If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Charles Watts: The Hunt

Karim heard his father moving around the room, but pretended to be asleep. He did not want it thought that he was the kind to lie awake in the night and worry. When his father left the room, Karim crawled deeper under the warm cotton quilt and pushed his feet against the charcoal brazier. His mother turned in her sleep, softly touching his feet with hers. It had been cold that night, and the whole family spread their covers over the low table in the center of the room, slid the brazier under the table, and lay down to sleep. Their bodies radiated out from the table like the spokes of Uncle Mustapha’s bicycle.

Karim could hear his father praying in the garden. He rose quietly, careful not to disturb his sisters, and washed his hands and face. He took a small prayer carpet from behind the door and joined his father. He faced his carpet to the southwest, toward Mecca, knelt and recited the scriptures of the morning.

Uncle Mustapha arrived while the women were preparing tea. Karim’s father opened the gate for him, and Uncle Mustapha wheeled his sparkling new Chinese bicycle into the garden. It was the only bicycle in the village, and Karim was proud to be the nephew of the man who owned it. Often, at the new mud schoolhouse the government built the year before, he told his classmates of being thrown from side to side as the old man careened down the dusty alleys of the village. Uncle Mustapha brought the bicycle from Tehran on top of a bus. Karim met him where the dirt track that led to the village began and rode the last ten kilometers home clinging to his uncle’s back. Uncle Mustapha’s long mustaches flapped in the wind like a flock of pigeons coming to the roost.

The two old men greeted each other formally. Uncle Mustapha bowed slightly and placed his right hand over his heart. “May God be with you, Haji.” “Thank you, my brother. May God walk with you.” Karim ignored the men and looked at the bicycle. “Where are you, boy? Your Uncle needs tea!”

Karim shook himself aware and fetched the tea. His father, the Haji, was not a man to be crossed. He was the only man in the village who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, the only man entitled to be called Haji. Short and broad, enormously strong, he was the best hunter in the mountains, and Karim often sat at Uncle Mustapha’s feet in the evenings and heard tales of his father’s exploits.

Today they would be hunting for a wolf pup. The Haji wanted to breed it to one of the village dogs and see if it could be taught to protect the sheep against its full blood wolf brothers. Several lambs had been lost that year, and the village was poor. Karim, at twelve years old, would not normally have gone on a wolf hunt. He had been out hunting with his father many times, it was true, but always after tamer game, rabbits and birds. For wolf pups, however, a small body was needed, small enough to crawl in a cave and gather the young after the mother had been killed. Karim had gone over it all in his dreams, the darkness, the fearful whimpering of the pups turning into growls as he reached for them in the visionless abyss, the possibility of snakes or scorpions or spiders, and he had almost convinced himself that he was not afraid.

Uncle Mustapha and the Haji prepared to leave while Karim cleared the rug of tea implements. Uncle Mustapha slipped his long skinning knife into the broad sash around his waist and straightened his turban. His baggy trousers and tight, almost military-style shirt was a style seldom seen these days. Most of the villagers, even Karim, wore modern trousers and shirts, but the Haji and his brother preferred the old Kurdish style. Though they dressed the same, the Haji looked somehow more modern, more attuned to the new world of electricity and transistor radios. His M-16 rifle, smuggled in by the Kurds fighting for their freedom across the border in Iraq, shone in a dim corner, a symbol of the new world. Uncle Mustapha also had a gun, an old Enfield from the time of the British, but he seldom used it. He said he preferred to feel the life flowing out of his victims at close quarters, that to kill at a distance was an insult to the power of the spirit of living things, a discourtesy and an insult. The Haji had no time for such views. He had a family to support, and every year saw less and less game in the hills, more and more people in the village. If a man were to feed three growing daughters and a son, he did what was called for by circumstance. Tradition was for those who could afford such luxuries.

The two men, followed by the boy, left the village an hour before full dawn and were soon marching single file into the hills, brown and lifeless in the distance, but full of hidden springs and sudden patches of green close up. In the higher hills, snow still lay in the shadows, and here the ground was wet from the rains, making footholds difficult. The older men knew these hills from boyhood, knew each boulder and twist of the path. Karim carefully put his feet in the prints left by his father and his uncle. He, too, had grown up in these hills, had stood on the great ridge above the village and sent his voice echoing down the valley, had set snares among the rocks for grouse and partridge. But today was different, today he must make no errors, today he could not be a boy.

The sun broke as they crossed the second group of peaks, and Karim was sure he could see to the end of the mountains. Streams flashed dull grey down the steep beige hillsides, down to the villages below, studded with the blue domes of small mosques and shrines. Over the next set of hills there were no villages, no life but the wild creatures God had given man to fill his belly. It was cruel and it was necessary, death to feed life. It was necessary and therefore unworthy of thought. It was.

They saw no game for several hours. The morning was clear and crisp, the first rainless day in weeks. Karim was happy to have the sun on his face, to be here with his father and uncle rather than at home, stuck with his mother and sisters, forced to be civil and polite, to sit in the courtyard and study his lessons for the following week, to draw water like a girl for the midday meal. He looked to the west and thanked God that he was allowed to be here, free, doing a man’s work in these ancient mountains. Karim smiled at the sun.

Uncle Mustapha stopped suddenly and peered into the distance.

“Haji, look. The birds are circling.”

“Let’s go and see.”

The buzzards were turning slowly in the sky about a mile away, working lazy turns over the death of some creature, waiting for the final convulsions, the last moments of weakness. They would not wait for complete death, of course. They would come in when the animal was sufficiently weak to not fight back, tear out its living flesh in great steaming hunks.

It was a deer, a big male with small, beautifully branched horns. He stood, blood running down his chest and neck, surrounded by three wolves. One, a large male, probably the leader of the pack, darted around the head of the deer, leaping forward and then back, distracting the deer from the others. A smaller wolf jumped on the deer from behind and tore another great gash in its neck, then pulled back and continued to circle.

The Haji lifted his rifle. When he pulled the trigger, the sound of the explosion filled the air completely, gathered to itself the full attention of each sentient creature in the area. It seemed to Karim that the big wolf looked at him for a split second just before the bullet smashed into its face.

The other wolves stared at the hunters for a moment, then trotted off down a small meadow and around a group of boulders. Karim watched his father aim again. This time the deer fell. Uncle Mustapha skinned the two animals quickly and rolled the pelts into a neat package. Karim put them in the back pack he had brought for the purpose.

“What about the meat, Haji?”

“Leave it for the birds for now.”

The Haji started off in the direction the wolves had taken, then abruptly turned uphill. He stopped in the shade of a small tree and sat.

“They’ll come back for the meat. We’ll wait here.”

The men and the boy sat quietly and watched the birds drop greedily out of the sky onto the carcasses, watched them pound their beaks into the gore and come up, blood rolling down their wrinkled, featherless heads. The birds fought each other for the best morsels, though there was enough for all.

Uncle Mustapha put his hand on Karim’s shoulder and pointed. The two wolves had moved out of the rocks and were approaching the dead animals. They sniffed the air for human scent, but the hunters were downwind. They leapt among the birds, snarling and tearing with their teeth at the fleeing scavengers. The small male fell upon the body of the deer. The female gnawed the dead wolf.

The Haji raised his rifle and fired again. This time the young male fell. The female looked at the men but did not move. Karim’s father cocked the gun but didn’t shoot. After several seconds, she trotted off.

Uncle Mustapha skinned the young wolf and gave the pelt to Karim.

“It is a good day, Master Karim. Three skins will bring enough rice for a month.”

“But why didn’t he kill the female?”

“Do you question your father? He’s not a man to act without a reason.”

“But he could have shot it.”

Uncle Mustapha smiled and turned away. “Come. Let’s find your father.”

The Haji had already begun following the last wolf and was far in the distance by the time Karim and his uncle started after him. They walked quickly but silently up the muddy hill to where the solid rock began. The Haji stopped near a small outcropping and waited for them.

“I was too late. She went into her cave. See up there?” He pointed at a small hole in the side of the rocks above, barely perceptible. “She will stay as long as we are here. We have to bring her out.”

He looked at his son with a smile on his lips. “Karim, come here. I have work for you.”

Karim looked at his father, but didn’t move. Uncle Mustapha pushed him lightly from behind and he walked stiffly to his father. The Haji took off his turban and unwrapped the long cotton cloth. He tore it into two strips, took several strong branches from a nearby tree, and bound them with the cloth around his son’s hands and arms.

“When you enter the cave, you must keep your arms in front of you. When she leaps, she’ll take your arm in her mouth. She won’t let go. We’ll drag you both out and kill her. Then you can go back for the pups. Are you ready?”

“Yes, father.”

They walked to the mouth of the small cave. Karim tried to appear calm and brave, like when he had ridden on the bicycle with Uncle Mustapha, but the blood was crashing in his ears. He looked at the hole, barely large enough for his tiny shoulders. Oh father, do not make me do this, he whispered in his heart.

Uncle Mustapha touched his shoulder. “Today you will have your fourth skin.”

Karim had no trouble slipping the upper half of his body into the opening. He heard the mother wolf growling nearby in the darkness. His body blocked the small light of the entrance, and he could not even make out her eyes. He had dreamed they would flash like flint on steel. He could feel the hands of his father and uncle as they gripped his legs, ready to pull when the time came.

Karim inched forward on his belly, keeping his arms out as a shield. The female wolf gave a low growl and leapt, slashing down on his raised arms with her great teeth. He could feel the fangs crushing the branches protecting him, working deeper and deeper toward the flesh. He could feel himself being dragged backward out of the cave, feel his head and shoulders banging into the narrow rocks of the entrance. The wolf clung to him.

Then he was out in the air and he could see her face, full of hate and fear and death, inches from his own. For a moment time slowed. He saw the wolf release him and turn. The Haji had his knife in one hand and was reaching for the beast. She caught his knife hand above the wrist and ripped out half the flesh. Uncle Mustapha grabbed the animal by the tail and tried to pull her off the Haji, but it turned on him and in one lunge had him by the throat. The Haji took the knife in his good hand and plunged it time and again into the back and breast of the wolf.

She fell, shuddering in the mud to her death. It was too late for Uncle Mustapha. His windpipe hung from the tear in his neck, and bright bubbles of blood were oozing from the wound. Karim took the cloth that had protected him from the wolf and wrapped it around his father’s arm. The Haji stared at his brother with empty eyes. He did not move and he did not weep.

“Karim, go home and bring back some men.”

Karim turned away from the Haji and walked toward the cave.

“I told you to go and bring men!”

Karim looked at the Haji, and then at Uncle Mustapha. “I will, father.” He crawled back into the cave, heard the growling. He reached into the darkness, grabbed a pup by the neck and dragged it out, snarling and spitting and clawing at his arms.

When Karim returned with the men of the village, the Haji was still standing silently beside his brother. It took several hours to carry Uncle Mustapha back home over the mountains, but the Haji never spoke. An almost full moon lit the way. They arrived after midnight. The body rested on the kitchen table.

It was the duty of the closest male relatives to clean and prepare the dead for burial. The Haji took a needle and thread and sewed up the wound in Uncle Mustapha’s neck, so he would look whole before God. He and Karim placed a cloth on the body, poured water over it, and cleaned off the blood of the day. They wrapped Uncle Mustapha in the Kafan, a long white cotton shroud, and called the men to come and take Uncle Mustapha to his grave. The dawn burial was quiet, for when Mohammed’s son died, the Prophet said, "The eyes shed tears and the heart is grieved, but we will not say anything except that which pleases our Lord."

As they walked back to the house, the Haji finally spoke to Karim.

“What did you do with the pup?”

Karim led his father to the back garden of the house. An old bitch with her own pups was suckling the wolf. The Haji grabbed the wolf pup by the neck and tore it off the teat. With his free hand he pulled the knife from his cummerbund and held the pup high above his head, silhouetted in the rising sun.

It seemed the Haji held the pup for all of time. Karim wanted to scream “No!” but he could do nothing. He had already defied his father once that day, and did not have the strength left in him. He turned away and fell to his knees. The tears came, but he did not cry out.

The Haji looked down at his son. He dropped his knife in the dirt and put the pup back on the teat. He picked up his son and set him on his feet.


They walked together to the front garden. The Haji pointed at Uncle Mustapha’s bicycle.

“I can never ride it. It’s yours.”

The Haji returned to the back garden and sat slumped in the dust beside the dogs and wolf. Karim stared at the bike for a moment, then joined his father.

Early in his career, Charles Watts had an underground play (“Visigoths”) produced in Los Angeles, which led to script writing contracts for several TV series.  He fled Hollywood, earned an MFA in poetry, and went to Iran to teach literature at several Universities. For five years, he edited Seizure, a magazine of poetry and fiction. Publications in 2011 include stories in Liebamour and Scythe Literary Journal, plus six poems and a story in a new anthology of neobeat poetry called “Road Poets.” “Karma in the High Peaks,” an anthology from RA Press with ten of his poems, including the title work, won the “People’s Choice Award” for best book of 2010 from the Adirondack Center for Writing.

Photograph:  Charles Watts and friend Shahram at Taq-e-Bustan in Kurdistan, circa '75.  Used with permission of the author.

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Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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