The sun had set. Soon the desert was enveloped
My friend Bayir came from behind the tent. Recognizing me, he shuffled over anct I scratched his neck and side. The camel let out a sigh and dropped down onto his knees. He, too, had come to listen to Chary-aga's stories.
Chary-aga spoke slowly, as if he were listening to the sound of his own words. As soon as he finished telling one tale, he would immediately begin another.
Old Akbai came soundlessly out of the darkness and lay down beside Chary-aga. He listened and dozed. He was very old.
"Once many long years ago there lived a certain very wealthy landowner. He owned so many sheep and horses that he was no longer able to keep count of them. But as everyone knows, the wealthier a man, the more miserly he becomes. This landowner used to mete out cruel punishments to any shepherd who lost his livestock." Chary-aga's voice was soothing and melodious like the murmur of a stream. "Misfortune always follows on the heels of the poor. Once, one of the herders went to the village and left his son to look after the herd. In only one day's time the young boy lost two of the horses in the steppe.
"He ran to the landowner and fell down on his knees crying:
"'Iki aht yok!' Which meant: 'Two horses are missing!'
"'Go find them!' his master shouted. If you don't, I'll give you a whipping you'll never forget!'
"The landowner had a thick whip interwoven with iron hooks, more terrible than a wolf's gaping jaws.
"The young boy went rushing out into the steppe. He searched and searched, but couldn't find the horses. Then he climbed up on a high hill and prayed:
"'Oh, if only I had wings, I would find the horses and return home to my village, to my father and mother!'
"It seemed he had chosen the right time for his prayer, for suddenly he sprouted wings. He flew up over the hills and the mountains. His wings were those of a hawk, and the other predatory birds stayed out of his way. But still he was unable to find the lost horses.
"'Iki aht yok! Iki aht yok!' he cried in desperation.
"And thus he was named-'Ikiahtyok', which means 'cuckoo bird'.
"The cuckoo doesn't build nests; doesn't incubate its eggs. It has no time for that, because it's always busy searching for horses. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, and its young, once they're fully fledged, fly from their foster parents in search of the lost horses. They search and search, but never can find them."
The small fire which we had used to boil water for tea had almost died out. Only one small ember suddenly began to glow, but too weak to take flame, it faded out too. Then, an instant later, it twitched and grew red once more.
"Do you know any more stories about birds, Chary-aga?"
Chary-aga poured more tea into his cup with a movement so smooth that I felt I was watching it in a dream.
"There's a folk tale about every single wild bird and animal, my little camel-colt. I'll tell you about the hoopoe bird. Maybe you've seen it-it's bright-colored and motley, with a crest."
"This is the way the story goes," Chary-aga began. "Once there was a woman who raised two young girls. One was her own daughter and the other her stepdaughter. Her real daughter grew up well-cared for, while the stepdaughter toiled and labored from dawn till dusk. Her stepmother drove her so hard that the poor thing hadn't even time to comb her hair.
"Once the stepmother ordered her to boil some milk. The girl lit a fire, poured some milk into a kettle, and after setting it on the fire, began to comb her hair. Turkmen women have long, thick tresses, like a mountain stream during the spring thaw.
"The girl attempted to run the comb through her hair, but it wouldn't budge. And as ill luck would have it, just at that moment the milk rose up in the kettle and boiled over.
"The stepmother ran out of the tent, grabbed her stepdaughter by the arm and dragged her off into the steppe, saying:
'You can go wherever you want, you good-for-nothing wretch, but bring me back the milk skin. Don't dare come back
"The girl burst into sobs and ran off. She ran and ran, and suddenly she began to fly. Her arms had become wings, her motley-colored clothes-feathers, and on her head the comb was still sticking out. The girl became the hoopoe bird. And she has been flying over the four corners of the earth ever since. As she flies she cries out:
"'Hoop! Hoop! Where are you, milk skin!'
"Those who have sharp eyes can see the small comb on her head. But even now it has no time to comb her hair."