Crossing the River




I had only just realized what a stupid horse this was. For the last 20 kilometers or so he had been trotting steadily along, but when we came to the river, and saw our destination – the brewery – on the other side, the horse showed his true cowardly colors: he had a phobia of water!


The river was not that deep – up to the horse’s flank at the most. It was not that wide either – only a dozen meters at the widest point. The crystal water flowed languidly, glittering under the mild winter sunshine. That damned horse, the coward, was scared to death, his eyes staring madly, legs stiff and neck jerking backwards. It was as if what he was confronted with was not this pretty little stream, but the very edge of the abyss, certain death.


Perhaps this young gray stallion had once had a dreadful experience of floods that had developed into this phobia. Despite all my attempts to spur him on, the poor animal, like a loyal subject who remains stoically mute throughout a torture session by fist or whip, refused to bulge.


I tried several methods. First I covered his eyes and circled the field before steering him back towards the river, but he halted abruptly on the bank, nearly throwing me off his back. Then I crossed the river on foot via a nearby log bridge and attempted to pull the horse across. He splayed his legs and reared up with such might that I was almost dragged into the water.


By that time I was almost at my wits’ end, but I had to get to the brewery today and a detour would mean going an extra 20 kilometers. Not able to come up with a better solution, I walked towards the closest yurt, hoping that the host would agree to stable the horse for me while I walked to my destination. I would collect it on my way back.


The moment I lifted the felt curtain on the door I thought I must have picked the wrong house. The only person inside was an elderly Kazak woman, lying in bed, evidently very sick. On hearing me enter, she opened eyes as dim as the setting sun in a sand storm. Withered and fragile, she could barely sit up. This bedridden woman – at least 80 years old by my estimation – looked like she could meet her maker at any moment.


It was impolite to just turn around and leave, so I tried to explain my request through gestures. To be honest, I didn’t expect her to understand, but she did. She signaled to me to help her get out of bed and out to the bank of the river where the horse waited. There she indicated that I should lift her up into the saddle – I thought her long illness must have affected her mind.


This wizened little octogenarian who looked exhausted even when she was resting in bed, was actually planning to ride this stubborn horse across the river? Was she joking? How could she succeed, when even a strapping young man like me had consistently failed to lead this terrified beast into the water? Granted, Kazaks are known for their equestrianism, but I still couldn’t really see her managing it.


I decided to humor her and followed her instructions, but the moment she got on horseback, everything changed. As soon as the slight figure of the old lady had settled into the saddle, the horse sank as if laboring under a heavy burden. He struggled up, his legs straightened and his expression became determined. He was a completely different creature from the fearful animal he had been just moments ago. It seemed as though he was aware of how formidable his rider was, and he followed her lead as a soldier follows the commands of his captain.


So, he was not a stupid horse after all – perhaps he was actually a bit too smart. He didn’t want to cross the river and he tried to backtrack, but the old lady’s powerful hands kept him under control, eventually converting his backward momentum into forward progress. He leapt into the river, cleaving the water with his body and clattering across the pebbles on the riverbed. After a final spurt of energy, he climbed out on the opposite bank and stood there dripping.


I helped the old lady dismount and walk across the log bridge back to the other side of the river. She watched as I led the horse away (I was too ashamed to ride it in her presence) and waved goodbye. She was so weak that standing was a massive struggle in itself. Still, she stood there long enough to see me off.


This happened in the Kunges Grasslands in the winter of 1972. Behind the tiny figure of the old lady rose the towering shape of Tianshan Mountains, glowing under a clear sky.


ZHOU TAO is a leading writer of neo-frontier literature, who has published two dozen volumes and won several awards, including the Lu Xun Literary Prize.