Authors: John Vaillant
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?WILLIAM BLAKE, “The Tyger”
THE BADGER AND SHOTGUN INCIDENT WAS THE ONLY TIME TRUSH SAW Markov alive, and he had underestimated him. Then, he had figured Markov for one more unemployed subsistence hunter who wasn’t above taking a lynx or a badger if the opportunity presented itself. When Trush finds himself, as he often does, in that murky place between the letter of the law and the fact of a man’s circumstances, he is reminded that the line between right and wrong can be a crooked one. But how, in the forest there, with that sorry badger in a pot, could Trush have imagined what would happen to Markov, a known poacher with illegal weapons who was fed up with being poor? And how, for that matter, could he have known what would happen to Lev Khomenko?
Lev (“Lion”) Khomenko was a thirty-six-year-old hunter and herbalist from the village of Lesopil’noye, near the confluence of the Ussuri and Bikin rivers. He had a degree in hunting management and was a staff hunter for Alufchanski, the State Forest Management Company, which oversaw the region’s commercial meat and fur industry. But the 1990s were the toughest years many Russians could remember, and the winter of ’96 found Khomenko unemployed with four children to feed. He and his family lived a marginal existence on the edge of the taiga; their house was old and made of logs, and it leaned precariously to one side. There were cracks in the walls big enough to put a hand through. Trush had been making his rounds one day when he came upon Khomenko hunting in the forest; while doing a routine document check, he discovered that Khomenko’s gun was registered not in his own name but in his father’s. Trush was within his rights to confiscate the weapon, but he had sympathy for the man’s obvious poverty and was impressed that all his other papers were in order, so he let him go.
Not long afterward, Khomenko hitched a ride up the Bikin in a logging truck. He wore fleece-lined boots that were much better suited to town use and, over these, he wore a green forester’s uniform. He was hunting, as many in the taiga do, with a double-barreled shotgun. In the backwoods of Primorye, these relatively light firearms tend to be old—sometimes very old—and of dubious quality; their killing range is usually under a hundred yards, and they are accurate only to around seventy yards, which is almost laughable by the standards of modern hunting weapons. Khomenko’s gun was loaded with a single large ball in the right barrel, and with lead shot in the left; this way he would be prepared for any kind of game, be it big or small. Khomenko was traveling alone; there was about ten inches of snow on the ground, and it was forty degrees below zero.
Save for one’s own breaths and footfalls, the forest at this temperature is as silent and still as outer space and, to the barefaced Khomenko, it may have felt almost as cold. Nothing moved. The white trunks of birch trees rose almost seamlessly from the snow. The grays and browns of oak and poplar and smaller shrubs provided contrast and reference points, but they also offered places to hide. Around midday, Khomenko ran across the trail of a tiger; the tracks were recent and he decided to follow them. There was a logging camp nearby, and when the watchman there saw Khomenko coming, he came out to greet him. The two men talked for a while and, when Khomenko expressed interest in the tiger tracks, the watchman said he had heard some kind of a fight in the woods the previous night. He thought the tiger might have had a run-in with a huge wild boar that he had been seeing around the camp. Ussurian boars can grow to enormous size, some weighing in excess of five hundred pounds; they usually travel in herds, but this one was strangely solitary. It was so big that the watchman had given it a nickname: GAZ-66, after a large, virtually unstoppable military truck that is often used in forest work. Its tusks were massive, and the watchman figured the tiger had met its match. Khomenko was intrigued and, despite the watchman’s admonitions against going alone after a possibly wounded tiger, he seemed determined to do so.
Khomenko was an experienced hunter—a professional—and, as such, his interest was understandable. Fresh tiger tracks aren’t something you see every day, and many have spent their entire lives in the taiga without ever setting eyes on a live tiger. Maybe Khomenko was curious; maybe he was very hungry, or maybe he thought he had just won the lottery. Tigers go by several different names here, and one of them is Toyota—because, during the 1990s, that is what you could buy with one. The risk, of course, is great. The animal is deadly, and hunting one is a federal offense, but that is the case with many black market commodities, and it is safe to say Khomenko was desperate. One look at his rhombus of a house was proof enough.
When Khomenko failed to return that evening, the watchman grew concerned. The following morning, he and some loggers climbed onto a bulldozer—there was no way they were going in there on foot—and went looking for him. They found Khomenko about half a mile down the trail, lying on his back in a peculiar position and veiled in a light dusting of snow. They left him where he lay and called the police, who arrived the next day. For those who know the language, the whole story was written in the snow, and this was how it read:
Within a few hundred yards of the logging camp, Khomenko had come upon the site of the battle reported by the watchman, only there was no sign of the rogue boar. The only tracks were those of tigers. Most likely, they had been fighting over territory. Khomenko had studied the scene, found the two sets of exit tracks, and followed the bloody ones. Once again, he didn’t have far to go. There is no way to know precisely what happened next—if the tiger revealed its position somehow, or if Khomenko spotted it first. In any case, Lev Khomenko saw or sensed the tiger in time to take off his gloves and lay them neatly on the snow. With his hands free for shooting, he turned toward the tiger’s hiding place, stepping from side to side as if searching for a clean sightline. By the time he brought his rifle to his shoulder, the tiger was already charging. One can only imagine the rush of chemistry coursing through those superheated bodies, the pounding in Khomenko’s chest as those molten, spectral eyes closed on him at dream speed.
Apparently, Khomenko maintained his composure because he emptied the barrels individually rather than together. Both shots hit their mark but had absolutely no effect; the tiger came on in a blur of twelve-foot leaps and swatted Khomenko in the face with its paw, knocking him to the ground. Then the tiger picked him up in its jaws. Khomenko was carrying a canvas rucksack, and it was clear from the shredded axe handle sticking out of it that this was how the tiger lifted him. The tiger then proceeded to shake Khomenko like a rag doll—so violently that it broke his wrist and both of his legs. Then the tiger put him down and went away.
Khomenko was probably unconscious for a time, but he came to and, with his remaining usable hand, he drew his knife. Then he began to crawl back the way he had come. He was found a few feet from his neatly laid gloves, frozen to death, his legs jutting off at odd angles. The temperature that day was minus forty-five. When Khomenko’s body was lifted gently onto the back of the loggers’ bulldozer, it was as rigid as a mannequin.
Only afterward, when the exit tracks were followed, did it become clear the tiger had never left the site. Despite the presence of heavy machinery and half a dozen men, it had remained nearby, watching, just as it had the day before. As one taiga hunter said, “The tiger will see you a hundred times before you see him once.”
One of the most striking details of this case is that Khomenko had only two visible wounds on his body: a single claw mark on his face and some lacerations on his broken hand. The tiger had no interest in Khomenko as food, and probably had never intended even to scratch him. It turned out later that this tiger had a defective claw that did not retract with the others. This was probably the claw that wounded Khomenko’s face, and it was also by this faulty claw that Yuri Trush would identify this tiger’s prints, track it down, and shoot it from the top of a farm tractor. Far more difficult for Trush, though, would be walking up to that crooked house filled with all those anxious faces, and knocking on the door. “I was overwhelmed,” said Trush. “My eyes filled with tears. At that moment, when I saw their circumstances, I felt sorry for the man, not for the tiger.”
It was the timing that had been especially cruel: on January 26, Trush had stopped Khomenko and seriously considered disarming him. On the 29th, Khomenko met the tiger.
Now, nearly two years later, Markov was dead and, once again, lives would be saved or lost depending on how Trush read his hunches. While he, Lazurenko, and Gorborukov studied the melted, trampled snow, trying to take the measure of both man and tiger, it was left to Deputy Bush and Markov’s grieving friends to gather Markov’s remains onto the blanket that Zaitsev had been carrying for that purpose. All of these men were hunters; they had seen animal kills and had butchered animals themselves. But Markov was a man—a close friend—and now it was as if he had exploded, shattered into pieces by this brutal, frigid life. The task of gathering, of re-membering, was almost too much to bear so the men worked slowly, numb and mechanical. “Try to get all the bones,” mumbled Onofrecuk, more to himself than anyone else. “Let’s try to get as many as we can for the grave.”
There is a costly wisdom in this, the stoic execution of deeds that must be done. It is a survival skill that is closely linked to Fate, and Fate has always been a potent force in Russia, where, for generations, citizens have had little control over their own destinies. Fate can be a bitch, but, as Zaitsev, Dvornik, and Onofrecuk had discovered, it can also be a tiger. By then, it was clear to everyone present that this wasn’t forest business as usual; there was more going on here than bad luck or carelessness. What had Markov done to bring this upon himself? Markov’s friends, the same ones who hid his shotgun before Inspection Tiger arrived, had a pretty good idea.
Sorting through the heap of blood-stiffened clothing, Deputy Bush pulled out a knife sheath—empty—and then a small military first-aid kit, the only pieces of equipment that weren’t torn off or left behind. “Where’s the knife?” asked Bush.
“Somewhere in the woods,” answered Onofrecuk, quickly. “In the snow.”
Bush was young, but he was no fool; in all likelihood, the knife and gun were together—wherever they were. The deputy let it go, and opened the first-aid kit. There were no bandages or medicines inside, only cigarettes. When the gathering was done, Gorborukov and Deputy Bush escorted Markov’s friends back to the cabin with Markov’s remains, but Trush and Lazurenko stayed behind. Together, they followed the tiger’s exit trail through ankle-deep powder. The trail was hot—that is, as fresh as it could possibly be without actually laying eyes on the animal. Snow has a muffling effect on all sounds, but in the case of a tiger, especially one making an effort to avoid detection, this effect is absolute. Meanwhile, Trush and Lazurenko announced themselves with every step; despite their best efforts, they might as well have been on radar. Their disadvantage was striking; it was as if the tiger had removed itself from the same plane of physical consequence to which they remained bound. This was not an animal they followed, but a contradiction, a silence that was at once incarnate and invisible. Track and scent were the only signs it couldn’t disguise. Trush had stalked tigers before, and he had also been stalked by them, so he understood what was going on: the tiger was controlling the situation now, bending the future to its will.
Trush was badly shaken by what he had seen and this, combined with the steadily failing light and the absence of a shooting order, caused him to hesitate. It was clear to him now that this tiger was not the same kind of animal that had killed Khomenko. Considering the audacity of Khomenko’s transgressions—tracking the tiger down and then trying to kill it—that animal had showed admirable restraint. Russians call man-eating tigers cannibals, but Khomenko’s tiger—an old male—was not one of those; he had already been injured twice (first by the rival tiger and then by Khomenko’s bullets), and he was simply immobilizing the latest threat. When Trush encountered that tiger again, six weeks later in the village of Verkhny Pereval, he had drawn attention to himself by killing a young horse and hauling it over a six-foot fence. Self-defense and livestock killing both fall under the category of normal tiger behavior, but something else was going on here, east of Sobolonye; Markov’s tiger was in another realm altogether.
Trush and Lazurenko continued to follow and study the tracks for a cautious quarter mile. Every fourth print, they noticed, was dotted with blood, the hot droplets boring holes in the snow on their way to the frozen ground below. It was the forepaw, right side. Some of the holes were ringed with a halo of yellowish green, a sign of infection. Even so, all of the paws seemed to be making equally deep impressions, so the injury didn’t appear to be crippling. The tiger was proceeding carefully and steadily, but the men were not certain where it actually was; for all they knew, it could have doubled back and been tracking them. Trush could feel it now, by the hairs on his own skin, that he was being drawn into a strange and terrible conflict. He was duty-bound to go there—he knew this—but he was also beginning to understand why Markov’s friends were so frightened, and it was not because they were cowards. Because of this, and because he didn’t want to risk an ambush, Trush called off the hunt and headed back to the cabin. It was a decision that, though sound in the moment, would come back to haunt him.
As Trush, Lazurenko, and Gorborukov worked their way back to Markov’s cabin and up the tiger’s entrance trail, they found evidence of the animal’s method and, in some ways, this was more unnerving than what they had just seen. By an improvised wellhead made from a beehive, they discovered the heavy aluminum water dipper Markov used for drinking; it was all but unrecognizable. It had been chewed so savagely that it looked as if it had been used for target practice and then run over by a truck. Next to it was an enameled steel saucepan that had also been badly scratched and dented. They located Markov’s axe, its handle gnawed to splinters. His latrine, his beehives—everything that might have his scent on it—had been thoroughly explored and much of it destroyed. His washstand had been knocked off the cabin’s outer wall, and there was a swipe of tiger blood by the door. Tiger tracks were everywhere, circling the cabin, interrupted only by packed depressions in the snow where the animal stopped to wait and watch before circling the cabin yet again. In one spot, by the wellhead, the tiger had lain on a patch of snow long enough to partially thaw it out. When it finally moved on, a furry shadow of itself remained behind, frozen in place. The tiger had clearly been on the premises for a while, perhaps days—long enough to defecate at least twice, both times within a few feet of the cabin. It was as if the tiger had staked a claim to the premises and all they contained.