Kazakhstan. People against wolves. The winner takes nothing or...
|I'm not an author. I'm just a translator from Russian.
Yerkebulan. A steppe story by Galina Emelyanova
An illustration is here https://invir-lazarev.livejournal.com/970.html
It is as if someone has turned back time. The clouds of steppe dust fly around the hooves of rich landowners’ herds again. The shepherds receive their salaries in kind, in lamb and foals, just as in the old times. In Soviet times, a traveling shop used to come to jailau (a Kazak nomad camp) and it was like a holiday for the whole shepherd family; they bought everything: food, matches, tea, new boots and even children's toys. Now everyone in the village lives on credit, placing their hopes on a future harvest or offspring.
The shepherds Aidos and Batima were a little luckier.
Their youngest son got a good job in the city and therefore twice a year he was able to bring them flour, kerosene, tea, and sugar. The son married a Russian girl without even asking his mother and father. The war in Afghanistan had taken away the old couple’s first-born boy, Baurzhan. The health of their oldest daughter had been ruined by vodka.
They held hope for the youngest daughter, Madina. She obtained a straight-A grade, which gave her a grant for study at the medical institute in the city. She studied there for half a year, but in the same year, in the spring, fragments of a Proton rocket fell on the steppe. In six months, leukemia turned a young seventeen-year-old girl into a skeleton wrapped in skin. She was buried in the local village cemetery marked with a snow white headstone called a “mazar” to symbolize her innocence.
The summer promised the elderly couple some joy. They migrated at the usual time of the year to their jailau (a summer pastures in the mountains), where there were plenty of lambs. A wonderful black foal ran with the other horses. And there was another joy: their son had changed and now respected the old people and customs more, and brought their grandson, Yerkebulan. After four years, they met for the first time. The boy pleased the old people with his round, swarthy face and black eyes. Aidos, with his own hands, put in grandson’s mouth some pilaf (a rice dish popular in much of the former Soviet Union which is cooked with spices, vegetables and meat) without the meat that was usually added for the adults. The old man kissed his grandson's short hair and tears came to his eyes. The grandson, Yerkebulan, who barely spoke Kazakh, was fussing, wanting modern food and demanding a TV. The grandson was large and chubby. Although he was a sturdy one-and-a-half-year-old child and had undergone the rite of 'tusau kesu' (1) he still crawled more than he walked.
The whole horse herd that was grazing on the steppe, attended by Aidos with his wife, was owned by a rich man, ”a bai” in Kazakh. And the name of the owner suited him perfectly - “Zhanbai”, “a new bai”. But the old shepherds decided to ask to keep the black-maned foal named “Karanayzagan” (“Black Lightning”) as a payment for their work and make him the“besere” of their grandson. Often the birth of a child coincides with the birth of a domestic animal. In such cases, the foal or young camel is assigned to the newborn and this animal-besere is considered the property of the child. According to a popular belief, the future of a newborn is closely connected with his besere. Therefore, they don’t ride such an animal, they don’t slaughter it for meat or even sell it. On the contrary, they look after the besere just as carefully as they do the child. Having matured with his animal, the child who owns the besere feels confident and learns from an early age to value and groom cattle - the main wealth of the Kazakhs.
The owner mainly came to the steppe for hunting, but sometimes he was willing to participate in getting the cattle into vans for transportation to the city. So this time, Zhanbai arrived with an escort of strong young men, in huge cars that the old people had never seen before, and two cattle vans trailed behind them. Zhanbai drove around the horse herd and hissed with disdain: “Everyone to the slaughter!”
Several strong men got out of the vans and the work began. They took horses and foals en masse. Aidos tried to explain to the owner that it was too early to take the foals away from the mares, but he did not listen. Then the bai saw Karanayzagan in the herd and clicked his tongue with joy.
Zhanbai said: “I’ll take him to the racetrack, maybe he’s worth it.” The foal was taken from his mother. The sides of the van were slammed shut. The vans drove into the city to a meat factory.
Aidos spat a curse in the direction of the new bai and Batima only wailed sadly: "Ooh, bai, mark my words, there's going to be trouble.”
And this happened almost immediately. At night, a terrible thunderstorm began, which was unprecedented in March. Aidos and his wife took three days to collect the horses that had scattered out of fear across the steppe. And when they returned to their yurt (2), their little grandson Yerkebulan was not there. However, there was still hope that somehow it would all work out, because the old wolfhound had gone with the boy. The three days needed to collect the horse herd had taken up all their strength. When the old people went to bed, they were certain that their grandson would be found.
The morning did not bring good news: there was no Yerkebulan and the wolfhound did not return either. Aidos got on his horse and rode to the aul (3).
The district police officer Marat was red eyed as he had been up all night keeping the peace amongst the revelers who came from the city. The district officer did not drink vodka; in fact, he drank no alcohol at all. He got into a jeep and drove to the nearby nomad camps. There were fewer people on the steppe than before: young people were leaving for the city for a better future. He managed to collect about ten people to search for the boy. They took spare horses and rode off to the steppe to search, and Marat himself galloped to where the guests from the city were. Нe saw a helicopter of the Ministry of Emergency Situations not far from their camp.
The bais were new, but they behaved like the old ones, the Soviets. They drank arak (4) in incredible quantities and loved to shoot all the steep saiga antelopes (5) for fun. So, when the district policeman arrived, the helicopter flew off to a hunt; but Marat, threatening to use his service gun, forced one of their guards to radio the helicopter. When he requested its return, the pilot just swore over the radio. The helicopter returned to the camp only after three days. The boy was never found. A platoon of soldiers was sent from the city. The soldiers were sent without rations and shepherds had to feed the beardless youths from their own poor supplies.
Do you know, dear reader, what Kazakh hospitality is? No, this is not like Caucasian hospitality when you can go to someone else’s garden and pick tomatoes or peppers, or pluck tangerines or pomegranates from a tree. A lamb will always be slaughtered for a guest, and friends will also bring you a second lamb as a gift. And it’s not Russian hospitality, where the snacks are few but the vodka is plentiful.
No, Kazakh hospitality is when, of all the products you need, you have only water. You boil it, add the remnants of milk, and, as the most precious thing, give the guest a piece of lump sugar. And the heads of your seven children peer out beyond the threshold of the yurt. They are waiting for the guest to leave in the hope that they will also get sweet tea. The guest is given the best food of any. And in the house, indeed, as in the old days, they scrape flour from the bottom of the bucket to bake a journey-cake for the guest on the last spoon of oil in the morning. It’s the last spoon of oil because flour, tea, kerosene and oil were gotten on credit from dealers, against future meat. And all stuff was running out, but the snowstorm did not allow profiteers to come and buy for cheap fresh meat, butter and sour cream from the shepherds. So you have nothing to give the guest for the road, but the custom of the ancestors is stronger than your hunger.
And the guest will put a warm journey-cake into his pocket and it will warm him for a long time on the long road. This is the hospitality of the Kazakhs and it is dearer to me than all others in the world.
The steppe rarely gives back what people lose to it. On the ninth day, the authorities decided: "The boy was eaten by wolves." He could not have survived in the steppe for so many days alone. Aidos was totally debilitated. A mullah (6) came to him and said: “Pray.” Aydos did not know how to pray. He had not believed in Allah all his life and when he first prayed, the gods seem to have heard him and took him.
The track was closed due to the ice storm so his son wasn't able to come from the city until the seventh day after Aidos' death.
He forbade the mullah to recite the Surah (7) as a mark of his missing son Erkebulan's death. He handed out gifts to everyone who came to his father’s wake. He didn’t even stay overnight in the parental home and went back to the city.
Batima went to a neighboring village to a seer who asked for beans and said - the boy is alive, but the spirits of the steppe would not return him yet.
“Alive, Alive!” That was all that old Batima understood and her heart calmed down.
“My Yerkebulan just returned to the city,” she told the neighbors who came on the seventh day to remember Aidos. The neighbors were not even surprised that Batima began to talk such nonsense. Who can bear such a burden of the soul and still stay sane?
Winter was mild, but snowy. There were few people on the steppe, but many wolves. They were so insolent that they began to go out to the highway and once a man who was waiting for a bus got killed by a wolf. Authorities advertised in newspapers and on TV: “For one wolf skin - one thousand tenge (8).”
The price increased to three thousand when the city guys led by Zhanbai arrived in the aul. Zhanbai was dressed in a luxury brand jumpsuit, over which he wore a vest with many pockets. His gun was very strange, more like a souvenir than a weapon. But the bullets were for a big beast, and even contained strychnine. A wealthy guest hired hunting beaters for cash. Mothers let even ten-year-old kids come onto the steppe.
A wolf pack was driven through a narrow gorge where they were surrounded. The wolves formed a circle and seemed as though they were riding on an invisible carousel. At first, it seemed stupid to Zhanbai, because the wolves could not go anywhere. But soon, when one be one the wolves fell dead in the snow, he saw who they were covering. The she-wolf was large, with reddish spots on each side of her fur. The cycle of the wolf pack moved from the center and with each backward step approached the exit of the gorge. Suddenly, the wolf carousel fell apart and, like an arrow fired from a bow, rushed towards the hunters. A young guy stood in the way to their freedom and the wolves just swept him away. Another mediocre hunter tried to use a gun as a club, but the she-wolf turned her face slightly towards him and he fell into the snow with a laceration on his hip.
A wolf pack went onto the steppe, divided into small groups. Nevertheless, Zhanbai was only interested in the she-wolf. He ran to his snowmobile, jumped into its saddle and sped away. The young wolf made the way to the she-wolf in the snow, but she ran hard. Her nipples, swollen with milk, painfully hit the snow crust, but overcoming the pain, she ran faster and faster. Zhanbai shot. A young wolf was gunned down by his first shot.
The she-wolf did not stop. He shot again, sworn with annoyance, but then broke into a broad smile. The she-wolf was touching the snow with her front paws and still thought that she was running, but her hind paws were already frozen by the poison in the bullets. Zhanbai stopped his snowmobile and walked up to her. There was neither pain nor hatred in the transparent yellow eyes of the she-wolf, but there was a mystery. So there was an opportunity for Zhanbai to try a gift from friends, a machete. The hunter pulled out a machete and chopped off the beast's head. The dead eyes faded slightly, but the mystery remained in them. But this secret was very simple: the she-wolf had led the hunters away from her lair, where on a bed of grass and shreds of wool her two wolf cubs and a human child were sleeping.
She-wolf had met little Yerkebulan two weeks before. The stupid old dog was ripped apart by her young wolf companion. The human cub whimpered weakly and her future wolf cubs seemed to answer him in her womb. The cub smelled like people, he had the smell of a dog and smoke, but she boldly approached and began to lick him, washing off this hated smell. Then she grabbed him by the hood of his puffy jacket, and dragged him into her den, which she had dug for giving birth.
Zhanbai had a special bag for hunting trophies. He put the head of the she-wolf there and mentally congratulated himself on the victory. He took a flat flask from his vest pocket and took a sip of cognac.
The sky darkened and seemed to hang over the steppe. At first, it became quiet and then a storm fell upon the steppe and visibility fell to practically zero. The snowmobile rode through the snowstorm. Then it ran out of fuel and the hunter, who was dizzy with alcohol, decided to walk.
“I have chosen the direction and I'm just going forward,” he stubbornly repeated a phrase he had heard somewhere. It became harder to move. There was more snow and the exhausted hunter sat in the snow and fell asleep. His awakening was terrible. The snowstorm howled as if it was a wolf. Zhanbai imagined the bloody mouth of the she-wolf strangling him by the throat. He was awake and began to dig out of the snow. The storm still did not stop. The feeling of hunger was unbearable and he started chewing snow.
On the third day, he already saw of a pack of wolves surrounding him and he began to shoot into the darkness. Then he imagined how his delicate body, after a recent holiday in Thailand, would be torn by these sharp teeth and he made up his mind. He brought the gun to his chin and fired. His body went limp and fell into the snow. In fact there were no people, no wolves for miles around.
Marat, the district police officer, was woken up by someone slapping him in his face. This was the head of security for Zhanbai, who had broken into his house and demanded that he begin the search for his boss.
“In the gorge, the snowstorm is calmer and the hunters will probably wait out the snowstorm there and return afterward,” the policeman explained to the guard.
The hunters returned on the fourth day. Zhanbai was not with them and his snowmobile was not there either.
"Come on, run to the Emergency services for a chopper!" the head of security yelled at Marat.
The policeman looked at the blue frosty sky and at the snowy steppe, shining under the sun. He remembered everything: the white mazar on the grave of his bride Madina and the boy Yerkebulan with a funny pigtail on the back of his head and the men, who carrying the body of Aidos-ake (9) to the local cemetery, wrapped in a carpet (10). He took out a case of vodka from his safe, which had been given to him by the new bais and took it to the rescue team. They drank all the vodka. Marat just rinsed his mouth with vodka. As result, it took three days before the helicopter took off.
Zhanbai was found a week later. The maintenance men went to the hill to refuel the diesel engine on the radio tower and found his body. Zhanbai had not seen the maintenance men’s hut because of the storm, but he had been just fifty meters away it.
Then a little boy, who was dressed in a puffer jacket and nothing else, crawled out of the wolf den, upon hearing people's voices. The maintenance men did not believe their eyes. They brought the boy to the village. “Mowgli, Mowgli!” they laughed happily.
"What do you mean “Mowgli”? This is my grandson Erkebulan!" Batima-apa (11) laughed happily, pouring tea with milk for her dear guests.
Explanations to the story
1 – The rite “tusau kesu” (“cutting the rope”), traditionally carried out after a child walks for the first time. More information see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fneomxqc4bM&feature=emb_logo
2- A traditional yurt is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by several distinct nomadic groups in the steppes of Central Asia.
3 - Aul (Kazakh) is a Kazakh word meaning "village" in Kazakhstan.
4- Arak is the traditional alcoholic beverage in Western Asia. Among the nomads of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, mare's milk is the basis of making arak. The drink is prepared from a strongly fermented koumiss with an alcohol content of 5-6%. As a result of distillation, arak is obtained with a strength of about 30 percent alcohol, sometimes a second distillation is done.
5- The saiga antelope (/ˈsaɪɡə/, Saiga tatarica) is a critically endangered antelope that originally inhabited a vast area of the Eurasian steppe zone from the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and Caucasus into Dzungaria and Mongolia.
6- Mullah. The term is applied to a Muslim man, educated in Islamic theology and sacred law. The title has also been used in some Sephardic Jewish communities to refer to the community's leadership, especially religious leadership. The term mullah is primarily understood in the Muslim world as a term of respect for an educated religious man.
7- A Surah (/ˈsʊərə/; Arabic: سورة sūrah, plural surahs) is the term for a chapter of the Quran.
8- The tenge is the currency of Kazakhstan.
9, 11 - Kazakh form of polite addressing is related to the term kinship: - ake (father), - apa (mother). The traditional polite addressing of the younger to the older.
10 – Islamik funeral tradition (the body is placed in the grave without a coffin).
Translated from Russian - Invir Lazarev - 2021