I wake to the shrieking of foxes. At first, I can’t place the sound – still half-asleep, it seems like a scrap of dream has escaped into the attic or the walls, whistling and itching and coughing – but I wake, and yes, it’s the foxes in the garden, back again as they have been the last few nights. I lean across the bed, gently nudge the creaking window open onto the frosty air, and eavesdrop on their behaviour.
Usually, the nights are quiet here in this house among the dunes. Sometimes you can hear the sea, sometimes the motorway. But now breeding season has begun for the foxes, and the turmoil of it echoes through the dark. The vixens are fertile for just a few nights, after midwinter. Last year’s cubs are driven out to fend for themselves and they disperse clumsily through the country seeking new territory. You’ll see them in the mornings in the lanes, looking lost.
The older animals roam with a more certain purpose. Foxes everywhere are suddenly on the move. It’s when they meet that they utter their strange cries -- bark or howl or scream, it sounds eerily human, and always unsettling and surprising the first time you hear it. Listening at the window, my imagination conjures images of devils, half-formed shadowy creatures, marginal scribbles in bestiaries crying and cavorting out there beyond the lamp-glow.
Foxes and devils are old companions of course. I think of Huw Llwyd, and his poem, his cywydd, “Cyngor y Llwynog”, “Fox Council”. Huw was from the north, from Merioneth, (hence llwynog instead of the southern cadno for fox) and his richly adventurous life has passed into legend.
A magician in the Elizabethan manner, a contemporary of John Dee and Shakespeare, Huw believed he understood the influence of the stars and the planets on the events of earth; how everything is chained to everything else. In common with other magicians of his time, he would call and bind and interrogate the elemental devils using techniques gleaned from banned books. He knew how to make events shift in his favour – he was a healer, a finder, a dreamer, a man able to control his own luck. He was also, it follows, a very fine poet. “Cyngor y Llwynog” is an invocation of a fox spirit:
Good morning, fox of the cave,
Every tame fowl’s arch foe-man,
Your ripple I recognize,
Welcome to fertile country…
How can we prosper, he asks the fox, how can we achieve success in a wicked world? The invocation has the desired effect. The fox answers, “Seeking success, preferment? / I’d wish you to live… like me.” As the poem continues however, it begins to seem that not a fox, but a devil has answered the summons. The advice it offers invites indulgence in a life of wild greed, cruelty and deceit. “Integrity today, in the world’s view, is foolish.”
The price to pay for success isn’t mentioned, but it is implied. We never learn whether Huw accepted and made a deal. But we do know that he is remembered as a foxhunting cunning man, yn dyn hysbys, and that a rock in the torrent of the Cynfal river is known as Huw Llwyd’s pulpit, where he preached the gospel to his people by day, and by night argued and bartered with the devils of the air.
So the story goes. We no longer interrogate devils. We just hand them the reins and let them get on with it. We no longer read those banned books that fascinated old Huw Llwyd, but still we all make a deal, magically witless as we are, we all come to terms. I switch off the bedside lamp, and leaving the window open, listen for the last of the fox cries.
It’s almost comforting to hear them, year after year, their brief revelry shattering the stillness of the winter nights, their shrieking a language far older than our own. It occurs to me then, as I drift back to sleep, that they’re not shrieking, those fugitive foxes, but laughing. Laughing and exulting in life, dancing their weird annual ritual on the lawns of the world, a carnival, for just a few nights, before dissolving into the shadows of the hedgerows and the dunes, slowly slipping away, gone again, leaving a trail of silence in the dew under the sapphire glow of Venus, the morning star.
Note: Translations from Huw Llwyd’s Welsh from ‘Medieval Welsh Lyrics’ by Joseph Clancy.