The Eagle Hunter
By Joel Tagert
Art by Ali Hoff
Published Issue 103, July 2022
When Aldiyar finally turned the corner down the high path, his golden triumph turned to lead and sunk a fist in his belly. Forgotten was the fox tied to his saddle, forgotten the story of his eagle’s prowess; for just beyond his family’s flat-roofed house squatted the grim green bulk of a Russian military truck, a ZIS-150 with a ribbed canvas canopy over the bed. The boy pulled his horse to a stop. He had heard all his life of Kazakhs being rounded up and sent to the work camps. He had his horse, he had food (and the means to get more); he could turn and head east, to another village or even all the way to Mongolia.
But he knew right away that was nonsense. He needed to be with his family, and that was that. He nudged his mount forward again.
He saw four soldiers total: one in the driver’s seat, one in the passenger’s, and two waiting for him in the open air with round helmets, square hip bags and Kalashnikovs slung at their sides. One of these beckoned him forward and said something in Russian, which Aldiyar did not speak, but the meaning was obvious. Come here.
The boy still mounted, the soldiers looked with interest at the large hooded raptor on his thickly gloved arm. Some conversation followed, then one said in Kazakh, “Bring eagle. You have cage?”
Aldiyar considered whipping off Dariga’s hood and letting her fly free. It would be the right thing to do. But he hesitated. He had himself climbed a faraway mountain to find her as a hatchling, had fed her with his own hand. If he released her, she would return to the wild and he would likely never see her again. On the other hand, this might be only a short journey … and she might give him some leverage with the soldiers.
More likely, they’ll just sell her for a few rubles. But even knowing that, he was not willing to just let her go if there was a possibility he could keep her. “We don’t have any cages,” he said. “But she will sit still on my arm.” He showed them what he meant, stroking her feathers. Dariga cried her approval to the cold blue sky.
The men looked at the bird, looked at each other, and laughed. They waved him around. Though he had expected it, still tears spilled down his cheeks when he saw his father, mother and sister turning their stunned faces to him from the back of the truck.
They all hoped it would be a minor trip to register with a local commissar, perhaps to attend an education session, nodding dutifully until they were allowed to return home. Instead they drove eight hours across the steppe to an army depot, where they lay on a concrete floor before being put on a bus for another eight-hour drive north, leaving the steppe for the mountains.
Shortly after they arrived at the labor camp, the soldiers took Aldiyar aside and had him show off his eagle to their superiors, who grinned and laughed with rough enthusiasm. They found a big crate to serve as a cage and made Aldiyar ease Dariga inside. “Only temporary,” one soldier told him, seeing the concern in the fifteen-year-old’s face.
The men were put to work in a mine. The conditions were utterly primitive, the work brutal, the safety precautions nonexistent, and though they still had their furs and wool coats it was cold as death. Mostly they loaded and unloaded carts of ore and timber, or hewed away with pickaxes in the tunnels.
They were allowed each night to return to their families. The women worked in other areas of the mine or performed other kinds of work in the camp. The children, like Aldiyar’s ten-year-old sister Safiya, were sent to a school where they were taught Russian and Communism. The adults had to attend education as well, but only once a week on Sundays, like going to worship (which they were emphatically not allowed to do; just saying “Allah” aloud could bring punishment).
On the third night, limbs heavy as concrete from his first day in the mine, Aldiyar went to check on Dariga in the building where he had been told she was housed. A scarred soldier waved him away, and when Aldiyar tried to argue, the man drove him off with curses, shoves and kicks. Aldiyar knelt in the dust and cried like a child.
Three weeks later he was tapped out of line at breakfast and brought before an officer he had not seen before, tall and good-looking with slicked-back hair, breakfasting with several others in the dining room of a Russian-style house, one of several larger residences in the camp belonging to the officials. All but one wore uniforms, the exception an older, white-bearded man in a gray wool suit and spectacles. There was some talking in Russian, then one said in clear Kazakh, “I will translate for Captain Volkov. He says, are you the boy with the eagle?” Aldiyar nodded. “Some men told him you caught a fox. Is that true?”
“Yes, but the soldiers made me throw it away.”
The men laughed once this was translated. “Too bad,” the translator continued. “The captain wants you to know that he has your eagle and she is perfectly safe. He wants you to show him how she hunts.”
“Really?” Aldiyar asked, excited. He considered. “We’ll have to go out onto the steppe to find some foxes.”
The captain gave a small shake of the head. “He says no, we have live rabbits with us.”
It was not very sporting, but Dariga was an eagle, and she needed to eat. “Yes, I agree,” he said. Seeing the teenager licking his lips, Volkov smiled, smeared butter on a roll, leaned over and handed it to Aldiyar with a laugh.
Dariga was a bit difficult at first, leaving the soldiers looking askance, but once she settled down he showed them how to handle her, talking volubly. When the time came to release a rabbit, Dariga saw it instantly, took flight and caught her prey on the first pass, ending in the briefest of struggles in the grass. “Can I have a knife?” he asked the translator, Popov. “I need to give her the leg as a reward.”
They all looked to Captain Volkov, who shrugged and waved. His adjutant took a little folding two-inch blade from his hip bag and handed it to the teenager to perform his duty. Before they got in the truck again though, Aldiyar had to give it back. There were limits.
When they were back at the camp, they first tied Dariga to a rail, then went into an office, where Volkov sat importantly behind a desk. He had an affable, intelligent air, lighting a cigarette before he started speaking. “The captain says,” Popov said, “we are starting a special program for eagle hunters like yourself. If you work with him, you can be with your eagle every day, and not have to return to the mine.”
Aldiyar tried to hide his sudden hope. “What about my family?”
“You can see your family, but sometimes we will be out on the steppe, or have to travel different places. You will also receive pay that you or your family can use at the commissary to buy whatever you need.”
That evening he told his family the news. They all looked exhausted, but the mention of money brought a glimmer of interest. His father gave him a warning: “Be careful. The men around the camp say Volkov is KGB.”
One day they brought out a peculiar contraption, a little metal helmet they wanted to put on Dariga. “This is just a mock-up,” said the white-haired doctor, who was named Köhler. “We want to see how she flies in it.”
“She can’t fly if she can’t see.”
“This part retracts for that purpose.” Köhler showed him.
“What’s it for? Is it like a helmet? Are people going to be shooting at her?”
“I doubt it, but you never know. If she accepts the mock-up we’ll move on to the real thing.”
Dariga didn’t like it at first, crying and shaking her head, but Aldiyar kept soothing her, speaking to her, and feeding her small pieces of mutton until she learned to ignore it. After a few days of this, she proved herself by downing another rabbit while wearing the helmet. “Ah, she’s ready, she’s ready,” grinned Köhler, rubbing his hands together in eagerness. “I knew it would work. We just needed to find a bird big enough.”
The “real thing,” when they brought it out, made Aldiyar newly apprehensive. It wasn’t just Dariga that had to wear a little antennaed helmet covered with switches and lights; Aldiyar had his own getup, with a heavy radio he was to carry on his back, and a metal band that fit tightly around his head, with another electronic helmet that fit over that.
They had to shave his head before putting it on. This time he did not cry.
The next day he rode in a truck with what Aldiyar thought of as the Eagle Squad: Captain Volkov, Doctor Köhler, the translator Popov, and Volkov’s adjutant and driver, Alekhin. They drove southeast for four hours and arrived in what looked like no place in particular in the mountains of the Altai, where they began setting up a tent and placing electronic equipment inside it.
“Do you know where we are?” Volkov asked. Aldiyar shrugged. “We are just outside the border of China. Which, as you know, is an ally of the USSR. But the Chinese are a secretive and sometimes untrustworthy people, no? And sometimes they try to keep secrets from us. This is a great disservice to the proletariat, and so we must bring the truth out into the open. That’s my job. You understand?” The young man nodded. “Good. Thirty miles that way, we think the Chinese are building something. We need to know what it is, and unfortunately it’s deep enough in Chinese territory that we can’t easily look. And so. Just past this mountain is a road. I want you to follow it east until you find some buildings. Then tell me what you see.”
Dr. Köhler took out an eyedropper and held it up. “Open your mouth.” Aldiyar obliged and the scientist squeezed a few clear drops onto the young man’s tongue.
“What is it?”
“A little something from Sandoz to help you attune to the experience. You’re going to feel rather strange, but just take it in and focus on flying.” Focus on flying?
At last all was ready inside the tent. They had him sit on a steel chair and secured his arms with leather restraints. “Just a precaution. It can be a bit disorienting at first. Better you’re sitting when we turn it on. East past the mountain, then along the road until you see buildings, understand?”
“Yes.” Volkov nodded and Köhler flipped a switch on the radio unit.
A jolt of electricity surged from the metal band around his skull. He yelled in pain at the very moment Dariga screamed from her cage. His vision wavered and he thought he might throw up, bending over in his seat. Volkov and the doctor exchanged tense words in Russian. The feeling subsided, then increased with renewed intensity. He screamed, aware he was convulsing, the muscles of his arms and hands flailing, the tendons popping out on his neck, wanting only to
launch into the air
get away from his tormentors, his vision painfully doubled, head splitting. Together Volkov and Popov held his chair to prevent him from falling over in his spasms. “The captain says, feel her. Feel her wings. Hear her scream.”
He didn’t hear her scream, he was screaming, unaware that human and bird screeched in eerily precise unison of timing and tone. He flapped his wings, hating the confines of the cage.
“Calm, calm. You’re okay. Be calm.” And slowly, because he could not remain in such a state of panic, he did. “You can feel her, yes? Speak if you can feel her.”
He could. He could feel her terror especially, at the suddenly human sensations pouring through her avian brain, and her anger, and the uncomfortable weight of the electronic hood. He could feel her! “Yes!”
“Good. Take a few minutes. Settle in while we fine tune the connection.”
Those minutes were long and uncomfortable, his muscles twitching, but he focused on breathing, on stilling his limbs, on ignoring the occasional electrical shock. Finally he settled into a kind of equilibrium and Köhler nodded.
“Excellent. We’re going to retract the eye covers now.”
Aldiyar blinked and the double vision he was experiencing suddenly seemed to double again. The only thing that held him upright was the chair; otherwise he would have fallen over, as much from astonishment as the intense feeling of dislocation.
He could see!
He could see with astonishing clarity, see as he had never seen before. Through the wire bars of his cage he saw a ground squirrel twitching from stone to stone on the mountainside, saw a sparrow flitting in a pine tree, saw a spider spinning its nest a hundred yards away.
But most of all he saw colors: blue sky, white snow, black rock, green trees, all supervivid, hyperreal, like a TV with the saturation turned all the way up. He had known an eagle’s eyes were sharp, but somehow it hadn’t occurred to him that it wasn’t just precision — it was every color of the world turned up to eleven.“Alhamdulillah,” he whispered.
As Dariga flew, Aldiyar tried to direct her with the thought of a fine hunting place, only a little ways distant: past the mountain, along the road. She took heed.
She flew fast as a bullet through the mountains, noting every movement below her, tracking especially anything alive, which seemed to glow in her sight: a jumping fish, many small birds, mice, tempting rodents. The wind lifted her up like a silver wave, her breathtaking speed as effortless as breathing. In a few minutes she found the road; in an hour she was over the Chinese installation.
At the soldiers’ prompting, he described what he saw: several large satellite dishes, twenty or thirty trucks, some piles of long steel tubes. He answered their questions, but he had a hard time getting Dariga to go any closer, or look exactly where he wanted. She was more interested in the alpine meadows surrounding the installation, where there would certainly be prey. The squad undid his restraints, had him strap on the radio unit and walk around. They might have kept him there longer except that the battery on the eagle’s headset was sure to fail any minute. “Bring her back,” Volkov said finally, and Aldiyar did his best to urge the bird to return, but she was hungry, and quickly losing interest.
“Do you have any meat?” he asked. “I think if I just smell it, she might return.”
The captain nodded and Alekhin brought a rabbit from the truck. Aldiyar held out a hand expectantly and the adjutant again gave him the pocket knife. Without thinking, and very hungry, the boy cut directly into the rabbit’s neck and then tore into the body, surprised at how difficult it was to rend with his dull human teeth. The soldiers chuckled nervously. Shaking his head, Alekhin reached over to pull the rabbit from the boy’s hands.
Anger flashed red in Aldiyar’s vision and he struck instantly with the knife, stabbing at Alekhin’s eyes in a rapid scissor motion, sending him to the ground. Popov drew his sidearm and fired, deflected just in time by the captain, yelling, “Eto orel! Eto orel!” Aldiyar screamed and retreated with his prey, holding it close, devouring it voraciously as Köhler ran to tend to the fallen adjutant.
The captain squatted, his own eyes keen as a raptor’s. He smiled with grim satisfaction. “You’re Russia’s eagle now.”
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Ali Hoff is UK-based freelance concept artist and 3D Modeller who creates strange otherly worlds, scapes, characters and more.
Check out Joel’s June Birdy install, No Escape From The Storm, and Ali’s last contribution, Forest Guardian, the inspo art for Gray Winsler’s The Shadow Walker, or head to our Explore section to see more from these creatives.