The Heart

by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba

People called me Ochir, even though my real name was Lkhagva-Ochir. I was eleven years old and lived in a rural settlement called Zurkh in remote Huvsgul Province in northern Mongolia. Zurkh is the center of a small administrative unit called a Bag in which my family was registered. Zurkh had six buildings – our school, our dormitory, a small hospital, the bag office, a community meeting hall, and one shop. A few families lived permanently in Zurkh along its three unpaved streets.

Zurkh is located on a plateau between three mountains. The Ider River runs along the west side of Zurkh. Beyond the Ider is a mountain pass on the other side of which my parents lived and tended their herds of sheep and goats, cattle, horses and yaks. All my classmates were from herder families. During the school year, we children rarely saw our parents.

Zurkh means “heart” in Mongolian, but I never thought of my little town relating to someone’s heart until one memorable day in the spring when a nearly speechless man taught me the meaning of heart.

“Ochir, let’s go to play at the river!” my dormitory roommate Tulgaa called me through an open window. I could barely make out his shaved head from below my window. We boys all had our heads shaved to control lice. “Let’s watch how Silent carries people across the river!” Tulgaa shouted.

“I didn’t do my homework yet,” I called down. I sat on one of six small beds of my dormitory room where half of my roommates were girls and half were boys. My little school couldn’t afford separate dorm rooms for boys and girls and we had to tolerate living with the girls. The girls were very possessive of the table and I was trying to do my homework on my tiny bed. It was always uncomfortable.

“Do it in the evening. I just heard the noise of a motorcycle at the mountain pass.” Tulgaa urged.

“Really?” I put my books down. Three girls with red, white and yellow hair-bands giggled at me from the table. My guilt at not attending to my homework disappeared when I heard Tulgaa’s footsteps moving away from the window. I rushed to the door and ran after him slamming it behind me.

Once in a while Zurkh becomes a noisy place if a motorcycle or a car or truck comes through town. If we see more than two motorcycles or cars in one day, it’s a big event in Zurkh.

Springtime is the most silent for Zurkh because most often travelers on motorcycles can’t cross the Ider. Only heavy trucks or big cars with their high wheel-base can cross during the spring flood season. Smaller vehicles would be swept away. When motorcycles come to the river, they wait and wait for a truck to come and help them cross. Sometimes, people park their motorcycles on the other shore, and then come across to buy a few things at Zurkh’s general store. That was what we children liked to watch.

Once, there was a river-crossing raft with a cable that could carry a truck, but it broke years ago. Only the cable remained and it was barely strong enough to carry two people. Nobody except the poorest man in Zurkh dared use that rusting cable to make a living. His nickname was Silent. We children liked to watch how this middle-aged poor man carried people, bags, sometimes little animals, across the swift flowing Ider.

When Tulgaa and I reached the Ider, Silent was sitting on the Zurkh bank of the river. He was a thin man with a sun-wrinkled face. He wore his usual short green coat. Silent was looking at the other side and waiting to be called. He glanced at us, but, as usual, he said nothing.

The ice had broken just a few days earlier. The Ider was running fast and deep and angry. It was much wider than a few days ago. On the other shore, a couple sat near their motorcycle. They were not Silent’s clients. Instead, they appeared to be waiting for a truck to carry them and their motorcycle to our side of the river.

Suddenly the man called to me and Tulgaa from the other shore. “Hey boys!” he yelled. Please tell the doctor to bring a big car! My wife is about to give birth.”

“Yes, brother…” I answered loudly. “Tulgaa, let’s go to the hospital.” Tulgaa and I ran toward Zurkh’s few buildings leaving Silent at the river sitting as still as a stone monument.

The hospital was the coolest place of our little settlement. It had a big solar cell outside, and always had electricity. There were two staff and one car, but I didn’t see the hospital car in the yard. I ran to the doctor’s office.

“Sister doctor…” I began as I addressed the prettiest and best dressed woman in our town. “Quiet, quiet!” the doctor said. “What is it, Ochir?”

“Somebody is on the other shore of the river. He asks you to bring the car and pick up his wife. She’s giving birth to a baby soon.”

“Oh no! I just sent my nurse to Galt soum center. She won’t be back ‘til tomorrow.”

“What should I tell to those people at the river?” I asked.

“Tell them to wait for a car or truck coming from their side. We don’t have a car in Zurkh right now. The school car is broken. The bag chairman is still having it repaired. There’s no car around here.”

When Tulgaa and I returned to the river, Silent was walking back and forth alongside the shore. The woman on the other side was sitting up and crying. The man was holding her hand and looking very worried.

“Brother,” I yelled, “there is no car in Zurkh. You’ll have to wait for a truck!”

“I understand.” The man shouted back, “but my wife is aching terribly. Please ask the doctor what to do!”

“Yes brother!” I shouted.

Suddenly Silent approached us. “You Tulgaa, run to the doctor. Bring her here. Ask her to carry everything she may need to help the young woman.”

Tulgaa nodded.

Then Silent looked at me. “Son, you stay here. Don’t go away,” he said.

It was the first time I ever heard Silent utter so much as a single word. I was shocked and couldn’t even muster a “yes.”

Tulgaa ran back to Zurkh and I looked at the river. The water was frightening. The spring flood made it as wide as a lake.

Silent took off his coat and handed it to me. He hooked up his belts and removed his shoes. I’d seen him do this before and knew that he is going to try to cross the swollen river. He put on his gloves and wrapped his hands with leather. Then he picked up two flat wooden blanks that are a little shorter than skis and tied them to his feet.

Silent grasped the overhead cable and jumped into the swirling water. He moved forward like he was slow-motion skiing on top of the water. The river splashed him and tugged at him, but he kept moving hand over hand.

Is Silent going to help deliver the baby? Will he try to carry the newborn back here? I asked myself. It was incredible to see how he kept moving – fighting the current all the way. When I grow big enough, I want to cross the Ider like that, I thought.

Silent reached the far side and approached the man and woman. I heard the woman’s moans. She seemed to be in bad pain. I began to feel a chill. The cool river air and the spring winds made me cold. I wanted to run back to the dormitory and do my homework, but I felt somehow obliged to obey Silent’s order.

Silent and the man seemed to be discussing what to do. The man sat as though waiting for the doctor to come.

Silent walked back and forth barefoot and collecting dry pieces of wood. Soon he had a fire going and the three of them talked some more. Then the man took a small pot from the pack on their motorcycle and filled it with water from the Ider River.

Silent and the man made something like a tent out of the man’s raincoat and motorcycle. The woman went into that tent. She was moaning more often now.

I heard the sounds of footsteps behind me. “What’s happening?” the doctor asked.

“I don’t know.” I replied.

The doctor stood next to me and yelled. “Hey, you over there, what is the pregnant woman’s name?”

“Dolgor!” the man called back. “What should we do, doctor? Please instruct us!”

“Dolgor, you say?” The doctor almost whispered. “She has high blood pressure and she was called to the hospital a week ago.” She took a long breath and yelled, “Why didn’t you bring her earlier? She needs to be in the hospital.”

“We’re sorry, doctor. We had so many baby goats and sheep to receive and couldn’t leave any earlier. Please help us!”

“I need to measure her blood pressure before taking any action. She needs to be in the hospital,” the doctor shouted.

“But doctor,” the man yelled, “she’s hurting badly.”

“She might not be able to deliver her baby without my help however bad she hurts.” The doctor’s voice became colder. “She didn’t stay to take the rest of her tests. I don’t know enough to give you directions from here.”

The man almost cried. “But doctor, what can we do?”

“Try to find a truck. Leave her there with Silent,” commanded the doctor. “Find a truck. Hurry!”

“Yes, doctor.” The man took his raincoat off the motorcycle and started the engine. He quickly drove off.

After the man left, the woman moaned almost constantly, sitting and sometimes crawling.

Silent wiped his bare feet with his hands and walked up and down the riverbank.

The doctor and I sat on our side of the Ider unable to do anything to help.

The dinner bell rang. Tulgaa ran toward the school. I covered myself with Silent’s short coat and shivered, but I was determined not to leave.

“Silent, do something. I hurt so much!” moaned the woman. “I can’t wait! Please take me to the hospital now! Help me!”

The doctor suddenly jumped up. “No! Silent, don’t do that!” she yelled.

Silent made no reply. Instead, he tied his leather belt around the woman and himself. The woman started helping.

“Silent, you can’t carry her!” the doctor shouted once again. “You haven’t eaten since morning. She’s heavy. You can’t carry her! Wait for her husband!”

Silent tied his legs to the wooden blanks. The woman hugged Silent’s neck tightly. Silent walked slowly toward the water and grabbed the cable. They moved.

“Doctor, please don’t shout now,” I whispered.

“Do you believe in him?” she asked.

I nodded. “He can do it, but it makes him nervous if people yell or make noise.”

The doctor sighed.

Silent worked his way across the Ider River almost ten times slower than his usual pace. I could see he was breathing very hard. For long moments he and the moaning pregnant woman seemed stuck in the middle of the swirling water, but finally they began to move forward. As they came closer, I could see the woman was biting her lips. She looked frightened. Silent’s arms moved hand over hand along the wet, rusty cable. His legs shook as he struggled to push forward and keep the wood blanks from catching water and pulling his hands from the cable. Slowly, carefully, he inched forward against the cross-cutting current.

The doctor closed her eyes, pressed her palms together and whispered a Tibetan chant. Then she suddenly jumped up. “I have to bring the dormitory horse cart,” she mumbled and ran toward the school.

With the doctor gone, there were only the three of us, Silent carrying the big pregnant woman and me. He was making progress, but the water beneath them was still deep and fast-flowing. Silent looked exhausted. He seemed ready to collapse but he kept coming. He needed to make only five more arm pulls and he would reach shallower water he might stand and wade to shore.

Suddenly the motorcycle roared down to the opposite shore. It was Dolgor’s husband. He quickly stopped and shouted, “Dolgor!”

The woman looked back. Silent’s arms shook.

“Aaa! Help us!” Dolgor shouted.

My heart was beating rapidly, but there was nothing I could do to help Silent. If I tried to wade out to them I would have been carried away. I wanted to yell to the husband and wife not to make noise, but that would unnerve Silent even more.

Silent summoned his remaining strength for a last big effort. His arm-over-arm movements sped up. He soon reached a shallow section. He kicked off the blanks and walked to the shore with Dolgor on his back.

Dolgor and Silent were all wet and Silent was shaking terribly as they reached the shore.

Dolgor’s husband didn’t say a word. He just sat down and cried.

The doctor returned with the horse-cart that our dorm uses for collecting firewood and water. Silent and the doctor lifted Dolgor onto that cart.

“Would you like to sit on the edge of the cart?” the doctor asked me. “Yes.” I said and handed Silent his coat. “You’re a hero,” I whispered.

Silent’s eyes teared-up and his lips quivered. His whole body shook. He didn’t speak but I could see a world of expression from his eyes as we pulled away from him.

While the horse jogged toward the hospital, I looked back at the Ider. The men on both sides of the river were crying.

Later that day, Dolgor gave birth to a boy. Our dormitory kids ran to the river and shouted the news to her husband. He came across in a truck a week later.

As to Silent, he never spoke to me again. He carried people across the river all spring making 500 tugriks for each crossing -- less than 40 cents. With it he would buy a loaf of bread which he would take home to his invalid wife..

The evening Dolgor gave birth, everybody talked about Silent. I learned that he couldn’t afford a wheelchair to help his wife move around and that they dreamed of sending their daughter to university in Ulaanbaatar.

A few months later I entered the middle school in Galt soum. The first day I was asked where I was from. I said, and always say, that I come from a place where people have big hearts.

March, 2007
Zurkh bag, Galt soum of Khuvsgul province, Mongolia