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True Winter Tales: Today's pick

Marco Polo by Robert Christopher

It was cold at the top of that mountain.  They called it the top of the world.  My last hunter died and because of that we never got paid.  Worse - the Russians never got paid.  This time we brought a small sausage-shaped inflatable tent so that if this guy, Noel, started to suffer from altitude sickness, we could put him in there and he wouldn't die and he would have to pay us the full $40,000.  The last guy never paid for two reasons:  because he was dead and because he never got to kill a Marco Polo Bighorn Sheep.

If a guy didn't die and he got the trophy, he'd pay.  No problem.

It was -40 degrees.  The plateau was pure white.  The sun bounced off the mountaintops.  There was way too much light up there.

The sheep were about one kilometre away -- an easy shot with a high-powered rifle for a sober hunter.  Noel was drunk on vodka.  The Tajiks said he should shoot the big old sheep because that sheep would have the biggest horn spread - would make the best trophy.  Noel fired.  He looked at the guide, Sergei, through red and yellow eyes.  There were silver rings just inside the outer edges of his pale-blue irises - a sign of immanent death approaching.  He asked, pleading:

"Did I get him?"

"You got him" said Sergei.  "He's big.  He's dead."

Noel began to cry.  That happens sometimes when they kill something as big and dangerous as a bear.  Not supposed to happen when you kill a snow sheep.

We drank more vodka and ate some pickles.  When we reached the Marco Polo Sheep, he was lying dead in the snow just beyond a ridge.  It was really cold up there.  That sheep was hard as rock.  The sheep's horn-span was easily a meter.  Noel hadn't splintered the horns with his shot, so the trophy was in good shape.  Noel sat far back by the sheep's butt so that when we snapped the photo he'd look tiny and the horns would look even bigger than they were.

Later, back at the yurt, I said to Sergei:

"I'm surprised he could shoot that straight.  He had a lot of vodka in him."

"Easy to kill a chubuk when it's already dead" said Sergei.  He laughed.

 "You killed it earlier?  You put it there?"

"We get the money.  He gets a trophy."

Noel stepped out of the yurt, staggered up to us and said:  "The happiest day of my life."

Noel made a lot of noise that night as he slept, but it didn't sound like he'd be dying.

The next day we descended gradually out of the high cold into the low warmth.  

When we got back to Stalinabad, the sun was shining.  The world was warm.  Lots of oxygen. 

In Tajikistan, winter doesn't come as part of a circle.  Winter is up.  Summer is down.  

We left the Tajik winter at the top of the world.

Robert Christopher is from Toronto, ON

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