A Tale within a Tale
All peoples of Earth have their own myths and legends, their own fascinating cultures, customs, and traditions. In Russia alone (which is the largest country in the world) there are more than 195 peoples or ethnic groups, each with its own language.
Studying all these cultures and languages is always incredibly exciting. It’s like you find yourself in a totally different world or on another planet — because, of course, each ethnic group has its own music, songs, clothes, and ways of life that are different from yours.
In this tale-within-a-tale, the author has tried to show at least some of the most fascinating things about just one of Russia’s many wonderful peoples, hoping that his curious young readers would get excited about their planet’s many nations and ethnic groups, each with its own history, culture, literature, and language, and would become involved in learning more and more about all of this.
To see how very different things could be, take a look at the alphabet of the good people you’re going to read about. It even looks different, doesn’t it? It is very close to the Russian alphabet (which is called Cyrillic), but it’s different even from that, because it has letters for some sounds that do not exist in Russian or in other languages.
Besides, each culture has something that we all can admire and might even want to imitate or adopt. Which is probably the best way to learn anyway.
Colorful illustrations, made by the artist according to the author’s careful instructions, will help the readers to get a better visual picture and a clearer understanding of what he was trying to tell them.
Happy reading to you all!
«Keep up, Khadko, we have to get back to the camp before sundown!» called the father to his six-year-old son. He pulled their small flat-bottomed ngano out of the water, tied it to the stake driven into the bank, and began to carefully stack the fish they’d caught onto the khan — a large take of muksun, broad-nosed whitefish, and white salmon: the best that rivers and lakes of this Upper End of the World can yield to reindeer herders. He then sat down on the left side of the khan and grabbed the reins and the khorei, ready to go.
The boy was still on the bank, expertly skipping stones across the water. He didn’t want to leave and go back to the camp. It didn’t often happen that Dad took him fishing or hunting: he was still too young. The day was quiet, with no wind at all, and the orange-colored autumn sun was bright in the vast blue sky.
«You’ll make the spirit of the water angry,» his father called out, when he saw what the boy was doing. «You mustn’t throw anything into the river!»
«I mustn’t?» responded Khadko, more in surprise than wanting to know more, and dropped the remaining stones onto the ground.
«Come on, son, let’s go,» his father called again. «Ah, dinner will be great tonight,» he added with a satisfied smile when they finally got going. «Muksun is all large and fat this year.»
Khadko sat on the right side of the sledge, holding on tight to the edges, watching his father’s skillful movements. He was an observant child. The sledge was flying over the tundra, and the handsome, powerful reindeer, like huge fairytale birds, were carrying little Khadko back home, to the camp.
«Vydu’tana is here!» suddenly cried his father, half-rising for a moment when they darted out from behind another tall hill and could finally see their camp with its three teepees. He turned around to the boy, calling loudly again, «Vydu’tana is here, Khadko!»
The boy half-rose on the sledge too, peering into the distance and trying to make out the man his father was talking about.
«How does Dad know that someone has come?» he wondered. «We’re still so far away. I can’t see anyone!»
His father looked at him again, grinned, and artfully guiding the sledge, added in a loud voice:
«You can’t miss the large reindeer and the beautiful sledge of the tadebya! Look at how the fur and the hides shine in the sun!»
And indeed, the gorgeous white and gold sledge would be hard to miss even at a distance. It was hand-carved, hand-painted, covered with snow-white deer hides, and pulled by a massive, strongly-built nyaravei with huge white branching antlers, his sleek gilt harness glittering in the bright autumn sun.
Khadko’s father got up on the sledge and was now driving his team of strong, swift and obedient padvy standing up. He had to yell to make himself heard over the loud swishing of the air, but his voice sounded happy:
«You know, son, Vydu’tana only visits those who are kind and hard-working.»
The boy knitted his eyebrows slightly and looked pensive. He had once overheard old men talking about a wise teacher who lived on the top of a high mountain in the north of the Urals and sometimes rode around the tundra, stopping at people’s camps to tell children and grown-ups his wonderful stories.
As swift as a khalei diving for its catch, the sledge pulled up to the first tepee at the edge of the camp, made a sharp turn, and stopped almost instantly. Khadko quickly jumped off and ran over the mossy ground straight to the campfire already circled by children. No wonder! The great wise teacher had come to visit them!
Near the camp’s main tepee, a tall, sturdily-built man was talking to the reindeer herders. He was wearing a clean, white malitsa which in the sunshine seemed to shimmer with all the colors of the rainbow. His long white beard was neatly tucked under a multicolored belt with gleaming bear and wolf fangs hanging from it. There was also a large, slightly curved knife with a horn handle, in a richly decorated sheath inlaid with small gemstones that gleamed and glowed in the evening sun. The guest’s malitsa and kisy were covered with intricate, beautifully embroidered patterns, sparkling with even more gemstones of various shapes and sizes. The laces on the white kisy boots were woven out of several multicolored straps of leather, adorned on the ends with small wooden figurines of some unknown creatures.
In the Far North, days were already beginning to grow shorter. Summer was coming to its end, though winter was still a long way away. Ngherm hadn’t yet unleashed his biting frosts and piercing icy winds on the camps, and it wasn’t yet time for Yamal Iri to get started on his journey.
In honor of their great guest, the herders made a huge bonfire and, after a festive dinner, everyone gathered around the fire, sitting on the sledges put together in a circle.
«It was a long time ago,» the white-haired old man finally said, starting his story. His chin rested on his right hand, his elbow on his knee. He was stroking his beard with his left hand and staring into the fire as if looking through and beyond the flames into some unknown depths.
«How long ago, Irike?» asked Khadko, rosy-cheeked and curious, his hair sticking out in funny tufts.
«A ve-e-ery long time ago, Son,» intoned the wise Vydu’tana gravely, shaking his head with a long sigh. «A very long time ago,» he repeated. «The great-grandfather of my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather used to tell this story,» he added. «Back when I was the same age as you are now,» he said, hiding his smile. The reindeer herders knew that the wise shaman was joking, and exchanged amused glances.
«Wow!» the boy shook his head in wonder. «So, how old are you now, then?» he asked.
The old man sat silent, still stroking his long white beard.
«Well, I was still very small when the wise teacher visited our camp,» said one of the khasava. He was one of the men who helped Khadko’s father to move his herd of reindeer from camp to camp.
«I remember your visit as well,» another herder added from the other side of the bonfire.
The teacher lifted his grave eyes from the bright flames and slowly looked at each of the children who were patiently waiting for his story.
«You all need to know this,» he continued serenely, «so I will tell you all about it. Listen and try to remember everything well, so that you can tell the story to your great-grandchildren.» He was speaking slowly, in a deep, low voice, as if trying to make sure that everyone heard and understood his every word. «This way the good name of our people and their history will live on in the memory of our descendants.»
Suddenly his face lit up with a smile, and he looked at each of the little children in turn. Finally he started again.
«Our people came to this land from far, far away. The place where they came from had been very warm. They had never seen reindeer and didn’t know how to herd them. They had never worn such warm clothes,» the teacher pointed to the colorful, skillfully embroidered malitsas around the campfire. Then, stooping to his beautifully decorated belt, he took off it a small pouch, like a girl’s padko, made of fur and just as gorgeously adorned. He untied the string, took out a pinch of some dark sparkly powder, and threw it into the fire.
All at once, a tall pillar of blue and green flames shot high into the air. Startled, the herders shrank back from the fire, covering their faces and blinking at the dazzling light. However, the strange fire didn’t seem to burn them: it only lit everything around even brighter. The colorful blazes danced over the people’s heads like a river rolling and whirling in a strong wind.
Both the grown-ups and the children gasped with amazement. The herders’ eyes grew wide with wonder, and little Khadko’s mouth fell open. The tops of the flames reached high into the starry night sky, setting it on fire with a radiance almost too marvelous to behold. The light spilled wider and wider, blossoming into new colors and hues as it grew larger.
In a few moments, the flames gradually settled down, grew a little smaller, and suddenly turned into a stunning living picture, so real you could almost touch it. It showed them the wonderful place the teacher was talking about.
«Can we go there now?» asked Khadko eagerly.
Vydu’tana looked at the boy with a kind smile and answered:
«It would take more than a lifetime to go there and come back again.»
«What if we take the reindeer, Irike?» Khadko persisted.
«Even with the reindeer it would take a long, long time. Listen to my story, and then you will see how it is, alright?»
The tufted-haired boy nodded and, resting his head on his fists, prepared to listen.
«In that faraway place there are mountains, tall and beautiful, with their peaks piercing the clouds. On their slopes there are big leafy trees with strong, massive branches. Many different animals haunt the mountain paths, and many happy streams of living water run down between the rocks and boulders. In the valleys there are lakes with clear blue water, large and small. Butterflies flit from one lovely flower to another, and bees keep buzzing, going about their work gathering sweet and fragrant honey. The bright sun keeps that land warm and fruitful.»
«Why did we have to leave it, then?» Khadko blurted out.
Vydu’tana stopped, and Khadko’s father, who was sitting next to his son, whispered in his ear quietly:
«You shouldn’t interrupt when someone is talking, especially someone older. It’s bad manners.»
«I am sorry, Irike,» the boy whispered to the teacher at once, just as quietly. «It’s just that I’ve never heard such interesting tales before.»
«And it’s just the beginning,» the old man said mildly. «You will wonder at many more things before I am done talking.»
Khadko fidgeted a little on his sledge, trying to find a more comfortable seat, and finally settled down.
«We lived in that land for a long time and very happily. Winters there weren’t as cold as here, and they were short, although just as snowy.»
Yotkhee kept speaking, and the enormous deep screen which hovered, cloud-like, over the listeners’ heads, kept changing its multicolored pictures. The herders heard the chirping of unfamiliar-looking birds, the rustling of leaves, the babbling of streams, the cries of various animals, and the rushing of the warm wind in the tall grass — everything amazingly bright and beautiful.
«At first our families were small and close-knit. There was enough land for everyone. There was enough food for everyone. We enjoyed life, gladly welcomed every new day and every new guest who came to visit. We went to visit others as well. We exchanged gifts. We helped to heal the sick and to take care of children. We never cultivated the land or planted anything specially: everything we needed simply grew around our huts which we made out of young trees, weaving broad palm leaves around them to make walls for protection from winds and rains.»
As wise old Yotkhee continued with his story, sweet music started coming from the bright vision over his listeners’ heads: in the picture a small boy of seven or so was playing a soft tune on his reed pipe. He was standing on the low bank of a small blue river, and behind him there was a thick green forest where many paths were winding their different ways around the trees, big and small. Next to the boy the herders saw a little girl of about six, with a puppy in her lap. A doe with her fawn came out from behind the thick bushes on the opposite bank and stopped at the water, lifting its front left leg slightly and perking up its ears to listen to the song. Several noble-looking swans delicately glided onto the water, gently spreading their wings and bowing their long necks graciously as if to greet the young musician.
«This is me,» said the teacher, nodding his white head at the boy. «I got the reed pipe from my grandfather, our old shaman. He could see the future.»
Here the old man furtively brushed away a tear and kept looking at the picture intently until it disappeared, giving way to something else.
«Aw!» the herders gasped in admiration, some covering their mouths with their hands as their eyes grew bigger and bigger.
«Then you must be really old, Irike!» little Khadko couldn’t contain himself. «You have lived so many winters and summers that I couldn’t even count them on my fingers!»
The wise old man smiled and said:
«I will teach you how to live a long and healthy life — and how to stay strong even in your old age. But for now, just keep listening to my story.»
The herders couldn’t take their eyes off the beautiful pictures, which slowly kept changing one into another to the accompaniment of the sweet, restful music.
«With every year our families grew larger and larger, as did the families of our neighbors, so we had to think of what to do next: now there were more of us while the land and its plants stayed the same.»
Here Yotkhee paused and looked down at the fire as if remembering something that was important or moved his spirit. In a few moments, he continued:
«One day our old and wise shaman gathered together the council of elders and announced…»
The picture changed again and now showed people sitting inside a large teepee. All of them were elderly, with long white beards, but one clearly stood out. Dressed as a shaman, he was holding a tambourine and a drum stick and was addressing the rest of them in a grave tone:
«A great misfortune is coming our way,» he said. «Behind our Big Stones there are other tribes who have also grown too numerous for their old place. They want to find and settle on new lands, and they will come here too. But this place is already too small, even for us. Their coming will sow discord and strife. Some people will want to kill others. Many will die. But as Num the Wise has told us, we must not kill, for it is a great sin. However this is not even the worst that awaits us.»
At that moment everyone who wasn’t already looking at the old shaman lifted their eyes and stared at him in bewilderment. They knew well that he could see the future. The shaman continued.
«The Great Water is coming. The Master of the Eternal Birch-Tree with seven trunks will lift its roots, and from under it there will rush out a big great flood which will wash away all the sickness from our land. Many families will perish in that flood. The Great Water will remain for seven suns and seven moons. Then, gradually, it will go away, and life will be restored again.»
«You know that even the Great Creator cannot stop the Master of the Birch-Tree. I am too old for long journeys and would like to stay here. But thankfully, our good gods have provided my family with an heir to whom I can pass all my knowledge and skills. He will take you to the new land where the Great Water cannot reach you. The journey will be very long and very hard, but there, in the new land, you will all be safe.»
Having said all this, the shaman raised his right arm bent at the elbow with his palm open towards the others. It meant, «I have spoken.»
The elders were silent, lowering their eyes and staring into the center of the circle. They were clearly shaken and saddened by the old shaman’s words.
In a few seconds, a gray-haired man on the opposite side of the tepee raised his hand, asking for permission to speak. Everyone nodded slightly, letting him know they were ready to hear what he had to say.
«Those are grievously sad words we heard from you today, O Great and Wise Healer,» the old man said. «We are ready to do your will and to save our people. We will make the long journey you’ve told us about. But tell us, who is this heir of yours? Who will lead us into the new land?»
Everyone looked at the wise shaman, and he spoke in a placid and confident voice:
«I speak of our young Yotkhee. The good spirits have given him so much strength and power that he will be able to do all that is needed. He will become a great healer. He also knows how to see the future and will give you good counsel. His spirit is strong, and his courage is great. He is an old soul, earnest beyond his years, and his memory never loses anything.»
A hum of approval ran through the elders’ circle, and they nodded in agreement. They knew well that the boy Yotkhee, vydu’tana’s grandson, indeed had wonderful powers: even at seven years of age he could heal the sick and give wise counsel, and sometimes he came up with really good ideas. Animals seemed to understand and obey him, often without words. The boy was kind and diligent, which meant that the good spirits would never leave him in trouble. And if he led the people, they would definitely be able to overcome all obstacles, handle all difficulties, and reach the new land where they would be able to live in peace and harmony with nature again.
The old shaman raised his open palm again and added:
«While we’re still here, I will teach little Yotkhee everything I know. I will teach him to speak to the gods. I will teach him how to live a long life without sickness, how to grow old and to remain strong at the same time.»
«Come here, Yotkhee, my son,» the old shaman called out to the boy the next morning, just as his grandson came out of the teepee yawning and stretching. The old man was already sitting cross-legged near the little fire he had made at dawn. He had been waiting for the son of his oldest son to wake up and climb out of the teepee so that he could catch the power of the first rays of heaven’s Great Light.
«Last night the Council of Elders decided that we must depart on a great journey,» the old shaman said. The boy was sitting next to him and listening with his whole being, his eyes looking straight into the shaman’s eyes.
«Great troubles are coming. To save our people, we must lead them towards the Land of the Dead. Our way will be long: a whole generation may be born, grow up, and depart to the Other World before you reach your destination.»
As the shaman was speaking, he kept looking into Yotkhee’s eyes, trying to discern whether there was any fear or doubt there and thus see if he should even continue. But the boy’s face showed nothing of what the old man was anxious about. When the shaman paused, the boy understood that it was a signal for him to respond.
«That’s what I thought too, O Wise Healer. The other day I had a beautiful dream, and in the dream the good spirits were calling us away to some distant place.»
«That’s right, Yotkhee. And you are the one who will lead our people. You are young, which means you’re strong enough for this journey. You are wise, which means you won’t stray from the way shown by the spirits. You will be able to take our people to the Land of the Dead. Only there life will be good and peaceful. And you must remember that even if, on the way, you are tempted to stop and stay in some other rich and pleasant land, you must not yield to temptation but press on!»
The old man let out a heavy sigh and looked down at the fire.
«But why have the spirits chosen that particular land to take us to?» the boy asked.
«There is a beautiful lake there. It is the favorite lake of the Great Num. He keeps that land with special care. He will help our good people to survive the Great Trouble. The lake gives birth to many rivers, and its islands are the Great Num’s heart and eyes. The lake is shaped just like the body of our Great Creator. That’s how you will know you have come to the right place and can finally settle down and live a long and happy life.»
The old man paused again and turned to look at the fire.
«O Wise Healer, why do you keep saying «you’ and not «we’? Are you not coming with us?»
«I am too old to live in that land, and our spirits are waiting for me. After I teach you everything I know and see you off on your journey, I will go up to the top of our beloved mountain and fly away to the world of our ancestors.»
Yotkhee must have been smart enough to see how silly it would be to argue with the wise old man and to try to talk him out of the decision he had made.
«We will miss you, O Good Teacher,» he said quietly, looking down on the ground.
«We have had a grand life together! And who knows what good works await us in the future,» said the shaman with a serene smile. «And now, Son, go grab a jug from my tent and run up to top of our sacred hill, where the blue stream comes out of the ground. Fill the jug with fresh, cool, living water and bring it back here.»
Without asking any more questions, the boy quickly jumped up, got the jug, and raced up the hill. As he ran, marvelous birds sang to him from the thick branches, green leaves rustled in cheerful greeting, and the sun’s rays pierced the dense foliage, sparkling merrily on small stones and lighting up the boy’s path as if showing him the way.
The stream with clear blue water was singing a happy song, winding its way around big and small stones and massive tree roots. Yotkhee carefully filled the jug and sprinted back. The old shaman was still at his fire, patiently waiting for his return.
«Thank you,» he said, taking the jug with both hands. «And now I am going to speak sacred words over the water, and all my knowledge will pass into it.»
The wise teacher closed his eyes and, holding the jug right before his face, started whispering something over the living water. It didn’t take long. He then handed the jug over to the boy and said:
«Now drink this water. But first close your eyes and, as you drink, think only of the most beautiful things you have seen here in our land. Think only of what is good and true.»
The jug was only a little bigger than the mug the boy’s father used each morning to have his first hot, fragrant, and refreshing drink of the day, and the boy downed it in one gulp.
«Don’t open your eyes!» the old man said urgently. «Sit still for a bit.»
The boy’s imagination came alive with pictures, one after another, swiftly rushing before his mind’s eye, faster and faster, until he couldn’t even discern what they were. After a while they slowed down and finally stopped. Yotkhee saw a lake, the very lake the shaman had told him about. Then, suddenly, he heard a deep low voice from somewhere within himself. The voice said:
«When you bring the people to my lake, you must put shrines on the islands so that I could speak to you through them.»
«It was the Great Num speaking to you,» said the old shaman and smiled.
The boy opened his eyes and looked at him.
«See, our gods have accepted you. Our good spirits will help you on your difficult journey. You must bring our people to their new land.»
«I will,» said his young apprentice with confidence. He raised his eyes and looked up to the vast blue sky and beyond, to the great unknown that was waiting for them all. When he turned his gaze back to his teacher, he looked grave and thoughtful.
«Tell me something, O Wise Teacher,» said Yotkhee to the shaman. «Why did you ask me to drink the water?»
«Water holds the whole of history, my son,» replied the shaman. «And not just of our people.»
«The whole history? All of it?» the boy’s eyes opened wide in astonishment.
«Yes, all of it,» nodded the old man. «And the purer the water, the better it can pour its secret treasures into your memory. Water can heal. Water can also kill. Some water is living water. You had some of it from my jug. There is also water that is dead water. This is the water you kill when you heat it up over your morning fires and then drink hot from your mugs. But dead water can also heal.»
«How?» asked his young student with interest.
«It can wash the body to make it clean. It can clean the wounds to make them heal faster. On your way to the Land of the Dead you will meet a good people who have built special houses for this purpose. Once in every seven suns and seven moons they go in there to wash their bodies, first with dead and then with living water. It makes the body strong, so that no sickness can come into it.»
Yotkhee was silent, trying to understand. Then, from somewhere inside his shirt, the wise healer took out a small reed pipe. He balanced it on his palm for a bit, as if trying to decide something, and then held it out to the boy.
«Here, take this. When the going gets tough, take it out and play. The good spirits will hear the music and come to you with wise counsel. Just close your eyes and listen, listen carefully to the voice inside.»
«Thank you, O Good Teacher,» said the boy. He took the pipe and examined it with great attention.
«Well, tomorrow we’ll have to start getting ready,» said the old shaman and added: «We need to tell everyone to get ready and prepare well for the long journey. The Spirit of Light has already touched the tops of our trees.»
Soon Yotkhee, holding the shaman’s reed pipe close to his chest, was skipping down the path that led between the hills to the river which was close where his family lived. He loved the river. It was quiet and peaceful, and he could simply sit on the bank and think.
So many thoughts were now swarming in his head! It was heartbreaking to know that he would have to say goodbye to the place where he’d grown up. And how could he possibly imagine that soon all this beauty would disappear under the great waters? And all his ancestors will remain here too!
As he was nearing the tepees, Yotkhee saw Edeine who had just come out of her tent. She had brought out a tiny puppy which was now yawning and stretching, basking in the warm morning sun. Edeine and Yotkhee had been neighbors and good friends all their lives.
«Here, Edeine, come with me!» said Yotkhee, running up to her and trying to keep his voice low. «Come quick!»
«Where to?» she asked, surprised.
But the boy had already grabbed her hand and started pulling her behind him. She barely had time to catch up with her puppy and was now holding it tight, running after her friend. The children sped down forest paths and then up a familiar low hill until they found themselves near a fallen tree.
«Now sit down and listen!» cried Yotkhee excitedly.
Edeine put the puppy in her lap and stared at her friend in mild bewilderment.
Yotkhee put the reed pipe to his lips and started playing a soft tune. As soon as the music began, a doe with her fawn came out from behind the thick bushes on the opposite bank and stopped at the water, lifting its left front leg slightly and perking up its ears to listen to the song. Several noble-looking swans delicately glided onto the clear blue water, gently spreading their large wings.
The girl and her puppy didn’t know where to look: it was all so marvelous! Suddenly all around them there were myriads of tiny sparkling rainbow-colored stars gently floating in the clear morning air and settling down on tree branches, flowers, and berries.
«See, Edeine,» said the boy when he stopped playing. «These are our good spirits. They’ve come to visit us.»
«Really?» the girl asked in astonishment.
«We can’t see them, but they are here all the same. This is our old shaman’s magic pipe. He gave it to me,» explained Yotkhee.
«It is all so beautiful!» Edeine cried in delight. She was holding his hands, palms up, towards the sky, trying to catch the bright little sparks which kept coming from somewhere above and gently alighted on the children’s hair, shoulders, clothes, cheeks, and eyelashes, tickling them a little, so they both laughed happily and wrinkled their noses.
«I think though,» said Yotkhee seriously, «that one shouldn’t just play this pipe for fun. We shouldn’t bother the spirits without a reason.»
«Aaww, that’s too bad,» said Edeine with regret. «I could listen to this wonderful music all day long!»
«Don’t worry,» said Yotkhee, trying to comfort her. «I will try to make a pipe just like this one and will play for you whenever you like.»
The girl suddenly felt a little self-conscious. She tilted her head and gave Yotkhee a kind, sweet smile.
By next morning everyone was ready to start on their long journey.
«Let some of our strongest men lead the way,» said the old shaman. «They must be ready to protect and defend the women and children.»
He was standing in the middle of a large circle: all the families of the camp had gathered around him to hear his last words to them. The people’s faces were clouded with anxiety, sadness, and even fear of what lay ahead, but everyone was hanging on to the wise old man’s every word.
«Then, after the men, our new little vydu’tana will follow. Please remember that he is your wise healer now, and he will be the one to lead you to your new land.»
Everyone nodded in approval, and all the children beamed: they loved Yotkhee because he always had time for them, playing their games and telling them all sorts of fascinating stories which he either had heard from grown-ups or made up on the spot. He often took them to the river and taught them to swim in the clear blue water, all radiant in the rays of the Spirit of Light.
Edeine was there too, with her puppy as usual. She was the middle daughter of the tribe’s chief, and her parents had long ago agreed with Yotkhee’s parents that their children were betrothed and would get married when they came of age.
«Women and children will walk in the middle,» continued the shaman. «They will be followed by strong men who will defend and protect them from any danger.»
Then the shaman turned to the young vydu’tana:
«And remember, Yotkhee: you must only go in the direction which your own shadow or the shadows of trees will show you at noon, when the Spirit of Light is right in between Ilibembertya and Nga and right behind your back.»
It didn’t take long to put everyone where they belonged, according to what the old shaman had said. It was time to say the final farewell. Everyone fell silent. Only birds kept chirping in the trees, and green leaves rustled in the soft morning wind.
«Farewell, our dear, beloved homeland! We will always remember you. Thank you for everything. One day we will see you again!»
The young shaman spoke these words, and they were immediately echoed by the others in low, broken voices:
«Farewell, our dear homeland! Farewell! Goodbye!…»
The people slowly turned and, still in silence, started walking towards the land of Ngherm. They could not know how much hardship and how many trials would meet them on the way.
When they made it through the forest that fringed their camp and walked into an open green valley, Yotkhee turned around. Their old wise teacher was standing on the top of the sacred hill, tall and strong. His white clothes were clearly visible against the deep green of the woods. He was standing next to a massive tree, gazing after his people who were leaving for an unknown land. Yotkhee waved his outstretched arms in farewell, and everyone else stopped, turned around, and waved back. The old shaman raised his right hand high and smiled in response. He was finally at peace: he felt certain now that his people would be safe, that they would not perish in the Great Water, and that someday they would all see each other again.
Edeine was walking next to her mother and sisters, holding her puppy tight. The little dog was one of the litter that their faithful grey Bura had brought them about thirty moons ago. Bura was right here, too, running along with everyone else; every now and again she skipped ahead and looked up at Edeine to make sure her little one was safe and sound.
The people kept marching in dejected silence, looking down at their feet and thinking about the land they were leaving behind, their good old life, and their good old shaman who was now all alone.
Suddenly Edeine lifted her eyes from the path and looked at the trees and sky with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. She was a great storyteller and easily made up all sorts of songs and tales. She raised her puppy above her head and started singing merrily, dancing and twirling as her sweet little voice carried the cheerful tune.
Through the woods on we go,
To the land that we don’t know.
Sunshine’s bright and merry ray,
Guide us, guide us on our way!
Down the path we march along,
With a happy marching song.
Chirping birds, rustling grass,
Water’s babbling song,
Valley road, mountain pass —
Our journey’s long.
Keep your strength and from the start
Spark a fire inside your heart!
The people quickly caught up the lively melody, and it seemed to make the walking a little easier. The children started noticing lovely flowers by the roadside. The grownups’ faces brightened, their backs straightened, and soon they started grinning, finally remembering that they were supposed to show their young ones how to bear long and arduous journeys bravely and cheerfully.
Time wore on. The children were running about and playing games, while their parents kept a slow but steady pace, looking at the scenery around them with curious attention. Towards the evening, when the sun was nearing the horizon and seemed to almost touch the thick green treetops, the adults put the younger children on their shoulders, as they were too tired to walk on. The older children kept dashing back and forth, playing tag, and weaving their way between the grownups.
Suddenly everyone heard a loud cry from up front.
«Halt! It’s a river. Let’s make camp!»
Soon even those who were bringing up the rear found themselves on the low flat bank of a river that lay in their way. The river wasn’t very broad or very deep, but they still needed to stop and think of how to best cross it.
The elders told the adults to go and gather some wood for the fire. There were plenty of tall pines, birch trees, and aspen trees in the forest they had been walking through, so dry dead-wood would be very easy to find. The children were supposed to find stones to frame the campfires, to keep the flames from the grass.
It quickly got dark, and the place was quiet. The birds seemed to be down for the night, and even the frolicsome little wind had taken itself off to get some rest up in his mountain abode, so not a single leaf was stirring.
For supper everyone had their fill of delicious mushrooms, fried over the campfire, and plenty of fresh cold water from the river. It was time to settle down and go to sleep.
«Look!» said one of the elders pointing down the river. «It flows straight towards Ngherm’s land, which is exactly where we need to go. While the weather is good and the river isn’t frozen, we could go down on rafts. Our children can’t walk as fast and long as we need to go.»
«Hear, hear!» exclaimed eager voices on all sides.
«The elder is right!» echoed others.
«This way we will get to the new land much faster!» cried yet more people.
«Then tomorrow we will start building rafts,» said the first elder, raising his hand to ask for silence. «Let’s get some rest now and start the work first thing in the morning.»
The elders decided that in the morning a few of them would walk along the river and see if there was a ford anywhere near so that they could simply wade across. The others would start making rafts for everyone.
The big campfire started dying down, and the red-hot coals cast a warm bright glow on the faces around the fire and the trees behind. The children were the first to drop off to sleep, and their mothers put them close to the dying fires, tucking them under warm animal hides and snuggling down next to them.
«What is there, beyond the river?» the older men around the fire kept asking themselves. «And how many more rivers will there be? What if we come across a tall mountain range?» No one knew, and there were no answers. They had never ventured so far from their land and knew nothing about this place.
As the last deep-orange gleams of the setting sun finally flickered out, a soft dark night descended on the tired travelers. Birds were asleep in their nests, and beasts were quiet in their holes. Not a whisper of wind moved the tiny flames over the glowing coals, and wispy strands of smoke were floating straight up, melting into the velvety darkness, while stars, big and small, glittered up high in the deep vaulted vastness, forming mysterious patterns of unfathomable beauty.
The only sounds in the complete and utter silence of the night were the quiet crackling of the fire and the tiny whimper of Edeine’s puppy. It wouldn’t go to sleep and kept fidgeting and whining, so Edeine started singing softly, gently rocking her little pet in her arms.
Hush-a-bye, my darling sweet,
Rest your tired little feet,
Rest your eyes, and rest your ears,
I will sing away your fears.
Hush-a-bye, my darling boy,
May your dreams be full of joy.
Hush-a-bye, and not a peep!
All your friends are fast asleep,
Dreaming, dreaming, one and all,
Dreams of wonders, big and small.
Sleep, my darling, I love you.
May good spirits come to you,
Tell you stories, sing a song,
Rock you gently all night long.
Hush-a-bye, my darling boy,
May your dreams be full of joy.
The night was so peaceful and quiet, that even the most watchful men who had undertaken to guard the camp at the furthermost fires finally dozed off.
Suddenly Yotkhee opened his eyes. He didn’t even know what had woken him. For a few seconds he just lay there, staring at the dark sky and its bright stars, but then he became aware that something was bothering him. Something was wrong, and he didn’t know what it was.
He sat up and looked around. The campfires were almost dead and gave off only the faintest gleam, so he couldn’t even see the nearest trees. Suddenly he felt that someone or something was moving around their camp, swiftly and noiselessly. What was that?
Bura the dog that had been curled up next to the sleeping Edeine, sprung up to her feet. The grey hairs on her back stood on edge, she lowered her head and kept whining and growling, looking up at the sky and restlessly turning her head to one side and the other.
«These are Nghyleka», a deep low voice said in Yotkhee’s head. «They are invisible.»
«What are Nghyleka?» the boy asked silently.
«Evil spirits. They are Nga’s servants and do his will.»
«What do they want?» asked Yotkhee.
«They roam about looking for weak and lazy people and then report back to their master. Then Nga comes to those people and blows his poisonous breath into them, so that they get sick and die.»
«Why does he have to kill people?» asked the boy, surprised. He closed his eyes so that he could concentrate and hear the voice better. «Couldn’t he simply force them to work?»
«Nga lives on those people. He devours them because he needs their souls to slave for him in his dreadful underworld lair.»
«But I don’t want any of our people to find themselves in evil Nga’s underworld! Is there any way to protect them?»
«Nghyleka roam around the world only at night, when everyone is asleep.»
«How do they know who is lazy and who is not if everyone is asleep?» asked Yotkhee, puzzled.
«Lazy people don’t do much during the day so they don’t get tired out by night.»
«And they often spend their nights sitting or lying down near the fire, just whiling away the hours. If they are not asleep, it means they didn’t work hard during the day and didn’t grow tired. So Nga takes them away.»
«I want to protect my people. Please tell me what I can do!»
«To protect the people from inhaling Nga’s poisonous breath, in the morning you should take your reed pipe, think hard of what you want to receive from the good spirits, and start playing. Then the great Minlay bird with her seven pairs of iron wings will come to you. She will raise a mighty wind, and that wind will break Nga’s sick breath and won’t let him take any of your people. The bird will come from the same land where you’re going.»
Yotkhee opened his eyes and saw gigantic transparent shadows tearing around the camp. They were barely visible, but scary-looking, and, as they moved about, the hair on people’s heads stood on end, and all at once the half-dead fires came alive, spewing burning sparks and throwing bright splotches of light onto the trees. The shadows kept rushing among the sleeping people, now stooping down as if to peer closer, now darting off again.
«You will not take any of them!» said Yotkhee to himself with quiet certainty. «My people work hard. No one is afraid of you!»
All at once, the Nghyleka stopped in the air as one turned towards him. In a moment they surrounded him from all sides, and the boy could see them peering into his eyes as if asking: «Who is this? Who is this that has spoken to us? And how could anyone dare not be afraid?»
Fearlessly Yotkhee stared back into the enormous black holes of their eyes and kept silently saying to himself, again and again:
«Go away! You will not take a single person! Go away!»
And the grey shadowy Nghyleka vanished just as abruptly as they had appeared before.
Yotkhee got up quietly and tiptoed to the place where Edeine was, trying not to disturb anyone. The puppy was finally fast asleep, and Edeine was about to doze off too. The boy stooped to stroke good Bura’s head, turned to the girl, and carefully tucked in her blanket.
«Sleep well,» he thought, smiling down at her. «And may you have sweet and beautiful dreams.» He then got up and noiselessly returned to his own bed.
* * *
The old Yotkhee fell silent and sat staring deep into the heart of the flames, stroking his long white beard. The herders and their children were still watching the changing images on the large deep blazing screen hanging over the fire, so clear and bright that it could be seen from any side.
Suddenly the picture dimmed, became thinner, and in a few seconds vanished in the dark of the night. Khadko looked at the shaman and asked in a small sad voice:
«What happened then, Irike? What did those evil spirits do then?»
«A mere mortal cannot see these things,» the shaman said mildly, without taking his eyes off the flames, but then let out a heavy sigh.
«But if you tell us, we will know how to avoid these Nghyleka,» said one of the khasavako with polite persistence.
«You can’t avoid them altogether,» responded the shaman. «But you can guard yourselves against the consequences of meeting them.»
«How would we do that, Irike?» Khadko’s curiosity got the best of him again.
Yotkhee raised his eyes and slowly looked at the faces around the fire.
«You’re not tired yet?»
«No, no, not at all!» the herders responded eagerly. «You are such a wonderful storyteller! Do please tell us what happened next! Besides there is always so much work during the day that there is no time for conversation. When will we have an opportunity like this again?»
«Fine!» the old man said with a kindly smile. «Listen on then.»
He took the pouch off his belt again, got another pinch of the dark powder, and threw it into the fire.
* * *
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