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The Eagle's Feather

2006-07-13 23:40

  It was in the village of Sarapulka. Not so many years ago. Just a bit after the Civil War. Village folks still hadn't much learning yet in those days. But all the same, all those that were for Soviet power started thinking what they could do to help it.

  Now, we all know in Sarapulka that from ancient times our fathers and grandfathers used to seek stone. Between sowing and harvesting, or any other time they'd got to spare, they'd go off looking for it. Well, folks minded that and they set up an artel. Started seeking graphite. Seemed to go all right, too. They reckoned to get thousands of poods, but then soon after they stopped. Why they stopped - whether the graphite was bad or the price too low - I can't say. They gave it up, that's all I know, and turned their eyes to Adui.

  Now, that's a place everyone hereabouts knows something of. The main thing there was aquamarines and amethysts. And there'd be other stones too. One of the artel boasted: “I know a crack in the old digging that's promising.” And the others snapped at it. And at first they did well. Came on two or three pockets. Basket stones, we call them, because they're counted by the basketful. And when folks saw what they'd got, a lot more came to Adui - d'ye mind if we try our luck too? Well, the working was a big one, you couldn't forbid them. But then it started going wrong - they made a mistake, or else they overlooked something. And the artel that had gone there first lost the vein. That often happens with stones. They hunted and searched, but they couldn't find it. What now? Well, in Berezovka there was an old prospector living. He was far on in years, but he was famed all round. So folks from the artel went to him. They told him the place where they were working and asked him: “Do us a kindness, Kondrat Markelych, find us the vein.”

  Of course they'd brought good food and wine to set before the old man, and they spoke him fair, and promised much. And the Berezovka prospectors came round too and bragged of their aged prospector.

  “Our Markelych is masterly wi' them things. You'll not find another like him in miles around.”

  The ones that had come, they knew that for themselves, of course, but they said naught. Talk like that would help them, it might spur on the old man to show his skill. But with it all he'd only a nay for them.

  “I know those veins that lose themselves at Adui. My eyes 'ud never find them now.”

  But the artel folks kept on. They'd put more meat and drink before the old man and tell him - you're our only hope. If you can't find it, who'll we go to? Now, the old man liked well to hear all that, and he'd had a few glasses too. He straightened up his shoulders and started boasting - he'd found this and he'd found that and he'd opened a place here and shown one there. Well, to cut short they got their way. The old man was real hot after a while, he thumped on the table. “I may be old but I can still show ye how to find a vein!”

  That was just what the folks from the artel wanted.

  “Show us, Kondrat Markeluch, show us, and we'll thank ye well. Half the first pocket'll be yours.”

  But Kondrat would have none of it.

  “That's not what I'll go for. I want to let ye see what a real miner can do if he's got the wits and understanding.”

  Well - you know the saying, what a man in wine promised, a man sober must fulfil. Markelych had to go to Adui. He asked how the vein had been going, he tapped and tapped, and thought hard where is should be sought, but no vein could he find. The men who'd got him to come saw he was puzzled. So they soon dropped the whole thing. If Kondrat can't find it, they thought, it's no good wasting more time on it.

  The other prospectors who'd been working round about, they gave it up too, one after another. After all, haying time was near. Every man wanted to get in enough. So folks all disappeared from the Adui workings as if the wind had swept it clear, not a one would be seen. Only Kondrat still kept working and working away. He was stubborn, that old man. At first he'd tried because folks asked him, but when he saw the stones mocked him and wouldn't show themselves, then his anger rose. “I'll find it all the same! I will!”

  Week after week the old man toiled alone. He got weary and weak, and still naught to show for it. Ought to have given it up long ago, but he felt shame. What - the best miner in the whole district and couldn't find a vein?! Not to be dreamed of! Folks would laugh at him. So at last Kondrat thought to himself - what if I try it the old way?

  In other days, folks say, they used to seek ore with a divining rod and stones with an arrow they'd woven spells on. Kondrat had known of all that since he was a boy, but he'd never had any use for it, held it to be foolishness. He'd mocked at it all, but now he made up his mind to try it.

  “If naught comes of it, I'll waste no more time here.”

  Now, the way of it was this. You had to rub an arrow-head with loadstone, and then with the kind of stone you wanted to find. And there were spells to be said. Then this magic arrow must be shot from an ordinary bow, but you must shut your eyes and turn round three times before shooting it.

  Kondrat knew all the spells and the rules, but he felt ashamed to do it himself, so he thought to have his grandson do it, or maybe it was his great-grandson. He didn't grudge the trouble, but went back home. Of course, he wouldn't let folks there see it had been too much for him. When any of the Berezovka prospectors came to ask, he put a good face on it, and told them he'd have to be away another week.

  He went to the bath-house and steamed himself well, rested a day at home, then when he was making ready to go again he asked his grandson: “Would ye like to come wi' me, Mishunka, to look for stones?”

  The boy was flattered at his Grandad asking him.

  “That I would,” he said.

  So Kondrat took his grandson to Adui. He made the boy a bow, prepared the arrows after all the old rules, told Mishunka to shut his eyes, turn round three times and shoot at random. The boy was eager to help, of course. Did it all just like Kondrat told him. He shot three times. But Kondrat saw naught would come of it. The first arrow struck in a tree-stump, the second fell in the grass and the third hit a stone and went sliding down. The old man scratched a bit in all those places - but it was mostly so as to follow the old custom to the end. Of course, the boy started playing with the bow and arrow, ran about with it till he was tired. The grandfather gave him supper and put him to bed in the shanty he'd built, but he'd no wish for sleep himself. He felt low in spirit. Shamed in his old age. He went out of the shanty and sat thinking, maybe he ought to try again? And then the thought came to him - what if the arrow didn't go right because it wasn't the right hand that shot it?

  “The lad knows naught yet. Ye'd think he'd be the best for it, but he's never sought stones himself, and that's why the arrow gives no guidance. Seems like I'll have to try myself.”

  He spoke the magic words over the arrow, made everything ready the way it ought to be, shut his eyes, turned round three times and shot it. But it didn't go the way the workings were at all, and there was some stranger coming along the path. He was traveling light. He'd only a plaited basket in his hand, the kind our women use when they go berrying. He picked up the arrow, for it fell quite close to him, and said with a laugh in his voice: “It doesn't suit your years, Grandad, to play with child's toys. It's not fitting.”

  Kondrat felt awkward, being caught out doing a thing like that, and he said with anger: “It's no concern o' yours! Go your ways!”

  The stranger laughed.

  “How's it none of my concern when I nearly got your arrow in my foot!”

  He went up to the old man, handed him the arrow and said chidingly yet with a bit of a laugh: “Eh, Grandad, Grandad! Many years ye've lived, yet you don't know the saying: ”It's no arrow if it isn't tipped with an eagle feather.“

  Markelych had no taste for that sort of talk.

  “There's none o' birds in our parts,” he said angrily. “There's no feather to be got.”

  “You're wrong,” said the stranger. “There's eagle feathers everywhere, but they must be sought under the high light.”

  Kondrat could make naught of it all.

  “Ye talk in riddles. Ye're making a mock of an old man, I see; but in my work I'm no worse than others.”

  “And what is your work?” the stranger asked.

  And suddenly talk flowed from the old man. He told this stranger his whole life. He marveled at himself, yet he went on talking. The stranger sat down on a stone, listened and put in a word to help him on.

  “Aye, like that, was it, Grandad? And then?”

  The old man finished his tale and the stranger spoke good words.

  “Ye've worked well and honestly, Grandad. Ye've done much that is of good use. But why did ye shoot that arrow?”

  Kondrat didn't keep that back either. And the stranger, he sort of peered at him, with his eyes a bit narrow, and he said: “Aye, that's how it is. Your arrow lacks an eagle's feather.”

  Then Kondrat lost his temper. Here he'd opened up his whole life, and this man started off with his feathers again; making a fool of him, that's what it was.

  “I'm telling ye, there aren't any o' them birds in our parts,” he cried, real angry he was. “Ye'll never find a feather. Are ye deaf, or what?”

  The stranger laughed a bit, and asked: “Would you like me to show ye?”

  Kondrat didn't believe him, of course, but all the same he said: “Show me if ye can, if ye're not trying to make a fool o' me.”

  Then the stranger took a big stone out of his basket. About double the size of your fist. It was cut flat at the top and bottom, and the sides were five facets. It was dark, he couldn't see the color, but it looked like red quartz, what we call eagle-stone in our parts. On the top there were white spots, you could hardly see them, one over each of the facets.

  The stranger put the stone down beside him, pressed one of the spots with his finger, and all of a sudden there was a light all over and round them, like as if they were in a great bell. It was very bright, and sort of blue, but where it came from he couldn't see. It wasn't very high, that bell of light, three or maybe four times man's height. Swarms of midges danced in it, and bats fluttered about, and at the top a flock of little birds flew over, and each of them dropped a feather. They went round and round in the air as if they didn't want to seek the ground.

  “D'you see the feathers?” the stranger asked.

  “Aye, I see them,” said Kondrat, “but those aren't eagle feathers.”

  “You're right, they're more like sparrows' than eagles',” said the stranger, and then he explained: “That's your life, Grandad. You've seen much, you've toiled much, but your wings were small and weak, they couldn't raise you high. Midges got into your eyes, and all kinds o' yermin hindered you. But now see how it's going to be.”

  He pressed his finger again on one of the spots, and the bell of light got much bigger. And there was green mixed with the blue of it. Under their feet it was as if the top of the ground had been taken away, and birds flew past overhead. Lower down there were ducks and geese, then cranes higher up, and still higher - swans. And each of the birds dropped a feather, and these fell straighter down to the ground, because they were heavier.

  Then the stranger pressed his finger on another spot, and the bell of light spread out and rose up to a great height, and the light was so bright it nearly blinded him. And it glowed blue and green ad red. Under the earth all could be seen for five yards deep, and birds flew past overhead. Each of them dropped a feather and they fell straight down to the ground like arrows, close to the spot where the stone stood. The stranger looked at Kondrat, his smile was like the light.

  “There are other birds that fly higher than the eagle,” he said, “but I fear to show ye, your eyes would not bear the sight. Try now with your arrow.”

  He picked up some feathers from the ground and fixed them on quickly, as if he'd done it all his life, and told the old man: “Shoot in the place where you think the vein should be; but there's no need to turn round three times or shut your eyes.”

  Kondrat did as the stranger bade him. As the arrow flew, the hollow opened to meet it. And he could see all - not just the veins, but all the pockets. One of them was very big. Aquamarines, nearly enough to fill a cart, and just like they were laughing. The old man forgot all, of course, and ran to take a closer look, and the light went out.

  Then Markelych cried: “Stranger, where are ye?”

  The answer came back: “I have gone on.”

  “But where'll ye go in the dark? Robbers may do ye a hurt! They might even take that thing from ye!” cried Markelych.

  But the stranger answered: “Don't you be feared for me, Grandad! This thing works only in my hands, and in those to which I give it.”

  “But who are ye?” asked Markelych.

  The stranger was already far away, and his answer carried back faintly: “Ask your grandson. He knows.”

  Mishunka had not been asleep, the light had wakened him, and he'd been looking out of the shanty. And as soon as the old man came back there, Mishunka said: “Grandad, that was Lenin wi' ye.”

  But the old man felt no surprise.

  “Aye, Mishunka, that's who it was. It's right, then, what folks say, that he wanders through our parts. He does. And teaches folks wisdom. So they shouldn't take pride in their little wings, but reach up to the high light. To the eagle's wings, that is.”

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