The boy was already in bed when his father’s friend and his adult son visited them. The friend’s name was Aslan and the son’s Valiko.
The guests were from Abkhazia. The boy, with his father and mother, had spent three summers in Gagri. They had lived there with uncle Aslan. Those had been the happiest months in the boy’s life. The sun was warm, the sea was warm and the people, too, were very warm. The house they had lived in there was as big as the one they had here in Moscow. But unlike Muscovites people there lived differently. All the neighbors – Abkhazians, Georgians, Russians and Armenians – would visit each other, drink wine and celebrate all the holidays together.
If someone made jam, baked a cake or cooked something delicious, it would always be shared with the neighbors. That was a rule there. All the neighbors knew each other and a special terrace on the roof of the house had been set aside as an area where the neighbors would gather on holiday evenings. There are no such areas on the house roofs in Moscow.
And now a terrible war is being fought in Abkhazia, people are fighting, killing each other. The boy is unable to understand the reason for this war, cannot understand what there is which they cannot resolve among themselves. Now the excited voices of his parents and the guests are heard from the kitchen.
“You look like you have been in the fighting, don’t you?” the boy’s father asked Valiko. Valiko was twenty five years old, a valiant taxi driver.
“Yes,” Valiko agreed, enthusiastically. “This is what happened to me. When we moved into Gagri I took two Georgian guardsmen prisoner, and removing their guns I took them to a military base. There was a Cossack beside me. I saw these guardsmen were in low spirits. I told them: “Guys, don’t be afraid, nothing will happen to you, you are prisoners of war”. Then suddenly one of them bent down and pulled a grenade out of the top of his boot. It happened before I knew it, and soon submachine guns were thrust into the backs of our shoulders. The guys seemed to be desperate, just like me. To cut the story short, the one guy threw the grenade at me and they both ran away. The grenade hit me in the heart and rebounded. Thank goodness they do not explode immediately. They take six seconds to explode. I jumped at the Cossack and we both fell down onto the ground. There was an explosion, but luckily the shell splinters did not hit us. They just slightly scratched my leg. I jumped up and ran after those guardsmen. Of course they had not been able to run far. I ran round the corner they had turned round and opened fire at them with a machine gun. I walked along thinking how lucky we had been that the grenade had not hit us.
“Then suddenly I saw an old man, and a younger one, come out of the house just behind where the dead guardsmen were lying. They were carrying big bundles on their backs. They stepped over the slain guardsmen and went on their way. I guessed at once that they were looters. We had moved into the town, so they were our looters. “Drop the bundles!” I shouted at them in Abkhaz, but they kept silent and kept walking.
““Drop the bundles, otherwise I’ll shoot you!” I shouted again. The younger man turned to me. The bundle on his back was bigger than he was.
““Mind your own business!” he said, and they continued on their way. I was furious, we were dying here and they were stealing junk. I threw my gun off my shoulder and shot at them. The old man was not shot but the young one fell down. I did not even go up to them. I had to join in the battle. In short, we managed to take Gagri.
“Fifteen days passed. I forgot about this incident. At that time I lived in a hotel. just as all our soldiers did. One day when we were having a rest, a neighbor from the lower floor ran into my room and said:
“”Some armed fellows have come after you. They all have submachine guns and seem to be rather vigorous. Perhaps you need some help.”
“”There is no need to help,” I said.
“I recalled the young man I had wounded in the leg. What should I do? I had just this jacket on me. I put grenades into my pockets and came out with my hands in these pockets. The grenades were not seen. I was ready for anything.
“There was a car twenty meters from the hotel. Four people were standing at the entrance. All of them had machine guns with them. I went up to them, not taking my hands out of my pockets, and asked:
““What do you want?”
““Did you shoot at our brother? He is sitting here in the car.”
““Yes, I did,” I said, and told them how it had happened, how we had nearly been blown up by the guardsmen and how their brother, together with the old man, had been carrying those bundles away. I was speaking but at the same time watching them closely. If any of the men had taken their gun, I would have blown up all of them and myself.
“They were a little embarrassed. They could not understand why I, unarmed, was not afraid of them. I was standing with my hands in my pockets and they had guns over their shoulders. Then the eldest of them said to me, nodding towards the car:
“”Let’s go to the car. Can you repeat everything you have said in his presence?”
“”Absolutely” I said, and we started in the direction of the car.
“I was going along with them, but keeping my hands in my pockets. We came up to the car. The fellow I had wounded in the leg was sitting inside. I recognized him. I repeated everything I had told them and the fellow frowned from shame and fury. The windows of the car were open.
“”Is he telling the truth?” the man who had brought me to the car asked him.
“”Yes, he is,” he agreed, cursing silently both God and his relatives for having driven him there. I still had my hands in my pockets.
“”What have you got in your pockets?” the man who had brought me to the car finally asked. He had already suspected something. He was standing very close to me.
“”Grenades,” I said, “not money. I am fighting, not looting.”
“”You are an honest man, we have nothing more to do with you.”
“”Neither have I with you,” I answered with my hands again in my pockets.
“So we parted. There is awful cruelty in war on both sides. But I can swear by my mother I have never, ever, shot at an unarmed man. Those two do not count. I was furious, grenades were exploding all around us.
“Why did you not take a submachine gun with you instead of grenades?” the boy’s father asked.
“If I had taken a submachine gun,” answered Valiko, “there would have been a massacre. This way they merely ended up confused, they did not understand why I was not afraid of them. I had assessed the situation correctly; I was ready to be blown up with them. That’s why I conducted myself firmly and calmly. If they had felt that I was frightened, one of them would have tried to shoot and it would have been too late.”
“Do stop boasting,” the boy’s father interrupted him, “by a lucky chance you were saved from the guardsmen’s grenades and the relatives of this wounded fellow too. According to the theory of relativity if you have been lucky twice, there is very little chance you will be lucky a third time. Think about it! Have you heard that Doctor Georgi has been killed?”
He had evidently spoken to the boy’s father. The boy’s heart missed a beat. He remembered Doctor Georgi so well. The doctor had lived in the house of his father’s friend. He would come out into the yard after work and play backgammon with the neighbors. He was always surrounded by a crowd of men. Doctor Georgi liked joking loudly, and everybody around him was always roaring with laughter.
Once Doctor Georgi had told the following story:
“Today I was coming home from work by bus. Suddenly a passenger began shouting: “Doctor Georgi, mind the pickpocket!” I felt that the fellow standing beside me was digging in my pocket. I caught his hand and said: “This is not a theft; it is a medical examination”. All the passengers in the bus began to laugh. Many people knew me. The fellow blushed. When the bus stopped at the next stop, I released the fellow’s hand and he jumped off the bus quickly. If a thief is capable of blushing, he can still become a man.”
“Why was he killed?” asked the boy’s father.
“Who knows?” answered uncle Aslan, “but he used to criticize loudly both the Georgian and Abkhaz nationalists. I heard this from my neighbor. The battle for Gagri was still going on. . I was very nervous because I did not know whether my son was still alive or not.
“At night two armed men entered our house and knocked on our neighbor’s door. She opened the door.
“”We need Doctor Georgi,” they said. “He lives in your house, show us his flat.”
“”Why do you need Doctor Georgi?” she asked.
“”Our friend is seriously ill and we need Doctor Georgi,” one of them said.
“”What do you need the doctor for?” the neighbor answered, “my husband has just died, he was ill and could not bear all the horrors of the war. Lots of his drugs are left behind, I can give them to you”. She did not like those two men, and had not from the very beginning.
“”We do not need your drugs,” one of them said in a menacing voice, becoming irritated, “we need Doctor Giorgi, he must help our friend.”
“With some foreboding, as she told us afterwards, she went up two floors and pointed to the doctor’s flat. It would have been absolutely absurd, considering our Caucasian lifestyle, to tell them that she did not know where the doctor lived.
“Having shown them the doctor’s flat she stayed on the stairs for a while in order to see what they would do, but one of them told her sharply:
“”Go home, we do not need you any longer.”
“She returned to her flat. It was night. There were still battles in the town. The woman was frightened because she was alone. After half an hour she heard the noise of the starting of an engine. Soon the noise died away. She thought that most probably the men had taken the doctor. The doctor had sent his family to Krasnodar as soon as war had broken out. He had stayed there with his mother-in-law.
“The neighbor went upstairs to Tamara, the doctor’s mother-in-law, to find out from her where they had taken the doctor and how they had treated him. She knocked on the door several times but there was no answer. “Perhaps she is frightened and is hiding”, the woman thought. She began shouting “Tamara! Tamara!” loudly, hoping that her voice would be recognized, but still there was no answer; she knew at that point that things must be really bad. Those two armed men had taken both the doctor and his mother-in-law. If they had needed the doctor for their ill friend, what did they want with his mother-in-law, who had nothing to do with medicine? The neighbor went back to her flat.
“On the following day she told me everything about the previous night. I did not know what to do. There was nobody to ask. I was nervous myself, because I did not know whether my son was alive or not.
“Fifteen days passed. The battles around Gagri calmed down. I was standing near my house when I saw a police captain drive by in a car. I knew him. He saw me and stopped the car.
“” Can you recognize Doctor Georgi?”he asked me, slightly opening the door of the car.
“”Of course I can,” I said, “He lived in our house. What has happened to him?”
“”He seems to have been killed,” answered the captain, “let’s go, you will tell me whether it’s him or not.”
“We drove to the outskirts of the town. There was an excavator there, near a hill, and behind the hill were two corpses. They were the bodies of Doctor Georgi and his mother-in-law. Worms were already crawling all over their faces. I recognized the doctor from his old shoes with worn-down heels.
“”They are Doctor Georgi and his mother-in-law.”
“The excavator driver had already dug a hole.
“”Why can’t they be buried in a graveyard?” I asked.
“”There are so many dead bodies that we won’t be able to cope with all of them,” the captain said, ordering the excavator driver to take the bodies down to the ditch in the dipper.
“”I won’t take those bodies,” the excavator driver stubbornly refused, “the dipper will stink.”
“The captain began to argue with him, threatening to arrest him, but he did not want to obey. The town was in a real mess. The captain had probably got hold of an accidental excavator operator.
“I went up to the excavator operator, pulled out all the money I had with me and thrust it silently into his pocket. There was about fifteen thousand. The excavator operator switched on the motor, took the bodies away in the dipper, placed them in the hole and covered them with soil.”
The boy, holding his breath, was listening to this story being told from the kitchen. He was unable to understand the meaning of such cruelty. He tried to imagine what the doctor’s thoughts had been when he and his mother-in-law were being driven to the outskirts of the town. Of course he had understood that they were not taking him to see a sick man. Why had he not shouted? Maybe he had been afraid that if he shouted, the neighbors would come out and be killed too.
All of a sudden the fiction about the commonsense of the adult world collapsed in the boy’s mind. He had heard the doctor’s loud laugh so clearly, and now the doctor had been killed by adult people. If they had robbed the doctor’s house, this might have explained something. They might have been looters. But judging from the story of his father’s friend, they had not taken anything and had not returned to that house again.
The boy, who was twelve years old, was well-read for his age. From the books he read he knew that since ancient times man has been becoming more and more reasonable. He had read a book about primitive people and understood that those people had been naive and simple, like children. It seemed so funny. It had seemed to him that people were getting more and more reasonable and kinder with the passage of time. Now he had lost faith in this idea.
The guests had already left. The boy’s parents had gone to bed but the boy kept thinking, what was he getting older for? He was thinking, why should I continue to live, if people are not getting kinder? There is no sense in it. He suffered through being unable to find proof of the notion that people were becoming kinder. However later that night he came up with some idea which might explain it, and fell asleep.
In the morning he had to be taken to the dentist by his father. The boy seemed sad and thoughtful. The father thought that the boy was afraid of going to the dentist.
“Don’t be afraid, son,” he told him, “if they pull out your tooth, they will give you a pain-relieving injection.”
“I am not thinking about this,” the boy answered.
“What are you thinking about then?” the father asked, looking at his son’s dear face, seeing it had become strained overnight.
“I am thinking about whether men are getting kinder or not.”
“In what sense?” his father asked, worried that the boy was getting too far into the depths of existence, and that this was what was making him sad. Now he noticed that his son’s face was not only strained - there was some huge sadness concealed in his big black eyes. The father wanted to kiss those eyes softly, to bring fun and life back to them, but knowing that the boy did not like sentiment he restrained himself.
“Are there many cannibals around now?” the boy asked unexpectedly, thinking intently about something.
“There are some African tribes and some islanders,” answered his father, “why do you want to know?”
“And were there more cannibals in the past?” asked the boy directly.
“Yes, of course,” answered his father, though he had never thought about this himself.
“But was there a very remote time when all people were cannibals?” asked the boy, very seriously.
“As far as I know,” answered his father, “nothing of the sort is known to science.” The boy was deep in thought again.
“I would like to think that all the people in very remote times were cannibals,” the boy said.
“Why?” his father asked in surprise.
“Then it would mean that people are getting kinder little by little,” the boy answered. “Now it is not certain whether people are getting kinder or not. It is disgusting to carry on living if you don’t know that people are gradually getting kinder.”
O my God! thought the father, how hard it will be for his son to live! He felt the full depth of his boyish pessimism.
“People are getting kinder little by little, but the only proof of this is culture. Ancient culture had its great writers, but so does modern culture. When you read ancient writers and compare them, for instance, with Lev Tolstoy, you understand that he was able to love and feel sorry for people more than ancient writers were, and he is not an exception. This means that people are still getting kinder, though very slowly. Have you read Lev Tolstoy?”
“Yes, I have read Hajji Murat,” the boy said.
“Did you like it?” asked the father.
“Very much,” answered the boy, “I felt so sorry for him. He could serve neither Shamil nor the Russians. That’s why he was killed like uncle Georgi was.”
“How do you know that Doctor Georgi was killed?” asked the father cautiously.
“Yesterday I was lying in bed and heard your voices from the kitchen,” the boy said.
Suddenly the father felt bad. He was a simple engineer, and among his son’s schoolmates there were now quite a number of rich boys, and his son envied them.
Let’s take for example the silly story about the Mercedes. Once at their summer house the boy had boasted to his friends that his parents had a Mercedes, although they had had no car at all at that time. After a while these friends had seen his parents sitting in a Zhiguli with some of their friends and begun to laugh at the boy. The boy had made up a stupid story about it, saying that his father’s driver had been ill and his parents had therefore had to use their friends’ Zhiguli.
Explaining to his son that wealth was not the most important thing in life, that there were bigger values in life, had been much easier then, than now, when the boy had touched quite unexpectedly on the most tragic question of existence – whether moral development existed or not.
He knew his son was smart, but did not think he would be worried by such complex problems. How lucky people were in the 19th century! Suddenly he envied them. How naively they believed in progress! Darwin had proved that humans were descended from monkeys; this had meant that a bright future was assured! But why? Even if humans really are descended from monkeys, which is doubtful, this proves the ability of monkeys to progress rather than humans. He certainly believed in the existence of moral progress, though with some periods of brutal cruelty. But this can take millennia. So we must accept this, and consider our life a reasonable link in the millennial chain. But he did not know how to explain all this to the son.
When they came out the father saw an old woman, a beggar, standing in the alley just opposite their house feeding stray dogs. He often saw her there, though she did not obviously live there. The lame old beggar on crutches was pulling chicken bones, pieces of bread and bits of sausage out of her bag and throwing them to the dogs.
There was no doubt in his mind that the old woman was finding these scraps in dustbins. She was throwing these leftovers to the dogs, trying to divide them equally, and the dogs were wagging their tails and patiently and obediently waiting for their portions. None of the dogs tried to take to treats meant for another. The old woman, sharing the food fairly among the dogs, seemed to have taught the animals how to be fair.
“Now look at this woman. She is great.”
“Why?” the boy hurriedly asked, “because she is feeding stray dogs?”
“Yes,” said the father, “You see, she is disabled, most likely lonely and poor, but she considers it her duty to feed these unhappy dogs. Somewhere else vile creatures are killing innocent people, but here an old beggar is feeding poor dogs. This shows us that good is ineradicable, it’s stronger than evil.
“Now imagine a wicked man, who has poisoned stray dogs all his life and has now become a beggar and disabled, rummaging through dustbins to find leftovers and then putting poison in them, continuing to poison stray dogs. If this were possible, we could say that good and bad are equally powerful. But can you imagine a wicked poor and disabled man rummaging through dustbins in order to poison dogs? Can you imagine it?
“No,” the boy said, thinking a little, “he can’t think about dogs any more, he will only think about himself.”
“Which means what?” his father asked with an ardor he did not expect from himself.
“It means that good is stronger,” the boy answered, looking back at the old woman and the dogs who, with unrestrained joy, were still wagging their tails and waiting for their shares.
“Yes,” exclaimed the father with gratitude in his voice, and his son caught the moment instantly.
“Then buy me a stick of chewing gum,” he asked suddenly, as if in reward for being reconciled with this world.
”Okay,” his father said.
Daur Nachkebia was born in 1960. His background is in physics, and he is a chess master in addition to being the author of several volumes of prose. He writes in the Abkhaz and Russian languages. In 2007 his novel “Cost of Night” was published in Moscow. His works have been translated into several other languages.
Daur Nachkebia lives in Sukhum/i, Abkhazia
On the way Beslan remembered everything he had heard about Minash and what she had been the witness of.
Minash’s son had been lost during that big war. She had received the letter confirming his loss, but had not believed it, although she had asked Makhial, then a young boy, who had just started work as a postman, to read it to her three times. The letter had said that her son was lost, that is, his location was not known, but there was no word about him dying in hospital from wounds or meeting a heroic death in battle. So she waited for him. More than fifteen years had passed since then, but her hope had never died, and now it was even stronger and greater than before.
Evidently, such a long expectation does not pass through a human being without leaving any signs. More so, when you are waiting for someone who many years ago disappeared, as if they had been a dream, whose bones have probably been digested by the earth. Maybe all that had made Minash slightly strange.
So if someone told her about the start of a new war, and that all men would be sent off to the war, she would try to please the guest who brought this good news to her: she would lay a table, bring out her famous Chacha (Vodka) – cleaning the dust from the bottle with the dress she was wearing, she would put the bottle of Chacha in front of the guest, who would expect strong vodka.
Who knows, maybe Minash hoped that the new war would return her son, taken by the first one, as one fire could be stopped by a new one.
Minash lived a long way from the village, and few people would visit her without reason. Her guests were mainly woodcutters, forest men and hunters. Makhial, the postman, also visited her on his old bicycle once a month – bringing her pension. He was the one telling her stories about the end of mankind.
But Makhial did not provide comprehensive information: he wandered around things, dropping hints, telling her that the time was near when all men would be killed, but never specifying when this would happen. After putting into her hand the usual scruffy and shabby rubles and drinking a glass of Chacha, he would mount his bicycle and leave her alone.
Minash’s place was always the last stop on Makhial’s journey, where he went after he had covered the whole village and distributed all the pensions; and in every home a glass of vodka awaited him. After covering the whole village and getting vodka at every house, the strong Chacha at Minash’s place would make Makhial really drunk. He would leave the house, travel for several meters, then suddenly get off his bicycle and walk alongside it with an angry mutter: “what a place….”
Minash was unable to comprehend whether it was the Chacha or the bicycle which was making Makhial walk, but she was happy in her heart that Makhial was having to walk, as he again had not brought the promised “red notes”.
What was it about “red notes”?
Generally Makhial gave her her pension in one ruble notes, which were shabby and scrubby. But Minash wanted him to bring it in “red notes” with the bald-headed figure of Lenin on them. Makhial had always promised, but never kept his word. Chacha made him talk, and he would make an oath that next time he would bring the bald-headed notes. But each next time was the same – he brought the same scrubby rubbles.
Therefore Minash did not believe Makhial's stories about the coming war, but she still spent the next few days expecting the footsteps of upcoming disaster. Many days the dawn was as blood-red as it had been before the previous war, although the next morning nothing had happened and everything was as it had been.
The day after receiving her pension Minash would visit the store several kilometres from her house. She would buy the soap with the nice smell, and sometimes, but very seldom, male perfume.
The fat store clerk would frown at the sight of Minash approaching. Minash really was very difficult. She would ask questions about each item – what was its price, what was its purpose, where did it come from - and would ask the clerk to give her the item to touch. The fat clerk would fulfill Minash’s instructions without a word. Minash learned what all the items were, touched them, took them and put them in various positions, sometimes even smelled them.
After satisfying her curiosity she would take some soap and pay for it with the scrubby and shabby rubles. Then she would check the change and mutter: “what a terrible price!” and leave the store using her stick, which was getting shorter and shorter, as she was shortening it with a knife.
It was Victory Day. The Pioneer Group Leader in Beslan’s class was a surprisingly fast, smart and resourceful girl. She got the idea of congratulating Minash, who had been forgotten by everybody in the village, on the Victory. A new book was regularly published at that time, “about all the participants of the great war” as its preface stated.
The latest edition was the 1,962th volume of the book.
In their red, rustling ties, carrying the book bound in black leather with golden letters, the group visited Minash that afternoon. The group leader wore red lipstick and was a bit taller than the other group members, as she was wearing high heeled shoes. She was leading the group onwards with strong steps.
The sun was shining …
When the group leader had finished her speech: “Dear sons of the motherland…”, “Who severely battled against the enemy…”, “Whose names and heroism will be never forgotten….,” she put the book in front of Minash. Page 1,993 contained the names of those deceased and lost on the Sixth of March, and there was her son’s name, written on the page in tiny letters, difficult to read.
Minash pointed her finger at these short, unfinished phrases, as if hoping to feel whether he were alive or not.
But the paper was silent; the letters stood cold and lonely, and the letters purposelessly covered the whiteness of the page.
The little heart of Beslan, who was wearing a white shirt, squeezed as it felt the pain of the old woman. He gave her one glance and then turned from her in fear: the pain was enormous.
Now Beslan and John, the soldier from their group, were walking in the direction of the old woman’s house.
They had left the first line of defense, as there was nothing else they could do, and moved forward to the second one, and more than 20 houses were transferred to the Georgians as a result. In the chaos nobody had remembered about the old woman, and there were no neighbours around to look after her.
If she was in the hands of the Georgians they would start talking about Abkhaz running from Georgians in panic and leaving their elderly people behind.
In the darkness they saw Minash’s house. There was a weak light in the window.
Minash was washing dishes in a corner. A kerosene lamp was on the wall – there was no electricity, and the lamp was giving little light.
“Who is there?!” Minash asked, with fear in her voice.
“Don’t be afraid, we are here,” replied Beslan.
Minash moved away from the cupboard and approached Beslan. For some time she looked him up and down, studying him.
“Aha, Tarskhan’s grandson, as you say! I, forgotten by death, call him Tarskhan. May God let you live long before his coming from the other world!..”
“It is dangerous to stay here, Minash, collect your belongings …”
“What has happened? Why should I leave my house?”
Minash looked at Beslan with suspicion.
“Oh, my mother! What do I hear! Then Makhial was not lying? I have heard some shooting, and the airplanes have been flying too low, almost touching the pear tree tops. And what a terrible noise there has been, God bless us! My heart has been telling me this was not good, but whether there is a war, I have not thought….”
“Take all your necessary belongings and let’s go.”
Minash fell deep in thought, not knowing what to do. Then she decided, and started saying:
“Dear, I will die soon, today - tomorrow; it is not worth making you look after me… it is better that I stay...”
“Look at her, this old woman has lost her brains!” John said, surprised.
Minash did not understand what he was saying, but felt by the tone of his voice that something she was doing was bothering him. As a kind of excuse, she added:
“You tried to help me, may your efforts bring good to you!”
“Minash, the enemy will be here in a few minutes, what will you do then?!”
“Whatever happens, it is better for me to stay at home.”
“I'm telling you: she has lost her brains!” said John.
They tried to persuade her, but Minash remained firm: “No!” and “No!”.
“What is she repeating! Let us take her ourselves! She will not be able to say a word!” John was losing his temper.
Minash understood that things were going against her and started reproaching them, first with a low voice then a higher and higher one:
“Pity your mother, dear! As soon as she heard a noise she would run out of the house. She could not sleep at night, lying in bed, listening. Therefore a fire was lain in the fireplace, and a pot with food in it was hung in the fireplace. She kept the pot of hot water separate: if you returned tired from your journey the warm water would take away your tiredness, and all your sins. It would leave the soul clean and white, my dear…. and now an empty house will greet you! …..”
Minash said all this while looking at Beslan, approaching him, and he felt bad.
Suddenly Minash changed her intonation to one of anger:
“It is your, your fault, men! It is not enough what you have done with me, now you have come here armed; decided that would easily finish with the old woman. Do you believe in your strength?! But I will curse you and you will not be able to even take a step, ever! …..”
But whatever she said, it was impossible to just leave her there….
It was past midnight. The autumn sky was clear and stars were visible, spread over the Milky Way. The bullets of a distant battle sparkled in the night and painted a dotted line in the sky. Then, losing power or reaching their natural limit, they extinguished themselves one after another.
Minash was silent. John had carried her almost all the way. She had kept a small bundle close to her breast.
Beslan felt that he had become vulnerable, as if he had lost the protection of the armour which he had had before. All he had strived for since the very beginning of the war – and he only wanted to be a cold, insensible rock, not allow anything warm to touch his heart - all this attacked him now.
Beslan had been on the other side of fear for a long time – at least he thought so then – as when your sight is not directed to the future, and is not captured by it, fear disappears, as shadows disappear after sundown…
But now his feelings were different, and the reason for this was hope, the hope which had helped Minash live through these long years. Bright traces of life were added to the traces of death in his soul, put there by the war.
Everything was about life: his walks in the night, in which he cautiously listened to each sound, and the uncertainty ahead of him, the bullet which would be aimed at him and was already put into the gun – everything was about life…
Beslan knew that he was trapped, but tried not to acknowledge this. For now he had to carry a heavier burden: the blood which will come out of him if he is wounded; it will be warm, but only the skies will believe that he has really existed ….
Before they finish their journey, the big hope in Minash, which she has carried through her youth, maturity and age, across the lonely years among people, alone with her pain, will die. But the thin thread of life will not be torn off: Beslan has to carry it further… and someone else will carry it further still…
In the morning a carload of refugees left for Tkuarchel. Minash had been put in this car. When parting, she had opened her bundle and given him a packet.
“Dear, you may need this…”
When they got back they opened the packet. It was full of outdated, old, scrubby rubles.
But it touched Beslan. He remembered the bullets extinguishing themselves in the sky, unable to go beyond the limit set for them…
On the third day the news of Minash’s death reached them.