In my childhood, the world smelled of dust. The smooth sandy dust was everywhere. At 45 degrees, the surface of the sand felt burning hot. But if you were brave enough to put your hand or foot through the hot layer into the depth, you could enjoy the pleasant coolness. If we, children, were not climbing the trees, which we did most of the time, we sat on the warm dusty ground in the shadow of the willow next to the summer kitchen[1], and made houses of sand. My sister, Sonya was taller than all the other children who played in our courtyard and, of course, she was the boss.

She sent some of the children to catch “cattle” for the “barns” we made. They were ants, worms, small caterpillars and other insects, and we gave them funny names like “tigrephant” and “duckchicken”. As I was a thin and weak child and scared of all insects, I developed skills that other children didn’t. My sand buildings were the most beautiful and solid. In view of my valuable contributions to the mutual effort I was generously allowed by Sonya to sit there for hours patting and tapping the slightly moist sand. We were busy catching the insects and desperately trying to keep them in our shelters. They were beasts with only one aim: to leave our beautiful shelters as quickly as possible. We then agreed that they were just stupid and if we were there in their place we would stay.

We made nice and neat rows in the sand. Then we reached up and broke the tiny willow branches, hanging above our heads and planted a garden, which we called “the oasis in the desert”. We put everything we found around us in the garden. There were leaves, herbs and wild flowers, because we weren’t allowed to touch Mum’s roses. Even without roses our garden looked amazing and we unanimously named it “fairy garden”. We used to crouch down and put our heads by the side of “the garden” and imagine tall trees and other plants. We blew on “the trees” and could hear the gentle rustling of the leaves. Pure bliss!

Sonya brought out our toy box, took out two figurines and put them in the centre of the garden. They were the prince and princess. The girls were in love with the prince! The boys didn’t feel the same way about the princess…

Someone shouted: “Plants need water!”. Everyone got excited, and soon the boys were running to the nearby canal, equipped with a watering can and some buckets.

According to the memory of my grandma, the canal was built in the forties and all the adults of the village had participated at its excavation. It brought ice cold water from the river Syrdarya to the villages and the cotton fields in the south of Kazakhstan.

Soon the boys were back and pouring water over the rows and of course destroying it within a few minutes. We ended up shouting, screaming and throwing pieces of our garden at each other and eventually landing in the slippery mud.

Fortunately, the canal was close and the adults allowed us to swim in it or in the nearby creek. Some of the small children jumped into the creek, scaring all the geese and ducks that were gathering in the lukewarm water. The birds immediately started to beat their wings and cackled loudly in unison. The older children were laughing at the smaller ones who could only paddle with the ducks. The older children could swim in the canal, where the water had a deep green colour and was cool, but my grandma would never allow me so much as to dip my toe. She said the canal was insidious. Whilst it carried the precious water and brought life to this part of the country called Kyzylkum (otherwise a desert), it also had a dark secret.

My grandma told me, that a devil, called Shaytan[2], lived there. It lurked in the depth, from time to time pulled down people to its dark kingdom and it would never let them go back. “Don’t speak such nonsense to the child” – my father said.

He had his own scientific theory about it. He said, due to the depth of the canal the water was freezing cold; swimmers got cramp and couldn’t return to the surface after they plunged in.

Grandma refused that explanation and continued to try to convince us endlessly of the existence of a wicked devil, who would hold the swimmer’s legs down in the deep. They argued for a while but in the end my father finished his cup of tea and went out. And grandma moved to her next story. Being religious, she always stood up early in the morning for the first prayer. She went behind the house in the orchard to wash herself as she heard a deep masculine voice calling a girl’s name: “Seytuna a a…. Seytuna a a…“.

Grandma listened and said a prayer: “Bismillah Al Rahman Al Raheem… Something in that voice was frightening” – she said. “If I only knew who the girl with that name was…. The poor soul needs to pray, because her time has come”- she said and sank into prayer holding the rosary in her hands.

Next day grandma took me with her to visit her old friend in the neighbouring village. It was again a very hot day, we all sat on the veranda and drank tea with pastries. Aunt Kalipa’s “baursaki”[3] were always delicious. After having eaten many of them I went to play with her granddaughter. But the heat outside was now unbearable and we wanted to go for a swim to the canal.

“No, you are not going to the canal, because a devil lives there” – aunt Kalipa shouted.

“Just come in and stay here with us. I don’t want to frighten you, but only yesterday, the 16-year-old daughter of the village mechanic drowned in the canal. She was their only child”.

It was said that in the evening the girl told her mother that she would go quickly to the canal and fetch water for the cattle and take a swim. The mother had asked her if she was going alone and the girl replied:

“No, with my friends, they are there. Mum, they are calling after me, don’t you hear them?”

Her mother remembered that she was agitated and in a hurry. She jumped out shouting:

“Wait for me” and off she went. Her mother saw the swirled dust behind her.

Two hours went past, but she still wasn’t back and it was getting dark. The mother went to the canal, but nobody was there, only two buckets in the sand. The woman searched on the shore but found nothing and ran back to the village, asked her daughter’s friends but none of them went in the evening to the canal. It was reported that a girl with two buckets was seen by a woman, who was taking her cow to the pasture nearby the shore. The girl looked like she was in a hurry when she passed by the old woman.

An old man reported that he saw a girl at the canal, when he was preparing himself for the evening prayer. He had heard laughter and voices but couldn’t see who it was. He said that his eyes were as old as he himself was and no longer reliable at all.

The girl’s father searched with other men from the village on both shores and in the water but couldn’t find any trace of the missing child.

“What was the name of the child” asked grandma.

“Seytuna» - replied aunt Kalipa. At that very moment, a shiver ran down my back…

Next morning our friends were already waiting for me and my sister Sonya under our willow tree. At their faces, I saw that they also knew about it.

We sat in a circle on the warm sand but nobody wanted to play. We talked about devils and drowning. None of us had ever seen a devil or a drowned body. Both scared us. We all agreed that it was unfair humans could only breath air and not also water like fish. Fish were happy animals, they could stay in the cool water as long as they wanted.

Then someone threw in: “Let’s build a sea with fish”. Yes, this was an excellent idea! Everyone got excited and the relief was tangible. Now we were busy forming a sea in the sand, pouring water in it, making small boats out of reed leaves, letting them down on the water and watching them floating on the smooth surface. We crouched down and put our heads by the side of “the sea” and imagined beautiful caravels on the ocean heading for exotic countries. It was wonderful!

[1] Place for cooking in summertime under a roof.

[2] Kazakh word for devil

[3] Baursaki - traditional Kazakh pastries usually served with tea