In the evening gloom along the Zhavkhan valley of Western Mongolia, Catherine Mackenzie’s jeep slithered in the snow, turned sideways, then snatched back its grip.
As the jeep bounced against ice and rocks, she heard a squeal from Sam, her eighteen-month-old, whom she had taken on this trip because the Russian-backed mine did not have a crèche for Canadian freelance metallurgists.
‘Shush, darling, we’re nearly home.’
She saw with relief the lights of the mine a kilometre away in the evening darkness, and revved up for the final run.
There was a terrific bang. The jeep had dived into a metre-deep snow-covered sinkhole.
She speed-dialled for help, but her call went straight to Russian voicemail. She left a message for her husband Bill the security man that she had crashed and needed help fast.
The lights of the mine shone invitingly in the darkness. Rather than an uncertain wait for rescue, she decided to walk the short distance.
She bundled Sam in a tartan blanket. Its dark cobalt had broad bands of green crossed with thin lines of red and gold, and she secured all with a belt.
She fired a mini distress-flare and, in its dying light, she tried to memorise the position of sinkholes on her route.
With the baby bundle in her arms, her rucksack heavy with speculative ore samples, and the chill wind tugging at her, she stumbled on the uneven ground.
She fell and the baby was knocked out of her arms by the impact, rolling away in the darkness.
The last thing she remembered before she lost consciousness was a sudden massive surge of wind. It whooshed over her and had subsided in seconds.
Alikhan sat on horseback with Medina, his golden eagle, and looked down the snow-covered mountainside over the Zhavkhan valley.
Medina had won the Altai hunting contest three years running. Alikhan had even trained her to retrieve prey to the sound of his flute. She had been taken from her nest when she was four years old and must now be released back into the wild to live a natural life.
Alikhan had promised his mother Sofia that he would one day say goodbye to Medina. However, in eight years he had never done so. Sofia suspected that Alikhan’s difficulty was connected with the fact that his father had died in a fall when first capturing the eagle for him.
In the snow below were the tracks of a jeep which had turned around the mountain to the Russian-backed copper mine twenty kilometres away. Investigating the tracks was a playful fluff of white fur, barely visible against the snow. A corsac fox. It suspected nothing.
Medina fluttered as Alikhan took off her jesses and hood. She readily came off her saddle perch onto his arm.
At that moment in the dark eastern sky there was a red flare. They watched until it faded. Flares from the mine at Oyu Khangai warned of blasting, but strangely there was no following explosion tonight.
‘Goodbye, my friend, may Allah look after you.’ A tear fell from Alikhan’s eye as he stroked Medina for the last time and raised her high.
The muscular wings hurled a massive volume of air backwards at him as she launched herself down the mountainside.
The fox tried to dodge at the last second, but the huge talons pierced the neck and body.
Alikhan seized his chance with Medina occupied. In the next minute he had led the horse into a cave and given it some grass out of a saddlebag. He warmed some white mare’s milk and mutton in a tin over a fire and filled a small pipe with strong cannabis from the Chu valley.
He took out his flute and began a meditative tune. His mind drifted into a blurred spirit world, in which he saw his dead father smiling at him.
In the cave, Alikhan heard what sounded like a spirit wail from his dead father. In reverence he answered on his flute.
It answered back.
Startled, he played another phrase.
It answered, louder and higher.
He stood up. Where was the sound coming from? Deeper into the cave, he could no longer hear it. Towards the entrance it grew louder.
He lit a branch and stepped outside. In the snow was something that looked like a log. There were no footsteps or tracks around it. Yet it had not been here when he first went into the cave, otherwise he would have taken it in to burn. It was about half a metre long and covered in a strange cloth.
He gasped when he uncovered the end few centimetres. A little western face screamed up at him.
He called out across the mountain and waited. No one answered.
Alikhan carefully took the baby into the cave.
He laid the baby down next to the fire and took off its outer blanket. Of fine wool, its design was strange. A blue background crossed by lines of gold, red, and broader bands of greens and blues.
He warmed up some of the white mare’s milk, then carefully poured this into his sports bottle. The baby took this greedily, half-closing his eyes and laying a hand on the neck of the bottle.
The closeness of the baby arose awe and mystery in Alikhan, inspiring him as a sign of his life’s special mission.
As the glow of dawn appeared at the cave entrance, Alikhan carefully wrapped the still-sleeping baby in the cloth drying by the fire and slid the bundle tightly into his rucksack.
The whiteness of fresh snow in the sun was blinding. He had to go past the mine, and as he came over a brow he saw two jeeps. One had crashed into a sinkhole. The front doors of the other jeep were open, with a woman sitting in the front. A man was operating a winch mounted on the front of this jeep, which was hauling up another man in a red mountaineering suit out of a deeper sinkhole. As he stepped up onto the ground he shook his head and the woman’s scream carried over the plain.
Alikhan’s horse slowed, and he could feel the weight of the rucksack bump against his back.
‘What’s happened here?’ he shouted, stopping his horse about fifty metres away.
‘It doesn’t concern you,’ said the man stepping away from the jeep. A bulky type, he had a broken nose and a Canadian accent. The word ‘SECURITY’ in large letters and a maple leaf emblem was on his jacket. He was holding a rifle. ‘Don’t come any closer. Just be on your way.’
‘This woman lost her baby,’ the winched-up man said.
The woman let out another cry.
‘I have baby,’ smiled Alikhan.
The security man flipped off the rifle’s safety catch. ‘You’re crazy.’
‘Yes, I have baby.’
‘Look, I don’t know what you think you’ve found, but it’s nothing to do with this,’ shouted the winched-up man from by the sinkhole. ‘There’s no tracks to or from this pit.’ He pointed down. ‘No way anyone or any wild animal could have hauled anything out. Been earth movement down there overnight. If he was alive when he went in there, well... It’s effectively a tomb. Poor kid.’
‘But I have baby. From my cave.’
‘You heard him.’ The security man brought the rifle up to his shoulder. ‘You couldn’t have got this baby. There’s no tracks.’
‘No. It is a sign. My path is clear. God is great. Allahu Akbar!’
Alikhan’s right hand moved towards the cord on his rucksack.
‘Hold it there – do not pull that ripcord!’ shouted the security man, taking aim.
Alikhan froze in fear.
‘Keep that right arm raised! Now, slowly turn that horse around. No sudden moves. I will shoot!’
Alikhan turned his horse around.
‘That’s it. Now, slowly, walk it away. ‘
‘That’s it. Keep going. There’s been a lot of trouble from you Muslims at other mines, and we’re not going to have any of it here.’
As Alikhan entered his village, he saw Medina on top of his family yurt. She swooped down to land on his arm.
‘I released you, and you have returned as a sign,’ he stroked her tenderly, overcome with joy.
His mother said, cradling the baby in her arms, ‘It reminds me of you, Alikhan, when you were young,’
Nursultan, the village elder, suggested the baby should be returned.
‘No,’ said Alikhan. ‘They did not want this one. They were looking for a different baby.’
Since Nursultan’s yurt was large and used for meetings, they pinned the baby’s blanket inside above the entrance as a good luck emblem, visible to those on leaving.
Instead of resting her severely sprained ankle, Catherine hobbled on crutches daily in mourning over the frozen terrain.
By the sinkhole, she tended a single plastic flower that kept being buried by snow. Each time Catherine approached, she did so with a foreboding that her son’s body might have been given up by the shifting ice. Such would be a horrific, but blessed, gift. She looked down into the sinkhole, struggling against thoughts to throw herself in after Sam.
‘I can see it all now,’ she told Bill. ‘I killed my son and I’m contaminating this area just by being here. Mining has ruined the terrain and the lives of villagers.’
‘HQ’s pulling the plug on this,’ said Bill, showing her an email. ‘The ore samples are impure. They’ll just pay the Mongolian government some compensation. The villagers won’t get anything for their blighted landscape.’
‘Then I feel that I need to see the villagers personally to make amends,’ said Catherine.
Under the glare of the morning sun, Catherine and Bill set off in their jeep to the village.
In the community yurt, Nursultan greeted them wearing his national dress: tall Kalpak hat, Shapan overcoat wrapped around and fastened at the front, and decorative high boots.
Catherine was barely able to speak, keeping her head lowered. They all sat with their backs to the entrance, eating mutton with their fingers.
After apologising on behalf of the company, she handed over a bundle of Mongolian banknotes. Seeing Nursultan’s smile, a great sense of relief came over her as though some painful burden had been released from her mind.
As they turned to go, Bill was first to stand up and noticed the tartan over the entrance. ‘Isn’t that the Mackenzie tartan? Gee. An honour.’
Catherine followed his gaze. Her jaw dropped, and she could only whisper, ‘Where is my baby?’
Nursultan motioned to someone near the entrance to fetch Alikhan, but Catherine ran out the yurt shouting, ‘Show me!’
In Alikhan's yurt Catherine found his mother rocking Sam in a makeshift cradle whilst Alikhan was playing his flute.
‘Oh, Sam, my darling,’ wept Catherine as she cuddled him.
Alikhan rose to stop her, saying, ‘No. Get away. He is mine.’
Bill was next into the tent. Recognising Alikhan, he drew a pistol. ‘All right. No sudden moves. We’re taking the kid.’
‘No!’ shouted Alikhan. ‘I am the chosen one.’
Nursultan stepped in front of Sergeant Mackenzie’s gun and stretched out a hand to Alikhan. ‘Alikhan, you have given Medina her freedom, and you have saved a child. Everyone has their own kind of eagle to release. Life’s quest is to recognise what it is.’
A tear of acknowledgement came to Alikhan’s eye. ‘I see now. Go with my blessing.’
Before getting into the truck, Catherine kissed Alikhan on the cheek. ‘I will never forget you.’
Bill wound down his window and said quietly to Alikhan, ‘Just one last thing. How the heck did the baby get out of the sinkhole without leaving tracks?’
Alikhan thought for a moment and then said, ‘Sir, only God knows.’
He watched the jeep pull away, then looked up and saw Medina circling overhead as usual. However, today she was not alone. There was another eagle flying with her. A male.
About the author
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