A Hole at the Edge of the Woods
A Hole at the Edge of the Woods
By David Sloan
© 2021 by the author
The woods behind the cemetery were perfect for the foxes. The somber humans who visited the cemetery had no reason to venture off the grass into the brambles. Those few adventurous ones that followed the deer trail between the cemetery and the row of human homes north of the woods were accosted by thorns, poison ivy and spider webs that made the short hike an uncomfortable challenge. Because of this, the fox hole just beyond the cemetery border was never disturbed, allowing August’s parents to raise him and his sisters in peace. By day, he and his family could wander out into the thick brush, interrupted only by the skittish tromping of a herd of does, or the chattering of gossipy squirrels, or the boisterous alarm sounded by Puffy the hawk whenever he noticed intruders in his domain. By night, the foxes ventured out among the tombstones to hunt in quiet camaraderie with the racoons and owls, then return to their den to hear stories about the mysteries of the woods until their eyelids gently closed in the darkness.
August loved his family and his home. He kept the rules of the woods as he learned them and reveled in the blissfully untested truth of his bravery. Only once were he and his sisters caught playfully daring each other to breach the fences of the human homes. For this, they were reprimanded so severely that August almost completely lost his curiosity about them. Almost.
After one especially joyful day of playing in the brook and catching falling red and yellow leaves in their mouths, August and his sisters found their mother at the entrance of their den beckoning for them to come inside. They did so gladly, for the crisp chill in the air was beginning to penetrate their fur. As they stepped one by one into their den, their world became comfortably dark and close. August and his sisters instinctively cuddled into his mother and father. As he leaned up against their chests, however, he could feel that they were unusually tense. He asked them why.
“It isn’t safe to go out tonight,” said his mother. “We have to stay inside.”
“Why not?” asked August.
His father explained as his mother licked his fur. “The human cemetery is a quiet place except for one night before the snows come. During the night, all the things that have ever died on that ground—mice, birds, snakes, insects, and humans— come back to life. They emerge from their burying holes and pull in any living creature that they can.”
His sister asked, “How do the dead things come back?”
“It’s a mystery from before our time,” said his mother quietly, “as most mysteries are.”
August let out an unsettled laugh. “What’s so scary about being pulled inside a hole?”
“The idea of being trapped in a hole with the dead doesn’t seem scary to you?”
“The idea of being trapped in a hole with me should be scary to the dead,” August retorted. This made his sisters laugh, but not his parents.
“Will our fox hole open up?” asked his sister.
“No. The woods are safe. Only the human cemetery is dangerous. We will be alright here. We will sleep through the night and go out in the morning, as usual.”
“Couldn’t we go see the burying holes open without going out into the cemetery?” August asked.
“No,” his father said sternly. “You know the rules of the woods.”
“Don’t approach danger or let danger approach you,” August recited in a dispirited moan.
His mother rubbed his head. “Get some sleep, little August. We can go hunt at dawn.”
One by one, the curled-up foxes fell asleep. All slept deeply except for August, who was imagining how he would fight if anything ever tried to pull him down into some old human’s burying hole. He would bite and claw and dig as he had been taught to. He became enthralled with the image of himself jumping up onto one of those grey stones in the night, a triumphant flame of orange under the stars, laughing fearlessly at the feeble dead. He smiled with the thought as he drifted off.
Much later in the night, he was roused from his sleep by a loud sound from outside. It was Puffy the hawk, sounding his alarm. August found this strange because Puffy was usually asleep at night. He listened to detect if his family had heard it, too. They hadn’t. They continued to sleep. After a moment’s pause, he gently pulled himself free from his family and cautiously emerged from his den into the cold, night air.
The white moonlight was bright through the black silhouettes of craggy, bare treetops. A bat briefly cast a shadow as it flew. He looked up to find the hawk but couldn’t see it. The woods were light enough that August could see through to the border of the cemetery. He sniffed towards it and detected a strange, bitter stench that made him snort and retreat away. As he turned, he noticed a pair of shining eyes among the bushes that he recognized. He scampered through the bushes to meet them.
“Hey, Croakey,” whispered August to the racoon.
“What are you doing, little August? Don’t you know what night it is?” Croakey asked as he chewed on a stray piece of human garbage.
“I heard Puffy sound the alarm,” said August. “Why?”
“Look,” said the racoon, pointing a small black finger to the east.
August peered out. He could make out the shapes of three young humans walking together. Their outlines were odd; they were strangely dressed, and each was swinging something fat and crinkly in their hands. They were laughing and pushing each other. One of them carried a light that shone the way down the narrow trail towards the cemetery.
“What are they doing?
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think they’re going to watch the burying holes open up?”
“They would be wise not to.”
August watched, keeping his ears low as the humans passed by and went around a tree to the broken fence that marked the cemetery border.
“Will they be caught?” August asked in wonder.
“Probably. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but humans aren’t very smart. They never seem learn the rules.” Croakey noticed August tracking the humans with interest and pulled the foxes eyes towards his. “This doesn’t matter to you. You know the rules. You should go back to your den now, little August.” Croakey pointed August towards his den and then, with a final nod, scampered off into the bushes with the plastic dangling from his mouth.
August began to step obediently back towards his den, but on his way, his ears perked up, and his paw paused in mid-air, and he sniffed in the direction of the humans. After checking to see that Croakey had truly left, he made up his mind. He went back to the den only long enough to confirm that his family was still asleep, and then he scurried to the cemetery border, ignoring the bitter stench.
He took a hidden position under the brown remnants of a raspberry bush about a tree-length’s distance from the young humans. The grass of the cemetery lay just a fox-length from his nose. He could see the humans well. The moonlight over the cemetery was unencumbered. A light wind began to blow against his fur.
The humans were being loud. They were pushing each other out onto the grass of the cemetery, one by one, and then running back quickly, giggling foolishly as they played. August recognized the game as the one he had played near the human dens. He wondered whether the parents would come and reprimand them, or whether the burial holes would open and swallow them up first. He waited and watched anxiously, but nothing happened.
By some agreement, the three young humans linked arms, finding a foolish courage in their union. August listened as their outbursts sounded over the crunch of their footfalls on the scattered leaves and watched, transfixed with curiosity, as they approached a row of grey stones. One of them suddenly growled loudly at the others and jumped at them, then laughed and pointed mockingly at their startled reactions.
“Croakey was right,” August muttered to himself. “They aren’t very smart.”
He sighed and grew bored. It seemed that the story his mother had told them was not true—just a parental excuse for an early bedtime. He had just turned back toward his den when he heard a low, rumbling sound. His eyes swiveled back in the direction of the humans and saw them standing very quiet and still. They had also heard and felt the rumbling. They shone the light around their feet.
Suddenly, one of them let out a scream and fell to the ground. The other two showed the light in her direction and also cried out. A thick, seeping, shapeless mass was wrapping itself tightly around the human’s legs. It was hard to see, but even from a distance, August could see that the mass was not one large thing, but a dense swarm full of things with legs and wings and bones. The mass pulled the captured human towards a grey tombstone as she clawed at the ground and called out. The other two reached out but dared not touch her as the mass consumed her torso, shoulders and arms out to her fingers. They stood and watched, as August did, as two terrible, rotting human hands shot up from the ground of its burial hole, grabbed her from the mass, and pulled her writhing body down into darkness. Her cries became muffled, then silent.
August lowered his head in horror and began to clumsily retreat backwards under deep cover of the bushes, struggling inside himself between a desperate desire to run away and an insatiable urge to watch. He heard a second human cry out, and before he realized that he’d made a decision, he found himself bounding back to a spot near the border to get a closer look.
The second human was being consumed and dragged. August could see shapes in the mass more clearly: thousands of tiny brown husks of cicadas, flies, and bees, the shriveled ribbons of dried snakes, the half-eaten corpses of mice, and the bobbing, blind heads of long-dead baby birds. They collectively inched their way around and on top of one another other over the human’s arms and neck while decayed, skeletal human hands reached out eagerly from the grave. The last, exposed piece of the human that August saw was his single, white wide eye as it disappeared beneath the level of the ground.
In the silence that followed, the remaining human stayed motionless, whimpering. August held his breath. Go! Run, you idiot human! he thought. Suddenly, the human seemed to have the same thought. He turned and began to run to the woods, straight towards the spot where August was hidden. August cowered under the bush as the panicked footfalls approached.
The human almost made it across the border before he was caught. He tripped and fell on his stomach with his arms outstretched towards the woods. For a brief moment, the young human’s eyes locked with August’s. The human looked strange: his face was painted with bright colors in an odd pattern that made him look like a corpse, but beneath the paint, the flesh seemed very fat and young and frightened. The young human reached out for the fox in a desperate plea for help. Then, as the human felt himself being dragged away across the grass, he turned away to look at the dreadful destiny waiting for him.
In that moment, August remembered his courage.
He lunged forward, springing from the bushes onto the forbidden ground. He lunged out with his teeth to grab hold of the cloth around the human’s neck and began to pull, growling as he fought with every muscle in his body against the relentless tug of the mass.
At first, it seemed to August that that his strength was winning, that the human seemed to find his will to fight with the fox helping him. His hope was short-lived, for August suddenly felt the human lurch backwards. The cloth tore in August’s mouth, the human was lifted up into the air by the mass of dead creatures before being grabbed by the outstretched hands of the human corpse. In an explosion of clumps of dirt and grass, the young human vanished, and the air went silent again.
August spit out the black remnant of cloth from his mouth and looked around. He found himself half a tree’s length away from the woods, with grey stones and shallow mounds on either side of him. His red, furry frame collapsed into a quivering ball. In the distance, he heard Puffy the hawk again sounding a midnight alarm. August wanted to call after the bird to get help, to swoop down and fly him to safety, but August’s voice was gone. His strength had left him. Alone in the moonlight, he began to cry.
And then, a thought came to his mind. Go! Run, you idiot fox!
August sprang up with a frantic leap. He sprinted as swiftly as he could towards a clump of bare branches that lay just a few strides before him.
Suddenly, a vast darkness sprung up like a wall in front of him. It was the mass. Close-up, he could see and smell every critter in the ravenous, living heap, the total mass of creatures that had died on the cemetery grounds over centuries and centuries. They came up like a torrid wave over him, blocking out all light and enveloping him. He felt a million tiny legs and claws crawling, digging under the fur and scraping his skin, latching onto him like living barbs, pinning his limbs, pressing against his lungs, and feeling around his lips and nostrils.
As the mass pulled him in and turned him over and over in its grasp, he saw flashes of images of apparitions coming up from the ground to witness his fate: a goose stretched out a single mauled wing, a deer riddled with arrow holes across its side, and foxes, dozens of them, staring with empty eyes as he approached the hole.
The mass turned him again so that he was looking straight into the face of a horrible human skull. It’s black eye sockets stared at him, its jaw gaped open, and its rotting hands reached up to take August for his own. The mass began to loosen in anticipation of the hands grabbing him. August wondered to himself why he hadn’t listened, and what his mother would do when he wasn’t there in the morning. He wondered if his siblings would come looking for him. He hoped not. He didn’t want them near this place. He wanted them to leave the edges of the cemetery, to go far, far away. He wondered if he, too, would come back and join the apparitions next year. He felt faint and closed his eyes.
Suddenly, just as the corpse’s hands were about to seize him, he felt a sharp bite on the nape of his neck, and a hard tug. The bite startled him, and his limbs burst against the forces that bound them. Incredibly, he felt his body pull free from the mass. He heard an angry, indescribable cry come from the skull. The tug on his neck was relentless and steely. He opened his eyes and saw the mass pursuing him at his ankles, flowing after him like a mudslide as his body was pulled just out of reach. He felt the smooth grass beneath him change to rough ground, and saw the open sky become obscured by treetops. As he was pulled into the woods, the mass rose up into the air, blocked by some invisible force. The skull again let out a cry, and the mass receded in defeat. All went silent again.
As August began to feel pressure around him again, he reactively screamed and tried to push away until he realized that the pressure was warm, and soft, and familiar. He turned and saw his mother embracing him. It had been his mother’s teeth that had clasped him by the neck. Her tail had been clasped by his father’s teeth, and his tail clasped by those of his sisters. They had pulled him out together in a great fox rescue chain all the way back to safety.
As he felt his family encircling him, he felt uncontrollable sobs began to pour out. They let him release and joined him. After a long while, with the moonlight to guide them, they made their way back through the brambles, down into the safety of their den, and huddled the rest of the night in their own secure hole at the edge of the woods.