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Hovhannes Tumanian: The Deer

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Once, on a September night, Osep, the hunter from our village, took me to the narrow Yeghud defile to hunt deer. The deer used to come down through the defile into the valleys below to graze at night, drink water before the dawn and then return to their rocky “homes We were to spend the night at the cabin of Ovakim the gardener, so that we would not have far to go to the hunting ground at daybreak to watch for the game. There were three of us: the hunter Osep, a boy from our village carrying Osep’s equipment and myself. We walked on with the cruel joy with which one usually sets out hunting. On the way we talked of the chase. saying. “Before “Hunting is a question of luck,” Osep was you know where you are your quarry may vanish into thin air. A novice can easily fail to notice the game. Or, he may get confused, and his hands shake so that he misses. You must fire the moment you catch sight of it. If you waste time lifting your gun to take aim, by the time you ye put the butt to your shoulder the game may be far away over the mountain.” “Then how do you go out after game, Master Osep?” “The clever hunter does not go out after game. He just lies in wait watching for it,” the hunter explained. “He knows at what time of day and at what places his quarry will move about, so he goes and lies in wait there. If he does go looking for it, it’s not for long, and he moves about in such a way that the game cannot catch his scent. For animals have a strong sense of smell and the moment your 5

quarry catches your scent you ye had it: it will take to its heels in a batting of an eyelid.” Thus talking, towards evening we arrived at the cabin of Ovakim the gardener. The old man had gathered wood, built a fire and was now lying beside it. “Good evening, Master Ovákim.” “Ah, God bless you, an you re right welcome. Why, my dears, I was just thinking how nice it would be to have someone to talk with. The good Lord must have sent you. . . .“ Master Ovakim boomed joyously. “First tell us, whether there’s game or not, Master Ovakim,” inquired Osep the hunter impatiently. “Why, my son, a damned stag in these parts. Comes here at night he does, and eats my beans, and goes away at dawn. He’s eaten and ruined so many of my beans, he has! You see, I’ve no gun and no dog. He’s a giant of a stag! Has antlers like an oak tree!” “Never mind. Do the does answer his call?” “I’ll say they do! Why, they don’t let me sleep a wink! Last night they made such a racket on the slopes over there that the very ground shook!” “Praise the Lord!” cried the hunter. Master Ovakim begged us to make ourselves comfortable, spreading soft grass for us to sit upon, and then lay down again by the fire. “You know, folks, I sometimes thinks to myself that •

there s no animal in the world more cruel than man. “Why, Master Ovakim?” “Why? Well now, here you are with your guns going after these animals, and we are rejoicing at the thought that we may kill a buck and feast on it. But isn’t it a living creature like ourselves? At midnight it cries out with longing and calls to attract its doe. That’s how it expresses its love!” “Let me hear it just once, and I’ll show it love!” Osep chuckled. “No, it’s sinful that’s what it is,” said Ovakim shaking his head. Then raising his voice he went on. “Since we’re on the subject of stags, my lads, let me tell you a story. “Come on, let’s hear it, Master Ovakim!” we chorused. “I was in the mountains one year. News was brought to me that my grandson had fallen ill and was asking for me.

He wanted very much to see me. So I started down homewards. I went a bit out of my way to see if I could find some game to take home with me. I’d been looking about for a while, when I noticed something rustling in the brushwood, and a bush shaking. It didn’t seem to be a bird. But if it was a beast, why didn’t it show itself? I threw a stone into the bush. The ears of a young buck popped up and dropped out of sight again, and the bush shook as it struggled to open a passage and make off. I raised my gun and aimed it at the heaving bush. As the shot rang out the buck sprang forth and crashed to the ground. Well, lads, it began squealing and moaning just like a dying child. From the tales of master hunters I knew that its mother must have seen me and hidden nearby, and that hearing its moans, she would be back at any moment. I hid behind a tree, and watched and waited. After a while she appeared, and what a sight! I wouldn’t wish you to see what I saw with my own eyes. Just like a mother, a human mother hearing a gun fired at her child. She came and found her youngster there breathless, sprawling in his blood under the tree. She reached out her muzzle and licked the wound, moaning sadly. J flung my gun over my shoulder and went home. 1 reached home and found the child in a very grave condition, fighting for breath, and groaning. Folks, that day has passed, but God is my witness! He was moaning just like the young buck. I had only to close my eyes and I thought I was still standing by the bush. In the end the child died. Then his • mother bent over him and began moaning piteously. ‘0 Merciful Lord!’ I exclaimed. What is the difference between us and the deer on the mountains?’ None at all! A heart is a heart, and grief is grief. . . Under the impression of Master Ovakim’s sad story we remained silent for some time. “Master Ovakim, it is said that bucks have their protectress,” said Ghazar the bearer. ‘Yes, my boy, and a mighty powerful one!” “Is that really true?” “It’s true, my boy. Pirum was a master hunter who never missed in his life. Once he wounded a buck, and it took to its heels and he after it. Coming to the edge of Zoravor oak wood, the buck knelt down, and Pirum raised his gun. But just at that moment a door opened into Zoravor oak wood, and a beautiful young woman came out. She stood facing the hunter, and began to scold him. “‘Why are you pursuing my innocent deer, you wicked man? What has he done to you? May you never have your fill if you don’t have enough in this abundant world. May your barrel be blocked with blood, your bullet turn to paste. May the hand wither that holds the gun!’ “Hunter Pirum was a wise man: guessing that she must be the buck’s protectress, he threw his gun on to the branch of a tree. And the branch turned dry in the twinkling of an eye. “Master Ovakim, then they’re right in saying that hunting is cursed?” “It’s cursed alright, my boy! Both hunting and fishing, both are cursed. It’s an old curse that no hunter or fisherman should ever eat his fill. The minstrel Kyaram also pronounced his curse upon the hunter. As he was looking for his Ash, burning with longing he saw a wounded deer. He found the animal breathing painfully and a calf standing by dismayed. He took up his saz and sang a lay. We asked Master Ovakim to sing the lay. The old man sang with his aged, cracked voice, by the fire in the dark valley. “Hey, folks! 1 saw one verdant spring day, in these mountains, a handsome doe was a-crying; A lovely calf stood by dismayed, In these mountains a handsome doe was a-crying.

“Hit with a bullet it was leaving this vain world, Sorely lamenting man’s senseless cruelty Moaning o er its wound, its blood gushing forth, In these mountains a handsome doe was a-crying. “For the love of God, let none raise gun to game For the love of heaven, let none buy meat of game For grieved Kyaram saw, in an ocean of blood, in these mountains, a handsome doe was a-crying.

—, .• -i. •1~ -r

Everybody fell asleep, but I * remained awake. In such places a stranger cannot sleep at night. He hears a thousand

sounds and imagines a thousand things. It must have been the night wind swaying the maize, but to me it seemed the buck described by Master Ovakim was in the garden. In the darkness of the night black figures appeared in the distance and seemed to move. I just could not sleep. In the early hours I arose and went to the door. It was a clear autumn night. The dry cold chilled me to the bone. The muffled valleys hissed. They seemed to be asleep, snoring deeply and softly like Master Ovakim. The morning star was already up and it was time for us to start. I waked my companions. They hurriedly drew on their boots and we set off towards the Yeghud defile. •0

Well before daybreak we were lying in wait in the Yeghud defile. From my post I was watching the open space before me. Beyond it, opposite me, a thick dark forest began. Gradually the darkness thinned. Frowning rocks peeped sleepily through the mist. The sky grew pale and clear. Then the dawn came. The early morning breeze stirred. The flowers moved their heads, the grass trembled, and the leaves rustled. The forest began to awake. A bird called from a nearby tree, a second from another and a third from a distant one. Unawares I had broken cover and was standing in the open gazing around rapturously at nature, at the sacred hour when the first light of day is born. Suddenly there was a sound.. .a dry branch cracked in the forest. I turned to look. The forest was still dark and I could see nothing, but I could hear cautious steps approaching over dry leaves. . .crunch. . .crunch. . .crunch. Nothing . .

was yet visible, but again I heard it—crunch. . .crunch. crunch coming nearer and nearer. . . . There! There it was! It was the first time in my life I had seen a deer in its natural state. It came out with a calm pride, regal and superb like the lord and king of all the beauties of nature. Half of it still hidden in the darkness of the forest, it low . .

ered its brown muzzle to the ground, then raising its head it swung its neck with a wild grace and looked towards me. It was the most beautiful gaze I have ever seen in my life. I was embarrassed, ashamed and wanted to hide my gun. But no sooner had I made the slightest motion than it suddenly turned away its swan-like neck. Osep’s gun roared forth from the neighbouring covert. The report rumbled through the forest. And the bushes began to crack. The buck was running away. “A plague on you!” Osep cursed me as he jumped out from his covert and ran to a near-by mound to see where the buck would appear. The morning was brightening and there was light enough for us to find the marks of fresh blood on the green grass. The buck was wounded. We followed the trail of blood to find it. “If it has lost so much blood, let it run as much as it likes. It’s ours,” said Osep the hunter.

a —r —r

Towards evening we found it in a forest thicket. From its lying position it stretched up its long neck towards us. I saw that it could barely hold its head up. It stared at us through dim, half-closed, unseeing eyes. It seemed to have . . *

suddenly understood. It tried to get up, but rising to its knees it fell back with a splash into its blood with a powerless groan. The hunter ran up.... I wanted to say something but I was ashamed. He got hold of the buck’s head and twisted the beautiful neck. Again I wanted to intervene. . . . Again I lost heart. . . . There, the dagger glittered. I turned my face away as if looking at the mountains. I heard a dull groan from behind. . . . And I don’t know why, I began to think about life and death, and how ugly life seemed to me!