On an Asian Plain a Thousand Years Ago


Thomas McConnell

Each day the black eye was duller. I thought it was clouds but with the next sun the globe was more gray, as if dusted with sand, staring past me toward the sky. On the third morning as I went my path the bees parted her lashes to drink from the eye, as if to sting her back to sight. I always cut my own way through the grasses to the stream beside the gingko, far from the other boys. Walking back I stooped closer, knelt but did not touch her hide. The splayed hooves lay there and would not leap again. When I rose my knee spilled the bucket and I had to run to the stream again, to hurry, spilling more. The whole field of my father’s face darkened in the shadow of its furrows. I looked where the door post met the ground and said nothing.

 

Over a single night the cold came and betrayed the gingko of its green and the next night the wind rose up and looted it of all its gold. That is what I remember, with the memory of a boy that was, the gingko naked beside the path, the carcass in the dust, the path I made through the bright fallen leaves, the stream that spoke to me over every stone but offered no warning.

 

The bees were gone in the sudden frost and at midday only flies blackened her hide, great flies broad as my thumb and thrumming round her like a hive. I went on with the bucket, stepped over the crescent of a horse’s hoof in the sand, her flesh fired under the sun’s high hours still sour up the whole length of the nose, behind my wet eyes. I told no one. My father’s brows would storm that I did not take the straight way as the other boys did, that my mother waited for water.

 

In the night some creature had been at her. The head had shifted, the gray tongue longer and darkening between her small teeth. The tail was missing and a hole gaped like a cave where something had been devouring. As I kept watch she disappeared from the inside out.

 

Evening held its low lamp at the horizon and by its light I saw the birds had arrived. They lifted their faces naked with blood and watched me as we stared across her body. The blades turned to follow me as my knee knocked against the bucket and they stared on watching even as the breath heaved in their breasts and each shook out the long shadow of his wings twice and two together and then the third alone shouldered themselves into the sky. Through the grass I made a wider circle home. They had come back. One of them stood at the haunch, squinting me by. Another perched on the shoulder, pecking her eye. The third raveled out a long tangle of yarn from her belly and chopped at the gray strand with the axe of his head. I ran on through the trace of many horses now, hooves heavy in the dust with the weight of horsemen. The grass against my legs cold with dew, my closed eye seeing them at her, the belly opened, her head thrown back, neck and tongue and eye all the same gray now as if someone had kicked sand across them, the bucket shaking in my hand.

 

The morning of the day the horsemen came her bones had worn gray through her hide and shouting under the high sun they dragged her into the village by a hook made of horn. They goaded two men with speartips to turn the doe into the well while others put torches to all the thatch. Her hide disappeared over the stones. One of the men was my father and he tried to make them see with his hands that the well had long been dry and could not be poisoned but no one knew the tongue of these horsemen. They seized on my father’s shoulders, a sudden cry pierced his chest as the spear went in, and he too dropped down the well. Standing in our broken circle we heard his echo fail against the walls of earth and in the long silence the eyes in my mother’s face grew large until they shuttered tight. I learned again that closed eyes may weep. The horsemen had long arms and used them to chase down the girls and women and in the dust made them beg. The men still mounted laughed down until they tired of begging and tore lengths of cloth from the skirts and bandaged the women’s mouths almost to silence. Afterward the horsemen tied jars of water to our oxen, with daggers cut every goat at the neck and strung them headless across their horse. The women sat apart in the heat of the fires and rocked with daughters in their arms. The air dried with the burning of all the wood and all the straw and no one could speak as if the smoke became dust in our mouths. With a thick braid of rope my neck was bound to the neck of a taller boy before me and to a smaller boy behind and then to others back and beyond. The names have long ago left me, of the girls too bound to the wrists of the women.

 

For days together we walked, the horsemen leading and following and to either side. We left the last rustle of the grass that we had known and the horses slowed. Their hooves vanished in the sand with each step and our feet too burned and sank. We went onward listening to the rattle of the arrow shafts in their quivers. Against the bristling rope we slept together and could not turn, could not sleep, and some slept walking and did not wake when they fell. A woman toppled beneath her white hair and pulled down the string of girls she was roped to. A horseman without dismounting ran her through the neck with a spearpoint and leaned out of the saddle to hack and after the sword’s second blow two girls trailed the woman’s arms in the sand that went dark until the arms ran dry of their old blood and then there was only the drag of the bone itself marking the way we had come, the way we had to go.

 

At some day along the march a dust rose above the dunes to the south and the next day came closer until evening showed a band of horsemen cresting a ridge far away and they came down the sand shimmering under sunset and tied their women to our women, their men to our men. Over my shoulder I saw we had become one long caravan of hobbled beasts. The horsemen rode in pairs surrounding us. Our eyes spoke along the rope we wore. That night under the smoke of burning goat, in the shadows of the horsemen’s fire, a tall boy new to our rope answered. We are going, he said, to meet the Lion of God.

 

We plodded on, into the sun at morning, fleeing it till dark, always under the wrath of its eye. The boy at my back murmured, Does that mean we are to be eaten, fed to God’s Lion? At night we heard a roar in our sleep, when we slept. In the morning my mother stumbled into line and did not look back and stumbled on. She had wrapped her feet in strips from her clothes and the strips were dark with blood and she hid under her shoulder from the sun some infant that always cried from the cloth she wrapped it in.

 

At last in the shade of an open tent the Lion of God reclined on cushions. We were gathered in the light before him, made to kneel in the sand. It was difficult to behold him in his shadow. Slowly he rose, limped over a carpet, and fell onto a bed that was carried by four servants to the edge of the shade. He looked out at us with black eyes under a black turban, over the ghost of a beard that floated from his chin, plump fingers laced across some yellow cloth glowing as gold even in that shade. His feet were fat and bare where he lay, feet so swollen the toes did not move. One at a time our rope was cut and we were made to stand and given by a dirty hand a clove to chew and led up to the Lion of God.

 

He used a rod to show how we were to lift our arms, turn our heads, open our jaws so that our teeth could be peered. The women and girls were stripped to the waist, turned about. The infant who bawled to suck was taken still bundled from my mother’s arms and a pit was dug among us and the sand returned to hush its hunger. One girl would not look up when the rod prodded at her chin and a glance from Him brought a servant. Her jaws parted for the rod and weeping she was led away with the other women to a tent standing behind His pavilion.

 

When my turn came the clove was sweet to my tongue and burned and I chewed slowly so my nose tasted it. The black eyes of the Lion of God stared at my eyes. The rod came to my neck where I felt the blood had run dry over the rope and I raised my arm, the other arm. The rod lifted the rag of my shirt so my ribs felt the sun. The rod lifted the hair from the skin cracked at my shoulder and He spoke toward a servant who laughed without teeth. In one motion I dropped my arm, slapped the fat toes so the Lion of God roared and fell back among his cushions while I ran, leaped a rope that staked one corner of the pavilion, twisted my body between the boots of two horsemen. The dune slowed my knees, my feet in the sand aching toward for the crest. Two horses snorted their hot breath at my ears. The flat of a sword knocked me to the sand. In those moments I had no words to tell you that I had seen the last of my mother, of her tears. There was much I could not yet have spoken and none of it in my father’s tongue. His words fell from me in the way I felt the skin peel and fall from lips. Even the last echo of them one day grew still in my mind and died. Like so much else they sank toward disappearing, like rain in a river, that day in the desert all my tribe turned slave. 

 

 About the Writer

Thomas McConnell’s work has appeared in the Connecticut Review, the Cortland Review, Shenandoah, Birmingham Arts Journal, Calabash, Yemassee, the Emrys Journal, and Ars Medica among other publications. His collection of stories, A Picture Book of Hell and Other Landscapes, was published by Texas Tech University Press.