While I Was Sleeping by M.E. Rolle

I awoke early the other morning out of a dead sleep, to the sound of my dog quietly whining at the front door.

‘Beauregard!’ I whisper yelled in reprimand. Protesting my request, he barked a quiet ‘woof’ in return.

I lay back down and tried to return to sleep, only to be startled by a strange cry from outside. Beauregard whined and barked again less quietly in response. I shouted down a little louder for the dog to stop, but he would not; when I finally called for him, I was relieved to hear his paws thumping up the steps toward my bedroom.  When he got to the door, I told him to lie down there, where he wouldn’t be able hear the noise outside. I hoped he would stop whining, but it turned out not to matter that he did, as the horrible noise outside continued. It sounded like an ill dog—half barking, half shrieking. It was not something I had ever heard before, and it made me feel uneasy.

Nervously, I climbed out of bed and pulled the curtains aside, looking out into the night. Beneath the streetlight at our end of the road, I saw what I believed at first to be a stout, shaggy dog. It looked golden in colour, with a long and shaggy coat and tail. It shrieked again and then looked directly up at my window; as my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized it was a large red fox.

At first, I was perplexed. What was a fox doing this close to Wimbledon Station? We weren’t that far from the large urban parks of Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park, but in order for a fox to have travelled that far, she would have needed to cross the railroad tracks, and climb at least two fences. Moreover, our terraced house sits at the end of a short block that backs up on either side to about a half dozen other short blocks, all of them with fenced gardens. For a fox to be here, howling under my window, you would think she had planned it.

She continued to bark her shrieking call up at my window, and I felt compelled to go down and see what was the matter. I pulled on a pair of jeans, a warm jumper, and my Wellies, then made my way down the steps, trying to avoid the spots where I knew the treads would creak, so as not to wake anyone in the house. Reaching the ground floor, I grabbed my coat off the back of a chair, put my keys and mobile in my pocket, and silently exited through the front door. Perhaps it was the way the fox had looked at me, as if imploring me to follow, but I went without yet thinking about how bizarre a choice it was to leave my home in the middle of the night to meet up with a wild animal.

The fox stopped crying as soon as she saw me, whereupon she maintained eye contact long enough for me to feel a bit disturbed. If she wanted my attention, she had it.

‘What is it?’ I finally asked.

She turned tail and began to trot up the street toward Dundonald Road. Worried that a car would strike her, I jogged after her, but when she reached the corner, she turned and continued west, away from the station. I began to wonder what the hell I was doing, out in the moonlight, following a red fox in a low speed chase through Wimbledon.

‘Where are you going?’ I called after the fox, but also asked myself. She stopped long enough to turn around and lock eyes with me again. However crazy it was, I believed that she was asking me to continue to follow her. So I did.

We made our way up Dundonald Road a few blocks, and then she turned down Merton Hall Road—a longer road that marked the end of the recreation grounds and that, like ours, ended at the railroad tracks. I knew from my shortcut to yoga class that there was a footbridge over the tracks at the end of this road. I was certain that there must have been a loose board in the fence at the end of this street, and that the fox would lead me through it and into the grassy area alongside the tracks. Much to my surprise, however, the fox proceeded to lead me up and across the footbridge, just as a National Rail train passed under us. Beams of light danced around us, moving across the side of the bridge as the train continued north easterly toward Raynes Park Station. I paused a brief moment in the middle of the footbridge and thought again about the absurdity of my present venture. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the fox wanted—perhaps even needed—me to follow her.

I felt a shiver move down my spine as the train passed—partly because standing on the rickety old bridge always made me a bit nervous, and partly because it was chilly outside and the train passing underneath had stirred a slight breeze beneath us. The fox, now at the top of the steps on the far end of the bridge, looked back again, apparently frustrated by my inability to keep up.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I’m coming.’

She turned back and descended the steps; I had nearly caught up to her by the time she reached the footbath below. She remained only metres ahead of me as we continued onto the road, just beyond the footpath.

From there on, we made steady progress northward, trotting up one street until it ended, then following it around to another, that led toward Wimbledon Common. I had been to the Common many times before, had enjoyed long walks in the woods there, where you could feel for long periods on end as though you weren’t in the city anymore (especially when the weather was very cold or drizzly). Still, I had never been there in the middle of the night, and felt uneasy about continuing into the woods. The fox looked at me again; I swear she had an expression that suggested she couldn’t believe how ridiculous I was being. She ran up a walking path that was barely lit by the moon. Without contemplating it any further, I followed.

Fifteen minutes later, I had begun to feel really winded. I assumed that I had reached Richmond Park by then, given the speed with which the fox had caused me to travel. I seriously considered stopping right there, and going home.

As if answering my exhaustion, the fox slowed moments later, walking off the path toward the heavy trees. She nudged her muzzle into some tall grass at the edge of the woods and entered. I hesitated for only a few seconds before her head popped back out and she made that bizarre noise again, which I hadn’t heard since I began following her. I parted the taller plants with my hands and stepped in after her.

We continued on through the weedy overgrowth for about half a kilometre before it unexpectedly cleared. Stepping out of the woods and into a moonlit clearing, I was suddenly surrounded by activity. All around the field, animals were at work. Fireflies lit up the space like twinkling fairy lights. In a nearby tree, two ring-necked parakeets were building a nest, the pair of them working together to fasten a yellow hair ribbon into the basket of twigs they had already installed. In the grasses at the edges of the opening, red deer were searching for food. Nearby, a raccoon was digging in the dirt at the bottom of a tree, widening the entrance into what looked like a comfy little home. I shook my head, rubbing my eyes in wonder. Is this what the fox had wanted me to see?

I searched the branches over my head for the source of the scratching sounds that seemed to be coming from above. A squirrel was scrambling to fill any openings in its large hanging nest, built directly into the oak tree, with more twigs. Above him, a dozen or more bats were flitting about, weaving in and around the others’ nests. At the bottom of the tree was an enormous bees’ nest— worker bees flying in and out, clocking into and out of their shifts. A few bees appeared weaker than the others, but they went off to work just the same. They struck me as the busiest of all the animals in the clearing, although the others were likely oblivious to that, and to the fact that the bees’ work was for the benefit of everyone.

In the middle of the clearing, a fat crow perched atop a scrawny pine tree, the top of which bobbled from side to side with each small gust of wind. Only after I’d been watching the crow swing back and forth for a minute or two did I see the barn owl in the distance behind him, sitting solidly at the end of the short, broken branch of a birch tree. He appeared to be overseeing the others’ work, like a fat, feathered contractor. Occasionally, he would hoot a command or two into the night, imparting his knowledge to other residents. It was unclear to me whether he had his own work to do, or whether opining on the larger effort was his job, but he appeared to be enjoying himself.

Just then, my eye caught the tail of the red fox moving away from me, as she made her way across the field to what must have been her den., Two tiny foxes tumbled in and out of its opening, playing. She looked back at me as she nudged them back through the door; she had what appeared to be a smile on her face as she nodded to me for the last time. I looked at her imploringly. I tried to ask her, with me eyes, ‘why?’ and ‘why me?” She gave her head a little shake, and seemed to be smiling slightly. Her expression told me that I would figure it out.

I stood in the clearing for a little while after she left, and then began to feel quite cold. Heading back through the spot where we’d entered, I turned back one final time to look at each of the busy animals in turn. I’ll never know for certain what the fox’s point was in pulling me out of my warm bed, but as I found my way back out of the Park and through the Commons, I realized that it was a very special gift that she’d given me.

I arrived home just moments before the earliest morning light began to break over the city. I stumbled up the stairs and back into bed, pulling an extra comforter over me. I was freezing cold and dreading how tired I would feel at school the next day. Fortunately, I fell immediately back into a heavy sleep.

It took me a few minutes to remember what had happened when I finally woke, later that morning. When it came back to me, I smiled at the thought of that persistent fox. The image in my mind of the entire journey was fantastical. As I thought about it, I came to the only conclusion that made any sense; that my moonlit journey must have been a dream. A vivid and special dream, certainly, but of course just a dream. As I dragged myself out of bed and headed toward the kitchen, I smiled at the memory of the animals working in the clearing, tripping on my way over the dirt caked Wellies standing up at the end of my bed.

11081047_10205291567701520_3084136575215819956_nM.E. Rolle studied English and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She holds a J.D. in Law from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an LL.M. in Environmental Law from Vermont Law School. After a twelve year career as an attorney for U.S. federal government, M.E. decided to pursue her passion for writing in London. She is currently taking part in the University of Westminster’s program, MA Creative Writing: Writing the City.