​​​1,000 Words From The Cloven Earth

   Above them, the sky turned to a turquoise blue, studded with a skein of broken gray clouds. As the sun settled lower, the clouds glowed silver, then reddish gold. Baruud joined a group of qorchin soldiers clustered about their cook fire. As always in the evening, the men boasted of past victories or taunted one another to test their status. It is only our women, Baruud thought, that prevent us from killing each other. From behind him a voice, “Have your qorchin run out of horse turds to eat and now boil goat shit for their dinner?”
   Baruud turned to see four swaggering day-guards standing slightly apart, smirking at each other. He said, “Perhaps you men should join us. After what you’ve been eating, goat shit will smell good.”
   “We’ve been eating your mother; she seems to enjoy it. But you are right; goat shit does smell better.”
   Their rivalry was an old one; their grievances long held. The Khaghan decreed that fighting among his guard would result in expulsion at best and execution for the worst cases; but that didn’t prevent insults, and there was always bökh, wrestling matches, to settle any differences. Baruud smiled, “Do you only talk? Or is one of you man enough to face me in a contest of strength?”
   The largest of the four stepped forward. “I am Jaruchin, but I don’t fight old men. Show me one in this army of cowards who is a worthy opponent.”
   By this time, the four day-guards had drawn a crowd of the qorchin and their anger grew by the moment. Baruud stood his ground, but cursed inwardly; they will kill these idiots and I will lose half my companions to the Kha’an’s justice. “Then Jaruchin of the oversized mouth and undersized wit, choose your opponent.”
   “Ha, there are none here but drooling old fools, holding themselves up by their own dead gray dicks.” He gazed about until his eye landed on Jochi who stood to one side gazing at the flaming sky and happily eating his evening meal. “There, there is my opponent. He looks fearless.”
   With that, Jaruchin pushed past Baruud and knocked over Jochi’s bowl of roasted meat and cracked barley. “Can you fight, idiot, or do you only eat and shit?”
   Confused, Jochi looked first to Baruud, then at Jaruchin and finally, he gazed at the meal scattered about his feet. “You mean do I wrestle the bökh? You should only ask, not waste our Khaghan’s food.”
   “Of all my qorchin, you choose to wrestle our signalman? I know you are brave, but I advise you, choose one of our warriors instead. This man is older than I am and doesn’t even wear a sword. Choose another.”
   “I choose him. Tell me now, little signalman, do you wrestle? Or would you prefer to be my whore for tonight?”
   “I would prefer to eat my meal, but if you wish, I will wrestle.”
   The evening breeze blew cold from the north, but both men stripped to their breechclouts. Jaruchin eyed Jochi’s stringy body and said, “Jochi. Ha, your name means ‘guest,’ bastard son, but you are not even Mongol. So, where are you from, son of a hundred fathers?”
   “I am from the qorchin, Jaruchin of the day-guards. You should not have to ask me that.”
   Both men began to circle. Jaruchin crouched low and held his arms as if to catch a bear; but Jochi stood straight and shuffled to the side, his arms slack, swinging as he moved. More day-guards arrived, and soon a shoving, hooting circle surrounded the wrestlers. Odds ran seven to one against Jochi. Baruud quietly placed a few bets, shaking his head. This night would not end peacefully.
   Jaruchin made the first move, he feinted left and then right before rushing forward. For his part, Jochi just stood flat-footed awaiting the rush. Somehow, Jaruchin missed Jochi entirely. Perhaps the little signalman ducked or twisted. Jaruchin spun about and made a grab for his opponent, but again, Jochi managed to stay just out of reach. “Come, fight you little tease.” Jaruchin feinted forward once, twice, again he rushed.
   This time, Jochi held his position and lowered his head, planting it in the larger man’s chest. Jaruchin staggered, almost to his knees, then fell forward carrying Jochi with him. The jostling circle of men hooted at Jochi and threw pebbles, but it had been a legal move.
   Once on the ground, both men struggled for advantage. Jochi no longer had his agility, and Jaruchin still gasped for wind. As long as Jaruchin held his legs, Jochi remained trapped. He bent his knees to turn the larger man on his back, but this put Jochi’s waist within reach. As Jaruchin tried to consolidate his hold, Jochi placed both hands below his opponent’s chin and shoved. Jaruchin flew back, rolled and stood. 
   Seemingly oblivious to the pushing, taunting crowd, Jochi straightened, feet flat on the ground, arms at his side. “May I finish my meal now, or do you still wish to wrestle?”
   “You stupid little foreign weasel, I will pound you into the dirt.”
   “Then that means I must wrestle you some more.”
   Both men began to circle; again Jochi stiff-legged like a grazing cow, again Jaruchin rocking back and forth, feinting and rushing. He attempted another hold, but Jochi slipped away, then another. Panting, Jaruchin said, “Fight now, let’s finish this.”
   “Then come, Jaruchin of the day-guard, we will finish.” They locked arms and pushed, grappling, straining to find an advantage. Jaruchin scowled with effort, his face darkened, and his feet scuffled to gain purchase. Jochi simply closed his eyes and resisted. Jaruchin’s left foot rolled on a loose pebble and in that moment, Jochi spun him to the ground and placed a knee on his chest.
   In the gray dusk, the circle of men grew quiet. Then a murmur of indignation arose from the day-guard spectators. Someone began to shove, and another shouted. First two, then four, then a hundred men stripped to the waist and commenced a free-for-all wrestling match. In the growing dark, no one saw who threw the first blow, but all rules of bökh were quickly forgotten.
Baruud gave up even trying to collect his winnings. He found Jochi sitting by the abandoned fire, eating his evening meal. “Why couldn’t you have just let him win?”