31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 23: “The Hunter” by Cynthia Flood

May 23, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Red Girl Rat Boy

Red_Girl_Rat_BoyThe stories in Cynthia Flood’s 2013 collection tilt toward expressionism or pointillism, which might put off readers accustomed to a more naturalistic approach. But Flood’s linguistic precision and inventiveness is invigorating and, for those willing to take the time with these stories, there are plenty of riches to be found.

On a surface level, “The Hunter” is relatively straightforward. It unfolds chronologically, and follows a recognizable cause-and-effect trajectory. It plays with a reader’s expectations, however, in that the character and situation introduced in the opening pages are abandoned as the story progresses; in a kind of Coen brothers bait-and-switch, the reader realizes midway that the story is about something different from what was assumed at first.

Were this a novel – that is, were the plot of “The Hunter” extended over the course of 300 pages – the modulations in its scenario would perhaps not seem quite so startling. What surprises in the story is Flood’s ability to shift perspectives and points of view so effortlessly over the course of fewer than fifteen pages.

Like A.L. Kennedy’s “Baby Blue,” “The Hunter” is roughly broken down into three parts. The first section involves a man who operates a Vancouver grow-op in his home, where he keeps a clouded leopard he calls Pretty in a cage as a pet. In the second part, the leopard effects an escape and wanders the urban jungle of the city looking for food and shelter. The third part features a female social worker with experience hunting game, who ends up stalking the wild animal. Each section modulates the language and tone, and each teases out a different aspect of the implications contained in the title.

“The Hunter” might easily refer to any of the three main characters. All are identified with hunting at one point or another in the course of the narrative. The owner or the grow-op, who is presented as being somehow mentally challenged, leaves Vancouver “for the first time ever,” we are told, “to hunt his clouded leopard and bring her home.” There is no real hunting involved: it becomes clear that the leopard has been purchased over the Internet from a Texas game ranch; all the new owner has to do is transport it back to Vancouver.

Pretty, by contrast, proves to be a talented and instinctual hunter, easily mapping out the smells and sounds of the urban landscape, locating higher ground that is more conducive to her safety and comfort, and finding easy prey in the form of local birds and, twice, domestic house cats. In the first instance, she kills a “tabby kitten” that she decapitates to avoid contact with the “revolting” thing around its neck, an inedible “circlet” that prevents her from enjoying her meal. In the second instance, she preys on an animal in the early morning hours: “Near dawn, she killed. The plump animal’s blue eyes and cappuccino fur interested her not at all, but the tender fetuses tasted delicious.” These details are distressing, yet dispassionate: Flood presents the leopard’s search for food, water, and shelter as a brute example of nature red in tooth and claw.

The carcass of the second cat is left near the social worker’s house, to be discovered when she heads out with her dog, an aged setter that, we are told, had “done his last hunt.” The social worker, by contrast, has not done her last hunt, and sets out with her deer rifle to track the “tropical animal” she assumes escaped from a preserve where venal money grubbers run canned hunts for wealthy clients.

Each section of the story is presented in an individual and identifiable voice. The first, that of the so-called “retard” pot grower, is replete with the kind of numbered lists the stunted man’s mother has instructed him to make to ensure he is organized and prepared in any situation. (Extending the metaphor of wild and domesticated animals, the people who employ him to run his household grow-op are referred to as his “masters.”)

Pretty, meanwhile, is shown as calculating and highly observant, attuned to smells and sounds and nuances of landscape and environment. Her section of the story is packed with catalogues of things, both natural and otherwise, that she encounters as she roams the city:

The cat sniffed the water. Underground water, rain coming, salt. Animal fur, droppings, spray. Humans. Plants grasses bushes. Dead leaves loose, crackling, mashed, skeletal. Fish, shellfish, algae. Stiff bull-kelp on the stony beaches. Insects, their acid odours. Powdery bird-feathers. Bird-shit. A rabbit, decomposing. Insecticides, herbicides, pesticides.

The rhythm of the prose here highlights an instinctual, yet very precise and attuned awareness of surroundings and environs.

The social worker’s section, by contrast, is more intellectual and discursive; she feels an affinity for the animal that has managed to escape from what she assumes are uncaring human captors. When she kills Pretty, she does so as an act of compassion, deciding that the wild leopard is better off dead than in the hands of animal rescue officers, who would “just lock the creature into another cage to die.”

It is significant to note that other than the pot grower’s mother, who is referred to with the diminutive appellation “Mumma,” the only character in the story given a name is Pretty. This acts as a kind of clue in the early stages as to what to pay attention to: the specificity of a name for the leopard is a subtle indication that she is the story’s central figure, not the man who is supposedly her master (that word again). Indeed, Pretty is the only character who appears in each of the triptych’s three panels – caged at first, then on the loose, and finally as predator turned prey.

But Flood’s story is not a parable about the ills that humans are capable of inflicting on animals. Or, at least, it is not only that. It is, instead, a carefully constructed experiment in narrative, presenting readers with a single story from three radically different perspectives. It interrogates the nature of predation and asks subtle questions about where we exist on the food chain, and whether we deserve to be there or not.