A Skulk of Ghosts

They gather at his backyard every night. They sniff the pine-infused air, dark noses glistening with moisture, and orange-furred ears pasted to their skulls. Ivan watches through the patched screen door, the fine net stitching shallow indentations across his forehead.

The foxes are four in total: a vixen and her cubs. They prowl the swath of scraggly grass that connects his property to the outskirts of the forest. The cubs don’t seem interested in him. They chase, tackle, and nip each other, orange-black-white balls of yarn, tumbling. The vixen’s movements are slower, more deliberate. She doesn’t go near his cabin, only watches him as he stares back through the mesh screen, in his robe and slippers and skin coming apart at the seams.

Plum dusk gives way to muddy night, and the cubs yap and run back into the underbrush. The vixen lingers awhile.

She looks familiar. Painfully human. And he can’t tear his eyes away from her.

Theirs is a small village. On the rare occasion Ivan cycles to the shops for supplies, he hears people talk even when he doesn’t want to listen. The story goes like this: murderer; imbecile; hermit.

The rest he’s pieced together with the doctors’ help, but mostly on his own. He has all these photographs in an old biscuit tin. Baby photos and school photos and church choir photos. Then there’s Vera in a white sundress. Vera in a pearly wedding gown. Vera under a white morgue sheet. This last photo, shown to him while he was still in the hospital, isn’t actually in his possession—not outside his nightmares, at least.

What he knows but doesn’t remember: He was driving to the city on ice-slick mountain roads with his wife and kids when something darted in front of his car. Despite trying to swerve, he hit the creature and lost control of the vehicle. Fur and guts stuck to the grill of his car, which is how they could tell afterward that it was a red fox.

What he knows for certain, without rhyme or reason: The foxes in his backyard are Vera and the kids.

Now, he may have huge chunks of memories missing and little metal screws embedded in his skull, he may not remember how to tie his shoelaces so he only wears holey house slippers, but he hasn’t lost it—not yet and not completely. It’s not that his wife is a vixen, the three cubs their triplets. But maybe his family’s souls are trapped inside the foxes’ bodies. Maybe this is Vera’s reincarnation, there to torture him the way the Furies would torture murderers and breakers of oaths (to have and to hold and most emphatically to not kill in the mountains until death do us part).

At night, he hears them scratching and screaming by the vegetable patch outside his window. He lies awake in bed and counts the knots in the wood-paneled ceiling. Over and over again, he whispers, “I’m sorry I don’t remember you. I’m sorry I can’t feel sorry for what I did.”

His only neighbor for miles is a woman named Cynthia. She’s a good ten years older than his wife. Older than Vera will ever be. She lives alone in a cabin almost identical to his and comes over sometimes to check on him. He doesn’t always know how he feels about that.

Cynthia lets herself in, wrapped in a navy anorak over her floral house dress. A beef casserole emits pale steam between her gloved hands. She sets it before him on the kitchen table.

“Don’t flatter yourself, I didn’t make it for you. The fact that I’m all by my lonesome slips my mind when I cook.” Though meant as a joke, it sounds a little desperate, her voice like rough wool.

It’s the texture of that laugh that makes him say, “Do the foxes visit your yard too?” Do they keep you up at night?

She looks up from the drawer, where she’s rummaging around for some clean cutlery. “Foxes? What foxes?”

“Never mind,” he says and pulls out a stool for her.

“Ivan, I worry about you,” Cynthia says with a hand on his forearm. He’s rolled up the sleeves of his plaid shirt, and her fingers tickle his arm hair.

Sometimes Cynthia makes these soft eyes at him. He pretends he’s dumb like everyone in their village thinks he is, that he can’t understand what those looks and light touches mean. God knows how lonely and touch-starved he is, but he can’t be with her like that. He has no way of knowing if he feels close to Cynthia only because she’s similar to Vera, or because she’s nothing like his late wife. Even worse, he’s scared he’ll superimpose on Cynthia the image of Vera he has assembled in his head, and that wouldn’t be fair to either woman, dead or alive.

That evening, after Cynthia has hiked back to her cabin, he scrapes the leftover casserole onto a paper plate and crosses the overgrown backyard.

He only intends to leave the offering on the other side of the broken fence and return to his house. When the vixen’s snout peeks out from between some wild berry shrubs, however, his joints freeze like a car engine that won’t start in the cold. He finds himself kneeling on the forest bed of twigs and crispy leaves. His breaths are feathery billows of mist.

“Hello, old girl,” he says. In the near-silence of the woods, his voice sounds like a gunshot.

Vera’s eyes lock on his as she steps nearer. They’re as black and glinting as coals, her fur a gradient, flame-like orange, the same fiery shade her hair used to be when she was alive. The cubs follow their mother’s lead, warily pawing the air in his direction. Ivan brings to mind the biscuit tin full of the triplets’ photographs. One cub is darker than the rest, like his son Jackie, who had the tannest skin of all the children. Another cub is missing her left ear, similar to Zoe and her birth deformity. And then there’s the smallest of the three, the spots on her forehead reminiscent of the barrettes Theodora used to wear on her auburn locks during Sunday school.

He opens his palms and extends them toward all four foxes. Fine tremors run through his muscles as Vera’s snout nuzzles his hand, but he doesn’t retract it. Her nose is a cold shock, her fur coarser than it appears. The cubs also creep closer, their body heat a nimbus that melts the frost from his skin. He shifts to grab a fistful of beef—to handfeed and placate his fox family—but he must have moved too fast, or too sudden. Vera’s fur bristles and her belly sticks low to the ground, the cubs picking up on her agitation. She swipes her claw across his palm before scrambling away, back into the copse of shrubs and ferns with her cubs in tow.

Was Vera this hot and cold when she was alive? He might not be the owner of his memories, but he thinks so. He stands, and his chest rattles with the broken pieces of his heart.

Was Vera a good person?

Is he?

On his way back to the cabin, he briefly considers going into the city for a rabies serum, but no. He doesn’t drive anymore, and there’s nobody who would take him. Besides, the thought of hospitals and doctors sickens him. He doesn’t want to spend his life on a cold slab or his brain to be poked and probed. So he puts some rubbing alcohol and a clean piece of gauze on the bleeding scratch and crawls into bed.

He thought going outside would appease his own private ghosts. But later that night, the howling rises to an unprecedented crescendo. He clutches his wounded hand to his chest and listens to the vixen and her cubs until the entire world is a scream.

The howling doesn’t abate. He goes about his daily routine, tends to his tiny garden, pickles his veggies, and gets his monthly disability check in the mail.

During quiet afternoons spent in Cynthia’s cabin, as they do the crossword by the wood stove or watch game shows on her rabbit-eared TV, he wants to ask, “Can’t you hear them? Can’t you hear the howling?”

He doesn’t know how to make it stop.

Back home, he peers out into the darkness through the torn screen door. The cabin is cold as a mausoleum. He squashes the shells of his ears against his skull to drown out the chilling noise. When he closes his eyes, burnt orange flares across his lids.

Ivan treads past his vegetable patch, then through the backyard, now overrun by weeds and covered in thin sheets of ice. His gait is clumsy but his steps hint at no second thoughts. Finally, he reaches the ripped chicken-wire fence bordering the forest. He’s forgotten his slippers. Prickly burs and jagged stones slice the soles of his feet.

They’re waiting for him on the fringe of the forest. Vera. Jackie. Zoe. Theodora. Their eyes follow him as he lies down on the wet, cold grass and spreads his limbs out like a child making a snow angel.

The foxes trot toward him—in the forefront, the wife he may have loved or hated, followed by their children that he can’t remember whether he cared for or neglected. Under his threadbare robe, he’s naked and afraid. He feels their rough tongues on his body, the brush of their bushy tails, their teeth and nails breaking the soft skin of his belly and thighs.

Cold seeps through his pores, down into his bones and the metal screws that hold him together. As the foxes pant and wail above him, he fixes his eyes on the dark sky. Ivan gives himself to them. After all, this is their birthright—their deathright, too.

“So, that was a stupid thing to do,” are the first words Cynthia speaks when he comes to. Soft tufts of brown hair the color of a sparrow’s feathers have escaped from her braid, and there’s a feverish glint in her eyes.

“Yeah.” He’s in Cynthia’s bed, covered in a comforter, white as a flag of truce. His joints are stiff; his wounds have been dressed in gauze and some strong-smelling ointment, and his head feels even woollier than usual.

“I called a doctor. Sorry, I know you hate them, but we couldn’t have you going rabid, could we?”

“I’m sorry, too,” he whispers through a sandpaper throat. For worrying her. For not thinking it through. He wanted so bad to feel regret for the things he doesn’t remember doing, that he was willing to make himself sorry by any means necessary.

The world is mercifully quiet. The only sound to be heard is the kettle boiling in the kitchen and the pitter-patter of rain.

“Why did you do it?” she asks. “Did you want to die or… ?” She feigns casualness, but her sadness spills through the cracks in her voice.

“Or.” He brings a hand to her face and caresses the sleepless midnight shadows underneath her eyes.

“Maybe you could tell me about it someday,” Cynthia says, placing her hand over his.

“Maybe,” he agrees.

Cynthia leaves his bedside to prepare tea. He looks down at his scratched hands, the blood caked in the cracks of his palms. It’s been eighteen months, and he’s tired of being a blank canvas. He wants to make memories that don’t come from biscuit tins full of old photographs or from the howling of red foxes. He wants to look at himself in the mirror and not see the villagers’ words for him written across his forehead.

Cynthia returns, holding two mismatched mugs of fragrant green tea. She smiles at him with her soft eyes and hands him one of the hot drinks.

Ivan accepts her offering.

Maybe someday, perhaps soon, he wants to populate his head with something other than ghosts.

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