Tadhg nestles the rifle in the narrow space between the front passenger seat and door of the jeep. He checks the backpack again as his breath plumes up towards the stars: binoculars, hunting knife, disposable gloves, flask and harness are all packed. Inside the house, Elaine hands him his jacket and hunting gloves. Her white dressing gown hangs loose on her, untied. She is barefoot.
‘What are you up for?’ he asks. ‘It’s not even six yet.’ He leans in to kiss her forehead, but instead gets a mouthful of auburn hair.
‘Do you really need to go out?’ she asks. ‘Can’t it wait until tomorrow?’
Tadhg pockets his gloves. ‘I’ve neglected it enough the last few weeks. I’ll feel better if I get out for an hour or two.’
Elaine rests against the kitchen table. ‘You’re sure you have to go?’
‘But you’ll be back in time to take me to the appointment?’
He smiles and kisses her on the cheek. ‘I’ll be back in loads of time. Stop worrying, love. It’ll all be fine.’
‘Sí, mi amor,’ she sighs.
The road into Killarney is fringed white on either side; the surface of the road sparkles. Tadhg feels the urge to stamp the accelerator down to the floor, but the dial of the speedometer remains balanced on twenty miles per hour as he enters the town. Electric reindeer hang suspended over the main street, cantering in place. Neon Santas wave.
Driving towards the National Park, he catches sight of Lough Leane glinting through the trees. He heard on the radio how two eejits had walked onto the lake yesterday over by Ross Castle. They were probably drunk. Nobody could do something that stupid sober. Tadhg imagines them sauntering onto the ice. One of the men saying: ‘I wish the wife could see me now, walking on water. She always said I’d a God complex.’ The other man laughs, his arms spread wide. ‘If you could turn water into wine, then we’d be sorted.’ Tadhg sees them goading each other on. First one to that block of ice. First one to Innisfallen. First one to reach the other side.
Last he heard, both men are still critical in Tralee General. The same hospital Tadhg will visit later today with Elaine for the results of her core biopsy, the results Dr Kunzru refused to give over the phone. Moving through the National Park, he thinks about searching for the Intensive Care Unit. He’d barge in and find the men wrapped in tin foil, their exposed skin blue, maybe black in places.
If he got that close, he would spit in both their faces.
Tadhg turns off the road and parks beneath a sheltering of yew trees. The moss is hidden by snow, but its bounce can still be felt underfoot. He gathers the backpack and rifle. In the east, the stars are dying out, blue seeping from the horizon.
He rubs his gloved hands together and begins to follow the trail through the woods. Trudging through snow that’s knee-deep in places, he thinks about how he’s never experienced a winter as hard or sustained as this. Last week, he was woken by a series of loud cracks in the bedroom.
‘What’s that? Tadhg?’ Elaine asked, her outstretched arm finding his chest.
He switched on the bedside light, swung out of bed and scanned the room. Everything appeared the same. Then Tadhg looked down and noticed the fissure running through the centre of one of the floorboards. The divide that had gasped open.
He pointed it out to Elaine, who leant over and muttered something—he thinks a curse word—in Spanish. Every second word out of her mouth these days is in Spanish. In the mornings, she doesn’t make him scrambled eggs but huevos revueltos, with a glass of zumo de naranja. He often hears her reciting verbs: yo deseo, tú deseas, el desea, nosotros deseamos, ellos desean. He tells her it’s driving him loco, but she smiles and counters that this is what he signed up for. Besides, it will be worth it, she claims, when they wake in the village of Chinchero in the summer, on their first morning on the Inca Trail. The villages of Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Wayllabamba will be ahead of them, as well as a day’s hike. You’ll thank me then, she says, when I can order your huevos revueltos.
The plan is for the Inca Trail to be their final holiday before they tick off the remaining box. The one Tadhg’s mother hints at every time his parents visit. The one Elaine is interrogated about by her crowd. The hints and questions started a year after the wedding; around the time Tadhg was granted the tenure to cull deer in the region. So when are you planning to provide us with a little blessing? You don’t have that long left, you realise that, don’t you? What age are you now? Thirty-four, isn’t it? The later you leave it, the higher your chances of something going wrong, you know that, love, don’t you?
When Tadhg reaches the clearing, he feels the wind lash out in bursts from the north and so moves to the southern edge. He drops the backpack behind a severed alder bough and places the rifle alongside it. He rests front-down in the snow and takes out his binoculars.
As he searches the clearing, he shivers and thinks about bed. Something that he’s always found remarkable about Elaine is the furious heat that pulses out of her while she sleeps. The woman is a furnace. Recent nights, he has fastened to her, entwining himself around the warmth of her, his leg looped over hers, his chest pressed into her back, his arm tucked under her breasts. Most mornings, he finds it difficult to leave that behind, to go and greet the coldness outside. Lowering the binoculars, he thinks about how he hadn’t felt his usual reluctance this morning. Instead he’d been eager to get away.
Tadhg notices a twitch of movement in the distance. He raises the binoculars and spots a sika hind that has ambled into the clearing, on her way to higher ground now that the sun is up. He lifts the rifle and rests the barrel on the bough. He looks through the telescopic sight. The hind has stopped, as if trapped in some thought or memory.
He aims at the hind’s neck. She’s about one hundred and twenty metres away; the wind shouldn’t be a factor at this range.
He takes a deep breath. Holds it.
Lets it go.
Standing over the fallen hind, Tadhg judges that she weighs about twenty-four kilos. She must have had a tough winter, poor thing. At least her suffering is over now. He makes safe the rifle. He flings the harness beside the hind. The disposable gloves snap on.
Tadhg rolls the hind onto her back and pinches the animal’s skin away from her body. He coughs, wipes his nose with his sleeve. Overhead, the pale sun is tangled in the trees. Grollicking is the part of the hunt where he has seen many stalkers struggle; not with the shot itself, but this close-up, hollowing out.
He begins by slicing her open from the rib cage down with the hunting knife. He makes a deep, circular cut inside the hind’s anus and removes the bladder. The smell of blood and dung lurches up at him. He loosens the intestines and stomach, reaching in and pulling them out onto the snow. As he works, he remembers a stalking party he took out last summer: three middle-aged Germans. He tracked a stag for them over by Moll’s Gap, the afternoon spent in whispers, sudden hissing and sharp hand signals. The Germans wore camouflaged hunting gear and seemed disappointed when Tadhg told them that it didn’t matter what they wore, since deer are colour-blind. The stag, a seven-pointer, was shot at twilight, purple heather swaying around the Germans as they fired. After the kill, the three men searched the surrounding woodland for twigs. These they placed between the stag’s teeth.
Tadhg stepped forward. ‘What are you doing?’
The bearded one, Jorg, responded. ‘It is something small, yes. A tradition. To thank the creature for its offering.’
Tadhg laughed. ‘The way it tried to run away, I’m not sure it was offering you anything.’
Snow has begun to fall, flakes settling in the hind’s open stomach. Tadhg places the knife on the ground and dries his forehead with his sleeve, heat still steaming off the hind. He will have to leave soon if he wants to be home in time to take Elaine to her appointment. He can’t afford to piss around like this, like he has nothing better to do, nowhere better to be.
He imagines Elaine wandering around the house as she waits for him to return. First she walks into their bedroom and opens the blinds. She hesitates for a moment, staring at the mountains and the weight of snow they carry. She walks into the bathroom next and gathers the dirty clothes from the clothes bin, which she brings downstairs to the kitchen. Then she kneels and jams each soiled item into the washing machine.
As she moves through the house, her hand slips under her dressing gown and feels at the unnatural texture of the lump on her left breast. The area is tender, so she doesn’t poke at it; instead she circles the lump’s sloping edges with her index finger. Then she starts to recite Spanish verbs with a fierceness that he sometimes hears from her when she forgets that he is listening, and she might think of Chinchero, or one of the other villages they plan to pass through next summer, and her voice grows louder and breaks and the verbs blend together into nonsense.
Tadhg tries to pick up the knife, but as soon as he touches the handle his hand begins to shake. The hind blurs and he is forced to wipe his eyes to make it solid again. A second time he does this.
He thinks about what he has left to do. He has to cut away the diaphragm and windpipe. Then he has to reach into her, two-handed, and drag out the kidneys, the liver and lungs, pile them up in the stained snow until, finally, all that will be left is the heart. He realises that he is afraid to reach that point: where he is touching the hind’s heart, lifting it from her hollowed-out chest. He can already feel its toughness, the phantom throb. The heat that will pulse out of it, as if it’s something alive he’s holding in his hands.