by Gun G. Ayurzana, translated from the Mongolian by the author and Matthew Davis
I wrote this story as my spiritual fight against the sand's drift and the desertification of the Gobi.
When it is snowing, we feel as if we come back to childhood…
It happened when I was not born. Because I did not see it with my own eyes, I cannot say what it was, whether a natural catastrophe or the rarest phenomena.
There is nobody who can remember exactly when it was. Old men say that Monkey Years are usually the most snowy. Of course, I do not know whether that Winter with so much snow was in the Year of the Monkey or not. But I first chose "The Zud of Monkey Year" as the title of this story. A bit after I heard the magic word "Ice Plague," and I named it "Legend of Snow Plague." At last, one day I felt I had become liberated from the models of time and real catastrophe, my thoughts became lighter, and so I decided to release this text. Nevertheless, I am afraid that even the title you are reading now will not last, and that this is not the final version.
I was born after the big snow melted. In my early childhood, I pitched jumper-stones on the surface of rivers. When I became a little bigger, I ran along creeks racing in small bark boats. Now, this was not an ordinary creek. Later, I understood that the big river that I saw in my childhood was the result of that big snow the old men told me about.
Snow was falling, falling and falling. The snow began in early autumn and did not stop for a second until Spring, when it ceased, turning into an unbelievable flood of yellow water.
Even though the village was cut off from the rest of the country, life went on. People found their way around by hollowing out the big snow. At first, people cleared some snow to make their way. The sun rose from behind and set into heaped up hills of snow, and the villagers dug tunnels under this big snow. Smoking men wandered in snow tunnels. Women and children ran everywhere pulling sleds. What had been the main street of the village turned into the longest and widest tunnel, and its gates that led to homes were now called "sub-tunnels." People no longer saw the sky.
It is said that Winter under the snow is much warmer indeed. Sometimes, on those rare sunny days, gray milky light announced itself through the thick snow ceiling, but most of those days were darker than nights.
It is said the search for the disappeared and missing of this small village under the nonstop snow was unsuccessful, and the government declared national mourning until the Spring. The villagers were already adapting to life under the snow. "We only have one danger," they said. "Spring's flood." Everyone feared the melting of the snow, because when this much snow melted, they would all die, drowning. Everyone in the village understood this well and increased the speed of their lives.
They planned weddings while their children were still alive. The village had only one boy and girl who were previously arranged to marry. The boy was sixteen; the girl, younger than fourteen. Every family found some alcohol in wood chests, and the people walked along the main tunnel with torches in their hands and sang far into the night. A search helicopter landed on a packed drift of snow just in time for the party, and a member of this search team asked his colleagues whether they heard drunken singing from under their feet. They all laughed at him: "Ha! People are singing under the snow! And drunk!"
"You are one sharp-eared man!"
"He's drunk his allotment of spirits!"
The sharp-eared man immediately shut up.
It is impossible to write about the village under snow in every detail. Maybe because a human is an animal who struggles towards the heavens, the villagers dug upwards and pierced the ceiling of the main tunnel. They tried to see the sky by building and walking up hardened steps of snow. They say that building those steps took three long months, and that the villagers knew every one of those 270 steps.
All knew that piercing the snow could not connect them with the outer world. There were, of course, many miles around them that were also under snow. All the earth was probably completely covered in snow. Yes, they dug the hole and built the long stairs, but not under the illusory hope of escape. There is always something missing for humans. A single man looks for a wife. A married man hopes to meet a pretty woman in secret. For the villagers, what was missing was the sky.
When they finished piercing the hole in the ceiling, the snow stopped for a short while, and it was night outside. Little stars flashed in the cold black sky, and the coldest air blew a strange sound through the hole. They say the cold air really sounded with a crack.
Men from the village met outside in this darkest, unbelievably empty and cruel world and spoke: "This piercing was the worst idea, huh?"
They returned to the buried village with tired and gloomy faces, trailed by the completely new smell of wind.
The hole had been pierced downwind, on the village's east side, where the yurt of the youngest couple was. They could sometimes hear the wind's sound from outside. The boy and girl sat looking each other and listened to how the sky's wind turned loud and then became silent. It was the happiest moment of their lives. They would sit all day and listen to the wind.
Every day, some men in the village would lead the boy to the hole. They would go there to visit the big flag sewn from many colored cottons and to see the sky. After climbing for 270 steps, the men saw the slit of the Winter sun through the little hole.
"So, it is good to have a wife, bro, isn't it?" they asked the boy.
Some of them asked: "Hey, how was your night last night, man?"
They were seriously worried about how such an infant pair could taste life, and the boy understood them. Every time he walked to the hole, he felt a heavy shyness when the men began to speak.
"Oh, it is the rarest fortune to have your own wife at your age! Such a damn cute wife!"
"Hey, is this little snot fit for his wife?"
"Actually, her breasts look as if they've grown. But only he himself…"
Sometimes, the boy came back angry or even in tears. "Why are they so cruel to me?" he asked himself. Before entering his home, he cooled his face with snow, and then touched the door of his home with a wide smile as if nothing had happened.
When he entered, the older women left with teapots in their hands. Their eyes shone like the men's.
The boy and girl hid from each other what the adults said to them. So the boy did not guess how his young wife became the women's fun all day long.
Late at night when they climbed into bed, they remembered adults' daily conversations, from which both inwardly trembled. "Brrr…cold," they said, lying in bed, quieting down, close to each other. At this time, the snow around their house crunched under someone's feet. One of the villagers came to eavesdrop on them. They both knew about it, and what's more, the young lad felt the township watch as they kissed. They were not ashamed to kiss in front of someone else's eyes. More than anything, though, the boy knew he should conceal his wife's firm breasts and pubic area covered with sparse hairs from the eyes of men who had not followed the delicacy of their words. So, he did not allow her to undress but instead caressed her and touched her breasts and pubic area under the blanket.
One night, the boy awoke and discovered that his wife was holding his penis. In the dim light from the stove, the girl's eyes shone with exactly the same strange, mysterious fireworks that he saw in those aunts' eyes who quickly slipped out the door when he arrived home.
After this incident, they were no longer afraid of strangers' prying eyes, and each night they slept undressed and naked, or, rather, spent the night in intrigues of love but not sleep. But there was nothing between them. In the morning, they did not dare even glimpse into each other's eyes.
The boy became even more sad and gloomy on his way to the hole.
Once, in his absence, a woman grabbed the girl and felt her breasts and touched her crotch. The girl did not say a word about it to her husband. She was afraid to think of how she could look again into the eyes of that woman of forty years, who so unceremoniously stuck the craziest thing, a hand, between her legs. Later that night, when the boy was asleep, she slipped out of bed naked, and, kneeling down, placing his hand on the hairs of her pubis, prayed: "God, make it so that she is dead!"
The plea, it seems, reached the heavens. The woman soon died. In the village, buried under the snow, the funeral took place. At the funeral, the girl wailed and lamented so much. She sobbed from the unbearable feelings of guilt, so that her pretty eyes became very swollen.
The husband of the deceased, a tall thin man, looked at her in amazement. He remembered how just the day before, his wife had whispered to him: "Those poor two are really children. The girl is still a virgin." Now she had passed away. Nowhere—not on this damn snow or in these frozen tunnels—would he hear her voice again. On the day of the funeral, he marked his 49th year. On this day, his birthday, he buried in the icy snow the woman with whom he had shared the sweetest of nights.
He remembered how, after copulation, they embraced for a long time. If in these moments his right shoulder itched, then he scratched the right shoulder blade of his wife. If it was itching along his back, he gently rubbed his wife along her back. He wanted his wife to do the same. She sometimes scratched the necessary place and sometimes she plucked elsewhere or even reinforced the itch. However, he never told this to his wife. They did not talk much between themselves.
Their only daughter lived in the city. When she was little, they expressed their feelings to each other as if to their child.
"Rabbit, do you love your Dad?"
"Mum loves Dad, too."
He was so happy when he heard such words. The daughter was raised such a beautiful woman that it was a sin to hold her in a provincial town. Looking at her picture, he always wondered, "How odd, why is she so beautiful?" His family was all stooped and black. Yes, and, moreover, in her youth, his wife was not such a hot beauty. But the daughter… "Who knows, if she was unpleasant, I would not have been so lonely here," he thought.
Thus reflecting, he completely forgot the most important thing for the village—the snow. When these big snows melted, all the villagers would die in the maelstrom of the great stream, and his daughter who lived in the city would survive. He had completely forgotten about it.
The next day after the funeral, the widower took the boy and went up the stairs and to the hole. But no one woman came to the girl.
The previous night, a snowstorm had closed the hole. They shoveled the snow and the widower opened it and pushed his head into the small hole to look out.
"It is too white and too blue. Blind eyes are to see," he said, sliding down. He had a frozen tear near his nostrils. "You wanna look outside, boy? Boy, I say. I am accustomed to call you this. You are now a man… Yes, life is beautiful, really, like heaven and earth outside. But, apparently, a man is not capable of enjoying beauty for long… Come out, look. And after that I will tell you something."
The boy climbed up and stuck his head out of the hole. Indeed, there was nothing but the whitest snow and the bluest sky. Blinded by their radiance, he could not even determine where the sun was.
When he came down, the widower silently stood up. On the way back they didn't utter a word. The boy wanted to ask what the widower had promised to say, but he said nothing. The widower meanwhile thought, "What can I tell him? I will not say to him, 'Brother, in less than three months we will all die, you know.'"
The boy went into his house and found his wife in tears.
"What happened?" he asked.
"It's all because of me," the boy thought. In his ears he heard this day's words, "You're a man now," which immediately mixed with the words of the other men, like a gleaming, responding echo.
The next morning he told his wife that he was going to the hole and instead of going east he went west, where he came upon a woman named Tse. The boy immediately—in one breath—told her all that was pent up in his soul.
Tse rose, locked the door, and removed the veil from her bed, which stood near the stove. "Well, come to me, my sucker," she said.
They made love for the third time, and she still whispered "my sucker," caressing it and moaning with passion.
"Well, then, run to your beloved virgin-wife," Tse said with a smile.
The boy, a bit unsteadily, walked down the main tunnel. Suddenly a light appeared, and in the light he saw his wife. The widower was walking with a torch in the main tunnel, and the boy's wife was draped in a scarf and following him. The boy darted around the corner and hid. They walked up to the corner.
"Well, now, run home," the boy heard the voice of the widower say.
"I…tomorrow come?" the boy's wife asked.
"No. Do not come again. Do not forget that you're his wife."
That evening the boy did not come back home. They searched for him everywhere but never found him. The next day the men went to the hole and brought out the corpse of the boy, numb in the snow.
The village under the snow buried its second person.
On the ill-fated day, the girl had gone sobbing into the house of the widower.
"It is because of me your wife died," she said. And the girl told the widower without reserve how in her husband's absence, the village women gathered and tried to find out whether she did with her husband what husbands and wives should do. She told the widower that she was most tormented with the questions of his deceased wife, and that the wife had once felt her shameful lips. When the child said the name of her intimate space in front of an almost stranger with whom she had never exchanged a word, she felt that her crotch breathed warmth.
"I was terribly ashamed. So, I prayed for her death. And God listened to my prayer. It was my fault. If I did not ask God for it, your wife would be alive today," said the girl, and she began to sob once again.
"Did you really pray for the death of my wife?"
"I did not know that it would happen. I did not want her death, but I begged for it."
The widower sat down next to the prostrate girl and began to awkwardly wipe away her tears.
"You did nothing, daughter. My wife suffered from a long-standing illness for many years. Every Winter, we went into town for treatment. Doctors warned us that if the treatment was interrupted she might die. This year we were forced to interrupt her treatment. However, the deceased did not lose heart. She loved the two of you. There is no greater happiness in this world than to see the innocent and pure. It is a pity that we are often unable to recognize each other's soul."
He spoke these words, but inside his soul crept the same thought: "We're still going to die when the snow melts." The girl poured her heart out and left the widower's house soothed. With a torch in his hand, the owner of the house walked the young girl to the main tunnel, and it seemed to the girl as if this light from the torch lit up her whole future.
Her young hot flesh was widowed, not having been the flesh of a real woman, the flesh of a real wife.
The villagers became sullen and silent. Only very talkative ones said: "She never had it, she only took a sip of grief," they said. But pity for the girl in the words "she never had it" once again slipped a reminder in their heads of the impending terrible flood, and therefore their faces darkened.
The girl's parents and the parents of the deceased boy were neighbors. But she chose to remain in the empty house without its owner, so she lived alone. Wood was enough. What else do people need who are just waiting for the Spring, the dangerous Spring!
One night the girl, remembering her terrible plea to God, unwittingly got up and sat naked in front of the fire. And touching the hairs of her pussy, which did not acquire a husband, she suddenly remembered the clumsy hands of the widower wiping away her tears. Not trying to restrain herself, not even thinking of anything, she dressed quickly and rushed through the dark tunnel.
"You are the widower, and I am the widow. Take me instead of your beloved wife. Her soul requested it, and now I am asking," she said and she undressed.
How intimate and wonderful is nudity between the sexes! Her white hand twined around the neck of the matured man and his lips felt the moistness of hers. He instinctively recalled the words of his late wife "…she walks still a virgin…" and rushing to the virgin place, he took a deep breath. He filled himself with the pure scent of the girl's body and released a long-drawn sigh. Maybe the girl was so hungry for life, or indeed, as a thinker quotes, "the meaning of the female existence is manifested only when it joins the sperm," the girl went into the taste of sex with all her passion. She felt that in the future she might not be able to live a day without it. Sweet groaning under the aggressive movements of a shrinkable male, she was sorry to tears for her late husband. If they had just done it, the girl could not be sorry about his death. This little woman, turning into one body with a real man, and feeling deep inside her the beating heart of another person, burst into tears: if he had just experienced…It!
Decency is not left to people who have only three months to live. The girl climbed into the bed of the widower and waited for that fateful day. Men continued to go to the hole, and all began to respect the widower in some way. Even the girl's father-in-law smiled at him with gratitude.
The township lived in great poverty. Not even ancient tales and myths were about such a large snowfall that forever cut the townspeople off from the world, because no one was able to believe this phenomenon, no one could have ever dreamed it. On about the tenth day of snow, a caravan with a few camels went to the nearest large town for flour and other provisions, but it did not return. Everyone lit the lamps and remembered the people and camels. About a month after the caravan's disappearance, everyone began to tighten their belts, though there was not a special kind of savings. Only wood for heating was plentiful. The people harvested lots of wood—they added the wooden skeletons of yurts, boards, barn beams, sheds. The entire township heated their ovens until they were red hot, somehow offsetting their half-starved existence.
"Brothers, are we going to sit back and wait for death? Grandpa Carpenter, prepare a few good boards so that we can make wide skis. Let's send two or three strong men to the outside world. Let's at least see whether there is an edge to all this snow," said one of the villagers. Another supported him: "Indeed, there are no other people who are so indifferent awaiting death as we are. Let's pull together money and jewelry and send some people on their way and at least call a helicopter."
"Mmm, the helicopters are probably covered with snow. A long time ago, they would have seen the great mottled cloth of the hole. I have been looking outside—not even a bird has flown over."
"But I saw a big bird."
"Yes, it was probably a vulture looking for carrion."
In the end, another three men went out of the hole. They belted a bundle of all that was valuable in homes. They also did not return. There was no milk to sprinkle on them, or ghee to ignite the funeral lamps. Therefore, the town waited until the very end for their return. What else were they to do?
In those days, when the snow was covering the village, the frozen bodies of the nomads were found by rescuers near the neighboring village. The camels of the caravan were still alive. They lay covering the cold bodies of their masters and quietly chewed their cud. Seeing such a tragic end for once healthy men, the group of rescuers decided that a similar fate had befallen the rest of the villagers and they stopped searching, ending their three-month search. Consequently, the villagers dug a hole at the precise moment when the search group gave the all-clear, that there was no one here.
The three who had left could have returned to the village in one month. The whole world was not full of snow as the villagers imagined. If they had ordered Grandpa Carpenter to make skis and sleds, if the villagers had left the next day after the hole was hacked, it would have only taken one week to reach the edge of the snow.
Nobody knows what those three men talked about between themselves after learning that the world was not covered in snow. They had a belted bundle with a large sum of money, gold and jewels inside. One of the three was an honest and decent man, the second was his complete opposite. Well, the third, the third was one of those useless fellows who you can find a fair amount of anywhere. There is reason to believe that the honest, decent man was killed by these last two.
And the two villains who possessed all the riches of the villagers disappeared in the city. By the time the television had begun to relate the news of finding the remains of the victims of a snow dam, one of them had already squandered everything and had nothing left and clung to a gang of thieves. The other sat happily and calmly sipping whiskey.
Later, one of the bad eggs—at this time he was in prison and had become accustomed to its walls so that he could sleep in a bunk with the same calm as he slept at home—said with anguish: "I am an example of what happens when someone else's goods do not stick to the man." Pointing to the portrait of a very influential and respected person on the newspaper page, completely frayed in the hands of the prisoner, he cried out:"This is an example that someone else's goods sometimes sticks to the man."
According to this thief, that man was using a fictitious name. He told a weird and nasty story that became one of the legends of the prison, most of which are always fictional.
The thief often bragged: "When I leave this prison, I will call him and say only four words: 'Remember That Big Snowfall?' And I'll be set for life."
However, over the years, he became soft, and in the end, he served his sentence very quietly. His nickname was Prisoner Delirium. Yes, in prison, so many people go crazy. It is said that the night before his release, Prisoner Delirium said to the young guard: "I, your old uncle, shall never set foot here again. All the sins I committed, I have not committed through fault of my own but because of the big snow."
The guard was surprised.
"Yes, yes. You must know the snowflakes that fall from the sky in Winter very well. It all happened because of them," confirmed Prisoner Delirium.
In the morning, he was found dead. The heart attack freed him from his prison fantasies. I heard this story not from former prisoners, but from a patient at the sanatorium my mother was treated at. "What, all of a sudden a mother? All of a sudden a resort?" you may wonder, dear reader. At the end of the story, I will try to write clearly about all this. Therefore, let us return to the village under the snow.
Any town worthy of being described in such stories as mine is a human society in miniature. Each village has its singer, wrestler, the rich and the crazy. But in the village under the snow, there were none of these. There was no one crazy, no children running races, crying or screaming. Maybe this is why this village suffered its fate?
And then came the day when at last the hole collapsed.
The villagers gathered in the house of the old carpenter to celebrate the Lunar New Year. No one had snuff to exchange and greet each other with. They all took turns greeting the venerable Grandpa Carpenter, the oldest man in the village, framing their outstretched arms under the hands of the old man. The women wept quietly in their sleeves that this was the last holiday for them.
Grandpa Carpenter opened the barn door: "During the whole Winter, we made just one boat. However it is not a small one, a dozen people will fit in it, warm clothes and provisions for at least ten days will take most of the spaces there. So let's put two or three young people in the boat and supply them with good clothes—they may survive. We need to take out the boat through the hole. We can't wait until the snow begins to melt more. Hurry up. I heard that big snow melts fast."
Grandpa Carpenter was a laconic man, and so he began to get choked up by this speech. The villagers had a lot of respect for him, and nobody doubted the reliability and stability of the boat. "Thank God, at least two of us will be saved."
"No, Grandpa Carpenter, you made this boat and you have to sit in it. This is true and fair," countered another. Grandpa Carpenter declined with obvious irritation: "Oh, no. Think of how much I have left to live. I will not live until next Spring. Put the children in the boat."
The village had no children except the fourteen-year-old widow. Therefore, all at once, the assembled looked at the girl. Ashamed of these stares, the poor girl fainted.
"This night is your last night in the village," the widower said. "You better stay with your parents."
"I do not think I shall be safe on that boat. I came to you so that neither you nor I will be sorry later about this night," the girl replied. After these words, the girl seemed to look like an adult.
"Later, you say?"
Yes, nudity is the wonderful act of intimate relations between man and woman. Oh, skin of the opposite sex is touching your skin with such a passionate embrace, in which we are trying to enter into each other, trying to get inside each other…
It is that night I call the "Snow Romance." I do not know whether this can be the title of my story. And is it the work of a person with common sense to describe such an event that once occurred somewhere in this world?
The girl tried to remember every slight motion forever, while the widower closed his eyes to not see this delicate and loving body. He was moaning and calling out the name of his dead wife, whom he hoped to see soon in a different world.
Nobody knows how many people were buried under the snow. Official data are not available. The most reliable information about the inhabitants of the village was lost forever, along with the residents, or, more precisely, along with the documents of the village management.
The central state archive contains an undated document, in which sixty-three names appear. But they say this list of residents was made at least seven years before the big snow, and maybe more. During those more than seven years, the number of inhabitants of the Ravine village could have grown. Or it could have declined, as children who became adults often left the settlement forever. By itself, this story is not so interesting for me. I'm not a writer, not a journalist. But, unfortunately, no one would write about it if I didn't.
In the year of the big snow, only three residents were saved—an old man and a pregnant woman. A pregnant woman means two people. The total turns to three.
An old man told this story to a boy. But I do not know whether the old man was the old man from the village or whether the boy was the son of the pregnant woman. Whatever it was, my grandfather told me about the village buried beneath the snow. It is likely that my grandfather was that old man, but it could be the point that the pregnant woman was the mother of my grandfather. But if the old man was my grandfather, it turns out that the pregnant woman who escaped from the flood is my mother, and I am her child, yes? Unfortunately, my grandfather was too old, deaf, spoke too unintelligibly, and I was too young to fully understand his words. If the son of the rescued pregnant woman was my grandfather, the story of a big snowfall further disengages us from time. But whatever it was, no doubt, my grandfather was one of the three people who survived the great flood. And you probably agree that—whatever one might say—the story of the big snow has great relevance for me.
Many years have passed since my grandfather died. I do not even remember how he died. Sometimes, I think that if I will try so HARD, I can remember the circumstances of his death, but every time it fails.
A mother? you'll ask. I do not have to ask her about it. I remember being taken to meet my mother in a sanatorium, in the yard of which grew tall trees. I have been accustomed since childhood to calling the place a sanatorium, but in reality it was a mental hospital.
I can't even call her "Mom." Sometimes, she pronounces fragmentary phrases, but between them never sounded the word "snow," so I do not know who I am.