He stepped out into the hard and brittle cold of a winter’s dawn. The crust of snow that blanketed the steppe had a harsh metallic gleam that dazzled the eye, giving the illusion of an unbroken white plane stretching out in all directions. Not land, nor water, nor air; no, it was unlike any of these things.
Gradually, Jamukha’s eyes adjusted and the vision vanished. He could once more discern the rise and fall of low hills and vales, rippling out from him with the regularity that reminded him of breathing. To the east, he could see a faint column of smoke rising from the ger that lay on the other side of the ridge. It was pale against the pale sky, and he knew that if he had not known it was there he might have not been able to see it at all.
An immense silence lay over the land, almost like a physical weight. Jamukha had been the fist to rise that morning, and he had picked his way out of the ger, stepping over the huddled forms of his wife and his sons, still wrapped up in their sleeping furs. Khongorzul would be awake soon, coaxing the embers in the sunken fire pit back to life, not even looking at the job her hands were doing, already distracted by the work of the day.
The shaggy, sturdy horses in the field below were still asleep on their feet, and even the massive black wolf-dog they kept to guard the herd was still curled up against the side of the ger with its nose tucked down beneath its flank. When it saw Jamukha was looking at it, it saluted him with a single thump of its tail against the frozen ground.
Jamukha scanned the horizon. The line where the earth joined with the sky was colorless and steady, and he knew that if a rider were to appear now, he would see him coming clearly and from a very long way off. He might watch for a full hour before the visitor was even close enough to make out the color of his horse or whether it was a good animal or not.
If a rider were to appear now…
A shadow passed over him, shaking Jamukha out of his thoughts. He looked up at the sky, steely blue and without a single cloud in it. A hawk circled overheard in an ever-widening gyre, a black shape against the sky, like the shadow of a hand projected onto a wall by firelight. As he watched, the hawk wheeled away towards the direction of the river, and then swung gravely back until it was directly overhead once more.
It seemed to be trying to unite all the world beneath its steady and unblinking eye.
Uncommon, Jamukha thought, to see a hawk in this season. Though the predatory birds did not disappear in winter like the water fowl that lived in the Onan River, they did become scarce. Something summoned them, just as certain men were summoned. But there must have been others, man and hawk alike, who could not hear the call no matter how they put their ear to the task of listening for it.
Yes, that could be the only explanation.
The hawk folded its wings and dropped like a stone. It did not open them again until it was nearly on the ground, then it merely flicked them once to set itself right. It perched on top of a raised drift not far from the ger. The snow was packed down so hard that its talons barely even pierced it. With inscrutable and pitiless eyes, it regarded Jamukha in his isolation.
Now, the wolf-dog raised its head in interest. The hawk was steadfast and unafraid. Indeed, it did not even seem to notice the dog; all its cold animal intent was upon the man.
The words went through Jamukha’s mind once, with nothing to precede or to follow them. They hung, suspended, as the hawk had been suspended. Jamukha felt a hot flower of longing slowly unfolding within his breast. It was as if he had been alone for years in a cold, luminescent, featureless place, like the surface of a star, far from the company of men. As if passed a lifetime without knowing the carefree touch of another’s hand or the sound of another’s voice.
He was too practical to believe that such a place could exist. No, not even in the heart that dreamed it could such a lonely place ever come into being, for no one could endure such isolation. No one could ever be so utterly alone as that.
All at once, the hawk spread its strong black wings. They were long, long, deceptively long, as if they could be enticed to cover over all the earth, blotting out the sun. It pumped them once and lifted effortlessly off the ground,then it flapped twice more and it was rising swiftly into the featureless sky. Soon, it was nothing but a shadow once more, disappearing back in the direction of the river. It seemed to Jamukha that it carried a tremendous weight with it.
All at once, Jamukha realized his hands were very cold. He knotted them into fists and retracted them into the long wool-lined sleeves of his deel.
He could hear movement from within the house, the sleepy shuffle of the bedclothes being put away for the day. Though he did not look back, he knew there would already be a column of purplish smoke rising through the small round hole in the top of the ger.
Soon, he thought, he would go back inside, and Khongorzul would be heating tea with lots of good sweet milk in the big iron pot over the fire. Soon, she would tell him some matter that needed his attention, or she would have some chore already waiting for him.
Yes, that would all happen very soon.
Jamukha spared one last look at the horizon, but it was vacant and still. Vacant, in anticipation of what was to come.