January 5, 2022

Sasha Stiles

TELEPORTING TO THE MOTHERLAND

Last night I was in the Gobi,
passenger seat of a tinny jeep with my driver.

I had no interpreter. Words wrote themselves
like magic across the view as we drove

for hours, then days across the desert,
moving so fast on land so flat and infinite

it felt like keeping still. We went I don’t know
how far before we came to the spring in the cliff

(measuring distance in anything but time
brings bad luck) and stopped there

to dip a ladle between the rocks, wash
grit from our eyes to make them stronger.

We looked out for the Mongolian death worm,
olgoi-khorkhoi, said to electrocute its victims;

stopped again to kiss fossilized dinosaur bones,
which stick to your tongue when you lick them.

An acquired taste, the real deal. We kept driving
until we arrived at a caravan of baby Bactrians,

each roped to their spot on the earth, crying
for mothers’ return from a day of steadfast grazing.

Of course they were sad: for thirteen months
they’d lived in a home that was always moving,

shaggy unborn nomads, sheltered from harsh,
fixed reality. At dusk I sat on a rise in the dune,

watched one towering beast spit at her calf.
She hadn’t unlearned the difficult birth, or

maybe understood she was being replaced.
The herders lashed them together. A fiddler

took up his bow, a woman in a red silk deel
and knit wool cap filled the air with her voice:

khuus, khuus, khuus. The camel coaxing song,
ancient prayer to help mothers and their children

get along. It was half music, half wail,
and when they finally bonded I began to weep

thinking how it was the beginning of the end,
like any bliss, her four-quartered udder shuddering.

How a healer will drape an orphaned animal
in a dead one’s pelt to milk life-giving love.

How a human parent will dress a boy as a girl,
paint his face like a rabbit’s, name him No Name

to confuse fate. How a family will send its daughter
to study in the city, knowing she’ll be back late

or maybe never. How after lapping up spoonfuls
of thick white cream as a teenager I gave up dairy,

so against my nature. How I can travel a week
in twenty minutes. How this lens is liquid sand.

How desert rituals are a dying, dewy-eyed breed.
How soon the earth will reach carrying capacity,

it’s not long now, just a few quickening years
to the edge of this journey, and how nothing,

nothing in the Gobi means anything
if a stormy creature won’t nurse her young.

from Rattle #73, Fall 2021

__________

Sasha Stiles: “This poem, written during a bout of pre-pandemic restlessness, anticipated long months of thwarted wanderlust and the strangeness of being physically stuck in one place in an increasingly placeless world. I was thinking of a film called ‘The Story of the Weeping Camel,’ about the endangered ritual of Mongolian camel coaxing; of the nomad ways of my Mongolian ancestors; and of the Kalmyk language I grew up hearing my mother speak, now in danger of extinction.” (web)

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