Monday the weather beamed across the summer peninsula. An overcast weekend gave way to more sun than Michiganders can usually hope to spy in an entire week let alone a single day. On my dawn run I emerged from the relative dark of my forest trail to view of the neck of the long meadow casting orange rays through the eastern tree tips like a morning torch. Not a cloud in the sky. The weather was quite fitting to me because Silver Needle Press just named and published my newest flash fiction piece “A Cloudless Sky” as their fiction contest winner.
The Mongolian man pictured on horseback started the story in my mind. I wrote alongside my 5th hour students hoping to show them the reins. I was hoping to show myself a little something too.
Click this link provided and scroll to the Fiction Contest Winners June 11, 2018 to read Gan’s Search for his little Qara in “A Cloudless Sky.”
A Cloudless Sky
Gan gripped the icy rope tied to the frozen bit in Gerel’s mouth. She nickered in the morning sunlight, huffing a cloud of breath. Snow plumes rose off her sturdy hooves behind them. They rode in a hurry.
Gan’s yak fur hat flapped with each stride, an awkward bird lurching into flight, then crashing again. Each jolt in the saddle cracked his bones on the calm, cold morning.
The foot of snow across the taiga was not pristine, now cast winter hard. Jagged prints and cuts in the once smooth crust disappeared into the Mongolian horizon. Last night’s raiders travelled here. Gan must find them.
The forest fragrance to the east met Gan’s nose where it spread broad and flat across his face. He inhaled deeper for the Daur tribe odor he suspected, like horse dung, Arkhi vodka and the damp sweaty underarms of a well worn fur jacket. Gerel’s tangled mane flounced gray strands down to Gan’s feet in the stirrups. Aside from the cadence of Gerel’s breath and her strides the only sound leaking under the flaps of Gan’s hat was the syncopation of the canteen at his hip colliding with the wooden stock of the rifle slung behind his shoulder.
Prrah-tunk, prrah-tunk, prrah-tunk, prrah-tunk played a searching song. Where is my Qara?
At five Qara rode with Gan during the long northern days when the sun barely winked below the horizon before ascending again in a parabola of endless sunshine. Little Qara twisted plump fingers into Gerel’s mane, holding fast to her favorite horse’s neck. She giggled at each gallop. “Good Gerel,” Qara cooed in her ear that quivered in a cloud of black flies that oozed from the wet earth in the thaw. Gan wished to return to those warmer days or when he first brought Qara to his yurt. She, orphaned like he, rocked on her back, limbs in the air. She lay in the shadow of the only cloud in the sky. Her sharp infant cries cut the wind on the steppe and Gan protected her, named her Qara, cloudlet.
The women of clan tried to take her away. “A man has no business raising a girl, no matter if she is abandoned or not,” they said. Gan just grunted and wrapped her in his softest blanket. He carried her to his sheep herd grazing along the river.
“Meddling witches.” He nudged a lamb to free a teat and filled a leather pouch with milk. He poured little splashes into a clean cloth and let the babe suck the fiber, pulling the warm milk past her gums. “No one will take you from me, my little cloud.”
That sky ten years ago was blue, no clouds anywhere, just like today. The sun off the snow blinded as the day neared noon. Gan feared the worst. He continued to ride.
Scanning far ahead he searched for signs of riders, not just the waste of hoof prints rent in the snow. Gan tugged Gerel. She slowed, then stood. She rooted through snow and found some yellow straws of grass hidden there. Gan removed a glove and reached inside the closed flap of his jacket. He groped for the buuz dumplings he held there warming against his body. He pushed two into his maw, one for each cheek. He chewed out of obligation to continue, not hunger. He swallowed painfully. His broken ribs throbbed more with each travelled mile.
They beat him with clubs in the night when they took her. A blanket stretched taut over his face and arms pinned him down. They left him for dead, lying still under the coarse, dun wool, but Gan smelled them. He heard Qara scream, “Gan! Gan! They have me,” before he succumbed to unconsciousness.
Now in the daytime he unscrewed his canteen and tilted his head back to drink. He squinted in the glare, winced at the pain of the light and the flex of his ribs. His breathing shallowed. Gan reached back over his shoulder and wrapped his bare hand around the steel barrel of his rifle. The metal pulled all the heat from his hand that he pounded now against his leg for warmth. Gerel’s head perked and she trotted forward before Gan even raised his heels to dig into her flanks. She knew his mind. The barrel of his rifle would soon be hot if he could only find his cloud in this endless blue sky.
Gan rode till blue turned black. Star pox sickened the night with milky light that glistened off Gerel’s slick flanks. She walked up a hummock exhausted from a full day’s ride. From the crest Gan spied light winking a furlong down the swale. Fire licked at horses’ legs milling around their tethers. He sprung from his perch and slapped Gerel’s rump to send her safely behind the hill.
Gan removed his gloves to feel the plan. His left hand caressed the butter smooth forestock warming under his grip, reminding him of Qara. Under his right the frigid nickel trigger guard chilled his veins, warning of his task.
The late winter snow held Gan’s weight. He waited no longer, each footfall faster down the incline like skulls cracking at each stride. The horses parted, strained at their ropes where Gan charged. Two men wrapped in skins near the fire scrambled for defense, but Gan smashed the butt of his rifle between one’s eyes, caught the other at the base of the neck where vertebrae shattered.
From the dark canvas shelter a muzzle flared from the third bare-chested raider. The explosion rolled to the horizon past Gan. Instantly, naked legs encircled the raider’s waist. Delicate fingers twisted his hair, rained fists on his face, bit his ear. Enraged he swatted the pest, his attention split long enough for Gan to close the gap, place the muzzle under his chin and fire.
“Gan!” Qara wept.
He kissed her face. Together again, they tasted their tears.