(This was a prompt from the Writers Circle which I have only just got round to! Today’s three words were Munch, Succinct and Hallowed.)
Brenda sat on the park bench trying to decide what to munch first. The first bright day of spring had coaxed her from her writing desk in an attempt to blow away the winter webs. She’d grabbed a handful of treats from the larder, stuffed them into the deep pockets of her overcoat and headed out, happily drinking in the swathes of bluebells in gardens and under trees, random clumps, probably bird-sown, brightening dismal grey pavements and barren earth.
Her meanderings had led her to the park. Park was really too succinct a term for the acres of grass and woodland, fish-laden ponds, rose gardens and topiary-topped mazes which tumbled together to form Manorfield Meadows. Once upon a time there had been a grand house at the centre of it all, but two decades ago it had been hit by lightning. The ensuing fire had left the building unsafe and it had been razed by the council. Crumbling mosaic floors were all that remained, fast being overgrown and returned to nature by the rampant flora of the park.
Ambling around a fish pond, having her usual giggle at the outsized ‘tackle’ of Neptune – who formed the central fountain – she’d selected a wrought iron bench and turned her face up to the light with its promise of heat to come. Rummaging through her pockets she pulled out a chocolate bar and a shop-bought wrap. In a festival mood, she set the wrap on the bench and tore open the chocolate, savouring the first couple of bites and leaning back with closed eyes.
She wasn’t sure what senses had fired in her brain but later, telling the tale to disbelieving friends, she would say ‘…and that’s when I saw the fox.’ Perhaps it was the vague movement of air by her hand as it rested on the bench beside the wrap, or the minute skitter of claws on the gravel path, maybe even the faintest wiffle of a nose, but as she brought her head down, opened her eyes and looked she was just in time to watch a bushy-tailed flash of ginger-red vanishing into the shrubbery to her left. Her wrap was gone.
Something urged her up, nudged her into following the wake of the vanished fox. It was a puzzle. Walking toward the bushes she frowned, it wasn’t as if she particularly wanted or needed the food. Scrunching over and parting the thick leaves and branches she shook her head in confusion; she had no desire to chase down a crafty beastie who’d only taken advantage of her inattention. Shouldering her way through the undergrowth to the other side she sighed deeply; Mr Fox was probably far hungrier than she so why the heck was she following him… or her?
The far side of the bushes planted her in the large open space where the manor ruins lay. Along one side of the square was a high wall, repaired and extended with stones taken from the house rubble. Opposite lay the entrance to one of the spectacular rose gardens, the White Triangle. Furthest away, beyond the ruins was the willow hurdle fence which bounded the cherry orchard. A tangle of burgeoning grass and wild-flowers carpeted the entire area, gently burying the mosaics she knew lay at her feet as she advanced, scanning for any movement.
Wind riffled through a pile of leaves which a gardener had raked ready for a bonfire. Amongst the dark browns, dusky reds and feathery veined leaf skeletons, Brenda caught sight of something beige. It was so out of place that it took her a moment to understand what she was looking at; the cardboard box her wrap had been in. She walked over, scooped it up and smiled at the ripped packaging., clearly devoid of its contents.
‘Nice job, Mr Foxy. Enjoy’
She wondered idly if it was foxy baby season, her fauna knowledge not as hot as her flora. She grinned at the idea of a huddle of baby foxes chowing down on hoisin duck and tucked the rubbish back in her pocket.
In no particular hurry to return to a stuffy writing room – despite a looming deadline – she rambled amongst the mosaics, picking out the odd figure or pattern. The sun burst free of the great puffs of cloud and she felt her spirits sing in response, slipping out of her coat, setting it on the clearest patch of mosaics and dropping down onto it. Almost instantly she felt the ground give out under her and fell through in a rainbow cloud of tesserae. Looking up she noted a small black button, realised it was a nose and succumbed to absolute bewilderment as the fox looked over the ragged lip of the hole, stepped back, launched itself and landed neatly on her chest as her back hit the floor.
Fortunately for them both, the earth was slightly moist and yielded just enough for the pair to sustain nothing more than a bruise or two for Brenda and a dog-like shake from head to toe for the fox. They eyed each other for a while, she at a loss as to why the creature had jumped in with her and why it wasn’t running; the fox simply looked at her.
“So, Mr Foxy, what now, huh?”
The fox gave a final shiver, dislodging a couple of tesserae from its tail, turned around and headed off into what Brenda now realised was a low tunnel. The lip of the hole above was clearly out of reach. She suspected Mr Fox had been using an old rabbit burrow or something and had weakened it enough that when she’d dropped down it had simply given up the ghost. Brenda gave a resigned shrug when waving her mobile about gained her exactly zero bars, no connection whatsoever. Dropping onto all fours she giggled, wondering if Mr Foxy was as puzzled by her as she was by him; by this odd creature which fell through the earth and then copied his way of moving.
She dragged her phone out of her pocket, set it to light her way and started after the last whiskers of tail she could see rapidly vanishing into the gloom ahead. As she crawled, fervently hoping the tunnel would widen and allow her to stand before her jeans wore through at the knees, Brenda wondered where they were. She knew they were beneath the old manor, but where? Had it had cellars, somewhere to store ice or wine or the kinds of exotica only found in ridiculously rich peoples houses? Was it some ancient escape route, like the priest holes she had learned about in school? A way to the chapel on the edge of the grounds perhaps?
Just as the tunnel finally gained six feet in height and widened into a cavernous space, Brenda caught sight of Mr Foxy again. He appeared to be waiting for her.
“Thanks, friend” she said softly, “It occurs to me that you probably know your way around here pretty well. No chance you can lead me out huh?”
The fox did a head-tilt, studied her, gave a small yip and trotted off down a new passage. Brenda took a moment to look around, recognising the hundreds of pigeon-holes along the walls as wooden wine racks, sadly devoid of bottles, but thick with dust and larger webs than she was comfortable with. Hoping spider season didn’t coincide with foxy baby season, she followed her furry friend.
Intermittent waving of her phone only showed more webs and passages mysteriously heading off either side as the pair trotted along. Brenda was getting a little worried about her battery, beginning to wonder of following a dumb animal had really been the smartest thing to do. Should she turn around, head back to the hole and start yelling? Surely someone would hear her; lots of people walked their dogs, played ball games or simply wandered in the park. The fox seemed oblivious, ambling onward but she couldn’t deny he had a certain determination in the set of his head, his unswaying gait, not once bothering to look into the openings leading who knew where. Perhaps he wasn’t so dumb.
As if reacting to her thoughts, the fox paused, looked back over his shoulder, yipped and planted his feet firmly, coming to a dead stop. Moving forward, wondering why he wasn’t, Brenda tried to go around him, but found herself balked. Although his eyes seemed apologetic, the fox would not let her into the room she could just make out ahead. She tried a couple more times until, with a slightly annoyed tone to his yip, the fox firmly herded Brenda toward the left of the passage, trying to get her into a new offshoot. Brenda managed to get a single flare of light into the forbidden room and let herself be herded once she caught a glimpse of what lay beyond – a little pool of reddish-ginger fur, two little noses and a scatter of wrap crumbs.
“Ok, I get you” she soothed, backing into the new tunnel, “Go see to your kids. Thanks for your help.”
The fox gave a wide-mouthed grin- or it could have been a yawn – yipped twice and returned to his furballs. Brenda turned to the tunnel, headed down it and gave a short yelp of her own. Unexpected water, probably a drip from one of the fountains, a rusting pipe not yet found, sluiced over what turned out to be large cobbles and Brenda ended up on her behind, sliding as the tunnel took a slope downward. She was dumped unceremoniously into a dimly lit room, her phone skittering across the stones and flickering off.
Cursing roundly, Brenda shoved onto her feet, retrieved her phone – now completely dead – and stood still. She had some vague idea from previous research on an article about caving that her eyes needed to acclimatise to the slight, greenish light. She turned slowly, letting her eyes graze the stone walls, the solid rafters of the wooden ceiling… the very large and sturdy looking door! She hurtled over to it, flung it open – it protested with an ear-scratching creak – and had to slam her hands over her eyes as brilliant sunlight flooded over her. Readjusted, she took in yet another stone room, but this one lit by large windows which were disorientating as they were set into the ceiling, another massive door set into the far wall.
Wondering where she had ended up Brenda finally addressed the elephant in the room, an enormous marble sarcophagus. She all but tiptoed around it,trying to decide if she could safely touch the cold marble. An errant wisp of wind decided for her, shifting a layer of dust which revealed what she thought might be writing. She jammed her hand in to the pocket of her coat and used it clear the last of the dust, allowing her to read the inscription.
‘You who reached this hallowed ground,
Who trod a path in darkness bound,
Are granted here my greatest gift,
When the candle lit you lift’
Brenda read the words twice more, feeling like she was in some terrible b-movie. Really? Hidden treasures? Led there by a thieving fox? Despite her cynicism, she found her gaze surveying the room. In a remote corner, a shelf was set into the angle of the wall. On it sat a yellowed candle, beside a flint. Her heartbeat increasing, Brenda fumbled a few times then finally managed enough of a spark to light the wick. She turned, held up the flickering, inadequate light and instantly saw the second shelf in the corner closest to the door she had entered.
Crossing the room the candle flared hugely, and before it settled she saw the dust-crusted tome laying there. She set the candle on the shelf, gently ran her hand over the dry leather cover and read the title;
Carefully loosing the leather straps, she opened the book and gasped. Within, nestled in the cavity left by carving out the centre of the book, lay a small brown bowl, ancient even to her eyes. A tiny scroll, no bigger than her palm lay within. She released the ribbon binding it and read;
‘You came this far, will you take the last step?
Fill my gift with water.
Are you brave enough to speak to me?’
It was signed with the symbol of the goddess. Brenda reverently tucked both bowl and scroll into her coat and headed through the final door, barely aware of emerging into the old chapel, her thoughts only on reaching home, water and a quiet place to speak with her Mother.
In the room behind, a fox became woman, scooped up her kits and slipped quietly between the plains, pleased with the new soul in her world.