Saturday, April 18, 2009

25 The Contortionists


The automatic doors opened, Sarantuya’s arm slipped away from Tom’s. “Er, er..” He just didn’t know what to say. Sarantuya moved forward towards the door. Only the two old ladies with their loaves of bread wrapped in brown paper were in front of her now. She opened her handbag, took out a pencil and a small address book, scribbled something quickly, ripped out the page and handed it to Tom. He watched her step up into the bus and disappear in a forest of coats and hats. There was standing room only and the windows were covered with ice, but Tom thought he caught a glimpse of her blue coat as the bus pulled away into the night.

He immediately looked to see what she had written. Even though he knew the Cyrillic alphabet now, he couldn’t understand much, but when he saw the numbers 7.30 next to the words “xagva garig” and “cirk,” he felt both elated and alarmed. She wanted to see him again, but where?

He hurried back along Peace Avenue towards the hotel, lost his footing on the on the ice, fell and grazed his knuckles because he didn’t want to let go of the tiny sheet of lined paper clutched tightly in his hand.

Two days later, Tom walked up a broad avenue towards a circular concrete structure. Shishmishig had confirmed what he’d found in his dictionary: Wednesday at 7.30pm. As he got nearer to the massive building, his heart beat faster and he could hardly breathe. There was a small crowd in front of the entrance. He walked faster, then he saw her big grey fur hat and her beautiful smile. She was standing to one side of the entrance with the tickets in her hand. Once inside, they were ushered to ringside seats. Tom, being the only foreigner there, felt conspicuous, and bent forward in an attempt to make himself small, but he could still see the people all around them pointing and staring.

The first performers to appear were a pair of clowns. They stood at the centre of the ring and talked for about ten minutes. He could hardly understand a word of what they were saying, but the rest of the packed audience seemed to find it hilarious.

He turned to Sarantuya, and enquired, "What are they saying?"

She replied with a word that sounded like, "Politik."

He wanted to continue the conversation. However, his knowledge of the Mongolian language was so limited, that any attempt to converse inevitably faded out after one or two simple utterances. But, nods, smiles and gestures helped to fill the awkward silences. He wondered how much they could possibly know about each other. He hung onto her every word and gesture. She really did seem perfect.

Tom felt the warmth of her arm pressed against his as they watched the clowns leave and six small horses gallop out onto the sawdust-covered floor, with a girl standing on top of the first one. She did somersaults on the horse as it led the way around the arena.

Next, a black leather-clad Mongolian rock group appeared bearing white, V-shaped electric guitars. They stood, feet spread wide apart, and postured. The frenetic efforts of the drummer and the loud strumming of the guitars drew no more than a polite ripple of applause from the family audience, many of whom seemed more interested in the tall, red-haired ‘Russian’ sitting with a Mongolian girl than in the circus acts.

After the amplifiers had been removed, and the last member of the rock group had made his exit, the audience suddenly came alive. They clapped and stomped their feet in unison. Tom looked at Sarantuya.

"Uran nygralt," she explained. Tom hurriedly looked up the word "uran" in his pocket dictionary. There were several meanings: "skilful" or "artistic" or "cunning".

The noise from the audience was becoming louder; some of them were even shouting. Tom referred to his dictionary once more. He couldn't find "nygralt", but there was an entry for "nygralaa". Three alternatives were listed: "deviation"; "bend"; "fold".

"Ahaa," he said,” Skilful deviation."

"Yes," she laughingly replied, as two scantily-dressed contortionists emerged to thunderous applause. They were the "uran nygralt."

The contortionists were two teenage girls, both less than five feet tall. They walked on their bare hands up to a small platform, where they twisted and contorted their tiny muscular bodies in unimaginable ways. They were wearing silk slippers and skimpy two-piece gold satin costumes that twisted and turned with them, but amazingly did not tear asunder. Tom watched incredulously as they thrust the backs of their heads between their thighs whilst tucking their feet under their elbows, and walking on their hands.

Sarantuya pointed to the one on the right and said, "Sister." Later they went backstage to meet her. Her name was Gerelchimeg, and she was beautiful, but she was not as beautiful as Sarnatuya: nobody was.

To be contd.



  1. i love your description of the contortionists - the muscles, the small bodies, the gold, the movement - and i love how tom is mad about s.

  2. When I was in Mongolia I was told that it is every man's dream to marry a contortionist and every woman's dream to marry a wrestler. I actually knew a Mongolian who was married to a contortionist.


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