Prologue: The Stories I Learned
I LEARNED THREE winter stories in Mongolia. The ones the Mongolians told. The ones the foreigners told. And the ones I told myself.
The stories Mongolians told dealt with loss and rebirth. One begins with a herder riding on the steppe with his sheep and goats. The wind shifts, the sky grows dark, a blizzard pounds him and his herds off their path. Lost for a week, he sings to his horse to keep both the animal and himself sane, a long song, an urtiin duu, a haunting, ghostlike melody drawn out in one breath from the mouth, like someone is literally pulling the song out of the vocal cords. The family never loses hope of their father/husband/son returning, and they walk to the Buddhist temple on the mountain, its bright colors shimmering in the snow, to light butter lamps and pray for his safe return.
Foreigners told stories of adventure and toughness. Of retrieving water from frozen rivers. Of waking to negative temperatures with their toothpaste frozen. Of surviving long jeep rides with no heat. “Man, we were on an eighteen-hour jeep ride in below-thirty temps,” they begin, “when our driver spotted a wolf out in the distance. He chased it down, one hand on the steering wheel, the
other grasping a ri. e pointed out the window. We skidded into a pile of snow, the gun went off in the air, and we were stuck outside for two hours while we waited for someone to pull us out. It was FUUUUCKED UP.” But there were other stories that foreigners told, the ones that were fucked up for a different reason. The story of the man who tried to destroy his ger with an ax. The story of the woman who did nothing but bake doughnuts for two days straight. The man who began hearing voices and stayed home for an entire week. These stories were told to laugh at the craziness of others, and I did, uneasily, with a chuckle. I understood, knew what it was like to spend six months locked inside with little but another novel, letters from home, and the friends you made in town. I already knew the fear of being swallowed by the cold and the dark that lasted from October to April. I just liked to hear the stories so I could feel comfortable with my own thoughts.
The stories I told myself were that I knew what I was doing, that I could handle the isolation and the vodka I had begun to drink in large amounts. “It’s what people do here,” I told myself. “And you are here. You survived the winter last year and you will survive this one. These feelings you have, Matt, that sick lump in the bottom of your stomach that won’t let you sleep at night but won’t let you get up in the morning, that, that is okay.”
Mongolians mark the progression of winter with the Nine Nines, nine series of nine days that describe each phase of the season. Though I lived in the Mongolian countryside for two winters, for two years, I liked the structure of the Nine Nines. I liked their rhythm and cadence, the way my friends steeled themselves for the middle nines. “Ah, it is amar cold outside,” they said. “We are in the sixth nine.” Then, the visible sense of relief as we approached the Ninth Nine, the season ending on day eighty-one regardless of what came after. When I had left the countryside, I came to see my time marked as the Nine Nines.
When Things Get Dark
While there, though, I marked winter’s progression by the light. Once October arrived, and an extra layer of felt was laid on my ger, and the wood had been chopped, and the winter’s sheep killed, the sun did not rise over the mountains until nine. And it was a diffuse light, the morning winter light, as smoke from ger and baishin .res mixed with the smoke from the twin chimneys of the central heating plant to leave a layer of smog that hovered over the small provincial capital where I lived. The sun cut a thin arc over the southern horizon and dipped behind the mountains around four. Seven hours of sunlight, then, less than a third of the day, and when it gets dark, not much to do but listen to the .re crackle, read, write, think, and drink.
Excerpted from When Things Get Dark by Matthew Davis.
Copyright © 2010 by Matthew Davis.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.