From “Versus” (a novella-in-progress), by C. Clayton James: Installment No. 8

From “Versus” (a novella-in-progress), by C. Clayton James: Installment No. 8:

He stood up then to fit his wallet back into the jeans my mother had bought him the previous Christmas; he’d spent Boxing Day in a tub of hot water, shrinking them down to the fit he preferred.  For months afterwards the floor of our tub had been indigo blue.

Would you run off, Mouse? he asked seriously. I shook my head, though there’d been a time when I had considered it.  I’d even packed a small bag with the books I planned to bring with me and stashed it under my  bed.  As there was no urgency to fuel my departure, however, I soon forgot the idea, and when my mother snared the bundle with a mop one day, at first I was as baffled as she.

There was a goodnight quality to the kiss Ricky gave me as he turned off the light so I said, You owe me a  story, to make him stay.

Alright, he said.  I’ve got one for you.  There once was a hunter called AbraKebabra, who got by, more or less, by selling skins.  What made him stand out from the competition was his bull’s-eye accuracy, and the way he still hunted with a bow and arrow when everyone else was using artillery, which was more efficient but made a right bloody mess.  Every Christmas the locals would make him repeat the trick that had earned him his name, a stunt he’d first got roped into doing years ago at a party when he was drunk.  They’d get ten girls to stand in a queue holding one of the main ingredients – a mushroom, a pearl onion, a couple of beef cubes – wee tiny pieces – for a shish kebab.  So the girls stand there with their arms out like this and your man fires an arrow into the food, nips each piece from between their fingers like a ball from a canon and when they turn round, there’s a complete, perfectly skewered kebab nailed to the trunk of a tree behind them, already half-cooked from the heat of the arrow and just waiting for them to pull out and toss on the grill.  Well everyone thought this was so brilliant they’d forget what a git he was the rest of the year.  One fella who saw him do it even offered him half shares in a restaurant if he’d go out to Greece with him and do the trick – but yer man didn’t have much of a sense of adventure, y’know? so he turned him down.

Anyhow, one day he’s in the woods waiting for something to happen (which was his usual method, sit in one place for ages and ages and wait for the world to come to him) when what does he see but a snow white fox.  Now even this fella could tell that a pelt like that would be worth some real money so he pulls out an arrow and starts to take aim.  But just as he’s going to fire the shot, the fox does a flip, and out of its skin steps a woman so gorgeous the flowers of the forest blanched when they saw her, and the ones that didn’t wilt on the spot snapped their roots trying to bask in her light.  Well yer man was so gobsmacked by this apparition that he fell over backwards and by the time he recovered, the woman was gone.  To convince himself that he hadn’t been dreaming he went over to where he thought he last saw her, and sure enough, there was the skin tucked under a fern.  Now you’d think a man in the hunting profession would reckon himself lucky to get such a prize at no cost to himself.  But, no, not him: he still couldn’t accept what his own eyes had shown him, so he decided to wait for a bit, see what the next person did when they came across it, so he’d know from them how he ought to behave.  What he hadn’t expected, however, was this: Just before nightfall the woman comes back, pulls the skin on like a pair of trousers, and flips herself back into the shape of a fox.  An instant later she’s away again, and your man’s kicking himself purple for letting her go.  He throws a tantrum that lasts twenty-four hours; he kicks the trees and he tears the grass and he pummels the ground with his two fists and calls every curse down on Nature for his own mistake.  He was just about ready to pull himself together and get on with his life when the white fox turned up again.

This time when the woman hopped out of her skin yer man was ready: he bolted over there like an Olympic hurdler with a howl that’d deafen an air traffic control man and snatched it off her.  Well, she was even more gorgeous close-up than she was from a distance, and now he didn’t know what to do: under the circumstances he didn’t really want to play the heavy, but he’d sort of committed himself to it, y’know?  Since he’d just jumped out from behind a tree and scared the hell out of her.  So he gruffs up his voice and declares her his prisoner and tells her she has no choice but to come home with him – only then, and then just maybe, he just might give her back her skin.  When they get to his place, but, he holds the door open and pulls out her chair, offers her tea and pumps up the fire and generally distracts her with sweet talk and chocolate biscuits until she’s completely forgotten the reason she came.  This goes on for years and years until one day the woman’s clearing rubbish out of the cellar when what does she find but that very skin, which yer man had chucked in a corner down there the night she arrived.  Well, you or I would hardly have recognized it: it was covered in cobwebs and black with dust and full of holes where the moths had been at it, but as soon as the woman laid her eyes on it, it all came back to her.  She gives it a shake that’d knock the crease out of linen, turns a quick flip, then trots up the stairs on all four feet and scoots straight out the front door, which yer man’s holding open cuz he just walked in.  By midnight she’s on an express train to Venice; two months later she’s in Hong Kong.  She spends the rest of her life traveling the world conferring with poets and counseling kings, and she never goes near the woods again.  The End.

And what happened to him? I asked.

Who, yer man?  Ah, he got over it.  Sure he knew it was for the best.

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