WHEN WE WERE AT HOME

It’s a mistake to think, dear Sharakh, that we can forget a language learned from infancy. No, we can’t, just like I cannot forget my mother—although I know several languages and know how necessary they are. I learned three languages when I was still young. Facing the sea, the Adighes lived to the right of the Ubykhs and the Abkhasians to the left. I know not only Abkhasian, but Adighe, too; of course, hot as well, but I know it. We were all close neighbors, so we had to know each other’s languages. Ubykh is my native language. It was spoken all around me from childhood—at home, around the house, and everywhere I went. How could I forget it? I learned Abkhasian from my mother. Grand mother knew Adighe very well, and when I was a child she told me fairytales, tongue-twisters and riddles in Adighe. I remember walking with her to the mill, and how she carried a full bag of grain on her head, but kept her hands free to twist wool as she walked. Grandmother’s tongue wasn’t idle either; she would tell me Adighe fairytales and facetious sayings. Once I remember she stopped and showed me some ants crawling somewhere across our path:

“Look, they’re on a march. Can you stop them?”

“Just watch,” I declared and intended to step on the ants, but Grandmother wouldn’t let me.

“You want to show that you’re stronger than the ants?” said Grandmother. “What if men with guns see us in the woods and kill us or let their horses trample us? Is it right to kill the weak just because they’re weak? After all, sometimes the smallest and the weakest happen to be the smartest.”

Then Grandmother told me a story. Our memory is like a sieve: some things seep through and others do not. That Adighe story didn’t so I’ll tell it to you.

Once there was a man who understood all languages: the language of the wolves, of the rabbits, and of the ants. One day as he was walking through the woods he accidentally stepped on an ant. The ant cried out in anger:

“What kind of a fool is that who doesn’t look where he’s going?”

When the man heard that he caught the ant, put it on his palm, and looked it over in astonishment:

“What a big head you have!”

“That’s where I keep my brains,” said the ant.

“Why do you have such a small waist?”

“Because I don’t live for the sake of eating, but eat for the sake of living.”

“How much do you eat in a year?”

“One kernel of wheat lasts me a whole year,” said the ant.

“Okay. Let’s see if one kernel lasts you a year,” said the man and put the ant in a box with a kernel of wheat.

A year later the man remembered the ant, opened the box and saw to his surprise that the ant had only eaten half a kernel.

“Why did you eat only half a kernel?” asked the man.

“Because I figured the stupid person who put me in this prison through no fault of mine might not remember me in a year, but in two, so just in case I left myself half a kernel,” answered the ant.

I like that story, dear Sharakh, but I think it’s been twenty years since the last time I told it to anybody. There was no one to tell it to. I remember it so well probably because on my long road of life I have occasionally acted as that small ant. True, it was my strength and endurance rather than my ingenuity that saved me from trouble. If I were as smart as I am strong my whole life would have been different. My mother, as I already told you, was an Abkhasian from Tsebelda, and she came from the Shat-Ipa family. I don’t know whether she actually taught me Abkhasian, or whether I knew it from the very beginning, ever since I can remember. When I was small and later when I was a teenager I sometimes stayed at my uncles’ in Tsebelda for ion periods at a time. They had a big hospitable family and if stayed with them in the winter I often heard stories and songs by the famous Tsebelda storytellers and singers who were frequent guests in the home of my relatives.

That’s where I heard the legend of Abrskil, who fought God himself, and the legend of the ancient warriors narts.* Heroes of ancient epic tales of many Caucasian ethnic groups.—Tr. I remember that when we wanted to praise someone for speaking well, we compared him to the nart who made a pot of water boil with his eloquence. The story of that nart was told quite often. I heard it several times: it was about how the narts argued which of them was the most silver- tongued. Each, in turn, went up to the pot as he spoke, but the water remained cold. Only when the most eloquent of them spoke, in the middle of his speech a bit of smoke rose up from the pot, and by the time he finished the water was bubbling and boiling his oratory was so smooth, honest, and just.

My mother s brothers valued hospitality most, and then eloquence.

I seem to be blinking often today, probably because I’m recalling the deceased.

Everything that I knew in childhood is carved in my memory like the inscription on a tombstone. The years pass, but neither rain, nor snow, nor wind, nor sand storm can erase the epitaph.

Don’t be surprised, Sharakh, that I remember the languages of my childhood. I would be amazed myself if I had forgotten them.

Life forced me to learn Turkish and Arabic, and I am grateful for that. I had a hard life, and wouldn’t have survived without those two languages; knowing them didn’t help make me happy, but it kept me from dying.

You told me yesterday that neither in Turkey, nor in Syria, nor anywhere else have you met another person, but me, who can speak the language of the Ubykhs. You al so said that in the Caucasus, in the land of the Ubykhs, there’s not one person left who can speak the language. Perhaps I misunderstood you, but it seems you mean to say the language of the Ubykhs has disappeared, it no longer exists. But even if you’re right, to me it can’t be the truth.

You have said several times that you have visited the land of the Ubykhs, that it’s nearby—all you have to do is cross the Khosta River and go toward the Sochi River. I don’t know what it’s like today, but then the river was wide. Tell me, when you stood looking at the river did it talk to you, or didn’t you understand it? Since it flows it talks; it will stop talking only when not one drop of water is left.

Probably when you went to the land of the Ubykhs you could not help but see our holy place, the refuge of our almighty Bytkha. Some people called it a shrine, others—an icon. A green meadow lay under a tall hill, and on the hill there were seven huge oak trees protecting our holy place with their foliage. Their branches brushed against one another, their leaves whispered to each other. When you stood there couldn’t you hear how they were talking in our language? Couldn’t you see the numerous scars in the trunks left by the hot candles attached to them each spring by the worshipers of Bytkha?

When I lived there in the land of the Ubykhs I heard elders say many times that at the beginning of the summer the shrine disappears from the holy place. Suddenly there is thunder and it flies away into the sky amidst sparks of lightning high up in the mountains till the end of the summer when it returns.

I remember the year we moved to Turkey something terrible happened to our shrine. It was in the middle of the winter on a frosty night when against a clear sky thunder broke from the holy site; thunder that lasted several minutes without interruption. All of us, young and old, ran out of our houses not comprehending what was happening, when suddenly we saw our shrine blaze through the sky.

Never before had any Ubykh seen the shrine leave its sanctuary, nor return to it, in the middle of the winter, only in the summer.

Everyone took it as a bad omen.

Did you ever see under those same seven oaks the eternal source of holy water? If you saw it and stood over it, didn’t you hear its voice?

I also want to ask you whether you were in Matsesta, there where the fiery water flows; where the land sheds hot tears? Didn’t this fiery water that bursts forth out of the earth say anything to you?

But even if you didn’t notice and didn’t hear anything else you must have seen the sea on our coast. Didn’t it speak to you? Didn’t it say anything?

And what about the graves of our ancestors? I don’t believe the tombstones are silent. They can also talk to you if your memory has not run dry, if you’re capable of lending an ear to silence.

And what about the birds who live there and not here? You didn’t hear their language either?

No, my dear Sharakh, a language cannot die as easily as you think, because it lives not only on the tongues of human beings, but inside them too, and not only inside them, but also inside water, land and stone. I believe that there in the land of the Ubykhs branch still talks with branch, stone with stone, and stream with stream in my own language!

My father and my grandfather were peasants. My grand father died before I was born, but I was told that he was a shepherd, that he tended the cattle of a nobleman to earn a living for his family. My father, Hamirza became a peasant. He grew millet and corn and worked so hard from morning until evening that I remember him lying down when I would wake up in the middle of the night, but I don’t remember him sitting up in the middle of the day.

My mother and father’s first child was my elder sister, Aisha. I was next, then my younger brother, Mata, and then my two younger sisters, Juna and Kuna. They were twins.

Up until our emigration to Turkey we lived together, except for Aisha, who lived in a nearby village because she married a peasant there by the name of Garun.

We had several beehives, and every autumn we sold some corn and nearly all our honey and bees-wax in return for salt, soap and most importantly, gunpowder.

When there were droughts, or heavy rains and the crops were bad, my father and I would leave my little brother at home and go up the Sochi River to chop box wood. There weren’t any roads so we would drag the wood on oxen up to the shore and sell it to Turkish merchants who sailed there. They paid little and we also had to pay Shardyn, son of Alou for cutting down trees on his land.

Of course we paid him little, less than we would have had to pay somebody else. There was a good reason; we were related. Like the Abkhasians we, Ubykhs, had the honorable custom of taking in foster children. We peasants would bring up the children of noblemen in our own homes, thus becoming relatives. Sometimes a peasant made arrangements before a child was born. He would send the most highly respected villagers to the future father and ask through them permission to touch his hem, which symbolized becoming relatives.

If a nobleman sent his son to be brought up by the peasant and was wealthy and powerful, the peasant would regard him as a patron and count on his assistance.

The nobles, however, were quite discriminating. They did not give their children away in fosterage to just anyone, but carefully selected which peasant family it would be better to establish a relationship with, which family would be more useful and whose support, if necessary, would be the most reliable.

We were the relatives of the nobleman, Shardyn, son of Alou, who had been raised by my grandmother. We cut down box wood in his grove and paid him less than we would somebody else. Sometimes we just sent him presents.

Shardyn, son of Alou, was the foster brother not only of our family, but also of the entire Zolak kinship group. All our kinsfolk were to stand up for him if necessary.

Shardyn, son of Alou, like all Ubykh noblemen, lived in a nice, strong house built of choice chestnut wood. He owned land, woods, pastures, and fields. The people of our village grazed his and their livestock on his pastures, and together they ploughed, sowed and harvested his fields. They also picked grapes for him, and made wine not only for them selves, but for him too.

I remember how on holidays all our relatives offered him presents: a kid, a lamb, or a young bull. They gave him nuts, honey and wine, whatever they had.

I will always remember Shardyn, son of Alou, as a warrior. Day and night a saddled horse was always waiting for him, and his weapons were also ever ready. I can’t even remember him doing anything else but fighting in war, plundering and raiding.

Sometimes after a raid, if it was a success, he went to the seashore and sold slaves to merchants who came there on Turkish ships and feluccas.

But he always kept a few of the slaves to work in his home as servants—any prisoner was his personal property— and he could sell them, kill them, or return them for a price.

When there was strife between neighbors, or between nobles (that happened frequently), Shardyn, son of Alou, went to the communal meeting where the dispute was discussed and the men from our kinship group always accompanied him there to protect -him from danger, or to seek revenge if he were killed.

Each time he was accompanied by a different man. But my father Hamirza, as his foster brother, followed right behind Shardyn, son of Alou, everywhere he went. I heard that in ancient times, in the days of the Abkhasian kingdom, the land of the Ubykhs was part of Abkhasia, but not in my day. We weren’t subjects of Abkhasia, nor did we have our own sovereign prince. There were several influential noblemen among the aristocracy and although they fought each other for power they ruled the Ubykhs together. But I’ll talk about that later when I tell you about our misfortune.

My father Hamirza was a kind and fair man. When there was a dispute in the village he was often asked to pass judgment calmly and fairly. In war and in raids he was daring and ruthless and valued courage above all else.

When my brother and I were still children he taught us how to use a saber, to shoot on target, and jump on a horse fearlessly. In the winter we went hunting in the mountains, practiced shooting, and set traps. If it snowed we went hunting on skis. He taught us that too.

The sea was nearby and Father took us there to swim, row, and put up sails. Ubykhs went out on their boats sometimes for fish and sometimes for other prey—we would go to the shores of Abkhasia to plunder or would rob the feluccas of Turkish merchants who couldn’t get away to the open sea in time.

My mother Nasi, after my twin sisters were born, was often ill, but just as in her youth she wasn’t afraid of any thing and would go without any escort to Tsebelda to visit her relatives. She went on horseback with only a gun, and me, a mere boy. When I close my eyes I can still visualize her as a young woman. She was tall and very slender, and her auburn braids reached practically to her heels.

We were poor, and had many cares and worries. But I remember those days as happy ones for my family, although perhaps they only seem happy in contrast to the terrible things that happened to us later on.

When you’re my age childhood seems the shortest time of life: before we knew it we weren’t children anymore, but warriors, the youngest of them, but obligated to march with the rest.

I was in three raids with my father, brother, and the other men in our village. The first raid was short: we went southward to Abkhasia; the second and third were longer: northward far over the mountains. Those raids to the north were already in those dark days when the Russian czar waged war against the Ubykhs.

The war lasted not one year, or two, but much longer. I can’t even remember how long, but I remember very well how winter changed to summer many times while the war kept on and on, and toward the end of it every single man was fighting except for the sick and the elderly. It was especially hard in the summer when we had to carry guns and food supplies with us at all times, even when working in the fields, so that we could be ready to gather at the assembly place at the first call. Yes, dear Sharakh, those were dark times. Even the best stallion couldn’t have jumped across the river of blood we shed then. But no matter how much blood was spilled it didn’t bring the Ubykhs anything but grief and, as you know, the most bitter thing is blood shed in vain.

We still had no idea how strong the Russian czar was, how many soldiers he had, nor the true intentions of the Turkish sultan who incited us to war from the very beginning. Oh, my dear Sharakh, when mourners at the casket cry and scratch their faces and chest till they bleed, it only eases the anguish of the relatives; nothing can help the dead. And doesn’t the same thing go for my story?

My father, brother and I took up our arms and never put them down till the end.

Of course, the land of the Ubykhs was never peaceful: we couldn’t imagine life without plunder and raids, without selling slaves overseas to merchants in Turkey, hostility between families, between the Ubykhs and neighboring tribes, without abducting women, and feuds. But when all the Ubykhs were in danger we forgot about everything else, except this menace.

Ubykhs had always been able to defend themselves from anyone who infringed on their freedom whether they were neighbors, or came from afar—Greeks or Romans, Arabs or Turks. There were legends about some wars, and the elders remembered others, but no one could recall a time when Ubykh men were not trained as warriors. We simply could not imagine any other way, or that anyone capable of holding a weapon could refuse to. And if such a culprit did appear among us, he was stripped of his name and exiled.

Every family, no matter what time of year, even in the summer, in the hottest season, was obligated to send one warrior on a march at the first call. Ten men chose a leader, and those leaders chose their leader, and so on down the line. When several thousand men went on a march they elected a supreme commander who had done battle many times, who was experienced, patient and brave. After being elected, his orders were law for all warriors, whoever they were—peasants or noblemen. He was the one to decide when and where to gather. And he said how many infantrymen and how many cavalrymen were needed. Every single man, except for the supreme commander, was to carry with him all necessary supplies: dough mixed with honey, smoked meat, smoked cheese, red .and white salt. Everyone had to bring along two pairs of soft leather boots, wool leggings, and a felt cloak. Some were also asked to take along saws, axes, shovels, and ropes in case we needed to put up a bi across a river, or build huts for sleeping in cold seasons.

Before a march someone would blow a brass horn like the one I have.