Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mongolia: Getting Localized

     If you get absorbed in the video, just make sure to play it again as you start to read. This is a work of fiction. It should nevertheless be played at full volume.

     The city stopped on a knife blade. Behind me: sounds of Western progress; in front of me: a vision of timelessness. At the borderland where he met me, refusing to cross the threshold, Bold handed me a robe and the reins to a horse. Steam rose like smoke from her nostrils and she stomped the ground twice, ready. This was dragon country.

     Leaving the city behind us, we turned into the plains, riding abreast of one another, talking mostly of how my horsemanship had not improved in a decade. Bold, my brother in the big emptiness, swerved into me, pulled out ahead, jumped and scuffed up plumes of dust. I stayed upright on the horse. Nothing had changed but our ages.

     The walls of the ger had already been peeled away, layer by layer, and bundled up by the time we arrived. All that remained where home had just been was a soft circle of cleanly pressed earth. I greeted my family. We said our hello’s, drank warm horse milk from a thermos and then got moving again.

     We rode all that day, stopping to camp with an uncle, not learning our new address until the second morning. I couldn’t read the land and never discovered the secret to choosing where to set down. Everywhere we lived, it seemed, the entirety of the country was in our backyard.

     No role to play as the family constructed the ger at its new site, I held the baby and watched. They’d given her to me so I would have something to do; so I could feel important, but I knew Sarantsatsral would have been fine left alone. This was her life. She embraced change.

     Her hand closed around my finger and I sat back to watch the family work.

     That night, we celebrated our arriving, and my out-here father, Sukh, tried to teach me how to sing from all the way down inside. You must pull the song up from here, he showed me, all the way down here. He pressed a warm hand into my stomach and laughed uproariously at the strange bear noises I made. I still laugh myself every time I try to throat sing. I’m a stranger in my own voice.

     By morning, I had a job. ‘Eh handed me a bucket and set me loose on the herds.

     I’ve worked around livestock a little before, and have spent years with Western horses. Our horses are subdued. Their personalities have been shattered under the weight of our wills; they’re broken. A Western horse will not lift its head as it walks.

     These horses are different. Out on the steppe, an animal has to think for itself. They’re not pets. They’re not coddled or worried after. They’re left a little feral—a part of the land, a part of the people because people, land and horses are really all the same thing our here.

     In my life, I’d milked a cow only once. She stood dumb as the entire third grade lined up to pull her nipples with our chubby hands. She’d been doped on selective breeding and high-calorie corn-based feed. The milk spilled out of her lifeless, like her eyes.

     It is a different thing entirely to milk a wild horse. This I have learned.

     Step 1: Locate the horses in the pasture. As the pasture is Mongolia, this can take a while.

     Step 2: Convince the herd that you’re not a threat. Cloaking yourself in their scent works nicely. Step 2 will happen automatically if A) you ride them all day and B) you stop bathing, which you will.

     Step 3: Identify a lactating female horse, and one who’s not tapped out. Trial and error.

     Step 4: Place bucket under horse.

     Step 5: If you see this face, stop and run (preferably grabbing the bucket beforehand).


  1. Wow, this really hit the spot. I love your commentary on domestication, and the personalities of horses. I really felt the flavor of the land more than saw it, though I saw it too.

  2. Thank you for your lovely comments. I hope that you enjoy some of the other stories as well (look for a new one tomorrow night).

    I stopped by your site and read the first part of the "Water" story, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I like the way reality and fantasy intertwine and I look forward to reading more and seeing where your story is headed.