I recently received one of my earlier stories “This Side of the River” from Wisconsin, Superior (USA). The story was translated into English by Jason and Aydina Sivertsen. The translation was timed to my birthday. Therefore, I am very pleased to offer it to the readers.
(Недавно я получил один из своих ранних рассказов (“Доверие”) из Сьюпириора, Висконсин (США). Рассказ на английский язык перевели Джейсон и Айдина Сивертсены. Перевод был приурочен ко дню моего рождения. Поэтому я с большим удовольствием предлагаю его читателям. МуМур.)
This Side of the River
by Musa Murataliev
Sleep still clouded Zhakyp’s head, but he got up, dressed himself, and taking the double-barreled shotgun from the wall, went down from the yurt. With his eyes barely open, Zhakyp almost tripped on Uchar, who was curled up in a ball at the entrance. Half asleep, she seemed to be a stump of wood from who knows where.
The dog leapt up, leisurely stretched, and with her tail wagging began jumping at the legs of her owner, sending the message: “Look! I am ready to go wherever you want!”
Shivering from the cold, Zhakyp looked at the sky. It had only just begun to lighten. It’s time! Zhakyp switched the gun to his other shoulder, and going around the yurt, set off towards the forest that encircled the ayyl, a village-like encampment of yurts, on all sides like a solid black wall.
Uchar trotted after her master. At times running ahead of Zhakyp, at times lagging behind him, she zigzagged among the trees, continually sniffing, checking if any strangers were in her territory during the night, and whether they left behind tracks or scents anywhere.
Zhakyp never brought Uchar with him. Hunting with her was a real hassle. She would run aimlessly here and there around the forest, and only scare away the prey. If she happened to fall behind, she would rush ahead at such a breakneck speed that it would startle anyone into thinking: “Is it a wild beast?” Uchar probably understood this and only accompanied her master up to the designated place, widely overgrown with buckthorn. Stopping here, she usually watched Zhakyp sadly until he was hidden from sight. Now as before, having run up to the buckthorn shrubs, Uchar sat down on her hind legs and silently followed her departing master with her wistful gaze. And when Zhakyp disappeared behind the trees and the sound of his steps finally died, she trotted back to the ayyl.
In the woods it was cold, damp and dark. But Zhakyp knew all the forest trails well, and knew when and where to turn. Everything here was familiar to him, and he walked through the woods as if in his own ayyl, confident and at ease.
Zhakyp hurried to make it to the lower swamp by sunrise, where he predicted the deer should appear. Yesterday, returning home from his forestry work late in the evening, Zhakyp noticed their fresh tracks. During the night the deer were not able to go far away. Most likely they spent the night somewhere here in the thickets, which meant that at sunrise they would go out to pasture in the swamp, where the succulent, thick grass grows.
In the ayyl, set up by a few families every summer in the large clearing in the forest, all the men were avid hunters. Hunting was, in fact, the primary reason they gathered here in the summer, moving with their children and all their possessions and cattle.
Whenever they had any free time from their forestry work, the men roamed the woods with rifles, hunting rabbits, partridges, and pheasants. They usually didn’t pay attention to the roedeer tracks — a fool’s errand! No one had yet succeeded in tracking down and shooting this swift, alert and cautious animal. Zhakyp alone did not abandon this hope. He really wanted to bring an antlered buck back from the hunt to the surprise and envy of everyone.
Zhakyp was the best shot in the ayyl, and because of this they called him Zhakyp-mergen – master hunter. Good luck really did accompany him all the time; he rarely returned from the forest without good spoils.
A herd of young boys went after uncle Zhakyp, asking him to teach them how to shoot accurately. On Sundays, as a rule, Zhakyp gathered the kids and went with them into the woods a bit farther from the ayyl. In a little field, he patiently explained to them how to aim, taught them how to quickly and firmly bring the rifle to the shoulder, directing the unsteady arms of the future hunters. At the end of such lessons the youngsters begged uncle Zhakyp to show them his mastery. Flattered, Zhakyp lifted the double-barreled shotgun and almost without aiming hit a stick or tree branch thrown by one of the kids. Then he took from his pocket a clean handkerchief and neatly wiped all the metal parts of the gun with it. The boys followed his every move with fascination. Zhakyp knew what they were waiting for. Grinning, he broke open the shotgun on his knee, ejected the still smoking shells and handed them out to the best students as trophies.
Zhakyp was known as the most experienced hunter for good reason. He had a wealth of forest lore like no other. He knew the forest creatures’ habits, tricks and stratagems, and he deciphered without error any confusing tracks. He was able to walk through the forest almost without a sound. He was certain, however, that no matter how careful a hunter was with his movements, the sound of his steps reached the animals. They hear the person’s approach and lay low in their hiding places, in the most dense of thickets.
No, it’s not easy for a hunter to get a wary beast. Everything in the forest, from a twig breaking with a crunch under a person’s foot, to the quiet vibrations of the ground, warns the animals of danger. The whole forest becomes their protector. It shelters with thick, dense bushes, with noisy leaves, and blocks with trunks of trees. Even the colors of nature help the animals to camouflage and hide from strange, unfriendly eyes. It’s hard to wrest an animal from the collective defenses of the forest. And so the tense duel between hunter and forest has gone on from time immemorial: who will defeat whom?
“So why, despite such secure protection from the forest, is the animal, nevertheless, killed at the hands of the human?” Zhakyp asked himself. At this moment he thought about this again. “An animal’s hearing is much more acute than a human’s, its eyes sharper, its sense of smell is superb. Sensing danger, it’s able to sneak into a secluded little place to lay low. But no…something draws it to look at the human. And why is it so trusting? Trust… This is what most often kills the animal. And also the motherly care of offspring. Risking life, animals often draw the attention of the hunter to themselves in order to save their young.”
Zhakyp remembered how last autumn he stumbled upon a quail’s nest. The chicks immediately scattered like peas in different directions. And the mother quail, while the little birds scurried into the bushes, began to jump. Almost right up to Zhakyp’s legs. Her wings, as if broken, dragged along the ground. Zhakyp knew quite well that the quail is a cautious bird, and to approach within shooting range of her is not so easy. He started to watch with curiosity, wandering what she would do next. Turning sharply, Zhakyp deliberately headed towards the bush under which a few chicks had hidden. Clucking nervously, the quail right away flew low above the ground and struck his shins with her chest with all of her might. She fell, as if lifeless, to the ground and spread both her wings. With all her appearance she was telling him, “Here. Take me. Just don’t touch my children.” Zhakyp was going to bend over and reach with his hand, but in the same moment the bird jumped to the side. Zhakyp involuntarily stepped towards her, but the quail again repeated her clumsy little jump. Zhakyp suddenly felt pity for the quail and her chicks. This is what maternal instinct means! For the sake of saving her children, the bird is ready to go even to her death. “Alright. Live,” he said quietly then to the quail, and turned back.
The lower swamp was already not far away. The thick grass in the forest reached almost up to Zhakyp’s waist. His pants were soaked all the way through from the heavy dew, and a prickly shiver crawled through his body.
The early morning fog gradually dissipated. Patches of bright sky appeared through the branches. Finally, the forest gave way and Zhakyp found himself in a large, green clearing. It was the lower swamp, where the deer ought to come to graze, or so he hoped.
Zhakyp chose for himself a branchy tree at the edge of the clearing. He climbed up it, arranged himself conveniently in a fork of the branches and, holding his shotgun at the ready, began to wait for the appearance of the deer.
Sitting in the tree was uncomfortable. Zhakyp’s legs soon cramped up, but he was patient and sat motionless so that nothing would give away his presence.
Listening carefully to the rustling of the forest, peering intently into the still bushes, Zhakyp tried to guess where the deer might be now. He imagined them clearly, as if before his eyes, lying peacefully in the deep woods: an antlered stag, a doe, and two little fawns. The were all a bright, reddish brown with light spots on their sides. They were lying, chewing their endless cud. Zhakyp imagined himself next to them. He patted them on the head, gently stroked their backs and coaxed them up from the ground, as if to drive and hurry them. Zhakyp took off his belt, threw it on the deer’s antlers and led him from the deep woods to himself in the clearing. The remaining deer also got up and begrudgingly followed behind him.
And suddenly… The branches of a thick hazelnut tree wavered, and precisely from that side, from where in his imagination Zhakyp had just led the deer by the belt, a fiery red buck unhurriedly stepped out into the clearing, proudly bearing his fine antlered head. He was exactly as Zhakyp had imagined him.
Coming out from the forest, the buck stopped, gently shook his head, glancing to the sides: is there any danger? Then, with wide open nostrils, drew in a breath of the fresh autumn air. He shook his head again, a bit more sharply, and three more deer appeared, following behind him from the bushes, timidly sniffing and moving with alert ears: a doe and younglings. Carefully stepping with thin, fine-moulded legs, they all came out into the clearing.
Astonished by the unexpected convergence of the flying wave of his fantasy with reality, Zhakyp completely forgot about the gun and admired the friendly herd of deer.
“How beautiful they are!” he almost cried out aloud.
For the first time in his life, Zhakyp was able, so closely and undisturbedly, to observe these cautious animals.
The deer, feeling themselves secure, nibbled the grass. They grazed in turns. While two lowered their heads to the grass, the others vigilantly looked to the sides.
“Just like border guards on duty!” thought Zhakyp in astonishment, remembering his army service. “And who on earth taught them such wise vigilance?!”
And here Zhakyp noticed that the barrel of his gun was pointed right at the chest of the leader. The distance was not great; the aim certain. Pull the trigger, straight away transfer the muzzle to the doe, and the second shot could slay her as well. He had never had such rare luck. A hunter’s dream fell right into his hands by itself.
But suddenly Zhakyp felt ill at ease. Now he will shoot, and this handsome reddish creature will collapse heavily to the ground, writhe frantically in a pool of blood, and his big, dark and dewy eyes will be covered with the shroud of death…
The leader, in the meantime, stopped chewing and froze, staring at the fork of branches where Zhakyp was sitting. The buck was so close that Zhakyp clearly saw withered blades of grass entangled in his branchy antlers.
“Now he will disappear,” he thought with melancholy.
But the leader calmly lowered his head again and continued to graze on the grass. Zhakyp could swear that the buck saw him. So why didn’t he dash away, taking his family with him? Did he really not recognize in him, Zhakyp, an enemy?
“Go ahead, shoot!” Zhakyp spurred himself on, but his finger, as if petrified on the trigger, didn’t have the strength to move it. “No! To fire at such beauty…”
Suddenly, the sharp chirp of a magpie broke the silence. And in the same moment, the herd of deer seemed to vanish into thin air. Only the subsiding clattering of hooves indicated the path of the hiding herd in the forest thickets.
A burning anger seized Zhakyp, both at himself and at the magpie. Looking at the top of the tree, where the chattering bird was still sitting, he shot at it.
“That’s it! There’s nothing more for me to do in this glade,” thought Zhakyp with discontent. “The deer will never come here anymore.”
He jumped down to the ground, slung the shotgun on his shoulder, and slowly plodded through the forest. No one in the village would believe him if he told them that he was within ten steps of the deer and didn’t fire. No one, indeed, will believe! They will start laughing…Can you believe it?! And they even call him a master hunter. He had softened and had become absorbed in his admiration, and had lost such a rare opportunity. What, all of a sudden, had happened to him? A fool. Simply a fool! You can’t choose a different word.
Approaching the village, Zhakyp began to hurry, the sooner to be in his own yurt. Heaven forbid he should meet anyone. For the first time he will not be able to make his ritual gift. For the first time he is returning completely empty-handed.
In the evening, coming home from work, Zhakyp was deep in thought and silent. He didn’t take part in the conversations with his comrades and didn’t respond to their jokes.
“What’s with you?” His neighbor Osmon pushed him in the side. “You’ve been quiet all day. Sad. You didn’t have a good hunt?…” But suddenly he was silent and kneeled on the ground. “Look! Deer!”
They all squatted down and began to examine the fresh tracks crossing the path.
“Four deer passed. Two adults and two fawns…and not long ago,” sighed someone.
“The beast runs to the hunter,” laughed Osmon. “After all, you kept boasting, Zhakyp, that you’d shoot a deer. And look here…they’re going very close to the village.”
Zhakyp answered with silence.
“No, something’s not right with you, brother… Maybe your arm began to shake, eh?”
But Zhakyp still kept silent. The memory came to him of the morning and his strange indecisiveness. A sharp feeling of anger and disappointment burned him again.
“I will go!” he firmly decided. “And I won’t be myself if I don’t find them!”
Zhakyp didn’t eat dinner. Grabbing his rifle, he immediately set out to where the deer tracks crossed the path. Here they are! The cloven hooves were widely set apart to the sides. These were the tracks of the leader, who confidently and unhurriedly led his family. Behind him were the tracks of the doe, and farther behind were those of the two fawns.
The tracks led to Char-Uya, the rooks’ nesting place. All summer long it was filled with the unimaginable noise of the rooks. Because of this, hunters never went there. What kind of hunt could there be in the neighborhood of such boisterous birds?
In Char-Uya an unusual silence now reigned. The rooks had already flown away, and only their nests — black, dishevelled baskets in the trees, swaying in the wind — reminded one of the past summer noise.
The tracks of the deer, going around Char-Uya, led to a thick undergrowth. The buckthorn bushes were so tightly interwoven here that it was surprising the deer were able to pass through such thickets. To wriggle through them, one had to go on all fours in some places and on one’s belly in others, but that didn’t stop Zhakyp. Trying to not make noise, he went on and on.
Before long, Zhakyp noticed fresh, still warm droppings on the ground. That meant the deer were somewhere nearby.
“Bau-u! Bau-u!” suddenly rang out the threatening cry of the roebuck. Zhakyp was even startled by this unexpected cry. It seemed to him the the buck was shouting above his very ears. Holding his breath, Zhakyp was frozen in place. He knew that the bucks cry out like that when the sense someone’s approach. They are testing and confirming whether or not the unseen enemy is afraid. If the enemy doesn’t take off, then they should save themselves by running.
The cry repeated. Zhakyp remained motionless. Finally he heard the leader stomp his foot, which signified that there was no danger and they could peacefully graze.
Zhakyp carefully turned his head and saw behind the bushes, very close, a small glade. Looking attentively through the red and yellow leaves — the auburn deer.
The closest of all to him was the leader. With his antlers freely thrown back, displaying his broad chest, he stood independent and majestic, and calmly looked at Zhakyp. There was no fear in his eyes. Only curiosity. It seemed to Zhakyp that the leader recognized him. And so they stood for some time, one against the other, animal and man, and looking eye to eye.
“Don’t run away!” Zhakyp tried to say with his eyes. “Don’t run away! I won’t cause you harm. You don’t believe it? Look, I will leave my gun to the side…” And Zhakyp, not taking his eyes off the buck, with careful motion, leaned his double-barrelled shotgun against a tree. The leader didn’t move from his place. Then Zhakyp stepped towards him. The buck still didn’t run away. He only tilted his head slightly forward, and leveled his antlers in warning. Zhakyp took another step. It seemed to him that the leader now looked at him reproachfully. Another step. Another… Suddenly the buck quickly waved his short tail, and the doe and her young disappeared from the clearing at once. The leader himself delayed for some part of a minute, as if saying to Zhakyp, “I trusted you, human. Remember. And… thank you!”
And he promptly disappeared into the forest, following behind his family.
Returning home, Zhakyp scolded himself the whole way, “What is happening with me? My hand won’t raise against the deer… and that’s it. What kind of hunter am I then? With what were they captivating me?”
The memory of the leader’s trusting, dewy black eyes came to him. “He didn’t run away, because he recognized me. Yes, probably because of that…” Zhakyp very much wanted it to be precisely that.
Zhakyp knew that it was impossible to tame the deer, and that humans could never subdue these unrestrained, wild guardian-spirits, daring to hold on to their freedom.
“But how was the first person taming, let’s say bulls or wild horses, able to do it?” wondered Zhakyp. “He probably didn’t frighten them or beat them, but brought them to himself with trust. Yes, trust… After all, all of our domesticated animals were wild at some point. And now people take care of them, feed and water them, raise their descendants… But do any of these domesticated animals really have such proud, majestic looks — making the heart tremble — as these wild deer?”
Arriving at the village, Zhakyp gently patted his dog, who threw herself towards him at full speed. But after sniffing her master, Uchar went away from him unsatisfied… Again no quarry!
At sunrise Zhakyp heard how somewhere, not far from the village, the roebuck was anxiously crying out. He listened closely. Was it his familiar leader? But he tried to drive away this thought. Are there so few deer in the forest? However, he wasn’t able to fall asleep again. It still somehow seemed to him that it was the familiar buck-leader calling to him for help.
“Am I a child, or what?” Zhakyp began to reassure himself. “What’s this nonsense crawling into my head? Can a deer really become attached to a person? Will it really start to ask him for help?”
Zhakyp pulled the blanket over his head and closed his eyes tightly. And then he decisively jumped up: “No! It’s a cry for help! I will go to him. Maybe he needs me. They trust me…”
Going out of the yurt, he yelled in astonishment, “Ay yai!” Everything around was white from the first frost, and every branch, every blade of grass trimmed with silver.
Uchar, as always, was lying at the entrance, curled in a ball. She raised her head and looked with indifference at her master, as if saying, “I won’t accompany you. You return empty-handed anyway,” and settled herself back down.
It was brighter than usual in the forest. Zhakyp walked for a long time in the direction from which he had heard the anxious cry of the buck at sunrise, searching for tracks. Only after an hour did he find them. Yes, they were the tracks of his deer. But why were they so wavering? The sharp edges of the hooves cut deep in the ground and scattered dirt to the sides. Aha! The deer ran away and escaped from someone. But from whom? That’s it! Close by stretched the tracks of tarpaulin boots with worn heels. Zhakyp understood everything. With trembling hands he adjusted the gun on his back, squatted down, and began intently examining the tracks. The forest didn’t let in pursuers where it could get in their way with thick undergrowth of tangling bushes and impassible brush, but he still didn’t halt his pursuit.
Zhakyp ran after the tracks. Suddenly, they abruptly split up in different directions. The buck turned towards the river, and behind him, the tarpaulin boots gave chase. The line of the doe and fawns’ tracks stretched into the depths of the forest.
“He led him away! Well done!” flashed Zhakyp’s thought. “He distracted him from his family…”
The leader’s tracks broke out into the open clearing.
“What is he doing! What is he doing!” Zhakyp groaned in despair. “Here, even a small child can’t miss!To risk yourself like that!..”
And now, he already knew what he was going to see — drops of blood appeared on the frost-covered grass, as if someone had scattered generous handfuls of ripe cranberries. The tracks of the deer’s right rear leg became immediately uneven. Zhakyp understood that the leader’s wound was not fatal, but not light. How much suffering it caused the animal!
“May your hand shrivel up, lousy hunter! To shoot like that…” Zhakyp swore angrily.
He ran as fast as he could, as if he were still able to help the leader and save him from a slow, agonizing death.
The bloody tracks continued towards the steep bank of the river, as if the buck decided, since it happened, to let out his last breath under the open sky.
Jumping out on the slope above the river, Zhakyp stopped, out of breath. He arms dropped helplessly. That’s it! He again saw that which was inevitable. A flock of clamoring magpies swarmed on the bloodstained area. The grass around was flattened and trampled by the tarpaulin boots.
Frightened by the unexpected appearance of the man, the magpies flew away in different directions and perched themselves on nearby trees, observing the intruder who interrupted their feast.
But Zhakyp blankly stared at the crimson, slowly cooling spot of blood, and for the first time an ordinary hunt appeared to him a treacherous murder. How many times had he done the exact same thing in excitement and never thought that it was cruel and terrible. But now…
He went down to the river, jerked open the collar of his jacket, bent over, and splashed his flushed face a couple of times with the icy water. Looking about him, Zhakyp saw signs of the unequal struggle of the buck and human. The edge of the riverbank was badly damaged. Apparently, the buck didn’t surrender his life easily.
Everything that had played out here a few hours ago appeared to Zhakyp. The leader rushed headlong into the shallow river, hoping to get away from the pursuer to the other bank, but he slipped on a loose rock and the hunter in the tarpaulin boots overtook him. Then the buck darted back. Dragging his wounded leg, he tried to get out on the steep embankment. Clumps of earth rolled under him. During that time, the hunter dealt him blows with the butt of his rifle. There must have been an empty shell casing jammed in the chamber. Nevertheless, the buck was able to get up onto the bank. No, he didn’t surrender without a fight! Finding himself on the ground, he abruptly turned his antlers to his enemy. Blood gushed out of his wound, and with this, his last strength flowed out. The hunter managed to bring the buck to the ground and slashed his throat with his knife. The leader kicked for a long time, splattering blood on all sides, and then became still…
“Be you thrice damned — such a brutal hunt!” exclaimed Zhakyp.
Now he noticed other tracks. The doe and two fawns arrived at the place of the death of their leader and mournfully circled, hesitant to leave alone. Then their tracks, nevertheless, reached the river, disappeared in the water, and again appeared on the other bank.
“What to do? How can I at least help those two young ones?” Zhakyp didn’t know what his guilt was in this, but he felt he was guilty before the animals. He got across to the other side of the river. He looked around him. On the bank that he left, the magpies again flew down to the bloodstained place.
“And they even call them protectors of the guardian-spirits,” Zhakyp thought with anger. He pulled the gun off of his shoulder and fired. The magpies cowardly flew away in all directions.
And now before Zhakyp’s eyes again, as when he lay in ambush, clearly and distinctly appeared the leader. He was lying there, where the magpies were just bustling about. His fire-red coat was thickly doused with blood. A broad, hunched back in a grey quilted jacket bent over him. In the man’s hand flashed the blade of a knife.
Suddenly, the leader raised his handsome, antlered head, looked with a long, sorrowful stare at Zhakyp and said:
“If not for you, I never would have allowed a man with a gun so close to my family. It was you who taught me to trust. Why? To be killed by someone else? Did you really want this?”
Zhakyp abruptly turned around.
The trail of the orphaned deer’s tracks stretched up onto the slope. And in front, imprinted in the frostcovered grass, there were already tracks, not of the mother-doe, but of a small buck fawn. The new leader.
Translated by Jason and Aydina Sivertsen