Felton and the Wolf: Chapter II
One can hardly help having a joyous time in the fresh green of autumn fields when the smell of harvest is in the air. Perhaps you yourself have woken on a frost-chilled autumn morning and smelled the burnished air, full of that crisp smoke scent which pierces the nostrils and tells you that the world is not so harsh a place as we sometimes think. Felton and Bernard spent hours among the orchards, hooting and hollering like ruffians and make-believing that they were of yeoman stock, riding the fields like a merry band of bandits or knights on quests of honor. For that wonderful, blue-sky afternoon they were that—creatures of renown, at least unto each other.
It was late, well after dusk, when at last they solemnly parted company.
“Well, then, good knight Bernardalot,” began Felton with a bow, “at last the hour of our departing has come. Let us seek rest, for tomorrow surely the hands of fate will bring us yet another stroke of adventure. And lest we be unprepared, we, being wayfarers, must find the reclusive cottage of some lonely monk who will offer us bread and a warm bed for the night.”
“Yes, then. Well…see you tomorrow, then,” replied Bernard.
“No, no, no,” said Felton. “That won’t do at all. You’ve got to say something about tyranny…and preserving the cause of the less fortunate, and then you’ve got to pronounce blessings on my name and then I’ll bless your most-renowned name and then we’ll leave with three bows apiece.”
“Oh, right, right,” answered Bernard, “Well, then….my, uh, my most renowned friend. Blessed be your name from…from, the hills of Yarnton to the banks of the river, and…”
“And may justice be our companion!” said Felton, jumping onto a near-by stump, his paw raised in the air. With great pomp and ceremony they bowed, Bernard mimicking Felton’s posturing body with a nervous eye, and soon the two were on their separate paths home.
Deep in the burrows of the river, where stars were beginning to whisper their reflections on the purple-black water, Felton came at last to the little path that ran to his family’s foxhole. Upon opening the stout oak door, his fur was warmed by the heat of the fire and his nose was whisked heaven-ward by the smell of his mother’s stew. Being a hole situated in a little knob-hill, it had no windows, which added to the cramped coziness which foxes are so inclined to seek in a residence. His father had made all of the furnishings himself, with wooden bookcases and chairs, and a table of richest mahogany. And there was a rich crimson rug spread on the floor by the hearth where one could fall asleep at midnight to the silence of the night and wake up deep into the morning with no idea if it was day or still night.
Felton’s father sat by the fire reading The Birchwood Bugle, and his mother was just setting the table.
“Well, I was wondering if you were going to show up any time tonight,” she said, giving Felton a little kiss.
Felton threw his satchel and coat on the chair. “Uh, uh, uh, young fox—you can take those to your room and hang them in their proper place, and bring in some wood, and wash yourself well before you sit down.”
“And school, son?” asked his father, Mortimer, putting down the paper and picking up his pipe. “What did you learn today?”
“Well, Paw. Um, that is…we learned…about how—how we wouldn’t have had the Land Pact if it weren’t for the bravery of, and prudent foresight, if not for hard-working animals--such as yourself, I might add.”
“Well, that is a good point you make there, son,” said Mortimer, stretching his legs out and puffing out a few smoke rings before launching into a synopsis of the factors relating to the Land Pact and land-owner’s rights and the greed of the toads. Felton had already bolted into the next room to put away his things and was out the door for the firewood.
Felton’s mother, Sara, nodded. “Yes, dear, you are quite right and it was a wonderful stroke of diplomacy. Now let us say grace.” They gathered around the table and enjoyed a large dinner, Mother and Father and Felton and his three little siblings—Madge and Margaret, two young foxes, and Morgan, a small lad just who had just mastered yelping and was quickly learning to speak.
After dinner, the young ones were sent to bed, and Mortimer summoned Felton into his study, his mother watching him pass with a knowing eye.
In the reading room, after a long’s moment pause in which Mortimer seemed able only to stare at the ceiling, he began, “Son…” His voice was rumbling and Felton immediately recognized the tone: a delicate subject was about to be broached.
“You…remember Grandfather Fox, don’t you?”
“Well yes, Pa-Paw. I haven’t heard you mention him for quite a while. You said he moved away. Is he,” Felton sat up straight, “Is he coming to visit?”
Mortimer paused. “No. Well…perhaps. You received a letter from him today.”
“A letter? From Grandfather!”
Mortimer rose and paced the room, then lit his pipe and sat pensively as he puffed on the cherry wood. “Felton,” he said at last, “…it is true that Grandfather moved away. But I did not tell you the whole story. And it is time I should do so.” Mortimer stretched out his body and tail (as foxes will do when deep in contemplation).
“Many years ago…” the fox began, his tone now taking the cadence of an experienced newspaper reporter, “Many years ago during The Toad Wars, my father, your Grandfather, went off to fight on the wilderness front. This was many years before I was born. You know all that, but there are some bits you aren’t aware of. During the War, your Grandfather disappeared in the wilds while his army marched through the Eastern Forest. It was assumed that he was dead, but two years after the Treaty of Ulther had been signed, he re-appeared. He was picked up by a wagon near the northern border and carried down to Yarnton.
“They said it was like a native son had returned from the grave. He was acclaimed a hero, and stories spread about his kidnapping by and his escape from the toads. But when asked about details, his answers were quite incoherent. Only said he could not remember and that he had been wandering, living off the land for almost two years. There had been two extremely bitter winters since the Treaty, so it was a difficult story to believe. But you know how foxes are…we don’t ask many questions. We’re not squirrels, after all. So no one pressed him any further. They just welcomed him home and that was that. Your Grandfather met and married my mother, and I was born.
Mortimer began pacing the room and the newsman cadence was disappearing. He was having trouble keeping his feelings apart from the story. “When I was growing up, I remember that Grandpaw would walk in the woods for hours. I didn’t think much of it. It was only many years later, after my mother died, that he began to act truly strange. He stayed out at night and was away for weeks at a time, saying only that he needed the nighttime air and the space of the countryside. Then he moved out of his family’s hole and began sleeping in an old oak tree down by the stream. Living in a tree, of course, is one the quickest ways for a fox to get a reputation as a nutter.
“He lived in a tree?” repeated Felton.
“Yes,” said Mortimer, smiling but shaking his head. “But then…he disappeared. I remember it clearly: I was just in the midst of my final examinations. I came home one day and found a letter from my father. He said he must go on a journey. No explanation or reason given. Only said he must go. I did not see him for months. Then a year passed. Then two. No one had seen him or heard from him, and I thought he had died.”
Mortimer sat and the smoke from his pipe arched in lazy circlets to the roof. Felton sat for a good while staring at his father who sat staring at the smoke-rings. Felton finally coughed to break the silence.
“Years later,” continued Mortimer, coming back to himself, “when I was preparing to marry, a letter came. From Grandpaw. I tore it open as if gold were inside. It was a short letter: he simply said that he was safe and living in another township, leagues away. I was so angry with him and his lack of any explanation that I did not go to see him. But he wrote letters and I did answer them. But ‘Where had he gone? Why had he left the valley? What had he been doing all this time?’: these questions he never would answer. Finally, when I decided I must go see him, he disappeared again. For weeks there was no letter, and when I journeyed to the town where he was living, there was no sign of him. He was gone…again. And I have not heard from him until today, when I received this letter, addressed to you.
Mortimer picked up an envelope from the table, still sealed. He handed it to Felton, who could feel his heart thumping loudly.
“I…did not tell you any of this,” continued Mortimer, leaning forward, “because I… well, I thought it would be better for you not to wonder where he was or what happened to him. But truth be told, I have known that he was back in Birchwood for many months now. Mueller Mole was doing some digging out in the western fields and he happened upon Grandfather. He is living in a tree in the western wilds. I…” Mortimer stood up again and began pacing, his words caught in his throat, and Felton felt an uncomfortable lump somewhere between his stomach and his throat as his father stood searching for words, unable to speak.
At last Felton leaned forward and found himself asking, “You miss him, Paw?”
“I do, Felton, I do indeed…” Mortimer fell back into his seat with a half laugh and a half sigh. “But it is also a sad thing not to know him. And it’s sad that…well, no matter about all that.” He chewed on the end of his pipe for a moment and then stood up and stamped it out, a signal that the conversation was about to be over. “You can go to him, Felton, if he asks you to. I imagine that is why he is writing you. I have not wanted you to know what it feels like to be abandoned, so I have kept you from him. But now you are old enough to know these things as they will be, and it’s right that you do. You know Miner’s Stream which runs into the wild? Follow that until it hits a long holler, and follow that hollow to the west. You’ll find the tree. But you should not travel there at night, so you must go early, you hear?”
Felton only nodded his head, not sure how to respond. Then he was excused. Before he left the study, he looked back to see his father sitting at his desk, starting at the ceiling once more, and Felton pursed his snout, wondering what his Father was thinking about.
The letter did indeed ask Felton to come and meet his Grandfather. It was written in a fine old hand, full of character. But it was only a few words. “Felton, I imagine you have heard some of my story, but I promise you there is much you do not know. Come and see me.” And there was a map which, exactly as his father had said, pointed to the west, a good distance from Yarnton.
As he went to sleep that night, Felton’s stomach was knotted, and he was not sure how much of it was due to anxiety and how much was excitement. Beneath it all, there was a foreboding, which was a new sensation to Felton and one he could not put words on. But sleep eventually washed over him and, in the morning, all he could think of was going to meet his Grandpaw. In fact, he was packing his satchel and readying to go when his mother came in and reminded him that it was the day of the Festival and that he would have to put off his journey for at least one more day.