Hunting Stories Are From God

The apprentice I have already told you about had a whole year's hunting under his belt. Quite a poor campaign it had been, with only a few victories, yet rich in teaching and personal observation.The woodcocks darted through the twilight sky of a meadow like huge bats; the shots echoed along the deep ridges, then silence returned like a soft veil. The boy stood there, – the only victim of the spring evening, offended by the broken, perfidious flight of the alien-looking birds with long bills and frightened eyes, – and felt ruffled down to the most intimate fibers of his being by the novelty of nature and that in his own soul.On that hot summer afternoon, partridges and corncrakes incurred occasional timid shots. They were easy game, if you listened to time-tested hunters, yet man could do only so much without the help of a dog. From his trips over the fields he had returned with the ever more persistent conviction that age and experience were correct, and thus he would need, by any means, to somehow acquire or steal a Spaniel puppy from somewhere. Old Nechita Puscasu even transferred to him the belief that only stolen dogs bought luck to hunters. To prove it he had recounted several stories that showed the truth of the observation beyond any shadow of doubt.Then, the first meeting with the hares had been most strange. From over some mounds, at the end of a fallow field, when he least expected and was immersed in wondering thoughts, a heron emerged with the intention of taking flight. Immediately after, as if transformed, there popped up a creature that displayed long ears, red fur, and agile legs, and fled to the other end of the field, while the boy, panting, realized he was holding a useless gun in his hand. He had blinked and turned his eyes to the gyrating circles of heat under which the other wild thing grew smaller and smaller until it vanished altogether. All that day he had waited close to the mounds on the side, his heart aflame, for another hare to leap. But chance has different laws. Hares don't always jump from behind mounds. To make a better point, a rabbit materialized out of the dust of an anthill, close to the road, exactly when the boy, all hope thwarted, had lowered the gun, and strapped it on his shoulder. "You never can tell which way the hare will dart," said Old Nechita Puscasu. He then slowly removed the pipe from his mouth and put it in his belt. First he spit to one side and then he aimed the gun. To the boy he seemed to bide his time for ages and only then to fire. The youth saw the rabbit fall, and felt intense pang at not knowing exactly the value of ancient proverbs. To young hunters, teachers and long days spent in the classroom are, oft, incommensurable vagaries. The first class of prime equations was populated by the partridges at the edge of a coppice along the Siret river. At first it was just the memory of those partridges and their noisy flapping of wings. Next to the algebraic formulae on the page in front of him, lulled by the lilting melody of the teacher's voice, he began to draw carefully a flight of such birds fluttering above the stubble. In the distance he also distinguished a rabbit crossing the hills with its ears erect. The question coming from the desk struck him like a whip, and he rose from his place and instead of partridges and rabbits he saw the heads of his mates bobbing over their books, and near the blackboard the sparkling spectacles of Mr. Ciolac. He stood still for a while, replete with noble and sad resignation. "I must needs find a Spaniel," he said and sat down in his seat. After which he looked closely at the partridges in the coppice. They were true partridges from the Siret meadow, from the places dear to him because it was there that he had started his apprenticeship. He could hardly wait for another year to pass by so that he might find himself again under the clear canopy, amidst the sparkling sources of water, watching the flight of the numberless ducks.The new spring was not late in coming. It actually arrived quite promptly like everything fleeting. And the apprentice rambled again on the paths leading to the Siret, in the company of Old Nechita. "A young hunter needs always to walk under the wing of an older one…," proclaimed Old Nechita. The boy listened to him gravely, and believed him; while the farmer, from the corner of his eye, watched for the moment when a pack of good tobacco would come out of the depth of a pocket. The air was just as bright as the previous spring only that no glittering pools dotted the riverside coppices now. Fresh grass shot amidst the osier bushes. In shaded, humid nooks, among dry leaves grew sky-blue violets and yellow anemones like smiles in the snow. The sights of the previous year were nowhere to be admired."Last spring there were pools and wild ducks everywhere," said the boy."Could be," replied Old Nechita. "Now the waters in those pools rose to heavens, and this spring the river flows alone by the coppices. They were playthings, so they are no more…"And yet they seemed eternal like everything else in nature, the apprentice said to himself confusedly."I've roamed these parts for forty years," the hunter spoke again, "and I'm used to all changes. Time ago the Siret would flow over here. Now it's moved beyond the coppice. But don't you worry and fret. I know some old marshes where we can find ducks aplenty… provided we can shoot fair…"The boy kept silent. He would have preferred to have his comrades of the previous year, Coca and Alecu, as witnesses. Suddenly he felt the urge to recount the story of the water ducks. Two in one shot, and after downing them he swam and got them out of the Siret. The old man nodded with no admiration, and gave a sonorous "hm". He could not believe such a tall tale."I can show you the place where it happened, Old Nechita," the apprentice cried with passion. "I had witnesses…""Yeah," the man mumbled indifferently.The boy felt blood rising to his cheeks, and remained silent. For a second, his onetime deed seemed unbelievable to him. Then he experienced the pride of a rare and truly hard-to-believe story. At the same time he realized that it was only such stories that were worth telling. But they also had to be buttressed up by arguments somehow, and put in a special light, like Old Nehita did when he recounted some of his old tales. Although they were incredible things, the boy bought them all. He stole a glance at his comrade, eager to unravel his prestige and secret, but all he saw was the same weary checks with a gray stubble, the same reddish hat, the same old coat, the same bag made of a badger's fur, and the same one-barrel rifle. Old Nechita caught his fleeting look and smiled with his small, narrow eyes. There was something very alive and fickle in those green eyes like the water."You come with me to Crupa's Marsh," the hunter said with conviction and lure in his voice. "We have deep water there, in an old meadow. And there is also an old cottage in a spot where I used to do some watching. We'll be sheltered; we won't care if it's windy, and or if it's rainy. All we do is wait for the ducks. The first one we shoot we turn into bait, with its bill in a reed. It sits on the marsh, and it lures the other flying above to come down, while from our post we will get them. Then I'll use a small boat, which I keep hidden among some osier bushes and blackberry stems, and get them out of the water. We don't need to swim over to them. We will get them out nice and easy with no trouble…"The apprentice was listening in silence, respectfully.[…] "What story could I tell you?" Old Nechita whispered and the apprentice wasn't surprised the hunter spoke so softly. "I could recount all sorts of happenings from my life, squire, things that I lived or seen. One more amazing than the other. I have a mind to tell you one from the time when I was a ranger at Hangu, in the woods of the old boyar who passed away, and now only his name lives on. One winter he returned from abroad, where he had spent some time making merry, together with a grand boyar from India. He was black and had white teeth, and was clad in rich furs. From some coffers he produced two rifles, all encrusted in gold and silver. Our boyar took the man up in the mountains, in cold wintertime, up to craggy summits and precipices that only goats could negotiate. They trod ice bridges and snow mounds, their footwear geared with iron cleats. An old ranger, Uncle Calistru, my godfather walked in front, and he got the party somewhere above the ravines, in a snow-white wilderness where he had a bear enclosed." "What do you mean by enclosed, Uncle Nechita?" "Enclosed good, as mountain hunters use to do it. When a bear went into a den to sleep its winter sleep, Uncle Calistru came with other rangers and they closed up the place with pales and sealed the entrance. For when our boyar returned from abroad and wished to go a-hunting, Uncle Calistru took him exactly to the spot. So now we all went over there, in a big procession, and the young rangers opened the entrance to the cave, and started prodding the sleepy animal with long pales. Our master and the boyar from India waited with their rifles like some thirty yards away. Our boyar, a careful man, seemed very prudent and kept his eyes peeled. But that foreigner from India couldn't stop laughing, and we found him much too joyous. He appeared not to believe that the rangers were prodding and teasing a bear in that cave. The beast would not leave the lair easily and seemed most snoozy until all of a sudden our wait was cut short and it emerged at the mouth of the cave, its paws up, and gave such a terrible roar that the rangers stumbled back and fell flat on their butts. When the animal gave another bellow, our boyar shouted at his guest to shoot. And the Indian, his eyes white, kept laughing, and pulled the trigger twice but the bullets strayed into the fir-trees. When the smoke cleared, he continued to laugh and stare at the bear advancing upon us, making a beeline for the boyar who stood in front of the cave. Our master began to shout and swear at such a hunter who fired in the trees. And the more he swore, the harder the Indian laughed as he could not understand our boyar's Moldavian cuss words. Eventually, the boyar too shot twice, but the bear kept coming. Yet the animal had been hurt and no longer had much strength, although it opened a big red mouth, and poked out its tongue that even now I feel shivers down by spine when I remember. We lifted our hatchets and stepped forward. Then Old Calistru, my godfather, took off his sheepskin coat." "Why did he take his coat off?" "Be patient! Then Uncle Calistru, my godfather, peeled off his sheepskin coat, and pulled out from his belt a very long knife. He never parted with it. He handed the coat to the bear, and the animal caught it in its paws and started mauling and mangling it. The old man took advantage of that and, bending his knees, thrust his knife at the bear. Then the Indian prince stopped laughing. The bear fell in the snow and died with its paws up. That's what I saw up there in the mountains, when I was young, and that was what my godfather used to do to bears." The hunter remained quiet, smiling. He then looked attentively at the black pool. The apprentice stealthily passed the tobacco pouch to him and wondered to himself whether that adventure had actually happened. No doubt it had. It was an extraordinary thing, like a hunter's tale. But no doubt things went on exactly as Uncle Nechita told them. "Uncle Nechita, you actually witnessed this adventure?" "I did. There are no other participants, but I did witness every single thing I told you about, as sure as eggs is eggs." "Of course that's how it went," the apprentice whispered to himself. Both hunters remained silent in the reed shelter, listening to the gentle sounds of solitude and waiting for the ducks that come at twilight. But then, on the opposite bank, across and far, among twisted willows, a brown beast with small paws stealthily moved like a cat, its fur shining vividly in the dying sun. The boy gave a powerful start. The old man squeezed his arm, trying to calm him down. The two of them, very close together, watched breathless the wild thing making all those swift movements. They saw it drag a silver fish unto the sand and tear at it greedily. The name of the animal came suddenly to the apprentice's mind, and exited through his lips like a light breeze. The hunter turned his fierce eyes and beckoned with his eyelids. That was exactly it! Then they turned sprightly and tensely to the fish catcher. They stood stock-still, their hearts beating, waiting for it to emerge from the water somewhere near, in a circle of ripples. Yet the thing did not pop out. So the apprentice ran to the place where the winter story had occurred, up in the mountain, and relived it down to the most dramatic details. He even saw himself recounting the tale again, gravely, to Coca and Alecu, the two hunters as young as him, now almost certain that things had actually happened right under his own eyes. It's not the adventures in themselves that are beautiful and interesting, he thought smilingly, but words are everything. Thus he decided firmly that he would feed his rivals with a true story with bears, with an Indian prince, and Old Calistru. Then an unexpected wind moved the air above and the twilight ducks alighted on Crupa's marsh. Translated by Alina Cârâc

by Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961)