Justin E. H. Smith
We all know the deer: a beast formed of grace and terror. She is graceful because all the visible terror, at being shot, at being torn by claws, is concentrated in the eyes alone; she is terrified, in her eyes and in her soul (which is invisible), because the world is cruel to whatever does not prey. Throughout the serpentine empire of the river Yam, the deer (or more precisely, capreolus pygargus) is a ubiquitous enough zoological entity to make its presence felt cartographically, in place-names both Russian and native. The capital and business center of Yamkutka is called by the Russians ‘Olen’sk,’ (‘Deerville,’ if you will). The Yamkut name for the city, ‘Yum,’ also honors the region’s second-most common large mammal, and first-most among the ungulates.
In contradistinction to most self-descriptions of indigenous peoples, which are usually very nearly translatable simply as ‘the people,’ Bocharov and Ginzburg report in their groundbreaking 1958 study, Perspektivy na iamkutskoe obshchestvo: primitivnyi kommunizm ili paleoaziatskii men’shevizm? [Perspectives on Yamkut Society: Primitive Communism or Paleo-Asiatic Menshevism?], that the elders of the tribe sometimes offer as a translation of the Yamkut word for ‘Yamkut’ [jam’çïa]: “Those who are not cloven-hoofed, shit not pellets, and are neither graceful nor –though they certainly ought to be– terrified.” If you are a Yamkut (which you assuredly are not), deer and life are as one. A Yamkut creation myth tells of Mother Deer, a doe whose udder grew and grew until it gushed forth seas and lakes and rivers of fatty and clotted milk, and of how in the dreamtime before the time we know the mighty Yam flowed thick and white.
In the golden age of Mosfilm and Lenflim, after the Georgians had founded Gruzfilm and the Turkmen had founded Turkmenfilm and even Tadzhikistan had its own studio of some renown, the Yamkut became determined to convince Moscow that they too needed Yamkut-language films created at their very own Yamkut studio. True, they were just an autonomous oblast and not a Soviet Socialist Republic, but, they thought, it was worth a try. The red tape took no more and no less time to cut through than for any other project under communism, and after a number of years, Yamfilm was born, with technical consultants arriving daily from Moscow and Kiev, workers diligently constructing a movie set on the outskirts of Olen’sk that, for some as yet unknown reason, had slowly begun to resemble the Reichstag.
It would turn out that the elders among the Yamkut had been forced to cut a deal with the bureaucrats in Moscow in order to gain approval for the Yamfilm project. The Yamkut could have their studio, but the first five films, to be completed in the first five years of production, were to depict the Soviet victory in the Great War for the Fatherland, with a particular emphasis on the enemy camp. Now the Yamkut would much rather have made films depicting their way of life, films about what interested them, what they spent all their time discussing, which is to say, most importantly, the deer-hunt. In fact, most Yamkut found it difficult even to act, before a camera and under pressure from Mosfilm supervisors, as though they cared about anything other than deer, such as heroism, medals, and the purported difference between Stalin and Hitler. To the Yamkut, it was just two men with moustaches, enormous moustaches, having it out over issues that ought to have had no bearing on the lives of scraggly-whiskered, Mongoloid hunter-gatherers such as themselves.
But a deal’s a deal, and so the first Yamkut film made it into production. Some particularly memorable footage I saw on a recent visit to the Yamkutka oblast‘s historical archives shows rejected takes of a scene in a conference room at the Reichstag. A crucial strategy meeting between all of the highest ranking Nazis was about to begin. Yümat keeps screwing up his lines, slipping out of character, while lead actor Yügd has failed to show altogether. Here is the translation T. L. Vainshtain provided me of the outtake’s dialogue (I decided to pay her to come along with me from Moscow to work as my interpreter):
Goebbels: Heil Hitler, Herr Speer. Where’s Goering?
Speer: Heil Hitler, Herr Goebbels. Goering comes. (Goering enters). Oh, Herr Goering, Heil Hitler… Hey, where is Hitler, anyway?
Goering: Hitler out in tundra. Hunting deer. Back at sundown.
Yes, the Yamkut know deer. But it is the Yamkut alone who know the mysterious çüm’t. The name might roughly be translated out of Yamkut as “That which wreaks pure terror, and perceives not grace, with glowing quills and without a face.” Bocharov and Ginzburg (ibid.) describe it variously as “a Yeti for the steppe,” “a spectre haunting Siberia,” “the opium of the hunter-gatherers,” “a running-dog for idealism,” and, more to the point, “a big lie.”
But whatever the çüm’t is, it’s no Yeti, and it’s no lie. Unlike the mythical mountain-bound snow monster, the çüm’t is a river-dweller, or, more precisely, a Yam-dweller, its habitat extending no more than 100 meters from the banks of this great flow. Moreover, the çüm’t is a quadruped, if you can call those things feet. In all the world, these are the only feet, if you can call them that, that are both webbed and clawed. The webs help the çüm’t propel itself as it wishes, upstream or downstream, through the Yam’s swift currents. The claws help the çüm’t to subdue its prey, though this is seldom necessary, for its prey is the docile deer. Its face, which is to say its mouth, is located somewhere beneath that mass of glowing quills. Some Yamkut elders say the teeth glow as well. Some even say there is no real difference between the quills and the teeth at all, that other than its webbed, glowing-clawed feet the çüm’t is nothing more than an enormous mouth.
The çüm’t’s existence has not gone entirely unnoted by the scientific community. In his largely forgotten 1934 field guide to the wildlife of Siberia, Die Tierwelt Siberiens, Macarius Müller mentions the Hystrix candens Mülleri or ‘Müller’s glowing porcupine.’ He notes: “Just as the people of Jamkutka might be said to exhibit in an exaggerated form the physiognomic and behavioral traits of their cousins to the south, the Dravidians of the southern tip of India and the island of Zeylon, with eyes that bespeak an indifference to suffering and defeat: at the hands of the Indo-Aryans, in the case of the black-skinned Hindoos, and of the Slavs, in the case of the Jamkut; with a communal life as much bereft of concern for basic hygiene as of interest in the profounder things; with a single-minded lust for the steaming blood of the graceful deer they claim to love, and perhaps for the blood of a curious traveller such as myself, so too the glowing porcupine is but a fiercer, more savage cousin of the Hystrix indica or Indian porcupine. Whether it has a face –or not, as the Jamkut claim– I have not been able to approach close enough to determine. But that it glows like an ember, that I can see quite clearly from a safe distance.”
Müller, a young, adventurous soul, lusting for a bit of blood himself, rushed back to Europe at the first promise of war and died a few years later in a so-called fox-hole. Within a few years of his book’s publication, “going East” would take on a new meaning, and few after Müller would ever try to track down the glowing porcupine. It was the fate of the Hystrix candens Mülleri to remain but a çüm’t. And so it has, right up to the present day.
When Tanya and I paid a visit on our way back from Olen’sk to the Kazakhfilm archives at the brand-new national history museum in Astana, we came across a notebook of the legendary Kazakh director Mubarak Zhubaikanov. Assigned in the early 1960s to make films based on the national epics of each of the Soviet Republics, in alphabetical order, he had scarcely begun production on the Armenia installment when he found himself in prison for promoting (i) idealism (i.e., Italian neo-realism), and (ii) the corruption of Socialist values (i.e., homosexuality). Say what you will about the Azerbaidjanis (alphabetically first, in Cyrillic terms), the Pravda editorialists reflected, it is simply not like them to lounge about pointlessly on interminable island holidays, gazing at one another’s youthful torsos. The notebook contained what looked to be a sketch of a movie he hoped to make, someday, about the Yamkut, though for the life of me I can’t imagine how he thought this material could ever be translated into the medium of film. “The çüm’t takes a claw-footed/web-footed hike, or swim, or something in between,” Zhubaikanov writes, “against the current of the mighty Yam, in search of a deer.” He continues:
“The çüm’t makes its way upstream. It seems as though the icy water ought to extinguish the glow of its quills, and yet they only seem to glow brighter the more fully they are submerged by the current. Soon enough, the beast spies what it’s looking for, a six-year-old doe with white spots, drinking gently at the side of the river. The doe spots the çüm’t, in turn, and freezes, not out of fear, or at least not out of fear alone, but out of awe at the sight of this waterborne fire. No deer that’s seen it has ever lived. None has ever had the chance to teach the fawns how to survive this terrible beauty.
“The çüm’t draws nearer, and the remaining awe in the doe’s eyes transforms quickly into terror; the terror concentrates in her eyes alone and, however much she would have it so, cannot be communicated to her sinewy legs. The frozen doe watches the glowing beast draw nearer, and as it draws nearer she sees what no Yamkut has ever seen: she sees the mouth of the çüm’t begin slowly to open.
“Located at the front of the torso, at least if we wish to determine front and back in this case by the direction of motion, the quills part down the center of its body and reveal something of a hole, a hole doing something quite the opposite of glowing. Around its rim, there appears a ridge of tiny, sharp, only lightly glowing quills, which would have to be identified as the teeth if anything were to be. The hole is floating in the middle of the fiery light, more powerful than the hottest flames, the sharpest quills, as if ready to devour the deer whole.
“Presently, the çüm’t opens its mouth as wide as it can be extended and plunges the ridge of teeth into the neck of the motionless doe. The çüm’t leans with all its weight into the deer’s body. The deer, much to her own surprise, finds herself leaning in as well. The çüm’t pushes toward the deer and sucks, and the deer pushes toward the çüm’t as she feels her blood flow out into her partner’s mouth. She kneels –the first motion we’ve seen from her since she caught sight of the glowing beast– in part because she feels weak, in part because she longs to be closer to her squat attacker. Just to be closer, just for now, whatever this may bring. For they are partners, and they are conspiring.
“The deer says to her partner: ‘I am a deer, and I have no defense. Those who are not cloven-hooved, and shit not pellets, and ought to be terrified, but are not, believe that I am formed out of grace and terror. But as you now know, çüm’t, I am formed out of blood, which fuels the fire in your quills, and I am covered in soft velvety hair, which is of a kind with your quills, however different these may seem. I am formed out of taut muscles and lightning-fast synapses, and I dart across the tundra away from the bang of the clumsy unterrified ones’ weapons, until I am ready to give myself to them. I haven’t given myself to you, çüm’t. You have taken me. My blood feeds the fire in your quills, and I cannot keep it from flowing. My only weapon is my fecundity, which flows like blood throughout the generations of deer, which flowed into my fawn and will flow from her to other fawns still, into generations without end. My own blood will cease to flow when it has all flown into you, but it does not matter, for my own blood would have flown into nothing had you not come to take it. It is sweet to flow like this, for just a few moments more, my çüm’t, though the life flows out of me and into you, sweeter than the soft flow of the rivulets of the mighty Yam, sweeter than the mighty flow of time, and of the soft rivulet of time that was my soft and sinewy life. This is no longer my life flowing, my çüm’t. This is your life flowing, and you are everything.’
“And the çüm’t replies: ‘I am a çüm’t and I cannot help what I am. Those on two legs, who keep their distance, and who know that I glow like embers, but know not that I have a face, say that I am evil itself. But they are mistaken. As you now know, deer, I am appetite itself. I kill in order to live, and I glow because I live, and I cannot help but live. Evil has nothing to do with it. Some may think that I am evil, but I am only appetite, and appetite is love, and love is all there is. If I am evil, then, all is evil and it says nothing to point this out. You, deer, are feeding my appetite, for now, for this morning. This afternoon, I will feed on another. You, my deer, know that I love you as much as one creature has ever loved another, my love grows as you cease to be another creature altogether, as you become me, and we become more. I am all there is, and through me all is one.’
“The çüm’t plunges onward, upstream, and the deer’s carcass lies still at the side of the Yam, flaccid from bloodlessness, one eye underwater, one eye staring expressionlessly toward the overcast sky. And the maggots and flies will soon come and take what the çüm’t did not want. And a Yamkut may happen along, and consider peeling off the velvety hide, but, with a pang of shame, an evolved aversion to vulturism, decide not to. And off in the forest, the bear will say to the rabbit: let us conspire. And the leaf will whisper to the humus: shall we conspire? And the fairy ring will ask the deer pellet: why not conspire? And the sunbeam will beseech the maggot: let us conspire. And the mighty Yam will cry out: all things conspire.”
For Chingiz Aitmatov.
An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing may be found at www.jehsmith.com.