A Run With The Foxes

Submitted into Contest #66 in response to: Write about a contest with life or death stakes.... view prompt

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Friendship Adventure Fiction

🍃 بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم 

I have something to think about today.

The endless humdrum of machinery drilled on. But, is it better to have something bitter to think about, or no thoughts at all? Drilled into his soul. 

“Hey. Sadiq, man. Why are you still here?”

Sadiq blinked up at his friend, whose voice disgruntled the drilling like a cheeky sports commentator coming over a crackling radio channel. Silver chips fell into Sadiq’s white glove. “Last batch.” Sadiq winced at his own word choice. As if these devices were cupcakes, not his life line. He placed each electronic chip into a tough plastic shell. “Let’s get out of here.” 

Outside the wind was whistling a foreshadowing tune, but Sadiq could still hear the drilling somewhere deep in his eardrums. “The neighbors are tight today,” he observed, as him and Alim’s conjoined footsteps shuffled down the line of living spaces. 

Alim spoke low, “The same string of suffering pulls us together. But,” he kicked at the black gravel path, “we also suffer apart.” 

“Not you and me though.”

Alim shook his head. “No. Not me and you. Tomorrow will just be another day of Sadiq and ALim suffering the same system of slavery together.” 

“You mean necessary appreciated efforts of labor that will yield a better future for all?”

“Naturally.”

They stepped up to the door of Alim’s house and knocked. Sadiq wondered how they had never knocked on the wrong door, given they were all shacks that looked like pitiful cabins on a shipwrecked boat. A frail squeal and two women calling the greeting permissed their entrance. 

They could have been sisters, the way Alim’s mother and Sadiq’s mother pivoted around in unison, left hand on hip and right hand with a wooden spatula poised on their chin. 

“Are you training?” asked Umm Alim over the recitation of holy scripture that was playing on their salvaged, ancient CD player. 

Alim crouched down to his little sister, who was bundled in as many blankets as could be gathered. “Only for Hafsa.” 

Hafsa smiled. To the current occupiers of this shack that permeated with the smell of stew, it was a precious smile. Others would’ve seen bubbled skin grotesquely crawling up a crinkled blue face. 

“We’ll win for you,” Sadiq agreed. 

Hafsa’s round brown eyes spoke the wisdom too painful for her mouth.

“But you’ll also be loyal to your friendship,” said Umm Sadiq. 

“Yes,” Umm Alim said. “Don’t let their craziness get to your mind. Dominate them, don’t be dominated.”

“Yes,” said the boys. 

“There is lamb in this stew,” Umm Sadiq taunted. 

“We are doing one hundred push ups this moment and have ran across the city ten times,” Alim said, and him and Sadiq were out into the wind again. 

***

Snow packed the thicket. Sometime the night before it decided to be an audience member from the ground. The young inhabitants of the isle packed in too. Alim and Sadiq entered together, probably not a smart choice. Or it probably didn’t matter. Their friendship was probably a statistic in the fancy piece of tech held by Tym, the skinny man with copper rimmed glasses and yellow shorts who checked people in as they entered. The grove was caved in by thorny bushes crawling with ice. An enchanting feeling hung behind the teens nervously exercising lightly. In the background, humped cages buried their metal legs somewhere beneath the snow. 

Sadiq stood, affixed. Flashes of sunset orange and crimson sprung to and fro within the wire. There was pouncing and snapping and gnarling, but an almost silent battle raged within the cages. Sadiq’s mind was as blank as the snow beneath him. 

But for a moment, it wasn’t.

A fox glanced up from the neck of another fox that it was biting. Its yellow eyes contained its own universe, much like Hafsa’s. Despite the distance, Sadiq was entranced by the gaze. And he learned something in that moment. He learned something, and he didn’t know what it was. 

“That is everyone,” came Tym’s voice, shrill, as if he was trying to puff out words from pencil lungs. “Form a horizontal line in front of where I’m standing, and we will start the choosing process.” 

The participants did as they were told, albeit with much bumping and distortion. They finally arranged themselves though, sometime during which a few vans showed up and out piled women and men wearing thick black gloves. Alim had ended up being the last person in the line, three people away from Sadiq on his left. But Sadiq didn’t need the proximity to know Alim was feeling much the same way he was as these professionals wrangled the foxes from their cages. The direct encounter, the foxes fighting not to be held and fighting to be let go, it was horrifying. The blur of red and black and white, man against nature in a ballad of struggle, it was beautiful. The stoic faces of these animal handlers, the abruptness of it all, the kids staring open-mouthed, under different circumstances it might have been funny. 

Once each fox was in a pair of arms, the girl on the farthest right end picked her fox, the seemingly most tame fox out of them all. It went down the line, until it reached Sadiq. He’d been praying the fox he’d been keeping his eyes on would not be picked, the one who was snapping at the black thumb of its holder, the one he felt could be that fox from the cage. It hadn’t been chosen, so he chose it.  

Alim was left with a troublemaker. This fox had managed to draw blood from its holder and snarled with the victory gleaming on its teeth. Hands of guilt squeezed Sadiq’s insides. He should’ve chosen that one and saved Alim from the difficulty. It could’ve crossed his mind before. 

The fox handlers stood by their allotted participant, each pressing their fox into the ground firmly, gloves over snout. The gloved person with Sadiq’s fox looked barely older than Sadiq himself. Sadiq made space for this boy to stand next to him, but the boy wouldn’t look at him. 

“I am sure you are all familiar with the rules,” Tym said through his voice amplifier. “But I will give a short reminder. This is a test of intelligence, of speed and agility, of strength and daring, of physical and emotional self-restraint. And, naturally, the main objective is to restrain your fox. Chase them, catch them, subdue them, but try to keep them alive, as you face the difficulties of the forest. Your progress will be watched and recorded circumspectly, and points will be distributed justly. Those with more feisty foxes have already gained one point.”

Groans came from the teenagers who had chosen the tamer foxes. Alim’s smile lessened Sadiq’s guilt somewhat.

“No complaining. Careful judgement is another skill tested. I wouldn’t need to remind you that the two winners of this competition get to work directly under the King, may he live a long life.” 

Sadiq could hear the drilling again, like a cued soundtrack. 

Tym continued, “This will bring high honor, not to mention excellent pay, to the winners and their families. The King himself, may he live a long life, will be watching.” Tym pressed something on his device, and a flat holographic screen materialized in the grove. Everybody dropped into a bow, though Sadiq more accurately tripped into it loathingly, as the King’s side profile was displayed. All Sadiq could see was an opulent golden throne, the ends of draped magenta robes, and a ringed hand tapping on the throne’s armrest. 

The King’s speech was short. “Welcome, all. I believe the competition is auspicious this year. Run with the foxes, my friends. I will be meeting two of you soon.” And he flickered off, leaving everyone to stand a bit woozy: Sadiq, because he was nauseated, Tym and others because they were smitten. 

Tym settled his spectacles back up his nose and composed himself. “I will count to three and your foxes will be released. When I cue for you to run you may run. Understood?”

Not really. But Sadiq just rubbed his hands together, trying to restore warmth, and focused. He hadn’t been training for this for nothing. It wasn’t about the so-called king. It was about not being dominated. It was about dominating. 

“One, two...” said Tym. 

Sadiq glanced at Alim and Alim gave a nod. This was about Hafsa. About her having a future. 

The foxes were released. 

This was about right now. 

“Run!” Tym shouted

Sadiq ran. 

The foxes dashed to the opening in the thicket as if it was the gate to heaven. The isle’s young ones dashed after them. The grove was in anarchy. A few contestants never made it out of the grove, their foxes disappearing within the chaos. Sobs and shouts echoed and haunted the others. Other contestants never made it out the grove because they had already managed to leap onto their foxes, struggle with them, and force them into a seething calm. Cheers and laughter boomed and pushed the rest to go on. On and on, out of the enclave of icy thorns and into the open forest. Not yet for some, though. 

Sadiq’s and Alim’s and some other kids’ foxes had decided to run directly through the spiked brush. Sadiq tried to leap onto his fox before it entered, but it wriggled out from underneath him with unfair ease. The thorns pricked  Sadiq’s numbed skin and left many dozens of scratches. 

God. Please. 

The grunting game didn’t end until the brush finally gave way and Sadiq didn’t have to squint his eyes so hard. His pricked lips smirked. His fox was still in sight. And Alim was still around too. The smirk vanished as quick as it came. Downhill was a deep stream, water slamming fast against the slabs of rocks that jutted their heads out. Both of the two boys’ foxes dove into the water. Alim’s already color-numbed face went paler. He had always been afraid of water, and never learned how to swim, no matter how many times Sadiq argued it was one of the only sliver of hopes to escape the isle. Alim looked desperately to Sadiq. Sadiq looked at his evading fox, and then looked at his friend. He was shocked by the evilness of even the consideration, and rushed to lift Alim onto his shoulder. 

“Hold my shirt,” Sadiq said, his chest bared to the cold as he submerged into the water. It went up to just below his chin. 

Hell can be cold, too. Swimming would have been so much faster. One step after the other, eyes unblinking on the sodden fur above. The fox showed mercy and pawed up onto solid ground again as the stream started to narrow into rapids. Sadiq got out as quickly as he could. There were no words but a thank you as his and Alim’s foxes parted and they did too. The warmth he was hoping his dry sweatshirt would give him was miniscule. Sadiq shouldn’t have bothered with putting it on, even if he had done so running, because the seconds of the cloth blinding him had sacrificed the vision of his fox within the quilt of the trees. His breath was too short, rib cage feeling like it had collapsed into himself. Sadiq was going to scream. He breathed, and honed in on the scatter of footprints on the ground. I am the fox hunter. I am not going to hear drilling for the rest of my life. I will provide the money to cure little Hafsa. She cannot die. Alim and I will be the winners who will exploit this system of forced labor from the inside. 

Sadiq followed the tracks as fast as he could. But he wasn’t picking up any red. How far had this creature gone? His ears picked up scampering amongst the birds’ chatter and he slowed to listen closer. Too closely that he almost fell. And that’s when he saw it. His fox had fallen into the silliest of things. An animal burrow, now powdered with collapsed snow, deep enough to be a challenge for the creature to escape. Sadiq laughed. This was too easy. He was kneeling forward when a flying rock hit his abdomen and knocked him backwards. 

“That fox is mine!” a girl screamed, galvanizing the air between them. 

“No, it is mine,” Sadiq stated, because he knew it was the truth. 

She was a heavy girl and stomped over. “Well, it is mine now.” She grabbed the fox out of the hole in the snow by its neck, not even flinching as it kicked and gnawed at her. Sadiq was frozen. The air was returning back to him but what was he supposed to do now? In the isle, you could get in disputes. You could harm another’s property. You shouldn’t, but you could, as it wouldn’t be anything important anyway. But you never harmed another’s body. Everyone suffered separately. But they also needed to live together, as the enemy was never each other. Sadiq knocked the girl out. He wouldn’t recall it afterwards. “I said it was mine.” 

The fox was in his hands now. He felt its body screaming, energy thundering through his hands and through his bloodstream. The fox bared his drooling teeth towards Sadiq’s face, flashing those yellow eyes. Sadiq saw himself in the universe of those eyes. He saw a boy that had just done who knows what to a girl he knew. A girl he played with as a kid, back during those few years when they were still allowed to play. A girl who, with all the others, dealt with her own drilling, day in and day out. Maybe the self proclaimed king actually did watch these once-every-six-years “Run With The Foxes” competitions. Maybe he was watching Sadiq, and was laughing at how easily he could pit these people, otherwise all tugging along collectively on one string, against each other for a single half promise. 

“What were you trying to teach me?” Sadiq asked the creature in his hand. 

The fox fidgeted. 

We are the same. 

It fidgeted free. 

***

An electronic horn’s bellow sounded in the forest. Time up. Sadiq checked the girl. She had a pulse, but she wouldn’t stir. He sat there feeling like he should scream. Or cry. Or pray. The boy who’d held Sadiq’s fox down back in the grove found Sadiq still sitting there. He examined Sadiq in silence, examined the girl, glanced at the riddle of deceivingly small paw prints that trailed off somewhere. His face was neither rigid nor soft. His black gloves still on, he hefted the girl up and Sadiq helped him, and they trekked back to the thicket wordlessly. 

Some of the kids triumphantly held their foxes in their arms, grinning stupidly as if in a stupor. Others were empty handed, nothing but a plethora of bruises to prove they had tried at all, some bearing it with an almost tangible seething, others sobbing out their heart. Still others were nowhere to be seen. 

“Is Alim okay?” Sadiq asked Tym. 

Tym wouldn’t look at Sadiq in the eyes, just side glared around his spectacles with what Sadiq sensed as contempt. “The professionals are still out looking for the rest,” Tym announced to everyone. “In no more than thirty two minutes we will judge no matter what.” 

Sadiq almost went faint with how much effort he was exercising at watching the grove’s entrance. Alim returned leaning on a middle aged man. 

“Man,” Sadiq said. 

If any of the electronic chips Sadiq produced ever broke, he had a heart attack in knowledge of the repercussions. When he saw his friend look broken, the pain was ten times worse. Alim was bruised on every inch of skin showing. He was limping, and his nose appeared fractured, off kilter. His arms... In his arms a fox was resting peacefully. 

Alim grinned at Sadiq. 

Sadiq couldn’t think to smile back. He dropped his eyes to the ground. He knew this is tyranny. He knew and and and they can’t take him.

Tym’s shrill voice drilled into Sadiq’s mind. “Despite some of the contestants still being missing, the time has officially ran out. Our two winners are both in the grove, anyhow. We will announce them. I warn that any physical violence after the winners are announced will result in seven independent infractions, so please compose yourself now.” 

Everyone was very very quiet. Composed was a different story. 

Tym’s mouth was moving. All Sadiq could think of is: We are the same. The fox being brought out of the burrow by its neck with streaked fur shimmering and demanding liberation vividly replayed in Sadiq’s mind’s eye, on and on. He thought of Alim’s fox, a once independant creature now subdued in strange human hands, hands that abused it none too slyly. 

You don’t win that way. 

Tym announced the winners’ names. 

Apparently, one does win that way. 

November 07, 2020 03:53

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1 comment

Alina Manha
08:09 Nov 15, 2020

I loved this story. It's so inspiring and absolutely amazing. You have done a fantastic job writing it. I can’t explain how good it was. Keep up the good work and keep writing.

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