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By Geoff Hart
Twilight had fallen and the hour approached when the wardens of the first shift watched their game preserve a little less closely, hoping not to observe anything that might delay their return home. Yawning, half-tempted to down a last cup of stale coffee, they lingered in the shelter of the park's chalet, ghost-lit under fading fluorescent lights, and watched the monitors, bored, while those of the second shift lingered in the warm safety of the coffee shops lining the beltway that ran past the park’s crumbling walls. Driving along that highway on my way home from work, mingling with all the unsuspecting mundanes, I heard a familiar faint voice, raising the fine hairs on the nape of my neck: this place, it whispered. I pulled off the road, got out of my car, and as the evening commuter traffic crawled past me, I climbed onto the seat, thighs pressed hard against the roof of the car for balance, and scented the air. Something faint, elusive, but definitely there just above the sting of the smog. Yes, it would be here.
As the moon waxed ever fuller that week and the monthly itching began, the sense of the moment grew unbearably keen. Each follicle stirred uneasily as night fell and the silvery moon rose, until it was all I could do to stay indoors. By day, on my way to work, I made time to survey the park several days running until I knew the lie of the land. By night, I donned jogging shoes and sweats and ran past to time the patrols and perfect my own timing, the moon caressing and urging me on even after I’d showered and lay restless atop the sheets, cold light bathing me through the filmed glass of my bedroom window.
When the night came, full moon not yet risen, I left the car by the side of the highway, hood lifted as if I’d had a breakdown and gone in search of a phone. Waiting for a brief, dark interval between passing cars, I slipped through the rose bushes that grew wild against the wall, and eased my way over the top with a single grasp and pull, as if I’d been stepping up a ladder, elation and the moon’s ancient power lightening my feet and surging through my arms. My stained brown leather jacket cushioned me against the broken glass embedded in flaking mortar, and I dropped silently to the ground on the far side, thick stone instantly muting the hum of passing traffic. My feet pressed hard against the worn leather sides and soft insoles of my hiking boots, the moist earth pressing back hard in reply against the second set of Vibram soles I’d worn nearly off these boots. Tonight, I’d need no footwear, so I removed them and my socks, tucking the scratchy woolens into the tops of the boots, and placed them carefully against the wall where they’d be easy to find later. I topped them off with my jacket and shirt, for I’d have no further need of either until I returned.
I squirmed my toes in the rotting leaf mould, and its scent rose up damply on the air, more stimulating than any perfume. The night’s quiet cricketing vibrated upon the damp air of a morning so newly born it would remain clad in dark swaddling cloths for more than a half dozen hours yet. I squatted there for a moment, soaking in these sensations. After a time, the silvery light of the new-risen moon made its presence felt, and I rose to my feet, elated. Little light from the streetlamps filtered past the top of the wall and the grove of century-old oaks crowding up against it, but I no longer needed that aid; the full moon passed briefly behind some clouds in the west, and I remembered with a feral grin how once, before the change, I’d have blackened my face with mud before proceeding. I can’t swear the mud ever did much good for concealing me, but it did seem to do wonders for my complexion. In any event, the new facial hair that had grown unmolested over the past few days would help keep me concealed.
The few autumn leaves that had fallen this early in the season were neither sufficiently dry nor sufficiently abundant to make much sound beneath my bare feet, so I moved fast and lithe through the scant undergrowth. Though the night’s hunt would take place entirely within a well-groomed urban park, I was hunting an even more dangerous predator than the Kodiak bears I’d shot in Alaska and the tigers I’d tracked in a private Bengal reserve. I paused and listened carefully for a moment, ears pivoting ever so slightly, drawn by a distant sound. When it came, I smiled, and moved deeper into the park. In my head, silently, I savored the heady beat of Peter Gabriel's Intruder, and subconsciously adjusted my pace to that beat. Marching to a different drummer, just like Pete.
The packed, well-trodden paths amidst the undergrowth—game trails of a sort—were clear beneath the moon’s brightness, and I kept to them as much as possible. No sense making things easy for the wardens when the sun came up in several hours and they came across the evidence of my poaching. An electric frisson roughened my skin as the moon emerged once more, casting off its veil of clouds, and as that light touched my skin, all the hairs on my chest and arms rose up to greet it. I bared my teeth at the sky, grateful for its gift. A delicious, waiting tension charged the air that night, and I let it guide my path away from the game’s usual resting places, seeking a more physical sign of what I hunted. The thrill, and most of the skill, lies in the stalking, knowing as I did that I had roughly an hour before the changing of the guard in which to make my kill and escape over the wall.
In a seldom-visited corner of the park, I came across the first good spoor—signs of feeding, and signs that confirmed I was hunting another predator. Animals don't know from pollution; they eat and let their wastes fall where they may. They're honest about it. I moved along the trail more swiftly. The full moon had grown almost painfully bright, bright enough to cast shadows, and missing a sign in the dark no longer concerned me. Shortly thereafter, I heard faint noises ahead and lifted my eyes from the trail, close enough now to follow my prey by sound alone. Moving as slowly as the moon-cast shadows, I eased through the brush to where I could see my prey. There was no wind, but even so, complex scents mingled in the wind, foreboding of what I’d soon see.
From behind cover, I watched. There were indeed two of them, a fine, well-hung young buck and the female he’d chosen for his mate. I sat and watched them, enjoying his vigorous rutting with the female, unwilling in the cold autumn air but like most females, not really strong enough to stop a ruthless male, and when the male cried out in his final triumph, I gathered my feet back beneath me. Good game management dictates that you leave enough breeding stock to replenish what you've harvested, and I'm a poacher, not a fool.
As I watched, he rose from the ground and slunk away into the bushes, leaving his mate behind, breathing heavily, steam rising from her breath and the golden pelt that shone, dimly silvered, beneath the moon. Ignoring her—for the moment was his—I followed the male, who made his solitary way through deep cover. This one was a predator worthy of my time. I had plenty of food in the chest freezer in my basement; this hunt was for pleasure and for honor to the one who strengthened me, and a fellow hunter posed a challenge that was too great a gift for a true aficionado to pass up. But this one was cocky, too secure in his mastery of this environment, and needed warning he was no longer the only predator in the woods. I raised my face to the stars and howled.
My prey, startled, stopped so suddenly he almost fell, and cast about him, a snarl on his lips, stained old ivory gleaming in the moonlight. He was confident in his maleness and power, yet also scared—I could smell the suddenly acrid accent to his sweat—for he was accustomed to being the hunter, not the hunted. Abruptly, he chose the better part of valor and fled, whirling with an enviable animal grace and running gracefully, seeking escape, his fine, muscular figure sliding nimbly through the pools of moonlight and shadow. I held my breath in admiration, released it slowly, then set out after him.
I shan't weigh you down with the details of the chase, for most remain unclear in my mind. There’s a kind of mental bond between hunters and their prey that only the two of them can share, and in that state of tautly focused mutual awareness, there’s little room for much else. We shared that state for perhaps fifteen minutes, that oneness of predator and prey that the very first humans must have felt before they sublimated those feelings in religion, as I drove him before me, circling to flank him and change his direction whenever he turned from my chosen course and snarling to remind him he hadn’t yet escaped me. Nearing the end of the chase, I paused a moment and leapt into the tree I’d marked earlier in the week, clawed fingers making light work of the bark. It was still there.
I dropped to the ground, then, and drew my knife from the waterproofed case that had concealed it, checked it over swiftly, compulsive as any craftsman about his tools, then wiped the handle, ensuring there’d be no condensation to weaken my grip. I flourished the blade, saluting the moon, then howled again and resumed the chase. I drove him onwards until at last, running flat out, he crashed against one of the park’s high walls and caromed off, scarcely keeping his balance. There, he turned at bay, back to the wall and fangs glistening in the moonlight. He was magnificent and primal, and I almost regretted having to kill him.
I raised the knife before me, a foot of gleaming metal sharp enough for surgery, and stepped out from my cover. His eyes widened in shock, then narrowed in rage; evidently, he’d been expecting something far fiercer than me, though perhaps nothing stranger. There was a timeless instant when we knew each other, the man and the wolf, then he lifted his fanged snout to the moon and howled his challenge. His charge was breathtaking, acceleration like an arrow leaving a bow, and I threw myself forward to meet him. As we closed, I ducked under the sweep of his arms, his talons missing my head by a comfortable margin, and thrust upward with the knife, burying it to the hilt in his chest and spinning away from the momentum of his charge, the knife freeing itself with the shrill rasp of metal on bone, and he fell past me, limbs suddenly powerless beneath the unexpected weight of his own mortality.
With what strength he possessed, he rolled onto his side, curled around his wound, a froth of blood growing on his lips as I knelt by his side; in my excitement, I'd missed the heart and hit a lung. He was shocky but still alive, and his increasingly human eyes snapped open at the sound of my footfall, glazed with horror as I lifted his head. "What the fu..." he began, then my knife caressed the skin of his throat and blood fountained briefly in the moonlight. He shuddered and relaxed, and I cleaned my knife on his the last of his fur, its moisture evaporating like steaming breath on a cold winter night. That done, I touched his naked skin with my fingertips and said the prayer of apology to the prey, as hunters have done since Man first found a voice to raise to the unfeeling stars. Breathing deeply, I regained my feet, ears cocked expectantly behind me. Though most of my attention had been focused on the hunt, part of me had known I wasn’t alone during that final run.
The bushes parted as I’d expected them too, and a gentle footfall sounded on the resonant earth. Moonlight glinted off a knife the equal of my own, the silver in its alloy singing voicelessly to me in the nourishing, holy light of the moon, and she was there—face contorted in a snarl, golden hair spilling moon-silvered around her shoulders, her coat hanging wide, pale flesh peering out from beneath her ripped shirt.
“He was mine.”
I blinked, suddenly nonplussed. “Sorry?”
“He was mine. Don’t know who you think you are, but you’ve interfered in something you had no right to share.”
I blinked. “Actually, you’re the intruder here. I thought I was alone. I work alone.”
She cocked her head, scrutinizing me, then all at once, flipped her knife in a gleaming arc and tucked it into a belt sheath, like a gunfighter. Her smile predatory, she offered me her hand. I took it, and felt the moon singing in her blood as loudly as it did in mine.
“I’d thought I did too. Evidently we were both wrong.” She hesitated a moment, then smiled, relaxing only slightly. “There might be some advantages to a hunting partner.” As I reluctantly released her hand, she reached up to caress my cheek with her free hand, then continued down across my chest and deliciously across the growing tightness in my groin. I shuddered and pulled her to me, one-handed, kissing her hard beneath the moonlight, the moon’s far-off voice whispering unheeded in my ears.
Then the far-off whistle of a patrolling warden came faintly to our ears, and we smiled at each other. I sheathed my own knife, then watched her spring high, grabbing the top of the wall and pausing briefly atop it, agile as the fine predator she was.
“I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
“Count on it.”
I turned my back on her, and on our prey, and broke into an easy lope, heading back to retrieve the garb of my more mundane life. Above me, the moon smiled down, tugging at my skin and hair, whispering the promise of other nights, other hunts.
This one was inspired by a Roger Zelazny tale (Dayblood) in which the grandmaster asked the question: "If monsters were governed by the rules of ecology, wouldn't there be predator–prey relationships for monsters too?" I'm no Zelazny, but the idea resonated, and I decided to try a different kind of monster story.
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