Black Flame

BLACK
FLAME

Gerelchimeg Blackcrane

Translated by Anna Holmwood

Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press
Toronto Berkeley

Copyright © 2005 by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane

First published as
Hei Yan
in China in 2005 by Jieli Publishing House

This edition arranged with Jieli Publishing House

English translation copyright © 2013 by Anna Holmwood

Published in Canada and the USA in 2013 by Groundwood Books

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

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This edition published in 2013 by

Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press

110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801, Toronto, Ontario M5V 2K4

or c/o Publishers Group West

1700 Fourth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF).

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Blackcrane, Gerelchimeg

Black flame / written by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane ; translated

by Anna Holmwood.

Translation of: Hei yan.

Electronic monograph issued in HTML format.

Also issued in print format.

ISBN 978-1-55498-364-3

1. Tibetan mastiff—Juvenile fiction. I. Holmwood, Anna II. Title.

PZ7.B5315Bl 2013 j895.1'36 C2012-905756-8

Cover illustration by Harvey Chan

Design by Michael Solomon

1

A SNOWY NIGHT

IT WAS SNOWING
for the second time that spring. The large, heavy flakes gathered high up in the sky before falling for as far as the eye could see, each flake trying to deprive the earth of its first smatterings of green. After nightfall, the snow fell more quickly, smothering the land in its embrace — rustling, whistling, hustling and jostling — almost instantly blotting out the remains of the last snow yet to melt on the ground. The snow became heavier, forming thick layers across the sky, until eventually not even the slightest chink or crevice remained.

This was the northern Tibetan plateau, the place they call the world's third pole, sitting at the very top of a world of ice. It made you think of the very beginnings of the universe. It was wild, far from human civilization and bleak.

Yurts are like tiny islands in the plateau's brutal snowstorms. As insignificant as licks of fire in the vast wilderness, they seem in danger of being swallowed up by snowdrifts at any moment. A herdsman can construct a yurt in a matter of minutes, instantly creating a warm home against the wind and snow, one that he can always take with him as he moves from place to place.

Mother Mastiff circled the yurt. Through the yak-hair walls, she could hear the faintest sound of a child crying and the gentle hum of its mother singing. Everything was as usual.

She walked behind the yurt to where the livestock were kept. A dozen or so yaks were being enveloped by the snow, forming white hillocks as they brought up and chewed once more on the grass that had been so difficult to find during the day. Their chewing sounded like wind blowing through lush autumn grass. As always, the sheep pressed together against the cold.

This was a new campsite. A month before, the master, Tenzin, had driven his livestock from their winter pasture to this location for the spring. The sheep and yaks were thin and exhausted after the harsh winter, but could now recuperate for a while and give their bodies a chance to fill out.

Mother Mastiff looked over and saw a slight smile of recognition spread across Tenzin's face, bright crimson from the violent plateau sun. She knew this expression well — it meant that he was in a good mood. At times like this, he might even spring toward her and pat her affectionately on the head. The ruthless days of winter were finally over. It was a May night up on the northern Tibetan plateau, and all was as it should be, calm and quiet.

After surveying her territory, Mother Mastiff went to a pile of sheep's fleeces behind the yurt. She stretched out her paw and carefully moved one of the fleeces aside, and at once there was the sound of puppies whimpering. The three plump puppies smelled their mother and climbed out in search of her, their heads bobbing. A deep mastiff growl came from her throat, and she shook the heavy wet flakes from her body before lying down among the fleeces. The puppies impatiently burrowed their way under her belly, jostling for a teat in her long, thick fur. Once they found one, they held it tightly with their delicate paws and sucked greedily.

Mother Mastiff poked her head outside once more. It was so quiet. There was probably no need to look. Perhaps she was being unnecessarily cautious, yet a Tibetan shepherd dog never lets down its guard.

The puppies were almost a month old, and their mother knew that before long the master would take them and give them to herdsmen in pastures far away, just as he had done before. But she wasn't sad. The puppies already had teeth and were biting her nipples as they sucked at her decreasing supply of milk. Mostly, she bore their audacious biting in silence, but when it hurt too much, she would let out a low, muffled howl and gently shift her body.

The three purebred Tibetan mastiff pups were already as round as little balls, covered in thick fuzz the color of
a crow's wings, a metallic blue shining through the lacquer black. Their veins were charged with noble blood, and they had a fearless hunger for life that the oxygen-starved plateau bestowed on all the animals who lived upon it.

The night got darker, and the snow grew heavier. Despite the snow's attempts to swallow every sound, there were still some noises coming from the livestock, noises that alarmed Mother Mastiff. She raised her heavy head, but her moist nose couldn't detect any of the signs of danger that usually accompanied these sounds. She couldn't see anything, and the air was still. And yet the sounds of a disturbance continued to reach her, sounds that she shouldn't be hearing on such a peaceful snowy night.

Something was going on.

She stood up, but the puppy with the largest head who always had the teat with the most milk couldn't bring himself to let go. He hung from his mother's belly, clinging to her nipple. The desperate cry of one sheep in particular floated up from the flock, and she could hear the muffled sound of the yaks stomping their hooves fretfully on the loosely packed snow. She had ignored these sounds for too long.

Mother Mastiff shook her body. The puppy finally fell from her nipple, rolling on the ground and crying out at having lost such a delicious teat. Mother Mastiff pushed him back under the fleeces with her nose before stepping out into the soft snow, which now reached halfway up her legs. She ran through the dark to the sheep.

As she ran, she barked a warning to the master in his yurt in that deep steady way that is special to Tibetan mastiffs. It sounded like a stone striking a drum of stretched cow leather.

By the time she reached the flock, all the yaks were standing, their fur frozen in clumps of snow and ice like suits of armor. They looked like large drifting rocks. The sheep were pressed together tightly into one mass.

A strange smell. Mother Mastiff instantly distinguished a smell richer than that of sheep and from the wilds. A smell as powerful as that of the fear emanating from the sheep. It was coming from the center of the flock.

Howling in fury, she crashed with all her might into a sheep on the edge of the flock, but despite being hit hard in the stomach, the sheep maintained a look of indifference. It kept absolutely still, only narrowing its expressionless eyes, its frost-encrusted lashes fluttering like a startled butterfly's wings. Sheep are like that. As soon as anything happens, their only response is to draw together tightly. Mother Mastiff tried again several times, but the sheep didn't react. There was nothing she could do, so she ran around them, barking wildly, trying to find an opening that would allow her to find the sly good-for-nothing hiding in the middle.

She made herself hoarse barking in the direction of the yurt for Master to hurry outside. She had no means of penetrating the flock, and anger enflamed her. Her ferocious nature was urging her to find the scoundrel who was no doubt tucked under the belly of a sheep, secretly laughing at her. She would rip it into tiny pieces. She charged at the trembling flock, whose bleats sounded like muffled thunder. She knew that whatever was hiding in among those sheep couldn't stay there forever.

Just as she predicted, it emerged.

But she didn't foresee the lightning-quick attack that followed. All she heard was something screaming toward her, and then she felt a heavy blow to her right side that nearly knocked her to the ground. She shifted her feet and found her center of gravity, her considerable size still giving her the advantage.

The ghostly shadow stopped on the snow in front of her. It was a snow leopard. Mother Mastiff's bark had interrupted its dinner. It was a resplendent piece of satin against the snow, its tail as thick and strong as a python dragging behind its body. The leopard stared casually at its opponent. Its attack on the sheep had been an easy victory, and it opened its large mouth, still smeared with fresh red blood, and let out a roar like cracking ice.

The muscles in Mother Mastiff's shoulder had been ripped open, and warm blood was seeping into her long fur. The smell of blood only made her angrier. But she also relaxed. The physical presence of the snow leopard was more reassuring than a hidden opponent. Slowly, she began to rock her head, her eyes fixed on the cat in front of her.

A Tibetan mastiff's vocabulary contains no word for fear. Purebreds are simply not afraid of predatory animals. Yet in all her time protecting Master's campsite and his livestock, Mother Mastiff had never fought a snow leopard.

The 130-pound mastiff and the snow leopard faced each other in perfect silence. The only sound was of snow falling to the ground. The sheep were now huddled into an even more compact mass, as if they could only convince themselves that they were safe by pressing together so tightly.

Without a sound, Mother Mastiff flew forward. Once again, the snow leopard made an unexpected move. Instead of relying on its quick reactions to dodge her, it chose to meet her attack. And just as the mastiff sank her teeth into the leopard's shoulder — with its scent of snowy mountain peaks — the leopard's paw lodged itself into her back like a steel hook.

She pulled away decisively, and with a roar, she went to bite the paw that had punctured her skin and was now digging its way even deeper into her flesh. Her teeth met the leopard's sharper teeth, which were still covered in sheep's blood, their clash giving off a sound like clinking metal.

After this encounter, Mother Mastiff felt only a throbbing in her back. She hadn't been injured elsewhere. The leopard, who had given its all, stood a short distance away in the trampled snow. The mastiff slowly edged closer as the leopard roared with all its might, revealing a weakness in spite of its fearsome appearance. It was trying desperately to hide one of its front legs, which had been badly hurt. Although Mother Mastiff hadn't heard the crisp sound of bone snapping when she bit the leopard's paw, she was still savoring the satisfaction of having severed firm muscle and tendon.

It had stopped snowing. Almost at once, the navy blue sky filled with stars, and the snowy ground dazzled in the moonlight as the last flakes reluctantly fell from the sky, searching for a place to settle.

Having lost the cover of darkness, the fully grown snow leopard was clearly worried. The hair on its tail stood erect and thicker than usual, swaying gently like a snake charmed by a flute, as if animated by some secret intent. The leopard had already used the time the two animals stood looking at each other to scan the way it had come.

Mother Mastiff knew that if the snow leopard hadn't been hungry, it would have left long ago. In such nasty weather, there was no guarantee of finding food every day, so it would be reluctant to leave behind the meat it had already secured.

As she lunged forward, Mother Mastiff knew that this would be her final attack — she was using up the last of her energy. She was confident that she could dodge the paw that was coming her way and then sink her teeth into the leopard's throat before pressing it to the ground, where she would wait for its warm blood to run out onto the snow. Then she would hear a hollow trickling, like the sound of her mistress collecting water from the river with her wooden ladle. Once she opened her mouth, the leopard's head would slide softly onto the snowy ground, just like those of the two greedy wolves she had defeated only recently.

She charged at the hesitant snow leopard and pretended to bite its injured right leg. Fooled, the leopard's instant reaction was to lower its head to fend her off. Everything was going according to plan. Experience is important in these things, and she had gathered a lot of it defeating the wild animals that had threatened their campsites over the years.

Suddenly she heard the sound of chirping, as if from a small startled bird. Propelled by a mother's instinct, she looked over toward the fleeces, now blanketed in snow. But by the time she realized that this was a mistake, it was too late. Taking advantage of Mother Mastiff's temporary distraction, the snow leopard quickly sank its sharp teeth into her exposed belly.

What followed was as chaotic and unfathomable as a nightmare. The roaring was terrifying. It sounded as if things were crashing and rolling around on the snow close to the yurt. Tenzin was dazed, having spent the night suffering from a high fever, and only when everything became quiet again did he seem to stir from his coma-like stupor.

He eventually climbed out from under the blanket, and ignoring his wife's protests, tottered out into the yard. In his right hand, he carried a long Tibetan sword and in his left, a flashlight. The clouds had disappeared, and the sky was an emerald blue. Moonlight illuminated the snow. Everything was quiet, as if nothing had happened. Too quiet. Only the sheep huddled tightly together instead of lying on the ground suggested that everything was not as it should be.

Tenzin noticed that for some ten yards around the sheep the snow had been trampled, revealing the grass beneath, and the snow that remained was dotted with spots of congealed blood. Something that looked like a soft plush blanket had been tossed on the ground. Still gripping the sword in one hand and the flashlight in the other, he walked toward the bloodstained bedding. He edged closer and nearly dropped his flashlight in astonishment.

It was a snow leopard. It had a shocking rip in its throat, revealing startlingly red muscles and a confusion of veins and windpipes. Its round eyes were still open. Holding the sword tightly, he drew the blade across the leopard's chest, but it didn't move. It was dead. Its magnificent coat was decorated with spots of blood, and it was so beautiful it made him tremble.

A broken trail of blood led to the pile of sheep's fleeces behind the yurt. Tenzin was shaken by the scene that greeted him. The blood that had poured from Mother Mastiff's wounded belly had already stained a large patch of snow. She heard him and sluggishly tried to raise her head before nudging one of the puppies who had been pushed aside back to her chest. The three puppies were sucking at their mother's nipples, seemingly unaware of what had happened.

The moonlight disappeared. It was now the darkest part of night, just before dusk. Mother Mastiff suddenly looked up from where she lay in a corner of the yurt. Confused, she sniffed at the butter-soaked rag tied around her middle before discovering, to her relief, that Master had carried her puppies inside and placed them on a sheep's fleece nearby. She carefully licked the blood from their coal-black fur, and they merely groaned a few times in their sleep. They must have had their fill of milk.

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