The Golok stand-off

The Golok stand-off

Dza Paltrül caught a sound on the wind. There were horsemen in the distance. Hardly an unusual occurrence; but Paltrül took special note of them, and sat on the ground to await their arrival as the horses shambled across the plain. He made himself comfortable in the exact middle of the track on which he had been walking. He had reached a juncture at which the path plunged through a narrow defile between outcrops of rock. Not the kind of place to avoid being seen, or to hide from brigands. He watched the approach of the riders as they emerged out of the blur of the horizon – first as an agglomeration of colours, then gradually as four distinct horsemen. After a while it became apparent that they were a group of young men from one of the fierce feuding tribes of Golok. They wore rifles slung over their shoulders. Their belts were slung about with knives and swords – Chinese and Mongolian blades of various shapes and sizes caught the sun and flashed.

The riders in turn spotted the lone shaggy individual sitting in their path, and sensed something slightly peculiar about the situation. Why was someone sitting in the middle of the track? Why did he not move when it was evident that he had observed their approach? Could it be that this was a challenge? Or was the old man insane? There about enough room for two horses to pass abreast through the defile; but with an old ngakpa occupying the central position, even to pass him on one side or the other would need to be undertaken with care. The horses trotted in leisurely manner toward Paltrül, but he showed no sign of moving aside. The horsemen halted momentarily some short distance away and sat looking quizzically at the imperturbable character who held the road before them. It was now obvious to them that he had no intention of moving. So they exchanged a few jocular comments between themselves. Their horses champed, whinnied, and tore up tussocks of grass.

Paltrül simply gazed at them without speaking, and an uneasy abeyance ensued, suddenly to be shattered as the riders reared their horses, broke into a gallop, and charged down into the ravine. Paltrül sat perfectly still in the swirling dust as the horses thundered by on either side – their hooves cutting close enough that a stray clip could have smashed his skull. Having passed by, the four riders wheeled round to observe the effect of their charge. Paltrül had not moved.

A second wary hiatus followed. “Old rag-bag!” called the foremost rider, “Have you no fear, or are you a fool?” Paltrül placed a hand on the ground behind him and leaned back on his arm. He gave the impression of luxuriating in the slow leisureliness of the movement. He inclined his face toward them obliquely, as if he had no real interest in giving them his full attention. “Fear...” he replied as if he was unfamiliar with the word. He peered inside his sheepskin coat as if he might find some fear there. “No – can’t say as I have any fear. But as to ‘foolishness’... well, I’ll just have to leave that to your undoubted intelligence.” The horsemen’s amused expressions froze slightly on hearing these words. Was this an ambush? Were there warriors hiding, to be called forth at this man’s command? They squinted into the sun.

They were not used to this kind of reply, and although Paltrül’s words hadn’t disturbed them over-much they could not immediately come up with a neat retort. So Paltrül tossed out a suggestion, in an offhand way: “Perhaps you’re afraid? Leastways, seems you can’t manage to look at me with open eyes.” This prompted a yell from the riders who bore down on him again, coating Paltrül with another layer of dust. Paltrül turned slowly to face the men again, and this time he was facing the sun. “If we weren’t the finest horsemen in Golok, you’d be a dead old man!” Paltrül did not seem very impressed: “Is that a fact?” he yawned with somewhat massive disinterest. The horseman did not fail to notice that Paltrül was gazing at him with unblinking eyes, even though he was staring directly into the sun. They observed each other coolly while the dust settled. “D’you still have no fear?” Paltrül smiled. “Don’t reckon I do... What about you? I see at least you can keep your eyes open now.” The rider found himself balanced on a taught emotional wire between amusement and anger – he was beginning to find this exchange intriguing: “You run your mouth pretty reckless for a man who doesn’t carry weapons – even this close to death, you still say you have no fear?” Paltrül’s reply was immediate: “What is there in death that I should fear? Unlike you, I have nothing to gain or lose.” The horseman began to wonder whether he was addressing some old warrior or some religious type, and replied: “You have your life to lose my friend!” But Paltrül retorted sharply: “What is my life or yours but a bubble in the current of a river, or the flickering of a candle flame?” The tone of this exchange was beginning to wax mystical and the young man was beginning to feel slightly strange, as if he wasn’t quite sure of where the course of events was going to lead. He asked: “So, if you don’t fear us... and you have no fear of death... tell me then; what do you fear?” Paltrül cast his gaze regretfully toward the ground: “There you have me...” he sighed, “I do have one very terrible fear... I fear that I may not be able to bring peace to those families whose need for revenge causes such suffering in these parts.” This was a totally unexpected answer, and caused the riders grand curiosity and slight unease. Maybe this really was some sort of drüpthob sitting on the ground in front of them – but if so why did he conduct himself like a desperado? They were not used to religious types having such an accentuated degree of swagger or bravado, but this one behaved with the downright arrogance of a brigand chieftain. “That’s an interesting answer, A-mé. Who are you? Why do you sit here and let us ride round you? And how do you come to speak with the authority of a chieftain?” Paltrül placed his hands on his knees and replied: “I am a small child of awareness. I sit here merely to inconvenience you with the conversation of an old man. I have no authority other than that which places my motivation outside the realm of your comprehension. But what of your authority... I sense that yours may be the power to rid me of my one terrible fear.” The horseman was now teetering between fascination and bewilderment. “...and,” he asked, “just how, can I do that, A-mé?” he enquired in exasperated but reverential incredulity. It was then that Paltrül shouted out a loud “Ha!” and followed on: “That! is entirely up to you! You command your own life and the lives of many others! You who have no fear! Ride on out of here! Do whatever lies within your power! I have nothing more to say!” At this the three other riders reared their horses for another charge, but their leader raised his hand to hold them back.

The sun dipped below the distant crags and Paltrül swung himself round in order to allow the riders to pass. They walked their horses down into the defile, giving Paltrül a wide berth. Once past him they broke into a trot, a canter, and eventually galloped into the distance. Their leader stopped at the head of the ridge and looked back for a moment, but Paltrül was gone. He was nowhere to be seen on the road, and it was as if the horsemen had dreamed the whole episode.

They rode home in silence, and never spoke of their meeting. Paltrül never saw the young men again, but later he came to hear that the blood-feud in Markhog, which had lasted over a century, had been ended. The families had made an agreement to put aside their long-held disputes and bitterness in order to coexist with without continual bloodshed.

< Prev   Next >