Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia January, 1984
If nothing else, Chingis needed hope.
The sanguine lips pressed against his were all he needed to feel alive. The lips, they created heat. Heat against the wind, against the billowing snow banks.
The cold slipped into the heat. Chingis’ lips were covered in blisters that were bursting open.
Look at me, she begged.
He did. He touched her cheeks, which were peeling like glue from the dry cold.
I have to get back.
I know. Behind them smoke was billowing from one of the factories. A bell rang in the distance, signaling an end to the lunch hour. Car horns shrieked as haggard sweepers crossed the street to begin another several hours of labor.
See you later, he said finally. He leaned to kiss her again, but she turned away. Her eyes were bright but her cheeks betrayed her: gaunt, a cavern of need.
They both knew this was the last time. They both knew that when the sun set, they would bury the memory of the day and scatter its ashes so it would be found by no one.
Mongke’s father wasn’t home. Dusk had fallen and his mother had mutton cooking in the stove, the roasted garlic and sage wafting into the air, a sweet perfume that enveloped the kitchen in warmth. Mongke’s stomach was empty, but he had no appetite as he watched his mother cleaning off the counters. She smiled at him.
“We’re going to have a good dinner tonight.” She came over and ruffled his hair. Even though he wasn’t little anymore, something about her touch always warmed him the way hot cider did, from his head to his toes. “Did you have a good day at school?”
“Tiim . It was all right. Same as usual.”
She cupped his chin with her hands, calloused from scrubbing pots and pans all day. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” He pulled away, even though he didn’t want to.
She sighed. “Mongke, do you mind setting the table?” He started to pick up the dishes obediently, and she set a soft hand on his shoulder. “And anything you need to talk about, I’m here.”
But she wasn’t who he needed. He wandered over to the sliver of a window in the front of the kitchen. Snow was falling, sheets fine as glass, snow that would not stop. He shivered.
“Mongke? Are you all right?” His mother came over to him and folded him into a hug. Her hair was warm from the oven and her face was flushed.
“No,” he said finally. “I want father to come home.”
She pulled away, her face blank. He thought of the chalkboards at school, how he’d worked arithmetic until his head pounded and how, at the end of the day, the teacher erased of all of his work, as if it had never been there at all.
“He’ll be home soon,” she said finally.
“But it’s already dark.”
She pursed her lips. “He’ll be home soon,” she repeated. “Now finish setting the table. I have to check on the corn.”
Mongke didn’t finish setting up the table. Instead he shrugged off the coat he’d worn earlier, letting the dampness of the house settle under his sweater. He moved towards the fire, watching as the shadows from the flames licked the wall’s peeling paint hungrily.
“We need more wood,” His mother murmured. “It won’t be long, until we can have heat again.”
“It’s not so cold,” Mongke said, even though it was.
His mother’s brow furrowed. “Let’s eat. And turn off the TV.”
A news broadcast was on. The reporter was distinctly Chinese, with tight dark eyes and light skin, his hair tucked under a muskrat cap.
“Mongke, I told you to—“ his mother’s eyes fell on the screen.
Extreme Cold. khüiten ers te. For the next week. irekh doloo khonogt.
His mother’s snort broke the silence. “Surprised he humbles himself to speak Mongolian.” She pressed the power off decidedly. “Come on, let’s eat.”
“But I thought we were going to wait—“
“The food will get cold. Chingis will understand.”
One thing Mongke did not do, was argue with his mother. Especially when she used his first name. He followed her into the kitchen and helped her take out the mutton. The odor of meat juices filled the air, tangy and sweet. The corn was slightly overcooked, mushy and soft, but they pretended like it wasn’t.
“The corn is nice and warm,” his mother said.
Warm. Warmth, under the summer sun, warmth, last winter, with the heat. Warmth, outside of the drafty classrooms that smelled of chalk, outside of the clothing factories that smelled of rubber.
“You aren’t eating anything,” His mother fretted, “Are you getting sick?”
Even though he was only seven, he’d learned that some things were better left unsaid.
“I’m not very hungry,” he said finally, letting the rubbery kernels settle between his teeth. He took a bite of mutton.
“It’s very good food and we can’t waste—“ there was a sharp rap at the door. “Oh! That must be your father!” She dabbed a small spot off her lips and walked over the door. Mongke remained seated.
“I came as soon as I could,”Mongke could hear the chill in his father’s words. A sharp wind curled into the house, and with it, the taste of snow.
“Dinner is cold.”
“I told you, I came as soon as I—“ He stopped short of the dining table and smiled stiffly. “Mongke. How was your day at school?”
“It was fine.”
“Just fine?” His father took a seat across the table , his soft brown eyes warm but his movements stiff. “It looks wonderful, all this warm food.”
His Mother’s lips remained tight. “Glad you think so.”
“Here, do you want some more corn, son?”
Mongke looked between his mother and father; his mother, still flushed from the heat of the oven, his father, flushed from the cold. His mother, her hands calloused from scrubbing pans day in and out at the hospital; his father’s, leathery and hard from working machines.
For two people sitting close as they were, Mongke thought, they could not have seemed further apart.
“That’s okay, “ he said, rising from his chair. “I think I’ve eaten enough.”
I waited for you for nearly half an hour.
He met her in the main square again, which was foolish, but the cold was seeping into his thoughts. The sun was high, a tawny amber whose light provided little warmth, little cheer to the parade of cars and pedestrians.
I came as soon as I could, he said, when he should have said this wasn’t supposed to happen. He could smell the shampoo she always used, the same lavender shampoo she’d used twelve years ago. What he needed to say was that he was sorry
Instead he kissed her lightly on her forehead, communicating what all the words in the world could not.
All of this, would be forgotten.
This moment would be. They would be.
Mongke knew the minute he woke that this was the morning. He rolled out from the warmth of his bed covers and slinked into the kitchen. His mother handed him a steaming bowl as he sat at the table.
“Fried barley. Your favorite.”
“Thanks,” he muttered.
“Mongke.” She sat down beside him and combed his hair with her fingers, the way she used to when he was younger. “If anything is bothering you, you can tell me.”
The barely formed a lump in his throat. His mother had always been the one he’d told everything to. She’d been the one who’d tickled him until he could not stop laughing, and held him when he was sick all night with a terrible cold. She’d been the one who’d told him, day after day, that she loved him more than anything.
But he was twelve. He was no longer little, and he needed his father. He swallowed a last spoonful of the hot barley and dumped it in the sink.
“Thanks for the breakfast,” he said, when he meant, I love you. I’m sorry.
Mongke turned away from the school and towards the street markets. There were potatoes and turnips and carrots. Further down, his eyes caught on a stand where rabbits hung from spits, their eyes bloodshot and wide, their skin stretched thin. One of the vendors, seeing Mongke pause, shoved something in front of his face.
“Here, try some.”
It was a piece of blubber fried to a crisp. Mongke popped it in his mouth and let the sour warmth settle down his throat.
“Buy something for your dinner? We have lots , freshly—“
“No thank you,” he said quickly.
“I insist you try just a little more—“ The vendor said, reaching for what appeared to be a sheep’s head. Its neck was thick, its skin folded like the creases of a well-worn book, and it rank of manure and dried blood. Flies flew in and out of its mouth, in the holes where its eyes should have been.
“I have to get to school,” he shouted, and shoved his way through the crowd, until he reached the edges of the market and the air was clearer. And when he finally had reached the other side of the street, he retched out the barley he’d eaten earlier that morning.
This has to end. You and I—
I know, she answered. I’m sorry.
He bit his lip, shook his head. That didn’t make sense. He was sorry. He was sorry she was Chinese and he was Mongolian. He was sorry for all she had given up, for the son she’d given up. He was sorry there was not a life that could contain them all, Mongke and him and her.
She’s good to him. He’s grown up strong.
And he doesn’t know? And she doesn’t?
If nothing else, this, at least, was a promise he could keep.
Never, he whispered against the caress of her lips. Never. He’s safe. He’ll never know.
Three things happened at once.
Mongke’s mother finished her work for the day and rubbed her aching shoulders, throwing on her coat and preparing for the long walk home.
A man, after celebrating a day’s work with several shots of airag, started his car.
Mongke saw his father talking with a Chinese woman. A Chinese woman.
And he crossed the street—oblivious to the reckless driver behind the wheel.
She screamed, the way only a mother can, an earth shattering cry that drowned any other thought or feeling.
And Chingis did the only brave thing in his life: he dove. A second later would have been too late. But his body slid, collided into his son’s, knocking Mongke to the safety of the burb.
I saved him, Chingis thought. Or maybe he did not have time to think at all. Maybe all he had time was to feel.
To feel the heat of her last kiss, of that last meal, of his body against his son’s.
He had no way of knowing how the ice would form a hairline crack where the crash happened. How, from a distance, you could not see this fissure at all. It was only when you came close, to the caution tape and the shriek of sirens, that you saw the gap.