The Dregovichian Hunter and the Pig
Perenemansk and Pinea
“There are things I have to tell,” I said when I could make myself talk.
“Wait first, please.” It was Simonos. “I think we must give some thought to the things that —” he stumbled for a name “— that Marhya-Laïsha has said. See how she sighs with relief after her confession? ‘A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.’”
Euthymios agreed. “Laïsha?”
“Please call me that.”
“We were in and around Drizha for a number of weeks before advancing here,” Euthymios told us, “and there we met with many of the citizens. It was not a pleasant town, and I did not feel our Master’s favor upon the place. Nevertheless, we established a small congregation as a part of the church of our Master, and one day we will go back to see how it fares. We left Drizha for a few days and traveled to a Tokharian settlement nearby, for Drizha seems to be on the route of many nomads who settle for a time in the steppe around the town. When we returned to Drizha, we heard of this Raznoy. Simonos knows what happened better than I.”
“A man by that name came to Drizha,” Simonos continued the explanation, “and lodged with a friend, apparently the same one with whom you and Davnoy stayed.” He nodded toward Laïsha. “The people said there was an argument between the guest, Raznoy, and the host. Raznoy accused the host of lying about the whereabouts of his brother, who would be your very Davnoy. Raznoy’s assertion was that the people of Pinea and nearby did not see him. The people of Drizha did, and freely acknowledged that they had. The houses in the woods between the two towns, yours, evidently, Kolyek, and Polotnoy’s, denied any knowledge of him. The host in Drizha was affronted by the accusation. Raznoy took out his sword, the host his ever-present ax. Raznoy now lies in the care of a medicine woman there, and his host is badly wounded. Raznoy will almost certainly lose an arm. Yet even if he survives, they may execute him. He had a guard of two men with him, and those of his guard have disappeared. But of the brother, Davnoy, no one could tell, once he had left Drizha.”
It gave me small comfort. Polotnoy, too, had lied about seeing the traveling couple. He was shrewd.
“I cared not for Raznoy, either,” Laïsha said to no one in particular.
I appreciated Simonos’s advice, that we pause to think about Laïsha’s history. In some ways I wanted desperately to be alone with her, to reassure her that her past in no way diminished her worth to me. But what would she care of her worth to me once she learned of the death and desecration that had taken place by my hands?
So, now it was my turn to talk.
I asked the others whether I might be forgiven if I took a walk outside. It was all right with them.
Once out in the open I wished that we could all take a walk together. I trudged through some patches of thin moss that lay before the house and shuffled across newly bared ground, re-tracing the steps I had taken in the accomplishing of so many of the unseemly deeds I’d done. I stood, dejected, at the edge of the brush pile. I walked to the sand bank behind the house that had been my master’s grave. I walked to the road and back. At last I went behind the house and even paused where Yomo, the sow, had fallen after taking an iron rod through her windpipe.
Back inside I met the scent of incense and found Euthymios and Laïsha once again engaged in prayer. Simonos hobbled toward me, when I entered, and drew me down to kneel at the bench inside my door.
“If you pray before you speak, you may know peace in your heart like never before, even as you tell what you have to say. This minute, Laïsha prays for that very peace for you. I cannot describe it, but if you wish to be happy even though you are burdened, you should ask God to grant you his peace.”
And so, to an unseen power, that seemed distinct from other gods chiefly in being benign, I prayed. Simonos mumbled for several minutes in Greek, and I in turn translated to my own tongue and repeated what I could from what he said. I believed, at least for part of the prayer, that I was talking to someone who listened.
When I had finished, Euthymios motioned me to sit before the stove. “Laïsha has a request of you,” He said. I turned to her.
“Forgive me — please, Kolyek?”
“You have committed no offense toward me, Dear Laïsha.”
“I have offended all of mankind.”
Somehow images came to mind that I did not summon: this sickly woman giving birth prematurely to a dead child, the attempt to murder, the slave being set free by the master’s wife, the woman’s thought to murder again… These were offenses against all of mankind? These were the grievous sins that she had committed?
“I have been unwise not to trust you,” she said, “and therefore I have kept things from you that you had every reason to know. Yet, at first, when I was at my worst, I saw the hope of escape from my past, but only if you did not know me or whom to contact in regard to me. You deserved more trust, and I denied you that.”
I extended first one arm, then two. She rose and walked between them, and for the first time in my life I embraced a woman of my own age in true affection.
“So you see, Father Euthymios and Father Simonos,” said Laïsha, when, reluctantly, we had released each other, “even though we masqueraded as husband and wife, and slept together when others were present, in order to maintain the pretense, we have been discreet with one another. What I have told you earlier is much more serious than lying together in sleep, and I have made my resolve not to resort to such dishonesty again.”
“Please sit,” Simonos asked everyone then. Almost as if anticipating a minstrel, they took their places. Laïsha would have had me sit beside her on the bed, but instead I drew toward me the bench from beside the door and rested on it.
I began with my past, that I was born a Dregovichian near the source of the Neman River. I spoke about the stigma my birth had caused my mother, about outliving that curse, and about the horror of watching my brother drown. That foolish venture, however, had been a show of enough bravery (or foolhardiness) to get me invited into the hunt the next autumn.
From that time in my youth and thereafter I was raised to be a hunter, and about six years before the present time I had come into Ukraina, the frontier between the ulus, or tribal lands, of the north and the civilizations to the south, with a party of my people on a year-long hunting expedition.
We had ranged far on this hunt, because the region of the upper Neman was being plundered more and more by hungry Varangians. In addition, the area had been charred by a forest fire lasting for several weeks in the late summer and autumn just before our departure, driving wild game far from our grasp. What was to be a seasonal laying-in of meat and furs became an ordeal of never-ending travel for me and for dozens of my kinsmen.
We sought brown bear furs and sable and ermine, and anything of worth that we could kill. The bears we ate ourselves. We found elk and beaver and sent their quartered carcasses quickly northward, cooled enough by the chill autumn air to assure their freshness for a few weeks. We were a silent party, not interested in pillage or trouble. We kept away from the towns, as attractive as some were from a distance.
I had been a good hunter up to about my fourteenth year. After the first year’s hunt I remained with the unmarried men of the group and spent a leisurely and irresponsible summer with them fishing on a lake I knew not where, listening to the men brag about elk with broad antlers and women with broad hips. The autumn of our third expedition I was just entering my fifteenth year and my reputation was secure, but for reasons I couldn’t then explain, I knew privately that my skill was failing. Nevertheless, I set out with my party, and had some early success. Older men and simpletons accompanied us for the purpose of transporting our bounty homeward, so I expected that if I failed miserably as a hunter, later in the trip, I could return as a bearer.
But the smaller squad that I was usually with included the leader of the whole expedition, and when he saw my mounting failures he became angry and challenged me with ever harder shots at game. When I could hit nothing at all with arrow, stone, or spear, he took my weapons from me and stalked away.
I squinted always anyway, but when I reached this point in my reflections I made slits of my eyelids and looked from Euthymios to Simonos to Laïsha-Marhya. They appeared to find the face I made amusing but it didn’t convey any information to them. I had to explain: “I can’t see. As a young hunter I was going blind.” Euthymios, leaning forward, began rocking in position as if nodding that he understood.
I continued the story of my separation from the hunters. I knew I was to consider myself abandoned when the leader had confiscated my weapons, and I stayed overnight where he’d left me, making a camp for myself at the confluence of a stream and a river, (the stream across the road from my present house and the river that runs by Gonashi’s pasture).
The next day I set out thinking to offer to rejoin my party as a bearer, but they had moved on. They’d gone south, I knew, so I tried to follow. Within a day, of course, I grew hungry. I realized that I could too soon become lost, for south of this place I had not been before. At least, with some luck, I could retrace my route homeward. If I had gone southward another couple of days I would have come to the open steppe, but how could I have known? In fact, my hunting companions must also have reached the steppe, and probably then had turned westward.
I was near despair when I found the road that passed Sadruk’s house, and Gonashi’s, and began walking east and north, toward Pinea. The hunters had not used the road, of course, but now I headed homeward by way of this road. I thought of what would await me there. I would be ridiculed as a failed hunter and would be left to join the ranks of the simpletons and the desperately poor. I had known of blind beggars, the most pathetic people I could imagine. And I shuddered to think of returning home only to become one myself. At best, I could hope to live like my uncle Zhukin, already old, already ridiculed, already poor.
I continued into Pinea that day, after a stop at Gonashi’s house to beg food, and even though still starving and dirty, I presented myself with dignity to the magistrate as exactly what I was, an outcast hunter with poor vision, far from home in the northern forests. I offered to apprentice myself to anyone anywhere he would direct me to go.
The magistrate himself, a man about ten years older than I, took me to his house and cleaned me and fed me. He already had a slave and a paid servant, who, along with his family were all that he could feed, so even though he might have wanted to keep me to serve him, he could not, for he was not rich. Instead, he told me of a couple of possible opportunities. Bugra-dezhu, the old spell-casting diviner of Pinea, wanted an apprentice. But the magistrate discouraged that course. Instead, he sent a messenger to summon Sadruk, a different kind of physician, from his house deep in the woods. Sadruk, already an older man, but with a son, Drukov, arrived late in the evening. Appearing irate, he nevertheless welcomed the free service of a youth like me. We spent half the night returning to his distant home, and we conversed without pause on the journey, which kept predators at bay while helping us pass the time and affording ample opportunity to become acquainted.
It was on this walk, using a road that Sadruk could follow in near-darkness, so familiar was he with it, that I learned of his parents’ origins in Bulgária. His father, Agaruk, had run away from home during some violent upheaval in his homeland, joined with other families fleeing that unrest, and moved into the forest as far as this stream outside Pinea. They had built huts, cleared some land (now reclaimed by the forest), and had grown some meager crops. A girl of one such family, Ghia, later became Agaruk’s wife, Sadruk’s own mother, and here Agaruk had built this house.
I learned a little of Sadruk’s own youth in these woods, collecting rocks, experimenting with insects. He told me of his fascination with the Varangians who were bringing excitement into the region. As a young man not wanting to miss that excitement, he left his parents to move into the village where he took a wife. It was during one brutal winter in Pinea, several years later, when Sadruk’s wife died and his own father as well. Sadruk and his son, Drukov, moved out to his family home here by the stream.
The other Bulgárians had drifted on by then and the house stood alone. Leaving Drukov with Ghia, the boy’s grandmother, Sadruk had gone off for his education-of-sorts in the mountains north of Greece and then returned to begin his work as a physician in the forest until such time as the dangerous old wizard of Pinea, Bugra-dezhu, might die. And then, perhaps, Sadruk could move into the village as a proper physician. To his great sorrow, Ghia became ill and did not live through another winter after Sadruk returned from the south.
+ + +
In the shadow of all his losses, Drukov was a happy, smart boy a little younger than I. He quickly attached himself to me, a wild, wandering youth who had lived off the land since my boyhood. I readily showed off all my knowledge of creatures and weather, foraging and inventing. Since his knowledge was also about secrets of the forest — its herbs and other remedies, we found it great fun to share information. While I quickly grew into a tall young man much hardened by my travels, though, Drukov was small like his father and was more at ease on his knees gathering leaves from ground plants near his home than wrestling a wounded deer in an icy stream.
Sadruk saw me first as a substitute for a wife, in cooking and housekeeping, that is. But I showed such an interest in his fascinating skills that he took me as an apprentice, which the magistrate had foreseen even before Sadruk did. Since I had made sure that I was a good housekeeper and a better cook, Sadruk found no reason to deny my additional desire.
My presence in the home made it possible for Drukov to get his wish. After witnessing his mother’s prolonged suffering, he too wanted to become the best physician that he could be, but Sadruk would have been torn at the heart to let him go to Greece to study medicine and logic with the great teachers. My apprenticeship to Sadruk, after a year of humble servitude, gave him the companionship and purpose to carry on at home and let his son go at the age of sixteen. Two and a half years had passed since then and Drukov had returned once, just last summer, with reports that things were going splendidly well.
Then, perhaps because of my growing confidence as a healer, things began to grow worse for me again. I had learned to copy Sadruk’s handwriting and to copy labels for medicine jars. What I hadn’t learned so well was to identify dried, pulverized leaves and match their identity with their fresh counterparts. One day, a few months past, Sadruk had discovered a serious error — serious, serious error, he repeated — in the way I had labeled a jar. He dumped the contents onto the floor, and then, worse for me, he wept.
A few days later we started again at the beginning — five years of training lost, he kept mumbling, although I disagreed that the loss was total. We had some fun for a while reviewing my learning, and I proved myself once more.
My confidence restored, I accepted a sufferer for treatment in Sadruk’s absence one day, a young man with sore throat and nausea. I began with an infusion of dried philanthropos leaves steeped in hot water, which I instructed him to gargle once it had cooled sufficiently. By the time Sadruk returned the next afternoon I had treated the sufferer well, and together we sent him home, but I had contracted the disease that I had set out to drive away.
Sadruk prescribed for me a series of remedies, mostly brews to be consumed warm and with haste. (Due to their general foulness of flavor I declined as often as I dared without offending him, preferring to endure the passing symptoms.) Thus Sadruk treated me, and then, as I was recovering, he, too, was stricken.
Once under the power of this illness, my master applied the same regimen of herbs and minerals to himself. He began his day of suffering with hyssop for breathing. A while later he took a tea of ground thistle brewed with wormwood for fever and general listlessness.
The next preparation he called “the cure.” It was convincingly bad-tasting, ugly to behold, and had a suitably immediate effect on everyone who submitted to it.
“The cure” was one of the truly effective treatments for symptoms of general malaise, even though it had to be repeated regularly until the sufferer’s body was sufficiently fortified that the spirit of the illness relented and sought another body to occupy, preferably that of a nuisance woodland creature. It was not as complex a medicine as he pretended, but it was his favorite treatment for the townspeople. He first made a paste of hot water infused with beets and the dried roots of polypody, gathered from under an oak. This was to cleanse the bowels and expel tapeworms, if present. But this material was of such a repulsive sweetness that he always combined it with a brew of centaury bitters and fennel, given to aid digestion, promote appetite, and stimulate blood grown sluggish over the winter.
One day Sadruk asked me to prepare the cure for him, and he watched me at every step. As it cooled a little, though, he asked me to add salt. I had done the same for myself once, when I was forced (by humility) to drink the cure Sadruk had made for me. But I had several vials of salt that I have modified for specific purposes. One of those included crushed Gangavadi seed that a traveler in Pinea had recently sold me to be blended in very small quantities with salt, due to its bitterness, and it was sure to induce overall liveliness and a desire to become very active. I thought this would help Sadruk. Occasionally I would dip a moistened fingertip into this little jar and then lay a few granules of this secret salt onto my tongue, to give me courage for spending a long day working outdoors, for example.
Sadruk had apparently found, as I had, that a little bit of plain salt lent a familiar flavor, almost like that of decaying meat, making the cure somehow less offensive, to my tongue anyway. The salt modified with Gangavadi seed would help the flavor the same way, I said inside myself.
Sadruk watched approvingly as I sprinkled salt into his cure, but neither did he see which jar I had drawn it from nor did he even know of my new compound. When I took it to him where he sat on a stool next to the simmering stove, a blanket over his shoulders, he sipped, adjusted his seat, mumbled some comments, sipped a few more times while mumbling, and then, all at once he glared at me in astonishment, his eyes changing from fear to loathing as he began to choke on the brew. I rushed forward to help him, of course, but he writhed away, certain that I had poisoned him.
Still he choked, and then lost his breath altogether. As he shot rigidly upward, I took the cup from him and drank its dregs to show him it was not as he believed, but he must have thought I was trying to kill myself also.
He died very quickly without regaining his breath. And so I had to bury him. I don’t know what caused me to scream inside myself more: that I was in serious trouble or… or that I had tortured and killed the only person in the world who loved me.
If I confessed his death, and especially any involvement in it, then surely I would be sentenced to die. So I made up the story of his current journey to Bulgária and possibly even to Greece.
+ + +
I paused in my story and regarded my hearers. They stared at me in silence, but with intent interest.
“Sadruk and I had a sow, Yomo, which was really his pet and companion,” I went on. “Together they took walks and he fed her well. She enjoyed the equivalent of a place at the table, for always there was a portion for her. After Sadruk died, Yomo became upset, or so I deduce. She often escaped. On the day that Laïsha landed in my care, Yomo had again escaped, you see.”
I stopped and looked at them again. “The telling is going to get very difficult for me here, so please give me your patience,” I begged them, “and your hearts.” I leaned far forward on the bench, and at times rubbed my palms on my own ankles as I talked.
So at last I told everything about Yomo’s final escape and Davnoy’s death and how I’d dealt with that. I told it all: of the things I had found on Davnoy and hidden in my lintel, of finding his neck ornament, of wanting to leave before Drukov’s return but being now held back, and happily so, by Laïsha’s dependence on me. I even confessed my interest in seeing Laïsha undressed, necessary as it had been. I don’t know when I began crying, nor how long it took to tell. But I ended in sobs of relief, caring not whether I went now to my own death at the sentencing of the magistrate. I only hoped to look up and see anything but hatred in Laïsha’s face.