The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Ghost Fox, Ghost Forest

It’s late, too late to be walking my dogs, but I was grading papers and lost track of the time, so by the time Bugsy lays a sad snout on my leg, it’s already dusk. I leash him up, corral Arya, who is yapping hysterically because she saw maybe a spider? And out we go, down the neighborhood streets to the park.

It’s dusk, and the street and houses look like a picture you tried to take in the dark, spooky, hard to make out. Finally the streetlights come on—and right at that moment, about a half a block ahead of me, a fox runs past. But it’s not a regular fox. It’s  . . .  I don’t want to say “ghost fox,” but it looks like a ghost fox, spectral, long, and lithe. It runs up from the creek, crosses the street in front of us, and heads into the park.

ghost fox

Image courtesy of Greyloch on Flickr.

But here’s what’s weird: my dogs don’t notice anything at all.  They don’t bark—and Arya barks at everything, and Bugsy loves to chase critters. They don’t even look up. They just stand there, patient, like they’re wondering when I’ll start walking again.

So I do start walking, start running, actually. We’re heading for the park anyway, and I want to get a better look at that fox.

And now we’re in the park itself, under the dark limbs of some suddenly really creepy-looking trees. It’s ridiculous. I know this park, I’ve been here a million times. It’s just a city park, not a Mysterious Forest.

I thought I knew it, anyway.

Just ahead of us, a low gray shadow flicks up the dirt path, and I follow. The dogs are not only not interested in this chase, they’re actually hanging back a little now. Arya whines. I have to bring them to heel.

We run toward the back of the park, following that slender gray shadow as it runs across the open ground. It’s muggy and hot and it’s time to go home, and both dogs are whining now, and pulling back, but I have to see.

Not so many park lights here toward the back, and the trees are getting thick, elms and poplars and oaks thick with leaves that look black in the darkness. We fight our way through a clump of tall shrubs, my dogs crying high and scared, and come to a clearing where the moonlight falls bright and cold as a knife.

And we stop, and the dogs go silent, because something’s  . . . wrong.

This isn’t the same park.

These aren’t the same trees.

This is a forest. A ghost forest. The trees aren’t low and dark and thick with leaves. They’re tall and slender as bones, white and bare, with twiggy twisted branches like an old person’s hands.

The tree right in front of me is the tallest of all, thicker than the others. And low on its trunk is a great black hole, shaped like an elm leaf, like an inky mouth.

A tiny white hand emerges from this black hole, and grips the side of the tree.

The leashes yank out of my hand, and silently my dogs scatter away.

But I don’t move. I don’t know why I don’t move.

Another little white hand appears, and grabs this other side of the hole. With great effort, the little hands pull and pull until a small white creature spills from tree and staggers out to stand a few yards from me.

The moon is like a spotlight. It’s a child. A tiny child, a young child, maybe four or five years old at most.

And I have a sudden thought, which is: the moon is revealing this child to me.

So that I can save her?

Or to warn me?

But she looks so sad, this child. A sad little girl, tiny and thin in her white-gray rags, white as the moon all over except for the purple around her black eyes and her lank, tangled black hair. I’d say she was a ghost—maybe she is a ghost — except that she smells so bad. She smells like my house the week a rat died in the walls and his body slowly decayed decayed until dust was all that was left, and the smell was gone.

“Are you all right?” I ask stupidly.

She stares at me. Her eyes are like the black hole in the tree.

“You okay, you need . . . ”

Her voice is high and rasping. “You have to take care of me.”

“Of course I will, are you lost?” I say. “Are your parents . . . “ I don’t know how to finish that. I don’t even know where I am, what this place is. Is she even real?

But that smell—well, that smell. She must be real.

“You have to take care of me,” she says again.

She sounds like some little queen. I want to laugh.

“You have to take care of me.” She takes a step forward. Her voice is sharp as a needle now. “You HAVE TO. YOU HAVE TO.”

And then somehow, faster than I can see it, she’s right next to me, and her arms are around my waist. And suddenly she’s climbing me like a monkey, she’s incredibly strong, and her thin little arms  are around my neck like ropes and her mouth is wide open, and inside it’s as black as a cave, black as the hole in the tree, and she’s screaming YOU HAVE TO, YOU HAVE TO.

And then I feel it.

I feel sharp little teeth plunging into my neck.

I feel her little black mouth sucking on my throat, every mouthful a pulse of blood straight from my heart, like she’s a hungry baby and my heart is a bottle of milk she’s draining dry.

I am screaming, I know that. I hear myself, screaming. I am trying to pull her off, but she’s incredibly strong. I hear the crunch of dead leaves under my knees before I realize I’ve dropped to the ground.

“Don’t,“ I hear myself moaning. “Don’t, don’t.” But the hard arms wrap tighter around me, the bone-fingers wrapped in my hair, the wiry little legs like a tight leather band around my chest, and I’m falling, I think I’m falling, the white moonlight goes black, and  . . .

And . . .

Well, I’m telling the story. Aren’t I? So you know I didn’t die, don’t you?

Don’t you?

. . . Did I die?

I don’t think I died. I woke, anyway, later. A snuffling came at my ear. Bugsy, I thought (no way it was Arya, that idiot): he hadn’t abandoned me after all.

But the bright sharp little tongue, and the narrow snout—those weren’t either of my dogs. It was a low gray shadow at my side, the gray fox. The moonlight had left the grove, had moved on, so it was too dark to see. But I stood, I was dizzy as hell, but I stood, and I followed the fox.

It felt like I followed that ghost of a fox all night. It was taking me in circles, I was sure, and I thought again that I would die, this couldn’t be right, it was playing with me.

But one last left turn, and I was standing on the street, with in the bright ugly light of the streetlight. And I started crying, I cried, I was so relieved. I walked and stumbled and ran the few blocks left toward home.

And I’m home, I made it home. But my dogs never came back. I posted rewards, I checked the Humane Society, but I never saw those dogs again. I miss them every day. Even Arya.

And somehow I can’t quite get myself to go to work. I sit in my house all day. I just rest here. There doesn’t seem much reason to go out.

After a few months, I started hearing voices in the house. Voices of people talking, like they live here or something.

Are they ghosts?

Am I the ghost?

Where are my dogs?

(Inspired by my friend Patrick Lopez’s story about a ghost fox. Funny, I haven’t seen Patrick in a while.)

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4 Responses to “Ghost Fox, Ghost Forest”

  1. Uh…spooky indeed. And now I’m worried about Patrick. What have you done with him!?!?!?

  2. Great story excerpt. ANd teh ending does leave the question what if ghosts are beings like her, who end up living amongst other people in the same space, but seem as invaders to whoever else moved in there in the meantime. Creating a haunting which is actually just a conflict or overlay of a ghost over the site they lived in.

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