The day began badly for them.
And right from the start, before daybreak, that morning went badly for the rabbit.
First they had a flat tyre, and the rabbit, woken by the hunting dogs, was shot in its left thigh. But let’s take things in order.
Before daybreak, the three men, Beard, Moustache and Car-Owner, went out for mushrooms. As always in such cases, they first debated which direction to take, but in the end they agreed on the Krusevo mountains. Once they’d left the town, they picked up a villager who flagged them down doubtfully from the edge of the road. In answer to their questions, he told them that near his village, the village of R., right on the hill, which vas not very big, there were lots of mushrooms to be found. First they suspected him of tricking them into taking him to the village, but the villager had a good-natured face and spoke calmly, smoking a cigarette of strong tobacco, which he rolled himself and which stung their eyes instantly. Maybe because of that, and because of their earlier hesitation, they listened to him, and at the first crossroads, when the milky white light announced the morning, they changed the direction they had in mind. They pulled up in the middle of the village of R., in front of the grocer’s, the villager got out, first offering to pay for the ride, and they smiled generously as they refused the proffered money, and at the same time he gave them the necessary instructions about where exactly to look for the mushrooms. He told them,
“There, you see this road?”
They told him they did. They stared at the pot-holed asphalt lane. The engine of the halted vehicle hummed monotonously, and fresh morning air came in through the open door, where the villager was half in, half out.
“Yes, that’s it,” said the villager. “The asphalt ends beyond the village and it becomes tarmac. You go a good two kilometers along the tarmac, and all that time you’ll see the telegraph poles along the road.”
“We didn’t come to look at poles,” said Beard. “Well, you’re right,” said the peasant. “When the poles leave the load and turn left, through the field, you turn right beside a meadow, along a lane that’s a bit worse, but for this marvel” (he slapped the body of the car) “it’s nothing. You’ll come across a fence on the left, with a small house behind it, where the lane gets a bit narrower, but it’s nothing for this marvel” (again he slapped the ear, but harder now than the first time). “From there, go on for five minutes and you’ll be at the hill. But it’s not a big hill, as I told you before, not much more than a slope. By noon you’ll have scoured the whole of it, you’ll pick the mushrooms, and on your way back I’ll be waiting for you here” (he pointed to the door of the shop) “to have a beer with you. All right?”
“OK,” said one of them.
It turned out as the villager said. The road was really awful, pitted by cloudbursts, but passable.
And yet, it didn’t turn out exactly as the villager said.
Just after they’d turned right into the narrow lane, along the fence, in front of the little house which the villager mentioned, they had a puncture in the front tyre. Car-owner got out first, and the other two after him, and they stared at the useless wheel. First Owner cursed and then the other two also came out with juicy oaths. Then Owner said.
“And now?” “What do you mean, ‘now’?” said one of the two.
“Let’s change it for the spare,” said the other of the two.
“Good idea,” said Owner. “But I don’t have a spare wheel.”
“Then let’s take this one off, glue it and carry on,” said the first of the two.
Then the second of the two suggested,
“Let’s get the car out of the way, when we come back we’ll glue the tyre.”
“Good ideas,” said Owner. “But I haven’t either tools or glue.”
The two men put their heads in their hands and began to laugh. Then, while they argued, they didn’t notice that a woman was looking at them from behind the fence. And when the three fell silent and sat on the grass verge, the woman was still watching them from behind the fence.
“And where shall we put the car?” asked Owner, who had looked round and seen that on the right the lane was overgrown with blackberries, and on the left, the fence came right down to the lane.
They were silent and probably thought about it. Finally, one said.
“The best thing is to put it in the yard of this house. Well, what do you say?”
While neither of them answered, the woman, again without being noticed, ran across the yard and into the house.
“We’ll have to,” said one of them, and the other had already crossed the lane and stopped by the gate. Before trying to open it, he thought for a second and said.
“What if there’s a big dog …?”
“Don’t be a fool,” said Owner. “If there were a dog it would have barked by now.”
The gate was bolted on the inside. They knocked a few times. Nobody answered. They knocked again, and again, and called.
“Anyone at home?!!”
“It’s not our day,” said Beard.
“Moaning won’t help,” said Car-Owner. “Think what to do.”
Then a woman’s voice came from behind the gate.
“Who’s knocking?” she asked.
“We are,” the two answered in unison.
“Who are you?” asked the voice.
“People from the town,” said Owner. “Our car’s broken down, so we wanted to ask if we could leave it in your yard.”
“What’s wrong with your car?” asked the voice.
“We’ve got a flat tyre, and we can’t leave the car in the middle of the road,” said Beard rather irritably.
Then they kept quiet and waited for an answer. The woman was silent, too. At last she answered.
“You can’t,” she said.
“What do you mean we can’t?” Moustache wondered.
“Just that,” said the woman. “I’m alone and I won’t open for anybody.”
The three looked at each other. As if to see who looked so suspicious that the gate wouldn’t be opened. But nobody had any bad features. Beard had a mild expression and twinkling eyes. Moustache had a good heart, everybody knew that, and Owner was a little old man with a wife and children. They’d known each other for a long time, lived in the same estate, said hello whenever they met, but never been close. Then the day before, they happened to sit at the same table in the local café, and ordered: one rakija, one mastika and one brandy, drank them up, ordered once again, and again, and each of them paid for a round, and so they learned something about each other. Owner had retired because of a disability, Moustache was a confirmed bachelor, and Beard a widower.
They learned that about each other while they sat in the café and happening to get onto the subject, arranged that early today, before daybreak, they would go out mushrooming.
They glanced at each other and shrugged their shoulders. The sun was already up, and they had planned to be in the forest before sunrise.
“Hey!” cried Moustache. “Open up! Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
Silence ruled again, apart from the chirping crickets and birds.
“That’s for sure, we won’t hurt you,” cried Moustache again.
They waited. Disappointed, they headed towards the car, trying to think up something else. Then the woman called.
“All right, I’ll open up,” she said.
First a window was heard closing, then the front door creaking, the clatter of wooden soles in the yard, and the gate opened. A not very young, but beautiful woman appeared.
She had got up early that morning, because it was Sunday today, September 27th, and a holiday: Holy Cross Day.
* * *
When they began to climb up the hill. Beard, who was in front, cried joyfully.
“Plenty of them. Really plenty!”
They started filling their baskets. They went slowly, up towards the crest behind which the blue sky peeped through the branches, and they were very happy, delighted with every mushroom. When they were almost at the top of the hill and about to cross to the other side, shots rang out from somewhere near the bottom.
After the hunting dogs had woken up the rabbit, the huntsmen shot it in the left thigh.
The three men stopped when they heard the guns. From the other side they could hear the barking of the dogs grow louder as they went after their quarry.
“Let’s stop somewhere in the open,” said Owner. ‘They might mistake us for an animal here in the thicket and pepper us.”
The guns sounded once again, from closer now, and the barking was louder.
“They’ve hit something,” said Moustache when they came into the open, hardly an arm’s length from the crest. At that moment they saw the rabbit, which, amazingly, didn’t swerve when it saw them, but ran right into them. It slowed down a little, passed the feet of the three men, turned round, came back, passed them once again and thrust its way into the bushes.
Then the dogs raced up. From their speed and barking it was clear they knew they were on the right track. But when they reached them, they stopped barking, began to sniff around frantically, some of them howled sadly because it was obvious they’d lost the scent. The leader, a black hunting dog, barked loudly to call the others, and again the wild chorus broke out. They flew down the hill like arrows.
Though now, not following the right scent, but that of the three men.
The three looked at each other. So that’s what the rabbit wanted. They were all delighted, perhaps because they saw victory going to the weak, the one who not long before was doomed and hadn’t a chance. From below, they could hear in the distance the now fragmented barking, which meant that the dogs knew they’d lost the victim. At that moment, when it seemed that the rabbit was saved, from the top of the hill there came a lame dog, which couldn’t keep on with the group because of its injury. It came up to them, sniffed around and picked up the scent. It barked loudly a few times, joyfully, and that was certainly a call to the others. The dogs replied from below, started barking in chorus, and for sure, the merciless chase started again in the forest. The three men just shrugged their shoulders and their faces grew sad. Then the huntsmen appeared on the crest. There were eight of them. They were holding the guns ready to fire. They knew the dogs would bring the rabbit into view.
“Have you seen a wounded rabbit?” asked the first to reach them.
He had a large head and froth round his mouth. “We saw it,” said the oldest of them. Car-owner.
“It ran down the hill, and the dogs went after it.
“It won’t last long, it’s wounded. It’ll bleed and lose its strength. Let’s hope the dogs don’t tear it apart.”
When the huntsmen went in the direction of the barking, it stopped.
“Damn,” one of them cursed. “The best dogs around, and a rabbit’s making fools of them.”
Then Beard saw the rabbit in the bush, almost within reach. Its left side was red with blood. Almost without moving, he signaled to the other two and they also saw it. The huntsmen didn’t see it. It was within their reach, and if any of them had seen it, harried and helpless like that, the exhausted animal certainly wouldn’t have stood a chance.