Leave of Presence by Kara Moskowitz
The van moved northeast out of Ulaan Baatar and the landscape quickly changed from the mid-rise Soviet-era apartment blocks, smoke stacks, and wide empty squares of the city, to the mix of Western-style homes and gers in the small developments just beyond, to the low green and brown hills that were the beginning of the Khentii. There was more land here than I had ever seen. We tumbled along old stream beds, makeshift roads that zig zagged across the land. The grassy plains were deep green from a wet early summer. Hundreds of brown, black, and white yaks were bent head to ground to feed on the grass. In the distance, past the far bank of the Tuul Gol, I could make out a single ger and a satellite dish of approximately the same size. There were no fences. There were no permanent dwellings. What I saw as I looked out of the van’s window upon the sacred heartland of the ancient Mongolian people could have been just the same image Genghis Khan beheld a millennium ago.
I leaned my head against the cool glass window, closed my eyes, and pretended to sleep so I wouldn’t have to talk to any of the other tour group members while they introduced themselves and chatted in that strangerly way about innocuous topics like weather and flights and children. Their voices and stilted laughter played over the throaty Mongolian music coming from the tape deck in the front of the van. Clouds muted the late afternoon light and the air conditioning was too strong. I felt cold and gray and foolish for being here and began to count down the nights I had left until I’d be back in Ulaan Baatar, reversing my route and on my way home.
I felt foolish—like I was running away in a symbolic and literal sense. It was pathetic and trite. My mom had reminded me that Outer Mongolia is where you say you’re going when you want to describe somewhere really, really fucking far away. But actually, I’d booked the trip, a two-week trekking tour “In the Land of the Great Khan,” almost a year ago, before I even knew Zach. I’d meant it to be an ultimatum to quit my job as a bankruptcy attorney, which had steadily drained the life force out of me for the last eight years. And it worked. I did quit the job. So I could tell myself this wasn’t running away if it was all planned well in advance—as nothing else in my life ever had been, or ever would be again.
I’m pregnant. Pregnant. Preg. Nant. That phrase, that word ran over and over in my mind. Even if I willed myself to think about other things, it attached itself to the end of the thought. I’m in a van in Mongolia pregnant. It is freezing in here pregnant. It was like the ticker at the bottom of a news channel, scrolling across my brain in an infinite loop. It was like adding “in bed” to the end of a fortune cookie fortune. I was about three weeks pregnant. My doctor said it was safe to travel—being thirty-five, it was automatically considered a high-risk pregnancy, but I didn’t have any specific risk factors. I’d have enough time to figure things out when I got back.
The van slowed to a stop and we all piled out. There didn’t seem to be much around. The clouds hung low and a misty fog hovered about us. I hugged my arms, prickled with goose bumps. Osso, our guide, pointed to a spot just behind where the group was huddled together. I turned and looked at what appeared to be a huge pile of debris. Large wooden sticks and branches formed the skeleton of a pyre, adorned with tattered blue scarves and ringed with boulders and cement blocks. A walking crutch and a rusted, once light blue car door added to the bulk. Osso explained that this was an ovoo, an offering to the gods often found in sacred places. This one marked the entrance to the Khan Khentii Protected Region. Visitors would leave something of value in gratitude, preferably something blue, the color of the sky and peace. People who did not have something to offer could add three rocks which would at least make the ovoo bigger.
I gathered some stones, trying to find a few that were particularly round or special. It made me think of being a young girl at the cemetery back in Cleveland—I’d scour the grounds for good, substantial rocks, lift the collection in my palm for my father’s approval, place them one by one in a neat row on the tiny gravestone for David, my twin. David, who lived two days. David, who was weak and small so I could be stronger. David. I knelt down and added my gathered offering to the ovoo in a crook of leaning branches. I walked around the pile clockwise three times as Osso instructed and tried to decide on a wish to ask of the gods. I slowed my steps and closed my eyes. Thoughts popped up, thoughts that were terrible to think, so I whack-a-moled them back down their dark holes. Then I wished for clarity, that elusive bitch.
I looked at my watch, which was still on New York time. 3:42 am. Zach was staying in my apartment, which he mostly did anyhow, taking care of Rafa. I pictured the scene with a strangely ethereal tinge—Zach lying on the queen sized bed with Rafa curled at his feet, their bodies weightless on the pillow top mattress and enveloped in the downy duvet, even though it was summer; warm light threading in from the hall through the half-opened door; the hush of the white noise machine; the airy fresh laundryness of the pillows and sheets. It was funny, because the scene felt nothing like this when I was there. Rafa would make his puggish snot-laced grunting sounds, wander around, and curl up on my pillow; Zach would drink water and look at his Blackberry to check the markets in Asia; I would wake with a headache from clenching my jaw, would try one leg over the blanket, then shifting to my side, then lying on my back with a pillow over my eyes. The sheets would be humid with mingled sweat.
I knew Zach loved me. I loved him too. We were what people called “in love.” So why couldn’t I want this?
The weather turned glorious after that first wet evening. We traded the van for two yaks that pulled our provisions on flat wooden carts while we walked the land. I began to feel healthy. Muscles reappeared after a long forced hiatus at the law firm. My face freckled and tanned, and was ruddy from the exertion and the wind. I stopped at the top of a ridge and took a sip from my Nalgene water bottle. Standing in my well-worn hiking boots, I felt an exaggerated pull of gravity. I am here.
I started down the rocky ledge behind Thomas and Michael, a father and son from Seattle who were spending some time together before Michael went off to Stanford in the fall.
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew…”
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew…”
Michael was teaching Thomas “If” by Rudyard Kipling, which Michael had committed to memory for school.
“To serve your turn long after they are gone…”
“To serve your turn long after they are gone…”
I touched each of them gently on the arm as I passed, not wanting to break their rhythm, not particularly wanting to talk. I picked up my pace so that they, and the rest of the group, and the yaks and the carts behind them faded into non-distinct dots. Nothing in the landscape ahead of me moved; I walked and walked but got no closer, it seemed, to the river and the ger I headed toward. I came across scattered whitewashed bones of an animal, a yak or maybe a sheep. A bit of the ribcage, a part of a femur. I remembered what Osso said about the lammergeiers he had pointed out along the way—how they swoop down and take the bones in their mouths, fly up, and then drop them on a rock to crack them and get at the marrow inside; that it is a learned skill and it can take years to master. I looked up but the sky was clear. There were no sounds but for the rustle of my steps in the grass. The mid-August afternoon was neither hot nor cold. I counted my steps and took deep, conscious breaths. I unclenched my jaw. I walked, and I realized that this was the farthest I had ever been from another person in my whole life.
The ger belonged to Erdin and his wife Odval, who were friends of Osso. They welcomed the group inside. Hospitality is ingrained in Mongolians, Osso had said. But Erdin and Odval were quiet, and didn’t smile much. I tried to remember the etiquette rules laid out in my Lonely Planet guidebook as I ducked into the low doorframe. Don’t step directly on the threshold. Walk clockwise around the hearth in the center. Point your feet towards the door. Don’t lean on a column. I took a seat on a cot on the right side of the ger with the other women. Thin metal sheets that were once a teal green covered the floor. The paint had mostly worn off. Behind us, shelves were stacked with kitchen equipment: metal jugs, ceramic dishes, plastic mugs, a thermos, a colander. Animal jaws horseshoed a wooden beam hanging from the ceiling. A large tin kettle sat atop the wood-burning stove in the middle of the room.
A teenaged girl, two boys of perhaps seven and eight, and a boy of perhaps two, huddled near the kitchen shelves. Their cheeks were ruddy and specked with dirt. Uneven wisps of black hair reached down the boys’ foreheads, the girl’s hair was long and straight. Their brightly colored sweaters were dirty but tidy. They seemed embarrassed. I smiled at them, trying to erase their discomfort, but it didn’t help. They looked at us intently, as if they were registering us, our strangenesses.
Odval passed around milk curds, thick cream, cookies, milk tea, and airag, which Osso explained was fermented mare’s milk. It was made all throughout the summer months and stockpiled for the winter, getting stronger and stronger. But it was only August, and the airag was not so strong yet. I took a small sip from the bowl, barely getting down the sour, treacly yogurt drink. After a few more sips, though, it began to feel warm, nourishing, and pleasantly tangy. I briefly thought of the fretful eyes Zach would try to hide from me if he saw this—good kind Zach wanting to protect the growing thing inside me, and also not wanting to judge me. But he wasn’t here, he didn’t see, he didn’t know about this thing inside me.
I heard the roar of the motorcycle before I could see Erdin riding in along the bank of the river. He was wrapped in a blue robe that flailed behind him in the wind. A lamb was placed across his lap so that it looked as if it was in the process of jumping over the bike and then just decided to give up, letting its legs dangle over each side. Erdin pulled up to where the group stood and hoisted the lamb over the bike, where it proceeded to walk about, baying a little and sniffing at the grass. Erdin had offered to make khorkhog, a traditional dish of lamb and vegetables cooked in a milk jug filled with fire-hot rocks.
Mongolians aren’t in the habit of naming their animals, Osso explained. The yaks who pulled the wooden carts were referred to as “Brown Face” or “Black Face” if they needed to be distinguished. It was probably best that way. Best not to get too attached.
Erdin had lived around here all his life. I supposed he was in his early forties, though how could I possibly tell? His face was as windswept and weathered as the wide stretches of land he had just driven across. He didn’t speak much, and I sensed it was because he was a man of few words rather than a language barrier.
Without discussion or direction, Erdin and his boys spread themselves out and surrounded the unsuspecting lamb, and then he took hold of its neck and led it to a flat plot of grass by the stream. He took out his knife, wrapped in a piece of cloth, from a pocket of his robe. With the cloth he wiped the knife, one side and then the other. He laid the lamb out on its back, holding it down with his forearms. The lamb bleated as Erdin made a quick incision, about the length of a playing card, on its pink, fuzzy stomach. He reached inside, his arm hidden until just about his elbow, to pinch an artery leading to the lamb’s heart. The lamb coughed a few times, but not too much, and kicked its legs up in an already resigned half effort. (Michael pivoted around and headed back toward camp, and then so did Thomas, just behind his son.) Then the lamb stopped moving, took a few last, measured breaths, and was dead.
I imagined myself, my own age a hundred years ago, gray and stout, in a housedress and a babushka, chasing chickens around a coop. With tested skill I would pluck one up, and with a firm twist of the wrist, the thing would be dead. Chicken soup, schmaltz. Shabbos dinner. In this version, though, I would be almost a grandmother, rather than on the cusp of motherhood.
Nothing was lost. Erdin cut the skin of the lamb from the bones of the front legs, and worked his way with knife and fist down the body and the hind legs, separating skin and wool from muscle and tendon, until the lamb lay on a blanket of its own protective sheath. He lengthened the incision he made on the belly and lifted out the organs, placing them in plastic bowls. He tossed the gall bladder behind him, away from the stream. He handed Odval the stomach and intestines, which she drained in the way ketchup is squeezed from a packet, sliding thumb and forefinger down the length of the encasement. Erdin dipped a small cup into the cavity of the carcass and transferred the animal’s blood from its body to a large green bowl. Blood sausage for breakfast. Then he went about cutting meat from bone into slabs thick and wide. Everything would become something else. And it was then, I didn’t know why, that tears warmed a path down my cheeks and slid, salty, into the corners of my mouth.
I turned back to look for Michael and Thomas. I noticed a figure out beyond the campsite, where the stream snaked around and widened, and walked toward it.
“So how’d it go?” I followed the voice to its unexpected origin, upwards, where Thomas was sitting on a tree branch about ten feet up, his back against the sturdy trunk and legs outstretched. He took a long pull on his flask. Sometimes Thomas seemed more like the son than Michael did. He climbed trees and scrambled up rock walls, stayed up late drinking Oban from a flask and reading Being and Nothingness, persuaded Erdin to let him take his motorcycle, which he rode, fast, across the plain until he was a speck and then back. Michael was quieter, more afraid of things. He cleared everyone’s dishes after meals even though there was a server to do that. He put on sunscreen, and made Thomas do the same. He kept a journal. I was smitten with both of them.
“Well, the little guy sure is dead,” I replied.
“Nice,” said Michael with sarcasm. He turned to look me in the eyes from where he was wading in the stream, khakis rolled up to his knees, water grazing his ankles.
I smiled and gave him the finger. “I didn’t know you had such a sensitive disposition beneath that preppy jock cool guy façade,” I said.
“Yeah, well, the chicks dig it,” he replied quickly, as if he’d had to use this line before. He turned back to where I sat on the bank of the stream, knees hugged into my chest, and he copied my position. “Was it gross?”
“No. Mostly not. Well, the stomach was nasty. I don’t know, it was kind of nice.”
“You’re such a weirdo.”
“Come on, not like that. I guess it just seemed…respectful somehow. As opposed to the way animals are treated on those big factory farms, you know? This was—nice. And I mean, we’re going to eat it, right? We should have the courage to see the thing die.”
“Sorry,” I said, because I hadn’t meant to make him feel bad and I had pushed him too far. I touched his arm, and then stood up.
Genghis Khan toddled in these fields. Cooked khorkhog over a fire, as Erdin did now. I read somewhere about a study of DNA from thousands of men across Eurasia that led geneticists to conclude that one man, living in Mongolia in the twelfth century, scattered his genetic material across half of Eurasia, with the result that it was shared by one in 200 of all men alive today. Generations and generations and generations. I couldn’t help it—I looked down and put a hand to my stomach.
© Kara Moskowitz, 2014
Kara Moskowitz is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. A recovering lawyer, she is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at The New School. She is working on short stories inspired by her travels. Recent adventures include climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit, and kayaking the Norway fjords. She lives in NYC with her dog, Sammy.
Leave of Presence was read by Michaela Morton on 2nd April 2014