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Healing from the Ruins (unpublished, 2020)

My sister was sick and we were in the middle of the Gobi desert. She leaned her forehead, feverish like the engine of our Russian pill box, against the van’s window. Our driver didn’t speak English and so we explained to him in Mongolian that we needed to stop. We were hours from the nearest settlement and the pulpous clouds hanging along the endless horizon threatened a storm. After bumping along in translation, our driver pulled over and my sister tumbled out onto the scattered pebbles. Eyes closed in the heavy air, she pressed her face into the ground and moaned.

We had been in the Gobi for days. Leaving our apartment in Ulaanbaatar, we had loaded our bags with hardtack and peanut butter, sheets of dried seaweed from the Korean grocery store across the street. We hired a Mongolian driver with a Russian van, both relics from the days before independence. Our driver said Russian phrases to us, thinking we might understand because we were Caucasian. We spoke to him in a combination of Mongolian and emphatic gestures, hoping he might understand because we were passionate.

We were young and poor and everything was an adventure. The word our driver used to describe his van translated to machine. He was constantly pulling over and parking it, engine open into the wind to let it cool off while he smoked. The machine no longer had its original interior and so we took turns sitting in the two airplane seats drilled to the floor. They shook and swayed as he drove and we played cards on the tray tables, which still worked.

In the Gobi we camped in a tiny two-person tent, four of us crammed head to feet under shared sleeping bags. Our driver slept in the van. Looking at my sister, whose color was the same grey as the encroaching sky, we knew that she couldn’t camp. We needed shelter. I asked our driver where we could go. He stood there, his unlit cigarette dangling between his dry lips, and motioned in a direction saying khiid. I recognized the word for monastery and meditated silently for help as we loaded my sister back into the machine.

After the 1924 Mongolian constitution brought a de jure Soviet government to Mongolia, it began to target lamas and monasteries. Under Prime Minister Choibalsan, referred to by some as the Stalin of Mongolia, authorities carried out ruthless anti-Buddhism campaigns throughout the 1930s, shooting monks in assembly lines and reducing monasteries to rubble. Official figures estimate that 17,000 monks were killed. Those that survived fled, many into hiding away from the ruin. Away from rocks that bore the holes of tank fire.

My sister looked up as we reached a couple of ger and she smiled, weakly. Yurt, our driver pointed, using the Russian word. Just seeing them, round and white against the darkening landscape, she felt a little better. Our driver got out and went to speak with the family, who had already appeared in the rectangle door at the sound of our van. In the unsettled dusk of the Gobi the desert boulders looked like figures. Ghosts on the hills that surrounded their home. Our driver returned and said that we could stay. He helped us move my sister into one of the ger, which the family used for storage.

There was an ancient bed and we put my sister in it just as the clouds broke outside. The storage ger had no fire, no stove, and so rain came in through the hole at the top. We sat to the side, three of us on one sleeping bag spread on the felt floor. We opened a can of sardines and shared them with our kind and silent host. His three-year-old daughter stared at us. She tasted the sardines and couldn’t, wouldn’t, stop eating them. She snuck around her father to dip her tiny fingers in the grease, licking them and laughing as she ran in circles around the puddles forming at our feet.

My sister fell asleep. After conferring for a time in rushed and quiet Mongolian, our driver and our host left. Eventually they returned with a coke bottle full of what looked like dirty water. There were particles floating to the top as our driver handed it to me and gestured emphatically. I promised my sister would drink it when she woke. But, when they left I dumped it out. I searched our guidebook to determine where we were. We didn’t have a map and this was long before any of us had a mobile phone. We determined it was Ongiin Khiid, two ruined monasteries along the Ongiin river. Once home to over a thousand monks, it had been completely destroyed in 1939. Years later, I read that Ongiin Khiid houses a cold water source reputed to be health-giving waters. According to tradition, these waters are effective only if we drink them before the sun rises.

The sun did rise and in the morning my sister was better. She and I went for a walk in the hills behind the ger. The desert boulders we had seen the night before were ruins, actual ghosts on the hill. Together we climbed and when I took her hand to help her I realized how worried I had been. In that realization, I could suddenly feel the destruction of the place around me. The broken brick the same color as the broken terrain, the pieces of remaining wall were phantom limbs. I could feel them, sense their sinking fear. I could hear the moaning of faces pressed into the ground. The ruins looked like sculptures that the earth itself had made. Or like the work of a three-year-old. Blocks precariously stacked, lonesome splendor that is dreamlike to remember.