“Do you believe in ghosts, Mr. Grosvendor?”
“An old man is his own ghost, Mr. Herrick.” Grosvendor replied, continuing to look from the window of the car to the great gypsum mounds smoldering pale rust beyond the skirmish of trees. Beneath the narrow gauge, young boys in bare feet moved awkwardly out of the dusk carrying silver pails of thinly skinned milk and dhal. On the levee of the paddy field, a Sadhu stood on one leg in the gypsum mist, braced on a bamboo stalk tipped with pounded aluminum. His body was copper. His face was painted with vermillion and ash.
“Ghastly things.” She said. Grosvendor did not seem to hear.
“Yes, horrid things.” Herrick said. “Horrid things in horrible places, they are. Good riddance to them, I say.”
“How many?” Grosvendor asked.
“It is difficult to say, sir” the innkeeper replied. “Two hundred in Nepal, they say, before the fires. Since then, “ he hesitated, “I am hearing two hundred and twenty-seven Kumaon, sir. Mostly Pahari. Mostly children and women.”
“Dear God.” Grosvendor muttered. So many? “Guns?”
“Four, sir.” The innkeeper said flatly. “Two Hill Brahmin, the Presbyterian Strong of Tanakupur and Colonel Abbot of Nainital, sir, two weeks past. You are very young, sir.”
Younger than Abbot, he means to say.
“You have too many dogs.” Grosvendor sniffed absently.
“Strays, sir. She roams the roads near the village. They come here to hide and will not leave.”
“Are you very much attached to them?”
“Oh, no, sir. They are a nuisance, but my daughter…”
“Colonel Abbot. Do you recall what time of day it was when he was killed?”
“I am not sure, sir. It was early evening. In the dusk.”
“I apologize, but it is not working, sir. There is no other.”
“I see. My company will arrive tomorrow evening. There will be eleven men, horses and hounds.”
“What is the name of your daughter?”
“Lhakti Rham, sir.”
“Keep her inside and hidden, do you understand? My men are Naga. They do not understand the subtleties of civilized courtship.”
“Naga, sir?” The innkeeper blanched.
“Lucky for you.” Grosvendor smiled. “The Naga consider dog a delicacy.”
Grosvendor and Bharut stood in the village road as the day dimmed. From inside the inn, Grosvendor heard the rattling of cups and the steeping fry of the chapatti flats. There was a smell of dried apricots and the earthen aroma of black Soya in garam marsala. Down the trunk, aisles of uninhabited awnings covered up in long shadows and the dust curled lazily in the calm.
“How long has it been like this?” he asked.
“A week or more.” Bharut responded. “They come out only for water and wood.”
“What is that foliage there on the post of the jambs?”
“It is called bhut-naneshi, sir. It is for the najar.”
“The eye? What good is it?”
“Perhaps they think our tiger is an evil spirit or a demon, sir, or an airi.”
“A dead hunter hunting men.”
“Hunting children and women, then.”
“Perhaps it is Abbot, then. He had a wicked heart in life.”
Bharut, loosing the pack, shuddered at the name. He had once cut paths for Abbot to a land grant in Banbassa north of Tanakpur in the shadow of the foothills of the Himalaya. There had been no fewer then three man-eaters working the range of that grant, and cobras. Abbot killed them all with shell and flame and scythe. He had killed Pahari men and women, too, if they refused to abandon the oaks and waters of their fathers, leave his stead or labor. The children, he had kept. Abbot never let anything go.
“Ready the rifles, Bharut.” Grosvendor said. “Abbot died in the dusk.”
“Yes, sir.” Bharut understood. The power in the high hill villages flew on weak lines from the hydroelectric turbines north of the encampments in Hardwani. It would shift on the grid periodically, shedding loads. The villages lost power for anywhere from two to four hours a day on a regular cycle. Abbot was a night stalker. If the beast were roaming near the village, Abbot would hunt in lull of the grid. If necessary, he would have sabotaged any local generators beyond immediate repair.
“I think that he is sleeping.” She whispered.
“Tetanus, sir. It is tetanus.” Herrick continued.
“I am afraid that I do not understand, Mr. Herrick.” She said.
“It’s very simple, dear. Among the Pahari, men do not find daily employment. They send their women into the fields, even those with child. Whenever a woman gives birth in the fields, she is forced to sever the umbilical chord with an iron sickle. In this way, the Pahari women contract tetanus.”
“Barbaric!” She gasped.
“And fatal, more often than not.” Herrick trembled. “Would you imagine, then, that such a people might reject the grace of empire?”
There was no answer.
“What do you think will become of him?” She asked.
“She was taking the waste, sir.” Bharut said, staring into the thick that ascended the hill on the curve of the pass. Intermittent openings in the brush on the upper reach of the summit were thatched caramel and jutted with jaundiced outcroppings of broken slate. Grosvendor cursed.
“Sixteen, they say.”
“Yes, sir. A Brahmin whore”
At last, thought Grosvendor.
“We have our trail, Bharut. I’ll need my rifle.”
“But, sir, the Naga will be arriving tomorrow.”
“I have the trail tonight. Do you see that color in the clear? This hill is a black thorn. That croppy there, I want you to circle the pass and set torches on the southern prominence. Do it quickly, but above the terraces. I will set off here. Run the bitch to that rock, but do not go beyond the short crops or I swear to you she will haul you out by the bloody sockets. Do you understand?”
“Godspeed, Bharut. Do not delay.” He said and disappeared into the shivering undergrowth.
“Do you know who that is, dear?” He said quietly, leaning in to her.
“I couldn’t say, sir.” She blushed.
“That is Ambrose Grosvendor, the white hunter. He has killed a dozen man-eaters including the tigress of Mukteshwar, who was solely responsible for the death of over four-hundred souls in India and Nepal.”
“My goodness.” She gasped. “He seems so… frail now, sleeping like that. I wouldn’t imagine…”
“Oh, that was many years ago, dear. Now, well…I should imagine that he has some celebrity left him. I suspect he could write a book or lecture, if he chose.”
“What of his family?”
“None of account, as far as I have heard. If I remember, his father was a postal clerk in some forsaken hill station brigade and his mother…”
“What of her?” She pried, eyes widening.
“A savage.” He said, pawing at the lattice of her sleeve.
Grosvendor moved deftly, calmly, following the strands of black hair and blood, also black in the dropping dusk, caught on the dark barbs of the thorns in the thick. In the hour since he had heard the soft swell and subside of electrical loads shedding in the village beyond the summit, his eyes had grown accustomed to the silt of the bush. He could see the faint milk of moon beyond the Eastern peaks. He felt a sudden surge of immediacy and quietly cursed himself for a fool. In the dusk, he had an opportunity. In the moonlight, alone on this terrain in an open hunt, he knew, he would be easy prey from the tall crops. How could he have been so impatient?
The thick opened onto the first of the tall crops. Grosvendor hesitated at the line of the brush. Beyond the summit, Bharut’s torches would guard the terraces and the children, the women beyond them. The bitch had seen high fire in Nepal. She would fall back to the pass, back on the thorns and crevices of the dry hills to hide out the night, to lick strip and break the girl’s bigger bones. The tigress was there, between the village and his rifle, moving towards him, less cautious than she should have been with fire on her feet. When she came upon him, she would be startled and threatened. Twilight was fading. The eastern horizon was mud and sterling silk.
Grosvendor sniffed crisply at the clearing as he stepped from the hem of the thick. He kept his eyes on the lip of the cropping and his gun to the dark of its crotch. He had just come under its shadow when he found the girl’s leg.
He stood transfixed. The leg was severed at the instep, at the curve of the thigh to the cunt. Grosvendor knelt in the low grass. Intent, he instinctively traced the swell of the ankle over the bruised knob of knee into the haunch. The air stiffened around him and he felt for an instant as if he were a great white worm sewn into the bed of a cold, green ocean beneath plumes of percolating brine. He touched the leg and felt the faint twitch of muscle constricting the instep beneath the hard pad of his hand. His hand simmered as if kissed and there was a burning in his fingertips.
And it did burn. He had seen tiger bites before, seen limbs sheered clean as if by axe or torn. This was not a tiger’s bite. At the cut, a loose lip of skin blackened grimly and the dark down of hair singed into tight, brittle curls. On the stump, poisoned bone broke though seared meat and milk and filth puddled in the pores. The stump itself was convex, as if eaten by fire or acid. The whole of the wound was simmering, steeping a pale vapor. He winced, pulled away, wiping his hand on the canvas of his coat and covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve.
Above him, outside of him, a cascade of rubble skipped down from the top of the outcropping. Grosvendor, still dazed, cast himself back and out of the shadow of the slate. Tumbling, he attempted to right himself, landing on his back with a scream in the midst of the barbed blackthorns.
It stood on the cropping of slate. Grosvendor, blind with rage and pain, saw it in the shape of a man, a privation, a cancer cut out of the gathering glow of starlight and fire, a shadow deeper than the darkness. As it writhed down the face to the clearing, disappearing into the dark of the cropping, it popped and cracked as if the bones of the air were shattered to make its space.
My rifle, he thought, desperate, but it was not in his hand or in the reach of it. It was there, in the dark where he had left it, with it. He could here it there, stripping the bigger bones. In the shadow, it’s saliva touched the flesh and it burned.
Moonlight broke the horizon and Grosvendor fell into a cold, dreamless sleep.
“Is he returning, then?” she whispered.
“To England, you mean? Oh, I wouldn’t think so. I doubt that he has ever been there, after all. You cannot return to a place you’ve never been. Besides, I am told he has a very fixed routine. It’s not uncommon in the old, you know. I suspect he will simply live on as ever he has been.”
“What routine is that?”
“Oh, they say that he rides these rails every day between Bareilly and the Tal. He leaves in the early afternoon, dines at the station house in the commons, and then returns in the night.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Perhaps he likes the food.”
“Quiet! I think he’s waking.”
Bharut found him in the dark of night, following the sound of his voice to a cropping on the side of the mountain. He pulled his friend from the thorns, doctored him quickly and tenderly and set a camp and fire in the crotch of the outcropping. At first, his friend has objected in a tone of fear that was so strange to Bharut as to be meaningless, but when the fire was lit, his friend saw that there was no danger. There was no leg. There was no rifle.
In the morning, Bharut scouted about. Within a few hundred yards, he discovered the badly decomposed body of a tigress. It had been dead for perhaps a week, perhaps two, shot through the stomach. It would have been a slow death, long enough for the animal to continue killing a colonel, which it did. Abbot’s body was found nearby. The tigress had two broken teeth on the right side of its jaw. One was broken clear to the bone of the jaw. This explained its behavior well enough.
The behavior of his friend was another matter.
Stepping out into the corridor of the car, James Grosvendor stepped to the open door and leaned out into the open air. Night was falling. It was a beautiful hour on the plain, like fire from away. He sat there, placing his feet on the soiled, serrate steps. A warm wind fluttered on his neck like breath. Craning, he smiled sadly at the skirmish of trees.
It moved there, keeping pace with him. It moved in the trees, a shadow deeper than the darkness. It pursued him now, him and no other, in the dying light of day. It could not stop pursing him. It never let anyone go.
“Good evening, Colonel.” He said.