By the end they were in her dreams, too. She felt herself taken along by a warm current, a tug that seemed to come from inside of her somehow, first playful but then urgent and frightening, and finally a hard surge that forced her farther into the limitless blue void. At first she felt free, and the ocean carried her like an expecting mother; then her throat closed in terror and her muscles from her legs to her chest clenched tight and the sea dragged her down to the cold darkness of the Leviathan.
Zolzaya woke with a start and gripped the sheets hard enough that her fingers hurt. She still felt the swells even though her eyes insisted that she was home in her bed. All of her muscles, even her jaw and her toes, were clenched.
She had to make a decision, and in the still clarity of the early morning she forced herself to draw a deep, burning breath and decide.
With trembling legs she rose from her bed and got dressed, not at all calm but still somehow reassured. Her fingers shook as she buttoned her shirt. They’d been shaking for days, she realized as she looked at them. Bones rattling under thin skin. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and got started.
The American teacher had a notebook where he wrote down his observations. He showed it to her once to encourage her to do the same. “You’ll be surprised at how some things that look normal now, only a few weeks ago were so strange and new.”
Like him. He was normal now, but on the first day of school he had seemed so strange and tall and fat, with red eyes and a red face and a voice she couldn’t understand.
She took it and read from a recent page.
“In the morning I carried my coat to school because it was so warm, and in the afternoon there was three inches of snow on the ground. Springtime in Mongolia.”
She turned to an earlier page. “Lady at the market asked me to marry her daughter.” Zolzaya looked up at him. “Which lady, teacher?” He laughed and didn’t answer. She flipped to another page.
“‘Hello’ and ‘Do you have a comb?’ sound very similar. I’ve been greeting people incorrectly.” She thought about this. He was right, though no Mongolian would make that mistake.
“Mongolians sniff each other as a sign of affection.” He demonstrated. It didn’t seem noteworthy to her at all.
The page that caught her attention was a list of students, each with a little note beside their names. “What’s this, teacher?” she asked him.
“It’s how I learned your names. ‘Uyanga – red ribbon.’ She wore a hair ribbon on the first day, remember?”
Zolzaya did. “‘Bat-Erdene – Eddie Munster.’ What’s that?”
“It’s from an American TV show. They have the same hair.” He demonstrated with hands and she laughed.
She found herself. “‘Zolzaya – little angry one.'”
She closed the book. He tried to laugh it off but saw that she wasn’t in a laughing mood anymore, and feeling herself getting angry and knowing that he could see her doing so made her angrier still. Trying to contain it, and failing, made her want to explode.
She made a weak excuse and hurried went to the door.
“Zaya,” he called after her, and she forced herself to turn and face him from the classroom doorway. She bit her lip to keep it steady. “You’re a wonderful person,” he said sincerely. She nodded back to him and half-whispered, “Okay.” He didn’t follow her this time. She was grateful for that, at least.
Things that were normal now but were once strange and new. The house, for example. She could see the old apartment building from her bedroom window. Her bedroom, her playground, her corner store.
Her mother in Europe. A good opportunity for her, the rest of us can make do. Three years now, almost four.
Long walks. Alone, away from everyone else. The first time her sister got worried and went to look for her, and the second time her father demanded an explanation that she refused to provide. Not anymore, though. Now they let her go, and she walked by herself on the far sides of the hills so she couldn’t see the town at all except for the tallest buildings, and the copper mine out past the industrial area that couldn’t ever really be hidden from view. She could do the full circuit of the city in about an hour, which was usually, but not always, enough. Sometimes she did two loops. If she added the industrial area it might take two or even three hours, but it wasn’t safe over there. Miners, welders, vodka.
Altan and Sarantuya. They had been strange once, just a few weeks earlier. If she had listened to the American teacher and started writing in a notebook, she was sure that most of the entries in it would have been about them.
Zolzaya watched the little girl in the market. Her mud-colored robe was a few sizes too big and covered her feet. She wore an incongruously bright and cleanand fuzzy knit cap from which two dark plaits dangled. She had the ruddy cheeks that kids from the countryside sometimes got, red marks like bat wings spread across their cheekbones. Zolzaya always assumed it was because of exposure to hard weather. It was impolite to ask.
The little country girl in the market stood more or less still near a fruit stall. Her eyes scanned around the market as if she was looking for someone. Nobody paid her any attention except for Zolzaya, who was drinking a soda in front of the cafe. She paid for it and drank it on the spot so she could return the bottle for the deposit. On this day she was in no hurry to get home, and the little country girl had caught her eye.
She would never stop to remember why this was so, but it was because at that moment she had been gripped by an urge to return to the old apartment, and when she realized she couldn’t she resented having to walk to the new house. Her father was making more money, and her mother was sending back quite a bit from wherever she was, and so they had moved to the new house in the gated neighborhood. Zolzaya was the only person who needed to be convinced that this was a good thing. She was watching the country girl in order to convince herself that she was fortunate to live the way she did.
A commotion broke out on the far side of the market whenone of the butchers dragged a boy out of his shop. The market being a fundamentally boring place, everybody stood to watch the excitement, vendors and shoppers alike.
Except for the little country girl, who in one fluid motion scooped up a bag full of apples and disappeared them under her robe.
And except for Zolzaya, who was watching the girl.
Their eyes met, and both nervously pretended that they hadn’t seen each other. The country girl quickly turned away. Zolzaya feigned suddenly interest in the boy and the butcher. The crowd had determined that the boy may have been trying to steal but hadn’t actually, and now he was being asked to leave. He didn’t protest, though he slunk away more slowly than Zolzaya would have under the circumstances. Maybe trying to preserve his pride.
When she looked back, the little country girl was leaving the market. Once again, she was looking at Zolzaya, and when their eyes met the little girl anxiously looked away. Zolzaya took one last long swig of her drink and gave it back to the vendor.
“You didn’t finish it,” he said.
“It’s okay,” she said back. The vendor shrugged and gave her back the deposit.
Zolzaya walked out and saw the little girl crossing the plaza. At the street she looked both ways and then scampered across quickly. She was trying to hold the bag under her robe without being obvious.
Zolzaya followed like a spy in a movie, or in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Her only consolation was that the little apple thief was even more clumsy and obvious.
They passed through the city park and into the neighborhood. There were a few shops here, enough that both of them could pretend that they weren’t at all behaving suspiciously, or were even necessarily aware of each other.
Through the neighborhood, then, and onto the outer road, and beyond that into the hills. Zolzaya slowed, knowing that there was no place for the girl to hide now. After a few moments Zolzaya emerged from the buildings and looked up into the hills. The girl was moving fast, but Zolzaya saw her going up and over the first rise. There was nothing beyond there but treeless hills for maybe two or three kilometers. After that a scraggy forest, and then empty Mongolian countryside all the way to the Russian border.
When Zolzaya reached the top of the first hill, the apple thief was at the bottom, looking up. Checking to see if she was being followed. There was no question now: neither of them had any reason to be out here.
The apple thief ran, and Zolzaya followed. Later she would wonder why. At the moment, though, she just did. She chased her over the outer hills, the ones that Zolzaya walked on when she needed to get away. The apple thief took a sharp turn between two rises and disappeared. Zolzaya stopped to catch her breath and look around. An eagle was gliding overhead. Maybe he could see where the apple thief had gone.
She heard a small scratching sound coming from behind a little bush, one of the few on these hills, and she cautiously investigated. She expected to see the little girl crouched behind it, prepared herself for the possibility that it was an animal of some kind, and was surprised when she saw nothing there except a dark hole.
“Hello?” she asked. Do you have a comb?
It wasn’t exactly a cave; more like a partly-covered scoop in the hill. She could see the remains of a fire, and a few bundles of clothes and personal effects, and beyond that the apples were spilled all over the floor. The little apple thief was pressed against the farthest wall, her eyes wide and her breath heavy from running and from fear. She pointed a serrated knife at Zolzaya.
“What’s going on here?” The boy from the market, the one who had fought with the butcher, appeared suddenly and got in between them. Zolzaya moved her eyes back and forth between the two of them, but the little thief kept the knife trained on her. Finally the boy reached out and slowly took the knife. The girl ran behind him. Zolzaya nervously swept her hair behind her ear and then bent down to pick up the apples. The bag was nearby. She laid it flat and stacked the apples on it in a pyramid, then stood.
“Get out of here,” the boy said. Zolzaya backed away.
“I won’t tell anybody,” she said, unsure if she was offering an apology or trying to protect herself. They watched her leave without moving or saying a word.
Even if there had been a playground in her new neighborhood, Zolzaya was too old to play in it. It’d been years since she played in the old playground. She and her friends would sit on the equipment and talk, or at most chase each other. The playground itself was irrelevant.
In the new neighborhood there was no public space at all. Each house had a small backyard, and all were fenced in. It was like one of the little American neighborhoods they saw in TV, only instead of going on forever it was just four streets, twenty houses total, and no free space. There were only old people and very small children, no one her age.
Inside, it was the same. Upstairs were bedrooms, each one an independent kingdom with heavy wooden doors that barred entry to all foreigners. The downstairs–kitchen, living room, dining room–were for show. Her older sisters were in Ulaanbaatar, one in school and the other settling into her new married life. Her father was at work all day–more pay, more responsibilities. And her mother only existed on Facetime.
Zolzaya made herself dinner and took it upstairs to her room. She ate in front of her TV. There was a big TV downstairs, but up here nobody would complain about messes she made, or what channel she chose, or if she laughed too hard or talked over the dialogue.
The next day, after school, Zolzaya went back to the market. She brought a canvas bag with her and filled it with basics: bread, sausage, cucumbers, and a carton of milk. She carried it up through the town, following the same route as before. She didn’t try to be quiet as she went around the hill. When she reached the bush she worried that she may have scared them away, but though the hill was empty she could see that they had left all their things behind so they couldn’t be far.
There were still two apples on the bag from the day before. Zolzaya put them in her canvas bag, and then tried to rest the whole thing on the ground in such a way that it couldn’t get dirty. She didn’t notice the others come in behind her until her turned around and her heart skipped a beat.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” she said feebly. The little girl, the apple thief, kept her back to the wall and her eyes on the intruder as she made her way to the bag. The boy stood by the door.
Zolzaya figured the boy was slightly older than she was, maybe fourteen or fifteen years old. He was tall and broad-shouldered with a calm but serious face. The girl was younger, about eleven or twelve, and bore a strong resemblance to him. Brother and sister. The girl stooped to check the bag, and looked bewildered at all the food inside. She forgot about the unwanted guest and showed her brother the food. He forgot about Zolzaya, too, and went over to her. They both plopped unselfconsciously to the ground and got to work. The knife came out of somewhere–Zolzaya couldn’t tell where from–and they started carving up the bread and the sausage. Without wiping the blade the boy cut open the milk carton and they passed it back and forth. The cucumber fell in the dirt but they wiped it quickly on their clothes and ate it anyway.
For a moment the boy looked over his shoulder at Zolzaya and it embarrassed her so she stepped away. She lingered outside of the cave for a few minutes, taking uncertain half-steps away from it, until she turned herself around and went home.
In winter once she had gotten into a fight in the school cafeteria. The boys knew it was easy to get a rise out of her, and so they did it whenever they were bored. Her reaction was always out of proportion to their provocation so the consequences were always hers to bear; at most, the teachers would implore them not to bug her anymore, but even then the teachers were pretty tired of her acting out. This day was no different, but she was in an especially bad mood and so instead of yelling and turning red, Zolzaya reached back her fist and clocked the boy in the nose. She couldn’t help herself.
She stormed out past the other children, and past the teachers who had rushed to the scene. They all let her go except for the American, who was still new and wasn’t used to her.
“Zolzaya!” he called out to her, but she blew past him and went into the cloakroom. She threw her coat on, a colorful thing her mother had sent from Germany. “Zolzaya, hold up, talk to me.” She put on her hat and gloves and did her best not to look at him. He reached out and took her arm, lightly, and she shook him loose and whipped on her snow boots–also quite pretty, also sent from Europe.
“Where are you going?”
She went right out the front door and into the snow. He followed her. He had a very nice coat and very warm boots, but they were in his classroom on the far side of the school. Now he was in a regular shirt and sandals. It was at least twenty degrees below zero outside, and he followed her out anyway.
“Zolzaya, come back inside.”
She stopped and turned to him. “Go back inside, teacher.” He reached a hand out to her. She could see it was already bright red with cold. “Teacher, go!” He stepped closer to her. If he stayed out here any longer dressed like that he would get sick, and it’d be her fault.
She turned around and went inside with him. By then all the other teachers were at the door waiting for her. The American escorted her through the gauntlet and took her to his classroom. Discussions followed, some scolding. Parents were called. In the end they agreed that she would eat alone in the American’s classroom for at least the rest of the term. It was the rare punishment that worked: being away from everyone kept her out of trouble, and a half hour each day with the American improved her English significantly. When the term was over she kept going, and he didn’t complain, though he didn’t always pay her any attention. Other kids got jealous of what amounted to a private lesson and began joining her. In time his classroom was as crowded as the cafeteria, but the change was gradual and Zolzaya adjusted to it well. Days without tantrums turned to weeks.
The American told her one day that if he could write his list again, he would describe her as the poet, and not as the angry one.
“You live here?”
“No,” he answered. She looked around at the cave, or hollow, or whatever it was. There wasn’t really enough room for three of them to sit comfortably. Zolzaya kept her knees tucked up against her chest. Sarantuya, the little apple thief, daintily tucked her legs sideways, and Altan, her brother, sat on his knees.
“Where are you from?” She could tell that they had some sort of accent, but she had never met anyone who wasn’t from her hometown so she couldn’t place it with any confidence.
“From the countryside,” he said, waving his hand in the direction of the void.
“Where are your parents?”
“Do they know you’re here?”
The siblings looked at each other and shrugged.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?”
They shrugged again.
“How long have you been here?”
“How long will you stay?”
They shrugged again.
“Can I get you anything else?”
“More milk, please.” Sarantuya had a tiny voice, just a hair above a whisper. She rarely spoke. That her answer came so quickly was a surprise to even herself.
The next day Zolzaya came back with two cartons of milk so they wouldn’t have to share.
“Even in Kyoto
–hearing the cuckoo’s cry
–I long for Kyoto.”
“Shouldn’t you teach us American poetry at least?”
“You asked me my favorite poem. You didn’t say it had to be American.”
Zolzaya missed the rest of the lesson. The very short Japanese poem was just a wisp of an image but it hitned at a vast world of feeling and triggered something in her. She buried her head in a notebook and wrote, crossing out words that didn’t word, rifling through her dictionary for better words. After she was done she sat there reading it to herself over and over again. The American teacher gave his lesson and it looked like she was paying attention but she wasn’t. When class was over she packed her books very slowly and waited until everyone was gone before approaching his desk. She put the little slip of paper on his desk and stepped back.
On the swings
I laughed every time I went up
and again as I came down
Mother brought us juice
In cracked mugs
And then we took turns on the slide
Until it was dark.
He read it to himself a few times. “It’s funny how kids can do the same thing over and over again without getting bored, isn’t it? Like on the slide. It’s sad when we stop.” She smiled a little. He looked up at her. “You wrote this in English?” She nodded proudly. “Do you want it back, or can I keep it?”
“Keep it, teacher,” and she watched as he put it in his own notebook.
She wanted to write a new one every day but lacked the discipline and the vocabulary, though she was willing to work on at least one of those.
She met Altan and Sarantuya a few days later, and right away they entered her poems.
“That’s me.” Zolzaya nodded.
The little apple thief smiled and looked at the paper. It was in English; Zolzaya had needed to translate it for her to understand. Still she recognized herself.
“My father is in Ulaanbaatar this week. With my sisters.” Sarantuya didn’t even really hear. Altan didn’t understand, or didn’t let himself understand. Zolzaya pressed on, although their reaction through her off. She didn’t expect to have to spell it out. “So you two should stay with me. There’s plenty of space. I wouldn’t mind.” Sarantuya kept reading the words, mouthing them to herself. “I’d like it,” Zolzaya said with an embarrassed whimper. She was about to run out when Altan reached out and took her hand.
“Thank you,” he said.
She felt embarrassed, too, leading them out past the apartments to the little cluster of houses. There was a guard at the gate but he never looked up from his phone so even though the apple thief flinched there was no trouble at all.
Zolzaya’s house was on the second street. She was embarrassed again at the realization that she could have brought them home earlier, at least during the day. Her father didn’t come home until late, and sometimes he didn’t come home at all. She could have brought them home for a hot meal, or stashed them in her sister’s empty room without him noticing. She probably could have just told him that she was taking in two friends from school and he wouldn’t have minded.
She opened the door and let them in, and they seemed almost afraid to go in. She had to go in first and lead them. They struggled to take off their shoes without shaking loose any mud.
“Don’t worry about that,” Zolzaya told them, and then led them in. She had never shown her house to anyone. She had never before now honestly thought of it as her house.
“Let me get you something to eat. Make yourselves at home.” She went into the kitchen to make up a hospitality platter. She kicked herself for not having done this earlier. She had planned to bring them today and should have gotten this all ready first. She cut cucumbers and sausage and little squares of bread and arranged them on a big plate. She warmed up milk for the tea, and dotted sugar cubes around the plates. What else did she have in the refrigerator? If she was back in her old house she’d run out for pickles and salad, but there were no little shops in this neighborhood. Tomorrow she’d get those things.
She brought out the platter and the tea and set it down on the coffee table. Altan was admiring the photos and awards on the mantle. Sarantuya was looking at herself in the mirror. She had taken off her cap and was playing with her pigtails. Zolzaya came up behind her and wondered when the girl had last seen herself in a mirror.
“You’re very pretty,” she said to her. The girl laughed.
“No I’m not.”
The red marks on her face, so strange and pronounced at first, had softened with familiarity. Something else to have put in the notebook, had she kept one.
“You are.” She gave the girl a hug from behind and brought her face up close to the girl’s so they could both see themselves in the mirror.
“Come, sit, have some bread.” She stopped herself when she saw that they weren’t moving. “What’s wrong?”
“Your couches are very clean,” Altan said sheepishly, and she was embarrassed again by her cluelessness. Their clothes were filthy. She didn’t notice it before, in a dirt-covered hole in the side of a hill, but here, in her spotless and never-used living room, they looked like animate clods of dirt.
“Let me show you where the shower is. You can wear some of my dad’s clothes and you can wear some of mine and I’ll wash your clothes in the machine. Does that work?”
Altan went first. She found a pair of pajamas that her father rarely wore and gave them to him, and while he showered she led Sarantuya on a tour of her closet to find clothes that would fit. It was like a scene from an American movie, girls on a shopping spree, holding the tops under their necks and laughing nonsensically into the mirror. The more ridiculous the clothes, the better. Eventually Sarantuya settled on a very girly pink nightgown, a frilly thing straight from a fairy tale that Zolzaya’s mother had sent but had never fit.
Zolzaya’s breath caught when Altan came out of the shower. She had already admitted to himself that he was handsome but cleaned up and still slightly wet from the shower it was like meeting him for the first time. It was a bit like meeting herself for the first time, too, or at least a part of herself.
He was carrying his dirty clothes. “I don’t know where…”
She took them from him. “I’ll take them. Now go, eat. And you,” she said to the apple thief, “give me yours before you get in the shower. I’ll wash them all together.”
Sarantuya closed the door and then a moment later opened it just a crack and slid her robe through. Zolzaya heard the water come on, and then a happy squeal as she got in.
Empty and cold
Strange and warm
She wrote that for them. Not in her notebook, though. It embarrassed her. This one she only wrote in her mind.
Altan politely ate from the tray and drank milk tea from the bowl she brought him. Not a cracked mug, she thought to herself; a proper bowl, the kind her father used when they used to entertain guests. She liked playing hostess. Her mother had always been very excited when people came, even though it was usually just family. Zolzaya couldn’t remember all the preparation that went into it but she saw how this was an art she could perfect.
He had her English dictionary on the chair with him. “Are you learning English?”
He laughed. It gave her butterflies.
“I found my name. ‘Gold, golden.’ It sounds funny.”
“I think ‘golden’ is the right one.”
He let the syllables roll off his tongue, first savoring them, them making a game of it. When he smiled the skin around his eyes crinkled into charming little smiles. Then he went back to the book. “I can’t find Sarantuya.”
“Moon…” She saw this term in a children’s book once. She closed her eyes and visualized the page in her mind. “Moonbeam.”
He said it after her, exaggerating the vowels and laughing at them. “It’s an ugly language.”
“It’s not ugly!” she laughed. It was her best subject, the only class she liked, and central to her plan of getting away from this city, and he’d called it ugly…and that made her laugh.
“I gave her that name, you know? Because she is like a moonbeam. She shines in the dark. In the day she is nothing, nobody even sees her. But when it’s her time, there is nothing more beautiful.”
Zolzaya took a sip of her tea. “You thought all that when you were three?”
“No, last year.” It was an unguarded comment, and he immediately regretted it. She should have let it go but her curiosity was piqued, and for weeks now she had been hoping for a way to get past their evasiveness and to learn more about them.
“What was her name before?” He didn’t say anything. “Do you have a different name?”
“No. I’m just me.”
She sat back, worried that she had broken something that she wanted badly to keep. “Moonbeam,” she said softly, and he perked up at this.
“You can stay here all week. Maybe longer, if my dad allows.”
“Thank you. I think we should go, though, in a few days. We have to keep going.”
“Where are you going?”
“Sarantuya wants to see it. I want her to see it.”
Zolzaya was perplexed. She wasn’t very good at geography but to get to the sea from here they would have to either go through China or Russia. Either way it must be a thousand kilometers or more.
“That’s far away,” she said, abandoning her mental calculations.
“We’ve come this far already.”
For more than a month she had been going to them after school, bringing food and drinks, reading to Sarantuya and going with Altan to the market, or taking them both on hikes around the city. The conversations were great, but they always avoided speaking about themselves. It was an unspoken compact they had made. Sarantuya and Altan weren’t living in a dirt cave on the edge of city far from home because it was fun. Zolzaya, who never wanted to talk about anything, intuitively respected that they didn’t want to share.
This time, though, it felt appropriate to press. “Why are you two so far from home?”
“It isn’t safe there.”
“Does you dad drink?” A silly question. In the countryside it’s harder to find a man who doesn’t drink. Altan nodded his head, and then mimed a father punching. Zolzaya winced at the image in her head. “And you had no place else to go? Grandparents? Cousins?”
“She wanted to see the ocean,” he repeated as a dismissal of all those non-options.
“Are you talking about me?” Sarantuya said from the top of the stairs. They both looked up at her. She had scrubbed off the dirt until her skin glowed, and had untied her hair, washed it thoroughly, and tied in back in a ponytail like Zolzaya’s. She was radiant. Like a moonbeam. Zolzaya noted tears in Altan’s eyes as he scooped his little sister off the stairs.
On the day before she moved to Ulaanbaatar, Zolzaya’s sister complained about Zolzaya’s clothes. Zolzaya, frustrated, fumed, “I can’t do anything right, can I?” and her sister, renowned for her quick wit and sharp tongue, fired back, “Doesn’t look like it.”
Zolzaya hadn’t gone to the train station to see her off, or even bothered to say goodbye when she left the house.
The three of them stayed in the living room talking all through the night. It was by far the longest that the room had ever been occupied by more than one person. They watched some TV, a luxury that the apple thieves had never experienced first hand. Satellite TV, so there were channels in English.
“You understand them?”
“Mostly,” Zolzaya exaggerated.
The conversation turned to the ocean. Chinggis Khaan–some people think that Chinggis was an old Mongolian word for ‘ocean.’ The modern word is dalai, like the Dalai Lama, the ocean priest. “Mongolians are drawn to the ocean,” Altan explained. “It’s in our blood.”
“You always want what you don’t have,” Zolzaya joked.
“Close your eyes and picture it,” Sarantuya said. “It goes on forever, all around the world again and again. So deep the sun can’t reach the bottom. Creatures bigger than dinosaurs disappear inside of it. Imagine standing on the shore and being connected to the whole world.” They all closed their eyes.
The moon shines
From her soul
Laughter in the darkness
He reflects her
From his surface calm
Shining it back to her
And to me
Altan slept in her sister’s room. Sarantuya stayed with Zolzaya.
“I wish you could come with us,” Sarantuya said before drifting off the sleep.
They would reach the ocean and let the water wash over their feet. She’d seen the image in movies. Was the water cold or warm? It depended, she supposed.
From there, what? Could they sail? Find an island to live on? They could be a happy family.
Sarantuya slept with a wan smile. She sometimes babbled in her sleep.
The next few days were a domestic fantasy. Sarantuya made thumb-sized dumplings and arranged them on a platter in concentric circles, alternating drops of ketchup and mayonnaise on each one. A dumpling mandala.
They read books, watched TV, ate, slept. Zolzaya took to sitting beside Altan, to watch Sarantuya the way that he watched her, and to feel his warmth. At first he shrank from her a little. Soon it felt natural.
She missed school the entire week. Home was better. Nobody came looking for her. Her father sent an email to check in and she answered it promptly from her phone. Everything fine.
Zolzaya saw only the briefest flash. It was an accident. She assumed the room was empty and opened the door without thinking. Her mind registered quickly what she saw, and the fact that she hadn’t been seen. A naked body, clean unblemished skin, unexpected flash of genitals. She closed the door quickly, confident that she hadn’t been.
In a daze she went down the stairs. Slowly, expecting and dreading a reaction, preparing to apologize, but nothing.
“Are you okay?” Altan asked.
“I…yes.” She sat down across from him, not beside him. Zolzaya tried to form words that would say it delicately but she couldn’t, so she took a deep breath and just said it. “Sarantuya’s a boy.”
Altan sat up straight. The muscles in his face tensed up, and his fingers clenched. “She’s not.”
“I saw…him. Getting changed.” Into my clothes.
“She’s not a boy. I don’t care what you saw. She’s a girl. She always has been. The rest is a mistake.”
She realized this was a prepared speech that he had made before. The heat that flashed in his eyes was reflexive. She–Zolzaya–couldn’t hurt him, and wouldn’t. But he was prepared for it, because it had happened before.
Sarantuya the perfect moonbeam came down the stairs in a white nightgown.
“How do I look?”
Altan looked at Zolzaya, and Zolzaya looked at Sarantuya. “You look beautiful.” Zolzaya got up–her legs were shaky, but could anybody see?–and arranged Sarantuya’s hair. Then, with shaking hands, took off her little necklace, a thin probably-fake-gold chain she bought at the market, and put it on her neck.
“You’re shaking,” Sarantuya said.
It was pretty bad, the shakes.
“Weird,” Zolzaya strained a laugh, looking at her own hands, and then at Altan.
It’s okay, she thought, and hoped that if she thought it loud enough he could hear.
But it wasn’t quite okay, and they all sensed it. That night Sarantuya stayed with Zolzaya again–Zolzaya got ahead of Altan by stage-whispering that she would read a new poem to her in bed.
Sarantuya fell asleep right away, but Zolzaya couldn’t. The whole night she stayed awake. She studied the child’s face. It was very feminine, but any small child with long hair looks feminine. The mannish textures come later.
How long had they been on the run? Bruises would have faded. There would be scars, and Sarantuya had them, but all children from the countryside have scars. It’s natural.
At times Zolzaya felt repulsed. A boy in her bed, albeit a little one, in her clothes. Her nightgown, her old underwear. She felt violated.
She felt ashamed at herself, too. “She’s a girl, and always has been.”
Somewhere along the way she did fall asleep, and in her dream the waves washed over her and pulled her away, down into the deep, and she woke with a start. Sarantuya mumbled and rolled, and Zolzaya realized that she was gripping the sheets so hard her fingers hurt.
The sun would rise soon. Zolzaya slid out of bed without disturbing the little one in it. She dressed, tied her hair back, and crept slowly out of her room. There was no reason why she had to decide right now, except that she knew that she had already decided.
Altan was still asleep. She crept in and sat down beside him. His chest rose and fell with each breath. She wanted to put a hand on it, to feel his heart beating and his warmth, so she did, and that woke him up.
“She’s a girl,” Zolzaya said, because she knew it to be true and hoped that if she said it enough she could understand it. “And you’re a boy?”
“Yes,” he said, still a bit puzzled.
She leaned down beside him and drew in a deep breath beside his ear, taking in his smell and in some way a part of him, and then got up. At the door she turned around. “I want to come with you. To the ocean.”
She took a long shower, went downstairs and sat down to write. Sarantuya and Altan slept late. She wanted to write a poem but instead wrote down her thoughts on leaving. Could she? How would it even work? She had money in a bank account. She had things she could sell. They wouldn’t have to walk all the way. They could take the train down to the border. Without passports they probably couldn’t cross on the train, but the border with China was the Gobi desert, and she couldn’t imagine that the entire thing was being guarded at all times. They probably only had to walk a little bit out into the desert and then cross the imaginary line in the dirt. On the other side it was still Mongolia, and nobody would bat an eye at them as long as they stayed out of trouble.
She wouldn’t miss this house the way she missed the old apartment. She would probably, she understood, miss that old apartment forever. Even in Kyoto, longing for Kyoto.
The front door opened and Zolzaya jumped up to see her sister walk in.
“Good morning, my heart,” she said with a hint of sarcasm. She had a duffel bag that she struggled to get in through the door.
“What are you doing here?”
“I missed you, and wanted to come home.”
“He’s staying a few extra days. Business. I’m going to Modern Nomads for breakfast. You want to come? Or is there anything to eat here?”
“Nothing here, but I’m not hungry.”
“All right. Be back later.”
She left her bag by the door, turned around and left.
Zolzaya ran upstairs and woke them up. In Ulaanbaatar maybe restaurants were open at this time of morning, but here nothing was open until ten. She’d be back in twenty minutes at most.
Altan and Sarantuya gathered their things quickly and left. Zolzaya walked them back towards the cave.
“Just wait for me here,” she said.
“We’re going to keep going,” Altan said.
“It’s warm enough now. I think we’re ready.” Sarantuya nodded her head in agreement.
“Please, don’t go yet. Wait for me.” They agreed to wait by the cave. Zolzaya would be home when her sister got back, then would go by herself to get train tickets, buy maps, and pick up some supplies. They’d meet up again in the early afternoon and walk together to the train station in the industrial area.
She gave Sarantuya a big hug. It was an American gesture, something she’d picked up from her teacher at school. With any luck she’d see him today to say goodbye.
She gave Altan a hug, too. For a second she was tempted to kiss him, another American gesture, this one from the movies, but in the end she didn’t.
The day was long and agonizing. The bank teller let her withdraw her savings without any questions. The ticket vendor sold her three third-class tickets to Ulaanbaatar; they’d buy the tickets to the border separately.
It took longer than she’d planned, but with a frantic push she was able to get to the cave on time.
It was empty. She waited around for a long time, climbed up to the highest nearby hill and over to the Friendship Monument, looking for two figures heading to the industrial area, but she saw nothing.
She hopped into a gypsy cab and went to the train station and waited. Nothing. There was nobody there except a few drunks and a lady selling boiled dumplings.
Zolzaya sat and waited until the train whistle blew and it pulled out of the station.
This would have been a good day to walk around the entire city. Including the industrial area and the mine. Maybe get murdered. It wouldn’t have been so bad.
Zolzaya walked home, taking a detour to check on the cave one last time, and then another detour to go to her old playground. She sat on the swing–it was a new one, the one that she used to sit on having been destroyed long ago by the lethal combination of weather and children–and just stared off into space, replaying the events in her mind and trying her best to completely shut down.
Children came out to play. They wanted the swing. She didn’t know them. All of her friends had moved away by now. She had been the last to go. Inevitable, her father said. People moved in when their lives were at a certain point, and they moved out when they outgrew it.
Zolzaya went home.
Her sister was in the living room.
“Where’ve you been all day?”
The little angry one wanted to scream or cry or yell at someone but instead she just sat beside her sister. Right now she desperately craved some sort of warmth.
“I really did come home for you, you know,” her sister said out of the blue. “We had an assignment in class to write about our earliest good memory. I wrote about the first time I saw you.”
“You were five years old,” Zolzaya answered in a low voice. “You don’t remember anything before then?”
“Of course I remember things, little things. But that’s a real memory that I can feel in my bones. When I think of it I can smell it. I can feel your little hand. I remember holding it and thinking, ‘This is my favorite person in the world.’ And you know what? You still are.”
She threw her arm around her.
“Dad’s staying in the city, so I thought I’d come up. Just to see you. Is that okay?”
Zolzaya let herself be held, and without warning started to cry.
She found the note under her pillow. They must have left it there before they left.
I love you.
We will send a picture from the ocean when we get there.
And below that:
In her dreams the ocean pulled her down, but she fought against it and pulled herself to the surface. She swam to the shore.
She asked the American teacher if they could meet in private. Later, he went with her to her home and spoke to her father on her behalf. Neither of them wanted her there but needed her to help translate.
Better not to involve authorities, at least not officially. Her father made calls.
“We’ll find them,” he assured her.
Water washed over her bare feet, pulling sand out from under her, digging her deeper into the earth. The water came out from the depths and touched her toes, then retreated and went away, to travel to faraway shores and touch faraway people, and then one day return, closing the circle that encircles and entwines all.