The Hunter's Song
A pounding at the door reminded the crowd inside of the storm. It was one of the last nights of a season of rain and it sounded like the clouds wanted to be remembered before they departed. The pounding could have been a branch blown by the wind but it continued and its rhythm became impossible to ignore.
Gana, the waiter, tucked a tray under his arm and turned the door knob. The wind pushed through, spraying hot mist and flashes of light. A baboon, wild-eyed and soaked through its gray coat, slipped in. It passed a gaze over the crowd, drawing gasps from the men and screams from the women, before it scampered under a table in the corner. In the darkness, I could only see the shine of the lamps flickering in its eyes and dancing off its shaking fur.
There was a beer in front of me and I took a sip. The others drank brandy but nothing tasted better in this little perfect world away from war outside than warm, dark, German beer.
Gana shut the door. “What are you going to do about that thing?” one of the ladies asked him. He did not answer. She then shot her glare towards the bartender who was busy refilling glasses, wondering how he would get through the rest of the night with fourteen thirsty mouths and only two bottles of brandy left.
Before either man could say a word, another woman spoke. “I’ve heard of one of those things tearing children limb from limb. They’re horrible creatures.”
The bartender looked at Gana and the waiter lowered his eyes, knowing he might soon be asked to corral a cold, frightened beast out of a warm place.
I removed the revolver from my shoulder holster and laid it on the table. It made the sound of a slap across a woman’s face. Voices went dead.
“Ladies, there aren’t any children here, so you’ve got nothing to worry about. I doubt that animal wants anything to do with you,” I said.
My tongue was heavy. It had not moved in a long time.
The room’s warmth gradually returned. Ladies and gentlemen resumed conversations while Gana waited and the bartender quietly added water to what brandy remained. The baboon watched us.
I watched the rim of my glass while one of the gentlemen at a far table kept an eye on me. He finished his brandy, took a few deep breaths, and then mustered the courage to stand. He took several steps in my direction.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you. May I sit at your table, sir?” he asked—eyes on the revolver, cheeks pulled into a grin
I kicked a chair out for him and took another drink.
“The accent,” he said, “I can’t place it. You see, I’ve traveled all over your America… Washington, New Mexico, the Dakotas. If you don’t mind my asking, where does your way of talking come from?”
“I picked it up, here and there.”
“Do you travel by trade or for pleasure?”
“I’m a hunter.”
“Around here? I have sometimes wondered how hunters on this side of the world sustain themselves during the rainy months.”
My tongue was tired and I wondered how long he was going to go on.
“I beg your pardon. Forgive me for being diffuse. It’s been a devil of a night, hasn’t it?”
Again, I kept quiet. His grin grew larger as if my silence were an invitation for him to continue.
“What I meant to ask you just a moment ago is how you make your living when the rain comes? You certainly cannot hunt in this sort of weather.”
“I hunt all year long.”
“Well, I have to say, that surprises me. What sort of game do you hunt at this time of year?”
I dug into my pocket for a piece of stale chewing gum and broke it up with my teeth. “Any kind they pay me to,” I said.
He laughed a loud English laugh that drew the attention of his friends and startled the baboon. They laughed along because it was all they knew how to do.
“I must buy you a drink, sir. You are in perfect form. Would you like another beer?”
His giant grin turned into a lazy smile. His eyes faded and he stared at me like he’d gone into a dream.
“I haven’t finished this one yet.”
I turned to see the baboon lying down. It closed its eyes and somehow I envied it. I had forgotten the world away from the plains and jungle, where the rain sometimes drove me. I hadn’t missed it.
“I must ask you another question,” he licked his lips twice, “what is the hardest animal you ever had to kill?”
I thought about it, though I didn’t need to. “I had to kill a small boy once. He was tougher than most men.”
He laughed louder than before. The others joined in, this time without even a glance over. I felt his foot slide across the wood floor next to mine. He put it up close, just about touching. He waited for me to move while he kept smiling at me with faded eyes.
The door opened and his foot moved back like he’d been caught red-handed. A boy stood frozen in the door frame, pale as milk. He dripped on the floor with the lightning behind him.
“Well, get in, son, and close the goddamn door!” yelled one of the crowd.
The boy fought the wind to make it shut and crept across the room as someone else barked, “What in God’s name are you doing here?”
“I was thirsty,” he said as he settled in a chair, “and I’m tired of water.”
“Tired of water,” a woman gasped, “who ever heard of a boy tired of water?”
“I was just thirsty,” the boy answered. I heard his voice and realized that he was much older than I’d first thought, just shy of the age at which they send men to die.
He stood and lurched to the bar where the bartender continued to mix the water and brandy.
“Do you have any lemonade?” he asked.
The crowd laughed. The Englishman in front of me shook the table with his gut.
“No,” the bartender answered.
“How about some milk?” The laughter grew even more fierce. The bartender shook his head.
“How about some of that?” he asked pointing at the amber liquid.
“You should know better,” a woman said and was cut off by the man at my table, “Ah, give the brat a taste why don’t you? He walked from his room in the storm like a fool. Let him try it and feel sorry he ever wanted to.”
The woman put one gloved hand to her lips and said no more. The others watched while the bartender raised one of his droopy eyes and poured a glass full. When it reached the boy’s hand, it shot right to his lips and he gulped it down the way one might down a glass of cold sweet tea in the middle of summer in Mississippi.
The boy finished, set the glass down, and licked his lips. He leaned against the bar, turning his head left and right, and then he pushed away from the bar, feet jotting out one in front of the other, staggering as he moved towards an old piano that sat at the far end of the bar. There was no seat so he got down on his knees. He lightly touched the keys with his fingertips; then he pressed hard. He jumped at the sound and turned to see us all watching him. Somehow, he smiled.
He began to play. The piano had fallen completely out of tune. Somewhere in the mess of noise was the recognizable melody of some classic composition from long ago.
“God, that is dreadful,” said someone. “Stop that playing, son,” said another. The Englishman by me also objected. “Stop it, boy. It’s no good.” They all shouted and some rose from their seats, till their voices drownded out the piano.
The boy stopped. He sat there on his knees, looking like someone had interrupted his prayers. He started to stand.
“I’d like to hear some more,” I said.
“You can’t be serious,” the Englishman said. His faded eyes had left him and all that was left was the smile. His hand reached out and touched mine where I held the beer. “It’s a horrible sound that thing makes.”
I drew my hand back. “I like it,” I said and turned to the boy, “Do you know any songs for dancing?”
The boy cleared his throat. “I know a short country jig.”
The Englishman leaned as far over the table as he could and said to me, “Tell the boy you’re joking, won’t you? It’s very late and we don’t want to listen to this sort of nonsense now.”
I picked up the revolver and pointed it at him. He shut his mouth.
“Play the song, kid.”
The boy pounded the keys and the notes hit the air like bullets. The crowd was quiet—all except for the Englishman, whose teeth chattered.
The music pulled me away to the nights I’d spent years before playing songs at the Raintree. There was a girl that danced to the sound I made. I wanted to remember her face and tried to find it in the boy’s song but it was gone.
I stood and walked towards the door, the end of my revolver still pointed at the Englishman. The boy heard the wind blow in as I opened the door. The sound of the piano died out in a broken echo. The boy coughed from the dust on his hands. I looked to see if the baboon might go with me but it was asleep. I stepped out into the storm and closed the door behind me.The rains fell hard on my shoulders but the clouds were moving away. The plains would soon be dry, I told myself, and the animals would come out from their hiding places.
Travis Mills is a writer and filmmaker. He's lived in South America, Africa, and Europe, and is drawn to explorations of the world of expatriates.