by Steve Carr
The wind that swept across the Mongolian steppe carried with it sleet and snow flurries that melted as soon as it hit the grass that carpeted the rolling hills. The camels, horses and cattle that Nachin had crowded in the small corral not far from the ger shuffled about uneasily, not being used to defending themselves against such harsh weather or being penned in with one another. At the opened doorway of the ger, Nachin scanned the horizon, watching for sight of his older brother, Zhanzhin, to come riding over the hill on his horse. The fading light of twilight had darkened the landscape. The howls of a pack of wolves that had recently taken up residence in the distant hills echoed across the steppe.
“Come inside and shut the door. Zhanzhin may have stopped for the night at a neighbor’s ger,” his wife, Odsar, said from where she sat on their bed. She was holding on her lap their six year-old son, Erden. The boy was fidgeting, restless after being held to keep him from joining his father at the opened door where cold air rushed in.
“It’s not like him to not be here in time for grandmother’s birthday,” Nachin replied. “He said in his last letter he would bring her something special from Ulaanbaatar.”
Odsar looked over at the grandmother, Sarnai, who sat next to the stove, threading a piece of yarn through a tear in one of her blankets. The old woman’s arthritic fingers trembled as she attempted to pull on the yarn.
“Your emee has forgotten that tomorrow is her birthday,” Odsar said. “Please, Nachin, close the door. It is getting cold in here. Zhanzhin will get here when he gets here.”
Nachin gave a last nervous glance toward the darkness creeping over the hills, sighed heavily, and then shut the door. He removed his gloves and boots and placed them on the straw mat with everyone else’s boots and shoes beside the door .
Released from his mother’s grasp, Erden, slid down from his mother’s lap and ran to his father. “Did you put Altandöl in his bed?”
Nachin scooped the boy into his arms and lifted him. “Yes, son, your beloved pony is with his mother and they are both safe and warm with the rest of our animals.”
The boy hugged his father’s neck. “Thank you, Aavaa.” He then quickly pulled back, suddenly impatient to be let back down. “Tomorrow I will ride Altandöl all the way to the city.”
“Such a far distance my little, Erden?” Nachin said as he set the boy down and watched as he ran across the ger to his bed of blankets that lay on the floor and jumped onto it.
Before lying down, Erden kicked at the small mound of stuffed animals beside his bed, uncovering a monkey. He picked it up, and hugging it close to his chest, laid down. Making the gangly legs and arms of the monkey dance in the air for a moment and then saw his father raise the flap over the window on the door and peer out. “Aavaa, are the wolves going to eat Uncle Zhanzhin?” he said.
Odsar rose from the bed. “Of course not, Erden,” she said. “The tough meat on your uncle’s bones does not appeal to wolves.” She put two pieces of damp wood in the stove and stood back as the fire snapped and popped.
Sarnai bit through the strand of yarn, breaking it in two, and tied the end. “I’ll be seventy-four tomorrow,” she said, giving Odsar a sideways withering glance.
At the break of dawn, Odsar wiggled her body away from Nachin’s arms that encircled her and climbed from the bed, went to the stove, and threw in a few pieces of wood into the ashes. She lit the wood with a match and as flames rose from the wood she shut the oven door that closed with a metallic clang.
“Is that you, Zhanzhin?” Sarnai asked, rising up from her mat, staring bleary-eyed into the dim light inside the ger.
“It’s just me, Sarnai. Zhanzhin hasn’t arrived yet,” Odsar said. “Sleep a little longer. If Zhanzhin arrives I’ll be sure to waken you.” She watched the old woman lie back down and then went to the door, raised the flap, and stared out at the mist that shrouded the hills and the yard that surrounded the ger. The animals in the corral were motionless, as if frozen in place. “Such strange weather,” she mumbled under her breath. The freak blizzard that had killed most of their livestock two years before still weighed heavily on her mind. There was talk on the radio of the climate changing, but she had no idea what it meant.
She lowered the flap, turned, and scanned the ger, seeking out the gifts on the shelves that Zhanzhin had brought her each time he returned from the capital. The assortment of items he had given her – small statues, postcards, porcelain cups, colorful candles – didn’t amount to much, but she treasured them. Her husband had no money to buy such frivolous things. She turned when she heard the patter of Erden’s bare feet on the wood floor. The boy rushed to the tin pot kept in a corner not far from his bed, pushed down his britches and peed into it. Soon he would be old enough to venture out alone during the night and early morning to use the outhouse just like the adults did. When finished he ran to his mother and wrapped his arms around her legs.
“May I go out to see Altandöl?” he said.
She ran her fingers through his thick hair. “Not now,” she said. “Later when it’s warmer and after Zhanzhin has arrived. You can show your new pony to your uncle.”
The boy’s lower lip drooped. “Maybe Altandöl has forgotten me.”
“That will never happen,” she said. “Now go back to bed.” She turned him about, affectionately patted his bottom and urged him toward the direction of his bed. When he settled onto his blanket, she filled the tea kettle with water and placed it on the stove. Minutes later she heard the beating of horse’s hooves on the ground not far from the ger. She ran to the door, raised the flap and looked out the window. “Zhanzhin is here,” she shouted excitedly.
Odsar, Nachin and Erden sat in a semi-circle on the floor, each with their eyes glued on the object wrapped in bright yellow tissue paper that Sarnai held in her lap. She was seated in one of the two chairs in the ger, next to Zhanzhin, who sat in the other chair. Her hands shook as she undid the bright red string that was tied around the wrapping. Her fingers trembled as she peeled away the layers of tissue paper. At last and with a great deal of emotion she held in her hands a clay pot that was painted bright red and decorated with images of the eight symbols of Buddhism in gold leaf and white paint. Tears flowed down the grandmother’s cheeks as she held the pot up, showing it to each member of the family.
“I bought it at the finest gift shop in all of Ulaanbaatar,” Zhanzhin said announced, his cheeks reddened with pride.
“It’s the most beautiful pot I’ve ever seen,” Nachin said. “You must be doing well.”
“I now earn in a month mining what it used to take me a year to make with horses and cattle. Soon I’ll have enough saved for a down payment on a truck. Come to Ulaanbaatar and I’ll get you a job where I work.”
Nachin glanced over at his wife who was staring at Sarnai’s pot. He had never seen such a look of envy in her eyes. Before most of his livestock had been killed in the blizzard two years before he had hopes of one day bringing that look to her face. He returned his admiring gaze to his brother’s beaming face. “I’ll have to discuss it with my wife.”
Sarnai leaned forward in her chair and held the pot in front of Erden’s face. “Is it not beautiful?” she said.
The boy glanced toward the door. “It’s not as beautiful as Altandöl,” he said.
“You can’t take a pony to the city,” the old woman cackled as if the decision to move there had already been decided.
“Uncle Zhanzhin has a horse,” the boy protested.
“Zhanzhin is a great man and you are just a boy who still plays with stuffed animals,” she said. “No boys in the city have a pony.”
Erden began to cry. “I’m not leaving Altandöl,” he blubbered.
Odsar put her arm around her son’s shoulders. “Of course you can’t leave something you love,” she said as she stared at the pot.
There was a chilly bite in the air, but no precipitation. A gentle breeze blew across the hills carrying with it the fragrance of grass and damp earth. Nachin had kept Altandöl and the mare in the corral but let the other animals out to return to where they usually grazed on the steppe not far from the ger. He left for Ulaanbaatar with his brother the day before to have a look around the city and to talk to Zhanzhin’s supervisor about getting a mining job. Odsar stood at the wood railing that enclosed the corral and watched Erden lead Altandöl around the enclosure by a rope tied around the pony’s neck. She and Nachin had chosen not to tell the boy that they might sell the animals and the land and move to the city. The pony seemed as attached to Erden as Erden was attached to it. Even without the rope, the pony followed the boy. Odsar had heard that some people in the city had dogs that were kept inside as pets. The thought of it made her shudder.
“Come see where I now have my new pot,” Sarnai called out from the open door of the ger.
The hairs on the back of Odsar’s neck stood on end. The old woman had moved the pot to different places within the ger ever since receiving it three days before. Each time she invited Odsar to see the pot in its new location, always receiving the same icy response from Odsar. Odsar was convinced that Sarnai did it to aggravate her, but had held her tongue. When Sarnai went back into the ger, Odsar spat on the ground. “Let Altandöl go now, Erden,” she said to her son, her voice tinged with impatience. “I have other things to do.”
The boy removed the rope from the pony’s neck, hung it on the railing, and crawled through the rails. He took his mother’s hand. “Don’t worry Eeej ee, maybe Aavaa will bring back a pot like that for you.”
“Your father will never bring me a pot as fine as that one,” she said. With the boy’s hand firmly grasped in hers, Odsar marched to the ger, flung open the door, and saw that what Sarnai had done with the pot was more than she even feared. On the shelf where her statues and post cards had set, the pot was the only thing on it.
Sitting by the stove, Sarnai looked up from the plate of dumplings that rested in her lap and smiled. “Do you like what I’ve done?” she asked in a syrupy tone.
Odsar stood at the edge of the yard and watched as Zhanzhin’s truck bumped up and down on the road as it drew closer. Nachin had been away for three weeks, sending poorly written letters that detailed what he did at work during the day operating a machine that dug rock out of the ground and in the evening going about Ulaanbaatar with his brother searching for a place to relocate their ger and looking for a truck for Zhanzhin to buy. She had written back only once, telling him that the wolves had killed one of the cows and that Erden had begun riding Altandöl. “He hopes to turn the pony into a racing horse,” she wrote. She hadn’t told Erden that they were moving to Ulaanbaatar. She started to write in her letter how his grandmother was making her crazy with the pot, but scratched it out.
Sarnai was standing in the doorway of the ger holding onto Erden’s collar, holding him back with one hand to keep him from running into the path of the oncoming truck. She held the pot in the crux of her free arm.
As soon as the truck came to a stop a few yards from where Odsar stood, the passenger door opened, Nachin jumped out, ran to his wife, and embraced her in a tight hug. “I have something to tell Erden,” he said cheerily. He looked past his wife, and seeing his son in the ger doorway, called out to him. The boy broke free of his grandmother’s grip and ran to his father.
Nachin knelt down. “I have the most wonderful news, my son. We’re moving to the city.”
The boy glanced over at the corral where Altandöl stood at the railing, its head poking out through the rails. Erden’s eyes welled with tears. “What about my pony?” he said.
“That’s the best part,” Nachin said. “There is a place to keep the pony and its mother on the land where our ger will be relocated.”
The boy’s face exploded in an expression of joy. He threw his arms around his father’s neck and smothered the man’s cheeks with kisses.
It was then that Zhanzhin stepped out of the truck and carrying an object wrapped in the same yellow tissue paper that Sarnai’s pot had been wrapped in, he walked up to Odsar and handed it to her.
As the truck slowly rambled along on the road, with the ger dismantled and in the back of the truck, and Altandöl and his mother being pulled along behind, Odsar and Sarnai sat in the back seat on either side of Erden, each holding identical pots in their laps. They hadn’t spoken to one another, or to Zhanzhin, from the moment Odsar unwrapped her gift in Sarnai’s presence. The scowls on their faces and their refusal to look at one another as the truck headed for the city told the remainder of the story of the clay pot.
About the Author:
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 440 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. He is the founder of Sweetycat Press. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com / He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977