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Mergen and his Friends

2006-07-08 17:52

  Long ago by the swift-flowing River Amur lived Mergen, a bold hunter. Though he would never slay more than met his needs, his table never lacked for food.

  One day his hunting led him far from home. Having encountered no prey for his deadly bow, he pushed deep into the forest where the fierce old snow tiger roamed. As he pressed on through the forest, he suddenly came upon a deer stuck fast in a swamp. Pleased at good fortune at last, he was about to loose an arrow at the beast when it spoke to him in a human voice: “Spare me, Mergen, please pull me out of this swamp.”

  The hunter took pity on the deer and pulled it free of the clinging mud. Shaking itself clean, the deer said gratefully: “Mergen, should you ever need me, just call my name and I shall come at once.”

  So saying, it vanished into the trees. Mergen continued through the untamed taiga, his keen eyes seeking any movement amid the ferns and bushes. Presently, he came upon an ant trapped by a fallen branch. The little ant begged him: “Save me, Mergen, please free me from this trap.”

  Feeling sorry for the little ant, Mergen lifted the branch and set the ant free.

  “Thank you, Mergen,” the ant said. “You have only to call me when you are in need and I shall come to your aid.”

  Mergen made his way along the banks of the Amur until he came to a shallow pool. There he sat down to wash the dust from his face, drink the cool water and rest. But no sooner had he unfastened his quiver than a hoarse voice wheezed: “Save me, Mergen, I'm dying. I've been lying here these three days past.”

  Looking down, Mergen saw a big sturgeon stranded in the shallows. Without a thought, he thrust his shoulder against the fish's side and pushed it hard towards the river's course. As its tail touched the rushing waters, the sturgeon swished it hard and dived deep into the Amur's raging torrents.

  As Mergen settled back to rest, the sturgeon's great head rippled the river's surface.

  “Thank you, Mergen,” it said. “Should you ever need my help, just call my name.”

  After he had rested, the hunter continued on his way until he emerged from the trees into a large clearing. And there before him stood a cluster of tents of an unfamiliar clan. An old man appeared from the grandest tent and advanced to greet him.

  “Who are you?” the old man asked.

  “I am a hunter from the Nanai tribe,” replied Mergen. “I was hunting in the forest and came unexpectedly upon your camp.”

  “Then stay with us and rest,” said the old man, pulling on his pipe and smiling artfully.

  Hardly had Mergen entered the old man's tent than he heard the tinkling of bronze earrings behind him. Glancing round he saw in the doorway the most beautiful maiden he had ever seen. She smiled a wistful, sighing smile that pierced the hunter's heart. There was something sad and mysterious about the lovely girl who stood there in the doorway, her long black braid hanging almost to her feet.

  “Well,” said the old man, puffing on his pipe, “what do you think to my daughter?”

  “Many beauties dwell upon the banks of the Amur, but I have never set eyes on one so fair,” confessed the simple-hearted Mergen. “I would readily take her for my wife.”

  “You should know that a hundred or more bold hunters before you have sought her hand,” said the old man. “And they are all now my servants. But you may try your luck, if you wish. I shall set you three tasks: should you pass these tests, you will be my son. Should you fail, you will become my slave like all the others.”

  “Agreed,” said Mergen without a thought.

  “My loyal servants, bring me my iron boots!” shouted the old man.

  And straightaway servants came running to bring in the heavy boots.

  “Take these boots,” the old man said, “and should you wear them out in a single night, you may come to me for your second task.”

  Taking the boots, Mergen went alone into the forest. “I'd surely have to walk a hundred miles in a hundred lives to wear out boots like these,” he reflected sadly.

  Then, suddenly, he recalled his friend the deer. “Deer, my friend, come to my aid!” he cried.

  And before the echo had died away, the deer was standing before him. Mergen recounted his adventures and, without a word, the deer pulled the boots on its hind legs and dashed off into the hills, leaving a trail of stars and comets across the dark sky. In the meantime, Mergen lay upon the moss and fell asleep. When he awoke at dawn, the deer was already grazing by his side.

  All that remained of the iron boots were tattered tops.

  Mergen was overjoyed. Kissing his fleet-footed friend upon its velvet nose, he seized the tattered boot-tops and hastened to the camp. When he reached the master's tent, he shouted noisily from without until the old man appeared.

  Hurling the boot-tops at his feet, Mergen exclaimed: “There, tell me my second task!”

  For a moment, the old man was silent. Then he shouted: “Servants, fetch me five sacks of millet!”

  When the grain was brought, he shook it out upon the soil so that the grains scattered far and wide across the camp. Then he chuckled gleefully: “Now gather up all the millet so that not a single grain is lost. You have just one day to complete the task.”

  Mergen returned to the forest, sat down upon a mossy mound and called: “Little ant, my friend, come to my aid.”

  In no time at all, the little ant appeared and listened to the hunter's request. Thereupon, summoning the entire tribe of ants, he soon had the whole earth teeming with ants —— so many that they covered every grain of soil in the camp. Before Mergen had smoked a pipeful of tobacco, every grain of millet had been returned to the sacks from whence it had come.

  Thanking the ants, Mergen strode boldly back to the old man. The master was even more amazed; scratching his head, he said: “I shall set you one final task. If you succeed, my daughter will be yours. Now listen to what I have to say: many moons past, when I was a boy, my father dropped a golden ring into the river. You have until dusk to find it.”

  Mergen left the tent crestfallen, but was cheered by the sight of the maid waving to him from behind the tent. And he strode boldly towards the riverbank.

  “Sturgeon, my friend,” he called into the deep, “come to my aid.”

  Thrice he called down into the depths of the waters before the Amur bubbled and boiled, and the sturgeon's great head thrust through the waters.

  Mergen told it of his task.

  Without a word, the sturgeon dived to the riverbed and summoned every creature that swam in the river. Fish big and small darted to and fro along the bottom of the river until the ring was found.

  The delighted hunter bore the golden ring back to the old man. Astonished, the old master took the ring and disappeared back into his tent. Presently he re-emerged, his beautiful daughter by his side.

  “Here you are, bold Mergen, I am true to my word. Take my only daughter as your wife; and take my servants, my camp and myself. We are yours.”

  Said Mergen in reply: “I thank you, Father. But from this day forth there shall be no servants. Let us all be brothers and live in peace.”

  And so it was. From that day on the Nanai tribes have lived in peace and brotherhood along the banks of the River Amur.

  The tales from Siberia are taken from The Sun Maiden and the Crescent Moon: Siberian Folk Tales, collected and translated by James Riordan. New York: Interlink Books, 1991.

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