The Hunter

Picture Credits: Norbert Pietsch

South Texas doesn’t look at all like most people expect, especially along the eastern coast. There are beaches, for one thing; long, thin strips of brown the colour of birdseed, decorated with the occasional lost herd of white, hump-backed Brahmin cattle and a few part-decayed dolphin corpses. Beyond the sludgy gulf of Mexico and the booted, hatted sunbathers, the beach fades into a thick tangle of live-oak and kudzu. The branches are drenched in gray hanks of Spanish moss, like witch-hair, and the shadows are full of cougars and enormous, tiger-striped mosquitoes that like to hide in your sweaty creases. This is where the people live. They carve out grass-lined enclaves and build the biggest houses that they can for the money they have. Some of the houses have dirt floors, but the outsides are kept well-painted and the cars in the driveway tend to be both large and expensive. They have few guests, so nobody can tell. 

The streets are all charmingly named; Arthurian and themes are prominent. So are the characters from the stories of Robin Hood. There are no liquor stores, few grocery chains, and a plethora of fast-food restaurants and churches. At night, if you listen, you can hear the sound of stills exploding – occasionally punctuated by torrents of gunfire. This town has few professionals, and all but one share the same street.

Dr Marten, the retired dentist, lives with his wife in the mansion he built on the bone-edge of town.

The house that Dr Marten built (using the money his wife inherited) is bigger than most Walmart stores – even the huge superstore in San Antonio looks puny beside it. The style it apes is high Victorian; it aches for the legitimate trappings of bloodline and class, even though the foundations were laid in 1967. Since it was built so far into the wrong century, it more closely resembles the troubled nightmare of movie Victorianism than an image of the thing itself. The turrets stand higher, the paint is darker, the windows are more oppressively small than any set into a wall by Charles Barry. Dr Marten’s wife, Rosalie, protested when she first saw the plans but she was very young and had been well brought-up. She refrained from telling her hard-working young husband that she would never crack the class system this way and, in fact, by doing this thing he was losing some of the brittle ground that he’d won by marrying up.

After a few years, she realized that Boyd never intended to impress her family; the house was a message to the town.

The thought struck her, suddenly, while they were enjoying their usual leisurely Sunday after-church brunch. It flashed into her brain while that-decade’s Mexican maid forked crustless squares of toast onto her plate. Looking across the long, mahogany table at her short, fat husband (bent bull-like over a plate heaped high with jalapeño-dusted scrambled eggs) she shivered, glad that she’d heeded her upbringing and buttoned up.

Boyd’s skin was thin, but his fists were hard. She’s seen such men before, touring the family oil-fields with her father, but all of them were grime-smeared workers with a grudge. They felt, her father said, smiling, like the American dream had failed them. ‘There they are, Rosy. White, with enough brains to read a meter, and they’re still roughnecks with fat wives and two nickels touching in their pockets.’ He pressed his soft, fatty fingers into her shoulder, ‘All their lives they were told that if they didn’t progress, if they made no money, the trouble was that they weren’t working hard enough. Their neighbours agree that laborers are failures. They think it about themselves. So they’re wound so tight they’ll explode at anyone even slightly below them. Those fat wives again. Their filthy children.’

Rosalie swallowed, ‘So why do they tell us that in school, if it’s so hurtful to them?’

Her father smiled, his new gold bridgework (Boyd’s craft) glinting in the midday sun, ‘Because it benefits us.’

Now, Rosalie knew, she was like those wives herself. Unconsciously, she touched the healed bone beneath her left eye and remembered the fight they’d had about the lions.

It was just after Dr Marten retired. He was thirty-five years old and Rosalie’s father had, the week before, been buried. Rosie’s money flowed into his bank account (her name was on it. She could take what she wanted, so long as she brought the teller a note that he’d signed) and she no longer had to spend whole evenings listening to him gripe about the extravagant cost of keeping up their house.

Boyd was happy for a week, then he got bored with himself, puttering around the mainly-empty hallways. They hadn’t bought much furniture, yet. They could only afford the bare essentials. Polishing his guns, he stalked through the hallways, sniffing around, until one day he came across an article about big game hunters in an ancient copy of The National Geographic that he found open on the arm of his TV-watching chair.

That night, he took her in the way that had (lately) been reserved for the maids and said that he was considering starting a kind of importing business, set up specifically for just one customer. He laid it all out as she lay there, worn-out, slightly bruised, and sweating through their brand new sheets. He knew people everywhere, in Mexico, in Nairobi, where the import laws were lax. He’d pay for the cats, pay for their flights, for some one to feed and water them over the course of the journey, then pay truckers to drive them up from Mexico City.

The cost would be extravagant, of course, but they could afford it. And just think of the way the mayor would look at him (Him! A scholarship student! The guy who earned his keep at college by cleaning out the mayor’s blocked toilet) the next time he came over for a hunting party and saw those magnificent lions stalking through the baited cattle-fields at the edge of the property! Imagine the look on the old man’s face when he saw that Boyd intended to shoot them himself!

Rosie propped herself up on one elbow and peered at him across the coverlet. She said, ‘Why not just fly out there yourself and shoot them on the veldt?’

Boyd’s small blue eyes grew wide and glassy, his face flooded with so much blood that his cheeks turned brick red, ‘Because they have to see it Rosie. They have to see me do it. Otherwise, they’ll whisper and laugh at me behind their hands.’ He flopped back onto the pillows, murmuring, ‘I know them.’

That’s when Rosie made her mistake. She whispered, just loudly enough to carry over the hum of their ceiling fan, ‘You shouldn’t care what they think, Boyd. You’re married to me. You’re above them.’

That set him off.

Rosalie spent the next few days drifting in and out of consciousness, surfacing out of a great sea of pain then sinking back beneath the waves. She never contradicted him again.

Now, the stuffed skins of five dark-maned lions line the entrance-way. Their bullet-holes were carefully patched, their teeth and claws perfectly preserved and terribly polished. People didn’t talk to Boyd as much, in church, but they lowered their eyes when he passed in a show of deep respect. Or at least they did, for a while. Until the years passed and the old mayor was voted out.

Last week, at a covered-dish dinner (Rosalie had the maid prepare a plate of gently-spiced tamales – peasant food is very in right now) she stood by her husband, her hand stashed, securely, in the crook of his arm, and watched the new mayor smile, slightly, as Boyd was telling him what ought to be done with tax laws. Rosalie watched Boyd’s white eyebrows bunch as he traced the smile from the mayor to the new, young minister. She felt her heart flutter, furiously, in her thin-boned chest.

On the ride home, sinking into the Rolls padded leather seats, she stared out the windshield as her husband drove (hardly seeing the sharp tips of the bull horns mounted into the front of the long, black hood) and listened to Boyd rant about the nerve of that mayor and upstart young minister. ‘Why, I know for a fact’ he said, gripping the wheel with a pair of white knuckles, ‘that boy’s daddy was trash. He worked for your old man, out on the rig. Now that he’s gone to school he expects the whole town to be handed to him. That Minister’s the same. Trumped up trash from Kentucky. Bet his momma birthed him on the floor of a tarpaper shack.’

Rosalie flinched. She tried to make herself fade into the upholstery.

Over the next few days, she watched the pressure mount behind her husband’s blood-clouded face. She watched him slap the maids around, kick over tables, and pace threadbare trails into her grandmother’s silk carpet. On Thursday, while they were eating, Boyd dropped his fork onto a plate (the tines took a chip out of the china) looked up at her, and said, ‘Rosie, I think it’s just about time for another hunt.’

He stared levelly at her. Watching the colour drain from her cheeks he smiled and said, ‘ It will be harder, this time, and more expensive. The PC brigade shits on everyone. But I can manage it.’

Rosalie felt the fork trembling in her tingling hand.

‘I’ll invite them on Sunday. You’ll help me with the phone calls. The paperwork.’

And that’s when Rosie made her decision.

All the lions that Boyd imported were male, save for one, but Rosalie remembered from school that in prides the females did all of the hunting. Humans love to impose their hierarchies. The skin of that single lioness was considered unworthy of mounting. It had been made into a carpet (with the head still attached) and then rolled up and shoved into a trunk in the attic, but Rosalie went up there often to look at her family photograph albums and read her books (Boyd didn’t like to watch her reading. He didn’t like her going where he couldn’t track her) so she knew where it was.

That night, Boyd complained about the taste of something bitter in his cognac, but he drank it down anyway, the same way that he always did. As soon as he fell asleep, open-mouthed, leaning against the leather back of his batwing TV chair, Rosie forced her popping knees up three flights of stairs.

The trip was harder, on the way down. The lioness skin weighed about seventy pounds. Mainly, she dragged it furside up across the floor. The skull clacked behind her whenever it hit a snag, or the curved leg of a table. It slid pretty well against the carpet.

The worst part of the journey was the five minutes she spent hauling it through the living room. Boyd was deeply drugged and, unusually for him, he was snoring, but her heart pounded at the thought of stumbling and waking him.

She needn’t have worried.

Standing beside the right arm of his chair, Rosalie hauled the lion skin up across his chest, head first, like a sharp-toothed blanket. When the glass-eyed head dangled over the back of the chair, Rosalie climbed on top of her hidden husband, placed a knee on either side of his fat stomach, and felt around beneath the fur for the shape of his face. Finding the nose and his two narrow lips, she clamped them closed. She held on, hard, even as the body thrashed.

When Rosalie was finished, she wiped a shower of shining, dun-coloured hairs off of her skirt and went into the kitchen. For the first time in years she made herself a pot of coffee and stared out her window while she sipped it. It seemed to her that, full dark or not, she could hear the birds. They were singing loud, and very strong.

The Tikbalang

Maria only went to fetch some water. She meant no harm. Her mother was struggling in her labour; the baby was too large to part her small hips. She strained and sweated on her woven sleeping mat as the infant tried to struggle free; her long, blue-black hair plastered onto her forehead with water and salt.

Maria’s grandmother said, “Listen to me. There is a spring whose waters are good for easing the passage of the baby through the bone-cage. Follow the North path out of the barrio and go two miles past the largest mango tree. The forest-people live there, and there are ghosts, but they should not trouble you. The spring you’re seeking wells up between two large banyan trees that are always in flower. The spring itself is in a stone grotto, like the home of the Virgin. The water looks like gold. You will know it on sight.”

The old woman handed Maria a small, weathered Coke bottle with a twist of rag for a cork. Maria slipped it safe into the front pocket of her flower-print dress.

The old woman patted her shoulder, “Hurry, child.”

“Yes Nanai,” she said, and walked out the door.

Maria’s house stood at the very edge of the village, one more palm-hut roofed with corrugated slabs of iron that had turned brown in the acid rain that blew in from the city. Her family was not poor. They were not wealthy enough to afford electricity or cinderblock walls, but they had a lot of livestock, two outfits each, and they never went a day without food. Maria went to school, and did well there, even though she had to learn her lessons in English; a language foreign to her.

The deep, dark forest is the same everywhere on earth. Here, in Luzon, it loomed, black and impenetrable, just outside Maria’s door.

Maria hurried along the path her grandmother set her upon; the road seemed to glow with white dust, even beneath a canopy of green that closed out the sun and dropped the temperature a full ten degrees. She saw a few snakes, drinking in the warmth of the white chalky road, but they did not trouble her. She heard a few screams; a troop of monkeys, hardly worth noticing.

In a few minutes, Maria reached the large mango. It stood thirty feet tall and its branches were hung with huge globes of ripe red-gold fruit. A few had fallen to the earth and, since they were nearly perfect (and she couldn’t reach the better ones) she slipped one into her pocket with the empty glass bottle. The other fruit was larger, but it had a bruise near the stem, so she started eating it right away. She didn’t want the juice to seep into her school-dress; it had just been washed, if she stained it now she would attract flies for a week and have to live with the smell of spoilt fruit.

The pulp was soft and sweet between her sharp white teeth. The juice ran over her chin. She wiped herself clean with the back of her brown hand.

Past the large mango, the path devolved into a trail fit for children or wild pigs. It faltered to a thin white thread she followed with her feet. She sucked the oblong, string-trailing seed of her mango until the flavour was gone. Then she spat the stone onto the ground. When it hit the soil, she heard a loud cry, “Tik Tik!” The voice, if it was a voice, was loud. It echoed through the trees. She could not find the source of it.

Maria knew a lot of stories that she tried not to think about. She walked a little faster down the vanishing path.

She reached the banyan trees, the spring, about half an hour after she set out from her small house. The flavour of the mango was a memory in her mouth. The trees were larger than anything that she had ever seen. They were wider around than the church in her barrio, their trunks composed of many flesh-like grey stalks that joined like arches around dark hollows that were big enough to house four families. There were gaps in the trunk where hidden eyes could peer out at her, and the brown, fibrous roots hung down from the branches like human hair, trailing onto the earth.

She swallowed, screwing up her courage. Maria was afraid, but looking up, she saw that her grandmother had told her the truth. Among the tree’s green-black shiny, coin-sized leaves, flurries of miniscule white blossoms were blooming. She could see the fountain bubbling in its stone bowl between the twin, elephantine trunks.

The water really was gold!

The sight of it, the pure metallic smell (and the memory of her mother’s sweat-stained face) gave the girl courage. She ran to the lip of the spring and knelt on the sandy soil by the roots of the banyan that stood nearest the village. She took the bluish glass Coke-bottle from her pocket, pulled out the cork, and bent to plunge its mouth in water.

“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the echoing cry flew out at her from the black hollows of the banyan. Maria heard the solid clunk, the machine-like ratatat of horse-hooves on wood. She jumped up and screamed.

The tree, with its many dark doors, stood between her body and the path. Another tree, as alive, as ominous, stood to her left. She would not dare jump into the sacred water; she had nowhere to run.

“Tik Tik! Tik Tik!” the cry continued, growing ever louder. Something hard scraped across wood. Maria saw white sparks flickering across her field of vision. Her mouth tasted like she’d been sucking copper pesos. Breathing hard, she closed her eyes and brought the calm face of her Nanai swimming to the surface of her thoughts.

Suddenly, the tumult stopped. It halted like the cry of a chicken, decapitated with one sharp stroke of her grandmother’s knife. She heard the sound of water, bubbling up into the basin it carved itself in stone. She felt the pound of blood in her temples and clear warm air on her face.

Maria took a deep breath and smelled only green earth and her own stinking fear-sweat.

She opened her eyes.

The trunk of the banyan opened to black three feet from her face. The hole in the trunk gaped like a window. A face stared out of it. A creature was staring at her. It had the long chestnut-furred face of a horse, equine ears high up on its head. They swivelled in confusion. Maria gasped, covering her mouth with the hand that did not hold the bottle.

The creature startled, cried out “Tik Tik!” in its oddly humanoid voice. Maria thought that it was speaking a language, one she could not understand. The thing plastered its ears flat to its skull. Its teeth were yellow and very sharp. It leaned out of the hole, revealing a long, man-like neck frilled with a mane made of sharp, poisonous-looking spikes.

Maria forced herself to stand very still. She was hardly breathing. When she had been quiet for a while, the creature drew back. It still stared out at her, but its ears rose up again and the whites of its eyes shrank until she could see only its black, equine pupil.

Maria thought very hard.

She remembered the unbruised mango weighing down her pocket. Moving very slowly, very cautiously, keeping her eyes open and on the face of the Tikbalang (she paused whenever she saw the velvet ears fall back) she reached into her pocket with her empty hand and brought the fragrant fruit out into the open.

Maria watched the Tikbalang’s soft-haired nostrils flex as the creature snuffled at the mango. She held it out, waiting until its horsey ears flicked forward with interest.

It said, “Tik Tik?”

Then, Maria smiled. She said, very softly, “I need the water for my mother. She’s very sick with her next child.”

The creature was leaning out of the hole in the tree, snuffing the air between them.

Maria continued, “Do you like mangos? I will give this one to you if you’ll let me have some water.”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the Tikbalang reached out of its hole (its arms were very long, too long for its head) and plucked the fruit from her hands with jointed fingers that looked like they had been skilfully carved from black hooves. Maria felt their texture against her palms for a moment as it scooped up the fruit. They were very hard, and razor sharp. Later, she found a thin red trail running down the centre of her palm, a mark from where the claws had grazed her, usurping her fate-line. It never healed.

As soon as the Tikbalang had hold of the fruit, it shunted its body back into its home, retreating like a spider into its hole. When it was gone, the woods seemed suddenly darker, and eerily quiet. Maria filled her bottle quickly. The water was golden in the stone bowl, and stayed golden when it was decanted into the worn glass bottle. She stuck the cloth plug in and ran for home, carrying her treasure in her hands. While she was running, it continued to glow.

Maria made it to the village very quickly. Even so, she was just in time. The baby was rushing fast to earth and her mother was pale. Her lips were parched and her black eyes were as glazed as the eyes of a market-fish at the end of the day. Maria handed the bottle to her grandmother who poured a few drops into her daughter’s gaping wound of a mouth. Her labour eased instantly. The baby was born a few minutes later, a boy, healthy and strong. Maria’s mother held him to her milk-rich breast.

After the excitement had passed, Maria took the mostly-full bottle down from the shelf that held her family’s special-things; the icon, the Bible. She sipped a little water. It tasted like mango and metal, sweet coins dissolving in her mouth. As the liquid touched her tongue, Maria heard the cry of “Tik Tik!” echoing in her ears. Maria smiled when she heard it. She would never run out of stories.