(a Ukrainian folktale)
Once upon a time on a farm in the Ukraine, there lived a family who owned a flock of sheep and several acres of land. For years the family’s faithful sheepdog, Sirko, herded the sheep into the faraway pastures every day at dawn. In the evening he herded them back to the barn. Sirko worked hard, and he lived well.
Alas, as he grew older, he grew slower. One evening as he lay beside the fire, warming himself, he heard Alina, mistress of the house, talking in a low voice, whispering to her husband, Alek.
Sirko pricked up his ears to listen, and he heard Alina say, “Alek, Sirko is growing too old to work any longer. It is his time.”
Sirko opened one eye and looked up into his master’s eyes. In turn, Alek looked down, and the two exchanged a glance. Master and dog loved each other, and they understood each other well.
“But Alina …” Alek began.
She simply shushed him. “He has been a good dog. But it is his time. We’ll need a strong, young dog to help look after the sheep. Now that we have a baby, I cannot help you chase the sheep when they run away.”
Sirko knew that Alek never argued with Alina. He sat up as Alek walked to his side, and when Alek clicked his tongue, Sirko followed his master outside.
Together they stood under the bright moon and a canopy of stars. When Sirko looked at his master, he saw tears flowing down his face. “You have served us well,” Alek said, “but it is time.”
Sirko bowed his head. He did not wish to die.
“Go,” Alek said. “Go into the forest. Alina does not have to know I let you run away and keep your life.”
Sirko understood, and with an ache in his heart, he walked slowly away from the home he had always known.
As he wandered through the forest, he happened upon a sleeping wolf.
As Sirko walked by, the wolf woke and called, “You there, why are you so sad? You’re a handsome fellow, and you look well fed. What complaint do you have?”
Sirko stopped to talk to the wolf. “I have lived well, but now that I am old, my master has driven me away.”
Despite the wolf’s wicked reputation, he had a large heart, and he felt a kinship to Sirko. “I’ll help you,” he said. “I have a plan that will convince your mistress and master that you deserve only their love and kindness.” Then he outlined the plan to Sirko.
The next morning at dawn, Sirko and the wolf stood upon a hill looking down at the master’s house. Soon Alek walked outside. Alina, carrying the baby, followed.
It was harvest time. This Sirko knew.
When Alina and Alek and the baby reached the hayfield, Alina placed the baby beside a haystack. Then she set to work beside her husband, harvesting the wheat still in the fields.
A few minutes later, the wolf raced from the hill directly to the haystack. He picked up the baby between his teeth and bounded across the field. But just as the wolf and Sirko had planned, Sirko gave chase.
When Alina saw the wolf carrying her child, she screamed, but Alek spied Sirko. “Catch him, Sirko! Run! Run like the wind!”
And just as they had planned, Sirko caught the wolf and snatched the child away. He carried the baby back to Alina. Weeping with relief, Alina took the baby and clasped him to her chest. Alek dropped to his knees and petted Sirko’s head. “You are our hero, Sirko. How brave you are.” He looked up at Alina. “You see, we sent him away, but he stayed near to watch after us. And now he has saved our child.”
They led Sirko back home, and that night Alina prepared an extra serving of dumplings for their beloved dog.
Now all this time Sirko was thinking about how he might repay the wolf, and as time passed, he thought about it more and more. Finally he had an idea, and so one night, when his master and mistress were giving a party, he invited the wolf to attend.
“You’ll hide under the table, and I shall feed you plenty of meat and vodka,” Sirko told the wolf. “I owe you my happiness.”
“Marvelous,” the wolf said, and he agreed to the plan.
As the guests danced and sang and drank, Sirko sneaked great hunks of meat from the table and fed them to the wolf who soon was so drunk on food and vodka, he could not control himself. He began to howl with pleasure.
“Quiet,” Sirko whispered to him. “Quiet or they’ll catch you here!”
But it was too late. That wolf was howling so loudly, all the guests turned to look, and when they saw him there, they ran toward the wolf, crying, “Kill him! Kill the wolf!”
For a moment Sirko did not know what to do, but then he jumped upon the wolf, and with a great show of snapping and snarling, it seemed as if he was felling him.
One of the guests raised a shovel over the wolf’s head, but Alek cried, “Stop! You’ll hurt our beloved Sirko. Don’t worry, he’ll take care of the wolf.”
Sirko whispered, “Now we’ll have to go …” and with that he dragged the wolf out of the house, into the fields.
When they were far away from the house and out of sight, Sirko let go of the wolf. “My friend,” he said, “you did me a kindness, and I have repaid you, and now we must part ways.”
And so they said farewell, but they never forgot each other.