Everything is Never Clear Here

 

Welcome!

This page is a start, a simple placeholder while I figure out what to include on this site. I haven’t promoted it yet, but in case someone stumbles across me here, I want to leave a token as a greeting. “Everything is Never Clear Here” was my preferred title for what became my book, Himalayan Passage. The phrase came from a Nepali trader in the Tibetan border town of Burang. I had asked him about trade routes from Nepal, and the legal procedures for transporting goods — on his back — between the two countries. He shrugged, and gave me the words that seemed to describe so well the uncertainties and unanswerable questions of life. He was right. There are no answers here. Just stories. But stories carry in them a deep, unquestioning truth, if only we can see it.

What follows is a poem, a work in progress called Khopei, named for a Kazakh eagle hunter in western Mongolia who took me and my colleague, photographer David Edwardsgenerously into his home almost 20 years ago. We were there in the heart of the central Asian winter, when icy winds pour down from the Altai Mountains, unforgivingly, and the eagles hunt most fiercely — a time when animals, and people, can die.

 

Khopei

Long-distance eyes,
blue-grey flecked with light brown.
His cheek bones high
wide
straight, long nose
thin mustache
chin beard.
Not a big man, not immediately
impressive
despite the power of his grip
when he took my hand
in greeting.

Sixty-five years old,
slight stoop to his shoulders.
His little Muslim cap,
coupled with great black robe
and heavy leather boots
gave him a bottom-heavy
humble
monkish appearance.
One could not get his full measure
until, as if by some revealing theater magic
he placed his fox fur hat on his head.
Then, in a glance, you saw him,
his life
his family
his world.
I thought of an Apache
taking a yellow hematite-and-oil mixture
running a straight line down his forehead
over his nose. It says:
All that has gone before is that
and this is now.
Today we hunt.

In his youth
he was a famous buzkashi player.
Buzkashi,
the wild forerunner of polo,
the mad melee of horses and soldiers
having sport
with a dead goat.
In buzkashi, horsemanship
is everything, and
Khopei once stole the goat
and the game
by sliding under the neck of his horse
like a Lakotah rider
and reaching across, his hand
hidden in the flying mane, yanked
the carcass
from an opponent who
had no idea he was even there.

A man of 65,
still
formidable.
You could see it,
the way he sat his horse,
so much at home,
slumped like a cowhand,
but sitting cautiously
upright
when he removed the eagle’s hood
and the bird began to look around with her bloodless glare.
He spoke to the eagle
in her own language, learned
through generations of eagle handlers:
KAA, KAA, KAA,
like the eagle’s own cry when excited.
She was to know that
this
is the one and
only verbal command from her master.
It means come,
come,
come and I will give
you meat like before,
come,
come.
And when the eagle came to take
the rabbit leg, landing on his arm
with the slamming fury of an attack upon live
prey, I watched
as she lost balance,
flapped her wings to regain
equilibrium on the glove and
buried her talons deep in Khopei’s free hand.
His face registered no reaction.
In almost casual manner, he worked the talons free.
One of them had
gone nearly through between the
knuckles of his first and second fingers.
His son-in-law took the bird.
I looked at the hand.
The hole as large as a bullet would make.
Blood spurted out.
Although in the most tender
part of his hand, Khopei seemed not
to feel
a thing
and looked
at me as I examined his hand.
He remained
impassive as I cleaned it
with betadine and a cue-tip swab, pushing
deep into the wound.
I couldn’t help but feel he
was humoring my unnecessary
concern
for his welfare.

They talked of winter,
the eagle hunters,
in their fox fur hats
and great black robes.
Not the winter of March
its back already broken
snow melting in the valley bottoms.
They talked about December
and January.
They leaned forward,
elbows on their knees, and
spoke in whispers,
their voices falling like cold
from high peaks.
They told about how animals
in advance of storms,
come down from the heights
how camels become
ornery
in the face of dangerous weather,
how animals and even people
die of thirst simply
because there is no water
in liquid form.
In this country of no natural shelter
for 500 miles no tree nor bush
to stop the wind,
unprepared exposure means death.

After silence,
Khopei began a story.
He spoke quietly,
eyes down.
In slow, single sentences,
as if he wanted each one translated
and passed to me
precisely.

There was a man,
a long time ago,
riding with his grandson.
The boy very young.
They rode one horse,
the boy in front of his grandfather,
wrapped in the old man’s robe.
It was cold.
There was a storm.
Their way took them over a pass
where the snow was difficult for the horse.
Having come a long distance already,
the animal failed
the man, carrying the boy
now, began walking.

As he spoke,
Khopei’s granddaughter interrupted
with a howl of toddler protest.
With hardly a glance,
he reached out his
heavy gnarled hand,
the one the eagle had punctured
that afternoon, and
swept the child into his lap.
As both arms wrapped around her,
she quieted.
He went on with his story.

At the man’s winter home,
his family expected him.
When night came and he had not arrived,
several men set off
in the moonless dark,
riding up the way
they knew he would be following.
Calling
riding
they searched through the night,
not knowing they had passed him
several times.

Only in the early morning,
when first light distinguished rock from
a pile of fabric
did they find him,
curled on the ground
just below the crest of the pass,
hunched on his side,
his back to the wind.
Dead.
Frozen.

A hard story but
not uncommon
in the long and unforgiving history of Altai winters
except
pulling him from the snow,
forcing apart stiff arms,
they discovered the boy,
the toddler,
alive,
barely,
held in the sheltering embrace
fading warmth
of his dead grandfather.

Flesh of my flesh,
my life into thine.

All this relayed to me
through the clumsy circle of two interpreters
Sureghan translating Kazakh to Mongol,
Ariunbat Mongol to English
meant that
by the time I heard the last detail,
and looked over at him,
Khopei
silent now,
had shifted his position
he sat against the wall,
legs curled
tightly beneath him,
his granddaughter
wrapped entirely
in the folds
of his robe
so only
her dark eyes visible
his face grim as if
recalling the scene.

Suddenly a thought:
Did Khopei know these people?
My question
round the translation circle
comes echoing back.
Ariunbat turns,
eyes wide
Khopei
it was Khopei wrapped
in the frozen
protecting
arms
of his grandfather.