Mammoths at the Gates (2023) is the fourth of Nghi Vo’s novellas set in the world of the Singing Hills Abbey. Chih, a cleric tasked with gathering oral histories of the world, has returned home after three years, to find old friends, great sorrow, and disruption. The source of the disruption is a pair of war mammoths and their warrior handlers, two sisters, who wait outside the abbey’s gates.
Once inside, Chih learns that most of the clerics have been sent to a distant project. Ru, a dear friend of Chih’s, has assumed responsibility since the abbey’s beloved abbot, Cleric Thien, died three weeks earlier. Before Thien became a cleric they were the patriarch of the Coh clan in the far north, and those warrior sisters were his granddaughters. They want to take the abbot’s body back to their village, which is not the way of the abbey.
This brief fable explores love, grief, guilt, atonement, memory and transformation. In spite of the deep wounds various characters carry and the serious nature of the themes, this is a gentle tale. While the humans struggle, it is the abbot’s neixin, or memory bird, whose actions drive the plot. Myriad Virtues was the abbot’s most constant companion, and the neixin remember everything perfectly. How much deeper that must make grief. Myriad Virtues is inconsolable, and engages in an act of grief that shocks the other neixin, who see it as self-mutilation. Almost Brilliant, Chih’s memory bird, asks for him to help her friend, and Chih tries, but at the end, it is Myriad Virtues herself who makes the decision that resolves the deep-seated conflict between the mammoth warriors and the clerics.
Like all of the novellas, this is a short book, and Vo wisely doesn’t try to delve too deeply into the serious themes she has tackled. My favorite part of this story is the neixin themselves. For the first time we get to hear from them about their culture and their history. While it’s unlikely that the memory birds truly shared their origin story with Chih, the three “legends” they do share provide insight into the birds and how they see their role. Chih tries to give Myriad Virtues the place she deserves at a memorial dinner for the abbot, but even though the clerics admire and like the neixin, it is still clear they don’t see them as equals.
In spite of grief, loss, domestic violence and mutilation, I could characterize this story as tender. Chih reconnects with their old friend, and even a strange and ghostly presence is melancholy and eerie rather than scary. I read this story in a few hours, and I enjoyed it—I think you will too.