Judging from the density of tracks, there had clearly been a lot of activity around the cabin. Several different species were represented and their trails overlaid each other so that, at first, it was hard to sort them out. Trush approached this tangled skein of information like a detective: somewhere in here was a beginning and an end, and somewhere, too, was a motive—perhaps several. Downhill from the cabin, closer to the entrance road, two tracks in particular caught his attention. One set traveled northward up the entrance road at a walking pace; the other traveled south from the cabin. They approached each other directly, as if the meeting had been intentional—like an appointment of some kind. The southbound tracks were noteworthy, not just because they were made by a tiger, but because there were large gaps—ten feet or more— between each set of impressions. At the point where they met, the northbound tracks disappeared, as if the person who made them had simply ceased to exist. Here the large paw prints veered off to the west, crossing the entrance road at right angles.
Trush had a video camera with him, and its unblinking eye recorded the scene in excruciating detail. Only in retrospect does it strike one how steady Trush’s hand and voice are as he films the site, narrating as he goes: the rough cabin and the scrubby clearing in which it stands, the path of the attack and the point of impact, and then the long trail of horrific evidence. The camera doesn’t waver as it pans across the pink, trampled snow, taking in the hind foot of a dog, a single glove, and then a bloodstained jacket cuff before halting at a patch of bare ground about a hundred yards into the forest. At this point the audio picks up a sudden, retching gasp. It is as if he has entered Grendel’s den.
The temperature is 30 below zero and yet, here, the snow has completely melted away. In the middle of this dark circle, presented like some kind of sacrificial offering, is a hand without an arm and a head without a face. Nearby is a long bone, a femur probably, that has been gnawed to a bloodless white. Beyond this, the trail continues deeper into the woods. Trush follows it, squinting through his camera while his squad and Markov’s friends trail closely behind. The only sounds are the icy creak of Trush’s boots and the distant barking of his dog. Seven men have been stunned to silence. Not a sob; not a curse.
Trush’s hunting dog, a little Laika, is further down the trail, growing increasingly shrill and agitated. Her nose is tingling with blood scent and tiger musk, and she alone feels free to express her deepest fear: the tiger is there, somewhere up ahead. Trush’s men have their rifles off their shoulders, and they cover him as he films. They arrive at another melted spot; this time, a large oval. Here, amid the twigs and leaf litter, is all that remains of Vladimir Ilyich Markov. It looks at first like a heap of laundry until one sees the boots, luminous stubs of broken bone protruding from the tops, the tattered shirt with an arm still fitted to one of the sleeves.
Trush had never seen a fellow human so thoroughly and gruesomely annihilated and, even as he filmed, his mind fled to the edges of the scene, taking refuge in peripheral details. He was struck by the poverty of this man—that he would be wearing thin rubber boots in such bitter weather. He reflected on the cartridge belt—loaded but for three shells—and wondered where the gun had gone. Meanwhile, Trush’s dog, Gitte, is racing back and forth, hackles raised and barking in alarm. The tiger is somewhere close by—invisible to the men, but to the dog it is palpably, almost unbearably, present. The men, too, can sense a potency around them—something larger than their own fear, and they glance about, unsure where to look. They are so overwhelmed by the wreckage before them that it is hard to distinguish imminent danger from the present horror.
Save for the movements of the dog and the men, the forest has gone absolutely still; even the crows have withdrawn, waiting for this latest disturbance to pass. And so, it seems, has the tiger. Then, there is a sound: a brief, rushing exhale—the kind one would use to extinguish a candle. But there is something different about the volume of air being moved, and the force behind it—something bigger and deeper: this is not a human sound. At the same moment, perhaps 10 yards ahead, the tip of a low fir branch spontaneously sheds its load of snow. The flakes powder down to the forest floor; the men freeze in mid-breath and, once again, all is still.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant is out 4 August, published by Sceptre, £8.99 paperback original.