Nergui could hear the sound of distant drumming. He’d been aware of it for some time now, the steady monotonous beat, pitched low, subsonic to the wind, but as he came over the low rise that separated the efficient concrete Soviet-style school building from the residential ger district the sound leapt suddenly into sharp focus.
He held up for a moment, listening. The drum was being struck in rhythmic quarter notes, each coming hard upon the heel of the last, so that the sound never had a chance to fade completely. On and on it went, until it seemed that the sound radiated up out of the earth itself; passing from the surface of the hard-packed dirt road, through the soles of Nergui’s shoes, up his legs, until it had penetrated the very core of him.
If he were closer, he would be able to hear Tuya chanting, her young voice an alto warble over the baritone pulse of the drum.
She could have waited, Nergui thought. She would have known that he was on his way home.
Since his younger sister had begun her duties as a shaman acolyte the previous summer, Nergui had only seen her go into the trance and call down the spirits once. Though she told him that she had no control over when or where it happened, Nergui had come to think it a bit convenient that it seemed to only happen when he was elsewhere.
“Ghosts don’t like you,” she had told him primly when he had asked about it. Her expression had not changed, but Nergui had been sure that she was laughing.
Nergui suspected that she was afraid he would make fun of her. Tuya was usually a quiet girl, soft-spoken, thoughtful, slow and deliberate of movement. She was younger than him by three years, young enough that she still cared deeply what her older brother thought, still feared that he would dismiss her talent out of hand.
All of this Nergui knew. He knew it with the certainty that he knew things about all the people he lived with. They dwelled in such close quarters – never having much privacy, never even wanting much – that they came to understand one another as if by absorbing small particles of thought and feeling out of the very air they shared.
Still though, Nergui thought ruefully, he would have liked to have Tuya speak with the spirits on his behalf. She had said that they were very old spirits, older than anything, and at this Nergui had become intrigued.
He could not remember a time when he had not been obsessed by the past. Though he had little patience for the dry half-truths they taught him in school, the platitudes that, at seventeen, he was already coming to regard with mocking doubt, Nergui had always felt that there was something of substance there that he was supposed to take hold of but could not.
Gazing with half-focused eyes down the grassy slope that led towards home, Nergui felt the years fall away, and he saw himself dressed not in the pressed and pleated trousers and clean white shirt of his school uniform, but in the rough-hewn deel and high Buriad boots of his ancestors. He was not one man at the moment, but two. Or rather, he was one, and the afterimage of another who had gone before, like a spot of color that remains on the inside of the lid after the eye is closed.
He struggled for something that would do justice to that phantom of ages past. He tried to turn himself just right, as if he were both the key and the stubborn lock into which it fitted, but he came up short. He was no closer now to that ghost of ages past who walked ever ahead of him, his steps unencumbered by hidden coils of barbed wire or decade’s worth of discarded Soviet junk.
The breeze picked up, and Nergui started as surely as if he had been struck by a hand. The northern wind that was blowing on him now was icy cold no matter what the season. Whether summer or the dead of winter, it knifed through the clothes and chilled to the bone. Quickly now, Nergui started down the little incline that lead into the roughly-gridded streets of the ger district. Perhaps Tuya did not yet know that he didn’t want to see her call the spirits for the spectacle of it, but rather because he longed for nothing more than to be close to their ancient dignity for a time. Still, he could not shake the feeling that she was deliberately denying him the experience.
As he drew near the first row of residences, Nergui could see the smoke from the jutting stovepipes, fires lit against the coming evening. He did not hasten his pace. It was still autumn, though soon enough the weather would take a turn for the bitterly cold. In the autumn, the twilight always lasted a long time.
To his right, lying at the foot of a hill some distance from the ger district, were the six apartment blocks that made up the center of Bagakhangai duureg. The apartments had been put up in the 70s to house the Russian officials who had come to this outpost a few hundred kilometers from the capital to squat like carrion birds on the railway line.
The Russians were long gone now. They'd cleared out after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Nergui could not remember ever having met a single one of them. He regretted having been born too late, wedged in between two eras – Soviet and modern - that were complicated beyond his ability to comprehend.
Nergui’s grandfather was a staunch Marxist as well as the last of a rare and dying breed: an apologist for Communism. He said the Soviets had built wells, schools, infrastructure, railroads. He said that the Russians had dragged them out from under centuries of Chinese colonization so that once again their country might produce men whose names the world would know. All of this had happened just as he had said, and yet Nergui could not shake the feeling that something was missing.
The Russians had more or less cleared out of Mongolia by now. An entire generation had come up not knowing what it was to answer to politicians in Moscow. Now, it was callous Western-style capitalism that people strived for, to carve a place in the world on the world’s terms. But running all through and about and beside this was a great back-glancing longing for the past. Not the Soviet past, but something older still. Preserved in perfect, romantic purity in a country’s collective imagination.
To think, it had all begun with a love affair.
Nergui had heard the story of Temujin and his consort Borte dozens of times, with hundreds of different variations. She was nearly as much of a national hero, an idea to strive towards, as he was, though practically none of the storytellers or historians or historian-storytellers could agree on what she had been like, save that she must have been remarkable.
The movies all seemed in agreement: her marriage to Temujin had been passionate intensity and a deep and wordless understanding. For who could not love a man like that? Nergui thought, and he felt his cheeks grow warm before the cold wind, though there was no one around who could have guessed at his thoughts, or even heard his voice if he had spoken aloud.
Often, Nergui fretted that he had never felt a love like that, had never even seen its equivalent in real life. It was as if it had gone out of the modern world entirely, putting out the fire in the stove and scattering the ashes for it had no intention of returning.
If they could not even manage that - could not even manage love - then what hope had they of ever regaining the dizzying terrifying greatness of which love had been the beginning?
As Nergui reached the first hard-packed cross street of the ger district, a small flock of goats that were grazing in the windbreak made by one of the fences came to attention. The lead animal was a big white she-goat with a heavy rack of horns, and she watched him with intense, wry curiosity. Nergui took a single, feinting step in their direction, and the flock broke as one body, curving away from the fence like a fish curving out of the water and disappearing around the corner.
A few rows further on, Nergui came to a high steel gate stenciled with a bust of Lenin. The sheet of iron had not always been a gate, but no one – not even Nergui’s grandfather – could now remember what it had been in its previous life. The faded Lenin was now just another piece of castoff Soviet jetsam. Nergui reached through the gap between the gate and the wall and lifted the inside latch.
The yard inside was occupied by two ger, their orange south-facing doors almost like wide-set eyes in a half-submerged face. Against the back wall, there was a new shed and an old collapsing pen where they had once kept the horses. The horses had all gone to countryside now to live with Nergui’s aunt, though they did visit often during the summer and fetch them into town specifically for the festival of Nadaam in July. The Land Cruiser they had bought after they got rid of the horses was much more practical, and Altan, Nergui’s older brother, was becoming a talented mechanic who saved them a lot of money in repairs.
But today, of all days, Nergui was glad that someone had the car out, and he did not have to see it when he returned. Deliberately averting his eyes from the deep tire tracks that scarred the dust in the corner of the yard, Nergui dipped his head and went into the eastern ger.
Tuya was kneeling at the small table in the center of the room. A cutting board with the potatoes for dinner sliced and arranged in neat rows was set out beside her, waiting to be cooked until the rest of the family had returned. Tuya had her English book set out before her, along with a small notebook with pictures of Disney characters on the cover.
She glanced up at him as he came in, her expression mild and unreadable. She had left the flat tasseled drum she used for rituals sitting out carelessly on the bed. Nergui circled around until he was standing over it, but he made no move to pick it up.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Tuya said. “It’s not like it’s a sickness, you know.”
“Sometimes you talk about it like it is. It’s really old-fashioned, isn’t it? I wish I could be good at something cooler.”
Nergui looked back at her, but he did not speak.
“Will you help me with my homework?” Tuya said.
Slowly, Nergui came around the central stove to crouch down beside her. Tuya shoved the notebook at him, and he read over the paragraph. The English letters were carefully-shaped, as if she had labored intensely over each one of them.
“My Hero” read the title at the top of the page. And then:
“My hero is my older brother. His name is Nergui. He is seventeen years old, and he goes to secondary school. He is my hero because when he was ten, he raced horses. Once, he won a big race for children from all over the province. I was very proud of him. I think that my brother would still race horses, but he is too fat now.”
“Big,” Nergui said. “Too big now. In English, you can’t call people fat.”
“Big,” Tuya echoed. She scratched out the word in her notebook, and, with exquisite care, lettered B-I-G in the margin beside it.
“Is that all?” Nergui said.
“I don’t know what else to say,” Tuya admitted apologetically. “But it has to be 100 words long.”
“That is a lot,” Nergui said.
For a moment, they both stared down at the notebook in an attitude of intense concentration.
“You know, you don’t have to write it about me,” Nergui said. “If it’s about someone else, maybe you can think of more.”
“But I want it to be about you. And besides, I’m already halfway finished. Who else would I write about anyway?”
Nergui shrugged. “Someone famous. Someone from the past, maybe? Someone who’s actually done something that people care about.”
“Do you really think so?” Tuya shook her head. “But I want to write about someone I know. Because it’s supposed to be about my hero, not just a hero.”
Then, as if she had suddenly been struck by inspiration, Tuya snatched the notebook back and began to write. Slowly, laboriously, making her thoughts appear.
“In the future, I think my brother will be a very famous and important person. Mongolians will know him, and so will people all over the world…”