Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Falcon Flute (Tajik)

This story comes to us from a long time ago, when the Tajiks of the Pamirs, like virtually everyone else's ancestors, were in servitude to cruel feudal overlords.

Long, long ago, people and falcons lived together.

At that time, Tajik people would hunt with falcons. Just about every household had at least one falcon; it was not uncommon for a family to have two, three or even five falcons. Just as hunters today still go out with hunting dogs, so did the ancestors of the Tajiks take their falcons out into the fields to hunt. Then, at night, back home in their compounds, huts, or manors, Tajiks would sleep securely as their falconss watched over them and their property. Falcons were indispensable to the lives of the Tajiks, and together they lived inseparably, much, I suppose, like, as the Han Chinese say, "the lips and teeth."

In centuries past, the feudal masters of the Pamir meadowlands enslaved local Tajik families, expecting Tajik hunters to catch for them choice animals for their larders. Now these lords owned thousands of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, while the Tajiks of that era had nothing, nothing but their huts, their falcons and each other. Any game these Tajik hunters caught had to be turned over to the master.

Now in those long ago days, in the Dapuda'er Valley of the Pamirs, there lived a hunter named Wafa, who came from a long line of famed hunters. Like just about everybody else there, he was enslaved to his masters, the cattle and sheep lords, and had to wear rags and old carpeting for clothes and be content to eat bones with meager bits of mutton attached. That was the way things were.

One day Wafa's grandfather had the great fortune to catch an antelope, something he had never done before in forty years of hunting. Think how he must have felt! "My biggest stroke of luck in years and years!" he kept muttering to himself. He had to keep pinching himself as he and his family quietly celebrated.

However, what to do?

By law, he was supposed to turn over any carcass from a hunt to his master, who would take it all and not share even the smallest morsel with the family of the hunter who had bagged it. Or, he could keep the antelope just for his family or himself. Of course to do that would mean holding back from his master. If he did this and was found out, he would have to suffer dearly.

"No," he said, "we're going to keep the carcass. I caught it, so I have decided to keep it."

Well, just as the ancients said, that "one can't wrap fire in paper," the news of the old man's antelope got out and found its way to the master, the feudal lord of the Pamir Tajiks, cattle and sheep. The old grandfather was taken away by the master's thugs, his antelope carcass seized. The ruffians, using a rawhide whip, whipped the old man over and over. The grandfather said not a word. He returned home, tall, proud but broken inside, and fell ill. Within a few days, he died.

This did not dishearten Wafa's father. Out hunting for his master, he killed a brown bear, and, out of defiance, decided to keep the bear for his own family. In time he too was discovered. This time, the master's men tied him up, dipped clumps of sheep's wool in a vat of butter, and then placed the wool on the man. They then set him on fire, torching him, burning him alive . . .

Now only Wafa was left, or, rather, Wafa and his one hundred year old falcon. The falcon had belonged to his grandfather; upon his grandfather's death, it became his father's; when his father died, the falcon was passed on to him. This falcon was old, to be sure, but it was as sharp-eyed and formidable as it had ever been. It could spot the smallest sparrow hiding in the brush 100 li away; it's claws and beak could rip the fur off a black bear. For these reasons, Wafa's falcon was known as "the king of all hunting falcons." Indeed, everybody just called the falcon "the King." With this falcon, Wafa caught much choice game, all of which he had to hand over to his master.

One day, Wafa was in a secluded valley, overcome by resentment and hatred for the feudal nobles who enslaved him and his fellow Tajiks. Wafa turned to the sky and, before his falcon as a witness, sang a song of defiance:

Tajik slaves!
You are like the shooting stars that fall out of the night!
You exist just as food for lice,
Fighting and dying without allowing even your eyes to close.
Fierce slaves!
With ice water for blood,
Like the mighty icy peak of the Mushi-tage,
Tajik slaves,
Will you always have to be shooting stars that fall out of the night!?

He went home without a day's catch. From then on, he caught less and less game; all of his hunting spirit had left him. In time he no longer took the King out with him to hunt. He just stopped hunting, and that meant he no longer turned over the best of his catch to his master.

The master, of course, noticed that Wafa was not turning over his intended portions. Wafa was told he would have to hand over the King to the master.

Having received the news, he turned to the King and cried: "Oh, Tajik slaves! Will you always have to be shooting stars that fall out of the night?"

"Wafa, O my friend, Wafa," said the King, "listen to me. Kill me as quickly as possible. From the bones in my wing, create a flute. Play that flute, and your wishes shall come true!"

Wafa was frightened out of his wits to hear the King speak.

Then, the old falcon spoke again.

"Quickly! Don't waste time! Kill me and use my wing bone to make a flute! Hurry! Before they come!"

Wafa was nearly out of his mind with grief but did what the King had asked. Soon he was left with a very thick wing bone perfect for a flute.

Not long after, the master's ruffians showed up and demanded that the old falcon be handed over to them. Wafa looked at them and just pointed to a pile of feathers by his hut. They looked and saw what Wafa had done and reported back to the master.

"What!" screamed the master. "Bring him out to the courtyard, and I'll beat him to death myself!"

Wafa was dragged to the master's compound and there, in the courtyard, he was stripped to the waist and told to await the master, who he was told, had something in store for him.

While awaiting the master, Wafa took out his flute. "I'm dead," he thought. "Might as well have at least a little freedom to play this flute before he kills me."

The master opened the door and left his house. Just as he did so, the noonday sky grew darker and darker. The master and his men looked up to the heavens. At first they thought the same thing--a sudden approaching storm. No. The sky had grown black with thousands of descending falcons.

Down the falcons came, driven by the music from Wafa's flute. They swooped down and pecked the slave master and his thugs, cutting and slashing their necks and backs.

"Are you doing this, Wafa?" screamed the master in terror and pain. "Are you making them do this to me?"

Wafa just nodded and continued to play the flute.

"Oh, for the love . . . make them stop! Make them stop!"

"And if I do?" Wafa asked.

"I'll give you whatever you want! Anything!"

"Grant to the each Tajik household of the Dapuda'er Valley ten sheep, ten heads of cattle and ten camels!"

"Yes! Yes! Whatever you say! Just get these accursed falcons off me!"

Wafa stopped playing that particular tune. He then played something else, and the falcons flew away, disappearing into the sky.

The master then, as he had promised, gave the sheep, cattle and camels to the Tajik families of the valley. For the first time in their history, these Tajiks could now breed their own animals and feed themselves with more than their overlords' scraps. Did the master have a change of heart? No, he did not. He was as glad to give the Tajiks animals as a hungry wolf is to give up a freshly killed rabbit. He thought about what he could do.

After he discovered the falcon flute was made of the wing bone from the King, he issued a proclamation: "Whoever kills a falcon and fashions a falcon flute from the wing bone will be granted a reward."

Sadly, a large number of falcons were killed for their bones, and these bones, now made into flutes, were turned over to the master of the Pamirs. Now, suddenly, their "friends" and "partners," the local hunters, turned on them and killed them.

The damage had been done.

Those that were killed fled the huts of the Tajiks, never to return. Since this time, for this reason, falcons roost away from people, deep in the mountains on trees by the creeks.

The call for falcon bones ended; the bond between the hunters of the Pamirs and the falcons had been broken.

Shortly after, not surprisingly, the slave master took back all the cattle, sheep and camels he had given to the people. The people, now too late, realized how they had been so cruelly tricked. However, falcon flutes still appeared; the people still used them but for music now, not to summon falcons. It is said that all Tajiks remember the sacrifice of the falcons whenever they play these flutes.

And so this sad and unforgettable story has come down to us.


(1) Dong Sen & Xiao Li, eds. Minjian tonghua gushixuan. (A selection of fairy tales). Beijing: Beijing Chubanshe, 1982, pp. 167-171. (2) Jia Zhi & Sun Jianbing, eds. Zhongguo minjian gushixuan. (A selection of Chinese folktales). Volume 1. Beijing: Renmin Wenyi Chubanshe, 1980, pp. 413-416.

One of the difficulties encountered in translating this tale is that the term for hawk (ying2) can also be applied to eagles and falcons. Even the name wu2ying2 ("vulture") applied to "the King" also occurs. Indeed, until recently I used "hawk" in this story instead of "falcon." In their magisterial Dictionary of Symbols (Penguin, 1994), Chevalier and Gheerbrant write that in their traditions, the ancient Persians, kin to the Tajiks, often failed to distinguish between eagles and falcons (326).

The Tajiks adore the falcon and hold it in as high esteem as the Kazaks do the swan (see the post for 12/09/07). Writing of the Tajik falcon dance, Guan Yanru et al. inform us that Tajiks view the falcon (or hawk or eagle!) as the embodiment of bravery and freedom. At weddings women play tabla drums and the men, the falcon flute as both participants move their shoulders in imitation of the beating of falcon wings (Zhongguo minjian wenyi cidian, p. 398-399).

Motifs: B300, "Helpful animals"; B350, "Grateful animals"; B455.2, "Helpful falcon"; B500, "Magic Power from animal"; B571, "Animals perform tasks for man"; F989.16, "Extraordinary swarms of birds"; and Q51, "Kindness to animals rewarded."

Crienglish.com has another version of this tale.