To the memory of all children who have gone to asteroids
“Rich… Richie, my dear… Wake up, son! The sun is rising, there is no time to sleep now. Wake up, my mighty knight, my Braveheart!”
Her soft palm carefully caresses the boy’s head and cheeks, her so familiar and dear voice so distinct through the vagueness of slumber.
The mother tries her utmost to make her loving words full of good cheer, but fails. Her voice quavers deceitfully, as the desperate tears, ready to burst, are perceptible.
The boy feels sorry for his mother, he does not want her to cry. So he makes a desperate effort to open his eyes and smile. Despite the pain he manages to smile cheerfully. While he was still asleep the pain was almost tolerable. But when he could not stand it any longer… no, better not to think about it.
Mother smiles in response and again the boy feels pain in his heart, feels pity for her. A few short days have turned this young, mischievous beauty into a broken-hearted old woman, hollow cheeked, almost blinded by tears.
At the beginning of the boy’s illness she had displayed fortitude, had believed, and made him believe, that it was going to be alright. And he too had believed he would recover. He believed obstinately and despite everything. Even when he was grown bald and emaciated, with never-healing sores and burns, stuffed with cytostatics - horrendous drugs which indiscriminately gorged on all his body cells, simultaneously disrupting both the growth and division of the cancer cells. The boy had suffered everything with stoicism, and believed that the misery would pass, that he would get well and get out of the hospital.
No alternative is possible when you are only twelve and so many interesting things lie ahead of you!
When his mother had told him that the treatment had been successful, and she was taking him home, the boy had laughed – cheerfully and sonorously, jumping around in front of her. He almost fell, he would have fallen certainly, but mother had managed to catch him. He had hidden his face in his mother’s breast and continued his loud and joyful laughter. His mother’s trembling body told him she was laughing too, with the same impetuous and joyful laughter.
But unexpectedly something warm had dropped on his bald head. Surprised, he looked up and was stupefied.
Mother was still laughing, or rather, trying her best to laugh, but tears were flowing from her eyes…
The boy had started to cry too, so he seized his mother and began to speak warm and soothing words to her. Mother made a terrible effort, but not only could she not stop, but her crying became loud, desperate and hopeless.
She had never shed a single tear during his illness. The boy thus figured out, immediately and completely, that now the misery would not pass. And that nothing is to be expected in this life.
The boy was at home now, and mother was trying to assure him that everything would be alright. And he was pretending, obediently, that he believed her. He smiled while he could bear the pain, but this condition did not last long, and, almost ready to start screaming, he asked her for an injection. Then approached the foggy crimson wave of salutary drowsiness, the heavy and nauseous nap you never want to come out of. Every time he woke up a new and even more intolerable pain awaited him. And worst of all – mother awaited him, with a face darkened by misery, each time much older than before he had slept.
The boy knew that by dying, he was killing his mother, but was powerless to do anything. He did not want to wake up, but had to. Like now…
“Have you woken you up, my darling? My angel! Fine! You have to commit yourself to glorious deeds, Sir Richard!”
“Mother dear! Do you need this? You are making everything even harder....
“Why are you talking about glorious deeds when we both know that for me there will be no deeds at all, now or in the future? Reaching the bathroom is a big deed…
“Let everything finish sooner rather than later. Dying is scary. Very scary. But it's even more scary to see that I am killing you, dear mom…”
“Rich, we have a guest today. You won’t imagine who has come to see you. Let me help you sit up…”
While she tried to raise his head, hanging powerlessly on his skinny neck, carefully putting pillows under his body, he thought with sluggish irritation that he did not need any visitors. How many minutes are there left to live? Minutes when he is not howling from the pain or raving in narcotic sleep? He has to spend these precious minutes with his mother, not somebody else…
Yet, when mother had managed to sit him up and stepped aside to show him the guest, the boy could not cease crying out cheerfully....
“Andrei Viktorovich! Hello! You see, I am…”
Andrei Viktorovich nodded seriously, with understanding. He did not smile zealously, nor mumble false words of consolation. He simply looked at his student. He was looking into his eyes, with a certain and calm look.
This usual calm authority in his gaze made the boy feel at ease. Even the ruthless approach of inevitable pain did not seem so scary now. Not so inevitable, either.
Then Andrei Viktorovich approached the bed of the dying boy and squeezed his thin palm, firmly, almost to the point of pain, and smiled sparingly. He said:
“Hello, my dear. Nice to see you, Richard.”
Actually, his name was not Richard. Not very long before falling ill, having been delighted to excitement by a short story about the legendary King Richard the Lionheart told by Andrei Viktorovich, he had told his mother, half in jest, that he would be Richard henceforth. And mother had accepted the name. She had said that not everybody could bear the honor of such a name, but her son - mighty, kind and brave - could. He and his mother - only the two of them played the game, and Andrei Viktorovich was now the first other person to call him Richard.
There was no mockery in Andrei's voice, no false courage. He was genuine in his desire to see him healthy. And genuinely happy to see him. The boy even felt that his cheeks blushed with pleasure.
“How are you?”
The boy looked down. What can I say? He thought. Andrei Viktorovich knows that
I am not well. Why does he ask then?
“Do you want to recover?”
The boy looked at Andrei Viktorovich again. He was surprised and a
little resentful. Why does he ask this? Does he not understand that a boy’s wishes cannot change anything? If so, nobody would ever die in the building called the “Regional Oncological Hospital Children’s Department”.
Nevertheless, he responded, because Andrei Viktorovich asked very seriously.
“Yes, I want to.”
Andrei Viktorovich paused, staring into the boy’s face. Then he put his large, rough
palm on his head, pressed slightly and started to talk, slowly and clearly, stressing every single word.
“If this is so, you can recover. You can certainly recover. I don’t take words like
these in vain. I would not have told you this if I did not know you. The name Richard suits you, believe me. You have the heart of a knight. Of a real knight. Who has enough courage and bravery to fight against evil. To fight genuinely and openly. Who can defeat even death. Do you believe me?”
The boy had always tried to be like Andrei Viktorovich, to be as calm, reliable and substantial as he. In words and in deeds. The question posed was not an easy one, and the boy did not respond immediately. He looked into the eyes of his teacher intently and seriously, looking for fear and luckily not finding even a shadow of falsehood. This was not a “white lie”. No, Andrei Viktorovich had come not to ease his sufferings and give birth to false hope; he believed every single word he had said. Convinced of this, the boy held back his premature joy and bent an ear to himself, unhurriedly and thoroughly. Will he have enough courage and power to actually set his strength against death?
Enough! It should be enough! He does not care that he cannot even raise his head, he is full of determination and power! He is Richard, he is not scared of enemies! Death? What’s that? Let’s see who has the last laugh!
The boy suddenly felt that he had striven with all his being to enter an unrelenting struggle, and his body started to shiver with impatient expectation. Then, dampening down his agitation, he said calmly and substantially, like his teacher did:
“I trust in you. I am ready to fight and I believe I can win.”
Andrei Viktorovich stood at his bedside, very straight and solemn, and smiled, relieved; then he clicked his heels and bent his head ceremonially.
“I am honored.”
This was not cheap acting. A silly game of hussars. Indeed, Andrei Viktorovich thanked the dying boy.
He did indeed think that this boy had honored him by believing in the promised miracle. So he was frank, as always.
“Let’s start without delay. We have almost no time.”
The teacher took out of his pocket a worn, tied up roll of paper and handed it to the boy. The boy unfastened it carefully, unfolding the paper, feeling its extraordinary roughness with his fingertips. This was genuine rice paper, and the diploma confirming his achievement of the “6th Q” hanging at his bedside was also made from this paper. But the Japanese hieroglyphs on the diploma had come from the print shop, while the boy’s surname and Andrei Viktorovich’s signature had been written with an ordinary ballpoint pen. This shabby sheet was painted by hand, in real Japanese ink. It was the painting of a real master. Brisk and somewhat careless pen-strokes breathed simultaneously with unrestrained power and eternal serenity. The passionate fury of fire and the peaceful calmness of water formed a miraculous blend, creating a sensation of magnificent harmony.
“This painting is priceless, Richard. It is the family heirloom of an ancient samurai clan. It was painted at the very end of the samurai era.
“The painting was done by the master at dawn. A master of both sword and calligraphy. The master knew it was the last time he would be delighted by the sun rising over the blossoming sakura. He left the painting to his two year-old son and went to join a battle nobody could win, the battle in which he could die with honor. This painting is the only thing that samurai - on the way to his last battle - left his son. This painting is a pre-mortem message to the future warrior, a message that has absorbed the inspiration and power of a real knight. The warrior, passionate for life, who nevertheless puts honor and duty before everything.
The boy held the piece of paper, looked at its delicate web of lines and hieroglyphs, touched the paper carefully and suddenly the painter, gone to eternity long ago, came into his view. He was very young, twenty maybe, maybe younger, dressed for his last battle in a clean kimono, with a clear look and wistful smile. He was putting the last brushstroke on the paper.
And now this paper, which had emerged from a man praised in ancient legends, is now being held by a little boy, who is not a samurai and not even Japanese. Not even a knight either, although he has given himself a famous king’s name.
“My teacher, my sensei, a direct descendant of the artist, gave me this painting shortly before his death. He simply gave it to me and did not explain why. He had children and grandchildren, but this family heirloom he gave to me and nobody else, though he had had hundreds of students like me in different countries. I have long racked my brains about the sensei’s behavior, which was absolutely inconceivable for a Japanese. But today, when I met your mother on the street, I was suddenly struck by a discovery. The sensei had been driven by brilliant foresight; he gave me this painting for you. Perhaps it was destined only for you, and generations of samurai have preserved it as a sacred relic for the sake of a little boy with a knight’s heart, solely to help him defeat death. Richard, look thoughtfully at this painting. You have to work out for yourself what it means, I cannot help with this. I will only suggest that there is no superfluous stroke in it. Every line, every hieroglyph, taken both separately and with the rest, has a special meaning. You must comprehend it.”
“But I have never studied hieroglyphs!”
“It does not matter, Richard. Knowing hieroglyphs will not help you in any way in puzzling this out. It has not helped those Japanese who have held this sheet of paper. This painting is impossible to understand with the brain only, it can only be understood by a person who is, like the master, on the border of life and death, full of determination to fight to the end. Who has, like the master, a brave and clean soul. This person is you, Richard. Dare! Look at the painting and do what the heart prompts!”
The boy peered at the quaint web of lines and curves. At the centre of the swirls of miraculous ornamental script he could distinguish a knight. A Japanese knight, a samurai, in a ceremonial kimono, but for some reason without a sword. Around him and through him ran spiral chains of illegible patterns combined with hieroglyphs. It was like a wild swirl of snowflakes, captured by the painter from the raging winter snowstorm. Or a bunch of sakura flowers, cut down and swept off somewhere by an unexpected whirl. The boy was shocked, feeling that he was united with the painting, and together with the sakura flowers was swirling in whiffles of wind. The song of the wind was being echoed by the clear sounds of the fibers of the boy’s soul, and his fingers, usually weak and slack, were now filled with the music of strings and the wind, suddenly gaining strength and determination.
Suddenly the boy folded the precious sheet along one of the lines made by the painter.
The mother rushed to her son, frightened. But Andrei Viktorovich stopped her in her tracks with a calming gesture. The boy, inspired and encouraged, continued to make new folds, with unshaking accuracy turning the painting on the paper into a fanciful origami figure.
In his voyage through the strata of time and space he did not hear anything around him. Neither the buzz of a fly on the window, nor the noise of a tram passing along the street, nor the moronic rhythmic rumble from the floor above. He did not notice Andrei Viktorovich standing by, his mother seizing his hand, the thickening darkness of the room, the cruel ticking of the wall-mounted clock counting down the departing seconds of his life. His soul sang with the happiness of understanding, with a sense of unity with the young Japanese warrior who had stretched out his helping hand to him from that irretrievable era. The samurai era.
The effect of the narcotics should have passed by now, but the boy did not even think of asking for an injection. He simply did not notice his once intolerable pain. The power of his inspiration had merged with the last inspiration of the ancient master of sword and calligraphy, and so he was incomparably stronger.
And thus, the figure was ready. His mother had not switched on the lights, and in the flickering twilight of the street lamps the paper samurai seemed amazingly alive. Juvenile, slender, even fragile, with clear and brave glance and doggedly shut mouth, small and determined.
The samurai’s left palm was pinned to his side, as if holding a sword under his belt, but there was no sword under the belt, and the samurai worried about this. He worried not about himself, but about those he was to protect. Andrei Viktorovich turned pale with a surge of anxiety, put his hand into his pocket and took out a little souvenir knife which looked like a Japanese sword in a sheath, a genuine katana, though too small.
The toy katana easily went behind the belt and fell into the paper knight’s palm.
“Look, Richard! You see how everything has coincided today… the heavenly conductor has made a wonderful arrangement and gathered the parts of the different instruments into this one point, when needed. The sensei’s miraculous present,
your mom meeting me, this toy sword I have never carried with me before but today put into my pocket automatically. And, most importantly, your soul, the soul of the fearless knight, able to hear and understand the music of the ancient painting, the soul which resonates in unison with that music. Do you understand, my dear, what kind of powers support you?”
The boy tried to imagine those powers, and felt giddy.
“Now you simply cannot lose the battle with death, you have no right to.”
The boy merely nodded in agreement, he was too weak to say anything. He folded the samurai against his breast, feeling its body. He is not a toy, he’s alive! Of course, how could he doubt it!!! He had appeared to help him, to help Richard. The two of them, shoulder to shoulder, will fight against misery and win for sure. Mother will again be a young, mischievous beauty…
The boy smiled blissfully and closed his eyes. For the first time in a week he fell asleep without needing an injection. The terrible disease was still there, it would not consider surrendering, a lengthy and hard battle lay ahead, but the boy was not afraid of it and believed that this time everything would go fine. The paper samurai was keeping watch over his sleep, observing vigilantly the dark corners of the room, waiting for the ruthless enemy. The samurai’s eyes were filled with cold fury, with the ancient power of the unbeatable soul, sword in hand ready to impale the enemy like blinding lightning and chase death away from the boy the samurai is vowed to protect with his life.
The paper warrior will keep his oath inviolate. The boy has a friend who will never betray him, kind and brave, who will go through thick and thin to save the boy.
And the boy, heavy with sleep, has made a big decision - when he and his friend have overcome the supposedly fatal illness, he will make many similar paper knights. Every boy and every girl in the “Regional Oncology” will have their own brave guardian-warrior!
Dato Turashvili was born in Tbilisi in 1966. He holds degrees from Tbilisi, Madrid, London and Amsterdam Universities.
He is the author of more than 10 volumes of prose. His stories have been translated into several languages.
Dato Turashvili is a well known traveler and mountain climber.
My Irish Grandfather
We became friends as soon as we met.
“I am Irish,” he said, opening his right palm and shaking my hand strongly.
“I am Georgian,” I smiled, and asked him how old he was.
“Soon, sixty,” - he put his hand to his eyes to protect them from the sun and looked at the peak.
People of his age do not climb mountains any more. He realised why I had asked his age and with courage and a smile repeated:
”I am Irish...”
We became friends as soon as we met.
On the very first evening he looked into our tent and said: “I'm inviting you to my place”. I acquainted him with Padosha and we left our sleeping bags. Without a word we walked over to the American’s kitchen and greeted everyone.
With smiles on our faces we sat at table and, with pleasure, gave some toasts to our countries and Argentina. The whisky was very tasty, but I drank only one glass, not full. Padosha enjoyed the desired liquid more than me; I covered his glass with my palm, as I noticed that he was planning to continue drinking until the morning. If the weather is good, we start our journey to the peak in the morning, and I told him in Georgian to put at least the spoon down on the table. He did not resist me, and put both the spoon and the glass down on the American's table.
The night was bright and light, but Mount Aconcagua, bathed in the silver moonlight, was not promising us anything. Nothing, as the weather in the mountains can change in seconds; we were still staring in doubt at the Argentinian sky covered with stars. To be exact, the common sky: the Andes are the border between Chile and Argentina, it was in both countries.
“If the weather is good, we will see the ocean from the mountain,” said Padosha before getting into the tent.
“Yes,” I said, and felt jealous.
I felt jealous and we got into the tent.
“If you could take me with you,” I said, once again, when he was already warm and cosy in his sleeping bag.
“E!” – Expressing surprise, Padosha turned on the radio.
I was not talking any more. I was listening to Spanish songs and trying to sleep. The word you hear most in Spanish songs is “Corazon", meaning heart. I recognized it and fell asleep.
My dreams were coloured. The morning (to our surprise) is bright. The weather – not windy. I stick my head out of the tent. Our friends are sitting around the tea-pot and drinking lemon tea with some noise.
“Coming?” – they ask in English (in everyone's hearing)
“Si, vamos,” – Kike answers for everyone in Spanish, with a thumb's up.
“Good weather,” I agree with Kike, and the morning sun is especially pleasant for me.
I slowly put my boots on and run to the toilet. It gets very cold during the night, and the need to go to the toilet wakes me up several times, but if you go out you will not have children. Therefore you bear it until the morning and then run with an uneasy face to the Asian type toilet, constructed at a height of 4,700 metres. Experienced mountain climbers, knowing they cannot leave the tent during the night, use milk bottles for the same reason. For me, as for the inexperienced mountain climber, it is difficult to aim in the darkness, therefore we have to bear it until the morning – there is no other way, bear it and then run to the toilet.
“You know, you have to get there first!” Padosha reminded me on the way.
“I Know that we will get to the peak first..” he knows it himself... then he changes the subject :
”If you go down to the village, you will have to tell them to bring the donkeys to bear the luggage after exactly five days...”
To wash your face and hands in icy water is terrible, to clean your teeth, hell.
But it brings you to life.
“The food and things are in Pershin’s tent. If the French have run out, share our portion with them,” Padosha tells me, putting on his rucksack.
He knows I’ll share them, and changes the topic:
“We have to get to the peak first! ...”
Padosha is blinking at me and singing: “You were gathering flowers, Anzori”..
“That's not right, it goes: “You were picking the roses, Anzori….” – I correct him and then take the flag out of our tent. He folds it up carefully and puts it into the front pocket of the rucksack.
“They could change it again,” he grumbles, pointing at the flag. “The Motherland can’t be changed,” I say, trying to calm him down, raising my hand to welcome Jonathan.
“Wait, I think he has come to see us off,” says Gia, slowing down.
Jonathan has indeed come to see us off. He approaches us and one more time greets us.
“Hi, grandfather!” I greet him too, and notice that my words do not offend him.
“Be careful,” says Padosha, and wishes us success.
“Gia, you have to get there first,” I tell him with a very serious face, as I kiss him.
We stand and watch ten mountain climbers go up the path on their way to the peak.
We stand and see them off, my Irish and I, he who is like a grandfather to me and, most importantly, is not offended when I refer to him as such.
“If you like, you can come with me,” he offers suddenly, “I have to get medicines from the doctor.” The doctors’ tent is at the other end of the base camp, and I go with him with pleasure – I need some pills for myself, too. I do not have a headache, as I am already used to the altitude , but anyway.
Pedro meets us in front of the tent.
“Buenos dias!” he says, smiling.
“What is the weather like at the peak?” (Pedro has a portable radio device and he serves as the connection between the mountains and the valley).
“No buen,” he nods with regret.
We collect the medicines and, as agreed, meet each other again in the afternoon by the doctors’ tent. We slowly, with no hurry, cross to the small lake across the glacier.
We put on crampons and cross quite a wide, cracked and dangerous glacier. Having done so, we take the crampons off, put them in our rucksacks and start descending to the lake. We sit down near the lake and start eating some chocolate. We offer chocolate to a Polish girl who was already there when we came, but she politely refuses, then takes off all her clothes 10 meters from us and gets into the water to swim. At first I am surprised by the temperature of the water, then I pay attention to her nakedness.
Jonathan smiles and looks at me. I am now thoroughly convinced that the reforms have been successful in Poland...
My friend is lying on his back with his face up. I do not remember if I have asked him about his age, and do so again.
“Soon sixty; I have already told you.”
”Yes, you told me,” I remember now, and am surprised to address him with the familiar form of “you” without either of us feeling awkward.
Jonathan gets up and looks in the direction of the lake. I look in the same direction – the girl has put her clothes back on, and is waving goodbye to us.
“You too, go,” he says suddenly.
“Where?” I ask, casually, waving to the Polish girl.
“To Saint-Helen,” he replies, shouting to the girl, “cross the glacier carefully.”
First I look at the peak and then turn to Jonathan.
“This is Saint-Helen”, he says.
“Then let’s go, if you know.”
“I’ll think about it”
“Whether to go or not.”
“Never think about it.”
“You should not think about the peak. You should climb it, and then you will climb it.”
“Will climb it?”
“You will climb it if I climb it,”
“You are Irish. What could be difficult for you?”
Jonathan smiles. I remember that there is only one form of “you” in English, and when I address him with a friendly “you”, he thinks I am addressing him with a formal “you”. I remember it, but say nothing to my elderly friend, although I almost do:
“Nothing, I'll tell you tomorrow.”
He smiles in the way only he can smile and adds that he must shave.
I do not say anything, not at the lake and not on our way back to the camp. We walk in silence, and only when we are near the American’s tent do I say briefly, “Buenos noches"...
I cannot sleep. I lie in the tent alone. I listen to the radio and try and think what to do. I am happy not to have any wish to smoke, and read the Spanish-English dictionary. There is no point learning new words though, as I have to think what to do in the morning. I make decision at once, switch off the flash-light by my head and close my eyes. I try not to think about anything and think about everything.
I don’t now remember when I fell asleep. But I remember the smiling face of Jonathan in the morning and the question, “what have you decided?” “In ten minutes I will be ready,” I said, nodding. “Waiting for you near our tent”, he said, and started climbing down. Why did I need 10 minutes? I gathered everything together in five minutes and folded up the tent. One thing I now regretted was the wasted time: to make a decision only that moment in the morning had been necessary, not a sleepless night and hesitation…
Despite sleeplessness I still felt awake and cheerful. I did not have right to be weak: I was the only Georgian among the seven Americans going up to the peak, and as Guram Dochanashvili used to say, this made me responsible for many things…
However, there was one exception, of course - Jonathan, my Irish grandfather, who one more time reminded me of his nationality, as I, one more time, confirmed that I knew it. Moreover:
“We are relatives, Georgians and Irish,” I said, unexpectedly for myself, and stopped. I took off the rucksack and sat down on it. Base camp was not visible any more. Jonathan stopped too. “We’ll overtake you,” he said to the others going on ahead, smiling his unrepeatable smile.
“Are you joking?”
“No,” I shook my head, and once more felt how great life without nicotine was. I shared with him my findings.
“I have never smoked, I can’t say anything to you,” he said, and he stood up. “Let’s not fall too far behind.” He put on his rucksack and covered his eyes with his hand to protect them from the sun - it was beautiful weather.
I stood up too.
“Let’s go,” he said, “and on the way you can tell me when the Georgians and Irish people became relatives...”
“On the contrary.”
“What's on the contrary?”
“Those people left Georgia long ago.”
“ And went to Ireland?”
“No, first Spain and then your place.”
“So the Spanish are our relatives too?”
“No, the Basques..”
The idea caused Jonathan to smile, so I did not insist he accept it. I had not started to explain that my ancestors had migrated to Spain and then Ireland, crossed the ocean and created the culture which we refer to as Aztec culture. He would not have believed this, and I also soon felt that during our walk in the mountains, uttering not only a phrase or sentence but even a word would make an organism tired and exhausted.
We proceeded without talking. We drooped heavily and walked for a long time. Crampons were not required after dinner and I was happy about this. We had lunch rather than dinner; however my breathing became more frequent. I stopped because of the rhythm only I have. My breathing should coincide with my steps, therefore I did not hurry. Each person has their own unique, unrepeatable personal step and breathing pattern, including the people walking ahead of us. The slow pace did not worry me at all. On the contrary, at twilight, when I got there, I found ready the small two-tent camp and hot soup. Here, in the mountains, nothing is more pleasant for the tired and exhausted body than hot soup, tea and a sky full of stars ….
But we stayed in front of the tent only a short time. We wished each other non-windy weather and got into our sleeping bags. Besides Jonathan, another American was in our tent. The others were in the bigger tent. Before sleeping Jonathan looked out the tent and with short sips drank some liquid.
“What is it?” I asked, casually
“For haemorrhoids. You know I am Irish, and each real Irishman has haemorrhoids.”
“Georgians also suffer from them?” He opened his eyes wide.
“The condition is our invention,” I said proudly.
“By the way, our folk music is similar,” I said more seriously, closing my eyes.
“Are you going to sleep?”
“I want to.”
Yes, I really wanted to sleep and fell asleep soon, maybe due to tiredness. I had lots of dreams, coloured – but sad. And wished, as always, to see you...
The way up the mountain was hard and very long. I knew I had to hurry, but did not. I was going slowly, at my own pace, my rhythm, and I believed I could climb this peak.
I knew I would stand on the summit and see the ocean. The first Georgian to climb Saint-Helen. Together with my friend, my Irish grandfather. The main thing was to get there. I was going slowly. I heard the knocking of my heart and my more frequent breathing. The main thing was to get there. Even if night fell during the descent, the main thing was to get there…. you go up and know that the point you think is the summit is only a ghost, an illusion. You climb what you think is the final approach to the summit, you look up and you see you are nowhere near it. You must go on, and not think about anything, as you can’t think about anything, you feel only emptiness, there is tremendous silence around you found only in the mountains. Maybe this is why you make your family waiting for you at home nervous. It might be because of this silence.
Only in the mountains.
I climbed the last, the very last bit. Jonathan smiled at me and hugged me in the way grandfathers hug their beloved and dear grandchildren.
“I was the first,” said Jonathan, slowly.
“I know,” I sighed, “you are Irish.”
Jonathan smiled and took the Irish flag from his rucksack.
“Our flag is with Padosha,” - I turned my head towards the Aconcagua, and to congratulate them shook hands heartily with the other Americans.
“We have to hurry on the descent,” one of them said.
We took collective and individual photos.
“During the climb down do not take off your crampons,” said Jonathan, who with raised hand indicated that we should begin the descent.
I had not even thought about taking off my crampons. I was surprised that he had thought I would risk it.
Within a few minutes I was alone and crouched down. I could not see the ocean, but it seemed I could hear the noise of the waves, and I listened. I listened and understood that if I stayed there a little longer, even the camels of Irakli Lomouri would pass me. I put on the rucksack and started climbing down.
During the descent I remembered the question journalists ask mountain climbers, “What were your feelings at the summit?” They ask, but do not know that there is no answer to this question, as you do not feel anything, or more precisely, you feel something which has the name “nothing”. Maybe this “nothing” it what makes you want to go to the mountains. Who knows? ...
During the descent my movements were natural and faster. My brain and lungs were soothed by the oxygen and earthly thoughts came gradually into my consciousness. I put on some pace and overtook Jonathan. He had tired, and looked a bit scared.
”The first time for me,” he said, putting his right hand on his heart, and to express surprise turning inside out his lower lip.
“I have had a cardiac infarction,” I said, thinking this might cheer him up, “it is not dangerous.”
“You had an infarction?”
He blinked at me. Of course, he did not believe me, and stood up.
“But, you know, I am Irish by nationality.”
We did not rest before twilight. Only once did we stop and take off our crampons. We had climbed down quickly, but were still late. I had a pain in the legs, but I was not feeling tired, I didn’t know why. The night reached us when we had got to the narrow ravine, but we managed to find a place for the tents, and it was at maximum five hours from the village, so I was happy that next day I would be able to take a shower, sleep in a bed and have some fish and vegetables in the evening. I was happy that I had given up smoking, and had a new friend, who I would certainly invite to Georgia to climb the Kazbegi. And the most important thing was – we had climbed up the Saint-Helen, so beautiful and dear to me, together.
Before going to bed we talked a lot. We were in the tent drinking tea. Then we lay in the warm sleeping bags and I was surprised that I did not want to sleep despite my terrible tiredness. We lay there and talked. Jonathan did most of the talking, I was silent, listening. He talked about his family. “When I return home,” he was saying, “I have to convince my wife to have another child for our old age”. I smiled, and knew what he would say next – “You know, I am Irish”. Then suddenly he stopped.
“Are you feeling bad?” I raised my head.
“Don’t be afraid, I’ll not die, I am Irish,” he said, unexpectedly loudly - and then died.
He stopped and died. I thought in the morning, and still think, that he died at that very moment. The Argentinian police interrogated me, the Chilean police also questioned me, in both places I said that only in the morning had I noticed that he was dead. In reality, I knew it at that moment. I understood that he had died at the moment he said his last words, but was scared about having to spend the whole night beside a dead man. Nevertheless, I had to. I lay there regardless, and beside me my dead friend, my Irish grandfather, was lying.
I don’t remember how I reached the village. Jonathan’s body was transferred to Santiago. But I do remember standing on the border of Argentina and Chile, smoking a cigarette, accompanying his body on his last journey– his only Georgian friend.
Levon Khechoyan was born in 1955.
In 1999 he received the “Golden Quill” State Literary Award of Armenia for his novel “Black Book, Weighty Bug”.
He has also won several other awards.
His stories have been translated into various languages.