Convinced that the Ubykhs were moving to Turkey, the czar’s generals stopped their troops, and the Turks promised to send more ships. It took us nearly two weeks to leave. I don’t know if that was better or worse, but I felt it was worse. When you know you are doomed, it’s better to die quickly, than slowly.
The day we gathered in the meadow of our shrine Bytkha, the guardian of Bytkha slaughtered several white goats prepared for sacrificing, strung up on a sharp edged stick a liver and heart freshly boiled and still piping hot, and began praying. We moved in around him and began praying, too. Soulakh’s voice broke, and tears streamed down his cheeks. He was praying to our shrine, and al though he wasn’t saying anything about our leaving, he was probably thinking about it the whole time and that was why he cried.
“Don’t let us perish, oh, Bytkha,” he exclaimed in tears as he finished the prayer, and we repeated several times after him in unison:
Afterwards, each of us, one after the other, went up to the shrine and swore to follow the rest into exile, and if any of us failed to do so, let our shrine condemn him to death and eternal damnation, and not only him but all his children and all his relatives!
When we were eating the boiled meat from the sacrificed goats after praying, Soulakh spoke:
“We are all leaving to a foreign land. Who will pray here to our shrine? How can we leave it without prayers, like the millstone of an abandoned mill without water? I beg the people’s permission to touch our shrine and take a piece of it with us so we can have its blessings when we are far away.”
At first the elders did not agree because they felt it was a sin to touch the shrine, but then, after thinking it over, they did as Soulakh asked. Together with three centenarians, he took Bytkha out of its underground habitat that no one had ever touched.
That was the first and last time I ever saw it. The shrine was carved of stone and looked much like an eagle. Its eyes were made of gold plates and its beak, wings and claws of silver.
After praying, we set the shrine back in its place, into its underground habitat. That was the Big Bytkha, or as Soulakh called it, the elder Bytkha. But with it in the habitat was another one, the younger Bytkha, also made of stone with gold and silver, but the size of a dove.
The elders and Soulakh took the younger Bytkha, wrapped it up a few times over in a sackcloth saturated with wax and placed it in a strong leather bag. The day we set off for Turkey Soulakh tied the bag to his belt; along the way to the shore, on the ship, and when we landed in Turkey, everywhere we went, and whatever suffering we endured, the younger Bytkha was always with us. Many years later something terrible happened to it: because of the shrine a man died; a man we regarded as the hope of our people. But I do not want to run ahead of myself and tell you about all that now. I will tell you later when we come to it.
That evening Zaurkan stopped right there; he did not want to talk, anymore, and the next morning he was quiet for a long time. He sat on the tree stump and crumbled tobacco that Biram had brought him. I had already noticed that he liked processing the tobacco himself. First he would cut it into long thread-like strips, then lay it out to dry in the sun, and afterwards crumble it. As I sat there recalling what he had said the night before about Bytkha I compared what he had told me with what I had heard and read earlier about other shrines like it that belonged to various Caucasians. I analyzed and wrote down my ideas.
The word bytkha did not just signify the object of prayer, but the physical object, the supernatural powers attached to it by the people, and the place where it was kept—the mound that contained its habitat and the cold spring that had to be nearby. All that was regarded as a single entity. That was perhaps why it did not occur to Soulakh or the elders of the Ubykhs to take the elder Bytkha with them. They took only the small one, leaving the big one in place. So the younger one was treated from then on as a representative of the older one, the representative of all that remained in their homeland.
I was naturally interested in the etymology of the word bytkha. The second part of the word could be from the Adyghe word—”tkha”—god. But then what does the first part mean—”by”? I could have asked the old man about it, but I did not have the heart, and besides, I doubt if he knew.
We Abkhasians also had our ancient deities and their names were based on the names of the holy places they inhabited: Lidzaa, Lykhny, Dydrypsh, Ingal-Kuba, Elyr, Lashkindar...
Actually, the word deity in Abkhasian is related to the word “anykha”, and some linguists divide the word into two parts: “an”—god and “kha”—head, that is, head of god. “Anykha” refers to a pagan deity, but there are also elements of Christianity in the concept of “head of god”. Obviously, the word “anykha”, which dates back long before Christianity, adopted Christian functions later on. At any rate, in form these matriarchal symbols of faith do not look like heads of god: In some cases they are stones that look like a mountain eagle; in others—the skull of a sheep; and still others—some unidentifiable creature. There are historical data indicating that Byzantine missionaries spreading Christianity in Abkhasia as early as the fourth century used ancient pagan holy places for their purposes, building Christian churches on these sites: at Lidzaa in Pitsunda, in Lykhny, and in Elyr. In these churches the word “anykha” in its later meaning was the head of the Virgin Mary, but in other places the word kept its old meaning and, as in the old days, continued to be related only to ancient pagan rituals.
That was apparently how it was with the Ubykhs, too. The people followed their ancient pagan religion while practicing Christianity and observing Easter. Later, when the Muslim religion became dominant, it was not able to completely erase the traces of the two earlier religions.
I wondered why the Ubykhs, infected with the fanatical ideas of holy war, which motivated them to migrate to Muslim Turkey, gathered not at a mosque when they were leaving their homeland, but at the shrine of Bytkha? Per haps it was because in their minds Allah was far away, but their shrine was close? From time immemorial all the people had come there twice a year to pray; individuals had come there for blessings before leaving on a long journey; those accused of wrongdoing had come there to justify themselves in public making a solemn oath to Bytkha. That is apparently why the Ubykhs could not leave for Turkey, a Muslim country, without taking along their younger Bytkha.
I do not know what the old man will tell me about things to come, but I am already inclined to think that the ideas of holy war did not have such a strong religious foundation in the land of the Ubykhs. These ideas came from Turkey and, having gradually won the souls of the Ubykhs, lured them to that same Turkey. It seems absurd to me as I examine the events of decades gone by that the Ubykhs could not leave without their shrine, a stone with gold and silver plates, but they could abandon their land soaked many times with their blood.
When Zaurkan finished crumbling his tobacco and rolling a cigarette he walked up to me and watched with interest as I wrote rapidly on paper. He was not the least bit impatient. But the minute I stopped writing he began speaking at once as though he had been anxiously waiting for me to finish.
...I already told you, my dear Sharakh, that of all our Ubykh noblemen, Shardyn, son of Alou, was the first to decide to go to Turkey. He had made up his mind long before. But how could such a man as he move by himself? Since he was going, we had to go too with him, we who were related to him in fosterage and our relatives, our neighbors and those peasants subservient to him, and those who were in debt to him, or were obligated to him for some assistance or protection he had given. And so when we were mourning over the land we were losing, the noblemen began arguing among themselves as to who would be leaving with whom.
Haji Kerantukh wanted to take along not only the four hundred peasant families under his authority, but fifty others, including ours. I don’t think he really believed all those fairytales about Turkey, and so he wanted to have as many people as possible to serve and guard him. Twice he sent messengers to me, who repeated his words by heart:
“Why has my bodyguard left me? I am used to him and want him wherever I go to be tied to my belt, him and his family!”
I was very strong then, dear Sharakh, and when I stood next to others I was a head taller than any of them. Besides, several times I had proved my courage to Haji Kerantukh in battle; that’s why he sent the messengers to me. I understood that, but as far as I was concerned Haji Kerantukh was dead since the day I told you about. I did not want to travel with him. And my father was against it too: how could the family go with someone else, not our foster brother?
Shardyn, son of Alou, of course, found out what Haji Kerantukh was up to, and had no intentions of giving him our family, nor the other families he considered under him.
Those days they were canvassing peasant households trying to avoid one another as bitter enemies to prevent bloodshed.
One of them would visit a peasant family telling the head of the household: “You have to go with me.” Then the other would come to the same house and demand the family go to Turkey with him. The peasants were so confused they didn’t know who they should follow.
At noon one day when the family was getting ready for dinner Haji Kerantukh rode into our yard on his spirited horse. He was all alone. Father and I went out to help him dismount. He had never honored us with a visit, so my father was even more surprised than I was. But Haji Kerantukh was not planning on getting off his horse. The horse was jerky, restlessly champing at the bit while we tried to hold on tight to the stirrups.
“Not so long ago many were ready to cross swords just to have the right to serve me,” said Haji Kerantukh as he sat on his fidgety horse. “Now, as you see, I’m alone! And you of all people, Zaurkan, have no business leaving me. Didn’t you swear, ‘As long as my master is alive I am bound to his belt? If he dies, may I die before him?!
He reproached me in a voice that was bitter and irritated, but my father acted as though he did not notice and tried to persuade him to dismount and come into the house.
“You have never been in my home. Pay my family the honor. The cornmeal mush is ready. Please accept our humble hospitality.”
I had already let go of the stirrups. But my father still held on and as he fought to contain the horse his eyes spoke to me:
“If he gets down you hurry and slaughter a lamb. Can’t you see what an honorable guest we have!”
I don’t know whether Haji Kerantukh would have dismounted or left us but while my father was persuading him Shardyn, son of Alou, entered the yard, as usual, on his mule. He felt at home and so without waiting for an invitation he got off his mule himself and quickly went up to Haji Kerantukh who was still in his saddle:
“You’ve got no business being in my foster brother’s homestead. Go back where you came from and leave this family alone!”
Haji Kerantukh looked down at him angrily:
“No matter where I go you are right behind me, Shardyn, son of Alou. Just watch out. You’ve probably forgotten who I am and who you are. I have the right to go anywhere I want, and my word is law.”
“You burned with your own hand what made your word law,” Shardyn, son of Alou replied brazenly.
“Until now you were only capable of fawning,” said Haji Kerantukh. “But now it seems you’ve decided to get in my way? Well, if you don’t want any trouble just remember that this family has decided to move with me, and don’t you try to stand between me and them.”
But Shardyn, son of Alou, had no intention of backing down:
“I know you lost your conscience a long time ago. But you had better fear Allah! Hamirza is my foster brother. And he and his family will only go with me. Mother’s milk binds both them and me.”
I could not take any more of it. At that moment I despised both of them equally.
“Even when cattle is led by a rope nobody keeps it from turning its head where it wants,” I shouted. “We’re not beasts, but people after all. It wouldn’t hurt to ask us which way we want to turn our head?”
“Shut up. How can you speak so brazenly with such people! “my father scolded me.
“If your family doesn’t want to, so be it; I won’t force them. You can go with me yourself,” shouted Haji Kerantukh from his horse.
But I did not even have a chance to open my mouth to answer him when Shardyn, son of Alou, hastened to reply for me:
“Haji Kerantukh, this is not the first time you’re attempting to separate mother and son! Tell me, how many Ubykh youths have you sold to Turkey and at what price?”
“You’d think a man with a clear conscience is talking,” laughed Haji Kerantukh. “And how many young boys have you sold to Turkey—not ours, but Adighe and Abazin boys, bought and sold? How many—answer me!”
They both fell silent as though they could not think of anything worse to say about each other.
“I repeat: don’t stand in my way,” said Haji Kerantukh after a pause.
“I never know where I’m going to meet you,” said Shardyn, son of Alou. “You’re like a sunflower that turns its head wherever it seems warmer.”
“Shut up! You’re forcing me into a fight.”
“Really? I don’t see any men here capable of fighting,” replied Shardyn, son of Alou, as he looked insolently right into Haji Kerantukh’s eyes.
“Why, you degenerate. Now I know why you were careful not to lose your life in battle with the enemy! You probably wanted me to kill you, not them,” shouted Haji Kerantukh in fury, and, having got off his horse, went up to Shardyn, son of Alou, with his dagger bared.
The other one did not budge and took out his dagger, too. But before my father and I managed to keep them from locking horns my mother shouted:
“Don’t forget you were both borne by a woman.” She tore the scarf off her head, and threw it between them faster than they could begin fighting.
Ready to fight till death just a minute before, they stood there looking with hatred at each other in silence. Only the cartridge pockets on their Circassian coats moved up and down with the heaving of their chests.
“You’ll regret this someday, Zaurkan!“ cried Haji Kerantukh when I went up to hold the stirrup for him.
Slipping into his saddle he spurred his horse and galloped away. Shardyn, son of Alou, paced the yard for a few minutes.
“Well, are you ready to move?” he asked my father when he finally stopped walking back and forth.
“What’s there to get ready?” said Father nodding toward the house. “We can’t take it with us! Just as soon as you let us know, we’ll leave with you.”
“We’ll be sailing on a big Turkish steamship, the Nusred-Bakhri. It’s so big they say it can take 4,000 people at one time. The captain has agreed to charge less than usual, just six rubles a person. But he wants the money in advance when we board. What’s your situation with money?” Shardyn, son of Alou, asked my father.
“I don’t know if I can afford that, but I’ll try,” said Father.
“Any other time I would have paid for you myself. But now I don’t have any money,” said Shardyn, son of Alou, throwing up his arms in resignation, and went to his mule.
Mother asked him to stay for dinner, but he had other things on his mind.
“Haji Kerantukh is like a mad dog now,” he said as he was getting onto his mule. “I’m afraid he’ll try to work on your neighbors, too. Call them together this evening in someone’s house. I’ll come myself...” He was already out the gate when he turned around to give his last instruction to my father: “And have everyone available collect the money by evening.”
Having shouted that in parting, he left, and all of us stood there in the middle of the yard confounded. We just couldn’t recover from the shock.
My mother’s white scarf was still lying on the ground. Father picked it up, shook it and said to her:
“May it always be on your gray head. May it never be replaced by a black scarf. It just saved two of our guests from killing each other, and although they didn’t spill blood I’m still frightened. We are leaving our land and going on a journey that we don’t know how will end; in the mean time our protectors are fighting over us as though they’re dividing up cattle among themselves. They practically stabbed each other. Oh, Allah, could it be that you’ve begun hating us!”
Father walked slowly up to my mother and handed her the scarf. And I remembered Haji Kerantukh’s words:
“You’ll regret this someday, Zaurkan.” My heart ached with apprehension. The whole evening and throughout the night I could not drive away this alarm; at sunrise I hurried to the spring where Feldysh went to get water in the morning. It was far from our house, but very close to hers, and I knew what time and where to wait for her. We had been meeting each other in the same place for two years. That day as always we met under the big chestnut tree by the spring. In the past we would often stand under the green tent not afraid of rain or sun. But now the tree had lost its leaves, arid the rain was lashing its wet branches and our faces. But we did not want to leave. Feldysh reminded me several times that they were waiting for her at home, but I would take her hand into mine and she would remain.
“What should we do now, Feldysh?” I asked. “Is it true what they say about your protector, Haji Kerantukh?”
“Father says it’s true. Last night I heard him telling our neighbors that Haji Kerantukh got permission from the czar’s generals to take his peasants across the sea at the government’s expense.”
“What else have you heard?”
“I heard that Haji Kerantukh has divided up all the peasants and decided who will sail on what ships. He’s forbidden everyone to go to other villages before departure. He also said the young men and women couldn’t marry anyone from other villages.”
“Does he want to stop us from living, too?” I shouted in exasperation.
Seeing I was so upset she tenderly squeezed my hand.
“Today my father promised to go to Haji Kerantukh and beg him on his knees to allow our family to travel with yours. He doesn’t want you and me to be separated.”
Oh, how she wanted to comfort me! A bitterness came over me hearing her father was ready to get down on his knees to make such a useless plea.
“Tell your father not to humiliate himself in vain. Haji Kerantukh will never agree to that if only to spite our foster brother, Shardyn, son of Alou.”
She was again silent, totally unnerved by this new blow when we heard her mother anxiously calling her daughter. Feldysh started and, picking up her pitcher, she went down to the spring.
“Don’t ask anyone for anything,” I said as I caught up with her. “The day after tomorrow, just as soon as the sun rises, come here to the chestnut tree. I’ll tell my family and we’ll get married. The day after tomorrow you’ll leave here with me.”
“But what will become of my family?” she asked and began crying.
I embraced her for the first time and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She pulled away to get her pitcher, but I got to it first and filled it up with water. To the Ubykhs a full pitcher is a token of happiness. How could I have known that was our last happy day together!
I picked up the pitcher and placed it on her shoulder. I did not follow her, but watched as she walked along the path winding up the hill like a snake. Her slender waist bent this way and that and her two long auburn braids slid to and fro across her back.
“Where are you, Feldysh?” called her mother from above. “I’m coming, I’m coming, don’t worry, Mama,” she replied.
I had no way of knowing then that was the last time I would hear her voice.
Although that’s not quite true. I heard her once more in my life! But that was later, much later, my dear Sharakh! We have a long way to go before that. In order to tell you all about my long life I must focus on one thing at a time, or I’ll get things mixed up.
The whole next day our family packed, and the last night before we were to leave none of us could sleep. We had packed everything we were taking, and sat the whole night silently by our hearth that was lit for the last time. Father forbade Mother to cry because he was afraid tears would bring us bad luck before the long journey the same as before leaving for war. But Mother could not control herself. To hide her tears she wrapped her face in a scarf, but the tears streamed down from there anyway—drop by drop— falling onto her dress. Oh, Allah, how many tears she shed then! Where had she been hiding that sea of tears? She cried for us, and for her brothers in Tsebelda, whom she knew nothing about, and for her oldest, married daughter who she knew was already sailing across the sea.
That’s how we spent our last night. In the morning we went out in the yard. My brother also walked out, but on crutches my father and I had made for him. Father forced us to eat breakfast, and reminded the women again to take as much food as possible for the journey. We did not milk the cows, and we didn’t drive them out to pasture either, but let them stay in the yard.
While the family was busy making the last minute arrangements for the journey, I, as Feldysh and I had agreed, hurried to the spring. No one tried to stop me or ask any questions. It’s not right to discuss such delicate matters, but the night before I hinted to Mother and Father that I would bring Feldysh to them, and knew they were prepared for that.
I ran through the woods so quickly that not even a man on horseback could catch up with me. Youth is always a time of hope, no matter what, and I ran, not paying attention to the branches lashing against my body. I was already picturing how I would bring her up to the house and call to my sisters as they approached us, “Here is my bride!”
I knew that Haji Kerantukh had many things to take care of: it wasn’t so easy getting all four hundred peasant households under his control ready for the trip, and so I thought precisely this day, because of all the commotion, I would be able to save Feldysh.
I ran up to our chestnut tree, but there was nobody there. Like someone mortally wounded, who has no strength left to move and is circling in place, I agonized under that chestnut tree not knowing where to go. By the spring I saw the broken pitcher lying on the new grass.
“Why is it here, smashed to smithereens? Maybe she dropped it accidentally when she was lifting it up on her shoulder? Or maybe she did it on purpose to tell me we would never see each other again?” I had a feeling some thing irreparable had happened, and, no longer fearing her mother or father would see me, I ran up the hill to her house and was at her gate within a minute.
The yard was empty: not a cow or dog in sight. The house was locked up and everything around was quiet and deserted. Only a black cat on the roof suddenly began mewing when it saw me, as though inquiring: “Where were you and what are you doing here now that everything’s over?”
They had left before I thought they would. When I realized that, I was ready to tear Haji Kerantukh apart with my teeth like a beast--the man I had been willing to die for not so long ago. But what could I do now when the ship Feldysh was on was probably far out to sea!
When I got back home I took out my horse Bzou. He was our only horse now, because my father’s and brother’s had been killed in the last battles. I took the horse down to the stream and washed it, returned home, fed it corn for the last time and led it outside the gate once again. Seeing me, my mother and sisters covered their eyes with their hands and wept. My Bzou, who wasn’t aware of what was happening, pranced after me affectionately nudging my shoulder with his head from time to time as if to say, “Why don’t you get on!”
We went into a large meadow where I sometimes practiced trick riding in the evenings, and he was so overjoyed he began circling around me, tugging at the bit.
“My faithful Bzou, how many times you saved me from death, and now I’ll have to kill you,” I said and cried as I pressed my head against his neck.
Then I took off the bit and ran him around the meadow. We had already agreed that neither our horses, nor our selves should fail into the hands of the enemy and so anyone who had raised a horse must shoot it himself.
I cocked my pistol and put my finger on the trigger. Bzou did not move away from me, but grazed nearby, waving his long and beautiful tail.
“I wouldn’t have felt half as bad if the wolves had torn him to pieces,” I thought to myself, still unable to shoot.
Finally I aimed at the horse’s ear, and pressed the trigger, but the pistol didn’t fire.
The hardest thing was to cock the pistol again. The mortally wounded horse jumped up several times as though he wanted to leap over death itself, and fell to the ground, his head toward me. In the distance I heard several shots—other people were also killing their horses. That was probably the first time in my life I felt heartless.
Then I buried Bzou with my own hands, and, having put a rock over his grave, I went to the village graveyard. I was sure my family was already there, and I was right. Before I even got there I could hear people crying and moaning over the graves of their relatives. When I got closer I saw that my father was on his knees before the grave of his father and mother. He had bent his gray head low, and was crying and striking his chest with his fist. My brother stood nearby on his crutches. Because of his wound he couldn’t get down on his knees. My mother and sisters were standing a distance away from them over a small grave where my eldest brother had been buried as a child. They stood with their hair down, cried and picked the weeds that had grown since the beginning of spring around the gravesite. My family had rarely seen me in tears, even when I was a child, but that day I stood next to them and cried for the second time that morning.
After crying over the grave of her son, my mother went up to my father and lamented through her tears:
“Sleep in peace, Grandfather and Grandmother, your grandson is nearby and will keep you company. We unfortunate ones are leaving and don’t even know where.”
Everyone in the land of the Ubykhs cried that day as though someone had died at the same time in every home.
Dear Sharakh, have you ever seen old people and children crying together? If you haven’t heard that, I hope to God you never do. There is nothing worse than that in this world. I can’t imagine how our mountains could stand it, how they managed not to fall apart listening to it! It’s a wonder all our streams and rivers didn’t turn salty from the tears shed that day!
Having cried our hearts out, we left pitchers of wine and some food at the graves for the dead, and feeling somewhat better after that each of us went back to his home.
It was cold in the house. The fire in the hearth had already burned out. Father took the kettle with cold cornmeal mush out into the yard and called our dogs. He emptied the contents on the ground behind the house so the dogs would eat and not follow us. Then he came back. We all stood immobile knowing that now we would leave, probably never to return. How pitiful a person becomes when he doesn’t know what awaits him!
“It’s time,” said Father. “I see the neighbors are already leaving.”
He took off his hat and, standing in the middle of our house, he looked at the ceiling as though he were looking through it into the sky.
“Oh, Allah, give us poor people your blessings!”
Then Father went up to the hearth.
“You warmed all of my ancestors, my father and my mother; you warmed me and my children. Forgive me for putting you out.”
Having said that, Father pulled the chain, black with soot, up to his lips and kissed it. Then he took out his dagger, dug up the earth near the hearth and put a handful of it in the linen sack hanging from his belt.
“When I die, sprinkle this earth on my chest,” he said to me and my brother. “And now it’s time to go!”
My father was the last one to leave the house. When he closed the door, it creaked loudly as though complaining: “What are you doing?”
“It’s a bad omen that the door creaked before we started on our journey,” said Father sadly and began praying once again.
“Oh, Allah, may the doors of the houses in the land where we’re going not be closed to us. May we not be left homeless!”
The farther away from the house we got, the more people walked and rode near us. Our neighbors were carrying their sick mother on a cart; she had been bedridden for five years.
“Why are you taking me with you?” she moaned through her tears. “Bury me here and go.”
The people kept coming and coming. Looking back you could not see the end of the line of people walking down cast and quiet down the road.
In a few hours, when we came to a crossroads, I heard loud voices: a crowd of people was blocking the way. My self and a few other youths ran ahead, passing the old men and women, and saw that Ahmed, son of Barakai, was standing right there on the road holding his saber in front of the crowd. His snow-white horse was tied to a tree by the roadside.
“You can kill me, but while I’m alive I won’t let you pass by!” he shouted as he waved his saber. “Go back to your abandoned homes before its too late; light your fireplaces that are still glowing!”
“Step aside, Ahmed, son of Barakai! The ships are waiting for us.“
“So they are. But when you realize you’ve been deceived, they won’t take you back home. I have been to Turkey more than once and know what awaits you there— hunger, slavery and death. The sultan will take away your sons, give them guns and send them off to fight, and they will never come back to you again. That’s why he’s calling you there, that’s the only reason!”
Ahmed, son of Barakai, was shouting. But although he had delayed the crowd for several minutes already, no one would listen to him.
“What are you doing?” someone asked him. “Do you want the infidels to find us here arid force us to christen our children? We are Muslims and we’re sailing to a Muslim country!”
“You’re going into an abyss, an abyss!” Ahmed, son of Barakai, yelled hysterically.
“Doesn’t this madman have any family to calm him down?”
“His brother Nouryz is sailing across the sea.”
“Don’t come near me! “ cried Ahmed, son of Barakai, as he continued brandishing his saber in front of the stunned crowd. “Anyway, until you kill me I won’t let you pass! Those who have gone, have gone, but at least you can return; go back and save your kin!”
“Oh, Ahmed, son of Barakai! If you wished us well could you abandon your people? Wouldn’t you go with them!”
“Why isn’t there a real man among you who could kill me before I see how all my people die!” shouted Ahmed, son of Barakai, not backing down one bit.
But the crowd pressed women and children toward him, and he could not hurt them. So he retreated, and, moving him farther and farther aside, the crowd slowly moved past him. And no one, not one person who walked by even turned around to see what happened to him.
The closer we got to the sea the more people joined us. Not far ahead walked the blind Sakut helped along by two of his grandsons. As far back as I can remember he played his apkhiartsa* An Abkhasian stringed instrument.—Ed. at all celebrations. At first I didn’t notice him, but now, when we were already near the sea, he took the apkhiartsa off his belt, tuned it, tested the strings, and began playing, then singing. He shuffled his feet with difficulty, but his voice was clear and strong, so it was hard to believe it belonged to an old man.
Oh, what a bitter fate,
What a bitter fate!
What a large sea
And what a small handful
Of native land!
The poor land will be empty,
And the cuckoo will freeze on the branch.
It’ll have no one to tell the future to.
Did you bid farewell to the dead?
Did you tell them we won’t return?
You should have told them.
You mustn’t deceive the dead!
More and more people ahead of and behind Sakut heard his voice and the sounds of his apkhiartsa. He went on singing:
Let’s look back at our mountains,
They don’t know where we’re going.
Let’s look back and leave them our song
To wander like an echo
From one mountain to another.
If a child leaves its mother
The mother is to blame.
But is she really to blame?
Is she really to blame?
“Why are you leaving, children?
What have I done to you, children?”
Our land is crying,
Our land is asking.
Forgive us unfortunate- ones,
We have no power to stay.
We can leave you
One thing only: our souls.
We are leaving forever.
Forever our souls shall remain.
Oh, Allah! How many years, how many long years have passed since then, but this song of suffering is still ringing in my ears. I have seen many times how a shoot springs forth from a seed fallen to the ground. I have seen many times how life is born, but only once have I heard how a song is born. It was born that terrible day on the way to the sea and we kept it forever.
When our shoulders could no longer bear suffering we would gather in a circle, one of us who knew the words best would begin and we would join in singing. We would sing it until we had no more strength left, and, believe me, my dear Sharakh, the fatigue made us feel better.
When we arrived at the shore it was so crowded with people and livestock there was hardly any room to stand up. Shardyn, son of Alou, had warned us what we could and could not take with us. But many others had hoped they would be able to take their livestock with them so they brought their animals to the shore.
Steamships and sailing vessels were backed off from the coastline; boats pulled back and forth carrying people to the Waiting ships.
Our foster brother, Shardyn, son of Alou, had already brought his family and everything he was taking with him onto one of the sailing vessels. He had promised us we would sail on a large steamship. He had come back to shore to make sure no one at the last minute stole one of his subjects and waited for us as he counted his devotional beads. He was no longer wearing a Caucasian Astrakhan hat, but a Turkish fez. And although I could not say it out loud, I was thinking to myself that if we had a hard time recognizing him already, then how would we recognize him later in Turkey.
“Is everybody here, Hamirza?” he asked my father.
My father answered in the affirmative:
“Then get started loading everyone into the boats. Only don’t take any livestock with you, nothing but people,” he reminded us of his earlier warning.
There was nothing to wait for anymore, so we got started. One boat after another set off from shore full of people and returned empty—and again went away full. The Turks shouted at us to hurry. But, dear Sharakh, as the Abkhasians say—you go along with the person whose boat you’re in! And so we quietly put up with not only swearing, but kicks as well.
By the time the sun had gone down there was no one left on the shore but the livestock bellowing with hunger. A few young men and I stayed on shore until all our neighbors had boarded. We kissed the rocks on shore and jumped into a boat.
Why didn’t I die then? Why didn’t my heart break when I stood with one foot on shore and the other on the back of the boat? How fortunate I would have been, how much suffering I would have been spared!
Our boat, the last one, was moving farther and farther out to sea when suddenly, looking back, I, and then the rest of the men I was with, saw a man ride up to the shore on a snow-white horse. We saw right away it was Ahmed, son of Barakai. He jumped off his horse, loosened its bridle and let it free. Then he stood on the edge of a cliff over the water. He waved his hands and yelled something to us, but the wind kept us from hearing what he said.
“Let’s go back and get him,” I said to the others. “We can’t leave him here all alone.”
The others were silent, not quite sure what to do, but Ahmed, son of Barakai, solved the problem for us. We heard a pistol shot and I even thought I saw a small bluish puff of smoke. After the gun fired, Ahmed, son of Barakai, still stood at the edge of the cliff. Then he began swaying and fell into the sea. His horse, frightened by the shot, ran along the empty shore.
We were all dumfounded. When he had tried to stop us on the road no one wanted to listen to him. But now his death filled our hearts with trepidation.
“A man who could do what he had probably knew some truth that we don’t know!” we thought to ourselves as we sat in the boat when it was already too late to matter. The land of the Ubykhs was empty, and the body of poor Ah med, son of Barakai, was tossed by the waves back and forth between the coastal rocks as though the sea and the shore were fighting over him.
Our sailing vessel, filled to the limit with people, turned around, keeling over and headed out to sea. The farther we got from the shore the more clearly we could see the out line of our mountains on the horizon. I was used to them. I had grown up in their breast. I can still remember each peak as I saw them those last few minutes.
We were so far out by now that the mountains were obscured by the blue evening twilight. Just a little farther and they disappeared from sight.
The blind Sakut once again played his apkhiartsa. But he did not sing. Sometimes the sounds were clear, sometimes not so clear, drowned in the noise of the waves, the creaking of the masts. But I could tell right away when the apkhiartsa became quiet altogether. There was silence and for some reason my heart froze. I went over to the old man. He sat on the deck in his threadbare Circassian coat. Underneath he spread out his cloak. His grandsons, who had walked with him the whole day, were sleeping, one on either side of him and with their heads resting on his lap. “Probably he’s gone to sleep too,” I thought, but when I got up closer I saw he was awake. Tears, drop by drop, streamed down his cheeks and his gray beard and fell on the apkhiartsa, which he held close to his chest as though it were the last handful of native earth.
“Oh, Allah! “I thought. “Could it be that with those blind eyes of his he can see through the fog of the sea the last hazy outlines of the native land we will never return to?”