The tiger’s body sprawled like a landscape. Undulating black ridges and orange valleys stretched away from the central black spine, narrowing at the shoulders, the thick fur dotted with white flecks of snow. Returning along the dorsal ridge, near the hindquarters the orange and black again squeezed and narrowed, fell away into the long tail. The white fur that grew from the underside there turned dark. Crimson. Matted.
The tail and hindquarters fronted a pool of blood. A red lake, the waves congealed, evidence of a volcanic struggle that had long ceased. A jaw of steel held both of the tiger’s rear legs in its impassive maw. A length of chain rose taut from the trap to its anchor at the base of a nearby tree. The teeth had flayed the fur and flesh and muscle from one leg, exposing the bone to the cold air. The other leg’s tibia had clearly been snapped by the force of the impact when the trap clamped shut.
This was the first live tiger Yuri Kaskilev had ever seen in the wild. He crouched behind the bole of a tall Korean pine, five meters from where the tiger lay in a small clearing. His breath steamed in the air between him and the tiger, the snow beneath him crunched as he sank to his knees.
This was his fifth winter with the Anti-Poaching Brigade in the Sikhote-Alin mountains, in Primorsky Krai, the Russian Far East. He’d seen stills of tigers caught midstride in camera traps. And he’d seen carcasses, confiscated contraband stretched out lifeless on the ground, or in the backs of trucks. But out here, in the taiga, they were elusive creatures. Since taking the job he’d wanted nothing more than to see one. Not like this, though. Not like this.
The tip of the tail, black hairs caked to a paint-brush point, lifted free of the red snow, then collapsed. The central valleys and ridges expanded briefly, then sank. A rasped flutter escaped from the end furthest from the wreckage. A sigh of resignation.
“A hell of a thing.” His partner’s voice broke his focus.
Yuri glanced over his shoulder. He’d forgotten Evgeny was back there, kneeling in the snow, several paces behind. Evgeny had been the one to find the tiger. When Yuri caught up to him, he’d moved past him for a better look through the tree trunks.
Evgeny took off his glove, wiped his hand over his face, over his reddened nose, down over his thick black beard. As though the blood were on his fur. He’d been on the Brigade for nearly fifteen years, the senior man except for their boss, Vassily.
“You were right,” Evgeny said, his voice uncharacteristically soft, little more than a whisper, but it carried in the frigid silence. “Should’ve known better than to doubt Serzhant Ser’yeznyy.”
Sergeant Serious, that was the nickname the other men in the Brigade had given Yuri. Only Evgeny ever used it in his presence.
He wasn’t actually a sergeant—not anymore. There were only a dozen men in the Anti-Poaching Brigade at any given time, no need for any rank other than seniority. And while he’d held that rank in the army, in spetsnaz—elite Russian special forces—he was pretty sure that the other men weren’t aware of that when they hit on his nickname shortly after his arrival.
“Vassily’s not going to like us proving him wrong,” Evgeny said.
Yuri spat into the snow. Fuck Vassily, he thought. Did not need to say.
One of the tiger’s triangular black ears stood free, the white dot in the center of that triangle poised, like an eye, watching. The ear twitched in their direction, the head began to roll on its shoulders but then the entire body tensed as this merest motion dug steel teeth deeper into flesh, scraped exposed bone. A groan escaped the tiger.
Yuri backed away slowly until he hunched next to his partner.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
“We,” Evgeny said, “aren’t going to do anything. You’re going back to the vehicle to get the shotgun, so we can put her down. I’m not going anywhere with these goddamn traps lying around.”
They had left the Land Cruiser back in the village, maybe half an hour, forty-five minutes away. They’d split up, and Evgeny had been the one to hear the yowls of pain, track them to their source. He’d brought Yuri running with the walkie-talkie, the only piece of military-grade gear that they carried. They did not typically carry guns—poachers were about as elusive in the wild as tigers. They each carried a couple of flares, in case they were to cross paths with a tiger, the idea being that the bright, hissing flame would be enough to scare it away. Yuri had never needed to put this theory to the proof.
“I’ll get the gun,” he said. “I don’t know if I can pull the trigger.”
“I’ll be surprised if it’s even necessary,” Evgeny said. “She doesn’t have long.”
Evgeny glanced off into the trees. Heaved a sigh that puffed a cloud of vapor into the air.
“Her name is Tatiana.” At Yuri’s puzzled frown he explained. “She’s got an old radio collar with her name inked on it.”
Yuri glanced back toward the clearing. He hadn’t noticed the collar.
“Besides, she’s not big enough to be a male.”
She seemed pretty big to Yuri. He retraced his steps back toward the clearing.
“Where are you going?” Evgeny whispered.
Yuri turned and held up his finger. He wanted one last look. He didn’t want her to suffer any more than necessary, but he wanted to remember this moment. Wanted to remember her. Tatiana. He hadn’t seen her collar. Hadn’t even seen her face. He moved off to his right, from tree trunk to tree trunk. These were tall Korean pines, wooden columns that rose straight from the earth, suspending green crowns many meters above the forest floor. A few short, needle-less branches stuck out, grasped at Yuri’s parka, at his gloves, as he moved from one to the next, working his way around to the tiger’s head. He spotted the collar Evgeny had mentioned, a break in the valleys and ridges where the fur surged over the loop of nylon. Her left ear swiveled toward him as he moved.
Breath snorted from her nostrils, a ghost of steam escaped into the frigid air. One eye opened in his direction, the other held closed by the snow. Yuri held his position. The eye seemed glazed, milky, unfocused. Every move he made elicited a subtle response from her, and every move she made intensified the pain that she had been living with for who knew how long. Possibly days. Now he could see down the length of her body, past the white fur of her belly also marred with spatter of her own blood, down to where the merciless trap had pinioned her hindquarters.
Her distended midsection reminded him of the bellies of malnourished children that he had seen in refugee camps, children displaced by war, in Afghanistan, in Chechnya. Children that were starving, their bellies appearing to be glutted with food, their sallow cheeks and hollowed eyes belying the appearance.
He ran back to Evgeny. A yowl of pain followed him, likely caused by his sudden movement, the fact that he was no longer taking care to move quietly.
He fell to his knees at Evgeny’s side. “She’s pregnant.”
“Why didn’t you say?”
“Because it makes no difference,” Evgeny said.
Yuri turned back toward Tatiana. Because tigers are solitary creatures, even pregnant females need to hunt right until the very end of term. They only begin to show in the final two weeks. Her swollen belly had worked its way down into the thick snow cover, so her pregnant state was not apparent from this dorsal angle.
“If she dies, do the cubs die right away?”
“Of course,” Evgeny said. “Their oxygen comes from her blood, so once that stops pumping, they will die.”
“But how long will that take?”
“Go get the gun,” Evgeny said. “Stop dragging out her torture.”
“Do I look like a biologist? I have no idea.”
“I’m guessing a minute,” Yuri said. “Maybe two.”
Yuri moved back toward Tatiana, head down, doubled over at the waist, knees bent, as though snipers had zeroed in on their position. He removed his gloves, dropped them into the snow. He fished in his side pouch, pushed past the two flares there, wrapped his fingers around the burled wooden handle of his Yakut knife. Removed the short, stout blade from its leather sheath. He put the blade in his teeth and shrugged out of his parka. The thin bubble of warmth around his flannel work shirt soon collapsed under the shock of cold. His breath steamed past the knife blade. At the edge of the clearing, two meters from the pulped wreckage of her hindquarters, he stopped, and wrapped the parka’s bulk around his left forearm, tucked one sleeve under the thick fabric at his bicep, held the other sleeve firm in his left fist, secured a knot. He retrieved the knife from his mouth. The wooden handle quickly warmed in his grip.
The tiger’s head rolled up, and the chain anchoring the trap pulled taut. Her head fell back heavy into the snow with a huff.
“Easy, mamulya,” he whispered. “We want your cubs to have a chance, don’t we?”
He held the knife in the familiar saber grip, his thumb extended along the flat, sturdy spine. The edge was keen, the blade stout. It had been his father’s knife, two decades ago. Here was a chance, after all these years, to use it to rescue rather than to destroy. A chance to bring life into this world, instead of cutting yet another life short.
A chance to be the “good guy.” That was why he had left the army and joined the Anti-Poaching Brigade in the first place.
A large, meaty hand gripped his shoulder.
“What the hell—” Evgeny began, his voice a hoarse whisper. He leaned down over Yuri. Spittle flecked his bushy black beard. He remained at the perimeter of the clearing—half in, half out—as though Tatiana might break free of the trap and leap to the attack. A healthy respect born out of his decade and a half on the job, in the unforgiving taiga. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“What has to be done,” Yuri said.
He looked at his partner, and smiled. Evgeny frowned, and in that moment of hesitation, Yuri broke free from his partner’s grip, and ran into the clearing, toward Tatiana.
Thought banished, his body guided him. Thumb along the spine, he followed his knife’s edge.
With each crunching step through the snow, time slowed to the measure of the tiger’s shallow breaths. The entire forest, deathly silent, breathed in tune with her. She stirred, turned toward him, slowly, almost languorously. She uttered a yowl as the steel teeth dug further into her hindquarters. He was one with the pines, with the frigid air, with the snow. One with his knife, the blade an extension of his fist. The spirit of the forest entered him, possessed him, flowed through him.
He lunged. Threw his left leg over her left foreshoulder to keep her from turning on him, to keep her from reaching him with her claws. His spetsnaz training emphasized the legs as the soldier’s base of strength, speed, and stamina. Tatiana’s initial yowl of pain became a battle roar that nearly deafened him as he wrapped his left arm around her head to pull her chin up. Despite her weakened state, despite having her rear legs pinned in place, she wrenched around beneath him—she was fast and strong, but he hung on, pulled her on top of him, desperate to keep her spine pressed against his belly. He was aware of her forepaw swatting at his head; he tucked his own chin to his chest to minimize the blows. He tried to get his right leg up to block her arm, but her body weight and the snow kept his leg pinned under her. The hand that held the knife, the entire arm, also stuck in the snow beneath her.
She wrenched her head free of his lock and closed her jaws around his arm, the arm he’d wrapped in his parka. Her teeth clamped down. The thick winter coat suddenly nothing more than a thin covering of tissue paper. You will know my pain, she seemed to say, you will know what it is to have your limb caught in an unrelenting steel trap. He pulled his arm, used her grip to pull her entire body on top of him. Her teeth broke skin, bore down further.
Then his right leg was free. He swung his knee over her upper shoulder, clamped her right forearm to her body with his thigh. Her writhing weight pressed him down into the snow, the overripe tang of her blood and scat and pinebark fur flooded his nostrils. He wrenched one more time until she faced back toward the place where he and Evgeny had been watching her, and his right arm came free. He raised his left arm into the pain as best he could, lifting her chin, extending her neck. He plunged the knife in the white fur, until he felt it soft and warm against his knuckles. He sought for her jugular. Prayed for her jugular.
A yell beyond his control erupted from his throat, filled his ears, shook his body.
Then the pressure on his arm relented. Slackened. Gave way altogether.
Release. He pulled the knife free, then prized his arm from her jaws, disentangled the parka from her fangs. Distantly aware of pain, but more like a bad bone bruise. Had she been stronger, she would have snapped the radius and ulna like twigs. Even in her severely weakened state, it had been close. He found he could move his fingers.
He closed his eyes. Inhaled the earthy, resinous scent of her fur, her last breath, her last scat, her musk, her pain and rage and desperation.
Now for the hard part. He placed his right fist, still wrapped around the knife, the blade and his thumb and forefinger stained red with her blood, against the black and orange fur of her shoulders and pulled his left leg from beneath her. He stepped over her lifeless body, fell to his knees in the snow near the pure white fur of her distended belly. He reached his left hand to the warm fur, felt for hard outlines beneath the layer of winter fat. The bulky parka still clung to his forearm, a sleeve or a shred of fabric dangled into the snow, but there was no time to unravel it. With his right he placed the red blade against the white. His hand trembled.
He inhaled deeply, and began to cut. Sharp as his knife was, he still had to hack through the tough skin, the layer of fat. He worked his way toward the bulge deep in the belly, down by the wreckage of her rear limbs.
The blood that poured from the flesh in this area made it impossible to know what he was cutting into. He tried to clear it with his left—now an ache as he moved his arm and applied pressure with his left hand—but the blood kept coming. Great gouts of blood.
The voice at his ear startled him. He hadn’t been aware of the other man’s approach.
“Water.” He indicated with the knife. “Go easy. Just so I can see what I’m doing.”
Evgeny washed away some of the red, which allowed Yuri to make another deep incision, peel away more flesh and intestine and organs. Yuri had skinned, field dressed, and butchered many deer in his life. Chickens and goats back on the family farm, when he was a boy. He knew these animals’ parts, where they belonged in the body. He didn’t know tiger parts. Especially not those of pregnant tigers. His cursory anatomy studies hadn’t prepared him for this.
Steam rose from the snow. Yuri cut by feel now. He exposed a bulging red-gray sack. He pushed in with his left hand, soaked in red, steeped in red. Pushed hard. Something pushed back. Movement. The womb.
He gathered up the membranous tissue in his left hand. Pain lanced from his wrist into his shoulder and back to his fingertips, but still he kept that grip, fighting against the greasy slipperiness, fighting against the nausea. As he cut, the weight of the insides pulled the tissue open ahead of the cut he was making, and the hole opened wide.
A bloody sack slopped out into the matted snow between Yuri’s knees, trailing a length of mottled cord. Yuri put the knife in his teeth—sudden rank, vomitous taste of viscera—and tore open the amniotic sac with his two blood-soaked hands. Within was a drowned cub the size of a full-grown housecat, only with a much larger head. He picked up the bedraggled bundle of stripes and fur and transferred it to the crook of his left arm, wiped the caul away from its mouth and nose and still-closed eyes. It quivered at the touch, weakly waved a paw. It was alive. Yuri took up the umbilical cord in his left, swiped his right palm dry on his pant leg as best he could and with the knife severed the cub’s last connection to its mother. His mother, Yuri could see that now.
“Evgeny!” Yuri lifted the cub toward the other man. “Cradle him, dammit!”
Yuri forced the cub into Evgeny’s hands.
He returned to the womb, forced his left hand into the gaping hole, deep into the slippery warmth. This pungency was nothing he had ever smelled before, the tiger’s death scat and her urine and the stench of digested matter making its way through her intestines, torn open by Yuri’s knife, decomposing matter in her stomach that Yuri had inadvertently opened up as he hacked though the belly fur and fat reserves.
His hand found what it sought. Another sac. Just one—one more to go. He cupped his hand around it and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. He shifted the knife to his teeth—again that queasy tang—and with both hands buried in the tiger’s belly up to his forearms, straining against the shirt still balled around his left, he managed to pry the second sac free. This one he did not let spill, quickly transferred the bundle into the parka-cushioned cradle, stripped away the amniotic sac, which released a sudden dampness into his ribs, down onto his left leg. He ran his knife through the umbilical and then stabbed the blade into the snow so he could swipe the slimy caul away from this cub’s scrunched face as well.
The rounded ears popped erect. This one turned its nose into Yuri’s shirt and began nuzzling, looking for mother’s milk, for comfort. He rose to his feet.
The tiger splayed at his feet was a ruin of her former, noble self: legs shredded, guts spilled, blood seeping into the snow from her gaping wounds, dark smears marring the white belly fur, blurring her stripes. The blood bright red and shiny slick in some places, black and encrusted in others.
He bent to retrieve his knife from the snow. He brought his head close to hers. “Forgive me, Tatiana,” he said.