What follows is a tale told to Namvari children, as I remember it from my great-uncle, in whose care I spent my early childhood.
Once, where a green river coils lazily into a shallow lake, lived a woman and her husband, Anahit and Rusudam. They were skilled potters, making beautiful and sturdy tableware from the rich clays swept to the lake’s shores by the seasonal flood. These they would sell in the town upriver for a good living, yet Anahit and Rusudam were sad, for they had no girl-child to carry on the family name. Despite showing the sakhl’ati of their house every respect, they remained without a daughter until they grew grey with age and regret.
One flood season, Anahit and Rusudam were digging for green clay beside the lake. Anahit’s mind wandered with her sorrow as she worked and her hands, without meaning to, shaped the form of a girl in the clay. The girl was perfectly formed for Anahit had, in her distraction, moulded her with all the love she bore for the daughter she could not have.
“Look, my love!” said Rusudam, pausing in his work with a sad smile. “There is our Mast’valebi, green eyes, as a clay maiden.” Anahit looked for the first time at the clay under her hands and wept, her tears falling onto the girl’s face.
Just then, the lake water rippled for Tsiq’al, the flood demon, was there watching Anahit and the clay child. Some say that Tsiq’al took pity on her. Others insist there was magic in Anahit’s tears. Either way, as the couple turned towards their lonely home, the clay maiden’s green face grew pink with life and a living girl rose by the water to greet them.
“If you will have me,” she said, “I will be your daughter and take care of you.”
With joy and disbelief Anahit and Rusudam accepted the clay maiden into their home. Days and weeks passed in contented peace. The clay maiden quickly displayed an uncanny aptitude for the potters’ craft and filled their house with laughter, love and hope for the future. The old couple honoured the sakhl’ati of the house for blessing them with such good fortune and the clay maiden, seeing no reason to do so, rarely ventured outside her new home.
At the height of the flood, the villagers honoured Tsiq’al; decorating their houses with coloured lanterns and visiting their neighbours with offerings of honeycombs. It was at this happy time that the clay maiden saw a young woman walking hand in hand with a young man and marvelled at the hidden fire flickering between their smiling faces.
“Wherefore comes this fire,” the maiden asked Tsiq’al, who was drawn to the village by its celebration of his work, “and why should I not also feel its flames?”
“Beware such fire,” counselled the watery demon, “for you cannot know its heat and remain unchanged.”
After that, the clay maiden grew restless and began to wander from the home of Anahit and Rusudam, who worried greatly at the change they saw in their beloved daughter.
The flood was beginning to subside on the day the clay maiden heard a beautiful music as she ambled listlessly along the river bank. Enchanted, the girl crept closer to find a herdsman playing the pipes while watering his flock. Their smiles met and the boy’s warm heart leapt out to her clay one.
Greatly struck by the maiden, the boy began calling at her house, inviting her to wander the sun-drenched hills above the river with him.
“Do not wander too far from the river,” Tsiq’al warned her, “for the waters that bore you run through your veins still. You cannot love and remain unchanged.”
She was drawn to the herdsman and eager to see the world beyond the village, yet the maiden heeded the demon’s words singing in her blood. Although she did not scorn the boy’s advances, she never wandered beyond the tree lined river banks with him. However, as every child knows, the strength of Tsiq’al rises and falls with the flood waters. That season, as the river slackened, his voice faded to a whisper in the maiden’s mind.
The boy kept pleading with her to join him, telling her of open skies, towering cliffs and shared music by a hillside camp fire.
“Why should I not see these sights and feel this joy, for is not the earth of the hills an equal part of me?” the maiden asked the Tsiq’al tearfully. She heard no answer, reduced as the river was to a brown stream by the high sun. And so she asked Rhunzhor, the drought demon, whose strength was growing.
“I can grant you what you seek,” replied Rhunzhor, in his lazy, golden voice, “but my brother speaks true, you cannot love and remain unchanged.”
Mast’valebi knew then that she could live as she was, between the waters of the lake and the earth of the hills, and bring Anahit and Rusudam lasting happiness but what of herself, what of the open skies and the boy’s music?
And so the maiden left the valley and climbed up into the meadows seeking the herdsman. She marvelled at the warmth of the sun, unbroken by the trees of the valley, on her skin and laughed bittersweet when she heard the echoes of pipe music among the rocks.
“Play for me,” she called out and the music quickened, leading her dancing up and on. She danced into her lover’s camp, her skin gleaming under the hot sun. The young man played and the maiden wept as she danced. When the song ended, the herdsman reached for the maiden but found her like fired clay, as hard and brittle as the rocks of the hills, leaving him alone as she crumbled into dust.
Then the hot breath of Runzhor swept the land and the orchards by the river burst with ripening fruit. The boy mourned the maiden in the shade of the trees along the waters’ edge and Anahit and Rusudam wept as well, saying, “It could not last, for the wheel of flood and drought must ever turn.”