The First Man of Our Line

Ermen made a slow ascent of the high crag that hung over the foamy tide line. The alarmed gulls and guillemots bombarded him with stinky excrement, which landed with slurpy smacks on his walrus-skin cloak. Ermen kept looking back at the scattering of dark yarangas over a layer of white snow that covered the long shingled spit of land behind him. He was liking this place more and more. From the south, the spit was bathed by a spacious lagoon, while from the north, ice hummocks rose from the icebound ocean. The deep stream, pinched within a narrow valley, was still slumbering, still frozen through; but very soon the warm spring sunbeams would melt the snow and ice, and a clear, clean stream would come burbling across the rocks.

From afar, the clump of yarangas brought to mind a scattering of pellets on a patch of snow. Black, slick pellets, not yet dried by the sun. “Uv-elen—Black Pellets,” thought Ermen, and smiled to himself.

That is how the dwelling of the Luoravetlan[1] got its name.

The place turned out to be a splendid one. When the snows melted and the sea ice abated, the shingled spit—freed from its wintery constraint—would lie between the two stretches of water. There were animals aplenty in the surrounding area, and every spring, a colossal walrus herd returned to its breeding ground beneath the crag.

Early in the morning, spears well sharpened, the men of Uelen set out for the walrus hunt. The kill was butchered and piled into permafrost pits on the spot. Seagulls rushed up and down the blood-slick beach, snatching at walrus innards and tearing off over the open sea.

Ermen chose a suitable stone from the shingle, slippery with blood and blubber, and set to sharpening his knife. Raising his eyes, he glimpsed human figures atop the crest of the crag overhanging the walrus breeding ground. They were observing the men of Uelen in silence. Even at this distance he could tell that they were all Aivanalin,[2] and that they were, to a man, armed with long spears and bows and arrows. Ermen watched the Aivanalin closely, but they did not let loose a single arrow.

The men of Uelen had trespassed on the breeding ground their neighbors considered their own ancient preserve. Ermen had no desire for violent conflict, but there was no other way. It would be useless to negotiate, as these people spoke another language; their appearance, too, was somewhat unlike that of the Luoravetlan.

Numerous encounters with hostile clans on the long road to Uelen had taught Ermen a simple rule: the one who attacks, the one who catches the enemy unaware, is usually the victor.

For some days and nights spears were sharpened in Uelen, women sewed thick walrus-hide cloaks for armor, old men carved sharp arrowheads from walrus teeth by the light of stone grease lamps, with their floating bits of burning moss.

Under cover of darkness, the canoes, brimming with armed men, silently put off and, hugging the overhanging crags, headed for Nuvuken.

At the prow of the lead boat sat Ermen’s son, Akmol’. The boy had been maturing almost imperceptibly, growing into a real man, a fearless warrior. Should the night raid prove successful, Akmol’ might get himself a wife. That was one benefit of war: the tribe’s single men had the opportunity to gain a life mate. The older brothers had already started their families; now it was the youngests’ turn. If they were lucky, they could hope for a real injection of new blood. The marriages of Luoravetlan with the other-tongues were considered the most productive, and the children of such marriages were born healthy and strong.

Akmol’ was well aware of the task ahead but was so nervous that more than once he noticed his hand go numb from clutching his spear, his stomach awash in cold waves, his heart climbing up into his throat.

Silently the oars rose and fell, and only the weak splash of water rolling off them might have betrayed the raiders’ presence, were it not for the ceaseless rumble of surf upon shore, running at a constant clip until the ice came to tame it.

The moment the hide boats reached the surf line, the Luoravetlan launched themselves ashore. Easily, noiselessly they clambered up the steep slopes, bursting like a hurricane into the cave dwellings of the Aivanalin. Now there were shouts, moans, calls to arms.

Akmol’ threw the heavy walrus skin that served as the dwelling’s door roughly aside. The flame that trembled in the small stone lamp inside was tiny, but gave enough light for him to see a huddle of people in the far corner, scared to death. Two burning coals—the eyes of a young woman—flicked toward the youth. Akmol’ took a step toward her, grabbed her by the hand, and began to drag her out. He didn’t even feel it when a set of teeth, sharp as a young dog’s, sank into his hand. The darkness around the stone huts was thick with women’s screams, moans, curses in both tongues, and threateningly loud shaman songs, accompanied by thunderous tambourine claps. Small moving lights began appearing everywhere, flitting from hut to hut as though alive. In some places the fires were stronger, spearheads glistening and the eyes of the warriors glinting in their skittish light.

Akmol’ had managed to drag the young woman down to the hide boat.

Uelen’s warriors were already gathering with their plunder of young women.

The Aivanalin of Nuvuken did not give the canoes chase. The men of Uelen raised sail and made for their native shingled beach by the light of a newborn day.

Akmol’’s plunder lay at the bottom of the hide boat, and only when the Senlun crag, surrounded by water, loomed before them, did Ermen give his son the signal to free the young woman. The Aivanalin girl struggled, turning away her head, and once even landed a spit right in Akmol’’s eye. He raised a hand to wallop the captive, but his father gave stern warning: Don’t you dare beat the future mother of your children!

So Akmol’ had to tame Ulessik as one might a wild little beast. Months passed before she would allow him to come near.

In the meantime, the Nuvuken Aivanalin made an attempt to revenge themselves on the men of Uelen, but were roundly beaten on approaching the shingled beach in Ekven’s Valley,[3] and retreated to their stone huts with heavy losses.

Ermen ordered that the walrus breeding ground by the Senlun crag be left alone, as another, more plentiful, had been discovered to the west of Uelen.

When most of the young women taken in the first raid fell pregnant, Ermen decided to make peace with the men of Nuvuken. This time they sailed in daylight, openly, rather than hiding in the shadows of dark cliffs.

Nuvuken is hard to spot from afar. It seemed merely a conglomeration of stones strewn about the slopes. But Ulessik had recognized her home settlement from a long way off and chattered happily in her croaking, guttural native tongue. When she saw her homeland she became so impatient to reach it that she sprang forward, almost falling out of the boat’s prow.

Her countrymen had formed a dense row on the beach. Spearheads of sharply honed walrus tusk glinted over their heads. Behind the stretch of armed men stood the shamans, holding gigantic tambourines, whose ominous thrumming could be heard from afar.

The men of Uelen had brought no weapons. Even their walrus harpoons had been left behind at home. When the hide boats neared the shoreline, a host of arrows whistled over the men’s heads: it was as though the Aivanalin were warning the others to turn back.

And then everyone heard a woman’s loud scream. It was the voice of Ulessik, Akmol’’s wife. She was pleading with her kinsmen not to shoot, shouting that they had come in goodwill, without weapons. She was so anxious that more than once her voice broke into sobs. The arrows fell silent yet Ulessik’s voice did not; now her shouts suddenly turned into screams of pain.

Akmol’ imagined that his wife had taken an arrow, but the other women and the older of the men in the boats could guess what the matter was: the young woman was in labor. It was to the sound of those birthing pangs that the hide boat of the Luoravetlan touched shore. The elder women delivered the newborn, cut his umbilical cord with a plain hunting knife instead of the ritual stone blade, wrapped him in a fawn pelt, and handed him to the happy mother.

Akmol’ and Ulessik were the first to step onto the shore of Nuvuken. The eldest of the Aivanalin came closer and upon ascertaining that the child was a boy, broke a spear over him as a sign of eternal peace.

The newborn was given the name Mlemekym, which means “broken arrow.”


[1] The Chukchi name for themselves. Literally—a true human, or human in the truest sense of the word.

[2] Eskimos. In this case, the inhabitants of a neighboring settlement on Cape Dezhnev, called Nuvuken.

[3] An abandoned settlement between Uelen and Nuvuken.