Justin E. H. Smith
To the great benefit of scholarship, an electronic version has finally been made available of Sir Thomas Fudge’s 1594 translation of the 15th-century Venetian explorer Girolamo Policarpo’s travel report on his detour north of the Silk Road. Having gone looking for the lost Christian kingdom of Prester John, he wound up instead in the court of the great khan. Here is a sample of Policarpo’s communication to his sponsors back in Venice, as transcribed for me by my assistant, Tanya Vainshtain (who, like so many Eastern European scholars, had resourcefully obtained a username and password for the “STaNS” digital archive at the University of Arizona long before I myself could get around to it, hell, long before I’d even heard of it):
You may take it as fact that there never was a Khan as mighty as the Khan of whom I am about to speak.
Yea, here is how this is so. He wears a necklace of an hundred pearls, pulled from oysters by divers in narrow straits, and he prays on them to his hundred gods. For he is an idolater.
And his gods have blessed his land, which is called Fu, with mulberry trees that host the eag’rest mealy worms, spinning out the stuff for manufacture of the finest silks in fabricks big as mountains.
And you should know that there are other plants and stones, too, which give spices and salves you assuredly know not, as spodium, yea, and tutty.
And you may be sure that there is pasturage aplenty for the grazing and chewing of hooved beasts, which in that land produce a musk so strong that, you should know, a Christian could scarce endure it.
You should also know that when the great Khan dies, an hundred of his slaves will be killed, and an hundred of their horses. And they will all be propped up on spikes piercing from arse to mouth ’round a great dining table on which will be served sundry game, as boar, stag, lynx, and coney.
And they will feast for seven days, or until a maggot drops from the great Khan’s nostril, whereupon it will be said, you should know, that he be no longer Khan, and was not so mighty withal.
There are several references in the treatise to an inferior people living within the khanate of Fu. Though their identity remains unclear, many scholars believe them to be the ancestors of today’s Lomi-Ek, a group of about 80,000 people speaking a language isolate, with their own autonomous oblast‘ just to the Northeast of Vuta. (Wikipedia wrongly identifies them as belonging to the Aral-Ultaic language family. God knows I’m not going to be the one to make the correction. If I chimed in for every error I found, I would have to quit my job for lack of time.)
Policarpo writes of the Lomi-Ek (in Fudge’s rendering): “There never was a people as brutish as the people the Khan takes to him as slaves. You should know that these people, which are called the Loomey-Ecke [‘i Luomecchi‘, in Policarpo’s original], love their horses far more than men should love their horses.” Some scholars believe that, whatever the factual basis of Policarpo’s report of a mass feast of the dead following the khan’s demise, it is highly likely that the Lomi-Ek were regularly sacrificed along with their horses. Human and equine skeletal remains have been found together in mass graves, some with men buried in full riding regalia and in a mounted position upon their loyal steeds.
“Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran,” Tanya was now telling me in her cramped apartment back on Prospekt Vernadskogo after our largely unsuccessful jaunt out East, and after a few shotglasses of Moskovskaya chased by pickled cucumbers and pickled herring, scooped out of recycled jars and shoved down our throats to dull, by way of contrast, the alcohol’s jolt, “was once asked why rock stars marry supermodels. For the same reason, he is reported to have replied, that dogs lick their own balls: because they can.”
I didn’t know why Tanya was talking about this rock star I’d never heard of, but she seemed intent on going somewhere with it. I’d been planning to stay in Moscow for just one night as a guest in Tanya’s home before continuing back to Indiana. Tanya seemed to have been looking forward to bringing me home with her, and seized upon this opportunity to share her Russian pain. Vodka, pickled herring, Vladimir Vysotsky barking from the cassette player about Taganka, Magadan, the 1980 Olympics, God knows what. I knew the routine. There’s no telling how this night will end up, I thought to myself. We’re about the same age. My wife’s dead and buried in Davenport, Iowa. We’re both compulsive documenters, Tanya and I. We’re both, though in very different ways and for very different reasons, obsessed with her father, and we’re both perpetually driven to the verge of emotional collapse by the sense that everything that matters is receding, irretrievably, into the past.
“Just how self-contained can a creature be?” Tanya went on, apparently prolonging the autofellating-dogs routine. But then she switched tracks as abruptly as she’d started. “In the Vedic tradition of India,” she announced, refilling our shot glasses, “the horse was the victim of a ritual sacrifice that was believed to keep the universe ticking along smoothly. The horse was itself an embodiment of the cosmos. It’s in the Upanishads. The Brhadaranyaka, I think. I’ll show you.”
Tanya slid a book out from under the couch. It looked like Hare Krishna material, of which there was by now plenty in the streets of Moscow. She began to read, translating haltingly, whether from the Sanskrit or from the Russian I don’t know: “Dawn is the head of the sacrificial horse. The sun is the eye of the sacrificial horse,” and so on, down through the horse’s breath, its mouth, its back and belly, its flanks, its ribs, its nostrils. I lost focus at some point, but tuned back in for the conclusion after nearly every part of the poor creature had been listed and correlated with some feature of the cosmic or terrestrial landscape. “The food in his stomach is the sands,” she went on, “the rivers are his bowels, liver and lungs; the mountains, plants and trees are his hairs; when he yawns, it lightens, when he shakes himself, it thunders; when he urinates, it rains; speech is his voice.”
“Now the horse is an Asian creature, you know,” Tanya was lecturing me, for some unapparent reason, “though those of you who grew up on cowboy-and-Indian movies, and probably even the cowboys and Indians themselves, no doubt think it emerged from a distinctly Western-Hemispheric evolutionary line. You once had rhinoceroses, and camels, and elephants, and glyptodonts of your own, after all, why couldn’t just one creature of equal stature and import have managed to hang on?
“The word for ‘horse’ in the various Turkic languages extending from Istanbul to western China,” Tanya continued, “is ‘at‘, very nearly the most basic and primitive sound a human voice can make. Vowel, consonant, finish. And the horse is itself something too basic and primitive from Anatolia to Outer Mongolia to command denotation by any sounds that take as long, or require as complicated an acrobatics of the tongue and teeth and lips, as cheval, or loshad’, or Pferd, or even horse. At: a mere preposition in the language we are speaking now, so basic as to barely even count as a word.
“Now the Lomi-Ek, who as you know speak a language isolate, but who borrowed their word for ‘horse’ from their Turkic neighbors, have contracted it even further. For them it is simply ‘a‘. In some dialects it is shorter still: just a glottal stop, if you can believe that, without anything before or after it. For the brief period of contact in the 16th century with the Saffavid dynasty to the southwest, during which Lomi-Ek was written in the Arabic script, ‘horse’ was spelled with a solitary ayn. Now this curious spelling would of course never be permitted in Arabic itself, and even the distant Uighurs wouldn’t put the script of Mohammed to such odd uses. But that’s the thing about alphabets: no one owns them, least of all God. Anyway, if we were to transliterate poetry from this period and from the dialect I just mentioned, ‘horse’ would thus be represented by a mere apostrophe: ‘. It barely leaves a trace on paper, yet for the Lomi-Ek it is everywhere.”
Tanya was right. The horse was an important part of Asian life. The 19th-century Lomi-Ek poet Baraqat Maqöb –briefly canonized in volumes of the literature of the Soviet peoples, only to be removed in the mid-1930s and forgotten until the 2003 publication by Duquesne University Press of an anthology of Great Nationalist Poets of North Asia, where he is hailed in Rosalind Needleman’s introduction as a genre-transcending, playful modernist, remarkably anticipating the European avant garde from his distant colonial outpost– captured in a short poem of 1893 the central place the horse occupied in his own traditional culture:
Desire for what? Why, for a mare! And as he leaps over crag and crevice toward her who’s provoked him, he leaves behind a scattered trail of residue that our people call horse-madness.
And the peasant girls will come along, and collect the droplets, and mix them in bowls together with life-giving leaves only they know, and the leaves and the seed will feed the corn.
For our elders say the corn comes from the dead, but those older still say it comes from seed.
And here we all know horse [‘], and we all know corn. And here all the other words derive from ‘horse’ [‘] and ‘corn’. Here the talk is always ‘horse [‘] this’, and ‘corn that’.
Here, indeed, they will tell you that the world itself is a giant horse [‘].
I asked Tanya what she thought of Maqöb, but by now she was busy shuffling through a pile of papers and notebooks on the coffee table. I stretched out on the couch. After some minutes she produced a yellowed Soviet report, of which I could just make out the year ‘1963’ on the cover. Something about collective farms in the Lomi-Ek oblast‘. Something about milk yields. Why does she have this stuff just lying around? Where are the Alice Munro novels and David Sedaris trifles Helen would have had instead? Where is the New Yorker? Jesus I miss my wife.
“What do you think I think?” was her unexpectedly angry response. “By the 1930s,” Tanya set in, “the horse was valued among the Lomi-Ek, of course, though not as a microcosm of the whole of nature. It was valued for its output. Thus we learn, and I’m quoting here, that ‘the high milk yield of the Lomi-Ek horse is worthy of note. At the Karl Marx experimental farm of the Lomi-Ek Institute of Agriculture the mares produce 1200-1700 kg of marketable milk in a 6-month lactation.’ But hold on,” Tanya held forth, “this is my favorite part: ‘The Lomi-Ek horse is also worthy of note as a good meat producer; the carcass weight of 6-month-olds is 105 kg, reaching 165 kg by 2.5 years of age and 228 kg in adults…” Tanya stopped reading, I suppose, when she saw my eyes were closed. My bare feet were in her lap at the other end of the couch. We stayed like this for some time.
“Can you imagine what violence these horsemeat factories must have done to the Lomi-Ek way of life?” she finally asked. I opened my eyes. I didn’t know how to answer. I was drunk. “Everything dies,” Tanya replied for me. “Isn’t it better to be sacrificed in the name of cosmic renewal than to have your carcass measured up for meat yield?” Ty takaya krasivaya, I replied, my Russian finally deciding to come back at just the moment this dithering, eccentric old dame was magically transfigured by the vodka and the hour, and even, somehow, by her odd and interminable cri de coeur for the Lomi-Ek, into someone, if not desirable exactly, at least well-matched with me. With my limited vocabulary, anyway, telling her she was ‘beautiful’ would have to do.
Tanya’s face flushed red. I stood up, kissed her forehead, and stumbled to the bathroom. My head was pounding. I could feel the herring rising back up towards my esophagus, ready to reappear. I kicked the toilet seat up and stared into the mirror behind the toilet. I was rotund, grey and bearded, with fat jowls with ruptured blood vessels. The very caricature of the tenured fool. When I urinate, it rains, I mumbled to myself. Speech is my voice.
Previous installments in the Imaginary Tribes series may be found here:
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, go to www.jehsmith.com.