Three men lived together. I cannot tell to what tribe or clan they may have belonged,--whether they were peasants or cossacks, or Yakut or
[paragraph continues] Yukaghir or something else. They were good hunters, and every fall with the first snow they would set off to hunt sable and red and gray foxes. Each time they would divide the skins into three equal parts. One year the snow fell very early and it was time to go on the hunt. One of the companions, who was somewhat poorer than the rest went to the others and invited them to go. It seems that he wanted to buy some provisions, and so wanted to make haste to get the means for purchasing them. The other, being richer, wanted to wait a couple of days. He waited two days, but still they were not ready. They asked him to wait a little longer. He waited again. Meantime the fallen snow had grown harder. It was the very time to go: so he went to his companions, and said, "See here! Perhaps you are not yet ready, but I shall not wait any longer. You see, the snow has already hardened. We have missed the last time. Further delay will spoil the hunt altogether."
So he went home, mounted his horse, and called his hunting dog. With these he went, and at once found the tracks of four sables. He had a good dog: so he let him loose, and the dog followed the sables and chased them to an open lake. There on the ice he caught all four of them. He crossed over the lake, and on the other shore made a fire, prepared some food, and skinned the sables. All at once the other two companions arrived and congratulated him on the successful hunt. He thanked them, invited them to pass the night with him, and the next morning to start hunting in common, as was their custom in former times. They consented, and stayed there. The night passed. In the morning they got up and went hunting in different directions. They also chose the halting-place for the next night, and promised to be there in time for the evening meal. The first hunter arrived there, however, the last of all, he was so late. The other two brought eight sables, and he alone also brought eight. They skinned them all and dried the skins. The next morning they proposed to continue the hunt; but the first hunter said, "I must go home for a couple of days. We will divide these skins equally among us; then I will go home, and be back in two or three days." They had, in all, twenty sable skins, but in distributing them they gave him only five skins, and took fifteen for themselves, and he was the one who had caught more than half of the whole. So he said, "No, that is not fair. Let us share equally. You have given me too little. We must have six sables a piece, and the two sables over are surplus." They refused to comply, and offered him the former five. He took these five skins and felt wronged: so he departed without any greeting. After some hesitation, they followed him. They rode quite silently for a long time, and then they saw near the trail a house that they had never seen before. Near the entrance stood a birch tree, very thin and high. They wondered at the house and the tree, and asked themselves, "How is it that
never before have we seen this house in our neighborhood? Let us enter and see who may live in it!" So they entered, and saw an old man, quite small, and wizened with age. He was so thin that his head was held in place by a single sinew only. His arms and legs were like grass blades, almost ready to break in two. They entered, and saluted the old man. He said, "Sit down, O hunters! Tell me, please, what success have you had in your pursuit?" The two said, "Thank God! fair enough." The third one replied, "Look here, uncle! We hunted together, and were indeed fairly successful. I caught a little more than they, and in the end they refused to give me even a fair and equal share."--"How was that," asked the old man. He told what had happened. "Listen, my friends!" said the old man. "I will tell you a story of a similar kind. I too, in my time, was a hunter, and was always ready to wander about. No kind of game could escape me, but in sharing with my companions, I was too exacting and close-fisted. One time, while traveling alone, I met a young woman, or, rather a girl. She came to me and stretched out her hand and gave me a blow on the ear. At the same time she said, 'You were a man, now you must be a wolf. For three days, you shall run, and after the third day you shall come here to this very place.' So I, who had been a man, immediately turned into a wolf. I ran about for three whole days, and then I returned to the same place from which I had started. The woman was already there. She struck me again on the face, and said aloud, 'You were a wolf, now turn into a man again!' I turned into a man. She took my hand and led me on to a village. When we were near the village, she struck me again on the face, and said, 'You were a man, now turn into a bunch of grass.' So I turned into a bunch of grass and remained motionless at the place where I stood, close to the trail. The people of that village were driving over me, and the runners of the sledges hurt me every time. The people often felt angry at me, and wanted to cut me down, but they neglected to do so. Well, I existed somehow. I felt much pain and fear, and it was only in the depths of the night that I had any respite at all. I cannot tell how long I stayed there, days or months, or maybe years. I was more dead than alive. Then at last the woman came. She kicked me, and said aloud, "You were a bunch of grass, now turn again into a man!" So I turned into a man. I felt quite savage, and wanted to retaliate. She took my hand and led me on. I said to myself, 'What if I try and do the same to her?' So I stretched out my hand and gave her a blow on the ear, and said aloud, 'You were a woman, now you must turn into a birch tree.' I remembered the incantation; but in my haste I could not think of anything besides a birch tree, so she turned into a birch tree. From that time on, she has been a tree, and I do not know how to restore her to her former
human shape. The second part of the incantation has ceased to work. I have tried it again and again; but it has lost its force, I do not know why. So I constructed this small house, and am living here. I say to myself, 'Let me die at least near this birch tree!' So you see I am severely punished. My arms and legs have become like grass blades, my body is almost ready to break down, and my head to fall off. I think that God has sent this punishment to me and to the woman, in order to make us a living lesson to other people who pass by on this road. So I say to you two, cease to do wrong to your companion, lest worse luck befall you!"
The two greedy ones felt afraid, and they said, "The old man speaks the truth, it is too dangerous." They shared the sable skins equally, and gave six skins to the first hunter. Two sable skins were left over. They took one for themselves, and gave the other to the first hunter. Then the old man fell down and died, and the birch tree turned into its former self and became a woman. "Who are you?" asked the men. "I am hunting luck," said the woman. She asked them to help her in burying the old man. The other two hunters refused to do so; but the first hunter said, "I will bury him all alone." So he dug the grave, and then made a coffin of larch-wood. He buried him in due form, as is the custom. The woman thanked him; and when he departed, she gave him a small pouch made of various shreds of cloth. He took the pouch, and said to himself, "For what is this pouch? It seems of no use." She answered his thoughts, "Do not say that this pouch is of no use. It will be good all your life." He went home and opened the pouch. It was full of silver money. He spent the money, but whenever he took out money, the pouch was filled again. So he lived and lived, and could not empty the pouch; and his widow after him also could not spend all the money.
Told by Nicholas Kusakoff, a Russian Creole, in the village of Pokhotsk, in the Kolyma country, summer of 1896.
78:1 This tale seems to be composed of mixed elements, Russian and native. The sables that play so prominent a rôle in it, were quite abundant in the Kolyma country a century ago, but since the sixties of the nineteenth century, not a single track of a sable has been met with in the Kolyma, partly because they have been mercilessly pursued and partly because they have migrated to the south.--W. B.