At the crossroads stories from selected writers of the south caucasus



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The Guest

Until today I was the only habitant, and owner, of this house. But recently I began to get the feeling that someone else also resides in the house. Some days ago I was finally assured of this: in the morning I found my shaving razor, which I had left clean when I had used it as always, caked in soap, foam and coarse hair.

I walked through the rooms and encountered traces of the someone who has decided to occupy my house. I hadn’t noticed before, but now it seemed that someone had already been basing themselves in my house, free and easy, for a long time. Suddenly I remembered how I had once been woken at midnight by a strange noise, and how another time, when I had been busy with my books, cleaning the dust off them and carefully putting then back in their places, one of my doors had slammed. I had thought that it was the wind, the draught, as I couldn’t imagine someone would dare enter my house without asking. And how could he get in anyway, when only I had the keys?

However it had happened, he had entered the house and, it seems, not temporarily, but as someone exercising their rights as the new owner. Everything proved this. The guest is not unduly familiar, knowing that he shouldn’t try the patience of the owner, and is therefore quiet, gentle, doesn’t raise his voice, doesn’t interfere where he shouldn’t - in a word, he knows his place. But this impudent fellow has changed the location of the furniture, replaced the wallpaper and put a nasty bunch of rainbow-colored flowers there instead of my mild colored ones …

As if this is not enough, he leaves all the windows wide open and never closes the door behind him. Can you imagine! Thieves, or simple strangers, can enter the house. Recently I almost haven’t been out, but before I always locked the door and windows tightly, with keys.

Everything in the house was mine and required particularly careful handling.

But someone wants to ruin everything, and I don’t know how to turn him out of my house. Initially it seemed to me, judging by his behavior, that he knew he is not the owner, who would handle everything with care. Otherwise he wouldn't leave the door unlocked and shake cigarette ash everywhere – he would know that the house could burn down. No, it didn’t seem like he had decided to become the owner of the house, as he did everything as if it were child's play, without thinking.

Every morning he went somewhere, evidently to his work. And then peace reigned in the house and in my soul. As before!

But he always came back in the evening, and not alone but with friends. There was singing and dancing all night long… the poor house was shaking. Several times I thought about going up to them and scolding them, even turning them out. But I restrained myself, hoping the new occupant would go of his own accord. One day he would understand that people like him have nothing to do here, quietly pack his belongings and vanish.

But one day he overstepped the mark. Everything I had collected over the years he threw out and replaced with his things.

It was beyond my patience. The time had come to talk to him face to face and put an end to everything.

I listened carefully, so I could work out where he was. I heard a noise from the far end room. I rushed in, but before I got there he fled to the next room. He was singing something, pleased with himself.

I could not catch up with him, and as soon as I saw his self-confident back he disappeared, as if fading into the air.

In this long, gasping pursuit I accidentally hit it; it fell down – the chair.

I was frozen to the spot: the chair falling on the floor hadn’t made any noise. I picked it up with all my might and struck it against the floor. It fell to pieces pitifully and with unexpected fragility. Its broken legs flew apart - but not a single sound came from its throat.

In the house – in my house! - I was not heard.



The Message

The message stated that I had to wait for him at a specified place and time.

It was much earlier than the time stated, but as I couldn’t wait any more I had come earlier. Our meeting is very important for me, and so as soon as I heard about it I became agitated and hurried up.

Initially, when I realized what the message was driving at, I was staggered; I couldn’t believe for a long time that all these words referred to me. Why? What for? It’s true that I have always lived in anticipation of something similar - that the cold of these words would catch me in my wanderings sooner or later. But I didn’t think that the smashing conception of these words would be so unexpected and painful.

I decided to avoid the meeting, and selected other, not my usual, routes through the city. It seemed to me that despite the fact time would inevitably count down to the moment set for the meeting, maybe by avoiding the appointed place I'd avoid at least small portion of what was laid down for me.

Thus I roamed many roads, and lived in a fog for a long time …

But one day I realized: the message stated that I have to be on time, not be late. They are waiting for me. There is no sense in being stubborn; one has to go where his path leads him.

My burden became lighter, as if a stream had picked it up. The message didn’t seem so painful anymore, and I was curious about whether the task it had set for me could be executed.

One doubt filled me all the time: was it real, the message?.. Or had I invented it myself, was I deceiving myself?..

But little by little I believed that the message could not be unreal, and then I rushed to the meeting.

I heard his steps, which I will never confuse with others. Something important was awaiting me, and not something which had existed before, and I was ready to accept it.

He got nearer and nearer.

He came up to me.

The one whose message I had received stood in front of me - and it was – me...



Translated from Abkhazian by the author

Guram Odisharia

Guram Odisharia was born in 1951. He is the author of more than 20 collections of poems and stories and winner of several literature, theater and state prizes.

His books have been published in several languages.

Guram Odisharia lives in Tbilisi.

Nephew

As if the cork had popped out of a full wine bottle – such was the noise of the grenade-launcher. or rather a grenade which was assumed to have been fired from a grenade-launcher.

An invisible grenade, flowing through the apple trees, had struck the middle window of a two-story brick house.

It flashed … and an explosion was heard. A huge ball of fire rolled into the room, then exploded, changed its shape and dissipated, as if the space it was in was not enough. The noise of the explosion was repeated by its echo.

Fragments of broken glass crashed from the window as it happened. They glittered under the morning sun's rays, and the house was sprinkled with their straggly, glittering light.

At the same time a harrowing scream was heard, and a man with a rifle jumped from the corner window of the second floor of the house.

Almost simultaneously a burst of gunfire sounded. From time to time the glint of bullets was cast over the man and the house.

Valery thought that the evil strength of the bullets had stopped the fall of the man for a moment and the glass debris had stuck in the air. Time had frozen, the noise of the firing had faded away, all was quiet - but in a moment everything was back - the spiritless body of the man fell onto the ground, the glass lightning went off again.

The flames of red-black fire cast the silhouette of the other combatant onto the window. Someone shouted in the Abkhazian language, calling his friend. The fighter was trying to get closer to the window, but wounded by the fragments of the grenade he was not able to - he too was frozen on the spot. The third combatant didn’t show up – he had disappeared in the fire. In minutes the whole building was on fire – with inherent sizzles, the sky was covered with white clouds of smoke. The smoke formed strange shapes - oaks, firs, beeches - and faded deeply into the whitish sky.

The house was melting, as if an invisible hand was rubbing it out, it was almost as if nothing had been there before.

Burning buildings were fogged with white smoke – as were tanks and BMPs, black vehicles like Armored Personnel carriers. It was not easy to distinguish what was burning – buildings or military vehicles.

The buildings would burn for half an hour and then billow smoke. The scene was horrible, difficult to witness. It’s tough to say what is more painful to watch – the death of a man or a building.

The fire eventually stopped. A strange, unanticipated silence bloomed. Valery was lying on the grass, covering his head, a hundred and fifty steps away from that house. The frames of its greenhouse were full of glass. A two-year old lemon tree had been planted there this fall. The grass all around had still been green at the end of October.

Valery lay on his back, removed his shaking finger from the trigger and put the gun on the ground. The gun barrel, touching the dewy grass, emitted light steam.

Valery spread out his hand, the joints of his fingers aching. He looked at the sky. It was pleasant to lay on the soft grass, despite the fact it had now made his khaki uniform almost wet. He tried to recall whether he had been laying on the grass since his childhood or not. The sky was looking through the branches of trees entwined with already withered bunches of Isabella13.

The sea could not be seen, but he knew: if he raised his head the blue surface of the sea would be seen through the fence. He was in an Abkhazian village, undertaking his assigned task with others. They had been ordered to occupy the village close to the highway, from where the Abkhazians were firing at passing vehicles. The village was almost empty, as its population had found shelter in neighboring areas. But the battle line was right there – running through its yards, houses, valleys and cemeteries.

The smell of lemon was everywhere – a few minutes ago bullets had crushed the leaves of the lemon trees. He smelled the Isabella, the scent of vineyard and lemons… he didn’t want to get up…

The house was still billowing and shaking, the heat of the fire was reaching the lemon trees.

“Valery!..” called the Commander, “Where are you Valery? Are you alive?”

He couldn’t say a word.

“Valery!..”

“Yes!..”


He reluctantly stood up, picked his gun up and put it on his shoulder.

At that same moment he saw the sea. He didn’t usually think about death, but as soon as he saw the sea he got frightened. Fear was something new for him, a byproduct of war not felt before.

Before the war he had driven close to the sea whenever possible, watching it and falling deep in thought as he relaxed.

He would return home with different feelings, rehabilitated as if coming back from church. Now the sea and the smell of the lemon reminded him that death derived from him this time.

Three days ago Vaso, who he called Vasiko, had been killed. They had met in battle several weeks before and become friends. This is war – you can make friends in two days. Vasiko was thirty years old, like him. He was taller and broad-shouldered. He was killed during the very first attack on the village … they were lying in the bushes resting. Vasiko had turned his head, trying to say something, when suddenly a noise had been heard. Vasiko winced, twitched and then fell silent. A sniper's bullet had hit him.

“Vasiko, Vasiko …” For Valery it was difficult to believe.

Then he had heard another strange noise. Something cracked. A bullet had torn a half-dry branch from a bush. That bullet had been meant for him. Not thinking much, he took the heavy body of Vasiko and in three steps positioned himself under the plane tree. The snipers would not get him there - but for Vasiko this move made no sense anymore – he was staring up to the clouds. The bullet had entered his waist and run through his spine to the neck – it was found later that it had stuck in his head. Such a bullet was called by the soldiers a “roving bullet”.

Vasiko wore a black ribbon round his neck, bearing these words in golden letters: “Jesus Christ, Bless him!” These words were repeated several times: “Jesus Christ, Bless him!” When Valery kneeled to see whether he was breathing or not he thought he saw the golden letters flickering in the darkness of the sky, lifeless and joyless.

“Vasiko has been killed? Vasiko? Bastards…!” Someone was running towards him, screaming. Vasiko had come from Gagra, Valery from Gori. In Gagra, at the beginning of October, Vasiko's father, who had stayed in town, had been shot. He had only taken a gun after the death of his father to take his revenge. Someone had told him that his father’s head had been cut off.

That day the dead bodies were transported by a “Ural” (truck). They were covered with blankets taken from someone’s house. Only hair and boots could be seen poking out from beneath the white blankets. For Valery the color white was something different, signifying heaven.

Not taking the black ribbon off Vasiko’s head, he had put a blanket under his head as if protecting him from the wind. Saying goodbye, he had touched his shoulder and painfully felt his lifeless spirit. Mother and sister were waiting for Vasiko. Valery had jumped from the truck, looked at his friend once again and, seeing his new boots, couldn’t stand any more and burst into tears.

The “Ural" had roared its way down the bumpy road, which was shaking the bodies, wrapped in those white blankets, and the body of the truck. The winter journey of the three fellows was ending, and it sounded like a prayer was being sent to heaven by a secret mailman, a repetition of the golden letters on the black ribbon on the head of one of them, “Jesus Christ, Bless him” “Jesus Christ, Bless him” “Jesus Christ, Bless him”. It was as if the heart of the world was beating.

Valery went out of the lemon tree grove, bypassed the granary and without looking back at the house crossed the long yard. With tightly strapped boots, he stepped on the grass and thought he was walking on the sea. The air was full of smoke. He walked through the gate and looked at the sea again, following his further advanced comrades.

Shots were heard in the distance.

The soldiers walked in single file, turning to one side or the other as need arose.

They encountered many abandoned houses along the way.

Firing started again, close to one of the houses. The burst of fire was heard from the neighboring cornfield.

Valery lay down, and from time to time returned fire towards the cornfield. He saw no one, but still shot. It had to be this way – one shouldn’t give an opportunity to the enemy by raising one's head and aiming. The magic rhythm of the gunfire transferred to his body, pulsing through it, filling it with energy, not allowing it to grow sad or think. During this war he had come to understand that a rifle can change a person and help him overcome some complexes – with a rifle people known by their last names would try to smooth away psychological and physical defects. The rifle could change their walking manners and habits, encourage them, give them strength and flexibility. Those who were afraid, in particular, were encouraged to bear everything by their rifles.

Around 12 o’clock the firing from the cornfield stopped.

Valery and Givi lay three steps away from each other in a roadside ditch. Omar was positioned in the far distance.

“You think that’s it?” Givi asked. “Who knows … maybe it is over , or maybe …”

They lay there for half an hour. Their shoulders ached from the strain.

From further up, about two kilometers from there, shooting could still be heard, machine gun fire.

Only the three of them were there.

Omar and Givi were younger than Valery. Givi’s nickname was Kio, and everyone referred to him by that name. Few knew his real name.

– “Kio, they have left,” said Omar, “I will go out and you cover me!”

Omar dropped his cigarette stub, took his rifle and jumped up to cross the road.

Valery and Kio shot into the cornfield. Later Omar followed and covered them with fire. They repeated this maneuver several times, and in two minutes they had got to one of the houses.

The house was a standard two-story building with white doors and internal stairs, similar to the other houses. Next to the house was a kitchen. No one was in either the kitchen or the house. But they had a feeling that the owners had just left. First the soldiers entered the kitchen, then the house, through the dining room to which the other rooms were connected. The house was clean, everything was in its place.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry,” said Kio, putting his gun on the table and approaching the buffet table. “I haven’t eaten anything for two days.”

“Maybe we don’t need to stay here,” Valery said, stopping him by holding up his hand. “We are far behind the others, we have to catch them up…”

“Where can we go, I have only one round of ammunition?” asked Kio.

“Come on,” interrupted Omar, “we can stay. I also have only one round, and where can we find them, now they are far away? We did what we had to, now it is time out.”

Omar also put his gun on the table and opened the door of the refrigerator. It was empty.

“What are you looking in the refrigerator for? - no electricity!” laughed Kio.

But Kio did find some leftovers in the refrigerator.

“Edible” he said, tasting the food – he found hominy (grits), salt, garlic and dry apples, put the garlic on what he had found and started eating hungrily.

“Not bad, not much worse than a hamburger!”

“Wait, something more tasty might be found in the kitchen,” said Omar, as he went out.

This house, like any other, had its own distinctive smell. This can usually be smelled in the kitchen, possibly because that's where all the members of the family gather. Maybe each smell is different because each housewife cooks in her own way – their food has its own taste and aroma, and everything absorbs that aroma. Even the bed linen has its own distinctive smell in every house, and the furniture as well… that’s why houses are all similar to each other but also different.

The harmony found within a family can be demonstrated by the fact that all the family members eat the same food at the same time. As a rule, in village houses guests are welcomed with homemade wine, made by the householder to their own recipe with grapes from their own vineyard, all of which has been handed down from previous generations. Toasts are made with the wine, and these follow a particular sequence and are given significance by the intonation given to them in each home.

Recently Valery had noticed this smell more than ever, even in towns - this difference could be felt in the different apartments within multi-story buildings, and each house or even room even had its own, invisible spirit.

Valery had once visited houses where this secret spirit could not be felt at all, houses which didn’t have an individual character.

But now he was thirty years old. He now had an absolutely different capacity for perception than he had had at the age of twenty.

Valery didn't know where he should be. He went into the dining room, then the bedroom, where he looked out of the window. Deciding to turn to the door, he suddenly stopped in surprise. He took his gun, put his hand on the trigger and turned to the double bed. A two-year old boy in a pink shirt was there, staring at him with big black eyes.

Valery thought it was a dream. He had passed the bed two minutes ago and no one was there.

“Kio, come over here, a baby…” almost murmuring, he called his friend. Kio couldn’t hear him.

Valery called him louder.

“Where did he come from?” asked Kio as he entered the room, chewing something.

“What’s your name?” asked Valery. The boy was quiet.

Then he asked in Russian.

“Who are you? What’s your name?”

The boy stared at them in silence. He was not frightened, but quite calm.

“Here we go! Where did he come from?” Kio, waving his hands, went out of the bedroom.

“Omar, come here, look at this!”

“I've found something, I think its Chacha and nuts,” said Omar’s voice from the kitchen.

Suddenly it was as if the earth had widened, and a horrible rumble was heard. The glass from the windows scattered in the kitchen, and the dining room curtains flew in the air. The rays of the sun dimmed. The house was being shot at.

Plaster was falling from the walls.

Valery was lying on the floor.

Some bullets flew into the bedroom.

Kio screamed from the next room.

Valery took the boy in his hands and rushed to the safest corner. The boy was quiet, not insisting, as if he had already seen what was now going on.

Valery crawled to the kitchen.

They were shooting from the nut trees.

Laying on the floor and leaning on the radiator, Kio put his gun on the windowsill and, without aiming, started shooting in the direction of the nut trees.

“Bastards!” Kio was screaming. Valery was also shooting without aiming.

Omar’s voice was heard from the basement:

“Rifle! Throw my rifle to me!..”

Kio stopped shooting and knocked Omar’s gun off the table with the handle of his . The kitchen was fifteen steps from the house. Kio crawled to the wide open door, looked at the kitchen and then at Valery, as if calculating something, and threw the gun in the direction of the kitchen.

The gun hit the wall and fell one hand's reach distance from the door.

A burst of fire from the nut trees disintegrated the open door and threaded the walls of the kitchen. The wooden walls were thin, three fingers wide, and the bullets readily broke through. Omar lay on the concrete floor close to the door and tried to reach the gun. With the speed of lightning he pulled himself over to the threshold and held his gunbelt. Another burst of rifle fire scrambled him, his body shook several times, then he became soft and froze on the spot. Bullets had hit him in the head. Blood was trickling drop by drop from his wounds, counting down the last minutes of his life. It had happened in seconds.

“I have no bullets, what about you?!” called Kio, but he didn’t hear any answer.

The kitchen was burning. From time to time bullets sparkled.

The buffet table was also burning, as were the pillows on the sofa in the dining room. The rooms were full of smoke.

“We have to get out of here,” Valery called to Kio, “I think the upper floor is burning too!”

“Yes, but how? Where?”

Valery crawled into the bedroom, took some bullets from his pocket, started to load the chamber of his gun - and then heard something explode in the kitchen. It was a grenade.

The explosion reached the bedrooms. Debris flew around, hit the ceiling, then the walls, then the floor. Valery lay on his back and looked at the child. The baby was lying still as well – its eyes were wide open.

Suddenly there was silence everywhere.

“Kio!”


No one answered.

“Kio!”


Valery crawled back through the dust and smoke, through the broken dishes and furniture, but couldn’t find Kio straight away. Then a few minutes later he saw him. The grenade had turned his stomach inside out, he was lying in his own intestines. His mouth, forced open by pain, was bleeding, a slice of apple swimming in the blood.

Firing resumed from the nut trees.

There was a smell of gunpowder and blood in the room, and something horrible and strange. Valery felt the familiar breath of death.

Kio stopped shaking and grew quiet. No one could help him anymore.

“I’m sorry Kio,” Valery said, and then added, “sorry Givi…”

Valery crawled back into the bedroom and opened the broken window.

The shots from the nut trees were hitting the kitchen and dining room, but not the bedroom, as it was hard to reach from that location.

The burning increased.

There was no time for thinking.

Putting his rifle on his shoulder, Valery wanted to jump out of the window but suddenly turned back – he had almost forgotten about the boy.

The child, white as death, was still looking at him with wide-open eyes. For a moment he doubted himself: was all this a dream – the house, battle, the boy?

The sound of a shot pulled him out of his stupor. He rushed over to the baby, grabbed him. He doesn’t remember today how he jumped from the window. He crossed the vineyard – through the dry tomatoes, through the feijoa (pineapple guava), and found himself in a garden of tangerines.

Suddenly he heard another grenade explosion in the house.

He ran like a wild animal, hardly touching the ground. He was running in surprise at how he had got such strength. It was as if someone invisible was running next to him, charging him with energy.

He thought bullets were tinkling under his feet but soon realized that he was wrong.

The rifle he had put on his shoulder now turned out to be on his hip, though he didn’t feel any pain. He was still pressing the child to his chest, protecting him from tangerine branches by pulling them away with his left hand.

Valery jumped over a wire fence, crossed a small pond full of duckweed and entered the cornfield. Dry leaves scratched his face and hands, wooden poles obstructed him, but he stumbled over the corn and magically remained on his feet. Still running, he unbuttoned his shirt and put the baby inside.

The boy was quiet, pressing his cheek against Valery's chest. His woolen shirt was as tidy as he himself. He had the smell of a baby – the smell of milk, already forgotten…

How could a baby have been in that abandoned house, how? He couldn’t understand. Valery ran through the meadow and proceeded down the slope.

He left the village behind. No one was around. Still the noise of firing was heard, but from far away.

He ran, ran in his boots, but didn’t know where he was – where were his friends – where his enemies?…

He ran through one more meadow. For a moment he thought of running into the forest, but changed his mind.

He still ran...

Eventually he came to a pine grove. Hardly breathing, he was exhausted. He saw a ditch created by a landslip. He jumped into it, nestled himself between two pine trees, took the rifle from his shoulder, put it beside him and took the baby out of his shirt.

“Don’t be afraid, baby, don’t be afraid…” he said nervously. Then he kissed the baby on the forehead.

“Calm down!” He said this to both the baby and himself. Something had ended in his life and something different, new, had begun. The baby was quiet. Valery was scared that something had happened to him. He touched his jaws with shaking hands:

“Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid…”

The baby covered his eyes.

“Are you OK? Fine….”

He took his shirt off, laid it on the root of one of the pines and put the baby on it. No one could see them. The ditch was quite deep, as was the groove of the pine root.

The baby was wearing pink leggings, though still wrapped in the shirt – it was the end of October and the soil was not dry enough to do otherwise.

He was sweating, his heart was hardly beating.

Valery removed the water bottle from his belt, scrolled the top open and put it on the lips of the child. The boy was seeing the water bottle for the first time, and as he tasted the water he started greedily drinking it.

Then Valery started drinking the water.

The pine tree faced the sea.

It could be seen from there – blue – a nice, blue, warm sea…

The wind brought the sound of a train passing in the ar distance.

Valery couldn’t figure out where he was.

After a while the baby fell asleep. Valery got nervous again - why had he fallen asleep, maybe something had happened to him?

The baby was just sleeping. He was fine, he had just got tired and fallen asleep.

While the baby was asleep Valery remained alone, and lonely.

He checked his pocket – all five bullets were still there, and an “Astra” cigarette stub. Reloading the gun was not necessary, as if they were noticed five bullets wouldn’t be enough anyway, and the baby would die in the shooting. If they were noticed, nothing could be done… Valery was not afraid of death, he had overcome that feeling, he was worried about the baby…

His rifle was lying on the red, stony ground. He looked at it and was surprised: how had it got there? It's his favorite thing, isn’t it? How he could forget about it even for a single moment? – there was a time when he had cleaned it several times a day, cared for it, cherished it as a living being… some fellows named their rifles after their girlfriends: “Shorena”, “Maka”, “Nana”… “Shorena”, “Maka”, “Nana” would rumble, sounding not dissimilar to the real Shorena, Maka, Nana…

He had seen his first dead body in Sokhumi - head swollen, disfigured, with swollen eyes, as if he didn’t have any eyes at all. Later he witnessed the shooting of three prisoners in a garden. The youngest – about nineteen years old – was shot in the throat with a “Kalashnikov” bullet, which went through his body and out through his stomach. Before being shot, the fellow covered his face with his hands and for a moment looked like a boy playing “hide and seek”.

Before the war Valery had never fired a rifle, and only in this war had he seen a grenade launcher for the first time, or a “limonka” (grenade). Once the soldiers had fired from the grenade launcher at a dove on the sea. The dove and grenade both disappeared – only one miserable feather was seen in the column of surging water. The war hadn’t gained momentum then, and the soldiers couldn’t wait to test their weapons – as if looking forward to death. A few days later he saw two of them near the looted music school – trying to put a stolen piano in a minibus.

Later he had seen dead bodies with ears and noses cut off, torn apart by a “Grad” (rocket), forgotten, headless, turned to dust, and burnt, withered bodies inside incinerated BMPs and tanks. Their graves were always loaded with sandbags to make them seem heavy. He had seen a faceless country, a distorted world, but couldn’t understand any of what was happening – it would need time to heal the wounds. One thing he did know very well – no one would be happy after this war, not a single person. He had got used to some things, but these were things he couldn’t get used to.

Once he encountered one of his friends – a tortured soldier from the “White Eagle” regiment. Four people had tortured him by pouring petrol on his legs and setting fire to it, whilst pouring water on the rest of him to keep him alive. They had also injected him with drugs, to give him the strength to watch his own slow death. His legs had ended up like charred sticks. First the soldier asked him for cigarette and then begged him to shoot him. Valery left immediately. When he heard the sound of a shot, he understood that the guys with him had fulfilled the request. Since then he had not felt either the desire for revenge or pity. Night turned to day and day to night, thought to nonsense, dream to reality and reality to dream. He drank wine, but it didn’t help, drugs couldn’t facilitate his posture, nothing could help him – it was as if he had entered a different dimension. He cleaned his gun rarely…

The baby was still sleeping. A cold wind was blowing from the sea. The smell of resin and iodine was in the air. Maybe he was the only one who could smell the iodine, as the sea was far distant. As he closed his eyes memories came into his mind – fighting against him, fluttering as if stuck in a bird trap. Sometimes he remembered things he would never have remembered but for the war. It seemed there was another person living within him, but the real “him” was the one remembering everything. Once, in his childhood, while playing at “war fighters”, he had hidden behind an old bed which had been thrown outside, with a mattress and blanket on it. From a hole in the bed he had watched the “enemy”. “The enemy” couldn’t see him, and that had excited him. They ran back and forth, searching for him, but couldn’t find him. He had liked the game so much that he shot them with his wooden gun… he wanted to have that bed now!

He remembered Kio, then Omar; remembered Vasiko and the fatal “roving bullet”. The papers had reported that snipers were firing these “roving bullets”, a new Russian invention – and that the inventor was a woman. The last name of the woman was not mentioned, only her first name and patronymic - the last name, like a mole, was secret.

“Roving bullets” had been tested on pigs first, then on dead bodies which had not been claimed, and eventually it had been decided to commercially produce them.

So what is war? Kio, fouled in his own intestines, or the wrapped up boy, whose face he couldn’t forget? A nineteen year old boy being shot or a single feather emerging from the sea? Does all these make sense? Is it real or just a dream? Maybe this is our imagination. It looks like we will never understand the secret of all this and the sense and meaning of our lives and deaths. Maybe war is a celebration of the horrible values and evil conceptions of terrible people and we are all participants of this celebration? Or maybe the real celebration is death itself? That is why war kills us, and gives us relief.

He didn’t even know whether to accept war or not. The war had enslaved him at once. Enslaved and dominated everyone. No one could understand the reality of it, years would be needed…

He felt his fingers shaking again. He wanted to smoke, but couldn’t, though he had matches and the “Astra” cigarette end.

The sun was setting, and soon it didn’t shine anymore. He looked at his watch: it was about five o’clock.

He heard in the far distance Abkhazians calling to each other.

Down in the plantation a shadow flashed across.

If he wasn't found by nightfall he would go through the forest and get onto the highway and then go in the direction of Ochamchire, or to the right – to Gulripsh.

What about the baby? .. He couldn’t leave him there, night was approaching. He would take the baby with him. He had taken the baby from its home village, but a war was on. The baby had escaped death once. It was still strange: how had he got into that house? They will get out of the danger zone and he will try and find his parents – to contact the Abkhazians via radio.

At sunset the sea shone more and more. The sea was always a restless creature, while the mountains were as firm as huge monuments. It seemed as if the sea was coming closer, linking itself to Valery. Where are the white ships and colorful sails of sport yachts? War! There is no place for yachts with colorful sails in war.

He seemed to see the sea coming closer and closer, until it was just about to crash on top of him, and with him and the whole world underneath it crush everything like a bug.

It was changing shape and color, turning the past into the future.

No, he cannot survive, they will get him and shoot him. A premonition seized him, although what is meant to be is what will occur. He will not resist. He is tired. If he is killed he will calm down. He will ask not to be tortured – let him be shot instantly with a burst of fire! The end! He is a soldier, and a soldier and death are not compatible. There are merely losses: “The enemy forces lost about ten dead and wounded soldiers.” There are not really any such things as wounded soldiers however, as being wounded is counted as a loss as well. This is war. It speaks with its own language. Its own language and mathematics. There is no number “ten” in war – only about ten or over ten. The number “ten” is abstract, a mere conventional number, that’s why no one ever knows the number of lost soldiers. All deaths can be detected within the “peaceful population”. He is a soldier, he will not die, he will merely be a loss. Then poems will be written remembering his name. Maybe his name will be “restored” in songs.

He laughed.

The baby? He will be fine. He can hope no one will shoot from that distance. Hidden in the ditch he will not be seen. If they start firing, he will let them know that he wishes to surrender. He will take off his t-shirt, lean on the handle of his rifle and start waving. Maybe he has to prepare this “white flag” beforehand. But he doesn’t have to hurry. Maybe they will manage to escape during the night.

The baby's cheeks have turned pink - pink shirt, pink cheeks…He doesn’t look like a local, but as if he is from another world. The baby is the only thing he cares about, a link to everything which has already faded and will never come back. It seems he has been preparing for this past day all his life. Now it has come everyone has left him. Betrayed. The country, the government, the past, the present, the future, and the whole of life. Just a baby is left. He is stuck in a pine ditch, hiding from the rays of the setting sun. He will not leave him…

Tears come to his eyes – he is nervous. It's good that no one can see him.

But, as he recalled, later she had shown up - the one he called on in tense situations. The woman of his dreams, the only worry for him.

War and love had crashed into Valery together.

He had met Mariam two months before the war started. Her face was so fair that he suddenly pitied himself for having lived the rest of his life without her – why didn’t he meet her before, why had his destiny never given him the chance to meet her! They had predicted together where they could meet each other - at the embankment, the café or the beach ...

Mariam had blue eyes, light hair and a soft voice, and without her the world had no interest for Valery.

There are women who are an oasis, there area women who are like wings. Mariam was the latter. And now, in the war, she was more and more desired…

There are women in front of whom you become absolutely different. This is their gift from God. They look at you with their own and different eyes, approach you with their own and different manners, and you desire be more honorable, have good qualities, look better than you are in reality. If others like you, that woman will like you as well. They never forgive weaknesses, as they express the will of the majority.

Mariam was different. She seemed to be the sister of Christ: the all-forgiving smile, nice look – without any other aspect. She was exactly what she appeared to be – like the sea, the clouds, the pine…

Every time they had met, Valery was anxious, similar to the feeling he had when he was alone beside the sea.

Now she was far away, too far away…

During this war he had named every house, every hill, every piece of grass and every tree of the doomed world after Mariam, tagged it with his worried heart, marked it with a stub of chalk and remembered it. Later everything will return to its proper place, when the world has calmed down, and then they will go back to the way they had been when they met, before the war, and rehabilitate everything around them which had never been understood, but would now be as clear as the glance of the baby.

After a battle, alone with his beloved, he would call her and she would be there – whether he was smoking, opening fish preserves, sitting in the BMP or napping in a trench. The image of that woman was the focus of universal warmth, a divine gift, the key to the universe. Initially the woman had overcome the war, but gradually the war had flooded the space belonging to her – with blood, groans and moans, simultaneously polishing and improving her image, filling it with light. But the war always prevailed…

Memories of Mariam had helped him and were necessary in the pine ditch. Not the image of the woman herself, but everything related to her – the summer café, the seaside, the port, golden coffee in cups … memories of the aroma of coffee helped him now.

A lizard crept along the pine root, and stopped, like it was plastic.

“What, sister, did I disturb your rest?” he asked the lizard humorously.

In response the lizard winced and disappeared into the grass.

Valery put his head on the root – the withered cornfield running down to the plantation reminded him of the color of Mariam’s hair. And he felt the softness of her mild lips.

His heart was rapidly beating…

“Don’t move!”

He turned his head – near the pine a bearded man was standing, aiming a gun at him.

Suddenly he heard:

“Hands up, get out!”

A chunky young soldier standing behind him gave him a piercing look while frantically holding his rifle – it seemed he would just shoot. The fellow approached Valery slowly. His silhouette covered the sea, the plantation and the cornfield. Valery raised his hands and crept out of the ditch. Neither the bearded man nor the young fellow noticed the sleeping baby, they were focused on Valery. It was not really difficult to see the baby, wrapped in his protective colored shirt.

He was taken prisoner. The inalienable ritual of war was being conducted according to all the necessary rights and formalities. These minutes were punctuated by some words, gestures and stares. Between the muzzles of the guns Valery felt himself to be a hero he had seen in the movies: all this was happening to him in a given moment, but he felt he had already experienced it.

With hands raised he approached the bearded man.

“Stop!” the other shouted. Valery halted.

The fellow fumbled in his pockets and took out gun bullets, documents and Russian money – some crumpled bills. Arguing, he took off the rubber band from the rifle, which was used to stop bleeding, and tied Valery’s hands behind him with it.

All this time the bearded man hadn’t put down the muzzle of the rifle, it was still pointed at Valery.

“Don’t even think about running, we'll shoot you on the spot!” he said through his teeth.

“What difference does it make where we kill him?” grinned the other guy, glancing at Valery.

The rubber band was tight.

“There is a baby!” said Valery to the bearded man.

“What baby?… Where is the baby?”

Valery pointed at the ditch.

“Adgur!” the bearded man said, calling the young guy, who jumped into the ditch and took the baby wrapped in the shirt.

The baby woke up.

“Givi!” called the guy to the bearded man. He raised the baby in his hands and said something in the Abkhazian language.

“Daur?.. Daur?..” the bearded man couldn’t avert his glance from the baby – “How did he get here? What is he doing here?..”

The bearded man turned to Valery, pulled him towards him with both hands and looking him in the eye, repeated:

“How did Daur get here?!”

He was asking as if Valery had known the baby, and the name of the baby, for a long time. Valery was quiet. The bearded man came to his senses and let him go.

“He is my nephew,” he said quietly, “explain to me how he got here?..”

“Nephew? .. he was in the house I was in, on the second floor,” said Valery, looking towards the village.

“That is my brother’s house…I just came from there, it is burnt out” continued the bearded man.

“We survived, me and him!” Valery pointed at the baby.

“Did you see two old women there?”

“No, no one was there, neither in the house nor the kitchen. Two of my friends were killed there.”

“I know, but the women must have been there, they wouldn’t leave the baby.”

“No one was there...”

At that moment Adgur came up to them with the baby in one hand and his gun in the other, with Valery’s gun on his shoulder.

“Givi!” – he gave the baby to the bearded man and turned to Valery. “He has used all his bullets, the clip is empty … you bastard, you killed the old women, and burnt them to death in the house!”

Valery was quiet.

“Killed?!” roared Adgur, stabbing Valery first in the chest and then on the head.

Valery fell down.

When he opened his eyes, he saw the bearded man. He was holding the baby and looking at Valery. The young man was nearby.

“Adgur!” the bearded man called, saying something to him in the Abkhazian language. Then he turned to Valery: “Stand up, we’ll take care of it here...”

The bearded man kept watching Valery with both surprise and scrutiny. It is difficult to stand up with your hands tied behind your back. The bearded man helped him stand up.

His chest ached, he felt a pain in the head. His right side had swelled up and started bleeding. A thin trickle of blood ran from his ear to his chin and dropped on his chest.

“Let’s go,” Givi repeated. The three of them went up the hill.

Valery looked at the baby. He felt that the boy had recognized his uncle, but he was calm, his face didn’t show any happiness or any other feelings. He was looking at the sky, as if watching angels.

Valery looked at the sky too – it seemed surprisingly blue and clear to him.

The younger Abkhaz soldier was hardly twenty years old, and Givi was probably the same age as Valery.

Givi carried the baby in his hands.

“Kio’s name was Givi as well,” Valery thought.

They went up the hill and got out onto the highway. There they met some more soldiers, one a Cossack and two North Caucasians.

“Take him to the center of the village and show him what happened to his brothers” laughed one of them. It was the laughter of a winner.

Givi said something to Adgur in Abkhazian. He and Valery walked in front, Adgur several steps behind.

“Our men couldn’t hold the village” – he stroked the head of Valery - “the guys were dispersed, they lost the positions they had occupied yesterday. And the one I saw on the plantation was one of ours”.

Later two horsemen met them with guns on their shoulders. They were not wearing military uniforms, unlike Givi and Adgur.

“Aiairaa (victory)!” the Abkhazians said to each other, raising their right hands.

It was hard for Valery to walk, as he was losing balance, his head was splitting, and although the blood flow had stopped there was a black-red spot on his chest.

“Where are you taking him?! Where are you taking him?!” a fellow about eighteen years old said, jumping out of the bushes. Taking a machine-gun off his shoulder, he aimed it at Valery.

“Go back, both of you!” he shouted at Givi and Adgur. “I’ll kill you like dogs!”

Givi instantly covered Valery and shouted at the fellow in Abkhazian. He was still anxious.

“He is walking through my village while my brothers lie in the ground?!” He was screaming, “He killed my brothers, he did it!...”

Adgur went up to the infuriated fellow. He explained something to him, pointing at the baby. But he didn’t want to understand anything.

“Brothers, my brothers...” he kept repeating.

Adgur twisted the man's hands and took the rifle off him. This frustrated him all the more, and he fell down on the road and started screaming, banging his fists on the ground.

“Brothers, my brothers...”

Givi signaled to Valery to hurry up. When they got to the bend in the road Valery noticed that Adgur had returned the machine gun to the fellow. The guy threw the machine gun on the ground and sat there, continuing to sob. Suddenly he jumped up and shouted at Valery.

“Wait, stop, you know what I’ll tell you? I … your girls … three of them, no five, no seven! Ten girls! I had them …. this way… this way…,” he was screaming like a beast, jiggling back and forth.

Adgur caught them up, didn’t even look at Valery, but said something, through his teeth.

A truck caught them up along the way. Two women were sitting next to the driver, and five armed men were on the truck's body.

Givi gave the baby to the women, and just managed to put Valery on the body of the truck.

“Where did you find him?” a tall soldier with a green ribbon round his head asked Givi, laughing, as he looked at Valery.

“Down in the pine forest – and…

We're taking him home.”

The soldier continued laughing. His face was like a safe broken with a hammer.

“So, this is your land, right?..” shouted a man sitting on a box of tangerines, with cap on his head, twisting his gun in front of Valery's nose. “I’ll stop the vehicle now and feed you with this soil. I’ll feed you to death, you son of a bitch!”

The truck drove through the center of the village.

The dead bodies of three guards had been lain in front of the school building. Near a lime tree several soldiers were standing.

“Do you recognize them?” asked the fellow with the green ribbon, “your friends?”

Valery couldn’t see the faces of the bodies. The vehicle proceeded fast, as the road was asphalted. But he had no doubt that the dead bodies were of soldiers from his battalion...

In a few minutes the school building faded away, along with the soldiers, the limes and the dead bodies…

He couldn’t feel his swollen hands.

On the outskirts of the village he noticed a burnt-out BMP. Then a forest, small hills and dips.

In the forest they noticed the ruined fortress near the road, where a boy shepherd was driving goats.

Evening was coming.

The truck, grating, entered another village. Soon Adgur banged his fist on the roof of the cab. The truck unexpectedly stopped. Givi and Adgur jumped down from the body of the truck, got Valery down and took away the baby, which had been sitting with the women. Givi took the baby in his hands again. The tall soldier, still grinning, pushed Valery as he got down from the truck. The engine started again, the truck disappeared round the turn.

Valery was standing in front of a blue metal gate. In the yard behind it a two storey brick house could be seen. Givi opened the gate and let Valery go in first.

Valery slowed down as he saw, near the door of the outhouse next to the house, a grey-bearded old man. Several women and a baby came out of the house. Everyone observed with interest the man with tied hands. Everyone was quiet. Though barely heard, the well chain rang – the bucket, full of water, stuck in the air. The boy near the well was also staring at the newcomers. It seemed to Valery that even the horse standing near the tree was listening carefully and watching him… he was the only alien in the yard...

Givi went first, and the women saw the baby pressed to his chest. They started screaming, someone was crying, Valery was shaking. The old man mechanically took his hat off his head and with a fast pace unusual for his age went up to the boy.

“Come with me!” said Adgur to Valery, and he led him into the house. “Sit here!”

Valery sat on the edge of the bed. Givi showed up.

“Stay in here, we’ll talk later” he told Valery. “Do not think about escaping, you won’t be able to get far.”

His words were not threatening, it seemed he was giving advice.

Valery stayed there alone in a bedroom with white curtains and blue wallpaper. An ancient cupboard and double bed were also in the room, beside the sofa. On the wall was a brown framed, scaled-up photo of a man in a kalpak and a woman with a parting in the middle. They seemed like the ancestors of this family.

It was noisy outside. One could hear a cry, a laugh, the enthusiastic voices of children and muffled voices of men. The number of voices was increasing, it seemed the neighbors were gathering, and frequently repeating the same word, one now familiar to Valery – “Daur.”

Slowly the voices shifted to the kitchen, and soon everything was quiet. The men stayed in the yard, their voices could still be heard. Valery recognized one of them - Givi. They were working something out.

Valery felt a pain in his wrist, an unbearable pain, and he was sitting there exhausted with all that had happened. He was being kept waiting… but what he was waiting for, he had no idea.

About half an hour later an old man entered the room, the one Valery had noticed in the yard. He brought a lamp, pulled the curtains back and put the lamp on the windowsill. He stared at Valery. Then he took the knife from his leather belt and stepped towards Valery. The sharp knife shone under the light of the lamp.

Valery’s heart chilled, his body tautened. “What is he going to do?” The old man came up, closer behind him. Valery turned to him.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, grabbing his tied hands. He carefully cut the rubber strip in several places, glaring at Valery's swollen wrist. Then he picked up the bits of cut rubber that had dropped on the sofa and floor, put them on the windowsill, threw the knife on the sofa and sat on the chair.

Valery sighed in relief. He put his hands on his knees. They hurt, like his shoulders and elbows, but especially his hands and wrist. His hands were swollen, covered with small red dots. Their skin looked like the scales of a trout. It felt like he was wearing leather gloves.

“Many others have entered my house, but this is the first time a man with tied hands has done so,” said the old man. “They are young, excuse them, they do not understand a lot, the time is difficult, the war - no one would understand them better than you.” The old man spoke clearly and calmly.

“You are my guest, and as you have stepped over the threshold of my house, not a single hair will fall from you head. But be honest, why did you take the baby? You got frightened and thought he would be good protection for you, is that right?”

The unusual calmness of the old man transferred to Valery. He raised his head, looked into the eyes of the old man and said quietly:

“I’ve got so tired now that I don’t care. The baby…if I hadn’t taken him out he would have burned to death in the house. I couldn’t leave him on the road or in the field...”

It was quiet in the room.

It was evident on the face of the old man that he knew all this, but was just waiting for Valery’s confirmation.

The air was flowing in from the windows – the lamp was burning, and the huge silhouettes of Valery and the old man were weaved on the wall.

The knife on the sofa was similarly glittering.

After a while, the old man crept over to Valery and started massaging his hands.

“During WWII I served in a medical unit,” said the old man, “wait, I’ll give you such a good massage… “

“No worries, I’ll do it myself…”

“Relax and calm down,” said the old man, “you are the same age as Givi and you are therefore as my son, so you have to listen to me.”

The hands of the old man were as firm as wood, coarse, work-worn, wrinkled but still strong, something like a tree.

The women brought a bucket of warm water, an enamel wash-basin, cotton wool and a jar of vodka. The old man asked them to put all these things near the sofa. When they were alone again he helped him take off his shirt, and with wet cotton wool he cleaned the clotted blood and then cleaned the wound with vodka.

“I’m not worse than a doctor, if someone is sick in the village everyone comes to me for treatment – you saved my grandson today, the successor of my family, you are a special guest for me. Dura’s mother was Georgian, she passed away giving birth to the baby, she lived near here, in a neighboring village. God bless her soul! First she made our family happy, but then she brought moaning. Dura’s father – my youngest son – is wounded, barely alive, he is in Tkvarcheli now recovering, my wife is praying day and night for his life, that he will recover, she lights candles. Daur lives in my sisters' house. When you entered the village people ran away. My sisters, who are old women, thought that the neighbors had brought Daur to my house, and the neighbors thought that the baby was with the old women, but Daur was left at home alone. The rest of the story you know…everything can happen in war…the old women came here this morning asking about Daur… not what had happened to me…old people are afraid of death, everyone is, you are afraid too. You say you don’t care. No, my kind man, life is given to us once, good or bad... should this war have started? You do what you are required to do, you are a soldier, it's not Givi’s fault, or Adgun’s either. It's not the fault of nations, each nation is a victim of war. Remember, the time will come for an agreement, and then you will recall my words – a victim has the right to an excuse. See … now you don’t even need to bind your wound.”

The old man went out and in a few minutes came back with a T-shirt and shirt.

“Put them on, they're Givi’s clothes...”

The old man talked to him for some more minutes. Later Givi opened the door.

“Everything is ready,” he said.

Near the door of the kitchen, lying in the bloody basin, was the head of a calf.

When the old man and Valery approached the kitchen, lit with lamps and candles, Valery saw several men. The old man introduced them as close relatives.

Seven people were sitting around the long table. Valery couldn’t see Adgur among them. The old man led the guest to the head of the table and went towards the opposite end himself.

The plates of grits and beef served to the guests were fragrant; then they poured the wine – Isabella was shining from the two gram cut glass goblets.

The old man cut the meat with a horn handled knife, greased with Adjika, and said:

“Let’s select the Tamada (toastmaster).”

“We won’t be able to find anyone better than you, Taraskhan, on such a day.”

“OK …the day is significant, the time is different…”

With the first toast they honored God; they drank standing; the second toast was to the nation.

Then they toasted the guest, wishing Valery health and long life.

Valery was slowly getting tipsy. He remembered Mariam; the image from afar was approaching, but kept disappearing – fading away… the wine, as a feeling, captured and controlled him.

Givi, sitting next to him, was translating the toasts from the Abkhazian language, from time to time putting cheese and meat on his plate and pouring him wine. He explained to him the difference between mountain and lowland Isabella. He told him about the various methods used to test the quality of the wine: “Our family is proud of its wine in this region”.

When they stood up, they went outside. Valery looked at the sky. It was paved with shining stars. Somewhere down towards the sea tracer bullets were threading the horizon. The distance muffled the noise of the actual firing.

Givi returned to the bedroom with Valery.

In a few minutes both of them were asleep as ones dead. At dawn Givi woke Valery up. He had to shake him for a long time before he woke up. Valery sat on the bed, and needed several minutes before he eventually realized where he was.

“Get up, time to go” repeated Givi.

“Where? What’s going on?”

“Let’s go, you will understand,” he said, taking the rifle. He gave Valery a T-shirt and camouflage shirt which had been washed and dried at the stove by the women during the night.

They went outside; an old “Willys” rattled at the gate.

“God bless you!” the old man said, meeting them at the gate, “You must hurry, not everybody likes your being here, they are already looking for you ...”

Adgur was driving. Valery sat next to him. Givi sat in the back. Adgur greeted Valery as an old friend.

They drove along a twisted road.

“Where are they taking me?” thought Valery, “maybe they want to swap me with somebody, or…” as soon as he remembered the feast, the kitchen lit with candles, he felt doubt leave him. But in a while he started to worry again. The war had taught him not to trust anyone.

They drove for an hour and a half. The sky turned pink.

On the way they passed two guard posts. Adgur greeted the soldiers at the posts, shaking their hands. They instantly recognized him.

“Aiaira!”

“Aiaira!” they replied.

Later the Willys stopped somewhere where there were no people at all. Adgur stopped the engine and switched off the lights and all three got out of the vehicle.

“Valery,” Givi said, “Our men are not here, go along the river - that will lead you to the gorge, the gorge leads to the forest – keeping going down and you will get to the river. Your soldiers are on the other side of the river. There is nothing to fear, you are safe, but still, be careful.”

Givi was smiling a lazy but gentle smile. People going to mow hay, gather grapes, hoe corn or fight smile in that way, no matter what they do, as they do everything honestly and fairly.

Valery looked at Givi and tried to smile too. He hadn’t seen such an openhearted smile for a long time.

The sun was rising behind the Caucasus mountains, which were behind Givi. The mountains were set against a blue sky and it was difficult to differentiate the sky and the mountains. Only their icy peaks could be seen distinctly, shining under the sun in the east with primeval light.

“Adgur!” Givi pointed Adgur towards the vehicle.

Adgur opened the back door of the “Willys” and took two guns out.

“My family asked me to express our gratitude to you for saving the life of my nephew. We are not authorized to disarm such a man as you are. Here is your gun, but let’s change guns, I’ll give you mine and you give me yours. Let’s say goodbye to each other as brothers, although if we meet tomorrow in battle we won’t be able to do anything else, we’ll fight. Today an honorable enemy is very rare!”

Valery took the gun and looked at it in embarrassment.

“It’s in good condition,” Givi laughed, “it will not let you down.”

“Sorry that I …” Adgur started, “yesterday Uncle Taraskhan didn’t let me come closer to the table, because…I didn’t know the situation, I thought …”

“I, I, …...” Valery had become tongue-tied. “This is my … I cannot even speak… as if I have forgotten all words… everything will end and we’ll meet again and we’ll talk about everything then …”

“We’ll talk …” Adgur said.

They stood for a few minutes, then shook hands.

“Good-bye!..”

“Good-bye!..”

“Good-bye!..”

Valery turned sharply and ran down towards the forest, almost as if racing the river.

Suddenly he heard a noise like a sizzle, as if someone had pulled back the lock of a rifle. Valery turned his head. On the hill near the “Willys” two people were standing and shaking hands. Valery smiled at them – no, they would not shoot him in the back, no way. Maybe he had stepped on dry leaves.

Along the bushy field the road to the forest lay. The noise of a vehicle was heard. When he turned again, there were no Givi, Adgur or vehicle. The hill was far in the distance.

Valery stopped, took the gun off his shoulder and took the clip out. It was full.

For a moment he stood, frozen to the spot, then he sat near the river. He dropped the gun close by and put his head down. He was crying, and didn’t want to stop. He was crying like a man, not hiding, trembling. He was alone. The only person in the whole world. Only the river was there, whispering nearby, while the forest was roaring. It seemed to him that such loneliness would last his whole life. Whoever was next to him, he would always be alone. He sat in the grass and cried like a baby, tired of the war and the stupidity of people, of blood and cruelty, an exhausted, worn out traveler.

The world was devastated in his heart.

In a while he stood up, wiped his tears with his sleeve and went on. He didn’t walk, he flew. Suddenly he stopped, and his face started shining - for a moment it seemed to him that he had stepped into a country populated with brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, nephews and nieces … and unfamiliar friends. As if he had entered the country of one big family, a huge family in a huge world where one person does not kill another person and the power of love reigns.

But instantly his face turned to darkness – he remembered the rifle, went back, took it, put it on his shoulder and went on.



1996

First published in the “Chance” newspaper (Tbilisi)

From the collection

Time to Live”


Translated from Georgian by Inessa Mikadze
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