The first part of the wolf hunt passes like a dream and reminds her of Don Juan’s lessons in sorcery from Carlos Castaneda’s books. They leave Sofia when it is still dark, in a sleepy state, there are almost no cars on the street, the stoplights are flashing yellow, while in the gorge the road is slightly slippery. The hills around them flow into one another.
They have been married for five years and the distance between them has been steadily increasing. They are at work every day from nine to six. After work, he turns on his computer and disappears into forums for hunters or sports car enthusiasts, she reads sites for would-be mothers and forums about perfecting the art of accounting, from time to time they watch a movie together, sleep together, and that’s it.
And, oh yes—every Saturday and Sunday, fall and winter, he goes hunting. Three days before leaving, he is happy and his euphoria is evident from afar: he cleans his rifle, sets out his clothes, shops for manly foods—lots of meat and a little, but high-quality, alcohol—grabs his camera, he is so busy with his preparations that sometimes he forgets to say good-bye.
For some time now she has not believed that he is going hunting. There’s proof—he has never once brought home a slain animal (that would be the icing on the cake!) and he never mentions any woman’s name, which means that he must be hiding something.
One evening, after a particularly lousy day at work, she asks him point-blank. That is, she simply stands with her hands on her hips and says: “I want to go with you tomorrow!”
He looks up from the monitor, surprised. “What will you do there with us?”
“Well, what do you do?”
“You’ve never killed anything so far, so I’ll do the same.”
He makes one last try. “You’ll be bored.”
“I’m bored here, too. Plus, nobody’s ever died of boredom.”
“Women are bad luck on a hunt. The boys won’t be too happy with me,” he says in an even voice.
He doesn’t start a fight, there’s no shouting, he’s not that kind of person. It is simply his final attempt to dissuade her.
“As far as I know, you haven’t had any luck in years, so I won’t be spoiling anything.”
“We leave tomorrow at five. Get your warmest clothes ready.”
Now she is sitting beside him and everything seems unreal to her. The road is slippery, it’s cold outside, and so as not to fall asleep, she’s staring at the divider line—she counts the dashes, reaches one hundred and some before giving up and glancing over at him, but he looks very serious and distant. She again watches the road ahead and everything seems unreal to her, like in some driving simulator.
“Doesn’t this seem like some game to you? Colin McRae, for instance . . . ”
“Do you mean the rally driver or the game?”
“I didn’t know there was a real driver, I thought it was only a computer game,” she says, happy that they are at least talking.
“Colin McRae became the youngest world champion, he won the title with a Subaru, he also thought up the game.”
“Oh, I see, a Subaru.”
“Four years ago, he and his five-year-old son died in a helicopter crash in Scotland.”
“How awful,” she says. “I didn’t know.”
He doesn’t answer and she again sinks into semi-slumber. Except that she is thinking: “A bad start.”
After an hour or so, the road starts growing brighter. It might be from the snow, which is quite a bit deeper outside of Sofia. The village is nestled under Murgash Peak in the Balkan Mountains and on some maps it appears as nothing more than a remote hamlet, as no road leading to it is shown. And it is clearly a sleepy little place, because no lights can be seen.
“Are there any wolves here?” she asks.
“The people from the village say that there’ve been wolves here,” he says, without so much as glancing at her. Yet, a short while later he turns to her and explains as if to a young child: “They’ve picked up their tracks, the other day someone even saw one, and a kid goat was torn to shreds recently. A wolf may not show up for a day, it may not show up the next day either, but it’ll definitely come down to the lowlands on the third day, because there’s food here,” her husband explained.
She, for her part, wonders how he knows all this about wolves, but doesn’t say anything. She isn’t sure how even the most innocent of comments might sound right now.
“Look, don’t butt into the conversations too much. The boys here aren’t very chatty, so just try to stay out of the way,” he tells her the moment she opens the door of the car to get out.
That’s a warning, she tells herself. And takes it to heart.
“I’ll be invisible,” she promises, and he nods.
A few cars are already parked in front of one of the houses, while the people inside are trying to light the fireplace. Dawn still hasn’t broken outside.
“What do you think the Big Bad Wolf dreamed about last night?” One of the men from the local hunting club calls from the doorway.
She looks around to see if the question is directed at her or someone else, but no one makes any suggestions as to the wolf’s dream, so she keeps quiet, too. It is still dark outside and words have a deeper meaning, it seems. The men in camouflage garb carelessly toss down their rifles, leaning them against the wall or putting them on the table. She loses sight of her husband for a moment and then has difficulty finding him again amid the other identically dressed men. The hunters definitely look like a team. Needless to say, she feels rather out of place, as her pink jacket stands out absurdly against the backdrop of men in green parkas, rubber boots, and rough-and-ready mountaineering shoes. She realizes that they are outfitted for an extended hike in the mountains and at first glance, at least, it looks to be a serious excursion. Which scares her a bit.
Something else surprises her as well—most of them are older men, here and there she sees someone younger, but the strange thing is that she hadn’t imagined the people her husband was going to meet to be quite like this. Three or four minutes later, the man again asks what their wolf had dreamed that night and smiles at her.
After that, the group splits in two. They explain to her that half of them are the so-called beaters, who chase the animals in a particular direction and drive them into the trap. The others wait with loaded rifles. She is surprised that there are no individualists in this business. The division seems to happen of its own accord. There are no arguments—I want to go here, I want to go there. She just tugs at her husband’s sleeve and asks: “So where should I go?”
He answers her curtly: “You’re with me.”
As they hike up the mountain in the snow, the men speak in muted tones, waving their arms and deciding in a whisper who should stand where. Along the way, they study the tracks in the snow—a boar passed by there, this is a fox, they’re heading that way, a rabbit went by here, just look at how many of them there were . . . Then they quietly wish one another good luck and take up their posts. Her husband crosses the river to wait for the wolf. She is happy that they will be alone and is just about to quiz him about this and that. However, he seems to sense this and signals to her to keep quiet.
“Will you really shoot if you see a wolf?”
He looks at her as if seeing her for the first time: “Well, what else should I do? Pet it?”
“Won’t you feel sorry for it?”
“It’s murder, in case you haven’t realized . . . ”
But he seems angry.
“This isn’t the Jungle Book, here, OK?! At this time of year, wolves attack anything and everything. They even prey on the wild horses that live up in the highlands. And the horses stand in a circle, gathering the weaker animals in the middle, and start kicking with their hind legs. That’s the only way they can save themselves.”
She is stunned: “Have you been watching too much ‘Animal Planet’ or what?!”
He shoots her a nasty glance and hisses: “Shut up, because if you go on like this, you’ll never set foot here again.”
She turns her back on him, hurt, but overall she is satisfied. She is especially happy about that “again” and about the fact that he presumes that they might come here together some other time as well.
This standing around in the snow surely lasts an hour or two. She makes snowballs that she doesn’t dare throw. She draws pictures with a stick in the snow. From time to time a shot can be heard, as well as the popping of firecrackers, which they use to chase the animals, and that’s it. Then, one by one, the hunters give up.
“There won’t be a wolf this time,” her husband says.
“What a surprise!” she thinks, but doesn’t say it, because she doesn’t want to burn up her ticket for the next time.
“Turns out our region had been cleared, the work was already done,” explains one of the men, whom they walk down the path with.
“We didn’t get lucky today, but it’s not always like this,” another man from the village tells her apologetically while taking food out of his backpack. She smiles kindly at him as surely only mothers smile at their children’s foolishness.
Then the men relax, the most pleasant part of the hunt has come, and the myths begin.
“Seventy-five percent of the hunt is spent at the table,” she hears someone say. While her husband, who at home fights tooth and nail to rebuff her attempts to make him wash the dishes or clear the table, is now the eagerest beaver to prepare the coals in the fireplace and to perform the exquisite ritual of preparing the food.
“This is sausage from a wild boar.” One of the old men offers her a chunk of meat stuck on the end of a knife.
“Did you know your husband was a grilling master?” one of the other men asks her. She shakes her head as she struggles with the meat.
“That was supposed to be a secret,” her husband laughs along with them. She hasn’t seen him this cheerful in years.
This is the moment when things cease to be what they seem. A rifle is not simply a rifle. The men tell how someone named his rifle “Rosie” and only called it by name. Another boasts that his hunting carbine shoots by itself whenever it sees game. Someone points to the rack of antlers on the wall and says that they are actually his . . . Her husband leans over her and explains that the conversation usually passes through several phases. First, one person speaks and all the others listen. The second phase is when everyone talks to someone else, in small groups. The final phase is when everyone talks and no one listens.
“See how nice it is that we didn’t catch a wolf? If we’d caught one, now everyone else would be jealous of the one who killed it,” the chairman of the hunting club announces at some point, and everyone agrees.
It’s dark again on the way home, only the headlights toss their beams on the lane, while the road seems to pass by more quickly. They are again silent in the car, but her husband is quietly humming some tune that she can’t recognize.
“I could buy a rifle, too,” she says and waits for his reaction.
He doesn’t say anything, just looks at her and smiles.
She keeps staring at the road, counting the dashes in the divider line, then gets sick of counting, watches the road winding smoothly, and at some point decides that their wolf must have had good dreams that night.
“Какво сънуват вълците” © Olya Stoyanova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.