The World Tree – by Ghoufran Warlow

Based on a tale of the Sakha/Yakut people from the Yakhutsk region of Siberia

Above the wide and motionless deep, under the nine spheres and the seven heavens, at the centre of the world, the very navel of the earth, where the moon never wanes and the sun never sets, where eternal summer reigns and the cuckoo calls unceasingly; there, the White Youth found himself.

He was known as this, after his appearance, for he had never known his parents; he had never been given a name. People also called him the Lonely One, for he had been walking alone forever, since time began (which was never); he felt the passing of time heavily, for all his apparent youth, and felt he had been walking in circles for centuries.

Somehow, though, after many days stumbling in the desert plains, he awoke one day in this place, to see a mighty hill surrounded by a lake of milk, white as far as the eye could see, and here and there curdled into swamps. He realized he was stood upon the shore; and gazing up from it, he saw a vast tree upon the hill, with stars in its branches. So he began to climb up the hill towards it.  As he approached it, it seemed to become bigger and bigger; but at length he reached the foot of the tree, and touching the bark he found it as soft as the fur of a mole.

How beautiful, he thought.

The leaves were beautiful too, a luminous green; liquid light flowed through the branches, and a transparent resin seeped from the trunk, sweetly perfumed. The tree stretched up and up and up into the clouds, its branches piercing the skies, through all the heavens, and at the very top he perceived the source of the trees light, and it took the shape of an eagle, tethered to the highest point. As he looked down at the base of the tree then it was as though the ground became transparent, and he wondered if he was turned upside down, for he saw that the roots of the tree went as deep as the branches went high, and became the pillars of underground buildings, where strange, dark creatures lived.

All the while the White Youth gazed at the tree, its leaves rustled gently and he began to realise they were conversing with the spirits of the sky world in a mysterious language which was somehow also so familiar, as if he had heard it long ago in a dream, a dream within a dream, only vaguely recalled.  So overcome was the White Youth by the beauty of the tree that he fell to his knees, and began to give praise. As he did so the leaves began to quickly tremble, as a warm breeze blew all around. A fine, white rain began to fall through the branches, and the tree began to softly moan and groan. The White Youth hardly dared to raise his head, but when he did so he saw that the tree seemed to have shrunk, and become far smaller than before. Then from within a hollow in the trunk appeared an ancient looking woman with long white hair, wrinkled as a walnut, with breasts as large as leather bags.

‘What do you require?’ she asked, in a voice like a slow creaking branch in the wind.

The White Youth gathered his courage, and replied ‘I wish not to be alone.

All creatures of the land have a partner, and companions, but I have none.

I wish to know others, to measure my strength by, and to know who I am.’

‘Then you must go forth and find your own name’ said the old woman.

“But I can tell you this; your mother is Kubaichotum, the mother of all things, and that is your father, at the top of this tree; Ai-Toyon, the Supreme One.

But leave here now, and you will find what you seek.’

So saying, she reached down under the tree roots, and drew forth water in her cupped hand, which she poured into a flask.

‘Bind this next to your chest, and it will save you in times of trouble’ she said; and with that, she, and the whole marvelous tree, vanished before the White Youth’s very eyes.

All that remained was a single small branch, beside him on an empty little island. Not knowing what to do, the Youth took out his knife and began to whittle it into a canoe; and what do you know, it became big enough that he could climb inside it, and push off across the lake. So he travelled across the lake, until he could not see the island any more, nor sun, nor moon, nor far shore; only the dark night surrounding him, with a single star to guide him. So he travelled, for seven days and seven nights, though when the days came he could not see the sun, and in the night he could not see the moon, so it was as the blackest of nights.

At last, however, he came to another land, its cliffs rising out of the mist, with houses perched upon their edges; and he disembarked from his canoe, onto the beach, and went into the village there. A strange thing it was though, for though there were many houses, there was not a soul to be seen, and the village was weirdly silent. He walked down the main street, marvelling at the houses, and wondering what had become of those who surely lived in them; up the hill, past the church, until he came to a little hut with a fire outside, and there he found an old man cooking a shoe.

‘Who are you? What has happened?’ asked the youth.

‘Never you mind who I am’ said the man.

‘Who you are, and how you come to be walking the streets of this terrible place, well, that seems more of a question to me.’

‘I have come from far away, in search of people’ said the Youth.

‘Well you won’t find many here’ the man replied.

‘There is a dragon lives here you see…and it has taken almost all of us, taken us and eaten us up. First it ate the crops; then it ate the cattle. That is why there is nothing left to eat, you see. Then it ate the villagers. Now there is nothing for it, it has become very angry.  There is only me, who is too old and leathery I suppose, and my daughter; and I fear she must be next.’

‘It cannot be’ the Youth insisted. ‘Give me a weapon and I will fight this beast!’

‘Very well’ said the man. As it happens I am a blacksmith by trade, and can give you iron to forge a blade. But you are fool to even think to try to defeat the dragon. It is far too fierce. Many have tried already, and all have fallen.’ But he led him into the hut, where his workshop was, and assisted him to make a sword.

The next evening, as twilight fell, the youth waited outside the hut. The old smith and his daughter, meanwhile, hid in the cellar, where they took refuge. The White Youth glowed in the descending darkness, but he felt afraid as he waited, not knowing what sort of beast the dragon would be. He clutched his new sword, and remembered his longing for companions, and his hope for a test for his strength. Here it would be; and the thought filled him with brave inspiration.

But he could not have prepared himself for what was to come.

Suddenly, the darkness covered his eyes completely, and there was a terrible swooping sound, a flapping of giant wings, a scraping of claw on rock, and a glint of a red eye in the darkness. He felt a blast of fiery breath, singing his hair, and the air became poisonous and stinking. An almighty roar almost burst his eardrums; he held fast to his sword, then another roar sent a blazing fireball towards him so bright he closed his eyes as he threw himself sideways to avoid it.

He lurched forwards, holding the sword outstretched as he hurled himself towards the beast; but with a single swipe of its massive claw, the dragon struck him in the chest, and sent him flying across the ground. Its claw had pierced his heart; he must surely die. As he lay there, unable to move, the dragon snarled and began to come closer, ready to devour him.

But as it struck the White Youth in the chest, the dragon had also burst the flask that was bound to the Youth. The water from the flask flowed out, and made his heart whole again; and as he lay there unconscious he had a vision of the great tree he had seen, and the Goddess (for that is who she was) now a beautiful woman, shimmering with every colour of the rainbow. As he lay at the foot of the tree she blessed him with soft words, and offered him milk from her breast, as though he was a baby.

As he drank it, his strength grew a hundredfold, and he felt the life return to him, the power he needed flowing through his limbs. With a start, he leapt up, just as the dragon was leaning over him about to sink its teeth into his still body.

He seized it by the neck, and hurled it with all his newfound might over the cliff, where it fell, twisting and turning, its body crashing against the rock, into the sea, and to its death. With that, a great cheer erupted in the village. Suddenly, as if everyone had been asleep in their beds and woken by the sound of the dragons’ death roar, the streets were full of people. They poured towards the youth and lifted him up on their shoulders, crowned him with flowers, and the blacksmiths daughter flung her arms around his neck and kissed him. The sun and the moon rose once more into the sky, and all was well, all sadness and difficulty forgotten; from then on they lived in peace, and the youth was known as Advazny, the brave.

Green Man’s creation says: “Thank you, Ghoufran for this lovely tale.”

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