Ivory Knives in the Afghan Night

By Dale R. Shantz

David Ashley eased the battered little truck to a halt as the narrow track came up to the wall of grass. Dust from his passage rolled by in the fading light, passing into the gently waving stalks like a patrol of ghostly soldiers. Three full days he had traveled to come to this hunt, fully ten thousand miles and ten time zones from his home, and it felt good for a moment to just sit, and not feel movement.

Turning off the engine, he rested a moment, shifting his position to let the light breeze touch where the sweat had collected on his shirt. Peering through the cracked and dust-glazed windshield at the countryside of southern Afghanistan, it seemed to him as if he were at the very edge of where the efforts of men could be distinguished from the effects of nature. Ahead the grass reared higher than a man could reach, like a breaking wave about to wash on and over the meager farmland behind him.

The land appeared as if drawn in long narrow stripes of dusty red, brown and pale green against the setting sun, the differing patterns outlining the presence of water. Close to the rugged hills where the occasional rains would fall, and along the few streams flowing out of those hills, men had scratched out small irrigated fields. Beyond the fields, forming a buffer between desert and cropland, were alkali marshes, where the flow of water was in too little quantity to leach the salt from the thin rocky soil. Food crops would not grow there, but tall grass flourished and provided shelter for creatures which sought also to feed where the farmers had placed their crops. A few miles beyond the tall grass lay what even the toughened natives called the Dasht-e-Margo, the "Desert of Death."

He held his watch to catch the remaining light, then carefully eased a Merkel 9.3x74R caliber double-barreled rifle from its case. Shouldering open the door he slipped out and eased the door shut behind him. Watching the grass for movement that was not from the breeze, he slipped two cartridges into the breech of the gun. A row of 5 more of the long cartridges nestled in loops sewn across the left breast of his safari shirt. The rifle's action closed with a soft metallic click over a pair of A-Square 286 grain Dead-Tough bullets.

Still watchful, he walked the few steps to the edge of the trail, and stopped, waiting patiently in the evening twilight, listening. Over the soft ticking of the cooling engine, he heard the whisper of the tall grass, deceptively gentle as it arched above him, moving slowly in the light evening air. His ear, from long experience, began to train itself in the sounds of the world he was about to enter. Without conscious thought, he sorted and noted the rustle of the plants, the hum and chirp of insects, and the quick little shuffles of the birds and other small creatures that would be his company in the coming night.

As his eyes adjusted to the spreading darkness and the climbing moon etched his surroundings in soft black and pale shadows, he watched the clumps of underbrush, noting how the patterns of light and dark played beneath the soaring stems of the grass. His gun, an old companion, rested comfortably in the crook of his arm. The carefully oiled barrels gleamed like brushed satin where the rising moon shown full upon them. He was in no hurry; it was not yet time, for the moon needed to be near its peak in the sky to direct its pale light into the pathways of the grass. So he stood, relaxed, enjoying the growing coolness after the heat and dust of the day, but still listening and watching. Upon these senses lay success or failure, perhaps even survival, if the tall grass held what he had come to find.

The pattern of sound changed gradually as the last of the sun's glow faded from the western sky. The creatures of the marsh stirred into their nightly business and the daytime noises of human activity retreated from the farmlands behind him. Patiently he listened and when the sound he sought first came, faint on the evening breeze, he smiled. Like a nail on steel, cutting across the peaceful evening chorus of insects and frogs, the angry squeal of an indignant hog sounded just the same in these distant marshes, as across the ordered fields and wood lots of his own country. Here, however, was different, for the pigs in this place were not confined to concrete pens, passively gorging themselves to later become food for their masters. The pigs were now the masters here, and it was man that lived behind thick walls when night came and the pigs awoke.

The herds had fed well on the villagers' fields and sometimes on the villagers themselves. The great boars grew to a quarter ton of bone and muscle, with bulging muscular humps for shoulders and lean hindquarters hardly seeming to balance their oversized heads. Small eyes protruded from those massive hairy heads, behind gleaming ivory tusks that could gut a rival, or a foolish human, with an agility and speed so much at odds with their clumsy appearance. Here a careless human was as much a meal to a boar as pigs were food to humans in lands where man held the upper hand.

He heard the sound again, closer. The dark expanse of grass grew quiet as the smaller creatures stilled, themselves assessing the distance and direction of the lords of the marsh. David hoped the pigs would come close, as he faced the problem of retrieving the meat. There was really no need to drag a carcass back to the truck, as the Muslim villagers had no interest in the pork and he, of course, did not really need it.

He simply did not wish the meat to waste, and found satisfaction in procuring his own, without the agency of processor and market. He liked knowing his food was free of chemicals, had not been tightly confined, and had been humanely slaughtered. This was a part of why he hunted. Like most hunters, he prided himself on the clean, single shot, the animal no more aware of the change in its existence than a stalk of wheat, falling before the sickle of the harvester.

Growing up on a farm had attuned him to the cycle of life and death, and he had learned during his prior stay, in this land where one observed their food from planting to plate, that everything necessary to the sustenance of life required the sacrifice of a living thing. Someday worms and bacteria would make a meal of him, if the pigs didn't get him tonight, he thought wryly.

He clicked the safety mechanism of his gun, making sure it functioned smoothly. He did not normally hunt dangerous game alone and when coming here he had assumed that someone would be with him in the hunt. When he had learned the peasants were now forbidden guns, he had no wish to put any at risk, either armed and at risk of the law, or unarmed and at risk of the pigs.

The Director of Police had offered the assistance of an officer, for a substantial fee "to compensate for expenses." Not inclined to contribute to the official's already substantial wealth and girth, he had turned down the offer, although the troopers he had seen appeared to be tough, capable men. He found himself having some serious second thoughts about that decision, as the deep, rumbling grunt of a very large hog sounded just a short way off in the darkened mass of the marsh.

Still without hurry, and almost without considering his movements, David checked his pockets to insure that nothing could rattle, touched the compass secured to his wrist and brushed his fingers past the knife on his belt. Quietly, he lifted his gun, his thumb confirming the safety was set, and he lay his finger alongside the guard, ready to access the trigger should his target appear. This, then, was for what he had come, and he glanced at the moon, again forcing himself to calmness against the sudden trembling eagerness of his body.

He did not know just why he enjoyed the hunt, though the course of adrenaline through his blood was so very much like he felt when deep-water sailing and the power of the wind would lean his speeding, fragile craft far over in the blue waters. Few of his friends understood why anyone would hunt. They enjoyed the water in powered craft and preferred the ordered tumble of basketball and tennis court. Why not just take a camera, he was asked, often by someone enjoying a filet that he had brought back from a hunt.

Sometimes he did take pictures, much as there were times a rowboat on a quiet evening better suited his mood than raising a sail into a strong breeze. Sometimes order and structure were fine, and his professional life was built on laws and regulation. Still, life was not all order and structure and sailing and hunting gave challenge and experiences simply not matched by the orderly sports.

Tonight no rules would apply but those of nature. If his hand was not steady or his mind not focused, no referee would stop the action and no appeal to a rulebook would affect the result. He watched the shadows and listened, and judged it almost time to move.

He held himself just a few more minutes, as the moon reached farther into the clear night sky, probing its pale light into the runways of the grass. Still without hurry he began to walk along the edge of the tall grass, looking for a path that would angle in the same direction as the sounds of his quarry had moved. He had too little time to relearn the pig's habits and wait for them to come to him, so he looked for a trail to take him to them.

Finding what he sought, he slipped quietly into the narrow path, the weeds brushing softly against his legs and shoulders as he made his way into the world of the marsh. Within a few feet the light filtering in from overhead had faded to rippling shadows and pale glimmers in the night. The towering walls of grass blocked the breeze and the heat of the marsh overpowered the coolness of the night, quickly bringing a tickling trickle of sweat down the side of his cheek.

He moved slowly, looking for an interior passageway that looked well frequented by the pigs, with an open area to give a clear shot. He expected they would gain his scent, but reasoned that here, in their territory, if he used no artificial light and made no other unusual act, the larger boars would be more aggressive than alarmed. He was confident in his ability to aim straight should the moment come, and hoped that the sudden shot would frighten the remaining pigs into leaving him alone for the time he needed to secure his prize.

Confident, that is, until a grunt erupted seemingly at his heels. The pressing vegetation could tangle his gun, the shifting shadows might confuse his eye, and the gun itself could fail to function. Heart pounding, he hugged his gun and spun on the narrow trail, then lowered the weapon and froze, his eyes probing the shadows, his ears searching the sudden silence for any whisper. With an effort he controlled his breathing and stopped the tremor in his hands. His ability to appear calm in tense situations had earned him the admiration of his professional colleagues, but few of the people he knew had ever placed themselves where failure to maintain their self control could literally result in being eaten.

He heard a quiet rustle, behind him yet again, and he was very aware that he could be the creature being stalked. He restrained the urge to run back up the track, fleeing from what his mind said might be around him. Slowly, the normal sounds of the night resumed, and his ears identified the stirrings around him as minor creatures, minding their own affairs. Still he waited, for a pocket of silence remained to his front. Insects hummed about his ears and some settled in the center of his back, where the sweat had rinsed the repellent away, and plastered his shirt next to his skin, but he dared not move. He heard a soft snuffle, and the shadows shifted, but he could not be sure of what he faced and would not shoot until he was. The shadow stirred again and a little goat slipped into the moonlight and down a cross path.

He stood for a moment, bringing his breathing and heartbeat under control again. Checking the angle of the moon, he realized the time was approaching when such light as he had would begin to fade to near total darkness. Resuming his way along the trail, he came to an open area and stopped again, listening. Several times he had heard noises of pigs in the distance. Then, downwind from where he stood, across and beyond the little clearing in the grass, he heard an inquiring, questioning grunt. His palms were damp, and he carefully wiped them on the sides of his pants, needing a firm grip when the time should come. He did not think a boar would approach him from behind, and risk losing his scent, but he made sure he had room to turn and paid attention to all the sounds.

He had a moment of doubt whether he had remembered to safe his gun and quickly slipped the top tang mounted slider forward and back again. The soft click of steel on steel brought another questioning grunt from the brush across the clearing and he realized the animal had slipped much closer without giving any sound of passage. Hardly breathing he waited, straining his eyes into the dimming moonlight, conscious of a growing stillness.

Another soft snuffle and this time he heard the rustle of the grass against passing bodies. A shadow moved on the far edge of the clearing, no more than 40 yards away, and he thought he saw the gleam of little eyes, examining this stranger here in their midst. They had his scent, for they were downwind from his position. Years had passed since a human had been so bold as to enter here and the pigs were cautious, yet curious, too. He could hear them testing the air and grunting softly among themselves. He held himself still, seeing only a few flickering shadows while the herd gathered in the tall grass. He knew how quickly a charging boar could cover that distance, so he watched and waited for movement.

Gradually the rustling grew. Sweat ran down between his eyes, and he blinked to keep his vision clear. He could hear them clearly, but none had yet exposed themselves so that he had a clear shot. The pigs to his front had held his full attention and it was his almost forgotten sense of smell that told him something was very wrong. His nose filled with the rank stink of boar, and his brain shrieked that the breeze was blowing toward the pigs of which he was aware. He turned and a deeper shadow detached itself from the waving grass only a few feet away, hurtling towards him.

There was no time for thought, only instinct and experience as he swung his rifle and the thundering shot burst the quiet darkness. 450 pounds of meat hit him like a hairy truck and the moon made a crazy circle in his vision as he was slammed to the ground. A jolt of agony ripped through his back, and broken stalks of grass gouged his skin. He rolled over and sat up, the wind knocked from him and dirt in his eyes, but knowing that to lie and collect himself could mean death. Blinking, struggling to breathe, he held his rifle at the ready for a second shot, praying that the barrel was not plugged with dirt. But he was alone in the tall grass. The massive hog had rolled to an inert heap and the rest of the herd had scattered in fright.

Luck had been with him, as a raking tusk had only sliced an eight-inch gash in the cuff of his pants. A visit to his chiropractor would be in order when he got back to the states, but as he reloaded the fired barrel he checked and found that his rifle's barrels were clear and he was able to walk and see.

He dressed out the animal quickly, taking only the choicest cuts, knowing that the other pigs would have no qualms about finishing the rest. He thought, too, that now the farmers would enjoy a few weeks respite. The pigs had been reminded to have some respect for humans, for a little while at least.

Some weeks later, back at his home, David invited a group of friends and colleagues for a "home-cooked" dinner. Preparing bits of lightly fried pork tenderloin, he added freshwater shrimp, collected by the simple trick of placing a filleted joint in a wire mesh trap, and leaving it in a quiet eddy in the river near his house. He had purchased some wild rice from a Native American farmer, who had gathered it from a canoe using wooden staves. Finally, he had cut fresh shoots of young asparagus from a plot at the edge of his yard. His guests eagerly attacked the food, and he left them happily unaware of the origins of what they were eating.

One of these was a noted political science professor and author, whom David had looked forward to meeting, but who had monopolized the conversation talking about his newest book. The guest droned on about the majesty and benevolence of government and their duty as a "cosmopolitan" elite to manage the affairs of the rest of humanity.

David idly wondered, as the plumpish professor paused long enough to enjoy a long swallow of wine, if the grapes were still crushed by the bare feet of the peasant harvesters. Probably not, he decided, as the anointed one turned to him and expressed how appalled he was that David not only possessed firearms, but also had used them on his recent trip to Afghanistan.

"It's barbaric, killing an animal for sport," taking another bite of wild boar as he spoke. "I intend to visit Afghanistan, now that the government has things well in hand, but I'm taking a camera."

"You do that" David responded. "I can give you detailed instructions to put you right where I saw some wild boar." "That would be delightful" beamed his guest, "what shutter speed would you suggest for the conditions?" "A fast one" replied David, and smiled.

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