A Yukaghir Love Letter
What follows is the long-delayed and no doubt much-awaited statement of my views on Claudine Gay and the Harvard plagiarism scandal, and on what all this might mean for the future of academic research. Because I know you’ve read so much on this topic by now and likely run the risk of intracerebral hemorrhage if you’re exposed to any more of the straight stuff, I took the trouble of enciphering my work, thus requiring you to use at least a bit of your still vital brain power in order to extract its meaning.
As you will no doubt soon appreciate, I was absolutely floored when I discovered that the code I devised for this purpose just happened, against all odds and purely by chance, to yield up an entirely distinct natural-language text that seems, as far as I can make it out, to concern the semasiographic function of birchbark carvings in Northeastern Siberia. I honestly don’t know how this happened. By my calculations, given the number of characters in these two perfectly overlapping texts —which share all the same letters in exactly the same order, but none of the same meaning—, the likelihood of something like this occurring is far, far lower than that of, say, a Boltzmann brain. There’s just no accounting for it.
Anyhow I have no real idea what the overt, non-enciphered text below is about, as in truth I only wrote it by accident and to that extent should probably not be considered its author at all. —JSR
There is a story that runs as follows:
I’m sorry? You don’t understand? You need a translation? Alright, if you insist. Here you go:
Once there was a girl with long, dark, plaited hair who loved a man, but he went off to the village where the Russians live and he met there a Russian girl, who also had plaited hair, but blond, and a skirt with enormous pockets. The Russian girl was evil and conniving, and she stole him away. But their happiness was not to last. The spurned lover with dark hair sat alone at home and was very unhappy. She could not stop thinking about him. She seethed with jealousy and plans for revenge. She longed to inform the distant man that there was another man still there at home, and he had an eye for her. Boy, you had better hurry back from the arms of that evil Russian giantess, she thought, if you wish to find me not with nurslings at my bosom, no, but still a maiden, on your return!
What’s that? You need me to walk you through it more carefully? Fine, then. Here you go again:
Once there was a girl with long, dark, plaited hair who loved a man:
But he went off to the village where the Russians live:
And he met there a Russian girl, who also had plaited hair, but was blond, and had a skirt with enormous pockets:
The Russian girl was evil and conniving, and she stole him away:
But their happiness was not to last:
The spurned lover with dark hair sat alone at home and was very unhappy:
She seethed with jealousy and planned for revenge:
She longed to inform the distant man that there was another man still there at home, and he had an eye for her:
Boy, you had better hurry back from the arms of that evil Russian giantess, she thought, if you wish to find me not with nurslings at my bosom, no, but still a maiden, on your return!
It was dusk in late August, the month said by the Yakuts to be “for the pitchfork”. But here in Nelmenoye, on the banks of the Kolyma, there is no grass for the Yukaghirs to pitch, there are no cattle to be fed, and the ice has barely begun to break up when the days start growing shorter again and the snow returns.
Elax, wearing an apron with leather fringes and metal pendants, was menstruating, and was not supposed to pick up a hunting knife. But she did it anyway, and she walked as if in a trance to the birch grove, and the other girls followed her, and then the women, and then the boys, and then the men. She was wearing the chintz bonnet he had given her before he left, the one his father got while trading with a Tungus, who had got it trading with a Cossack, who had received it from a Chukchi, when employed briefly as an Imperial tax collector, in desperate payment of yasak.1 She must have been out of her mind, to put that on, even now.
In the grove she found a fine tree still wrapped in smooth unbroken white birch-paper. She began to carve figures into it, nor did these require much detail or elaboration before the children in her entourage began shouting their conjectures as to the meaning of these impromptu carvings.
“That’s you!” a little boy declared.
“And that’s him!” a girl laughed, and the others laughed with her.
“Your heart is so heavy now,” an old woman ventured.
Next came the wave of speculation as to the reason for his abandonment of her:
“They say Elax looked an elk in the eyes, and that’s why we nearly starved in the spring.”
“They say it was a six-legged elk.”
“They say she has nocturnal trysts with a Chuchunaa up on the Larayek Peak.”2
“They say she offended O’nmun-èmei, Mother of the Kolyma.”
“She’s just lucky she was not hanged to pacify the elk-spirit.”
Then they began to imagine his new life among the Russians:
“They say when the Russian girls at Sredne-Kolymsk menstruate their eyes turn blood-red.”
“They say they fuck all month long, indiscriminately.”
“They probably don’t even notice when it starts!”
“My grandfather says when he was a boy he knew one who was three ells tall. Her name was Seraphima. Grandmother gets furious when he tells that story.” Everyone laughed, but Elax just kept carving, as if she were stabbing, so tightly did she grasp the handle in her fist.