A Day Trip to Rotterdam, Part 2

This is the second and final part of the story, which was published in Pilcrow & Dagger this fall.

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The soldier in front of Lieke stopped at the front-most compartment door in the next car and knocked. A quiet voice said, “Enter,” and Lieke was led inside. The spacious compartment had only one occupant– the German officer with the scarred face. The young soldier said, “Heil Hitler,” and saluted.

The officer looked up and said, “Yes, what is it?”

“Sir, it is this woman and her baby. There is something suspicious; the baby will not stop crying.”

“So you have brought me a woman and a crying baby. Is it now my job to quiet babies?”

The young soldier flushed. “Sir, we believe that the baby may be a Jew.” He pronounced the word as if it were a contagious disease.

“Ah.” The officer surveyed Lieke and Emma, and his intelligent, steely gaze seemed to take in everything in an instant. “Perhaps you are right. This will need to be addressed. Leave them with me and I will see to it personally.”

“Yes sir.” The small group of soldiers backed out of the compartment and closed the door behind Lieke, who stood motionless, terrified yet defiant. The man appeared to be in his late 40s, and even without the scars he would have looked threatening, with hard, pale gray eyes and an angular, evil looking face.

“I am Captain Adler,” he said in Dutch. “What is your name, young woman?”

Lieke trembled, but found her voice. “My name is Lieke Meijer, Captain.”

“Lieke, please tell me where you are from, and where you are going.” Half mumbling, Lieke repeated the story of visiting family in Rotterdam with her baby for the weekend, and about her husband stuck at the factory. He asked where her uncle and aunt lived, and she told him the address on Hondiusstraat where she was supposed to deliver Emma, not knowing any other streets in Rotterdam.

“I see,” said Captain Adler. “Sit down, Lieke.” He reached out an open hand, offering her a seat across from him. She sat, clutching Emma tightly. Then, in a firm voice, he said, “Your baby is very beautiful, but she seems unhappy. Let me hold her.” Lieke shrank away, and Adler said, “If what you have told me is true, there is no reason for you to worry. Now give her to me.”

Filled with horror, Lieke reluctantly passed Emma across the aisle to the Nazi captain. With a surprising gentleness, he picked Emma up, bounced her softly on his knee, and held her close, rocking her, speaking to her in German under his breath. Emma immediately stopped crying; she stared at Adler with fascination, then giggled.

“What a lovely baby girl you have, Lieke. Yes, what a lovely girl you are, little one, aren’t you?” Emma cooed. Lieke said nothing, terrified and astonished at the same time. Adler looked into Lieke’s eyes and said calmly, “Lieke, is this baby a Jew?”

Lieke felt like screaming, but managed to say, “Of course not, Captain Adler. She’s no more a Jew than I am. She takes more after my husband.” Adler nodded and passed Emma back to Lieke. Emma grabbed at Lieke’s nose and made a happy, gurgling sound.

“I understand,” Adler said. “However, I think we need to verify this further. You realize that if she is found to be a Jew you will have broken the law? The penalty for this crime is death.” Lieke nodded, aghast. She did not trust herself to speak. She noticed that the train had stopped, and glanced out the window to see a platform. The station behind it was a ruin, although much of the rubble had been removed; like so much else, it was hit in the bombing of Rotterdam. “Good, we have arrived,” Adler said. “Please come with me.”

He stood up, limping toward the door, which he held open for her. Reluctantly she followed him through the exit and down a makeshift step onto the platform, where the group of soldiers stood waiting expectantly. Adler looked at them and said, “You have carried out your duty well, men. There may be something to this after all.”

The one who had apprehended Lieke before eagerly said, “Shall we take her to headquarters, sir?”

“No. I will do it myself. I want you to go back to Amsterdam and keep your eyes open for similar schemes– I have a feeling that this is not the only case.” The group looked disappointed, but they set out to re-board the train, leaving Lieke alone with the sinister captain. Throngs of passengers were moving along the platform and Lieke again considered breaking away, trying to lose herself in the crowd; but there was nowhere to run, and she would likely be caught. She would have to wait for a better opportunity.

As if sensing her train of thought, Adler grabbed her arm with a painfully strong grip and said, “Please, if you will come with me, I will take you for some further questioning. It will be easy enough to verify your statements; we should be able to sort the matter out quite quickly.” He walked toward a wide thoroughfare, and she had no choice but to accompany him. After a while he let go of her, but walked a pace or two just behind her, saying nothing. Somehow Emma had fallen asleep in her arms.

Lieke thought of her parents at home, expecting her back in a few hours after a pleasant day with friends. She thought of her father’s paralyzing fear, his stolid unwillingness to take any kind of risk, and this made her angry. She was risking everything, even her life, but she did not regret it at all. The only thing she regretted was that she had failed. But she could not fail! She could not let Janneke and Dr. Eisenstein down. She heard the uneven steps of the limping Adler behind her. When they passed an alley, or perhaps one of the bombed-out buildings that were littered throughout the city, she would run and try to hide; she felt certain she could move faster than him, and if Emma would just stay quiet they could make it. He might shoot her in the back, but if she went meekly with him she would likely die anyway, so it was a risk worth taking.

Lieke suddenly became aware that the footsteps behind her had stopped. She turned around to see Captain Adler looking down a side street to their left. He said, “Is this not the street where you were to meet your so-called aunt and uncle?” Lieke looked up at the street sign and saw that it was indeed Hondiusstraat, where she was supposed deliver Emma to Mirjam van Houten. Her stomach dropped once more– she had foolishly told him the address. Would Mirjam also end up being taken for “questioning?” Had she sentenced another woman to death?

Adler paused for a long time, and finally said, “Well then, you best be on your way. I’m sure they are waiting for you.” He immediately walked past her, continuing up the main street. Lieke did not understand what was happening. She did not move, unsure if this was some kind of cruel trick. He looked back at her and said sadly, “We’re not all bad.” Then he turned away and limped ahead, never looking back.

Lieke carried the sleeping Emma up Hondiusstraat to number 124, where Mirjam van Houten ushered her in, and for several minutes Lieke could say nothing, sobbing tears of horror, bewilderment, relief, and joy.

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Day Trip to Rotterdam, Part 1

This story was published in Pilcrow & Dagger in October, as part of their “Scary Stories” issue. Part 2 will follow next week.

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The Netherlands, spring 1943

The baby would not stop crying. Lieke rocked her gently, cradled her, cooed to her, all to no avail. The other people in her compartment either stared or pointedly looked away; no one offered to help. It had been this way for a while now, and the train was still at least 20 minutes from the station, moving slowly through the farmland and canals of the polders south of Leiden. The world looked calm and pastoral out the window as they passed stone villages nestled between dyke and canals, windmills turning sluggishly in the breeze against the bright sky.

Lieke was 20, but she looked even younger– young for a mother travelling alone. The infant, Emma, looked nothing like her; Lieke was blond, fair, and sturdy, a typical Dutch girl, but Emma was tiny and dark– dark hair, dark eyes, and skin several shades darker than Lieke’s rosy whiteness.

And now there was the crying that could not be stopped. Lieke didn’t think Emma would be hungry yet– she had given her a bottle of fresh milk after leaving Amsterdam, and Emma had fallen asleep in her arms. Perhaps the uneven motion of the train was upsetting her. Lieke had no idea what to do.

Lieke rehearsed the story in her mind once more. She was going to Rotterdam to visit her aunt and uncle for the weekend; her husband was too busy with his work at the munitions plant to come with her. This had worked once already with the tall, stern guard who questioned her at the station. The man was Dutch, but whether through fear or duty, the local police were now more or less an extension of the German army. Such a group of Dutch officers had stormed into her friend Mila’s apartment last month and taken her and her entire family; no one had seen them since. The station guard’s gaze lingered on Emma for a few seconds too long, and he’d looked back and forth between them several times; but he said nothing, allowing them to board.

Lieke was most worried now about the loud group of 6 or 7 Nazi soldiers who had spent the beginning of the trip walking up and down the train. She could not tell if they were under orders to patrol or simply wandering aimlessly, harassing passengers for their own amusement. A couple of them had appeared to be drunk, although it was only 11:00 in the morning and they were in uniform. One of these, a young man with a leering grin, had leaned in to pet Emma as if she were a puppy, making her squirm in her sleep. He had then said in German, “What a pretty baby, and such a pretty mama as well,” and had run his hand through Lieke’s thick hair, resting it on her shoulder. Lieke recoiled, and the group laughed and slapped their comrade on the back before moving on to the next car. The soldiers had not passed by in a while, but they might reappear at any time. There were also several Dutch policemen on the train, and she had seen what looked like a Nazi officer with a grim, scarred face limp aboard the car in front of hers back in Amsterdam Centraal.

Lieke lived in the Amsterdam Canal District in a small apartment with her parents above the neighborhood grocery they owned, which these days had little food or customers. Before the war she’d spent a year at Amsterdam University training to be a teacher. She’d had the top marks in her high school class, and continued to do well at the University. But since the invasion she had stayed home to help with the shop at her father’s command; he was paralyzed with the fear of something terrible happening, barely willing to let her out of his sight. Her brother Thomas had been killed two years ago in the German blitz. He’d enlisted in the army not long before, and was stationed in the west near the German border. His unit had been taken by surprise, was outnumbered and outgunned, and was decimated almost instantly. He had been the same age Lieke was now.

This morning she told her parents that she needed a break, and was spending the day with her friend Greetje. Her father didn’t want her to go, but her mother had intervened: “Thomas, she is not a child anymore. We don’t need her today– let her go have fun with her friends for once.” At last he had relented, and she walked down the cobbled street into the sunny morning.

She did meet her friend Greetje, a tall, brown-haired, gentle girl who had stayed on at the University of Amsterdam and was now a year away from getting her degree. The two of them walked in a tense near-silence along the canals for 15 minutes until they came to a narrow brick house on Kerkstraat by the Amstel River. No one appeared to be there, but Greetje had a key and led Lieke inside, where they heard the muffled sound of a baby crying from somewhere below. Lieke had never been to the home of Dr. Hendriks, her mathematics professor. He was an indifferent lecturer, but he seemed like a kind, caring teacher, always finding extra time to help his students. The crying stopped after a minute or two, and the house seemed unnaturally still and quiet– the grand piano and phonograph in the living room were shut, and the kitchen looked abandoned. In a hushed voice Lieke asked where Dr. Hendriks’ family was; Greetje whispered that they were staying at their country house, and that only he remained in the city.

The young women moved quietly through the dining room and into a bookshelf-lined study that was littered with papers. Greetje pointed to one of the bookshelves, and the two of them dragged one side of it away from the wall, making a great crunching noise as it scraped across the floor. They looked at each other with chagrin, and strained to lift one corner of the shelf so that it would move quietly.

Behind the shelf was a white door with the handle removed on the outside. Greetje rapped lightly on the door and said, “Dr. Eisenstein? It’s me, Greetje, with Lieke van der Meer.” They heard footsteps ascending a staircase, the click of a lock, and the door opening inward. A dark haired man in glasses and filthy clothes greeted them, saying “Good morning ladies. Welcome to my humble abode.” He turned and led them down the narrow stairs.

Lieke remembered Dr. Eisenstein, her European history professor, as a young, dapper, lively man, always quick with a joke. His telling of history was full of stories that made the past come alive; sitting in his lectures she had dreamed of becoming a historian, or perhaps making a grand contribution to history. He had been one of her favorite teachers, and certainly the most handsome. Now he looked gauntly thin with sunken eyes, his jacket torn and shabby.

At the bottom of the stairs they emerged into a dark, dank cellar lit by oil lamps set on a table. In places there was over an inch of water on the floor, and the rock walls dripped with moisture. In a somewhat dryer corner there was a mattress on the ground, a couple of wooden chairs, a clothes chest and some stacks of books and papers. In another corner was a chamber pot, and the smell of human waste mingled with mildew almost made Lieke gag. Sitting in one of the chairs was a dark haired woman nursing a small baby. She was just as thin and disheveled looking as Dr. Eisenstein, but a fierce beauty was still evident. She looked only a few years older than the two young women. She sang softly to the suckling infant, but her voice was broken– even in the dim light Lieke could see tears glistening on her cheeks.

Eisenstein said, “Hello Greetje, Lieke. Good to see you girls again. This is my wife, Janneke and our daughter Emma. I’m very sorry to introduce them to you under such circumstances.”

Greetje seemed to have been struck speechless, so Lieke said, “It’s very nice to meet you, Mrs. Eisenstein.” Janneke smiled, and looked directly into Lieke’s eyes, transfixing her gaze.

“Please call me Janne. I don’t know how I will do this. I don’t know if I can… but I need to thank you. Thank you so very much. You’ll never know what this means to me.”

“We’ll do anything we can to help, Janne. Anything,” Lieke said. Greetje, tears running down her own face, nodded in agreement. Dr. Eisenstein looked to Lieke and said, “You understand the plan?” She knew it well by now, but they went over it once more. It was simple enough: she would take Emma to the station and board a train for Rotterdam. If questioned, she would adamantly claim to be Emma’s mother, with the story of visiting the aunt and uncle. In Rotterdam she would go to 124 Hondiusstraat, where she would leave Emma with a woman they knew and trusted, Mirjam van Houten, and head back to Amsterdam. Mirjam would smuggle Emma aboard a fishing trawler; this was to meet up with another ship, which in the dead of night would transport Emma and Mirjam to Liverpool, where the Eisensteins had cousins. It was a perilous undertaking that could go wrong at any stage, with perhaps the most dangerous being Lieke’s own role.

Eisenstein said, “You understand, we would never send her away if we didn’t have to. But if anyone ever decides to search Alexander’s house… and in these times they certainly may… They will surely hear her, and then all of us– Alexander and his family as well– will be caught. So we must do this. We will be reunited once this madness is over.”

Janneke looked thoughtfully at her husband as she stroked Emma’s head, then back at the girls. “What Isaac isn’t saying, and will not say, even to me, is that he believes the rumors to be true. I believe them too. I think that they are taking the Jews in order to kill them… they are murdering us one by one. They will not rest until we are all dead. I don’t know how this can be, how such hatred and evil can exist in this world, but I know in my heart that it is true. In all likelihood, Isaac and I will not survive this war. We will be caught and disappear as so many before us have disappeared. We are not asking for your help to save us. We simply hope to save Emma. We hope that she will grow up, will see an end to war, will live and prosper with her new family. Lieke, we pray for your safety, and for your success. Please help my Emma. Please save my baby. You must.”

As Lieke sat rocking the crying Emma in the stuffy train compartment, she heard Janneke’s words over and over, pictured her pleading gaze. She could not let her down. They were approaching the outskirts of Rotterdam; just a little longer and she would be safe.

Just then a Dutch policeman walked past the open compartment door and looked in. He stared straight at Emma in Lieke’s arms, looking back and forth between them as the guard at the station had. Lieke tried to smile sweetly at him, but she had a strange dread in her stomach. The policeman gazed at them a little longer, then continued down the corridor. Lieke was so tense that she could hardly breathe.

A few minutes later three of the Nazi soldiers from before entered the compartment. The same young man who had drunkenly touched her pointed and said, “You, with the baby, come with me. We need to ask you some questions.” Lieke replied in her best German, “But my little girl is almost asleep, sir. Perhaps this can wait till another time?”

The man shook his head. Looking at her with a dreadful coldness, he said, “You must come now,” and stood waiting, his hand resting near the pistol in his belt. Lieke nodded and stood up, cradling Emma tightly. She looked around for help, but the other passengers in the compartment were staring out the window or at the floor, motionless and silent; it seemed to Lieke that they had been frozen into statues. In the corridor the soldier who had spoken led her forward, the other two walking close behind. Emma was now wailing louder than ever; Lieke guessed that the infant sensed her agitation, and surely craved the comfort of her real mother.

They passed through the doorway at the front of the train car, and as they marched the short distance between cars Lieke had a thought that she would grasp Emma tightly, break away, and leap over the railing and off the train, over the side of the dyke the tracks ran along to whatever lay beneath. This might kill them both, but for a wild moment it seemed like the only possible solution; but before she could get up the courage to act, they were at the door to the next car and it was too late.

To be continued. Part two will follow next week.

A Hiker’s Guide to Mongolia Part 2

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This is the second and final part of the story, which was published in Pilcrow & Dagger this spring.

The man turns around and motions for me to follow. He keeps glancing over his shoulder to glare at me, giving the impression that he could whirl around and shoot me in an instant. He leads me along a winding path to a small wooden shack by the road, built on posts above a steep ravine. It looks like the perfect sort of place to be tortured, killed and discarded. I picture a trapdoor in the floor, convenient to dump bodies into the ravine. I try to maintain a positive attitude. I do not try to pet the German Shepard, even though it’s now wagging its tail and whimpering. The soldier knocks on the door and a tall man with a thick mustache and a brown uniform, fancier than my guard’s, answers. This man scratches the dog on the forehead, and it thumps its tail in pleasure. The two men talk for a while in Mongolian, then the soldier and the dog walk back to their post.

The tall man motions me inside, where a short, squat man with a round, stern face and a blue uniform sits behind a rusty metal desk. Both men have pistols belted to their waists. The two converse, then point toward an ancient, filthy couch. I sit down, sinking into the worn out springs. The tall man reaches out his hand and says, Passport. Fortunately, I carry mine in a pouch around my neck, and I hand it over to him. He also points to my camera, and I reluctantly give him that, too. As far as I can remember I don’t have any pictures of sensitive military areas, but that doesn’t stop my hands from shaking.

There’s not much else in the room– a filing cabinet, an electric teakettle and hot plate, untidy stacks of papers, a telephone. I don’t see any trapdoor, although there is a faded rug that might cover it. The short, blue-uniformed man goes to the phone and makes a call, glaring at me the whole time, while the other looks at my passport, and at the pictures on the digital camera. Mostly there are pictures of Chinese gardens, or palaces, or mountains– I had recently taken the train from Beijing. There’s an analog clock on the wall, and I watch the second hand moving around and around in slow motion. The short man gets off the phone and the two discuss whatever orders have been given about me. The tall man shows the other my passport, and the two of them laugh. I smile, although I’m not sure if I ought to be offended that they think my picture looks funny. The tall man puts the passport in a drawer, and the camera slyly in his pocket– I have a feeling that he’s planning to sell it in the city’s black market bazaar.

The Tall man sits on the edge of the desk and says, Now, we wait. They to decide what will do to you.

The do “to” me sounds ominous, but I hope it’s just a translation problem. Then, pointing at me and talking in Mongolian to his counterpart, Tall Brown starts to open a filing cabinet drawer. There are no files visible, and I wonder if it’s instead full of rubber hoses and thumbscrews. Short Blue says something back sharply and Tall Brown closes the cabinet without removing anything. Short Blue then points at me, and seems to give Tall Brown some exasperated orders.

Tall Brown holds up both hands, as if to say, all right, all right, and, adopting the stern look of his superior, asks me in broken English what I’m doing here, wandering through their restricted area. I tell him that I was just out for a hike, but I don’t think he knows that word. Nevertheless, I think I get the point across that I’m not a spy of any kind. I do not use the word spy, in case there’s any misunderstanding. He asks a few more questions– why am I in Mongolia, for how long, where am I going from here. I tell him I’m a tourist, which is true, but I don’t answer the rest of the truth– that I don’t really know why I’m here. Is it to climb mountains? To be intrigued by stone lions with meat in their teeth, or depressed by another humdrum city? To sit uncomfortably with these two men, in their little shack on the edge of nowhere?

Before long Tall Brown runs out of questions to ask, and the two of them idly chat, as far as I can tell, and ignore me on the couch. I go back to watching the clock, whose minute hand has now made a complete circuit. My empty stomach is making a lot of noise, but my captors don’t seem to notice. Finally the phone rings. Tall Brown answers it and listens for a bit, then hangs up. He relays the message to his partner, then says to me, We wait longer.

The two talk some more, pointing at me, and at the filing cabinet drawer. They seem to be having an animated discussion, but then they both nod, and I can tell an agreement has been reached. Suddenly they’re walking toward me from across the room. Tall Brown sits on my right, uncomfortably close, while Short Blue fishes something out of the filing cabinet. My muscles tense, although I don’t know what I could do if there’s trouble– there are two of them, they have guns, and who knows how many soldiers are within shouting distance. I picture bolting for the door, jumping recklessly down into the ravine, and scrambling through the brush toward the big river– but if they don’t shoot me, they’d be sure to track me with the dog. And if I somehow manage to get away alive, what would I do then, with no passport, the whole Mongolian military looking for me? Could I wander into the steppes, find some nomadic family with a ger, and live in hiding with them? Could I tend their cattle and sheep, riding my horse along the windswept plains?

Out of the cabinet Short Blue pulls a bottle of clear liquid and three small, dirty glasses, and with relief and a little wistfulness my fantasy evaporates. He sits on my other side and pours the vodka into the glasses, all three in one hand, without spilling any. He gives two to me, and I pass a glass on to Tall Brown. We raise our drinks, clink them together, and they say Tulgatsgaaya, so I say Tulgatsgaaya. Following their lead, I drink the shot in one gulp. On my empty stomach the liquor burns my throat and goes straight to my head, but Short Blue is already pouring another round, and we repeat the ritual.

Short Blue puts the bottle down and pulls out a photograph from his pocket. It’s a picture of two young, pretty Mongolian girls, both smiling happily at the camera. One of them looks like a perfect angel, but the other has a mischievous gleam in her eye. Short Blue points at the picture and at himself, and I don’t need Tall Brown saying, He daughters, to know who they are. I smile and nod, and Short Blue and I shake hands. I ask Tall Brown for my camera, which he reluctantly takes out of his pocket and passes back. I scroll through the memory and find a picture of me and my girlfriend, the one I took on a mountaintop with my arm stretched before us. Our hair is blowing in the wind, especially her long, dirty blonde waves; and her warm smile and bright eyes– her unforgettably beautiful face–­ (along with the vodka) makes me get a bit misty. Tall Brown asks if this is my wife, and I say yes– to keep it simple– and the two of them pat me on the back, and we drink another round to her.

I then look to Tall Brown, who tells me a little wistfully that he is a bachelor, but you never know, maybe he’ll get married one day. Then he tells me that he wants to go to America, to New York City, and Los Angeles– he has seen these cities on TV. He wants to find a job and work in the U.S., where you make a lot of money, and when he comes home he will be rich and important, and can buy all the things he wants. I try to answer his questions about the States, using gestures as much as words. It’s a broken conversation, but we find a way to communicate. Tall brown says it’s lucky I’m an American, because “George Bush is a very great man.” I had never particularly thought so, but I agree now, and we drink to the U.S. president, who I find out later had recently approved an aid package to Mongolia.

The hands on the clock keep moving and evening is coming on. The three of us drink several more little glasses of vodka. Short Blue relaxes his stern look, and his eyes twinkle. Tall Brown begins to stroke his mustache, and talks animatedly about getting married– I assure him it will happen soon. The more I drink, the more I appreciate the fact that I’m sitting down. We all smile at each other and break into laughter for almost no reason.

Then we hear the sound of a car engine, and the two officers quickly stand up and clear away the bottle and glasses. I’m impressed with how they immediately appear to be completely sober– Short Blue has reapplied his perpetual scowl. Tall Brown motions for me to put my camera away, and I place it in my pocket. He doesn’t say, but I think he wants to be sure it’s not confiscated. Short Blue goes back to his chair behind the desk, and Tall Brown waits by the door.

There is a knock, and without waiting a man in a black suit walks into the building. The three of them speak together for a little while, and they hand him my passport. This man escorts me toward the door, and although I stumble a little, I don’t fall down. On the way out I turn my head to smile and wave at the men who opened themselves to me. They nod, and smile briefly, so that their superior will not see, and I walk out the door with him.

The man in the suit sits with me in the back seat of a black Chevy car. There’s another man at the wheel, and he starts the engine and drives down the dirt road. The suited man speaks better English than Tall Brown, and he briskly asks me the same questions about my trip to Mongolia. I answer, a bit absently, and note as we pass a ridge, a ravine, another ridge and ravine, and then the trail that I had started hiking up hours ago. The sheep and goats are no longer wandering around, although I spy a few gazelles on the hillside, eating grass. Before long we reach the bridge, and in a few minutes we’re back in downtown Ulaanbaatar. The man in the suit tells me that he will need to photocopy my passport, then I’ll be free to go. He takes me inside a large brick building to perform this task, and once again I wonder if anything bad might happen to me. But minutes later I’m back out on the street, just in time to see the sun setting over the hills to the east.

This is a part of the city I haven’t seen before, a large central square that is clean and new and fairly good-looking. The whole city looks much nicer right now, with the golden light of sunset making even the squat apartment buildings seem soft and vibrant. I pass a vendor selling skewers of roasted meat and buy 6 of them for 400 tögrög, and wolf down the hot, delicious food. Everyone I pass seems to be smiling at me, although I could be imagining things. I decide that tomorrow I will find the vendor again, and buy a few skewers to feed to the stone lions at the temple; it feels right to give an offering of thanks– to the universe, the local gods, and George Bush– for coming through the day.

I walk back toward my hostel, where perhaps I’ll chat idly with other tourists from the U.K., Switzerland, or Australia. Mostly I’ll want to get online and write to my girlfriend, to tell her about my adventure, and how much I miss her. Oddly, I feel closer to her now than I can remember feeling, and it strikes me how natural it was calling her my wife.

I think over the day’s events– the hike, the views, the scary descent, the fear of being shot, or tortured, or detained indefinitely. Then I think of Short Blue and Tall Brown, my captors and drinking buddies whose real names I never thought to ask. Although today has not been the easiest of days, I’m glad that I met those two, and shared the afternoon with them.

I picture Tall Brown finding work in New York or D.C. as a police interrogator– the job won’t last long, because he’s so bad at it– but he’ll find some other employment, and when he returns to Ulaanbaatar he’ll be wealthy and popular, and it’ll be easy to find a wife. I see him retired from the army, happily married with a big family, running a profitable business in cheap vodka and stolen cameras. And he’s adopted the German Sheppard, who never wanted to be a guard dog in the first place, and now gets to run free and happy through the steppes, and eat all the roasted meat it might desire.

I imagine Short Blue’s impressively stern face takes him up through the ranks until he’s wearing a black suit, and gets to be driven around in a black car, and to work in the big government building downtown instead of a shack in the woods. But at home with his family he is relaxed and happy, with twinkling eyes, especially after 8 or 9 small shots of vodka. I see him living like a good, modest citizen in one of the ugly apartment buildings; but with his two crazy daughters he loves so much running around, always causing trouble (it turns out the angelic one is really the instigator), the place is full of color and life– in fact, in its own way, it’s beautiful.

A Hiker’s Guide to Mongolia, Part 1

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This story was published this spring in the journal Pilcrow & Dagger. Part 2 will follow next week.

Ulaanbaatar is not a beautiful city by any means, although the large Buddhist temple on the hill, with its intricately carved gods, demons and prayer wheels draws the eye. Guarding this edifice are hulking stone lions with curly hair, whose gaping mouths are stuffed with real roasted meat on sticks.

Mostly what I notice about Mongolia’s capital are the squat, drab, communist style buildings that uglify the earth from East Asia through Central Europe. Blocs of these are randomly interspersed with traditional Mongolian gers– cylindrical felt tents that, surrounded by picket fences and resting on wooden platforms, yards full of bicycles, TV antennas and household debris, no longer seem like portable dwellings meant to follow animal migration. The streets are dusty and clogged with traffic, although the litter-strewn sidewalks are not overly crowded. People walking by a solitary foreign tourist rarely nod or smile, and any further communication seems impossible through the barriers of language and culture. Nobody knows me here, and I don’t know anybody. I’m a stranger.

It’s 2007, before I become what I later become. I’ve always wanted to travel around the world, and this city is a stop on the train that takes me there. I have friends, family, a girlfriend, but they all seem so far away– not merely 10,000 miles, but as if they live on another planet or in another century. I don’t miss my life back in the States, but that may be because I can’t remember it clearly– I can grasp the general idea, but the details are vague. Even my girlfriend’s face is now hard to picture.

Just outside of the dingy, unwelcoming city there are mountains, and my eyes are drawn toward them as if by gravitational pull. They begin as rolling, grassy hills, then rise steeply up ridges and ravines to evergreen-forested summits with rocky outcroppings. This foreign mountain range at the far end of the world looks like it could be in familiar Montana, and I feel compelled to seek it out, to rise above the smog and clutter of the city, lift free from the weight of uncaring, incomprehensible humanity. Mountains– lofty sublimity, elemental beauty, raw isolation– that’s what it’s all about, right?

I walk forever through the run-down outskirts beyond the train tracks– through smelly alleys, past abandoned warehouses, and, instead of the boxy concrete of downtown, rickety, unpainted wooden houses and shacks. The closer I get to the hills, the more gers I see–out here there are fenced in areas that have nothing but the traditional tents, sectioned off like trailer parks outside American cities. I encounter few people, but those I see stare at me in silence.

Eventually I cross a bridge over a swiftly flowing river, turn left on a dirt road, and find a track that heads up the mountain slope. On this side of the river, it’s like the city wasn’t there at all– just winter-browned grasslands and forest, crowded only by occasional herds of sheep or goats. I walk up the steep path past vibrant early spring flowers, and several shrines surrounded by prayer flags. It occurs to me that in practically every culture the mountains are where you go to worship, because that’s where the gods live. My breath comes heavy, my heartbeat accelerates, I break into a sweat– but I feel good. I look down on Ulaanbaatar, still ugly, but from a new perspective. I see the wide river valley, every acre on the north side covered with uncoordinated sprawl. Directly across from me, maybe 5 or 6 miles away at the height of land, is the stone-lion temple.

I quickly surpass the distant temple’s elevation, and move into tall, scattered pinewoods. The air is clean and fresh and cold up here, and now I can see more mountains surrounding the town in every direction. The higher I climb, the closer in the trees become, although there’s still plenty of room to walk among them. The path has dwindled almost to nothing, and I’m not sure it’s anything more than an animal trail now. I work my way up the steep ridge, a shoulder of the mountain range that narrows until there are sharp, rocky drops on either side of me. Finally I reach the top of the main ridge, and find a ledge that overlooks the view away from the city. I stare out at a sweeping plain, free of buildings, or roads, or other human artifacts, except for what I imagine to be an occasional ger far below me, so distant that I can’t be sure. This grassy landscape goes on all the way to the bright, cloudless sky, which goes on forever. I feel exhilarated, triumphant, alive. I feel lonely and small and helpless. Also hungry. I remember the fat, satiated lions back at the temple and wish I’d thought to pack a lunch. I take some pictures of the view, although I know the camera lens will never quite capture what I see, smell, feel, and think about this particular place and time.

Despite my hunger, I sit and enjoy the view, and somehow manage to nod off. I awake icy cold and disoriented, a little panicked, wondering where on earth I could possibly be. I remember, and decide that not too much time has passed– the sun is still fairly high. Not that far away along the path, there is a brown and white gazelle, which stares at me for a long time and slowly walks away. I reassure myself that gazelles, like deer or elk, are probably vegetarians.

Although I ought to go back the way I came, I feel like exploring some more. There is a path of sorts along the top of the ridge, and I decide to take it, heading east. I figure that since there are many rocky shoulders descending back toward the river valley, there surely must be another trail to take down.

It’s beautiful and quiet along the forested ridge– up here there are a kind of spruce or fir trees rather than the pines farther down. I find more occasional views both north and south– mountain-surrounded city or endless plain. I sometimes have to scramble up or down large boulder piles. I pass one descending ridge that has no path, and neither does the second one. This shoulder, however, is covered with a series of cliffs and rock formations, and I think I may be able to make my way down on top of these.

The descent is not easy– I have to leap from rock to rock, sometimes over 30 foot drops, scamper down loose scree fields, and climb backwards down nearly sheer cliffs. I cut my leg, and I’m getting very thirsty. Finally, I find a way off the cliffs, down into a ravine between two ridges, full of birch trees and brambles. There is a creek here that I would be desperate enough to drink from, regardless of the risk of giardia or other bacterial diseases, but the sunless valley is still filled with snow. I eat some of this, but it doesn’t satisfy my thirst, or hunger. I frustratingly hear running water beneath the snow.

At first I post-hole, further cutting up my legs, but the lower I go the less snow there is, until there’s just an icy layer covering the stream. It’s now late afternoon and I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and my throat is dry. I scratch myself on pricker bushes as I walk. The ghostly white birches make me think of bones.

At the bottom of the valley I sense that I must be near the dirt road that winds back toward the river bridge and the city. The stream seems to be almost unfrozen, and I envision leaning down and gulping the icy water. But I don’t see the road, and before I can take a drink, I notice a series of brown wooden buildings topped by satellite dishes of various sizes, the whole area surrounded by a razor wire fence– it looks suspiciously like some kind of military complex. This makes sense. Along with gods, mountain areas are often home to secret military bases. Standing at the back of the fence, facing my ravine, is a uniformed man with a Kalashnikov on his shoulder and a chained German Sheppard at his feet. He hasn’t seen me yet, but I don’t think it would be a good idea to slink back into the bushes, unobtrusive-like. So I walk right up to him, and nod and smile, as if meeting him on a country lane. He doesn’t nod or smile. He holds up a hand to say, Stop! and lowers the rifle at me. The dog is also not happy to see me– it bares its teeth and growls. I wish that I had some roasted meat on a stick to share with it, but all I have is my camera, and what I hope is a friendly, innocent smile.

To be continued…

The Book Sale

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She remembered his fierce flashing eyes, his gentle voice, strong hands and thinning hair. Those had been the happiest of days, when he’d say their love was unbounded, unstoppable, eternal. But one day he left forever, drifted across the endless sea, and even now she would sit by the shore and look for returning ships.

Then, after enough time had passed, the goddess Calypso decided she wanted to read the book about her lost beloved. She found an old copy at a library book sale, lying among the yellowed Agatha Christies and Sidney Sheldons. The cover was torn, but she liked the firm gold letters that spelled a derivative of his name, and the name of the poet who made the song a long time ago. On the first page was the handwritten dedication “July 12 1954. For Charles, So you may return to Ithaca and I one day, with love from your darling Cynthia.” She felt a warmth and lightness for Cynthia and Charles, although they were people she’d never meet.

She took the book back to her island, where she lived alone. The sea and sky were bold and bright, the air alive with lapping waves and seabirds’ lonely cries. In her tidy cottage she sat and read the tale of her beloved. When she finished, she read it again in disbelief. She threw the book to the floor, enraged. It said she’d held him there against his will; it said he’d tried desperately to leave, to return to another shore, another woman’s arms. It was full of distortions and lies, and its tangled narrative left her stranded after mere pages, as if she were just another strange adventure on the hero’s journey home.

Outside she slew a goat and cursed Odysseus, Charles and Cynthia, the Greek poet and all writers, those prevaricating seers who twisted facts and crumpled lives like pages for their own petty visions and schemes.

Insomnia

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Insomnia is described as a sleep disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep and/or stay asleep as long as desired. I’ve often wondered whether I should label myself with this “disorder,” or if I’m just a guy who doesn’t like to go to bed early and likes to sleep in when possible, which, according to the New Yorker, is a physiological disposition rather than a sign of laziness or amorality: http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/moral-mornings. Whatever you call it, I’ve always been in a kind of war with sleep; even when I feel tired, I’ll lie in bed for hours sometimes before finally nodding off. As far back as elementary school, I would be a little zombie in class because I’d stayed up all of the previous night reading a novel. In college a typical weeknight consisted of studying at the library till 2:00 am, then lying in bed thinking about life, the universe and everything for a couple more hours– this wasn’t ideal for my 9:00 am classes, but I managed somehow. As I’ve gotten older, I find that while my ability to function on 3 or 4 hours of sleep has diminished, my resistance to going to bed early remains. Recently I even wrote a punk song about this (it’s not really autobiographical, but I think you’ll see the connection): https://soundcloud.com/3-rivers-music/02-sleep

For the last week or so I’ve had the opposite problem– I simply can’t stay awake, no matter what I try. It started last Monday, when I went to the Hospital for Anterior Cruciate Ligament replacement and meniscus repair surgery. This was a surgery that I opted for and not a matter of life and death, although any time your body is cut open there can of course be deadly consequences. But my only real fear was, again, sleep related– the thought of being forced to go to sleep instantly, according to someone else’s arbitrary schedule (through anesthesia) really freaked me out, which makes me wonder if my insomnia thing is as much philosophical as constitutional. Anyway, I did get knocked out, and the surgeons drilled several small holes in my knee, including one for inserting a really nice digital camera. With this artificial eye they found a gloppy nub where my ACL used to be (right in the center of everything– it connects the femur to the tibia), along with a couple of “purple worm” bits (disconnected ACL parts) here and there– one well above my kneecap, another off to the side. They ground up and sucked out these useless leftovers, and then flossed in a new ACL (well, new to me– it was donated by a generous dead person), and screwed it to the bones. Then, after a couple of sutures for the torn meniscus, and a little tape and glue, I woke up in a daze in the recovery room, ready to take a nap.

I’ve spent most days and nights since then lying in bed, thinking about what I might do next, until I notice that I’m sleeping. Between the surgery, the anesthesia, and especially the narcotic painkillers, I’ve been stuck in a state of omni-somnia, and my few waking hours feel fleeting and unreal. I’ve been told that a lot of sleep at this time is a good thing, allowing the body to heal properly, which sounds logical to me. But as much as being able to walk again without crutches (five weeks from now), I’m looking forward to my usual stubborn resistance to sleep’s maneuvers; my constant struggle against the loss of consciousness, freedom, and control that sleep, like death, imposes on the body.

Easter Sunday

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Winter and summer are constant, eternal. Well, not really. No matter how much snow is on the ground, a February day is very different from a December day, in terms of light, remaining firewood, and expectations. This is also true for June vs. August; nothing is the same, from lupine to goldenrod, peas to tomatoes, beginnings to endings. Yet when we think of “winter” and “summer,” a set of static, overarching themes come to mind. The winter of our discontent, the summer of love. Skiing, sledding, shoveling; swimming, gardening, drinking gin and tonics. All these and a million different images represent one of two extremes that we tend to think each make up half of the year.

As much as I love the idyllic permanence of winter and summer, my favorite seasons are instead fall and spring, the dynamic in-between times. Fall is when the world is dying but not dead, and the constant pull away from the plenitude of summer makes us cling to life with desperation.

Spring also mingles life and death, in reverse order. Hard to say it better than T. S. Eliot: April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory with desire. Everything is always changing in the spring. Yesterday it was sunny, in the 60s; today it’s spitting snow and there’s a fire in the wood stove. Signs of spring abound despite the snow-covered ground– on Wednesday I saw turkey vultures circling, and today I woke up to the strange metallic whirr of red-winged blackbirds. Downtown there’s an open channel on the Israel River, and one day soon all of the ice will crack in a violent burst of energy, and water will flow with frightening, unstoppable force, smashing riverbanks and flooding fields.

Tomorrow is Easter, a day I associate with daffodils, mud puddles, and rebirth. It’s a spring festival that comes around the same time every year, but that for me represents change, flux, possibility– a vital burst of life out of the dull, sameness of wintry death. The fertile rabbit brings brightly colored eggs; the seed catalog on the table foreshadows the abundance of summer; the stone is rolled away, and out of the darkness flows a raging torrent of life that will drown us or lift us up for another year.