Latchek and Drukov
Perenemansk and Pinea
When I was old enough to comprehend such matters I was told that I entered this fascinating and treacherous world at sunrise on a morning like any other in early autumn. A clutch of cousins and others of uncertain relationship — virtually half the men in the pathetic clan-village of Perenemansk — loitered outside my mother’s hut, fidgeting restlessly, inattentively picking strips of bark from saplings, murmuring in deep tones, and exhaling wisps of vapor onto chilly gusts that furtively snatched everything sent into the air.
Alongside the stream that bordered our village partly-denuded trees, still spattered with autumn yellows and reds, swayed stiffly against a north wind while cloud fragments, like goldfinches, flitted urgently across the smooth blue floor of heaven. The wind played in uneven bursts, so that the trees intermittently sprinkled leaves onto rooftops as if spreading marks of ownership.
Inside our hut all the women had been taking turns to ease my mother’s prolonged labor and to coax the reluctant offspring from her womb. They said that on this morning, when my mother — Ilyana, as she was known — finally gave birth, not to her first, but to her second set of twin boys, the hut fell silent save for the weak, discordant cries of the two insulted babies. As the second head appeared (mine), the younger women and girls were desperately hustled outside. The remaining women quickly finished what needed to be done and one-by-one left the hut too. They joined the waiting men and trudged away, each one anxious not to be associated with the curse of repeat twins.
I, Kolyek, was Ilyana’s fourth and last child, and the only one to survive to this day. I find it hard to imagine what life was like for my hardy mother then. The twin infants who would have been my older brothers died almost simultaneously one day after suffering identical episodes of coughing, gasping, and labored breathing. They had been born in the spring and had lived until early winter, and would have been two and a half years older than I.
What was worse, though, Ilyana had been a bear-widow since the summer just before my birth, and that carried a special stigma; it was rare for a man, especially for one as brave and strong as my father, Valkolyak, to place himself at the direct disposal of a she-bear with cubs. But Valkolyak did, and he died. We never knew why. Didn’t he see the cubs or smell the sow? Was there a connection between his first twin boys and the bear’s twin cubs? Or between those cubs and Ilyana’s second set of twins? All my cousins — the extended family that comprised our village — thought so, although it was often difficult to agree on an interpretation of the gods’ anger. And Perenemansk was not fortunate enough to have an ancient or learned one to shape everyone’s superstitions.
And so, beginning that still, frosty morning of my birth, Ilyana was shunned. This was the public response only, of course. Ilyana could not remove to the common house with her two cursed babies. Yet, throughout the winter, freshly-killed game and prepared foods would appear outside her doorway. There would also be tiny articles of clothing newly-stitched from the fur of foxes, hares, and even sable. Her pile of sticks and bark slabs never dwindled, and once every few days a great bolt of heavy wood would appear so that her coals could be maintained. Once the snow had melted in the spring a water skin always stood full outside our hut in the morning.
Although the gods disapproved of aiding the cursed, the villagers obviously doubted their divine resolve. Ilyana understood her neighbors’ dilemma, observed the formalities, and accepted her rôle in isolation.
I always felt poor but never felt shunned, and clearly at some time before I was old enough to apprehend such things, the curse was lifted. As children, I, Kolyek, and Latchek, my twin, played at boy games with younger boys from the cluster of huts and common houses that constituted our village, and with boys from the nearest neighboring towns. Our childhood was as peaceful as that of any other forest children. It might not have been so if there had been in our village boys a little older than Latchek and I, who could have treated us brutally with taunts and derision or with threats and harm because of our dubious history. But there were none so close in age that we would have been thrown together as playmates.
Ilyana had a brother, Zhukin — not a very smart man but a well-meaning person who traveled the forest repairing anything made of furs. (He could make superb repairs and copies of garments, but was incompetent to design his own.) A year after our father died he learned of Ilyana’s plight and eventually returned to the village to settle in a deteriorating common dwelling to eke out a living. His body was weary anyway, and his fingers were bent in odd, aching curves. It was time he gave up the dangerous if somewhat lucrative life of an itinerant peddler. Still, even though he scorned the gods and refused to shun us, his presence did not make up for the absence of a husband for Ilyana.
Ilyana was not unpleasant to look upon, and I later learned that many men thought her to be a desirable companion as a second or third wife, but for the curse. No other woman in the village would have tolerated one as dubiously blessed as our mother to become her husband’s second wife, and no widower, if there were one present, seemed willing to risk taking her either.
Zhukin thought not so much to fill the void as husband, for Ilyana would have rejected that notion anyway, but remained near us merely to be a protector and to enjoy the ease of her roof and hearth, for his body quickly became wretchedly crippled once he was able to sleep safely and eat well. He was reliable if slow at simple household tasks such as fetching water and firewood. Latchek and I helped our mother and helped him as well; we understood early that we must do so if we were to survive without a father.
Uncle Zhukin was gentle but fearless after years of walking the forest alone. As we stalked the forest with him on daily chores he explained how to stage tied stashes of sticks for easy retrieval on the coldest of days, how to store water in skins beneath the snow so that it would not freeze, and how to lure the most wary hart within range of our tiny arrows. He imparted to Latchek and me a respect for danger, and, with the cagey eyes and hushed whispers that lend authority (in the eyes of two young boys) to a pathetic man, he also taught us a thousand bits of forest lore to give us the ingenuity and confidence to tame our wild surroundings to our own use. Thus we scaled trees in order to compete with the squirrels for nuts. Working as a pair to collect honey, we held a fine strand taut between us and garroted bees’ nests without suffering stings. We set weirs in unlikely waters and netted enviable fishes. We made hunting bows from boughs Zhukin had brought from far away and shaped the slenderest of arrows from heavy, dense slabs of wood rather than settling for thick arrows of lighter-weight fiber. And — what I liked best — he taught us how to track all the forest creatures, to read their marks on trees and on frozen ground, and to think like them. By the time we were ten or eleven, we could stalk and kill small creatures as well as any man in the village.
In the autumn before our twelfth year began, my brother and I felt we were ready to be included in the organized hunt composed of men from our own and several nearby villages. In spite of our skill, though, we were ridiculed and left behind — the first time I felt I had ever been rejected for the shame of my birth.
Determined to prove our manhood, as winter approached that year, Latchek and I organized the boys of our village and devised an elaborate game of mock warfare against the boys of two other towns. We knew nothing of real warfare, but the urge to demonstrate our emerging manhood and to conquer something, anything, possessed us all. Once the envied hunting parties had set out after the equinox, we too traveled modest distances, on the pretense of mimicking the hunt, but in truth to explain our crazy ideas to the boys in the neighboring towns; and the boys with whom we were acquainted in either place eagerly accepted the challenge. (I have long since forgotten the finer details and plans we put forth. I find it easy to remember things that make sense, but nonsense, such as twelve-year-olds’ war strategies, has mostly evaporated from my memory.)
While it did not occur to my brother or me that the boys of other villages might suspect we meant them harm, they did suspect it at first, and so we made what we thought were complicated pacts to assure one another that we proposed no harm, only a game. We agreed that the oldest boy remaining in each village should command his mock-warfare troop, and any boy could participate down to the youngest who could be trusted to remain silent about the plan. The first snow to settle and remain for ten days would be the signal that any one army could set out to begin an attack on any other. Surprise was thus assured. No one was to be harmed. There were no other rules of engagement.
Since our game was a secret scheme, the boys in all three villages wanted to be sure that no adults would mistake our assaults against one another for true attacks of any sort, so we agreed that one old man in each village should be informed. This same man could be brought into the game as an advisor. Our village boys chose Uncle Zhukin. On many days through the late autumn we gathered in a secret place outside the village to build a fire and lay plans and, at Uncle Zhukin’s suggestion, stockpile supplies.
Winter came suddenly that year and with staggering coldness, threatening as always to repress us with boredom and drudgery. But Latchek and I were out of the hut at first light every day, busy with early chores and then off to prepare for our first attack. We all agreed not to tell our mothers that we would be leaving, for it would be only for a few days. Zhukin, a survivor of many winters alone in the forest, counseled the boys of Perenemansk well. We would need three or four days’ supply of some lightweight dried food, versatile clothing, string with which to mark tree branches, a set of symbols committed to memory with which to mark important places in the forest (by laying sticks in precise patterns on the ground), improvised knives, and a separate map burned into leather for every member of the party, indicating the relative location of the three towns and a large river, the map to be tied with a thong around each one’s neck.
We decided to attack the farther town first, the one to our south. Only the six or eight oldest boys should spend the night in the woods, we decided, and hence participate in any attack. So the younger ones were assigned to remain home as a “defense” in case of an attack from the other town.
What innocence! As with anything that boys undertake, the planning and arguing and secrecy provided all the exhilaration; the execution, once it began, was a disaster. On the tenth morning that we awoke to find snow still on the ground, and much of it at that, our party of eight traveled for one whole day on the common route to the town directly south of us.
We might have thought to skirt the common path or to weave in and out from it, but we calculated that we alone would occupy the trace of a trail through the rolling forest. Just as dusk descended we began to plow into the windswept drifts covering the newly-formed ice on the Avek River. In the near-darkness we were beset head-on by a squad of boys from the village we were approaching. We stopped at first, well out onto the wide river’s uncertain ice, and regarded what was before us.
Their army was augmented by several barking dogs with long legs and longer teeth, held by tethers until the success of their surprise advance had registered on our pale, cracked faces. Then the dogs were let loose to bear down upon us more swiftly, arching their gait and panting as dogs will do when running through deep snow.
We did the only brave thing, and that was to turn and run — maybe five paces. There was no escape. For we were ambushed and cut off. The army from the village to our north, which we would have attacked another day, had been gaining on us from the rear. They had chosen, as we had, to turn first not against Perenemansk but against our same southern enemy — but chanced to attack us instead from the shelter of the shore we had just left behind. And so we were trapped in the gathering darkness on the open ice of a wide and deceptively quiet river.
“Wait!” I shouted, and our little group stopped to stare at me. “You idiots! They won’t hurt us!” I insisted. But I had no more than said this when the first of the dogs arrived and began to tear at our thick clothing. Their handlers were still not near enough to be heard, if they were calling off the beasts. So we scattered. I said inside myself: Run directly toward our primary opponents, for this is only a game and there is safety in finally meeting up with them. But Latchek and the others turned aside and ran downstream over the snow and ice. Hesitantly, I followed.
I quickly overtook them all, except for my brother. In the light of a half moon set into a glowing socket in the clouds, a drunken wind tossed plumes of snow high aloft behind our running feet. Only by these spouts of snow could I tell that Latchek, still pursued by one of the dogs, was far downstream and nearing a bend in the river-course. Then a strange thing happened. With a dog still tugging half-heartedly at my tattered garments, Latchek and I continued running down the centerline of the river while the others stopped and hurled muffled shouts at our backs. I finally halted too, for their words began to make sense: “Soft ice! Open water!”
The dog chasing me had broken off the attack, and the one attached to Latchek had released him as well. I caught up with that dog, who paced and panted and whined at me a little, and I glanced far ahead. In the deep night-blue gloom Latchek appeared to stumble and drop next to a shadowy shapelessness against the snow. And then he was gone.
What had I seen before him on the frozen river? A tree trunk? A deer carcass? Or a rift in the ice?
The dogs lunged for shore on the shortest route from where each one waited, and I followed them with my gaze, then turned to look back. All three groups of boys were converging behind me on center ice, like three indistinct, low silhouettes flowing together against the waning glow of the snow. And then they seemed to realize that they may be putting too much strain on the surface beneath their feet, for as quickly as they had come together they dispersed toward the south shore, the shore away from our town.
I sensed that they were beckoning to me, but they were leaving me nonetheless. I remember turning back to stare after Latchek, sobbing, calling to him, screaming at him uselessly. It came to me then, but without the benefit of words to express it — and it comes to me even today when I recall that moment: How arbitrary are the events in life, and our responses, which determine our destinies! What caused me to stop and shout “Wait!” at the moment of retreat, and not Latchek instead?
It could have been Latchek standing alone over the center of the river and I, Kolyek, tangled in saturated furs and belts, suspended in the numbing, twisting current, tumbling along the river bottom in frigid liquid blackness beneath the ice that supported a brother’s feet.
I was aware of nothing else until there was a huge bonfire on the south riverbank, creating a cavity of light in the solid silent night. Twenty boys and six dogs, who would one day soon hunt together as men, bustled around the fire, trampling the snow and thrusting sticks into the flames.
The talk was excited, the voices shrill. Faces were flushed and eyes were wide and wild, and instead of flared tempers there were squeals of discovery and disagreement. They were realizing then, as the fire lit our faces and palms, that, in supreme foolishness, all three of our groups had waited the requisite ten days and had then set out at the same hour. The army from the north, not terribly distant, had reached our village by mid-day. They sent in a scout, and finding only the little boys, swiftly took up our trail. The group from the south had just reached the wide river’s opposite south bank when we reached its north. Their plan had been to spread out along the shore and wait for either of the other armies to cross the ice. They would then re-group and trail the enemy to a convenient ambush. But their dogs had sensed us first and had goaded them onto the river. It was the boldest coincidence that we all met on the ice.
I stood apart, shivering, throughout this festivity. Different ones came near and asked: “Didn’t he see the water? Why didn’t you stop him? Why did the gods favor you? What will your mother say?” In all their voices was the thrill of death cheated. But their sense of loss was no more than if someone’s pack of food or extra clothing had fallen into the torrent. No one was truly stunned but I.
I alone had to face Ilyana the next day, after trudging homeward through the night alone. Yet, in the strange way of mothers, she knew even before I spoke. There was nothing we could say to console one another.
Ilyana had moved to the common house on the morning of our departure, leaving Uncle Zhukin in her hut. After that, for a time, I lived in the hut with him, but my guilt rose to choke me every time I saw my mother, and the next autumn I eagerly joined the hunters. While it was important to me that I could always claim a home village, Perenemansk, I knew from the day I left — and it rises to choke me every day since — that I would never return.
+ + +
It would be several years later when I would learn this next story, but another boy, nearly my own age, lived in a village called Pinea, halfway between the Sea of Balta and the Caspian. About the time I stood shivering before my mother, absorbing her cold gaze and casting about for words to excuse my folly and describe my immediate helplessness, this boy, Drukov, stood before his father, Sadruk, shivering in a gusty snow squall, trying to stammer intelligible words through gray-blue lips.
His mother’s desperate gaze haunted his thinking and interfered with the very ability to compose a sentence. Facing his son, Drukov’s father already knew this much: that his wife lay on a wide board suspended over a hot earthen stove in a common house in the village, that she had been gradually dwindling in body and spirit, growing more pale and more frail over several weeks, and that he had to depend on an old village wise man and self-appointed healer called Bugra-dezhu for the concoctions and spells to heal her.
The woman on the stove had been trembling with great shudders and with audible chattering of teeth when Sadruk had left her side that evening to seek the healer once more. He knew what the wizard would want to do. Sadruk almost wished his wife would die. He hated the sinister presence of this diviner of the gods’ intentions. He deeply resented the old man’s license to strip away the helpless woman’s covers, exposing the nude sufferer to the crowd. He fought the rage that he knew would return when Bugra-dezhu would perform yet another round of examinations on the dying woman’s diminutive, pain-wracked body, the body that Sadruk had worshipped and treated so gently, the body that had struggled to deliver the obedient son who now sought him through the gloom.
Sadruk, a slight man easily overlooked even when he stood alone in a field, was now curled in a squat against a sturdy pile of neatly-stacked firewood outside Bugra-dezhu’s house, waiting his turn to plead once more with the gruff, accusing healer, when he noticed his son bounding quickly but unsteadily toward him through the gale-whipped snow of the gathering blue dusk. The child had to look closely to see that the little man was indeed pressed into the shelter of the wood pile and even more closely to see that this was his father’s face with eyebrows of delicate icicles peering from within the fur wrap.
As with Ilyana, my mother, Sadruk knew the message long before his son could emit any words. For a long moment he let the boy sputter, then, without speaking, Sadruk rose and trudged toward the common house where he would face the collective condolences of his neighbors. Drukov followed, still trying to speak but now prevented by his own sobbing. Tears became frozen rivulets down the small face, and the shorter legs often gave way in the drifting snow, bringing Drukov to his knees.
When Bugra-dezhu at last opened his door to admit the humble peasant, Sadruk was a dark shape obliviously retreating into the shadows of the village, pursued by a clumsy figure that couldn’t stay on its feet.
His jaw set in a scowl that his son still remembered years later, Sadruk stalked past the silent, staring faces in the common house, gently lifted his wife’s wretched remains from the hot board, and bore her into the night with Drukov stumbling after. When Bugra-dezhu arrived shortly to claim the corpse for his own revolting purposes, the people only shrugged.