At the crossroads stories from selected writers of the south caucasus

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Shudder of the Earth

We were allowed to go into the church bearing guns. But we were given free candles. We laid down our weapons at the door and lit the candles for the salvation of our souls.

And then it started… one after another we took their villages. The big city surrendered without any resistance. Villages, with different characters, their own scents, were now behind our lines. We hurriedly jumped over the fallen telegraph poles, which had fallen with  the portraits of political leaders, trying not to get entangled in the loops of wire. Confidence had come: Heaven itself was helping us win. The generals banned journalists from following the troops. They were put into vehicles and sent back. Prisoners and the wounded were returned to the rear.

At night we crawled into sleeping bags. Regardless of whether it was dry or rainy, either cold or stuffiness tormented us. We woke up before dawn, and having let the tanks go forward, followed them, feeling the shudder of the land beneath our feet and the heavy rattle of iron caterpillar tracks in our ears.

It seemed it would not be difficult to capture the village which lay in front of us this time. But the commander was afraid of losing any guys. By evening, we could hardly stand. And therefore, not paying attention to the snakes bending their striped backs at us, hissing, whose forked tongues erupted through the grass as flares of red and dangerous fire, we fell right where we stood, among the ripe, round pumpkins. At dawn, the commanders, having checked the maps, ordered us to attack. We moved into the village. We moved in as a chain and they fired at us with direct fire, and the ambulance vehicles followed us. The torn land shuddered beneath our feet.

Somebody called me. I turned around. There was nobody behind me. A girl in a military uniform, sitting in the “Shilka”, fired at our tanks from point blank range. She had not noticed that she was alone, and, now realizing this, she immediately surrendered fatalistically. A diary was pulled out of her pocket during a search; there were lines about the sun, about cruel dog generals, those who try to make a profit out of the soldiers’ daily bread, and numerous bits of hardware she had shot down with her own hand.

The girl unbuttoned a cuff of her motley camouflage coat, rolled up her sleeve and held out her arm to us. The puncture mark of a syringe flushed in her vein.

“You just enter, then… I am not afraid.” We stopped inharmoniously. Someone took a bite of a ringing green apple. It seemed as if it just exploded in his mouth. I knew immediately what the girl wanted. I had the same still unhealed scar on my arm too, it allowed us to see wonderful, colorful dreams. It was not a mystery, what she was asking of us, and we also all understood why the girl had such unseeing, glassy eyes. We squatted down, trying to ignore the sharp pain in our swollen feet and spines. We lit up. A guy from another unit came up. He looked at us, grunted, and said roughly:

” Well, what are you sitting here for? … Take her away and stuff all three holes at once. Did you see her veins? The likes of her are very fond of such things.”

The girl still held out her arm. I looked at the clear blue vein; I heard the sound of the apple bursting in the mouth. And again, someone said my name. This time too, no one was there. Then sorrow suddenly fell heavily upon me, as I would not, could no longer, avoid hearing the voice of a guy from another unit. Badly wounded Kamo lay under a bush beside us; he vomited and groaned, and I hastened to help.

After some time the land under our feet shuddered again. The steppe was yellow, endless; we did not see each other and screamed, not knowing who was where. Raising light, stifling dust to the sky, the tanks moved forward and entered the valley of the Aras. Oh, Lord, how much had we all dreamed about this! About this?..

Water hissed, steaming around the tanks. A huge sun burned mercilessly. Once again I heard a voice behind me. But now I knew there was nobody there. I just had to shelter in the shade. But there was no shadow in the endless steppe. Gray burnt mounds of tanks seemed to be seething in the river. Among the rumble, grinding and dust numerous voices and radios were looking for someone called Serob and could not find him. It seemed as if the air howled. We did not hear one another, and we all smoked and smoked. Our noses and throats were filled with hot dust and nicotine. The silent village lurked in the distance. Is this what we have dreamed of for so long?.. The commanders ordered through the radio set:

“You have to take the village. Our base will be there.”

The earth shuddered heavily. We moved forward, trying not to fall into the traps of entangled wires. The village seemed to be extinct.

Our commander said:

”We have to check the houses. All of them. Maybe someone is left here.” At the first house the door was locked, but as soon as it was opened an infuriated wolf tried to seize us by the throat. Shots rang out, we protected ourselves.

In the evening the unit was ordered to gather in the center of the village. People were coming in from different sides. Some arrived on donkeys, some had managed to find a horse and were bringing trophies – grapes, figs, apples, pomegranates. We made our voices echo loudly, so as not to be lost. All our faces were dark, exhausted. Dust had settled heavily on eyelashes and beards. This was particularly noticeable when we gathered together. Swilling and spitting out the pulp crunching in our teeth, we almost simultaneously noticed that our mess tins were empty. And also simultaneously we felt danger, because none of us could see a spring in the village.

We were thirsty for a long time. And the thirst became stronger. We walked around the village – there was no water. On the outskirts of the village we found a few faded, warm watermelons. They were tasteless, almost dry. And they could not slake our thirst. Dismal and silent, we settled ourselves for the night in a house with a creaking green balcony. Immediately swarms of mosquitoes jumped on us happily. The boys continued to look for water, but to no avail. Everyone thought only about drinking. And they grumbled, not concealing their dissatisfaction.

An unknown guy came over and asked:

“Guys, who saw Serob today? They say he was with your company this morning.” None of us knew any Serob. And we wanted this stranger to go away as quickly as possible. We could not offer any help. We offered him a pear though, ripe and transparent. He bit into it, the juice mingling with the dust on his chapped lips. The guy was in no hurry to leave, but blamed himself:

”It’s because I brought him into the unit. He came with me when we joined up. And his wife is going to give birth in two months. Where do I look now?” His eyes were closing, so tired was he. “Okay, I’ll go, and if you hear anything about him, let me know…”  

Finally, he was gone! But sleep did not come. Gegham appeared immediately. He was torn with impatience, dying to boast about how much progress he had made.

“Why did we not realize straight away: there is no point in looking for a spring of water in the steppe! We should have known that there must be wells. And I have found one!”

Our captain immediately announced that he was prohibiting us from drinking water from the well. Because, most likely, the well was poisoned. He asked us to suffer a little, and promised to contact logistics and ask them to deliver some water to us quickly. The radio operator switched on the mobile radio, but on the air they were still stubbornly searching for Serob. We shouted at him to turn his equipment off and send it to Hell.

He quickly shut it down, promising to call at night, when the airwaves were free. But at night too the same unfamiliar voice, through all the crashing and noise, still stubbornly called for Serob. Once again, I heard someone say my name, turned round and saw no one. We were so thirsty it was impossible to sleep anyway. And then the commander ordered us to boil the well water. He poured the first cup for himself. While he drank, we sat around him, feeling a strange warm tenderness towards him. And we also feared that the water really was poisoned.

A week passed. Mosquitoes had left sore strips, scratched until they bled, and watery lumps on our bodies. Blood vessels were bursting in our inflamed eyes. Nuisance flies and abiding toothache would not allow soldiers returning from their duty to sleep. Turbid acidic water and squeaking sand in the mouth irritated us.

All this, and the dull infinite steppe, caused persistent sleeplessness.

Several days passed, and our village significantly increased in size: lots of cats and dogs arrived. They included wounded, sick and healthy, some local and some who had apparently come a long way. They mewed piteously and whined from starvation, ready to bite each other’s throats for a small bone. They hurriedly ate everything we gave them and shamelessly stole everything they could then pull out of bags, pans and pots. But at the same time they did not become in any way kinder to us. As soon as darkness fell, they sat on the porch or at the gate of the house, licking their wounds and frantically barking. Some dogs were ready to howl all night long, raising their faces to the sky.

We, of course, were furious. It was not only about our nerves. Gone was that natural quiet of the night, in which we could identify the most cautious movements of the enemy and the most cunning maneuvers of scouts.

Throwing ourselves a signal flare to help our soldiers, in the dark, we did not always understand what was happening. Who was actually next to us: a cautious animal, a treacherous enemy, or just our friends? At nightfall the window shutters and doors of abandoned houses screeched and slammed in the wind. We knew that no one lived in them, but any loud sound made us startle. Each knock pierced us – it seemed that the night broke like glass underfoot, and we had to go barefoot on that glass. And the pomegranate trees greatly annoyed us: we were frightened when a pomegranate, full of juice, burst open in the darkness.

Of course, we understood we could not kill dogs. But what could we do, when huge dogs, left behind in empty homes, frantically rushed towards our throats? Later, to stop the stench sprawling around the village, we had to douse their carrion with diesel fuel from our cars, which was in short supply.

About twenty days passed. At dawn, sitting on a wall, we meticulously examined the collars of our shirts, killing hateful lice. Then he came again, the guy looking for Serob. He asked about him, sighed, and repeated:

“His wife will give birth a couple of months from now. No one has seen him. And he enlisted with me!..”

We tightened up – waiting to see how soon he would go away. But we poured some soup for him. He ate this hurriedly, dipping a piece of bread in it. It was obvious how tired he was. His eyes were gummed up, and his lips, chapped and dry, were bleeding.

“Well, I’ll go. If you hear of him – let me know?”

… It was a strange day. Donkeys, mules, old horses, probably left behind during the retreat, appeared in the street out of nowhere. They trudged along the deserted roads, shabby, with broken hooves, crazed with thirst. Greedily munching all the wet things that could be found in the shade, they bellowed, looking at us. Clusters of blue-winged flies swarmed round their dry eyes. We allowed them to drink out of our buckets. Then we saddled them and, taking up positions, sat on their trembling backs to take photos.

Shagen and a few of our guys went to the commander with a proposition:

“The house opposite the night post should have been burnt down long ago.”

“There is no need!”

“How there is no need, it is impossible to stay on the post! Pigeons live under the rooftiles of that house. Should one of them move a wing, it seems as if someone is moving. It is like this all night long. One day the enemy will climb up on that roof, and a sentry will decide that it’s pigeons. And it is dangerous to have such a place right next to us.”

At night we went out on guard duty with Karo. It was quiet. I suddenly wanted to tell him about what had been bothering me lately.

“You know, a wonderful image lives inside me… I have never seen this girl. But some day we’ll enter a dilapidated pagan temple together, stand silently beside the ritual stones....”  

“She will be your victim?”

“No, no! There is no test she is able to survive. Even childbirth. And she will betray me…”

Bats tossed themselves about in the dark sky. Karo paused for a while and then said:

“I think it’s just a weakness – of someone who likes to put things into a vein… just think for yourself - how can you know what hasn’t happened yet, see how it all happens?”

There was a suspicious crackling nearby. Prowling, we rushed from different sides into the yard of the two-story house. A huge, ferocious wolf was choking a calf. On the way back we both simultaneously smelled strawberries. I replied:

“But I've heard her voice behind me four times!”

“Perhaps it’s from stress and fatigue. Such a large village, completely strange to us : anything can seem to be there. This is your brain working. It can play any trick in a dangerous situation.”

Then a huge red spot appeared in the darkness: the house we had spoken about in the morning had caught fire in front of our post. Hundreds of pigeons fled from the roof into the sky. Their quivering wings seemed to blow up the air, fill it with wind and fire. We both rushed to the house, but a voice from behind stopped me. I did not want to catch up with Karo… I returned home. A monotonous voice continued to seek Serob on our wavelength…  

The next morning a delegation arrived: deputies and a young female French journalist. Everyone poured out into the street. Deputies in glasses and snow-white shirts delivered the usual long speeches. We barely listened to them, I must say. We were looking at the girl, her white teeth and moist, slightly tinted lips. Her back was soft and flexible, her long hair was scattered over her shoulders, and her high chest shone openly through her transparent red blouse. As soon as the speeches ended, she came over to us – to get acquainted and ask questions about our life. Her ringing laughter in the thick heat spaced us out. But apparently we had become quite wild, because we could make no conversation. We felt almost happy when she ceased to pester us with questions and said, smiling:

“I want a fig!”

With all haste we ran to pick figs.

“I would like a pomegranate!”

We brought her pomegranates, ready to burst from the juice.

“Have you got apples?.. Grapes?”

We thinned out the vines in the nearby houses. Shirac threw his hands up to heaven, then grabbed his head with his hands and looking in the girl’s face with a smile, asked:

“Vai, my darling, Lord God, can you really want a fig leaf, hey? Well, what is it for you?” Not laughing out loud, we nevertheless suddenly returned to our present life, as if someone had forced us to recall what terrible, fierce battles had taken place during this time. Waves of laughter now raised us above our mortal sleeplessness and fatigue. Then they disappeared at once, and we saw the shadow of our Andre flitting among us, he who had died in the distant mountains, from the bullet from one of their snipers…

We were sitting in the base camp alone, in silence. The commander stood up, ready to take a walk before bedtime. At least I thought he was going to, so I went after him. The starless sky was like a well cover. In the dark depths of another’s steppes, we both felt uncomfortable; we did not want to talk. Soon it was dawn. In the village a rooster crowed – it was time for the evil spirits of the night to go back, to lay low until the new twilight.

Having returned, first of all we switched on the radio to ask for supplies from headquarters. But the same voice continued to look for Serob. Without asking for bread and cigarettes, we sat at the table to drink wine. Sorrow solidified in the eyes of the commander, flushed from sleeplessness. He asked, looking at me steadily:

“Do you think we have achieved exactly what we wanted?”

I did not know what to answer him, and shrugged. We silently drank wine. Once again I heard a voice behind me. But I did not even turn round. A rooster crowed, though it was already light. It was four days since they had burned down the house with a tiled roof. But pigeons still hung in the sky, not coming down. They circled and circled over the ashes of the house.

 From the collection
"Time to Live" (2003, Maikop, published by "Adygea")

The Journalist

I had just returned from a business trip, from the Conference of South Caucasus Journalists. The Editor would not even let me go home. My impressions of the trip were so surprising to him that he asked me to make travel notes for the morning edition of the paper.

In about five minutes one of the newsroom staff stopped at my desk; he has a habit of mincing like a young girl when speaking. He said with an affected smile: “your wife is here”. At first I took this news calmly, but before reaching the hall I remembered Maro. We had been having a relationship for over two years. Several months ago, with our mutual consent, she had had an abortion.

My wife would never fail to call before coming to the editor’s office. Filled with suspicions I got to the door, opened it and noticed my wife in jeans, a cigarette in her thin fingers. I stared into her eyes – she avoided my gaze and lowered her eyes. She struggled to start the conversation. On the bare green wall of the hall, next to the nameplate of the newspaper, the rough and sharp ticking of the clock could be heard, as if it were drops falling on a tin surface.

She said: “We have to talk. You are always absent,” but she lost the thread of her thought

and repeated the same phrase several times. She was so beautiful in jeans. She looked confused. Her anxious look dissolved into some faraway thought. It became clear that her visit was not related to my assumptions.

She said: “I am here because of Nvard… she has been away three days, has not returned home… we have visited all the morgues with the police …”

Alongside her voice I started to hear the remote sound of an elevator going up and down in a dark shaft, dragging a metal chain with a scraping noise.

Driving around the morgues on a “УАЗ”, she had told the police officers about their head of department to overcome her feeling of horror. She once said to me: “Even though he has such a name, I still cannot believe that he would be fond of flowers.”

She said how at the department the head had explained to her what had happened. “Nectar said” – she nearly smiled – “Can you imagine a police chief named Nectar?” She stopped talking. She would jump from one topic to another, without addressing the main subject.

She continued: “Nectar is sure that girls with such looks as hers willfully or under harassment become lovers of rich men and are kept at their summerhouses. Other things may also happen: sometimes they join strange sects, and move to another city with their spiritual mentors to show repentance. Nectar says they are filled with Satanist ideas cooked up in the brains of young people,” – she kept on - “and they gather in groups, try morphine and other drugs. Sometimes they die from overdoses, but policemen never find them. The group secretly buries the deceased in mountains and ravines.” And this is also what Nectar said: “Sometimes missing girls are found in Turkey or Arab countries after a year or two; they sell their own bodies there. They want to save money, so as not to be dependent on their parents anymore. This usually happens in families where the parents drink excessive alcohol.” “What shall we do?” she would repeat. “You are the strong one, you decide”. Her anxiety was common for a person who has lost one’s balance out of panic.

I said: “They do not go for this in the first grade.” She looked for a tissue and could not find one. She did find a compact mirror.

Whitish-blue smoke was rising from the trash bin. In the street she said she wanted to stop by a pharmacy, so I waited outside. After that she refused to go any further with me, saying sharply “no”. I watched her go from a distance. At one point she disappeared among the bus passengers and appeared by the window. A two-wagon tram drove by; the rattling of the sidewalk could be felt in the bones.

I went to Maro's. At times I could hear a hissing in my ear.

Maro made me even more nervous. She would not even listen to what I said. As soon as she heard that Nvard was missing she was sick. After coming out of the toilet she did not return to the kitchen. She walked away and stood opposite the window, dully looking at the street. For an instant she was petrified. You could only attract her attention by screaming – I could not scream, and that made me even angrier. Pressing her hand to her mouth she would run to the toilet from time to time. Her stomach became so empty that I could hear its spasmodic contractions. From the opening between the curtains in the bedroom light was falling, shaping her remote face, turning it a beeswax-yellow color – her eyes froze and were not responding.

I was petting a kitten lying at my feet. It would arch its back at the touch of my hand and purr, showing its copper red tongue that looked like a tip of flame. We had bought this cat after the abortion, on the advice of a psychiatrist.

On the way home I felt an urge to talk. In sudden silence I realized for the first time: Nvard has been murdered.

It had been four or five years since I had given up everything else to work on my big book. One of the co-owners of a large winery had given me a tip on how to get the book finished. He had advised me to start a business which would produce a stable income but would require relatively little time – producing bilingual computer disks containing the illustrated retelling of epics and legends for children. If I acquired the necessary equipment he promised to become my partner and help get production started. He was sure that there would be enough demand for these disks at the wholesale markets, both domestic and foreign.

I had agreed in order to gain the possibility of working for two or three years on the book. I mortgaged my three-room apartment at a bank to obtain a loan.

Japanese equipment was installed in a rented basement, and now I needed clean disks, paint, paper and enough money to pay the salary of an artist and two workers. But the co-owner of the winery suddenly backed out, claiming serious financial losses abroad.

Until then I had dealt with people who showed respect towards me.

I had visited all the bilingual organizations in the city – told their managements about the importance of the planned program and asked for advance payment for the products. Having calculated how much money had been transferred to the account I understood that it would not be sufficient even to cover the monthly interest payment on the mortgage.

A period of self-blaming and constant anxiety had started. Both families experienced difficulties.

Maro and I had first met at a sculptor’s place. When I had entered they were already having drinks. She was about to turn twenty five. A year ago she had divorced her Swiss husband, an employee of “Doctors Without Borders.” She had returned early from a vacation and found him with a man at their house. She had still not recovered.

We had walked out together from the sculptor’s workshop, being slightly tipsy.

We had agreed to meet again. She brought some manuscript with her this time - very long and mediocre, something like a romance novel in the style of a diary, and wanted to hear what I thought. You could feel some talent in it though. In order to put it into shape and not push away Maro I praised the novel a little bit more than it deserved. At my dictation she made substantial changes and retyped it. We drank some wine.

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