The Hunter King

9 August 2012 | Fiction, Prose

A story from the collection of fiction and non-fiction, Salattuja voimia (‘Hidden powers’, Teos, 2012)

And just as Gran Paradiso is the highest peak in unified Italy, the only mountain whose rugged, perpetually snow-capped summit reaches a height of over thirteen thousand feet (there are rumours that, on a clear day, you can see the peaks of both Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn from the top), so we know that the largest and most splendid mountain creature throughout Europe is the ibex, which grazes on the slopes of Gran Paradiso – the ibex, the alpine goat, the distant ancestor and modern-day cousin of our own homely goat, the French bouquetin and the German Steinbock.

The male ibex can be the size of a foal, about three feet tall, and its curved horns, like Oriental daggers decorated with rippling patterns, can grow to reach the same length as the creature’s own height. Local folklore tells us that, in the olden days when the mists of the distant Ice Age still hung heavy in the gullies of Valle d’Aosta and Valle d’Orso, herds of ibexes could still be seen further down the mountain slopes, but because the ibex loves the cooling mountain winds and values the cold, which keeps predators from the valleys at bay, they moved up to the most inhospitable terrain and made it their home.

But there was one beast that followed the ibex up these paths, sowing fear and causing death and destruction – and that beast was man.

When around one thousand eight hundred years had elapsed since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, there remained only as many ibexes on the slopes of Gran Paradiso as could be counted on the fingers of a small family. Their population had already been decimated in the Pyrenees, as it had in the French Alps; their relatives still lived in Nubia and the Caucasus, but on the European continent Gran Paradiso was their final refuge.

And though the ibex grew ever rarer and more difficult to find, poachers continued to hunt down this grey-and-brown-coated prey with rifles and traps, sparing no expense. For the ibex concealed a secret deep inside itself, the most powerful talisman to protect from evils known to those living in the valley: in its heart the ibex hid a bone the shape of a cross.

That tiny bone was said to protect the bearer from a violent death, and soldiers marching unto war were happy to loosen the strings of their moneybags to acquire such a charm. It was also rumoured that the ibex’s heart cross increased a man’s virility, something that the various body parts of other strong, noble antlered beasts have been said to do since the beginning of time. The ibex’s blood cured gallstones, while other parts of this creature were used as medicaments for all manner of different complaints.

And though the dukes and rulers tried to restrict the extent to which the locals could hunt the ibex – perhaps so that they themselves could have an ever greater supply of their potent talismans – the people did not accept such laws. For if the dukes and rulers wished to march their people unto war, the people undoubtedly demanded the same magical protection that the animal king of the mountains carried in his noble, pure heart.

Vittorio Emanuele, the King of Piemonte, Savoy and Sardinia, loved hunting the ibex with a passion. Not even his lover La Rosina could elicit the same excitement that riding through the chill mountain air awoke in his heart and soul. And what is forbidden for the people is of course permitted for the ruling classes, as has always been the way of the world.

But Vittorio Emanuele did not crave talismans; all he needed was the magic of the mountains, the thrill of hunting, rime frost on the grass and the copper glow of the rising sun against the snow-capped summits, his horse’s heavy, misty breath as it trod gingerly across the rocky terrain – that, and the rush of blood through his veins upon catching a glimpse of a distant herd of ibexes against the snow-white landscape; how they should be approached as cautiously as a weasel, sheltered by the wind, for their senses of hearing and smell were almost supernaturally sensitive, and they had learned to fear the smell of horses and humans and gunpowder. And though they were large animals, their agility and speed were like those of their little brothers the chamois, and if a foot or hoof knocked one stone against another or if the horses gave a snort, the ibexes would disappear like the wind.

Vittorio Emanuele spent almost more of his time on the mountainsides than he did attending to his duties as ruler. Though as a younger man he had fought with his father Carlo Alberto’s troops against the Austrians, the battlefield was not for him; his place was in the craggy ravines and mountainsides of Gran Paradiso. In fact, he loved hunting so much that when, during the subsequent Risorgimento, he attempted to unify Italy with the help of the fiery mercenary troops of Giuseppe Garibaldi, these men of action came to be known as Cacciatori delle Alpi, Hunters of the Alps.

Near the Lauson Pass, above the Valnontey Valley, Vittorio Emanuele established a hunting lodge, and in Valsavarenche another at Orveille. So much did he enjoy his time at the lodge that he had a telegraph connection opened from Orveille to the town of Degioz, in order that he deal with administrative duties without interrupting his hunting excursions, not even for a single day. Along difficult mountain tracks he constructed paved paths, mulettiere, which were accessible on horseback, whereas before such places could only be scaled by the most agile mountaineer.

And yet the ibex population continued to decrease, as the king’s gamekeepers were unable to prevent the villagers from wandering through the mountains, and nobody could be punished simply for rambling with a hunting rifle, for they may have been hunting the chamois (whose hide produced the finest leather) or, in years of bad harvest, even marmots to add at least some substance to a meagre casserole – and where the ibex had become cautious and cunning, so indeed had the poachers, and thus it was that these people were rarely caught in the act.

One day in the year of our Lord 1855, Vittorio Emanuele, who had long since acquired the moniker the Hunter King, again set out in pursuit of the ibex. He had not caught any prey in weeks, and by now he was like a village drunk whom the local publican had refused more wine, so avidly did he wish to experience the sense that once again he had tamed and conquered an erratic, rebellious piece of nature, brought it to his feet and ruled over it. How the creature’s steaming blood burst from its grey-brown hide and coloured the snow and gravel! How its horned head fell to the ground; how its keen eyes dimmed, and how the glass of ginepi he enjoyed after the kill roared as it coursed through his veins!

After a long, frustrating hunt, the Hunter King and his entourage finally encountered a herd of ibexes near the Entrelor Pass. A wide, well-paved mulettiere rose up into the pass, but from the ridge above, down the other side was nothing but a sheer, craggy drop avoided by even the most experienced huntsmen.

The noble ibex, however, does not fear the slopes where such deficient humans struggle to find a footing for their clumsy steps. The herd was vigilant and escaped. The Hunter King’s horse was unable to follow the herd, but Vittorio Emanuele’s instinct told him that the beasts might try to climb up to higher slopes from the south, and thus he spurred his steed southwards, following the direction of the mountain shoulder. So fast and nimble was his horse that the king’s entourage was left far behind, and soon thereafter they were not to be seen again nor could they hear the call of the hunting horn, for so excited was the Hunter King that he had noticed neither the worsening of the weather nor the clouds, which now clung to the rock faces around them.

The king rode into the thickening mist. Soon he could see ibex tracks in the snow and charged his horse to follow them. But when he and his horse arrived at a small ridge, the horse refused to walk any further. Snorting, it stubbornly disobeyed him, as though his nostrils had sensed the unpleasant stench of danger.

In his rage, Vittorio Emanuele lashed his horse with the whip, and at that moment he resembled more closely a spoilt little child, whose will was to be obeyed at all times, than the brave and fearless Hunter King. What’s more, the horse knew that his master was no longer driven by common sense and careful consideration. The steed arched his back and kicked his hind legs in the air, and with that the king slipped from the saddle and landed in the snow.

As soon as he had hit the ground, the steed had disappeared into the fog, taking with him the rifle and other equipment tied to the saddle. And he never returned, no matter how much his master called and beckoned for him. And at the moment when man is left alone in the mountains, there is no nobility, no battlefield heroism nor treasure trove that can help him.

As a seasoned visitor to the mountains, Vittorio Emanuele was not unduly afraid for his life, though he had knocked himself somewhat upon falling from the horse. He knew that the steed would return to the lodge at Orveille of its own accord, and that his entourage would know to come out immediately and search for him upon seeing the horse come back without him. He could quench his thirst with snow and would probably not even become hungry before being found. And because he was wearing a hunting outfit sewn of the best wool and sark cloth, well oiled boots and a cloak with a collar of fox and lined with rabbit fur, he knew he could wait without catching a chill until morning and the arrival of the rescue party or the clearing of the weather, upon which he would be able to navigate his way home along the mountain ridges by himself. He needed only hike down below the snowline and find a place sheltered from the chill wind, and he had a tinderbox in his pocket should he stumble upon a herding lodge with some firewood.

Vittorio Emanuele trudged through the snow along the mountainside until the cover of snow began to thin and bare grass and undergrowth finally came into view. After wandering for some time, the king saw a pile of rocks, and after gauging the direction of the wind he walked round to the sheltered side where, between the rocks, there was small depression lined with grass. There he lay down, his back leaning against the rocks, and wrapped himself in his cloak.

Evening had begun to draw in, and the king was forced to accept that his rescue party might not arrive that same night, that he would be forced to spend the night alone on the mountain. For though he several times blew on the hunting bugle dangling from his belt, there came no answer. His berth here was harder and more uncomfortable than in the mountain cabins, and the fog – which seemed gradually to be thinning – moistened his hair and face and formed in droplets upon his thick moustache, and he realised that though his equipment would protect him sufficiently, the night would be long and there was little chance of sleep.

Nonetheless it appeared that Vittorio Emanuele did in fact briefly slip into the land of dreams, as something suddenly woke him – perhaps the fact that, as he had dozed, the sky had cleared and a full moon had risen. And the moon, which high in the mountains always looked larger, brighter and sharper than when seen through the thick air further down in the valleys, cast its light directly into his eyes. The starry sky seemed so close that the king felt he might almost reach into it and clasp handfuls of diamonds and silver dust.

Just then a shadow approached from the other side of the pile of rocks, its contours pitch-black in the bright, moonlit night. The shadow had a head, adorned with a set of proud, curved, rippled horns. And from behind the stones it reached out a cloven hoof, as if looking for a foothold, assessing whether or not to step out in front of this nocturnal visitor.

Vittorio Emanuele, the Hunter King, moaned silently as his hand instinctively fumbled at his side for the missing rifle.

Then the shadow stepped forth into the silver pouring down from the moon, and at that moment Vittorio Emanuele’s heart froze. For what he thought to be an ibex was in fact a creature with only two legs, two cloven-hoofed legs, and beneath the pair of horns stared a pair of eyes burning a blood-red glow.

It was the Devil. It was Beelzebub himself who had crawled out of his underworld realms to reap Vittorio Emanuele and take him back to his kingdom. Though he did not utter a word, the king knew that the Devil was just. His list of sins was long and varied, including everything from his infidelity with La Rosina to the numerous men he had slain on the battlefield and his merciless political machinations. And the king could not make a sound, for he knew that he would be unable to speak a single word in his own defence, as the Devil reached out his long-clawed fingers towards Vittorio Emanuele’s chest, ready to tear out his heart.

There came a sound as one pebble clacked against another, and the Devil’s hand stopped in a flash, as from the other side of the stones, bathing in the silver moonlight, appeared a great ibex.

It was a male – a beard grew from its chin and its horns were as large as the arms of a burly man – and it was a grander and nobler ibex than ever Vittorio Emanuele had seen. It lowered its head as if it to challenge the Devil, scraped the ground with its front leg and let out an ominous snort from its nostrils.

Beelzebub turned on his hooves.

The male ibex and the Devil crashed their horns together, the crack ringing out through the deathly silence of the mountains; the ibex rose up on to its hind legs, and for a moment the Devil’s face and the ibex’s muzzle came together as silhouettes in the moonlight, their horns like gashes of blackness in the stardust. The Devil roared, the muscles of his hairy body rippling; the ibex bellowed and spluttered, its powerful body wresting the Devil downwards, and neither gave an inch in battle, as both scraped their hooves against the hoar-covered earth.

Then, rigid with fear, Vittorio Emanuele saw the Devil stealthily reach out his long, curled claws towards the great ibex’s chest, to the spot where its heart throbbed wildly – and the Devil’s claws succeeded in avoiding the ibex’s front legs and sharp hooves as they thrashed majestically, and in an instant his fist had reached the beast’s hide and began digging into its brown chest!

The king’s mouth opened in a scream – a warning, perhaps, or simply out of fear of his own impending death and damnation – but then!

It seemed as if the Devil had sustained a staggering blow to his claws. He lurched backwards and doubled over, and appeared to hold his paw, which only a moment ago was stretched out and ready to commit its atrocities, in the grip of agony. At the ibex’s heart, glowing golden beneath the hide, shone a small, faint reddish cross – a living talisman, the ibex’s magic bone!

The ibex rose up on its hind legs and kicked the limping Devil in the face so that he spun around and sunk to the ground on his hirsute knees. There he remained, in a position most fortuitous for the ibex, which then bowed its head, gathered speed and rammed the Devil’s tail end with the full force of its magnificent horns.

Vittorio Emanuele shut his eyes with sheer fright, and when he opened them again the Devil was nowhere to be seen. Only the ibex remained, now stepping majestically away as the moonlight caressed its horns and grey-brown body, the dark ridge of its back and the lighter patch on its belly – and then, at the periphery of his field of vision, the king watched as a female and two kids joined the male, and it was almost as if all four creatures gave him a look of seriousness before turning and, with the utmost dignity, disappearing into the impenetrable darkness of the mountain shadows.

Soon thereafter the sky above the mountains began to brighten, the first strands of pink and golden copper appearing on the mountaintops, and it was not long afterwards that the Hunter King heard the call of the hunting horn and replied to it with his own.

Not a year had elapsed since these events, when the Hunter King Vittorio Emanuele II declared over two thousand hectares of the area around Gran Paradiso a royal hunting reserve. He succeeded in convincing the villagers and local landowners to relinquish their hunting rights in return for a fee, and appointed a sizeable group of gamekeepers to enforce a hunting ban on the ibex. It is not known whether the Hunter King himself slew a single creature on his own hunting ground ever again. What is known is that nowadays thousands of ibexes roam the hills and slopes of Gran Paradiso.

And even if not a single shot were ever fired in Gran Paradiso thereafter, the Cacciatori delle Alpi were certainly not idle: with the help of Garibaldi and the Hunters of the Alps, in 1861 Vittorio Emanuele became Padre della Patria, the Father of the Fatherland, the first king of unified Italy. With bravery and brutality he marched his troops against those of the Pope at Castelfidardo and drove the Pope back within the shelter of the Vatican walls. For this, Vittorio Emanuele was excommunicated from the church, but it seems he cared very little for this. It is rumoured that, upon receiving notice of his excommunication, Vittorio Emanuele said: ‘You may tell His Holiness that faith, virtue and strength, used to keep the Beast at bay, do not reside in crucifixes or the jewels that decorate his throne, but in pure, noble hearts.’

As the head of state, he now had even more power to guard over his hunting ground and its majestic inhabitants. Vittorio Emanuele’s lover and soon-to-be morganatic wife Rosa Vercellana is said to have teased her husband for his sudden decision to protect large areas of Gran Paradiso for the ibex. La Rosina believed that Vittorio Emanuele had saved the ibex in order to hunt them himself to his heart’s content.

To this the Hunter King had responded: ‘Rosina, bella, you are most gravely mistaken. Think on it thus: if any creature should disappear from the world for man’s deeds, its habitat will be conquered by the Devil himself, and he will never, never retreat.’

Translated by David Hackston

 

King of the mountains: alpine ibexes in Aussois, Savoy, France. Photo: Aurélien Le Metayer, Wikimedia

Afterword

The seeds of this story were sown in 1999, when my partner and I spent two weeks hiking in the Gran Paradiso National Park around the end of July. In hindsight, Via Alta 2, the principal route we followed, was far too difficult for us – but thankfully we didn’t know this ourselves.

Now, with more experience under my belt, I wouldn’t even consider trying to cross a place like the Col de Tachuy Pass so early in the season. On the other side of the pass, before reaching Rifugio Ruitor, we had to navigate our way through the snow, between boulders the size of houses, and cross a small river swollen by the melting snow to a gushing torrent flowing through a deep gully. Following the path would have meant lowering ourselves to the waist into the raging, freezing-cold current. We crossed the gully by walking over a bridge of snow that had formed across the top – perhaps the most frightening thing I have done in my entire life.

And yet Gran Paradiso captured my heart. Its emptiness, barrenness, its danger and beauty were something completely different to the green hillside meadows and postcard panoramas of Switzerland….

It was at Gran Paradiso that I first heard the story of Vittorio Emanuele and his role in protecting the ibex. Before this, I hadn’t even realised how close to extinction the species had actually come. I made my first close observations of the ibex after crossing Col d’Entrelor. (I have situated the story close to this same place.) Climbing up the pass is very difficult indeed, but once you reach the ridge, you’re in for a surprise: on one side the path continues in wide and paved, gently sloping, winding paths that are easy to negotiate – the same hunting path, fit for riding, that the Hunter King had built. Further down, on the shores of Lago Nero, the ibexes were so close you could almost touch them as you admired them: the playful, skipping kids, older males with magnificent horns and shy young females.

The details in the story regarding Vittorio Emanuele’s love of hunting, the hunting lodges he established, the protection of Gran Paradiso and, of course, aspects of the Hunter King’s personal history and political achievements are based on historical fact.

What’s more, I found the cross-shaped piece of cartilage in the ibex’s heart and its use as a talisman in my source material. Curiously, a few people who proofread this story thought that the encounter between the Hunter King and the Devil must be taken from local folklore. This is not the case, rather this particular section of the story and Vittorio Emanuele’s explanation of the protection of the ibex are of my own invention.

Translated by David Hackston

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