I spread the three cards out on my table for Dakraa’s brother to see. Two jokers and the ace of clubs. Half amused in being defeated a third time he gave me a smirk. “If you win again I will give you something,” he exclaimed patting his jacket pocket. With new incentive, I dealt the cards again excited for the prospect of a reward and the fact that I found something I could actually beat Mongolians at. Ten minutes later, I once again placed down my last three cards signifying I had won the game. He only chuckled to himself then let out a sigh, placing down the generous amount of cards he still held in his hand and reached into his pocket. He slapped the object on my table, covering it with his palm, almost to build suspense he held it concealed for several seconds before relinquishing his hand. There sat a bone, but not just any bone, a tooth, but not just any tooth, a canine, a fang, long white and curved that looked to be bigger then my middle finger. “Chono,”(Wolf) he murmured to me as I sat staring at the huge fang. “I killed it,” he added, miming firing a rifle. He pointed towards the chain I wore around my neck which holds my St. Christopher medal. He gestured for me to put it on the chain, pointing towards the small hole he bored at the top of the fang. I took off my necklace to attach the tooth when he noticed St. Christopher. “Ter yu we? Jesus uu?”(What is that? Jesus?) he asked. With the help of my dictionary I explained that St. Christopher was not Jesus, but a saint who protected travelers. With my new charm hanging next to my medal, I turned the fang over in my hand feeling its new weight around my neck. “Will this protect me too?” I asked. He let out a small laugh, “No, no, it will give you strength.” Knowing the shamanist ties still prevalent in Mongolia, animals such as horses, wolves, and eagles are held in high esteem. As I pondered this he added,
“If you are strong, you do not need protection.”
Three days later: New Years Eve
It was a Saturday morning, I was looking forward to a lazy day of relaxing and doing minimal ger chores when Dakraa burst into my ger. “Justin!” he greeted me excitedly, “Lets go, we are going to the countryside.” The word “hudoo” or “countryside” when spoken by people living in cities, usually refers to places like my town, when spoken by people living in places like my town, “hudoo” means places where people don’t exist. When I asked why, he rambled in lighting fast Mongolian, able to only catch a couple words I tried piecing them together, “Chono”(wolf) and “khon” (sheep) and “buu” (gun). After asking him to repeat more slowly I got the whole story, a wolf had harassed a herders sheep in the night, now we must go hunt it. Now as excitable as Dakraa I grabbed for my winter jacket when he stopped me, “No” he said, “it will be cold, wear your deel.” Putting on the traditional Mongolian garb, I grabbed my hat and gloves and then clamored into a Russian jeep with six other men, armed to the teeth with weapons that you’d have a lot of explaining to do if you were carrying them around in America. We drove out towards the Khentii mountains, Dakraa outlined the peaks with his finger as we drove along, explaining which ones we would check for the wolf at. The sheep herder sat in the front seat, his chatter not betraying the obvious anxiety he felt, “Whose cows are these?” he asked as we passed a herd. “No one is watching them.”
Finally as we winded through the valleys along the mammoth bases of the mountains, me and Dakraa were let off. He grabbed his rifle and we started heading for the base of a rocky mountain with scattered trees. We hadn’t gotten far when he crouched down to examine tracks in the snow. “Chono”, he said. We followed them until we were amongst the rocks and trees, finally Dakraa turned to me and said, “Now, we sit and wait.” So we sat and waited, I took in my surroundings, the trees, the rocky summits, the endless blue sky, the untarnished snow drifts all of this encompassed by total silence, not even a bird chirped. After a while, Dakraa stamped out a cigarette, “See anything?” he asked. I shook my head. So we trudged out away from the mountain just in time to see the jeep come speeding back.
Loading ourselves back in we picked up more of the other hunters who were scouting around other parts of our mountain and drove off towards another peak. This time I got out with a boy who could not have been more then eighteen. We walked out into a rise in the steppe and sat facing a tree line at the base of another mountain. Once again we waited. The sun had long passed its zenith and was now slinking behind some of the near by mountaintops casting a pinkish orange glow over the snow. We waited and waited, I wiggled my fingers and toes, they had gone numb long ago. My compatriot chewed on a length of grass he had plucked from the snow and rested his soviet era rifle across his lap. I was once again getting lost in the beauty of the landscape and vibrant colors of the sky when he sprung up on his knees, clutching his rifle and repeated in a excited whisper “Chono! Chono! Chono!” Roused from my thoughts I followed his gaze and the barrel of his gun towards the trees. My heart pounded, I could feel the cold fang hanging at my chest. I couldn’t see the creature, I cursed my poor eyesight, then whispered “Where?” He took his hand off the trigger and pointed, giving me just enough time to see the haunch of an enormous grey wolf slink into the underbrush. It was gone, disappearing out of both of our views. A moment passed, the excitement and adrenaline dying down into quiet again. Suddenly he stood up, slung his rifle over his shoulder then took off down the hill towards the path the jeep had taken. I sprinted after him, through the snow and frozen steppe, down to where he stood waving his arms at the approaching jeep. As it pulled up there was much excited chatter, “Did you see it? Did you see the wolf?” “How big was it?” “It was very big, it was grey and white.” “Where did it go?” “In the forest, going east.” We hopped in and they sped off towards the east following the tree line, shouting, honking and firing their guns into the trees in an attempt to scare the wolf into moving towards the hunters waiting on the other side. With seven rifles, keen eyesight, and a fast jeep I thought the wolf stood no chance, its wooded refuge was small, offering little protection. We made several passes with no luck, or second sightings. Only myself and the boy had seen the animal. As darkness started to settle in we gave up the hunt and headed back towards town. As we headed down the bumpy road back towards Omnodelger I sat in the back thinking about the unbelievable day I had just experienced. The old herder turned around in the front seat to face me. “We will try again tomorrow.” he said sternly. Then as if speaking of an old friend he added,
“The wolf is very clever.”
“He is also very strong.”