Racing across mountains and remote backwoods, a solitary figure is on the run from a team of heavily armed hunters. Will he manage to get away? This translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones was specially commissioned to coincide with the first publication in “Przekrój” Quarterly of this previously unknown story by the great master of science fiction.
He’d run about a mile by now, but wasn’t even hot yet. The pine trees were sparser here. Their tall trunks shot up vertically, at a sharp angle to the sloping hillside veiled in gloom, out of which he could hear, now softer, now louder, the rushing of a stream. Or maybe a river. He wasn’t familiar with this area. He didn’t know where he was running to. He was just running. For a while now he hadn’t seen any blackish traces of bonfires at the small clearings he’d passed, or scraps of coloured packaging, trodden into the grass, drenched by the rain and then dried by the sun over and over again. It looked as if no one ever came out here, because there weren’t any roads, and the vistas on view from the open spaces weren’t interesting. There was forest everywhere, with green splashes of beech trees, then a darker and darker colour towards the peaks; the only thing that showed white against it were the insides of snapped tree trunks. The wind had toppled them, or they’d fallen from old age. Whenever they blocked his path, he focused his eyesight keenly to see if it was worth the effort of jumping over, or if it might be better to push his way underneath, between the dry, broom-like branches.
The sky shone bright beyond the trees. He glanced behind him. His vision bounced off successive tree trunks, further and further away, until they merged into a single grey-and-brown drizzle. He strained his hearing. The emptiness was on a par with the silence; only the stream rushed invisibly, so far off that the sound only reached him intermittently, straying through the air among the trees. Anyway, perhaps it was just their swish; the wind was high up now ‒ he could see it, his vision was sharp, he could distinguish the stirring of single spruce trees against the clouds. Almost the entire valley, coated in opaque forest, lay below him. At once he spotted two or three limestone rocks, with their oddly shaped pinnacles of bone; at the point where they began to sink in the forest sea, in its large, static waves, there were dark stains – surely the entrances to caves or grottoes?
No doubt many hunts ended that way, because it was the simplest option – there was no need to run, or make plans that were futile anyway. There was no chance, in any case. None at all. So why was he running? Why had all his predecessors raced off in the same way, why had they sped up mountains and into forests, beyond their limits, into zones of boulders and mountain pine, into the virgin wildness of the reservation, why had none of them let himself be shot in the back, or let his head be smashed, without the bother of this effort to escape, as desperate as it was helpless? He didn’t know. But then he wasn’t looking for answers; he wasn’t thinking. A grassy slope rose ahead of him, spattered with the sequins of end-of-season dandelions, before disappearing into the next island of spruce. A bird called from a tree, repeating its insistent, simple song. He knew neither what it looked like, nor what it was called. Far below, where the hillsides sank into the first shadows, the whitish trail of a river wound by.
Go through the water? And lose all the height he’d gained… They’d find him again, they wouldn’t lose the scent for an instant. So back into the forest? They might shoot me from afar, he thought, staring into the empty space separating him from the wall of spruces.
Before continuing his uphill run, he listened to himself closely. The silence prevailing inside him was even greater than that around him, which was disturbed by the murmur of conifer branches. And by three recurring notes of bird song. Once again he glanced back, to be sure the space he had placed between himself and his pursuers was large. Just then, at its deepest point, amid the darkness of the forest he saw a tiny movement.
He leaped ahead. He wasn’t in control of the force propelling him forwards out of blind reflex. It was routine, not terror. Not yet. He ran uphill, up a steep gradient that no human could have covered at a similar speed. He wasn’t panting, his heart wasn’t thumping in his chest, the blood wasn’t thudding in his temples; but something ‒ he didn't know what ‒ began to cry inside him, a weak but intensive whine, like a chord that’s been instantly muffled; it lasted a while.
Without knowing how, he’d got into a deep channel between the trees, the dry bed of a stream perhaps, or just a winding cleft, full of silt in places, ploughed up by showers of rain. Maybe in a storm he’d have a chance. At least to put off the end, which wasn’t in his thoughts at all. Without ceasing to fling his legs forwards heavily and steadily, he raised his head. No ‒ no storm would come of those clouds. The weather was very hot, the heat had even got in here, making the humidity of the forest floor unbearable. The final drops of yesterday’s downpour that the sun’s rays hadn’t found fell on him from above, shaken from the trees by the jolts he caused as he ran. (He could remember it: when he heard the rain drumming steadily against the metal overhead, it had occurred to him that if it didn’t stop they’d postpone this by one day, or maybe two.) Some splashes of water momentarily glittered like diamonds on his wrist, he didn’t flick them off, but they instantly evaporated as he raced onward; the metal-studded base of his foot let out a piercing clank as it struck a white stone; he reeled, but got a grip on his balance without reducing speed. His hearing was now fully focused to the rear. They were far away, but not so far for the noise to have failed to reach them ‒ the forest could carry it freely downhill to where the trees suddenly parted.
He was standing on a small peak, surrounded on three sides by spruce trees. In the sun-drenched distance the mountains appeared, looking flat and blue, with white patches of snow and cloud balls clinging to their peaks.
A wide, grassy slope ran downhill, with forest again beyond it. He had only stopped for two seconds, but at once he could hear his pursuers. He recognised Menor’s voice, his fierce, halting bark. He wasn’t afraid of the dogs ‒ they couldn’t do anything to him, but dogs meant humans. Did he hate them? Perhaps he could try, if he had the time. Anyway, it didn’t matter.
As he looked at the mountains again, it crossed his mind that this must be the last time he’d ever see them, and although he’d never cared about them, although he didn’t know them, had never been in them, and had nothing to seek among the rocks, it was only this thought, as if by ricochet, that made him aware he had just minutes ahead of him, hours at most, of looking, hearing and moving, and that it was the truth. He felt cold, shining mercury abruptly flooding his chest, and raced ahead.
He had reached a truly incredible speed ‒ he’d never run like this before. He leaped in bounds of four or five metres, flinging himself into the air, flying over the grass, his shadow foreshortened at his feet as he landed and rebounded for the next jump. Would anyone be able to run like that? He could feel the pressure in his temples, sparks flashing in his eyes, and warmth in his chest, not yet the heat that heralded unconsciousness, but it was vile and unnatural.
His joints were all but crackling, his studded feet were ripping up the grass, flinging shreds of it wide with every leap; he knew he should slow down, because he was starting to lose control of the accelerating force that was carrying him, but he couldn’t, or maybe he didn’t want to ‒ it was one and the same thing.
He could see the whole landscape ‒ the steep meadow, the blackish crescent-shaped forests, the mountain ridge, blue among the clouds ‒ all steadily rising and falling to the rhythm of his space-consuming bounds; he could no longer feel the effort, he no longer knew if he was really running, or maybe hanging motionless, perhaps instead it was the world, seized by a strange force, in dreadful spasms, in wild hiccups, that was fleeing, reeling, swaying to a point of nausea ‒ his feet went in different directions on the pure white, sun-scorched scree and he fell headlong, tumbling, somersaulting, desperately banging his arms and legs against the debris that went flying with him. When he finally came to a stop, amid swirling dust, half kneeling, he was covered in chalky powder. Only on his knees and hip joints did the loose, white residue darken quickly, as if from sweat. Like a horse that has galloped a long way down a dusty road, he thought, as he shakily hauled himself to his feet.
He was surprised to see how far the peak was above him, now that he had run down from it at breakneck speed. I’ve gained a bit of an advantage, he thought. And to avoid losing it, ran on.
A sheet of water shone darkly among the trees, like a faded mirror. Automatically he scoped the scene for bathers. He was running more and more slowly, more and more quietly; there were giant spruces here, and someone had pitched camp among them, he could see the holes where tent pegs had been, marks on the shore of the small lake where a boat had been dragged out, and the remains of a landing stage made of gold and red segments. But just these traces, no people. He leaned forwards, increasing his speed. About a quarter of a mile further on, beyond a strip of large boulders spilled here by an avalanche in the remote past from a gulley cut into the mountain ‒ he jumped across them with extreme agility, merely leaving pale outlines on their surfaces that marked the spots where he’d bounced off for his next jump ‒ just past this stony stretch he came to an area where the wind had toppled several hundred huge trees; they’d been lying here side by side since long ago, eaten away by rot, though in places the bark still clung to trunks that looked hard and healthy, the profusion of grey cobwebs on their branches should have warned him, but he rashly set foot on one of these giants, the trunk softly gave way and with barely a crunch dissolved into fungous pulp ‒ he sank almost up to the hips. He pulled hard. It wasn’t easy to wrench his legs from the tree’s grip, the impetus had been strong, and his weight was a factor too ‒ but in a huddled position, by backing up, dragging the dripping log after him, he finally tore free and ran on.
Above the last trees, by a large meadow, a metal mast protruded. He cast a glance to right and left, and realised he had a high-voltage power line before him. Just here it crossed a pass as it ran down towards the plains, showing blue in the distance.
He ran to the nearest mast and stood behind its truss, now facing the vast hillside ‒ any second now the silhouettes of his pursuers would appear above its rocky ridge. Something must have stopped them on the way, he couldn’t even hear the breathless yelping of the pack. If they were only chasing him with the help of locators, at least he’d be temporarily invisible, because the truss would shield him from their rays. But there were dogs too, and they were guided by scent.
He felt heat flooding all his limbs, as if they were filling with flames from the inside. The fire produced by the spasmodic effort of running, so far swept away by a headwind, was now rising to the surface of his body. He set his legs apart, stretched out his arms and took hold of the steel bars, as if trying to give away as much of that murderous, inexorable heat as he could, not just to the surrounding air, but also to the metal structure. At any moment he was expecting the sight he knew so well, because he had attended several of these pursuits, five to be precise, he’d been their witness, but not their central figure; he’d been taken along to learn. It was meant to be a chase in natural, primordial conditions, as for an animal hunt, but there weren’t any animals – no one was allowed to harm them so they wouldn’t become entirely extinct. They only used dogs and locators, they also had launchers on their backs, the shape of a school bag, but they only used them in moderation, to make the chances more even.
No silhouette rose above the summit – evidently they were saving fuel. The delay didn’t give him hope, he hadn’t any, on the contrary, his insecurity grew. All of a sudden, he glanced to the right – along the lattice masts descending to the plain.
Now he was climbing up the truss like a monkey, quickly, nimbly, steel clanked against steel, just beneath the top a small platform had been welded on for carrying out repairs to the network; now it was encumbered with winter frost. Made of plaited veins of copper and aluminium, the thick cables sparkled in the sunlight. Separating him from them were the mushroom-shaped necklaces of insulators. Would they hold out?
He flung his entire torso over the barrier, and with his feet set apart found the insulator coils by feeling. Oval, they wouldn’t give any support. He knelt down, held on manually, and shuffled on all fours, in the air, with one of three copper cables right beside him. This one carried the current.
Without expression in his glazed eyes, he grabbed the vein of plaited copper, which looked so peaceful and innocent, and pulled on it with all his might. He hardly noticed the discharges in the sunlight, he just felt them, but they didn’t do him any harm. He lowered himself down, and hanging by the arms, began a bizarre ride along the slope of the cable, controlling his speed by regulating his grip. The dreadful friction made the inside of his palm seem to catch fire as he slid with a grating noise along the two-hundred-metre droop of the copper line; at its lowest point he let go, as if hurling himself into the abyss. The moment he touched the grass – no, a split second sooner – the charge he had absorbed struck the ground with a bright blue jump-spark, and shuddering, twisting, quivering from the terrific force that had instantly filled him with fire, as if about to burn through his hardened, heat-fuddled skull, he tumbled sideways and rolled over, scratching and tearing at the grass in ever weaker convulsions; until, cooled down, he raised his head – suddenly emptied, strangely light, as if grown gigantic. Just his head, and it seemed to him that from among the blades of grass at the edge of the high ridge, about three quarters of a mile away, on the summit, some tiny figures had emerged, either dogs or humans.
But anyway, it could have been an illusion, because he was still overheated and his eyes were flickering. Without trying to stand up, he curled into a ball and rolled down the steepest gradient; the grass where he’d fallen was definitely charred – maybe the dogs wouldn’t find it at once.
On and on he rolled; with his arms and legs tucked in, he was like a dizzily spinning log, black, green, blue, black, blue alternately, as now bare earth flashed past amid clumps of grass, now the clear sky. He cautiously decelerated. He didn’t get up at once – his forearms, elbows, and the backs of his hands were spattered with something red, like blood; he examined them ‒ whose blood was it?
Berries. Hundreds of them had burst open; as he got up, he crushed some plump clusters that were still intact. He dropped his gaze and knelt down – in this position he was like a large animal, bizarrely coloured, plastered in tufts of grass, resin and cranberry juice; he took a close look at several surviving little red spheres in curled leaves, and for a while it was as if he were going to lie down in this spot and stay there, do nothing but just lie there. He leaped up and ran on. Two hundred metres of aerial travel: the dogs would lose the scent. He stopped behind the next steel mast so the locators wouldn’t find him, but it was stupid. The dogs would start to circle the place where his trail disappeared, they’d run rings, yelping, until they found the burnt-out spot, and if they didn’t find it, the humans would come and set them on track again.
Now he was speeding along the edge of the forest, though he could see that he’d chosen the worst route possible, because at the point where the grey-blue pelt of the forest came to a stop, this valley was different from all the others. The reservation ended somewhere nearby. He noticed the coloured streaks of highways, clean white viaducts lightly crossing clefts in the limestone rocks, the black mouths of tunnels and, veiled in blue mist by a chasm of air, little houses scattered across the hills, each releasing a thread towards the ribbon of the road; he ran on, because he couldn’t turn back. The wind, a good one because it was pushing him forward and carrying his scent downhill, away from the dogs, now brought yapping, not a frantically furious call, but intermittent barks, shrill and uncertain – they’d reached the spot where he had climbed onto the platform.
He felt a hot swelling inside his head and now and then his vision was poorer –there were flashes before his eyes, if only he could, he’d have torn his skull apart to let in the mountain air, cold in spite of the sun. The hillside was getting steeper. He had to put up violent resistance to the force that was pushing him, threatening to knock him off his feet – he’d do anything not to fall down now, not to crash among the twisting roots, here there was a clearing, he jumped from stump to stump, on target, in the precision of his movements, in the sureness of every leap, his instant estimation of the distance and choice of the most suitable manoeuvre, there was something perfect he wasn’t aware of, while battling the fire swelling in his skull; his arms and fists hammered the air, for ages he’d been running faster than he could, until in a perfectly easy spot he fell headlong.
He’d caught on a protruding root, ploughed a furrow with his feet, and couldn’t stand up, with all his weight he was lying on his right arm, unable to release it, or to make a move. He flipped onto his back and lay still for about a second. Meanwhile, thanks to the lightning speed of his observations, he took in the sky and its frothy islands of bright clouds, as well as the crowns of spruce trees standing against it.
He leaped to his feet like a spring.
Behind him lay the clearing, above him stood forest cut up by patches of sunlight, and to his left, limestone rocks showed white from behind the trees.
The slope dropped ahead of him, sparse dry grass rippled, with stones protruding from it like the backs of white turtles. A thread of brightness fluttered above one of them. Beside others too he noticed the same quicksilver flash – now he was looking closely, slowly, he went nearer, leaned down, and saw that they were long, thin strips of tinfoil, secured at one end by the stones. They were flickering and flashing in the sunshine. He raised his head. Here and there they shone in the grass, and further on, by some large boulders, he saw a whole quivering cobweb of sunlight particles – someone had done it on purpose. Who? And why?
First came suspicion. A trap? Were they lying in ambush, somewhere here, luring him towards them, hoping he’d keep advancing with increasing confidence in the growing conviction that those metallic threads would dazzle the locators?
But his pursuers were far above him. Sensing that he was plunging into something incomprehensible, never for an instant believing in salvation, nevertheless he moved off, crossed the first stones protruding from the grass, began to trot, and then run. The whole place was full of them; someone had gone to a lot of trouble – further on, tied to clumps of creeping pine and wrapped around the trunks of dwarf pines, they whirred furiously in the wind – slivers of foil everywhere…
Here and there, torn free by gusts of wind, they were floating in the air like strange gossamer, sparkling and changing colour, so he ran in the same direction, with the silver threads chasing him, flowing around him, now there were slightly fewer, scattered haphazardly, in handfuls, he’d cooled a little and could think, despite the heat in his head and eyes. The dogs would certainly have found the scent again by now. He could hear them baying; their strained, panting heads were briefly muffled by a wall of trees; perhaps they’d invaded the windfall area. The fact that the locators were dazzled by the wind-tossed foil wouldn’t help at all against the dogs, unless he got himself off the ground a second time, unless he placed a wide, scent-free zone between himself and the hunt, to confuse the dogs and make them return to the humans with their tails between their legs…
A meadow raised above the valleys was circled by limestone crags, and when he reached them he saw a path below – right beneath the cliff, beneath a white-stone precipice; if he jumped down there, he’d never get up. The well of air was too deep. He glanced over his shoulder – separating him from his pursuers was the large bulge of the hillside, coated in clumps of creeping pine that looked black against the light, and a grassy mound, small flames still rampaged above it, over there it was shining as if spattered with liquid mercury, like the small surfaces of curved mirrors; he could run straight, along the edge of the cliff, but that wouldn’t give him any advantage. Once again he avidly looked down. The path climbed to a point just beneath the rocks; it was bordered with wooden railings, then a footbridge carried it across a stream before it vanished behind the convex bulge of the cliff. Against the scree he spotted the shadow of a tree, and before he’d had time to realise why, he started to run, casting occasional glances down between the rocks.
It had to be here or nowhere. The overhang supporting the meadow, undercut and impassable, opened to form a sudden precipice. Air was flowing into the deep fissure in the rocks, like the sea into a bay, but right at its centre, from the bottom of the chasm – not deep, no more than thirty metres, but overhanging, so jumping meant being smashed to pieces – from the very bottom of this small cirque rose a single, giant, ancient spruce; its lowest, lifeless branches touched the limestone walls as the cleft embraced the solitary tree in its rocky arms, and its dark-green crown with tassels of young conifer needles showed six or seven metres below the edge.
If he had paused to assess his chances, he probably wouldn’t have jumped. For what he had to do, already flying like a stone, was to seize that tree, clasp its top and go down its trunk, clamping his arms to the right degree for the tearing branches to cushion his fall, but not with such great force that the tree, bending suddenly from the impact, might deflect and break – along with the snapped-off half of the spruce, his entire body would be slammed into the rock-face opposite.
And although it was near impossible, he did manage to do it. The spruce tree bowed and sank down, branches went flying as if struck by axes, but that curbed his speed enough for him to be in control of his slide down the trunk to its base. Gravel crunched beneath his feet. He was at the bottom. He raised his head. A single silver thread was rippling in the sun, caught on a stone at the edge of the cliff. He ran downhill, not along the path, but in a straight line, taking short cuts, heavily crushing stones with each infallible leap; he curled up and jumped a large boulder, and what he saw on the other side almost knocked him over, as if struck in mid-flight; his legs stiffened and sank into the gravel like posts, pebbles flew in all directions under his feet, and he froze with his hands raised, as if to protect his unconsciously convex chest.
Sitting four paces ahead of him was a child. It was a child of about twelve years old, a little girl, though he didn’t instantly realise that, because she was wearing trousers. Her hair was short, and dark, like her eyes, which gazed at him without surprise, merely with great attention, causing her white brow to wrinkle and a crease to appear above her short nose; taking her eyes off him for an instant, she glanced at a tiny gold watch that lay in her hand, then immediately put it on her wrist as if it were no longer needed. He stood without moving, three times taller than her, massive, dark, heated by the race, his eyes set wide apart, with a glazed reflection of the sky fixed in them, as if they were actually sky-blue. She ran her eyes over him, calm, attentive, and so he went on standing there, his left hand still raised half-way, as if trying to shield himself from a blow, or to assure her she needn’t take any notice of him, he was nothing, while his right hung inert, as if paralysed.
Meanwhile in turn she examined his legs, his left knee plastered in splinters of rotten wood, his torso, lean, the chest tapering like a shield on either side, and the mixture of mud, chalk dust, stripped-off bark and resin that covered him almost entirely, except for his expressionless face – granules of gravel had injured his fists and arms, in his armpits and on his hips, above the thighs, large, dark stains were appearing as if he were sweating terribly from the heat that was pouring off him, and that he couldn’t exhale. Entire sprays of green spruce had clung to his neck as he slid to the bottom of the cleft. He winced in order to step back – she had got up, he must make way for her, he hadn’t registered that now it was all in vain, his simian leaps along high-voltage wires, miraculously coming upon those metallic strips that dazzled the locators, and that final, semi-conscious leap – he wasn’t thinking at all. He was empty, he was even ridding himself of the inner tremor of his combined mechanical parts, as if dizzily working at full capacity. Suddenly she looked him in the face. The dumb show was over.
“What’s your name?” asked the girl. She had understanding, hazel eyes.
He didn’t answer.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “You needn’t be afraid. Don’t you trust me?”
“Go away…” he said quietly. “Go away…”
“You’re stupid,” she said sternly. “You’re to follow me. I’m going to help you. Come on!”
If she’d said any more he might have been able to escape, but she turned on the spot and walked away, as if it went without saying that he must accompany her. So he duly followed. They came to a path, and crossed it – it could be seen running down towards the valley in white, ever thinner loops amid the randomly scattered limestone rocks.
“This way,” said the child.
Beyond the path began terrain full of hideouts that water had carved in the limestone skeleton of the mountain; she led him steeply and quickly. Now he walked slightly behind, now alongside her. He could see her reddening from the effort. Her small mouth took gulps of air, breathing ever harder, but she was running the right way, extremely lightly, while he took giant steps, almost bending double to pass beneath low-hanging boughs.
They came to a dense maze, an ancient windfall zone where the trees lay side by side, all turned in the same direction; each had raised its gigantic heel, overthrown by black mould, an island of struggle that had grown for decades but remained shallow, unable to anchor a single offshoot securely in the rock. Here and there the dead branches, which sprinkled pine needles onto their faces like the remains of rusted iron wires, had dropped so low that even she had to crouch, and sometimes crawl a few paces. He moved after her in silence, hearing her breathing, sometimes her new, lizard-green boots creaked, sometimes a branch snapped, the earth, from under which the mountain exposed its chalky bones, was emitting warm, stifling humidity; there was no road here, if he could, he’d be wondering how come the child was so familiar with this lifeless corner of the hillside, but ever since meeting her he hadn’t been thinking at all.
The uphill wind brought the sound of dogs barking. The girl glanced at his face, so close to her – they had just crawled under the carcass of an immense mast-like fir tree, its bark eaten away, its decaying remains gone green with phosphoric mould, dull underneath where the sun never reached, metallic on top, like verdigris; a smell of cobwebs wafted from the mummified remnants of branches, even the pinecones, lying on large, thick pillows of conifer needles gone grey, looked quite unreal.
“Just a moment,” she said softly. Tiny droplets of sweat glistened on her upper lip; her semi-transparent ear lobes were pink with blood. He could smell her scent, in which there was a touch of milk, flowers, and something chemical, but pure, cool – and also a separate hint, the trace of an odour hard to decipher, surprising, like a petal that suddenly turns out to be affected – by a lurking insect.
Briefly darkness engulfed them, and when they emerged from it, he saw a tall limestone pillar rising up, like an incredible giants’ tower. Set in this vertical sculpture were the black mouths of caves, one above another. A faint but steady sound was audible – of water trickling from the adjacent limestone mound; it had carved out a tiny, perfectly smooth bed, and was splashing down in a translucent spray before vanishing in fluffy layers of pine litter.
“Now you climb up and hide. Got it?” she said, but without looking at him, because she was busily searching for something in the small pack strapped to her trousers.
She took out a long, sheer, coloured scarf, rolled up one end and rubbed his foot with it, as if trying to clean it.
“Dogs…” he said softly.
“You’re so stupid. Why do you think I’m doing this? I’ll drag it behind me and lay a false trail. They’ll come after me. Get climbing, quickly, you hear me!”
But he didn’t move. The barking was closer now – and once again they were whining, all at the same time, now he could tell their voices apart, he recognised them, they must have stopped where the trail broke off, above the solitary spruce, and were yapping – by now it was futile, because the humans would see the snapped-off branches and instantly realise that he’d jumped. Suddenly he understood that it didn’t matter anymore, that this thought belonged to the past, as if it were whole years away – she gazed into his immobile eyes.
“Why don’t you go? You must go!”
He wanted to ask a question. But he didn’t know how or what. So when in an angry tone, quite irate by now, she said: “Get moving!” he obediently turned and stepped onto the heap of stones at the base of the wall; without even watching how he was getting on, she instantly threw the end of the scarf to the ground, dragged it several times this way and that to fix the scent better, and noiselessly ran off among the trees. By the time he looked down from a height of several metres, she was no longer there. As if she’d never existed at all. Right by the wall gaped a cleft a metre wide, and he’d realised he must jump across it: the dogs would reach this point, tentatively turn around and run after the other trail; whenever they have a choice, dogs prefer the trail that doesn’t lead to rocks. Are they afraid of them?
Now he was climbing slowly, but steadily, first testing the strength of each grip. When his foot slipped, he felt for another ledge. The rock face was rough and dry. The nearest hole, filled with impenetrable blackness, gaped barely two body lengths above him. But he couldn’t get there. A bulbous belly of stone was pushing him off into the abyss; on the other side there were two narrow, vertical crevices, he jammed his fingers into them, and with terrible force, crunching pebbles and sending them trickling down, he struggled across the worst spot. An icy chill wafted from inside the hole. He crawled in, head and shoulders first, but the recess was shallow. It grew narrower – he could barely get in. With a hand he felt the floor, there were some bits of brushwood and moss, this must once have been an animal’s den, now it was hard to find any animals, even within the reservation. He tested to see if he could turn around – he wanted to look out. There wasn’t enough room. With extreme difficulty, almost breaking his neck, resting his skull against a stone, he achieved a half turn. He drew up his feet – now he was lying entirely on one side, two storeys above the windfall area, which showed red, a chaos of interlocked tree trunks, but his view into the depths of the valley was obscured by a clump of young spruces.
He heard the dogs again. Very nearby. Lying like a corpse, as if fused into one with the cavity in the rock that had enfolded him, he saw the first human. He shot out from behind the rocks and rose high in the air, which shuddered around him, behind him and at his feet, for a while he remained in strange suspension, as if standing on an invisible column as he scanned the terrain, shouted something over his shoulder, moved a hand and gently glided down; switched off, his launcher choked and came to a stop with the usual hiss. Like a doll fired from a catapult, another one jumped out from behind the rocks, rose easily in just the same way, and simultaneously a swarm of dappled canine shapes appeared amid the toppled trees and under the broom-like dried branches. For an instant they fell silent, then ran up the heap of stones, yapping, he couldn’t see them anymore, they were so close that he could clearly hear them hungrily inhaling through their nostrils, pressing against the stones, the first to respond was probably Menor, he raced into the forest, the others after him. The second human lowered himself onto the heap of stones. The dogs were moving away, barking. They were badly out of breath.
“What a brute,” he heard a familiar voice. He didn’t budge at all. He lay like a steel boulder. The air carried the sounds – they were talking, as if a step away from him.
“Last year it was even better,” said the second human. “We had him under fire twice and he went on.”
“Then what?” asked the first. They talked with breaks, pausing to listen hard to the baying of the dogs moving into the distance.
“He exhausted us. Almost until sunset. But on the pass…” He couldn’t hear the words that followed because both of them were moving fast, almost running; he leaned out, as if unaware of the risk, saw their figures, foreshortened from this height, they were carrying weapons ready to shoot, because they were seasoned hunters who could tell from the noise the dogs were making that the scent was very fresh and hot, and that they were close – any moment now they’d have him.
He didn’t know how long he’d been lying there. It may have been an hour, or maybe two. The barking grew sharper and changed into anxious whining, a human voice was audible, then a noisy din erupted and moved away until it vanished. He couldn’t understand it – the girl couldn’t have run faster than the dogs, so why hadn’t they caught her up at once? Suddenly he guessed. She must have run to the spot where the slope flew down towards the valley, into a vast abyss, and hurled the deceptive scent down there, the sheer scarf steeped in his odour. Then she had simply walked away. The dogs had reached the spot where the trail died, and then the humans had started to confer. They must have been surprised and angry, they couldn’t get their heads around the idea that he had jumped down into that chasm: that was quite impossible.
A complicated matter, but as he lay on his side, feeling the cold interior of the cliff drink up the fire that had swollen inside him, with his head resting heavily against the damp stone, he had time for contemplation. He’d heard about it in the past. Others had told him, those who no longer existed, who had raced through these wastelands before him, and after a tough day, in full sun, had collapsed onto their short shadows: the hunt almost always ended around noon.
Apparently they had to be afraid. If they weren’t afraid, they wouldn’t run away. And if they didn’t run away, they wouldn’t make survival plans, and there wouldn’t be any hunt, just ordinary shooting at moving targets, as at clay pigeons, as at a firing range, without the fabulous backdrop of the mountains, a tangled plot full of surprises, a forest strategy, a duel of cunning, of tactics, including laying double trails, dodging, looping the scent back on itself, crossing white-water streams and aerial bridges formed by fallen trees – this duel with a violent ending, a shot that was not too close, so it wouldn’t be easy, and not too far, so that it carried a stamp of certainty.
And as they had to slip away and hide, they had to be like this: rational ‒ enough for the set objective to put a human to the test – quick-witted and strong.
He was almost cool now. He didn’t feel like moving, but in this position he could only see part of the sky, framed in black, and he remembered that the last time he’d seen the sky was when they’d brought him to the forest and told him to hide well. There was a hollow full of large boulders – he had lain down on his back between the three biggest, and then gazed at the sky until something strange happened to him. As if he weren’t lying there at all, but were floating along with the clouds; he entirely forgot what he’d come here for, and about the Elder, whose face, red with heat, had suddenly appeared against the sky over the edge of a boulder. He’d been angry with him. He was meant to be learning. By now he knew how to turn round, how to look for metal objects, such as empty tins, how to go back on his own trail and how to climb trees, now he was meant to be hiding well, not lounging about sunning his stupid head! That forest had been completely different. With no mountains. He was here for the first time. Ontz had told him why. They didn’t want him to learn too much, so he wouldn’t be familiar with the terrain where they were going to hunt him until his time came.
But he ought to lean out. Maybe the sun was already setting? Yet he went on lying still. For while he lay there (the heat had subsided, so had the pressure in his head, and also the flashing in his field of vision which had surprised him so much earlier on) it was as if he didn’t have to be himself. He didn’t feel like himself. He couldn’t hear the faint, swishing hum that accompanied every move in silence, and when he looked ahead, as now, at the sky, he had no trouble at all imagining that he had everything white, soft and pink, and when he tuned in to the silence, he could even tell himself that he was breathing, that he could feel the air entering him, like the wind among the spruce trees, and for a while it was almost true. He could see himself by the dark surface of a lake, the one at the edge of the forest, by the purple and yellow tents, he could imagine he was a tanned, naked boy, who knew how to jump into the water, swim across it and emerge on the opposite shore, laughing, showing his teeth, with his hair clinging to his brow, wrinkled with merriment, with his eyes full of water, and he could sing and dance. First he’d be very small, smaller than the girl. Then he’d grow. He’d go to school.
Taken altogether, it naturally didn’t make sense, and he knew that. Nor would he have told it to anyone, not even Ontz, although he was curious to know if he was the only one who had these thoughts. Didn’t the others have them?
Ontz had told him many things that he would never have heard otherwise. Ontz had joined him in the darkness and brought his face close until their brows were touching. In a certain position there was no need to speak at all, for the thoughts passed spontaneously from one head to the other. He didn’t know if they could all do that, or if it was just the two of them, because Ontz had so much to tell him that he’d quite forgotten to ask, and now it was too late. Because although he couldn’t hear his pursuers and didn’t know how they could return and find him, he understood that in any case this was just a delay, and nothing more.
The humans would never accept that they had lost. They couldn’t lose. If they didn’t find him today, they’d find him tomorrow. After all, he couldn’t stay in this hole forever.
He had asked Ontz about lots of things, but never about why he could imagine that he was someone other than he really was, that he could have started as someone else, and that these thoughts kept coming of their own accord. And when they came, he didn’t want to do anything, he didn’t care about anything, not even gazing at the sky. Ontz said the humans used to hunt each other: that must have been a very long time ago. But he didn’t entirely believe it, because Ontz said a lot of highly unlikely things. About one of them who had escaped to the Moon. He had no hands or legs, he was different from them, but he had a head for thinking too, and that head was on its own, very large, and couldn’t move from the spot. How did he escape? By ship. He happened to be on a ship, and when they’d all gone to sleep, he flew away. And then, on the Moon, which doesn’t really get larger and then smaller until it disappears, because that’s just the way it seems, on the Moon he was alone, and the humans didn’t dare look for him among the rocks (Ontz truly believed in those moon rocks!), they could hardly stay there, only briefly, because the Moon has no air: but we don’t need air. Then by night he’d return to Earth and take others away. Until the humans set an ambush for him, as on a hunt. And when he came back… This story, like the others that Ontz had told him, was of little concern to him. He couldn’t even remember the ending. There was something about lightning. Ontz had said lightning doesn’t come from humans. Oh, what didn’t he say!
He leaned out. The sun was quite low, but there were probably about three hours to go before it set. He wasn’t making any plans. He wasn’t even trying. He had nowhere to go. Ontz, along with his Moon, his lightning and his good advice, had gone out a month before him and hadn’t come back, when they came for him. They never said in advance what was going to happen, but one knew anyway, on every day of this kind as soon as the sun rose the dogs were audible. As if they had known even earlier than the humans, and as if it were up to them. He had said that to Ontz, but Ontz had laughed at him. Dogs are very stupid, he’d said, they see the humans getting out their weapons in the evening, cleaning and loading them, getting their launchers ready and preparing provisions for a trip. Yes, when they came for Ontz, he’d got up and hadn’t even cast him a glance, he’d just got up and walked out as they’d ordered him. The whole pack had been screaming like mad. Then he’d heard footsteps, humans walking, and then that familiar, rapid, tenacious trot, light and heavy all at once ‒ he could tell it apart from the other noises, because it was exactly the same as the sound of his own footsteps – until the whole noisy din had moved away and silence had set in. And he had sat in his cubicle and thought ‒ with an amazement that grew greater and greater, like widening circles on the surface of water, that was how it grew, steadily, calmly and gradually – that the day would come when he would have to run like that, with humans and dogs after him, first they’d give him ten minutes to get a head start, and then they’d set the dogs on him.
It really had been like that. He hadn’t thought about Ontz at all. Or rather, whenever he was on the point of starting to, he found something else inside himself, because that thought was like a hole, and he instantly had to fill it with anything at all. And he did have something to fill it with ‒ the amazement that everything that’s meant to happen does happen. That first of all it’s not there, just as if it never could be, but then in fact it does come along. And there’s no helping it, there’s nothing to be done about it. And once he’d exhausted that theme, he’d wondered if things were the same for humans. Because Ontz had said it was actually very likely that they thought and dreamed too, and had senses, and had better and worse days, and saw colours, and that the only difference was that everything was theirs. He couldn’t entirely come to terms with this.
Because to be a human, first a child, then a suntanned boy, then a man, that he could perfectly well imagine – all too well. For back then, at certain moments, he’d felt he was just like that, and this hardness, this weight, the silent, glowing waves of tingling, the smooth sound of his movements was a sort of delusion, a disease, an accident, a nightmare. He could see himself in the forest and on those colourful roads, and by the little lake, amid those who were dancing and singing, and the only thing that put him off a bit, or even made him anxious, was the strange business with food, as they called it, the various liquids and bits of stuff they crumbled in their heads, down below, thoroughly, at length, and when it was all wet and shredded, they sucked it in. Yes, that was incomprehensible and disgusting. Ontz said they had to do it. Maybe so, but it wasn’t all-important, and that wasn’t where the difference, the greatest one, lay.
Because if humans were the same as him, exactly the same, they wouldn’t hunt. And not even because it was like with food: of course he could understand perfectly well that it was a great big game, and whoever had the hounds and the launchers felt great and wonderful in the amphitheatre of limestone mountains, that it was fabulous to aim and fire at a small spot furtively running up a hillside.
That he understood. That was conceivable. But not everything that’s conceivable actually gets done. If all those things were done, the world would collapse. It would fly apart. There has to be some harmony among the spruce trees, the rocks, water, grass and sky, otherwise it wouldn’t be beautiful. Otherwise it couldn’t exist at all. So if he were a human, he wouldn’t hunt.
By now the sun had moved, so that the edge of the limestone wall in which he was hiding was flooded with a golden afterglow. Just then he heard voices. The little girl’s voice. Suddenly he realised that in fact the whole time he’d been waiting for her to return. He hadn’t thought about it once, but it was like an utter certainty. Not the result of deduction, seeing that as she had told him to hide, laid a false scent, guided those others to the top of the chasm, and led them astray, dogs and all, she would want to finish it off in some way, and would come back for that reason.
Surely it was impossible. But what she’d already done was impossible ‒ things like that didn’t happen. Yet she had done it!
He couldn’t understand the words, but from the tone he realised that a man – one of the younger hunters – was arguing with the child, trying to reason with her, or convince her of something. In the gilded, immobile air of late afternoon their voices carried a long way. He was saying it wasn’t for her, that she was still too small. And she was replying that if she went on her way, they could spend a whole year looking, and that she deserved it. That she was almost an adult now.
He couldn’t understand a thing. They were so close now that he could hear the gravel shifting under their footsteps.
“I’ll tell your father.” In the man’s voice there was restrained anger.
“It’s my business. Give it here!”
“You’re too young!”
“Didn’t you promise?”
“But be reasonable…”
“Didn’t you promise?”
He could tell that was the only answer she would give from now on. Silence fell, as if the man had suddenly capitulated. There was a faint clank, metal against metal. He lay still, staring into the sky with unseeing eyes, and then he heard her voice.
“Come out,” she cried. “Come out, I can see you!”
He slowly slid out of the gap, to half way down his chest. The sun was dazzling. He looked down. The man had stepped aside, as if what was going to happen here had nothing to do with him at all; with his arms demonstratively folded, he was leaning against a boulder. The girl, with her little face raised, was standing at the very edge of the pile of stones, looking even smaller because of the distance; around and behind her dogs were lying or half-sitting, panting, with their coats ruffled and their big tongues lolling, but at the faint sound accompanying his movements as he began to straighten out, black and solid against the sun-baked backdrop of the rock, they jumped up and gnashed their teeth; their laboured breathing suddenly changed into polyphonic wheezing.
The girl stepped back, cautiously, and simultaneously raised her hands, in which, reflected in the sunlight, the steel flashed and shielded her mouth and cheeks.
He stopped. She fired. His hands, which he had spread wide to prop himself against the rock face, seemed to push it away in a single, rapid motion. He tumbled down.
She fired at the falling figure, once, and again. A blue flash, brighter than the sunlight, played in the eyes of the screaming dogs, cast its own shadow and vanished. Meanwhile, after striking the bulge of the cliff, he turned over, carved into the scree with a dull sound, landing on his head, which had tilted impossibly to one side, and so he remained – a twisted iron puppet, scorched by the last, good shot, radiating heat, sensing which, with their hackles bristling, the dogs backed away.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Edited by Daniel J. Sax