Summer Prey

From Tiertage (Literally: Animal Days)

Seventh Chapter

In which Fledgling McFeather has valuable news to report

pages 49-50:

A month had passed, a short time for people, an eternity for hares. Damp air was steaming off the earth, as it had rained for some time, but now the willow leaves glimmered in the sun, the barley shone like silk, and no clouds darkened the sky. The farmer had parked two trailers in front of the deer park by the barley field. Fledgling, who liked to show off what he knew, had said they were called ‘rubber carts’, because the farm carts used to have iron-rimmed wooden wheels. Any day now the combine harvester would come.

Early one morning Mr Allyours was sitting under one of these rubber carts and waiting for McFeather, who was flying a recce. The first animal, a partridge, had been killed in the month when poppies flower, and yellow flags, and the Wild Man had continued to run amok since then. He had strangled a cock pheasant, smashed in a fox’s skull, which didn’t worry Mr Allyours overly, and broken the neck of the old badger, whose sett was in a spinney near the bank of the Lunt and whom Mole, Toad, and Ratty, his pals, were still mourning. And in all that time the hare and the heron hadn’t managed to capture the Wild Man. Yes, in spite of all their night-watches, recces, and patrols, they hadn’t even seen him again.

Their investigations were leading nowhere and it was starting to eat up Mr Allyours, particularly as his offspring were driving him to distraction, and nor had he the consolation of regular encounters with Lady Why. They had met twice more, once in the pouring rain with their fur clinging to their bodies, and each time desire flared up in Mr Allyours. Both times he promised to capture the Wild Man, while having to admit that he hadn’t managed yet. Both times Lady Why looked at him from loamy bright eyes, not accusing him, but melancholically, a gaze that made his hare’s heart dart from side to side. This doe awoke his protective instinct, and after all that was a buck’s role: to protect his doe. Although Fledgling, misery-guts that he was, had grated that this ‘protection’ seemed to be about possession, Mr Allyours’ chest swelled with happiness and pride every time he imagined being Lady Why’s protector.

But first he had to catch the Wild Man.

A hawk flew over the bog and Mr Allyours retreated deeper under the cart.

“Where are you?” called Mrs Allyours from the form, trying to keep their five leverets under control. “Can you look after the little ones for a bit?”

pages 93-95:

The sun was burning down on the barley stubble when Mr Allyours woke in his form the next morning. Fledgling was already there, talking with Mrs Allyours. Last night they had followed the Scribbler all the way to his house, but he hadn’t strangled or slit open anyone. Instead he had laid down on the back seat of his car, cradling the deer’s skull, and fallen asleep.

The heron and hare were faced with a mystery: was he the Wild Man or not?

Mr Allyours rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his paws. Fledgling, who was an early riser, was already wide awake.

“Late yesterday evening Bobby O’Cowle was attacked,” he rasped. “He chased his assailant and injured him in the arm – he still has blood on his fangs.”

The hare was flabbergasted. O’Cowle was the only wild boar in these parts. If he had been attacked late yesterday evening, the Scribbler couldn’t be the Wild Man. “What a mess,” he murmured.

Fledgling looked disapprovingly at the hare. “We won’t get anywhere like this, Allyours. We have to stick at it, but it’s too much for us. For the general good we should inform the police.”

“What?” Mr Allyours was gobsmacked. He was already seeing Lady Why’s fur float away from him. “The police? Why? What for?”

“I,” said Fledgling, his beak in the air, “can read and write. I’ve studied posters: To be someone, you don’t need a gun. My Way–Fair Play. I’ll draft a letter.” He strutted off leaving Mr Allyours behind, not only gobsmacked but completely floored.

The train to the city had left a quarter of an hour ago and no one could be seen outside when, in his office at the small town’s train station, the policeman heard a knock on the window. He didn’t react at first, it was mid-afternoon and he thought that schoolchildren were playing a joke on him. But after a second, third and finally a —very sharp—fourth knock, he dragged himself away from his monitor, rolled his chair over and stood to pull up the blinds. A bird appeared in view that the officer could identify as a grey heron. He had a note in his beak. He had a respectable, if somewhat severe, air about him.

“Yes?” asked the man, after opening the window. “What can I do for you?” Hot air poured into the room.

The heron jerked his head to and fro. It was obviously about the note. After it had been taken from his beak, he rose into the air and flew off to the southwest. The policeman closed the window, lowered the blinds again and sat down at his desk. As he didn’t know what to think about what had just happened, he lit a cigarette. When his partner came back from his lunch break fifteen minutes later, he passed him the note.

“This just came airmail,” he said.

The second policeman winked at his colleague. He read what it said, raised his head and remarked, “It looks as if a stork dipped its beak into some ink.”

The first policeman ignored the remark. “And?” he asked. “What do you think?”

The second man lowered his gaze to the writing again. “‘Tha Wyld Man kils fur fon,’” he read out loud. “’Plees help uz.’ Someone’s taking the piss.”

“The syntax is right,” the first one replied. He pushed off with his feet, rolling his chair over to his desk. “We’ll take it down as a charge against person or persons unknown.” He turned to face the computer, clicked once and began to type.

And so the case of the Wild Man was put on record.

pages 166-169:

The three boys stalked along the path that wound between shadows on the steep northern shore of the lake. They had banded together against an invisible enemy, an enemy that could attack at any moment. They took cover behind trees and waved each other forward with their guns. In some places the shoreline was supported by walls of stakes, defensive positions whose stamped earth could be used to mount guns. The boys whispered to each other, only little Ruben disrupted the silence now and then with a shout, “There! There’s one! Pi-oo! Pi-oo!,” which always made the two big boys groan and say, “Shut up, man!”

They reached a spot where a willow bush was growing on a tiny island just off the shore, and, in an instant, the boys forgot their cunning enemy, took off their sandals and tried to reach the island.

Miranda and Victor stood further up the embankment and watched them. The new game sent the boys’ imaginations into overdrive. They spent a good while deciding what to do, Carl as usual shooting his mouth off, and then swarmed out to find material for a dam.

They had forgotten all about the guns.

Rubbish was tossed around between the trees on the slope. Here and there lay concrete blocks, left over from the gravel pit’s past. Miranda lowered her head onto her chest, smoothed her hair in easy movements and tied it back.

Victor’s gaze caught on the nape of her neck, with its down of bright little hairs. “Is your husband away today?” he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders without looking round. “He has a lot on his plate.”

“Even on Sundays?”

“Someone has to earn the money,” she replied and slid both her hands onto her shoulders. “Like I said: You can’t have everything.”

Victor wondered how it felt to her with her breasts touching her arms. He took his shirt out of his trousers. That looked more casual. He felt hollow, but there was a rustling and crackling in that emptiness, flashes of blueish lightning. Ruben was being given a bollocking by his brother, because he had thrown the sticks for the dam into the water. Miranda stood there with her hands on her shoulders. She was pressing so hard that her fingernails were white. Carl gave orders: “No, first that long one. It has to go here. Across.” It tore Victor apart. Miranda stared ahead, not at the children but past them, at the lake that stretched out hazily in the sun, ruffled by gentle waves. She didn’t say anything, once she threw her head from side to side, as if trying to shake off a thought. Victor felt like the teenager he had once been, who hadn’t known how to confess his love to the girl from the other class who played the oboe in the school orchestra. All his loves and relationships started to flash up before his eyes, including the pillow set alight during candlelit sex, the teapot thrown against the wall out of libidinal desperation, the disbelief in which he heard for the first time that he had been cheated on, the feeling of powerlessness when Ramona landed another well-aimed blow on one of his weak spots—a journey through all manner of lives and worlds, but now he had the feeling of having arrived, here, beside Miranda. He just had to tell her.

Ben stepped onto the dam. It collapsed, he fell through and stood in the water laughing. “We need more branches!” he called.

Ruben tugged, panting, at an uprooted birch.

“Hey, cool! Mate—look, a whole tree!” Carl shouted, and rushed over to help him.

Together the three boys dragged the birch to the shore. They didn’t think to ask the grown-ups for help.

“Miranda?” said Victor.

Splashes of water hit him as the tree fell into the lake. A nearby coot fled.

“Yes?” she looked back at him, without taking her hands off her shoulders.

“It’s got to go all the way to the island,” commanded Carl.

The boys waded into the water.

A dragonfly whirred past.

“You know, Miranda, I…”

“Yeah, almost done it!” shouted Ben. Six small hands grabbed the birch by its roots and dragged it onto the island.

“…Miranda…?”

She had turned back to face the boys.

Carl raised his hand imperiously. “I go first.”

“But the tree was my idea!” whined Ruben.

“True,” said Ben. “It was his idea.”

“OK,” Carl showed generosity. “He can go first. But then it’s me!”

Ruben balanced his way across the trunk back to the shore, beaming at his mum. Carl and Ben followed.

“Good work!” said Miranda.

“…Miranda?”

Another fiddle-de-dee. She fished her mobile from her five pocket jeans, and as she started to text back, something snapped in overexcited Victor: he roared, snatched her phone and flung it away.

It landed with a splash in water far from the shore.

The three boys stood there open-mouthed.

“Wicked,” said Carl in the end, appreciatively. “He chucked it in the lake. Nice one!”

The two brothers, not really knowing how to react, looked at their mum.

She stared at Victor for a long time, undid her hair and shook it out until it hung messily in front of her face, then she parted it and slowly brushed it back behind her ears. “You could at least have taken the SIM card out first,” she said in a monotone. She threw her hairband to the floor and slowly turned to the boys. “We’re going.”

Victor stood there, his face leaden, and watched them go.

The hairband lay between leaves and twigs.

Just one of them turned round again. It was Ruben, who aimed his toy gun at him. “Pi-oo! Pi-oo!” he hissed. “Pi-oo! You’re dead!”

Bios

Henning Ahrens

Henning Ahrens has published two collections of poetry and many translations, and Tiertage is his third novel. Born in 1964, Ahrens won the Lower Saxony Literature Prize in 2000 and the Hebbel Prize in 2001. Stefan Tobler’s translations of his poems have appeared in British literary magazines. Ahrens has translated novels by Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close), Hugo Hamilton, and Colson Whitehead.

Stefan Tobler

A translator from Portuguese and German, Stefan Tobler's translations, articles, and creative writing have been published in literary magazines. His most recent book translation, of Roger Willemsen's An Afghan Journey, was a Recommended Translation from English PEN this spring. He is currently researching and translating literature from the Brazilian Amazon, including children's literature. He also writes book reports for various publishers. For more information please e-mail him at stefan.tobler@gmail.com, or visit his website: www.stefantobler.net.

By permission of S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main. (Henning Ahrens, Tiertage , Copyright (c) 2007, S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main.) Extracts from Tiertage (Possible title: Summer Prey. Word for word translation: Animal Days) by Henning Ahrens. All rights with Fischer Verlag. Foreign Rights: Kerstin Schuster, kerstin.schuster@fischerverlage.de.