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Under the Surface · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Turn of the Red Coat
“Danger! Wake up! Danger!” The sound filled the henhouse and soon all within were looking about in the dim glow of pre-dawn light. Some of the hens stayed still and silent, trying not to be a cause for attention, but others continued to hiss in muted excitement to each other. By the door of the henhouse, some of the braver cocks and hens carefully undid the door latch and peeped out into the cool air.

The alert had come from Mayzel, the border collie, who stood by the outer fence of the farmyard. The fence was of wooden slats with chicken wire stapled over the spaces to keep out the larger predators. Mayzel was staring through the wire at the woods a hundred meters away, tense, tail straight and unmoving, ears cocked as she strove to interpret the sounds and smells borne by the air.

Hechak and Roaksa, the bravest of the chickens on the farm, left the henhouse and walked in quiet darting struts towards the fence. “What is it, May?” asked Hechak, his crest plumage riding high..

“Hush!” said Mayzel. “Something in the woods. Fox scent. And something else—a big cat. You should get back in the henhouse!”

“We can fly to the roof if we have to. We won’t cause any trouble, right, Roaksa?” Roaksa shook her head and ruffed her feathers, trying to look much larger than she felt.

Now the sounds came clearer from the woods, a whine of desperate fear and a growl of a hunter intent on its prey. The leaves thrashed in the brush, and out leapt a red-furred fox, carrying a tiny cub in her mouth. Behind her came a young cougar, loping behind her, huge paws splaying on the ground with his easy strides.

The fox saw the farmyard fence before her, a place she had visited often before, and knew there was no refuge there. There was almost no time left. She ran as if to skirt the farm, then tossed her cub into a bush by the fence and turned to face her pursuer, who was at least three times her size. He snarled and leapt upon her, fangs gleaming and claws ready.

Sometimes, even a mother’s boundless courage is not enough, and so it was in this case. The cub was too young to know what choice its mother had just made and what the price had been, but it understood danger, and it tried to flee. Dazed by the tumble it had taken, it stumbled towards the fence, mewling quietly, as the snarls and screams died away behind it, and the cougar walked back into the forest, carrying a limp red thing in its jaws.

“Ah, what have we here?” said Hechak. He thrust his neck through a small gap in the wire and his beak seized the fox cub by its front paw. He hauled it through the fence as it squealed and squirmed, and a protruding stub of wire cut across the cub’s left eyelid. Red blood dripped down its face and soaked into its fur as it cried and scrabbled at the grass at Hechak’s feet.

“A fox-cub!” cried Roaksa. “You brought it in here? Why?” But even as she protested, she was staring closely at it, darting her head in swift scanning glances. So this was one of the red monsters of the night, the slit-eyed stealthy killers!

“Why did I bring it in, Roaksa?” crowed Hechak as he strutted about. “Our vengeance is at hand, at last! And it came right to us, as if delivered by fate.” He nipped at the cub’s back, making it cry and squirm. “Go get the others and we’ll tear it apart. We’ll start with the eyes, one by one—”

“No, Hechak.” Mayzel stood over him. “We will not do this.”

Hechak ruffed, spreading his wings and taking his full height. “Who have you lost to these monsters, May? When my sister Sechar was taken from her chicks and murdered, leaving them covered in her blood, where were you? Barking and running around the fence!”

“Right! And do you remember old Arichak?” said Roaksa. “He was the grandsire of most of us, and he was just snatched away one morning, taken right over the fence as he greeted the sun. When the humans take from us, they at least give back, in shelter or food. These monsters of the woods steal our lives without shame or compensation. Now that we have our chance for revenge, we will not be denied!”

“As your protector, I bear the shame of your loss, and I also share the grief,” said Mayzel. “But there’s no honor to killing a helpless cub, and where there is no honor, there is no vengeance.” She was trying not to press them too strongly if she didn’t have to, but there was a hint of the wolf stare in her eyes, the look that made even the cattle back down before her.

“So what would you do with it?” Hechak was incapable of sneering, but his eyes flashed. “Release it to the woods, so it can grow into another monster to prey upon us?

“Well now, that’s a good question. Let me have a look… ah. Well, she’s not quite past weaning age, but I have a teat to spare for her.”

“What! You’re going to brood her? No! How could we ever trust her around our chicks?”

“You trust my pups around your chicks well enough. I will make sure she causes no harm. If she shows signs of monsterhood as she grows, I will deal with her myself. And if she comes to learn our ways, perhaps there is something worthwhile inside that red hide of hers after all.”

Hechak, Roaksa and the others had further objections, but the wolf stare sufficed for most of them.




Vechi crouched in the shadows, snug in warm straw but ready to move. Her eyelids were sleepily narrow, but her pupils were open as wide as the sky. Down her left eyelid streaked a white scar, the only oddity on her young fox face.

The smells around her were the barnyard smells of warm straw, and old paint on older wood, and nesting chickens in their crates. Strongest was the jasmine from the flowers she had mixed in the straw around her, to mask her scent. There was just a hint of air making its way from the outdoors, and when another familiar scent reached her nose, her eyes widened just a trifle, though she kept perfectly still.

More time passed, during which Vechi’s heart rate and breathing did not alter. Her brain was alert, but it was focussed upon one thing. The rest of her waited in a state something like sleep, while a tiny spark wavered at the center of her being.

There were scratches outside, of claws on wood, then more of claws against metal. A hole in the wall at the baseboards had been patched with a piece of tin, but the wood had crumbled further and two of the nails had fallen out. It was now possible to pry the tin open to enter the henhouse, if one were small and persistent enough. Now the claws were joined by teeth, and a streak of dim moonlight fell into the room, quickly eclipsed by a round hairy body. In another moment, a rat’s snout pushed its way in.

Vechi ceased breathing. Her eyes drank the darkness and easily picked out the shape. She waited as the rat sniffed, whiskers twitching to sense the air currents. Its head turned this way and that, and Vechi caught an occasional glint of its bright black eye. Still she did not breathe, did not move, as the rat took one cautious step forward, then another, then reared to sniff the air some more, then sank again to all fours to scurry towards the nests and the warm fresh eggs—

Vechi leapt, and her sharp teeth closed around a small furry neck. There was one plaintive squeal, then Vechi shook her head sharply with a twist, and the rat went limp in her mouth. She waited until its heart had ceased to beat, then she shook the last of the straw from her body and stretched, slinking in one sinuous movement with her whole body, in a wave that ran from head to tail.

She dropped the rat, then used her snout to slide a small wooden board along the baseboards and across the hole. When it reached one of the upright beams, it passed behind a nail that kept it from falling, thus blocking the hole. Nothing else could now enter, even by lifting the tin.

She took up her rat again, and walked across the floor of the henhouse to the door. Things were quiet enough, but Vechi could mark more than one eye on her. Somehow or another, at least one chicken was always aware of what she was doing. Hechak the cockerel was the worst of these, and she felt his round unblinking eye as if it was a sharp stone upon her back.

She went outside, letting the door latch safely behind her. At least she had won a fair-sized dinner for herself tonight. She wasn’t allowed to eat in the henhouse, unless it was a mouse or a bug or something that would go down in one gulp.

She found a hillock that gave a fair view of the field beyond the fence, and under the starry sky she had her meal. When she was done, she carried the remains to the dungheap as Mayzel had taught her, then returned to the hillock to sit under the half lit moon and the trees lined with silver light. This time was the best. The farm was quiet and still, and she didn’t have to make pretenses or offer excuses, or find reasons to be elsewhere. Vechi had never gotten very close to the farm tabbies, and so the nights were all hers.

She had been close to dozing earlier while waiting for the rat, but the kill had roused her and she was no longer sleepy. She watched the field as she waited for sunrise. She was always interested to see wild animals. She watched the owls as they scanned for scurrying mice, the racoons as they browsed for scraps in the garbage beyond the fence, the rabbits as they browsed amid the tall grasses, nibbling and listening fearfully. It would be a fine thing, to stalk and chase a rabbit through a field. She’d taken a few that had tried to dig their way into the crops, but those had been easy to detect and catch; she was sure it was more thrilling to stalk prey that could flee in an instant towards the remote hills, beyond the farmyard fence.

Sometimes, she saw other foxes. Mostly loners, though she’s seen a group with kits playing in the grass once. They mostly skirted the farm and went their way. But once, one had approached. He had black ears that stood straight and tall, and he walked with a trace of a limp in his right hind leg. His nose had touched hers through the chicken wire as they sniffed. On him she smelled what he had done that day, the wildflowers through which he had stalked the rabbit he’d killed, the mud from the streambank at which he’d drank. She tried to speak to him, but he didn’t reply; he just stared at her for a minute in silence, then walked away. She hadn’t seen him since.

Since then, Vechi had daydreamed of going to that stream and running through the flowers and living that day that she had smelled upon him. But the fence was hard to climb from inside, and once you were out, it was still harder to get back in. She’d once climbed to the top of the fence before and stood on the top rail, knowing how easy it would be to jump down into the uncropped grasses and disappear into them. And it was that thought of disappearance that stopped her even as her muscles tensed for the leap. She’d stared for a while, breathing the air that was the same on both sides, before steeling herself and jumping back down on the safe side.

Now, as the sky brightened over the hills, the door of the henhouse opened and the chickens emerged into the light. The chicks ran about, peeping in excitement, and the older birds came strutting with them, darting their heads and walking to catch up, scanning for possible dangers. Though the farm dogs, cats, and fox were on the job, hawks were still a threat.

Vechi watched them as they emerged, clucking and cawing, and tried to soften her own expression. She caught Hechak’s eye as he strode forth, pecking and crowing, and it was the usual stony face, impossible to read, but framing that baleful bright reptilian bird eye. Vechi snorted slightly and turned her gaze back to the dew-bedecked fields.

Soon, Vechi smelled Mayzel approaching; she didn’t need to turn and look, and so she lay still. The dog, a bit whiter now around her muzzle, came to her side and laid down next to her, and her breath smelled of the bacon fat, table scraps and scrambled eggs she’d been fed by the humans for breakfast. Such delicacies were reserved for the farm dogs and cats, and not for its resident vixen, though Mayzel had saved a scrap for Vechi now and then.

“Good job, Vechi,” said Mayzel.

“You can smell what I ate, I suppose,” said Vechi.

“Well, I can, but it was the talk of the henhouse this morning. They really value their eggs, you know. It’s all that many of them even think about. We haven’t seen a weasel near the hens for over a year; you’ve taught them a good lesson. The rats seem to be too stupid to learn, but you’re still here to correct them, and we appreciate it.”

“Thanks,” said Vechi quietly.

“I’m saying this because I mean it, Vechi, and because they… the chickens… they’re a little proud and they may not say it to you directly, but—”

“You don’t have to say it, May.” Vechi’s ears flattened and she laid her head on the grass. “I’ve seen how they act around me, how they herd their chicks away if I get too near.”

“They’re just being parents, Vechi. You shouldn’t take it so hard.”

“I know It’s just that…” Vechi stared through the fence towards a certain bush, one that had figured prominently in a story that she’d been told over and over for as long as she could remember. “You told me that my mother died well. She died trying to save something she loved. And May, I love you, who raised me as her own. I would die for you. But for the farm, for them—I like being here, but I can’t say that it’s love. It’s just something I do.

“And if I ever do come to love something with all my heart, May, I’m not going to let anything keep me here. It’s only fair to let you know that.”

“I wouldn’t expect that from you,” said Mayzel. “Whatever debt you feel you owe us for raising you, you’ve repaid. But we hope you’ll stay. Whether you believe it or not, you’re doing something good here, Vechi. Fox attacks have gotten very rare since you started living here.”

“It’s probably that I’ve staked a territory just by being here,” said Vechi. “The other foxes think the farm is mine.”

Mayzel nodded. “That makes sense.” She scratched her chin. “There’s an honest heart in you, Vechi. I know it’s hard for you sometimes. But please, never doubt that there’s a place for you in the world. Your mother didn’t, and neither do I.”

Vechi whimpered and nuzzled Mayzel. “Thank you. That helps.”

“Oh, and another thing. I was deputized by the hens to bring you something this morning,” said Mayzel. She took up a thing from a clump of grass and laid it before Vechi’s muzzle. “Here, it’s all for you.”

It was a smooth, brown, unfertilized, delicious egg.
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#1 · 2
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
Well, that was delightful!

While there are points I wish this story had more substance, over all it is a lovely little character piece. It's small hints of worldbuilding are well done, the descriptions are vivid, and it is very well paced.

The ending threw me a little. I assume it is supposed to represent the chickens accepting the fox's nature as a predator will still recognizing that she is their friend. But it felt like a really big gift that needed to be foreshadowed more than it was. If you end up doing a second version of this story, I would recommend making it longer so you can ease into that ending more gently.

Nice work!
#2 ·
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
A small tale, sweet and melting. Heck, that could even be the beginning of a Disney move (or a middle whe I think of The Lion King).

However, I'm afraid you only have a beginning. I'm think I understand what you aimed for, the fox gaining her place among the chickens by protecting their eggs, and with the egg at the end symbolising their reconciliation, but, because there is always a butt, the way it is presented feels like an introduction and not an adventure.
I believe the two main reasons for that are:
1- We don't see the fox growing up with the chickens and how they have interacted with each other. Was it difficult? Okay? Easy? Yes, she describes a bit herself how it was, but like I said, that makes it belonging to backstory, and not actual story
2- The fox says that, aside from the dogs, she doesn't love this place, she doesn't feel at home. She also says, after the mention of the other foxes, that if she find something truely valuable outside, she would leave. That sort of things is a huge indication that your character will leave the farm, searching for something. The ending depends on what kind of message you want. He comes back home after he realised that what he was looking for was there all along, or he never comes back, because deep inside, he has never really belonged here.
And this totally contradicts your ending (or it's the other way, I don't know anymore at this point) where you have the chickens finally accepting the fox.

Anyway, I still appreciate the effort and the genre you've tried to write. Thank you for sharing your work.
#3 ·
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
This story has a lot of good points.

The fundamentals all generally seem to work; the description does its job, the characters are interesting and well voiced, the narrative is enjoyable, the action is believable and hangs together.

The one area where it doesn't quite fire on all cylinders for me is conclusion, however. It felt like the issue the story sets up: Vechi wanting to be there, isn't the one it delivers: the other farm animals acknowledging her efforts. Right now, the two don't seem to be strongly linked.
#4 · 1
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
This and that.
I love foxes 🦊❤️
#5 · 3
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
Now this was a pleasant read. I was a little surprised when the story started off about chickens and dogs and foxes – which is funny, considering being trapped on an island on an alien planet or screaming about vampires didn't make me blink – but it turned out as something bittersweet and thoroughly enjoyable. This could be expanded into a much bigger story and I'm sure that, in capable hands, it would be wonderful. It's not at the top of my slate, but it's close.

Well done, author.
#6 · 2
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
Hey, this one's great! Is BaalBunny in this contest? This feels like his work.

Really, I have no criticism, except that I'd love to see more.

Thanks for writing!
#7 · 3
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
This is cute.

I kinda wish it emphasized the chickens having their own unique culture, like in Watership Down.... well maybe that's unfair and I'm just reading too much of my personal preference into this. Though I'll admit, at first I wasn't entirely sure if this was in the tone of a children's storybook, or an Aesop Fable, or whatever. So maybe the Watership Down comparison isn't entirely baseless?

I'll read the full thing later.
#8 · 1
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
Writer, you've totally nailed the old-school children's-fable vibe. I can feel there's a ton of potential here for a larger story, but as it is I think it's still a stellar read. Put a smile on my face, anyway!
#9 · 1
· · >>Cassius >>GroaningGreyAgony
tl;dr: Two solid ideas for stories that both lack meat.

I talked about this on the podcast, but when you create a story you need to consider what "promises" you are making to your reader. Creating a satisfactory narrative is about setting those promises up on delivering on them. Why do I bring that up? Because this story doesn't really succeed at that.

The first scene sets this up to be a story about this farm adapting to their newly inherited fox cub, but instead of delivering on that, the second scene instead pivots to be about the fox deciding whether she really belongs on the farm. The distinction is a small but critical one, as it means the first scene does not really follow into the second scene and they can't act to support each other, instead ending up as, effectively, two linked minifics about different things: the fox being kept, the fox deciding what to do.

If you really look at the second scene, it more or less covers all the critical information within its own text. The first scene adds detail, but none of that detail is really necessary to understanding the narrative.

The other problem is that both scenes really lack conflict. This is not to say the conflict doesn't exist, but that it is something that is essentially dealt with without challenge. The objection to the fox cub is solved by virtue of the dog pulling rank, then the actions she takes in her scene are both easy and normal for her. While success and competence porn can be fun, it is important to keep in mind that what readers really love is to see characters succeed against real challenges. A character that wins after getting knocked down a time or two is much more engaging and exciting.

So yeah. You have the framework for two cool stories here (a fox being raised on the farm or the fox deciding if she belongs on the farm). I think you should pick one of those stories and really lean into it. Make the characters face some tough challenges and really earn their endings.
#10 ·
· · >>GroaningGreyAgony
I've described this story to others as a sandwich made of tasty bread, yet lacking meat or cheese. This is another story that's sort of strapped for content. It's cute enough, but there's not a whole lot of substance.

I find it interesting that everyone has a very odd name.

It's honestly a bit hard to comment on this story simply because there's only two scenes in the whole damn thing. It's so truncated in how it deals with the arcs of its characters that around 900 words of its 2700 wordcount is used to describe Vechi killing a rat. And then as >>AndrewRogue states, the story pivots to a question that it sort of answers, (Does Fox Belong?), but not really.

This is really the barest of the bare bones of a story. Characters give exposition on their histories and the current climate of the farm, and how they feel, but these feelings are simply said as opposed to felt or conveyed via scene direction. It's a show vs tell sort of thing, and this is mostly just tell. There's some interesting character dynamics at work in the dialogue, but we're not really given a lot of space to actually know these characters. We get their one and done scene, and that's mainly it.

This a is "cute" story. It's a story that's eminently likable because it deals with a cute fox being cute with a cute dog who's like a cute mother isn't that cute. But there's not much to it beyond that. Characters are literally one-note. There's not really enough space to develop an actual conflict; everything is pretty much solved as soon as it's introduced. The prose is directed decently enough, what little there is sandwiched between two massive dialogue scenes.

I once talked about a similar story that I enjoyed a great deal called Chode Mustard that suffered from a similar problem of being far too little content and being paced far too quickly. The difference between this story and Chode Mustard is pretty simple: Chode Mustard isn't missing necessary scenes. Whereas Chode Mustard was a complete skeleton of a story lacking any organs, this is more akin to an incomplete skeleton with some necessary organs clinging to the bones. By that metric, it seems more unbalanced and lacking in its design.

Not much to say on this otherwise, unfortunately.
#11 · 1
·
>>GaPJaxie, >>Fenton, >>Ratlab, >>Monokeras, >>PaulAsaran, >>Not_A_Hat, >>Haze, >>thebandbrony, >>AndrewRogue, >>Cassius

Congrats and condolences as appropriate.

Turn of the Red Coat

I start most rounds by making a list of story ideas, one for each submitted prompt. This one amused me the most:

The fox guarding the henhouse…
Fox version of Hellboy. Raised by chickens, eats mice with them, and is actually guarding them. “Hellkit.”


I lost a good bit of time deciding just how I wanted to approach this idea (my first concept was to parallel Hellboy and have the fox cub be kidnapped during a magic ceremony). Once I chose a natural Talking Animals setting, I was still struggling on how to reach the climax I intended for the story, and other obligations were fighting for my time. I was about to give up on Sunday evening, but then I saw a way to use a sub-climax to make a plausible ending and I went with that. What got left out is likely what several critics considered to be the “meat” of the story.

So this story isn’t everything I wanted it to be, but I’m glad I persevered.

Thanks for the praise and critiques! I am still considering how I might take this story further and they will be of much help.