THE LAST COUNCIL IN THE HOUSE OF CHESTNUT WOOD

The council, or medzhlis, as we later got used to calling it in Turkey, the governing body of the Ubykhs, consisted of thirteen people plus two others who were representatives of the Abkhasian Sadz and Akhchipsou tribes which were actually closer to us in those days than to the Abkhasians.

Our land of the Ubykhs was divided into eleven provinces something like the Turkish vilayets, and the head of each one was a member of the council. Our province was represented by Shardyn, son of Alou. And besides these eleven representatives there were another two people on the council: our main mullah Sakhatkeri, and Musa. It seemed to me then that Musa was the most learned of the Ubykhs, but as I now realize, he was simply the most literate. He sat and jotted down everything that was decided at the council meetings. I never heard his voice; he always sat quietly, with his head lowered, behind a small three-legged table with many pens. He took one, then another, and wrote down everything in Arabic letters from right to left, with out missing a word.

The council met in the village of Mitkhas where Haji Kerantukh lived along with all the other Berzeks from his kinship group. In the summer the council met in the shade of several oaks that formed a semi-circle, and in the winter it gathered in a house of chestnut wood built collectively.

It was in that house and in my presence that the decision was made for the Ubykhs to move to Turkey; a decision that in the end resulted in my being the last person who can speak to you in the Ubykh language.

It was the very beginning of spring. The temperature was freezing the day before but that night it rained so hard that in the morning dirty snow remained only in the ravines. After the rain the sky was blue, but while Haji Kerantukh and I were riding to the wooden house it began half raining and half snowing.

Usually on such days no one even went outside; we all tried to keep warm by the fire. But that morning hundreds of people were gathered around the council house and their faces were as sad as if they were at a funeral.

Haji Kerantukh dismounted near the house. The rest of the council members were already waiting for him outside the house and followed him inside.

I remember that day very well and will tell you every thing that happened in that house. Haji Kerantukh sat separately from the rest in a large chair. Everyone else sat to his right and left on long benches. Behind them stood those we called “people with eagle minds”, not the nobility, but reputed among the Ubykhs for their intelligent speeches and wise advice. Among them was Soulakh, the guardian of our shrine Bytkha. Haji Kerantukh had for many years been recognized by all as the head of the council, and I, as his bodyguard, had the right to be present in the chestnut wood house somewhat behind him.

The last one that morning to enter was the mullah Sakhatkeri. He walked slowly and cautiously in his tall turban, as though he were carrying a cup of water on his head. He walked past us all; did not look at anybody, and sat nearest Haji Kerantukh

The chiefs of the Sadz and Akhchipsou were not there. They had not come to the council that morning. But all the Ubykhs who were wise, old and had the right to voice their opinion were present. They stood in a crowd behind the benches of the council members, watched Haji Kerantukh, and waited in silence for him to begin the meeting. He usually began at once, like a man in a hurry to shoot first, but that morning he was quiet for a long time; he sat with his palms on his knees and looked down at the floor. His eyes were swollen from lack of sleep. Finally, he raised his head, looked everyone over, quickly stood up, pushed back his Astrakhan hat, put his dagger in place, then placed both hands on the hilt and said:

“You already know how the war is going, and I can’t add anything to what was said about it yesterday. The Russians are attacking from all sides. Now they are very close, not only from the direction of the sea, but also from the north. Our scouts told me that in the night. With your consent I sent my own uncle to General Geiman to conclude an armistice three days ago, but we haven’t heard anything from him since, and don’t know what happened to him. He may have been killed, he may have been taken prisoner. You see the empty seats—the Sadz and the people of Akhchipsou didn’t come because they’re probably vacillating. Our neighbors the Shapsugs, after long fighting, as you have already heard, have laid down their arms. The Natukhais have begun moving across the sea, and all the rest are hesitating. I hope that the people of Pskhu, Dal, and Tsebelda, if they’re not hindered by the sovereign prince of Abkhasia, Hamutbei Chachba, will keep their word and come to our aid. I don’t have to tell you that the most difficult day in the history of the Ubykhs has arrived. We don’t know today what awaits us tomorrow—war or peace, freedom, slavery, or emigration. The Ubykh people are waiting for us to decide where we will lead them. Let’s decide what we’re going to do. Even if we wanted to, it’s too late now to postpone a decision!”

Haji Kerantukh looked around at everyone who was sitting and standing around him in the council house. He fixed his heavy gaze on them and sat down again pressing his palms against his knees ‘and directing his eyes at the floor.

Everyone was quiet for a long time; I tried to figure out who would speak first. I thought it would be Shardyn, son of Alou, who had long ago decided to move to Turkey, but probably would not have the courage to say that out loud here and now in the presence of Haji Kerantukh; and if he did there would in all likelihood be bloodshed. I thought about that as I watched Shardyn, son of Alou, but he was calm as though nothing was happening; he just sat there playing with the end of his black beard.

I couldn’t guess who would speak first.

The first one to get up was the mullah Sakhatkeri. He began by clasping his palms together and raising them in front of his thin beard while he spoke in a wavering voice as though chanting a prayer:

“Oh, Allah! We are your slaves! Don’t deprive us sinners of your mercy; give us your blessings!” Then he crossed his arms and looked around at everyone in the house. He even stretched his neck to see those who were standing behind others. “The great Allah has written the future on our foreheads. Perhaps not forever, but for the time being’ our people are predestined to leave this land. That is our fate, and it is a sin to resist the fate preordained by Allah! The’ infidels have forced us to choose the way of outcasts, and it will lead us across the sea to Turkey to the blessed land of the sultan, the lord of half the world. The sultan has willed it that this honored land welcomes all Muslims to it with outstretched arms! I would like to ask you, esteemed members of the council, if this is so then what are we waiting for? What’s keeping us here? The devil-inspired plans of the czar’s generals to settle us on the plains of the Kuban can only disgust us. How can we true believers live in that den of infidels? Can anyone among us want to end up in that hell when we have an open road to true heaven on earth?”

Sakhatkeri’s words were not news to many of those gathered in the chestnut wood house. He had never spoken so frankly and openly about this in the council, but for several years he had been agitating people in private conversations to move to Turkey.

I noticed that some of those who would not stand for such talk earlier gave looks of approval this time. But far from everyone shared these sentiments.

Nouryz, son of Barakai, a short, but strong man, with a wide chest, known for his hot temper, jumped up as .though he had been stung. He grabbed the Astrakhan hat off his head, threw it onto the floor in front of him and, knitting his thick black eyebrows, began shouting in a shrill voice:

“This is not a meeting of men, but a gathering of old women and fortune-tellers! Why are we sitting here for three days in a row now and fortune-telling when real men are fighting? If we go on fortune-telling instead of fighting let’s at least take off our men’s clothing so as not to shame it. We can put on women’s dresses, make cornmeal mush for the infidels and serve them at the table. The peasants have stopped paying us taxes because we noblemen have stopped being warriors. A man who owns a horse doesn’t ask to be loaned a horse! We have our own land, so why do we have to ask for someone else’s? Our home is here, not in Turkey, not in the Kuban. Let the cowards go where they want, but the brave Ubykhs will stay and fight right down to the very last man!”

He picked up his Astrakhan hat from the floor, brushed off the dust, and placed it near him.

“Nouryz is right! “ several loud voices said in unison.

“We never have been, and won’t be slaves!” shouted Murat, son of Hirips, putting both hands on his thin waist. This tall, lanky man with a black beard and a clean-shaven head went on to say, “If we refuse to surrender others will follow us who now fear we will give up!”

“Yes, we will fight. We’ll see who stays alive and who will fall dead—we or our enemies!” shouted someone, but I don’t remember who.

“Wait a minute. He who makes a decision without thinking it over dies before having the chance to shoot,” said Sit slowly and loudly above the general commotion. He was an elder and our relative, the husband of my older aunt. Among the peasants he was considered a wise and just man. He was asked to help mediate disputes, even the most complicated—disputes over land and spilled blood. Even Haji Kerantukh respected his opinion.

Hearing Sit’s voice, everyone turned to him, but he said nothing more.

“You’re a wise man, Sit,” said Haji Kerantukh. “Since you started you may as well continue; we want to know what you think.”

“My small mind is not for such serious matters,” said Sit. “Three of my Sons went off to fight. I don’t know what’s happened to them, but if they come home alive all four of us will agree to your decision no matter what it is. But we ask you not to be hasty, to think things over carefully. Don’t make a mistake! Don’t confuse the sunset for daybreak. My old eyes want to see daybreak, but they only see the sunset and fear it is bloody and soaked with cold tears.”

It was only later, many days afterwards, that I thought over what old Sit had said. But at that moment I had other things on my mind: I stared hard at the two people I de pended on most of all—one for the general decision and the other for the fate of my family.

Shardyn, son of Alou, sat quiet and unperturbed as though he had resolved everything for himself long ago.

Haji Kerantukh was also silent. He was like an invincible fortress that would never raise a white flag to anyone. It’s sinful to say it, but that day I believed in him more than in a prophet!

Ahmed, son of Barakai, the younger brother of the hot- tempered Nouryz, rose and broke the silence that lasted probably .a whole minute after old Sit finished speaking. He was just as broad-shouldered as his brother, but so stately that his small waist looked as though it could be cut with scissors. His beard was trimmed and a long snow-white garment could be seen under his black Circassian coat. I knew Haji Kerantukh could not stand him, but concealed his hatred fearing that if they clashed openly Ahmed would go over to the Russians.

Ahmed, son of Barakai, did not speak right away. At first he stroked the hilt of his dagger in its fancy silver sheath, then he took out his gold watch, checked the time, closed the lid, put it back—and only after that he began speaking in a thin, loud voice.

“We have argued much about what we should do and now we’ve come to the point when all of us Ubykhs are hanging on a dry branch over an abyss and can hear it cracking over our head. Who’s to blame? We are more than anyone else. I’m not afraid to say openly what each of us admits to himself. We should not have waged war against the enormous army of the Russian czar. Our ancestors, and then we, fought with our eyes closed, afraid to see the full strength of our enemy and compare his strength with our own.”

“You mean to say you just woke up today, Ahmed, son of Barakai?” shouted Haji Kerantukh as he jumped up from his chair. “Wasn’t that you who called louder than anybody for war when Haji Berzek, son of Adagva, was our leader? Wasn’t that you who went to Turkey and England for help? Wasn’t that you who brought us cannons and guns on ships? Why are you talking now as if you were just born yesterday?

“Or like a rabbit that wants to cover his tracks!” cried the mullah Sakhatkeri.

But Ahmed, son of Barakai, stood immobile until the shouting and accusations ceased.

“You’re right, Haji Kerantukh,” he said. “I was mistaken like all of you, and just as often as you I unsheathed my saber against the Russians. But despite all our bravery we are threatened with death. This threat was there from the moment we fired the first shots. We beat our heads against a rock, and now our heads are split, but the rock is whole. And we can’t just blame the generals of the Russian czar. There was a time when we leaders of the Ubykhs made peace with them, and agreed to accept their officer ranks and salaries. But then, relying on the strength of the sultan, we started fighting the Russian generals again. It’s our tragedy that the sultan, who made us believe he is almighty and wants us to spill our blood for him, is afraid to fight for us against the Russian czar. That’s why our situation is hopeless and having understood that long ago we should have made peace with the Russians!”

At this point Nouryz couldn’t control himself any longer and interrupted his younger brother.

“If any of us here has split his head it’s you!” shouted Nouryz. “You came here with a cracked head, with the pitiful advice to ask the infidels forgiveness. Even if some one else here agrees with this cowardly advice of yours, please tell me, my brother Ahmed, how we, born of the same mother, can make peace with the Russians who hoisted up our two brothers on bayonets? Who will pay for their blood if we become friends with the infidels? I swear in the name of my departed father that if you now say again that you want us to make peace with the infidels I’ll slash you to death. Don’t force me into fratricide. Get out of here. Leave us!”

He had his dagger half way out of its sheath and the people standing near him had a hard time pacifying him.

“Give me a chance to finish,” said Ahmed, son of Barakai, to Haji Kerantukh. He stood as immobile as before and did not even react to his brother’s words. “Even if you’ve al ready sentenced me to death I still have the right, according to custom, to have my final say.”

“You already said everything! “yelled Nouryz.

“Be patient. Let’s hear him out,” said Haji Kerantukh.

“As you know, there are many more Georgians than Ubykhs, and yet they did not start a war with the Russian czar,” said Ahmed, son of Barakai, after silence was restored in the house. “They became subjects of the czar, but kept their land and their language and, who knows, maybe someday they’ll get back their freedom, too.”

“I could expect anything from you, Ahmed, son of Barakai, but I didn’t know you’re capable of betraying your faith,” said the mullah Sakhatkeri. “Who are you comparing us with? The Georgians and Russians are Christians; they made peace because they have the same faith. But we Muslims have always been and always will be the enemies of the infidels.”

The mullah Sakhatkeri rose to say this and having spoken sat down again as though he couldn’t expect anyone to contradict him.

But Ahmed, son of Barakai, nevertheless, did object.

“Reverend Sakhatkeri,” said Ahmed, “you know as well as I do that the people still remember how one thousand years ago we adopted the Christian faith and, although we have considered ourselves Muslims for a long time, we continue to celebrate Christmas and Easter. We were not always the enemies of the infidels in the past and we don’t have to be in the future.”

This time Nouryz threw hi Astrakhan hat on the floor again, grabbed his dagger from its sheath, and, instead of taking it out halfway, pulled it out all the way.

“Haji Kerantukh, you heard how I swore by my dead father’s name? If you don’t throw this man out now I’ll slaughter him right here in this house! From now on, Ah med, you are not the son of Barakai, you are not my brother, you are an apostate christened secretly by the Russians, you are a traitor, a sinner. Leave us!”

Nouryz’s neighbors fell on him from all sides barely able to hold him back, and Haji Kerantukh stood up and began pacing back and forth. Then he slowly walked up to Ahmed, son of Barakai.

“What else would you like to say to us? That the Russian generals tempted you? When you were in England you were given a gilded saber. What did the Russians buy you off with? When you came back from England you gave us hope that the British would help us and agitated us against the Russians. Today, when we are hanging as you say on a dry branch, you want us to believe that you had nothing to do with all this? Yes, you have indeed reached the limit!”

“All of us have reached the limit. Especially you,” said Ahmed, son of Barakai, as calmly as before and not raising his voice. “Is it my fault the British deceived us? Yes, I brought home some British weapons. But as time goes on, I see all the more clearly that they will not fight the Russian czar for our sake. What are we to them? A handful of barbarians! When I was in London they paid more attention to my strange clothing than to our misfortune. And don’t scare me with the Russian generals. Even in those places they took by force and where much blood was shed they did not kill those who gave themselves up, nor did they kill their wives and children. They did not even kill Shamil and his wives and children, but just took him to Russia. The people of Daghestan who have submitted to their rule have not been annihilated, but continue to live in their homes. Our neighbors, the Shapsugs, those of them who did not cross the sea, were also spared and live in their own homes. I know as well as you do the cruelty of the Russian generals on the battlefield, but when they are not fighting they are not murderers. I have heard that one of them has even made up letters for the Caucasians 2 wants to publish a beginning reader. I see only two alternatives for our people: cither we fight to the last mart in battle, or admit that the enemy has defeated us—and let him act toward us as his conscience dictates. I have more trust in those who fought against us with bared swords than those who secretly sold us weapons, but never wanted to spill their blood for us. I was in Turkey many times and know that we men can expect nothing good there. We are men and we cannot be come concubines in harems like our sisters! Whoever leaves this land will suffer to the end! I know one thing: if we Ubykhs leave, our nation will perish. Now, do what you want with me: banish me or kill me.”

Having said that, Ahmed, son of Barakai, did not sit down in his seat again, but stood with the crowd. He no longer considered himself a member of the council.

His last words had such a strong effect that everyone was silent. Suddenly there was the pounding of hoofs, and the steps of those who had dismounted. Everyone watched the door open and saw before them Haji Kerantukh’s uncle— Berzek Arslanbei, who had been sent to make a truce with General Geiman. Without turning around he threw his wet cloak off his shoulders into the waiting hands of his body guard. With his head hung low he stood surrounded by members of the council. They stood as if that could help them not collapse under the terribly heavy load about to fall on their shoulders.

“What’s the news?” asked Haji Kerantukh.

“I have bad tidings,” said Berzek Arslanbei. “General Geiman would not see us for a long time; we waited for him practically under arrest. When the soldiers finally took us to him he did not even want to hear us out and said: ‘It’s too late. There can be no peace between us now! Those of you who want to move to the plains of the Kuban can go through our posts; we’ll let you pass. And those who want to go to Turkey can leave by three roads we’ll open up for them. They can go by those three roads to the sea and take whatever ships are waiting for them. But we will not allow any of you from now on to stay living where you are.’

“He sent us back and resumed fighting again, burning and destroying everything on his way. He is moving quickly and in two or three days he’ll be here!”

I still couldn’t comprehend what was going to happen, but felt that something terrible awaited us, and looked toward Haji Kerantukh as our last hope.

Unnerved, he fell back into his chair as though some invisible force was pulling him down, and clasped his head with his hands.

Some others sat down too, but the rest stood dumb struck.

You have probably seen a forest torn down by a hurricane? That’s how the Ubykhs looked at that moment in the council headquarters.

Outside we heard the pounding of horses again, and a man entered out of breath from riding and holding a wet riding hood and whip in his hands.

“Haji Kerantukh, the chief captain of the Turkish ships, Suleyman Effendi, asked me to tell you this: ‘We have been waiting at the shore for more than two days and no one is paying us for it. If you do not tell us tonight whether we are needed, our ships, along with the ships of the British smugglers, will set sail!

“Get out of here! “ shouted Haji Kerantukh enraged.

The warrior left with his head down. He was at fault for shouting in front of everyone what he should have whispered to Haji Kerantukh in private, thereby betraying that Haji Kerantukh had made the decision before the council gathered.

But at that moment I had no idea what the soldier had done wrong. I only understood it later.

“Everyone should leave except for the members of the council,” said Haji Kerantukh. “And you Ahmed, son of Barakai, you leave too; you have no business being here any more.”

So we left one by one, letting the elders go first. The last one to leave waiting for everyone else to go ahead, was Ahmed, son of Barakai.

Soon the sun would set, the clouds had cleared, but the wind was so piercing it seemed the sun was cold. The whole meadow was full of people—on foot and horseback. I did not notice Father right away; I only spotted him when he grabbed me by the shoulder and took me out of the crowd.

“What was the council’s decision: are we moving or are we staying?” he asked.

“They’re still discussing it,” I replied.

“What’s there to discuss? Time has already made the decision,” said Father. “Our foster brother was right. You wait here until the council members come out, and I’ll go back to Shardyn’s home. I was there already. They’re getting ready to move and asked me to help. I talked to our neighbors and some of them don’t want to go. Let Shardyn, son of Alou, go and talk to them himself!”

I stood dumb struck. Father sounded as though every thing had been decided. Could it be true? I stood there in a state of confusion, leaning against the wattle fence around the house, when the members of the council, led by Haji Kerantukh, emerged from the meeting.

Upon seeing them, the crowd moved toward the house.

“Listen to our decision,” said Haji Kerantukh, and, hearing his familiar, loud voice, I figured he would now lead us into battle. I still yearned to fight! “Today at midnight we will cease fighting with the Russians. They have won and now they can be masters of our land, but not of us! The great sultan, hearing of our disaster, has set aside for us the best lands in Turkey and sent ships to take us across the sea. We will sail there with faith that the day will come when we will return together with the soldiers of the sultan. Now, however, we must leave here, but not like a horror-stricken herd scattered by a wolf, but everyone together—each community headed by its leader. Tomorrow at noon we will gather at out shrine Bytkha and will swear to it that we will stay together; may her wrath fall on anyone who chooses a different path than we! Saddle your horses, and tell all the people in all the villages throughout the land of the Ubykhs of our decision. We’ll send messengers to Akhchipsou, Pskhu, Dal, and Tsebelda. We fought long side by side with them, so they can go with us, too. After we take our oath tomorrow we’ll go down to the sea and board the ships.”

To tell you the truth I was ready for death, for absolutely anything, but not that! Where was that hero of heroes, Haji Kerantukh, who led us Ubykhs so many times into bloody battles, and who we believed would never kneel before any enemy? I thought of myself as the bodyguard of a giant. But at that moment I heard the words of a very ordinary man advising us the best way to run away from the enemy.

Suddenly someone who was shouldering his way through the crowd moved me aside, and, walking forward, stood in front of Haji Kerantukh. It was the Russian Afanasy—that’s what we were accustomed to calling him. He had at one time been a Russian soldier, but twenty years before, he voluntarily went over to our side, married an Ubykh woman, learned our language and our customs. Having got through the crowd with difficulty, he stood before Haji Kerantukh, took his felt hat off his head and bowed low.

“I beg you to let me say just one thing.”

When Haji Kerantukh did not answer the old soldier turned toward us and spoke in perfect Ubykh:

“By religion and blood I’m one of those who you are at war with today, and you have a right not to trust me! But when the Russian general comes here I will be the first one he’ll hang and so you should believe me! I did not want to shoot you so I left the army of the Russian czar, and your sister became my wife and bore me two sons. For their sake, for the sake of the sky and the land, for the sake of god and all that is holy, do not be in a hurry to leave for Turkey, to leave your land orphaned! You do not know what awaits you here, but you don’t know what awaits you there either! This, at any rate, is your land. Do not leave it. Let things take their own course!”

“Shut up you infidel!” shouted the mullah Sakhatkeri, and tightened his fist as though he were going to hit him.

“He’s a Russian. He wants the soldiers to come here and stab us with their bayonets!” yelled someone from the crowd.

A small old man, bent with age, who was standing next to me, leaned heavily on his staff. It went deep into the moist earth, and he whispered with a grievous sigh:

“Our lucky ancestors—they died without seeing this terrible time.”

“Bring some hay here,” ordered Haji Kerantukh. Several young men rushed to the shed by the tethering post where they found some hay for the horses. Haji Kerantukh told them to hurry up, and they—one after another—ran into the house with armfuls of hay arid scurried out for more. When they had brought in all the hay, Haji Kerantukh stopped them, went into the house and set the hay on fire.

The crowd around the house was in a commotion.

“What’s wrong with the house?”

“Who would you suggest leaving it to?”

“Oh, Allah, spare us!”

“Better we should be killed here than sink with a ship on the way!”

“If you’re so brave, then why are you standing here? “Take your gun and go out to meet the general!”

Suddenly one voice, the most shrill and desperate, was heard above the others:

“Are we supposed to burn down our own homes, too?” The fire got bigger and bigger; dogs in the yards nearby began barking and then howling.

Haji Kerantukh went to the tethering post where his horse was, but halfway there he stopped; he probably was expecting me, as usual, to rush to get his horse and help him mount.

But I didn’t. I stood in the crowd and watched the council house burn. Probably someone else helped Haji Kerantukh on his horse. I saw him ride by me against the glowing background of the fire.

The house continued to burn. The flame pierced through the roof and blazed up into the night sky sending out sparks.

The people lingered on as though they wanted to enjoy the last bit of warmth from the fire before sailing to an alien country. I felt as though I were flying into a bottomless abyss. Along the way I could catch glimpses of faces distorted by fear and pain, roving eyes, lips whispering something, and chins trembling.

Someone touched my shoulder. I turned around and saw Shardyn, son of Alou, on his small mule.

“Hurry up and get on your horse; follow me! Thanks to Allah you have finally seen for yourself what your master Haji Kerantukh is worth, the man you would have given your fool head for,” he laughed maliciously and rode off on his mule.

“You must have a heart of stone if you can laugh at a time like this?” I thought to myself in despair. I no longer loved Haji Kerantukh, but at that moment I disliked Shardyn, son of Alou, even more.