The Prey

by Claudia Cortalezzi

A la versión original
tr. Alejandra D’Atri

Already hidden from the other’s sight, at the dark end of the grove, Karano was fighting with himself to quieten his panting. The pursuit under the heavy rain had left him out of breath. Better to calm down, or else he would ruin those thirty years of searching.

Something, a fetid breath, passed by near him. He could make out the beast, his prey, peeping its head out the entrance of the grove, as if it could feel it had been followed.

But he was safe. He put his hand over his trousers: the folding kukri, a very small bulk, had not moved from its place. It would unfold as soon as he took it out from his pocket.

He remembered his days as a scout, when they went to camp in the mountains. He remembered his ability to put up tents, to make knots, to decipher codes.

Back in its corner, the beast shook from head to foot.

Like a dog, Karano thought. And he felt his soaked shirt and trousers getting colder and colder.

From his hiding place, he could only see a faint light coming from the entrance. “From the street lamp,” he said to himself. It was a yellowish, feeblish light showing the entrance to the shelter, almost invisible through the curtain of water.

But inside the cave the scanty light showed something else: a track of mud leading to his hiding place.

Almost for sure, Karano wanted to believe, the thing would not be able to see the footprint.

He was feeling colder and colder. And the contact with the stone made him feel even colder. His teeth had started a constant dull hammering sound. He clenched his teeth.

He went sliding into his back corner. A stab, as of a spear’s sharp end — of a stone’s edge — hurt his back. He moved slightly, until he could manage to free himself from the cutting edge, and he endured the pain in silence.

Now he could see a little more. Everything inside that place had a nasty stench.

He had to wait. Wait and spring into action the moment that thing was in its deepest sleep.

Wait, he said to himself. Wait and be on guard.

He saw the beast change position.

They were face to face. He could not believe what he saw. Could all of them be like that? The beast had a human face!

He had already got used to the idea he was going to have a human body in front of him, but the face too... To kill a beast with the shape of a beast was not the same as to kill one with a human shape, of course not.

But if his revenge was to serve its purpose, he had to kill one of those two-legged animals; that was why he had come. And that was the task in which he had invested thirty years.

The beast poked in the garbage and ate and drank outrageously. It belched with satisfaction and lay on its back, as if dead, over the frost-bitten rock.

Immediately, its snoring resounded in the cave.

Over its breast, a stain.

The tattoo, Karano thought.

One night, not long ago, after several rounds of gin and cheap whisky at the British Bar, he had confessed the truth.

Immediately after, the owner of the bar had pulled down the blinds and turned off the lights.

And he talked about Xavier — his small son Xavier, who had disappeared thirty years before. He talked about his wife, who had not been able to bear the absence. And he shouted his hatred with no prejudice.

And it was there and then that he learned the kidnappers were beasts. That the only thing that linked the beasts with their past lives was the tattoos on their breasts.

“What’s the use of having tattoos,” said a hoarse voice from the back of the room. “They can’t even read, they have no idea they’ve got tattoos.”

Karano knew that voice. A man who had helped him at the beginning of his search, a century before, had a voice similar to that one.

“They say the tattoo is their record number, or something like that.” The waiter’s voice came from further away. “Only kidnappers have it. Those who don’t mutate are changed into kidnappers, so they say.”

“Mutate?”

“They use drugs to persuade them.”

“So,” he timidly dared to interrupt, “are they persuaded to mutate?”

“That’s right, but not all of them react to the drugs,” the hoarse voice said. “Not all of them are transformed.”

Karano thought the darkness was making him hear silly things. Mutants?

“Mutants,” he whispered.

“Mutants are called ‘the human thing’. They are deposited in an abandoned building, in a jail. Over there, they are studied, their alterations are analyzed. Viruses are injected in some of them, others are left to evolve. I can assure you: nobody would like to see them.”

Karano stared vacantly. “Nobody would like to see them,” he repeated to himself.

The unknown man from the back cleared his voice. “Those that don’t mutate are turned into kidnappers. But during their training, a transorbital lobotomy is practiced on them, Doctor Freeman’s style, electroshock included.”

“I’ve heard about something similar to that,” the waiter interrupted.

“Not even God knows what remains of those poor creatures,” the other one went on. “They obey, that’s it. Nothing else.”

“But,” Karano needed to ask, “about the mutants... What do they do with them?”

The man with the hoarse voice raised his glass and drank until he emptied it. He swallowed noisily. “They’re turned into amorphous breathing bulks. They are sold to other civilizations.”

“Which civilizations? Come on, man. Tell us!”

“Buyers from other galaxies. They make good deals for them.”

“But is that possible?”

“Everything is possible, my friend. Everything.”

“And what are they bought for? What for? I don’t under...”

“As exotic food. It’s simple.”

Karano felt his cold clothes glued to his body. The cave did not seem as dark as the bar he remembered.

His prey was snoring more heavily.

It had taken him three decades to identify a kidnapper. A stupid stinky gorilla.

And he had followed it until he saw it in action: getting hold of a boy, a boy as his own Xavier had been, thirty years before. That gorilla-like thing had muzzled this other child and thrown him into the mouth of a rusty cylinder.

Karano had waited until that thing withdrew a little. He had gone towards the cylinder with the idea of saving that poor child. But the cylinder had no bottom. Who knew where the child was now. Probably at...

And then, he had decided to go after the kidnapper. And he had been able to get into its cave.

He looked at the thing: it went on snoring.

Karano had imagined that moment many times. He would have liked the beast to be able to look at him in the eyes as he stabbed it, but he was not going to take any risks.

In the present state, asleep, or stoned or drunk, it was quite fine.

He went closer.

The stain over its breast.

Yes, it was a tattoo. A number, ten digits, well defined, as if it had been branded. These were not ordinary tattoos. Everything in them must have been formed with pain. The most intolerable pain, Karano thought in anguish, scared by the images crossing his mind. And if Xavier... No, many years had gone by, too many.

He put his hand in his pocket and pulled the handle of his kukri. He had no need to see it, he could imagine the softness with which the weapon was opening its curved blade and becoming a fixed knife, the right knife. And, as the blade was coming out, Karano felt strong. He could even feel an erection under his trousers.

And his drowsy pain soon woke up...

“WHY?” he shouted. “Son of a bitch. Why with children? WHY?”

And he discovered himself forcing the kukri into the beast’s breast.

“DIE, YOU PIECE OF SHIT. DIE.”

He stirred the knife inside the beast’s flesh until he felt tired of pushing. He was sure to have perforated one of its back ribs. He took the knife out. It was spouting a dark polluted blood. He had only pulled a dull howl from the beast, nothing else.

He had done it very quickly, but it was done.

“Xavier,” he murmured. “You can now rest in peace, son.”

The faint light from the street lamp was just over the tattoo.

Could those be the record numbers? Maybe there was a simpler method to decipher them, like the codes of the scouts. Signs representing letters. Numbers representing letters. Letters...

Why had he forced the knife into the beast without looking? He had ruined the tattoo: one or two numbers, at least, had disappeared.

Yes, the numbers represent letters, he thought. He knew number eleven was letter “k” as in Karano, he knew by heart how to write using the scouts’ code, he had used that code all through high school.

He had to flee.

But he felt very tired. As if his body refused to leave the cave.

“Rest in peace, son,” he murmured. “Rest in peace.”

And once more the tattoo on the beast attracted his attention.

The numbers were blurred, but they were nonetheless unmistakable: each one corresponded to each letter of his own last name.


Copyright © 2011 by Claudia Cortalezzi
Translation © by Alejandra D’Atri

To Challenge 442...

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