… three little pigs go wee-wee-wee all the way home.

 My right shoulder felt like a head of cabbage being shredded as it hit the unforgiving ground. I unfurled from my protective foetal position onto my back, the dew moistened grass of the Highveld’s veld as a pillow. In contrast to the flaming pain now creeping over my torso the crisp, the sterile blue of the autumn morning held its own and I struggled against a primal urge to scream out in pain. His footfalls towards me were distinctive from the distant galloping of the hunters and as the mud splattered face came over my eye’s horizon the tears burst their reserve and flooded coursing down my face.

The taste of the dark, peaty earth triggered a memory and I realised that the tears were more for the death of my grand-father than anything else. A man I never knew but played the strongest part in my most defining memory as young boy at his family seat in rural Saxony. I stood there looking out as a heavy tractor draws up to the hard-carved stone courtyard and the earthy-beaters load themselves into its trailer, their jokes and laughter forming steam in the air. The gamekeepers drive ahead of them in their nondescript Audis and Opel’s, ready to deploy their little regiment across the dense, dark woods around us.

And then, 30-mins later the hunters ourselves saunter out into the crisp winter cold, their sleek black rifles slung casually over their shoulders. Theses are the steely-eyed knights of the afternoon’s combat, and their mostly middle-aged damsel-consorts act out their own part as they kiss them farewell. For a battle they will obviously win. Out in the forest, the orchestrated theatre of death comes closer to a reality as the master of the hunt explains the rules of where to fire and when, for these rifles fire tumble-shells that can kill at a mile’s distance: the shells roll in the air and they land with such impact that, even if they strike an arm or a leg, the shock can kill their quarry – man or pig.

There is hoar frost on the trees, which is melting slightly and dripping down onto the hunter’s hats. As it falls, some catch the early light and remind me of champagne bubbled rising diametrically to the top. Distantly, from over the hill, comes the unmistakable sound of the beaters who are whistling and tapping as they move through the trees, and a horn is blown with a distinctive call. Beside the hunters, one of the weather-worn gamekeepers lifts his horn to his lips to answer. It is the signal for the marksmen to go into battle, and they spread out, a dozen of them, abreast in the woods.

Carefully they start moving forward, stepping over brush and fallen branches, looking occasionally on either side of them, but mainly looking ahead, into the mist from which the boars will emerge at any moment. The sound of the beaters grows louder. Fear builds up inside of me; nestling somewhere in my beating heart that is threatening to burst my eardrums or at least deafen me for life. There are rustlings in the undergrowth, branches crackling, creatures approaching, bug hump-backed black shapes shouldering their way past bushes and ferns, the glint of small angry eyes rushing towards us.

The rifles beside me start firing. I look at a shadow in the underbrush and fire. The recoil forces me to the ground. I remember little else. I do remember that at half-past five, after schnapps, tea and cakes, the hunters had to muster again to offer their ritualistic salute to the fallen. It is now after dark, so the car park is lit by flickering torches arranged in the periphery of the lodge. For the last hour corporate emblazoned bulldozers and dump trucks have been carting the carcases out of the woods for the butcher to cut them open and castrate them, and now they lie in rows, seventy-five dark bristly pigs with long snouts, laid out side by side for the final salute.

According to pagan mythology of German forests, all creatures have souls, so hunting the boar is like a duel between warriors: the victor must do homage to the slain; he must send him out of this world with a courteous salute, and he should mark this by placing a sprig of fir in the animal’s mouth as one last piece of fodder for his journey to the gods. This is the theory. The practice seems less poetic, as dump trucks shovel up the bodies and lay out Valhalla in a pall of diesel fumes. This is the lesson that I learnt most: life isn’t theory but harsh and cold. At 5.45pm the party appear to complete the ritual.

The gamekeepers blow rounds of horn salutes to the different categories of adversary vanquished, one tune for the ordinary boars, a more elaborate fanfare for the dozen tusked monsters who lie in the front rank, and the men who shot these beasts step forward for their accolade, a sprig of pine branch dipped in the dead boar’s blood. The sprigs are tucked under the hunter’s hatbands, and they walk off proudly out of the torchlight. I was ennobled, says tradition, by the blood of the fighter I’d slain. The engines of the dump trucks cough into life and the carcases are carted away.

The diesel engine of the Land Rover brought me back to reality and I was driven back to the cottage by the Bradley Copper-esq guy who had shared the news of his death as I shared his bed that Saturday morning.

 

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