|AT THE CROSSROADS
STORIES FROM SELECTED WRITERS OF THE SOUTH CAUCASUS
This book was issued with financial support of COBERM, a mechanism established by EU/UNDP.
The contents of the publication are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
* * *
This book contains stories from five different literary traditions in the Caucasus region: Abkhazian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian and Ossetian. The main goal of its publication is to help fill gaps in the cultural dialogue between the various nations of the Caucasus.
In a sense, this collection is the continuation of the tradition begun by the book “Time to Live”, published under the auspices of the Caucasian Forum of Non–Governmental Organizations in 2003 (following a suggestion by Batal Kobakhia and Guram Odisharia). This reflected the thoughts and feelings of a particular group of Caucasian people – conflict survivors. “Time to Live” had great resonance in the South Caucasus. We have decided to include some of its stories in this collection too.
We consider that the potential representatives of the creative professions have to contribute to peacemaking processes has not been entirely fulfilled. This book can act as a unique means of promoting dialogue between the peoples of the South Caucasus. Consequently this book, uniting writers of the South Caucasus under one cover, can also unite its readers.
We believe that this collection can help the various peoples of the Caucasus gain a better understanding of their mutual problems.
Cultural Event or the Story of How a German Reconciled Two Caucasians ….
The Sun Hasn’t Set Yet ……………………....
Grandpa, Grandma and Communism……………………....
The Space Shot Through……………………....
A Boy and War……………………....
The Single-Eyed Sky……………………....
In Defense of Habydzh……………………....
Paper Samurai Tale……………………....
My Irish Grandfather……………………....
Shudder of the Earth……………………....
Ashot Beglaryan was born in 1968. He is the author of several books. He won second prize in the Master of the Fund literary competition organized by the International Fund “Great Pilgrim – to Youth” in both 2006 and 2011, and in 2008 was awarded a special diploma by the Open All- Ukrainian Mass Media Competition “Comrat, Amigo, Shuravi”.
Ashot Beglaryan lives in Stepanakert, in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Cultural Event, or the Story of How a German Reconciled Two Caucasians
A couple of years after the fragile ceasefire in the Karabakh confrontation zone had been established a human rights activist from Germany, August Muller, had the idea of effecting a reconciliation between at least one representative from each side of the conflict. After a little thought he chose, as his guinea pigs, two of his colleagues – Suren Askaryan from Karabakh and Rauf Gadjiev from Azerbaijan - with whom he had nodding acquaintance. They were to stay in his house and resolve their differences there.
After sending them invitations containing a detailed program of their stay, in which he even specified, with German pedantry, the time allocated for their morning and evening ablutions, he waited for replies, not without anxiety. Nervously walking back and forth in his spacious office in his three-storey villa, August adjusted and readjusted his eyeglasses on the bridge of his nose, where his light, hardly noticeable eyebrows came together, and reflected: “it will come to no good… God forbid, they have a fight in my house – a scandal – an international one – will be unavoidable! You never know these Caucasians! But, on the other hand, anything is possible - I may be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!”
Inspired by this idea, he cheered up: “At last there will be somebody who dares to break through the wall of distrust!..”
His wife, Frau Catherine, was also nervous. She was thinking hard about how to present the best of German cuisine and German manners… “Will these highlanders appreciate my efforts?”
To be frank, the Mullers didn’t much believe in the likelihood of the success of their undertaking, and even doubted whether two guests from the remote South Caucasus would agree to come at all and be the subjects of this risky experiment…
But within two weeks Suren and Rauf were sitting, rather peacefully, in August’s sitting room. The German cautiously placed himself between the Caucasians, casting strained and watchful glances from one to the other.
“Well, I hope you two will make friends,” - he uttered at last, with a certain doubt, fidgeting in his armchair.
The Caucasians looked at each other and modestly lowered their heads.
Frau Catherine brought in coffee, and while serving it looked at her husband inquiringly, and with some fear, trying to guess by the expression on his face how the experiment was proceeding. At that moment August's face was stony and pale.
“Well, gentlemen, I’ll remind you of the program of your stay,” the German said at last, more firmly and confidently, though coughing.
For about ten minutes he read out the list of planned events which the two guests already knew by heart: waking up, morning exercise, morning ablutions, breakfast, discussions on tolerance…
“And will there be any cultural event?” Suren asked unexpectedly, giving an imperceptible wink to the Azeri.
The latter smiled in the same imperceptible manner.
“Cultural event?” August squinted in distrust.
“Yes,” said Suren calmly, drawing something pear-shaped in the air with his hands to make his statement more substantial.
Bringing his invisible eyebrows together at the bridge of his nose again, the German, after some reflection, answered:
“Well, why not? We’ll think about it… But now let’s get ready for the dinner. You have” - he looked at his watch – “13 minutes.”
“And can we smoke?” Rauf asked.
“Only in the garden. There is an ashtray on the table there and three garbage bins under the tree. After you finish smoking, throw the ash and cigarette-stubs in the bin containing the non-ecological garbage. It is the one in the middle…”
Going out into the garden without particular enthusiasm, the Caucasians found the mysterious ashtray. They lit cigarettes and produced light, careless rings of smoke with sighs of relief. Only after having accurately shaken off the ash into the ashtray, according to their instructions, did they notice the German watching them from the balcony. Waiting patiently for the Caucasians to finish smoking and stub out their cigarettes, he reminded them, as an additional precaution, of the location of the bin containing non-ecological garbage.
When the smokers returned, August raised his forefinger in an almost threatening way:
“Dinner will be served in three minutes.”
Frau Catherine was already busy laying the table in the next room. It was full – with various types of sausages, ham, roast meat and potatoes, beer. But the most important ingredient for an inhabitant of the Caucasus was absent. Guess what? Of course, bread! Or rather it was there, but in rather a small quantity, and that only brown. It was also cut into thin slices, like Basturma. Each time Suren and Rauf, dropping their eyes in embarrassment, asked the hostess for one more slice, they secretly prayed to the Lord that Frau Catherine would accidentally place the knife to the left slightly, at least by half a centimeter. Then “Camrad” (the name the Caucasians had given to August) explained to them that only foreigners bought white bread in Germany, and that it cost less than wholemeal.
“In general, we don’t eat much bread,” concluded the German with some air of reproach.
Having finished her dinner in haste, Frau Catherine apologized to the guests, got dressed and left.
“She is on duty at the hospital,” August explained, as he began clearing the table. Glancing at each other, the Caucasians began to help him.
“Oh, if you want to help me, let’s divide roles,” said the German in a businesslike manner, putting on an apron and tying the laces behind his back into a neat bow quite skillfully, “Suren, please take the towel, and you, Rauf, bring me the dirty dishes.”
“Do you do the washing up at home?” Rauf whispered to Suren in a snatched moment.
“No, I have a wife, a daughter… grandmother...” he answered in surprise.
“If our dear spouses could see us right now…”
Later it became obvious that in August’s family, as in families all over Germany, it was in the order of things for men to wash up in this way. Demonstrating “male” solidarity with August, the Caucasians, changing roles, dealt with the dishes at the sink every day, at first clumsily and dolefully, then more skillfully and willingly.
The German took his guests to a restaurant for supper. The Caucasians, as a token of solidarity and the removal of religious boundaries, ordered petit fours (the specialty of that restaurant). They were of gigantic dimensions.
“Such pigs might have lived in the age of dinosaurs,” Suren joked, but suddenly he drooped, as he realized, in horror, that there was no bread on the table.
He moved his plate aside and firmly refused to eat, stating that he wouldn’t be able to cope with these giant petit fours without bread. After long and hard deliberation “Camrad” called the waiter over and, turning away, pointed at Suren, saying“he wants bread”. Looking at this unusual customer with unconcealed interest, the waiter smiled in some embarrassment and, uttering “jawohl”, headed towards the kitchen. Some time later he put a big basket of white and brown bread in front of Suren. All the other customers looked at Suren in bewilderment.
It was only now that the latter, looking around, noticed that there was no bread on any of the tables. But not a single muscle moved on the face of the follower of Caucasian traditions in this embarrassing situation. Suren felt sorry for Rauf and gave him a piece of bread, although the latter hadn’t supported him when he, throwing shame away, had asked for bread.
Throughout the supper August sat half turned away from Suren, as if he wasn’t with him. When the unusual guest had finished eating, the waiter, taking the dishes away, served him coffee, but did not remove the basket with the bread.
On the way home the German, still not recovered from the embarrassment, went through a lengthy explanation about how according to German custom supper and bread were eaten separately and the notions of bread and supper were incompatible. Suren didn’t want to understand his arguments. Rauf kept silent in a polite way.
As soon as they entered the house, August announced:
“I warn you in advance that Suren will sleep on the first floor and you, Rauf, on the third. Catherine and I will be in the middle.”
The Caucasians could hardly help laughing.
Two days passed like this. The Caucasians got used to the established, minutely organised German way of life, and the German their peculiarities and caprices. Once, being in a good mood, the host slipped some alcohol-free beer to Suren. He drank, drank – but felt no joyride… The German rejoiced in his joke like a child.
“Well, you see, I also know how to have fun!” he repeated with satisfaction through his laughter.
On the third day the Caucasians hatched a small plot, and asked August to let them go out by themselves. Eventually they succeeded in persuading him. They headed to the nearest restaurant, where Suren cautiously put a bottle of stored mulberry vodka in the inside pocket of his jacket. The sign which said, in big and uneven letters – in Russian, for some reason - “It’s categorically forbidden to bring in and drink alcoholic drinks here! Fine … marks” did not scare him.
While Rauf, having taken out his pocket dictionary, was busy studying the menu, trying to gain some understanding of what the items on this long list of dishes were, Suren, looking at the waiter standing stock still in a professional pose, his characteristic profile and thin, trimmed moustache, asked him in Azeri, which he spoke not worse than his native language:
The thin moustaches twitched, the waiter revived…
When he had brought tequila and left to get the shashlik, Suren discreetly poured the contents of the wineglasses into the flowerpot on the window sill and, leaning over without taking the bottle out of his pocket, poured the mulberry vodka into the wineglasses. The waiter couldn’t understand why the wineglasses were full all the time, and why the faces of the visitors got more and more ruby each time he came to the table…
On the next day, after the lecture on tolerance, during which the southerners had begun to feel drowsy, Suren, after whispering to Rauf, said to August:
“You haven’t forgotten about the cultural event, have you?”
The question wasn’t unexpected for August, but he hesitated.
“I’ll consult with my wife.”
The Caucasians blushed, and tried to stop him, but he was already calling his better half.
“Here is your democracy and gender equality!” whispered Rauf to Suren.
For about a minute the German whispered into the ear of his wife, who gave the guests a serious, searching stare. Then Catherine began to explain something to her husband and, having listened to her, August solemnly uttered:
“Get ready! We’ll have to travel to the neighboring city.”
The Caucasians were overwhelmed with joy. Suren winked merrily at his partner. They quickly got shaved, took a bath, put on aftershave, got dressed…
Getting off the electric train after a couple of hours, they took a taxi. Rauf and Suren still did not understand why they had to travel such a long way for “this”. But anticipating the pleasure, they were ready to accept any discomfort.
The taxi stopped near a big bright building. They had to walk through a small, neat park to approach it.
“Look at that!” Suren exclaimed suddenly, pointing to the pool.
“Heigh-ho!” Rauf responded rapturously.
Wagging her tail, swinging on her fat legs, a duck was approaching the pond, in which her friend was already swimming, without suspecting that she had become the object of unhealthy interest.
“Why did you stop?” the German asked reproachfully.
“Duck!” uttered Suren dreamily, gazing after the bird with a carnivorous look.
“Delicious!” said Rauf.
“Would your people eat them?” asked the German with surprise and almost disgust.
“But you can buy one at the grocery store.”
“Yes, but it’s a game bird…”
“Savages!” declaimed the German, without listening to the end of the sentence, quickening his step.
Having looked at the building and started to feel a sense of foreboding, Suren asked August, alarmed:
“Where have you brought us to?”
The same sort of feelings were tearing Rauf’s heart. “Look at this 'Ivan Susanin'!” he thought.
“And what is it you wanted?” asked the German in bewilderment.
In response, as if prompted, Suren and Rauf drew in the air plump female shapes: the former breasts, the latter hips.
“Oh, so that’s what you want!” August looked at them as if he had unmasked a couple of spies. “It’s impossible! I have a good reputation. And the Project doesn’t provide for this – the Foundation will not pay for “it””.
Still having a glimmer of hope that this was a joke, and the German was kidding them, the Caucasians entered the building.
“Let’s begin on the third floor, the most interesting things are up there” August suggested.
They came out of the elevator and went through a wide door. A strange picture, or rather pictures, appeared in front of the confused Caucasians. They blurred in front of their eyes: shapeless spots of bright color were crossed by some kind of curved lines. The diversity of color combinations, geometric shapes, planes, straight lines and open polygons made them feel giddy…
“A Mess!” Suren exclaimed unwillingly.
“Worse than that!” Rauf answered.
Yes, dear reader, you have already probably guessed: it was the Museum of Abstractionism. The poor adventurers had no choice but to walk obediently around all the floors, look at strange and incomprehensible exhibits and try to find some logic in them. At first they merely pretended that this was interesting, but then they got so involved that they didn’t regret having come to this “cultural event”…
While they waited for the electric train back to August's city, somebody barked into a loudspeaker on the platform: “Achtung, achtung!” and then added something excitedly. Suren and Rauf were struck with fear, understanding that the words “Achtung, achtung!” didn’t promise anything good. The first idea which came to Suren’s mind was that the place was being bombed and they would have to run to the cellar. Then suddenly Rauf, with pale face, said quietly: “ The war! The Germans attacked Russia…”.
“Camrad” calmed his companions, explaining that all it meant was that the electric train was running late because some minor accident had occurred on the way. Recovering, Suren asked Rauf why he had decided that the Germans were attacking Russia again. But Rauf couldn’t say anything reasonable in reply, saying that this was the first idea which had come into his head. It was understandable, though – we are former Soviet people, have seen movies about the War of 1941-1945, and on hearing the word “achtung” we automatically think war has broken out. And nowadays there are more than enough wars - from our TV screens they have penetrated into real life, becoming, alas, almost a triviality.
Having returned home, August told his wife about the “cultural event” with reserved laughter and she had tremendous fun hearing about such a “blunder”…
The week in Germany was coming to an end. On the last day the guests, as an expression of their gratitude, decided to clean up August’s garden. Spades and rakes were used. When they had gathered up the dry branches, Suren got the idea to roast a real Caucasian shashlik and give it to his host as a final treat. They told him about this idea. He asked in anxiety:
“And what will we be making the fire from?”
Pause. The characteristic strained wrinkle at the bridge of his nose appeared on their host’s face, foreboding nothing good.
“But we have no skewers…”
This excuse didn’t work.
“We can cut off a couple of branches from the tree and make skewers” Suren argued enthusiastically.
“I have to ask my wife,” said August, turning pale and entering the house to hold a council.
When he came back, he was even more anxious:
“What if we make it in the fireplace?”
There was an awkward silence.
“You know, I have a good reputation… Besides, the neighbors might say that I am not only exploiting foreigners but polluting the environment…”
Saying goodbye at the airport, Suren and Rauf, with Caucasian eagerness, invited August and his wife to visit them. The German, happy that the experiment had proceeded without alarm, promised to visit them for sure…
On the plane Suren asked the stewardess several times to bring extra bread. After the fifth time she said irritably that there was no more bread left, although she had fetched the first four rolls with a kind, “understanding” smile.
Suren looked through the window and then had a nap. He dreamed about parks, houses in Gothic style and August’s kind but anxious face with a slight sadness… When he woke up, he found himself pressing a roll of bread strongly into his chest.
On leaving the plane, everything seemed as if in a mist, unreal, like in the Museum of Abstractionism… But suddenly somebody stepped on Suren's leg, and, snatching his bag, shouted in his ear:
“Buddy, where do you need to go? Tell me, I’ll drive you there!”
Suren suddenly realized that he was home, and felt warm and calm inside.
Aleksey Gogua was born in 1932. He is a graduate of the A.M. Gorky Institute of Literature (Moscow). He is the author of many volumes of prose and winner of the D.I. Gulia State Prize of the Republic of Abkhazia. His stories have been translated into a number of European languages, Russian, Georgian and Japanese.
Alexsey Gogua lives in Sukhum/i, Abkhazia.
The Sun Hasn’t Set Yet
Life was engaged in what he was always engaged in: he wasn’t hiding anything, wasn’t smoothing anything over – sorrow or joy, good or evil; he was working evenly – pumping blood through the vessels, controlling them, so they got neither too cold
nor too hot.
Death followed him closely, picking up everything that fell out.
On the day of the burial she was left standing amongst other women, mournfully positioned near the coffin. It was the place the daughter-in-law was supposed to stand, but not a good place: except for infrequent moments, when she could peep from behind the mourners’ backs, Esma couldn’t see the deceased's face. It was the third day since Death had put his stamp on it.
She had thought that she would have a chance to be alone with him, and thus see enough of him, but this didn’t happen: during the day there were women, other visitors, and at night sentinels (relatives, keeping guard beside the deceased). No one had thought to arrange this last date for them. Even Maritsa, on whom Esma secretly counted, had kept silent for some reason. It was essential for everyone to serve Death equally, in their sorrow for the deceased, and such details hadn’t been taken into consideration, or there had been no time for them.
…And they had never managed to be together for a long enough time since they had married.
But it was impossible to catch up with Death; he always changed those he took from life without delay. First of all he deprived them of their names and routine and reduced them all to a common denominator: being deceased. Sometimes Life also tended to generalize things: she’d been called “daughter-in-law” for two years already. To be frank, she wanted to be known by another name – the tradition of giving a second name to married young women still existed in certain places. Some adore their name – even if they forget it by chance, they will be reminded with tender aspiration, with gusto. But Esma was sick of her name; for her it had become something like leftovers, so chewed over and rolled over it was. Her husband had been the only one to pronounce it tenderly, with love. She had hoped that at least for this reason she would be granted another name, but in vain. Nobody had thought of it. Or they were scared that they would be considered old-fashioned – everybody, especially women, was afraid of that here, like the fire - or they didn’t want to spare her some decent name. She thought that it had mostly happened because her name, if it began to live its own, separate life, would betray her.
They kept her former name, but began to call her “daughter-in-law” – and it slightly consoled Esma. Everybody pronounced the word “daughter-in-law” rather carefully, with little hesitation, keeping it in the mouth, as if being afraid that it would get stuck in their throats. Probably they wanted, until it flew out of their lips, to put some spite, mockery into it…
The position of daughter-in-law imposed certain obligations upon her. Now she had to behave properly: she had to remember everything - that her husband was lying in the coffin, that they had married not long ago, that she was pregnant.
At the beginning she didn’t believe that the war had begun. There had been some skirmishes in '89, there had even been casualties, but everything had been fixed, smoothed over somehow; they will think of something, she had decided. She had been offended that Ezug hadn’t shown up for a whole week. He had left her alone with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law… and the father-in-law didn’t communicate much with the female part of the household and never interfered in their affairs. His work was everything for him - a wife and a son, a daughter and a friend. From morning to late evening he devoted himself to it… and her mother-in-law, at the sight of her, would turn up her nose and look in the direction of Sukhum/i. Her eyes would go foggy and she stopped seeing anything that was around her. The numerous warts covering her face, which were usually grey, would then turn crimson and stiff hairs would protrude from them. She was like a General about to take his army into a campaign, extremely tense.
She had never got over the fact that Esma’s mother now considered her daughter buried alive because she had married Ezug, and had rejected her. Esma’s mother considered Ezug's family unequal to her. But they had returned the favor. “It’s our only son who has ruined his life; he deserves such a fate, as he has descended to your level!” was their proud answer to Esma’s parents. “Did we deserve such a daughter-in-law?!” – this had been the expression on the discontented faces of Ezug’s relatives when she had first appeared in front of them…
…She waited for Ezug impatiently, waiting to tell him everything – about the crooked, the bitter. It was in this family that she had learned these words. They were frequently used in her sister-in-law’s vocabulary, she could not speak without them.
Life did his work: he reached her, filled her with memories to console her and cheer her up… then returned her to the present – didn’t let her forget where she was, and in what condition she was, not letting her be taken away and distracted by her memories for too long.
Mourners kept arriving in endless crowds. Sometimes there were people in military uniforms. They would stop in front of her, bow slightly and go away. She wouldn’t raise her eyes, and actually she should not. Her eyes were burning. She had felt this burning ever since she had heard about his death. At that moment something like lighting had pierced her, burnt her. She had felt like she had been burned from the inside, and only ash was left there, and the channels through which tears had to flow were also clogged with ash. Her eyes had never even become moist. And he, the baby in her womb, had also become silent, motionless. After recovering a little, she had become concerned about him. For 24 hours he hadn’t show any signs of life. Then, when he began to move again, he became too frisky, but this didn’t disturb her. Since then he’d been like that. She is in her final month. She hopes she still has some time. Ezug had died about three weeks before his son was supposed to be born. If he were still alive, it would make her pain much easier today…
Ezug had returned home a week later. As soon as she had seen him at the far end of the yard, she had realized that the war was real this time. Her heart had sunk, had remained there since then. Dressed as usual, he held a submachine gun. Ezug with a submachine gun! It seemed funny to her, though there was nothing funny in this situation. There had never been anything like firearms in this family, and she had never heard anybody speaking about them. But Esma was interested in everything concerning guns, as her father’s house had been full of hunting dogs; they had all talked only about guns and hunting, as if hunting, rather than driving a bus to remote destinations, had been her father’s profession. Here they worshipped all sorts of iron tools; her father-in-law had a lot of axes, knives and saws, and secateurs for gardening and vine pruning – which he wouldn’t trust anybody else, including his son, to use… even ordinary kitchen knives here were sharpened so much that any stranger using them would probably get cut.
Once she had decided to cook a dinner – a young daughter-in-law is expected to demonstrate her skills in this field. She took the kitchen knife which they used every day and nearly sliced her finger off. She still can’t forget the words her sister-in-law had said with an evil smile then: “what else can you expect from such a bungler!”
Her father-in-law was truly clever with his hands. All the wooden constructions decorating their yard had been made by him. A bird would not have been able to fly through his wicker fence, and nobody would ever see a dry branch left on a tree or vine there. Similarly, Ezug’s only connection with modern technology was through his car. As soon as he had obtained a driver’s license he had begun to drive. But he wasn’t like others, who go crazy about a piece of metal – never. From the very first days of the war he had driven his “Zhiguli”, and his sister-in-law didn’t like it very much. The car was an object of particular pride for her; when talking to people she liked she would, appropriately or inappropriately, put in a word about it as if she were talking about one of her family members.
That day Ezug had come on foot: the car was needed there, at the front line. When the sister-in-law had muttered something about this with dissatisfaction, Ezug had lost his temper and snapped at her. Esma had been taken aback: she had never seen him in such a rage. The sister-in-law kept her mouth shut after that, and never uttered another word about “Zhiguli”, as if she had sworn an oath to herself about it, but obviously she nurtured a resentment deep in her heart.
The car was now covered with black mourning cloth, and was in the corner of the yard…
… That day Ezug, together with his family members, who had run out to meet him, had entered the ‘amatsurta’ (kitchen) and stayed there for some time. Then he had come upstairs to her, with his submachine gun in his hand. He had put it near the wall, approached her, given her a hug, clasped her to his bosom. She had tried to free herself, to make him understand that she was offended and hurt, but he wouldn’t let her go. She was overwhelmed with various smells, and the sourish smell of his sweat was unbearable. He probably felt this, and so released his arms at once.
She couldn’t see Ezug’s face, but she could watch all the mourners. The mourners didn’t look at the dead either, except accidentally; but neither did they look at the others standing near the coffin. Women wailed, and from this side some responded, sobbing, expressing their grief in this way. Sorrow, weeping, suffering had subdued everybody; people didn’t have the strength left for anything else.
Esma couldn’t stand any more of this. Her legs were swollen, her feet had become numb; they couldn’t feel the ground on which they stood anymore. And he, in her womb, was tired; sometimes he moved and then he became calm.
Life did his job. Sometimes it seemed to Esma that he was passing her by, without touching her. But sometimes he approached, closely, making her sink into her memories. Life had no other way to help her, to ease her burden.
… That night (in the morning he was leaving for the war) she had realized that a man can suddenly grow much older than he really is, become mature overnight. Then she reflected for the first time on the importance of relations between a husband and a wife, a family, children. The words “my husband”, which she had used to pronounce with a certain irony earlier, now obtained new meaning. A more careful attitude towards her still young family, which was never left in peace by either her or his parents, was born in her. And the “leaven” of this family was their love – about which she hadn’t uttered a word, fearing an evil eye – Ezug’s love, and that of the one who lived in her womb… but it wasn’t fully “leavened” yet.
The war drew everything together – life and death, sorrow and joy… She had heard earlier that all these notions came from one root, but she had thought this was a witticism. Now she was sure they grew together, like the rafters of the house…
Women, standing in the front, bewailed now and then, taking turns. This mourning wasn’t the usual one. In the past not only a young, but an old person, who had gone through a long path of life, would be bemoaned with loud wails. The war was catching up with everyone so quickly that it was confusing everything, subduing everything to itself, to its rules, rearranging everything in its own way.
The mother-in-law was standing silent, as if she had turned to stone, looking somewhere far away. Sometimes she approached the coffin in which her son lay, and looked at him with eyes which saw nothing and nobody but him. “My hearth is cold, empty…” she was saying, with cracked lips and terribly silent voice. And her eyes were dry: grief had burnt them out.
Now she wasn’t looking in the direction of Sukhum/i and Esma’s parents. She was looking much further, so far that one would feel terrified. Only a soul getting rid of the burden of the flesh could be so free.
”Cry, it’s not a shame” - sometimes she heard the voice of her sister-in-law saying this - “get your soul free of him…” This referred to her, her brother’s wife. It seemed to her that she was saying “get your soul free of him” with irony, and it was intolerable. She was also saying it loudly, with pressure, as if she wanted to break the boundaries set by the war. She was even jealous of her dead brother being dead to her too. She knew perfectly well that Esma couldn’t cry: the eyes were burnt out, the tears were dried.
The sister-in-law wasn’t looking in her direction, but she could see everything. She was one of those who could even see behind her back. Like that animal – Esma couldn’t remember its name – which can keep everything in sight at once… and around her, as she stood with swollen legs, there are a lot of fine, unseen boundaries, indicating where people can stand, move, stir. She had to gain an understanding of these multiple boundaries of the permitted, prescribed, required. At another time she would do everything her own way despite others, even contrary to others, but now respect for the dead wouldn’t allow it, the war wouldn’t allow it.
There is no free will in this world! The more you know about life, the clearer you understand what a tangle all of us are in.
And still we strive for it. Life must do what he is supposed to do, there is no other way. Esma feels that he, Life, goes on, beating out his rhythm, like a clock. But sometimes this rhythm lulls, attunes you to your memories, and Esma somehow sinks into daydreaming…
… That day, when leaving, he had stroked her belly, and blushed immediately, like when he had kissed her for the first time. “I don’t know who he will take after, he’s so lively…” she had said, surprised at the tenderness which had burst through her heavy breath. “He will look like you, who else?” he had laughed.
… When she had first seen him and heard the family name – Apsaa1, – Esma had been surprised. Not only because he had a bird's name as a family name – he himself in some way resembled a wild forest bird, chilled to the marrow by the wind, with the eyes cleaned by whirlwind. It just seemed ridiculous to her; suddenly all the people who had been in her class at school began to seem like well-fed poultry: hens, roosters, turkeys, grazing because they had nothing else to do, suddenly fussing because a forest bird had appeared among them as a threat. But, having made sure there was nothing to be afraid of, they calmed down and began to approach the uninvited guest. As it was peaceful, with wings atrophied by lack of use, the poultry decided to show the forest creature how brave and proud they were. Roosters called hens with hoarse voices, to let everybody know who was in charge.
There were problems with a turkey cock. Puffing up, he approached the weather-worn forest bird and gurgled menacingly. Female turkeys echoed him, but were being friendly. Geese walked about, grouped together, stretching their necks out and throwing their heads back. All geese are like that; they are sure that at some time they really did save Rome, with the exception of the ancient ones, who had lived in the time of the Gauls… For ducks it didn’t matter; they only cared about splashing in the pond…
That’s how she saw the way her classmates had first encountered him. She was among the poultry the turkey cock had put under its domain, though it didn’t do anything but ruffle its feathers. The geese were those who only cared about their career from a very young age. The parents of most of them were considered bigwigs and wanted their children to go even further, even higher, even faster. Even when they just stood in the corridor doing nothing or went to the blackboard, their pompous appearance said: “We saved Rome!”
… After the eighth form the forest bird came to Sukhum/i and entered their school. There were a lot of such newcomers. But he didn’t resemble any of them; nobody saw him becoming friends with them: he neither approached them nor let them approach him. Then some geese tried to get close to him. But she and the turkey cock still ignored him deliberately, although she remembered his “bird” family name every now and then. Afterwards she had had to agree with what others were saying: he had some charisma, which attracted people to him like a magnet. But inwardly she scolded herself – how could she condescend to liking a former village boy. She, the life and soul of Astik’s group, that of the boy famous not only in the school, but in the whole city! If some people called Astik the turkey cock because they envied him, many nevertheless did so sincerely, recognizing his superiority.
… At that time she still believed that she had reached heights inaccessible to Ezug…
Afternoon hadn’t come yet, but, as she had guessed, every mourner who was supposed to come had come. The war had arranged everything in its own way in this case too. If before people hadn’t been in a hurry, and had sometimes done what they had to do with some delay – communicated for a longer time, supported each other – the war had cut down that time for now. It was saving time, weighting everything against it. Those who “disobeyed” were threatened. When there was no way out, people buried the dead the same day – the day he or she had died, be it morning or evening. And when circumstances allowed – in the same afternoon they would commit them to the earth.
Something could fall from the sky at any minute, too. At some funerals aircraft, particularly helicopters, had caused trouble.
Cannon fire had been heard since morning from the seaside. The hills between this place and the seaside slightly suppressed this cannonade. Sometimes the roar rose high, to the emptiness of the sky, and when the sky absorbed it with difficulty, the roar, like internal pain, pierced everything around it for some time more. Then there was silence for a short while. Cannon were silent but there somewhere, far away. Then the moaning stopped too… you could hear grey leaves falling from the young walnut trees standing in the yard.
Several minutes passed, and above the hills, overgrown with trees and turning yellow like bristles on the wild boar’s back, an accelerating rumble was heard, sounding like an avalanche. Moaning stopped. Suddenly, in the clear, cool sky, aircraft glittered like two sword blades. They glittered but then disappeared, and the sound of the “avalanche” gradually silenced.
“Not many of them are left, but soon there will be none of them, if the Lord wills…” a man, neither young nor old, standing near close relatives, said without much confidence.
“A donkey never approaches the place where it has been neutered, but they still come back, despite the fact that they have been beaten down…” a second man added.
“Only helicopters were brought down” said a third man, standing ramrod-straight, as if he feared to sin against the truth.
“Isn’t it the same? let them burn in hell…” the first man answered unwillingly.
“It’s not the same,” - the ramrod-straight man wanted to make the truth even more truthful, but didn’t know how. “It’s not the same…”
Esma couldn’t listen to anybody. She couldn’t feel her feet. And she was very thirsty. She could only bear it if she were sitting. Then she would be able to surround herself with memories and catch her breath.
… Life was doing his business. It seems to us that he is busy only with the present. But “the present” has another dimension for him, as a root into the past. Everything which for a person is in their past and has become a memory is always the present for Life.
Esma remained alone. Voices, sounds, smells overwhelmed her. She had no strength left with which to overcome their attack. Grief sat in her like a stone. Memories passed by impetuously, bringing no relief.
… Death did his business too. Silent and cold, he worked tirelessly. He didn’t wait until the dead person was committed to the earth, but gave his appearance to everything he could touch.
…The only thing preventing her from collapsing was the pure – like spring – air and the smell of the autumn. The season had already come, but there were still many leaves on the trees. It was still green in marshy places, especially where alder trees grew. For the last three nights it had been frosty, and the grizzled leaves had all fallen to the ground in one go. The smells of the leaves, either those fallen to the ground or those still firmly sticking to the branches, and the corn stems in the fields, being grazed by cattle – all these were pleasant to her, and they blocked other, intolerable smells. Mixed together, they shed the aroma of a just ripened wild medlar.
Suddenly all these aromas and pure air, which were preventing her from collapsing, were suppressed by some smell. She hadn’t been able to bear it even before the pregnancy; she had felt some heaviness inside. And a little later she heard the voice of the person with such a sharp smell.
When the killed Ezug had been brought home and she hadn’t known what to do with herself, a lot of ideas had come into her mind. She had remembered that light travels quicker than sound… perhaps he had seen the flash first, maybe it had warned him by showing itself… but he didn’t make it… i.e. a bullet is quicker than both light and sound… you don’t see, you don’t hear… they say a bullet whistles after being shot, but this is probably to cheer itself up, the bastard… and smell is like a bullet – it surpasses light and sound…
“Mourned by Madina, washed with her tears…”, - the torturing stink was followed by a voice. She spoke in a whisper, but a whisper heard by everybody around. “Mourned by Madina, washed with her tears…” Madina was her sister-in-law, and her friend, the owner of the smell, was speaking. Having no desire to marry “village simpletons”, both had remained old maids. They always smelled of coffee and sunflower seeds – the sort of things people bought in the city culture. The sister-in-law’s friend was especially addicted to sunflower seeds; as soon as she opened her mouth, the smell of burnt husk spread around. The air around Esma was saturated with it; she felt sick, she could hardly hold herself together. He, in her womb, calmed down. Obviously, the “fragrance” had reached him too, and poisoned him.
Since nobody cares about her, she’ll have to care about herself. She now has to step over all the prohibitions imposed on her as a daughter-in-law. Obviously she looks terrible, but the mourners don’t look either at the deceased or those standing nearby. Nobody looks at each other, with the exception of people like her sister-in-law and her friend, who pretend that they can’t live without each other.
Suddenly somebody grasps her shoulders. From the hands, thin fingers and strong hold, she guesses who it is. Children, hard work, compassion for everybody had brought her to that state – skin and bones. But she hadn’t lost the internal flame. And there was something flame or fire-related in her name – Maritsa. Women didn’t like her, and avoided dealing with her – but she did everything her own way anyway. “Can’t you see what condition she is in, are you waiting till she collapses!” she said loudly, so that everybody could hear. Nobody answered. Maritsa pulled Esma towards her and Esma didn’t resist. She took her into the back row and seated her. “Sit here, and don’t stand up till I come back”, Maritsa said, and then disappeared. As busy as she was, she had managed to keep track of everything, given instructions to the neighbors about what to do and how to do it. The back rows of mourners had already grown thin. Like Esma, other women also found it difficult to stand long. And there were a lot fewer mourners now. They were from remote villages, where the enemy hadn’t been, and where the roads were free.
From this place she could see Ezug better. Death had done a lot of work during these two days. The day after he came home his face had become blue, then gradually gray, and now it had a deathly paleness. She recognized the gray hairs in his thick hair. Perhaps birds are hatched with gray hair, she thought to herself sarcastically. Now there were many more gray hairs. Death had drawn them so far away from each other that sometimes it seemed that she couldn’t remember his face; as if many, many years had passed since he had been brought home, killed, and she had had enough time to forget him.
The first day she had noticed some strange fatigue on his face. He had seemed a stranger, unknown to her, because his eyes were closed. She had last seen them when he was leaving. Sometimes, light blue or dark blue eyes are called green by some people. These are people who have never looked into them… they are sky blue, and really deep, although the same is said about others… Ezug’s eyes were sky-blue. What other color could a bird’s eyes have been? This “bird” family name of his really fitted him… That’s why she always thought his soul resided in his eyes… But she hadn’t told him about it, she was afraid he would consider the idea too sophisticated… His soul had gone away with his eyes…
She wanted to return to her memories, catch up with them. She was afraid that they would go away with him, he would take them with him…
… She had had to wait for him for two, three weeks, although even one week was hard to bear without him. At the very beginning they hadn’t had either guns or bullets. Enemies, sitting in tanks, had entered their villages, set houses on fire, killed people. The news about Ezug and his group’s deeds had come earlier than Ezug himself: how they had attacked the enemy’s dump and stolen weapons, how they had seized a tank and an armored infantry vehicle… but this news had been followed by news about casualties. One of his group members had been killed, two wounded...
… Somehow he had once taken the opportunity of a spare moment and come home… He had left the muddy car near the gate… She hadn’t gone down, she had stood on the balcony, he liked it that way… he was no longer the same person she had known earlier. It was difficult to explain why she thought so, but her heart told her: he had changed. It showed how important what he had been involved in recently also was for her. It had never occurred to her that he could be killed. Or rather it had, but she had been too scared to admit it. What would she do then? But at that moment she had felt an intolerable pain, realizing that something had died in him forever…
She had said nothing, but he had understood at once. He had understood, but didn’t ask anything, didn’t begin to “excuse” himself, because Ezug had no idea how to do it. Sometimes he turned his eyes away from her, as if feeling guilty… now it became obvious how much he craved her, he couldn’t hide it… but suddenly something would stop him, stopping the happiness at half step. The first thing she realized was – he had killed a man, killed people. War is war, but a man remains a man…
He lay in the coffin, gripped in a vice of silence which only Death can produce. He had lost his former attractiveness. She had felt that attraction the very first day he had appeared at the school, but didn’t want to believe it; she mocked it, but finally couldn’t resist. This power had died together with him, but it remained in her memories… she was alive till they were together…
… The teacher had pronounced the family name and then added the first name: Ezug. Then shut her mouth, like she had said something improper. She was a novice; she had wanted the class to like her and tried to please it in every way. First she had to understand what they thought, in order to follow it. It seemed the poor teacher didn’t have her own opinion at all. She particularly cringed before the most disobedient group. She looked around the class and her eyes fell on Astik- the turkey cock. The teacher pronounced “Ezug” almost in a whisper, as if she was afraid of getting burnt. But Esma heard it clearly. She repeated it to herself, as if trying out its taste. The first name seemed too hard for her. She didn’t even think about its meaning. Now it’s great; for young people in first love, a name hides more than it shows; for mature ones it’s the name which will be taken to the grave, like the stone which the novice is made to carry over the mountains, as a joke, when he goes up there for the first time…
Little by little she was taken away by her memories. She saw people, but their voices didn’t reach her. There were few mourners, now, as the family members had begun to say goodbye to the dead, bemoan for the last time…
…Astik used to get away with a lot of things. His father was expected to gain a high position: his chief was old, he would retire soon… in this city even teachers discussed these issues, were interested in them. They used to say about Astik’s father “he is one step away from..” and added the title of the position which he hoped to obtain. When the appointment was delayed, they called him “a step away” behind his back. But while there was a hope, nobody paid attention to this. Astik also pretended that he didn’t know anything, and never gave a hint - with pain or in jest - about anything concerning his father’s affairs or his nickname. Those who were supposed to know knew about it, those who were supposed to talk talked about it. It was considered that this would do no harm to anyone.
Astik was tall, but thin… “They lock me up when they have meals…” he used to say. He didn‘t play football, didn’t play basketball, didn’t play volleyball… he couldn’t pull himself up on the horizontal bar more than twice… “We come from noble people, so we leave basketball alone, and we didn’t even walk in the old days… a car today needs 280 horsepower to develop 70-80 km/h speed, but we used to reach that speed on one horse…” he would brag.
This had an effect on some “sycophants”. It wasn’t forbidden to talk about one’s noble origins any more, although it was still considered that it could do some harm to Astik’s father in his career advancement. But if there were such a risk, Astik would hardly utter a word about it. He knew that the people pulling his father to that high position had rejected all kinds of principles long ago, although in words they defended those principles with great enthusiasm.
Life worked for everybody but the dead. And Death was doing his business, disposing of Life’s time. He was killing today’s day by hours, minutes, moments, turning it into yesterday. It seemed that the border by which he surrounded himself was approaching her more and more closely, and nothing could stop it. Sometimes it drew the air out of her and it became hard for her to breathe. But so far, thank God, it had always let her go again. And he, in her womb, was letting her know about himself again, beginning to move. The time of burial was getting closer, she was afraid to look in Ezug’s direction. Her eyes went there, but having overcome herself she began to look above the people, towards the hills. There, on top of the highest of them, amongst leaves thinner than they were here in the lowland, the towers of a fortress glittered in gold in the rays of the afternoon sun… it made her feel warmer inside.
… Keen on gossiping, like some girls, Astik would suddenly become haughty, puffing like a turkey cock. “Once a month it happens to him,” the descendants of the “savers of Rome” used to say. Then Astik could take a swipe at his friends, even offend them. But most of all he would badger the two meek brothers. They were twins, so they walked around together all the time and sat at the same desk. They were usually silent, but if they began talking everybody paid attention to them. Some teachers directed their anger at them instead of the children who really annoyed them but could not be touched: then the twins would be seated separately. This would be the only time they opposed the teacher: they soon sat together again. It had always been a problem.
When “it” happened to Astik, he used to annoy these harmless boys. He would make fun of them, sitting silently, or tease them, or play…
… That day he had begun to throw balls of breadcrumbs at them. The bread from the school lunchroom was always under-baked, and could therefore be made into massive breadcrumb balls, which could even stick to someone if you hit the right place. But the turkey cock always missed. The brothers sat far away from Astik, near the wall, where the portrait of Brezhnev covered in medals was. Thick eyebrows hung over the eyes looking nowhere. Most of the bread balls Astik threw hit the portrait and remained there, stuck. The face and famous eyebrows were covered in bread balls, like birthmarks. Astik saw this, the whole class did, the teacher did, but nobody seemed to take any notice. But finally, when a bread ball hit Brezhnev’s eye, the teacher froze and the whole class fell silent in horror… the teacher was normally too honey-mouthed, with a permanent smile on her face. Some cheeky ones used to say that she was like under-salted kidney-beans with honey. If they had been that resourceful in their studies…
The bell didn’t ring, as this wretch had evidently gone too far. The case was to be subject to trial – she had to call for help. Her face, usually sweet, darkened, and she rushed out of the class as if in frenzy. In a few minutes she returned with the majority of the teachers, headed by the director. “Here!” – she uttered through thin, like knife blades, lips, pointing to Brezhnev’s portrait. Everyone was dumbfounded: Brezhnev’s portrait, which everyone treated like an icon, was now blotted with bread balls. Without uttering a word, they turned and walked out of the class fast, almost running. It meant that something exceptional had happened and they had no words for it.
… The times had changed, nobody was put in jail for some trifle anymore, as long as they didn’t try to overthrow the government or undermine the state. But this action still implied some risk for one’s career. The incident would become known to the Department of Public Education, then the Ministry of Education, then the City Committee of the Party and then the very top – the Regional Committee…
… When the head of that Committee appeared on TV – with veins swollen with strain and uncontrollable jaw – everybody, including the teacher, would make fun of him, asking why he couldn’t find enough strength in himself to retire… or when the first-rate boot-licker – the leader of Georgia – invited him and kept him on the tribune for a whole hour they would osculate, as others laughed to themselves… when he, deeply moved, like a dog howling at the sounds of music, had cried for a whole three hours, here, in Sukhum/i, at their school everybody had talked about “the old man out of his mind, who hasn't retired in time”…
But that sort of thing was something different… nobody would be called to account for uttering such mocking words. What had happened now affected the whole school… After all, the leader’s face had been desecrated…
First one by one, then in pairs, they were all called and questioned. Everybody hoped that the teacher, playing the role of an affectionate person, would tell them everything herself. But she kept her mouth shut. Some were kept back, some were released. Of those who had been released, some blushed, some had a blank look. Neither the former nor the latter could look into their friends’ eyes. It was obvious that they had been urged to name the offender, commit a betrayal. Nobody had known what to do. They had expected the turkey cock to confess. But he was sitting there, looking through some illustrated magazine, not paying attention to anybody.
They continued to call in boys and girls. They passed him by like they didn’t notice him. Eventually only two or three children remained, and he was still sitting there like nothing had happened, looking through the magazine the hundredth time. In the end, Ezug was called. He stood up and headed towards the turkey cock and not the door. Everybody was sitting with heads drooped, but they noticed it at once. The teacher remained standing at the door – she was either stuck there or was waiting to see how everything would end. Ezug approached the turkey cock and whispered something into his ear. The latter jumped up as if stung. But he crashed down onto the desk before he had managed to open his mouth…
The fortress on the hill was still shining. It seemed to Esma that the sun was different – it had slowed down. Usually it stood on top of the fortress for only a moment. Maybe the earth was commemorating the burial of its defender. Maybe this way it was saying goodbye to Ezug, like to some close relative, at the moment when the family members could mourn over him…
He, in her womb, began moving again, kicking the “door” with his feet… as if he wanted to say something to Ezug’s friends, sitting there in an ambush, waiting for the enemy tanks by both sides of the road, in azalea bushes. All of a sudden he became too animated, kicking the “door”. The time is coming; he obviously wants to come out of the “prison” where he’s been confined for nine months already, keeps kicking the “door”… He obviously wants to appear in the world which his father is about to leave… It will be hard for his mother to live alone.
Some writer had called this world “the second prison”, but she couldn’t remember who. She had always liked to read, but read in haste, “swallowing” books… “Don’t make this world a prison for my child,” she begged God…
Several times she heard people say that he had been lucky with the weather… she had heard this phrase before, but now it hit her heart, because it related to Ezug and her. Mainly it was men who would say it. Usually they said “we are lucky with the weather” on a day of plowing, sowing, harvesting… at the time of sowing, when the seed is dug into the earth, the seed becomes alive once it finds itself in the earth. But everything living has its own field, its womb…
The turkey cock didn’t recover for quite a long time. Maybe he couldn’t raise his head because of embarrassment, maybe he was faking it. Ezug signalled to everybody to leave. Everybody left the room. When they came back, he wasn’t there. The bell rang, a teacher who hadn’t been in the first delegation came in and then told them they were free for that day.
The most surprising thing was that neither Astik’s father, waiting for his high position, nor Astik himself, the teachers, the students, ever again spoke about what had happened. Brezhnev’s portrait was taken to the teacher’s common room. Afterwards the boys who didn’t belong to any of the groups, and whom she referred to as ducks, would retell ironically how Ezug had approached Astik, how he had jumped up and been crushed immediately under Ezug’s blow…
Surprisingly for her, Astik had come with everybody else to the funeral of Ezug’s grandmother. They could have refrained from going to that remote location, almost in the mountains, but it had been the initiative of the affectionate teacher who was curator of the class. Certainly the teacher didn’t care a damn for Ezug’s grandmother, but now at some meeting she could boast that she was cultivating friendship among the students.
Before entering the Apsaa's yard, they ascended a gentle slope on which white limestone protruded here and there. Esma looked around in surprise, and Astik noticed it. After that incident nobody had approached him except her. So he always kept close to her.
…”It’s the clan of the person whose grandmother has kicked off,” - Astik said. “There are so many of them that they there was not enough room for them all… When bored, they would go down to the sea via the roofs of their houses.” He told himself that a cat would be able to reach the seaside from the mountains by jumping from roof to roof.
“Why not?” Esma said suddenly, hurt by the fact that despite the grandmother's death he had again begun to speak about Ezug, and, furthermore, ironically. “Their relatives, friends, once lived in Gueness, Dioscuria, Sebastopolis, and visited them via the roofs, like stairs, then ascended back to their homes…” These names were amazing to him, and he looked at her, bewildered. Ezug was the only student who was interested in the history of Abkhazia, and studied it. The teacher had heard many times that he had discussed various historical issues with others, had debates… for others, the history of their native land meant as little as the history of the main city of Tierra del Fuego – Ushuaia. And the descendants of the “savers of Rome”, dreaming about careers, learned by rote the history of The Revolution but didn’t utter a word about the history of Abkhazia, placing it under taboo. They knew how many disputes, scandals, contradicting positions there were concerning it, and were afraid of saying, by chance, something which would interfere with their careers in the future. They were scared to fall between two stools.
“I wanted to say that there were many of them,” Astik said, without getting involved in the dispute, since he wasn’t strong in history, as if that was an excuse. “Then they all died here. When there weren’t enough places left for more graves, they buried the dead in existing graves and obviously, their bones are seen all around, don’t you see?”
This comment was fabricated so roughly, so nastily, that Esma was even further offended. Besides, she noticed that he was jealous of her attraction to Ezug.
“What has become of them? Are they crazy?” she said, still trying to show that she disdained Ezug, to try and prove to herself that such an attitude raised her to heights where poor Ezug couldn’t get her.
“Are they what?” every time he discovered a new word he would forget it at once. As they entered the yard he burst into laughter, and they nearly disgraced themselves.
… Although she was avoiding Ezug – she wanted to prove to herself that he didn’t mean anything to her - she knew a lot of things about him. She understood that among her friends he, more than anybody, was true to himself. All the others played some roles: some copied their best friends, or new trends amongst the youth, others tried to comply with the demands of their future high position, others went all out to attract attention…
Suddenly, through her memories, the sister-in-law’s voice reached her. She might not otherwise have heard it, but she had a good ear. She caught music which lacked harmony better than harmonious music. Lamentation expresses grief, but still it’s the song of sorrow, music… Who can’t sing, doesn’t have a good ear, cannot lament. But the sister-in-law seems to think that her howl could make even a dog whine. There are people who think that whatever they say is extremely important and valuable, and they are always right …
The sister-in-law’s voice was intolerable. Due to the lack of harmony her grief was subdued by mordancy: “Unhappy man, you are leaving this world without being understood… But know, that your sister understands you, let her die and follow you…”
Ezug was a good singer… he liked to sing… The father-in-law was still a leading singer at wedding parties… but who did she take after?
Her heart ached more and more. Smells surrounded her again and began to torture her. Everyone around her smelled of sweat. They were people worn out by hard housework, exhausted women. He, in her womb, calmed down. The surrounding world pressed down on Esma with all its space; it was difficult for her to breathe.
…She still didn’t know how it had really happened; only through the words of his friends in the initial group… they didn’t give her the details… they took care of her, but didn’t dare to tell her everything. She knew some things from stories told in passing by Ezug himself, when he had visited home from time to time. He hadn’t gone into details either. He had been part of a group of seven. They decided what to do for themselves; they had convinced the headquarters, which wasn’t fully formed yet, not to impede their activities, and everything had gone well so far. “Let the devil sleep, let the devil sleep”, she had whispered. First they had conducted reconnaissance, then decided what to do and only then conducted any operations. Whatever they had done , be it set an ambush for the enemy’s ammunition train, or seize a military vehicle, or try and get guns, good fortune had accompanied them. “Let the devil not hear, Let the devil not hear…” she used to say again and again to herself. However the neighbors immediately started getting information about their deeds. Ezug was specially mentioned for his deeds. It seemed to her that they were exaggerated a little. “Let the devil not hear, not hear…” Whenever Ezug came on a visit, neighbors would surround him and praise him for his bravery. She saw that he would immediately droop at hearing this praise. But he, being a polite person, couldn’t just stand up and walk away without listening to his seniors. In the past she hadn’t even thought that there were people who hated to be praised. She herself was always thrilled when somebody praised her for something. But Ezug, on the contrary, felt bad about it. It seemed to him that, by praising him, people were criticizing others… “Let the devil not hear, not hear…” she had whispered endlessly…
When they had collected enough weapons and the headquarters had also became stronger, their tactics changed: they started planning and carrying out bigger operations. Consequently, success was achieved much more frequently, but the number of casualties also increased… well, war is war, she thought, the bullet flies out after a shot, but the butt also painfully hits the shoulder…
Ezug had been upset when later his group was disbanded and dispersed to different battalions. In his opinion, such a mobile group shouldn’t have been touched… the people in the Headquarters thought otherwise… but war is war, she thought, and what is decided at the upper level must be executed at the lower level. “Let the devil not hear, Let the devil not hear…” Esma had kept on whispering. She had thought that now, after her spells, he and his friends were well protected, hidden from the devil’s eye, so let him burn in hell…
“A human is subject to weaknesses, and those who have the power don’t want to share them,” people used to say here. “They don’t want to share fame either…” Perhaps that’s why Ezug had always come at night and left at night, unnoticed, because he didn’t want to hear all this.
That day the enemy was busy transporting ammunition on numerous vehicles to the Gumista front. Ezug and his friends were experienced at dealing with such things; so they joined the planners of the counter operation. Their proposals were ignored - they were neither accepted nor rejected. But everything happened just as they had supposed it would. When they hit the front line, the back lines retreated to give way to the people in the middle and the front… closed in on all sides, the enemy fought desperately.
It was necessary to set the vehicles in the rear on fire so they would get stuck on the road and it would be easier to destroy those in the middle. Ezug and his friends took it upon themselves to do so. The vehicles were set on fire and the guards conveying the cargo jumped out of the burning and exploding vehicles, lay down at the roadside and opened fire. But soon their resistance was broken. Now it was time to retreat quickly, help the wounded, find the killed. Ezug was found nearby; his head was lifelessly resting on his still warm machinegun as if he had decided to take a nap.
It was time to stand up, but Esma felt stiff, as if she had grown into the boards on which she was sitting. The women left the group standing near the coffin and took their places again. Nobody cared about her. And Maritsa had also got lost somewhere. Now she couldn’t even see the man lying in the coffin through the crowd.
Esma looked towards the hill rising over the ridge. The pre-sunset shadow half covered it. The fortress still glittered in the sun's rays.
In their last year at school the turkey cock had received one more blow, more substantial than the first. The position his father had dreamt of day and night, and was absolutely sure already belonged to him, flew away. He remained “the acting,” as they said, and a younger, more promising person was appointed chief. His career ended this way. Astik’s life also changed, as now he wasn’t forgiven the things he used to be forgiven in the past; his group disintegrated, his “devoted friends”, seizing the moment, ran away from him. Esma felt really sorry for Astik… if he had had some faults, those who had been with him – teachers, friends - who had pleased him and agreed with him on everything, were no better… she didn’t abandon him, didn’t leave him, tried to support…
They finished school. Some of them, including the “savers of Rome”, went to Russia to get more education. Some of them were admitted to universities, the others, less successful, remained there. She, Astik, Ezug and some more “poultry” submitted documents to the University of Abkhazia. Unexpectedly for herself, she was admitted… “Such enormous expense and all in vain… and why did I try so hard?” her mother had allegedly said when she married Ezug. She wasn’t right about “trying hard” - the university was paid for by the earnings of her father, the long distance bus driver. Passengers intending to go far would buy tickets; but there were those who paid no fares – those who got on the bus on the way or were getting off nearby. So it was the money made from carrying the latter, standing passengers, which had been wasted…
When her lectures had begun Esma had seen Astik at the University. Astik hadn’t been around during the entrance examinations. Obviously his father is still influential, old connections work, she had decided.
Her mother was glad for Astik more than for her. “Son of the great…” she used to say, adding Astik’s father’s first name. She didn’t want to believe that this name didn’t now mean as much as it had earlier… and Esma didn’t abandon him either, although he bored her with his empty conversations and his arrogance. She pitied him. If she had abandoned him he would have been left all alone. Everybody who knew them didn’t take any notice of her, didn’t remember her in her own right, she was only thought about in connection with Astik, not otherwise. It was as if she didn’t exist at all… Esma kept on drifting with the flow, as if trapped in some terrible habit which she couldn’t overcome.
… She had heard that Ezug had had difficulties with admission, as preference was being given to those with work experience, but he hadn’t said anything about it, and it was impossible to make him utter a word when he didn’t want to. Afterwards she found out that commission members who were not from the University had helped him, especially due to his knowledge of history and love for this discipline…
Having entered the University, Astik became intolerable. In the past she had thought that he was too spoiled, and that when he grew older he would change for the better and the adverse features in his character would disappear like a bad dream. But when his behavior became even more insolent, and he began speaking arrogantly and offensively about everybody, Esma’s hear sank. They were like social outcasts; everybody who rejected Astik rejected her; everyone avoided them. He didn’t notice it, didn’t feel it, didn’t understand it, and she suffered. He took to using bad language, telling vulgar stories. “After all, we are living on the verge of the 21st century,” he would say, like a man who had experienced and seen a lot, worn by life. “We know that there exists something called sex…” Although he didn’t quite understand what “sex” meant, and pronounced it incorrectly, he considered people who didn’t understand the meaning of this word in our age to be old fashioned, real savages. But whenever he started to speak about it, she was embarrassed not only by his words, but his dirty thoughts.
She often felt offended, and at first he tried to make things up to her, keep himself within boundaries. But afterwards he lost all control, and when they were alone he began to allow excessive freedom to his hands… Once when his face came too near to hers and the rotten smell of his unclean teeth hit her in the nose, she couldn’t restrain herself and slapped his face. When Ezug had struck him he had pretended to faint, but now he felt brave enough to respond! He slapped her back with such strength that she couldn’t appear in public and couldn’t leave home for a whole week. But Astik didn’t stop. It turned out that it was thanks to his father that Esma's father had been employed as the head of a collective farm for years, and when he had been at risk of being prosecuted and spending the rest of his life behind bars Astik’s father had helped him out, taken him to the city and given him a job in the garage, where he had been given the best bus route, and now three or four times a week he would come home with pockets full of money… it meant she was his hostage, and he could do anything he wanted to her.
She began to avoid Astik. But he wouldn’t leave her alone, and waited for her everywhere. She could barely escape sometimes. Her mother began to behave strangely, didn’t like the fact that she was avoiding Astik. Esma didn’t want to return home, but she didn’t know where to go…
Several times, when she had been afraid to meet Astik, Ezug had driven her home. She still didn’t know whether he had done it through being aware of her troubles or whether it had happened accidentally…
At the early stages of their life people are told that everything is ahead of them. As if childhood doesn’t really count. If a person’s childhood was hungry, barefoot, if they had grown up in need, then they might recall this period… but a person might lose their childhood even if it had been happy. It had happened to her… she, having scrutinized her life, found that she had nobody who could protect her, stand by her side, and there was nobody she could respect. Her mother very much wanted her to marry Astik; she would have felt herself the happiest mother in the world… she didn’t think about whether it would make her daughter happy or not if the son of “the great” condescended to marry her daughter. Perhaps it wouldn’t even matter to her mother if Astik abducted Esma.
And Astik did try to abduct her. Once she, without suspecting anything, accepted an offer of a lift from some guys, casual acquaintances. Her family lived in the middle of nowhere. When the car turned in the wrong direction Esma pretended that she knew everything which was about to happen and asked them to let her say something, in their presence, to her friend Astik. She had understood at once that this had been arranged by him. It was what they really needed to hear, and they took her immediately to him, who was waiting, ready, in his car. She gave him a slap no softer than the one than Ezug had given him and knocked him out for a short while. Then she ran away with all her might. Even if they had followed her, they would never have managed to get her because she knew that district better than they. But nobody moved, perhaps because they feared the results…
That very day she found Ezug. She knew that his “magnet” held her strongly from the very first day… but pretended she didn’t care about it. It really seemed to her that victory over that “magnet”, her ability to ignore it, made her more important…
It was only now that she realized…
Exhausted, sweaty, she opened her mouth but tears were choking her, didn’t let her speak… “Me too…” he said, taking a deep breath. Perhaps he was implying that he, like her, couldn’t live without her. Wasn’t it obvious anyway? she thought now…
Suddenly the women standing near the coffin began wailing, so that the boundaries of the memories she had surrounded herself with disappeared; she rose. The sister-in-law’s voice was coming forth; it didn’t sound like it had before, when grief was always mixed with some sort of resentment, dissatisfaction – only inconsolable grief could be heard in it.
Esma looked around; her father-in-law was walking, barely lifting his feet from the ground, which seemed to have no wish to let him go. He was Estana – still strong, not old. As Ezug had told her, in the unimaginable depth of the centuries, at the dawn of beginning, our ancestors had given their Sun Deity this name. Those who had given Estana the name of this deity had known nothing about this. But the name had survived like his people, like his family, traces of which went back to the same depths, with its endless fights with predators craving for blood. They took their spirit, their life, in these battles… and here is one of them, flesh of their flesh, going to the coffin in which his only son lies with his chest shot through. He is walking as if during this short time he has to cover an endless distance, once covered by his ancestors… a good man, a caring farmer, with gifted hands, who knows for sure when the juices come alive in the trees in early spring, who never shoots any live creature but a hawk which has caught a chicken… but these predators never leave him alone and get him again and again…
Those ten or fifteen steps he has to make are unusually hard for him. Each step – one more year of his life. He walks with difficulty, as if overcoming incredible weight… face burnt in the sun, under gray hair, furrowed with wrinkles which look as if they are holding the face, and if they weaken, he could disgrace himself in the eyes of the attending people. Coming up to the coffin, he makes a gesture and stops the women about to perform the “akushara2” ritual. He wants them to not interfere, to leave him alone. He has the same amount of time as the others, it wouldn’t be proper to stay longer than he should over the dead. He looks into the face of his son, then looks him over from head to foot; passes his hand over his chest. When he approaches the place where the bullet hit him, he stops… then he turns and looks at his daughter-in-law. She turns numb. She remembers that once he looked at her with the eyes like these…
During his last visit Ezug had had a bath as soon as he came in. She knew that the smell of sweat, an unclean body, was intolerable for him; even at school he used to wash his things every day and come clean and neat every morning. “Neatnik”, she had teased him. Esma was so sensitive to smells that she could feel a mile away who smelled of what. Ezug only smelled of tidiness. Afterwards, when they became close to each other, she enjoyed this smell when he held her close. Nobody could catch that smell but her. To herself she called it the smell of wind, the smell of flight, the smell of sky. Well, they had a bird’s family name…
She had washed his dirty clothes, saturated with sweat, and his underwear. A warm breeze blew all night; by morning they had been dry. She had decided to take them from the line when she saw her father-in-law stood there, looking at his son’s underwear. He had turned and looked at her exactly as he was looking at her now. He had wanted to hide away the fear hitting his eyes like a sharp wind, but failed… obviously he had had a premonition. Leaving, Ezug embraced her and through the smell of the washed clothes she caught his own pleasant smell… But what his father had foreboded was imperceptible for her… a man going to war, in clean clothes, washed, brushed, gave birth to an awful presentiment in his father’s heart… in the heart of a man who had seen and experienced a lot during his life…
He turned around and returned to his place, now more calmly.
… It became difficult for her to breathe. Oh my God… She had to stand to the end, she could not collapse now… He, in the womb, began to move in a somewhat different way, not the usual kind… He set his feet against her belly… Then he stretched them to their full length… Oh my God, oh my God…
Her sides stiffened, they became like somebody else’s… in the same sudden way all the voices of the mourners became silent for her, and merged into one black spot… she opened her mouth to catch her breath but suddenly her pain was released in a cry… she heard her own scream. Then she was taken upstairs and put to bed. Sometimes she fainted, but somebody slapped her face, bringing her round. By the strength of the blows she could guess it was Maritsa. Her presence supported her. She could only hear her own scream, as if there wasn’t anybody around her. She tried to suppress it, recover her self-possession, but she failed. Sometimes, Maritsa’s voice was heard through her scream: “scream, scream, push, push!”
She didn’t know how much time had passed, but suddenly she felt better: her belly, which had been strained to the extent that it had seemed to her that her veins would burst, had loosened, and she could feel her body again. Suddenly the room was filled with women’s voices. Some new, unknown sound was heard amongst them: the sound of somebody crying. But it was the sound of life… again, as always, somebody was beginning life with noise…
She opened her eyes and began to look for who had made this sound and saw him, held above her. “Son!” she said in her heart. Maritsa’s small, strong hands were holding him. He wasn’t very red and wrinkled, as they always say, and he was not crying very eagerly. Her dried, burnt eyes suddenly filled with tears. They came in such a volume that it was impossible to stop them. Suddenly somebody kissed her cheek, wet with tears. It was her sister-in-law. Then somebody else kissed her too. This time it was her mother-in-law. Tears flew from underneath her closed eyes. Probably her tears are burning and salty, that’s why they leave such noticeable traces on the cheeks, Esma thought.
Some sort of pity for them moved in her heart, but she wasn’t surprised at this and didn’t try to suppress it.
Life was doing his business tirelessly and without stopping. Esma, as if whipped up by somebody’s order, glanced at her mother-in-law again: her eyes were half-closed again, and tears, flowing down her cheeks, dried halfway and remained there.
A shot from a submachine gun filled the ravine and cliffs nearby and echoed around. It was in honor of the newborn. His body gave a violent start. Thus the world was letting him know about itself… it didn’t promise ready freedom to him, but opened the door for him to fight for it…
A little later, before sunset, shots thundered on the Apsaa's family graveyard, but this time in the honor of the dead. They had shot when the baby had left his mother’s dark womb for the light; now he was going to the eternal womb – to the earth, and the final goodbye was said with shots, since he was a warrior.
When existence and non-existence, the transient and eternal, approach each other so closely, Life hides in fear of their might and breadth… then he makes a noise, sometimes too sharp, too loud to suppress his fear… like a teenager walking through the forest at night singing at the top of his voice to defy his fear…
After the baby was born nobody was permitted to mourn for the dead. Having committed him to the earth, the relatives and neighbors came back, trying not to mix grief with consolation, the warmth which filled their heart at the birth of the baby. First the deceased are commemorated, then the newborn is blessed, and the taste of wine will be special and will be remembered.
… The sleeping tired baby curled up by his mother’s side like a warm ball. Grief, the baby’s birth, the joy of motherhood – everything was happening in Esma now, but she couldn’t blame herself for the new happiness suddenly warming her deadened heart. She put her arm, heavy from exhaustion, on the warm ball by her side; his breath was heard.
… Life was doing his work…
From the collection
“Time to Live” (2003, Maikop, published by“Adygeya”)