Just before they reached a ravine, the horse stopped, pointing toward a spot down the ravine. It tossed its head and snorted, its pace no longer steady. Chen Zhen, who had never before ridden alone deep into the snowy grassland, had no inkling of the danger ahead. But the agitated horse, its nostrils flaring, its eyes wide, turned to head away from what lay in front of them. Its intuition was lost on Chen, who pulled the reins taut to turn the animals head and keep it moving forward at a trot. Its gait grew increasingly jerky, an erratic combination of walking, trotting, and jolting, as if the animal might bolt at any moment. Chen pulled back hard on the reins.
As if frustrated that its warning signals were not being heeded, the horse turned and nipped at its riders felt boot, and at that moment Chen recognized the danger facing them by the fear in the horses eyes. But it was too late, for the horse had carried him into the flared opening of a gloomy ravine on trembling legs.
Chen turned to look down the ravine and was so terrified he nearly fell off the horse. There on a snow- covered slope not less than fifty yards away was a pack of golden- hued, murderous- looking Mongolian wolves, all watching him straight on or out of the corners of their eyes, their gazes boring into him like needles. The closest wolves were the biggest, easily the size of leopards and at least twice the size of the wolves hed seen in the Beijing Zoo, half again as tall and as long, nose to tail. All dozen or so of the larger wolves had been sitting on the snowy ground, but they immediately stood up, their tails stretched out straight, like swords about to be unsheathed, or arrows on a taut bowstring. They were poised to pounce. The alpha male, surrounded by the others, was a gray wolf whose nearly white neck, chest, and abdomen shone like white gold. The pack consisted of thirty or forty animals.
Afterward, when Chen and Bilgee were rehashing the circumstances of the encounter, the old man wiped his sweaty brow with his finger and said, They must have been holding a council. The alpha male was likely passing out assignments for an attack on a herd of horses on the other side of the hill. Youd have realized your luck had you known that when their coats shine, they arent hungry.
In fact, Chens mind was wiped clean the moment he spotted them, and the last thing he recalled was a muted but terrifying sound rising up to the top of his head, not unlike the thin whistle you get by blowing on the edge of a coin. It must have been the ping his soul made as it tore through his crown on its way out. He felt that his life had stopped for a minute or more.
Long afterward, whenever he recalled his encounter with the wolf pack, he silently thanked Papa Bilgee and his dark horse. The only reason he hadnt fallen off was that the animal had lived its entire life in wolf territory, a battle- tested horse perfectly suited to the hunt. At the critical moment, as their lives hung in the balance, the horse grew extraordinarily calm. Acting as if it didnt even see the pack or that it had any intention of interrupting their council, it continued on at a leisurely, just- passing- through pace. With all the courage it possessed, and in full control of its hooves, it neither struggled to keep moving nor broke into a panicky gallop, but carried its rider at a steady pace that allowed Chen to sit up straight.
Maybe it was the horses extraordinary courage that summoned back Chens departed soul, but when that spirit, which had hovered in the frigid air for a moment, returned to his body, he felt reborn and was extraordinarily tranquil.
He forced himself to sit firmly in the saddle. Taking his cue from the horse, he pretended not to have seen the pack, though nervously keeping them in sight. He knew all about the speed of wolves on the Mongolian grassland. It would take but seconds to close the gap. And he knew how important it was not to show fear. That was the only way to avoid an attack by these grassland killers.
Excerpted from Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. Translation Copyright © 2008 by Penguin Group USA. Excerpted by permission of The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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