Karen Whiteson

A Jest of Nature

I was lolling in a pile of dead leaves when I heard the cries of woodcutters spread out around me. They were calling out ‘Ho’ to each other, to link their widening circle. As they closed in, their cries softened into a chant. I withdrew into a blackberry bush and, from its thorny depths, I witnessed the ring of axes and the splinter and crash of the trunks as they toppled.

The hypnotic sound of their labour must have sent me off into a doze. When I woke, the felling area was empty, except for the one youth.

He was standing amongst the stumps, an axe dangled from one hand. The sun, directly above, sheathed him in its mellow light. Stripped to the waist, sweat pooled in the hollows of his throat; his navel; in the declivities of his torso. As if the sun were still fashioning him, his edges blurred and sharpened in its honeyed glow so he appeared to melt and form before my eyes. Even though I’d no reason to think him aware of me, yet such radiance poured from him it seemed every aspect of his skin was an eye that saw, and saw, me. And the axe he carried a sword to divide the good from the bad. A judging angel, come at last, to cleave the soul from the hide.

The hide: what a hurry I’m in to shake it off. Yet, there was a time when, still womb-bald, I craved some coverage. Nor was I alone, for we were all in the same boat, or rather, the same hollow tree where our mother had crawled, to whelp us. How we monkeyballed together, we four; angling for that matchless assuagement when, in the fullness of its skin, milkfat fellow against its fellow lies. Nestled round their dam, what delirious stupor circulated through her litter—such as a flea might know, if it could, as it swims in the fatty margin of the blood. Ah, the milk of memory: I could suckle on ‘til Kingdom Come. But that, alas, brings me to its depletion.

Around the time we gained the use of our ears we realised that she was no endless meal: that we might finish her. As the exertion of feeding began to overtake the sustenance we got by it, so to feed became a race; both against time and each other. As one by one they dropped, she’d scrape their ears for ticks then drag the carcass out of the oak.  By the third one’s death she’d no strength for that small deposit. I was pegged out, as ever, between her teats, when something made me look up at her face. Her left eye glinted, then the right; then both clouded over all milky blue. Though I dug my claws into her armpits, she remained a bulwark of silence. I nuzzled there, breathing my last of her. Ever since then, I sleep in the forest and feed off the fields.

Food fell at my feet: I’d only to appear amongst the sheep or goats for them to freeze. And not just the small beasts, for though the cows and horses attempted to flee, alarm soon broke the rhythm of their knees and they’d swerve then crash into their own blind corners. I never had to avail myself of tooth or claw to fell my prey; my very appearance did the trick. What was it domesticated beasts saw, that made them offer themselves up to me with such assurance of despair? It was as if I wore this halo of a vacuum which sucked my victims unto me.

To discern the mystery of my impact, I spent ages gazing into streams. The water showed me a creature the size of a small mule; its pelt marked with the haphazard patches of the farm animal – capped by the head of a wolf. The effect was of a king lumbered with a suit of motley; or a buffoon sporting the noble symmetry of a crown. A jest of Nature: a body whose very presence signalled displacement.

Semicircling round undercover of the bracken, I came to stand behind the boy. He was crouched over, as if adjusting his shoe. I emerged and stood there, eyes openly fastened on his nape. He must have sensed me then, for his head swivelled and he righted himself adroitly to face me in a crouch. The flex ran up his forearm as he braced it. The o of his mouth was in the exact centre of my vision. He shifted his weight back onto his haunches. I could see the freckles bridging his nose; the cheeks’ ginger down. Leafshadow glid, a second green-gold skin, over his.

Perhaps, if the hollowness of my entrails had not propelled me forwards, we might have stood, staring at each other, until one of us keeled over, never to rise again. Like the monster goat that Caesar imagined inhabited the forests of Gaul; which, having no joint in its knees, could never lie down, except to die. So enormous was this creature that the only way to kill it was to fell the tree against which it must lean to sleep.

Looking into that amazed blue gaze, I saw the horizon of my origin. And it came to me, on the spot, that ever since the icefloes slew off their caps and the forests dredged themselves up from the alluvial plains—I always knew I would be born. As the forests were shaved back, I, the beast of opportunity, the hybrid, disclosed the gap whereby I might insert myself into Creation’s scheme.

I saw, in the chimeric conjunction of wolf entering dog, myself conceived. But only for an instant then a swarm of insects dropped their buzzing veil before me. I remember only the squeaking of teeth as they divided flesh from bone. Then pervaded by the succulence of innocent flesh, I slept my soundest ever sleep.

Karen Whiteson started out writing poetry, which has been published in numerous magazines and several anthologies. She subsequently became interested in narrative and so switched to prose fiction, favouring the short form. She has also written libretti for music theatre pieces performed at the ICA and The Riverside Studio. Her radio play ‘Tales for Louis’ was broadcast on Radio 3 and her short stories have been published in the Edinburgh Review, as well as in anthologies published by Penguin, Aurora Metro, Unthank Books and E.R.O.S. Her work can also be found online on inksweatandtears, 3ammagazine and Litro online. She has taught creative writing in a wide range of contexts including The Poetry School, the Royal College of Art (Animation Dept.) and Central Saint Martins. She lives in London. She is currently working on a novel: an extract from this appeared in Prototype Publishing’s annual anthology series in July 2021. 

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