The kitchen window creaks as Luke pushes it open. Sticks his head out, sucks in the morning air. It’s laced with the smell of the wretched fox that won’t leave his hens alone. They don’t give him eggs anymore but that’s no reason to let the fox take them, he thinks. Aren’t they entitled to live out the rest of their days in peace just like he should be, instead of being evicted from his home. Luke squints as he searches the field nearest the house for a smudge of red fur. He’s there; Luke feels it in his bones.
Damien’s Land Rover comes rattling up the lane. Luke jumps back from the window, the mug of tea in his hand flies and lands in the fireplace where the remains of last night’s turf lie. Only a minute before he’d stoked it just for the smell of the peat smoke that evokes the picture of Walter in his mind.
The squeal of the rusty hinge on the door of the Land Rover drags Luke to the window again. He watches Damien march to the Whitethorn ditch with a sign and his sledge hammer. Luke strokes the week old stubble covering his jowls. He’d hoped after yesterday that Damien would change his mind. He flinches as the hammer pounds the stake. Walter’s sheepdog yelps in the yard.
Luke grabs the shotgun from the top of the kitchen dresser, pushes the back door open and steps onto the dirty flagstones. The weapon is primed and ready. He strides through the farmyard and into the field. As if sensing his presence Damien turns.
“You gave the estate agent an awful fright yesterday,” says Damien.
He props the sledge hammer against the galvanised steel gate and wipes his brow.
“I was hunting for the fox that keeps taking my hens.”
Damien narrows his eyes.
“I’ll do what I have to – to protect my farm,” says Luke.
“Only it’s not yours, never was.”
Luke entwines stick fingers around the barrel until the only thing that separates him and the shotgun is a film of sweat stagnating in the hollow of his palm. Then he takes a deep breath.
“I’ve lived and farmed this land with Walter for the last thirty years. That has to count for something.”
Damien swats at the bluebottle buzzing around his head.
“Not in the eyes of the law.”
Luke stares at him, looking for the boy with the floppy fringe that Walter and he loved. The boy who ran from his father’s farm in the evenings to help them bring the cows in for milking, and much later the man who got the priest to give Walter the last rites as he grew cold in his bed.
Luke couldn’t cry at the funeral. It wouldn’t do to be seen upset. Walter wouldn’t have wanted that. He heard someone whisper “shirt-lifter” in the graveyard. And that nearly loosened his taut face. He opened his mouth, closed it again and gritted his teeth. Then grabbed a handful of earth, threw it on the coffin and waited until the last shovel was scattered over Walter’s grave.
“Will you come to Mulligans with us? A hot whiskey would warm you up,” Damien said, when the gravediggers left.
“What was he doing so close to the pit when the slurry was mixing?”
Damien couldn’t answer, just wiped his eyes, and the two men’s umbrellas leaned against each other as hailstones battered the nylon canopies.
“Nothing will ever warm me again.”
That night Luke sat in Walter’s armchair in the kitchen, leaned towards the hearth, clutched his ribs and stared into the peat ashes.
“Why did you have to go before me … why?”
He ruminated until the rooster crowed and brought another December dawn to his door.
Now as he stares at Damien, his head’s addled and he doesn’t know who to be madder with, Damien for putting the farm up for sale or Walter for not making a will.
“I don’t have any rights to this place if anything happened to you,” he’d said to Walter, after Damien’s father died.
What if Walter went the same way as his brother, he wondered as the bed creaked and Walter rolled towards him; took hold of his face.
“Nothing’s going to happen. I’m in great health,” he said as his lips moved towards Luke’s.
Luke felt himself go hard as Walter stroked his chest and played with the knots of hair that covered it.
“I’ll look after you. Haven’t I always?”
Luke closed his eyes, inhaled his lover’s freshly showered body; a hint of manure still lingered on the back of Walter’s goose-skinned neck.
Damien checks the stake to see if it’s steady, then picks up the sledge hammer and starts to walk towards the Land Rover as if there’s nothing more to be said.
“That’s not going to stay standing for long,” says Luke as he raises the shotgun.
Damien shouts over his left shoulder.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you doing this?”
Damien turns, stops and kicks at a clump of bulrushes beside him.
“It’s my land now.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Put that gun down for a start.”
“Your uncle’s heart would be torn in two if he saw that sign,” says Luke as he tries to still his shaking hand.
“I think he’d understand.”
“Well if I don’t, how the hell would he?”
The cattle low in the top field. Damien turns to look at them.
“Have you not milked the cows yet this morning?”
“I was just about to, when you arrived.”
Damien whistles for the sheepdog, who nearly knocks the gun from Luke’s hand as he rushes past and mooches around Damien’s boots. He stoops to pet him.
“You’ll have to sell the cattle too. There won’t be room on your land.”
Damien stops petting the dog and stands up.
Luke can hardly hear his voice. It reminds him of the time Damien told him he’d been bullied in school because of Walter and himself.
Luke had ruffled the auburn hair on Damien’s bowed head.
“Pay no heed to them bucks,” he’d said.
He knew it wouldn’t happen again because he’d be roaming through the fields later that evening hunting foxes and he was sure to happen upon some of those lads and that would be the end of the teasing.
Luke lowers the shotgun, edges closer to Damien and scans his frame. Is there any bit of that boy left in him at all, he wonders. His throat feels raw as he speaks.
“Do you know where I feel closest to him now?”
Damien shrugs his shoulders.
“At night beside the fire when I’m trying to finish the crossword in the Farmers Journal.”
“He was a great man for the crosswords.”
“And he loved helping you with your homework.”
Damien pulls a bulrush from the nearby clump and winds it around his forefinger.
“I miss him too,” he says.
Luke clenches his eyes shut for a minute. He’d managed this far without crying, sure as hell not going to start now. He hears the soft thud of Damien’s boots moving towards him.
The horn on the Land Rover beeps. Luke’s body shakes and he opens his eyes but all he sees is a watery haze. He drags the sleeve of his shirt across his face and turns his head towards the lane. Then he glances at Damien who stares at the shotgun in his hand.
“Shane’s in the jeep.”
“Jesus, why didn’t you tell me before now?”
“You didn’t give me a chance.”
The boy pokes his thin face out the passenger window. Luke’s shocked by how pale he looks. Almost as white as his father.
“He’s still talking about the story you read to him the last time you visited.”
Luke shoves the shotgun behind his back.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox? I used to love reading the Roald Dahl books to you too.”
“Remember when I used to go hunting foxes with you? Mam nearly had a seizure, when I told her you let me have a shot.”
Luke can still hear Damien’s whoop of joy when he managed to shoot a crow.
“Aye and you had the finest aim of any young buck in the parish.”
“I had a good teacher. Though, I don’t remember you ever killing a fox,” says Damien.
Luke gets a sudden urge to hug him. Then the sun bounces off the “For Sale” sign and he shields his eyes from its fiery rays. The shotgun slips out of his hand. He wipes his sweaty palm down the side of his trousers, hip cracks as he bends and picks it up. Damien grabs his arm.
“I don’t want to sell.”
“I have to find some way of paying herself off. She wants a divorce.”
“What? Jesus Christ, why didn’t you tell me this sooner?”
“We haven’t exactly been on speaking terms lately, have we?”
Luke looks down at his mucky boots as he remembers the times he wouldn’t answer his mobile when Damien rang. But there’s that little voice reminding him of the way his hands shook when he read the solicitor’s letter, saying he was entitled to nothing. Luke couldn’t bear to talk to Damien then, couldn’t believe he would sell his home out from under his feet. He raises his head.
“No, we haven’t,” he says as he holds Damien’s eyes in his. He flinches, at the sight of the red capillaries scattered over the other man’s pupils.
“If I want to keep my own farm I have to buy her out. That’s why I have to sell this place.”
Luke can’t look at him anymore. He turns away.
There’s a flash of red, half-way down the field. Instinct propels him to raise the shotgun, aim –
Damien runs towards the Land Rover. It’s the shriek that paralyses Luke’s finger. His grip slackens and the shotgun lands on the grass. The white tip of the fox’s bushy tail disappears into the blackthorn hedge at the bottom of the field. There’ll be another time, Luke thinks as he walks towards the jeep where Damien is hugging his son.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten Shane. It’s just that I’ve been after that fox for the last week.”
“I thought foxes only come out at night,” says Shane.
“You never know when they’re going to show up,” says Luke as he reaches into his trousers pocket and pulls out two euro.
“Here, buy yourself some sweets at the County Show on Sunday.”
Damien takes the coin and gives it to Shane.
“Thanks,” he says. “Why don’t you come with us?”
Luke puts his hands back into his pockets.
“I’d only be in the way.”
“I could do with some help to keep an eye on this lad,” says Damien as he brushes Shane’s fringe out of his eyes.
“You’re a great father. He’s lucky to have you.”
Damien lowers his head and leans towards Luke.
“The house feels so empty without her.”
Luke turns and looks at his half-closed back door.
“I know what you mean.”
Damien puts his palm on the back of the older man’s shoulder.
“You could move in with us.”
“I could,” says Luke as he takes a step back, walks to where the shotgun lies and picks it up.
“And maybe it’s time you gave up hunting foxes.”
“Aye, maybe it is.”
After his tea Luke throws last week’s unfinished Farmers Journal crossword into the fire. He takes the shotgun from where it leans against the corner of the mantelpiece and swats the midges that crowd his face as he steps out into the evening sun. The hens scatter as he walks through them towards the slurry pit. Just as he’s about to lift the hatch of the pit he sees his prey, skulking near the door of the hayshed.
Luke’s eyes run along the fox’s long sleek body, from his bushy tail to his pointed ears. He raises his shotgun, finger slides over the trigger. He can see the black whiskers on the fox’s muzzle twitch but the animal doesn’t move.
The hens clucking turns to squawking until the gunshot silences them and the only sound that Luke hears is the hiss of air escaping from one of his tractor’s tyres, then the swish of branches as the fox disappears into the wood of pine trees behind the shed.
“Goodbye, Mr. Fox.”
Luke lifts the hatch off the pit, throws his shotgun into the slurry and bangs the hatch shut.