It was already past midnight. Asiya was not sleeping. The obstructive secret thoughts were bothering her.
December night occurred to be frosty, the wind took seize breathing. But Asiya was warmed by the enormous, down to her ankles, sheepskin coat of her father-in-law and a soft song…Going around the sheep-fold, Asiya was singing softly. The words of her song were excited and dreamy. It was a love song, a grief one.
In a spacious sheep-fold there were thousands of sheep: the big, smooth alive rolls were lying back-to-back and were only sniffing in sleep. They will be still till the dawn. And Asiya will be thinking her own thoughts till the dawn.
“If father-in-law finds out, he will be angry…Of course he will! His beloved daughter-in-law…the only one… how much have been lived out together… is going to leave home…To leave for good? How can I blow the old people out in their grief?
A loud barking of the watch-dog named Taimas reached her from the night’s shade. Asiya kept her ears open as that crop-eared dog does not bark in vain. At once other dogs started barking after him. Did they feel a wolf or an evil human? There is darkness around and nothing can be seen. The heavy dark clouds were rambling in the low December sky. It sounds that all the Earth is dipped into the dark, moonless and starless haze. And the fierce wind is bringing the dogs barking away from the sheep-fold. Then the patter of hoofs was reached her ears and on the ridge the vague form of horseman has appeared. Barking stopped. The dogs recognized the man and were dragging back to the lonely yurt standing not far from the sheep-fold.
Now Asiya recognized the night traveller too and her heart started beating fast and painfully. That was her father-in-law Yesirgep. The day before yesterday the old man went to the sands to seek the new grass-land.
I have to meet him…Having run to him fast, Asiya stopped near the yurt in a respectful waiting. The old man rode slowly and his big grey horse was waving with his sides heavily.
- Have you had a good journey, father? - asked Asiya, taking the head rope.
Tired Yesirgep got off the saddle heavily without any word to his daughter-in-law.
- I guess that you are tired after journey…
The old man gave a wave of the hand discontentedly and grumbled gloomily:
- Sure thing I am tired! Under these circumstances I can kick the bucket because of you – shameless. – And turned his back.
Asiya came away without a word, leading the horse. Yesirgep crossed the threshold of the yurt heavily and started to waken old Balzhan. Kanipa, the daughter, jumped out of the bed, started to blow the fire.
Asiya did not dare to come into the house with the old man. Standing near the door, she wanted to listen quietly what they will be talking about… No, it is not good behaviour. She was strolling to the fold with her head down.
Asiya has never heard a rough word from her father-in-law before. And she thought that if he was so rough it meant that he had found out everything. Has Balzhan possibly revealed him his daughter’s-in-law secret, her guilt? Asiya was ashamed, but she didn’t regret in anything. And when she left alone near the sheep-fold, the song clinked in her soul again and awakened her memories.
The preceding September was surprisingly warm and lucid. The sheep had not been led to the sands yet and they were grassing on the vast meadows near fast and deep river Kargalinka. In this place an experimental farm of the Institute of cattle breeding and the folds of the neighbouring collective farms have been placed. Yesirgep called often to the kolkhoz sheepherders who were grassing their cattle at the other bank of the river.
It is impossible to find the better area than the land near the river Kargalinka in early autumn. The herbs are standing thick and lush in these places. Eye cannot take in the retreating vast flood lands.
In spring they are wet down by the high water, but in summer and autumn they are covered by the entire green carpet. That’s why it can be so crowded and noisy near Kargalinka. The shepherds drive the sheep-folds from the remote pasture meadows to have a rest here and set their yurts and tents near this garrulous river.
In the warm September evening the sheep man named Tusynzhan gathered the youth from the shepherd auls on the occasion of his son’s (a combat veteran) visit. Asiya and Kanipa came to the party as well, the jolly Moltai, who could compose a song, and show his sharp word in the aitys, has also come there. And it happened that Moltai opened quite unexpectedly in front of Asiya the road to the happiness, which she has not even hoped to have any more.
Until then she kept herself close, aside on people, at one with her constant pain. She has lived with her beloved husband Sailybek for only one year. It was a good year! Old Yesirgep and kind Dalzhan were very glad for the young couple, cherished their daughter-in-law, and praised her jolly and easy temper. And the young couple lived in peace and love.
But the war had started…Sailybek was at the front, left his elderly parents and young wife in fear and grief.
Asiya has never had an idea to have an affair with somebody. But Sailybek had already been dead for a long time…He had been mourned with hot tears.
In the first year of the war the letter came from the commanding officer of the military unit. In that letter it was said that Sailybek was a hero, and he participated in the battle near Moscow and died a hero’s death near Vyazma. An unknown man thanked the parents for bringing up such a good son; he also said all the military unit was deserted after Sailybek’s death.
Asiya and Kanina were friends from the childhood and shared the same desk at school, so now they have become even closer because of this total grief. They have shed lots of tears reading the condolence letter, but they made that in secret. They wanted their mom and dad had a sparkle of hope for the miracle in their hearts. A senior scientist Ivan Dmitrievich Bobrov was a family friend and when he came to visit
Yesirgep on the institute affairs, he tried to achieve the same.
- Perhaps everything has happened in the way, - he said, - that Saidybek was picked up by the corpsmen of another military unit. May be he got in a hospital as badly wounded, unconscious and without documents. The death notification went with its way but the person is alive! Different things do happen at war…
One year has passed, after it the second and the third ones have passed too. As if it was an agreement among the family members: Saidybek will come back. And there seemed that Asiya also believed in it.
But the last autumn the widow’s life of Asiya was brightened by the new light. Is it any wonder that she turned toward it?
The young guests were having fun with their whole heart in Tusypzhan’s house and finally decided to play aitys (a song competition). There was a time when Asiya was distinct in clear voice, funny saying and a striking word at the aityses. In years of the widowhood she did not go to the aitys. And that evening the people who remembered her art skills asked her to perform, but she did not want to break the vow that she gave to herself after her husband’s death. Then Moltai dodged: he started to make a mock of Kanipa and her squad comrades. And in spite of the fact that there was not anything evil and offensive in his jokes, it was hard to stomach silently them.
Kanipa blushed, got mad but could not respond coherently to the dare guy, as she had not a song-like talent. So Asiya had to intervene on behalf of her friend against will.
The young people stopped playing games and dances. Everybody crowded around Asiya and Moltai, laughing and instigating them: “Let him have it!”, “Heigh!”, “How she snubbed him into silence!”.
And Asiya did not notice how she had been carried away by the contest. Without humiliating or insulting her opponent, she laughed mercilessly at him, though it was friendly and good-naturedly by its looks. Their squads were competing and Asiya’s squad was ahead of Molai’s guys. Asiya began from that.
Playing up to herself with dombra, she sang joyfully and freely an improvisation:
While we were raising a livestock in the steppe,
watching the good,
were tending a windiness in the steppe,
Who raised a livestock?
and who raised a windiness, -
say, wise Moltai?
Laughter and approving shouts stopped Asiya. Everybody was glad that she took dombra in her hands finally.
Moltai was also glad in spirit, but he tried to clear himself of a charge. Twenty lambs, that formed his fold, were killed in the steppe by a sudden and unprecedented hail.
And a human will be killed suddenly, -
Who will be guilty in that?
But it was better for him to be silent that to complain in a song.
Asiya was at her best! And she sang crafty-compassionately that the poor thing (Moltai) was right! Let’s glorify the hero who saved himself from the hail…Aren’t his golden head and new suit worthy of twenty lambs? Is not it in his infinite wisdom he tumbled to an idea to leave his sheep to the mercy of nature and go under the roof? Dishonour to those fools who could not celebrate his surviving! But I and Kanipa did not hide because of our stupidity and covered the lambs with our bodies. And that is the truth that such a simple thing can do any fool!
Asiya’s song was drowned into the thunderous laughter. And Moltai capitulated in his responsive song, declared that for all to hear, that he is a selfsame Moltai, who blundered at the drop of a hat! He did not say that the lambs died when he was not on the pasture. But, having taken upon himself someone else’s fault, he finished the song unexpectedly: Moltai does not regret that he is beaten. Asiya was silent for quite some time. I had a fling at her, and she rang like a string… Let her to be angry, if she wants to!
It was an honourable capitulation. The guests were grateful to the witty lad. And Asiya liked him. They were wandering around the steppe for the whole night, having a heart-to-heart conversation and parted as friends.
So since then it has become a custom that Moltai came to visit Asiya when she guarding and they were making time pass privately in long-lasting conversations. “Let’s get married”, - proposed he one day.
Asiya was not surprised, she was glad, but answered: “No”. She was retained by a superstitious feeling, that she would lose Moltai as she had lost Sailybek. And the parents were the main reason of rejection … They have been waiting for Sailybek so far.
However life moved in a groove. Life did not look back at the dead. And Asiya made up her mind finally and told everything to Kanipa who took huff unexpectedly for her brother. The girl could not acknowledge that another man can take the place of her brother in her sister’s-in-law life. She started talking Asiya about female honour and then burst into tears. The friends did not talk to each other for several days and then Kanipa took a grip on herself, and came to make peace. They met Moltai, and Kanipa, laughing and crying, wished happiness to him and Asiya.
Kanipa volunteered herself to adjust the matter with the parents. But it meant that Sailybek had been dead, and it is in vain to wait for him. Kanipa and Asiya were regret about parents. An inevitable talk had been postponed from day to day. Meanwhile Moltai’s destiny has changed drastically: he was called up for military service, departed in the lines and Yesirgep remained unaware.
Soon the cherished triangular letter has come; it was greetings from Moltai to his beloved wife, written in verses. These unsophisticated lines sounded as a loyalty oath. And now it was difficult for Asiya to keep silent and she felt ashamed for keeping it in secret. She did not want her name to be tousled by the idle gossipers. And the child, who moved quietly in her maternal womb, claimed the credit. For already two weeks he has been reminding persistently about himself by the tender and sharp pushes.
Be silent! I understood, - said Kanipa, found about it, and went to her mother as if she gained a long-expected liberty.
Near enough to be sick Balzhan took to her bed and did not eat anything for day and night, as she was perplexed a lot by the story. Yesirgep took alarm, but she answered shortly him: “The low back is in pain”
But Balzhan did not tell any term of reproach. After leaving her bed she became even tenderer to Asiya as she used to. She gave her the best meal at table and did not forget to recall her daughter:
- Take care of her, what if she gets tired. Go to her place to find out if she feels warm. Does she want to eat anything else?
And none the less Asiya heard the heavy sighs that couldn’t be kept by her mother-in-law. And the day before yesterday when Yesirgep went out the yard, having saddled his grey horse, she was walking near his horse for a long time and went far to the steppe. That meant she said… That’s good. That’s better. That’s more honest.
Today Asiya made certain that her father-in-law knew everything. And he does not treat so kindly and in wise manner as her mother-in-law. As if she was frozen by his unusual severity, Asiya did not come inside the house and spent the whole night near the sheep-fold.
The light was glimmering for the long time in the yurt and Asiya realized that there was a family council there. The dawn broke; it was quiet in the yurt. Asiya swam into the yurt, put off the sheepskin coat in the doorstep, darted under the pillow and dropped into a troubled and sensitive sleep. But soon she woke up, having heard quiet but annoyed voices of her father- and sister-in-law.
- Everybody feels bad now and Asiya feels the worst. – whispered ardently Kanipa. – Take pity and don’t torture her.
- And who had compassion to me? – The old man choked on anger. – I should go down the drain because of such a shame.
How will I look into other people’s eyes? Did you think about it?
- Well, there it is!
- I am going to leave you, look here…Out of sight out of mind and that’s it…
- You are a smart man, father, but heavens know what you are talking! I thought that you would tell something good!
- I have nothing to tell you anymore. It is easier to die than suffer from shame. So live with her… and me – I will go out of harm’s way…
- Okay. And what will you do with your fold? Haven’t you given a promise? You have been trusted the experimental sheep as an old shepherd and a decent man. And no what, all for nothing?
- I gave a promise and relied on you and Asiya. So what can I do alone when you are back down of me? I am an old man. An old dog leaves home to kick the bucket. So I…the same way…You don’t need me and I don’t need you! – and Yesirgep directed to the door.
Kanipa ran to him, drew ahead of him and, spread her hands, and obscured the door.
- What are you doing, for God’s sake? –shouted Balzhan, crying. – Hold him, daughter. I have lost my son… now is it a turn of my husband?
Asiya threw the blanket off with a jerk and, jumped to feet, looked into her father’s-in-law eyes for the first time. And without wiping her tears and not remembering herself because of offence and bitter compassion, started talking fast and incoherently:
- Father, listen, father, dear!...that’s my fault in everything, and you are right! Where will you go in so old years? No, I will go away…up hill and down dale. – And started putting her clothes on with a feverish haste.
Kanipa started rushing between father and daughter-in-law as a spark on the wind. One time she fell on the neck of her father, another time she grabbed her friend’s hand:
- Father! Asiya! You are my full blood…
Yesirgep did not listen to her, reverting gloomily his eyes, and then she said unexpectedly calmly and weightily:
- Father! You are an owner of the house and cattle. Everything depends on you. So do you want Asiya to leave our house? Yes or no? – Her voice strained.
Yesirgep was quiet. It was heard the crying of Balzhan in the silence.
- It’s clear. That’s what you think! But I will leave the house with her, you should know that. Stay here with the mother, you feel incommodiously with us! – and she turned sharp to her sister-in-law. – I will not permit you to leave home alone. Your husband is at the front; my groom is in the same place. And if we are destined to be in grief so let’s do that together. We will not get lost, don’t cry!
Yesirgep was standing with a frown air, then signed heavily, and went out of the yurt. And only the door tapped after him, Balzhan started embracing her daughter-in-law and daughter.
- What did you make? Come to your senses! One time the old man is making noise, another time you are blustering out threats! What is going on? And what about me? Am not I a human? I am your mother; my heart is in pain for both of you. For what are you leaving me? You are quarrelling against each other, but for me that’s the same tears!
Balzhan was usually quiet and obeying by the look of her. She has never become vociferous and talkative. But she owned the kind maternal power as she was able to guess what the person is being suffered with, and she knew how to help him or her. Balzhan saw in Asiya’a eyes an obstinate light which was still flaming and felt repentance in her daughter’s soul. And she disposed by her own manner:
- So, daughter, go to the sheep-fold. The sheep have scattered I guess what if wolves show up! And I and Asiya will talk the whole thing over face to face. Go, go, and hurry up.
And both girls obeyed her: Kanipa left and Asiya stayed.
For the whole day Kanipa was worrying and languishing as she did not know what was going on at home. Long hours were dragging slowly by. In midday she turned the flock back to the fold. The sheep were going slowly today, stopped from time to time in order to dig up the friable snow and to find the last summer grass.
All of the sheep were, as well-matched, white, husky, and long-haired. This breed, developed in the institute, was well-known by the specialists far beyond Kazakhstan. But so far there were only two thousand such kind of sheep – here, in the sands, under the care of Yesirgep, and the second one was under the care of old Kerei in the mountains. The sheep were taking the firmness test, wintering under severe conditions and grazing.
Kanipa, Asiya and Yesirgep used to like to discuss together the peculiar habits of the new breed, to share their observations and small discoveries. Yesirgep was listened very attentively like children listen a fascinating fairy-tale. He has found out about sheep a lot of interesting for his long life. All the three realized that they were trusted the state affair and that fact filled them with a proud feeling.
“And now who will you consult with?’ – thought Kanipa, observing the sheep from the top of the flat hill, when they stopped not for long. Suddenly she has noticed Asiya who was walking, leading a little hairy donkey. Apparently she went to take brushwood for the fireplace. Kanipa got off a horse, left the horse for grassing and ran towards the friend. Both of them looked for each other.
Kanipa tried to elate Asiya, and herself either.
- You do anything but crying, don’t worry in vain. I’ll fix everything for you, you’ll see!
But both of them realized that it was not so easy.
Moltai used to write a lot, but lately there were no letters from him for a long time. And they were afraid of even thinking about the reason of his silence. Neither Moltai nor Asiya had anybody closer that Yesirgep’s family. Although Asiya had an uncle somewhere but he was good-for-nothing as he could not feed his own family with many children. And he will unlikely be glad to see the niece in his house. So if she leaves her father’s-in-law house she will not have any place to go. And in order to make peace with Yesirgep it was necessary to tell him the truth about Sailybek. Kanipa was ready to do that as well, but Asiya did not want to set up her life at the cost of old people’s grief.
- Let time take their hope away but not me, - Asiya said decisively.
In addition here, on the distant pasture, in the sands, the family was wintering all alone in the uninhabited steppe, and there was no a soul there, who would be able to visit the aged with the word of sympathy and consolation. And nobody could leave this place even for short period of time because of the sheep which were not possible to throw out of head willing or not.
And now, when the sheep were grassing peacefully around, the women noticed their unusual behaviour, in spite of the excitement because of the conversation.
- Take a look! – said Asiya. – I thought that they rabbit together only in summer when it is hot in order to hide from the sun. But they are grassing in group now. Our ordinary sheep would have already scattered.
- You have noticed truly that, - said Kanipa. – These ones are being grassed much easier than our steppe rams. If they find prostrate summer cypress they would eat this place completely and only then would move to another place. So it’s hard to find any grass on that place next day and it’s necessary to move forward. I will tell Bobrov about that when he comes to visit.
The winter was severe. The harsh frosty wind was blowing from Ala-Tau ravines indefatigably, hurrying Yesirgep up to wander further and further to the sands of the semi-deserts, to the frontiers of Sary-Tau. The farms and haystacks left far behind. Though not far from here there is an area named Karoi with an emergency supply of hay and comfortable hide. But what is the sense to keep the sheep in the warm folds, to feed with the ready-made feeds when it is necessary to test them to firmness? Even a goat will survive when everything is found!
Sheep…white sheep…will they do well in the Kazakh steppe?
- We have taken care of them from the babyhood, - remarked Kanipa softly, and guessing what Asiya is thinking about. Nurtured them…Are not they to be dead because of jute? – And she sidled a glance at her sister-in-law. She knew how to get to her.
- The farther said truly that the shame is worse than death. And I would run away to the ends of the world because of shame. So what we have to do with sheep? I have been taken care them like little babies for five years.
If I leave them I will be constantly thinking that they are missing me and call me back. And I feel ashamed as I promised people. At the meeting they said that I was trusted a big deal and called a leading young communist. So much for leading! – and suddenly Asiya stopped. – It is time for me to go home!
And she went to her obeying donkey, hardly seen under huge pile of dry vegetation.
When Yesirgep, tired of two days travelling and sleepless night, came home to have a rest, Balzhan, trying to be quiet, started preparing tea and the old man’s sensitive ear caught horses clattering.
- Go out and look who is that, - said Yesirgep, rising a bed.
Yesirgep’s old friend and age mate professor Bobrov and the institute zoo technician Asan were entering the yurt.
- And where else other two? – said an old man in surprise. – I have heard that as if four people approached the home.
- You, brother, sleep, using one ear, and listen, using another one. – Bobrov lived among the shepherds summer and winter and spoke Kazakh language fluently. – So how many horses are out of the door?
Yesirgep was glad of the guests coming and caught the joke with readiness:
- And did you think that I had a knack for only sheep? I understand the horse as well. If truly only two of you came, it means that each of you had brought a mechanical horse with himself, so summarizing it will be four! Didn’t you tell a lie?
Asan even grunted in delight – the old man scored a hit!
And Bobrov instigated:
- Nothing less that you peeped in the eye-hole!
- I am not a girl and a young woman in order to peep into an eye-hole. Why couldn’t I learn to distinguish the horse scattering from other ones, having lived near the cattle for the whole my life?
- You won! – said Bobrov. – We have brought you two good horses, now you can ride as much as your heart desires. In autumn you told that winter would be severe, journeys would be hard and you need a good horse. So here it is, take what you asked for!
They were drinking tea for a long time, sipping a strong tincture, whitened with milk, with taste, moping devoutly the sweat and conducting a slow talk about winter in the mountains, what weather will be promised by the long-standing inhabitants and how the high-value sheep will endure the severe time. Bobrov did not forget about the sheep even in his dream and now, keeping up with Yesirgep in tea drinking, he was leading persistently the conversation to his favourite topic. And Asan poked him persistently a paper. It was a new agreement about competition with Kerei concerning keeping the whole livestock and obtaining one hundred and fifty lambs from one hundred dams. Yesirgep waved wearily off the zoo technician.
- Kerei is wintering without problems! He has everything at hand in the mountains: there is so much hay as he wants, and his sheep can stay overnight at the warm sheepfold.
Asan hinted that Kerei has… but Yesirgep did not listen to him.
- No, dear, it is not in my view…We are checking the breed for its endurance so why is it necessary to keep it on everything found and also in the warm conditions?! So if we check, we must check without indulgences.
But arguing about the conditions of the competition, telling the guests that he intended to make it through the winter near the unfrozen river in the area Karashengel, but it is impossible because of the high snows and he has to go further to the sands, Yesirgep always kept in memory his grief. And finally, moved closer to Bobrov, he said confidently:
- I was so glad to see you as you are my blood brother. You are unsophisticated; you respect my house and don’t boast by your glory and ranks. So I respect you for that and don’t want to hide anything from you.
So he told Bobrov about unhappiness, which covered his home. The old man was talking for a long time and with bitterness as his soul was in pain hardly.
Bobrov was listening without interrupting; only mopping a profuse sweat from his wrinkled forehead.
Yesirgep went silent and Bobrov still could not get thoughts together. Kazakh customs he knew and understood Yesirgep, but what things could he answer him? What of his word would make ore harm for Yesirgep’s family!
- What can I say, Yesirgep? It’s not a simple matter: and you are right in your own way, but it’s necessary to understand Asiya as well. She is a good woman, but not-experienced, she is still young. And to be young is not to be guilty as wise people say! - Bobrov looked at Yesirgep. He was sitting with a frown air. – don’t be in hurry to decide and break…it’s not necessary to be in haste in this matter: it’s easy to offend the person and to break up even easier. You need to think about Balzhan. You and your wife are wise people, you know life. Think over together about this. Don’t push your wife aside in such a matter. And Asiya shouldn’t be pushed aside either.
- She drag my son’s name into the mud, - Yesirgep murmured dully. – She brought shame on my grey head… so it’s understandable that she feels hardly in my house and I can’t even look at her. To be serious, we should pass each other, yes that would be right…- The old man stopped and made a wry face. – But there is another question: how will I be able to make it through the winter without her? I can’t find another shepherd. If we move to the sands there will be lots of wolves there and it will be snowstorms and frost. When she is at the sheep-stock at night, no matter winter or summer, I feel calm. Who can replace her? I am not as strong as I used to be, I will not be able to be a devil for work. So we’re stuck whichever way we turn. But all the same we will not live together as that’s my decision.
Bobrov put an empty tea bowl on the table and started smoking. In this way two old men were sitting being depressed and distracted.
Asiya appeared at the door with the hip of the brushwood. She greeted in brief. An awkward silence set in the house. Balzhan rose from the table quickly and went out to offload the donkey with her daughter-in-law. After going out she began to be life-like again and said:
- You feel cold, daughter. And you couldn’t have a rest today. Go, and eat something hot, bundle you up and go to bed for sleep before the night guard.
Asan came up, holding a pack of news-papers.
- There is a letter for you and Kanipa. Take it. – And he stretched out a rumpled envelop together with news-papers and magazines in a motley cover to Asiya.
Asiya blushed scarlet and thanked Asan with the lightened look. It was a greeting from Moltai! Her sweetheart is alive. But her joy faded away as this letter was written only three days later than the previous one which she received last month. It was late because of the military post bad functioning. And again her heart died within her as Moltai has already kept silence for a long time. What has happened with him? What has happened with him?
Asan hung his head and went to call Bobrov to see over the sheep-stock before the light fails.
Not yet driven to the sheep-stock, Bobrov had noticed with his practiced eye that there is something wrong: the sheep, usually so calm, ran over muzzily from place to place. It was obvious that there was a lack of feeding stuff for them. Kanipa confirmed that Karashengel pastures were grassless. The sheep started losing weight.
- You may see that yourselves. – And she, flicked her chestnut horse, went ahead.
Examining the sheep, Bobrov and Asan were writing something in their notebooks. Yesirgep looked at them anxiously.
- So you have written a lot here, - succumbed he finally. – I am not strong in your writings, but can tell anyway that only those sheep are weakened, which had been defined by us to the third category in spring. Is that right?
Bobrov turned to Kanipa:
- And what do you think?
- It appears that so it is.
- And that’s happened in the beginning of winter! – Yesirgep was worrying more and more. – But what will happen to them in February or March? And why did you put me off that third category to my torment. If they endure till spring then will die at the time of lambing and other ones if they lamb then their lambs will start dying. And who is responsible for that? I am!
- Of course, Kerei will win the contest, - broke Kanipa on the conversation, - as he will plough his weak sheep under the stack. But we risk lots of loses!
- Of course, we do, friends; of course, there is a risk in every experiment. On the other hand we will find out those things which are impossible to find out without risk. Trust my words, Yesirgep, our sheep will endure though their ancestors had not wintered in the sands. And don’t worry about lambs as they will meet the most difficult things in the womb of their mother, and will return here much tougher, hardener and stronger next year. Another thing that you will have a rough time with them, but it’s not the first time for you! And don’t worry about responsibility, - as I’ll take all the responsibility. It is known in People’s commissariat as well. So dislodge and move further to the sands, which are the things you should worry about.
Bobrov managed to have a word with Kanipa. The girl put him everything on the line. She didn’t blame Asiya in anything, but could not be silent about father’s offence.
- What should we do, can you advice anything, - asked she. – You know Salyibek’s death. But parents are still waiting for him and hoping. We cannot say them in a direct way that their son has been died. And it’s late to talk about Asiya as she connected her destiny with Moltai. If he was not called up to the military service, they would have already been together. We would entice somehow the parents. And now Moltai is in the lines and nobody knows if he comes back. Asiya remained to be guilty in everything. So now all the hopes are upon you: persuade my father not to offend her. And if not, promise him to find another worker in a month, let him be tolerate to her meanwhile and not to get to Asiya. Perhaps things will be straightened out. I mean that we can’t do anything without her at the moment.
Bobrov looked at Kanipa with surprise. She is considered to be modest and simple. But her speech was very wise: and father isn’t offended, and her friend is going to be well.
- You will grow up as a kind and sincere person, daughter! – And a fatherly smile lightened his sprinkled face! – I will go to Almaty to the institute and will tell the direction that we have very good young communists as they are able to think about other people! You idea is priceless. I will try to persuade Yesirgep. And if I am not being able to do that, we will substitute Asiya with someone else. Of course, it is a loss for business and you will be separated with the feeling of bitterness. Well, we will see.
At night when Asiya went to guard the sheep fold, and Balzhan with Kanipa went asleep after the tiresome hard daily work, Bobrov started the deliberate conversation with the old man on the topic that it was necessary to be softer with his daughter-in-law for the sake of peace in the family But Yesirgep told directly with the new, unkind determination:
- Ivan, have I endured and suffered not enough in my life? You know my life…But to see how she…in my house… will be looking after her prodigal child…that thing I will not endure…it means for me that I will bury my son Salyibek being alive. Take mercy to my old age, Bobrov. When you come back, send me another man. That’s my last word!
Bobrov understood that Yesirgep’s pain can only be cured by time, and this long conversation is in vain.
In the morning the changing of place of grassing has been started. Bobrov and Asan together with the owners dismantled the yurt, packed the simple kitchen utensils and went with sheep flock to the waterless sand hills Sary-Tau which were towered before them like the ranges of surging marine billows. It sounded that there was no place to inhabit neither for man nor for cattle. But on some spots the waves of sand-hills, rising in majestic succession, formed a deep hollow, closed in a circle. If you look from the ridge, it occurs that you are looking at the bottom of the huge dry well. Such kind of places amid the sand hills is called shukyrs here. And Yesirgep, travelled the length and breadth through Sary Tau sands, took a fancy to this secluded shukyr amid the vast valleys, having been grown lavishly by the steppe grasses such as ezen and erkek.
In the sands there are no beaten roads, mountains, woods, rivers by which it was possibly to determine where the person is situated now. That man, who did not get used to the sands, will be lost amid endless sand waves and hills with conic tops and bushy bunches of the harsh grass. Even experienced Yesirgep erected a directing mark on the top of one hill near his shukyr.
Everyone, who migrated in the sands, erected such signs. This lonely erecting stake amid the sand sea informed that there is a human nearby!
Bobrov has been with the sheep stock for a week. The sheep felt better after migrating. There was less snow here, than on Karahsengel, and there was lots of food. So the sheep were grassing calmly and in a heap, eating unhurriedly the fodder till the last blade of grass. All of them were growing fatter, and Yesirgep cheered him up more and more together with them.
- So everything is okay now, - he said to Bobrov. – And if it is more snow, I will go further to the sands, if only the blizzards won’t be happened. When it is blizzard, we’ll be in trouble here!
At parting Bobrov ate a delicious beshbarmak in the hospitable yurt, drank it with a strong tea, had a good sleep under the quilt and intended to go away with Asan.
- I see that you will not get on with the old man! – He said to Asiya, sitting in the saddle. - So it’s bad both for you and him. I will send a worker to replace you in a month. You will return to the institute and I will send you to the farm… Don’t thank, I know how well you work and appreciate that…And one more thing about you: try to get on with the old man, be silent if he tries to quarrel. So if you have to part, it’s better to do that in peaceful manner. Am I right?
Asiya promised ardently to work the same; she will do her best not to annoy his father.
The night was dragging endlessly and Asiya was tormented by the vague anxiety, her heart was scenting disaster. The child was pushing more frequently and stronger than he used to do as if he was shuddering in sleep…Never, perhaps, Asiya was waiting the dawn so impatiently.
The chunky black clouds were chasing each other in full pelt in the sky under the flawed, chippie moon disc. The snowdrift was sweeping with squeal along the sand waves, throwing thorny snow handfuls mixed with sand to Asiya’s face. The dogs were barking constantly. The dog, Taimas, which was usually calm, now was running around the shukyr, and then stiffened tensely near Asiya. He warned by his rumpled air and often howling that it is not safe everywhere and it’s necessary to be careful!
Asiya rumpled his harsh nape of the neck tenderly:
- What has happened with you, Taimas? What are you afraid of?
The dog answered with an angry growl, looking at the dark hill, which was topped over the shukyr. The wind fell down from the hillock and filled a cramped hollow with the shrill icy breathing. The frightened sheep jumped on and, bleating lamentably, were bunching in a heap. The wind attacked the yurt, shaking it utterly, and people woke up, raised their heads and listened…
After midnight the new threatening voices interlaced into the malicious whistling of the blizzard. From behind the hill, to which Taimas was straining, the dreary howling was heard. It sometimes came near, sometimes moved away. It was a wolf pack that was wandering nearby, as if accumulating with cruelty of the blizzard. Asiya heard and saw wolves many a time in the winter nights, but in spite of that she was penetrated by the tremor. Gripping a weighty birchen bludgeon in her hands, she was listening to the fierce voices of the desert with a throbbing heart. And it seemed from time to time that all the sands around came to life and they are just about to attack the flock.
- There are so many of them! I wish it were morning soon…- Asiya was whispering with the paled lips.
The howling was heard from every quarter, it strengthened and became impudent. The animal voices were spreading along the ground together with blizzard and soared upwards suddenly, fading away in the sky. Asiya understood that the wolves came closely to shukyr and were already taking aim… Taimas was circling around the shukyr with the furious hoarse barking and other dogs followed him. It follows that the wolves were circling the same way. And, as if encouraging the devoted dogs, Asiya started bowling with all her lungs might. The wind tore the scream off her lips, tormented utterly, but the human’s voice had been heard, and it seemed that wolves moved away.
At this moment everybody in the yurt sprang to their feet. Balzhan hurried her husband and daughter.
- How does the poor girl feel in such a horror!
- Listen to her, sorrowful…moaned and groaned…- Yesirgep growled out, dressing himself.
- She is growing heavy, - Balzhan said reproachfully.
Yesirgep flew into a rage:
- Are you waiting a stray child? Father-off relationship?
However now Balzhan didn’t keep silent:
- The baby has a father! He was taken to the war. She got married… And the child has his father, and he is not stray…Moltai is his father.
- Moltai! – Yesirgep cried out staggering. The old man always liked this lad. He was efficient and honest; there is nothing wrong to say about him. But how was it possible – to get married if she had an alive husband? To take the wife from his friend, soldier? That was impossible!
But Balzhan told him over and over again, nodding obstinately her head:
- Moltai, Moltai…
And for the first time Yesirgep’s heart shrank of an awful suspicion, that he does not know anything important about his son and that perhaps other people know about it…
A new gust attacked the shepherd’s fragile house. And Asiya’s desperate scream forced its way through the snowstorm whistles:
- Kanipa! Kanipa!
Yesirgep and Asiya have not exchanged a few words with each other for already a month, and now, she was calling not him, but her friend.
Yesirgep, Kanipa and Balzhan, pushing one another in the doorway, ran out of the yurt. Asiya was not seen in the white snowstorm. Her hoarse voice was moving away.
- Quickly, dear, quickly! – Balzhan was murmuring with tears. – She is alone there, my dear…
Yesirgep and Kanipa rushed to detour around the flock to Asiya’s voice and dogs barking, also shouting with all their might.
The leaden clouds were swirling in the sky, and the flock was rushing about the ground. The wind pulled up the wool on the sheep sides and backs and crammed it with snow. The sheep and the people got stuck in the snowdrifts, swept together by the snowstorm. The steppe was hummed with groan and rumbling. And now, as if broken through an invisible dam, muffling the people’s voices, sheep’s bleating and dogs barking, the avalanche of snow with sand gushed into the shukyr, and together with it the wolf pack dashed towards the sheep flock. The vague shadows rushed past Kanipa. She had a lump in her breathing. The sheep dashed aside, but the wolves overtook them, tore their backs, and got their teeth into the sheep’s throat.
- Wolves! Wolves! Here they are! – squealed Kanipa transported with anger and fear.
Yesirgep came in time and kept hardly his balance in the scuffle. The heaving dense multitude of distracted sheep pushed the people aside and knocked them from their feet.
Suddenly the flock fell into two parts, and Yesirgep saw Asiya with the risen bludgeon. She rushed fearlessly and silently into the gap. There was a full-grown wolf in front of her. This grey robber tossed the sheep up on its back but did have time to carry it away. Asiya brought down her bludgeon on its skull.
The kick caught him just between the ears; the wild animal let the sheep out and poked his snout into the snow.
Asiya threatened with her bludgeon again and broke the wolf’s spine, repeating indistinctly:
- Be quiet, the damned beast!
Yesirgep only grunted, having run up to her. She had a strong kick, not in a feminine way and without making a blunder.
Somewhere a wounded dog was whining complainingly. Balzhan, more dead than alive because of fear, came up to Asiya.
- Darling! Sweetheart! What man is well matched with you?
- Beat the wolf completely…as if it could revive…watch the sheep…as though the wolves would drive them out to the sands and gorge… And Asiya ran without response to the shukyr edge to head the scared sheep off. Yesirgep also dashed around the sheep flock from the other side without delay.
The alarm was falling down little by little. The flock flew together again into the one dark spot. The sheep were standing like a lamb in the middle of the shukyr, nestling up to each other and they only were bleating incessantly, as if repeating one endless question: “What is going on? What is going on?”
But, passing around the flock and estimating approximately, Yesirgep made sure that the flock had been thinned out. Evidently the part of sheep broke from the shukyr and went to the steppe up hill and down dale and where they would be driven by wolves and wind…
Asiya was not in the shukyr, Of course, she went after the sheep. It was necessary to help her. But there was no possibility to leave the flock as the sheep will scatter and it is as good as lost.
The old man called Taimas. The dog didn’t respond. It means that he is with Asiya. It is good. Two together they will cope.
It began to dawn. The snowstorm was calming down. Asiya didn’t come back.
Yesirgep jumped on the bareback horse, ordered Kanipa not go far from the flock and drove the horse from the shukyr.
Behind the nearest ridge, in the steppe, the old man saw lots of sheep footsteps on the licked by wind sand and stared attentively, breathed with relief as there were not the blood spots. Well, if at night everything turned out all right, then the trouble was over. The wolves have less power at the daytime.
As the old man thought, Asiya was rescued by faithful and smart Taimas. This dog caught and stopped the sheep at night, and Asiya found them by his barking. It was not clear only one thing: where were the wolves?
Asiya was waiting at every minute that they would appear and attack her. It is harder to beat off the wolves and to keep the sheep in the flock in the open steppe than in the shukyr. But wolves did not appear, and Asiya, caught her breathe after the long-lasted run after the sheep, she was covered with sweat utterly and suddenly felt that she had lost her strength and could not move, could not stand, could not drive the sheep back. She felt hot and her eyes were closing. She wanted to lie face downloads and fall asleep in a moment, to fall asleep like the dead, thinking about nothing and forgetting about everything.
She did not remember how controlled herself, did not permit herself to sit down and close the eyes. And perhaps she sat down and closed her eyes all the same…after all the wolves have gone… Taimas woke her up and persuaded to get up!
Then the child moved discomposedly under her heart. And she revived, shook herself and felt chill. She drove the sheep under the protection of the high sand-dune in order to wait for the dawn here. In the dull light of the winter morning she re-counted them. There were approximately 80 sheep…”Ah, stupid things”, - she thought.
The pale daybreak was lightening, the sky has brightened up. Yesirgep came up to her, jumped off the horse. It seemed to the old man that the exhausted Asiya was like a new another one. And Asiya did not recognize him at once. He began to speak first:
- Are you alive, healthy, my sweetheart? – In the old man’s voice was heard with the former caress.
Asiya turned red.
- Thank God, everything is okay, father.
- My dear daughter, the support of my old age… - Yesirgep hugged his daughter-in-law awkwardly, touched her frozen forehead with his lips.
Asiya began crying. And who could tell now, looking at this timid and shy woman, that at night she, not moving a muscle, went out against the full-grown wolf and fell it down with the help of her bludgeon like a warrior!
Yesirgep pulled his sheepskin coat, which became hoarse in freezing temperature, rolled it up four times and laid it on the horse’ back instead of the saddle.
- Mount a horse, daughter! Go home. You have suffered enough.
- Don’t say that, father! Thank you. You should go, and I… will go on foot. Let’s drive the sheep together…
- Well, let’s do that together. But you won’t go on foot, I forbid you. So mount a horse!
Old Balzhan did not believe her eyes, having seen them on the wayside of shukyr: Yesirgep was going on foot, and Asiya was riding a horse, sitting solemnly on the father’s-in-law sheepskin coat! Balzhan did not remember that Yesirgep picked her up such an award – to sit on his sheepskin…
In the shukyr everything was better than it could be. The wolves killed only three sheep, and five ones were wounded not dangerously.
- They will survive, - Yesirgep said and explained. – Here is the thing…When she, our Asiya, killed the leader, the wolf pack scattered away! As the rest of the wolves were the whelps. If the leader was alive, they would have killed more than one dozen.
After dinner the sky brightened and the wind failed. Kanipa, guarding her sheep flock, noticed a horseman in the steppe. He galloped recklessly, and Kanipa smiled ironically at his childish manner. It was the idlest boy on the farm, a boy of sixteen named Alim.
The lad brought newspapers.
- And what about letters? – asked Kanipa impatiently and scraped herself Alim’s sack, dumped out its contents right on the snow. There were no letters. Moltai kept silent. But when she unfolded the newspaper “Socialist of Kazakhstan”, her eyes fell on a bold heading “The best workers of cattle breeding” and ready to hand the photo was printed: her father, mother, Asiya and Kanipa were photographed near the sheep-flock. Kanipa’s cheeks blushed scarlet and her heart pulsed faster. So that was the reason why Asan photographed them at his last coming. Only think: they are wandering in the sands far from the human dwellings, but it occurs that they are taken care, remembered about, rendered honours! Just let darkness fell! She will enter the yurt, unfold the newspaper in front of his dad and say: “Look here, who is that?” But the sudden guess clouded her joy.
- And why did you come to us? You’ve come to replace Asiya, haven’t you?
- Yeah! – Alim nodded grinning.
- So, here is the thing. – Kanipa frowned. –Don’t dare to hint my father about that! You’ve arrived and well, we have a lot to do during the lambing. And if father asks the reason of your coming, you should say that you have been sent as an assistant to the aunt Asiya… Is that clear?
- Sure thing! – The lad’s pudding face smiled like a brewer’s horse, showing sound teeth.
Not in vain the meteorological observers and old shepherds forecasted the early, cold and snowy winter.
The hard frosts and many day-long blizzards started in November, and they lasted till the very March. The endless steppe was covered with deep snow. Willing or not but the shepherds from Ili, Kaskelen and Jambul had to run the cattle to the sands. These were the hard marches off-the-road. The sheep were stuck in the snow banks and they were so exhausted that the cherished sands did not bring the expectative relief. The shepherds already did not hope to save the cattle till the spring. The ice-coating danger seemed to be unavoidable.
In Almaty everybody was on feet. After the short business emergency meetings people went to the remote areas. They were followed by the columns of the heavy motor vehicles. The airplanes rose in the sky and dropped their loads in the places where the motor vehicles could not reach.
The reports about condition of the sheep-flocks and herds of horses came to the capital by radio, telegraph and telephone out of turn and around the clock, and these reports were not joyful.
Yesirgep’s small experimental farm was on a special account. In the beginning of the winter only Yesirgep wandered in the sands with his sheep-flock and found the feeding-stuff for his sheep. The freezes and snows hurried him further and further. Day and dark the wolves followed relentlessly the flock, but Yesirgep kept fixedly his way. All the winter the old man and his family did not have a rest, were ready to drop, moving from one shukyr to another in every three-four days.
And flocks didn’t grow lean! Other sheep men moved to Sary-Tau by his example. It was uneasy to overwinter there, but more substantial… Sometimes the old sheep man muttered:
- There are so many cattle came up here. It will be fight for every blade soon.
But at heart he was pleased with that. There were so many stockmen and flocks who had followed his steps! The old man’s friends Tuzbay, Kystaubek and Kozan, sheep men from the Institute of cattle breading, happened to be hand to hand with Yesirgep
Yesirgep didn’t leave the saddle for more than two months looking for the places with less snow and more grass. In case such an area had been found, the yurt was rolled up, possessions were taken on and the sheep were driven to the new camp. In such moments Yesirgep thanked Bobrov that he had brought strong and good horses to him. The family mood was cheerful. Everyone, who had met the flock, told how good Yesirgep’s sheep are!
Winter unwillingly broke its ice embrace giving way to spring in the last days of March. The melt waters ran. Time to lamb had been approached. And Yesirgep had driven his flock in return trip to the Kanbulak area. The ten-day trip was hard, but sheep are sated and strong. They reached the place luckily.
The camp was set on a bench of the boisterous Zalybulak river. Yesirgep together with Alim started to renew the damaged with snow dug outs for the future lambs. The lambing started in the early April when the transparent spring sky turned to deep blue.
One hundred white lambs were born during the first three days. Two of three dug outs, prepared earlier, were «settled» to the full.
Asiya and Kanipa took alarm.
- Dams were over frozen after the winter. Will have they enough milk?
Bobrov and Asan came in time.
- How was the wintering? – asked Bobrow sitting in a saddle. - Your ice floe had weathered! Having dismounted, he shook hands of old man respectfully and embraced Asiya. After untying the travel bag, Bobrov presented the gifts to everyone. Balzan as a big tea lover had got several packs of a high-quality tea, the young women – new things such as dresses, bright shawls and sweets. In Asan’s bag there were weigh-scales for newborn lambs.
Having explored and weighted the newborn and quartan lambs, that took the whole day, Asan said:
- Don’t worry. Do you have not enough dug outs? It is not a big deal. It turns out that our white sheep have more milk than simple Kazakh sheep. Lambs feed up perfectly.
- The hard wintering is useful for breed. It had been hardened in mother womb… - said Bobrov. – So, keep lambs in warm for first three days and then release them. Put the newborn lambs on their place. It wouldn’t make harm. Let’s complete our experiment.
Actually, Yesirgep would have felt sorry to put the three-day lambs out the warm dug outs if Bobrov hadn’t ordered. But order is order. As the door had opened the lambs run overcrowding to their dams with bleating. For a first time they squeezed timidly up against their mothers shagged sides, but soon they got used and stopped warming in their long hair.
Bobrov stayed with Yesirgep till the end of the lambing. The very hard and risky experiment has been completed successfully! The white sheep turned out to be not only strong, fattened, long-haired but also more prolific ones. The ordinary breed of Kazakh sheep gave approximately ninety eight in hundred dams, white sheep gave one hundred and thirty. It is a firm and productive breed.
The spring was walking on steppe hills dressing them with fresh grass. The joyful sun shined hot and the favorite sheep herbs – zusan and shagir – cut their way through the ground under its benign beams.
The lambs were gamboling on a freedom and were dancing down on their thin slender legs, treated kindly with a warm fragrant wind.
Balzhan, equipped with wooden bailer, didn’t go far from the boiling pots with sheep's milk, and was cooking khurt. The dishes, caps and jars, full-brimmed with fattening ayran, were standing in yurt.
The lively Zalybulak River, swelling with the melt water and sparkling in the sun, was running at full pelt into the distance. The puddles and slush ponds were sparkling in a lush and ultra-green grass like the pieces of broken mirror. The flocks of birds were gathering on the hospitable watersides with joyful babbling, clanging, twitting and whiffling. The gooses were gabbling with a drum, swan flocks were flying in a high turquoise of the heavens, like a white fairy peris, saluting the blossom earth with a plangent gentle cry.
Asiya was bearing a child the last days. All the family lived in a subtle merry expectance. Yesirgep went to the flock in steppe in the morning, and Bobrov intended to go with him as well, but having taken a measure of Asiya, suddenly decided to stay. It is necessary the man was at home – who knows what can happen!
And a twinge of intuition did not deceive him. The birth pangs had started. Bobrov came out of the house, but didn’t let the door out of his sight: what if the help is needed. Fortunately everything was good: the childbirth passed easily. Asiya gave birth to the boy.
Bobrov was called.
- So, that’s good… You see how wonderful… - said Ivan Dmitrievich bashfully. – The boy will be happy…
But both – he and women – had thought about the same: what Yesirgep will say?
Having saddle the horse, Bobrov moved to the pasture. Seeing Yesirgep from a distance, he started to cry:
- Cheering news, old man, cheering news! Brother, you have a grandson!
Yesirgep shook Bobrov’s hand silently. Then he clapped on the friend’s shoulder unexpectedly with a confused smile.
Both of them were confused and silent in a brown study, like they were feeling each other out.
- The war is ending, - said Bobrov finally. – Battles are at Berlin. Soon our heroes will come back home…
- Let it be! Let your words come true, - said Yesirgep quietly.
When they came back out the steppe in the evening, the yurt had been decked as in a big holiday. Asan and Kanipa had spread out the embroidery blankets and new tufts. Everybody in the house was preparing to celebrate properly the shildekhana – giving the name to newborn baby. Women were waiting Yesirgep with an excitement and ill-concealed scare.
The old sheep man had thought a lot of bitter and hard thoughts in this day and more thoughts– during the winter, expecting this day. The decision had grown up in his soul long ago.
Having ride up to yurt and dismount slowly a horse, the old man said to his wife who has went out to meet him:
- So… If out victory is close and we have a grandson… Let’s give him the name Zenisbeck –Son of the Victory!