A year ago today, on my twenty-third birthday, I was sitting in the simmering heat outside the office of Kenin-Lopsan Mongush Borahovich, the famous shaman of Kyzyl. Beside me were my colleague Anita, and Ayanmaa, one of the summer camp student teachers. Two other Tuvan women dozed in the sun beside us on a narrow wooden bench, waiting their turn to visit with the shaman. While Ayanmaa told me about her life in the Tuvan countryside, and her one-year-old baby who lives there with her mother, I wondered vaguely what I would say to the shaman, or ask him.
After what seemed like an eternity in the midday sun, our turn came, and we went in. The office was brightly lit with several windows, the walls lined with cabinets and shelves presumably containing the famed shaman’s worldly possessions. A sink with a metal pitcher on the counter. Piles of books, including a corner dedicated to selling the publications of the shaman himself. An antler of some sort. A painting on the wall in the style of three-star hotel art, depicting Kenin-Lopsan from the shoulders up, in front of a dreamy mountainous landscape, his hair delicately displaced by a holy wind. The shaman sat behind a heavy metal desk, dressed in a white shirt and a denim vest, white hair blown back from a face surprisingly smooth for his age, his eyes milky with cataracts like something from a middle school fantasy novel.
Anita and I sat on the two chairs in front of his desk. We offered our 500 rubles apiece, hoping that was enough, but not too much to seem gauche. To begin with, we filled out small paper cards with our names, birthdates, places of birth, and other details we fudged. Kenin-Lopsan spoke in a gravelly, throaty Russian that we could barely understand.
When my turn came, I asked, hesitant, unsure of how to show the proper respect, despite my skepticism, “I would like to know about my future; whether I will return to Russia.” He looked at me intensely through the cataracts, produced a small pile of smooth white stones, and gathered them into a mound. He placed the stones in my cupped hands, after examining my right palm and digging his sharp fingernails into the pad of my hand. I let the stones spill out back onto the desk, and he deftly arranged them into one array after another, in groups of three or two, re-scooping and re-arranging them until they satisfied him. Then, consulting my paper card and the stones, he said to me, “You will return to Russia within one year. You will be able to live in Russia, and work in Russia, and find a cavalier in Russia. Все будет прекрасно, everything will be beautiful.” And that was it.
He told me what I wanted to hear. For the remaining month and a half, as my time came to a close, whenever my colleagues or friends or students would ask me, wistfully sometimes, whether I would come back, I would smile a little, and say that it would be very expensive, that I needed to pay my student loans, but that the shaman in Siberia told me I would be back within a year, so I wasn’t worried.
Now, the allotted year has transpired, and on my twenty-fourth birthday it’s raining in Pennsylvania, like it did the day I was born. I’m sitting in the living room of the house I live in with my very un-Russian cavalier, trying to think of an appropriate reflection on this occasion.
Maybe the future the shaman saw was one possible future, as my friend Andrew suggested. Maybe it was all a sham. Maybe my future is only in my own hands, not in the eyes of Kenin-Lopsan. Maybe the future is just chaos, a jabouble of roads not taken. The certainty that I will return to Russia has faded from a fever to a small backache, a little reminder in my bones of a childhood illness. It won’t ever fade away, it’ll always act up when it rains. And perhaps years can be measured by other means than the sun.