All of us, except my younger brother, were home on that fateful day for our family. He was still fighting with the Russians; we did not know where he was, or whether he was alive. My father Hamirza had been wounded in his right arm three days before; the wound was infected and painful, but he refused to stay in bed. He got up in the morning, put another treatment of painkilling herbs on the wound and bandaged it, but the pain would not abate and he paced back and forth through the house and in the yard. Every morning my mother and both sisters went to the neighbors to weave broadcloth with the other women of the village, broadcloth for the warriors. They returned home in the middle of the day to do their chores.
I was the last one to get home. For several days I had not left the side of Haji Kerantukh as his bodyguard—under fire and in hand-to-hand combat.
That day the leaders of the people were to begin their meeting to decide what to do next. I had arrived with him for the meeting, and he let me go to spend the night at home.
The cold day was turning into night, and the heavy snow fall from the morning was beginning to subside when my grandmother’s foster son and my father’s foster brother, Shardyn, son of Alou, approached our gate on his small, but strong mule.
I rushed out to help him dismount and the rest of the family came after me forming a circle around him.
“How’s your wound?” Shardyn, son of Alou, asked my father.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” answered my father, ashamed to admit to our guest that he was in pain and hiding his wounded arm behind his back.
“Our dear brother, our hope, may all sorrows and all illness pass you by, may they be mine,” said my mother and according to custom, to protect him from all illness, she walked around Shardyn three times and kissed his chest. My sisters shyly did the same.
Shardyn went into the house and we followed him. I helped him take off his felt cloak and Astrakhan hat, shook off the snow and hung them on the wall.
Shardyn, son of Alou, was short, broad-shouldered and very strong, but his waistline had expanded long ago be cause he was fond of eating. The edge of his long, black beard fell in curls on his powerful chest.
Mother placed a leather cushion specially for honored guests on the bench near the lit fireplace; Shardyn sat down on it.
We young people, of course, had no thought of sitting in his presence; even mother and father, although both were older than Shardyn, also remained standing in the presence of such a prestigious relative.
Mother, as she always did when Shardyn came, put up a pot to boil cornmeal mush. Father indicated to me with his eyes to go out and slaughter a lamb specially fed for such an occasion. However, when Shardyn, son of Alou, noticed my father’s look, he said he was in a hurry and had no time to stay for supper.
“I heard you were wounded,” he said to my father, “that’s why I decided to visit you and your family. Besides, I want to talk to you, my relatives. We’re living in difficult times, and you’re the closest family I have. I came to consult with you.” That is what he said, and as I listened to him I could not help wondering what he was leading up to, and whether what he was about to say bode us ill.
“Yes,” said my father Hamirza. “True, we Ubykhs have never had such a hard time. Not only our family, but I know that everyone under your protection in our and neighboring villages have complete faith in you. We’re so glad you chose our hearth to sit before in these troubled times.”
Shardyn, son of Alou, took a black cigar out of his tunic pocket. We had seen him many times with such cigars that he got from the Turkish merchants. I picked a piece of coal out of the hearth for him to light up, and as he smoked he said:
“You probably know already that Haji Kerantukh has called the council together again today to decide the future of the Ubykh people. I don’t know how long the council will sit, but so far no decision has been made. Meanwhile I’d like to tell you what my opinion is! I don’t think there’s any way the generals of the czar will let us stay here on our land. The battles are waged higher and higher in the mountains, closer and closer. Before we’re all bayoneted to death wouldn’t it be better to try to save ourselves?
“The Turkish sultan, Allah’s representative on earth, will save us if we agree to become his citizens. Nothing but his great power can save us. A few days ago a Turkish merchant from Istanbul came to my house. I’ve known him a long time and trust him. He’s not only wealthy, but knows people close to the sultan. I realized he had come here not only to trade with us as before. He told me about our neighbors, the people of Natukhai, who have already moved to Turkey. The sultan kept his word and settled them on land of their own choosing. The land where they live is heaven on earth. It’s never too cold or too hot; the weather there is always like it is here in late spring and everything grows there that anyone could want. If a jay flies over with a grain of corn in its beak and drops it on the ground, within a month in that spot there’ll be a tall stalk with a few ripe cobs! He told me the buffalo are used only for ploughing, not for milking because, like our alders, milk trees grow there everywhere: you just slit the trunk with a knife and you get pitchers full of rich milk! If you want to make sour cream out of it you just tear off a leaf from the tree and put it into the milk—before you get home you’ll have such thick sour cream that you can cut it with a knife. And he said the pumpkins there are so huge you can’t cut them, but have to use an ax to chop them up. The things he told me seemed so incredible that I couldn’t believe them at first, but he took a letter out of his pocket that confirmed everything. The letter was written by a man from Natukhai by the name of Murat whom I have known for a long time. We visited each other many times before he left Turkey. You probably have heard of him yourself.
“Here’s the letter he sent me,” said Shardyn, son of Alou, and pulled out of an inside pocket of his Circassian coat a piece of paper folded over many times. He opened it up, straightened it out, and held it up so we could all see it.
But who could read it? Not only in our family, but in the entire village there wasn’t anyone who knew how to read in any language. And I don’t think my father’s foster brother, Shardyn, son of Alou, could read very well, either. He just held the letter in front of our eyes, and even after putting it away he continued to tell us in his own words what his friend Murat had written. Oh how he praised that man he had never mentioned to us before.
“He was also a very well respected man among the people of Natukhai, but in Turkey he was given such an important job that he has become close to the Grand Vizier him self. The Turkish merchant could deceive me, but certainly not Murat, son of our mountains, and one of my frequent guests.
“He writes that if we have enough strength to leave this hell we will come straight to heaven! He says that if I can get the people under my protection to the shores of Turkey all of us will have a happy life! That’s what he writes, and calls us to come. What can we expect here? Shall we just wait for the Russian generals to make us move to the Ku- ban? If we freeze here in our native forests during the cold winters, we’ll just die like flies from cold in the open plains. And we won’t be allowed to practice our faith. Our sons will be compelled to serve in the army as soldiers and everyone will have to buy his own land, because now the landlords in Russia don’t take care of their peasants; they no longer have any rights over them. Where will you get the money to buy land there? And if you can’t buy it, how will you survive without land? My foster brother Hamirza, we were not born of the same womb, but we were fed from the same breast! I’ve told you what’s on my mind, and now I would like to know what you think about it.”
That is what Shardyn, son of Alou, said to my father. My father stood in front of him, tall as a dry tree, and holding his wounded arm in the other.
The only sound in the room was that of the hungry fire devouring the dry logs. Although Shardyn, son of Alou, talked about miracles and promised us heaven on earth, not even thunder above our heads in winter could shock us as much as his words.
My father did not say anything for a long time. Waiting for him to speak my throat went dry and it seemed I had lost my power of speech. I could hardly hear the first words my father uttered; he began speaking so softly and slowly:
“Our foster child, you are our hope, you are wiser than we are and have seen more, know better what to do. Wherever you go, we will go and will serve you as we always have. What more can I tell you, I who can only plough and sow? But if you will allow me, I would like to ask you what has been decided at the council—are all Ubykhs going where you want to take us?”
“No decision has been made yet, and I don’t know what all the Ubykhs will do, but you are my closest family and I came here to tell you my own decision,” replied Shardyn, son of Alou. I saw alarm in his eyes.
“Then wouldn’t it be better, our brother, our hope,” said my father Hamirza, “wouldn’t it be better for us to share our people’s fate? While some are fighting how can others lay down their arms and go across the sea first? How can we be the first to put out the hearth of our ancestors with our own hand, to abandon the graves of our fathers, and bid farewell to our shrine Bytkha? And what about land? Will we have other land in Turkey to replace what we are leaving here or will we be forced to buy our land?”
My father had not finished; he wanted to say something else, but my mother interrupted him with her weeping:
“How will I ever know what happens to my brothers in Tsebelda? How can I leave them here and sail across the sea? I envy the dead, those who did not live to see this day!” My mother wept bitterly, and my sisters stood behind her also crying as they leaned their heads against her back.
My mother seldom cried, and Shardyn, son of Alou, seeing her this way for the first time reproached her:
“My sister, your courage has always been admired by men. It doesn’t become you to shed tears at a time like this! Your brothers in Tsebelda are real men. They will not agree to live under the rule of the czar’s generals. As far as I know they are either waiting for us or, perhaps, have already left for Turkey. And you will soon see your brothers alive and well there, on the blessed land of the sultan. And you, Hamirza,” he said, turning to my father, “don’t you worry: no one will make you pay for your land. I, Shardyn, son of Alou, tell you this. But here who can say whether the generals will resettle us in the Kuban, or make us move even further? They promise us the Kuban only because we still have guns in our hands! But when we no longer have them who will stop the generals from moving us straight to bitter cold Siberia, depriving us of our faith, and making us christen our children?”
That very minute he was interrupted in the middle of a sentence by the thunder of cannons from far away on the coast. It was so sudden that it seemed as though a demon had unexpectedly jumped out of the earth right next to our fireplace.
“Why are you standing there so calmly with that pitiful scratch on your arm when it may well be that those cannons over there have killed your son!” shouted my mother Nasi.
When she heard the thunder of the cannons she stopped crying and looked around at us all with angry eyes.
“What’s the matter with you? Keep quiet and have patience!“ Father scolded her.
Mother did as she was told, but she kept looking at us in such a way that I wanted to crawl in a hole.
Meanwhile the cannons kept firing on the coast.
“If you want to survive I advise you to get ready to move, starting tonight,” said Shardyn, son of Alou, and turned to me: “You, Zaurkan, should remember that many young people wanted to be Haji Kerantukh’s bodyguard, but you got the job thanks to my influence. I wanted you to be close to him so that your family would eventually rise to the status of the nobility. The only thing that prevented it was the misfortune that befell the Ubykhs. I put you in Haji Kerantukh’s suite myself, but now I say you must leave him! He’s still keeping it a secret, but I know that he’s planning to sail for Turkey with all his relatives and subjects. And I don’t want the grandson of my foster mother to serve him not as a bodyguard in war, but as a slave on the journey. You must leave him now and return under my wing!”
What he said cut through my heart like a dagger.
“You’re not telling the truth,” I shouted. “Haji Kerantukh will fight to the death. He’s no coward. I will never break my oath and leave him!”
“What’s the matter with you?” interrupted Shardyn. “I don’t like the way you’re talking to me.”
But that did not stop me.
“I beg you to forgive me for speaking so boldly to such an honorable relative as you,” I said. “But I can’t under stand you! Wasn’t that you who went first into battle many times? Wasn’t that you who many times—before battle and after—told us that every one of us killed in the holy war with the infidels goes straight to heaven? And now it seems we can go to heaven if we put down our weapons? And that heaven is Turkey, and you’re persuading us to go there? What were you thinking of before, you and other respectable people like you? If it’s so simple to escape to heaven then who up there in the sky will appreciate blood spilled in battle? Who in heaven will accept those who have died in vain? And you, my father, why did you raise us to be true men? Why did you teach us not to fear death when we defend our land?”
I could not understand myself what had come over me, but nothing could stop me now, although until then I had never, not only in the presence of our relative whom we worshipped like a god, but also in front of my father, dared raise my voice.
“Shut up,” said my father. “I’m ashamed of you. You spoke too loudly even for my ears. You have disgraced us all by speaking so brazenly to our dear relative Shardyn, son of Alou! Would he have come so far to see us on this cold winter day if he did not love us, simple and plain people that we are?”
Having lashed me with his tongue, my father turned to Shardyn, son of Alou:
“Forgive us that we did not realize right away how we should answer you. If you, our closest protector, are certain that we should go with you to Turkey and that we will have a good life there, all my family will go there and will be inseparable from you.”
My father stood before Shardyn, son of Alou, looking downcast and guilty as he spoke. He was afraid that Shardyn was offended. But our guest, on the contrary, livened up, rose from his cushion and, lashing his boot with his whip, spoke as though none of us had ever contemplated arguing with him:
“You must not waste time; begin packing right now. Don’t forget to take food with you, too. I have to go now and start getting ready for the voyage myself, and if I need your help I’ll tell you. In the meantime, Hamirza, if your wound, thanks to Allah, is not serious, visit all the homes of our relatives and neighbors—you’re not an elder, but they respect you—and let them hear what you have to say on my behalf! Tell them not to spill their blood any more in vain, to pre pare for the trip, and not to worry. Tell them that Shardyn, son of Alou, will be with you and them everywhere. If some one else comes and starts convincing them to go to the Kuban they should refuse!”
Having decided everything for us he did not waste any more time, but got on his mule, and left.
The custom was that the nobility rode on horseback when they went off on a march or to visit their equals, but rode mules when they went to see peasants in their province, because it was easier to travel on mountain paths and they did not have to worry about how they looked.
He rode away on his mule and after seeing him off we stood staring gloomily at the fire as though we had come back from a funeral.
Mother did not make any cornmeal mush, she did not hang the pot over the fire, nor did she put the chickens back in their pens. She sat quietly and wept bitter tears. Father did not go out to milk the cows; he sat silent by the waning fire, thinking. His forehead broke out in beads of sweat several times and he wiped it with the edge of his riding hood.
Even when our dog howled outside, probably frightened by the sound of cannon fire brought up with gusts of wind, Father did not go outside, did not shout at it or chase it away, although he knew a dog’s howling was bad luck.
The unmilked cows in the yard mooed, and the rooster suddenly crowed in the evening as though it did not want to wait until morning to tell the whole village that the master of the house was planning to extinguish the fire in his hearth forever.
I sat across from my father and stared at the weaved twig wall of our patskha,* A traditional Caucasian cabin.—Ed. at the ceiling black from smoke, and at the chain hung by my grandfather over the hearth. I had been used to all that since childhood, taken it for granted, but now it seemed beautiful and good, and I was very sorry to be parting with it all.
I had already got accustomed to thinking about how next autumn I would bring home Feldysh, the neighbor’s daughter. They were not neighbors who lived close, but in the next village. We had met by chance a long time be fore and then we met many times after that on forest paths that led from our village to theirs, only not accidentally. I knew that my family had already guessed about our intentions and was getting ready for the wedding. But after that day’s visit I could not imagine how I would bring her to our home when it no longer existed.
“Will we get married?” I asked myself. The longer I sat and thought about all this, the more anxious I was for the sunrise to come so I could saddle my horse and go to her.
My mother often took a deep breath through her tears and the name of my younger brother was barely audible on her lips. And my sisters too—they either sighed or cried.
I don’t know how long we would have sat there if our dog had not barked suddenly. Someone was coming up to the house. I had just got out the door when I saw my brother who was being led, or rather carried, by two men. I helped them carry him into the house and lay him on a bench. He was all covered with blood, and my mother and sisters threw themselves at him with shrieks and tears. One of the men told us not to worry, the wound was not fatal. He was hit in the hip and would recover, but they had to leave. Without another word the two men departed.
Father wanted the fire lit so we could have boiling water quickly. Together we undressed my brother. He had lost a lot of blood and was weak, but although the wound was large it was not dangerous; Father was able to take care of it quickly. He was good at that and was well known among the neighbors for his skill. He stopped the bleeding and bandaged the wound tightly. At first he gave my brother some matsoni* Caucasian fermented milk.—Tr. diluted with water to drink, then he got him to eat some thin gruel with honey. Only after that he sat next to my brother and spoke for the first time.
“Allah has had mercy on you and us. You returned home alive.”
“Better if I hadn’t returned,” my younger brother Mata said in a choking voice as though he did not have enough air. “We’ve lost everything, Father, everything. We were wiped out. The battlefield where we fought is covered with the bodies of our dead. Just a few horsemen survived, and we ran out of bullets and gunpowder. We attacked the chain of soldiers and although there was so much fire around us that it seemed our horses’ manes were smoking we managed to get through to the seashore. But a bullet hit my hip and killed my horse. I fell under the horse and it crushed me. Lying on the ground I saw how the last of the survivors rode to the precipice, jumped right into the sea, and the hungry sea gobbled them up together with their horses. Where are my friends? Why didn’t the bullet kill me; why am I lying here by the fire shaming your old age?”
“Calm down,” said my father. “Someone always survives a battle so he can fight and die in another.”
As he said this, Father patted Mata’s head. Mata finally fell into an uneasy sleep, and we sat awake all night at his bedside until the sun rose over the snow-peaked mountains.
Our home was plunged in sorrow, but the sun shined as though it were a holiday. Father asked my mother and sisters to make breakfast and then he made everyone eat their fill, my brother too. He finally woke up and felt much better than the night before.
Father put on his best clothes, sat at the head of the table, and looked at each of us, one at a time.
“All of you, men and women, must not lose heart. We never thought this would happen, but our foster brother, Shardyn, son of Alou, is right: we will all die if we stay here. We have to find a land where there is no war, we must get ready to go.”
“What do you mean—go? What are you talking about?” shouted my brother and sat up on the bench, although he winced from the pain. What had tormented us all night was news to him.
“Calm down. We’re sailing to the blessed land of all Muslims—Turkey. The sultan will give us citizenship and land. Our foster brother, Shardyn, son of Alou, promised to protect us in Turkey and on the way there. All we have to do is collect our belongings and go with him,” said Father with such resignation as though, indeed, there was no other choice.
“What are you saying?” cried Mata upon hearing this and again winced- from the pain. “What’s the matter with you? Just a week ago you sent me to fight the Russians. Just three days ago you were wounded. Have you forgotten how many battles you’ve been in? Just count your scars!
“Lie down, you have a fever,” said Father and forced Mata to lie down. “You shouldn’t shout. I remember my scars very well, but if we continue fighting not one Ubykh will survive.
“I don’t believe all the people think that,” I said to Father. “I don’t believe our chief, Haji Kerantukh, will lay down arms. I don’t believe anything good will come of running away to Turkey. I don’t believe the stories Shardyn, son of Alou, tells. Father, don’t let anyone deceive you!”
Both Mata and I, in turn, tried to talk our father out of following the plans Shardyn, son of Alou, had made. He sat and listened, but didn’t argue and didn’t agree with us. He sat in silence. Then he picked up his staff, and at the threshold turned to us:
“All right. We’ll wait and see what the people decide. Zaurkan, go to Haji Kerantukh and stay on as his bodyguard. Since he called together the council they should make a decision today or tomorrow. I’ll go to all the neighbors. I promised to tell them that Shardyn, son of Alou, wants them to move with him to Turkey. I’ll give them the message and listen to what each of them has to say.”
“Father, don’t go!” shouted Mata and nearly jumped off his seat after Father. “Don’t go! When other men are fighting and we can still hear the sound of cannons, how can you go door-to-door persuading people to leave this land for whose sake blood is still being shed!”
“Be quiet! “said Father.
“He’ll be quiet, but he’s right. You shouldn’t go any where, Father,” I interfered.
“Better I should die than you go,” shouted my brother Mata, and throwing off all his covers he rose to his feet, began to reel, and, before I could get to him, he fell to the floor in a dead faint.
My mother and sister rushed to him after me. Father turned around and left the house.