Coffees drunk in town never counted in my mind as nutrition or refreshment, and evidently neither did they to my stomach. The moment I was in the kitchen I was thirsty, and I fussed about until I’d put the pot on. Then I let it boil almost dry as I opened the notebook and started to read, eating my chocolate biscuit.
“We had a cat for while. A stray. She wasn’t like the cats we’d had when we were little. They were solid and loving, but she was quite lost. She’d had to take life more seriously than they’d had to, so being bouncy and bushy tailed would have been a costly frivolity, costing her the energy she needed just to survive. Well, one day she went missing. Actually she’d been missing for more than a day before we noticed, but when we did notice we worried about her more and more. I went out to look, again and again, eventually and reluctantly extending my search to the roadside. I never found her. We were standing by the river, GF and me, having looked everywhere we could think of looking, when he noticed a sound above us. When I looked up the sheer beauty of it enthralled me. A flock of geese, migrating. I felt the connectedness of life, no, more than that, the connectedness and dignity of all existence. When I hear wings on the air now, or even say “migration” it brings releasing tears to my eyes. GF knew what needed to be shown to me to help me breathe again.”
I remembered that stray cat. I had no idea that she’d fretted so much. It was ‘one of those things’, I’d said, and felt actually. But I understood completely about the geese, and how Ed could make you see the meaning of things like that. These first few pages were nothing like the rest of the book, though, which comprised lists, recipes, ‘notes to self’ and scraps of paper stapled on top of one another. It was clearly a working notepad, divided into labelled sub-sections: ‘the route’, ‘the equipment’ and ‘the consumables’, and the words that dominated each section were, Knoydart, INCH bag, and Tallow. I’d vaguely heard of Knoydart as having the only pub in the UK inaccessible by road I think. It was a long way to go with a 30lb pack, a subsistence of beef fat, and some tools. I had to do a bit of research to discover what INCH stood for: ‘I’m never coming home’. So that was her plan, and clearly it wasn’t an impulsive one. Her book was a considered collection of relevant wisdom, mostly in skills and techniques for using free or raw materials to make essential products. For example she describes the process of heating up the kidney fat of beef to render it to tallow. Then comes the alchemy, in a series of simple recipes. A little wood ash lye gives you soap, some string and you have candles, some dried meats to add and you have pemmican (a stand-alone food, or addition to the pot), and a simple hunk lets you fry your eggs or soften your skin. It made a nonsense of the supermarket shelf. Oh yes, this was right-on for Elly: absolutely her. With that quantity of fat, mind you, I could understand the prominence of whisky on the list, though it looked a pretty unlikely choice for a girl of 19, despite the fact that it was probably more medicinal than recreational.
My mind buzzed. I shut the pad and opened it several times, stood up and sat down again as many times, then displaced the confusion with a resolve to go for a walk.
I hadn’t at all meant to look for fox trails, but the woods were teeming with prints after the rain of the last few days. Most were dogs and horses along the path, but under the trees, where the scrub was too low to walk upright easily, the trails and signs of smaller, sharper creatures were everywhere. I crouched down to inspect three prints in a line, cutting through a basin of soft mud. The first was the clincher, it had everything I needed: oval in shape, the two front claws jutting outwards decidedly, and the front pads far forward of the lateral toes. I put a stick across the centre to confirm the separation. Dog prints don’t do that. You can’t draw a line under the front pads that doesn’t also bisect the lateral ones. This was the first and most helpful fact that I’d learned, then the other details such as clearer, sharper claw marks, hairiness, and the chevron shaped foot pad added subtlety to my identifications. The morning air was damp and misty but warm too, and I could smell everything. The grass, the ground, the fruits, and the mushrooms. I could also smell the musk of my fox. I tentatively stood, protecting my head from the dead wood trailing down, and winkling my feet out from the brambles that seemed to have wrapped around them as I crouched. As I raised my head I could see the trail extending for at least ten meters ahead. The leaf litter was patterned with dark, regular spots that disappeared as I approached, but reappeared when I stood off. How could something so ephemeral and slight on the one hand be so obvious on the other. There was no illusion, but you just had to look at the ground in the right way. Sinking down again to examine a single spot of leaf disturbance I found the scat, perched on a tree stump. It was whitish and had begun to dry, but when I broke it up the musk drenched the air. It’s a confusing smell: not inherently unpleasant at first, just fragrant, but after a while in a room with it, becomes so dominant and cloying that you have to get away. In the woods, unlike the house, the smell was alright. No wonder the poor dogs don’t get why they’re ostracised for their habits, I smiled. I thought about Elly’s book, and wrapped my hand around it inside my pocket. Then I took up the trail once more, this time more silently and purposefully. I stepped on and on, having to pause and attend over and over to regain the direction. Sometimes it would be close work that would set me back on track, and other times it would be breadth and depth of sight. I’d moved out of the woods, following a long line of purposeful strides around the side of Powkesmore’s field and into a dense thicket, thick with bracken which was warming crisply in the sun that had broken through. Fox was probably holed-up somewhere in there, I thought. And I was right. As I skirted round and back towards the trees it sauntered, unhurried, in the opposite direction towards the far hedgerow. It was as red and sleek as any a fox of the storybook. I wondered whether I had now tracked an animal, could this be a case of successful stalking, or was it a bunch of coincidences and luck? It felt wrong to be rewarded so early, before I’d really become skilled at it. Life tricks you like that, making you think you are more in control than you are. I clasped Elly’s notebook even harder.