By Aydin Behnam
From the novel The Tree of Wheat
Summer was fast asleep underneath the thick blanket of fresh snow that covered the plains of Moran. Oltan’s warm breath heated his beard beneath the safety of his woolen scarf that masked the plumes of cloud emanating from his mouth. He blew his breath downward onto his chin to avoid sharp exhales into the cold morning air. His damp beard would immediately form tiny icicles once he unwrapped the scarf off his face. The snow had stopped but the air itself was so cold that it could not help crystalizing into icy dust motes that performed an annoying dance in front of his squinting eyes. He had been crouched behind the rocks and the naked bushes for a while now and the obstinate cold rising from the snow had already started working up through the empty burlap rice sack that doubled as his mat and occasional blanket when he was out in the wild. The cold wave had conducted itself through his kneecaps, making its way up to his thighs, where the heat from the muscles of his legs had come to greet the slithering cold. Stifling his breathing usually took more out of him than the crouching and the waiting. The worn fabric of his winter jacket stretched and resisted the constant rhythmic inflating of his ribcage and the expanding of his shoulders. Were it not for the piercing cold of the winter, he would choose to strip from the waist up and await the arrival of the morning game in a more comfortable pose.
If it were a summer morning goat hunt, he would have had to scale the steep rocky valleys to keep up with the animal’s superior climbing skills. If it were a spring deer hunt, he would have to constantly punch through the bushes in hopes of flushing a buck or a deer out into the open field. If it was any other season of the year, he might even have been patient enough to set up a snare and let the trap do the work for him. But with summer still months away, he knew exactly where he stood. He was young enough to be foolish but too experienced as a hunter to be fooled into unnecessary adventure. He could not afford the time to set traps and wait. He could not afford to waste energy venturing outside his safe territory. Today he had chosen to be patient and to let the game come to him.
Despite the thick snow, water was in short supply on the plains. The long treks in the knee-deep snow meant deer would need to drink water more frequently, so instead of seeking them out, the safer bet was to lie in wait, around one of the few unfrozen parts of the brook, and have them come to you. Sooner or later the deer were bound to show up for water and when they did, he would be there waiting to ambush them with his rifle. He did not have the luxury of moving around or stretching his legs for fear of making the snow beneath him crunch. The tiniest noise could betray his presence.
He made sure the riverbank was not downwind of him. He did not have many trees, leaves, or long grass to help him read wind direction. This was a land of open plains, bushes, slabs of rock, unexpected valleys, and occasional hills. Trees were few and far between on the open fields of Moran. So, to keep track of the direction of the wind, he had learned to slow down his movements and control the rate of his breathing, paying close attention to the vibration of the miniscule beads of sweat on his face. The temperature difference between the different parts of his face allowed him to read the breeze.
He had been fruitlessly staring into the not-too-distant horizon for the past few hours. He was starting to think that he might have to return to his cabin and come back after lunch, when from behind the blurry white mounds, a welcome shape appeared on the white canvas of the riverbank. His frozen forefinger was numb from stretching along the cold body of the rifle. He only knew where his finger was out of habit. The old stock of the rifle had a deep crack running through almost the entirety of its wooden length. When he pressed it firmly against his shoulder to assure himself of the rifle’s heart-warming presence in his arms, it made a creaking noise.
The deer was gracefully balanced on its thin legs as it walked slowly in the hunter’s direction. She kept lifting the full sinewy stretch of her muscular limbs knee-high out of the snow and spearing them one by one back into the ground again. As she moved forward, her milky belly hovered over the fluffy snow. At times, she dragged her warm body over a snow-covered mound or bush. Her eyes were wide open and when her moist nostrils flared, they injected the morning air with wet life.
Even though the rifle was old and had rusty days ahead, its iron sights were oily black. The barrel of the rifle stretched away from the hunter’s eyeball and blurred out of focus as he allowed the deer to walk into alignment with the sights. He was willing to take whatever he could get from the hunt but now that he had such a clear shot, he made a split decision to keep the deerskin intact and go for the headshot. This way he would get at least two products out of his hunt—the meat and the skin. The deer stopped, flicked her tail and ears, twitched her nose, bobbed her head back and forth and stood as silent and motionless as a figurine. The man ran his icy finger along the trigger guard. As his forefinger entered the space between the trigger and the trigger guard, sounds became muffled as if he were submerged in water. He no longer heard the flowing stream or the crows in the trees. His breathing slowed as if someone were sitting on his chest. He had very little time left before his thumping heart started sending shockwaves through the body of his weapon, so he exhaled through a small opening in between his lips to release the pressure from within the frame of his ribcage. The stock dug into his muscles and its cracked wood groaned. The deer swiftly swiveled her neck and looked the man dead in the face. As soon as their eyes locked, he squeezed the trigger. The deer’s head whipped backwards with the impact of the metallic projectile, then immediately lashed sideways, as what initially resembled bright red silky goo sputtered, fountaining from in-between the animal’s eyes. Before the hunter could hear the explosive shot ring out and away from him over the expanse of the plains, he watched the rays of the sun shine through the thick spray of blood that spurted out of the deer’s head. He had startled himself. Perfect timing! As he stood up and straightened his cramped limbs, fighting off a mild headrush, the animal’s legs performed the final lonely waltz steps of death in the air. Even though the rifle had a strap, he laid it down by the rock and jumped over the bush towards the twitching trophy. He gripped the knife he had produced out of its pouch. The blade was short, but years of constant sharpening had thinned it down such that it was almost impossible for it to get dull again. Sharpness had become infused with the blade. The skin of the animal would not offer much resistance.
The cloud of crows that had dispersed into flight after the blast of the gunshot were by now completing a full circle over the hunter’s head. The birds were making sure the loud bang was not directed at them before settling back down on the branches of the sparse trees. As the cawing birds flapped overhead, the white expanse of the fields stretched out on all sides underneath them. Below, the human was hunched over a deer. When he stood up, the white sheet of snow around the deer’s neck was stained with a crimson stain that grew in size, like a poppy slowly folding out its petals away from the deer’s body. The human then pulled the deer by the hind legs, smearing a scarlet streak across the field.
It was over an hour since he had shot the deer. He had slaughtered and disemboweled it, thrown it over his shoulder, and was now panting his way through the fields back to his home. One could have followed the red trail of blood all the way from the river back to his cabin. It was a good day for the crows back by the icy stream. They could be heard quarrelling over the discarded innards of the deer. The hunter had one final uphill climb until he got to heave the flesh off his weary shoulders and walk into his lodgings. Subconsciously, he was counting the sound of his heavy exhales, interrupted by his occasional sniffling. He could walk this route blindfolded. He would see his cabin if he looked up, but he kept his eyes fixed on his boots because if he lifted his head and saw the hut that offered him respite from the cold, he would become impatient and run towards it with the two-hundred-pound carcass still on his back. He had done that before. He did not look up, but a feeling told him there was something off about the silence and the lighting of the direction in which he was walking. His cabin had not had a fire lit in it since yesterday evening. He had a habit of putting out the fire just before he went to bed and whatever remained of the already-existing heat, coupled with his body heat under the thick woolen blanket, would have to suffice until morning. He had left the cabin early in the morning without having lit a fire, so the windows of his hut should look blue-black from afar. Now, however, he looked up and saw a flicker of yellow light trying to fill the small frame of the cabin window. Someone had lit a fire in his stove. He shook his head in annoyance and licked his dry lips. It was Akif. No matter how many times he told that clown not to invite himself into his cabin when he was out hunting, it never worked. He always thought it was a joke. He thought it was funny. He was still the child he would always be. The hunter slammed the heavy flesh onto the snow in front of the cob hut and ran the back of his hand across his brow, hoping to keep the dried blood of his palms from smearing onto his sweaty forehead. He had placed the old rice sack over his shoulder before picking up the deer, but this had not stopped the blood from soaking through the fibers of the burlap fabric. His blood-soaked shoulder absorbed the cold air as soon as the deer hit the ground.
He pushed open the door and the warm air of the hut landed on the skin of his face. Akif was sitting in the window seat, leaning against a pillow, holding a half-eaten apple and grinning from ear to ear, displaying his yellow, tobacco-stained teeth.
“Ah, Oltan! Your bloody shoulders tell me you’ve returned victorious!”
“May God give you some brains Akif! When are you going to grow up? Coming in here wasting my firewood to make tea. Pff.”
Akif exploded with laughter and the apple he was munching on almost jumped down his throat.
“Lighten up, you grumpy bastard! Come. Sit.” Akif shoved the rest of the apple into his mouth and hopped off his perch, balancing the totality of his tall frame and his rotund belly on his limber toes. His cheek bulging, he lifted the black kettle off the metal fire-stove using an old rag and poured a cup of tea for his tired friend.
“Come, come. Don’t be a bitter almond again. I’ve poured you a glassful. Look, it’s red as rabbit blood. It’ll liven your spirits!”
“You didn’t come here to pour me tea, Akif,” the man said, taking off his jacket of frozen blood and hanging it on a hook. He sat down on the rug. Akif put the glass on a saucer and set it down in front of Oltan, on the old carpet. The steam from the tea squirmed, as though it were trying to keep itself warm in the lukewarm air of the hut. The house was small. It had no rooms. There was what one could call a dalan, which was basically a small mud-room that served as a buffer between the cold of the outdoors and the finite heat of the indoors. Other than that, there was only a single living space that served as an all-purpose living room, bedroom, and dining room. The young hunter had gathered up the folding mattress in the morning, but a few pillows and bolsters were still strewn about on the worn rug. He pulled one of the fluffy chicken-feather pillows close and leaned on it with his elbow. He let out a muffled groan of relief. He picked up the sugar cube from the saucer, dipped its tip into the tea, watched the tea rush up into the rock-hard body of the sugar cube, popped the sugar in his mouth, and lifted the glass to his lips. As he blew on the tea, Akif’s voice assumed the tone that Oltan was anticipating.
“It’s happened again. They’ve done it again.”
Oltan looked through his tea glass at the distorted image of Akif, sitting at his favorite spot—the windowsill—and leaning forward in excitement. As the heat from the tea cleared from the hunter’s eyes and as he lowered the glass down onto the saucer with a clink, he could tell that his only friend Akif was serious.
“Here we go again. You’re not letting this go, are you Akif?”
“Look! This time it’s no joke. It’s not funny anymore. The khan has raised the bounty. No more silly child’s play. He is not promising toys anymore. I mean, rifle, horse, a palto coat, and a handful of copper coins was alright, I guess, but he’s upped the ante. He is promising more.”
“I don’t care what he is promising. I’m not interested, and neither should you be at all interested in this shit. You’re going to hurt yourself. This isn’t your area of expertise. You’re the only one I know who can read and write, for God’s sake. Stick to your books and Bazaar trade. May your father rest in peace, what are you doing even contemplating a hit?”
“Ashi, listen, eh, listen. Shush! The khan’s men were at the café this morning. They said Vadud Khan’s men have crossed the river again and stolen a bunch of horses. This time they messed up, though! They stole Zöhrab Khan’s prize horses. Zöhrab is so mad he wouldn’t bleed if you split his veins with a blade. He sent word to the café—and to other villages in the area too, I wager—that on top of the previously promised gifts, he has put a final prize on Vadud Khan’s head. Any man who can cross the river and rid him of Vadud Khan’s menace, Zöhrab Khan will make filthy rich. Zöhrab promises him land if he wishes to stay and farm. And then this is what got my attention; if a man so wishes, Zöhrab Khan is willing to give the successful assassin enough gold to buy property in the city and start his own business. You know well that neither me nor my testicles itch for this shitty place; may God crumble its bricks to the ground. With all that money, I can take my mother and leave the village. This place has nothing for me. If I pull this off, I get to move out of this hell-hole and start a life for myself in Germi, Ardabil, or who knows, even further away from the cow shit and the flies. I just need your help. You know I can’t pull this off on my own.”
“Ada, just because you’re too lazy to work your dad’s old land, doesn’t make this place a hell-hole. You don’t like working with your uncle in the city because your highness is too high and mighty to bow down low before your cousins. You don’t even try to get recruited as a teacher somewhere nearby in one of the villages that has a school. This is the freeloader you. I know him well. I know the lazy marrow in your bones, boy! I’ve known this side of you since we were kids. You lazy fuck! You selfish donkey! You’re the only one who can teach these kids a word or two and you’re thinking of taking off? And how exactly are you planning on doing this? Which one of your deadly skills are you banking on? Did you ever in your life behead anything bigger than a chicken, even? You can’t shoot for shit. Even if you could shoot. . .”
“Well, why do you think I need you? I’m not as good a shot as you are? Alright. . . yes. I admit that. But that is where you come in. Come on brother. Say yes.”
“So let’s say by some magic, you convince me to go on this suicide daytrip with your non-existent plan, and let’s say you convince me to find a way to cross the river safely and get close enough to Vadud’s home, which is probably in the middle of a huge village and more of a compound than a house, crawling with his men, armed men, on horseback, and let’s say I do somehow, by some magic, manage to get a hit on him. How on earth are you planning on getting out of there? Where’s your horse? Where’s your exit plan? You don’t even know the place. Don’t tell me you’re thinking of galloping back across the river on my old mule. Because we know you and your old Sekine nene have but two sheep and two cows.”
“Ten sheep,” retorted a hurt Akif. “Ten sheep, not two.”
“Well, mashallah to you!” The hunter started clapping his hands together with emphatic animation, beads of angry sweat on his forehead. “May God multiply your ten sheep, Akif, you idiot! Ada, think of that poor old woman!”
“I am thinking of her, eh! and you know I can do this. I just need backup. I need your help, eh. If anyone were eavesdropping on us now and didn’t know better, they’d think I was really a lazy fat fuck. You know the shit I can do. Zöhrab Khan himself hired me in the past. Wasn’t I the hired muscle for Zöhrab Khan’s daughter’s wedding?”
The hunter let out an exhausted grunt that was mixed with a laugh and accompanied by a bitter smile of incredulity. “You were the khan’s errand boy for a day, you pathetic donkey. You can’t do this, eh! You’ll get your balls handed to you.”
Akif shook his pointed finger at Oltan, bared his teeth like a dog, and as the frothy spittle boiled out of his mouth, he raised his voice. “If it weren’t for me, you’d have been beaten to death when we were kids! I should have let the village shitheads smack you to death, you ungrateful loser. You’re all losers in this place. I’ll go. I’ll find a way to do it without you. It’s my fault for wanting to share the bounty with you. Have fun in your little shack, with your dying mule and broken toy gun.” He intended to point at the gun as he enunciated the final words of his exit piece, but he was too distraught to locate it and did not notice that the hunter had left the gun out in the dalan. He swooped his woolen newsboy cap off the floor, slapped it on his balding head, and rushed out of the door. Outside the hut, the deer rested on the snow. Akif’s angry departure reflected in reverse inside the black marbles of the animal’s open eyes. The day was silent.
The deerskin Oltan had flayed was to go to the market in a week or so. The khan’s men would buy most of the meat. The hunter himself would keep some shreds of meat and fat with which to make soup. He would warm up the stew on the stove that burned with wood and cow dung. He would crumble the dry flat bread and soak it in the broth. He would watch the snow lash against the trees outside and enjoy the gamy taste of deer stew running down his throat. All traces of the hunted animal would be gone from his house within the next few weeks. He would go out on other hunts. He would shoot some and trap others. He would catch bigger game and smaller ones. He would pick off birds with his slingshot. He would keep living in the solitude of his mud cabin, as he had always done, without going down to the café, without talking to a soul, the way he liked it. He would not, however, see Akif again.
Winter was still cold but to the trained senses of a local, it was obvious that the worst of it had passed and soon the weather would start to change. Despite the changing weather, throughout the rest of the winter, Akif did not climb the hills around the village to come up to Oltan’s secluded cabin. The young hunter did not see Akif, so he tried not to think of him because if he did think about him, he would have to consider the possibility that his friend’s foolishness and lack of patience had gotten the better of him. Oltan did not want to consider the likelihood that his only childhood friend might have honestly believed that he could journey across the river Araz and take out the most powerful khan in the area, all for the promise of money. He had known Akif for years. Akif’s uncle lived in the city. As a child, Akif would spend most months with his uncle’s family, going to school and learning the ways of the abacus and the Bazaar. He would come back to the village in the summer, after his final exams were done. He would come to help his father with the small patch of land and a small barnful of animals. His coming was useless to his parents because by the time he came, most of the work had been done, the wheat harvested, and the hay almost fully stacked. But that slommack was the only boy who would not look at Oltan the way others did. Oltan used to look forward to Akif’s arrival. Akif was too much of a simpleton to care that his friend was an orphan.
As Oltan sat on a log sewing a piece of leather onto his torn jacket, a worried thought rose from the pit of his stomach and made its way through his throat into his mouth. A bitter taste spilled onto his tongue from the back of his throat. He opened his mouth and breathed through his nose and mouth at the same time. He was starting to breathe more heavily. His mouth was dry. He dropped the thick needle and the jacket on the big rock next to him and quickly stood up. He paced back and forth under the winter sun. His animal skin boots squelched and made a faint impression on the softening earth. He walked from the mud onto the snow and back, painting the snow with brown muddy boot-prints. He could not remember the last time he had felt this way, but now he was feeling the distant heat of wrath. He was angry at the fact that he worried for Akif. Something was wrong. In fact, if he were to be honest with himself, he would have to admit that he was not entirely sure if there was something wrong. That was why it was so vexing. The fact was that since Akif left his hut a couple of months ago, he had had this nagging worry at the back of his mind and all the constant anxiety had now boiled over into a looming panic. The combination of this unfamiliar sentiment, along with his annoyance at Akif’s naïve idiocy, was making him furious at himself for being worried and angry at Akif for having the audacity to disrupt his quiet life.
Akif was gone and he was reckless enough to do something dangerous, mainly because he did not know how dangerous it was and also because he could not think of the consequences. He did not even know how to cross the river well. He would probably cross through one of the few bridges instead of crossing through one of the bends. The bridges were bound to have eyes and ears, now that the vendetta between the two khans had escalated. The presence of a strange male—healthy and alone—crossing a bridge over the Araz would alert Vadud Khan’s men and raise red flags. In this atmosphere of heightened tension, the fact that someone from Moran was going north towards Aran and more specifically towards Aga Lake was a sufficient crime in and of itself. They would follow him and ask him questions. He would mumble a few unbaked lies and that would be the end of him. Akif saw this as a boyhood game. He saw it as a treasure hunt. He wanted to do a big job to get a big payout. Akif was too attached to Oltan not to have paid him a visit for the past couple of months, and even though he was too proud to admit it, Oltan loved Akif too much not to go after him. If Akif hadn’t turned up at Oltan’s hut being his old pesky self, he must be gone. Akif must be hurt. If the wolves had not gotten him, Vadud Khan’s men must have.