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Mangasokhin didn’t have any memory of celebrating Tsagaan Sar before. She had only six little years under her belt, and the winter months on the steppe all tended to condense together in her mind. A dark blur of a hundred days spent bundled behind the painted door of the ger with Mother, Father, and dried mutton.
Naadam, yes. She knew Naadam came in the glaring blue summer with horseracing, music, and games. Many families met for the festival, bringing dozens of children for her to run with. Last year her mother’s team won the archery competition. Mangasokhin remembered her very well, grinning in her shining green and yellow deel—a precious garment she kept tucked away and reserved for special occasions. Mother didn’t smile so often, and Mangasokhin had been very happy to see it.
“You don’t remember the New Year feast, silly girl?” her father asked, squinting at her skeptically as he shoveled manure from the paddocks. “All the food and drink? It’s a great day.”
“No…” Mangasokhin burrowed her nose into her lumpy fleece collar, her cheeks stinging in the ceaseless, brittle wind.
“See, today is Bittun, the night of the dark moon just before Tsagaan Sar,” he said. “We must make everything fresh and tidy. Your mother is cleaning the whole ger today. You should groom the goats. And your pony. Tonight we’ll light candles and put blocks of ice by the door so Palden Lhamo will visit and bless our house. His horse will lick and drink the ice to let us know he’s been here. Tomorrow we’ll have a big dinner at grandfather’s ger. Even your cousins are coming from their winter camp to pay their respects to him.”
Mangasokhin listened with wide eyes. It sounded wonderful. How could she not remember something like that?
“Child, where is your hat?” her mother’s voice reached them from the door of their round felt hut.
Mangasokhin turned and shrugged.
“Ugh,” her mother grunted, disappearing and returning with the fur cap. She jammed it down around Mangasokhin’s naked ears and wiped her running nose. “It’s too cold out here for you to be standing still. Help your father with the animals.”
She fished a hard brush from her father’s bag, grabbed a goat, and began knocking dirt and knots of ice from its legs.
“Good,” her mother nodded. “Ganbaatar, she doesn’t know because she was sick last year, remember? And too little before that.”
“Ah. Was that at Tsagaan Sar? That terrible cough?”
“Yes, it was awful bad luck for a New Year. Everyone said so. I thought we were going to lose her, too.” Mangasokhin peeked up from her work with the goat in time to see her mother’s broad face harden, the two ruddy flares of color on her cheeks draining away.
“Shh, Oyuuna. Stop saying that. Not this one. Not anymore.”
The next day, her mother made so many buuz Mangasokhin couldn’t count them. They packed the dumplings into a huge covered dish to take to grandfather’s. She steamed rice with sweet yogurt curds and fried boortsog biscuits. The ger smelled so good it made their mouths water, but Mother wouldn’t let them touch anything before the feast. Instead, Mangasokhin skipped outside to check the ice blocks. Deep divots had been lapped out of them. Palden Lhamo had come in the night!
They packed everything up and made a short trek across the rock hard permafrost to a large hut sheltered by a rare outcropping that served as a natural windbreak.
A string of unfamiliar shaggy ponies stood hobbled outside of grandfather’s ger, their tall painted saddles jingling with silver.
Inside, it was hot and loud. Mangasokhin buzzed with excitement to see so many people. They were all saying kind things to grandfather, touching his elbow reverently. Food and gifts of fine fabric piled up around the glistening centerpiece of a whole grilled sheep.
“Ganbaatar, Oyuunchimeg! You look well! Are you living peacefully?” people unknown to Mangasokhin all shouted when they entered.
“Oh, yes, it’s been a surprisingly plentiful year,” her father answered for all of them. “Are you living peacefully?”
Gradually, Mangasokhin learned or re-learned the place of each of these newcomers, relatives who lived many pastures away. They ate until they could eat no more, the grown-ups drank airag and vodka, and the youth gulped buttered salt tea until they were as wired as the men were drunk. Her father challenged any unwitting fool who made eye contact with him to chess.
“What’s your name?” Mangasokhin asked a cousin about her own age as soon as she got the chance.
“Enkhtuyaa,” she replied. “You can call me Enkha. That’s for my friends to call me.”
“That’s very pretty.” The word meant ray of peace, a nice proper name. And Mangasokhin was pleased to be considered a friend so quickly.
“What’s yours?” Enkha smiled.
“Mangasokhin,” she muttered back, burying her mouth in a bowl of tea.
“Ew, what? Monster girl?” Enkha repeated. “That’s a gross name! Your parents must not like you very much.”
“They like me,” Mangasokhin scowled, knowing perfectly well her name was ugly.
“Quiet, and be kind,” Enkha’s mother intervened, swatting her on the shoulder. “Her parents had to name her something bad because all her older brothers and sisters died.”
“Oh. Sorry,” Enkha offered. “Do you want to see my pony?”
“Sure,” Mangasokhin’s agreed, but her good spirits had cooled considerably.
“Mother, why do I have to have such a bad name?” she asked late that night as they prepared for bed.
Her mother sighed. “We gave your brothers and sisters proud, beautiful names, but they were all taken from us before you were born. None of them lived even to five years old. Two died as little babies. Their names were strong, by they weren’t. They were easily pulled away by sickness and bad fortune.”
She tucked the old quilt around her daughter’s shoulders and sat back on her heels.
“Sometimes it’s better to trick the winds of luck. Spirits of fate might look at a girl named Altantsegtseg and decide ‘Golden Flower? How vain. I should take her down a notch.’ But they would skim right past one called ‘No Name’ or ‘Bad Dog,’ thinking the child of no value, not worth taking from her family. We named you as we did because you’re our last hope, and we love you so much. The world will overlook you, and that will give you all the time you need to grow into someone great.
”Goodnight, my monster.”