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The Hunting Party

February 28, 2011

We were combing the mountain for foxes. It wasn’t so much of a mountain, I suppose, but it was much more than a hill. The Kyrgyz have words for these things but we just don’t. So we were poring over this mountainette with our eyes open wide and our senses alert, atuned to some primal frequency in our monkey brains – find the food, find the fox! A couple of scrappy Kyrgyz guys kicked rocks down into the basin below and hollered into the emptiness, and the sounds of the stones tumbling and the voices hollering were given right back, bouncing from rock to rock. We wanted to flush our these cowards from their hiding holes. We had an eagle to feed.

The eagle was sitting calmly on the arm of her owner, Ruslan. Her eyes were covered by a leather hat called a hood, or tomogo, so that she wouldn’t grow too nervous by our jittery antics. Around her ankles were little leather loops attached to a short rope, called a kyska bo. The short rope was attached to a longer rope (uzun bo) by way of a spinning mechanism carved out of wood and bone (ailampa) – this way the bird could move its leashed legs around freely without getting tangled. The eagle’s talons dug into a leather cowhide glove called a melee, thick and tough enough to prevent all pain. Ruslan made all these trappings himself, skinning a cow and curing the leather and braiding it into ropes and molding it into gloves. He carved blocks of wood into the ailampa and bigger pieces into a wooden crutch for his eagle called a baldak, which he rested on his hipbone. The eagle astride his arm, tethered with his home-made ropes and perched on his home-made glove and home-made crutch, Ruslan was a self-made man. This eagle was his and all that it wore was his too, and these mountains were his, and soon, he hoped, a fox would be his as well.

Ruslan took off around the mountain, growing small as he stepped about its barren face. He was quiet and intense, but occasionally he would shout out to us from across the valley, and conversations in Kyrgyz would commense from mountain to mountain. “Do you see anything?” he’s ask impatiently. “No” we would holler back. We had stopped looking, but had taken to chatting instead. There is only so much time you’re willing to spend staring at rocks, hoping they would turn into foxes. Ruslan’s friend Janybek told us about how the previous spring his brother had grabbed two small raptors called hobbies (jaagalmai to him) and trained them to be his loyal friends. They lived in his yard unleashed, and when he went to school they would come with him, flying above, leading the way. The winter here was too cold for them, so they flew away, but they would come back again in the spring. Such was the bond here between men and their birds.

As Ruslan and his eagle wandered the rockheap, we made a fire out of a spiky shrub called ‘camel’s foot’ and sat squatting around its warmth. The town of Tort Kul lay below us and its lonely mosque sang out to us in afternoon prayer, the calls of its muezzin reaching even the tips of the mountaintops. Yellow smoke came off the smoldering camel’s foot and the allahu akbars rang out with reverb and the man and his eagle disappeared over the ridge into the next valley beyond. It was a strange and serene scene, and I rubbed my hands and closed my eyes and breathed deeply. If this was hunting, then it was surprisingly relaxing.

But then, Janybek hollered, and Ruslan came running. Down below, at the edge of a little lake, a fox had scurried into view of the boy’s binoculars. We planned our siege, and the strategy of the hunt became complex. We want to fox to run this way, through the field, so the eagle has space to swoop; so you, corner it from this side, you, go that way; Ruslan and the eagle will go here and wait. It was a multi-man operation. I was wrong if I ever imagined a man and his bird and the mountain, some kind of solitary pasttime. This was no loner’s hobby. This was a team sport.

So we scampered down the mountainside, being quick so as to cut off the fox but not so careless as to scare it away. But as we reached the valley floor, the fox had disappeared. Where could it have gone? Had it gone for a swim? Again, Janybek was the one to see it. It was skipping up the rocky outcrop in front of us, gleefully sly as foxes are so known to be. The eagle was in no place to attack, but it was fine, because we had it cornered. The fox was on something like a vertical island, a singular hill that jutted out from the valley around it. It could hide in the rocks, sure, but as soon as we flushed it out it would have nowhere to go but killing fields  in every direction. The game was up, Mr. Fox.

So we climbed atop our island and continued our flushing routine, hollering and throwing rocks and being the scary men that the fox thought us to be. For a moment, the fox flashed in front of our eyes, and everybody startled. I ran with my camera and my contact lens fell out. Ruslan readied his eagle, but he hadn’t seen it, and just as soon as the fox had appeared it had vanished once again. This was frustrating business. Now, one-eyed, I sat on a rock and watched, but half my world was fuzz. With blurry vision I wasn’t much of a hunter. The others wandered the island, cursing the furry little bastard, but now it knew for certain it was a target. So in some little hole it waited and waited, sure that it was smarter than us.

Patience. The hunt was about patience. It was a test of will now between the hunter and the hunted. Who would budge first? We sat on our rocky bulge for an hour, then two, shivering in the cold and watching the sun fall lower and lower. Ruslan took the tomogo off his eagle and let her search for the fox herself. She shifted her head in abrupt jerks as she scanned patches of the landscape for anything furry and moving. Then, she saw something. Ruslan unhooked her short rope from her long rope and she was off, soaring over the valley, and he shrieked, shrieking at the fox so that it wouldn’t turn around to see the giant bird that was headed its way. In the distance, the eagle pounced on something, and we ran down the side of the mountain as fast as we could. Ruslan and his friends were like mountain goats, bounding down the face of it like bouncing balls, but I lagged behind. With only one lens in my eye I had no depth perception, and I preceeded warily. I slipped and skinned my palm across a rock. Blood seeped out and I sucked it and ran on.

So I was sucking the blood and cursing my vision and feeling my heart beat fast as I tore across the field, and a hundred yards away the men stood crouched around their find. A fox, a fox! I thought triumphantly, and I pulled up to them panting and laughing and thrilled as can be. As I got closer, though, I saw they were only shaking their heads. The eagle was posed guardedly atop its catch, but the fur was not orange and the body was not long and it’s head was small and round. After hours of waiting, minutes of elation, the thrill of the hunt had come to this. We’d caught a housecat.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011 7:42 pm

    “I ran with my camera and my contact lens fell out.” Literal lolz there. But an apt part of this silly tale


  1. Keen on Kyrgyzstan, In Review « Keen on Kyrgyzstan

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