CHAPTER ONE

FEASTING WITH THE DEAD

Having got out of the carriage that picked me up on the road, I stood looking around, not knowing where to go. The skinny horse that barely dragged us up here was now trotting downhill. The silence was disturbed only by the clattering of the wheels. The heat had somewhat subsided and the warm wind that came up toward evening was like a huge invisible broom sweeping the dust along the road. To the right in the distance a village was visible and dogs barked. To the left there was a sun-baked bare hill with rain- chiseled furrows that looked like deep scars, and ahead up to the horizon a dismal plain stretched for miles, dotted here and there by trees. I stood there looking at the unfamiliar terrain and could not help feeling surprised. Could the Ubykhs really have traded their mountains for this place; could the bones of several generations be lying in this land?

Hearing a hammer pounding on an anvil I knew the driver had been right when he told me the smithy was nearby. There it was just 100 feet behind me. When I stepped off the carriage I went the wrong way. The blacksmith hammered a few more times as I walked up to the smithy, and, as if he already knew why I had come, he went out to greet me. He was a short man with a thin, black mustache on a soot-stained face. I noticed he had a small bundle in his hand and thought perhaps he was not the blacksmith, but someone else.

Fortunately he turned out to be the blacksmith Biram, the one I had heard about. I was told if I met him everything would go all right. That parcel in his hand was also a piece of good luck for me, because he was taking it to the old Ubykh, Zaurkan Zolak, the man I had come so far and with such difficulty to see.

I walked with Biram along the bottom of the hill. It seemed so god-forsaken, that hill: furrows on one side like scars; and on the other side—bare rock with cracks where even wild grass had withered in the scorching-hot sun.

“Here we are,” said Biram. “That’s his house.”

He pointed with his finger, but I could not see a house.

“Not there. Here!

He pointed once again and I finally saw the abode. It looked as though there was a cave inside the bottom of the hill, and at the entrance three small walls were built of adobe and roofed over with soot-stained shingles.

“Wait here. I’ll find out if Zaurkan is home. I’ll ask him if he wants to talk to you. Sometimes he’s moody and doesn’t want to see anyone, not even me. He’s a hundred, you know!”

Biram shrugged his shoulders as if to say that when a person’s a hundred he’s not expected to give a reason for being in a bad mood.

“But I’m afraid he’s not home right now, or the dog would have already noticed us.”

Just as he said that a big dog ran out of the hut and began barking. But the hoarse bark reverberated as though someone’s sorrow of long ago was howling with a dog’s voice from inside a hollow cracked pitcher.

Biram walked up a few steps made of earth and disappeared into the hut through the black hole that served as a door. The dog got tired of barking and stood watching me in silence.

I was disturbed by the thought of what I could expect from this centenarian I had journeyed so long and hard to see. Of what use could the meeting with him be to linguistics? What was taking Biram so long; what was he saying about me? Maybe it would have been better if I had gone in with him? Just then Biram appeared. Watching him come down the steps, I noticed for the first time how much he limped.

“Zaurkan is at home. He was lying down, but now he’s getting up and will see you,” said Biram. I could tell by the sound of his voice that he was happy for me.

We walked up the steps together this time and stopped in front of the hut.

It wasn’t exactly a yard, but a small earthen terrace in front of the house that boasted four stunted, old, and probably sturdy trees. There was a bench underneath one of the trees, so Biram and I sat down and began smoking.

“He promised to get up and see you,” repeated Biram, and added as though in apology, “he’s moody sometimes, but how can you blame such an old man who doesn’t have one friend his own age? I told him I brought what he wanted, but he didn’t even look at me and didn’t say a word. He often doesn’t respond. Then I told him about you, that you’re an important guest. But he didn’t respond to that either. Only when I started to leave he called after me, ‘I’m getting up now.’ I didn’t tell him why you came. It might have made him angry. It’s better if you do it yourself when he sees you. Since he’s agreed to meet you he won’t turn you away. I know him well. He was like a father to me, he fed and clothed me when I was a boy. He chose to live alone, but we’re still like father and son; he doesn’t have anybody but me. I’ll go now; you stay. Please forgive me for leaving, but toward evening people stop for the night and may need to have their horses shod. I’ll come back later on. Since he’s getting up and will see you he’ll invite you to stay the night. I’ll bring you some food.”

I thanked Biram and told him that I’d try to return his kindness.

“We’ll talk about it later,” he interrupted. “Only don’t offer Zaurkan money, or anything else. To him a guest is something sacred.”

I remained alone, or rather, with the dog. Both of us waited in silence; it lying down, and I sitting. My eyes were fixed on the open door—it was a door, in fact, that opened to the inside and not a hole as I had thought previously. 1 waited for him to finally come out, this unknown host who had promised to get up and meet me. How long had he lived here? Had he always been alone? How had fate brought him and Biram together? Why did he prefer to live alone? And why did a living human being choose a house that was more like a grave?

I heard a deep cough come from the house. A few minutes later Zaurkan appeared at the door. He was very tall with broad shoulders and a long face that seemed even longer because of the white beard that came down to the middle of his chest. He was wearing what appeared to be a robe, but not quite. It was a flowing, white attire that reached well below his knees and had wide sleeves. In his right hand he held a staff with a heavy iron tip. He did not move for a long time as he stood at the door and carefully looked me over. The dog affectionately nuzzled against the old man’s legs, but Zaurkan silently moved it aside with his leg and finally walked a few steps toward me. He was light on his feet and his back was straight, not only when he stood still, but also when he walked.

“Welcome,” he said in Turkish as he stopped and raised his right hand to his chest.

“Good day,” I answered in Turkish.

When I could see him up close I realized just how tall he was, and I noticed that his eyes were sky blue, not in the least paled by age. When he grew tired of looking down at me, because it was apparently harder for him to bend than to stand, he slowly seated himself on the stump of a thick century-old tree and pointed his hand to the bench where Biram and I had been sitting. I sat down as he wished. He placed the staff in front of himself, thrust the tip into the ground and took some amber devotional beads out of his pocket.

“Terrible heat today. Even that branch over there has dried up.” He pointed to some twig on the tree, but I could not see it.

“Yes, it was very hot,” I replied.

He did not say anything for a long time. All I could hear was the sound of the beads clicking as his hands fiddled with them.

Where should I begin? I wondered. With the main thing, the real reason why I came, or something else? Without having made a decision I suddenly asked him a question:

“How old are you?”

Zaurkan smiled.

“You probably came here because of my age? There’s nothing else about me that’s interesting any more. If I’m not mistaken I’m exactly a hundred.”

“Were you born here?” I asked, knowing that if he said yes the whole trip would have been for nothing.

“No,” he replied. “I was born very far away from here.”

I waited, hoping he’d say something else about himself, but he did not say anything. After another minute or so of playing with his beads he stopped, and asked me:

“And who are you? Where are you from?”

I looked him straight in the eye and decided that I had to be honest with this man right from the start. What will be will be!

“I’ve come a long way, from another country. From the Soviet Union.”

“What’s that?” he asked me to repeat as he cupped his hand to his ear.

“The Soviet Union. Russia, the Caucasus. Abkhasia,” I said these words one right after the other trying to pronounce them exactly the way they are said in Turkey hoping he would understand at least something.

He understood and repeated:

“The Caucasus. Abkhasia.”

“Yes, I am from the Caucasus, from Abkhasia,” I shouted to make sure he could hear me.

“What’s your nationality?” he inquired hastily as though I might evade the question. He even moved closer to me.

“I’m an Abkhasian. I’m from Abkhasia.”

“You’re an Abkhasian? Oh, Allah Almighty, am I hearing things!” The old man said these words in perfect Abkhasian as he raised his hands to the sky in astonishment.

“Yes, I’m an Abkhasian, I’m from Abkhasia,” I repeated again, this time not in Turkish, but in Abkhasian.

“Oh, what joy you’ve brought me! How many years it has been since I last saw an Abkhasian. How many years I have thought that the dead would be resurrected before

I ‘d hear the Abkhasian language again.”

With that the old man got up from the stump and pulling me toward him kissed my eyes, one after the other.

“You know, we have the same blood. My unfortunate mother was an Abkhasian from the Shat-Ipa family from Tsebelda. What’s your name?”

I told him. He still had his hands on my shoulders and suddenly remembered he was holding his beads. He quickly nut them back in his pocket as though they were no longer needed, and did not take them out again the whole time I stayed with him.

“Sit down, sit down,” he told me. “You shouldn’t be standing. I’m older than you are, but you’re my uncle, so according to custom you’re the elder.”* According to ancient Abkhasian custom, a man called all his mother’s male relatives and those with her surname his uncles. Regardless of their age they were his elders because they were related to his mother. If the mother came from another ethnic group this rule was applied in a broader sense to all men from that group.—Auth. We both urged each other to sit down. “If I die today and end up in heaven where all my people are waiting for me,” he said as he tried to stand up again even though I held him down by the shoulders, “I’ll tell them that there are still Abkhasians.”

The old man could not calm down and it made me u too. He would sit down, then stand up, go back into the hut, and again return to the yard, pacing aimlessly from one tree to the other, touching them with his hands as though he was checking whether they were in the right place, whether all this wasn’t a dream. Then after touching a tree he would come back to me, and say the same thing over and over as though to someone who was not there, someone whose presence he obviously felt.

“I have an important guest today. He came to me from where I was born. He came to see me. I live far away, but he came all the way to find out how I live!”

He was not talking to me, but then he remembered I was there and again made me sit down, forcing me with his hands so unusually strong for his age.

“Sit down, Sharakh, sit down. You’re my uncle, you shouldn’t be standing. Yes, yes, the Ubykhs knew how to take care of their guests,” he said, and again sat me down. “But who can do that now besides me? And what can I do, a man alone, to properly host such a guest as you?”

As the old man talked he incessantly walked up and down the yard, sometimes talking to me, sometimes to himself, and there were moments when I figured he was crazy, or nearly crazy.

When it was completely dark he went back into the house and lit a fire in the hearth. Sitting where I was I could see its reflected light through the open door. Finally he came out again and invited me inside. He sat me down by the hearth and went out again. I looked around. There were a few low benches by the hearth, a plank bed covered with a quilt and old house slippers in front of it on the floor. A door led to a second room. The place was neat and clean, so someone obviously took care of the old man. But who?

He returned with an armful of brushwood, throwing half of it into the fire.

“So that’s the way it is, my friend Sharakh. That’s the way it is,” said the old man holding me by the shoulder so I would not get up. “Look at this fire, at this hearth of the last Ubykh. It’s a good thing I haven’t forgotten Abkhasian, but if I do forget a word, forgive me. Praise be to Allah that my unfortunate mother taught me her language and that I can still hear her voice.”

Having sat me down by the fire, he still could not calm down; he kept going in and out of the house, forgot all about my presence, then remembered. Finally he went into the other room and was away for about ten minutes. I wanted to take my notebook and pencil from my suitcase, but felt it wouldn’t be polite until I had a chance to explain why I had come. He had said that he was the last Ubykh and it appeared that he was. In the two months I had been wandering all over Turkey and Syria I had not met anyone who called himself an Ubykh besides this centenarian. I had only heard about Zaurkan Zolak from other people who thought he was an Ubykh.

At last he emerged from the other room, only I could barely recognize him: he looked even taller. There he stood in an old black Circassian coat* Caucasian knee-length jacket, V-necked and fitted at the waist, usually with a row of cartridge pockets on the chest.—Ed. wearing a tall Astrakhan hat on his head, and on his narrow Caucasian belt decorated with tarnished silver there was an old dagger in a sheath, a silver dagger that was also tarnished and had a large, black haft perfect for handling in battle. The old man held a brass horn nearly one meter in length. He remained standing as he told me the history of the horn.

“Soulakh, the eldest of us Ubykhs left on this land, gave me this belt, dagger, and horn before his death. The belt and dagger belonged to him, but the horn belonged to the people. Today I have it, and when I die, who knows whose it will be. When we lived in the Caucasus my father had one very much like it, and when my mother’s brothers came from Tsebelda to visit us, my father blew the horn to call together all our neighbors and relatives. Anyone who heard it

knew that Hamirza had company. The horn will be played tonight to let all the people know that a relative, my maternal uncle, has come very far to see me! Everyone should know and come to the feast!”

Without saying another word, the old man left the hut with the horn in his hands. Perplexed, I followed him out the door. He passed all four of the trees outside the house, stopped above the precipice and began blowing the horn.

I had never heard such a frightening and pitiful sound, like the cries of a wounded animal. The call now rose high into the sky like smoke floating over rooftops, then died grievously somehere far away having been carried away by the wind. I listened and thought. Why doesn’t the horn blare even louder and even more pitifully so that everyone who hears it should cry? Why don’t all those listening take ff their hats in memory of a nation that has disappeared from history? The last horn of the Ubykhs is being played and the tragedy is not that the centenarian playing it will never again be a child, a youth, or a warrior; the tragedy is that no other Ubykh will either, because the old man is I he very last Ubykh!

As those bitter thoughts raced through my mind the horn continued to hoot, until finally it stopped, and Zaurkan and I returned to his hut and sat down by the hearth. The last horn of the Ubykhs was silent, but the last hearth was still warm. I looked at the last Ubykh sitting across from me—at the deep wrinkles carved on his face; at the big hands resting on his strong knees; at his broad shoulders; at his strong neck, which like his face, was also jutted with wrinkles—and could imagine what an unusually robust man he had been in his youth.

“I realize you have come a long way,” said Zaurkan, pronouncing each word slowly as though he were calling to mind one word at a time. “I realize you have come for a reason. I know you will ask me questions and I will answer you, but I beg you to relax today and try my bread.”

The old man had barely got the words out of his mouth when Biram walked quietly up to the door and our Abkhasian habit, instilled in me in childhood to last a lifetime, brought me to my feet to greet the person entering the room.

“Sit down, sit down. He doesn’t appreciate such gestures,” said Zaurkan nodding at Biram.

Biram silently began to untie the bundle of food he had brought along and put it on the table. He would lean over to Zaurkan from time to time and say something in Turkish, practically in a whisper so I could not hear. He was probably asking the old man advice about supper.

While Biram was busy with the food the old man sat immobile, patting his white beard that hung to the middle of his chest, and looked me closely in the eyes. He sat nearby, but watched as though from afar. This distant glance of his showed both kindness and heaviness of heart. Then he turned away from me and gazing out into the darkness of the yard through the open door he spoke loudly and with great joy as though something really were going on out there:

“Yes, it was a good thing, Sharakh, I blew that horn. The neighbors and relatives have already come together in answer to its call and each one is working: some cut up young goats and are roasting them over the fire; others sliced up a bull and are boiling the meat in a big pot; and still others are cooking cornmeal porridge. The young people are also busy. Our Ubykh elders will soon come to welcome you, my dear guest from the land of my mother. You’ll see them in their Circassian coats with their sharply curved sabers and excellent daggers on their belts. We agreed long ago that we would gather at anyone’s house suddenly visited by a guest from the Caucasus!”

I listened to him and several times I silently looked back at Biram who calmly continued setting the table. Perhaps it was because he did not understand Abkhasian, or maybe it was not the first time he had heard all this.

Zaurkan got up, took a smoldering twig out of the fire, and lit a candle that he put on the edge of the table set by Biram. Then he went to the center of the room, stood with his hands on his hips, and commanded good-naturedly:

“Well, young men, tell the girls to bring out the pitchers and wash-basins. It’s time for the guests to wash their hands before the feast.”

He went outside to stand by the door as though people were passing him by on their way into the house.

It was dark and quiet in the yard. Immobile stars dotted the clear sky.

“Honorable Sit, Daut, Soulakh, Tatlastan, Zoskhan, Ahmed, wash your hands and accompany our guest to the table. Everything’s ready,” said Zaurkan rather loudly. And he moved his head as though all those he was talking to were standing around him. Then he took a few steps up to an old tree, and putting his arm around the trunk, bent over to someone short, some invisible person standing under the tree.

“My dear mother, why are you so sad today? Come closer and give our guest a sisterly hug. After all, he’s from your native Abkhasia. I remember how you would hide your bitter tears from us and lament in Abkhasian for the brothers you left behind. He’s not your real brother, but he’s Abkhasian all the same. Talk to him. Maybe he knows something about your brothers.”

Zaurkan stood up. Then he began talking to someone who was as tall or nearly as tall as he.

“Father, I wanted to make you happy. I remember that when an Abkhasian came, young or old, you would always feed him and invite the neighbors, and accompany him up u the Mzymta River. Today our guest is Sharakh Kvadzba. He’s young, but it would be disgraceful not to host him properly. He must have come so far to find out what happened to us, why we Ubykhs disappeared from the face of the earth.”

As Zaurkan came back into the house he stopped at the door and raised his voice:

“Whoever has washed his hands is invited to sit at the table with our dear guest.”

Then he suddenly switched from Abkhasian to Ubykh. I had studied the language, but had never heard it spoken; so because I knew so little and was taken unawares I could not understand what he said. I could only make out words here and there and sense the general tone. Zaurkan was no longer inviting, but urging someone and even giving orders— I could tell by his voice.

We stood under the motionless stars in the black sky. Down on earth a centenarian stood near me talking to the dead who were unable to answer him. The ground lay under his feet and the sky rose over his head: as I listened to his incomprehensible talk, I thought that this earth and this sky had probably been unfair to the Ubykhs.

The old man stopped talking Ubykh and gestured for me to go into the house.

Biram came up to us with a pitcher of water so we could wash our hands.

“That’s all God gave us today,” said Zaurkan when we sat down at the table close to the ground.

I saw that everything Biram had placed before us on the table, except for the bread, was different from what we ate in the Caucasus. I had eaten these Turkish dishes several times during the trip—bean soup and steamed rissoles of meat made Turkish style.

Zaurkan served my plate; Biram, with closed eyes, sat far away from the table in the corner so quietly he could have been asleep.

The hot coals were burning out in the hearth, and smoke was coming from the thin, pale candle on the table. In this semi-darkness I began to feel strange as though I both believed and did not believe what was happening to me.

Zaurkan sat opposite me, ate slowly and from time to time glanced past me in one and the same direction. At such moments a disgruntled look crossed his face as though someone sitting there was not obeying him. Suddenly he pressed his palm against his knees, helping himself slowly rise, and shouted to someone:

“Narchou, hey, Narchou, have all the guests been seated? Does everybody at the table have wine? Does everybody at the table have boiled meat? I beg you to be attentive, Narchou, and when the time comes I hope you know who to give the boiled leg to?” Zaurkan stood up erect. “And now, dear guest and dear neighbors, although I have no special merits other than my age, it’s my honor to begin the celebration. May God grant all of you happiness and health. Today we have such an honored guest, perhaps the most honored we will ever have. He’s my uncle, my mother’s brother. He deserves much more than we have been able to put on this humble table; but everything we have was prepared with the utmost love and care.”

Zaurkan held his head high. He raised his right hand and his fingers looked as though they were holding a wine glass. He stared into the distance as if there were hundreds of people sitting at a table that stretched far into the dark ness outside the hut.

I watched the old man in near belief: his manner was so convincing and he spoke so earnestly to the surrounding emptiness. I forgot everything for a minute—this country 1 was visiting, this desert I had come through, this bare hill I had climbed, and this hut where I was sitting. I forgot everything and felt as though I were not there, but in the Caucasus, and not now, but a hundred years ago at a big feast among the Ubykhs. I could almost see the steaming fried meat and cornmeal mush and the wine poured from pitchers. I could see the faces of unfamiliar elders whom Zaurkan had named as he stood outside the door. Who said the Ubykhs no longer existed? There they were sitting around me and speaking their language... One of them who was picked by the host to be the toastmaster stood up, tucking the flaps of his Circassian coat under his belt and drank to my health. All the others followed suit. When I begged them not to bother standing, that I was not worthy, they would not listen to me and continued standing... I closed my eyes to prolong this strange moment, but suddenly the silence jolted me back to reality.

Zaurkan stopped talking and slumped into his seat abruptly. He sat across the table from me, looking tired as he reclined against the wall.

Once again only he and I were at the table. Biram sat a few feet away from us, only now his eyes were open and he looked with indifference at us both as though nothing had happened, as though the old man had not stood up and had not said all that he had.

What’s the matter with him? Why is he so indifferent to everything? I wondered about Biram. Maybe he really had been asleep until now and didn’t hear anything, or maybe, what was so astounding to me he’s already tired of because he’s heard it many times before?

Zaurkan sat in weary silence. Five minutes, then ten minutes went by while Biram made coffee on the coals of the hearth and poured it into our cups. The old man kept quiet while we drank the coffee, and only when we finished it he slowly rose and said:

“Sharakh, I will not bother you anymore tonight. You’re tired after your journey. Lie down and rest.”

He pointed to the plank bed with the quilt that I had noticed right away when I entered the room.

“Good night,” he said walking up to the door and bowing his head in farewell. “I’ll go check on the others. Many of our guests have not finished eating. And the neighbors who helped cook and serve still haven’t had supper: I should take care of them.”

He raised his head, picked up his staff that had been leaning against the wall, and without looking back at me, walked out of the room majestically. Biram, hurrying before the old man returned, showed me my bed; it was not where the old man had shown me, but in the other room.

That night I could not sleep. While it was still dark I could hear the old man walking around, in and out of the house and talking to himself, sometimes softly, other times loudly. At sunrise when he finally settled down and went to bed I no longer wanted to sleep. I pulled out a notebook from my suitcase and spent several hours writing down all I could remember, especially everything the old man had said that night from beginning to end. As I wrote I worried how he would greet me that morning after the explosion of emotions I had witnessed. Would he come to his senses, would he calm down? Would I be able to talk to him?

My fears were in vain.

In the morning he sat down under the oldest of his four trees on that homemade bench and started our conversation by asking me what I would like him to tell me.

When I explained I wanted to hear the story of his life, and hoped he would help me learn the Ubykh language that he spoke and that no one else could ever teach me, he silently nodded his head in agreement.

That day he seemed quite tired from the previous night, so I did not rush him. But the next day we got to work right in the morning. Every day, morning and evening, I talked to him several hours at a time. I stayed with him more than a month, or more precisely, thirty-four days, exactly as long as my visa allowed. To get the visa extended 1 would have had to make a long trip, but since I had little hope of success I decided not to take the risk.

Biram—with whom I had made a deal about a small payment without the old man knowing—sometimes came once a day, but often twice to bring us a modest meal that was quite sufficient.

In the morning until noon we usually sat in the yard, the old man under the tree on his homemade bench, and I with my notebook in hand sat opposite him on the thick trunk of the plane tree.

Every morning until noon Zaurkan, at my request, spoke in Ubykh, and I listened to him intently, writing down what he said and asking him to repeat himself when I didn’t catch something the first time. The last week the work became easier, but at first it was hard because despite all that I had learned at college, I really did not know the living Ubykh language.

It was a stroke of luck that the centenarian who had left the Caucasus when he was just twenty-four years old not only had not forgotten his native language, but knew my language, Abkhasian, the language of his mother, just as well. In addition, during the next seventy-five years of his life he had learned Turkish and Arabic fluently so that we went back and forth between languages until we were able to eventually get to the real meaning of whatever Ubykh word I could not understand.

When I was at college I had no doubts that the Abkhasian and Ubykh languages were related. But it was one thing to theoretically know the similarity between the grammar, and quite another to try to learn the living language that in reality was not so similar and sometimes even confusing because of the seeming likeness. Yes, despite my solid theoretical background I had to learn the language all over again, although I did find many common roots in the Abkhasian and Ubykh vocabularies, especially in the ancient vocabularies. In Abkhasian the word for fire is “a-mtsa”, and in Ubykh it is “a-midze”; moon in Abkhasian is “a-mza”, and in Ubykh it is “a-medzy”; rain in Abkhasian is “a-kua”, hind in Ubykh it is “ak-ku”; water in Abkhasian is “a-dzy”, in Ubykh it is “bzy”; eyes in Abkhasian is “a-bla”, and in Ubykh they are “a-blia”; salt in Abkhasian is “a-djika”, and in Ubykh it is “dzhi”. There were many similarities in the phonetics, too, but there were also some differences. At any rate I determined two consonant sounds that were pronounced very differently in Ubykh and Abkhasian.

Toward the end of my stay I tried to ascertain whether the Ubykh language had different dialects, but I was unable. Zaurkan had lived near the mouth of the Sochi River in an area that was considered the heart of Ubykh territory. He did not know whether Ubykhs north of his home toward Tuapse, or those high in the mountains, spoke differently. Perhaps, he had simply forgotten.

Sometimes during our morning conversations Zaurkan would ask me about Abkhasia, his mother’s homeland. In those cases, having begun speaking Ubykh he would impatiently change over to Abkhasian so I would understand him better. He was especially interested in his mother’s relatives and people with the same last name. Although I told him many times that in the few trips I had made to Tsebelda, where his mother was from, I had never met anyone from the Shat-Ipa family, he still did not want to believe it and would ask me persistently again:

“Well, maybe somewhere, maybe there’s one person, let him be blind or crippled, from the Shat-Ipa family still left in Tsebelda?”

“No, in Tsebelda there’s no one with that surname,” I would patiently repeat my answer, “although in other parts of Abkhasia there are people with that name. Some of them are old and illiterate; some are young and literate; some are my friends.”

The first time I told him this he was not the least bit interested. He only wanted to know about those Shat-Ipas who lived in Tsebelda and were his mother’s relatives. But the next time he took an interest in the other Shat-Ipas as well, and he asked me where and how they lived, and whether their villages were close or far from the sea.

I tried to explain all the changes that had taken place in Abkhasia, about the cities, the railroads and the high ways, the efforts to drain our swampy lowlands along the seacoast, the fight against malaria, the hospitals, the schools where children study in the Abkhasian language, and in general about Soviet government in our Abkhasian autonomous republic.

Although he tried to listen carefully, I could sense that it was all too remote for him to grasp. There was a nearly insurmountable distance of three-fourths of a century between what I told him and what was stamped in his memory from his youth.

In the evenings, depending on the weather, we would sometimes sit under the same tree in the yard, but other times we would stay in the house and Zaurkan would tell me about his life in Abkhasian, sprinkling his sentences often with Turkish and sometimes Arabic words. As I already said he spoke Abkhasian fluently, but in the last three-quarters of a century time had added hundreds if not thousands of new words to the old vocabulary, and so he had to use the Turkish or Arabic words he knew to fill the gap.

Sometimes for that same reason he did not fully comprehend when I asked him questions. It happened whenever I used new words that had entered the Abkhasian language, or old words that had taken on an altogether new meaning.

I managed to write down what he told me about his life, especially since he was always glad to repeat himself if I asked him then and there, when I could not keep up with him. Or sometimes I would not want to interrupt him so I would make a mark in the notebook and the next day come back to what I had not had time to write down, or had not understood. Then he would repeat the story in nearly the same words he had used the day before.

At night when the old man went to bed I would fill in my notes and sometimes add my own brief comments that I felt would be necessary later on in the final version. But most important, of course, was to record precisely what I was told by Zaurkan Zolak, a man of truly indestructible life-force and an indelible memory.