Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2012
Game by Maria Dahvana Headley
15 September, 1950
I write this entry from my tent in Naini Tal, a village in the Kumaon Province of Northern India, shadowed by the snow-tipped Himalayas. I arrived here at 1300 hours, as the sun steamed the dew out of the forest like a laundress pressing an iron on a damp shirt. The whole place hissed, and I closed my eyes to inhale the cypress and cookfire smoke. Much has changed in my old hunting grounds, but were I to depend on my sense of smell alone, it would be as though I’d traveled backward thirty-two years.
A simple glance, however, reminds me of the landslip passage of time. Three years ago, the country dissolved its colonial status and departed from the reign of George VI. The time of the hunter is done, though I warrant that there is still a place for a man such as myself.
The children I met here in 1918 are now grandparents, but to them, I’m not the old man who sits before them. I’m an earlier incarnation, a warrior from a picture book, brought here at their request, a man with mystical powers over their enemy. They need me now, here in Naini Tal. I am their last resort.
My journey originated in Delhi, some four hundred rattling kilometers away. My bones ache despite the care of my porters, and of my colleague, the estimable Dr. K_____, but when the Kumaoni greeted me this afternoon, I felt my heart rise to meet my title.
“Shikari,” they cried, all of them in unison. “Welcome, Shikari!”
Big game hunter. Usually reserved for the native men. For my kills, covered in international newspapers, my kills which inspired other kills, I was long ago granted an exception.
My old partner Henry, also a Shikari, and native to the Kumaon province, knew this place better than I ever could, but even I can see the changes. The trees were thicker the last time I was here, and the huts were roofed in woven branches rather than tin. Time has not been kind to this place, nor to me. The village now shines bright as a grub dug up slick and blind from beneath a rock, and another addition, a high fence made from a combination of thorn bushes and barbed wire, encircles it.
No one seems yet to have tunneled into the mountains, a mercy, nor taken their tops, but roads have been installed everywhere, and the locally manufactured automobiles known as the Baby Hindustan backfire and sputter their way toward the sky. With Henry, thirty-two years ago, I watched hawks wheeling high above these mountains, but now the air is streaked with machines. I notice a subtle depletion of birdsong. As likely caused by the creatures I come to hunt as by machinery, I know, but I imagine the tragedies to come in the near future, ornithologists aiming their glasses at the heavens in order to identify different species of aircraft.
Given these observations, I will note here that it is immediately clear what has spurred the tigers to their current behavior. Less than a century ago, the cats had limitless forest and limitless game. Now the wild is striated with roads and mines, and armed villagers have beaten the remaining tigers from Nepal into these hills, calling them all man-eaters. Every man and boy in the region has a weapon, a museum’s worth of defenses, rusty swords and axes to rifles, but shooting to kill is a skill that must be learnt. Wounding is easier. A wounded tiger is a hungry tiger. Here in Naini Tal, trouble has been brought into town, all in an attempt to keep trouble in the trees. It is an old story.
Untwisting wire to enter through the gate today, I experienced a tremor in my thigh, no doubt caused by the climb, as unlike many men my age, I keep myself in fine form. A porter brought me the customary dish of metallic tea, lightened with buffalo milk and copiously sweetened with jaggery. Even as I sipped it, though, my cup chattered. An involuntary motion in my fingers, like that of a treetop in a fine breeze.
I’ve been softened by civilization, I admit it. It’s been years since I last participated in this line of work, years I’ve spent writing and lecturing, years of domestic comfort in a house in Kenya, trees of my own, a bed, a wife. As I write this, I’m thinking of my wife’s hair, falling straight and black to her knees. Evenings, she sits before me on the floor, and I wrap her tresses round my hands, succumbing, greedy as a nectar-guzzling bat, to this late-life pleasure. I think of how the strands feel running over my fingers, delicate, but when braided together they are strong enough to strangle a man.
Before her, I’d never thought of marriage. All my previous vows were to the creatures I hunted. I’ve done a good deal of seeing the world at grass level, my universe filtered through golden eyes, my world made of the pug marks of tigers, the tracks of ghooral, the mountain goats of this region, and the creamy camouflaged spots of the chital hind, my ears attuned to the barking of the kakar deer, and the hornlike belling of the sambur, to the chittering of monkeys and the churr of the nightjar. Before I met my wife, I’d never imagined anything of the world through the eyes of another human.
She’s angry with me now. She doesn’t want me hunting. She certainly doesn’t want me hunting here. As I left our house, she stood in the doorway and shouted: “Old men need not go hunting for tigers! Tigers are already hunting for them!”
She’s wrong about that. I’m equal to this, and Dr. Andrew K_____, my taxidermist colleague, is beside himself with excitement. This afternoon, he sat beside me on a stump near the cookfire, knees bouncing, his uniform crisply ironed and starched by his own wife back in New York City. I’d promised him a hunt. He’d read in his boyhood my accounts of the Monsters of the Mountains who’d dragged entire villages into the darkness, leaving only shards of bone behind for the poor Hindu funerary rites that required something to burn.
In certain cases, depending on how long the cat had uninterrupted possession of the dead, there’d be nothing left, the man-eater having devoured the entirety: skin and bones and bloodied clothing. On those occasions, I sometimes removed a fragment of ivory from my own baggage and presented it to the bereaved for burning.
My wife would say that with my substitutions, I’ve sent elephants to the afterlife, along with rhinoceroses and whales. That I’ve populated the sky with things that do not belong there. Therefore, I do not tell her. I consider myself to have been, at some moments in my time as a shikari, a minister of mercy. I spent my career in these forests. I have my own rules of conduct.
K______, in contrast, has, according to the vitae he supplied me, spent the bulk of his own career in the bowels of New York City’s Natural History Museum, his hands coated in glue, sinew and fragments of stretched skin, refitting the dead for display to the living. Having begged of his institution a paid procurement trip to India, he quivers in anticipation.
Naini Tal’s man-eater will be taken to Dr. K_____’s museum and displayed there as a conservationary tale. The teeth and body will be examined for wounds caused by hunters. No tiger turns man-eater of its own instincts. We are not its natural prey. For one such as myself, who has long struggled to reconcile a history of violence with the world’s shrinking spectrum of carnivores, the offer of any redemption was too tempting to resist.
Now that we are here in Naini Tal, however, I look at K_____, at his too-gleaming weapon, and at his tapping fingers, with no small degree of suspicion. There is something of the town-raised boy visiting the country in him. Something of the tourist. He carries sharp implements, chocolate bars, and gin in his case. I earlier apprehended a small transistor radio in his belongings, about which he hedged. In case of emergency, he insisted, but I forced him to relinquish it. I’m certainly not convinced he should be armed. The nervous man with his finger on the trigger is as likely to shoot the hunter as the prey, but a man without a rifle will likely need to be defended from the man-eater, given any proximity.
I have less tolerance than I once did. Since Henry’s death, I’ve hunted alone.
Upon arrival, we were given a feast of roasted ghooral spiced with the local peppers, and warm cola coddled over rough roads from the city, the bottle recognizable even in the dark. I interviewed the villagers about their experiences of the man-eater, and they answered me vigorously. At first, the Kumaoni tried churchgoing, petitioning Christ and country, but prayer is an inefficient weapon, and the people in these mountains are finished with begging for miracles. Something is stalking them, and they mean to have its head.
There’ve been sounds in the forests, the villagers tell me, phantom noises of devils. Gunfire, and roars, but they swear no one from Naini Tal hunts tigers. I believe them. It is no longer in fashion, my profession, that of the skilled and specific tracker, that of the shikari. These hunters will be poachers. Everywhere now. Every forest, every jungle, the world over. Thieves of tigers and elephants, leopards and monkeys. Recently, an acquaintance of mine saw a tiger in the back seat of a car rattling through Delhi, the cat so recently slaughtered that blood was still seeping out, leaving a trail behind the sedan.
Pillbox hats made of wildcats and leopard skin capes over shocking pink taffeta dresses have lately appeared in Vogue Magazine, igniting a craze for fur. Couture demands man-eaters, and in truth, man-eater is no longer a reason to kill a tiger. Tiger is a reason to kill a tiger.
Everyone goes into the forests now, and a man with my history is every man on earth, or so you might believe if you sat down at a barcounter in Delhi and listened to men tall-telling about tigers. Pith helmets and Martini rifles. Waxed cotton tents. Triumphs.
I was, therefore, quite surprised to be personally summoned last month to Naini Tal, the request relayed first by the local version of the cooee, shouted village to village, and then by runner, at last arriving to me by phonecall, the villager’s petition read aloud to me over the wires.
We the public beg your kindly doing needful. In this vicinity, which is well known to you, and which has long suffered from famously troubles with tigers, we beg your help in hunting this demon that has turned man-eater since June of five years past. We venture and invite you, shikari, to shoot this demon, and save us from calamity, for she is no tiger, but an evil spirit, and no one of all the men who have tried to kill her has got near her heart. Please tell us of your arrival, and we will meet you with a cart to bring you to our forest.
I did not need to consider. I’d been haunted by this place, this village, these mountains long enough.
I’ve never ceased scanning the news for Naini Tal, even from afar. They’ve suffered more from man-eaters than other similarly situated villages, or so it seems to me, though I am possibly biased toward that perspective. Naini Tal and Pali, higher up the mountain, have long been plagued by a stream of bloodthirsting strangers walking out from the woods at night. That the village still exists is surprising. Superstition might long ago have caused the citizens to depart, pragmatic, their belongings on their backs. Who, after all, would choose to live in a place claimed by tigers?
From Kenya, I read of this man-eater’s five year reign, a factory owner on an exploratory hunt being her most recent victim. The villagers showed me a list with some eight dozen names, the missing and the dead, and for every lost person, there is a story.
Initially, the tiger attacked only men, and those armed, typically game hunters, particularly those who’d come in from outside Naini Tal. Not two weeks ago, however, a young woman, just sixteen, was taken by the man-eater at midday as she gathered firewood, scarcely out of sight of her friends. Her silk sari was left draped on rocks, a trail of blood going up the mountain, and her hair spider-webbed from the bushes. That was when the villagers began counting their coins and mold-velveted paper money, begging their wives and mothers-in-laws for household funds that’d been secreted away, smashing their jars and tithing their tobacco rations.
The men here are gleeful at my presence. I declined a fee, unseemly for a man in my position, though they do not know my reasons. This man, ministering to this village. There is no pay for that. They saved their money for me despite my protestations, and brought it out to show. I complimented them on their hoard, and then ate heartily. In my early days as a hunter, I once found myself faint before a black leopard, having, due to gastrointestinal distress, eaten almost nothing for several days. Tonight, I noticed K_____ pushing his meat around his plate, and admonished him. He took a tiny bite, and swallowed abruptly and unhappily.
As darkness fell, I heard the call of a cat.
“It is a shaitan hunts here, shikari,” one of the men said.
I listened to the tiger call, wondering at the sound of the roars, a scraping sharpened edge to them that I’d somehow forgotten, and I felt the familiar feeling in my stomach. It’s an instinct I’ve long denied, the urge to curl myself into a protective position, and I suddenly found myself nearly not denying it. I am, suddenly, seventy-one years old. My father died at sixty, in his bed.
“The shaitan welcomes you home,” said another man, and smiled at me, a kindly smile, even for the words he said.
The devil welcomes you home.
I stood and stretched, hearing my left shoulder crack, the bones themselves remembering my encounter with that leopard. My skin, as is true of any hunter who has truly hunted, is a Frankenstein’s monster of a canvas, stitched together first with black thread, and now with scars, old wounds packed with chewed leaves, five claw marks stretching from right clavicle to left pubis, the mark of the Widower of Champawat, dead and gone these twenty years. Not the smallest tiger, and not the largest, but one who got close enough that I could see into his throat and feel his heartbeat as he savaged me. I felt that heart stop as I shot him. His shoulder, upon examination, housed an old bullet, suppurating, and his right front arm was darted with porcupine quills. Yellowed, soapy flesh beneath the balding pelt, a withered limb, and thirty-six quills, fat as pencils, broken off at the level of the skin.
I have never blamed him.
“Shall we?” I said.
K_____ radiated unease. “It’s nearly dark,” he replied.
I gave him the look that said dark is how this is done, clapped him on the back once, and then walked away from the firelight.
He needn’t have worried. We were patrolling the perimeter for signs, but I did not intend to go deep into the trees. The cruelty of this commission was that it was necessary to await an attack. The tiger would have long since scented the roasting ghooral, and concluded that there’d be heavy sleep in the village. The man-eater would come to us.
The forest lay before us, black and singing. A hunter listens, and if a hunter does not, then he will not stay a hunter long. Any and all of the animals here will tell tales of a tiger. They’ll explain where the cat is, whether it is still or in motion, how fast it moves.
Though I did not say it to K_____, though I would not admit it to anyone save these pages, mute as they are, I too hesitated to walk back into those trees tonight. The last time I entered this forest, I was carried out on a stretcher, mute with loss, the children surrounding me, my hands bloody. The last time I came down that mountain, I vowed I would not go up it again.
After that kill, there was nothing left to bury, nothing left to burn.
The birds are silent now, as I write these lines, and I feel observed. We’ve returned to our tents to wait for screams.
16 September, 1950
I woke three hours ago, blurred by nightmares, having been dream-stalking a man-eater, not the present tiger, but the one from 1918.
With me in my dream was Henry, his elbow in tattered cotton, his silvered beard and long hair, his skin a dark contrast to the yellowed whites of his eyes. I looked over at him once, and saw him open his mouth, but his lips moved, and I heard nothing.
The screams, when they came, seemed a part of the same dream. They were not. At 4:13 this morning, a young man of twenty-three was taken from his hut, and dragged through the center of town. A villager shot at the man-eater, and swears he hit her chest, but she leapt with her victim over the briars and barbed wire, twenty-five feet, a seemingly impossible height, and returned to the forest. Pitiful scraps of the man’s clothing hang from the highest thorns.
Dulled by exhaustion from yesterday’s travels, by the time I was on my feet and out into the main area, it was too late. In truth, I need not excuse my speed. If one hears screaming, rescue is already impossible. Those left behind can only hope that death will be quick. There’s no possibility of pursuing a victim into the dark, not when they’ve bled so much that the dust is red mud, and the man’s wife, having woken to the feel of something heavy and vividly alive brushing past her bed, is already keening in her doorway.
For twenty seven minutes after the attack, we listened to the tigress departing through the trees, heralded by a sound like a kennel of dogs readying for a feeding, though it was something quite different, the kakar barking their alarm, tiger passing here, tiger coming.
The man-eater scratched her victim’s door, and the scores in the wood are deep. I showed them to K_____, who examined them with interest. There’s a slight odor of alcohol drifting about the man this morning, that and a cloying floral cologne, for which I severely remonstrated him. He purged it with a gin-soaked handkerchief. Gin is better than lilies.
The tigress left pug marks in the dirt, and with them, I’ll be able to identify her with certainty. K_____ dutifully cast them in plaster of Paris, and annotated his drawings with measurements. There is no blood trail. It is often the case that a tiger one shoots to kill, even as the bullet seems to have connected, remains strangely unwounded. This is the way things are here, even, in some cases, for a shikari.
K_____ has arrived with the cast and his rudimentary drawing, and I will examine them, taking notes here, as part of this entry.
Size: Extremely large, at least ten feet over curves, a nearly unprecedented size for a female, and her paws are strikingly unsplayed, unusual in a tiger so immense. Her claws are so sharp as to suggest daggers.
Age: She is, by her prints, young, though her intelligence would indicate experience. This is a tigress who’s been terrorizing the villages in this region for over five years, a beast who certainly must at some point have been at least superficially wounded.
Tracks: The symmetry of her tracks shows almost no sign of such wounding. On her left front paw, there is an old scar across the pad.
A clean gash that clearly went deep. Can this—-
*Break in text*
Later. The shape of the scar stopped me as I sat looking at the marks by torchlight. It stops me now that K_____ has left, and I sit alone in my tent again. I can’t—-
After I came down from these mountains, I published a partial account of my exploits. There were photographs of my grin on newspaper front pages, a certain level of celebrity, a short film in which I demonstrated my stalking technique. I had no notion of what was coming for me, of the way this forest would stay with me. I had no idea.
After that film was screened, I borrowed a woman’s fountain pen to autograph a photograph for her, and ink leaked onto the pad of my thumb. Without care for observers, for cameras, she took my thumb into her mouth and licked it clean, her tongue turning sepia.
“There,” she said, when she was finished, still holding my hand, looking up and directly into my eyes. “Now you won’t leave marks on me.”
I took her to the coast. We fucked with the lanterns lit, bright enough that all the moths in miles flew to press their bodies against our tent. One night she ran into the dark, and I stumbled after her, calling her name, and waiting for her to show herself. I was tired of tracking.
“You might have found me by my footprints,” she said, stepping out of the night, raising one foot to show me the scar on the right arch. “I stepped on a waterglass years ago, and didn’t get it stitched. Look at that mark. Beautiful, isn’t it?” I took her foot in my hand, and then stopped. The mark was a mark I knew.
She looked at me. Her eyes were not yellow, no. She did not change into anything but what she was, a beautiful woman with a broken footprint.
“You’ll never forget me now,” she said, and her tone was not quite playful. “Did you think you could? But you’ll have to follow me, and if you don’t, I’ll follow you.”
I fled the next morning before sunup. She opened her eyes as I pawed my way out of the tent, and said nothing, only smiled. I could see her teeth in the dark.
There were other women after her, and other nights like that, when I ran from imagined monsters. I knew there was nothing haunting me, and yet I couldn’t seem to resist the narrative, the tracks of the tigress, broken prints, broken lines. I shunned my own hallucinations, but I kept looking.
I was a drunk, in those days. There are years of my life I scarcely recall. I will say that here.
I will also say that the tigress, the long-ago tigress, the dead tigress, was paw-scarred by Henry’s knife. She’d surged up from below him as he leaned over a rock to peer at the place we believed she was lying up over a kill. He managed to roll from beneath her while she licked her wound, and I fired at her, but I missed. A few days later, he was gone, and I was broken.
No one emerges unscathed from my profession. The line between sanity and insanity is imperceptible until you cross it, a mere game trail on a hillside, unmarked and unnoticed, until one finds one’s feet pacing that path, higher, higher, into the dizzying thinness of the air.
As I sit here, writing this, I shake my head.
The tracks—- I can scarcely write these foolish lines -—have appeared in various places over the years. In the dust of my stoop in Kenya, a woman’s bare feet, scar in the arch. And padding in soft circles around the bed I share with my wife, a tiger’s tracks, sliced cleanly across the pads by a knife. There’ve been times I’ve seen them everywhere I went. I know that guilt writes its own stories. These prints are true, though, the ones the tigress left here last night.
I leave this entry to page through all the pugmarks I’ve seen in the last forty years, recorded and coded in my notebook, searching for another explanation.
16 September, 1950
I find myself longing for my old partner. I should never have returned to these mountains. Shaitan, my mind tells me, but I should know better. Henry would.
In 1908, when I first met him, he was in his later 50’s, but could easily spring shoeless straight up a mountain, fleet as a ghooral. I once saw Henry casually pluck a fish from a pool with his hand. I hadn’t even seen the glimmer of it in the water. He was a far better hunter than I, for though I was young then, and strong, I was bound by strange decorum, intent upon differentiating myself from the beasts.
Henry’s skills had been passed down through four generations, and he had himself functioned as the Kumaon region’s chief shikari since the year I was born. The hunters did more than simply hunt. They catalogued the spirits in the trees and the devils in the waters, dispersed measured portions of the bodies of man-eaters to the villagers for their good luck charms. The rifles are lighter now, the bullets more destructive, and the ancient ways are being forgotten.
The old shikari could track a butterfly on the wing, by the breeze created in its flight. They could find a snake the size of a quill pen, slithering up from a trail, and chart its passage through the streams.
When Henry opened his mouth to speak, it was as plausible that a forlorn tiger’s call for a mate would come from it as words in human language. He could mimic anything in these woods. Once, in a moment of triumph, having together slain a leopard after weeks of stalking, he smiled slightly at me, and gave a whistling trill, then another. Eventually, I counted thirty-seven species of birds flocking to us.
I would be remiss if I did not record here that Henry was also superbly mechanical, capable of combining two rifles into something better than either had been. Or of creating a precise and killing snare out of a length of silk thread drawn from a sari, a coil of spring, and razor blade. He mapped our prey with precision, and he knew which tiger might be near from the shape the creature’s body left in the grass. For ten years, Henry and I hunted man-eaters all over India, surveying the trees for motion, listening to the sounds of warning coursing through the mountains like ripples on a gin-clear pond.
When Henry and I came to Naini Tal in the final days of 1917, it was our goal to deliver the residents of the monsters they’d made. If a plague strikes a remote place such as this one, and there are not enough villagers left to carry the bodies of the dead down to the water in procession, the rites of burial may be simplified. A live coal is placed in the mouth of the corpse, and then the bodies carted to a cliff, and thrown into the valley below, where the leopards and tigers find them, eat them, and develop their own desires.
We were summoned by a desperate rumor, a cooee call from ridgeline to ridgeline until it arrived at us. This place was far from the world, back then. There were no telephones, no telegrams. There were no cars. The village had lost their own shikari to a Himalayan bear six months before the plague began.
All the adults in the village were dead by the time we heard of Naini Tal, and only children remained. The tigers had taken over the town. They swept through the narrow passages between the huts, their golden bodies glinting in the starlight, their chins lifted to scent the air. It was as though the cats meandered through a night market, from stall to stall, sampling wares. There were twenty-six of them, and what had been a thriving village had become a place of terror.
Henry and I arrived to a place in shambles, tiger’s marks before each door. The children were packed into one hut, and they’d left the rest of the village to the man-eaters. The pond where water was collected was half-dry, and all around it were the marks of claws.
When we arrived, the children came cautiously from the hut. They were all skin and eyes. There’d been no forage, and their livestock were dead. Each of the children had about their neck a locket containing a piece of tiger: red fur or black fur or bone or claw, but the charms had done nothing to save them. I argued to remove them from their village. I’d never imagined so many man-eaters in one location.
Henry, though, had grown up in the region. This was his territory. He knelt at the pond, treading on the tracks of the cats. He searched for a moment in his camp sack, and then brought forth an empty can, along with clockworks from my own recently smashed watch. I hadn’t known he’d saved them.
After a few minute’s work, he’d made of these materials a tiny creature. As the children came closer, fascinated by the toy he made, trusting him, he finished it, a sharp-edged bird made of metal. He twisted something beneath its wing.
It fluttered, and then, miraculously, took flight into the trees. It circled, swaying and wobbling in the air, and then landed again in his hand. The children looked at him as though he was a god, bringing animals to life out of broken things.
Henry shrugged when I asked how he’d made it, and told me it was nothing, a children’s game. I never saw the bird again, though I thought of it often, the part of me that was still a child as enchanted as those children had been.
One by one, over the next months, we stalked and killed each of the man-eaters. At last, there was only one remaining.
I think of how I saw Henry last, his hand raised to protect his face, the choked sound he made—-
He’d changed in the months we’d hunted those twenty-six tigers. Begun to drink in daylight, and sometimes at night. At the time, I didn’t notice. I was killing tigers too. The night before he died, though, Henry looked over our fire at me, and asked if I thought the tigers deserved to win. I immediately answered that they’d developed a taste for humans, and killing them was all that could be done. I didn’t want to talk about anything else.
After all of it was over, I convinced myself that Henry’s death had been his own doing, that he’d been drunk, and endangered us both.
But in my mind, Henry looks at me again, mute as he was in my nightmare. I know what he wanted to say, I know.
He’d seen a glimpse of color. In places like this, anything red means tiger. Anything white means bone. Anything golden means seen, and seen means eyes, and eyes mean death, unless one is luckier than one has any right to be.
The tigress had watched as we placed ourselves, thinking we awaited her arrival, when in fact she’d been crouched patiently in her own blind, waiting for us all night.
In the book that was published all over the world, the book that inspired generations of hunters to come to these woods, I did not say that my courage failed me. When I felt the tigress coming close on me, I abandoned Henry and ran.
She didn’t pursue me. No. She took him instead.
I regained my senses too late and followed the trail of her drag, but I found only a pool of his blood, deep enough to dip my hands in, deep enough to cover.
For another five days, I stalked her, sleepless, out of food, my rifle jammed in my flight from her. I talked to myself, and to Henry, talked to the tigers I felt but could not see. I was a coil of rope caught by something invisible and swift, my soul tight between its teeth. I unspooled into emptiness.
At last, I tracked the tigress around a crumbling mountain ledge, the only retreat back the way I’d come. She was there, sleeping in the open, confident in her size and speed, confident in my despair. Her abdomen was exposed, the fur around her teats matted down from suckling cubs.
I brought my pistol from behind my back, and shot her in the chest, my hands too unstable to aim at her head. She was awake and nearly on me then, but mortally wounded. The man-eater leapt over me, lunging through the trees. I shot her again as she retreated, and she lost her footing.
I witnessed her fall from China Peak, her body flipping, twisting, striped gold and black as a wasp, her back certainly broken as she flew.
Irretrievable, the bodies. The tigress fell deep into the straight-sided ravine, and Henry was gone.
I tracked the tigress’ two cubs to the place she had hidden them. Not man-eaters. No. Mewling still.
After it was finished, I went down the mountain, eyes full of tears and blood, and I lied to them all about what had happened. I said that it could not be helped, that I had tried to save Henry, but even as I thought I was speaking, out of my mouth came something else, the cries of deer and the dying, the voices of birds and ghosts. One child wrapped my head in cotton while another packed my wounds and gave me, spoonful by spoonful, wild honey and herbs for my fever. They called from a ridge, and a message went forth to another village.
Some men of my slight acquaintance came and carried me from Naini Tal, hospitalized me in Delhi, and there I stayed for six months, convalescing, writing the book of lies that made me famous.
I wonder now if I’m still in 1918, and all I thought I saw and did since then a madman’s dream, because the tigress I’m tracking now, the tigress whose prints I see in the dirt of this village, has been dead for thirty-two years. I killed her.
17 September, 1950
Nine in the morning.
“What is it you seek in those mountains?” my wife asked me just before I left. She’d found me at the table, my rifle out for cleaning. “What is it you seek that is not here? Everything is everywhere.”
She poured red tea into my porcelain cup, white milk into the tea.
Blood, I thought. Bone. Tiger, I thought.
I thought about the footprints on our stoop. I thought about how every time they appeared, my wife came out with the broom, and brushed them away as though they were nothing. Perhaps they were nothing but dust.
She added an anthill of sugar to the cup, and then stirred it violently with a metal spoon, rattling the saucer.
“Do you want to kill every tiger in the world?” she demanded.
“Not all the tigers,” I protested. “This tiger. In this village. In my village.”
“That isn’t your village,” my wife said. “I’m your village. Do you see me?”
It was night, and a mosquito had landed on my arm to drink, its beak trembling. A calm came over my wife as she studied it. After a moment, she took the insect between her fingers and crushed its body, my blood smearing her fingers.
“This is a tiger,” she said, and she didn’t look at me as she carefully placed the mosquito in the flame of the candle, igniting its wings. “This was a tiger.”
And now, I’m in Kumaon, making my way up and into the forest toward Pali. Whatever haunts me, I intend to find it. A ghost, a tiger, a woman, a hallucination. Maybe these tracks are left by the wind, but I pursue my old enemy today¸ and if she finds me before I find her, I deserve what she plans for me.
K______ and I have been over the nearby parts of the forest, and now we prepare ourselves to enter it. K_____ has perversely overarmed himself, and his rifle is much too heavy. He carries eleven cartridges, far more than necessary, particularly considering that anything we shoot will be shot by me, not by him. Nevertheless, I can’t convince him otherwise. I didn’t bother to try.
Strapped to his back is a suitcase filled with powdered preservatives and skinning tools. The taxidermist is nervous as a cat, he told me, with some degree of humor.
“Tigers are never nervous,” I informed him. “Tigers are nothing like us.”
I looped the ropes for the machan around my arm. Aside from the pug and scratch marks, there’s no other sign of the tigress in town, nor in the nearby trees. I’d expected to find scat, and other scratching, but I’ve seen nothing. All I see are her broken prints, familiar to me as my own hands, scarred pad, claws digging strangely unretracted into hard-packed dirt.
Several of the village men traveled with us this morning, and after six hours walk into the forest, we stayed with them to make camp. It is no small thing to have people waiting. A camp plays the role of a wife, tempting the parts of a hunter that do not desire a return home. It’s too easy to choose to be lost.
I wasn’t always so pragmatic about such things. When I hunted with Henry, we never set up camp. When he slept, if he slept, it was hunched in a tree. I’d be slung up in the machan, imagined man-eaters in my periphery, but Henry slept deeply, and if a tiger came near, he’d shoot. Nearly always, he’d kill his prey without aiming.
Henry’s first hunt was when he was seven years old, a tiger that had killed two young sisters cutting grass. Later, their bodies would be found, naked and licked clean of blood, as peaceful as sleepers. Henry believed the tigress sought to replace lost cubs. I thought he was mad, imagining a tiger’s heart as a though it were a woman’s. Animals, I thought. Beasts. Heartless, I thought.
I wanted, I admit it, to kill every tiger, man-eater or not. I thought of the damage they did to men, and I wanted them to pay.
Henry went to great lengths to avoid targeting cats that had not turned man-eater. The killing of cubs was far astray from Henry’s philosophy. He would have taught them about men by firing his rifle near them. He thought that without tigers the forests would disappear. We disagreed in those days. I saw the tigers as enemies. One killed enemies.
Whatever comes tomorrow, a hunter dies hunting.
Now, in our camp on China Peak, I feel observed, but no kakar call to warn us of creatures on the move. Only the trees watch us, I tell myself. And so, we sleep.
18 September, 1950
The forest was dark this morning and fragrant, the scent of needles and undergrowth, strangling orchids in bloom up a tree, a constellation of blossoms against a green sky. K_____ and I marched through it, he heaving with exhaustion and altitude, myself with unaccustomed activity. I’d forced him to change his leather shoes for a pair with thin rubber soles, and he was, at least, stepping quietly.
The temperature dropped as we ascended, and I saw a pugmark outlined in dew, another rimed in the light frost that lingers in the shadows long after sunrise. The marks taunted me, orphaned, one here, one miles onward, never two in proximity, not true tracks. High up a tree, a scratch, too high for a tiger, fifty feet, but I looked at it regardless, roped myself up into the branches to examine it more closely. I’ve never seen a mark like it before. Tiger, but impossible.
On a twig near the scratch, I found a scrap of blue cotton from the shirt of the man the tigress had taken from the village. I lowered myself, painfully stiff from the climb.
It is confirmed. This tiger is not a tiger. We are hunting a ghost.
The tigress walked a dotted line, dancing her way up into the heights, leaving her tracks and signs like breadcrumbs for me. And thus the shikari succumbs to fairy tales, imagining a tiger’s ghost leading him not to heaven but to some airy hell.
K_____ knew so little about the habits of our prey he didn’t think to ask what was wrong. Beside me, he struggled up the mountainside, heaving his bags miserably. He paused suddenly, paralyzed, his mouth a rictus of uncertainty.
“Hear that?” he managed.
I did not.
“That way. Roaring.” I listened, and heard nothing, though K_____ heard it twice more. I wondered if I was losing my hearing, along with all else. My fingers ached, and my eyes, and my spine and my heart. Exhausted and too old for this.
He pointed waveringly to the west, and on his certainty, we shifted direction, the forest darker this way, no sun having yet reached this side of the mountain. I led, insisting on lightening K_____’s load by taking his weapon from him, though in truth I was keeping myself safe from any chance of his inadvertently firing.
I’d seen no sign of the tigress in hours. I, who’d tracked the progress of man-eaters by counting single broken blades of grass, by touching bent leaves. I couldn’t smell her, couldn’t hear her. Wherever she’d slept, there was no sign of it. But ghosts don’t sleep.
K_____ stumbled behind me and I heard him retch, a despairing, scavenged sound. I spun, my rifle already cocked, but there was no tigress. No, something piteous instead. The taxidermist had tripped over the remains of the man she’d killed. Shards of ribcage hung with meat, spine crumpled, half his jaw, a few strands of black hair.
I knelt, unfolding the thin sheet I’d brought. We’d wrap him in it and return him to his family, that they might burn him. As I began to wind the sheet about the bones, though, I glimpsed something. I stood and aimed, squinting into the trees, as still as I could manage. Trembling fingers.
“We should go,” K_____ said, his voice pinched.
I hissed him quiet. Red. No motion. Tigress, waiting. Tigress watching. My only hope would be to fire as she leapt.
My vision focused at last, revealing that the red was no tiger, no blood, but a small building, peeling paint. I let out my breath and stood. No smells of humans. No cookfire smoke. Abandoned. High in these mountains for a hunting cabin, but that, I thought, was certainly what it was. In the trees above us, I could see old bones hanging, their meat long gone. A stake pounded far into the earth, a chain, for what creature I did not know. A dog, perhaps, though a very large one. There was a circle worn in the dirt below the stake, a deep, claw-scarred track, which I chose not to examine. Some brave or mad man had lived here in tiger territory, and someone with a wish for oblivion, too.
I instructed K_____ to follow me to the hut. Door closed. Some part of my mind was certain the tiger would fling open the door and stand upright before me, her belly still stained with undrunk milk, the toothmarks of the cubs she’d lost. I kicked the door open.
And stopped. K_____ gasped and then pushed his way past me.
The exterior of the cabin was wooden, but the interior walls shone. Flattened cans and springs, pendulums and gears, glimmering rocks and iridescent feathers. Rough tools, and some better, nail-hung on racks. Papers nailed up, drawings, writing, but too dark and stained to read. Claws were strung from the ceiling, garlands of teeth decorating the beams.
Against the far wall, a shape, bulky, striped. I shoved K_____ back, aiming my rifle.
“It’s stuffed,” he said authoritatively, and I realized, to my shame, that he was correct. The tiger was motheaten, its eyes replaced with chips of glass, its pelt dull and its pose stiff. “Someone who didn’t know the modern techniques. Hadn’t studied.”
There was a bucket filled with rusting wires at my feet, another of white dust, another of black soil. Another filled with red, old red, dried to nothing now, but I knew what it was.
“A scientist working here,” I said, remembering something of the kind. “Long gone, whomever he was.”
K_____ was elbow deep in bones, piecing together a skeletal structure. Weapons and traps all over the room. Rifles soldered to other rifles. Triple-barreled here, and here, something rusted and still lethal looking, a bayonet-barreled pistol attached to a chain. A hunting cabin, yes, but a strange one, inhabited by both science and old craft. I opened a jar and sniffed at the contents. Local alcohol of some kind, doubtless poisonous.
What fool had brought this stuffed tiger? I imagined the thing packed up the mountain by reluctant porters years before, the tiger standing on their shoulders, eyes staring at nothing, limbs leaking sawdust. The waste disgusted me, and the light was fading. I saw K_____ thoughtfully measuring the poor beast’s ear between his fingers, tugging at the ancient leather.
“We will not be stopping here,” I’d just informed him, when something glittered in a beam of sunset shining through the roof.
A metal bird. Perched on the stuffed tiger’s back. I did not -—
I still do not. Impossible. A plummeting certainty.
Thirty-two years spent in darkness, and now a blinding and horrible light shines on me.
Henry. Alive, Henry, and perhaps stricken somewhere on the forest floor, mere feet from me as I stalked his killer?
If you hear screaming, it is already too late. All one can do is track the man-eater. Henry’s the one who taught me that. Was he in the cave where I’d found the cubs? Did he, bleeding, mute, watch as I killed them?
No. Surely not. My mind can only have lost control, ancient guilt mingling with memory. In my book, I was the one who’d killed all 26 of the man-eaters of Naini Tal. In my book, I killed the tigress that killed him, and I said nothing of how he’d saved me. I couldn’t bear to write his name, and so I took his glory. No one knows. Not my wife, unless I’ve confessed it in my sleep. Not the world. Not the villagers.
But here I am, writing these words, and Henry. Oh, Henry.
I held my head in my hands, feeling my skull spreading in my fingers. In a pouch at my waist, I carry my lucky pieces, my own superstitious version of the lockets worn by natives. Tiger bones, one from each tiger I’ve killed. I’ve carried them to Kenya, and to America, and everywhere I’ve gone, they’ve kept me safe.
In Henry’s house, I opened the pouch and spilled my luck out on the dirt floor. K_____ glanced at me, uninterested.
We found Henry under a coverlet on the metal cot in the corner. Skeleton undamaged, no bones taken, though one shoulder had been shattered and knit badly, the wound of the tigress. His long silver beard still clung to the last scraps of skin. Twenty years dead, longer.
And there, closed in the jaw of Henry’s skeleton, a coal, burned almost away. Ash on the ivory. My mentor did his own last rites here, no river, no hymn, no strength.
“Did you know him?” K_____ asked, and I didn’t answer. Why did he never return to Naini Tal? What was Henry doing here?
We sleep here, in this strange place, and we keep vigil over my friend’s bones, though his soul is long departed.
I twisted the wing of the little metal bird tonight, hoping that it might fly. It opened its beak and sang a single rusting note. Then all was silent.
18 September, 1950
The tigress was waiting for us, as I knew she would be. We slept for three hours and rose in darkness this morning, K_____ protesting bitterly.
I didn’t want to stalk her any longer. I’d dreamed of Kenya, and of my wife sitting at the kitchen table, her tea in hand. I thought about how I would likely not see her again.
I didn’t expect to survive a tigress this large, to whom I’d already lost my courage once, to whom I’d lost my pride. A ghost made of hunger and air.
She was out there. The forest wailed her presence. I felt her intentions, her bulk in the trees. I took a small bone from Henry’s hand, and placed it in my pouch. I’d burn it, and give him his true funeral, if I made it out from these trees again.
We walked, watched at every step. I felt her in the woods, moving parallel to us, but it was pointless to aim at nothing. One never heard a tiger if the tiger was planning an attack. One might hear a soft sound, as a tiger departed, having decided not to leap. K_____ looked around, uneasy, pale. He felt her too.
The forest felt brittle, each leaf frozen now, each twig K_____ tread on cracking like a shot, and we ascended still higher. At last, something I recognized, a tiger’s call, but not that of a tiger.
Henry’s version, a human voice, perfectly mimicking a tiger’s roar. I heard him do it hundreds of times. It’s nothing one forgets. I shook my head, trying to dispel the hallucination.
It was, of course, a tiger calling. A night spent in Henry’s company. It was no wonder. Another roar, and this voice was Henry’s as well, calling in the tones of a tigress, and a moment later, calling in the voice of a male tiger, and now another, an elderly cat, and a cub.
“Do you hear that?” I asked K_____ and his only response was quick breathing.
“How many are there?” he asked.
“Do you hear Henry?” The depth of my uncertainty had overcome me. I was queasy with it.
“I hear tigers,” he said.
A flurry of calls, the startling bells of a sambur, like automobiles in traffic, squeezing horns. Tiger here, tiger passing. All in the voice of Henry. It was as though Henry had become the entire forest, and all its occupants.
I stood still, fighting that old urge, run, curl to protect stomach, meticulously checking my rifle instead. Tiger running, shrieked a peafowl, in Henry’s voice..
Through the trees, I saw red. And more red. More than one tiger. How many? They were not leaping at us, but running for some other reason. A mass of tigers, in step, all moving at the same pace, flowing through the shadows faster than I could watch. This was nothing tigers, who do not hunt in packs, would do.
At last, I saw her, my old enemy, stepping out of the forest in front of us.
My rifle was already aimed as she leapt. I fired, but did not come close to hitting her. Her spring took her over our heads, and she landed, softly behind us. K_____ shook beside me, and I felt him considering a run.
“Don’t move,” I hissed. “If you move, she’ll have you.”
I scanned the trees for the other tigers, but they were invisible. She opened her jaws and roared to me in Henry’s voice and I felt the tears of a madman running down my face.
Perhaps this was his last gift to me, I thought, this aural hallucination that reminded me what to do when a tiger had gotten this close. Call her closer. He’d taught me the call, and now I made it back to her. I roared at her, at Henry’s killer, at this killer who hadn’t killed him.
She stepped toward me, her pelt shining, her eyes golden and glowing, her muscles gathering, and as she launched herself, I fired into her throat, the rifle kicking my shoulder.
The tigress screamed in Henry’s voice again, and threw herself into the trees as though they, and not I, were her murderer. I could see no blood on her pelt, but her madness was that of the wounded. The tree trunk cracked as she bellowed and threw herself at its branches, and slowly it toppled, tigress atop it, her growls quietening now, her motions slower.
I shot her once more, this time in the skull, just over her left eye, and she made a sound, a raw hissing, something beyond anything animal. I expected her to disappear, for there to be a cloud of smoke left behind, a ghost gone, but she did not. I edged closer, K_____ on my heels.
The tigress looked up suddenly, pupils fully dilated, and I knew that she was dying. How could a ghost die?
I could smell my own sweat, and a deep, metallic odor too, tiger’s blood, I thought, though I’d long since forgotten the smell of it.
Above, the stars blinked on, one by one, and the bats began to hunt. Insects rattled their shells like shields.
The tigress’ head dropped slowly onto her paws, and the light went out in her, as a headlamp on a train might go to black when pulled into its end station. There was a sound, a strange sound, which I attributed to bullets against stone, and then she was still.
“Shaitan,” I said, quietly, a prayer to the devil I’d killed for the second time.
K____ vibrated behind me. “Is it dead?”
“A man-eater for your museum,” I told him, overcome by the sadness I always feel when I kill something large as her, and with this sadness, something more, something darker. Confusion.
“You must know she’s not for a museum, old man,” K_____ told me, his voice returning, more confident than it had been before. “A museum wouldn’t pay for something like this.”
I looked at him.
“Everyone wants a tiger,” he said. “Everyone wants a man-eater certified by someone like you.”
“Who’s this tiger for?” I knew the answer already.
“A collector. Already has a table made of elephant legs.”
K_____’s wry laugh sounded to me like something from a moving picture, overheard from far down the street, through walls and bodies. Hollow and cluttered, the laughter of something made of less than nothing. My own laughter had, on occasion, sounded the same.
He took his flask from his pocket, sipped, and offered it to me. I refused.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” he said, kneeling to unpack his case. “I read your book. That’s why I do this. I show the world the things they want to see, but don’t want to travel to. It’s conservation, isn’t it? People like that, here, they’d ruin things. You, though, you’ve killed what? Two hundred tigers? You know what you’re doing.”
With effort, he rolled the man-eater onto her back, and removed a scalpel from his pack.
“If I don’t gut her soon, the skin’ll spoil,” he said, and then bent over the tigress, parting the fur on her chest.
“An old bullet wound.” He jabbed her left shoulder, but I didn’t look. I knew the wound. “There’s another scar here,” he said. “As old as the other.”
He ran his finger down the man-eater’s pelt, from chest to abdomen. I could scarcely keep myself from tearing the scalpel from his hand. I felt as though she was the only one on earth who’d known my past. I didn’t dare think of how she could be here at all, thirty-two years later, did not dare imagine what this all might mean, for it was her. I knew her face, her tracks. It was her. A dead, mortal tigress.
“Peculiar,” K______ muttered, cutting into the scar. An echoing scratch. Scalpel on bullet, I thought.
“What in Christ is this?” K_____ whispered.
I wasn’t looking at him, nor at the tigress. I was focused into the distance, imagining Kenya, when he shook my shoulder. I turned my head, reluctant to see what he’d done.
A gleam, straight down the center of the tigress’ body. K_____ peeled back the flesh on either side of the incision.
There was no blood. No. Only skin, and beneath the skin, metal.
K_____ began tearing at the pelt, pulling it away from the structure beneath, breathing through his mouth.
“What is it?” he asked, looking suddenly, frantically up at me. “Is it a prank?”
I couldn’t speak.
Henry, kneeling with a tin can and a watch spring. Henry, wounded, climbing down into that ravine to retrieve her body. Skinning her, hauling her back up the mountain, and bringing her back to life. He’d made a new kind of tiger, one that could resist hunters and poachers. One that could resist me.
K_____’s hands peeled the flesh back still further. I could see solder marks, where seams had been joined.
“The hide isn’t dry. How did he get it to heal? What did he use? How does it move?”
He attempted haphazardly to slice into the tigress’ chest, denting the metal. He pulled up the tigress’ eyelid, his fingernail tapping at her pupil. Glass. I looked at her feet. The strange marks I’d seen in the village had not been made by claws. Henry had given her knives, forged into the shape of talons.
I felt myself half-smiling, an echo of the old enchantment, Henry’s genius, Henry as a shikari.
“Whatever he’s done, however he’s done it,” K_____ said, his voice scarcely under control, wobbling with joy, “We’ll lead an expedition back here. Photographers. Film cameras.”
He jabbed the scalpel into a seam between the metal pieces, levering at it. A dark fluid leaked out. Blood? Not blood? Henry never explained himself. I still had K_____’s rifle. I swung it slowly around to the front. When he heard the click, he looked up, entirely startled.
“What are you doing?”
I fired into K_____’s face, approximating the angle he himself would have taken had he stumbled over his own weapon in the forest, drunk on gin, and a fool. I left him where he lay, skull exposed. I used my handkerchief to polish his rifle and put it into his own hands. Took his scalpel.
Anyone who found K_____’s body would imagine he’d been attacked by a tiger, and inadvertently shot himself in the scuffle.
I chopped down two saplings, lashed the tigress to them with my machan ropes, and began a laborious drag. I’d drop her into that ravine. Everything was clear to me now. If the world learned of this tiger, they’d cut down the forests to find more like her, though surely there were no more. This would’ve taken Henry years to accomplish, however it was he’d done it. Magic. Gears.
Kumaon would be overrun. All the remaining living tigers would be taken, shot, opened like stuffed toys, left to dry in the sun, unused, unburied.
I hauled her through the trees, straining at her great weight, squinting toward the earliest light, toward the place I remembered from 1918. If I threw her off the cliffs here, she would not be found. Dead, I’d tell the villagers, and fallen, just as I’d told them before. My fingers were blue with cold despite the effort of hauling her, and my breath came sharply, each gasp painful.
At last, I found the place, and panting, unlashed her. My heart, by this juncture, was pounding inside me like something independent of my body, a metal bird flying for no reason other than someone else’s will.
I pushed the tigress over the edge. I watched her fall for the second time, her golden face and fur, her gleaming, opened breast. I was not watching my footing. Is it any wonder I fell? Not from the cliff, as I might deserve, but over a small rise, and into a clearing, flat rock beneath me.
Hours have passed. I cannot stand. It’s cold now, and the light fades again. My left leg, in my trousers, is bent in such a way that I know it would be useless to attempt to place it back in line. I’ve bled into the ice, and it shines like a glass ruby on an elephant’s forehead.
I have this journal, and my pencil, and I write for comfort. What else do I have, after all these years wandering in the wilderness? Tomorrow, I’ll burn these words. I write only to tell myself what happened, not to place the story into the world.
Out there in the sky I see each star again, and like every man dying from the beginning of his days, I regret the things I didn’t do, and I regret the things I did.
19 September, 1950
All night, Henry’s tigers paced around me, circling close enough to brush me with their fur. I couldn’t count them, couldn’t name them. There may be hundreds, or twelve, or a thousand.
Now, the sun is risen, and snow has fallen here at the top of this mountain, over me and around my body. If I could stand, I might look down again onto my own lost village, the teardrop lake at the center of the vista like the eye of a god, wide open for eternity, never freezing, never anything more or less than blue. No passage to heaven from that lake. One needs a river, one needs a fire, one needs bones.
Ram nam satya hai, sing the voices in my memory, a hymn to carry the victims away, shrouded and saved from further sorrow.
What will the tigers leave of me? Will there be bones to send to my wife? Who will find them here? The villagers await the sound of my fire, five shots to come and take the tiger from here, but I won’t fire this rifle again. They will assume me dead, along with K_____, and the tigress escaped.
When I turn my head, all I can see in this clearing are pug marks, tracks circling over tracks, lines and circuits, loops and letters. Each of the footfalls, each of the places where a tail touched the earth, each spatter of blood, each piece of fur brushed onto a tree trunk tells me something.
Coded lines left behind by Henry, placed in the tiger’s metal minds, along with the calls he gave them, but I’ve no key to break them. When the cats move, I hear their machinery now, the sound of gears against gears, metal against metal.
All these years haunted by a ghost that wasn’t. All these years imagining tracks around my house, when they were here all along. There are no ghosts but the ones you make.
I lay last night in the dark and heard the tigers dragging their claws through the snow, each one marking my name. That, at least, was mine, but it’s become something the tigers use. I can’t read it, but I know it belonged to me, just as one knows a book read long ago, the margins scarred with ink, the pages folded down. A possession. This book, this journal, I’d know anywhere. I sought to burn it, but my firestarter is wet, and I can’t strike a flame. Perhaps the tigers will take it too.
In my hand, I have a penknife, given to me by Henry, the handle made of something’s bones, the blade so thin now that it scarcely exists. Used on pelts, and on tin cans, and on apples, and on birds. Used on tigers and leopards, on man-eaters all over India. Used on tiger cubs. Two hearts eaten, and I thought it made me a man and gave me a vengeance on all the things that take hunters from their lives.
Over my head, high and far away, an airplane tears a line across the heavens, hunting some smaller prey, and I think about a sky filled with roaring ghosts. I feel displaced in time, a traveler returning home after decades spent in a place where years passed at a strange rate. If I came down from the mountains now, an old man, I might find the children I left in this village thirty-two years ago. I might find myself, walking into the woods. I might find Henry, twisting metal into life.
I am well-acquainted with the paths to heaven from this part of the mountains. I do not expect heaven.
Send my bones up in smoke along with those I killed, and let us hunt together, shifting between prey and shikari, stalking, killing enemies already dead. The bones in my pouch belong to the dead. Burn them.
A hunter hunts. We are all hunters here.