Whenever we were bad my mother used to take us to the mall to see Genghis Kahn. They kept him in a dusty diorama of a Mongolian steppe, all tall grass and yurts. He sat on a throne of bone (well, plastic shaped like bone), scowling in incomprehension at the American kids who flocked around him like startled lemmings. My mother would usually push us toward him, saying things like “Tell him what you did to your father’s stamp collection.” Genghis would give a grunt, spit a wad of phlegm onto the tall grass, and give us a wizened, wrinkled grimace, as if he had to go to the bathroom.
He terrified me.
My brother couldn’t get enough of him.
When my brother got caught in my mother’s evening dress, my mother grabbed us both and dragged us to Genghis. It was a slow day, and we were the only kids crowding him. “Tell him what you did,” my mother hissed at him, shoving him toward Genghis. He gave the Kahn a long, slow look, as if his expression were melting onto his face like wax. Genghis scowled, sharpening his dagger with a stone across his knee.
“Why wasn’t I born a girl?” my brother said softly. Genghis continued to sharpen his dagger, his black eyes giving my brother a sly look. He muttered something in Mongolian, spat, and proffered the knife to my brother, as if it were a candy.
“Why would you want to be a girl?” I said. My brother shrugged, gingerly reaching out for the knife with his fingertips. Genghis thrust it back, giving a low snigger.
“You can’t be a girl, you’re a boy,” my mother said, wiping a hand across her eyes. “Look at Mr. Kahn, do you see him complaining he was born a boy?”
“How can you tell, he doesn’t speak English,” my brother said. My mother huffed, turning her face away, as if she didn’t want us to see her cry. The hum of the mall grew dim as Genghis sharpened his knife into the silence between us.
“It’s not fair,” my brother said. “I didn’t ask to be a boy.”
“You don’t ask, you just are,” my mother said. “Now tell Mr. Kahn about what you did.”
My brother gazed at Genghis with wide eyes, looking more like an owl than a boy. “I dressed up like a girl,” he whispered. “It was nice.”
Genghis reached into his pocket, pulled out a stinking piece of dried fish. He took a bite with his yellowed teeth, then offered some to my brother. My brother wrinkled his nose, but took a piece of the fish and brought it to his nose. He sniffed it carefully, then shoved it in his pocket.
“”See, he doesn’t care that I’m a girl,” my brother said. My mother sighed, dragging her fingers through her mousy hair.
“Mr. Kahn,” she said, “tell my son he can’t be a girl.”
Genghis slowly masticated his fish, his black eyes glittering like jade. He spat a mouthful of Mongolian, drawing his knife across his throat.
“See,” Mother said, “now come on, you’ve got homework to do.”
“But—” my brother stuttered as Mother yanked him away from the Kahn.
“No buts, Mister,” she muttered, dragging him through the crowded mall. We passed shops filled to bursting with clothes, shoes, dazed people unsure of where they were going. My brother frowned fiercely, his small face pinched and snarled like a knot begging to be untied.
“I’m a girl,” he said under his breath, “I don’t care what anyone else says.”
Years later, after the police had shut down the Kahn, I sometimes worried that I had imagined the whole thing. No one seemed to remember him, apart from my sister. Katherine had moved to San Francisco with her girlfriend, and she hadn’t spoken to my mother in five years. She still had a fondness for dried fish, and knives. The summer after I finished college I stayed with them for a few weeks, biding my time till I had to join the real world. They lived in a small apartment above a curry shop, and while drowning in the smell of spices I inhaled their premium weed and let my mind go soft to the colors of San Francisco.
“Do you remember Genghis?” I asked Kat one evening. She was slicing onions at the kitchen counter, her hair tied up like a spider’s web atop her head.
“Yeah,” she said, “why?”
“Mom denies she took us to him,” I said. “She says I made it up.”
“He was real,” Kat said, a grim line to her mouth. “I wonder where he is. I wish I could thank him.”
“For not judging me,” Kat said.
“How do you know he didn’t judge you, he only spoke Mongolian!”
“I could tell. It was in his eyes. And he gave me some of his fish that one time.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that.”
Watching Kat scrape the sliced onions into the pan on the stove, I had this sense of double vision. I saw the young woman standing before me, graceful, tall; but I also saw the brother who lived most of his childhood in mud, as scraggly as a coyote. She still had the same mischievous smile, but it was softer, somehow. And I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when that changed for me.
“I wonder where he is now,” I said. “I don’t think you can make a living if all you speak is ancient Mongolian.”“He conquered most of Asia, I’m sure he figured something out.”