The Silken Tassel
An Altay Tale
There was a girl called Torko-Chachak, which means "Silken
Tassel." Her eyes were like wild cherries, her brows were
like two rainbows. Into her braids she plaited seashells from
distant lands, and on her hat there was a silken tassel, white
One day the father of Silken Tassel fell ill, and her mother said
"Get up on the bay horse and hurry to the bank of the rushing
river. There, in a tent made of birchbark, you will find the shaman
Teldekpei. Ask him to come here and to cure your father."
The girl leaped up on the bay horse with the white star on his
forehead, took in her right hand the leather reins with silver
rings and in her left, the lash with a finely carved bone handle.
The bay horse galloped fast, the reins shook up and down, the
harness tinkled merrily.
Old Teldekpei sat at the threshold of his birchbark tent. With
a sharp knife, he was carving a round cup out of a piece of birchwood.
He heard the merry clattering of hooves, the ringing of the harness.
He raised his eyes and saw the girl on the bay horse.
She sat proudly in the high saddle, the silken tassel fluttered
in the wind, the seashells sang in her thick braids.
The knife dropped from the shaman's hand, the cup rolled into
"Grandfather," said the girl. "My father is sick,
come help us."
"I will cure your father, Silken Tassel, if you will marry
me." The shaman's eyebrows were like moss, his white beard,
like a thorny shrub.
Frightened, Silken Tassel pulled the reins and galloped off.
"At dawn tomorrow I will come to you!" the shaman called
The girl came home, entered the tent and said: "Old Teldekpei
will be here tomorrow at dawn."
The stars had not yet melted in the sky, the people in the camp
had not yet set the milk out to ferment, the meat in the kettles
had not yet been cooked, and the fine white rugs were not yet
spread upon the ground when there was a loud clattering of hooves.
The oldest of the elders came out to welcome the mighty shaman
He sat atop a shaggy horse with a back as wide as a mountain
yak's. Silently, looking at no one, he dismounted, and, greeting
no one, he went into the tent. The old men brought in after him
the eighty-pound robe in which he worked his magic and put it
down on the white rug. They hung his tambourine upon a wooden
peg and made a fire of fragrant juniper twigs under it.
All day, from dawn to sunset, the shaman sat without lifting
his eyelids, without moving, without uttering a word.
Late at night Teldekpei stood up and pulled his red shaman's
hat down to his eyebrows. Two owl feathers stood up in his hat
like ears; red strips of cloth fluttered behind it like two wings.
Large glass beads fell upon his face like hail. Groaning, he lifted
from the rug his eighty-pound robe and put his hands into the
stiff, hard sleeves. Along the sides of the robe hung frogs and
snakes woven of magic grasses. Feathers of woodpeckers were stuck
into its back.
The Shaman took his tambourine from the peg and struck it with
a wooden stick. A booming noise filled the tent, like a mountain
storm in winter. The people stood about chilled with fear. The
shaman danced and swayed and worked his magic, the bells rang,
and the tambourine clashed and moaned and thundered. Then sudden
silence fell. The tambourine moaned for the last time, and everything
Teldekpei sank onto the white rug, wiped the sweat off his brow
with his sleeve, straightened his tangled beard with his fingers,
took the heart of a goat from a tray, ate it, and said:
"Drive out Silken Tassel. An evil spirit resides in her.
While she is in the camp, her father will not get up from his
illness. Misfortune will not leave this valley. Little children
will fall asleep forever; their fathers and grandfathers will
die in torment."
The women of the camp fell down upon the ground in fear. The
old men pressed their hands over their eyes with grief. The young
men looked at Silken Tassel; twice they turned red, and twice
they turned pale.
"Put Silken Tassel into a wooden barrel," the shaman
boomed. "Bind the barrel with nine iron hoops. Nail down
the bottom with copper nails, and throw the barrel into the rushing
He said this, mounted his shaggy horse, and rode off to his own
"Hey!" he shouted to his slaves. "Go to the river!
The water will bring down a large barrel. Catch it and bring it
here, then run into the woods. If you hear weeping, do not turn
back. If cries and moans spread through the woods, do not look
back. Do not return to my tent in less than three days."
For seven days and seven nights the people of the encampment
could not bring themselves to carry out the shaman's orders. For
seven days and seven nights they bid the girl farewell. On the
eighth day they put Silken Tassel into a wooden barrel, bound
it with nine iron hoops, nailed down the bottom with copper nails,
and threw the barrel into the rushing river.
On that day a young fisherman called Balykchi sat on the steep
bank of the river some distance from the camp.
He saw the barrel, caught it, brought it into his hut, picked
up an axe, and knocked out the bottom. When he saw the girl, the
hand that held the axe dropped, and his heart leaped like a grasshopper.
At last he asked the girl:
"What is your name?"
The girl climbed out of the barrel and bowed low to the fisherman.
"Who put you into the barrel?"
"The shaman Teldekpei said that it must be done."
The fisherman whistled for his dog, fierce as a mountain lion,
put him into the barrel, nailed down the bottom with copper nails,
and let the barrel float downstream.
The shaman's slaves pulled out the barrel, brought it to the
white birchbark tent, put it before the old wizard, and ran away
into the woods.
But even before they reached the woods, they heard the shaman
call: "Help! Help!"
But the slaves did everything he had bidden. They heard shouts,
but did not turn back. They heard moaning and cries, but did not
look back. For such were their master's orders.
Three days later they returned from the woods. The shaman lay
on the ground, more dead than alive. His clothes were torn to
shreds, his beard was bloody and tangled, his eyebrows were shaggier
And Torko-Chachak remained with the young fisherman in the green
hut. But Balykchi did not go out fishing any more. He would pick
up the rod and take two steps toward the river, then look back
at the girl on the threshold, and his feet carried him back to
her. He could not get enough of gazing at Silken Tassel.
And so the girl took a piece of birchbark and painted her face
on it with the juice of flowers and berries. She nailed the birchbark
to a stick and put the stick into the ground right by the water.
Now the fisherman was not so lonely by the river. The painted
Torko-Chachak looked at him as if she were alive.
One day Balykchi looked at the picture and did not notice when
a large fish caught his bait. The rod slipped from his hand and
knocked down the stick, and the birchbark fell into the water
and floated away.
When the girl heard this, she wept and wailed, she rubbed her
brows with her hands, she tangled her braids with her fingers.
"Whoever finds the birchbark will come here! Hurry, hurry,
Balykchi, and try to catch it! Turn your goatskin coat with the
fur outside, get up on the blue ox, and ride as fast as he will
go along the riverbank."
Balykchi put on his goatskin coat with the fur outside. He mounted
the blue ox and galloped off along the riverbank. But the painted
birchbark floated down and down, faster and faster. Balykchi could
not catch it.
The water brought the birchbark to the mouth of the river. Here
it got tangled in a willow branch and hung over the rapid current.
At the mouth of that river, the camp of rich and cruel Kara-Khan
spread far and wide over endless fields and meadows. Innumerable
herds of cattle, white and red, were grazing in the tall grass.
The shepherds noticed the white birchbark in the willows. They
came down nearer and stared at it, enchanted. Their hats were
blown off by the wind and floated down the current. Their herds
wandered away and scattered in the woods.
"What is this?" thundered Kara-Khan, riding up to his
shepherds. "Hey, lazy good-for-nothings! What holiday is
this? Whose wedding are you celebrating?"
He raised his nine-tailed lash, but suddenly he saw the birchbark,
and the lash dropped from his hand.
A girl looked at him from the birchbark. Her lips were like a
newly opened scarlet flower, her eyes were like wild cherries,
her brows like two rainbows, her lashes like arrows that struck
He snatched the birchbark, put it into the bosom of his coat,
and shouted in a terrifying voice:
"Hey, you! Mighty fighters, strong men, warriors, heroes!
Get on your horses at once! If we don't find this girl, I'll kill
you with my spear, I'll shoot you with my arrows, I'll have you
thrown into boiling water!"
He touched the reins and galloped off upstream. Behind him came
an army of warriors, clanking their heavy armor of red copper
and yellow bronze.
Behind the army rode the stablemen leading a white stallion that
was as fast as thought.
At the sight of this dread army, Silken Tassel did not cry and
did not laugh. Silently she mounted the white stallion with the
And so, without crying, without laughing, without saying a word
to anyone, without answering anyone, Torko-Chachak sat in the
Suddenly, one sunny morning, she sprang outside, clapped her
hands, and laughed, and sang!
Kara-Khan looked where she was looking, ran where she was running,
and saw a young man in a goatskin coat turned inside out mounted
on a blue ox.
"So it was he who made you laugh, Silken Tassel? Why, I
can do the same. I can also put on this ragged coat. I can also
mount the blue ox without fear. Then smile as gaily to me, sing
to me as merrily!"
And Kara-Khan tore the goatskin coat from Balykchi's shoulders,
went over to the blue ox, picked up the reins, and put his foot
into the iron stirrup.
"Moo-oo! Moo-oo!" bellowed the ox, and, giving the
khan no time to swing his right foot over the saddle, he dragged
him off over the hills and valleys.
Kara-Khan's black cruel liver burst with shame. His round cruel
heart burst with rage.
And Silken Tassel took the poor fisherman Balykchi by the right
hand, and together they returned to their green hut.
May you, too, find the happiness they found, for this is the
end of our tale.