Uncle Kuly's father had been a shepherd;
so, too, was his father, and his father's father before him...
Leaning on his shepherd's crook, Kuly-aga stood motionless in the midst of the desert. His lone figure seemed as big as a giant's. Opposite him, above the hills, hung the weary evening sun.
We trudged along quietly behind the flock. The dogs Sakar and Bassar had come along with us. The sun had dipped to the level of the earth, but the sands still breathed fire.
Kuly-aga stopped and listened for the tinkling of the leader's bell. The old billy-goat who led the flock had veered off to the right, sensing the good food to come. The sheep followed him in to feed. Kuly-aga walked several paces and then stopped again, leaning on his crook and gazing into the sunset: the crimson sunbeams winked a last farewell and sank to rest. Rest for the sun, but for us the work was just beginning.
"Till tomorrow!" Kuly called to the sun. Those were the only words he had uttered in the two hours we had been trodding along. Darkness came creeping over the plains, bringing with it a vague feeling of alarm. I started at the slightest rustle: maybe wolves were stealing up on the flock.
But soon the moon had risen above the hills. Uncle Kuly led his donkey out from the flock and tied a bell around its neck. The donkey carried food and water for us and the dogs on its back. If it were to stray off during the night, we would all go hungry and thirsty.
At last the heat of the sands died down and a river of coolness wended its way over the desert. The hills were illuminated in the moonlight, as if bathed in a milky haze. It was so bright on the plain that the grains of sand glittered underfoot like flakes of snow.
The sheep grazed on unperturbed.
The dogs lay down at Kuly's feet and rested their heads on their paws. Their eyes were closed, yet their ears twitched restlessly at the faintest rustle, like leaves fluttering in the wind. Everything was so peaceful. No wolf would dare attack the flock on a night so bright and calm.
Around midnight the sheep stopped grazing and huddled together in the open to take their rest.
Uncle Kuly led the donkey out from among them and unloaded the provisions. Then he snapped some dry twigs and got a fire going.
He poured some water into a copper kettle and set it on the fire to boil, leaving some in a rubber bowl for the dogs. Sakar drank his standing up, Bassar lazily lying down.
The fire was small, but it gave off enough warmth.The water started boiling and Uncle Kuly made a strong tea which drove away my drowsiness.
We sat drinking our tea on a small knoll about ten paces from the fire. It's dangerous to stay long near the fire: it attracts all the crawling creatures of the desert, including the deadly scorpion and the poisonous desert spiders.
The fire licked at the last dry twigs and then lay still, as everything else around. Even the moonlight seemed to grow mell ow. The stars came out, the dogs went on patrol, and the flock dozed.
Uncle Kuly lay down, placing his crook, the shepherd's hard pillow, beneath his head, and gazed up once more at the heaven. I too looked up. Over there was the North star, and the Great Bear stealthily creeping through the night. By dawn old mother bear would be in the East overtaking the North star, from below. And then the jolly Plejades would appear above the hills.
The shepherds knew the sky as well as any astronomer.
Once Chary-aga had told me:
"Listen, my lad, if you want to make the desert your home, you must know it like the back of your hand. And the sky you must know like your five fingers. Without knowing the sky you can't know the desert."
The sheep stirred and resumed their grazing, slowly wending their way back towards the well. Uncle Kuly and I rose and followed behind.
The sky was growing bright, and there was the sweet scent of sand-dust and grass in the air.
In the morning Chary-aga would greet us by the fire and treat us to fragrant green tea.
"Good morning, my young shepherd!" he would say to me.