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When the Twins Went to War
A Fable of Far East Russia

Told by Aaron Shepard

Printed in Australia’s School Magazine, May 1999, and Cricket, July 1999


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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose, except that it may not be posted online without permission.

PREVIEW: The war-loving men of the Beldy clan are once more off to battle—but why are the wise young twins going with them?

GENRE: Folktales, fables, legends
CULTURE: Russian (Far East, native)
THEME: Militarism
AGES: 7–12
LENGTH: 1200 words

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On the Amur River, in the tribe of the Nanai, the ones who most loved to fight were the men of the Beldy clan. They were always rushing off to attack another clan’s village, or defending themselves from a clan that had come for revenge.

They neglected their hunting. They neglected their fishing. They got so bad, they felt lost when they weren’t fighting. They just sat around and waited for the next war.

And every year, there were fewer of them left alive.

Now, into this clan was born a pair of twins whose names were Chubak and Udoga. The Beldies were careful to honor the boys, because they knew that twins are good luck.

Besides, there was something special about those two. By the time they were five years old, they were wiser than anyone else in the village. So both the men and the women of the clan often came to them for advice.

One day, a Beldy hunter found that one of his traps had been sprung, but the animal was missing. He could tell from the signs that the animal was a weasel and it had been taken by a man of the Zaksuli clan.

The hunter went to tell the Beldy chief.

“This is a great insult!” roared the chief. “Prepare for war!”

All the Beldy men rushed off eagerly to get ready their spears, knives, bows, and arrows.

“Not again!” cried the chief’s wife. “Is a weasel worth killing and dying for?”

“We are men,” said the chief. “Must a man not fight?”

“You are men!” screamed his wife. “Must a man be stupid?”

She went with the other Beldy women to talk with the twins. “Udoga, Chubak, tell the men to stay home. We’ve had enough fighting and killing!”

Chubak said to Udoga, “She’s right, brother. There’s been enough war.”

Udoga told the women, “We’ll see what we can do.”

Not long after, the men also came to the twins. “Chubak, Udoga,” said the chief, “give us your counsel.”

Chubak picked up a warrior’s bow. “Never has a clan been so insulted! If the thief had taken a sable, we could forgive him. The skin of a sable has value. But a weasel skin is almost worthless. It must have been taken just to shame us. If we are shamed, we have no honor. If we have no honor, we are dead. The Zaksulis have killed us!”

Udoga picked up a spear. “The Zaksulis have killed us, so now we must kill them back. All their men must die. Death to the Zaksulis!”

“Death to the Zaksulis!” cried the men. “Death to the Zaksulis!”

“But wait!” said Udoga. “This is no ordinary war. The Zaksulis are so evil, the place where they live is evil too. We must not let this evil touch us. We must take a vow not to eat any food from their land or drink a single drop of their water.”

“We swear it! We swear it! Death to the Zaksulis! Death to the Zaksulis!”

The women were sad. “What hope do we have,” said the chief’s wife, “when even the twins go to war.” So they set about preparing the men’s food.

The next morning, the men loaded themselves with as much food and water as they could carry. Then, taking the twins with them, they started off to the Zaksuli village.

They walked all day. It was slow, hard going, with all they had to carry. So the farther they went, the angrier they were at the Zaksulis.

At last they came upon some Zaksuli women gathering berries. Chubak called, “You women! We are coming to your village! We won’t leave a single man alive!”

The women ran off to warn their men.

“Why did you let them know?” said the chief in dismay. “With all we’re carrying, those women will get to the village long before we do. The men will hide in the lodges, and we’ll have to wait them out!”

“What is that to us?” said Udoga. “Nothing they do can save them.”

The Beldies reached the village, but the Zaksuli men were already hiding inside. They were not like the Beldies. They did not want to fight. They wanted to stay put till those crazy Beldies went home!

The Beldies hid all around the village in the tall grass and the bushes. They knew that sooner or later the Zaksuli men would have to come out. They would need to hunt and fish. Then they would have to face the Beldies.

The next morning, the Zaksuli men did not come out. But the women came out. And they carried big sticks.

“You stupid Beldies!” yelled the wife of the Zaksuli chief. “Why don’t you go back to your village where you belong!”

Then the women searched for the Beldies in the grass and the bushes. When a woman found one, she beat him with her stick.

“Be brave!” cried Udoga to the men. “Remember, you must never hit a woman!”

The chief called, “But what if the woman—OW!—does not act—OW!—like a woman?—OW!”

“What does that matter?” called Chubak. “We are men. How could a woman hurt us?”

“OW!” replied the chief.

Day after day, they waited for the Zaksuli men. Day after day, the women came out and beat them. The Beldy men were brave.

Then their food ran out.

“Remember your vow!” Chubak told them. “We will take no food from this evil land!”

“But how can we fight without food?” asked the chief.

“Don’t worry!” said Chubak. “It won’t be long now!”

So they were brave a little longer.

Then their water ran out.

“Remember your vow!” said Udoga. “Not a drop of water from this place of evil!”

“But we can’t last long without water,” said the chief.

“We won’t have to,” said Udoga. “We’ve almost won!”

So they were brave a little longer.

Then their patience ran out.

“What kind of war is this?” said the chief. “We’re so weak from hunger and thirst, we can barely hold our spears!”

“We are men,” said Chubak. “When honor is at stake, how can we complain of hardship?”

So they were brave a little longer.

At last the Zaksuli chief appeared. He came out to plead with the Beldy chief. “Please,” he said, “can’t we talk and settle this without fighting?”

“How can talk restore honor?” said Udoga. “We will be satisfied only by a great gift.”

“Yes,” said Chubak. “A gift such as never given before.”

The Zaksuli chief trembled. “What do you want?”

Udoga said, “You must give us . . . the skin of the weasel!”

Both the chiefs stared at the twins in astonishment. Then the Zaksuli chief ran back to tell the good news.

The Beldy chief’s face grew red. “Was that such a great gift? Is that why we starved and suffered? For nothing but the skin of a weasel?”

“The weasel skin sent us to war,” said Chubak. “Why shouldn’t it send us home?”

When the Beldies got back to their village, the chief told his wife, “What a war that was! The most terrible war of all! We never want to go to war again!”

And they didn’t—thanks to Udoga and Chubak.


About the Story

The Amur River, lying in the region that Russia calls its Far East, flows almost 2,000 miles down to the Pacific coast. This river is the home of many native tribes who lived for centuries by hunting and fishing. They were remarkably similar to the Pacific coast tribes of the northwest United States and of Canada.

Formerly, the clans of a tribe would often fight among themselves. Of course, their wars were not as terrible as wars of today. Most lasted only a few days; the men were careful not to hurt women or children; and they did not destroy their enemies’ homes. Still, some men would be killed, and the wars were numerous.

This is a retelling of a tale found in Khrabryi Azmun (Brave Azmun), collected and retold by Dmitrii Nagishkin, Moscow, 1949. The book was published in English as Folktales of the Amur: Stories from the Russian Far East, translated by Emily Lehrman, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, Abrams, New York, 1980. The story appears there as “How the Beldys Stopped Fighting.” Also in that volume is a second tale about Chubak and Udoga, called “The Twins.”

For a look at the Amur and the lifestyle of its natives, see the internationally-acclaimed Japanese film Dersu Uzala, by Akira Kurosawa.

How to Say the Names

Amur ~ ah-MER
Beldy ~ BEL-dee
Chubak ~ CHOO-bak
Nanai ~ nan-I (sounds like “Nan eye”)
Udoga ~ oo-DO-ga
Zaksuli ~ ZAK-soo-lee

Hear the Names
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