued assertively, "and what did you learn – nothing except to witness a frivolous exhibition of my powers. Action was what he asked for and action was what he got!"
        The plan, as the Firefox outlined it, was to continue south and east, until they reached the great church that he had seen across the valley. They rejoined the road on which they had begun and walked at a steady pace, following the soft undulations of the wide valley floor.
        The sunshine made them happy and after a while they began to skip along, hand in hand. Sometimes they were naughty and gamboled along the edges of a cornfield, running wildly through the ripening stems. Once, they rolled over and over, in a field of mowing grass, laughing at the sky until a farmer scolded them from a distance. They were determined to wash the creepy shenanigans of the previous night out of their heads.
         A milk maid passed by them, carrying two pales. She was a cheerful woman of middle age who understood the secrets of the region. She had healthy ruddy cheeks and threw the couple a broad smile. "That's a fine fox you have there, my lady. He'll be a mountain fox from the north, no doubt. I'll bet he knows a trick or two!"
         They watched her ample figure strolling down the road and out of sight; without a care in the world and humming a little tune, as if she saw such things every day.
         And so they progressed. It was fine country.
         After a few hours, they were approaching the three-arched stone bridge that crossed the River Midway. The Firefox could already see the towers and spires of the church peaking above the hump of the bridge. He was becoming excited. Powla was tired from the day and lagged behind.
               "C'mon, c'mon," he called. "I can nearly see it now."
         As she came to the walls of the bridge, Powla could see the broad, slow-flowing waters with boats of all kinds plying their way upstream and downstream. Skippers waved in a friendly manner. Fishermen watched their floats patiently.
         Coming alongside the Firefox, she was stirred from her day-dreaming. He was bolt upright and his jaw had dropped. From the high-point of the bridge, the church was clearly visible, less than a mile away. Yet it was no ordinary church. It was a cathedral; a massive temple with many turrets and crosses thrusting towards the afternoon clouds. It had double oak doors framed by tiny gothic knights-in-niches. Powla counted the spires. Two at the front, four at the back.... no, there were more. All along the length of the building stood minute spires and perching ornaments.
         Everything was cut and carved in whitish limestone, pure in the sunlight, right down to the cloisters. It was magnificent. Although, it did have a tinge of green.
               "OK. So its a church," said Powla
                 The Firefox closed his gawping mouth and looked at her cynically. "Is that all you have to say ?  I thought you were the one with the dreams," he cribbed.
         Around the settlement was a shanty town of labourer's cottages, tradesmen's premises and shacks reserved for ladies of ill-repute. Everything was dwarfed by the great church but it seemed no obstacle to the two travellers. They walked on in silence for another twenty minutes or so, each wondering how they would be received by the populace.
         Soon, they could see the west gate of the old city. It was lodged betwixt tumbling Roman walls. Vagrants and beggars waited optimistically at the side of the road.  Miscreants looked them  up and down, for easy pickings. Yet, Powla was surprised to find that, other than this, people paid them little attention. These down-and-outs seemed accustomed to the unconventional.
         Passing beneath the city walls without hindrance, they came across the townsfolk. These people were small, unpretentious characters, unsuited to any metropolis, who went about their business and hardly turned a hair as the travellers sauntered by.
         Surely someone would be surprised to see a young lady and her proud coyote walking by.  A baker's boy pushing new loaves and pastries in a barrow, a girl selling lavender from a wicker basket and an old man on the street corner. Powla and the Firefox strolled past every one with a false nonchalance, expecting at each moment to be either vilified or ridiculed.   Nobody seemed shocked and few took any notice of the strange couple. She began to think that the fox was invisible.
         They heard the chink – chink – chiming of iron on steel.   Did someone broadcast a warning of their arrival? Then they padded nervously past grander houses with three storeys and mullioned-glass windows; past ancient inns with stables. Still no servants gaped and no curtains were tweaked. Chink – chink – chime. The sound grew louder. Turning on to the high street, they saw the source of the alarm.
         A blacksmith raised his hammer and brought it down on some tiny item. His anvil sang.
         He looked sharply at them. He always had a keen eye for the newcomer with hooves to be shod or the mercenary in need of a dagger. His face was brooding and suspicious. Yet he looked away again, just as quickly and returned to his work. He had quite clearly seen both fox & girl but these two travelled light and offered no business.
         The duo were outsiders like himself, with ways and means that protected them from the opinions of common folk. Just as he could make hard things malleable, as if by magic; so they could slip smoothly through the crowds.
         Only a workman's siren had noted their arrival. Powla and the Firefox breathed more easily. Although she did wonder how a wild fox would have fared on his own.
         They came to the Cathedral precincts via a western arch. The church itself was guarded by ancient walls that were fallen down in many places; flint and lime thrown together or higgledy-piggledy bits of millstone-grit.
         Saint Augustine's gate was so called, owing to its proximity to the nearby monastry. It was an open entrance, perhaps twice the height of a man and slightly less in width. Its finely curved arch was composed of closely fitting limestone blocks. The stones interlocked so neatly that little mortar was required.  It made her think Aztec monuments and Inca temples in Peru.
     A solitary friar sat motionless, at one side. His alms bowl lay close by his sandalled feet.
     By now the Firefox was very excited. After all, within this gate, was the place he had come to see. He almost leapt the final four or five yards and then stood on tip-toe, sniffing the air in his cocky fashion and staring at the view beyond.
        "It's there! It's all going to happen in there! he said. This time his exclamations were somewhat hushed to a soft whisper but inwardly he was straining to enter the courtyard and explore the sacred grounds. How could a wild animal be so childishly enthusiastic about an old cathedral, she thought?
     Powla coughed politely. The monk moved not a jot. She coughed louder. Possibly the man was asleep.
        "Hello," she said hopefully, bending close to his ear, which was shrouded in a coarsely woven hood. The Friar raised his face with a start and his eyes focused blearily on the young woman before him. "We are hoping to visit the cathedral.  Can-you-direct-us ?" she said in a slow, loud monotone, as if she needed to speak in a foreign language.
     She had thought him to be an old man at first but, as she watched him revive, she realized he was much younger. In fact, when he stood up, he was almost spritely.
        "Oh yes," he said in a smooth Oxford accent mixed with a trace of the Kentish countryman and the Dutch scholar. "It's quite easy to find your way in. The west door - over there to your left - will take you directly into the Nave but most people use the side entrance..."
      His discreet English bearing belied an ecclesiastic education that had entailed sojourns to Rome, Rotterdam and much of Europe. Perhaps he was a foreigner after all.
            "I was lost in meditation when I should have been collecting alms for the poor and infirm of the parish," he explained. Smiling in a friendly way, he neglected to ask the duo for any monetary contribution. "Do you have a particular interest in the Cathedral?"
      Powla mulled over recent events for a second or two before answering. Perhaps it was diplomatic to keep her comments to a minimum. "Not really," she muttered. "It's a very old building but a isn't it a bit shabby in places? Look at all that green moss."
      The Monk shifted gracefully in his long grey habit. He transferred his slim mass from one foot to the other, thinking about what she had said. "I think those members of the congregation arriving over there, for the service, would disagree with you." Then he raised his chin in an angular way to indicate the line of small figures, steadily growing in number, about a hundred yards ahead.
      The Firefox, on seeing these people, suddenly became much more agitated. He chased his own tail in a neurotic manner and then locked his senses on to the church-goers one by one.
       The Friar continued. "You see, for them the church is quite new, less than a hundred years old." Powla wondered again if they might be in some region outside of their own times. He declined to say more but changed tack. "Actually, I agree with you, the building is in rather poor repair..."
        He placed his arm around her shoulder and cast his palm skyward to draw attention to the cathedral roof. The Firefox was far more concerned with other matters. While Powla was engaged in this lesson in architecture, he sloped off and padded casually toward the great temple.
        Meanwhile, she looked at the Friar's finger-tips and was surprised to see that they pointed to a large tarpaulin covering a gap in the slate roof. "... and so the rain falls in..." He tittered sedately. "...and at midday the sunlight shines on the floor of the Chancel."
        Her thoughts drifted away from the subject to the full harvest moon that was rising over the Cathedral. It was late in the afternoon and the satellite was clearly visible, glowing cold and ruddy, as it reflected the sun's rays.
             "You seem more interested in the planets than the house of god, fair girl," he joked, looking down at her benignly. "In fact, I'm inclined to agree with you there as well. I've spent many hours considering man's place in the universe and the influence of this world on the human condition - rather than any future heaven."
        She warmed to this man. Surely a true philosopher.
              "Tell me Father, if this world is bound up with all the vagaries and variety of nature, is it possible for an animal to enter heaven?"
        The Friar looked a little shocked. "There is little in the Bible to suggest that they do but..."
        She interrupted him with a barrage of questions that she could no longer hold back.    
              "Could an animal flip back and forth between realities? Could an animal change form? Could it be renewed by fire? Could it reason? Could it be a friend?" and finally "Could a fox talk?"                      
         He had paused in mid-sentence, thinking about this complex young visitor. He was puzzled by her sudden inquisition. "I'm so sorry. I completely forgot to ask you your name?"
        She caught her breath and tried to calm down. "Oh yes," she responded absent-mindedly, turning to introduce her companion as well.
              "I am Powla and this is the..........." She drew in another rush of air. The Firefox was nowhere to be seen. She had not even seen him abscond. She scanned the church courtyard desperately. Where was he and more to the point, what was he up to?
       The Monk was concerned for another reason. His face wrinkled up in the shadows beneath his hood.  He wanted to help her. "My dear girl, what's the matter? I saw nobody with you!"
       Powla peered sharply into the hood, expecting him to qualify his statement. "Did you not see the two of us standing here just a few minutes ago?"
       The face in the hood was even more certain as it sank into solemn darkness.
              "My dear, you've been here on your own all the time. There was nobody with you, man or beast!"
       Powla was already running. The Firefox had disappeared alright! By now his fleeting form would be running amuck in the various sacred structures that made up the cathedral precincts. Who knew what tricks he might engineer to fool vergers or chaplains.
       She heard the plaintive voice of the Monk calling after her.
              "My dear.........Powla........ Powla............ There is no need to worry. Animals reflect and respond to our own behaviour. I know that if you are happy in your future life... then so will your friend be.............."
       It was a valediction from a man who had was already long gone.  As she ran madly away, she sensed that he knew a great deal.
       Powla had never in her life expected to see the Archbishop of Canterbury. As she entered the inner chancel of the Cathedral, he stood at the far end, tall and stiff in the richly embroidered, gold and green robe of the senior prelate.
       He motioned her to a spot on the border of the aisle. Placed there for her, were a music book, a stand and a small, bow-backed instrument called a mandolin. She had never played a guitar, let alone a mandolin, and she did not read music. The situation was very odd.
       Having searched the courtyard and grounds outside, she had been unable to locate the Firefox. He had simply disappeared into some adventure of his own.  Now that she was inside,  she had to admit that the Cathedral was a magnificent and mysterious place. Stone columns led from the main body of the church to this hidden sanctum. It was a special cave of worship, cut off from the common people by an unmarked border post known as the chancel arch. The columns branched out like petrified trees, to form the dim vault overhead, which was lit with candle yellows and the smokey violet of stained glass.
        Already the select congregation was entering. Powla was wary as soon as she saw them. They were hunters. Young lads dressed in scarlet jackets with dark felt collars and cuffs. They slouched into the boxed pews on either side, tipping and tossing their black caps and sometimes smurking at some moronic joke. Then came older men, their riding whips tucked rigidly under their armpits, most of them ill-tempered and grouching about how cold their seats were or how stiff their knees.
        After a respectable pause the landed gentry and a few honoured guests arrived. Climbing stairs with a traditional decorum, they took their place on a long gallery that separated the chancel from the rest of the Cathedral.
        The Count and Countess came in last. They were a jolly couple, young at heart in their medieval garb. He wore a purple tunic and tights, she, a forest-green velvet dress, down to her pretty feet. A large, floppy maroon beret with a feather and for her, a ruby tiara, set them off to a tee. It would have been a joy to see them walking together in the woods.
        These two did not sit in the best seats. Contrary to their station, they proceeded, smiling and elegant, to pews at floor level, quite close to Powla. They were ready to watch the show.
           "Dearly beloved," There was a snigger from one of the yobbish boys as the Archbishop began his address. He raised his arms and nodded his head laconically to one side to acknowledge all who were present, even the most churlish."Nobility, guildsmen, fellow travellers and followers of the hunt, we are gathered here today to consider the grace and beauty of this Earth that god has given us." The audience shuffled its feet in tedium but the Archbishop was immune. "Dare I say," he added, smiling at his own wit, "this mother Earth."
         At this point, Powla noticed a patch of light in the roof. It was indeed precisely the gap which the monk had shown her from the outside and a thin beam of sunshine did penetrate to the chancel floor.
         The Archbishop continued. He looked towards the lovely young woman seated nearby. "You, Countess, want to see venison on your table of a Sunday and you Sir," he turned to an ageing but strong huntsman on the other side of the aisle, "you must thrill to see the hare or the fox, romping through swathes of bluebell or daffodils." The Huntsman eased a finger round his sweaty collar and tightened his lower lip into an uneasy grimmace.
            "We take these things for granted, not simply by god's hand - but by right." A twinkle came into the Archbishop's eye as came to the meat of his sermon. "What I mean to say is this, and I know that I am speaking to fellow patriots of the countryside. Is it always necessary to kill those handsome, no – those sovereign creatures that we love to chase over hill and dale?"
          Disgruntled mutterings broke out amongst the audience and the youths looked at one another with affronted half-open mouths. They had not come to hear this. The Count and Countess were mutually pleased though. They thought his speech made perfect sense.
           He persevered. "What if, instead of destroying these sentient creatures, we were to study and learn from them..." He cast a cautious eye over the facial reactions above and all around him. He knew he was on dangerous ground now but surely this was the time to gather courage. The Archbishop raised his voice, almost shouting with emotion.... "Instead of STUFFING them and EATING them..."
           The chancel was seithing. Fists were starting to softly thump on the pew bars. Random comments, uttered surreptitiously, slighted the speaker. The ageing huntsman was itching to assert his authority. He felt compelled to rise from his knees.
           Despite this, the congregation held back. The hub-bub died down. This was the Archbishop of Canterbury after all. The priest glanced around again, regained his confidence and spoke in a more relaxed tone.
            "What if we were to grow more vegetables? The nutritional value, acre for acre, might be ten times that of land used for cattle or sheep. We could give up eating meat altogether, end this annual slaughter of the rabbit, the roebuck and the red deer..."
           It was too much. Many of the boys were beginning to sneer and others cussed openly. Even the portly, municipal ladies and gentlemen up in the gallery looked unsettled.
           The ageing huntsman stepped forward and raised his hands, palms downwards, to establish some kind of order. He knew that he was a senior figure and they would all be expecting him to give a lead.
              "Hold yer words Parson!"   He hitched his thumbs into his belt and stood four-square. "There's many of us here that makes a hard living from the land." He tilted his jaw assertively to gain the assent of those present. "And we enjoys our sport and time-off too!"
           There was a long, sullen 'Aye' from the throng. The Archbishop looked astonished. He had anticipated that they would be a difficult bunch but surely they owed him more respect than this. Only the Count and Countess looked on mildly. They stayed sympathetic to his cause.
           The Huntsman resumed his rough, squire-like drawl. "Now, I reckon you'd better stop all that witterin' on about the dignity of wild beasts. Seems a downright shame to me. I suggest you continues your sermon on a proper, pious, and religious theme..." but it was too late. The congregation had seized on that word shame.
           It began as a low, barely audible invocation accompanied by a regular thump-thump-thump on any hollow piece of furniture to hand. "Shame-shame-shame," they moaned, followed by a giggle or a guilty whoop and inevitably it grew louder and more vindictive. "Shame... shame!"
           Indolent youngsters, who had only been dragged on hunting trips by their fathers, suddenly found a malignant enthusiasm and started to repeat the taunt like a mantra. "Shame-shame-shame!"
           While kids who were too young to have ridden or seen their first blood joined in the chorus like mindless choir-boys uttering the high tremolo, "Shime-shime!"  Even the Huntsman was surprised by this explosion of collective venom. The Archbishop quaked, the chancel quaked, and the whole Cathedral reverberated to the dreadful cacophony.
            Then it stopped. In an instant the space was quiet. Lads who had been screaming at the  top of their voices fell silent.  Idiots who had abandoned themselves to the frenzy suddenly gained a pin-point concentration.  All eyes were fixed on a single diminutive figure.
            It was the Firefox. He had sidled through the chancel arch and was striding arrogantly along the middle of the aisle. They could even hear the dainty pad and scritch, as his feet touched the polished flag stones. He walked straight up to the place where the ageing huntsman still stood, partially protected by the bar in front of his pew. The Firefox pointed a paw.
      "J' Accuse!" he said firmly and clearly, so that the whole assembly heard him. The brief, innocent, laughter of a child in the congregation was quickly stifled by disapproving faces. A red fox that strode and then spoke – in a foreign language? The foundations had just dropped out of their little world.
       "What?" said the Huntsman in amazement. He let out a snort that combined outrage with disbelief.
       "J' Accuse! Don't you speak French, you ill-educated fool!" 
     The Huntsman almost fell to the floor and staggered on the spot for a few seconds before regaining his dominant posture.
       "Didn't you read history at school?" said the Firefox.
       "The Norman invasion, ten-sixty-six and all that." The Firefox was finding his measure and using it to mock.
       "I Accuse you!" he shouted with a high-pitched bark. "I accuse you of butchery, I accuse you of sadism but mostly, I accuse you of callous stupidity!"
      The Huntsman fumed but the Firefox was not giving up now. He turned to the gathering. Looking towards the opposite bank of pews, he was determined to improvise a parliament. He caught the eye of the Count and Countess with a primeval glare, and willed them to listen. Then he reeled back to his adversary.
       "Were you not the Master of Hounds for a hunt far to the north of here, some time ago?"
      The Huntsman drew a deep breath. He was beginning to recognize the power of his furry enemy but he was loath to deal with vermin. He scowled.
       "What if I was? It's no business of yours."
      Many of the older people in the assembly took this as an admission. The Count frowned slightly and glanced at the Countess to discern her opinion. They both knew that things north could play out very strangely.
       " Ah! That's where you are wrong Mr. Master of Hounds. That is where you are wrong because it is very much my
      The Firefox turned to the assembly again. "Ladies and gentlemen this is the fiend who took my battered body from the hounds, literally tanned my hide and transformed me into a stuffed toy!"
      The Countess let out a murmur of disapproval on hearing of these actions - they were unsavoury. The Count was not so sure. All things considered, this did appear to be a wild animal. Other responsible listeners had some sympathy with this eloquent fox.  However, the mood of the youths was growing hostile again.
       For Powla, these events had rekindled a memory. The carefully trimmed moustache of that huntsman, his self-righteous attitude. Surely this was the man that the Firefox had told her about when he related the final events of his previous existence. No wonder he had been so keen to slip inside the cathedral. The fox had a crucial need to confront and expose that sad Master.
       The Chancel was humming once more. Idle whispers began to multiply. 'It's only a wild beast.' 'They cause no end of damage on my farm.' 'A pest, a pest I'd say.'   The Master of Hounds smurked and took comfort. Stones that had been concealed in red coat-pockets were grasped and raised in ready fists. The youngsters started to jostle in their pews, egging their comrades to lean over the balconies or nip up the stairs. A fox in church. It was sacrilege – and easy prey!
       A single chap and his cousin from the sally-army tried to remonstrate. On a delapidated platform fifteen feet above the crowd, they the urged boys not to cause mischief. The kids were looking for action. One of them jumped over the rail and perched optimistically, expecting entertainment. He pulled on the ropes that secured the roof tarpaulin. Things were edging towards mayhem.
       The Countess laid her delicate, pink palm on her husband's wrist and looked into his face imploringly. shouldn't he do something? However, his expression was still non-committal and he found the situation interesting. It was a peculiar dilemma for someone. Who was the fairer fellow? A wild fox with the abilities of a prosecuting lawyer or a Master of Hounds who simmered with the pent-up fury of a beast.
       There was some cause for hope. One of the young braves had given up the debate. He was a good heart. He sat with his back to the furore. He was staring through a hole in the stained-glass and trusting the light of reason to shine. Yet realistically, there was only the leering, jeering brutality of the mob. Hats and whips were being flailed in the air. Missiles were positioned. They were after that damn fox's blood. All that was needed was the word. The Firefox quaked.  Had his gambit had failed?  The Master of  Hounds drew a sword from his scabbard and raised it.
       The Archbishop of Canterbury had said nothing and done little during all of this, except to hold in check a rather doddering old gent who wanted to assist in the fray. He was taken aback like everyone else but now, acting quickly and subtly, he shot a gaze to Powla.  He clearly meant she ought to do something with the mandolin and the music – but what? She couldn't read a note!
       The Archbishop smiled reassuringly. Powla stared at the music book with its intimidating staves crammed with batterys of minims, semitones and demi-hemi-semiquavers. She picked up the mandolin. The whole chancel was on hold, waiting to hear this unexpected twist. She placed her fingers crudely over the frets and plucked a string unintentionally. A dull thh-rump broke the silence. The chancel still waited but the archbishop summoned his faith and motioned her to continue. She tried again.
              'Ping-gggg!' An excruciatingly high note pierced and echoed through the ears of the congregation. Elderly women put their hands over their ears and even the young bloods looked cowed. Yet the effect on the Firefox was dynamic. He began to dance!
              'Ping-gggg!' One step.  'Pee-ongggg!' Two steps. 'Pee-yangggg!' Three steps and he was dancing across the flagstones merrily as a puppy to the tune of  The Lion Shall Lay Down With The Lamb.  At least that was the tune that faced Powla in the book but she was still frantically improvising.
              'Pee-ying-pangee, Pee-ying-pangee, Pee-ying-pong-pong!' The Firefox whirled around and around until he faced the Huntsman again. The crowd was agog and the Master of Hounds was flummoxed. If the critter could dance like Fred Astair, then maybe he could sing like Gene Kelly.  The fox extended his paw in a taunting manner towards his persecutor, flaunting himself in the style of a sexy temptress or a bordello performer. The Huntsman was furious.
                                   'Pee-ying-pangee, Pee-ying-pangee, Ping – Pang – Ponggggggg!'
                                   "You're the – toughest little huntsman in the land," sang the Firefox!
                                   "You're the – roughest little huntsman in the band"
                                   "You really are a wag – with a corpse held in your bag!
                                   "You're the toughest little huntsman in the land."
      The Firefox wheeled around again and the strangely melodic sounds issued from Powla's mandolin ever more frenetically. How was she doing this? The Archbishop smiled. The Master of Hounds blanched, red and white, with embarrassment. The Count and Countess began to tap their feet and hand-jive. They thought it was all quite jovial.
      The Firefox puckered-up his lips and half-whistled, half-yodelled in the Huntsman's face to introduce the chorus: "Whooo – yip – peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...."
      Powla found herself strumming the bass notes and the tune grew more melancholy and morbid. The Firefox lowered his voice to a plodding death dirge.
                                    'Taa-ronggg, Taa-ronggg, Taa-roonggggggah!' twanged the mandolin.
                                    "Oh the Master of the Hounds is a doing of his rounds"
                                    "He's a proper Mister-Master of his Craft"
                                    "He hangs 'em up to Dry but he never hears them Cry!"
                                    "He's a Messy-Mister-Master of his....."
           "Cut yer vile whimpering clap-trap, Reynard!" roared the Master of Hounds. He raised his sword higher and it gleamed in the shadowy light. There was an audible indrawing of breath from the audience. The Firefox feared for his life but he was not going that easily. He whisked around fast, then faster and faster until both sides of the aisle could see his face at once! Then he went even quicker, like a tornado, so that they could only see a blurry, spinning form. At last he stopped in an instant, for the finale.
           "..Craft!" he sang, in a subdued, mournful fashion, then raising his cane briskly and promptly like a conductor, he invited the audience to join in. The delinquent youths salivated. Would they swallow it? The Count and Countess primed their vocal cords. 
      Powla blinked to see if it was all real and jigged up her mandolin. Pee-yingggg!
           "He's the... toughest little huntsman in the land.." Altogether now... "he's the...roughest little huntsman in the band..." they were going for it. Mouths opened-wide around the chancel and burst into ribald harmony... 'he really is a cad... with a corpse held in his bag!' Giggles were breaking out between the words. The youngsters were laughing again  but not at the Firefox. It was the Master of Hounds they found funny.  '... He's a messy...'  the sniggering and the guffaws were almost deafening... 'messy-mister-master of his...' The chancel had disintegrated into hilarity.
      Powla fell over backwards, her song sheets fluttering to the floor, music-stand toppling and mandolin boinking. The Master of Hounds was not amused to be made a fool of. The time for play-acting was over. His face tightened under the militant moustache and his eyes narrowed to a rage. One or two boys jumped forward to the rail. They were still ready to support him despite the amusement.
      He plunged into the aisle and his sword lashed out at the Firefox. One-slash, two-slash, three-slash. Yet the endgame was already approaching. High above, the tarpaulin canopy was beginning to flap in the wind. A storm was brewing. The canopy was patched in the centre, somewhat foolishly, with a single, dubbined Union flag and a tall youth held the single, thin rope which kept it in place.
      Rain had already filled the flag, so that it billowed-out like a balloon: like a waterbomb. What advice was given by the man from the sally-army we shall never know but the lad did let the rope slip.
      The waterbomb came whooshing down, exactly over the Firefox - but the fox had moved. He had been wise to dodge all that cutting and slashing because the Master of Hounds now stood in just the right place. As it descended, the flag unfurled. Its cold liquid cargo funnelled downwards, guided by gravity to its inevitable target. Water soaked the Huntsman's head and shoulders. His rider's hat spun off and was replaced by a whirling mass of cloth which wrapped itself round his face. He was flailing madly, unable to see. His sword tipped the hat too, sending it careering away into the gathering storm.
      Wild winds blew in from above. The Firefox hopped and skipped and did a handstand. He let off a stinking vapour. His back legs kicked skyward and his brush waved in the air.                                                    
      The Huntsman was almost blindfolded and the boys gaped.  The man floundered courageously and his nose stiffened at the noxious fumes. His sword had no chance of hitting the fox. It was wrapped in wreaths of striped textile. The Master of Hounds was in bondage. Strips of red, white and blue encircled his waist and thigh. The more he struggled the more they tightened.
      The Cathedral was darkening. The hunter boys now stood huddled in a sad drizzle, their faces dumbstruck, watching their master entangle himself tighter and tighter, embalmed like a ridiculous livid mummy. It was time for the Firefox to make his escape.
       Powla looked all around. The rain had ceased falling but evening was drawing near. As she recovered from her fall, she saw the Archbishop at the rear of the church. He had ascended to an altar at the eastern end. She still sat on the steps that led up to it and The Firefox had fled that way too.                                                                                                                   
      An ancient window stood above the altar.The stained-glass showed no pictures of saints or martyrs; only the symbols of the old religion, leaves of oak and the gorgeous fruits of the valleys. This had been the virtue of the early craftsmen: to leave some mark of respect for those that preceded them.
       As if by a combination of invisible speed and magnetic precision, the Firefox leapt towards the metallic reredos that covered the damp and mouldy stonework behind the altar. His paws barely touched it. He was aiming to go further and higher. He was aiming to go through the window!
       Reaching the peak of his jump, the Firefox was travelling with a good deal of momentum. The old lead framing gave way easily enough and small triangles; squares and hexagons of coloured glass spangled into the air. A basket of bread, a sacramental goblet and an ivory cross began to topple.
       In mid-flight, he spun around to hoist his paw in a final, defiant signature. Yet, after all his triumphs, there was still murder on his tail. The Master of Hounds had gotten rid of his blindfolds and chased up the steps. His head-dress followed him like a half-worn veil. His cutlass was raised again!
       Powla looked anxiously at the Archbishop of Canterbury. He stood side-on to the altar, like one of
those servants to the pharaoh, in an Egyptian relief. Then, as his profile turned, he seemed to spring into life.                                                                                                                                                                 
       She had sensed something familiar about his face but had not been able to pin it down. It was the face she had previously seen beneath the shade of a cowl. The Archbishop was none other than the wayward friar they had met at the gate. His disguise served to cover the fact that he knew the two travellers quite well.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
       With one palm outstretched and his other elbow crooked, he caught the Huntsman's eye. Somehow his posture combined the qualities of a sacred benediction and a jujitsu move. For just one second, the Master of  Hounds lost his concentration but it was enough to delay his sword-swipe. Powla steadied herself.  One of her hands was clutching the slipping altar cloth. More precious relics teetered on the brink. Nevertheless, she managed to place restraining index finger on the Huntsman's cuff.
       It was touch and go. Clear blue evening light was beginning to stream through the broken window arch. Most of the young hunters had stayed back but a solitary child with a pigtail hid in the shadows at the base of the window. She clung to the trailing ends of the Huntsman's awkward bandana and to his empty scabbard. Perhaps a combined effort from the three of them could still delay him.
       The Master of Hounds staggered to the window. The sharp point of his weapon was aimed at that damned, fleeting Firefox - but it was a stagger too many. There was the tiniest pin-prick, a feint and a whisper of blood but the sword-tip fell short. The Firefox wasn't damned. He was free.
       Ruby, yellow and gold fragments - stainglass apples and acorns were cascading into the gloom of the Cathedral. Outside the storm was over. It was a beautiful summer's night. With a high-jumper's kick and a cock of his ears, the Firefox and his cheeky paw waved Adi-ooshh!

                                                                             To the Hill Country
      Powla was out riding in the park. Summer had changed into the gold of autumn and the twigs beneath the hooves of her mount snapped with a cold brittleness. Children played on the swings and climbing frames. Motor vehicles droned-by at snail's pace, along the road.
      Many things had changed since that day in the Cathedral but she had seen nothing more of the Fox. She used the simpler name for him nowadays. It was easier to assume that their adventures had been nothing more than an extended dream.
      She had returned alone, to her broken-down old house and decided it needed refurbishment. She thought she would blow away the cobwebs of past events and move on. She had made trips to the west, to places more familiar, where people passed their days quietly on neatly-tended smallholdings, the ones that grew the best vegetables; and she came to this town with its lazy, leafy, dishevelled park.
      Her plans had begun modestly. Lightweight materials for the shack, insulation and bits of timber for the window frames. It was all improvised. Just to keep her a bit warmer at night.
    Then came something unexpected. She bought a horse. Well, it wasn't a horse actually. It was a Mule : the offspring of a horse and a donkey!   It is generally the case that mules are seen to be obstinate and ungainly but this one rode like the wind. She was born of a fast, dapple-grey Mare and a stubborn Ass.
    Powla kept her by the side of the house and sometimes the mule glared at her fiercely through the window. She was given the name Matilda.
    As the months passed by, she and Matilda often took to visiting the park. They liked to take the high road away from the city centre and look out over the modern factories and public buildings. It was a grimey, urban scene but it made a change.
    Occasionally, as they trotted along, she thought of those earlier mad events. Did they really happen? A few nights before, she had discovered some forgotten footage on her computer.
      Two figures were dancing erratically across the screen.   One dressed the other in fancy clothes, then they stood together and looked out over a misty landscape. It was her foxy friend. Yet, she didn't know if these pictures existed in the past, the present or the future. 
      At any rate, she felt reassured to see his image. Oh dear!  Powla had to admit it. She missed him.
      She had passed through the shoddy, gateless entrance to the park and along the pathway. Matilda's hooves clopped and crunched into the gravel surface. Powla was excited to see groups of people and so much activity. Normally, she didn't see a soul for days on end. Watching them, her attention was distracted.
      Matilda's was not. She had seen something from the corner of her eye. Her head bucked and her nostrils flared. She smelled predator. Powla swivelled in the saddle to see what had alerted the mule. Crouched beneath a small, broad-leaved, tropical tree was a shabby, scruffy stray dog - or so she took it to be. It was rifling through a litter bin in hope of scraps.
      They had almost passed-by but the animal looked up at them with a wild and startled expression. Those searching, amber eyes made Powla rein the mule to a halt. Could it be?
      This destitute canine tramp with thinning fur and the soot of traffic flowing in its veins. Could it be the Firefox?
             "Good afternoon, Mi'Lady," he said suddenly. "Can you spare a little fresh meat for an old friend?" There was no mistaking that voice.
      His long, loose tongue lolled over his teeth and his ears cowered over his skull. He was in a poor state but it was definitely the Firefox.
             "Where have you been?" she asked hectically and then, more to the point, "How did you get here?"
      He motioned her to dismount and said that he would explain everything. Matilda snorted in disgust and shuddered all over before parking herself safely on the far side of the path. She was keen to keep her distance from such a carnivore.
      Powla sat with him on the grass and the Firefox spoke of his experiences since he had last seen her. After his leap through the window of the Cathedral, he had fled into the moonlight. He was bound for the hills but the temptations of Canterbury City had proved to be too enticing. Helpings of fat and dripping thrown out by the butcher made an easy meal that night. The time he had spent learning the ways of humans had made him clever but it had also made him a little too tame.
      How thirsty all that rich food made him. He had entered a public house on the high street, marched up to the bar and ordered a refreshing beverage.  The publican did raise an eyebrow but then, as he was always keen to make a sale, he put aside his misgivings and slapped a pint of brown ale on the bar.
      The drink was delicious but unfortunately the Firefox knew nothing of either alcohol nor money. He began to spout about his exploits: of how he had chaperoned a lovely young lady and entertained an archbishop. He thought himself quite the gentleman tippler.
      However, the clientele did not. They thought him a braggart and, at most, an entertaining pest. As he became more drunk, it also became clear that he had no cash in his pockets. The more canny drinkers around him saw through his guise. They'd  have no chicken-runner in their pub. The landlord gave the thumbs down and a burly sailor from Chatham had kicked him mightily out-the-door. Still with his snout in the air, bruised but proud to the last, he was driven from the city by all and sundry.
      So he had come here, to this smaller town where he could scrape by, sometimes unseen, sometimes unnoticed.  He had arrived in a stupor induced by unfamiliar intoxicants. In the process, he had lost his respectability and his natural powers. Nowadays, he was plagued by a terror of people and their human ways but he was forced to make a living from their cast-offs.
      The Firefox recoiled further into the shade of the tree and nibbled disconsolately on a mouldy sausage. He had spied a family by the swings. They were staring at him from a distance and the father pointed. "See the funny fox!" said Dad and a spotty child added, for good measure, " 'es not a real fox 'is tail's all scraggy!" The Firefox cringed.
      Powla could see her old friend was in a bad way. It made her sad to see such fine animal reduced to such a gritty life. He spent it sifting through garbage for the odd morsel or titbit, hiding by day from curious voyeurs and trudging the desolate, lonely, urban streets by night.
             "Look here," she said. "This place is not for you. If you were back in the hills, you would soon pick up your old skills and instincts. Just shake the dust out of your coat and go back to to live there."
      The Firefox shook his balding head. "No, it's too late now. I'm getting old." He shuffled on his haunches. "Can't you see that I stoop when I try to walk. It's too far. I would never get there."
      Powla suddenly saw things more clearly. "Don't you see. That's just the point! You won't have to walk on two legs when you are back in the countryside!" His whole situation was absurd. He had spent so long battling with the injustices of human behaviour that he had started to think he was one of them!
      The Firefox was still reticent. "I suppose your reasoning is correct but it's easier said than done. The true hill country is a long way off and I've almost forgotten how to hunt. How would I get the energy to travel all that way?"
      Then Powla had an idea. She looked cautiously across the path at Matilda. The mule was chewing contentedly on a mouthful of moist grass,  blissfully unaware of anything that might happen next. She was in the prime of health and had the perfect stamina for cross-country running. Powla looked back mischievously into the dull glow that still burned in the fox's eyes. If he was not careful, it was a glow that might soon fade away. The Firefox knew what she was considering.
             "No, no, no!" he said softly but Powla had made the decision for him.
      She grabbed the Firefox by the hand and sprinted towards the the spot where the mule was resting. Matilda twitched from her day-dream and and rotated the glaucous white of her eye to find out what was afoot. Innate fears of ravenous wolves and hyenas flooded her brain. She started forward.
      Powla still believed they could make it. She quickly calculated the gap twixt the mule's enormous, bulging backside and herself. Six feet, five feet, four feet, "Jump...NOW!" she entreated the Firefox. "Leap like you did at the church window!"
     The Firefox began to lose his breath. He tried to say that he wouldn't be able to make it but Powla's shoes were already leaving the ground. "No!" he screamed, No! I cannnnnnnnnnn......"
   The pair were already sailing through the air. Matilda was ready to flee. She bent her knees, raised her front hooves and stiffened her withers. As they descended, Powla and the Firefox could see the dark centre-line of her spine and her softly dappled passenger seat. The fox hugged Powla's waist like a pillion rider and braced himself for impact.
   Matilda was still thinking herself under attack. Finally she bolted. Yet they were already onboard and hanging on for dear life.
   Powla grappled with the reins. The fox's legs flailed behind as they set off at speed.
   Matilda flew along, powered by adrenaline and fear. The boundary of the park and the open country soon appeared. A huddle of mums and toddlers gawked and held their hats in amazement. The trio flashing-by must have provided an eccentric spectacle.   Matilda galloping in a panic and panting as the wind rippled through her grey mane. Powla gripping the saddle with her thighs and then her fists grasping wildly for control. The Firefox with his snout praying heavenward, desperately trying to hang on, bouncing along, with his brush trailing like the Mule's tail.
     Hooves together, lift and they were over the park railings. The Mule was not stopping. Now they were out on to the heathland. Powla managed to regain some use of the reins. She did not want to end this kind of gallop in disaster.                          
     Acidic pools and heather passed beneath them. Powla had to be careful. They followed a sinuous route hemmed by thorny Gorse bushes and Scot's Pine. This was like dinosaur country. One false step and Matilda might break a leg, only to end up as one of Mr. Darwin's fossils.
     A tweak to the left rein and tweak to the right. The Mule raced onwards, with the speed of light in her sights. Familiar landscapes from the past flashed by on every side. They glimpsed memories from their time together. A funny old man laughed at them from a house on a hill. His beard animated, he ran down the slope towards the mule but they were travelling too fast. His figure became tiny. He was waving his arms. Soon, he was a speck in the distance but he was still faintly calling to them.
                It's me, Charles! Don't be involved with that phenomenal Fox! He's just an evolutionary
                idiosyncrasy! Do you hear me?Just an evolutionary idio.......
     Powla tried to turn and listen but his voice was lost in the rushing, blustering wind. Still they galloped onwards, faster and faster.
The countryside changed again, to lush upland meadow and flowering cherry trees. How could there be Spring blossom in Autumn, she wondered? Yet there was no time to think. The Mule moved so quickly and smoothly that her hooves now scarcely brushed the earth. Perhaps they were outside of time.
     The track swerved and straightened like a movie shot from the cabin of a steam train. Powla hunched-down low, leant her face against Matilda's long neck and viewed the way ahead. The Firefox looked too. At first he yelped in fear but then, certain that it was all good fun and with his tongue flying, he let out a prolonged, yippeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.....
     They forged on. Rolling up and down, along the narrow track. Clouds were gathering and the weather was turning slate grey. From a long way back, Powla could see a small shadow at the side of the road. As they raced on, she watched it grow larger. It was an oval form, sitting with a little brightness inside.
                 I saw no Fox with you, Powla! Wasn't he just a part of your imagination? Don't
                 bother  with him. Why do you want to take him home? You're just confused. He's
                 part of you anyway! He's a part of  me! He's part of the Archbishop! He's a part
                 of everyone! Come back! Come back! He's a part of Goooooooooooooo....               
     The meditating form had meant to say god  but it didn't come out that way. His imploring light was already fading into the past. It was the learned Friar, peeping from the dark depths of his cowl, his mouth wide and wailing into the rain. Powla wanted to tell him that he had been helpful but by now, they were speeding into the future. So the man just remained calm. The shining soul within his hood quickened. He smiled and slipped unnoticed into a cherry grove.
     The rain lashed down harder. The Mule splashed through crystal-clear puddles which briefly mirrored the trio. Powla was resolved. She would take the Firefox home – but only with Matilda's assistance. She watched their images passing below. She saw a filmstrip of mule, female and fox. The frames juddered and merged. Powla suddenly had rusty fur around her cheeks and then, a moment later, luggy horsey ears.
     Was she confused? Had it all been part of some monstrous nightmare? The brooding rain clouds glowered overhead. The wind roared. Matilda gave out a loud Neigh! It made Powla jolt and she clasped the reins even tighter. The Mule was jumping from one large stone to the next and gradually ascending. These were ancient glacial boulders, apparently streaming with melt water. Powla knew this was hazzardous terrain. One slip of a hoof and they might be done for. Yet the Mule  charged on and up. Her ancestors had been interbred for such a pass. Patches of  shifting snow appeared and a misty darkness descended upon the trio. Even so, Matilda carried on.
      Night was falling upon them. From stone to stone the Mule climbed upwards. The way grew steeper and steeper. Soon it was the pitch black of a new moon. Matilda was struggling through loose scree. It was a rare kind of horse that worked like this. Her hooves sank into the gravelly morrain but she trudged on and on.  Showers of minerals sparkled and avalanched into the dark chasm below. Powla and the Firefox bent low and hugged the Mule's back. None of them savoured the prospect of slipping back.
      At last, they came to a small level where they could rest. Each of them was exhausted, the Mule most of all. After they had dismounted, Powla watched Matilda lay her head down.
      She had been trotting and cantering and pushing for hours. Then Powla saw the light in the Fox's eyes narrow to a slumber. Powla needed to sleep too. As she drifted into semi-conscious realms, a faint glow appeared in the east.
      The Firefox awoke to a splendid scene. Autumn had given late summer a reprieve. All across the plateau, alpine seeds rustled in their shells and the morning breeze blew waves of green and gold over the meadow grass. Here and there lay islands of wild lavender. Pure mountain water flowed from every distant nook and crag. The sun was rising, huge and red, on a glorious day.
      When Powla opened her eyes, the Fox was already scampering around, smelling every root and flower. Matilda had made it through for them.  She funnelled air through her lungs and snorted, as if it were a piece of cake. This was the hill country.
      Blackbirds sang in the Ash trees and Skylarks trilled high above in the blue.  Three Kingfishers flashed across the river in a ceremonial fly-past. The dawn chorus rang out like a tribute to the return of an old hand. The Firefox was back.
      Powla and the Fox fell into a spontaneous celebration, reeling back and forth, shaking their heads in the air and slapping each others palms or pads. Their dance took them down to the river bank. They checked their reflections in a slow eddying pool. Yes! They were both still there - individual and separate. He opened his jaws and yawned foxily into the pool. The watery image yawned back. So the Firefox was real!
      They could even see the solitary rock in midstream where the Firefox had made his escape from the hounds. They were on the far side of the river now.
            "Can you jump it?" asked Powla. The Fox seemed reinvigorated. The shine had returned to his fur and amazingly, it seemed to have regrown. His muscles rippled, stoked by the country.
            "Ofcourse I can!" Then he leapt with ease on to the rock and trumpeted a keen cry into the wind. There was a wilder look in his eye as he sat on the islet. For a fraction of a second, his amber iris focused on the faraway horizon and the burning sun beyond that.
      He jumped to the rock, and back again, several times, to convince himself that there were no dogs to catch him. It was true. He had escaped the hunt. In that moment, for him, perhaps the rest of the story had been a nightmare – or a dream. While for Powla, it had been a reality.
      She watched the hair bristle on his back and called softly to him across the water.
             "Firefox... firefox..." He cocked an ear slightly, on hearing the name. Then he looked at her kindly, as if she were an amusing stranger. Powla sensed the parting of ways was close at hand.
      She summoned all the skills she had learned from him. How to prompt, how to coax and how to tame. So that a thousand wonderful things might come into existence!
             "Firefox... firefox..." she whispered softly again and beckoned him gently to her side of the stream. For one last time, he flew light and dainty across the gap. Then he came close to her, on all fours. It was time to say goodbye.
      Powla stretched out her cupped hand, a small translucent glass bead lay there. The myriad of facets on its surface shone amethyst and amber. It was the artificial eye of the toy she had found all those months ago. She had kept it in her pocket.
      The Firefox sniffed it. It was odourless and certainly one couldn't eat it. His jaws yawned wide again, exposing his pinkish gums, and she thought she caught something of a laugh upon his face. She lifted the bead high, and yes, the Firefox was silently laughing.
      Powla began to laugh with him. She flung the bead far and wide. It arched over the centre of the river and fell. Then it was washed and scoured into eternity. It became indistinguishable from a panhandler's nugget or trout's scale.                                            
      They laughed some more, at the incredibility of it all, and the Firefox stumbled and chuckled, up the rising meadow. He was now some distance from her. He snuffled the ground for an earthworm and pounced on beetle but he missed both. Still the whistling, whooping sound of his laughter reverberated around the glen and echoed from the cliff tops. Powla grinned. She stood with Matilda and watched him slip further away.
   She had learnt other things from him too. How to question the questionable. How to challenge the despicable. How to imagine the unimaginable! They had spent their time together in lost and scattered places where the hum-drum of daily life was suspended.
   It was time to say goodbye. The morning star shone in the east.
   He darted here and there, always sensing, with nose pointing, ears tilting and eyes shining as he looked back to his old friend. Slowly, he came near to the horizon and his sleek form flared against the raging sun. Powla saw his head rise, in a fiery silhouette. He gave out a thrilling scream. He was free! The sound of his mirth shrilled across the plateau. Every bird, every animal, every man, every woman and every child awake heard that cry.
  They heard it down below and over the great plain. They heard it beyond that in the land to the south.  Out there, reading quietly in his study, a venerable scientist turned from his book to listen. They also heard it in a great cathedral city miles away and a humble priest nodded.
   From time to time, red-coated riders and hounds are seen skirting the plateau and, once in a while, they pick-up a scent. They chase-it and race-it over hill and dale. They enjoy their pursuit to the full and curiously, they end their worldly days happy. Yet they never catch a fox! So perhaps they heard that cry too.
   Above the hill country and the great plain under the sky, the planets have turned and passed in harmony for a million years. Like the creatures of the plateau, they will run silently along, in their unseen orbits for a thousand years to come. The Firefox has come home. Let him live. Let every day and every night be fine. Let there be peace and well-being for all humankind below the stars.
                                                                                                                                    Paula Wichall © 2015