Fearful Symmetry, Pt. 4

The plan was simple. Kuthra would return to Pennagaram with Corman’s body, and Richard would push on into the wilderness in pursuit of the tiger. There was no room for discussion. Richard announced his intentions and ignored Kuthra’s attempts to dissuade him, to caution that he wait for a native guide to join them.

“You do not know these jungles!” Kuthra said. “You do not know tigers!”

“No, but I know how to track a big predator through the woods. And I can hit a target from a hundred yards out.” Richard smiled. “This tiger may be a man-eater, it may be hundreds of pounds of muscle and teeth, and it may be the greatest predator on the face of the planet, but if it bleeds, I can kill it.”

Kuthra shook his head. “You are an arrogant fool.”

Richard’s smile became a grin. “No, Kuthra. I am a hunter, and I am finally going on a hunt.” With that, Richard turned and knelt, examined the drops of blood sprinkled along the ground, and headed into the jungle. Kuthra watched as the hunter’s form became obscured by leaf and vine and branch. He looked around, taking in his surroundings, analyzing, interpreting, and pressing on. In less time than it took to speak it, the hunter was gone, swallowed by the jungle, and Kuthra began the long walk back to the village with the body of Kenneth Corman.

* * *

It was dark by the time Richard returned to the village. Lanterns had been affixed to the walls of the various huts, perhaps in honor of Corman’s passing or perhaps as a deterrent to the tiger. Kuthra was sitting in a chair outside of the hut Corman had been sleeping in, a pipe in his hand, the dead man’s rifle leaning against the wall next to him, and his vision fixed firmly on the darkness of the jungle. He heard Richard’s approach and turned to look at the tired, frustrated man.

“The look on your face suggests to me that you were not successful,” Kuthra said. As an afterthought, an insult, he added, “Hunter.”

“That’s the nature of the hunt,” Richard said, trying to project a sense of optimism but not smiling. “You have to be patient. Some days, your quarry walks in front of your sights, and some days, not a goddamn thing happens.”

Kuthra said nothing but turned to look at the jungle once more and drew another puff of smoke from his pipe. “I am returning to Bangalore,” he announced dispassionately, “and I am taking Mr. Corman’s body and the vehicle with me. When I return, I will be bringing another hunter, an associate of Mr. Corman’s.”

Richard snorted. “What? You don’t think I can hunt the tiger on my own?”

“I think,” Kuthra said slowly, “that by the time I return, you will be dead.”

Richard frowned. He opened his mouth to shout an insult at Kuthra, but saw no point in it. Richard shook his head and began walking back towards his hut. Some of the villagers could speak passing English, he knew. He would simply find one and have them help make a map of the area. He would visit the other bait stations that they had set-up before Corman’s passing and check on them and let his findings guide the next day’s hunt.

Richard slept dreamlessly that night.

* * *

Richard awoke with the dawn to find that Kuthra and the car were already gone. Communicating with the villagers without Kuthra to translate his words into their language and back again was difficult, but manageable. Eventually, Richard was able to convey to a teenaged boy that he wanted help making a map. The boy was able to reproduce a crude but accurate representation of the surrounding five miles or so, but made it abundantly clear that he would not be Richard’s guide, that none of the villagers would help to slay the rakshasa out of fear of becoming the evil thing’s next victim. And so Richard set forth alone once more.

All of the traps that Corman and the men under his direction had laid for the tiger were bare, but there was no trace of blood at any of them. Indeed, the poles that had staked the pigs to the ground had been knocked over, and there was nothing left but splintered wood and the scent of animal terror. Upon coming across the first such pole, it had been easy enough to dismiss it as the work of a boar who had been worrying at the stake for two straight days. By the time Richard came across the final pole, he refused to think about it any longer, refused to think that the ground had not been dug up, the pole had not shattered where the scratchings from the boar’s tusks and paws had left their mark.

Richard took his lunch in the shade and wondered how fast he could run, how quickly he could climb a tree. How quickly he could move. “Fast,” he said to himself in between bites of his meal, his mouth chewing mechanically. He swallowed his food without tasting it. “If I had to, I could move very fast.”

* * *

The rest of the day was uneventful. Richard walked a circuit through the jungle, his ears straining to catch every sound and his eyes meticulously examining every object he came across in detail, searching for the scratchings of claws on tree trunks, of branches and twigs broken underfoot by powerful paws, of spoor with traces of fur and bone from prey animals in it. But there were no signs of the animal at all. The tiger, the rakshasa, seemed to have disappeared just as surely as the wild pigs that had been captured and left as bait for it. Richard wandered for hours searching for any trace of the tiger, and as the sun began to set and light began to fade from the sky he returned to the village, his heart heavy with disappointment and relief in equal measure.

The villagers watched Richard’s return with hope and then with fear. It was not difficult to tell from the way he carried himself that the hunt had been unsuccessful. The villagers looked at the hunter expectantly, hopefully, and as they saw him draw closer, his head down and his gait slow, the great rifle he had taken from Corman hanging limply in his grasp, they turned and returned to their homes. There would be no promise of safety that night.

One of the villagers that could speak English, an older man with few teeth in his mouth, his dark skin lined with wrinkles and the scant few hairs atop his head completely white, asked Richard if he would be willing to move his belongings into the hut that Corman had slept in before his death. There were families that had been displaced, the old man explained, that wanted their homes back, and since Richard was now their only guest, perhaps he could move his things into the other hunter’s hut?

There was so much unsaid, Richard thought. The villagers didn’t regard him with the same kind of awe that they had shown Corman. He was darker, scarred, he did not smile or speak much. Richard thought to himself, Corman was an Englishman, and they understood Englishman. But I’m unknowable and potentially dangerous. They don’t see me as a hunter. They look at me and see a killer.

Without further conversation, Richard retired to the hut and began planning his next move.

Loathe as he was to admit it, if he couldn’t track the tiger on foot then setting up bait and luring it out into the open may be the best option. He frowned. That wasn’t hunting. That was cowardice. That was less sporting than when he was a boy and his father would sit out in the field under a tarp he had erected for shade and shoot the ground squirrels that threatened to dig up the crops before they could establish themselves. There must be another option, he thought. A dog, perhaps. Maybe the tiger could be hunted with a pack of dogs, or by horseback. Were there any horses in this area? He’d have to look into it.

Richard began going through the things that Kuthra had left behind. Some ammunition for the rifle. A trunk of Corman’s belongings that had been too cumbersome to load into the car without assistance. A half-empty bottle of gin which Richard helped himself too.

“To hell with it,” he said to himself. “Nothing to do about it at night. I’ll go to bed early and get a fresh start in the morning.”

He laid down on the dead man’s bed and tossed and turned until he fell asleep, his clothes still on, the light from the lanterns meant to ward off the tiger filtering in through the windows and under the door of his hut.

* * *

A roar, as loud as a thunderclap and right outside the door.

Richard jumped upright in the bed, his heart pounding. Outside, he could hear the cries of the villagers, their senseless terrified screaming. It was dark in the hut, too dark to find Corman’s rifle. All he could find were the .45 pistol, the magazines for it, the trench knife he had set by the bed.

Another roar, echoing in Richard’s head and freezing him in place for a second. This was it, he thought. It had my scent, and the entire time I was out in the jungle trying to track it, it was following me. Richard imagined the tiger watching him from a distance, staying hidden. Observing his patterns and learning his movements. Or perhaps he was giving the creature too much credit, projecting his own life onto that of the tiger’s. Perhaps it had simply spent the day sleeping in a cave somewhere, or hidden in a grove of trees, and when the night came, it awoke and wandered to the village in search of easy prey.

It didn’t matter now. The tiger was outside the door, and it was very likely that tonight would be the night Richard died.

A wave of regret filled Richard. This would be a bad death, a terrible hunt. Caught in the dead of night without his weapon, torn apart like an amateur.

The door shattered inward, and the tiger was there, fangs bared, eyes alight with a killer’s instinct. Richard raised the pistol and fired without aiming, uncertain which shots were hitting the tiger and which were flying off harmlessly into the walls or out into the jungle.

The tiger roared and crouched, preparing itself to pounce. More out of instinct than out of conscious thought, Richard turned and ran for the nearest window, dived through it, the wooden frame catching on his clothes, tearing them and scratching his skin. He pushed himself to his feet just in time to see the tiger’s face and paws appear behind him, snarling, watching him.

Richard fumbled with his gun, ejected the empty magazine and tried to push in a new one. By the light of the lanterns all across the village, he could see that the tiger was unbloodied. Every shot had missed.

The creature began to pull itself through the window, and time seemed to slow down for Richard. Well, he thought. At least you won’t die cornered in a hut. He turned to run, determined to put as much space between himself and the tiger as possible, to make it to a tree and wait for daybreak if need be, when he saw the lantern.

Someone had knocked it over in their desperation to flee the village, and it lay on its side, its flame extinguished but kerosene leaking from its body, forming a dark and shapeless pool on the ground.

Richard grinned. It wasn’t fair, but then, the tiger could shatter his spine with a single blow from its massive paw. Nothing about this was fair.

He jammed his knife and his gun into his belt and ran for the nearest hut with a lit lantern. He grabbed it as he rushed to kick the door open. The tiger roared behind him. “Chase me,” he hissed under his breath. “Chase me, chase me, chase me.”

Inside the hut, he pushed his way towards the window, stumbling over the belongings of the family that lived there. The hut was empty, thankfully. He didn’t believe he’d be able to follow through on his plan if the family had still been inside.

The tiger appeared at the door, and roared. Richard turned and dove through the window, the tiger pouncing as he did so. Its claws caught his leg, dug through his calf like knife blades. He screamed in pain, nearly dropped the lantern.

He rolled over onto his back to find the tiger staring at him. He pushed himself away from the hut as the tiger leaned forward, tried to claw him. With all his might, he threw the lantern as hard as he could through the window. The tiger’s head disappeared back into the hut as it dodged the projectile, and there was the sound of shattering glass and the muted rush of the kerosene igniting.

Richard pushed himself to his feet as the tiger roared in surprise and terror. He had seen predators trapped by fire before. He knew it would look for an easy escape, and not finding one, it would have to force itself to brave the flames and rush out the door. He had some time to enact the next stage of the plan. Richard limped towards the nearest hut, pulled the lantern from its hook, and shattered it against the wall. The wooden structure quickly caught fire, and Richard dashed towards the next nearest hut to do it again.

The villagers would understand, he told himself. It was necessary to trap the beast, and if it found itself surrounded by a wall of flames, it would have no choice but to stand his ground. Panicked and unthinking, it would fall easy prey to his firearm, he told himself.

The tiger burst forth from the burning hut it had chased Richard into. The smell of smoke and the stench of burning hair filled the air, and the tiger paced nervously, snarling and roaring and looking anxiously back and forth between Richard and the encroaching flames. Finally, it steadied itself and locked its eyes on Richard. There was no more pacing, no roaring. Just a flaring of the nostrils and a look that Richard chose to believe was hatred. His hands went to his hips and he drew his pistol and his knife. The tiger snorted.

Richard smiled. By the fires that burned all around them, turning the forest of the night as bright as day, the two hunters faced each other. This would be a glorious death.

Thank you for reading, and sorry about the sporadic updates recently! Be here on Friday for “For Fighting and Winning!”

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