Excerpt of Wolf Totem by Rong Jiang
(Page 2 of 4)
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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
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.