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from the October 2018 issue

Solitude

Erdene Seng's short story reveals the fate of one stubborn member of a community in transition.
 

Our people began to move from our homeland at the beginning of spring. Old man Dash would remember that day for the rest of his life. Dash sat by the pile of firewood near his ger. He watched as, almost like a spring mirage, a mass of animals and carts moved haphazardly along the near side of the southern mountain, with horsemen galloping in all directions. Dash saw this and muttered sadly, “My poor homeland, my poor homeland,” blinking his watery eyes. Spitting again and again through the gap between his front teeth, he patted the front of his boots with his skinny yet sinewy arms.

Gripping a weathered dish, his wife came out from inside a squat little lean-to, made of a short wall of black wooden poles and roofed with bark, and shouted “Snubnose, Snubnose!” As soon as she shouted a fat scruffy gray puppy came out from behind the ger, bounding under the housewife’s feet, its tongue lolling. Dash ignored the friendly Snubnose, and looked with indifference at his humble wife, the front of her skirt hanging down unevenly. 

“Granny, look at the southern mountain. It is like they are fleeing a war.”

His wife sighed and shaded her faded old eyes with her hand. “So, while they are busy preparing to move, we are sitting here doing nothing,” she said.

Depressed, he said to her, “If that is how you feel, gather your things and follow them.” At that his wife entered her home, muttering to herself.

“My poor homeland. What are they thinking, what kind of people would reject their homeland after living here for forty years? They say together we will settle, we will settle. The pasture’s grass will not be enough, the animals will never graze well in the new pastureland, the cows will never give milk, and their summer milk quota will certainly be short. They say that we should live in one concentrated spot, in modern buildings with electricity. Where are these modern buildings? And what can I do . . . Even my dull wife seems to be talking nonsense as well.”

After he finished scarfing down the food from his dish, Snubnose came over to Dash, tail wagging, but Dash kicked the dog with his roebuck winter boots. Snubnose, offended, fled his owner's temper with a plaintive yelp. During the past year, the brigade members of the collective discussed settling in the new pasture near the collective center, and moving from the original pasture, which had good grazing land but was on the other side of the mountain and river from the district center. Dash did not want to hear anything about that.

At first he won the old folks to his side. In every meeting they protested and condemned the involuntary move from the security of the waters of their homeland to new pastures. But as more days and nights passed, the discussion over whether to move or stay began to break down, especially when young members began to tell fairy tale stories about going to a new area and establishing a city of houses with glass windows and milking their cows by electricity.

Sometimes he wondered why he should be different from the others and began to give in. But when he was trotting down that well-known road, he knew he was too accustomed to his old life, and he remembered the happiness he enjoyed in his native pasture. In his youthful travels he lived through a lot of hardships, and he roamed and explored the earth. When he came to this land, he had no place to sleep and no livestock to herd. After he arrived, he bought a horse to ride and met his wife. As the years passed, he was able to change the cover of his ger from gray to white, and had a life where he was not forced to chew only the remainder of the bone. When he thought about this, he swore again and again to himself that he would not leave this plentiful pasture which treated him so well, until he died and returned to his home in the earth. It seemed to him that the others did not think about this at all. Even people his own age were not wise enough to care about their home pasture.

Although the members of the collective tried to convince the stubborn old man, he said “OK, OK. I will stay here and keep guarding my pastures. I will take care of my few personal head of livestock, and I won’t make trouble for you. And I will survive somehow.”

It continued this way until spring came and the neighbors began to move, one after the other. From time to time his wife would mutter to him, “How can our family remain here alone?”

“My silly woman, you became human by the grace of this land. If you like, go yourself. I will be fine, with or without you,” he shouted. He refused to give in. Forty years she’d been married, and she had trusted her husband’s strength when he was young and his wisdom when he grew older. But now she could do nothing except mutter to herself.

That day, the brigade’s last few camps were moving. Old Man Dash sat by the firewood all day, sobbing, “Poor homeland, my poor homeland,” as he saw them off.

A few nights passed. The old man’s heart was comforted by the fact that he had remained in his homeland. But his wife was boiling over looking at the emptied pastures, without a single living thing, no families or animals. She pounded the mortar and pestle, and in the evening she gathered the livestock. Then there was nothing more she could do. She tried to work hard and had no choice but to stay and wait silently to see if the stubborn old man would change his mind and give in. Occasionally a traveler or a mail truck would pass by the pasture by the near side of the southern mountain, or a herd of horses would appear from far away. There was nothing more in the pasture to be seen.

After a long time summer came, and with it, rain. In the middle of July, the old man had to go the district center to fetch flour, grains, tea, and tobacco. His wife became angry, which had never happened before. “I won’t remain here all alone.”

The old man was so upset he thought about taking a hobble and halter to the woman. “If that is so, my swollen-eyed old thing, fine. Then go yourself.”

The old woman put the thick felt saddle pad, the saddle, and the old leather saddle cover, which was worn and had holes in it, on her horse. She tied the bag that was her bridal gift to the saddle with leather thongs. She struggled to get on the horse to go to the district center, trying to bend her knees and straighten her back, her feet kicking the leather cover. When she came to the collective center she was exhausted from riding and saddlesore.

At the collective center, her former neighbors met her and took her to the settlement of their brigade. New wooden houses were there, built in rows, and she saw a corral for milking, a half-covered stall for the calves, and so on. She saw there was a place here where everything was orderly and unthinkably clean, and she was greatly awed and fascinated by what she saw. Her former neighbors urged her to join them.

She decided to race home in her sheepskin deel, and, for the first time, fight with her husband. Snubnose the puppy, who greatly missed his mistress, greeted her by running and playing about and licking her lap, where he smelled milk.

 But the old man greeted her with a dark expression. While the wife was away a two-year-old calf was killed by a wolf. She used this opportunity to rebuke the old man repeatedly. She repeated ten thousand times how well their former neighbors now lived.

When she did so the old man sat down in his usual way in the place of honor with a thump. “What do you know? You know nothing. Would the cattle become fat when people are living in houses? When fall comes, the animals will be lost. They will experience this disaster, then they will all see.”

The old lady opened her bag and took out a package of tobacco and threw it front of him. “It is very unpleasant for a living being to be isolated from relatives and friends. If you are going to be like this, I will have to go alone,” the old woman said to the old man.

The old man laughed sarcastically until his sides hurt. “Do it. Does this mean that you will throw me away now, when you are so old that your jaw hangs down to your knee? When hell freezes over! How far will you get without me?” he mocked. The old woman looked away from where he was sitting. She went to put away the things she got from town in their chest, and walked away muttering without saying anything else.

A few nights later the old man returned home from a nearby mountain, where he had gone to gather some sticks to use with a post for a fence. But he did not see any smoke coming from the chimney. When he approached the ger, Snubnose did not come to greet him. “She doesn’t even boil tea,” he said in disgust. But when he entered the ger, the old woman was not there. The chest at the end of the bed was almost empty. Just then he realized that the saddle and bridle were not in front of the ger.

“Damn it! What the hell is going on?” And then, like someone who lost his strength, he sat down with a thud on the bed, breathing heavily, not knowing whether to be angry or to laugh.
 

Erdene Seng, “Gantsaardal,” in Naran togoruu (Ulaanbaatar: Ulsyn Khevleliin Gazar, 1972). By arrangement with the author’s estate. Translation © 2018 by Kenneth Linden. All rights reserved.

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