Fearful Symmetry, Pt. 3

My apologies for the late post. Unfortunately, I’ve been having some computer issues. Nothing serious, but nothing that can get resolved before Monday. Hopefully Monday’s update will come as scheduled, but no promises at the moment.

There was nothing to do the next day. The blinds were built, the animals captured, and the tiger nocturnal. Richard ached to get out and move, to explore the forest for some sign of the beast, but the villagers were too frightened to accompany him (not that he could have really communicated with them anyway,) and Corman and Kuthra had no desire to do anything other than peacefully await nightfall and settle in for twelve hours spent sitting in a tree waiting for the tiger to take the bait. Richard considered going out on his own, but reason prevailed over emotion; he was unfamiliar with the area and, more importantly, unfamiliar with the hunting habits of tigers. It wouldn’t do any good to get caught by surprise and torn in half before he could react. That would be a terrible death.

Better to have been gored in the final breath of a Cape Buffalo he had shot. Better to go down struggling against a grizzly with his knife and his pistol in his hands. Better to die face-to-face with a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, any of a dozen other deaths where he could stare his killer in its inhuman face. It simply would not do to be pounced upon in a moment of inattentiveness.

To die such an ignoble death would certainly make for an unsuccessful hunt.

So Richard listlessly wandered around, watching the villagers go about their business. He took his lunch without pleasure, he napped, he disassembled his pistol and cleaned, laid out his hunting gear and checked it, checked it again, napped again. Finally, as dusk began to fall, Corman came to Richard’s hut and grinning announced, “The hunt is on, my boy.”

* * *

Within an hour’s time, Corman and Richard were sitting on a small platform nestled some thirty feet above the ground in the branches of a marda tree overlooking the river where the first victim had been found. The blind was just big enough for the two men to sit side-by-side comfortably and store their gear and a dabba with their dinner in it. Richard was displeased about having to sit up in a tree waiting for the tiger to come, and his distaste for the situation only intensified when Corman told him that they would have to stay in the tree until the morning. “Tigers being nocturnal and all. But don’t worry! It’ll pass by quicker than you think, I’m sure. We’ll sleep in shifts, and we’ll have the sounds of the night to keep us company.” Much to Richard’s chagrin, that category would include Corman’s snoring.

Hours later, Richard sat with his legs falling asleep, the heavy double-barreled rifle that Corman had loaned him cradled against his chest, Corman deep in sleep next to him. The forest was alive with the sounds of a hundred different strange animals and insects and birds, and Richard could not decide whether he felt at peace or annoyed. He brushed a leaf from his face and tried to look at the stars through the canopy of branches and leaves above him.

Thirty feet below on the ground the pig that they had captured and tethered to a post they’d driven into the ground slept. It had squealed and thrashed when they released it from its cage, but Corman had insisted that baiting the tiger was the best way to draw it out. “It’s a shame we don’t have access to any of its kills,” he’d said. “They don’t climb trees, not like leopards. But they’re so bloody big they don’t have to. Often, they’ll just leave a kill where it lay, and come back later on to finish it. Track it down by scent, I suppose.” Still, Richard didn’t like it. It may have been expedient, but there was no sport in it, no challenge. Sitting in the tree, they weren’t hunters; they were opportunists.

This was the last thought Richard had as he began to drift off into sleep.

* * *

The pig squealed. Richard’s eyes shot open and he jumped in his seat.

Corman muttered, shifted slightly, and did not awake. Richard shook his head, did his best to rub the sleep from his eyes. He had no idea how long he’d been asleep, but the fact that the pig was still present meant he hadn’t missed the tiger, at least.

But the pig’s squealing was insistent. There was an urgency to it that had been lacking earlier. Richard leaned forward to examine the creature and saw that it was frantically struggling against the makeshift harness they had bound it with. It alternated between crying out, trying to paw its way free, and trying to chew through its bounds.

The little thing was terrified.

A chill struck Richard. He shifted his rifle, his hands settling to bring it up to his shoulder at a moment’s notice. His eyes worked backwards from the pig’s intended route of escape, and he saw it.

Its muscles rippled under its fur. Its fur shone in the moonlight like burning embers. There was intelligence in its eyes. There was purpose in its step. This was not some lumbering buffalo with a foul temper that gored those who got too close. This was not a lion, petulant and self-serving. This was not a grizzly bear, enormous and unsubtle. This was something altogether different, smarter, faster, more intelligent, more horrible.

It was beautiful.

It stalked forward, sniffing the air and looking languidly about. Even from high up in the tree, Richard was awed by its size, its power. He was a boy again, mouth agape and eyes wide in the presence of a creature that could rend him limb from limb with less effort than it took him to eat his own dinner.

The pig was helpless. The tiger brought a paw, its huge impossible paw down on the things’ back and pinned it flat against the ground. The pig gasped for air, and the tiger bit the back of its neck. In an instant, it was over. As quickly as Richard’s brain could process the action, the pig was dead and the tiger feasting.

It was perfect. It was perfect, and Corman wanted to shoot it from a tree, wanted it unaware and unable to defend itself when it died.

Richard frowned. To do so would have been an insult to the tiger and an admission of inadequacy to the hunters. He would do no such thing, would not even take part in it. What he would do, then, was watch this magnificent animal eat. Study it. Understand it. Best it. Kill it.

The tiger roared. Richard’s breath caught in his throat, his heart began pounding. Corman was more awake than he had ever been, all in a single instant. Corman fumbled the rifle he held in his hands, but kept his grip on it. He watched in silence as the tiger stretched out and savored its meal, and then he brought the rifle to his shoulder.

“No.”

Richard shoved the barrel of the gun aside, and the shot went wild, echoing through the forest and threatening to knock Corman from the blind. But the tiger did not run. It sat perfectly still, its vision locked on the treetops, searching for the source of the noise.

“You damn fool, what are you doing?” Corman hissed.

“Not like this,” Richard said. “Not like this.”

Corman stared at him for a moment before turning his attention back towards the tiger and preparing to fire again.

Richard reached out and grabbed the rifle, yanked it towards him. Corman was taken by surprise, but he gripped the gun tighter and pulled back towards himself.

“If you want the shot, take it!” Corman shouted, all pretext of remaining quiet given up now.

“I do. I will. But when I kill it, I’m going to be staring it in the eye, not hiding up in a tree.”

Corman stopped struggling, but kept a tight grip on the rifle. “I can’t let you do that,” he said. “It’s pure foolishness. We can end this now, and be back in Bangalore relaxing in civilization by tomorrow afternoon.”

Richard stared at Corman in silence. He shook his head and sighed. “You people and your goddamn civilization.” He let go of the gun and Corman eyed him suspiciously before returning his attention to the tiger below them, the tiger that still watched them with an unnatural and detached calm. And seeing his opportunity, Richard pushed the older man with all his might.

Corman fell thirty feet to the ground screaming. He landed on his feet. There was a snapping sound that hit Richard’s ears like a gunshot. Corman pitched forward and fell onto his hands, the rifle laying a few feet away from him. The tiger stared at him for a moment, observing him. It walked forward, slowly, confidently. Corman tried to pull himself forward, to reach the rifle, but he wasn’t fast enough. The tiger was upon him, its massive paw pinning him in place as it opened its mouth and went about subduing its prey.

But it didn’t eat. It paced in a circle around Corman’s body, sniffed at the rifle, looked up at the tree. Richard smiled.

“What are you telling me?” he whispered. “My move? Is it my move? Alright.”

Richard threw down his rifle. The tiger walked up to it and sniffed at that one as well. It hesitated, took deep breaths, walked over to Corman’s body and his rifle, sniffed them again. Richard watched in confusion and all at once it struck him what it was doing.

“Getting my scent. You’re getting my scent, aren’t you?”

The tiger roared as if in affirmation. It turned its back on the hunter and returned to the jungle it had emerged from.

* * *

The next morning Richard awoke to the sound of Kuthra shouting at him from the ground. “Wake up! Wake up! What in the devil happened?” Richard saw the man standing next to the savaged corpse of Corman, anger and confusion playing across his face.

“I’ll be right down!” Richard said.

When he reached the ground, Kuthra repeated his question, and Richard looked at the ground, feigning shame. “We fell asleep. The tiger roared, and startled us awake. Corman bumped me and I dropped my rifle. Then he tried to take the shot himself, but he was unsteady, missed, and the recoil made him fall.” Richard looked up and crossed his arms in indignation. “There wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do about it. Did you want me to try to climb down the tree just to get killed too?”

Kuthra said nothing. His dark eyes bore into Richard as if they could pierce his very soul, but Richard held the man’s gaze. “I do not believe that Mister Corman would have fallen from a blind, like a fool.”

Richard smiled. “Believe whatever you like, but the fact remains that I am now the most accomplished hunter here. If you thought that you could save these people alone, you would have done so without contact the great Kenneth Corman, no?”

Kuthra was silent, his eyes smoldering with anger. Richard’s smile grew a bit wider. “In any case, I am going to hunt this tiger. You can help if you like. And if you would prefer not to, then help me bring Mister Corman’s body back to the village and then get the Hell out of my way. I’ve got work to do.” With that, Richard turned his back on Kuthra and began to climb back up the tree, mentally assembling a list of the things he would need for a successful hunt.

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