The Hunter and the Wild Girl – Excerpt

Angry DogWITH A SHRIEK of splintering boards, the girl breaks into daylight and stands blinded, panting, sucking air as if it were a great hot soup, her chest heaving. Three breaths, harsh as the scrape of wood on stone — and then she is running, naked limbs a hieroglyph in motion across the scrubby field beside the house she had not known was there, through the alarmed and protesting sheep, running, leaping, until she reaches the cloudy cover of an olive grove where she draws a breath and, breakneck, reckless, races on. Desperate, unfledged harpy. No destination, no thought, only ‘away.’ Away from the darkness of the hovel and its reek, away from the old man and his snarling dog. She can hear it yammering back at the house. Up is where she needs to be. As high as she can go. Climbing is what she knows. On the other side of the trees she turns toward the limestone cliffs rising abruptly from the far side of a stream bed. She is across the stream in two bounds, slipping in mid-stride, unaware of the grind of ankle bone on rock, her mind ceasing to register, her mind already climbing, looking for handholds, for places to wedge a hip, lever an elbow. She climbs past places where swallows nest. She hears the man and his dog crashing through the olives down below and then her hands are on the topmost ledge. She uses the strength of her toes first to push herself higher and then, with her elbows tucked in close, supporting her weight on her palms, she heaves herself up and tilts, throwing her upper body flat on the solid ground, inching forward and drawing her legs to follow. She lies panting. An ecstasy of blue above her. She knows it even before she rolls over and opens her eyes. Blue. Air again, sky. She gulps them both and they taste of salt.

Stone HutShe has no way of knowing how long she was kept there in the stinking hut. She does not count. She does not mark the days. But she can remember the bright cold day when she was shut into the dark. She had seen dogs that day outside a wretched hamlet. Dogs mauling some rag of a creature, baying dismal memories of sinew and bone. Dogs in a pack. And so she ran. The dogs did not give chase, but she kept on running, not stopping even to look for food. When she came upon the stone hut, the sun was sinking, the air cooling. She saw the hut as a refuge from the bitter wind, but the stench repelled her. Fetid it was, sour and festering with a smell she did not recognize, so she had huddled instead at the foot of the lee wall and absorbed the last stored warmth of the sun from the rocks.

She had not woken again until night was falling and then it was too late. The old man’s hands were already on her. He gripped her upper arms from behind and though she clawed and bit she could not loosen his hold. So rigid, so unyielding, like a dead thing found in the woods. He pushed her into his hut and let go and it was then that she might have darted free but for his dog that suddenly showed itself, snarling in the doorway behind him. The old man growled at the dog and it cowered while he backed out and shoved the door shut. She heard him spit and growl again and then she heard the dog’s breath at the cracks in the door. The old man began to laugh and then she heard him walking away. After a while the dog too was gone.

When night came it was absolute. Morning offered only knives of light slicing through the cracks in the door, ghosts of stones looming from the walls. The old man came with a mess of food and with water. He prattled and burbled and held both out to her, and she saw his jagged teeth as he laughed and she began to imagine herself being eaten. He left the dish and the wooden bucket on the floor and closed her in again. All of it reeked.

He came again in the days to follow, sometimes with food, sometimes with a bucket of sand or ashes to throw over her dirt, but always with the dog at his back. She began to eat the food he brought, though it turned her stomach. The first time he reached to touch her she clawed him, her nails strong as a dog’s. The next time he tried she flew at him again and bit, and after that he kept his distance. Sometimes he moaned softly in the thick dark. She could not breathe with him near. It made her long for the vast clear emptiness of sky and the small birds calling.

She tried at last to spring for daylight when he opened the door. The dog did not hesitate. It leapt on her at once and tried to close its teeth on her arm. The old man struck it away with the rail that barred the door. She heard a crack and the dog yelped and ran off, but the old man was quick and she found herself shut in a second time. She knew by the tenderness there on her arm that an ugly bruise was blooming. When at last she fell asleep she dreamed she was on a mountainside where the sunlight fell like rain. She dreamed thunder, the crack of it, and when she woke her head was filled with a memory: the sound of breaking wood. She got up and pushed at the door. It seemed to her that it gave a little. Again and again she tried. She used her legs. She drove her uninjured side against it, hurling herself at it over and over until wood exploded into sky and she sprang into the dazzling world.

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