by Jack Durant
The sun rises late in the mountains. Days start slowly, even for the farmers, who rise for work long before the light shines bright enough for their wheat to shimmer golden. The slow start to each day had been an adjustment for William. One that was welcome at first but soon grated against his desire to hurry each day’s beginning in order to hasten its end. The Spaniards around him had no such qualms and believed that hurrying through one’s days only resulted in wasting them. So William began staying up, drinking coffee in the darker hours, and talking as best he could to them. He began to rise late with the sun, not arriving at his school until the bell demanded it.
That was what took him aback the morning of the hunt. He had been warned the day would begin early and had dismissed it. So, after he was woken at an ungodly hour by his normally lethargic host-father, the cold morning’s drive to the forest lodge was nothing but a drowsy blur.
His senses slowly returned to him inside the lodge. He drank coffee with a heavy splash of cognac at a wooden bar as the heads and horns of the previously hunted loomed above him. As he sat, William would catch himself staring into their frozen faces. It was not the first time. Throughout his life, the mounted heads of animals had always given him pause. It was the eyes. Something in the way those two dark orbs seemed to still give the stony face life. Looking into the eyes of the dead creature he could almost believe it was still living as his stare became harder and deeper. The noise around him would quiet as if slowly muffled before the sound reached a muted point. Then he’d look away, smothering visions in his mind’s eye of the head moving.
The men from the town were all awake and excited, making their words too quick and indeliberate for William. They were dressed in many layers but the lodge was warm from the crowd. After some deliberation, his host-father and a man William did not know formed two groups. Left out of both groups was the butcher, who walked over to William’s stool and leaned against the adjoining bar. The butcher always walked slowly. He was not thin, but wasn’t round either, more so sturdy and unhurried. The butcher told William to follow him in speech both careful and calculated. William nodded and the two waited as the lodge cleared and the sounds of their cars and hounds ventured off and faded into the blackness surrounding the lodge. The butcher poured himself another coffee and mixed it with milk. He drank slowly and scratched his hairless head. When the drink was finished, he put on a mudflap hat and motioned for William to follow.
The butcher drove the same boxy truck as the other hunters. William got into the passenger’s side and the two started moving. The sun rose while they were driving upwards. First dimly over their head then brightly through the many pines. The butcher stopped their car on a ledge overlooking a valley both long and deep for this place. William didn’t know if this spot was predetermined or spontaneous, but the butcher made himself comfortable, sitting down on the moss. William lay himself down in a bush next to him.
The bush was a prickly uneven bed to rest upon. Still, William was comfortable. Around him were familiar smells he could remember from the forests back home, though still elusive in their origin due to William’s ignorance of anything more than their fleeting sensation in his nostrils. Still, he enjoyed recognizing their scent. William started to get tired again, but it was a pleasant feeling and he knew he would not fall asleep. Absentmindedly, William picked up a brown pine needle. He stared deeply at the thin remnant of the forest’s last cycle and pressed it between his fingers, thinking of how it was a familiar sensation. Though there were aesthetic differences, so far the forest had reminded him of home.
For what felt like a long time, the old butcher stayed seated upon the moss next to him with his eyes half open and the rifle across his belly. They looked lazily over the plains littered with patches of tall grass and trees for several miles up to the mountains. The day had become clear so the snowcapped peaks were visible. And while it had gotten warmer since the sun had risen, the wind still chilled the air, rustling the trees behind them and whirling in front of them in a whispering sound. Sometimes a bird would cry out and William wondered if its cry was to fight or mate. He tried to guess each time one’s call drifted through the air, but he knew any guess was just that.
The prospect of hunting had not excited William. And as the first big event of his new life, it felt closer to a chore than an adventure. He wasn’t against the practice, but held the common suburban distaste and overall squeamishness towards it. This was nice though. The view was not only beautiful but served as a contrast to the fields that surrounded the town and was a good addition to the collage his mind was making of this country.
It was all new, so he should try what he wouldn’t back home. He wasn’t going to shoot anything anyway.
They sat longer. When dogs started barking in the distance the butcher jumped up with agility beyond his age. William started to get up, but the large hand of the butcher hovering above kept him down. The barking was still distant.
Lifting the rifle, the butcher looked through the scope and aimed. Squinting, William tried to see what he was pointing at, but couldn’t. The rifle went off a second later, its sound echoing across the valley and inside William’s head. Then a small dot came into his focus. It moved across the frosty grass with a pack of smaller dots steadily gaining. But before they caught it, William was pulled up by the butcher and the two jumped into the open doors that had been waiting. The butcher drove, seeming to know exactly where his target would be. After twists and turns, they came out of a tree patch to see the dogs had surrounded a boar. They were attacking all at once. The boar kept them back with its big tusks, which regulated the hounds’ bites to its legs and backside whenever it turned on a new section of the circle.
Two trucks had arrived before them. One of which had contained William’s host-father. He was standing over the circle of dogs with the other men. His big body in his coat, a mud-flap hat on his head, and both hands clutching a similar rifle to the butcher. The barking from the dogs had not ceased in their attack. Now accompanied with snarls that barred their teeth ferociously and dripped with eager saliva. The boar’s tusks were lowering and the dogs were getting bolder, biting at its face and jumping on its back.
The brutality was hard for William to watch. The crumbling boar wasn’t satiating the dogs’ bloodlust but intensifying it. Their barks turned to howls as they piled on top of the wild animal, biting deeper and longer until it stopped twitching. One of the men without a gun ran up to the dogs shouting and waving his arms. The dogs bounced off the boar in different directions and started dancing around their trainer, howling and jumping with a primal happiness William had never seen in a dog back home. But whatever noble dignity William could take from that was ruined when the trainer grabbed the tusks of their kill and started waving it around. It seemed unnecessary and against what William had been taught the relationship hunters and prey should have. Still, the animal was dead and it was making the dogs happy. They were the actual hunters.
Another trainer was kneeling in front of a lone dog off to the side of the commotion. William could tell the dog was hurt by its whining. The trainer was rubbing salve on the large gash near its mouth and whispering reassurances as the dog twitched away.
William felt more for the dog than the boar. He thought he shouldn’t but something was pulling him to appreciate the dog’s sacrifice in taking the boar’s life more than that life itself.
Another gun sounded and echoed over them. The dogs looked up at the sky, then at their trainer, who started yelling and waving his hands again. The dogs took off and everyone but William spoke in rapid Basque before jumping to their newly designated task. William’s host-father and a trainer got in a truck and drove in the direction the dogs had gone. The trainer who had treated the dog picked the wounded animal up and was driven in a different direction by another hunter.
It was just William, the butcher, and the boar.
The scene was now very quiet. The difference was haunting both in its contrast and how sudden it had come. William looked at the lifeless boar and longed for the assurance a mounted head gave for death. Strewn on its back, the animal could have been sleeping if not for the fresh, wet blood staining its many wounds that violently pulled William’s mind back to the scene that had created its corpse. He did not want to look into the dead creature’s eyes.
The butcher took out some plastic gloves a doctor would use from his pocket. He put them on and unsheathed the knife attached to his pant leg. He looked over at the boar then at William. Deciding something, he took out another pair of gloves and stretched out his hand to offer them. William put them on while still in something of a trance, but backed away surprised when he realized the butcher was handing him the knife. The butcher smiled widely and nodded vigorously. His eyes were very bright and earnest. William took the dull handle and stared at the butcher as he started speaking quickly and making cutting motions. William looked at the edge of the blade and nodded. Bending over the dead boar, William unhappily touched the tip of the knife to its stomach. It felt tender and soft beneath the dark hair. He looked at the butcher, who nodded enthusiastically. Feeling trapped, William pushed the knife into the dead animal expecting disgust or nausea.
He didn’t feel either though. The knife had gone in easily and emotionlessly like he had cut into a doll or mannequin. With barely any effort, William dragged the blade down the rest of the belly and the flesh opened on each side, releasing a wheezing sound as gas escaped the body.
When he was done, William was looking down at an assortment of guts he believed to be similar to his own. In his periphery, William saw the butcher making a lifting motion and William stuck the knife back in the boar and started lifting the wet, squishy, putrid smelling, guts out of the animal and leaving it in the grass as a lucky surprise for fouler creatures. When he was finished, the butcher patted his back before flipping the boar over. Blood soaked the frosted tipped grass a dark ugly red. When it was over, William helped the butcher carry the boar by the legs and laid it on the towels in the back of the truck. Pointing to a bag in the back, the butcher took his gloves off and put them into it. William did the same. The butcher unloaded the gun and placed it on the truck’s rack. William looked at the weapon, bereft of any relief in not having used it today. Then he looked down at the boar. Its face looked like the mounted heads in the lodge. Eventually, William could not help but look into its eyes. And while it still gave him pause, he could no longer imagine any life onto it.
They drove back to an old, stone church. Not long after, William’s host-father returned with another boar. Later, his host-family, the butcher’s family, and many more people from the town gathered around the church’s outdoor tables for a picnic.
The dogs were playing with the children. Running after and pouncing aggressively on the sticks and balls they threw, barking. A noise that had lost its innocence to William.
His host-father called him to the grill he was cooking over and handed him a meat sandwich, which William knew would taste better even before his bite soaked his gums with its juices. It was less abstract. Even if how it had come about had been ugly, it had been earned. Meat would always taste like food in a way more satisfying to him.
Of course, this wasn’t the boar he had cut. His was still laying in the trunk to be further prepared for consumption at the butcher’s carniceria. The dogs’ barking still echoed over them and the sun shone upon the ground that he stood, making it shimmer in the light of mid-day. William felt no desire to hurry, there was no need to hasten this end. The daze of what happened was wearing off and William found himself looking at this scene with changed eyes. Ones that not only had seen something new, but had thus changed from such sight. That was the difference that came from a life like this. One where foreign was not just a sight or concept, but something to be confronted and embraced. Looking into the thick forest then up at the mountains looming over the tops of its trees, he felt excited.