“Stephan once told me that he hoped he would never have to bury me,” Hector said. His voice sounded strange and hollow in the large room. He looked at the people in front of him because he honestly did not know where else to direct his gaze. It would not do to look at the floor like a shy schoolboy. And he would not look at the subject of his speech. He simply could not do that right now.
The window panes of the church were dark with show that had gathered on one of the nave’s sides. On the other side, the snow had melted in the midday sun which showered the otherwise solemnly clad people with coloured rays of light. They were all listening to Hector. He never felt awkward talking to a gathering of people, but he would have preferred very nearly any other circumstances.
“It was only natural, he told me, that a young man one day grows up and buries his teacher and master. But his loss is still a great loss for us all.” There was no hint of hesitation or crying in his voice now. People who did not know him well must think that he was not particularly bothered by the situation or that he had an almost superhuman control of his emotions. But they had not been there with him and Stephan. They had not heard him call out the other hunter’s name or scream in anger and powerlessness when he realised that there was nothing to do, that Stephan’s neck was broken, and that he already was dead when Hector reached him. Probably already had been before he hit the ground. They had not been there to see Hector ignore everything around him and fall to his knees in the snow and hold his master’s still body tightly without even glancing at the dead wolf.
“Stephan Holz did not try to be my father, but he was the closest thing I ever had. Without him, I would not be the person I am today.” There was nothing else that he could say. They all knew Stephan. They all knew how skilled a hunter he was, how respected he was, and how loved. Hector stepped away from the coffin, through the church and sat down amongst his fellow hunters. The clergyman spoke now, talked about Stephan’s life and how much good he had done. Hector tried to listen, but his head was strangely empty. He could not think of anything but the snow out there. How icicles had formed outside the windows on the side where the snow had melted. He found himself considering how long time it would take for the sun to travel to the other side and melt the snow there too, or if it would have set before it got anywhere close.
Then the lid of the coffin was closed, everybody shuffled to their feet, and Hector followed five other hunters to the coffin. He had to carry it with his left hand because his right one was hanging uselessly in a sling, waiting for one of the bones in his forearm to heal. They slowly walked out of the church and to the modest building next to it. Stephan had not been bitten, but it was a deeply rooted and accepted tradition to burn a hunter’s body. Afterwards his ashes would be put into an urn, and the urn would be put in the ground between the graves of other fallen hunters.
Hector hesitated a moment when the coffin was placed. He had not known Stephan for much more than a decade, but it felt as if he had always been there. And what was he waiting for now? For Stephan to jump out of the box and proclaim that it was all a bad joke and that he wasn’t dead at all? No, Hector knew very well that Stephan had been killed. If anyone knew, it was Hector.
A few months ago he had overhead a conversation in the dining hall between two other hunters. One of them had lost his partner recently, and he told the other that they had both known that it would happen before it did. It had been unpredictable, logically and scientifically speaking, but they felt that something bad was going to take place on the morning of that horrible day.
Hector moved as discreetly from one foot to the other as he could during the respectful silence while the funeral guests were waiting for the torch to be lit. But there was no way he could get comfortable. Why did he think of that conversation now? Because it was nonsense. A coincidence. You didn’t know. You never knew. There was a risk involved every time any of them went hunting. The risk was greater with young and inexperienced hunters, and it was greater yet with hunters who had grown old and stiff. And Stephan … Stephan should have stopped if he longed for a calm and long old age. But he hadn’t stopped, and he had not wanted retirement. There was never any doubt that he wanted to die on the hunt. If Stephan had been allowed to choose, he would probably have waited a few years to leave this world, but the way it happened … No, he would not have had it any other way.
Hector took the torch that one of the others, he didn’t notice who, handed him and reached into the small tunnel where the coffin slid in smoothly because of the oil. Once the first sparks were ignited, he quickly withdrew his hand. It took no time at all for the flames to lick the sides of the wooden box, and the hatch was closed. Hector handed the torch back in the direction it had come from. There was nothing else to do here. He turned his back to the crematorium and looked at the others. They were all here, Stephan’s friends and fellow hunters, all wearing the same sombre expression, all regarding Hector with their eyebrows slightly knit in a useless, sympathetic gesture.
It was tradition to have the wake at a local tavern. Someone had asked if they could have the place to themselves, Hector vaguely seemed to recall, but right now he wanted to go home most of all. Or go for a long ride on his horse. Just be alone.
If Stephan had been standing next to him now, he would have looked at Hector accusingly. “Are you sure that is what you want?” he would have asked. “Or are you trying to punish yourself by pushing them away? Is now not the time when you need company?” And although Hector was not keen on admitting it, although he did not want to show the others the signs of weakness that he knew would emerge after the first couple of drinks or three, he knew that Stephan would be right. So he went to the tavern with the others.
Hector automatically raised his mug without even noticing who made the toast. He had said everything that he wanted or needed to say at the funeral. Now he was just going to be here. Be here and drink. All the thoughts that had been absent in the last few days were beginning to slowly emerge now, and it was a race between them and the beer.
When he closed his eyes, sometimes even when he just blinked, he saw how the wolf came towards him. How it pounced at him and threw him to the ground. That was the moment when his arm broke. The sudden pain had stunned him for a moment. Only for a moment, but during that time, the werewolf had seen Stephan. It saw him raise his rifle and take aim and changed its course to stop him. Before Hector was back on his feet, a shot rang out in the forest, and the hunter and the wolf fell to the white ground. The wolf was still moving, whining. Stephan had hit it, but not fatally. Hector took the next shot, and then he fell to his knees next to Stephan.
If he had only been a little faster. If he had shot seconds before. Or had seen it a little bit earlier. Or if it had not paid attention to Stephan and had stayed with Hector … He imagined how the various scenarios would have played out. Stephan would not have wanted him to die instead. He wouldn’t. And it would not have been right, either. Perhaps one day it would be the other way around. Perhaps he would follow in Stephan’s footsteps someday and leave behind a young hunter who…
Leave behind? Yes. Hector drank the rest of the beer and smashed the mug onto the table. He needed one more. He stood up an went to the bar. Didn’t occur to him to ask if any of the others wanted anything. Yes, he concluded despite his every intention not to think more about it. That was how it felt. He had been left behind.
“How do you feel?”
Hector turned around with his new mug of beer held up like a shield. The voice belonged to Louis. Hector had not noticed him getting up and going to the bar as well. They were almost the same age, and their stories were strikingly similar. The Frenchman had arrived in Frankfurt only months after Hector, and because they had been the two only children at that point, they had immediately become friends. To begin with, their friendship had been based on gestures and facial expressions, but it had not taken Louis long to become fluent in German, and Hector had even picked up a little French. They had grown up together, learnt their craft together, trained together and competed with each other since the beginning.
Hector shrugged. It hurt his right arm, but he didn’t care. It was silly and probably childish, but he almost wished that it would hurt more. Then he would think of something else. Feel a bit sorry for himself maybe.
“It was not your fault.” Louis tried to catch his gaze.
Hector sneered. “Have I hinted that it could be?”
Louis shook his head. Smiled. Condescendingly. It was infuriating, even more so than he usually was. “No, but it can feel that way. We have all been there. You consider what you could have done differently.”
“It’s no use,” Hector said.
“No, it is not.” Now Louis’ gaze met his, insistingly.
Who did he think he was? Did he think that he was Stephan? That he could just sprinkle a few pieces of advice and words of wisdom on the situation and make Hector feel better like that? Again he felt that urge to leave. Find somewhere outside to sit down with a bottle of liquor and drink until it was empty or he couldn’t feel any of this anymore.
“Come on,” Louis continued, relentlessly. “Let us go back to the others and sit down.”
Hector hesitated. He turned to the bar again and put down the mug.
“Stephan is not coming back because you suffer alone.”
He didn’t think. All of a sudden he had clenched his left fist and was spinning around.
Louis parried and caught his hand. “Do I have to beat up a wounded man before he will listen to me?” he asked, temper flashing. His voice had taken on an urgent note.
Hector sneered again and pulled away from Louis. “How the hell is this any of your business?” he growled.
The blow hit the side of his face and made him stagger backwards to keep his balance. Louis still had his hand raised when Hector looked. He had hit Hector’s cheek with the back of it, not punched him with a fist, but it still stung. Hector grimaced. Tears formed in his eyes. Well, dammit. It had not hurt that much.
“Come. Drink with the rest of us, Hector.” Louis let his hand fall to his side. He looked earnest. “Everybody knows that you were Stephan’s partner. His favourite. We all respect your grief.”
Hector quickly wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I know.” He picked up his mug again, cradled it hard in his hand. “Louis …”