By Yerkesy Hulmanbiek
Translated by Nicky Harman
I ONLY REALIZED much later that the mountain where I was born, Baytikshan, was a huge obstacle for migrating sheep and cattle, though most humans have hardly heard of it. At the start of every winter, millions of beasts would traverse Baytikshan on their way from the west side of the Altai Mountains to spend the winter on the sand dunes on the east side. When winter was over, they would go back across Baytikshan to the great summer pastures on the west side. Twice a year, these gigantic migrations raised dust clouds on the vast horizons of Baytikshan. Like the herds, the memories of the mountain itself spill from a point in the distant past and flow towards an unforeseeable future. If a sparrow were to witness one of these great migrations, its life would be almost over by the time the huge herds had passed, its own journey no more than a puff of dust by comparison. But life and time are unpredictable, and the fall of a dying sparrow often coincides with the death of one of the herd animals. The path of existence is endlessly long: the only way to get to the end is to go on. Those who cannot walk anymore can only lie down, and there the road stops.
My sheep, Saribas, was one of those who lay down.
Early that winter, when the herds of sheep arrived on Baytikshan, Saribas could not walk any farther and the shepherd asked us to take her in.
He said that Saribas was the runt of the litter and had always been a weakling. The lamb would not even have lived until the autumn if the summer pastures had not been so good. “Look at her, what a weakling! She hasn’t been off the grassland for long but she’s already lost strength and won’t last the trek. She’ll never make it to the sand dunes. Better she stay here on Baytikshan than die and be left on the roadside! Besides, if you rear her over the winter, she might fatten up a bit by the spring. Then your family needn’t worry about going short of meat when times are lean.”
As the shepherd talked, he gently scratched Saribas’s skinny backbone with the stumps of his fingers, as if he were comforting a sickly child. And Saribas stood obediently at the shepherd’s knee, her eyelids drooping, as if she knew she was too feeble to help herself.
The rest of the herd waited in the lee of the mountain. Then, the bellwether gave a few bleats and the shepherd’s horse pricked its ears and gave a resounding snort in answer. Saribas heard too and fidgeted a little, but did not look in the direction of the flock. Instead, she dropped her head and carried on chewing the cud.
The shepherd pushed Saribas at my father, who bent down and felt the lamb’s chest with quick, knowing hands. The slack folds of skin would tell him just how weak she was. Then he stood up, clapped the dust from his hands and pushed the lamb over to me. I saw the humorous glint in his eyes as he looked at me, then he turned to the shepherd and said with a laugh: “Well, that’s a coincidence! You’ve given us a saribas (a fledgling), and here we’ve got our very own fledgling. She’s not a weakling like this one, but she’s so innocent, she might as well be.”
The shepherd joked back: “So give it to your saribas, and they can keep each other company!”
As the two grown-ups talked, I could see Saribas was staring at me. It was as if there was a reason for the lamb arriving on Baytikshan in such a terrible state: she was looking for someone, and my father’s words had shown her that the person she was looking for was me. The strange thing was that at almost the same moment that the lamb caught my eye, something dawned on me––I felt as if I had known this lamb Saribas for many centuries. Centuries before, Saribas had been a fully-grown sheep, and I was the lamb. We had walked a long, long way together, up and down many mountains, had drunk from the same streams and breathed the same mountain air. We had arranged to meet centuries later on Baytikshan, and this encounter would prove to people that what the world was really all about was not love, but life and time.
I felt a stirring of excitement, and stole over and held out my hand to Saribas. The lamb brought her nose to it and muzzled my palm, then gently licked it. I felt her warm life enter my palm and travel through my flesh. I knew then that this would be the one and only time in my life when I could truly bond with an animal.
The shepherd and my father were paying no attention to us. They sat chatting on a pile of logs, their feet resting on the few remaining patches of the autumn’s first snowfall. The faint red glow of the late autumn sun fell on them, casting my father’s shadow over the growth rings on the cut ends of the logs. These were seasoned logs and the growth rings had splits in them like cracks in a wall. The men were telling jokes and roaring with laughter. The sound carried through the autumnal light to our ears, mine and Saribas’s. She looked at me, then gave a sort of a cough, a lamb’s way of laughing. I knew that meant she thought it was splendid that people should talk and laugh together. What a pity that the time people had for laughing was so brief.
Then I took Saribas to our sheep shed.
The sheep shed was actually a decently-built little hut which my dad and I had put up in the summer. We had had a bald-headed goat. Then my dad killed it and we ate its meat and threw the bones on the garbage heap, and my mum made a cushion for the kang from its skin. There was no window in the hut, just a door with an iron door handle. When I pushed it open, Saribas walked in on her own, lowered her head and sniffed carefully around at the goaty smell. I looked at her four pointy little hooves planted on the floor, firmly supporting her body.
By the time I went to feed her that evening, the smell had changed. A smell that was absolutely Saribas’s own, not the whiff of goat, wafted into my face as I opened the door. That night, the sky teemed with stars and was very dark; a sliver of waning moon in the western sky shed only a dim light. In the gloom, Saribas and I heard a faint voice telling us that when the first quarter of the moon was in the west, it meant that it would be a long, hard winter.
And, sure enough, it was an exceptionally cold winter. A constant stream of cold air passed over Baytikshan and flowed on southward to the Dzungar Basin. Often, when I went out to feed Saribas, my hand froze onto the iron door handle of the sheep shed. “Saribas certainly has a strong will to live,” my father said. “This kind of weather would kill off bigger beasts, never mind a runt of a lamb. Who knows how many of the flocks wintering on the dunes will make it through?” I was outraged at the comparison. I knew that Saribas had not come into this world to lead the mundane life of a normal sheep. She had come to our home to tell me an important truth, otherwise she would have fallen by the wayside and died long ago. She must have wanted to tell me this truth centuries ago, but I had never been very bright and, every time I was reborn, I started from ignorance and ended with regrets. In my present life, we had begun at opposite ends of the earth, and it was inevitable that we should meet on the well-trodden sheep paths of Baytikshan. For the duration of the winter Saribas kept silent and bided her time in the sheep shed, because the answer could not be given in winter. I came to the conclusion that, in Saribas’s eyes, winter was only a sketch of reality. Winter’s truth, winter’s laws, however harsh, were pale, chill, monotonous and lacking in expressive power. Winter had no truth to tell. If someone really wanted to understand winter’s truth, they only had to vanish into the frozen wastes for a while and they would grow content with their lot.
This being the case, I too had to wait out winter patiently, like Saribas in the sheep shed.
Six months later, Saribas had survived the winter and was a fully-grown sheep. The flocks came past again on their way west to summer pastures and the shepherd did not recognize his lamb, or me, for that matter. He joked to my dad: “It’s really funny, I remember you told me your saribas was so innocent she might as well have been a runt lamb. Could she really have turned into one? Well, the shepherd turns into a sheep, the cowherd into a bull, the horseherder into a horse . . . it can’t be helped.”
The shepherd’s words warmed my heart. I really felt like I was becoming a bit sheep-like these days. I walked around, or stood in the sun, with my head down like a sheep, oblivious to what was going on around me. The woman of the house nearby even held me up as an example to her daughters. She said I was as obedient as a sheep and her daughters ought to be more like me. Of course, they were fooled by appearances. I was a human. How could I turn into a sheep? The only reason I behaved like one was to get closer to Saribas, so that I could hear what it was she was going to tell me.
And the day finally came.
Every detail is clear in my memory––it was Wednesday the 21st of June 1972, the summer solstice. Our teachers had political activities that day so there was no school and I had a good excuse for taking Saribas for a stroll through the marshes.
I’ve always liked Wednesdays, I’m always in the best mood then. That day, the dawn light shining through the window seemed to echo my good mood. I opened my eyes and saw some sparrows on the telegraph wires outside fluttering up into the rosy clouds. I dressed, drank my tea and went to the sheep shed. Saribas seemed to have been waiting some time for me. As soon as I opened the door, she pushed past me and out, as if she were leading me rather than the other way round.
We made our way to the marshes, over carpets of green where little yellow flowers bloomed, past a little dam across a mountain stream, along a soggy footpath between fields, past a wooden hut used by shepherds in winter, and then a high cliff. The herders and their families had left for the summer pastures and the hut was empty, its door and windows hanging open. White butterflies and red flying ants danced over the marshy ground. At the dam, some small boys were frolicking naked in the water. We saw a huge rat dash along the footpath and into a clump of weeds. By the hut, the weeds had grown so tall they had climbed up its walls and onto the roof. An old dog left behind by its owner lolled on the ground by a cracked food bowl, guarding the empty dwelling and contemplating life. At the foot of the cliff, a cow grazed serenely in the shade.
As Saribas was heading towards the undercliff she came to a halt on a patch of open ground. I was a bit puzzled. These were salt-flats, and nothing grew apart from tufts of jiji grass. Hardly any people or beasts came here. Even the cow had stopped at the undercliff. The rivulets that ran down the marshy valley did not flow through this area but seeped into the spongy soil, letting the wind take the salt and blow it down to the Gobi below.
But Saribas dropped her head anyway, most likely munching jiji grass. I sat on a stone, overcome with boredom, plucking bits of grass and chewing on them as I looked up at the vast expanse of blue sky. Saribas was a sheep, after all, and I was human. There was no way a human could see what was going on in a sheep’s head, and that was that.
We were in the marsh for a long time, until the midsummer sun had just about reached its zenith. Then Saribas walked up to me, cocked her head and looked into my face. White clouds gathered swiftly above us, and the wind gusted across the darkening wilderness, flattening all the jiji grass.
Saribas seemed to sense something, went rigid and searched the wilderness with anxious sheep’s eyes. Then she spoke unmistakably to me:
“Come on! We’ll go and take shelter in a cave. A flash flood is coming.”
She held herself as beautifully as an alert deer.
By the time Saribas and I made it to a shallow cave and hurled ourselves inside, the sky was covered with black clouds. The earth seemed to be on fire, sending bright tongues shooting upward that illuminated the salt flats in a blaze of whiteness. We heard claps of thunder from the depths of the clouds and a bolt of lightning struck the cow. The beast shuddered and fell clumsily to the ground. Then rain poured down and there was water everywhere. This was the first rainstorm I had ever seen, the first flash flood, the first natural calamity of any kind. Soon after the cow had been struck by lightning, a pungent-smelling flood began surging past us, the surface of the water covered in white spume. I was flabbergasted by the flood’s swiftness and ferocity. It was strong enough to carry anything along with it. I saw a tree, a utility pole, the skylight of a yurt, an aluminum saucepan, the hut we had passed, even the old dog. It looked like a withered leaf or a clay model bobbing up and down in the slurry, apparently with no desire to be rescued. The carcass of the cow, wedged behind a rock, rolled over and over in the torrent as if desperate to get away.
The flash flood lasted about half an hour and then suddenly stopped. In the sky, the clouds fled eastward, a rainbow appeared, the skies cleared in the west and a dazzling sun came out. I realized that the flood petered out just where it reached the salt flats. There was no trace of it in the Gobi desert below, and not even the smallest puddle remained. The flood had looked ferocious, but it was not ferocious at all. The salt flats lay there just as before, the buffer zone between the mountain and the Gobi, littered with all kind of things brought down by the floodwater. Sludge, bits of horse harness, children’s clothes, and a Red Plum transistor radio, now coated in mud. The old dog, however, was nowhere to be seen.
As the flash flood was surging outside, Saribas had stood in the cave mouth like an army commander in charge of the field of war.
Was it the flash flood that Saribas waited all winter to tell me about? I was hoping she would enlighten me, but there were no more hints.
When the sun came out, we left the cave and set off for home.
The air felt fresh after the rain, and the breeze that blew off the salt flats gently ruffled my hair. Insects appeared from somewhere and hovered low over the ground. I relaxed and breathed the air, but the old cow would never look on all of this again. The beast lay by the rock, covered in mud, almost unrecognizable. A big rat poked its head from under the rock with a look of comical astonishment. I stood gazing at the cow, thinking that I should report its death to the farm office, because the loss of a cow was serious. Little did I know that something even more serious was about to happen.
As we blundered through the swampy ground under the cliff, a rock overhead came loose and crashed down, hitting Saribas on the hock. A moment sooner and I would have joined the cow as another fatality of the flood. Though I survived, a few days later the accident became Dad’s excuse for slaughtering Saribas. The rock had smashed her hamstrings and she could not walk. The pain from the injury threatened to reduce this fat–rumped Altay sheep, now grown robust as a bull calf, to the sorry state she had been in when she first arrived. And we had reared her for one reason only––to eat her.
ONE EVENING ABOUT a week after the flash flood, in front of Saribas and me, Dad sharpened his knife. It wasn’t big, just a small, ordinary Kazakh knife with a strong blade. Grey swarf accumulated as Dad ran the knife across the whetstone. He wiped the blade on Saribas’s coat to clean it, then carried on sharpening.
I grew more anxious as I watched, but Saribas seemed indifferent.
I imagined over and over what was going to happen. Kazakhs always say to a sheep before they kill it: “You were not born for sin and I was not born to go hungry. Forgive me!” Everything hinged on that last bit, it seemed. Humans must not go hungry.
Saribas seemed to understand this much better than me. She and her kin were not crops, they did not grow only if humans planted them. When a sheep was slaughtered, others would come along to take its place. Their lives recycled ceaselessly. Being slaughtered and eaten by humans was just a way of coming back to life again, nothing more significant than that. It was like a flash flood: it was just water, it explained nothing. So Saribas seemed quite unconcerned, and did not even bleat as Dad laid the knife against her neck.
My dad must have known quite well what Saribas meant to me, and would not let me watch as he killed her. By next morning, Saribas was a hunk of meat. I was devastated. “It’s unlucky to weep for a sheep,” said Dad. “Just think how many sheep you’ll see giving up their lives for you, if you live a long time. You can’t cry for them all. Sheep are not born for sin, humans are not born to go hungry. It’s as simple as that.”