Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dydya Kolya and the spirits of the underworld - Voyage to Siberia part 5

Dyadya Kolya
Dyadya Kolya lived on the edge of the village with his wife, Tamara. It was said that he was 86. He was proud of his young wife, Tamara, who was in her early 60s. Dyadya Kolya had built 26 houses in the village, we were told. I marvelled at this news, for he was the closest I had ever seen to a wood goblin: tiny and squat, with leathery skin, and barely a tooth in his mouth; his eyes were all but hidden behind laughter lines and folds of skin. He was a skilled fisherman - and that kept his wife plump and both of them fed and largely independent from the village. Tamara sold vodka on the sly, mostly bartering for food and other goods. Viktor (see previous post) often took the carcasses of birds to Tamara to swap for vodka. She liked a tipple herself, and when drunk would become even more raucous, railing against the other villagers, especially our hosts, and Dyadya Kolya would chuckle delightedly.

Two of the houses in Nelemnoye that Dyadya Kolya built

Dyadya Kolya's 'young' wife, Tamara

He didn’t drink as far as I remember - instead, and I suppose this is what kept him young - he was always occupied: his hands were making things - whether it was little toys from splinters of wood, or untangling fishing nets, building houses, or with his wife, as he liked to tell us. His tiny body was lithe - he squatted rather than sat - his eyes concentrated on his hands, and his thoughts were, well, who knows where they were. Dyadya Kolya appeared to live in another world, unrestricted by the worldly burdens that weighed on the other inhabitants of Nelemnoye. Akulina Vasilievna (the elder of the village) and he told similar stories, and believed in the same spirits, but while she was the official carrier of Yukagir myths and legends, he practically was one of these spirits himself. Did visiting anthropologists interview him? I doubt it. Few would have sat out the boredom and frustration of being under verbal attack by the crazy Tamara. Dyadya Kolya delighted in the fact that she was 25 years younger than him, ‘look at my beautiful wife,’ he would say, ‘her soft skin and juicy breasts,’ and give a filthy laugh.

The banks of the river in Nelemnoye, NE Siberia during the short summer

One day, after tolerating Tamara’s crazed company for several hours in their hot and stuffy freshly built pine cabin, Dyadya Kolya told us a story, which was worth the wait. He told us about how he had been hunting one winter and had not managed to find an izbushka (one of the huts in the taiga where hunters take refuge) and had begun to freeze. He collapsed against a tree and slumped on to the ground in a faint. A hole opened below him, under the roots of the trees and he tumbled in, following a voice that was calling to him. “It was the voice of a spirit. I could see him in the distance of a long underground tunnel," muttered Dyadya Kolya, toothlessly. "I caught up with him and asked him ‘who are you?’ He said to me that he was from the spirit realm and that because it wasn’t my time to go to the spirit world, that I was still destined to wander this earth, he would lead me to safety. We wandered for many hours in this middle world - I was tired and hungry - I was scared and I didn’t know what was happening or where he was leading me. I thought maybe he was leading me to the underworld - I could hear lots of voices of other spirits. Some were lost in the middle world and would never make it out. Others were friendly. Mine was friendly. He turned to look at me and he looked me in the eyes and I was frightened, very frightened, I thought that I would die. Then I passed out. The next thing I knew I was opening my eyes under the tree, but I felt warm, and not hungry, and full of life. I stood up - my limbs didn’t ache. I walked forward and immediately found an izbushka. In the izbushka there were tins of food and a fire laid. There was no window and there was a storm that night but no snow came in. I slept like a log and the next day I shot several sable.” 

Dyadya Kolya burst into a high pitched fit of giggles and thumped the table. Thus Dyadya Kolya had met the spirits, who live in elaborate labyrinths beneath the permafrost, and returned. 

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