The Autumn Viewing

“Here and there a singed yet determined leaf clung valiantly on to a branch…”

A tumultuous autumn breathed deeply around him as Richard plunged aimlessly into the woods. The trees had disrobed themselves almost completely, and stood naked and brazen under a bleached white sky. Here and there a singed yet determined leaf clung valiantly on to a branch, defying its inevitable long, slow descent to rest among its companions on the hard earth below. The leaf-bed which coated the forest floor was a collage of lively orange, faded brown, gaudy yellow, nostalgic green. The wind seared his face as he walked, but he felt it distantly, as though he was his own ghost, hovering above his body and sympathising with its harsh physical state. The cold had drawn a tear from his eye and he brushed it angrily away as it began to forge a path down his cheek.

Richard’s wife had just left him. He had leant helplessly against the doorframe as she had slipped past him like water, got into her car, and left. He did not understand why, but that had been part of the reason she had left. He kicked up a dormant pile of leaves and watched them rest suspended for a moment in the cold air, before yielding to gravity and sighing reluctantly as they cascaded back down to earth. She had not been seeing someone else. She couldn’t have been. She had said that he didn’t care enough, or didn’t show he cared enough, or some words to that effect- he couldn’t really remember. He had watched the car retreating into the distance until it was just a fuzzy blot on his vision, and then he had shut the door behind him and started walking.

The air around him was clear and heavy. The only sound as he walked was the crush of the bed of leaves beneath his shoes, and the silvery, intermittent song of the wind coursing through the tree trunks. He knew he would not run into any other humans, partly because of the cold and partly because the wood was privately owned. This thought gave him some consolation. He had come to a natural clearing in the woods, where he stopped to gather his thoughts. It was dominated by a large, wrinkled tree stump which sat proudly yet redundantly like a usurped king, drinking in the reverence of the straggling shrubs which fawned decaying at its feet.He had loved her. He knew that because he felt something writhing painfully deep in his chest cavity whenever he thought about the fact that she was gone. He surveyed the tree stump with a sharp, unwavering gaze, as though by sheer imaginative effort he could make its leathery body metamorphose and contort elegantly into the soft, supple body of his wife. Ex wife. He drew in a large, nauseating lungful of frost-tinted air and breathed it out slowly, watching the carbon dioxide form, protesting, into a shapeless mass of mist before him as it grudgingly left the warmth of his lips.

Just at that moment a slight rasping of the leaf-bed somewhere behind him caught his attention. He did not turn around, because recent events had dulled most of his sensations, and the enticing pangs of curiosity which should be coursing through his blood at this moment were completely absent. He stood with his arms hanging heavily by his sides, his body inert like an abandoned puppet. He allowed the scene in front of him to slip out of focus, watching it dissolve away until the tree stump was just an anonymous mass amongst the barely visible leaves.

Just then, a small, quick shape rushed into his peripheral vision and snapped his eyes dizzingly back into focus. It was a rabbit, its body convulsed with wild twitches and its eyes popping frighteningly out of its skull. No sooner had it passed in front of Richard did he notice a bigger shape streaking lithely behind it, a shape which flamed orange and gold and white, its large tail sweeping the yielding leaves aside, its light paws streaming over the earth without contact, as though it were a spirit. The fox caught up with the rabbit even as Richard watched. The predator’s back legs folded downwards, loaded with fierce energy, and as they stretched back up again to propel the animal into flight, the world seemed to slow down. Richard watched with horrified fascination as the beast leapt off the ground and cut through the air with terrifying splendour, the hairs on its face bristling with eager concentration, its inscrutable eyes reflecting the quivering body of its prey.

The rabbit bounded forwards as the seconds stretched out, its eyes expressing a fear Richard hoped he would never have to feel, its long ears etched rigid into the air above its head. The fox stretched open its thirsting jaws; Richard thought he could smell the blood-lust on its breath, and see the gleaming saliva form in bulbous diamonds at the back of its throat. It landed with an awful elegance astride the smaller creature, and closed its jaws around the animal’s neck, its long teeth severing the jugular in an instant. The world returned to normal speed as the life fled the carcass, which had so lately been alive and dancing with some incomprehensible bestial spirit.Richard stood still, grossly enchanted by what he had just witnessed. He felt as though the sylvan environment in which he stood had opened its breast and revealed to him a tantalising snippet of its most closely guarded secrets. In a heady rush of realisation, he saw that however distressing his human issues were, he was safe. The drama with his wife was a petty nothing compared to the primeval terror of the predator, the constant marking of your shoulder for the deadly breath of the pursuer, the sickening coiling of the stomach as its gruesome shadow falls across your fleeing path. Richard twitched his mouth into a self-conscious smile, and then let forth an explosion of involuntary laughter. He was free, he was top of the food chain, he was king.

A soft sheet of rain had begun to disentangle itself from the clouds, and descended now on the clearing in which he stood. It lovingly coated the dead leaves on the ground with a phosphorescent sheen, and decorated the fox’s fur with a regal glimmer as the animal slunk away into the undergrowth with its prize. Droplets of water settled on Richard’s face and hair, and still he stood motionless in the empty clearing. The rain intensified suddenly, roaring down with all the wrath of a vengeful god, and pelting his body with angry bullets. He stood. The rain shrieked and moaned, the wind joining in its cause to sweep harsh points of water into his face. It hurled down vertically, horizontally, from every possible angle; enraged, it drowned the dead leaves in muddy puddles and stripped the yielding bark from the old tree stump. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it stopped, as if a trap door had been suddenly shut in the heavens.

The water dripped off Richard’s clothes as he listened to the forest recommencing its natural medley; the birds, which had been silenced by the rain, sang exuberantly, and the wind restarted its own benevolent song, which the rain had distorted. Richard breathed in deeply, relishing the woody taste of the post-rain air on his tongue. The spindly branches of the small trees were hung with tiny, elegant crystals of water which shimmered and quivered as the wind gently coaxed the forest into a shivering motion. Drops of water were falling from the branches around him, and the clearing resonated with a series of hollow, echoing pulses as they greeted the leaf-bed below. The wet leaves shone under the bright touch of the sun, their various colours blaring forth with renewed vibrancy. Richard smiled to himself, turned, and made his way out of the forest.

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