The word “prey” has a century-long usage and deep roots. Its meaning is the same for all Balkan peoples. It seems to bring them closer together.
– “hit”, “wound”, “loss”
– something plundered or taken in war; spoil, pillage
– acquired through stealing; booty
– an animal attacked by a human
– an animal chased by another animal
– something acquired cheaply, without effort or work
The stem of the word comes from “press”, “suppress”, “attack unexpectedly, surprisingly”. The Latin meanings of the same word refer us to “captivity”, “plague”, “cholera”, “insolence”, “plague the life out of somebody”.
It has another, narrower, meaning of “clothing”. What we wear on our backs and what is plundered is one and the same thing.
“Whoever is afraid of bears, don’t enter the woods”. The Hunter greets the lady from America with a saying. Mary is at the tree stand. The moon hides her face behind tattered clouds. They are stalking a bear.
She inadvertently touches the Hunter’s knee with hers. He smiles. Mary takes off her hunting jacket. It’s warm. She tears her return ticket to the States. (Even if it’s not true, let it stay like this, so that the American dream is untarnished.)
The tree stand is solidly nailed with pine boards. It’s been insulated with glass wool against dormice and other small creatures. They, unlike the coy moon, would have peeked in the small room that night. It’s saturated with the smell of pine resin, tobacco, gunpowder, and American hormone, too. It smells like unadulterated life. Life bought for a while and at a good price. A modest ticket to get to one’s own wild true self. Mary’s been here! And will be here many more times.
She runs away from the weak. They look for similarities with their mothers. They tremble like rats for money. Then for their health. Mary hates men who can’t lose. Many wish to possess her. She doesn’t let them think anything is accessible. She doesn’t like closing good deals. She sentences herself to solitude, but she’s pretty. Thirsty for life. Where is the man who will give her back the vastness of the world, who will lead her out of the labyrinths? She’s instinctively looking for him.
The silent hunter attracts her. She’s constantly in contact with him. She doesn’t have to explain anything to him. He’s like a dog. He understands everything and is always there, where and when he’s needed. He’s not intrusive. He radiates simplicity, security, calmness. Whatever he says – he does it. He doesn’t look for excuses. There’s no self-pity either! As if the whole world is his.
The Hunter’s rakia1 , the fragrant grits warm the heart. Past the ravine, on the other side of the slope, right next to the forest there are wheat and barley piled up. Wild pigs come regularly. Every winter the white field sees the death of five or six with trophy tusks. The mountain yields.
The dogs are put away. The curtains are drawn. The walls have ears. Everyone keeps quiet. The time has come to be quiet. Idle talk has no end.
Through the window – watch tower and embrasure. Hans observes through the binoculars. He also peeks through the optical sight of his carbine. Inside the sight is the black cross. Tonight another wild boar will be crossed out. A male ready to mate.
A spot appears. It moves back and forth. It listens. It smells the air. It’s already feeding. Under the moonlight and the clouds the spot looks like a floc of dark matter. Similar to those galaxies from the valley of Gum. They are two thousand light years away. Before you know it, the biblical mythical wild boar could dive into the shadows of the woods.
But Hans is an atavistic animal too. He loads the cartridges into the rifle’s magazine carefully and cautiously, with bated breath.
The meadow bathes in the spotlight. It becomes naked. The wild boar raises its snout. It faces towards the German’s cover. It’s not at all an easy shot.
It blinks and looks puzzled. As if it’s looking for its bathrobe in the bathroom. It is surprised at the light circle across the ravine. It resembles a flying saucer. Maybe its extraterrestrial ancestors have come to take it with them? The invitation flies out. In its shoulder blade it pierces its black hole from which or into which the wild boar’s soul would either fly out or fall through.
It’s already tossing around down the steep slope. Kicking the foul place. It dies with a bitten tongue. A streak of blood sneaks through its bristles. It sinks in. It leaves its code before departing before so many witnesses. In a second the wild boar releases its semen. Not to die together with it. Only nature can think of that. In death to be overtaken by an orgasm. The semen also sinks in.
The Hunter shakes the shooter’s hand. The Hunter always plays a backup. A second later. If the wild boar doesn’t fall from the first shot, it falls from the second.
Now he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to take away Hans’s hunt. He’s sure in him. The men are already outside, curious as children. A good shot, a surgical one. In big game hunting the animal goes to the one who shot first.
The flying saucer disappears. The hunter’s lodge appears again. Several rooms for guests. A spacious living-room with a fireplace. A usual silhouette – chimney, peace-loving windows. As if nothing happened. The animals are at home. People are not welcome here. The forest shakes off the echo from the shot. Dozens of live and wild eyes will be on the alert for hours afterwards. They will look around. The herd of the wild boar will not return easily. Its death for them is not sentimentality. They would even feed by its carcass. Only we, people, like to pose. Pretend to be miserable or heroes. Death is a wise return to the place where we used to be before we were born. Wild boar know this better than us. What keeps them alert now is simply the smell left carelessly behind.
After midnight their floc will be rolling again. Ahmed has spread around some grain. It’s more delicious that roots. If the Hunter’s man forgets about them, they will wander for thirty kilometers. That is how much ground they cover for one night.
Bloody steam came from the boar’s body, and it grunted. They had just caught the animal by the leg.
They were pulling it.
It kicked and jumped to its feet. It faltered. Its first steps were unsure. Then it started running. It slipped from right under their noses. They hadn’t taken their carbines. They came out in their shirts, heated and exhilarated. After all he should have fired the backup shot. He has to find the wounded beast. The sooner the better. In fact, the Hunter ended up in the reserve after his predecessor was torn to pieces by a wild boar. So there was an open position. Many declined employment in this godforsaken place. The Hunter volunteered. Arhiro had just left him. Months after that his daughter Anastasia disappeared.
In the bush near the ravine dog squeals were heard. The wild boar answered shortly and viciously. Its blood was chocking it. A shot awoke the drowsy moon. The male boar ploughed its tusks into the snow. Sliding towards the Hunter. The man did not move. From the carbine muzzle came smoke with gunpowder breath. The dog covered in blood pulls at the boar’s ear. The ear won’t come off. The Hunter shouts, “Let go!” The dog detaches and falls to its back. He starts carrying it in his arms. Behind him they drag Hans’s trophy. The wild boar snorts every now and then. And every time, the dog trembles startled by the wheezes in the arms of the Hunter.
Hans is philosophizing: once they start reconstructing your roads, your country will get on its feet again. In fifteen-twenty years it will happen.
Hans likes women. He knows how to build relationships with them. He’s particularly on fire after hunting. He’s quick to prove his masculinity in that way too. In exchange for money women obediently follow him.
He once broke a bed. He ordered an iron one. He brought mirrors for the walls and the ceiling. He wanted to watch himself during sex. Ahmed and Dancho lugged the wrapped mirrors on their backs. They broke one before they made it to the smaller lodge. From it you start towards the bear lairs.
They are chattering around the fireplace. Hans is categorical – the true man drinks and gets drunk senseless at least once a month. “This is a Russian tradition”, the Hunter laughs. He’s been keeping away from the bottle ever since Anastasia went missing.
Hans would ask, “How many times does Mr. Hunter repair his “Raketa” vacuum cleaner? Why doesn’t he buy a new one?”
They would hug each other and start singing:
If you want to be a good husband,
And your wife not to cheat,
Hurry, lad, while it’s time,
And get a wife from Krushovene.
The passion of the foreigner to shoot makes the Hunter happy. He doesn’t suspect – Hans dreams to be better than him, yearns to be the greatest lover and hunter. He makes constant effort.
The road to the heart of the mountain is dark and narrow. If you fall through, there’s no getting out. The woods are in warm colors. The fall remembers the green summer. There’s a web floating in space. It catches the streams of sadness. It chases a mysterious and perhaps doomed code.
Perhaps they would never kill the Hunter if he were an animal. (“Hunter” is the nickname of the huntsman, given to him by the foreigners – his clients and friends.) He’s cautious of the common paths. Unexpectedly he changes his route. He slips away.
A story from the reserve hits the headlines. They hope to get to something. The newspapers are hungry. By any means and at any cost – they struggle to survive, to prolong their ephemeral life. When you read them you understand – our life is an obituary written by marauders.
The Hunter is deep into the mountains. He’s shrouded in silence. Man-hunting has strict rules just as game-hunting. The Hunter is a man of risk – many times shot at and many times killed. There’s no way bloodthirsty cowards can get him. Let them first find and then walk his inhuman way. Let them catch him then. And in the end, to strike him down with their long-range optic sights to make the front page. A truly alive one among doomed. Such specimens are trophies. They need his head for decoration and as proof that no one gets away.
The mountain ridges appear blue all the way to the horizon. When these ridges were bare the Hunter carried in his hands soil and roots. So there will be a forest, so he will earn an honest living.
You can kill. You can also create. Are you free to choose one of the two? It depends on what you bribe the future with. Such is the time the Hunter of moments got lost in. How to cross through? He was armed and dangerous. He was an endangered species.
Deer hunting, many deer, wild pigs, bears, wolves, hinds, roe deer… How many surprises has the Hunter already experienced? A buck died in a two-meter vertical jump after it was hit. Four bears appeared unexpectedly on a wild pig waylay. One of them ran into Wilhelm. Stressed, it shit itself before he did himself. The German fired the rifle hugged in his sleep.
The hills sway and, like a sea, distance the horizon. Isn’t this the place in a land far, far away? Somewhere there in the unknown, there was an abandoned village with two residents. In a stone house a bear tears sheep to pieces. In the spring the lords of the mountain are crazy with hunger. They wildly graze. You can’t go on on only grass. The magic fat has burned. The bear has survived. She has nursed her cubs.
A small river slowly creeps. Trout hides under rocks. You divert the water. You lift and gather. Locals somehow live only on fish, potato fields and sheep. Hans, the banker from Munich, often comes here. He has taken pictures of trees, mountains, skies, flowers, stone houses perched on ridges. Of hunting supervisors starting fires in the snow. He’s left an album. It contains also drawings of bears and rabbits. He drew while resting near the fireplace. He sipped rakia. If you doubt the degrees, the hunting supervisor Ahmed has an alcoholmeter. The illegal drink should not be talked and written about. Following the same logic it turns out your life never took place unless you traversed the mountain.
The clearing is dangerous but not always and not for everyone. It saves during winter nights. It is not predatory and blind as a wolf. Eats one, strangles a dozen. Mortality of young in these hills and ravines is nearly ninety-five per cent. So the semen of the male is of cosmic importance. Civilization kills man’s instincts. It corrupts him. The Hunter is at a loss. The big shooting parties did not kill the wolf. He killed the offspring. Packs of wandering dogs kill professionally having learned from their yesterday’s masters.
Man wants to help, to change, to arrange. Reason was created, it seems, to seek order in the Universe, harmony amidst disorder and chaos. What self-confidence – to believe life’s entropy is your subordinate. A beautiful but doomed strife, perhaps.
A huge wolf escapes Wilhelm. The Red howled, “Auuu!” The Hunter too. Shortly after the wolf howled again. You can see it in the opening – the beast is approaching. The absent-minded Wilhelm seems to be counting the mountains. The Hunter is silent. Wilhelm is snoozing. He looks like a manikin from a hunting magazine – from the boots to the hat with a feather in it and the super optics. The Red shows his head nearby. Wilhelm startles. The Red turns and shows his chest in the open. Someone’s howling. It must be the she-wolf that disappeared deep into the woods the week before. Wilhelm’s carbine cracks. It knocks down some twigs and branches.
The cosmos does not want The Red today. He disappears thinking about the she-wolf calling to him. She may call again. Now she’s hiding from the two-legged one. The Red did not get scared. He saw the guy with the feather. He’s waiting for the dear thing until the last moment. He did not close his eyes before death. He felt somehow relieved when he was later running headlong for his life. Wilhelm kept shooting until he used up the rounds in the magazine.
The she-wolf is watching from somewhere. She will quietly come down to the Red with this year’s first snow. Tomorrow it will pile up… The Red will be lost in her wise eye.
The Hunter is shaking with laughter, “Gee, we turned this wolf into a training target. He comes out to Dancho and to Ahmed. We lure him. He comes and we miss him.” The foreigner understood a bit from the analysis. He smiles guiltily. The wolf was not part of the plan. They were waiting for a wild boar. If you kill a wolf, your grandchildren will preserve your picture.
Mary doesn’t want to come down from the tree stand. “Which is the freest animal on earth?”, the Hunter asks. The woodsman’s goat and the hunter’s wife. The former grazes wherever it wants. The latter does whatever she wants while her hunter is away. When the sweet rakia relaxes him, the Hunter shows off. The tired hunter’s love is not a match even for that of ten barbers. Why exactly barbers? They are rested, all the time they step on one spot. They don’t walk for days and nights.
… The American fixed herself a bit. Excited and warmed up she peeked through the window of the tree stand. The bear was already in the ravine. It sat there in a silly way. Staring at them. Mary hiccupped with fear. The Hunter decided to take out his carbine through the window not to lose the night in terms of hunting. The bear had no time to pose. It snorted and disappeared. The Hunter bit his moustache. He pushed the window open. The big and wide-shouldered man that he is. His head touched the ceiling. He guiltily looked at Mary. She snorted in turn. She slid under his elbow. The Hunter didn’t understand – was that a rebuke or a hug?
“You see now, we missed it”, he said overcome with remorse.
The Hunter often comes out at night if he doesn’t have clients. Looking for your goat, eh? The others joke with him the following day. He doesn’t get in the joke. He avoids answering. His eyes look down. He goes without saying where or when he will be back. Where he strays or why? His dog, too, is silent.
In the dead of night he saw a tiny light. It shimmered in the wrinkles of a faraway hill. It had been until recently a museum of partisans. In that same gorge in the past the exact same number of “enemies of the people” were shot.
Now it is a “base” for white women slaves. Such is the rumor. The ringleader is someone named Zlatyo2 , but they called him Zmeya (the Dragon). They kidnapped young women to the horror of parents and relatives. He is said to trade their flesh in foreign lands.
The Hunter knows the legend. In it the dragon is a wizard, not a kidnapper. He’s born by snakes. They live in the roots of century-old oaks near holy places and sacred promises. Cursed is he who dares to cut down such a tree. The dragon shows himself only to the maid he likes. Sometimes she becomes a dragoness.
Whereas Zlatyo’s women were not his brides but his victims.
The hunter is in the midst of a vineyard near the road. He likes field-hunting. It changes your reflexes, the environment. You shoot more during such hunting. He’s again escorting foreigners in corn and sun flower fields. Nearby – a dam with ducks. There are also barns. It is a wonder their roof tiles are still in place. Flocks of partridges fly by. He notices a rabbit, a fox. There are also geese calling high above the road. You can’t see this on the news – a hawk catches a sparrow.
The grass is wet and yellow. The vine-leaves are copper-colored. He finds some grape nubbins, an abandoned pepper bed, a fist-sized watermelon, already pecked. But pink and sweet to the Hunter. Scarlet rose hip – all you can want!
A partridge is spiraling upwards. Hit in the head. Then it thumps down between the stumps. A quail late to catch its flock is tempting the hunters. The partridges wait exactly for this to save themselves. In the cuddled weeds the rabbit arouses them with the tips of its ears. A partridge falls with a graceful parabola after a long range shot. The dogs are set to find it. It goes to ground.
He’s startled by a partridge. There’s a big flock hovering over the very cars. The male has gotten big. This determines his life. He’s last to fly out. His beautiful neck and chest are pierced.
It rains, a fine and penetrating rain. Mud clods cling to the boots. Walking is grueling. The hunters are soaked to the bone. The Hunter walks stooping. The sky is grey and chilling. He’s pensive.
How to make from the mud and the water, since he’s not God, that which will look up to our heavenly origins?...
Moment hunter, you don’t know. Curiosity leads to a trap. It waits for the man without any chance of salvation and no way back. Only Allah, according to the oriental saying, is merciful. While we hunt, he forgets to count our days.
There are wounded partridges. They rush among sunflowers beheaded by harvesters. They hurry to disappear into the grass of oblivion. To cuddle in their wild nature. The Hunter will kick around the place – they will lie low like persistent thoughts, passionate desires, experienced in sleep, real and unreal. To weave with straws, water, mud, and saliva the wing broken by a bullet. To seal with sounds – words in the coming nights – long, cold, wintry. To save themselves in the dark. To save themselves in the light. From the jackal, the fox, the wild cat, the stray dogs…Maybe during the next hunting season someone will hit them again. They will humbly roll into his hunting bag. He will click his tongue in wonder. Humbled in turn by the indomitable law of nature. Every living thing relies on itself and itself alone!
The Hunter has traveled kilometers to get here. Snow waves were coming at him. They concealed the misty and frozen ridge. In the warm city streets he was poured over by a police light. At four in the morning drunks walk the streets. Blow into the balloon! Disappointed by the unsuccessful ambush, the sergeant wishes him luck. The long and treacherous road is empty. The snow recedes behind the ridge. It drizzles in the lowlands. Oncoming car lights carry cabbage, carrots. A truck trailer full of pumpkins is stuck on the road. He will see it again on the way back. Only these pumpkins and ours are on the road! The Hunter’s jeep accurately pushes the road behind their backs. They make it minutes before the arranged time. The place is symbolic. It’s called Europe restaurant. It’s located on the everlasting East-West route. Actually it is a shelter with some tables.
After the partridge hunt they stopped seemingly for a while under a vine. Just like they were covered in mud and wet. The foreigners found themselves in a country-house yard. They looked around politely. The host quickly set his backpack down. The man showed his head from the cellar and kept passing out pitcher after pitcher. So they remained standing like this till the end, resting seemingly for just a little bit.
Who knows how many hours had passed, where had they slipped by? At one point the host clapped his hands, “The keg is empty!” He drove them in the jeep of the Hunter. He kept saying to himself, “You are drunk, you are drunk!” They even shot in the air to celebrate the neighbor’s engagement.
They were with rosy cheeks and hairs white with the falling snow. Till this day the Hunter can’t clearly remember the snow, the keg, the shots. He carries a feeling of tiredness and magic reverie. Of fleeting bliss, when you were and you weren’t. And where were you? And you wish you could go back – you and no other, right there.
God protect the hidden partridge hearts in the mysterious grasses until their next meeting with the Hunter. Agile and abrupt – sudden thoughts – to startle the barrels. Having overcome the excitement, he will aim with a cold eye. Their swift wings carry them farther. Under that sky, in that water and mud – with a premonition of whiteness, footprints in the snow. Of something unexpected and nice on its way.
A hind gave birth this spring in the high grass at the cemetery. The Hunter traced it. His eyes lingered after its sinking shadow. He saw stone crosses. Another world in another inaccessible dimension.
What makes us humans better than this hind? Its beautiful leap will tomorrow reward a foreigner in his hunt. And again, and everywhere the wild roots. Tangling your feet and pulling. An outburst of weeds. You get lost in them, you disappear in them. Wild beauty is for sale. The doors of the houses are unlocked. There are clothes hanging on the corridor hangers. The furniture is still there. The oven of the village bakery is gaping. The old ashes show tracks of mice long gone. There are wolves, jackals, foxes, and also a wild pig. He sleeps from time to time in the school. In the winter, the he-bear “Fu” kicks him out of there.
The roar of the wild awakes Mihal the White and Enyu the Drum. They haven’t spoken to each other for years. The two residents of the abandoned village.
Each one of them, along his own way and with a bag on his back, both in the winter and in the summer goes to a nearby village for bread. The Hunter follows the bear and notices. Mihal and Enyu peek through their windows once they hear shots fired in the sunless forest – high up there. They lift their chins to the sky. Then they check if the door is locked. They load the double-barrels.
Only once the Hunter came down to the village. There’s waist-high grass between the cobblestone. Two-story houses, stone cellars. Some barns still have hay inside, it’s all mouldy.
The Hunter heard a window jar. He could hear a human growl, “You have no business here! Your place is in the woods!” He got it. He heard the cocking of the gun. It’s ready to fire.
He now observes from the hill. His silhouette is ghostlike. Someone has come down from the sky. He’s stopped. He returns again to where he’s come from. As if he never was.
He wanted to ask about the name of the village. What kind of people are these old men? They seem to be the last remains of a disappeared world. Who would waste his time to explain to him? Some time ago they transformed the church into a pigsty. In order to look richer they used to tie big bags of hay under their horses heads, right in front of the village inn. Then they fell in ambitiously. There’s always been something in these lands worth trading. Logging, bee-keeping, all kinds of cattle. Some people doubted the newcomers. They would pretend going to the outhouse, but snuck under the horses noses. The empty bag gave the village its name. The following times were conceived in it. Do you also come from the bag of lies?
Returning from the inn Enyu the Drum had a maiden with him. The older people either didn’t get around to warning her, or didn’t dare telling her. It happened in the cart, on the empty leather bag. They passed through the sunless ravine. Now the Hunter has put some planks with nails sticking out from them to fight poachers. It all seemed easy and allowed. The girl was a neighbor, Enyu asked her to join him so that she wouldn’t have to walk home. She was almost his daughter’s age. The Drum thought she wouldn’t resist if she is joyful and trusting. He would have her too, quickly, by the way.
Enyu had the habit of ambushing women when they returned from the field hoe over their shoulder and a white headscarf over their eyes. He would stalk them. Before they could see him he knocked them down. In the past he used to be mayor for a long time. Who could they complain to? If they had once fallen on their backs, weren’t they themselves guilty too? He was careful not to repeat his victims. He had principles.
The White met her in the forest with the century-old giants. It’s full of acorns and pigs now too. As he was sitting with his herd, he caught a glimpse of her white shirt climbing up the ridge. Stana was throwing a rope over a tree branch. Her shame crushed her. The noose grasped her gentle neck. Mihal the White startled her. He removed the rope. Took her in his arms, and said, “No! No matter what’s happened, no matter…” Stana needed to confess, hoping to get free. Since then Mihal the White stopped visiting the local bar. He was careful not to get drunk. His loose tongue not to give away the secret. Not to swing at The Drum.
He asked her. She accepted to be his wife.
The secret remained like a hollow tree buried under leaves. As if it wasn’t there. It was alive however. Its heart kept beating over the years.
How many times Mihal the White wanted to shoot the Drum!
Hasn’t the time of retribution come already? No one would know. That rope still hangs strong over the wide beam of the barn. Covered by the dust of time. It is Enyu’s rope. She had pulled it out from his cart.
The children and grandchildren have grown up. They have gone to the city or abroad. No one cares anymore about bags of old lies.
One winter night the White threw the rope at Enyu’s doorstep. At dawn the Drum’s wolf-killer, named Gorbachev, howled like something’s dead. His master had hanged himself. The Hunter heard it and came down with his jeep. He was careful not to drive over the nails he set for others. The White’s beard blended with the snow. He wandered off in the wilderness. The Hunter passed by the old man without seeing him. The man pretended he was reading some animal tracks bent over his own shadow.
A hind is calmly grazing. The moon is bleaching the darkness among trees. A field of game is dozing off by a wood.
A clear sky is ringing above oat ears. Frogs are jumping on a dirt road. They are funnily swelling out their chests. They are awkwardly stretching out their long limbs. A ladybird is sleeping under a blackberry leaf. It dreams of the drop of dew in which it will see itself tomorrow.
A winding dirt road roars at the turns. It gradually dies away. The morning always comes after the enthrallment of sleep.
Partridges are flying here and there. Cow bells are ringing. Splutter of wings can be heard in the distance.
At every noise the hind raises her head. She pricks up her ears. She looks around. True to her instinct – to be prudent and cautious. It calmly grazes, but her eyes flicker. A beam of car lights reflected in them.
The hind stepped from one foot to another. She moved back a little. Her ears started moving. The blinding whiteness spread before her. She smelled gas.
The engine is prattling monotonously. The animal did not move nailed by the light. Swearing is heard. They realized they had run over the Hunter’s nails.
The forest is not deep asleep yet. The hind flew through it. She stopped awhile under some branches. She listened to the beats of her heart amidst the fading human noises.
She is experienced. She has survived other ambushes. She ventured to give birth in the old-time cemetery. To live there. In the dank grasses porcelain portraits bleach like bones. Faces of old men, of a young woman, of a child, of a man with moustache. For years no one’s come. No hunter has passed by either for quite a awhile.
The hind disappeared into the cemetery. Her baby is waiting. Here they find juicy grass. Oat, sweet corn, wheat give more strength but they are located at dangerous and distant places.
It cuddled next to her and slept its sweetest sleep. What does a mother need? Food to have milk, an unassailable hideaway. Warmth under the stars to relax and savor the moment.