Listen Without Distraction
Outside the post office in Bor-Urt a handful of men clump around a pool table, its felt top sun ravaged and mangy. The men’s faces are weathered from living in a world without trees. When I step outside they stare, each man a finger in a fist, and the one slumped in the ratty camping chair at the head of the table is the thumb. I glance at the digital watch the Rinpoche hands me last night, its plastic band already cracked, the thing used. I know it is a necessity, that I must have it for the places I am to journey to in my search that must not fail. Nevertheless I feel like one of the wild horses foreign researchers shoot down with arrow guns, the animal succumbing so that the researcher can fix the radio collar around its neck, the collar eventually becoming a part of the body. After just a few hours in the July light, the skin around my wrist is already somewhat paler than the rest of me, though like the planets and the summer sun, nothing is permanent.
It is ten in the morning. The main road through Bor-Urt periodically billows with dust as a breeze blows through town. The men stare at me and then look away. Someone spits in the dirt. Hidden in the folds of my robe there is a bag filled with more tögrög than they can earn in six months or even a year if the winter is harsh. Normally they would be out on the grasslands, out watching their flocks or herding them in for one of the two daily milkings, but today they drive the many kilometers into Bor-Urt on their motorbikes to bring their wives in to do the shopping. The men huddle idly around the table as men often do as they wait for women. Men with time on their hands, looking to establish their status among their kind.
I step out of the post office, and their faces fall. I am not what they want. I am a novice of the Yatuugiin Gol monastery, a monk who lives in the shadow of the sleeping volcano. As it is midmorning, the mail truck I am to ride to Ulaanbaatar on the first stage of my journey is not scheduled to arrive for hours. Twenty-five hundred years ago Gautama Buddha says you only lose that which you cling to. Silently I approach the table and nod.
Brother, booms the one enthroned in the camping chair. He is sitting with his legs spread wide, a toothpick in his fingers as he works at his teeth. Something in the lackadaisical arrangement of his limbs reminds me of Mun, Mun’s long black hair often loose like a horse’s mane. I only play for money, the man says.
A good policy, I say. I lay 2,000 on the table.
Ten minutes later and I can tell the others do not know who to root for—the one who sits outside the post office each day looking to deprive the local herdsmen of their money or me, a young monk from Yatuu Gol in his simple red robe. My body wavers like a flame in the summer heat. On the faded table the balls roll and crack like stars.
In the Universe’s Eternal Calendar, It Is Always Now
Now there is only the black ball remaining for me to sink, the thing a hole rumbling in space. At the other end of the table my opponent draws heavily on the cigarette he lights after I sink three in a row. He stands smoking with the toothpick still wedged in his teeth, eyeing the two balls he has left on the table. The angle of my final shot is not an easy one. Earlier the second ball I pocket is a spectacular combination shot, the men all gasping as it rolls in. As there is no chalk, I rub the tip of my stick in the dirt. My opponent is breathing hard. It is proving to be an exciting game. Should he lose there is no reason for him to hang his head. Oddly enough, a loss could be good for business. Once word gets out, normally reticent herdsmen might start to saunter up and lay down their hard-earned tögrög, thinking he is beatable. I wonder if he has a wife and children. I wonder why he chooses a life in town, the town consisting of a few hundred people and a series of dusty buildings constructed in the blocky Russian style, when every beautiful thing is far from here.
I clear my mind and lean in, the stick an extension of my body. In the silence Övöö’s two favorite sayings come to me—the world is what we make it, and a man’s dreams are the most real part of him. My grandfather with his thick limp, his broken teeth, his eyes forever scanning the horizon. I draw my arm back and send the universe scattering.
The cue ball goes spinning erratically off the eight, a comet colliding with an asteroid. Collectively we watch the white ball roll toward a pocket. Life is suffering. Everywhere mercy and the power of mercy. I exhale and the cue ball falls in. The men cheer. My opponent smiles. Very nice game, he says. Because I am a monk, as a formality he offers me back my 2000, but I bow and he stuffs the bill in his shirt. Brother, how do you play so well, someone asks. I do not tell him the truth, that this is my first game ever. I think of Mun, my brother with his hair braided down to his shoulders in the old style worn by the horsemen of Chinggis Khaan. If I close my eyes I can see one of Mun’s braids skimming the table as he bends down to survey a shot. Each day at Yatuu Gol’s morning puja, in my mind’s eye Mun on his golden cushion silently reminding me we are all Chinggis Khaan’s murderous descendants, every last one of us. I turn toward my questioner. Even under his hat the work of years in the summer sun is obvious. I imagine the simple life this man leads out on the grasslands, the smell of sheep and the milk hardening on the roof, but nothing is ever simple. Once you are bitten by a snake, you become cautious of rope. I tell the man an approximation of the truth.
In another life, I say.
Then I walk to the community center and the town’s one larch tree and I plant myself beneath it with nothing but a bag of money and a half-written letter wrapped up in the folds of my robe and wait for my destiny to claim me. Listen closely: today may be the year 2015, the month July, but in the universe’s eternal calendar, it is always now. What every moment of sentience for the past twenty-three years teaches me. There is one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering. This is the true journey. Everything else is bait. I place myself on the earth with the intention of rising up rooted like a tree.
From When I’m Gone, Look for Me in the East: A Novel by Quan Barry. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Quan Barry.