When we reach the bothy they are already there, watching us from high on the crags overlooking the water. When we crossed the loch, outboard motor thrumming, we crossed over into their domain, and now the hills are thick with their bodies.
We’ve barely arrived – still tasting the chill, stale air of the empty house, staking claims on stained mattresses – when Julien’s attention is caught by something seen through the back-room window, a warped pane rimmed with dust and the breath of previous occupants. ‘They’re up there now,’ he says simply. ‘Let’s go.’
Outside is all sky: indigo ink seeping in from the east. There is just time. Within minutes we are out the door and shinning up the hill face without speaking, gaining height fast. The wind is whipping up, moving in great currents over the ridge. It comes in waves, smashing against us and then withdrawing, dragging the air from our lungs as it does. I open my collar and let cold air creep over hot flesh.
Julien and Storm are way out in front, goat-footed over tussocks and hags. I try to match their pace – copying how, each time they round a false summit, they drop low to the ground and creep through the heather on elbows, pressing their abdomens into the mud, all the time scanning the hillside for movement.
After a while they slow to a stop and we bunch up together. Storm catches my eye and points hammily beyond the boulder he is using as a windbreak. I nod, coming to rest at his feet, sinking my hands into long dead grass as if it were hair. I wait a beat, then lift my head, bringing my eyes above the stone parapet.
We are close enough to see the face in detail: her domed, almost Roman, profile, which she tosses about as dark eyes flash in every direction. Suspicious: not good. The breeze is turbulent, changeable. We’d tried to keep it in our faces, but it’s begun to swing wildly around; perhaps she caught a noseful of us – just for one terrifying moment – and is now working out in which direction to run.
I try to drop my head imperceptibly back down behind the rock. When I muster the courage to look again, the face has gone.
Up ahead, Julien cranes forward from his foxhole then stands up, shaking his head, face distressed. Gone.
We start picking our way east, towards the burn, so we can trace its path back to the house. It bubbles and froths merrily, all the time slicing down into the hillside like a bandsaw: cutting a steep, narrow gorge of black wet spatter rock that tumbles down precipitously ahead of us.
And then, there they are. Two females and a juvenile on the opposite bank, standing like phantoms in the gloaming. They haven’t seen us. I am struck silent. Julien twists around, pale face a ghostly glimmer, and gestures to Adrian: come. Adrian goes, army-crawling across wet earth. They disappear beneath a precipice leaving the three of us to wait in silence.
A minute passes, then another. I lie back against the heather, thinking no particular thoughts. A shot rings out, impossibly loud.
A moment of confusion. The gully is deserted. I sit up stupidly, feeling suddenly alone, and forlorn. Then Adrian and Julien appear again on the ledge below, waving us down. They got one: a crack shot, right through the spine. Dropped straight from the rock face into the water. She’s dead.
It is 13 February, and Julien and Storm have been doing this all winter long. This hind (an older specimen, unusually large, very lean and – as it transpires later, when we split her open and spill her guts on the ground – several months pregnant) is their twenty-first kill of the season.
But it’s not enough. Julien has a target he must hit: thirty animals – or ‘beasts’, as he calls them, a strange word from his French mouth – and very little time left in which to meet it. In Scotland, the hind-shooting season closes at dusk on the fifteenth. Until then here we are, five of us – four men and one woman: me – spending our days stalking deer and our nights in an empty house, with a fireplace at each end and little else. No electricity, no running water. We eat stew from a scorched iron pot over the fire, drink water from the peaty burn that runs by the gable end. Hanging from two nails by the door is a shovel that comprises the toilet.
A doorless lean-to slouches heavily against the back wall. It is here we take the dead deer for hanging. Julien throws a karabiner attached to a length of rope over a rafter and lowers it down, scattering bird droppings and cobwebs upon us as he does. Threading the cord through two slits cut in her hocks, he clips rope to rope and hoists her like a flag.
I watch her ascent with the same clouded mix of curiosity and disquiet as earlier I regarded that lifeless fawn lying limp in its amniotic shroud upon the heather. What was animal is now object; it is a truth both terrible and prosaic. I observe my reactions as if from above, lifting and weighing each thought as it comes to me, alert for squeamishness. There is some. But not as much, perhaps, as I expected.
Julien bends over her rent chest, headlamp illuminating the torso from within, and sets to work again with his knife and a surgeon’s manner. It is easy to trace the path of the bullet: its entry and exit, the single shattered vertebra between. A tragedy in one act. The rest is more complicated. When he’s done, he dashes a bucket of water into the space where her vital organs were. I watch, taking my cues from those who have done this before. Gore drips on the hard-packed floor.
Then we slide her down the length of the rafter, drawing her like a curtain, to make room for the rest.