The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman
A Yakut Folktale telling by Martin Shaw



What follows is the bones of the Crow-King story and then a stanzas version that is arising from the actual experience of telling the story over the last months. Both should give you a good feel for its disclosures.


There was once a woman, an old crone who’s name was Beiberikan – she lived in the wild places, at the edge of the edge. All she had was five cows that grazed untended in a spacious meadow. Once summers evening at dusk, the old woman went to that meadow to call the cows home, and it was there she found a healthy, five-jointed mare’s-tail plant.

The old woman had always had a secret longing for a child, and, of a sudden, a strange compulsion came over her. She dug out the plant – taking care to be gentle – and took it back to her yurt. There she laid it down on a pillow, and tucked it up with a quilt, as if it were a baby girl.

While milking the cows, she heard bells tinkling and a thimble falling on the floor from inside her black tent. She rushed into the yurt but nothing was amiss. Then she heard her needle fall to the floor, and then scissors – each time she sprang up to look, she spilt fresh milk onto the soil.

Third time into the tent she found a beautiful young woman sitting up on the quilt, face white as ivory, eyes like exotic jewels, and eyebrows like two black sables that lie opposite each other, the front paws touching.

The old woman was overjoyed at an end to her solitude. Her plant-daughter, her black soil girl, helped milk the cows, tend the yurt and all was well.


One day a young man – the son of Khan Kharakh, a powerful chief – was hunting in the deep green forest that surrounded their home. He spied a squirrel, fired at it and missed. Such a small thing, and so many big things to hunt in such a forest.

But no. That squirrel obsessed him, and he spent all day in hot pursuit till it flew up the rough bark of a larch, over onto the old woman’s yurt roof and away. His last arrow shot up and then fell down the smoke hole.

“Hey! bring me my arrow out here!” puffed the young man, “I am Kharjit-Bergen, son of the Khan!”

After no reply, he pulled back the felt doorway and strode into the circle. There she was – face white as ivory, eyes like exotic jewels, and eyebrows like two black sables that lie opposite each other, the front paws touching.

For once, our young man was struck dumb. They say he is still recovering. Being speechless, he had no quiver of words at his disposal, so he wheeled around, climbed back out into the world and rode fast away. “Father, Mother! I have found the woman I want to marry! there must be a courting, we must send match makers, she lives out at the edge of edge with the old crone Beiberiken”

This passion was a language the parents understood, in fact had waited for. So they sent his nine brothers mounted on nine red horses to Beiberiken. On their swift mounts they were soon at the yurt door. All the men lost their speech – dumb – when they beheld her. All but the eldest tip-toed out and lay down, punch drunk in the meadow. She was luminous, powerful, wild. Nothing like the women of court.

“Will you give your daughter in marriage to the Khans son?” the eldest asked, regaining his speech. “ It’s her decision. You have to ask her” croaked the crone. “I agree” spoke up the young woman, quickly. “Give me bride-money” said the canny old woman “you can only take her when my meadow is stiff-flanked with full maned horses and cream-fat cows. Only then.” Well, of course it all came to pass.

Soon her meadow was filled, whole herds of handsome steeds and butter-rich cows chewed the cud. As a courting gift, the men of the red horses produced a stunning pie-bald horse – an ancient being, one of the few animals left that could talk – with a silver saddle, and bridle intricately embossed with silver. A silver whip was tied to the saddle.


With a bursting heart and no little elegance, Kharjit Bergen led his bride-to-be from the old woman’s yurt and lifted her onto the piebald steed. Together they set out through the dim lit forest.

At a certain point, the young man’s face clouded, and he spoke.

“Strange as it is, I have some cross-bows set up in this dark part of the wood. I would just want to check and see if they have caught any foxes. You go on alone. But know this: where the road forks in two, you will behold a black sable skin hanging from trees at the head of one road, and a brown bear’s skin at the head of another. It is vitally important you take the road of the black sable skin”

With this, he smiled and melted into the shadows of the forest.

She was alone, and felt fear stick its clammy heat to her back. Some hours later she came to the fork in the road. But she couldn’t now recall which way his advice had suggested. She took a deep breath and followed the road of the Bearskin – it tethered above her in the dark pine branches.

If the forest was dim before, now it was a terrible-dark, night – a flickering moon, snake over rocks, pools of stagnant water. Up ahead she saw a trail of green smoke and steered her horse towards what seemed to be a yurt. A yurt alright, but one made entirely of iron.

As she rode out, the door clunked open, and with great speed shot an entity – a woman with one twisted leg, one twisted arm, just one eye, bloodshot and huge in the middle of her forehead. Her long hairy tongue, bristled with warts, fell to her waist, and was tangled up in her belt of skulls. Around her vast shadows flew, like legions of crow.

This was the daughter of a great sorceress, the eight-legged Adjarai-Beageabaasy, terrorbeing of the Eastern forests.

She dragged the girl down hard from the horse, and, when she was wrestled into the mud, took her claws to both sides of her beautiful face and pulled the skin, eyes and hair clean off the skull – in one tug. She then smeared it over her own face, plastered it on – then stripped off the wedding clothes of the woman – put it on, climbed on the piebald horse and headed off to the Palace of the Khan. The crumbled body of the mare’s-tail herb woman lay still in the wet grasses and the dark.


In the way that somethings sometime are, the groom saw nothing but his new bride coming towards him.

His nine brothers stood by the gold tethering pole on the right to take the bridle. his eight sisters went to the gold tethering pole on the left to tether the horse. The woman of the ironyurt ignored both and tethered the horse to a rough barked old willow that usually had the cattle woman’s mangy old bull tied to it. Unusual. All the relatives had come out to meet the bride and were disappointed.

There was an old magic attached to this wedding, that all knew about, and in the palace they whispered;

“when the bride starts to speak, a great fountain of precious red beads will rain from her mouth. Where she walks, smooth black sables of the wild forest will run behind her”

The women had gathered linen to thread the beads with, the mens had arrows for the precious sable.

Ah, but when she spoke, nothing but smelly green frogs spewed out of her mouth. The stink was overwhelming. When she walked, skinny red ermines, feral not wild, skanked after her. The men dropped their bows.

Clues perhaps to something amiss, but the wedding took place anyway. She was given the crowns of three young larch trees with which she started the fire in the hearth with. Green grass carpeted the way from the tethering posts to the palace doors.

A union of sorts occurred.


Back at the edge of the edge, the old woman attended to her meadow of handsome beasts. One dusk she again found the mare’s-tail plant, and again on instinct, tucked it up in bed. Again the spilt milk, the thimble, the needle, the scissors. When she pushed the felt door aside, sitting up was her beautiful dark-soil daughter – face white as ivory, eyes like exotic jewels, and eyebrows like two black sables that lie opposite each other, the front paws touching.

She told the old woman everything that happened, up to being left in the dark grasses, skulled and blind, and how then a pack of dogs ripped what was left of her flesh and took it to all of the four quarters – but one faithful dog – a grey dog – took her heart back to the meadow and buried it, and over time incubating underground, she grew into a healthy mare’s-tail plant again. It seems she was not fated to die after all, but was it not the case that the monster had wrecked her life and stolen her husband? What state must he be in? His blood must be thick with the dark ones spirit.


At that very moment, the pie-bald horse trotted into the main hall and spoke clear words to the great Khan himself. The horse told him of all that had occurred, that the real bride was in fact re-born from the soil and back at the edge of edge, and that his daughter-in-law was a very powerful witch.

The horse spoke clear advice: “She should be tied to the tail of a wild horse, not a court horse, and sent out onto the endless steppe. Your son is now deeply wrapped up in her dark energy. He must spend thirty days in the centre of a cold river, and then for thirty days dried out in the crown of a tall pine, where he will be swept clean by the winds of the north and the winds of the south.”

Hearing the true state of things, the old Khan put his face in his heads and wept.

When he revealed the story to his son, his son went berserk – a great flood of energy engulfed him. Indeed the false-wife was tied to the wild horse tail and run ragged on the steppe – the hooves finally smashing her to pieces. As she was mashed under it’s weight, her body split into vipers, worms and screech-owls that crawl the earth to this very day.

The Khans son was taken to the freezing river for thirty days, then bent – crowlike – in the tall pines, and brought home barely alive – flecks of silver in his beard.

When recovered, the very first thing he did was make his way to Beiberikans yurt. the crone rejoiced, carpeting the door to her yurt with green grass, and slaughtering the fattest, most succulent cow for the feast.

His true wife received him differently. “What the hell do you want! you allowed that creature to rip my face off, you allowed the dogs to dismember my body, what did you expect to find here today? There are more women in the world than horses, more maidens than bird nests, find one of them! i shall never marry you!” He croaked; “i didn’t ask you to go to the iron yurt, i did not give your body to the dogs! i did not, not, not send you to the witch!”

At this, the old woman sat down between the two of them. She joined their hands and brushed away their hot tears, speaking: “the lost has been found, the dead has risen! be glad you have met again! put your arms around each other! No one disobeys me in these matters! Be kind.”

The wedding took place – the mare’s-tail woman arrived on her piebald horse. The bridle was tethered on the right post with the brothers, the horse on the left with the sisters. As he lifted her lovingly from the horse, and they caught each others eye, she started to speak.

And a great flow of precious red beads poured from her mouth, and the sisters ran behind her and threaded them. When she walked the green grass to the palace, a dark flood of sable travelled by her foot. She started the blaze with the crown of three young larches and the feast began – food, song, wrestling, gambling, laughing, loving. The kingdom glowed with this union of the wild and the court – a cosmos.

And, in their way, the son of the Khan and the dark-soil woman were happy.

Go to the edge of the edge and you will find their descendants living there to this day.



So there’s the bones of the story. After six months of telling it – by open fires and halls lively with opinion and wonder, what follows is the image-language that clusters around that skeleton. It ends before the ending of the original story, but in oral tellings i honour the original story and of course tell it till its conclusion.


That loose hour
between dog and wolf.

Old woman.
Squatting in
sad, gold light.


Living in her edge-den,
colluding with the
vast forest.

Voluminous of tit,
boar-hair plait
down her
dinosaur spine.

Mouth like a
boxers damage,
defiant jut of yellow

All this
dragon owns
is five cows;
cows that chomp dreamily

The swaying meadow grass,
roughed up against
the towering powers
of the trees.

As day is felled
by lupine night,
a soft, old longing
rustles the dry kindling
between her legs,
and twitches
the blue acres
of her heart.

The longing for a kid.

She should be past
this by now.

In muttered reverie,
she digs from the peat
a healthy, five-jointed
mares tail plant.

With a nannies care,
she coaxes the queen
from its soily digs,
and spiders back
to her black tent.

Like it was a infant
she lays it on a pillow,
taking care to wrap it
in her finest quilt.

Threadbare majesty.

Back out amongst her cows,
happiest in the bovine throng,
she commences to milking;
hot, fat splashes on
scarred, brown hands.

A tinkling – discreet –
like small bells,
comes from inner folds
of her lone-wolf nest.

So startled at the trill,
she spills rich milk
onto the crusted soil.

It sucks it down
like the kings wine.

She heaves her grand frame back into
the stick-palace,
and sees it was just her thimble
fallen to the floor.

Just a subtle thing. But eerie.

She peers round into the gloom,
and calls out in a screech-language.


Twice more the silvered peal,
second time a needle took
its elegant tumble,
third time her scissors
clunk the dirt.

Ah, the handmade life.

But the fourth entrance
to the tent
is the game changer.

Sitting up in bed
where the plant
had lain
was a wild young woman.

Tundra-white skin,
emerald eyed,
eyebrows like two sable,
who’s paws meet in the middle.

A daughter.
An earthy daughter.


A byre of women
in the forgetting woods.

These owl wives
have a lively companionship,

laughter peals the pines.

As they milk, they banter,
ow by the
warming flank
of animals.

They cherish
the boozy glow
of a tipple at days end.

Contentments wingspan.

Their wagon rolls merrily along
with no eye for the ditch.

This daughter of earth
and longing,
has a sheltering arm,
a lintel overhead,
in the wily frame of
old Beiberikan.


From the centre of the kingdom
comes a player.

A noble –
son of khan – a hunter and prince,
wandering far from the grand
grassy crush of elk or bear,
wrapped up in pursuit
of natures ignoble –
the wily squirrel.

Hardly the kill
you shoulder
into the ale hall.

Arrow after arrow,
he loosed his death sticks,
ker-thunk in the long grass,
his red fingers numb
with effort.

Squirrel as dervish
takes him a new path,
a hairy, midget ecstatic,
twirling the dirt.

Quite the show-boat,
a bounding entertainer,
always three paces ahead.

Many miles go this way,
into the forests spiral power.

Dusk again:
As Saturns flint
scrapes color from the sky’s hide,
he arrives at the crones tent.

Squirrel leaps up
and jigs the
wooden roof-ribs,
one last wiggle of defiance
to the exhausted hunter.

The final arrow
soars a grunting light,
flummoxing the air
with spent ambition.

But the cards are stacked
with other fates, as
the arrow clatter-bangs
down the flue of the yurt.

Squirrel springs,
fiendish and tiny,
into the gloaming
and is gone.

The Great Youth
hobbles down from his horse,
sweat-baked in chill-turning
air, and roughs out the demand
for the return of his arrow.

Nothing. Mute.
Temple gates remain closed.
And he, the son of a khan.

Flushed with humiliation,
he lowers his head,
and strides in for the procurement
of the property.

Through the glowing smoke
she sits.

Tundra-white skin,
emerald eyed,
eyebrows like two sable
who’s paws meet in the middle.

A wife.
An earthy wife.


His tongue vacated
the throne of his jaw,
He staggered back to
the felt door-flap,
rumped his saddle-sore hind
back on the steed,
and thrummeled paths
known and unknown,
to the power-seat
of his family:

The camp of
many horses,

the dreaming centre
of the kingdom,

the place of the hearth-fire,
children, crops, the ox slow roasted.

He threw weepy words at his parents;
quite the teary torrent:
that loves great ships had graced his harbour
that this one wouldn’t be like the others.
That the courting should begin.

“Indeed” they said. They clapped firm hands.

“Bring on the dancing bears.”


His nine brothers,
on blood red steeds,
took to the green,
words a-jangle
in their jaws,
the bolding speech
one needs
when circling the wild.

But when they commenced
to enter the yurt,
the brothers too
were assailed by her elegant otherness,
and soon lay gasping on the turf,
waggling turtles in their warrior-gear,
– blissed and despairing
that such a one existed.

The eldest girded his loins,
shaved his face, trimmed his nails,
and croaked out the formal request
from his brother of marriage.

As was their decorum –
he aimed the speech
at the guardian: the crone,
who wagged with long finger
and told them to address the
mares-tail woman;
the correct reciprocal
for the suggestion.

Mares-tail woman
didn’t throw the bones
for enquiry,
gaze on the underside
of the moon for approval,
or pace the glade
ruminating the nuance
of the offer –

she just said


Her eye is calm –
it glitters in the yurt light.
She remembers their brother.
His shape in the doorway,
his bulk;
fragrant of some other life.

At this – of a sudden –
Beiberikan became a hustler,
ablaze with a market place savvy
– a wheeler-dealer –
for the shifting sands of her fortune.

“I want a meadow
of udder-rich cows
and strong shouldered
horses” she gurgled;

“I want to split
the fur of my doorway
and behold contended
swishing, and belling
and mooing.”

“It’s done.”
baldly states the oldest brother.

The red-horse brothers
provided a great gift.

The last of the speaking horses –
a piebald mare,
fragile eyed.

silver saddle.
silver bridle.
silver whip.


Days later,
when the son of the khan
arrives to meet his bride-to-be,
it is the piebald he
brings as dowry.

The women is
tremulous, alive.
Nostrils flared,
raw-joyed, a wild
horse herself in the
beauty of it all.

She mounts the piebald,
turns once to the crone,
and they set off together
along dim forest paths.

After cosy hours
bantering and cantering,
clouds claim residence
in the young man’s eyes.

“I have cross-bows
in this part of the forest,
I would like to check them
for fox pelts this last time
before I’m married”

His grin was glued to a grimace.

“You go on alone.”

“There will be a fork in your road.
High in the branches
there will be a splayed sable skin,
and on the other path
a splayed bear skin.
Way up in the lofty dark
like tribal flags.

Take the way of the sable
not the way of the bear.”

He hoofed off the path
away into the foliage,
swallowing him up
like a greening dream.


Hours pass
on the dung-dark trail.
Shade flickers and hisses
round the pre-historic hoof
of the pie-bald.

Just as she is forgetting,
comes the fork in the road.

She strikes right,
and the woods affirm
with grey breeze and dimming light.

She has gone bears way.

Some fate is confirmed
in her vegetable body.

Night shudders its cloak,
the woods compress and loosen
like a warlocks squeezebox,
provoking whinny from
ride and rider.

Ground is slough under hoof,
dark briared, trees always
in winter.

A trail of smoke arises
across the mottled swamp,
this sluiced and bruised
battery of tump and chill.

A yurt. Iron sided.
A fortress. Sticked erect
with glooming hoots.

But still – shelter.

Even as our woman
the door is asunder
and a brute is amok.

A giant woman, a sorceress:
one mangled leg one mangled
arm one distended eye squatting
like Herod in the centre
of her forehead.

Her tongue is vast and spastic,
torrents to her waist, tangled in pubic hair,
steamed with wart and lice,
a hexing dart, a scarlet river
of effluence.

She drags the
mares-tail woman
into the filth,
all foured – like a mutt takes a bitch.

Her granite-block forearm
chokes the lime-white neck,
her coke-black pincers
find tender ridges, small flesh folds,
round the side of her head.

In one terror-rip
she takes the
skin clean off the girl.

One movement –
practiced, smooth,
leaving her
gasping and dead.

Fucked in the mud.

Skull maiden.

With a bone-needle
and black wire
Beastie sews the face
of the woman
onto her own.

The needle
brought a bright
passage of gutting
to that gnarled skin,
hard like a toe-nail,
but did its flapping

A knifing through
tributaries of ogre-flesh.

She death-swaggers
to the horse.

“Not a word
sweet pie-bald,
not a word”

She croons.

The girl crumpled
in swamp grasses,
a mannikin for rats.

The beast straddles
the horse with
her flesh-flap
face, and hurries to her wedding.

Amor indeed.


They wait.

The groom.
The red-horse brothers.
His ten sisters.

But such it is in life:
when the ogre slops
into camp,
for just a second they freeze.
But the halluctionary groom
purrs “There she is. My bride”

The muster of prophecy
hung around this wedding.
A cobwebbed proclamation
that when the boy from the centre
married the women from the edge,

on arrival,
precious red beads
would pour from her mouth.

Where she walked
sable would throng
round her
alabaster feet.

But when the ruptured one
opened her maw,
great yellow belches
of toads hot-splatted
the floor.

Where her hoofs
squelched mud,
rancid ermine
loped alongside.

“Toads and Ermine.
The old prophecy of
red beads and sable
must have been a little
Muttered the sages
of the hall.

And they rushed to meet her.

The sisters carried linen thread
to weave her beads,
to elevate her speech
to ritual garb,
her brothers bows to
catch the wylding sable.

Empty handed
they danced at their
brothers wedding.

This weird choreography
of trance and denial.

The fire was lit
by the bride: the crown
of three Larch trees,
fresh grasses were lain
from the tethering post
to the altar.

The night
a union of sorts
took place.

The dark-moon hump
by quivered flame.

The pie-bald horse
munched hay
and said nothing.


And what of the edge?
of Beiberickan?
with her traffic
of cattle and horse?

But no more potato vodka,
and bawdy defiance
shared against the cold.

Again she spies a mares-tail plant.
With some nostalgia
she gathers and beds it down
in her tent.

the discreet tinkle again –
that occulting lament.


Sitting up in bed
where the plant
had lain,
was a wild young woman.

Tundra-white skin
emerald eyed,
eyebrows like two sable
who’s paws meet in the middle.

Not like the other.

She was the other.

With hot milk
then vodka,
she revived
spoke out the story;

Of fox traps, forks in the road,
of an iron yurt of sorcery,
of a Hagarussa, of weeks in
the dark grasses rotting bent a
nd lost, a rich death sleep of animal tugs
and mangling crunch-sharp snapper cracks,
until just a tiny tug of heart flesh was
left in the mud-swell. Too small for wolf
or adder or owl to find.

Just a mutt. A little grey mutt
who snuffled it up, carried it
in its firm jaw, through ice flakes
blade jagged, thunderbolt nights
that jugged rain – a lowing needled thrash –
on the scruffs back, through labrinthal forest
and the wintering scrum of ice, under
black scurried sky.

A mitt who never once
absently chewed his fragment,
never spat it to the four-winds
and moved back into its wanderings.

But legged the great arc of land,
got wrecked by the seasons, raw-pawed,
but dug his hole back in that first meadow,
and dropped his fragment, his heart tapestry
back into its soil-home.

Time and weather and yearning.

She took her soil-plant-form,
extended her intelligence back into
water and mineral and elk-bone.

Swamp blue knowings and
the frail hot fur of mice
and owl scat lined her
brown palace.

discreet bard
of a close underworld.

She would have dreamt there for
a thousand years, but for the longing
of crone.

She revived onto the flesh wheel.
Some say with a limp.
But revived.


As mares-tail woman spoke,
the piebald horse
rose from his hay,
left his stables,
wandered though the
battle-flank of warriors,
and sought audience
with the khan.

Told the grizzled play
of quite what his son
had married.

That such a being must be
taken to a remote place,
and split – hip to throat,
by strange and mighty horses.

And the kings boy?
Lost in the storm.
Gone down into the
locked kingdom
of himself.

Through those grim nights
he was contaminated,
through his trance-screwing
a monster.

Sick-addled. His groin
spurts darkness.

The only cure
was forty night’s
in the heart of
a freezing river.

Then forty nights
bent like a broken crow,
roped round the tallest pine.

fierce-cleaned by the
wind of the north
and the wind of the south.

A hard way,
an awful way,
and the
only way

An artistry of suffering.

His father
his king
bent his head
and wept.

No subject
guessed he had
such capacity.

The ogre,
when horse-torn,
flew into the shape of screech owl
and horse shoe bat, and every slithery

Now it was the turn
of the blushing groom.

The son of the khan,
sickly in fever,
was fierce thrust under the
sharp grey currents,
drifted between realms
on the rivers savage moods.

An apprenticeship to ice.

Numbed by the choiring current,
he accepted the winds cudgel,
those forty shrill bright days,
scarecrow broken, the rite
in full exultation.

The black angels breasted
his caws to the Bone-Goddess o
f the Caves. The one
that negotiates possession.

She bartered his case,
sang his awful song,
wrestled his papers
back from the flint-toothed
Lords of Death.

The junkie-khan
got sick to get clean.


It is early winter
on the edge of edge.

A thin man
to a black tent.

hoare-frost beard,
quick to stoop
his head at a door;

no thought
of fox traps.

photo: Yukaghir Sun Chest
photo: Old Yakut’s house (dwelling)


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