The golden eagle stands in a ditch, tied to a pole by a 10-inch length of rawhide around its legs. “What’s its name?” I ask Bigboulat, our leather-faced host. “Her name. She is Palapan, little baby” he says. “She is like a daughter to me.”
The eagle’s ditch lies in the centre of the nomads’ yurt camp, between the sky and the steppe, long grasses waving gently in the wind. Nomads hunt with eagles in winter. These animals cannot be completely tamed; their hunter instinct doesn’t abate during the summer months. The eagle looks around, carefully, for prey; for a field mouse, or one of the many hay-coloured marmots scurrying in and out of burrows. As soon as she spots something, she lunges, arching her body upwards, ready to take off, but the rope is tight around her legs, bringing her back to the stake. “I have to keep her tied. Or she would fly away, and wouldn’t return for weeks” says Bigboulat.
He has built a turf tussock for the bird to roost. The eagle is drawn towards it by the rope, after her failed attempt at freeing herself. She rips apart, gashing, clawing, tearing, slashing at the tussock, until there’s nothing left. Bigboulat understands. He approaches the eagle; exchanges the rawhide strip for a longer rope. In a flash, the eagle is in the air, swoops down. I see her perfection of wildness. She is infallible. She is queen.
The eagle holds a small marmot on the ground, pins it down with her curled, slate-coloured talons. They are eye to eye for an instant; the marmot is still alive, barely. Suddenly, the eagle gives a loud screech, flaring her golden neck feathers. She stares at us, shrieking, tongue sticking out, the prey safely tucked in her claws. Men around us are belittled by her fierce gaze, look at her with deference from the top of their horses, then ride off over the hills, across a land with no boundaries.
Then, a few fast beak movements, the marmot is skinned and gutted. The eagle eats the flesh chunk by bloody chunk; she dangles the marmot’s innards from her beak, stringy purple and grey, then gulps them down. The skin is tossed on the side, discarded.
She climbs on the mound where her roosting tussock used to be, now destroyed. It happens all the time in summer; Bigboulat says he will make her another one. I look at the eagle from up close; her downy, delicate feathers, swirling around her eyes, the underside of her neck soft and fluffy, the sharp-looking feathers on her shoulders, looking as if they were carved from wood. The feathers’ colours change with the sun; brown becomes caramel, golden is turned into cream, buttery white.
Above, eagles ride the thermals over the hills, towards the snow-streaked peaks of the Altai Mountains, on the horizon. I give her a last look, just as she looks at me. Or through me. For an instant, I feel her longing for the wild, open skies. I feel the wind brushing her feathers, as she sweeps towards the quarry, the same wind on the nomads’ faces as they ride across the steppe. The same yearning to hunt.