Authors: Alan Armstrong
This book is for Devin. It owes its life to
Kate Klimo, Alfred Hart, and Martha Armstrong.
I owe mine to the original for Dr. Hornaday.
How many miles to Babylon?
Ten, if your legs be long.
—child’s game song
On the Gobi
“Here’s the scale,” said Mark, setting it down on the kitchen table. He looked worried.
“Thanks, Mark,” his father said, ruffling the boy’s hair.
“That’s all you’re taking … for
Mark asked as his father juggled a plastic bag from hand to hand, weighing pocketknives, tweezers, and magnifying glasses. He tossed the bag on the pile to pack.
His father smiled and nodded. “The guide who’ll be taking me in said I should pack light, twenty pounds max. It’ll be on my back the whole time, he said. I’ve gotta be able to jump quick when my camel stumbles.”
Mark’s father was leaving the next day to go to the Gobi Desert. The name sounded scary to Mark.
“Everything I need I’ll carry on my back,” his
father continued. “The guide said if I could manage more, I should plan on carrying extra water. Never enough of that on the desert.”
He was a tall man with thick dark hair that was going gray. His long face was weathered, his eyes striking blue. He carried himself like a soldier. He taught anthropology and studied how the desert herders lived—personal, everyday things like what they made and used, how they washed, their jokes and songs, what they ate. Mark was entranced by his father’s stories, especially the ones about kids growing up on the desert.
Mark had eyes like his father. At eleven, he was small for his age and subject to wheezing. He figured he was nowhere near as brave as his dad.
“Can’t you take a Jeep?” Mark wanted to know. When he and his mother had gone with him to study the Native American herders in Arizona, they’d traveled by Jeep.
“Nope. No roads, no gas stations—there’s nothing out there,” his father explained. “Besides, my project is to meet and live with the desert people like Marco Polo did. I’ll be traveling with the herders, sleeping in their yurts—the round tents they fold up and move as they follow the flock. All around there’ll be empty space, nothing but sand and sometimes thornbush.”
Mark stared at his father. The man acted like he
was glad it was going to be hard, like it was a test he was eager to take. It bothered Mark that he wasn’t tough like that.
“What if you need something?” the boy asked.
“I’ll trade for it if they have it,” his father said, “stuff like the fat they mix with the boiled juice of special roots and put on their faces like sunblock.”
“Won’t they take money?” Mark asked.
“Desert people don’t trust money unless it’s gold. No place to spend it. They trade their weavings and dried meat and hides for things like metal pots and tools.”
“What will you trade with?” Mark asked. “The knives and stuff in that bag?”
“No. Those are presents. I’ll trade with salt. Desert people always need salt.”
“You mean you’re going to pay for your food and everything with
the boy asked.
“I probably won’t have to pay for food,” his father replied. “I’ll be their guest. Mongol herders on the Gobi don’t have much, but they share what they have—even with a stranger.”
He reached in his pocket and brought out two gold coins, each the size of a thumbnail. “English sovereigns,” he said. “I’ll carry them in the heels of my boots for an emergency. Everybody loves gold.”
Mark watched his father roll his things into tight sausages and stuff them into the backpack: khaki shirts and pants, underwear, the silk T-shirt and long johns
that would serve for pajamas, wool socks, a broad-brimmed canvas hat with a flap to cover the back of his neck.
“How come you squish everything up like that?” the boy asked.
“Roll your stuff tight, get the air out, saves space,” his father said as he added a Swiss Army knife, a compass, ballpoint pens, matches, pouches of salt, aspirin, a sewing kit, and pads of lightweight paper to his pack.
He stood back.
“That’s it?” the boy asked.
“Yup. Let’s see what it weighs.”
Mark lifted the pack and put it on the scale. “Nineteen and a half pounds,” he read.
“Good,” said his father. “We’ll top it off with the trinkets and my maps.”
“No books?” Mark asked. “No flashlight, no radio?”
“Nope,” said his father, stuffing in the packet of maps. “Batteries don’t last long, and they’re heavy. As for books, I won’t have time to read.
“I’ve got one for you, though,” he said, handing Mark a worn paperback.
“The Travels of Marco Polo.
I’ll be going where he went, traveling the way he traveled. Until a hundred years ago, Marco’s account was
the best we had of the Gobi. I marked for you what he said about where I’ll be.”
The cover showed a young man struggling to hold the lead of a snarling camel in front of a squat, fierce-looking Mongol warrior in battle gear.
“Marco and Kublai Khan,” his father explained. “Kublai is the emperor Marco went to meet and ended up having to help for almost twenty years.”
He fastened the pack straps. “I’ll write when I can,” he said. “I hope you and Mom will write me a lot. Every week or so the agency in Venice that’s arranged my trip will send someone out from their base near the desert. I’d love to hear from you.”
Mark frowned. “How will they know where you are?”
“They know the grazing routes and where we’ll stop for water. They know about how fast the animals move, so they’ll always have some idea of where I am. They’ll find me, don’t worry. I’ll be out there studying the nomads and looking for hints and traces of Marco Polo. Sleuthing beats sightseeing.”
Mark nodded slowly and stared at the book in his hands. The rope Marco was holding ran through a hole in the camel’s nose. The wild-eyed animal had thrown back his head and bared his teeth. Marco looked scared. Kublai looked angry. What if his father met up
with someone like that who made him stay for years? He didn’t like the idea of his father going off with almost nothing to a place where there wasn’t even a gas station.
* * *
His father left the next day. He called when he got to Venice. Ten days later Mark and his mother got a packet of letters from him.
They wrote every other day and waited impatiently for him to answer, joking about eating grilled goat and washing with sand. After a month without any letters, they stopped joking. His mother didn’t say so, but Mark could tell she was worried. And Mark was having bad dreams about being lost in a sandy wasteland.
I know you won’t get this, but Mom’s making us go to Venice to find you. She says in Marco Polo’s time it was the greatest city in Europe. Maybe, but it means we’re going to miss all the Christmas stuff here. My pack weighs nineteen pounds even with the boots Mom says I have to take because Venice is wet and mucky. It sounds really lousy. I hope we find you.
“Look, Mark!” Mark’s mother stopped.
He looked where she pointed, across the canal at the large reddish figure of a camel mounted over a doorway. Camels reminded him of the book his father had given him. He’d left it at home.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Maybe that’s like the one Marco rode,” she said. “Or Dad.”
Mark could tell she was trying to get him interested, but Venice was not his idea of a great place to spend Christmas.
Suddenly the sun came out and struck the side of the building where the camel was. The animal seemed to move. Mark kept staring at it over his shoulder as he walked. The alley narrowed. He teetered, then caught himself.
“I bet a lot of people fall in,” he said, pointing to the canal. “No guardrails or anything!”
His mother pinched her nose. “And when they fish them out, phew!”
They were walking against the wind. His mom was dragging her suitcase. It lurched over the worn stone pavers like a boat on a tossing sea. The water beside them was dull gray with strands of green floating in it. Sometimes when a motorboat went by, its wake water lapped up. At places where the water stood ankle-deep, boards had been laid like temporary docks.
Everything looked as if it were rising right out of the water. Water lapped palace fronts of white marble and the plainer painted walls, gnawing away the stucco to the brick underneath. The tides had left lines of fuzzy green moss that shaded down to darker lines and clots of small black-shelled mussels.
As his mother stopped to check her map, people flowed past with small wheeled carts filled with groceries, laundry, wine, and flowers. There were no cars.
They went slowly along the stone lanes and dark alleys, some so narrow they had to walk single file. Their route humped, wove, and twisted, always near the milky green water. Laundry fluttered from lines and balconies overhead.
Finally they turned into a small square. Mark’s
mother stopped and pointed to a battered brown door. “There. That must be it,” she said.
Mark stared. “You sure? It looks like somebody’s falling-down house.”
“Nope. Sign says ‘hotel.’”
A large lamp that looked like it had been knocked cockeyed hung over the front, ALBERGO written on the glass in faded gold.
She went up and pressed a button. Nothing happened. She waited and pressed again. Then she held the button down and began to pound. Finally the lock buzzed.
The heavy door opened into a large, dark, stone-floored room. The stones were scooped and rounded. The only thing in the room was a long sagging table against one wall. At the far end, under a small round window with bars, there were white marble stairs. It smelled old and damp, as if there’d been animals in it a long time ago. Rusted hooks and rings stuck out from the walls.
“It looks like a dungeon,” Mark muttered. He shivered as the stale dankness settled on him.
His mother pointed to the stairs. They twisted up with a spindly rail on one side. A dim light showed from the landing above.