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9 December 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 11:28am

The White Gods

A new short story by leading British thriller writer Lawrence Osborne. 

By Lawrence Osborne

Taylor Mildred woke before his wife that morning, a hundred miles from Dalanzadgad near the Gurvan range, and found a fire burning in the open-air pit they had built the night before. The guides were awake too and drinking tea around their DVD player, watching Mr Right in Chinese with Mongolian subtitles. Their fingers glistened with butter. A thermos of hot coffee had appeared on the tarpaulin next to his bed, and after putting on his desert boots, he took it outside to the hearth and sipped from it with the heat of the fire at his back. No dreams, no symbols in the night. He felt washed clean in some way, having benefited from those hours far from the world and its vaudevilles. The snow from the night before had melted away. A faint light bore down upon the plain. His wife and daughter were still asleep and the wind had calmed a little, though countless blades of grass trembled in unison, forming the illusion of a herbaceous sea.

He took the thermos with him and walked, stretching shoulder blades cramped by a rough sleep, and when he had woken up a little, he wondered at scores of pieces of flat rock scattered around their camp and extending as far as a small tumulus a hundred yards to their east. They were inscribed with images clearly made by humans. Men with spears, or stars and moons broken into fragments. Here and there, an oblong stele of the same stone, as high as his waist.

“A graveyard,” Ider the guide had told him the night before around the fire, explaining the mounds of dark violet and slate-coloured stones, three millennia silent, which lay around them undisturbed by centuries of high winds.

The American had not quite believed him until that very moment. Now he saw that their horses had moved quietly away from the graves. He made a mental note to tell Hannah later; his daughter Rosalind would find it amusing as well. Who knew that horses sensed such things? He strolled over to the animals and petted them just as the sun appeared at the flat horizon. They were slightly spooked, he could tell, and their nostrils flared. It was probably just their horror at being petted by a television producer.

He went to Rosalind’s tent and gently woke her from the enchanted sleep of 12-year-olds. He placed her pair of cream Guidi hiking boots by her head and whispered into her ear: “It’s sunny outside, get up!”

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They had breakfast as a family by the firepit with the tents flapping around them. Warm days in the Gobi, he reminded Hannah, cold nights. But the mornings were somehow even colder than the nights.

It was exactly what he had promised them for their Gobi adventure. The three men accompanying them from the Gobi Sands company made them buckwheat pancakes with sour milk and American coffee, as he had prescribed. Millionaires on private trips can determine all the smallest details; they can afford months of preparatory riding tuition on their own ranch in Rancho Santa Fe. We’re all three of us cowboys now, he thought with satisfaction, as he watched the small horses being saddled out in the sunlight.

Rosalind was now in her pretty boots, in the fox fur hat the staff had given her as a welcoming present at the lodge a week earlier. Her long hair had been brushed out to form auburn streams that ran down her shoulders on either side. Her mother, in a lavish Shetland rollneck and suede boots of her own, stylish even a hundred miles from the nearest town, brushed away a strand from her daughter’s ear. In the heat of the fire their faces had become pink. The pancakes gave them an additional inner heat. Rosalind said that she had slept badly. She had got up in the middle of the night and wandered out through the graveyard.

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“You did?” her mother said.

“I picked up a stone and brought it back with me.”

Taylor glanced over at the Mongolians, hoping that they hadn’t overheard.

“You know,” he said to his daughter, “you are not supposed to do that. Shall we go and put it back?”

“Why?”

“Because, honey… it just isn’t done.”

“It’s just a stone.”

“Then why did you pick it up in the first place?”

“It has a picture of a sun on it. It’s so pretty. I was going to take it home and show my friends…”

“I understand. It’s not a bad idea. But we can’t.”

The girl sulked, rolling her eyes.

“Why don’t you ask Ider if I can?”

“I’m not saying anything to him. He’ll be angry. We are going to go out, you and me, and put it back where you got it from.”

The stone she had taken was about the size of her palm. It was worn smooth by the elements and yet the image of the sun was still gracefully clear, but bent and irregular in some way. She passed it to her father reluctantly and he took it without saying anything to the guides. They had been instructed to not disturb anything inside the graveyard, however insignificant it might seem. Graveyards were property of the state.

The mound graves where Rosalind had found it lay upon the small tumulus, reached by a path worn into the hill’s surface. From there, at a modest elevation, father and daughter wandered among the steles and mounds as the sun’s rays crossed the plain and turned it a pale, icy gold. But Rosalind could not remember where exactly she had found the stone. There were hundreds of pieces lying about on the flat top of the hillock. He tossed it randomly on to one and told her not to mention it to anyone. They then walked back to the camp.

“Does it matter,” she said, “that you threw it on to the wrong grave?”

“How do we know it wasn’t the right one?”

They laughed together and for a moment he took her hand and swung it playfully. At the camp, Ider was waiting for them.

“I saw you went up there last night,” he said to Rosalind. “Did you sleep better afterwards?”

“I did.”

The guide was a palaeontology graduate, unlike the two others who were local nomads who hired themselves out to the lodge during the tourist season. His English was perfect, honed at school in Oregon.

“Shall we go see some dinosaurs then?” Ider said.

They rode on five horses due north-east for three hours, passing through arroyos thick with sagebrush and nitre bushes. Over the steppes of feathergrass herds of black horses switched and ran with the nervousness of swarming birds. By midday it was almost warm, the wintry air transformed by sun.

***

In the foothills of the Gurvan they came into the shadows of desert cliffs. They stopped for the daily picnic and the freezing shots of Chinggis vodka that the Americans were slowly getting used to, knocked back with cucumber sandwiches and buuz dumplings. Here in the foothills, Ider explained to them, he and his professor had found a rare fragment of a Tarbosaurus. His professor had made his name with it.

They climbed up one of the hills, dry as solidified ash. Taylor and Hannah hung behind the other four and the tensions between them that had paralysed their marriage over the preceding months began to loosen. The many problems with Rosalind at school and in therapy had begun to seem more distant. Was California, Hannah now thought to herself, really the right place for them at this stage in their lives?

“She seems happier here,” she said aloud, gazing after Rosalind as she scampered ahead with Ider. “I wonder why. Maybe it’s being away from school. Away from social media.”

“She’s at a difficult age. A tender age.”

Bullshit, she thought.

Instead she said, “We must have involved her in all our arguments. It’s been bad for her. We really shouldn’t.”

“Well, we agreed on that before didn’t we?”

“You just need to spend more time with her. Give your career a break for a change. Try it.”

He nodded, to avoid a spat. “You’re probably right. I’ve been selfish, a little absent.” But then, he thought simultaneously, I brought her here for her birthday, didn’t I? It could be worse.

That night, a Soviet era UAZ van arrived at camp from the distant lodge with three young girls and a sound system manned by three boys of the same age. They were dancers from a local school. With light projected against the tumulus, they danced to traditional music in white deerskin boots and headdresses. A trestle table had been set up and a meal of mutton korkhoz with hot stones from the lodge kitchen was served with vodka and lemonade. The boys played moorin khur fiddles in a gritty wind that drowned them out. Soon they were all drunk. The girls and boys danced together.

“Terrific,” Taylor shouted at no one in particular, “simply terrific!” He too was drunk, as Hannah noticed with disgust.

He began dancing with Ider, throwing up his arms like a ballerina. Hannah, however, began to tire of the whole charade. A full moon, an out-of-control husband. Surely there were better things in life. She suggested to Rosalind that they retire.

Once they were in their sleeping bags next to each other, they read a few pages of The Hobbit together, then turned off the lamp and listened to the fading party.

“Mummy, did you hear wolves last night?”

“Wolves?”

“Ider said there were wolves. I heard them. I think they woke me up.”

“They don’t come near humans darling.”

Though, as she said this, Hannah was not entirely sure if it was true. She lay awake for a long time turning it over in her mind. Her daughter was highly sensitive, attuned to things that many people did not notice. Maybe even wolves. She had a slightly autistic predisposition in that respect. It was entirely possible that she had, in fact, heard wolves in the far distance. Hannah strained to hear them now. The music outside had been cut and all she could hear were the eternally soughing desert gales that picked up at night as the skies cleared with a hard starlight. Neither she nor Rosalind heard Taylor crash into his own berth much later. He was too drunk to stay awake for longer than a few seconds.

***

When Rosalind started back into consciousness a few hours later, she realised at once, without needing to verify it, that she was the only one in the camp awake. She sat up quickly and found her back drenched with sweat. Her face was damp and feverish.

Outside their tent the land was lit up by moonlight as if by stationary flares. In that white glare the rocks threw shadows as brilliant as the light itself. The staff were asleep in their tent, snoring audibly through the fabric walls. Closer to their tent she saw a longer shadow over the gravel. It was cast by a girl standing a few feet from the tent ropes. A girl who had appeared out of nowhere, it seemed, but perhaps she had come with the Soviets and been left behind in the course of the drunken revelry.

She wore a leather dress which might have been traditional, with string sandals, her hair tied up in a coil on top of her head and held in place with coloured ribbons. In the bright light she looked pale, but her arms and hands were tattooed.

“Did you come with the dancers?” Rosalind asked.

Yet the girl put a finger to her lips to make Rosalind stay quiet. Then, as if indicating something tremendously obvious, she pointed up towards the moon. Her face seemed for a moment to slip out of focus. Rosalind turned at a slight sound behind her and saw the horses shying away from herself.

Stung by the cold air on her face a few hours later, Hannah rolled over and threw a hand towards her sleeping daughter, but found the sleeping bag flaccidly empty. She sat up and called out Rosalind’s name. Outside, through the zippered fabric door, she could sense the onset of colder weather. It was snowing. Lightly, but with effect.

Pulling on her boots, she thrust herself outside into a world whitened with swirling flakes. The horizon was no longer clear and even the nearby tumulus was shrouded by the slow-motion downpour.

She called to Rosalind, her voice falling flat in the snowscape. In her unconscious she already felt her daughter’s calamitous absence. She walked as far as the tumulus and called again, but the girl was not there. She walked back to the staff tent and saw that they were all still asleep, so Rosalind could not have departed somewhere with one of them. There were still five horses shivering in the snow. She went to her husband and woke him.

“Get up, you drunkard. Your daughter has gone off somewhere.”

When he didn’t rouse himself, she emptied a small bottle of mineral water on to his face.

Abruptly, commotion and panic began.

“Was that really necessary?” he snarled, as if admitting that it was.

Taylor ran to the staff tent and shouted at them as well. They quickly ascertained that the Guidi suede boots were missing. So Rosalind must have taken off in them. But there were no tracks in the snow. Ider, severely hungover, staggered outside and looked about in a wide circle around the tents. There were not even footprints.

He called to the lodge on the satellite phone and then to a nomad camp ten miles to the south. They were the only people to have such a phone that he knew. Tending their herds over vast distances, they would be the most likely to find her if she was lost.

But already, seeing the thickening snow, a terrifying premonition had entered Ider’s mind. How long would she last in these conditions? He rode out with the parents in a frantic circumnavigation of the camp. An hour passed, and at the end of it the snow finally cleared. A blue sky bathed the horizons. Then they understood the obvious: Rosalind had simply disappeared.

Exasperated and stunned, they came to a standstill while Hannah began screaming at the steppe. They dismounted for a while and Ider talked on the phone. Rosalind had not walked back to the lodge, which would in any case have been a remarkable feat. The nomads were looking for her further away from the camp, out in the plains.

Hannah took Taylor aside and whispered to him. “What if – it’s the nomads who are the problem?”

“What?”

“They could have done anything. Hasn’t that occurred to Ider?”

But Taylor could not see how they could suggest such a vile thing to the young Mongolian without insulting his people. Yet still – instantaneously, through no volition of his own – the idea turned poisonously inside his mind. A young girl alone and powerless out on the steppes. Who was he to say they wouldn’t have touched her?

On the ride back, he filled with rage. He talked with the lodge manager on the phone and gave his suspicions free rein.

“Who are these nomads?” he kept shouting.

***

At length a Land Cruiser arrived from the lodge with the manager himself, David Batbayar. He was a Mongol-American entrepreneur whose clientele included movie stars and Silicon Valley barons. Large, but rarely seen at the lodge he ran, he blustered and soothed like a pro. He knew Americans and how to handle them. Suave, yet also terrified at the prospect of a scandal, Batbayar tried to calm the Mildreds down. Management had decided, he explained, to wait before calling the police in Dalanzadgad.

But as they were talking, the satellite phone rang. The manager’s face shone with relief. The nomads out by an old Soviet military base an hour’s drive from the camp said they had found Rosalind asleep in one of its abandoned radio sheds. She was alive and entirely unharmed.

“There. Didn’t I tell you? Thank Tengri!” the manager beamed.

At the abandoned communications base, a nomad on an ancient motorbike appeared. An old man in second-hand military fatigues; he had waited for them patiently. The girl, he said, was still asleep and he could not wake her. Hannah rushed in to find her. Rosalind was asleep without her boots on and in a pile of yellowing Russian newspapers, wrapped in a leather gown of some kind and beneath it completely naked. When her mother kissed her face, Rosalind opened her eyes and smiled. She had no memory of how she came to be there, or where her clothes had gone.

Back in the security of permanent ger tents with stone foundations and hot water, Hannah and Taylor had dinner that night with their daughter alone in the lodge restaurant. The snow beyond the windows was now an onslaught and the steppe had apparently entered its Siberian winter.

“And you really can’t remember how you got there?” Hannah asked Rosalind, who was eating shovel-loads of dumplings.

“Nothing.”

“But you got up in the middle of the night? And went for a walk?”

“She must have been sleepwalking,” Taylor said peremptorily.

“My God.”

The tears rolling down Hannah’s face seemed to go unnoticed.

“It’s all right Mummy, nothing happened.”

“But where are your Guidi boots for heaven’s sake?”

“I must have lost them.”

“How could you have lost them?”

The girl burst into a dry laugh.

“I’m so glad I lost them!”

Taylor noticed that something in his daughter had changed. There was something subtly glossy about her face. Her eyelashes seemed to have grown a little longer, though it was impossible. Surely he was imagining it. Yet it was undeniable that Rosalind’s parents barely seemed to recognise her now. She had never before eaten with such an appetite. In some indefinable way, her sweetness had altered. Trauma, he thought bitterly. It must have been the trauma she had suffered. But what had been the trauma?

Later, he lay in the ger with Hannah while Rosalind slept in the unit next door. There was something wrong with her, he insisted to his wife.

“Thank God she’s alive,” Hannah hissed. “If you hadn’t been so drunk, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Me?”

“You were too drunk to wake up when she did.”

And you? he thought. Did you wake up, tediously sober as you were?

In his own ger, meanwhile, Ider lit incense sticks that night and prayed to the Bodhisattva Migjid Janraisig.

He too had noticed the newfound strangeness in the American girl. Like Taylor, his mind had turned inexorably to dark theories. Yet he put them aside. In his dreams he met a shaman and followed her out into the desert where they talked about the matter. The shaman told him not to trust Rosalind, nor any of the others, nor to speak to them as frankly as he usually did. The girl was not who he thought she was, the shaman opined. She was an imposter, a facsimile of a girl. She crouched in the sand and plunged a hand into the soil and lifted it up, letting the grains fall through her fingers. She said, “You should never have let that fool come here, that man from afar. It was a mistake. You should have her exorcised. In the Lord Buddha is our salvation.”

***

In the morning he suggested to the Mongolian staff and to the manager that they should indeed call in a shaman and have Rosalind properly exorcised. He would explain it to the Americans and ask them if they approved.

“A shaman?” Taylor burst out when Ider told him his plan.

“You are sceptical, Mr Mildred. But it will work. It will bring back her memory.”

“Rubbish. It’s vile.”

“But,” Hannah said quietly to Taylor, “with this snow we can’t go anywhere. We could try it, unless you have a better option?”

Try it?”

“We’re not going to find a doctor out here. Are we?”

For a fleeting moment he wondered if Hannah was losing her bearings in a way that was not entirely dissimilar to the disorientation of their daughter. Local spirits had made them temporarily their playthings.

As if on cue, and to Ider’s surprise, Hannah then told her husband he shouldn’t be so contemptuous of local beliefs.

“Me?” he hissed. “Contemptuous of local beliefs?”

“It might work in some way,” she stammered. “Let’s be open-minded, shall we?”

“Are you serious?”

“It won’t hurt her, Taylor. It might even heal her a little…”

“No.”

But the boo did come at seven in the evening, obstinately summoned by Ider. He was a man who lived alone in the desert 40 miles away. Over 80 years old and covered with moles, but possessing the sparkling mysterious health of the steppes. He arrived on a motorbike with bags stuffed full of herbs, dressed in a long dark scarlet tunic decorated with severed eagle heads, and fox furs draped over his back. He was a “black shaman” antagonistic to Buddhism, not a “yellow” or Buddhist-friendly one. His was the old religion of the hunting tribes of the north. But Taylor refused to see him and refused to let him anywhere near his daughter. He packed $50 into the man’s hand and told him to leave.

“That intruding spirit is not a member of the 55 white gods,” the boo said in Mongolian, “nor one of the 44 black gods. Nor is she of the 77 earth mothers.”

Yes, Ider thought, the white gods. He had forgotten about this lore during his years as a Westernised graduate student.

Taylor turned to Ider with a jovial sneer.

“What’s he saying?”

“He’s saying he cannot help you.”

 “Thank God for that then. We don’t need his help. Tell him to bugger off.”

Ider said to the boo, “The foreigner thanks you humbly and asks you to bear him in mind.”

The Mildreds had another family dinner that night and Hannah remarked that they were now the only guests at the lodge.

“We scared them off,” Taylor joked, now in a much better mood. Rosalind gazed out at the plain and her eyes seemed to have changed colour slightly. They had a pinch of greyness in them now.

“It’s better that way,” Rosalind said slowly. “I’m glad we scared them off.”

“I asked the manager,” Taylor said, “if we can drive back to the capital tomorrow. I think it’d be best, no?”

“What’s the capital?”

“Why, the capital city, darling. Don’t you remember it?”

Rosalind shook her head.

“Does it have people?”

Hannah and Taylor exchanged an anxious glance.

“Don’t you remember us taking the airplane at the airport last week?

“Airport?”

“Where planes land and fly out of.”

She’s like a three-year-old again, Taylor thought, gritting his teeth. She’s lost
her mind.

“Your grandma will be happy to see you again,” he tried gently.

“Grandma?”

Hannah’s eyes filled with tears and she began to choke quietly.

“Let’s forget today and go to sleep,” she said. “Let’s forget all about it.”

At a loss for once, Taylor put down his fork and reached for the Chinese wine set on the table. His daughter was eclipsed to him, to them, and yet she seemed delighted with everything.

On his way out of the grounds an hour earlier, the irritated and disrespected boo had been lightly accosted once again by Ider, who wanted to know what he really thought.

“I told you, she’s possessed,” the old man said bluntly, as though it was a stupid question. “But there’s nothing I can do about it. White gods, my ass.”

***

Ider thought over the previous two days. He had said nothing about seeing Rosalind walk to the tumulus that night because he wanted to preserve the trust and discretion that existed between him and the wealthy foreign clients. It was a delicate balance. He had kept it to himself, in fact, for a number of reasons. He had seen her steal a funerary rock from the graveyard and bring it back with her to the camp. She was so innocent that he’d had no choice but to be gentle with her. And, indeed, when he went out to greet her a little way from the camp, he had been very gentle with her. He had merely asked to see the stone and she had handed it over for inspection willingly. It had a prehistoric sun drawn upon it, but a curious one. Its edge was uneven, suggesting the depiction of an eclipse. “You know,” he said to her, “you’ll have to put it back tomorrow.”

The following morning, he had watched Taylor toss the rock randomly among the others. There, Ider knew, lay the problem. The grave had been disturbed and not restored to its original condition. All along, it had filled him with dread, though he had said nothing openly. He could have replaced the stone himself, he supposed, but something had held him back. A subtle fear, an uncertainty. Now the Americans were anxious to be gone, understandably enough. They wanted to get their wounded daughter to a psychiatrist as soon as possible – it was the Californian way. The family had wanted to abandon those ways for a while at least, but as soon as a problem arose, they reverted back to them in a heartbeat.

It was with uncustomary alacrity therefore that Ider organised the two cars that would drive the family back to Ulan Bator. Though for different reasons, he too wanted them gone as soon as possible. He had begun to feel that their presence violated a sacred space. They had blundered into a world whose supernatural rules they didn’t understand and they had disturbed its elegant balance. Perhaps the girl would regain her memory when she was back among civilisation’s comforts, but now he neither knew nor cared.

There was a solemn departure ceremony, as was standard for guests. Taylor simmered with some undeclared anger which he had not given full expression. Was he feeling a guilt which his conscious mind could not understand? This was the most generous assessment Ider could come up with.

“We’re sorry for the unfortunate episode,” Ider said to him as they shook hands a little coldly.

Taylor said nothing but directed a look of contempt at his spouse, and perhaps also at himself.

 “I’m sure Rosalind will feel better soon,” Ider said beseechingly. But neither man believed it.

Ider watched their Land Cruiser recede to the horizon among the wild camels, then resolved to put them out of his mind as best he could. Instead, he brooded alone inside his ger. He drank heavily in order to clear his mind rather than to numb it. It was his duty, he began to realise, to restore the grave to its original state. The state that its creators had long ago intended. That was the least he could do in the circumstances, and his mood had changed, he had found the courage to do it.

Accordingly, he rose early the morning after the Americans had left and drove out to the dismantled camp armed with a shovel and a few tools. The snow had finally cleared and the ground was hard, compacted with ice. They had packed the tents at the camp but had not yet transported them back to the lodge. He climbed up to the tumulus and began sifting through the rocks, brushing off the snow, until he had found the rock that Rosalind had so thoughtlessly purloined. It was so unusual that it could hardly be missed even among so many others. He had himself mapped out the grave site as part of his conservation mandate from the lodge, and so he knew which grave it had come from. He replaced it gingerly and sat down beside it to pray for the angered soul of the occupant.

Yet a wild and sacrilegious idea had taken hold of him during the previous restless night. As he prayed, he found himself asking the occupant forgiveness for what he was about to do. It was the white gods, he explained, who had asked him to do it. He waited until it was high noon, the sky cold and petrol blue as Tengri, the sky god, had designed it, and then dug into the grave with his shovel until he had reached the level where the ancient skeleton lay. Soon, he had found it. It was almost intact, as if it had been buried only a few months earlier, the bones obviously those of a young girl. Yet the earth around it seemed fresh, as if someone else had clawed away at it recently.

He stood there breathless, staring down at this proof that his hunch had been correct, before renewing his efforts and reversing his excavation with great lunges of the shovel. The grave was restored exactly as it had been before. He then laid the stone with the sun image upon it, prayed again and sat by the grave through the afternoon waiting for the sun to dip to the horizon and the wind to turn savage. He let it hit him. He lit a carbide lamp and sat vigil by the desecrated grave, no longer sure in his own mind who it was who was buried there, nor who the girl was who had left with the Americans the day before. l

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist, short story writer and screenwriter based in Bangkok. His most recent novel is “The Glass Kingdom” (Hogarth)

[See also: In Memory of Fly the Cat]

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special