Fairy Tale Tuesday No.63 – A Bought Dream

This Turkmen story is taken from Folk Tales from the Soviet Union, which was published in 1986 and includes in the end notes some optimistic observations on how much better everybody is without tyrannical fairy tale lords. It’s rather sad, all things considered. This particular story could certainly be read as pro-communist if you wanted, but then that’s the power of fairy tales: every telling will be heard a different way. To me, ‘A Bought Dream’ reads like someone threw half a dozen fairy tale elements into a blender just to see what would happen.

The hero is Sarsembai – a young orphan earning his living as the shepherd for a rich man’s large flock. Come autumn, he is promised a lame sheep in return for his work. Then one day as he’s on his way to pasture the flock, a wolf springs out at him like a bushranger. “Give me a sheep,” the wolf commands. “Just one. If you don’t I’ll kill ten.”

Sarsembai explains that the sheep don’t actually belong to him and the wolf allows him to go off and consult with his master. The owner of the sheep considers the deal a fair one, only he adds a condition of his own: the wolf must be blindfolded first, picking a sheep from the flock at random. The wolf agrees. It’s all so civilised! Unfortunately for Sarsembai, the sheep that gets snatched is the one promised as his payment. When the wolf realises, he’s terribly apologetic and leaves the sheep’s hide so that the boy at least has something to sell.

Less understanding is Sarsembai’s master. When he learns what happened, he laughs at the young shepherd’s misfortune and sacks him on the spot for incompetence, despite agreeing to the arrangement in the first place. Miserably, Sarsembai sets off, his dead sheep’s hide the only reward for his work. It earns him three coins; of those, he donates the first to a beggar. The old man is so grateful he insists the boy pocket a handful of sand as a reward, which Sarsembai politely does. The second coin purchases an uncomfortable night’s lodging at a caravanserai. The last coin is all Sarsembai has left. He blows it on buying a beautiful dream off a fellow traveller, in the hope he’ll find happiness.

He doesn’t. This is a boy who wouldn’t know good luck if he tripped over it. He wanders across the steppes, searching for work, being turned away at every door until one night he is so cold and so hungry he collapses into a snowdrift in despair. The next thing he knows, a wolf is standing over him. It’s a small world; this is the wolf, who recognises Sarsembai just in time and holds back, though he is hungry himself. He urges the boy to climb onto his back and carries him through the snow to the edge of a forest, where a light shines between the trees. This, the wolf explains, is the light of a robbers’ bonfire. The robbers themselves are gone, but the heat remains, and even a few bones from their meal. Thrusting his hands happily into the warm embers, Sarsembai accidentally uncovers a golden casket filled with diamonds.

Has his luck finally changed? Well, not so much changed as done a screeching 360. Sarsembai doubts it, so when he comes across a pretty white yurt in the woods he hides his treasure chest before going to say hello. And a good thing too, because the girl inside is horrified to see him. Doesn’t he know this is the home of the dreadful witch Zhalmawiz-Kempir? Her advice is RUN LIKE HELL, but it comes too late – a thudding and cracking outside herald the witch’s return, so the girl hides Sarsembai under some felts just before the door is flung wide.

The witch is of the cannibalistic persuasion. Her idea of a greeting is to grab the girl by the arm and squeeze, to see if she’s put on enough weight yet to make a good meal. The girl has not and the witch is thoroughly annoyed. “If when I return tomorrow I find you as skinny as you are now,” she threatens, “I’ll fry you alive on this fire here!” With that, she goes off for a nap. Apparently the wicked rest just fine; it’s the innocent who lie awake crying.

In the morning the witch storms out and Sarsembai emerges from hiding. Instead of running away, he stays, asking how the girl’s life went so dreadfully wrong. The story that follows is nasty, breaking the rules of fairy tale security; the girl (whose name is Altyn-kyz) was out playing with friends when an old woman came up asking for a drink of water. Altyn-kyz took her home and, supposedly as a reward, the old woman produced a beautiful comb to brush her hair. Instead, the comb sent the girl to sleep. She woke up in the witch’s yurt, a prisoner and a walking, talking dinner.

She concludes her story by begging Sarsembai to get out while he can. He refuses. His first thought is that they should run away together, but Altyn-kyz points out that the witch will easily overtake them if they do, or if she doesn’t, they’ll die in the snow. So Sarsembai comes up with plan B – stay alive until spring. He observed during the night that the witch’s eyesight is bad, so he convinces the very dubious Altyn-kyz to swap clothes and takes her place that night when the witch returns. Sure enough, she’s taken in, not even suspicious at a rapid weight gain that’s only possible if it’s not the same person.

The deception lasts through the winter. With the arrival of spring, Sarsembai begins phase two of the plan, heading off into the wood to collect meat for their journey. Each day he lets Altyn-kyz know he’s still alive by sending goose feathers floating downstream. On the third day, though, several incidences of weirdness drive the promise from his mind. He rescues a baby deer from a flock of ravens, and is thanked by its father the stag; pulls a lamb from a pit and is thanked by its father the ram; returns a chick to its nest and is thanked by its father the eagle. The animals around here have such wonderful manners!

All this rescuing has taken time Sarsembai could not really afford. At sunset he dashes back to the yurt, and just in time – the witch has worked out what’s going on and is on the point of tearing Altyn-kyz apart with her bare teeth when Sarsembai flies inside and offers a ransom in exchange for the girl’s life. The witch is initially unimpressed, but then Sarsembai returns with the golden casket and scatters the floor with diamonds. While the witch scrambles to collect the jewels, the children run for their lives.

They run to the point of exhaustion, but the witch catches up regardless. In the nick of time the stag appears to repay Sarsembai’s good deed with a lift to the foot of a mountain. The ram takes over, carrying them to the top, and by the time the witch gets there the eagle has shown up to carry the two escapees away to safety. He deposits them in Altyn-kyz’s own village, where her parents are overjoyed to see her. They are so thrilled to have her back safe and sound that they adopt Sarsembai on the spot.

Years later, when he and Altyn-kyz are grown up, they marry and have a son. Lying on the grass one evening with his young family around him, Sarsembai realises that the dream he bought so long ago is now realised. Remembering another incident from his pretty awful childhood, he seeks out his old rags and finds the handful of sand from the beggar at the marketplace. He scatters it on the wind, and wherever the grains fall they turn to living creatures – cows and horses, camels and sheep. It is enough to make Sarsembai the wealthiest of men, but instead he shares his fortune with the village. No little boys will be kicked out into the world on his watch.

Wolves! Witches! Unfortunate orphans, magical beggars, beautiful hostages! Most stories are satisfied with one or two on the list, but this one whacks it all in and the result is weird, but a bit sweet. Sarsembai and Altyn-kyz earn that happy ending. I just wish I’d found out what happened to the wolf.

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