A Name for Everything
Altansarnai is stout-legged, twenty-three, the only female letter carrier in the aimag of Darkhan-Uul and perhaps all of Mongolia. She goes by Sarnai—or is simply known as the mailman since there isn’t a word for a woman who delivers letters and parcels.
Many of the elders along her route treat her with doubt because Sarnai doesn’t look like a mailman or any woman they know. Instead of robes, she prefers trousers out of practicality, conveying the mail via bicycle, tucking the right cuff into her sock, lest it snags in the chain. And on her head, a helmet, hair beneath parted in the middle and cut short, unadorned with beads or customary scarf.
No one at Mongol Post in Darkhan had wanted the rural route. Darkhan is a city, after all, with a population of apartment dwellers, and carriers can deliver to more residences in a single building than Sarnai does in an entire day. The outlying circuit that she manages, by contrast, consists largely of nomads shadowing the seasonal movements of their livestock. Sheep, goats, cattle, camels. Depending on the time of year, her bag is filled with mail that goes unclaimed.
Weather is another challenge. Out on the grassy steppe, it’s frigid in winter and blazing during high summer. Always wind. On a good day the draft is at Sarnai’s back when her bag is full, the unpaved roads bad no matter the season, her tires patched so many times they’re like an envelope crowded with stamps.
But somebody has to deliver the mail between Darkhan and Khongor. It had begun to pile up, and Mongol Post had grown desperate. So eventually they were willing to hire an odd-looking village girl riding a rickety two-wheeler.
A cool dawn in the month of Zurgadugaar sar several weeks before the summer Festival of Naadam. The day begins for Sarnai like every other. The mail gets delivered at the outskirts of Darkhan, where a canvas sack locked to a lone telephone pole on a deserted lane awaits her. Only sand grouse stir at this hour. Sarnai unlocks the padlock, retrieves the letters and parcels from the sack, sits on the ground to arrange them in order, the second most demanding task of her day next to delivering the mail itself.
Behind her, the white buildings of Darkhan in the distance rise up like too many teeth in a mouth. Although it’s Mongolia’s third largest city, Sarnai finds it easy to turn her back on it in every sense. Darkhan, to her thinking, is contrived, a city by government proclamation only, springing up out of nowhere in 1961. Even her father is older than that.
Today there’s even more reason to ignore it because the letter is in the postal sack that’s been left for her. Finally. Sarnai’s been waiting 91 days. So long it seemed it would never come. The envelope is made out to her except with a different designation than where she lives. It takes every ounce of resolve not to open it, but as always with the joint stock company of Mongol Post, there are rules, and she’ll have to wait a bit longer to read the message inside.
Until recently, there wasn’t a rule for delivering mail to itinerant herdsmen who put up their round-tented gers in the middle of the countryside for brief periods of time. Mail is a system traditionally dependent on road names and numbers. But what about places off the beaten path or where there’s no path at all?
It took a new way of looking at the world. In the absence of streets and numbers, someone decided to divide the roadless frontier into a series of adjoining nine-square-meter plots, assigning each a specific three-word code. Horse-windmill-rock. Book-starlight-fox. Words, because they’re easier to retain than a string of numbers. Something very small yet ingenious and, more than that, recognition that things can fall outside normal designations, an idea that appeals to Sarnai because she’s different in how she looks and dresses and perhaps other ways. Yet it’s good to know there’s a name for everything.
Hawk-farm-tree. The first stop of the day. There’s no hawk or farm or even a tree, the words purposefully random to avoid insult or innuendo. Nobody’s at home either. Only a weather-beaten canvas ger with a rusted smokestack under a spread of sky that owns more of the landscape than the land itself.
Despite appearances of abandonment, grazing can often take the herdsman and family—in this case, a wife and small child—far afield. There’s a battered pot with a rock on its lid serving as mailbox. Three letters: two of the envelopes with vertical script that Sarnai decides are from family, the third a more official correspondence from the Department of Mongolian Agriculture which she holds up to the sun to inspect. There are regulations about opening the mail, but none, as far she knows, about benign snooping. The envelope is too opaque anyway.
Next, basket-hotel-auto, then shoe-ball-leaf, situated on adjacent parcels. Sarnai’s fat-tired bike is built for overland travel, reclaimed from a trash heap of a camel trader who’d moved on. Fouled gearing, rusted chain, wheels out of true—before learning to ride it, she had to sort out how to service it, her mother gone by then, Sarnai already in the process of reinventing herself, deciding who she wanted to be.
She’s still undecided. The herdsmen’s wives at basket-hotel-auto and shoe-ball-leaf don’t know what to make of her either. It’s a bigger herding operation than the prior stop: two brothers who married two sisters, separate families on each plot, their combined children running about in a game of tag, pausing to regard the visitor, then resuming since it’s only the mailman.
The wives interrupt their labor of beating laundry on a line because mail is a diversion from household chores, and they don’t trust Sarnai. Perhaps if she was a typical girl. Also this gives them a chance to feel superior. So they stand over her, trade looks when she reaches into her bag, clucking their tongues after she’s gone. Is it healthy for her privates, they’ll laugh, riding a saddle like that? If Sarnai once cared, she doesn’t anymore. Two cows, she merely thinks, corralled by their husbands, too stupid to see it.
Between deliveries, there’s only the sky, the land, endless wind, the terrain a living artifact, unchanged since Genghis Khan. It’s milder than other Mongolian locales, situated between the mountains to the north and the Gobi to the south. Greener, because it rains on occasion, even if it’s just waving grass growing under a sky filled with quilted clouds puttering about rudderless in a sea of blue.
Livestock vastly outnumber people. Beyond the outpost of Darkhan, humans only survive because they’re smarter, more cunning, adaptive. The gritty windblown soil fouls everything—generators, irrigation systems, carburetors.
Some nights it’s necessary for Sarnai to lash her bicycle to a stake or else gusts would carry it off. Does life have to be so rootless and hard? On occasion, the mail she delivers is from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which unlike Darkhan, has an actual history, so big and significant it’s not part of any aimag, but rather somewhere unto itself, different from the rest of Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar therefore intrigues Sarnai.
The morning passes this way, pedaling from one three-word address to the next, the sun above advancing to its appointed stations. Usually she’s met by people since mail is an event. Recipients are expectant, nervous or suspicious, depending on the delivery, Sarnai an agent of change in their lives. A few ask after her father.
Official duties keep her from being too preoccupied with the letter written to her that’s tucked in a separate pocket in her bag. It could prove disastrous if it fell in with someone else’s mail and got opened up. Sarnai has at least gone to the extent of inspecting the envelope, the Ulaanbaatar cancellation on the stamp, a return address but without a name.
She’ll have to wait until day’s end to see what’s inside, since it’s addressed to her last stop, and out of carefulness and superstition Sarnai is being a stickler for protocol. The elderly woman Bayarmaa is unlike the rest of her clients, Islamic rather than Buddhist. Also she’s blind. It’s Sarnai’s unofficial job to read her the mail not printed in Braille. Of course, that doesn’t include Sarnai’s letter.
She lunches on the platform of the train station 13 kilometers outside Khongor where mail goes in a slot in a door and falls on the floor on the other side. It’s rare to encounter railroad personnel, depot too grand a word for the shack. Even so, it’s a pleasant place for Sarnai to eat her meal of potato and buuz, long freight trains rattling by as far as the eye can see, coming from somewhere, going somewhere else, which interests her because she has plans, even if she hasn’t told them to anyone yet.
Today her younger brother Batu and his pack of fellow good-for-nothings have decided to show up. In the sandy lot of the station they’re engaged in a contest of flicking sheep bones in preparation for the Three Manly Games of Naadam, although they’re only on the cusp of becoming teenagers. Batu is a bit of a coward, to be honest. He doesn’t stop the others from jeering or chucking rocks in Sarnai’s direction because they’re jealous of her job and don’t know what to make of her in general. He only looks away, embarrassed by the fact of his sister. He takes after his father in that he never got over that his mother is gone. In response to the taunting now, Sarnai rises, brandishes her meat dumpling, and the boys turn tail to scurry off, Batu included.
Then back on her bicycle to dispatch mail. Already the day’s undeliverables have begun to pile up. Considering the large roving population it serves, Mongol Post has a loose policy on this matter. All government mail is returned to the locked canvas bag at the outskirts of Darkhan, the rest left to Sarnai’s discretion, which means she’s free to toss them in the trash.
As far as she knows, there’s no rule about reading undeliverables. The idea of a letter not reaching its intended recipient saddens Sarnai because hope is attached to mail as firmly as the glued flap of an envelope, the expectation somebody will read your words and understand them. A good deal of this correspondence falls into the category of junk. Advertising. Religious tracts. Once, powder to aid in digestion which she gave to her father. Every so often, something defies description, baffling correspondence like hearing one side of a conversation, and Sarnai has kept some of this mail for herself because it seems to offer a clue of how the greater world operates.
Amid her afternoon deliveries she fixes a flat front tire. Retrieves a ball from a drainpipe for some children. Distributes an assistance check to a widow. Her bag is lighter, the day by then assuming its own shape and momentum, leaving room for reflection. Sarnai doesn’t plan on being the mailman for life. Or, as a matter of course, having a family. She doesn’t know what she wants besides avoiding the example of her father. He never gets any mail. The story he tells is her mother is dead, though in truth she left, which broke something inside him, leaving Sarnai in the role of breadwinner in addition to cook and cleaner because certain things are expected.
Needle-trousers-cat. Valley-wheel-snow. She’s reached the far points of today’s deliveries, each day a different circuit depending on what’s in her bag, but in the end, the same because she travels a fixed universe. Sarnai’s clients only care about what she carries. She once mailed a letter to herself, several days puzzling over what to say, finally settling on the obvious: You are here. Only the letter never arrived because Mongol Post, despite its best intentions, remains a porous operation.
The blind woman Bayarmaa, however, is different from her other customers. There’s always a small meal to herald the arrival of the mail—sesame chicken balls, beans with tofu—which is why Sarnai always saves Bayarmaa for last.
The undeliverables thus far in today’s post: a tube of Ikh Taiga-Hair doctor; a letter from Chifeng, China, another with a canceled indicia from Kazakhstan; results of a medical test from the Gobi-Altai branch campus of the National University of Medical Sciences. None of it terribly noteworthy or worth saving.
But five months ago Sarnai found something beyond definition in an envelope bearing an Ulaanbaatar postmark. A magazine of sorts, its smudgy pages stapled in a corner, crudely imprinted as if with a potato. It consisted mostly of photographs. Women dressed like men in business suits, fake mustaches. Party scenes, including an entire room of ladies ballroom dancing. Others costumed as wrestlers from the Three Manly Games of Naadam. Sarnai had to sit on the ground. The women were of her age or not much older, the suited mustachioed bunch inflaming her in particular, the challenge in their eyes, laughing at anyone who’d laugh at them.
She should have thrown it away. It could have gotten her in trouble or even fired. She was a government employee after all. Yet she couldn’t. There was something about the certainty in those smiles, that these women knew exactly what they were doing, which felt most dangerous to Sarnai. She didn’t wish, specifically, to wear a suit or fake mustache, but one day she’d like to experience that degree of certainty.
She pedals overland against the wind. All her life she’s had to push against something—father, brother, the mother who’s never written, even though Sarnai delivers the mail. She counts the revolutions of the rotating bicycle crank, tries not to think about the letter in her bag, the afternoon sun clocking over the immensity of geography. A congregation of horned yaks graze in the middle distance.
Even though she’s never been anywhere, Sarnai can still hanker for far-flung places. Is it a sin to want to be more than the only female letter carrier in Mongolia? Perhaps her mother asked a similar question about being a parent. Or maybe just the wind carried her away.
At apple-candle-rifle, she helps remove a calf from a tangle of barbed wire. Next, the toothless herdsman at cloud-moon-hoof informs her he’s traveling onward to greener pastures. There are no official change-of-address forms, the animals determining the next stopping-off point more than their keepers, a circumstance that in the end amounts to more undeliverables for Sarnai to carry.
Lying in wait for her by the windmill farm off the trunk road, her brother and his cronies are back. The rows of towers are the only vertical upthrust out here, blades spinning wind into power that’s in turn sent someplace else where there are permanent structures and a modern electrical grid.
The boys apparently have nothing to do today except devil Sarnai. Several months earlier they spied her squatting to relieve herself along her route, which had incited them. Batu’s friends, despite their jealousy that she’s the mailman, have discovered they’re also attracted to her and don’t know what to do with these competing emotions. So they pelt her with dried pellets of sheep dung since she’s the source of this confusion, while Sarnai stoically rides through their hail of excrement because there’s still mail to deliver. Aya, they yell along with more specific insults, but their mouths are no competition for her legs, and she soon puts them behind her.
It wasn’t only scandalous pictures in the stapled magazine. In the back there was a section of classified ads. Items for sale, apartments to let. Also personal notices that had portrait shots of women smiling or gazing off camera as if someone had just entered the room.
A few of the ads included overtures—to attend a concert of throat singing or visit the traveling zoo. In its own way this was more outrageous than the cross-dressing party photos. But if Sarnai were to answer such an ad, what would she say? For weeks she mulled it over. What did she like? Whom would she want? Nothing and nobody came to mind. Yet something is only unthinkable until it happens. So she eventually answered the ad of someone named Chimeg, who said she was a cyclist. At least they’d have that in common. Also in her photo she looked shy and embarrassed, which mirrored how Sarnai felt. I deliver the mail by bicycle, she wrote. The only woman letter carrier in Darkhan-Uul. What else was there? I think your picture is nice.
For herself, Sarnai included a snapshot from several years before, when her hair was long and her puffy cheeks didn’t make her look so much like a wrestler. She could have used the three-word address of her family’s ger. Nobody would be the wiser since she’s the mailman. After considerable thought, however, Sarnai felt safer sending it to Bayarmaa not only because she’s blind, but because she’s different as well.
The last part of her day is like riding downhill. She’s no longer weighed down by mail or the concerns of the job. Sarnai can allow herself to feel a bit carefree, having survived challenges both mechanical and meteorological. Since dawn her focus has been scarcely wider than a postage stamp, but now, with the majority of her load delivered, she can fully take in the landscape around her, rugged vast grasslands as far as the eye can see, and above in the sky, a texture of clouds like waves on an ocean, all of it governed by wind roaming over the guileless terrain with license to travel wherever it wants, covering Sarnai’s exposed skin in a reddish-brown powdering as fine as talc.
The loveliness of it all pierces her. She’s never known anything else, yet this far reach of Mongolia must be the most beautiful place on earth. Sarnai already is aware she’ll miss it. That she’ll be leaving is a foregone conclusion, like something she’s been riding toward and can finally see its shape. She’s as restless as the wind—or maybe Sarnai just inherited her mother’s roving heart.
Spoon-foot-sand. Iron-lake-anvil. Her legs are heavy with the kilometers from the day’s journey, operating on muscle memory at this point more than anything else. As usual, old man Jargal asks about gossip. At the next stop, Sarnai delivers fabric for a robe in anticipation of the Festival of Naadam. Nobody’s home at truck-radio-echo, so Sarnai leaves an envelope that looks like a bill under the weight of a rock by the entryway of the ger.
Bayarmaa has been waiting. Her dwelling owns a greater sense of permanence than the other stops along the way, its walls constructed of wood with a fenced area out back where there’s a garden, which is where she receives Sarnai.
The blind woman must be in her sixties. Old, in any case, but not always blind, as she reminds Sarnai. Also, supposedly, once a great beauty. Bayarmaa still bothers to keep up appearances, in tasteful robes and finely combed hair. Someone must tend her garden of sheared grasses.
You’re tired, Bayarmaa says, patting a chair for Sarnai to sit, the food already laid out. Today it’s tsuivan, a noodle soup, along with rice pudding, followed by sour milk sweets and ul boov, a traditional cake that looks like a shoe. Aside from Sarnai reading the day’s mail for her, Bayarmaa does most of the talking. A letter from a cousin in Kazakhstan inevitably elicits stories of her courtship. Have I told you I had thirteen suitors both Buddhist and Islamic? She has, but Sarnai listens as if it’s the first time.
The food fills the hole in her stomach, inducing a pleasant drowsiness. It’s the first time all day she’s not had to rush to the next destination. Her father and brother can wait a bit longer for the dinner she’ll cook for them. For now, Sarnai enjoys this moment of stillness and hearing of the places Bayarmaa has been. There’s always a meal prepared for her even though Sarnai only stops over on days when there’s mail to drop off. On those other days, she imagines Bayarmaa must sit patiently waiting in her finery as the spread she’s prepared, along with her expectation of an audience, gradually cools.
But the letter. The envelope is written in flowing vertical script with a stamp bearing an inky cancellation from the capital city in the upper corner, the paper wrinkled from travel and being stuffed in the pocket of Sarnai’s mailbag all day. Nonetheless, it carries a whiff of distance.
Subterfuge isn’t necessary since the old woman is blind. While Bayarmaa tells a story about the gift of a pony in her youth. Sarnai coos and laughs at the appropriate moments. Meanwhile, she’s quietly slit open the flap of the envelope.
Dear Altansarnai, the letter from Chimeg begins.
I am pleased to find your note, having never received a correspondence from so far north. How interesting your life of delivering the mail! Here in Ulaanbaatar there are female clerks and letter carriers, but we have only paved streets and tall buildings with none of the adventures you describe. As for me, I’ve recently sold my bicycle in order to travel with my new friend, Khulgana. We have decided to move to Kentau to work as maids together. Since I will no longer be living here and do not know the address of where I will land, allow me to wish you good luck now and thank you for your kind attentions.
The water in the tea has cooled by then, and Bayarmaa has moved on to talk about a beaded robe she once owned, Sarnai no longer listening closely. Even though she’s new to such matters, she can recognize a brush-off when she sees one. The letter’s brevity is a clue in itself, and perhaps this Khulgana is an invention, along with the plans of moving to a distant city.
Sarnai can’t say what disappoints her more, this rejection or the news of other female letter carriers in Mongolia. In any case, she’s not as special as she believed when she set out with the mail this morning. Thankfully, the blind woman can’t see her blushing cheeks or rueful expression. But maybe Bayarmaa can sense something. She’s finally stopped her storytelling and is staring off as if she’s sighted a strange bird flying over her courtyard. But most likely it’s only weariness from being old and preparing all of this food for her afternoon visitor.
The hour is late though the sun still owns the sky at this time of the year. Sarnai pedals with a lightness from an empty mailbag on her shoulder, her letdown tempered by the pure joy of riding, which she’d taught herself to do. It took falling and falling until she finally acquired the knack, and now it’s part of her as much as skin and bones, a skill nobody can take away from her.
In a little while she’ll prepare dinner for her luckless father and Batu, then tend to other domestic chores. But for now Sarnai isn’t beholden to anyone, and atop the worn saddle of her bicycle she experiences a taste of freedom that’s her own.
So this is what she thinks right now at the end of her endless day of deliveries. That there are other women in the personal ads in the back of that magazine. It’s not out of the question either that a man could win her heart. It could be she just hasn’t encountered one who interests her. Perhaps it’s possible to like both. It’s all very confusing, but thankfully Sarnai doesn’t have to decide right now. She’s willing to exist in this gray area for the time being. She’s strong and young and in motion, and if there’s one thing she’s learned from delivering the mail, it’s that there’s a name for everything.