It was impossible to tell when the sound started. I might have been dreaming it for hours, but now I was suddenly awake beneath deep layers of down and wool – feathers and hair. The darkness was apocalyptic, backed only by the gentlest purr of rain on the window.
And then he barked again; three seamless coughs. Hairs rose on the back of my neck and a chill made my skin prickle against warm, cotton sheets. The dog fox could not have been more than forty yards away from my bedside. I pictured him walking between rushes and fallen bracken as if they were the frayed edges of my blanket.
I was out of bed before I really knew what I was doing, walking quietly across the unlit house to the front door. Idle dogs lounged in their pits beside the embers of the stove, and I stepped out barefooted into a smirr of rain, soaked almost immediately through my pyjamas.
Nights have been hung with that same coughing burr since the oldest times. I sat in the grass in the treacle-blackness and listened to him move – the gorgeous three-note phrase passed in a semi-circle around me. At times he was so close that I half expected to feel him brush against me. Seconds later, his yaps would fade into a loose, roomy echo which implied that he was on open ground beneath the oak trees fifty yards away. The rain swirled and glued my shirt to my back from a different angle.
He never stopped moving, and if he knew of me, he never showed his hand. My hair was soon heavy with rain, and the experience drifted into new and abstract lines. Perhaps there was no beast; perhaps it was only a sound. I warmed myself on its spark.
By the time I returned to the house, it was 4:15. It would soon be time to get up, and this deep, wondrous night would then shrink down into something I could grasp. I felt sure that the most important business of the day had already been transacted.