The Safekeeping of Names

THE SHAMAN KALYACH, wrapped in his ukkenchin,1 made his way along the shore. He was heading for the Great Crag, which overhung the narrow, shingled beach. Gigantic waves crashed onto the shoreline, as if striving to capture the lonely wanderer, but only the weakened, foamy tongues of the water actually reached his high, waterproof torbasses.2 Sometimes a clutch of seaweed, spat out onto the shore by the sea, would twist itself around his feet; Kalyach would bend down and tear into the taut, slippery, wet loops, putting some into his mouth and chewing it, sucking the acidic juice from the nutritious strands. Every now and again the traveler came across little crabs, and the contents of their thin claws also went into his belly. Starfish were similarly dispatched. Holding their prickly arms up to his face, the shaman would slurp the liquid from the small opening at their center and, with a wide sweep of his arm, toss these gifts from the sea back into the waves.

Still, the shaman remained mindful of his purpose: he was searching for a good piece of sea-polished walrus tusk, blackened from a long time in the water. That was the sole item he needed to foretell the name of a male infant newly born in the yaranga3 of Tynemlen, one of the descendants of the legendary Mlemekym. Such was the old custom: after a certain number of generations, in order that the memory of the past did not dissipate in the mist, a new arrival into this world was given the name of an ancestor, as though marking him as a link in a chain that future generations could use to peer back at the past.

A few more days and the ice, already visible on the horizon, would draw close to shore and imprison the watery expanse, pacifying the sea’s tempestuous disposition through the long season of winter. The short summer was over, and dark times of trials, snowstorms, and piercing cold loomed ahead.

The sun had already risen over the horizon, its light burrowing through the low clouds, but gloom still reigned underneath the overhang of the Great Crag. The wet shingle gave off a dim shine, and it was no easy task to find a piece of black walrus tusk among the stones. Kalyach had already been falsely lured, stooping several times to pick up shiny stones that he immediately rejected with disappointment.

Finally, there it was, a real shard of walrus tusk!

Kalyach carefully wiped the find with his sleeve, flicked his tongue against it to be sure it was smooth and hard enough, and then turned for home. Walking out from underneath the crag’s shadows, he began to climb. This was the place where the shore became tundra, carpeted with dying, yellowing grass, the lone place on the beach where there was abundant vegetation. Here, according to legend, once stood an ancient sanctuary where sacrifices had taken place. The skulls of killed whales and walruses sank ever deeper into the blood-soaked shingle until the mass became earth. Eventually the ancient site lost its prominence, and the rituals were moved far to the west of the beach, after the fiery rock came down from the sky and became half-buried in the shingle.

The vast rock shone wet in the darkness of autumn or morning, suggesting the back of a huge Greenland whale, the kind that the people of Uelen called lygireu, “a true whale.”

The wind from the sea blew right through him, creeping underneath his ukkenchin and sweeping across his limbs and torso. The tribe of winds blew from all sides, each with its own character. The northeastern Keralgin, for example, acted with hidden cunning. It would creep up imperceptibly and begin as a tender breeze, caressing and whispering sweet words, and gently smooth the sea and the snows with a wide, cool hand; but gradually gaining strength, it would swell with power, implacable malice, and bitter frost. Even in the warmest time of year, in the height of summer, it could bring a snowstorm or a bone-piercing frost. The southern wind Amnon, blowing from the tundra hills behind the lagoon, would swoop down all at once, with no warning, sweeping away anything and everything that was not anchored to the ground. It could lift entire yarangas, though they were weighted down with heavy boulders, and carry canoes off to sea despite their being securely strapped to tall supports. It usually came in summer, and was liable to burst from a clear, sunny sky. Uelen had barely any wind from the east, and if the Enmynyrgin came, it was not strong. Another of Uelen’s chief winds, the northerly Nike’yen, was especially variable. It could be soft, caressing, long-lasting or transient, toothless and powerful. This wind was especially furious toward autumn, when it pushed the ice fields from beyond the horizon up to Uelen’s beach.

Kalyach had a distinct way of speaking to each of the winds, using their own sacred words and manner of sacrifices. Keralgin was fond of long plaints, deep conversations, and the curdled, congealed blood of sea animals. Nike’yen preferred dried walrus meat, and there had to be white maggots squirming on the blackened offering. The southern wind was given chopped deer meat, perhaps because it came from the vast tundra pastures. The eastern wind was usually satisfied with a pinch of pickled greens. The apparently empty immensity that surrounded man in fact teemed with an assembly of beings, spirits, and unknown powers that, though invisible to the naked eye, had to be recognized and placated. Man’s place in this world was a specific one, predetermined by Enantomgyn, the Creator. If man did not clash with the higher powers, and lived in accord and friendship with them, no one would do him harm. Most human misfortunes came from knowing or unknowing clashes with these others. Kalyach had to protect his clansmen and find the right men to fill the roles of those who had been drawn away.

The wind blew open the cloud cover and, for a moment, a troubled sun lit up the wet-hide roofs of the yarangas, the boat keels, the people struggling to walk against the wind.

Kalyach entered his chottagin4 and took off the wet ukkenchin. To the left of the entrance, a smoky fire was slowly stirring to life. Some walrus meat was being warmed in a stone ladle, filling the room with its aroma. Kalyach rolled a whale vertebra close to the fire, sat down, and peered at the dark shard of walrus tusk in his hands. Stroking its smooth surface he could visualize Outstretched Wings, the magical object that he was going to carve from the tusk. This would take a good deal of time. It would be cut and decorated with circles and arcs that already existed in his imagination; what remained now was the long, meticulous work of making them.

1A cloak made of walrus intestines.
2Moccasin boots.
3The tentlike traditional mobile home of the Chukchi.
4A small, hutlike dwelling with a smoke hole in the roof.

This piece, originally published in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion magazine, is part of a joint effort by Orion and Words without Borders. For more information and for other Orion pieces, click here. And click here for the project in Words without Borders.

Born in Uelen, a village in the Chukotka region of Siberia, Yuri Rytkheu (1930–2008) was a Chukchi writer who authored close to a dozen novels and collections of stories. Rytkheu was the unique voice of a small national minority—the Chukchi people, a race residing in one of the most majestic and inhospitable environments on Earth. His novels and short stories about Chukotka introduced generations of readers to their history and mythology. “The Safekeeping of Names” is drawn from The Chukchi Bible (forthcoming from Archipelago Books), a collection of legends and tales in which Rytkheu traces the path of his own shaman father and the history of his rapidly disappearing people. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse translated The Chukchi Bible from Russian, and also served as translator for Rytkheu’s A Dream in Polar Fog.