Mongolia, c. 3.800 B.C
The strangest thing about silence is how loud it can be. Go to the vast, lonely tundras and it will seem almost as though the silence is screaming. It does not take long for even the sanest of people to start imagining voices in a place like this.
I had never before seen a place that was so vast and unending; had never traveled to where the winds roam uninhibited, a whistling, howling reminder of the wilderness in our hearts. I was of the south, of sheltering mountains, lush forests and gentler things. My skin was soft and thin, fragile like porcelain cups. When I came north, I learned that porcelain does not exist here; everything is rough and thick and strong.
I still remember the first time I met him, my husband-to-be. Merse was all but swallowed in his reindeer skin and his red, fur-lined cap. Small icicles grew from his mustache. I had heard it said that Yel Ata had filled his chest with a storm rather than a heart, and that this was the reason for his prowess on the field of battle.
Merse, unlike me, was of the unending, northern grass steppes.
The day of our meeting was in the middle of summer, yet it still felt cold. My clan had set up camp south of his camp, among bushes that huddled close to a stream of icy water. We had traveled far; first north through mountains and thick forests, through seemingly endless gobi desert-lands, and then through this desert, the one of grass and grey clouds rather than the sand and dry cold of the gobi.
The day after we arrived, my clan lined up in front of our camp, facing north, towards Merse and my future. They stood like an army, in rows, shoulder to shoulder. I was pushed forwards, like a lamb for slaughter, for enticing the enemy to get out of its hiding.
My hanfu stood no chance against the piercing wind, not even with the thick fur I had wrapped around me, and I trembled like a leaf. Whenever I tried to wrap my arms around myself, to preserve some warmth, my mother stepped forwards and instructed me to keep my hands at my side.
“You can’t show weakness,” she told me. “If he doesn’t like you, he can still draw back from this wedding. That’s not what you want, is it?”
Maybe, I thought, but it was a terrible, selfish thought. I quenched it with a shake of my head.
Our marriage was of a political nature. Merse’s father was one of the greatest leaders of our time; the fact that he had enough men to send south, through the desert to the mountainous regions near the great ocean where I lived, spoke volumes of the powerful hold that he had over his territory. With his son’s marriage to me, he would have a trade contracts and allies in the far east. But, of course, my clan had more relying on this marriage than his had. With my marriage to him, my clan would no longer be refugees; their reputation would be restored, and one of their daughters would be part of the greatest legacy that this part of the earth had ever seen.
So I kept my hands at my side and did my best to keep from trembling in the unbearable silence of expectation.
The quiet was broken by a deep rumbling. It was not until I noticed the cloud of dust rising up ahead that I realized it wasn’t thunder. The beats of half a hundred galloping hooves reverberated in the earth. The Mongol horses were quick; their riders crossed the distance between me and them in much less time than I thought possible.
They stopped so that I was in the middle of the two clans — pulling their reins back, their horses coming to a stumbling, graceless, but intimidating stop. Only one rider kept going. Merse slowed his horse before continuing past his ranks. Dirt and sand sprayed around the horse’s legs as it stopped just some meters before me, but I forced myself to stand still and tall and not lower my eyes.
It was a small, compact stallion, dark grey with a white mane. It seemed to vanish underneath its master’s impressive figure. I felt so tiny, so mortal, in front of this man whose story was spun like those of the gods. His dark eyes — northern eyes — met mine, and I sucked in a breath. Behind those eyes lay my future.
When we were married, I had been told, he would take me north. His father had given him a division of their clan so that he could explore the regions north of the great Baygal lake and attempt to trade with those who lived there. With me at his side, he would travel to the far north. He would go beyond Mongol land and maps, beyond where the eagles fly, where the land of Gok Tengri, the God of the Sky and Creator of Everything, ends, to the edge of this world and the border of some mysterious, shadowed wasteland that he imagined would become his ascension.
He held my gaze for another moment. Something seemed to pass between us; something made for held-back breaths and half darkness. The wind quieted, the world stilled. Then he nodded, and I lowered my head.
That was it, the formalities were over. He turned his horse around and rode back to his people, but I could not tear my eyes away from his receding figure. Something was clutching at my chest, trying to hold on, trying to get a grip in me before it was pulled away. Even when my mother offered her fur coat to me, I kept my gaze firm.
And, just before his figure became a silhouette against the horizon, he turned around. I saw his grand, imposing figure twist around, and then his face was visible and his eyes met mine again. I felt my heart flutter as the something in my chest let go.
He turned away again after a second. The wind returned. It seemed almost colder than before. With a hiss, I accepted my mother’s fur.
We were married the very next day. The sky was a pale, faded blue and carried the promise of rain. The early morning dew had been replaced by a sweeping fog. Some of the guests swore they heard thunder, off in the distance. Yet the sun shone bright and the weather held warm. I almost did not feel the cold at all.
My dress was outstandingly elaborate. There was silk, traditional for my home, as the bottom layer. It was embellished with a net of threads that fastened pearls to the fabric, pearls that had come all the way from the sea to the east. They had travelled even further than I had in order to get here. It seemed impossible.
Over it, I wore a poncho of thin threads delicately woven into intricate patterns of lighter and darker whites. Polished animal teeth hung from its ends. Whenever the wind blew, they sang with it in a hollow, clattering voice. Furs from arctic foxes were sewn together into a jacket and a round hat on my head. My mother had braided my hair into two thick cords and raised them on top of my head. They could barely be seen beneath the hat.
“You have such beautiful hair,” she had said as she combed it through her fingers. “So long and thick and shiny.”
I smiled as she held a mirror for me to see the results of her work. My face was nothing out of the ordinary. My body was too frail and thin where it should be stronger and fatter, and too strong and fat where it should have been thin and frail. I was sorry to put the hat on for the walk to the táltos’ ger; it hid my best quality and I was afraid it would ruin my mother’s work.
We entered through the first leather door, into a small, dark space. It was not quite inside the tent — the ground beneath our feet was still frozen, withered grass — but the wind was stopped by the thick leather walls. Here, we shed our outer wear. I put my hat atop of my coat after removing it carefully from my delicate hair.
Before I entered the second door, my mother stopped me. She smiled, her cheeks and the corners of her eyes wrinkling, as she brushed her fingers over my face.
“Oh, I am so very proud of you,” she said and blinked away some tears. “Look how beautiful you are.”
I felt my chest swell with her pride and I kissed her cheek. Her smile grew even wider.
Her eyes held mine for a moment, then drifted past me. “There comes your father,” she said.
I felt my body tense as I turned and watched him approach. His figure was distinctive. Far larger than the average man, he stood out quite clearly. My mother swept open the door for him to enter.
“Come, Papa. See how pretty your daughter looks.”
He excused himself and came to the tent. He regarded me wide eyes. I thought I saw tears. “By the gods— can this truly be my daughter?”
When he took my hands and brought them to the space between us, my eyes followed — first to our joined fingers, then to his eyes.
“Remember what I told you?” he asked.
I nodded, breathless with excitement. He had given me advice on how to conceive; mixtures I could blend together of local herbs, for me or for my husband to drink before we lay together. Of course, he had not used those words — that would have been inappropriate. He merely gave me the ingredients. My mother had explained the technicalities already, over and over, so I would please my husband.
“You must further his legacy.” Those were a perfect repetition of his words earlier, shortly after the betrothal. I felt my throat tighten; I did not want to think about it, the duty of a wife. “The gods favor him. Being the mother of his bloodline would give our family more honor than it has had for a generation.”
He clenched my hands before letting me go.
Merse awaited me inside, with the táltos. I had to go alone, unaccompanied. When I returned, I would not be the same. I would no longer be a girl, no longer a woman, but a wife. With a final glance at my parents — who, in the matter of minutes, would no longer be my parents — I dove into the ger, into the chokingly sweet incense. It was rich with spices, and so thick that my reaching hand vanished under the dark smoke.
* * *
The first time my father ever told me of the responsibilities of a wife had been years earlier, a week after I woke up with blood staining the bundled sheets between my thighs.
That day had not been the first time that I saw blood — even when women did not hunt, we cleaned the bodies; we split open the carcasses, we rid them of their intestines, we cooked them. However, this was not the blood of a fox or a rabbit. This was my blood, human blood.
When I was little, even scrapes would scare me. If I fell over and scratched my knee bloody, I’d run to my mother crying until she blew on it and covered it with a piece of cloth. Back then, my sister would laugh at my weakness.
“You should get used to it,” she would mock. “Everyone knows that women see more of their own blood than just a few cuts.”
She was older than me, Tavaszka. You could tell that she was born in spring; her moods swung back and forth just like spring flickered between unbearably hot days and snowstorms reminiscent of winter. Her skin was pale, but with a blush of innocent pink and, when she smiled, her eyes shone like the sun.
On the day of my first bleeding, however, she did not mock my fear.
“Taszka,” I whispered. My voice was brittle and tears blurred my eyes. The air was still a sleepy grey, the sun not yet risen. “Taszka. Wake up!”
With a groan, she turned to her back, rubbed her eyes. “What?” she hissed.
I could feel the hotness of the blood clinging to my skin. I tried not to move my legs; I did not want to feel the slickness that coated them. “I thi— I think I bled.”
Tavaszka’s eyebrows drew together in something close to understanding. “You… Oh.”
She sat up, as quiet as she could, and blinked the sleep from her eyes. When she looked at me, I wanted to flinch away. My face was warm with embarrassment. That entire morning, I remember in a dull red light — like the color of sunlight through closed eyelids.
She knelt by my bedside and inspected my blankets. A smile spread on her lips. “Congratulations,” she whispered, careful not to speak loudly enough to alert anyone of our wakefulness. “You’re a woman now.”
The prospect of becoming a woman filled me with a certain feeling of pride and a certain feeling of fear. “There’s so much of it.” My whisper was tremulous; I hadn’t dared look since that first glance just after waking. “Will I survive?”
She laughed, but not a mocking one. It was kind, calming even. “Yes, silly.” She stroked my cheek, my hair. “I’ll have a bath brought in here.”
I shook my head. “People will know.” Usually, we bathed in the river; if I didn’t, rumors would run quick.
“I think it will be more obvious if you go out with blood drenching your clothes,” she said. “Besides, they’ll all know soon enough.”
For some reason, I did not want them to know. Everyone would look at me differently. I would no longer be a genderless child; I would be a woman. Men would follow me with their eyes, and I would have to dress to keep hold of their gazes — “But you should make it appear as though you do not wish it,” my sister had explained. It was all so complicated.
My sister told my mother, and my mother told my father. And so, a week later, my father took me into the woods, far away from prying ears and eyes, and sat me down.
“One day, you’ll be married,” he began. It was the same way my mother had begun, a day before when she explained what marriage meant. That was the only resemblance that the two tales would hold; whereas my mother had explained what would happen on the wedding night, what childbirth meant, and how the ritual was held, my father told me of responsibilities, of the gods. His puzzle was so big, so full of pieces, but I still could not seem to fit myself into it.
“It is a wife’s duty to give her husband a child,” he said. My mother had said, “It is a wife’s honor to give her husband a child.”
“Think of it this way: you would not kill a person, would you?” He did not wait for the answer; of course I wouldn’t. “By not giving him children, you kill not only the children, but also their children, and their children. You kill a lineage.”
A ball had tightened in my stomach on the morning of my first bleeding; that day, it grew larger. When I came outside, I found my sister and pulled her away. We went to the river, but not to the spot where we bathed, amongst trees for coverage. We went further up; past where the clothes were washed, past the spot where we filled our jugs for drinking and cooking. I crawled onto a stone, a little into the stream, and dipped my toes in the water.
“It feels wrong,” I said, rubbing my stomach with the heel of my hand — the same movement my mother applied to my father’s back when it knotted up. “It all feels wrong. What if I can’t have children? Am I worthless then?”
Tavaszka stood in the river and the water brushed past her ankles. She pressed her soft lips to my cheek. “You’ll never be worthless to me.”
I looked up at her, surprised at this show of affection. Her beauty struck me; her skin seemed to glow with tenderness, and her eyes were filled with love. We were different; she quiet, I loud; she thoughtful, I rash; she beautiful, I plain; she sometimes cold with bravery and confidence, I always lukewarm with fear and uncertainty. That day, though, she wasn’t cold.
This was the image of her that I’d bring with me, more so than the tiny portrait there had been drawn of her for me to bring with me to my new life. This, her, with the sun reflected from the water onto her face and the soft breeze in her hair. This, her, my last moment of childhood.
On the day of my first bleeding, a ball tightened within my stomach. It hasn’t stopped growing since.
* * *
My sister married before I did, to a handsome man who loved her. It was hard not to hate her when she was so much more fortunate than I — and even harder now, as I sat amongst all these strangers. My husband, seated next to me, towered above me. As he ate, he emptied cup after cup until his face was red and his laughter loud like thunder.
I only had my parents, and they were seated far away. So would Tavaszka have been, of course, but it’s not the same with siblings. With her, a glance across a room — across the world, if we could only see so far — would be as much consolation as my mother’s arms around me. As different as we were, when I looked into her eyes, I saw myself reflected. That’s the way with siblings.
Merse seemed to notice, and he was kind. He’d lean in and whisper something in my ear. It would be nonsense — how is the food? Do you like the snow? What is your favorite color? — but I imagined it seemed intimate from the outside.
“Red,” I whispered back, with a little smile. I caught my mother’s pleased glance and felt my chest flutter with excitement.
He frowned, as if surprised. “Red? How come?”
This was the longest any of our conversations had gone on. It felt awkward to keep my mouth so close to his ear for so long, but I did not dare to draw back. “I don’t know, I— I guess it reminds me of fire, but not… not quite.”
He glanced at me. “Not quite?”
I wetted my lips, looked down. There was a hole in his tunic, right above his collarbone. I could see skin beneath it, and suddenly felt the urge to poke a finger through, pick at the hole until it fit there.
“Back home, we use colors for symbolism,” I explained. “Red is fiery, passionate. It’s the color of emotion, whether it’s anger or determination, love or…” I wanted to say it, but he was so close, and my throat closed up. He didn’t love me, couldn’t, not yet. Perhaps he didn’t even want me.
He inclined his head towards me. “Or…?”
“Or…” I whispered. My tone might have seemed teasing, if you did not know how rapidly my heart was beating.
I nodded and stared at the hole in his tunic. There was a coarseness in his voice that made my stomach tighten. I clenched my thighs together and tried not to blush.
He turned to look at me. “You are very beautiful.”
I hadn’t at first thought him handsome, but I liked his eyes. From far away, they seemed dark, but here, up close, they were lighter, warmer. There was a kindness in them that made me feel safe.
One of his men — a friend, I assumed — called out for him, and the moment was ended. I did not regret it too much; I enjoyed seeing him speak with his friends. I enjoyed his laughter.
“That’s enough wine, Merse,” the man said, “or your poor wife will be sorely disappointed.”
Merse let out a pff of indignation, but glanced in my direction to make sure I was not offended. I smiled at him.
“Oh, she would’ve been, even without the wine,” a second man said, appearing behind our chairs to grab hold of Merse’s shoulders.
I let out a sudden laughter, unable to stop myself. I covered my mouth with a hand and blamed it on the wine.
My parents chose that moment to rise from the table. I wondered what they thought of it — of the jokes and of me laughing at them. They did not seem to have noticed; their bows were perfectly courteous and their voices as kind and respectful as they had been all day.
“You are leaving already?” Merse asked, cutting into their stream of courtesies.
“It’s getting too late for me, I’m afraid,” my father explained.
Merse offered a kind smile and nodded. I studied his features, pleased by how much he seemed to like my father before standing to kiss my parents goodnight. When I sat down, Merse was deep in discussion with the two men. Their voices were lower now, more intimate, and I did not have the energy to try to join them. Instead, I leaned back and looked around the tent.
It was mostly empty by now; except for us, there were few people left. I had seen some of the faces before, and some of the voices had spoken to me, but I could not remember their names. Just as a feeling of loneliness began to creep forth once more, Merse’s hand found mine. My heart leapt and my breath shortened, shallow in my throat. Our hands were half covered by the table and no one else seemed to have noticed — for a moment, I thought even Merse hadn’t noticed. He kept on the conversation as though nothing had happened. I wondered how he did it; our hands burned where our skin touched.
That’s where the heat began. Not long after, he leaned back to me and whispered in my ear. It wasn’t like before; his lips were closer to my ear, and his breath landed heavy on my cheek.
“Do you want to go to bed?”
The fire spread, from his lips through breath to my tingling skin. I nodded, unable to form words.
There were cheers and some remarks, but they seemed inconsequential. His hand touched my back, guiding me. His ger was close to that of the feast; I barely felt the cold until it had gone away again.
It was smaller than I had expected, but it was full of warmth. His sleeping area took up most of the space, large and soft with several blankets and furs. The knot in my stomach returned at the sight of it, and I wished I could just go to sleep now.
“Are you okay?” he asked. He had thrown of his shoes, but made no move to remove any more clothing.
I nodded. “Yes, I’m good.”
He smiled. “Good.”
It was a strange smile, a pleased, almost lazy smile. I did not know how I felt about it; just like the prospect of this night, it made me feel at once proud, afraid and ecstatic. As he stepped closer, my stomach tightened, in a good way, and a bad.
His smile remained as he ran his hand through my hair, pushed it back. Our first kiss was soft, hesitant, with his thumb running over my cheekbone.
“I like you,” he told me, against my lips. “I already like you more than I could’ve hoped.”
I raised my hand, hesitant and shivering, to his collarbone. I felt I should return the sentiment, but then he closed his lips over mine once more. In the end, I liked that better than words. There was something so simple about the movement of our bodies. It was much easier to express the emotions that I did not fully comprehend through the simple caress of my hands in his hair, through the dance of our tongues.
The act took longer than I had expected. My mother had explained it as briefly and as technically as she possibly could. There was so much more to it than that; a pinch of pain at first, then a promise of pleasure towards the end; the way he looked at me as his hand cradled my face and the warmth that flowed from the gesture; his fingers intertwining with mine above our bodies, clenching in his pleasure, and his lips moving as if he wished to taste every inch of my skin… all of this, all of this made my chest swell, and I began to comprehend the picture that had been forming since the red morning of my womanhood.
I knew, then, that I would love him — not yet, but soon. And when I did, I would not disappoint him. In half darkness, I traced a hand over his chest. Naked, he was not so big or threatening. He turned his head to meet my gaze.
“What is it?”
I smiled at him and moved closer. “I will make you happy. I promise you this; I will make you proud.”He drew me close. “And I you.” And he kissed me, devoured me.