Dust, Bolormaa remembered later, had been in the air at the start, the day she’d left for Ulan Bator. Dust had been the reason she was going, the reason most people had fled her village in the steppe. She’d desperately wanted out, anyway, and the Integra Company’s offer to move them had given her an excuse, a way not to simply abandon her father.
The old man, Chuluun, had accepted her decision with deadpan stoicism, a quality which had always masked his emotions so well that Bolormaa had to guess at them and never feel confident they had been grasped. Yet he didn’t make it easy for her, refusing to go himself, even as the dust from new roads Integra was making choked his animals and destroyed his land.
On the morning she left, Bolormaa had feared she was sentencing him to suffocate, that it was as much her fault as the British and Australians and Canadians who were mining Mongolia, some said raping it for its resources. So she had made one last attempt to change the old man’s mind as he gazed opaquely at her packed bag, time-ruined and tied with rope.
“Maybe you’d get used to it,” she said. She meant the new yurt to which he could move if he chose on the company’s dime, not the city where she was going alone.
“I’m used to this place,” he shrugged.
“You’ve had thirty years to be.”
This remark had an impact, for he moved away, to the window. He stared out as the dust cleared briefly to reveal his dead grazing animals, the roads and bulldozers in the distance. He answered with wistful irrationality: “People used to go to the Shaman to pray for rain. Now they pray for money. I think they should start praying for rain again.”
“Right,” Bolormaa heard herself being dismissive, so she softened it. “Maybe.”
Giving a sigh of resignation, her father turned back and glanced once more at her bag. He seemed to see all the years of her life in it—even though Bolormaa felt in her K-Pop T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, she looked even younger than twenty-two. “Maybe it’s for the best. All the other young people have left. And you were always smart.”
“Thanks.” His remark rattled Bolormaa, as if he were praising her strength as a swimmer while he stayed behind on a burning deck. It made her throw him a life preserver and encouragement to seek the shore. “The company said you’d have a TV in the new place.” This didn’t register, as she’d feared it wouldn’t: Even TV was new-fangled to for her father, who couldn’t have identified the hand-held device she was discreetly checking now for the train schedule.
Or could he? Chuluun appeared to perceive her impatience. “Do something for your old Dad before you go?”
He walked ahead of her to a nearby hut even more rickety and dust-dumped than their own. Tiny as it was, it served both as home and theater with a makeshift stage and fold-up chairs. It housed the Shaman who had been beloved by Chuluun and ignored by Bolormaa for most of her life.
“Watch out,” Chuluun said, as they approached the creaky covering that passed for its front door, “the Shamans in the city are phonies.”
Bolormaa barely kept a smile off her face. “Not like Bekter, huh?”
“Right.” Chuluun hadn’t heard—or just ignored—the mockery. “In the city, I hear they spit Vodka at you. How hard is that to do? Anybody could do that. I could do that. Bekter lets the spirits talk through him. That takes talent.”
Chuluun’s defense of his old friend and spiritual guide was feistier than usual, perhaps because he believed that Bolormaa’s desertion (more and more this was what she feared he considered her leaving to be) repudiated all the Shaman stood for. Bolormaa didn’t say that, even if she stayed, she wouldn’t believe in him. She just placed a hand on her father’s back as he struggled to open the balky door, which had grown more resistant as it had more useless (as her father had. As everyone would, she wondered?).
Yet, when she saw the Shaman, Bolormaa understood her father’s intense championing of him today. The old man could only perform a weak and abbreviated version of his usual service, finding it problematic even to stand and move around.
Still, he wore the traditional feathered headdress and vest with fringe and made a valiant effort to bang his drum and chant. Bolormaa watched her father watch him with especially supportive concentration. From both curiosity and politeness, she whispered,
“What’s he saying?”
Chuluun was surprised that she had shown an interest.
“He’s saying,” he whispered back, louder, “that we’re out of balance with Mother Earth and the Eternal Blue Sky. He’s saying we’re in danger. He’s saying, be careful.”
He stared at his daughter with adamance; it wasn’t clear if he was actually translating or inventing a warning of his own. Yet his old pal seemed complicit in the message, revving up his drumming and chanting for a big finish, building in intensity until Bolormaa feared more for the Shaman’s immediate future than her own.
Afterwards, she and her father stood near the two broken benches at the small outdoor train stop. Neither said a word before the train appeared in the distance, as it approached and slowed, or after she boarded. More dust blew in the air when she sat on the ripped leather cushion in the nearly empty car.
She looked out the window and raised her voice, so he would hear her on the street.
“Last chance, Dad,” she said, “Sure you won’t go, too?”
Chuluun gazed up at her, the cruel sun allowing her just a glimpse of his face, as if already making him disappear. Then he shook his head. He moved before the train did, headed into and was covered by the dust, which dragged him back in time, where he lived. Bolormaa wondered if she would ever see him again. And were the tears that stung her eyes the fault of the foreign mining companies?
Soon she forced herself to focus only on her future. Through the window of the train, the desert dropped away to present the outskirts of the city, like a drab curtain pulled to reveal a play’s showy set. In the distance, Bolormaa saw the Blue Sky Hotel, a huge structure in the center of town shaped like a butterfly’s wings, whose name repackaged Shamanic principles for tourists and business people, the ancient belief in balance replaced by the promise of success. Bolormaa could not deny that it buoyed her spirits. The sun setting, she looked at herself in the train’s dirty glass, her image obscured enough that she could pretend it was someone she wanted to impress. She spoke softly and assertively to it, practicing her English.
“Hello, my name is Bolormaa. How are you? I am fine. I would like to buy a potato, please. Hello, my name is….”
Yet when she arrived, it didn’t matter how good her English was. Following the advice of those who’d come before, she found housing in the northern part of Ulan Bator, the ger district for new arrivals, far from the Blue Sky Hotel. Here makeshift yurts were rickety and dilapidated, crammed together, weaving dangerously in the wind, offering only the merest shelter and barest furnishings, a bed and a chair upon a dirt floor. Bolormaa joined the community of those disconnected from water and power grids, who would never make their way downtown.
The first night, she stood near a long, reeking outdoor pit that served as a communal latrine: She felt herself on a precipice, about to be pushed into a valley of waste. Heedless children ran behind her, kicking a soft soccer ball, while others squatted, playing counting games with the bones of small animals. Bolormaa wished to join them, for she had been good at soccer, taught by her father. But she felt must be grown up now, or maybe she did not want to fit in.
Later, on the cot in her new home, she lay awake, practicing her name and greeting as if they were incantations, as powerless as those chanted by the old village Shaman.
“Bolormaa,” she repeated in the morning, downtown, at an employment agency.
The woman opposite her shrugged, to say she already knew, the information was on the form before her. Bolormaa shrank in her seat, not wishing to be so insistent again. But the woman had sensed her insecurity, and it made her unkind.
“You know,” she said, “being a nomad isn’t the novelty it used to be. We got plenty of you here now.”
Bolormaa couldn’t help it, she spoke up again, to press home her good points. “I speak good English, if that makes any difference.”
The woman suppressed a smile more mocking than sympathetic. Then she laid her hands on the form, as if it didn’t matter what was on it and never had.
“Do you mind menial?” she asked. “Because all the new rich people need their homes cleaned.”
There was a second before the statement sank in. Bolormaa saw her situation—not hopefully obscured, as her face had been in the train window—clearly. She remembered learning in school that “progress” was defined as forward movement, neither good nor bad. She shook her head and then nodded, so it would be understood: No she did not mind.
In her first cleaning job in Ulan Bator, Bolorma endured suggestive comments and blatant groping from an Australian businessman who seemed to feel that being alone with her in his apartment gave him license to behave in any way he pleased. (Did he think she had been sent for another purpose than cleaning? Maybe, because he seemed genuinely surprised when she resisted. Or did he feel that bringing so much money to Mongolia afforded him grateful gestures from its people? After all, he had said, laughing, “This is what I get? This is how you treat me?” when she batted his hands from her breasts.)
In the second job, she had been gratefully welcomed by a young Canadian woman home alone all day with a child of four. But the kicking, screaming, and crying of the child, who seemed to suffer from an emotional malady, bruising Bolormaa’s legs with his jabbing booted feet, weeping so much he wretched up what little food he ate, made it impossible for her to return, no matter how desperately the mother said she anticipated it at the door, when she waved goodbye.
So it was a relief two days later to be greeted by the long and blonde, elegant and angular, white and British Mrs. Crane, or Mandy as she asked to be called. Bolormaa was impressed by her presence, by the white woman’s natural and unforced acceptance of their different social stations. Mandy was like someone who gave order to the chaos of an earthquake scene in which others had been flailing and failing to provide leadership. Right away, she understood how things were meant to be in Mongolia, even though she had only been there three months. This inspired Bolormaa, though it might have infuriated someone else.
Bolormaa had said little, merely followed Mandy through the cavernous apartment, taking her instructions and advice, inhaling her only occasionally perceptible perfume (which Mandy seemed able to make you smell when she wanted, sending out her scent the way her ancestors had sent their dogs to retrieve a murdered bird or something).
Meeting her husband today was the first time Mandy had been grounded for Bolormaa, instead of simply wafting everywhere. And the young man perplexed her: Jack seemed more like Mandy’s little brother, pale with barely a beard, his chest concave, as if he could be—had been?—crushed by everything.
Mandy seemed changed, too, by the two having met. Was it the way Jack spoke to Bolormaa, as if they were the only children at an adult party? As Jack left them alone in the kitchen, Mandy was less pleasantly imperious than before, suddenly seemed shaky enough in her superiority that she was short with Bolormaa, pulling from a cabinet and thrusting china at her that was chipped and dusty, demanding—it was more than implied—that the maid fix it.
“This place does a number on everything,” Mandy said, “not just people. These things need to be…”
She was stopped by the sight of Bolormaa already cleaning a candlestick holder with a potato and some dish soap.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” she asked, surprisingly aware of her own inadequacy.
“My father,” Bolormaa said.
“What was he, a butler?” And she found it funny.
“No,” Bolormaa answered, “a herder.”
This shut Mandy up, and she simply watched as Bolormaa removed the dirt without making a big deal out of it.
“After my mother died,” Bolormaa added, “he had to teach me everything.” She didn’t say that the steppe had killed her mother, feared that the other woman might think Bolormaa was blaming her for the fact that life was hard, which she wasn’t. Bolormaa wanted eventually to be among the Mandys, not to rebel against them, and she was among them now, had at least entered the place where one Mandy was, which was a beginning.
Oddly, the information made Mandy compete with her own employee. “My people worked with their hands, too. A hundred years ago, but still. All the men in my family were miners.” Mandy heard a rustle in the hall and looked out. She watched her husband pass, playing with their little dog, a Papillon, a butterfly. “Until now.”
“Come on, Tilly!” Jack cried, in a high voice.
Mandy drew herself up, as if there was something upsetting she had to take care of, and left the room.
“Jack?” Bolormaa heard her say, in the tone of a teacher policing the worst student in school. “Ready to go?”
They left within the hour, Mandy shopping, Jack to his job at Integra, taking the dog. Left behind, Bolormaa looked at their massive living room, which seemed to expand as she stared at it, like a red carpet that kept rolling, allowing for more celebrities to arrive. She was surprised she had been trusted enough to remain there alone. Maybe Mandy thought the trust itself would make Bolormaa too guilty to do anything wrong.
Instead Bolormaa felt excited and disobedient. She went into the room she assumed Mandy and Jack shared: it had the biggest bed. She wanted to slide beneath their cotton sheets and sink her face into their pillows, as if kissing the face or chest or bottom of someone she loved. She had never thought in such a way, had always kept her physical desires vague, giggly, and child-like. Now, in the city, she felt activated, allowed to be aroused and adult.
Her small chest rising and falling, Bolormaa could not stay still. She slid across the thick white carpet which was as deep and crunchy as frozen snow, reached the dresser and touched the handle of the top drawer, where the things she wanted were. She pulled it open, as if brazenly unlooping a man’s belt and yanked the drawer open, which were his jeans coming undone. She saw what she had hoped was inside: rings, bracelets, and necklaces, which were like his sex, and ran her fingers through them before gripping them in her hand. She would have brought them to her mouth if she hadn’t heard a door open across the apartment house hall, close enough to scare her back to being small. Blushing, she replaced the stuff, closed the drawer, and left the room.
The next night, darkness descended upon the Cranes’ apartment. Mandy had paid Bolormaa extra to serve at a party for friends and business associates. She thought the Englishwoman once more dazzling and confident, flitting from one guest to another, her husband nowhere to be seen. Balancing a hors d‘oeuvres tray, Bolormaa navigated through people, most Western, some white, some not, most drunk. The blackout came as she returned to the kitchen to restock her tray. In the dark, she heard testiness and laughter:
“Let’s hear it for rolling blackouts!”
“Brownouts, for God’s sake!”
“What are you, a racist?”
“Don’t cast aspersions on UB!”
“It’s only the ugliest city on Earth!”
“It’s not ugly, it’s handsome!”
“It’s got a very good personality!”
“Wait—wait—uh-uh-uh—” And here a guest shook comically, as if in an earthquake. Then he rendered a decision on its severity. “Five point four.”
“That was an earthquake? I just thought you just had the seafood hors d’oeuvres!”
More hilarity. Since these were the snacks that Bolormaa carried, a passing Mandy gave her a compassionate touch on the arm. While others groped about or lit candles and cursed, Mandy seemed to see in the dark, as if she could always make out the surface of things.
“Don’t listen to them,” she said. “They’re idiots. You’re doing brilliantly.”
Bolormaa stared at Mandy’s startling white teeth. Her red lipstick was brown in the blackout, like dried blood, which was weirdly exciting. Bolormaa was hypnotized by it, then awakened. A guest, darting in a different direction, stole the last herring-oppressed cracker from her tray, tossing a question to Mandy before he disappeared.
There was a slight quiver to Mandy’s voice, the giveaway that this threw her off stride. “He’s not feeling well,”
She turned and proceeded to the closed door of the room Bolormaa had privately investigated. She didn’t knock, just sailed in, seeming to vanish through the wood.
Bolormaa kept advancing, the empty platter held before her, as if it was a wheel that had come off her car, and she was still in shock from the crash. She was unable to stop until she reached what kept her out.
This is what she heard through the door, in whispers, Mandy going first:
“You hid the last time, too. You’re not a child.”
“I know that.”
“We hoped you’d be happy to be here. Dad was doing you a favor.”
“Why? What was he afraid I’d do back home, work at H&M?”
“Your parents thought so.”
Soon the door re-opened and Bolormaa saw the two of them: Mandy loomed over Jack, who lay on the bed. Headlights from the street exaggerated their shadows, so it looked like a scene from an old prison movie. Mandy kept talking, the noise from the dark party almost drowning her out.
“If you’re still alive in five minutes,” she said, “you better be out there.”
This was a threat but like so much of what she said to her husband, desperate and coming from weakness. Mandy turned, suddenly aware that she was exposed, and put on a smile so powerful that it brought the lights back on—or something did, because the place was again ablaze, music screaming, mid-note.
Mandy walked by Bolormaa without acknowledging her, which only made her more impressive to her maid. With the door open, Jack was on display for all to see. He gazed out like a small, vulnerable animal from a hutch or hiding place. Then he caught Bolormaa’s eyes, a thing that gave him strength.
Jack rose, slowly, and entered the party. There was scattered applause from a few amused guests. With the lights bright, he looked more pale than was possible, his head like a melted custard. The whole time, he kept his gaze on Bolormaa’s face, as if it were a hand that helped him keep his feet. He acted as if they were again allied by their ages or shared something else she did not understand. Jack smiled at her, his lips trembling, and Bolormaa smiled back, for he aroused her sympathy, an emotion which made her uncomfortable, for it betrayed Mandy.
Determined to reach the kitchen, Bolormaa raised her empty tray, ridiculously. As she did, Jack reached down and pretended to take a hors d’oeuvre. To play a game? Or did he see something there? Either way, the invisible object barely made it to his mouth, his fingers shook so much.
Soon the Cranes raised Bolormaa’s salary enough that she could move from the shack where she shared a bathroom but spoke to no one. She tied up her suitcase, clothes spilling from the sides like passengers from a capsized ship. She used a simple style of knot her father had taught her.
She found a room in a Soviet-era apartment house downtown, which stood like a great anonymous threat over the block but looked magnificent to her in its stone and steel. She bought a bootleg I-phone at the huge Narantuul Market from a vendor with a little cat on a leash. The animal seemed resigned being tethered to a clamorous world which it hated. In an American-style café called The Big Cup, Bolormaa planned to seek out funny cat videos on the phone, but the vendor’s pet had spoiled them for her. So she Googled “Jack Crane.”
Bolormaa found a recent report from a British TV news station. It began with footage of a village in the Steppe that could have been her own.
“Mongolia,” an announcer said, “is sitting on a fortune of gold, copper, uranium, and other resources. But international mining has caused extensive environmental harm. Dust from new roads has forced many herders to be resettled. Even moved by companies, they are experiencing depletion and pollution of their water and pastures….”
The picture switched to footage stamped with the words “Integra.” Jack was interviewed, standing on a city street, where the wind blew around his white-blonde hair. He had a jacket flung over his shoulder with what was meant to be rakish casualness. Yet he spoke as guilelessly as a student in a school play. Jack was more insubstantial than the polluted air. It would have been hard to hold anything against him.
“At Integra,” Jack said, “we’ve gone beyond the call of duty to stick to strict environmental codes, and….”
The opinionated narrator spoke over him, as if nothing Jack said was worth anything, was nonsense, and everybody knew it.
“Spokesman Jack Crane sings the praises of the company owned by his father-in-law. The firm has been one of the worst offenders in….”
Bolormaa felt that she had seen Jack more plainly in these few seconds than she had over days. Now she did not know what to make of him and Mandy. She looked down at the table, at the letter she had begun from scratch, only getting as far as “Dear Dad.” What happened in Ulan Bator could not be communicated back home; no amount of stamps could get the facts that far. The notebook went back into her bag.
Jack just smiled briefly at Bolormaa the next morning: he was late for work, accompanied by the dog. Left behind, Mandy made cursory comments before going into her room to dress, more formally than usual. Curious, Bolormaa was cleaning when the doorbell rang.
She went to answer it, but Mandy buzzed past, her intense new scent free to swarm around like flies.
“I’ll get it,” she said, and it was as if she was both warning Bolormaa and promising something to herself.
It was a white man. He was pale-skinned and fair-haired, perhaps ten years older and more filled-out than Jack. He looked like a version of Jack which hadn’t been finished too fast at the factory, which had turned out fine. His British accent coated like a sweet condiment the single word he said to Mandy through a tight and slightly smug smile:
Mandy’s own smile was warmer, and her faced flushed to the point that Bolormaa realized she had freckles beneath her foundation.
“Hi,” she said, imitating the meaningful stress the man had placed on the word.
They paid no attention to the maid as they passed her, chattering away, Bolormaa thought, like two monkeys. She switched on the vacuum cleaner to drown them out, give them privacy, and call a little attention to herself. She watched as they proceeded into the room with the biggest bed and closed the door.
Bolormaa moved the vacuum close to where they had disappeared, to let them know they weren’t alone and to convince them she was not spying on them. Then she switched off the cleaner so as not to annoy them, not to raise their suspicions and to hear them better behind the door. Actions had many motives in Ulan Bator, she thought, even her own.
This is what she heard:
She didn’t hear much, not words, anyway, but enough human noises to make her blush and fiddle with the start knob on the vacuum, though not press it hard enough to turn it on. The only complete sentence Bolormaa made out was whispered by Mandy in a halting way that reminded her of when the doctor told you to take a deep breath and release it:
“Freddy, I can feel so much of your fat cock.”
This made her flip on the machine, to tell Mandy and her friend they could be heard and to drown out her own thoughts. She took a moment to focus before she could see the apartment without a filmy haze over it, like the dust that covered what she was beginning to think of as her father’s village. Then she fled to the kitchen.
Bolormaa washed the dishes in the sink earlier than she had intended. She turned off the tap in time to hear the front door open and Mandy and the man talk in tones still soft and insinuating. Mandy used the man’s name again and amused him no end, though he laughed in a hushed, stuffed-nose sort of way. Then
“Bye,” she said, affectionately, and
“Bye,” he said, too, and
“Freddy Fix-It,” she quietly called after him, before closing the door.
Bolormaa turned from the sink and snapped off the rubber gloves she had pulled on to make the water boiling hot. It made her think of what that doctor did after examining you in a private way.
Mandy stood in the doorway, staring at her, as if accused of something. Bolormaa knew that she herself felt disapproval, jealousy, and excitement, and each one made the other stronger. Mandy began speaking, defensively, and it seemed almost to herself. Her hands were planted on either side of the threshold, and Bolormaa could smell what she thought was wine floating on her employer’s words into her mouth.
“Jack and I…our families have always been friends. We were together as children. And, in a way, we still are. Children, I mean. You know, a dead marriage is a desert, too.” She regained a little of her usual confidence, though it was wounded and tipsy. “Do you have a boyfriend?” Mandy seemed to know that Bolormaa didn’t and never had: it was a way of saying, don’t talk to me again until you do or who are you to judge? What Mandy actually said was ambiguous, could be heard as kindly encouragement or a way to exonerate herself. “It’ll do you a world of good. Trust me.”
Then Mandy dropped her hands from the wall and walked away, as if bitterly convinced the house would fall down if she wasn’t holding it up.
Bolormaa didn’t see her after this. The bedroom door stayed closed, and the workday ended without another encounter. When Bolormaa went into the closet to collect her coat, she heard the bedroom door open and Mandy walk to the living room, bump into a table, curse, and turn on the computer. Huddled in the darkness, surrounded and embraced by fur and down coats, Bolormaa felt both sheltered and imprisoned. She strained toward the other room to hear:
“What is this thing?” an older British man said, apparently from the screen.
“It’s Skype, Dad.”
“It’s like talking to the television.”
“It’s free. I thought you’d like that.”
This was an unkind joke, but her father didn’t get it. “What?”
“Tell me how you’re doing there.”
“Once you’ve seen the dinosaur museum, you’ve seen it all.”
“It won’t be forever. Just until we get a foothold.”
“So you say.”
There was a pause, and Mandy seemed in no hurry to end it, so it wasn’t she who did. “How’s Jack?”
“Himself. But Freddy’s been a good friend.”
“Friend? What does that mean?”
“I should have known you’d never heard the word.”
This jab went so far it sailed over the old man’s head. “What?”
Bolormaa was frightened to hear the exchange, the way some children panic and others are titillated when a sibling rebels. She began quickly taking her coat off the hook and, in her haste, her hand missed a sleeve and went into a pocket. She pulled out an envelope that had not been there when she arrived. In it, Bolormaa found as much extra cash as she had been paid to work the party. She was glad but also angry, which surprised her.
The conversation in the other room grew softer. While it went on, as she buttoned her coat, Bolormaa returned to the bedroom. There she stood and studied the rumpled covers, the pillow on the floor, the damp spot in the center of the sheets. Vindictively, she marched to the dresser, opened the top drawer and saw the jewels, which looked curly and pressed together and even more pubic than before. She reached in and yanked out a ring, harshly freeing one coil from the others. She pushed it in her pocket, beside the cash. Actions had many motives in Ulan Bator, Bolormaa thought again, even her own. She cursed Mandy under her breath, and it was as if someone else was saying it.
Then she went out, into the swirling dust.