Apr/May 2006  •   Fiction

Return to Tannu Uriankhai

by James Warner

Anti-discrimination laws prevent our asking about your racial background, read the preschool application form. However, should you volunteer information about your ethnicity, this will help us maintain our current level of representativeness.

My wife and I knew the preschool accepted only one applicant in twenty. Reading between the lines, we agreed our best bet was to pretend to be from Tuva.

Tuva! The preferred destination for people who find Siberia and Mongolia too cosmopolitan! Before our first parent interview, I took some courses in throat singing, while my wife conscientiously assembled several yurts.

The preschool director was a woman in her late 30s. "You don't look Tuvan," she told us at our initial interview, while our daughter Amy hid behind a table.

It was an objection we'd anticipated. "Actually many Tuvans are blondes," I said, showing the director a footnote to this effect I'd photocopied from an ethnographical pamphlet.

"How did you get to San Francisco from Tuva?" the director asked, leading us to a side-room.

I explained plausibly that I'd had to flee when the Soviets collectivized my open-pit asbestos mine. The director nodded and gave me her business card. "Leave your daughter here," she said, "and we'll see how she fits in.

"Amy's very high-strung," my wife commented.

"She misses her pet yak," I added.

After a few day's probation, Amy was admitted to the preschool. All went well at first. I was careful to keep acting Tuvan. To the potluck fund-raiser, I bought paper cones filled with cedar nuts. For Amy's first show-and-tell, I gave her a traditional spoon used for the ritual flinging of salted tea. In the old country, if the tea failed to freeze before it hit the ground, you knew it was summer.

It was some weeks before we noticed what was happening.

At home, all Amy would eat was boiled mutton still on the bone. She'd even somehow picked up some Tuvan words. Soon I had to take language courses to keep up with her. I enjoyed pronouncing glottalized vowels so much, I wondered aloud whether I really had been Tuvan in a past life, prompting my wife to suggest we start sleeping in separate rooms.

And that was just the start. At our first parent-teacher conference, the director told us Amy always remained silent at school, wistfully staring at Tuva on the globe, and would only answer to the name Azimaa.

"We shouldn't have picked Tuva," my wife said on the drive home. "It's a country that famously attracts obsessive people."

"The red wolf that eats the lamb may yet eat the sheep," I replied in Tuvan, glottalizing my vowels perfectly. It was no wonder Azimaa didn't want to go to school. What sort of a life was that for a young girl? At her age she should be beating wool, fleeing from bears, and contracting tuberculosis. I couldn't bear to imagine her never coming to know the joys of stamp-collecting on the taiga, strangling a camel in accordance with ancient Scythian ritual, or hawking Richard Feynmann memorabilia to lost tourists.

When I tried to explain this to my wife, she screamed, "All you ever want to do is talk about Tuva. And why are you wearing those absurd sheepskin trousers?"

It was no use talking to her when she was in this mood. Once we got home, I went online to find out how the weather was in Kyzyl. It looked like a more than usually clement day, the temperature expected to rise as high as -40F. Soon it would be the time when the snow started melting on the small pink-twigged birches, the runoff nourishing the sacred springs. Between ridges of lichen-speckled rock, mossy streams would traverse lush pastures studded with gentians on their way to the glacial lakes. My heart cried out to be sitting beneath the larches, drinking fermented mares' milk and listening to the herdsmen competing on their nose-flutes. "The ermine harvest is expected to be good this year," I remarked.

"That's it," my wife yelled, "I want a divorce."

"When can we go to Tuva, daddy?" Azimaa asked, once her mother had left the house.

Azimaa had shaved her head now, except for one long lock in the middle of her forehead. I saw in her the natural grace of the people of the steppes.

And she had asked a good question. My life seemed so empty, the office routine, the impending court proceedings, the blaring of the television. What was the sense of this world where people struggled to get their children accepted into private preschools? Only Azimaa understood. Like me, she pined for the boundless permafrost, that vast empty landscape where our people had lived a truly egalitarian existence since longer ago than the earliest times, back when the tail of the camel still trailed along the ground and the horns of the mountain goat reached all the way to heaven. After rolling the sheepbones to make sure our journey was an auspicious one, I smeared us both with yak butter for protection against frostbite, and made offerings of vodka to the four corners of the compass.

"The spirits of our native land are calling to us," I said, and phoned for a taxi.

As we headed for the airport, something in both of us exulted, as far away, the muffled hoofbeats of reindeer turned into the drumming of celestial shamans. Shyaan am!