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Given the superstitiousness of the country as a rule, it was strange that the subject of death and its probable sequelae hadn’t come up on our visit before it did. In point of fact, we’d been in Mongolia the better part of a week—myself, my assistant, our driver, and the guide—before the matter ever arose. But once it did, there was no putting it down again; and this was fitting enough.

A flustered week it had been, dogged by confusions both on our part and our escorts’. Admittedly, the more pressing confusion had been theirs, in having to muster substitute attractions in the frozen country at a moment’s notice, to replace the one for which we had come. John’s and my gentler bewilderment lay only in being left to wonder why we had driven six hours into the winter mountains, only to turn around at our nomadic hosts’ very doorstep with promises to return the following week. After all, this leg of our journey—a global micro-survey of the effects of climate change on nomadic lifestyles—had precisely this region and its habitués as its area of focus, and not much more than a week to spend with them.

Yet all Mongolia is strange, as strange as any place in the world; and for a while it was enough for our guide to put us off with talk of other environmental catastrophes than the one we had come about—chief among these the tumer zud, or iron disaster as the name is translated, to distinguish it from the other climate-related misfortunes traditional to the country. The tumer zud implies an early thaw that has refrozen, turning the ground as hard as iron; and this having lately occurred, we were told, it had become inconvenient for our hosts to receive us at the appointed time, as their hands were more than full with providing for their flock.

This state of things being at least passingly relevant to the subject we were there to explore, we could not but meet this explanation with quiet skepticism. Yet if our guide’s excuse was a lie, it was a politic one. Had we known of the death that had lately visited the family of our hosts, we might have made a burden of ourselves in our effusions of crude Western sympathy—a response the less appropriate, in light of what would follow. But by the time sufficient days and cups of airag had warmed our guide into telling us of the old man’s death, we had seen enough of the country and its people to have some sense why we had not been told sooner, and to accept with grace the part of the unknowing foreigners that we would play the week following.

* * *

We set out again for the mountains early Friday, in our driver’s warm and well-appointed truck. It was a wonder even he could drive it without falling asleep; the road stretched on before us as straight as a shadow, with empty snow-drifted steppe sparkling in the sun on either side, and only the hum of the engine and the whistling of the wind over the tundra to break the silence. The rest of us passed the time by talking of the dead old man, of the family who had survived him, and of the customs by which one was to be acquitted of the other.

In this, our driver was a silent performer. Hailing from the furthest reaches of Kazakh country, Magashwey spoke little Mongolian, to say nothing of English; that is, he did say nothing of English, or of much else either, kindly as he was—and knowing as he seemed.

All edification came by way of our guide Yerlan, whose family also hailed from a nearer part of the Kazakh territory, though he spoke both Mongolian and English very well. It is a belief of the people of Chinggis Khan that they are descended of the wolf and the deer; and in the character of Yerlan, as in his gray eyes, seemed mingled the principal aspects of both natures. He never spoke lightly about anything important to him; if it came to something he didn’t want to say, he was liable to simply go silent and pretend he hadn’t heard you. Happily for us, this was not his demeanor in the present instance.

As for my assistant John, he hardly mattered, but for the fact that it was his question that finally brought Yerlan around to brass tacks. I would never have been thought so importunate as to ask it myself—but John is English, and they are a people as unaccountable as the Mongolians.

We had since departed the road at a turnoff that Magashwey divined beneath the snow, and were driving toward the mountains over a rough stretch of ground, where the tumer zud was broken through by great stones. Between jolts, John asked how the old man’s body would be disposed of, so solid-frozen was the ground. Surely he would not be cremated, with wood and coal so scarce in these parts? And to this Yerlan acceded, saying that it would be done in the traditional country manner, by means of a sky burial.

Now I had heard of this interesting custom, but John hadn’t, and perhaps neither have you; so I will repeat the procedure as our guide described it, for the benefit of the uninitiated. The body is first taken high up into the mountains, to a rocky place quite exposed to sun and sky. Stripped naked, it is placed in a lying-down position, leaned on one side with its hands beneath the side of its head, as though the deceased has just laid himself down for a quick nap. A ritual then follows, during which everyone present is made to look away, with precautions not to look back at the body or name the deceased, lest its spirit be bound to the earth. Then, at last, the funeral party heads home, leaving the nude napper to whatever it is such a person may chance to dream of—and if it is of being picked apart by birds and wolves, then he is as true a dreamer as any prophet.

“Wolves!” John interrupted here; though why he took particular issue with that part of the description, I could not say.

“Yes,” Yerlan said, shaking his head ruefully, “sometimes the wolf gets the body. That is not so good luck. The sky burial should be into the sky,” he added sagely, pointing to illustrate his meaning, “with the birds.”

These (to continue my explication) can be any birds, from the golden eagles the Kazakh hunters train to catch foxes in the summer steppe, to the crows and magpies whose calls shake the naked trees in winter. But again, as Yerlan would say, these birds are not so good luck—the fitter escort for the human spirit being the bearded or lammergeyer vulture, a creature whose earthly tastes have brought it the highest regard among the mountain folk. For while all the local birds are meat-eaters, and will bear off the flesh of the dead without complaint, the lammergeyer has a special taste for bone-marrow, and so carries off the bones as well—all but the marrowless skull, which is sometimes left behind as a sort of grave-marker; as though the departing spirit, recognizing that vessel as the seat of its earthly troubles, has decided at the last minute to leave it at the baggage-claim, and fly on the more lightly without it.

“Will we be seeing any of this ceremony in action?” I asked, for it seemed to be my turn to ask a foolish question.

Yerlan laughed. “No,” he said. “It is a private ceremony. It was done in the last few days.”

“Our week away,” said John, realizing.

Yerlan nodded. “They were sitting with a priest,” he said. “The priest is looking at the—how do you call this—the stars, the numbers, the birthday…?”

“Horoscope,” I suggested.

“Yes,” Yerlan said, and he repeated the word a few times to commit it to memory. “The priest is looking at this, to see when is the right day for burial. That date is very important!” he cried suddenly, fluttering his fingers. “Usually the soul goes away from the body”—the fingers flapped upward—“soon, maybe in three days. But then, for a while it can go anywhere, because of the karma: maybe come back as a man, maybe a dog, maybe go to hell—or even worse,” he smiled roguishly, “maybe go to Mongolia again!”

“Now the old man, who just died,” I said—“knowing him, where do we suppose his soul will be going?”

But here we found the limit of Yerlan’s loquacity.

“Hm,” he said quietly, and would say no more.

* * *

We arrived at midday, after a long and winding drive through the pass. From the snowy steppe the ground became rocky and icy, with patches of loose scree scattered around groups of boulders large enough to hide a man. The high mountains cast nearly all the pass in a gray-blue shade; high above, a few solitary vultures described slow and dreamlike circles in the sunlight. Here and there a crooked tree protruded through the ice, its nibbled branches bearing witness to the hunger the tumer zud had inflicted upon the herds of our hosts.

We found the camp of the latter in a ravine, a few hours’ drive from where the pass had first divided to admit us—a multicolored flash of life held miniscule in the calloused, ashen palm of the mountains. Four small, domed gers—it is the Turks who call them yurts—stood together, their crumpled tin chimneys smoking above rounded roofs and walls of padded fabric; near these waited a battered motorcycle, half-brown with road dust, a plastic jerry can strapped to its rear fender.

Nor was it only a scene in still-life that greeted us. Starting a little ways back from these objects, and scattered throughout the ravine as far as I could see, stood a hundred goats and sheep, who chewed at the air in the singularly vapid fashion of those creatures. In this activity they were presided over by four huge camels, two-humped and furred in shaggy umber, which stood tethered to a tree near the gers, the loose ropes looped through holes in their nostrils. Alighting from the truck I was at once aware that the dry air had taken on the oily tang of coal smoke and the thick animal scent of the flock; the brown soil that showed here and there through the cracked ice of the tumer zud was, on inspection, comprised of countless million balls of sheep dung, with the odd bone or cast-off horn thrown in for variety.

Presently the family themselves appeared from out of their ger to greet us in a group, as though they’d just had their turn with a photographer inside. There were four altogether, all dressed in the bulky robes traditional to the country. The man of the group was a stern-looking fellow with a windswept face and bloodshot eyes; having disburdened himself of a few words of welcome, he set about helping Magashwey unload our things from the truck. His wife was a stout, dark-complected woman who spoke with Yerlan at somewhat greater length, in a friendly but authoritative tone. These two, we had been told, were in fact the nearest neighbors to the deceased and his family: residents of a few miles off, who moved into the ravine encampment with our hosts each winter to combine flocks and pass the dreary months together.

As for direct relatives, the deceased was survived by two alone: a stoic woman called Mun-Tzitzig, introduced to me as the daughter of the departed; and her son, a lanky boy of ten or so. The child presented me with a few difficulties: to begin with, his name. That was Nergui—a name which, though rather common in Mongolia, led to some confusion in the explaining. Many names there are phrases of literal meaning: Cloud, Rainbow, Fearless Warrior, and so on. The name of the boy’s mother, Mun-Tzitzig, had the apparently commonplace meaning of Eternal Flower. Nergui, however, means No-Name, and is an appellation sometimes given by parents who wish to stave off some evil they feel might attach to the child if it were more auspiciously named: an accident, perhaps, or the hereditary ailment already suffered by an older sibling.

This Nergui had no older siblings—wherein, perhaps, lay the evil to be avoided. Yet if his name had been given him to ward off trouble, it had certainly attracted some strangeness to him in its place. To put it simply, he looked like no one present—not even his mother, for where the face of Mun-Tzitzig was the wholesome brown of their neighbors’, Nergui’s was altogether pale and otherlike, the face of a man thirty years his senior. When I was able to do so discreetly, I asked Yerlan if the boy had more resembled his grandfather; but the guide’s reaction convinced me that it must be a faux pas of some kind to point out such things, and so I let the matter drop.

We joined the family in their ger for the usual greeting refreshment of snuff and milk tea. The three adults were very warm in welcoming us, and at first I assumed it was because they were conscious of having put us off the week before. In fact, it was for the opposite reason: they were about to leave us again. Having sorted us into separate gers according to hemispheric origin—John and myself into one, Magashwey and Yerlan into the other—the family took themselves off rather abruptly to their own home, as though they had urgent business to attend to there. That was well enough; good coal fires were already going in our stoves, and we had our things to unpack and set in order. Yet a few minutes into that pleasant occupation, having forgotten some trifle in the truck, I emerged to see all four nomads, along with a fifth robed person I had not observed before, walking upward into the mountains at a brisk pace, their long shadows falling across the scree behind them.

“Where on earth are they off to,” asked John, poking his head out too, “and who’s that with them?”

I didn’t know how John expected me to know any of this, and was about to tell him so, when the wooden door to the other ger banged open, and out popped the mad-eyed Yerlan, a sweater half-pulled over his shoulders.

“That is the priest,” he said, gesturing as he completed his application of the sweater. “They are going to visit the body. This,” he clarified, “is sometimes done.”

“I don’t suppose there can be much left, after three days,” I said, remembering the vultures we’d seen coming in.

“They are hoping this,” said the guide. “But sometimes it is bad karma, and the body is not all gone. Then the priest will do another ritual.”

“Beastly,” said John.

“I hope they find things the way they want them,” said I, looking after the little shapes of the family as they vanished among the larger rocks.

* * *

At sundown, the cold set in with the deadly swiftness it observes in the mountains. The nomads had not yet returned; but their animals, seemingly used to a state of independence, looked after themselves well enough. The camels left off their haughty cameling and leaned together; the sheep and goats drifted back in from their lonely stands amid the rocks and huddled down together into one woolly brown mass. Along with the last of these, rather startlingly, came a huge black mastiff, trotting down from somewhere in the hills—a panting, eyeless shadow. This creature, I had by now sufficient philosophy to leave alone; for the nomadic Mongolians have not pets, but tools—a fact the tools will help you remember, if the Mongolians do not.

John and I joined Magashwey and Yerlan in their ger for supper, and afterward airag, the fermented mare’s milk that is the country’s convivial beverage. A few cups soon brought about the usual exchange of songs, with John and myself trying our best to come up with a tune in English we both knew, while the other two sang our shame in song after Kazakh song. This musical variety was the more mortifying to us as its spring was limited; for almost without exception (it was explained to us), their shepherd’s lays were concerned with praising either the singer’s mother, or his camel.

Presently, in a voice so soft and faraway he might have been singing to himself, Magashwey began on a very somber tune indeed. Its tune was almost tragically plaintive, and it had some strange word or phrase as its refrain, which Yerlan clearly did not wish to join in on. Warmed by the airag, I sat back to listen.

A Mongolian nomad’s ger serves two main functions: being easily moved from one hellishly cold place to another, and keeping the nomad himself alive and comfortable in all of them. As such, the finished article is often rather like a movable igloo of rugs and blankets, with a fire enstoved in the middle—in short, one of the coziest places on earth. As Magashwey sang and Yerlan frowned strangely into his cup, my mind wandered to the shrieking cold outside, to the sheep and goats huddled together in the windy air, and to the family traipsing through the mountains somewhere beyond them, their way unlit and unmarked, with who knows how much of a corpse to attend to in the darkness. It was not a thought to inspire venturing out, but certainly to increase the comfort within; and lulled by these reflections, I had not realized that Magashwey had done singing until John’s voice broke the enchanted silence.

“What was that phrase he was singing—” the assistant asked, and he made his wretched Briton’s approximation of the song’s sad refrain.

“Another ode to the graces of the camel?” I guessed.

Yerlan shifted in his seat. “No,” he said flatly.

“What then?”

“The song is about an old custom in Mongolia. Those words, you would say it is the name of the custom.”

“And what does that name mean?” John insisted.

Yerlan sighed in resignation. “We say it, one thing,” he said.

Among Mongolian men, he went on to explain, there is sometimes a relationship like blood-brotherhood, closer than friendship or even actual blood, which is sometimes manifested in the form of the custom in question. One thing is specifically when one of the blood brothers makes some demand of the other, and whatever it is, the other is bound by honor to fulfill it. Over the years, it was said, murders had been committed and covered up—homes and fortunes shared or given away—all in the name of this custom. Magashwey’s sad song, Yerlan told us, was about a man who had been called upon by the oath of one thing to betray his family. How like you, subtle Magashwey, to have sung that song when you did! But there was, perhaps, more than one listener who heard and understood it that wind-whistling night.

Long after dark, we heard the mastiff barking in the hills. Wordlessly Yerlan got up and walked out of the ger, leaving the rest of us in silence. He was gone a while; I heard him speaking quietly to someone, then both voices disappeared with their owners into one of the other tents. Then, very unexpectedly, we heard the ragged pop of an old engine turning over, followed by an ungodly buzzsaw noise that echoed through the mountains. Someone had started up the battered little motorcycle, and as we sat listening, we heard it ride clanking out into the night.

Soon thereafter, the door flew open and Yerlan entered, eyes on the floor.

“All right,” he said, clapping his hands, “bedtime”—and he blew the warmth into his fingers in a dismissive way.

“Our friends have returned?” I asked. The guide only nodded.

“Who was it just rode away?” John asked.

“The priest,” Yerlan said. “He is going home tonight.”

John and I got up to go, and Magashwey nodded to us very cordially. I paused at the door. As usual, there was something our guide wasn’t telling us.

“It’ll be a long way to ride, in the cold,” I said.

“Think about it under your covers,” he replied curtly, holding the door for me.

* * *

The following day passed quietly, under a windstorm that confined everyone to their tents for most of the afternoon. This gave John and me a welcome opportunity to interview our hosts; and on the subject of climate change and its various strange effects on their lifelong traditions, we found them surprisingly voluble—relieved, as it seemed, to be discussing something so general, so mundane. But it also set us back a day from their intention to move the camp to its spring location: a larger clearing further up the mountain pass, even more remote from civilization outside the mountains but with readier access to the grasslands within. This move, though not arduous, was vitally important to have done with before too many of the new calves were born, and anyway John and I were eager to experience it before we left; so the next dawn found everyone up and moving to make up for lost time.

The procedure was simple, a task little changed over five hundred years of continuous practice. The family would lead us in taking down three of the four gers and loading them onto the camels, piling rolled blankets and support-rods in a specific arrangement on each; then the four visitors would drive a couple of hours out of the pass to the next site with Nergui to guide us, while the adults followed with the camels. The other animals, it seemed to go without saying, would drift along behind us on their own.

I felt a certain distaste at having to ride with Nergui. There was something about his bearing that I couldn’t understand; even in the practiced movements with which he went about helping the adults, he seemed shocked and distant. I even wondered, rather perspicaciously, whether something had occurred in the mountains the night before to frighten him.

Midway through the morning’s occupations, Yerlan preceded John and me into our ger, the last to be taken down.

“I thought it is good to tell you what happened yesterday, so you won’t bring it up,” he said.

This was not so much Mongolian tact, as that special brand of it peculiar to Yerlan. For my part, I thought it very strange that he thought us more likely to bring up something we didn’t know about, than something we did—and in a language we didn’t speak, on top of that. But I urged him to continue.

“I told you that they left out the body, the grandfather called Munkhu, for the sky burial,” he said. “That is a few days ago. It is not good when the body is still there; I think I said to you.”

We agreed, and in a rush of words he told us what had happened. The family had ventured up into the mountains with the priest, in search of the burial site. This they’d found a little before dark, and the body was indeed still there. Yet not only was it untouched—a very bad omen, as concerns the acceptability of the spirit in question—but it had somehow come out of its respectful, head-on-hand posture and assumed another position, one which Yerlan was unwilling to describe. The horrified family had repositioned it; the priest had conducted another brief ceremony to assist the spirit in its journey onwards; and the five of them had started down the mountainside again as the last of the daylight was disappearing. So far, so good; but at the last moment, young Nergui had broken the final taboo. Hearing a scrambling sound in the rocks above them, and no doubt thinking they were already well out of sight of the corpse, he had looked back over his shoulder to the ledge whence they had come; and instead of the bird or rodent he’d expected, he’d seen the old man’s face above the rocks, grinning down at him.

“Not literally,” John said.

“No, not literally,” Yerlan scoffed. “This actually happened. Anyway, you must not say anything about it to the family today.”

Assuring him that we could abide by this injunction we returned to our chores; and allowing those labors to carry us through our confusion, we were soon all on our way through the pass.

About midmorning, after we’d traveled a couple of bumpy hours, I saw Magashwey tense up and point something out to Yerlan ahead. The nomads had dropped far behind us, and were nowhere in sight. The truck slowed as the two Kazakhs exchanged a few quick words of conference. Nergui seemed to shrink into himself. In another moment, John and I saw what they were looking at.

It was the priest’s motorcycle, standing upright on its kickstand and waiting for its owner to return. The jerry can had been removed from the fender, and sat on the ground next to it.

We stopped and the four adults got out, leaving Nergui in the truck. Yerlan called out a few short phrases to the surrounding hills. After a silent minute or two, Magashwey idly hefted the jerry can and made a little sound of surprise. It was full.

“Strange, that the priest would walk away in the middle of filling the tank,” I said, having had some experience with the machines. “Perhaps we’d better wait for the others.”

“Hm,” Yerlan said, squinting against the sunlight. He spoke a word or two to Magashwey, and together they scanned the ravine in silence.

“Oh, there he is,” John said suddenly, and pointed up the mountainside.

Three pairs of eyes shot to the place he indicated. There, above a ledge, a dark figure stood out against the sun-tinted scree. As we looked the figure leaned to one side abruptly, as though taking in a sharper glance of us, and though my view of it amounted to little more than a silhouette, I cannot say it looked quite right to me. I heard Yerlan draw in a quick breath, almost a hiss, and at the same moment he reached out, as if to silence us. But John was already waving up to the figure.

“Hello!” he called out cheerily; whereupon we all gasped as the bent figure burst apart into several rough, dark shapes, which immediately flew upward in a whirl of dark feathers. By the time I registered what I had seen, the whole avian group had all but vanished over the ridge.

“Only vultures,” Yerlan said, turning abruptly on his heel. Yet no one wanted to go near where they had been; and when we got back into the truck, the boy was sitting with his eyes screwed shut, one hand firmly clamped over either ear.

* * *

Not knowing what else to do, we left the motorcycle where it stood. The family caught up to us at last, but if they thought anything of the derelict vehicle, they didn’t say it. It seemed to be the consensus that the priest had simply stepped away from his motorcycle into the ether for a while, and would return to it whenever he took the notion. I suppose this is not so different from how our own priests are sometimes thought of.

Leaving the vehicle where it stood, then, we traveled another laborious half-hour or so through the pass before it was time to stop. The tumer zud made clearing the ground a tribulation, and by the time we were done with arranging the three gers for use, everyone was ready to be asleep in them. Even the livestock seemed eager to return home; as the sun disappeared over the ridge, only a few remained nibbling among the rocks, while the rest drifted homeward. 

This camp, it turned out, was slightly better equipped for the animals’ bedding down; not far from where we set up the gers was a roughly circular pen of stones, about waist-high and thirty feet or so in diameter, constructed for the flock’s protection against their predators in warmer weather. I watched from my doorway as, following the dictate of instinct, the sheep and goats crowded together into the structure, their quiet broken through now and again by the clack of horn on horn, or a bleat of protest as someone’s haunch was trod upon. The camels, having done their work for the day, returned to their usual regal boredom nearby.

As for the humans present, things became markedly more tense as the sun went down. Nergui, little calmed since the encounter with the motorcycle, vanished as soon as he could into his mother’s ger. Mun-Tzitzig herself sat up with us a while, but was too somber for conversation. As Yerlan, John and I talked in our ger, she busied herself about our fire for a long while before taking her leave. When she’d gone, I looked where she’d been pestering the woodpile, and found a pair of scissors with a loop of string tied tightly around the blades.

“She is tying the wolf’s mouth shut, to keep him away from the grandfather Munkhu,” Yerlan explained. “A superstition,” he added; but his face was serious, and he would not let me touch the scissors.

That night there came a howling wind through the ravine, which seemed to warn away all easy conviviality. After another brief interview with our hosts, once again John and I ate with our Kazakh friends while the nomads retired to their own ger and their own devices. Even the animals outside were silent, but for one: the black mastiff, which we heard barking somewhere off in the rocks, whenever the wind died down. It seemed the animal had got onto some scent of wolf or leopard, and whenever the wind was quiet he sent off a frenzied volley. This went on for hours, and became rather upsetting to hear.

Around midnight the wind calmed to a weird roar, and the mastiff abruptly left off his barking. I suppose that even guard dogs have their sleeping intervals, but this silence was even eerier than the barking had been. Our sips of airag became shallow and infrequent; it was clear that tonight, Magashwey and Yerlan were in no hurry to have us gone.

“Will the dog chase after what it has been barking at?” John asked abruptly.

“Sometimes,” said Yerlan, “but he will not stop barking.”

“And if he does?” John asked.

“Hm,” the guide said.

Suddenly we heard a new sound, as clearly as might be imagined in the wind outside, and our eyes went wide. It was the sound of a voice not far away: a high and rasping tone that called slowly through the storm, as though pulling itself along on the air. It only sounded once, and it was difficult to be sure of with all the whistling, but to me it sounded very much as if it had called out the name, no name at all, of Nergui.

Yerlan and I looked at one another. “Don’t,” he said, his wolfen eyes darting to the door.

“Who the hell is that?” I said, starting to my feet.

“Don’t,” Yerlan repeated.

“Perhaps it’s the priest,” John said.

“It’s not,” said Yerlan.

Then the voice sounded a second time, closer now; and this time it was impossible to mistake the name it cried. The voice was elderly and almost pitiable. I crossed over to the door and took hold of the latch.

Though Yerlan remained seated, his voice was sharp. “You must not let it in,” he said.

“It?” I asked; and perversely I opened the door and looked in the direction whence the voice had come. There, directly in my line of sight, was the stone pen with its waist-high walls, within which I could see the dark shapes of a hundred animals. The light was too far gone for me to see anything more distinctly. I reached for my flashlight, hung by its lanyard from the wooden doorframe.

“Get inside!” Yerlan barked.

There was in the guide’s voice something other than anger, and I pulled the door almost shut and looked out of it like a child, flicking on my flashlight as I did. The light caught a hundred pairs of shining eyes as I shone it over the pen; yet the sheep and goats, ordinarily quick to alarm, were undisturbed.

“What is it?” I heard John say; and then I saw for myself.

It crossed very suddenly into the circle of my flashlight, picking its way around the herd like a figure waist-deep in wool: a pale, sagging body, its nudity conspicuous in the bitter cold as it moved steadily along toward the ger beside our own. It came quickly but uncertainly, as though wading through cold water; yet though its long stride landed over and between the skittish animals, they only stared straight ahead at my flashlight as though glamoured, their eyes shining disks in the darkness. I saw the face of the walker only a moment; and even then it occurred to me that it was no more like the face of Nergui than his mother’s was.

There came a guttural cry from the guide, some caustic Mongolian phrase. Yerlan had leaped to his feet, and a pocketknife shone in his hand. He looked at me intently, and I wondered for a moment what he meant to do with that little blade against what I had seen outside. Then I saw Magashwey shaking his head, his eyes locked to mine, and I knew the guide meant his knife for me. I backed away from the door, Yerlan stepped past me and drew the door shut, and in another moment he had shut his knife again too.

“It is not anyone,” he said, his voice tense and quiet. “Not anymore. Listen,” he hissed, heading off our questioning, “it has said the name two times. It will not say again.”

Outside, we heard it draw close to the ger next to ours, its naked feet slapping dully against the tumer zud. My curiosity evaporated at that sound; I’m sure I’ve never been so glad for a windowless wall as I was then. We heard it stop, apparently at the threshold of our hosts’ tent, and the air outside went completely silent. Then the footsteps began again, and we listened as they continued, slowly, around and around the other ger.

“We must do something,” I began, gesturing toward the other tent; but Yerlan cut me off.

“They know,” he said. “They will not open the door.”

The footsteps continued on their tireless round, and I was sure Yerlan would be proven wrong. But the family never made a sound, nor opened their door to the visitor—and that, as it turned out, was enough.

The four of us sat up listening to those dragging footsteps until we thought we would go mad. But then the magpies crowed—warmed, as we knew, by the sun having risen over the pass—and there was a sudden sound as of many great wings beating violently, as though struggling to raise something heavy from the earth. Presently the noise and the something were gone together; and when we breached the door, we found only black feathers to mark the retrieval that had finally taken place.

* * *

What machinery there may be in the Mongolian lore to explain such things, I have not since learned. However, it remains to be recounted what we learned later from Yerlan, of the background of this strange occurrence. The supposed grandfather, the deceased Munkhu, had been the subject of some scandal in his life. Between him and a younger man, there had been one of those relations of blood-brotherhood which I have mentioned; and some years earlier, Munkhu had betrayed his friend, in the form of a one thing request.

When they were both brought on as winter laborers in a Russian province, the friend was imprisoned for a quarrel he’d gotten into with another worker. This captivity should have been brief, but Munkhu’s friend was an irascible one, and had remained jailed in Russia for more than two years without a connection to his home aside from the letters he gave to Munkhu to convey to his wife. Yet Munkhu, having long since coveted what his poor friend had in life, decided instead to use the friend’s absence to his advantage, and rather than sending through the letters, he wrote home to the man’s wife himself, with news that their friend had died in an accident. Discouraging the friend by similar subterfuges, Munkhu eventually returned home alone to take the distraught widow with him to the mountains, under pretenses of caring for her as her husband had requested. When the friend finally reached home, he found only a letter from his blood brother, explaining that the favor of their friendship was being called in, and the one thing that would be required of him was his wife—by now unfaithful in all but heart and memory.

No other words were ever exchanged between the two men, or so Yerlan speculated, and the younger man died unheard-from. Yet in the child his widow would bear to Munkhu, the latter would find a strange torment. The boy’s face never resembled Munkhu’s or his mother’s, but became more and more the image of the betrayed friend as time went on. Mun-Tzitzig, for her part, saw in this the portent that it was, and shunned her new husband; and when the alienated family again came into the society of their nomadic neighbors, it was under the pretense of a new relation. Wife had become daughter; son had become grandson; and only in death, when his theft became the bitter taste the lammergeyers spurned to carry heavenward, did the old man seek to reconcile himself to his guilty lot—though by what means, even Yerlan did not deign to speculate. The poor priest, who must have encountered him in the pass, would know best what fate the spirit had intended for his unnamed and unacknowledged son; other facts than these, it is not for the descendants of wolf, deer, or man to know.