The Hunter

The Hunter

by Julia Leigh


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The Hunter by Julia Leigh

Now a major motion picture starring William Dafoe
A man identified only as “M” is hired by a multinational biotech company to locate and hunt down the last known Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. Beginning at a remote house on the fringe of a vast wilderness, M embarks on a fateful course deep into the forest and an ancient world of silence and stillness. The Hunter is a haunting adventure tale of obsession and redemption, worthy of Conrad or Melville, where a business proposition takes on mythic aspects, as the quest for an extinct animal becomes a search not for ultimate profit but for the essence of life that technology has all but crushed.

Impressive.”—The New York Times Book Review
"Strong and Hypnotic."— Don DeLillo

“[Leigh’s] narration is as clear-eyed and cold-blooded as her hero.”—The New Yorker

“A memorable debut, one full of many rewards and a subtle, precise beauty.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142000021
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/01/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 848,200
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Julia Leigh is the author of two internationally acclaimed novels, THE HUNTER (1999) and DISQUIET (2008). Her film SLEEPING BEAUTY was selected for Competition at the Festival de Cannes 2011. She lives in Sydney, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

                         Now the little plane drops and the fat woman sitting next to him yelps and spills her coffee; his tray of food goes flying. With eyes closed he begins to count, one ... and two ... and three: a religious man, he thinks, might now decide to pray. Then it is over, they survive, and as the eighteen-seater settles high above the rift of blue which separates the island from the mainland, the pilot quickly and calmly sends his apologies.

    There is nobody to greet him at the airport, no rent-a-car desk, and so no smiling rent-a-car girl. The fat woman, he sees, is being comforted by a fat man with a crew cut wearing a White Power T-shirt. From the small crowd gathered in the lounge he guesses the plane out will be full. He waits outside for a truck to pull his luggage across the airstrip and when it arrives he gathers his pack and bag without delay. The mini-bus takes fifteen minutes to arrive in town: 'Welcome to Tiger Town' reads a sign by the highway, 'Population: 20 000'. As prearranged he hires a new 4WD utility, the latest model, a silver Monastery. 'Picked a good day for it,' says a smiling girl and so he too smiles, nods, and then turns to leave before she can start to ask questions.

    Soon he is out of town, heading south-west. The last Kentucky Fried advertises a '$4.95 Two Piece Feed'. Smaller towns crop up along the highway, tiny collections of corner stores, antique shops and hairdressers. Paddocks flatten out by theroadside, run into foothills. Where there are sheep, there are mud-brown sheep, and where there are trees the farmers have wrapped them in tin bandages at cow-muzzle height. By one stretch of road he passes a haphazard arrangement of topiaries in odd geometric shapes, no swans or giraffes or poodles, and later he sees a stone cottage full of grinning toy cats. He crosses Tiger Creek, Break O' Day Creek, this creek, that creek. At the next corner store he stops for a coffee: sweet and chemical.

    The distances between stores draw out and the road turns to dirt. He checks his map. Eventually he turns off at an unmarked T-junction and when he passes the first hillside pricked with uniform rows of tiny plantation saplings he knows he is on his way. Then come the vacant concrete plots: Welcome to the dead town, once a logging town. Here, people have picked up their houses and moved on. A whole row of demountables has been abandoned, the windows bagged with bright orange plastic. But there is a petrol station, and a cardboard sign propped up in the window says 'Open'. At the sound of his car pulling in, a clutch of scraggly children materialises, with two of the bigger ones on bikes. He serves himself and goes in to pay. The woman behind the counter waits a second before pulling herself away from the miniature TV, then sticks out her hand and refuses to speak. He pays in cash, buying a bar of chocolate at the last minute as a civil gesture.

    He drives, turns smooth corners. He practises his story. And who — today — is he? From now on he is Martin David, Naturalist, down from the university and fighting fit. 'Hello, I'm Martin David', 'A little turbulence but otherwise not too bad', and 'Yes, thank you, a cup of tea would be lovely'.

    He will drink the tea and assess his situation.

    It is almost dark by the time Martin David, Naturalist, turns into the long driveway and parks his Monastery in a raggedy front yard. Although it is summer there is a chill in the air and he needs his Polartech top. Here, a little bluestone house sits quietly on the edge of the rippling flats, and rising beyond the house is the steep dark escarpment which climbs to the Central Plateau itself: the last house at the end of the last road. Once it had been a small working farm, but now the wood-and-iron feed shed and stables have all but collapsed, and the weeds, mainly a sunny yellow ragwort, have stolen the paddocks. Three car wrecks, all missing panels, sit out rusting and all about lie discarded tin drums. To the right of the house a corrugated-iron water tank has been cut in two to serve as shelter for firewood. There is an upright water tank, and next to that a vegetable patch, sprouting purple stalks which might be beetroot. The front windows are shut, draped with rainbow-coloured cotton curtains.

    To reach the house a visitor must first pass under a bare wire archway. In better days, thinks M, it would have been covered with a sweet-smelling vine.

* * *

The door swings open of its own accord. Nobody greets him, and he hesitates, baffled: a supernatural door? Before he can call out a greeting a shiny purple jumble of arms and legs cartwheels down the hallway, ending up on the floor before him in a remarkable display of the splits.

    'Welcome!' says the girl, catching her breath. She might be twelve years old, maybe eleven or ten — he can never tell these things. She is wearing a purple lycra catsuit studded with a galaxy of silver stars and her dark hair is chopped very short, just above the ears.

    'Hello,' he replies, enunciating clearly. 'I'm Martin David. Your mother is expecting me.'

    Another, smaller, child slips out from behind the door. This one, a blond, wears a silver cape over a red tracksuit and has glittery swirls of red paint on his cheeks. He doesn't speak, just stares; he might even be mute. The taller child roils over and, in one swift move, is up on her feet.

    'Hello, Martin David,' she says, also speaking with great care. 'My name is Katherine Sassafras Milky-Way India Banana Armstrong. You can call me Sass. This is my brother, James Wind Bike Leatherwood Catseye Armstrong. Call him Cat, or Bike.'

    Quickly, she looks across to the younger brother for confirmation.


    'Hello — Bike.' He is not a children's man.

    'Mum's asleep,' continues Sass. 'She said to tell you she'll see you in the morning. But we got your bed ready.'

    Bike inspects the stranger.

    He collects his bags from the car, the two children keeping a silent escort. The girl tries to lift his pack but is defeated. He knew the woman had two children, was twice lost, but it had not occurred to him that he would have to spend any time with them, actually talk to them. What did he have to say to children? All the best children didn't want to talk, or if they did want to talk, they only did so to gather information. They were spies, children, little murderers. And adults, he remembers, were the enemy.

    The portal is so low he has to stoop. Once inside, it's clear there has been a coup. The children have drawn on the walls, as high as they can reach. The furniture has been painted, the carpet too. Colour, bright colours, everywhere. Here a slash of blue, there a circle of red, a curl of yellow. A rainbow house. How could the mother have allowed it? And yes, he sees, they have indeed got his bed ready. The pillow is dotted with pink acrylic stars, and the same paint has been used to run a whirly swirl over his doona. The bottom sheet, he discovers, is a brilliant shade of orange. On the bedside table one of the two has gone to a great deal of trouble to arrange a three-deep perimeter of painted pebbles.

    He wonders if there's been a mistake. Perhaps he's in the wrong house. (Could it really be?) He'd been told the woman was reliable, that she could be trusted to manage his base camp, to keep track of his comings and goings, to furnish him with supplies, to — if necessary — raise the alarm. And he knew she was being well rewarded, if his own reward was any indication of the company's generosity. He does not like it, this imprecision, he does not like it at all. But now is no time to make complaints and, unpacking, smoothing his sleeping bag over the orange sheet, he reminds himself that patience — patience is a virtue.

    The children are waiting for him in the lounge-cum-dining room: a double room with a fireplace, stone-cold, which serves as a crossroad for all the household traffic. A bowl of steaming rice rests on the table, and a bottle of tamari. The girl looks at him expectantly, excitedly. He takes a seat, mumbles an appreciation about the rice and starts to eat. He has to pick a piece of baked-on grime from his spoon. 'There are fourteen spoons in this house,' says Bike. The giant — for M now sees himself as a giant — the giant doesn't talk while he eats. They watch. After a short while Sass can no longer contain herself:

    'Well, so, did you like your room?'


    'Oh, yes, yes of course I did, thank you, very beautiful. Mmm.'

    Immediately, she knows he is lying. Light falls from her face, she ossifies. Bike readjusts himself in his chair. For the rest of the meal they are silent. When he finishes eating he excuses himself, and asks to see the bathroom. Like the rest of the house, it's a mess. Filthy. A black mould clouds the ceiling and the walls. The inside of the toilet is streaked black-brown. The towels stink. He breathes through his mouth. Without warning he is tired, and wants to sleep.

    From the bedroom window he can make out the dark wall of the escarpment, embossed dense and dark against the dark night sky. Soon he'll be there. Now, he tells himself, now he must sleep. When he wakes later, tripped by a forgotten dream, there is still a light on in the house and, somewhere, the quietest sound of children tinkering.

* * *

Come morning it is raining and the sky is grey and constant, constancy itself, so that he sees it is impossible to gauge when the rain might stop. Today he will climb the escarpment. He dresses quickly, and carefully, planning to keep dry and warm. As the rest of the house is asleep he goes outside to do a quick reconnaissance. He finds a chook pen, another shed, and follows a trail down to a knee-deep creek, startling some quails as he goes. He is about to drink the water when it occurs to him that it might be poisoned by nearby properties; it might even have run through the log dump. Returning to the house he is surprised to find that no-one is up. By his watch it's already eight o'clock. The chooks are well awake, scrabbling around in their sheltered piece of dirt. They seem healthy, and well fed: he spies a little of the remnants of last night's rice. He goes through the back door into the kitchen. This is mess. All the bowls and cups and plates are out of the cupboards, piled up on the long bench, piled on the floor, piled on a small wooden table which sits against one wall. Many of the dishes are encrusted with grey rice and in between the piles are little stupas of decaying vegetable matter. The gas stove is also covered with dishes, as far as he can see the only open space is dedicated to the arc of the microwave door. An upturned milk crate sits on the floor. One corner of a poster reading 'Stop the Road to Nowhere' has peeled loose, and he presses it back against the wall. There is no evident food to speak of; it must be hidden. After a small search he finds half a pumpkin and a few stalks of shrunken silverbeet behind a stack of plates. As he moves he hears the scuttle of invisible roaches. Eggshells crush underfoot. And the smell, the smell almost makes him retch.

    The house is quiet; he will have to wake them. He finds the children squeezed into a single bed in a small room off the lounge. Bike is curled around his sister's back, one arm flung over her side. M knocks on the door, then clears his throat — to no avail.

    'Good morning,' he says loudly.

    Sass wakes. Bike, though still asleep, senses a sea-change and rolls away.

    The girl is so tired a thin membrane of sleep covers each eye, lizard-like, and he wonders what time they eventually crawled to bed.

    'Martin David,' she mumbles. 'Jack's coming this morning, to show you the way up.'


    'Said he'd come round some time this morning.'

    'What time?' he asks.

    'Said some time. What time is it?'

    'Eight eleven.'

    'Yeah, some time soon.' Her eyes close, she rolls around her brother.

    'Is your mother home?' he asks, impatiently.

    Sass jack-knifes, alarmed.

    'Don't wake her! You can't wake her up!'

    What is he to think? A sleeping princess for a mother? Time to wake up. He is on his way to finding her when there comes a very faint tap at the front door. As he is the only one out of bed, M takes it upon himself to answer it.

    'Jack Mindy.'

    'Martin David,' he replies.

    Jack Mindy has a reddish doughy face, down-turned blue eyes, and stringy grey hair slicked across his bald patch. He stands just under six foot, with broad shoulders and a barrel chest. If he wanted to, he could have broken the door down. Without asking he enters the house, and heads to what must be the woman's bedroom. There, he lets himself in and closes the door behind him. Inside the room a quiet, gentle, secret conversation takes place.

    'Right then,' says Jack as he leaves the room, pulling the door tight. 'We'll be off then. You ready?'

    Yes, he's ready.

    'Just for the day?' confirms M.

    'Yeah, a bo-peep, back by dark. I got food.'

    They take Jack Mindy's ute. Jack doesn't talk much as he drives. They are not long gone when he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a couple of boiled eggs: 'Breakfast,' says Jack. M nods a 'thank you' and takes; the eggs. After half an hour's silence Jack artfully roils himself a cigarette and looks to Martin David for a light.

    'Been up lately?' asks M, snapping a flame from his lighter and taking advantage of the friendly approach. Jack inhales.

    'Last time?' He looks to see if that was what was really asked. 'Last time I went up round this way was to look for Jarrah Armstrong.'

    Who? Who was — who is — Jarrah Armstrong? M shakes his head.

    'Didn't you hear, then?' asks Jack Mindy. 'Didn't you hear he went missing, end of last summer it was. Was out doing his university work, never came back down. Didn't the university tell you?'

    'Different university.'

    'Yeah, well, bloody nightmare it was. Search 'n' Rescue went out for two weeks. Not a sign of him. The wife, well, you've seen her, she's been bad ever since. Jarrah was a good man, a real good man he was. My wife, she keeps an eye on things, does what she can ... but it's not easy. Nasty stuff it was, too, nasty stuff.'

    Oh? M waits. But Jack will say no more.

    This is unsettling: what else has been left unsaid? And how could they have been so careless as to leave this information out: the sleeping woman's husband is dead, she must be disturbed, and so she cannot be trusted. Should he abort the job? Pull out now while he is warm and dry with a full belly? The company would understand: he could come back later when more thought had been given to the plan. But, no, M understands very well the nature of his assignment, that time is of the essence, that he is not being paid to doubt, that he is not one to give up easily, and that if he were, another man would quite happily step in and take his place. And so he raises his brows, responds with an 'I'm sorry to hear that' twist of the mouth.

    Jack turns off the dirt road onto the fire-trail that skirts the bottom of the escarpment. The track is rough and narrow, and more than once Jack has to wrench the steering wheel under control. Branches whip and bend against the windows. They stop by a small stand of blackwood, in what to the unfamiliar eye is the middle of a crowded nowhere. Jack goes around the back and pulls the tarp off the ute, gets out the packs. He tosses M his pack as if it were a bag of apples. A fine rain falls as the two men limber up, M wrapping his hands around his ankles, whole Jack keeps his hands on his hips and bends forward from the waist, then tips from side to side and, finally, grimacing, arches back.

    'See that yellow gum with the double trunk,' says Jack, pointing, 'remember him.'

And off they go, following a track which meander's to the right of the split eucalypt on an apparent path of least resistance. It's a boot-width wide, and overgrown: growing. This kind of bush takes getting used to, and more than once M's beloved cap is knocked off — beloved because he loves his eyes. In no time the men are well and truly climbing, for now the track cuts straight up, a steep and muddy plumb-line running with water. One hundred and sixty-five million years ago potent forces had exploded, clashed, pushed the plateau hundreds of metres into the sky. Now the two regularly lose their footing, grab hold of ferns to steady themselves. Jack goes first, wielding a machete, placing the sole of his boot flat on the ground with every step. When he has to, he wedges a firm toehold in an exposed tree root, scaly black and wet, before swinging himself up with the aid of a sturdy trunk: moving slowly, surely. M prefers to move more quickly. He lets Jack get a fair way ahead and then catches up, taking the weight of each step on the ball of his foot, his heel never touching the ground. Where it is steepest he scrambles on all fours like a cat, his arms as strong as legs. He and his pack move as one. An hour passes before the first sign of any prior trip appears: a thumb-thick twig broken at ninety degrees. Then, not far on, a black blaze on a cider gum trunk.

    'Yeah,' says Jack, 'this is it.'

    They cross a thread of creek and stop for water. M gets down on his knees, uses his hands to scoop up the icy water. It is cold and sharp, fresh. He feels his heart thumping. Jack unbuckles his pack and rolls it off his shoulders, letting it fall heavily to the ground. He gets out a plastic food bag and rummages around, pulling out a block of chocolate with gleeful sideshow panache.

    What does old Jack think about, as he plods along? wonders M. No doubt the missing man has slunk across his mind. Or is he travelling with his comfy wife still warm in bed? Perhaps it's the bosomy young girl at the corner store, the way she chews her gum and flips through the TV magazines while absently twisting her hair? A hot meal of roast lamb and potatoes, the day's unread newspaper, the gas bill? The glory days, when he took to cutting a track with relish, fearsome and unstoppable? What did they call him then? Cracker Jack, Jack Flash? Or, and this is what M suspects, plodding and savvy old Jack may not be thinking at all.

    As for M, he who is anchored by neither wife nor home, nor by a lover nor even a single friend, his mind takes flight, wanders. The track they are on was cut by old trappers. In his study of the area he'd read that a hundred years ago the same ground would have been regularly used by men carrying up to seventy pounds of wallaby and possum pelts across their shoulders. Tiger pelts, too, on carcasses: once upon a time. Up on the plateau more tiger were caught than anywhere else on the island. Those brute men went up in the winter when the animals' fur was at its thickest and there they would camp in scant wooden huts for months — months — at a stretch. Hard days, yes but days of plenty. Boys would leap at their fathers and beg to join. And he would have done so, he would have begged. He would have lived up in the snow and ice and every morning he would have pulled on his leather cleaned his gun, and gone out hunting. Without complain. And on the days when he would come face to face with the 'tyger', that monster whose fabulous jaw gaped open at 120 degrees, the carnivorous marsupial which had so confused the early explorers — 'striped wolf', 'marsupial wolf' — then he would, with his father's encouragement, have fearlessly pressed the trigger and exploded the peace. 'My boy,' his father would later say to his fellow hunters hunched around the fire, 'that's my boy.'

    But — and here M's thoughts, needing some place to settle, come to rest most comfortably in childhood — what choice did he have as a boy, really? Nothing to beg for. The greatest adventure his father took him on was a trip to the next town's annual rodeo. They left first thing in the morning, and were back the same day by dinner: once a year for three years, and after three years his father, the local doctor, an essentially quiet and steadfast man, decided that they had both seen enough. It's been a long time since he's seen the old man, at least — what? ten years — and it occurs to M that his parents might in fact be dead, done away with. This placebo brings him a sudden and unexpected peace.

    He climbs.

    The rain has stopped. A toppled snow gum blocks the track and Jack stands aside while M hacks a step into both sides of the giant log. The sound comes rude and loud.

    'This is as far as we're gonna get,' says Jack, consulting his watch.

    They eat lunch and turn back. By agreement M goes first. This time he does it his way: slipping, sliding, pushing off tree trunks, tearing at ferns, the cool air catching in his lungs, his calves and thighs flexing, eyes alert, feet flying, scuttling wet black rocks, lurching left and right, plummeting down the escarpment, and all the while remaining upright, defiant, as though his upper body were attached to a heavenly invisible string. Now and then he stops to rest. Then off again, leaving Jack behind. When he finally reaches the end of the track he dumps his pack and, after a short walk to cool down, stretches out on the hard ground. On his estimation he can make the descent in three hours. With his head against his pack he lies back and waits for the sun and the old man to slowly, slowly pick their way down.

    Jack Mindy drops him back at the house.


    'No worries,' says Jack, exits.

    Never, hopes M, to be seen again.


What People are Saying About This

Don DeLillo

Strong and Hypnotic.

From the Publisher

“A memorable debut, one full of many rewards and a subtle, precise beauty.”

Toni Morrison

Praise for DISQUIET: "Julia Leigh is a sorceress. Her deft prose casts a spell of serene control while the earth quakes underfoot."

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The Hunter 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book very enjoyable and very well written. I was slightly disappointed as it did not deal with thylacines (the animal that the title character is hunter) as much as I would have hoped. Overall, it is a very good piece of wildlife literature that I hope you will enjoy too.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a terrible book. I was very offended at this book especially when it goes into deatil about M relieving himself in the forest and then skinning wallabies and possums and shooting wombats. I wouldn't even give it one's not even worth a tenth of a star it was that bad. Don't buy it, if you do you would be gravely disappointed.