I made the short sunny busy lunch hour walk to the Writer’s Union only to be interrupted by a text message from my Mongolian tutor saying she wasn’t coming to give me a lesson because she was outside of Ulaanbaatar. I looked up from my (first purchase in Mongolia, made in the third floor of a zoo-like pre-school circus of temporary indoor booths, probably stolen and made in Hong Kong) cell phone to see a puppy not longer than 8 inches quivering about one foot from the road—and this was a road in Ulaanbaatar at lunch hour, with speeding cars threatening to hit humans every other second—and a concerned schoolgirl of perhaps ten years crouching to get him to try and turn around instead of follow her into the street. I had seen the bodies of this puppy’s brethren all around the city, doll-sized carcasses collecting flies by the side of the road. I asked her in Mongolian of the puppy was hers. She shook her head. We shared concern over his proximity to traffic. Her hair was in two braids. She had on a blue blazer. “He is very small,” she said in English, her v’s sounding like w’s. I asked if there was a place to take animals in Ulaanbaatar. She shook her head. “He is very unlucky,” she said. “Can you take him? I can take him,” I said, with no idea of what I’d be able to do beyond get him away from the fatal street for a time. Suddenly her group of friends was upon us, all in blue blazers and each holding an orange popsicle, cooing at the puppy as the traffic tore through the intersection. “He needs a bath,” my little friend said. The girls thanked me for taking him and I set off with my sudden cargo.
I could feel the bulge of parasites in the puppy’s belly underneath his ribcage like a tar bubble. He was too exhausted to be more than one or two licks of affectionate before falling asleep immediately in my arms, digging his snout into his paws in the crook of my elbow. He couldn’t have been more than two pounds. Suddenly out of my memory came a philosophy professor in college reminding us that doing good deeds rewarded the giver with good, benevolent feeling. As I walked along I received the prolonged glances people give to passersby with small animals or babies, stranger than usual—not just white and dressed in tennis shoes and blue jeans instead of tight skirts and heels, but toting a dirty, tiny puppy whom the mother of any of these staring teenagers would not have let past the front door. I’d thought to head to the Asia Foundation and do some work on the computer, but I was the only person in the Asia Foundations guests apartment. The owner was coming by in the evening to clean, but I had a few hours in the afternoon. I could at least feed him.
He emitted grumbles which I could not decipher—either tummy grumbles of hunger or of parasites upsetting his innards, or little groans. He was too tired to be curious about the apartment, either. For a while I lay in the sofa with him on my chest, listening to the nearby sounds of construction and wondering if raising a small thing like a baby is a succession of unbelievably busy moments punctuated by ones like these, watching scudding clouds above the stalin-era apartment blocks, feeling the creature breathe through my shirt and sink into puppy sleep, twitching incessantly and breathing deeply. It was one of those off-the-record moments. Not much happened.
I warmed milk in a pan and poured it into a saucer. I woke him and put him before the milk, wondering if I would have to do anything else, but I didn’t. He drank, sometimes licking the plate and not the milk; he didn’t seem to have much of a sense of things, he just found something good to lap and lapped all over. I wiped some milk off his ears with my hands, petting him a while, then stood and brought him out to the draughty stairwell with a rag from the bathroom. I put him down in the rag outside the door, figuring that if inebriated homeless people could find their way inside the stairwell as they do in the winter that a puppy might do so without anyone’s help and no one would come blaming me. But a Mongolian who’d been here longer than two weeks might have a better idea than I what to do. I looked behind me as I closed the door; he gone to the top of the steps and looked as though he might descend. A few minutes later I checked through my door peephole again; there was a small fluid stain soaking into the cement where he’d been standing and he’d gone back to the rag, which was sensible; the cement was cold. He was nosing into the rag looking for a cleft in the pice of fabric that he could nuzzle into before falling back asleep.
Late that evening I came back and he is asleep on the rag, urine spots at various points around him. I feel guilty admitting that the next day I heard an angry rapping on the door and the puppy crying and I was too afraid to open up. When I came out later he was gone.