heartland illo


by Crystal Koo


Two weeks before her birthday, my wife Erde told me an old flame of hers from Earth was coming over for a visit.

“The one who asked you to marry him before you came to Aigh?” I asked. I had just come back from work, the undiplomatic smell of wet soil from the Dome still on me. She was already in bed, reading.

“His name is Tselmeg,” she said.

Some sort of engineer, I remembered. “He’s flying in from Delgerkhaan?”

“No, that’s where we grew up.” The reader changed pages for her and she watched the words scramble into a new formation. “He works in Ulan Bator now.”

Whenever my wife spoke Mongolian, it sounded like a gale going through khag bones. I always saw a picture in my head every time I heard it: Maral-Erdene Otryadyn in her youth, pitching gigantic tents, racing large bovines, Earth’s yellow-dwarf sun setting over the grasslands. The only thing wrong with the picture was I wasn’t in it.

“But I already had plans for your birthday,” I said.

“If we’re just going to Uizi again, we can bring him with us.” She looked up from the reader. “Are you going to be bothered by this?”

“No.” I tore my shoes off and flung them into a corner with a little more force than I had anticipated. “Of course not.”

“We haven’t seen each other in fifteen years. He’d like to celebrate with us.”

“I’m not bothered.” I watched the cleaningpedes fetch my shoes and return them to the closet. “What did you tell him when he had proposed?”

She went back to the reader. “That I’d keep it in mind. That was the end of the conversation.”

“Did you love him?”

“I married you, didn’t I?”

“That’s an answer to a different question.” Maybe it was fatigue or the accumulated nausea of taking the Dome elevators, but I needed to hear something reassuring. “So why did you refuse him?”

“Because I didn’t want him marrying someone who was going away and didn’t know when she’d return.”

“And you’ve stayed here because there’s nothing left there for you in a place like that, right?”

“No. I stayed because I met you.” She sounded irritated. “You don’t have to call it a place ‘like that’. If you don’t want him here, you can tell me now. We can just put him in a hotel nearby.”

I didn’t want to give this person whom I hadn’t even met the satisfaction of knowing I would be uncomfortable with him around, so I told Erde I had no problems with Tselmeg staying over the weekend.

We didn’t talk about it again and I hoped she had forgotten about it, until things blew up the night before her birthday. She was telling me what life was like in Delgerkhaan and I was wishing she’d tell me more about Tselmeg. She must have read my mind because she said the last time she had seen Tselmeg hadn’t been the last time she had spoken with him. He had called her up here eight years ago.

“Maybe you’d like to explain how I never heard about this?” I said.

The surprise on her face showed she had caught the pitch of my voice. “I thought it wasn’t important at all.”

“Then tell me about it right now.”

“It was eight years ago and you and I had only started out being together then. If he weren’t coming over, I would have completely forgotten about it.”

“And I’m telling you to tell me what happened.”

“This really isn’t worth – ”

“Why did you even bring this up if you weren’t going to tell me? Was it really his idea to come here? Was it yours?”

She looked me in the eye. “The way you’re behaving right now is exactly what I’ve always been afraid of turning into, living here.”

“Really,” I said, allowing myself to escalate the hostility. “Tell me what you find so despicable about me.”

“That self-entitled insensitivity that makes this place so superficial, people throwing money left and right like they don’t know what it’s worth.”

“You’re a resident here because of me. If you don’t like it here, why did you even bother marrying me?”

She didn’t like that question and I realized I didn’t like it either because it scared the underland out of me. She stormed out of the room and I never knew when she had spoken to Tselmeg or what they had talked about. It was too late for me to tell her how I had changed my mind about how comfortable I was going to be with him around. She had already sent a message to Tselmeg and had arranged the orbitflight for him earlier.

She left for the spaceport on the speeder the next morning without speaking to me. I had taken the weekend shift off from managing the Dome meteorology teams for her birthday and spent the afternoon wishing I was back down in the Dome, working on Aigh Second, realigning the woodlands and the tundras and the other biomes whose delineations the old urbans had muddled. Instead of sitting around our residential sky-platform wondering if this hunter-gatherer Tselmeg was going to think I was too delicate for my tent-pitching wife.

I heard the speeder land on the airpad and I still hadn’t decided what to do with him. A sigh from the door when it slid open, low laughs, and two pairs of footsteps. I went to the living room.

Tselmeg was a tall, rangy man who wore his dark hair long. His cheeks were coarse and ruddy and he stood with his legs apart. He was carrying a cloth container, a bag, instead of a miniaturizer, and he wasn’t letting go of it.

Erde was radiant, recovering from the tail of a laugh, when she saw me. She glanced at Tselmeg, as if signaling to him that the difficult part of the day had begun, and a light went out of his eyes. She introduced me to him in Aighi. “My husband Eo. Eo, this is Tseku.” Her smile was telling me, Be nice.

The carefully-preserved indifference on my face answered, I’m not obliged to and I didn’t know you called him Tseku. Tselmeg extended an open hand to me and I had previously learned from Erde that I was supposed to touch it. My fingers disappeared into his grip.

“Good to meet you, Eo,” he said in heavily accented, precise Aighi. He returned my fingers to me. “You have a beautiful house.”

“Eo’s a very good provider,” said Erde and the indifference on my face nearly fell off. I hadn’t been told we had made up. “Tseku’s had a very long trip and he can use a drink,” she said and disappeared into the kitchen in a flash.

I was forced to look at Tselmeg. His eyes were resting on every piece of furniture we owned, like an auctioneer wondering if they’re even worth the trip to the taghouse. I felt indignant. If somebody was going to be uncultured in this room, it ought to be him. I gestured at him. “Sit down.”

He walked to the divan with a subtle swagger I suddenly found myself a little jealous of. He sat, finally letting go of his bag. It made a dusty puff on the carpet and the cleaningpedes scampered for it. He would have stepped on them if I hadn’t suddenly gone rigid in my seat. When he looked at me curiously, I pretended to be listening attentively to my wife arrange the cups in the kitchen for the beaner.

“Erde told me both of you grew up together,” I said, feeling a masochistic surge.  “You lived in the same yurt.”

“You know what it is?”

“Erde told me.” A pause. “Any stories about her when you were children?”

“Yes. But they would be hard to understand here. Not so important here maybe,” he said, looking around the living room again. “You built this house?”

“Everyone living on this platform works for Aigh Second. The apartment is owned by the construction company.”

He looked at the panes of the windowpaper, which were capable of withstanding anything short of a neutron warhead while simultaneously displaying a vivid scene of a garden in Sheiek in the Temperatelands of Aigh Second. Trellises and little stone paths and manicured bushes.

“How much help did the company have?” he asks.

I didn’t know why he was so obsessed with who had built the apartment, or why Erde was taking so long with the beaner, when all she had to do was talk to the damn thing. “You’re sure you don’t have something funny to tell about her?”

He looked at the cleaningpede scouring his bag with their tiny brushes. “She would be the best person to talk about her life.”

I wanted to shove him hard, this herdsman pretending to be the guardian of Erde’s past, and ask what he was doing in my home, what he wanted from my wife.        “You’re an engineer,” I said instead.

His face brightened like burning hydrogen. “An irrigation engineer. I am very interested in the Aigh project. Erka told me that you could take us down the Dome.”

“She told you that you could have a look?”

My wife came back in and put a tray down the small table. I caught her eyes. Erka. The stress on the first syllable made a world of difference. Tselmeg probably had laughed to himself when he heard my nickname for her. “You told him he could have a look?”

“At Aigh Second?” She pursed her lips. “I told you Tseku’s an engineer, right? Wouldn’t it be great if he could see what the big deal is about? Both of you are practically in the same line of work!”

I was too stunned to remind her I was a meteorologist. She sat next to me with a cup and my stomach lurched. I turned around and looked her in the face, prepared to argue with her, but the pleading in her eyes was a stopper on my throat.

“You’ve taken me down to the Dome before,” she said lightly. “It was beautiful. I’m sure you can do it again.”

I was surprised she remembered our trip to the Tropiclands years ago but I didn’t let it sidetrack me. “Do you know how long the waitlist is even for shareholders?”

The bushman in my apartment was fidgeting in the chair, making dragging noises on the floor with his feet. Erde began to say something but he interrupted her. “It is all right. It is not so important.”

“Are you sure?” she said. “You’ll have a good time there.”

“I am sure. I am having a good time here.”

I clenched my leg muscles, waiting for the insincerity to surface from his voice but it didn’t. I knew they were talking in Aighi to avoid alienating me but it felt like they were patronizing me. As I stared at Tselmeg, it struck me how alike he and Erde looked. The way they used the same, dark doe-eyes to tell each other that they wanted to be alone.

I stood up and looked at the windowpaper, which had cycled to a scene of a generic beach in the Equatorials. Sometimes the perspective wasn’t quite right when you turned your head or looked down, and it betrayed the window’s flatness. I turned it off and the glittering green waters vanished.

The platforms and the spherescrapers obstructed any view of Aigh’s surface.

The sky complex had always looked very solid but I felt dizzy anyway, the living room getting smaller and smaller until one of us needed to leave before we crushed each other.

I turned around and walked briskly towards our bedroom.

“I have to finish some work,” I yell. “At the Dome.”


I heard the shake in her voice but I didn’t answer. I took my coat. I heard them speaking Mongolian. I couldn’t block it out. I caught my name riveted by new consonants.

When I returned to the living room, they cut themselves off and looked at me like parents caught in a fight by their child. I wondered if they were talking about whatever it was Tselmeg had called her up for eight years ago or if Erde was trying to find some explanation for what I was doing, which I knew I was going to regret later but right now was overwhelmingly the only thing I wanted to do.

“I thought you took the weekend shift off today,” she said. “For my birthday.”

“Shouldn’t have. Changed my mind.”

It was a stone thrown into the lake and my wife’s face rippled. Tselmeg searched his hands for something to make him disappear.

“At least take us with you,” my wife said.

A stream of Mongolian from Tselmeg accompanied by gestures. I saw how calloused his hands were. Hands that could lash wood together with leather straps one second and deliver a baby animal on the next. Hands that could build a damn house. I had a button-pusher’s hands.

I didn’t care what they were talking about anymore. I sidestepped them and went through the sighing door.

I had hardly taken a step away when the door opened again and Erde burst out, looking angrily at me. Tselmeg followed her, no mistaking the bravely-concealed masculine hurt on his face; I had it all over my face, too. Now that we were all out of the door, awkwardly standing in the hallway, I could only take them to the elevators.

Our platform had an express elevator that went directly to the Dome because we lived with the rest of the management assistants. The last time Erde took an elevator down the Dome, we had been on a date. I was only a climate control programmer then and we had to take the service elevators from platforms downtown. She had never gone down there again since I got into management.

The air warmed up like a sun on standby as we went down. Tselmeg leaned against the rail with his arms crossed and his eyes closed. Erde was between us, looking at our faces one by one, as if ticking the things Tselmeg had that I didn’t. Thick brows, high cheekbones, stubble on the chin. I kept my eyes on the lights telling us the lengths we were dropping but it didn’t help.

I imagined them together in a wilderness like Delgerkhaan, torrid moments on the ground when the steppes fell under a cloud and the sky was an indiscriminate blanket of brightness. The more I thought about it, the more savage the picture became. It was almost as if I needed to see them there.

The elevator juddered a little before it settled. I didn’t say anything as I took them across the underground railstation. A quarter of the workforce was around for the weekend shift but aside from them there wasn’t much to see. It was the same as the rail stations in the atmosphere except the ventilation ducts were colossal and there was muted noise from the drilling rigs and excavators above us. The moment we got into our train, Tselmeg started talking to Erde again in very quiet Mongolian.

It was amazing to think I had once liked the sound of the Human language, particularly this one. I looked at the vacuum-sealed tube outside. Tselmeg was trying to convince my wife of something but she wasn’t answering. We tunneled upsurface to the site I had just barely finished working on a week ago.

I led them through the beige corridors and the galvanized air of a planet being moved and shaken. I opened the airlock doors.

Aigh had never had any proper steppelands. It had taken nearly a year of paperwork and meetings with the right people for me to secure this shred of land at the edge of the Deserts. There was going to be the underland to pay in return for the Head of Biogeography signing this area off as an ecoregional anomaly, but I planned to just deal with it later. I had been too busy worrying about not making it on time for Erde’s birthday because the last shipment of chernozem soil had been delayed – and I had nearly run out of favors to bribe my colleagues with for helping me.

Delgerkhaan was forty-six degrees and thirty-six minutes north and one hundred four degrees and thirty-five minutes east on the face of Earth, a district in Mongolia’s Tov province and a parsec away from where we were standing.

My wife’s lips were parted. On her face was an expression of elation, a childlike wonder at seeing a dream unfold itself into reality, paralleled only by the shock on Tselmeg’s face.

Like specks of dust frozen in a landscape, we looked at the sloping meadows of wild flowers stretching before us. The grasslands dominated, weaving bands of orange, red, yellow and green through each other, but the lakes were coming on to their own too, spreading insistently between weaker patches of shrub and silt, eager to mirror the brilliant sky. In the east was a ridge of mountains, gray and unyielding against the stark blue, but as the day lengthened they relented to the lushness of the grass, letting crests of dark green lap over their foothills. I knew it even better in the evening, when the atmospheric refraction was just right and the sky quietly imploded into red wounds and purple bruises, turning everything underneath black but the glass lakes, which reflected the sky’s bleeding.

Erde was in a picture that someone could have taken if she had gone back to the steppe heartland. I could see from the way the wind picked up her hair so deliberately that she was misplaced in the platforms. If I were to ask if she regretted leaving Earth, the answer could go either way. Her eyes followed the horizon, seeing things I didn’t: liquid outlines of nomads wrapped in furs and rows of yaks carrying the wool and the timber of the yurts, a herdsman with big hands standing next to her, squinting at the sun. I couldn’t look at them both for long without feeling I should leave them alone. But I had forced all three of us here, in the fairest way possible, to make a choice. I was out to see how far I could go.

The crisp wind blew sand into my eyes. I lifted my hand to rub my eyes and Erde looked away and it was over.

“Where’s the toilet?” she asked.

She quickly left through the doors behind us. The moment she was gone, I turned to Tselmeg. “I want to ask you something. I want to know why you called her up eight years ago.”

Tselmeg stared hard at me. Then the grin appeared. It wrinkled his cheeks, made them seem ruddier, but his eyebrows were crossed and it suddenly occurred to me that it was taking him an immense effort to smile at me.

“Surely a man like you who can build a place like this must be intelligent enough to guess,” he said. I realized that the hurt I had seen in him earlier in the apartment had never left. Somewhere in our trip down, it had etched itself into every groove of his face.

I couldn’t control my voice from rising. “What did she say?”

“She said she met you.”

“Is that the same reason you’re here?”

“I would not have any other business here, don’t you think so?” The smile was even fiercer now, as piercing as a sunrise. If he had a more nuanced grasp of the language, he would have made himself sound less desperate. If he had any less strength, he would have already walked away.

“I do not have the capability but I would do something as large as this for her, too.”  He didn’t sound defensive. “I would leave Ulan Bator and return to Delgerkhaan if that is what she wanted.”

In silence we watched the heads of the tall grass sway in the breeze. Tselmeg asked me how we decided where to reintroduce bodies of water to the surface and how we did it. I told him I was a meteorologist and the engineers did ask me about rainfall, but I didn’t know much about their systems. I asked him what he was working on back home and he said some drainage canals in Ulan Bator. The canal banks had eroded and the land leading to the water had been smothered by silt and weeds that blocked the pathways. He was heading one of the overhaul teams.

The dry coldness of the steppes draped on our shoulders. It felt too chilly for my own comfort but Tselmeg relaxed under it. It had taken me a month to get the temperature right.

A hiss behind us and Erde came out, her breath fogging. “Eo, it’s getting cold.”

On the way back to the atmosphere, Tselmeg talked to my wife in Mongolian. Erde gave me glances, concerned I was being left out, but I just listened to the sound of wind going through khag bones.

Outside our apartment, the white-dwarf sun sank into the peach-tinged clouds below us. Tselmeg took his bag from the chair, thanking us and saying he’d spend the night in a travel lodge on a platform nearby. He had made up his mind and an invitation to Uizi for dinner would be an insult, so I gave him a miniaturizer and said it might help with the canal work in Ulan Bator. He took it and said the windowpaper was pretty and I should put it back on again.

My wife took him to the foyer and lay a hand on his elbow. That fierce, sunrise smile on his face again, a spasmodic grip on his bag. He said something but they were too far away for me to hear. The door sighed open, a few footsteps, and he was gone.

Maral-Erdene Otryadyn, yak-racer, yurt-pitcher, left the door to slide shut and turned to me.

To me.


Crystal Koo was born and raised in Manila and has had short stories published in various print and online venues. She is currently working in Hong Kong and maintains a blog at http://swordskill.wordpress.com.


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