Michael takes us to bonnie Scotland on his debut...
The Fox Squirrel
I used to suspect that there was more to life than what there seemed to be at first glance. A perfect day may hide lurking shadows. Many people, less easily spooked than I, have often wondered just what seems to beckon to us, just beyond the corner of the eye. Something with mean designs on our souls or dark desires. Especially on those cold winter days when darkness falls early, and the creeping shadows of long oak trees fall down upon suburban streets.
However, there is nothing to fear in the dark of the street. Nothing more frightening than a squirrel or, on the rare occasion, a fox.
And yet the mind plays tricks on us, to the extent that we believe. We believe, as we walk, somewhat more hurried than before, that the movements that we sense on either side are more than imagination and fox combined. Out there, there is something waiting for us. Something less than friendly.
The trouble is this path is one those who fear shall be forced to continue to tread. We have nothing to fear in the shadows. Nothing that can do us terminal harm. Alas, my friends, that is a false ideal. Only one that helps us not to dwell on the possible as we hurry along on our way.
Three months ago was when I was first laid eyes on the creatures. When I hit upon one of my more fatal curiosities. Please forgive me, for you must be asking the question: what are the creatures? In my state, I'm trying to sum up words that could describe them. Grey like a squirrel, small as a terrier, with bushy tails like foxes. I christened them the Fox-Squirrels, because they had reminded me of such timid creatures.
A long time ago, when I was a child, my dad had taken me to Whipsnade, and I had seen the baby animals in their petting area, all wide eyed and yawning and looking for attention, so utterly harmless, and these creatures – these Fox Squirrels, reminded me of those babies. They looked like someone had taken a fox, and a squirrel, and morphed them into the one creature.
I'll start at the beginning. That always seems a good place to start. My many years of freelance photography work had earned few plaudits outside of an esteemed circle of peers. You don't happen to remember those peregrine falcon photos in the newspapers the other year , do you? Probably not. That was me, though, and that was what I was famed for. Animal photography! A low paying, low acclaimed profession, but one that I was good at.
If I can forgo modesty for a second, I would claim to be a genius at capturing the animal in its natural existence. Others may be more celebrated for their arts, but I persevered to capture the animals as they were had the camera been absent. A shot like that takes days to set up, and the whole affair is not without some degree of luck. Yet results like the falcons make the whole job worthwhile to me. Except that, for all that it satisfies, forever inside I forged a burgeoning desire to be better known. Not merely a little popular, like, say, the Great Gatsby, but full blown fame. To be respected by the general public for my enduring talents. An innocent pipe-dream, one might surmise. Yet, it has lead me down the path on which I am now.
It had been a mid-October afternoon, and I had been sitting in the garden. It was unseasonably sunny, so I was making the most of the break in the deluge, and read through a photography magazine. Slowly, I dozed off. For how long the empire of tiredness ruled I don't know, for it was many hours later when I was awoken by the howls from my dog, Sparky. The dog had seen something. It was scared.
I awoke fully, dazed by the darkness. Foolishly I had slept from mid-afternoon to late night in my own garden! The sloping fences of the neighbours let their shadows drop forwards into my own yard. The trees that started at the end of my garden and the large, looming, semi-detached house left the entire garden shadowed. Above us, the sky was filled with foreboding clouds, and the wet of the dew and the mist that hung around knee height suggested it had recently stopped raining. As my eyes got used to the dark I listened out for Sparky. Something had spooked the dear dog, but what? I found him, yelping at the trees. I moved forward to comfort the boy, but suddenly stopped.
There, right in front of us, was the cause of his distress! A new shadow fell upon the garden. My eyes followed the shadow, and at once I gasped. There, almost completely drenched by the darkness, stood a creature unlike anything anyone had ever dreamed of. I called them “Fox-Squirrels”, but that was born out of a necessity to have some form of name for them. The grey body easily blended into the shadows as it looked upwards. At me! Looking into those yellow eyes, I thought I recognised something, but my memory failed me at that moment. The eyes still burned into mine as it turned and moved beyond the trees.
At this point I should have called it a day and moved house. But that never was my style. Instead, I was fascinated by the prospect of having discovered a brand new type of creature indigenous to Scotland! The very thought of it, that such an implausible notion was being tested out in my own garden of all places gave me such a thrill that I failed to think any serious consequences. The only note that caused me any distress was that of proving the existence of the creatures.
A cursory glance over a history of British mammals showed me no discovery of these Fox-Squirrels. So they were unique, and I was their finder! All I needed was proof, and what more proof do you need than an actual photograph of the creatures! I knew at once that my destiny for now was to take a picture of these unknown entities, and enter my name into the history books. I realized that to get the best photograph possible of the creatures, I would need to go further into the trees.
Deep into the forest I strode, until I came across a small clearing. I had no idea how far away the house was, for the oak trees grew so tall I could not see even the small of the chimney. But what a perfect clearing! I set up the camera, and waited for what seemed forever for something to happen. In such times as these to which I am fully adjusted to, I often hummed along to some ancient tune to keep my spirits up.
However, with the enormity of the situation, silence was my only companion. In the dark enclosure I stood still behind my camera. It was, however, getting dark and I realized that sleep would soon be upon me. And yet, as I was convincing myself to go to bed and try for more positive results the following day, a flash of grey! Sadly I had no time to picture this flash. Cursing my bad luck, I moved out of the trees leaving my camera where it was. This scenario was carried out each day for the next two months.
Until three nights ago. By now it was early January, and with darkness becoming more easily welcomed in the habitat, a torch was required to move inside and out of the trees. Sparky had become increasingly bad tempered this night, and was cowering in the garden moaning somewhere. Man’s best friend indeed! I stood by the camera watching slowly for a Fox-Squirrel to appear. Silence. Then one did appear. Its yellow eyes burned brightly into mine, yet its nature seemed placid. In the flesh it seemed more like a small dog than anything else, waiting for my next move.
I slid behind the camera and took the photograph. The creature however was unmoving. Curious, I moved slowly closer to this animal I had discovered. Its eyes mournfully fell on the direction of my walk. I leaned over but it remained still. Instinctively, I patted it on the head. The eyes looked upwards, peaceful. I wondered what it was I had discovered.
Then it scratched me. The sudden pain drove me to my knees. A glimpse of the torch revealed free flowing blood. The thing had cut me! But why? I heard the silence more than before. And then as I watched the yellow eyes burning brightly into mine, I saw out of the corner of my eye a second pair in the trees. And a third pair of eyes. And a fourth!
Suddenly the dark of the clearing was brightened by hundreds of pairs of eyes, and a chill developed down my spine. The first creature stared into me, and I recognised the same stare as that of the very first creature I had seen. Only now my memory did not fail me, and I recognised the look of the hunter sizing up his chances and his prey. And then I screamed. The Fox-Squirrels moved slowly out of the shadows towards me.
Summoning up adrenaline - addled strength, I jumped to my feet and ran. Ran faster than I ever thought I could, through the trees. And they were chasing, I could sense it. Straight through the trees, into the soggy garden, up the path, down the stairs, through the door and put the key in the lock. Turn! The door locked, I could hear them scratching at the door. But for now, they were defeated in their purpose.
I pondered what my next move should be, when suddenly an uneasy thought crept into my mind. When I was encountering the Fox-Squirrels, there had been a silence. An eternal silence. So… what had silenced the dog? I probably should not have, in my then state of mind, but I moved towards the window.
No sign of Sparky, as far as I could see. But what was that on the grass. Certainly the grass did glisten more than it usually did. The torch miraculously still in my hand, I shone it into the garden. And immediately involuntarily gave up my lunch. For the entire garden was a sea of red. The fences dripped, the blades of grass shone, and from the trees a small murmur could be heard. Sparky was never going to yelp again.
And so there is my tale. Each night the screams come up from the foot of the garden, and the door is pounded. Tonight, the door hangs on but one hinge and I daresay I have not long to wait now. I queried long and hard about why these creatures had not attacked me on first sight. But then it came to me. Some predatory creatures are timid to start. But what I realized most was the significance of the yellow eyes. Not the stare of the hunter, but the look of the blind! The Fox Squirrels were blind creatures and hunted by scent. And I had just given them two months to get used to mine!
It is from all moments of true genius that the moments of stupidity arise. They know my scent, and they are hungry. Now I plan to put this document in the wooden chamber and lock it, far away from innocent eyes that might gaze upon it. I can hear the cries rising up from beyond the darkness. If you want a proper look at a Fox-Squirrel, I guess my camera is still in the woods capturing the creatures for all posterity. Just, I’d not linger too long in there if I was you. Like I did.
Forgive me now, they are coming!
Michael S Collins is a member of GSFWC (the Glasgow Strange-Fiction Writers Circle). and has been published in several countries (including Literature E-zine websites, ad writing for Bob Furnell). Michael writes book reviews for magazines such as The Fortean Times and his short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Aesthetica, Clockwise Cat, The Short Humour Site, MicroHorror, TBD, and was included in the DemonMinds anthology in 2008.