As Chen Zhen looked through the telescope from his hiding place
in the snow cave, he saw the steely gaze of a Mongolian grassland
wolf. The fine hairs on his body rose up like porcupine quills,
virtually pulling his shirt away from his skin. Old Man Bilgee was there
beside him. This time Chen did not feel as if his soul had been driven
out of his body, but sweat oozed from his pores. He had been on the
grassland two years but still had not lost his fear of Mongolian wolves,
especially in packs. Now he was face to face with a large pack deep in
the mountains, far from camp, his misty breath quivering in the air.
Neither he nor Bilgee was armed no rifles, no knives, no lasso poles,
not even something as simple as a pair of metal stirrups. All they had
were two herding clubs, and if the wolves picked up their scent, their
sky burial would come early.
Chen exhaled nervously as he turned to look at the old man, who was watching the wolf encirclement through the other telescope. Youre going to need more courage than that, Bilgee said softly. Youre like a sheep. A fear of wolves is in your Chinese bones. Thats the only explanation for why you people have never won a fight out here. Getting no response, he leaned over and whispered, Get a grip on yourself. If they spot any movement from us, well be in real trouble. Chen nodded and scooped up a handful of snow, which he squeezed into a ball of ice. The herd of Mongolian gazelles was grazing on a nearby slope, unaware of the wolf pack, which was tightening the noose, drawing closer to the mens snow cave. Not daring to move, Chen felt frozen in place, like an ice sculpture. This was Chens second encounter with a wolf pack since coming to the grassland. A palpitating fear from his first encounter coursed through his veins.
Two years earlier, in late November, he had arrived in the border region pasture as a production team member from Beijing; snow covered the land as far as the eye could see. The Olonbulag is located southwest of the Great Xingan mountain range, directly north of Beijing; it shares a border with Outer Mongolia. Historically, it was the southern passage between Manchuria and the Mongolian steppes, and, as such, the site of battles between a host of peoples and nomadic tribes, as well as a territory in which the potential struggles for dominance by nomads and farmers was ever present.
Yurts had not yet been assigned to the Beijing students, the so-called educated youth, so Chen had been sent to live with Old Man Bilgee and his family, and given duties as a shepherd. One day slightly more than a month after his arrival, he and the old man were sent to headquarters, some eighty li, to fetch study materials and purchase daily necessities. Just before they were to head back, the old man was summoned to a meeting of the revolutionary committee. Since headquarters had said the study materials had to be delivered without delay, Chen was told to return alone.
As he was about to leave, the old man swapped horses with him, lending him his big, dark mount, a fast horse that knew the way. Bilgee warned Chen not to take a shortcut, but to follow the wagon road back; since there were yurts every twenty or thirty li, he ought to be able to make the trip without incident.
As soon as he was in the saddle and on his way, Chen sensed the power of his Mongol horse and felt the urge to gallop at full speed. When they reached a ridge from which he could see the peak of Chaganuul Mountain, where the brigade was quartered, he forgot the old mans warning and left the road which curved around the mountain, adding twenty li to the trip to take a shortcut that led straight to camp.
The temperature began to fall, and when he was about halfway home, the sun shivered from the deepening cold before retreating to the horizon and slipping from view. Frigid air from the snowy ground rose up, turning Chens leather duster hard and brittle. The hide of his mount was covered with a layer of sweat- frost. Their pace slowed as the snow deepened and little hillocks rose in their path. They were deep in the wilds, far from all signs of habitation. The horse trotted on, straight and smooth, so Chen relaxed the pressure on the bit to let the horse determine the pace and direction, as well as how hard it wanted to work. For no obvious reason, Chen suddenly tensed; he shuddered, becoming fearful that the horse might lose its way, fearful that the weather would turn ugly, fearful of being caught in a snowstorm, and fearful of freezing to death on the glacial grassland. The only thing he forgot to fear was the wolves.
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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