Two Hearts of the Eagle Huntress

4 min
Image of 2018
Image of Short Story
Red mountains ring beneath the eternal blue sky. The echo of galloping hoofbeats drifts among them. The lonesome throatsong I hum is their only companion. The solitary sun hangs like a baubled incense burner, spreading the sweet perfume of the wilderness across the land. I rock with the rhythm of my dark mare’s strides, fingers twisted into her war-flag mane, and listen to the shallow counterpoint of breaths from the eagle on my arm. Magnificent, she catches her balance over rough steppeland, beating wings of dawn, splaying feathers like hammered gold. Her talons prick the leather of my glove, as they have pierced the sides of so many foxes before. Their pelts hem my Kazakh kupe coat, my tymak hunting hat. She is my family’s survival, just as her ancestors have been the survival of all strong ones before me in this far-flung Mongolian province. I strain to keep her aloft, shoulder trembling with her weight. Cold toys with my onyx hair, and numbs my rosacead cheeks. Days and nights I’ve travelled, nomadic, like the great Genghis Khan wandering the Gobi. I am tired, but I offer a whispered Psimila to the desert emptiness, asking Allah for strength, and I press on. Along the jagged horizon, I can see it. A wall of black clouds. A tsunami of wind, thunder and sparks. The clattering vermillion stones, cracking to warm fractals beneath my mare’s hooves, can give me no shelter. The tough, dry grasses will not keep the pounding rain, the stone-heavy hail, off my back. I am a huntress, I tell myself, but I cannot banish this fear from my heart. This longing for home. For a roof and a tight embrace. I glance back toward the Bayan-Olgii valley, wide and gentle, where sunlight gathers and swells like a sandstorm, and my village rests like a gem, having fallen from the saddlebag of a wealthy merchant’s camel. Dusted and forgotten, with it’s tumbledown mud-brick houses, its round tents breathing long plumes of smoke from black stovepipes, it’s shallow river, it’s sheet-metal bridges and UAZ vans. I cannot see it. I’m so far, now. But I cannot stop. Winter stalks among the high peaks of the Altai like a silver leopard. Soon, it will descend, and if I return without a hare or wild ram over the painted pommel of my saddle, we will fight it with empty bellies. I wonder how long the felt walls of our ger will keep its claws from the tender, pink hands of my brothers and sisters.
I close my eyes, and as my horse forges forward, my mind returns down the slopes like a lost lamb, to the familiar stream where our yak calves wade. Where my stately mother rises with the quavering call of the azure-domed mosque to fill the kettle, stoke the fire, and make the tea. So little sugar we have, yet she finds a way to dust the pale china bowls of each child with sweet snow. As long as the light lasts, she works. Her calloused hands milk the cattle, the camel, and the goats. It’s a poor year for grazing, and I see her frown and swallow as she touches the ribs of our animals. Her ladle dips into the pail, and she casts up her prayers with the cream, droplets and thoughts scattering in the crisp silk air like stars. They fall like white rain. The thirsty earth drinks it like it has never known water. Satisfied someone has heard, she washes the round-moon faces of my siblings. I see lines, like canyons, in her brow, feel the ache in her joints, and know the want for my father, where he lies in the soil, behind her hooded eyes. A ger has two sacred tentpoles, carved, painted yellow, and all strung with bright woven ornaments, representing husband and wife. To walk between them is to separate them, and to separate them is a great offense, as it should be.
Death, having no respect, has walked carelessly between ours, and now in our ger, one pole has been broken. My mother is left to support the round roof all by herself. Yet, when guests knock upon our cold tent’s humble door, she smiles. A true smile, all chapped lips and crooked teeth and love. For them, she sets our small table with bounties of rice-flour breads, crumbling, yellow-churned butter, and heaped bowls of kurt. Food she slaved to make, and will slave to make again for her family once the guests leave, as what she’s given is all we have. She fears she will have to take a loan out from the neighbors to pay for the lychee sweets. Still, she sets them out, pouring the tea but a splash at a time, so the company will stay longer in the comfort of a hot drink. Still, she is happy. As darkness falls, my mother sits with busied needle, and to the buzz of the radio, embroiders deels and tebeteikas to sell at the widower’s shop. Blue thread dances in black velvet. Skillfully does she weave the owl-eye pattern, for protection. The ram-on-mountain pattern, for success of her children. The eagle-eye pattern. For courage. She knows how early she will have to rise tomorrow, how difficult it will be. Sometimes in the dark, when my brothers and sisters lay warm and dreaming in their one bed, I catch the glint of tears in her obsidian eyes, like a flash of tin on the bed of a dark stream. Blood beads on the pads of her pricked fingers, a wealth of tiny cabochon rubies, but another stitch is another togrog. Another togrog is a mouthful of food, a drop of fuel for the battered UAZ van, another day in school for my siblings. So she works through the night and her mind dashes among the falling stars that split the darkness, to me, where I ride. Every morning without my father, it’s harder to rise, but the sun never tires of it’s duty. Neither does my mother. Neither will I. I stop my mare at the edge of a cliff, and face the oncoming storm. Valleys rumble in anticipation. I tell myself I am an eagle huntress. My heart is brave. I remove my eagle’s hood. I release my eagle’s tether. “Huukah! Huukah!” With a call, I catapult her into the vast expanse. She climbs. Her shadow blackens the sun. Her head darts to the left. She’s seen something. I wait with bated breath. She dives. My heart throbs in my chest as she disappears behind an outcropping of scarlett stone, and I wait to know whether I will have meat for my mother to cook and clean, furs for her to sew snugly around my siblings. Whether she will be able to feed us one more season. I close my eyes, and take a breath. I am brave. I only wish I could be as brave as her.

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