MOUNTAINS AFLAME

Emigres, pitiful creatures desperate for food, were up and down the Asia Minor Black Sea coast in every city and every village from Trabzon to Istanbul. They had once dreamed of heaven on earth. When they realized what a fatal mistake they had made it was already too late. These people who were like tumble-weed were not only Ubykhs, but Natukhais, Bzhedukhs and Shapsugs (Adighe tribes), who had crossed the sea even earlier. There were even many Kabardinians, although they had once made peace with the Russian czar. And every last one of the Sadz and Akhchips (Abkhasian tribes) were in Turkey.

There were so many emigres from the north that the Turks lost count. Alarmed by the situation, they even tried to stop the influx of foreigners, but it was impossible by now. You have to be an outcast in an alien land to know what we felt, what suffering we endured.

The wind of death does not appoint the time. A hungry man in the face of disease is like an unarmed man in the face of his enemy. Typhoid fever and cholera carried away our people by the hundreds. Nothing was done to stop the epidemic. Some days so many people died that there was no one to mourn and bury the dead. But there are different ways of dying. It’s one thing to die in battle for a just cause: such death is honorable and even desirable. A brave man who dies on the battlefield does not disappear without a trace: his name lives on. A mortally wounded Ubykh would sing a proud song before dying. It’s no wonder that the people who died here in a foreign land like stray dogs, envied those who had died at home. Death is unavoidable, but it can bring true happiness when you die quietly near your own hearth, Sharakh!

Look, there you are lying on your death bed surrounded by your family. On their faces is love and sorrow, and in their eyes tears of sincere grief. As you bid your loved ones farewell, wishing them long life and happiness, you are peaceful and calm. Your word is law. You give your last instructions for your funeral, the division of your property, magnanimously forgive someone’s sins and you are forgiven yours. When you breathe your last and God takes your soul your relatives and friends from nearby and distant villages come dressed in black, on horseback and in carts, to pay their last respects and mourn you. They carry your body carefully in their uplifted arms, walking slowly to the eternal resting place of your ancestors. They lower you into sweet mother earth and after filling in your grave they leave in reverence; their eyes are sad and they speak in whispers as though your death brought them closer to something elevated and sacred, to some great mystery. Then they hold a wake for you arid, without clinking glasses, they drink to every year of your life and talk about what a decent, honest and good person you were in this imperfect world of ours. Then they put a fence around your grave so that no wolf, dog, or any other animal can defile it. They will wear mourning for a long time to show their respect for you.

The poor emigres couldn’t even dream of such a wonderful death. All they could hope for as they waited for death, poverty-stricken and homeless, was that their bones be placed underground and not be left to the prey of ravens and jackals. Those of us who were doomed to the close quarters of the stone hovels saw the signs of the fatal disease before the others. The elders figured the cholera had started from eating mouldy corn mixed with mice droppings. I thought it was a miracle that the lethal disease had by passed our family. My mother, father, brother Mata and both younger sisters were well so far. But my mother’s tears never dried; she was worried sick about my elder sister, Aisha and was melting like a candle. Trembling in fear she told us about her nightmares that she superstitiously thought were bad omens. “Oh pitiful me,” she bemoaned,“ my heart tells me my poor Aisha won’t he able to stand the suffering that has befallen us. I wish I had died at home rather than have to bear the pain of a mother who has outlived her daughter. My poor daughter, she was heavy with child...” Yes, Aisha had been expecting a baby when we left. You can imagine, Sharakh, the death around us, the terrible situation we were in and what could happen to a pregnant woman. Even satan himself couldn’t have devised a worse fate. Aisha and her husband had landed near Samsun like we had, but then they walked westward along the coastline. We had no idea where they were now.

While there’s life there’s hope. Seeing my mother’s tears and wanting to calm down my family, I decided to go looking for Aisha. My father and brother and I agreed that if I found her I would try to bring her and her husband to live with us. I set off following the seacoast. The sun was already rising. What I saw along the way, my dear Sharakh, was beyond description. I swear that if I had heard about all that even from a reliable person I still wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. I wasn’t gone long, but I came back with gray hair. The poor Ubykhs, the gullible emigres. What they experienced, the humiliation and suffering, was more bitter than any other tragedy they were capable of imagining. The deadly disease that entered man through food and water was rampant among us. And how could it have been otherwise since they were forced to eat garbage. Back home, the Ubykhs wouldn’t even drink water from rivers that flowed down the glaciers up in the mountains, beyond the clouds, but would only quench their thirst with spring water. They wouldn’t make cornmeal porridge out of flour that wasn’t sifted twice, and they would consider a pumpkin rotten if its stem were torn off. But now, like homeless, mangy dogs they scrounged around for food in smelly garbage heaps. Girls and women in tattered clothes would turn away or hide their faces when they saw me because they were ashamed of being seen half-naked and in such a state. Children who were dirty and barefoot, live skeletons, ran up to me with outstretched hands, begging for food:

“Bread! Give me bread!”

Even a hardened man couldn’t help but be pained by the sight of those children. One day when I was looking for my sister and her husband I wandered into a bazaar. You won’t believe this, Sharakh, but people were being sold there. Barely moving her badly swollen legs, Kazyrkhan, the widow of an old friend of mine, was leading by the hand her two teenage sons and shouting:

“Boys for sale! Boys for sale!

Shocked, I reached for the haft of my dagger and threw myself at her.

“May your old age be cursed! How dare you sell your own sons, you monster! “

She raised her tormented eyes with dark shadows under them and, as though excusing my outburst, she shook her head:

“Which of us will live to old age, Zaurkan?” And nodding her head at the children, she added, “Better they should be bought and fed than die of hunger before my very eyes.”

Ashamed, I loosened the grip on my dagger.

“May lightning or cholera strike down Haji Kerantukh who has killed off all the Ubykhs!“ said the widow in parting and walked on with her children: “Who wants some boys? Boys for sale! “

She adored her sons and after selling them it’s unlikely she could live another day. At that moment a fat bey in a blue fez appeared, waddling like an obese drake. He was followed by a lean servant stooped over in a slight bow.

The bey walked toward Kazyrkhan. He stopped her and began feeling the boys’ arms and bodies to estimate what they were worth. Then he showed with his fingers the price he was willing to pay. She didn’t bargain. The fat Turk slowly took the money out of his trousers pocket, and flung it at the woman’s feet. The corners of Kazyrkhan’s ashen lips quivered. With a trembling hand she picked up the money in a kind of stupor and took one last look at her beloved sons before she was separated from them forever. Oh, what a look that was, Sharakh! Kazyrkhan was a loving mother; only a mother is capable of doing a thing like that to save the lives of her children, of doing something compared to which her own suffering and even death meant nothing to her. The servant took the children away after thrusting a piece of bread at each of them. I covered my eyes with my hand—excruciating pain and misery shot through my heart as though it were pierced by a Turkish scimitar.

The freedom-loving Ubykhs! The proud Ubykhs! When a son was born the happy father broke the news to the mountains, the sun and all the neighbors, telling them that an heir of his blood was born. And the reply echoing back to him was: “May the family of Ubykhs grow in number!“

I staggered away from the cursed bazaar like a wounded man. The Turks bought and sold slaves, and in those ill- fated days a beautiful Caucasian woman cost no more than a sheep. The women were bought to serve as concubines in the harems of Istanbul, Ankara, Trabzon and other cities. Boys were even cheaper. Oh, those unfortunate Ubykh boys; it would have been better if they’d never been born! I can’t even bear to tell you what they did to those boys. The evil profiteers would buy them and make them eunochs for the harems of large and small lords.

The Ubykhs I met on the way looked like living mummies. Some of them didn’t even have the strength to answer my greetings. Homeless people made huts and make-shift tents against the wind and rain. Hearing the crying and moaning of the living, the delirium of the dying was like walking through hell on earth. Some people who knew me advised me to go back:

“You won’t be any use to your mother dead. Go back while your feet still carry you.” But I ignored their warnings. I was worried about my sister and her husband.

The plague was raging throughout the community. The local Turks were scared to death and tried to stay as far away from the Ubykhs as they could; they even put up cordons. But the greedy always want more; even if their stomachs are full their eyes are hungry. The owners of coffee shops, taverns, restaurants, and other establishments saw right away that they could make money off tragedy. They had the once proud and recalcitrant Caucasians do the dirtiest and hardest work, but paid them watery soup in return. The starving people were ready to work from morning till night for a little bit of food; they even thanked their employers as though they were benefactors. But the more man has the more he wants. And profit-seeking local officials searched the markets for young Ubykh women to buy and resell. Meanwhile the muezzin would go up the minaret five times a day to call orthodox Muslims to pray:

“In the name of Allah the gracious and merciful! ..“

The muezzin’s loud voice reached the deceived and rejected Ubykhs, but it couldn’t muffle their moaning and cursing. Sharakh, it seemed to me the women’s sighing turned into clouds and flew across the sea to our orphaned land where they wept over each abandoned hearth.

The farther I went from Samsun as I walked along the seaside, the more horrible was the sight I witnessed. Soon I came across corpses rotting right on the ground. The nauseating stench of death permeated the air. It was a sure sign that the whole emigre community in this area had died; no one was left to bury the dead. More and more I had a premonition of doom.

I crossed a stretch of highland covered with pebbles and descended into a valley where a muddy river was flowing. I was utterly exhausted although I hadn’t walked very far that day. There was a time when I walked with a youthful, springy step and my sinews were as strong as a mountain goat’s. I would have easily covered that distance then. But now I was tired out. I knelt by a quiet river, washed my hands, rinsed my face and, not being very thirsty, just took a sip of the warm water. But there are different kinds of water, Sharakh. In our homeland, where we used to live under the old plane trees, if someone would fall ill we would give him ice-cold water in a clay pitcher from a crystal-clear spring. Before you knew it the man was on his feet again, robust, and healthy. Yet no one thought of that as the miracle it was. I took out a piece of stale bread wrapped in my hood and dipped it in the river to stay my hunger.

I didn’t rest for long. With a heavy heart I went on. Soon I saw a squalid hut in the distance. It was obviously the home of a fisherman since nets were hung up by the door. Walking toward the house I noticed a woman lying prone on the side of the pathway and holding a baby to her breast. Next to her, in a small puddle, was a pitcher. I thought that the woman had come to fetch water in the river and had fallen down on her way back. I hurried to her to help her get up. I was so startled when I saw her face that I cried out. The woman was my sister Aisha.

“Oh, Allah! What’s wrong with you? Wake up! Say something!

When I tried to lift my sister I suddenly realized: she was dead! She apparently hadn’t been dead for long since her body was still warm. The baby was alive, but wasn’t crying; just greedily sucking my dead sister’s breast. For a second there I was lost; I didn’t know what to do. My forehead was covered with lead-heavy drops of sweat and my hands hung like those of a paralytic. Finally I got control over myself. I carefully, but forcefully took the baby away from his mother’s breast. There was a drop of milk on his lips. Oh, Sharakh, it seems like a millennium has passed since then, but the crying of that baby with the last bit of his mother’s milk on his lips is still ringing in my ears.

You know, my friend, I was thinking today that there’s a reason why I have miraculously survived to live such a long life. Someone had to wait for you so the story of how the Ubykhs perished would live on... A ship should reach shore, and the truth should reach people...

It looked like the boy was ill too. His body was hot. He clenched his toy-like fists, no bigger than walnuts, and cried so hard I thought he would suffocate. Holding him close to my breast, I practically ran up to the clay hut and before I even got to the door I cried out for help:

“Someone come out here!

But no one replied or came to the door. Standing at the threshold of the dilapidated hut, I peered inside. Someone there was moaning in pain. I took one more step and saw a man lying with his back to the wall and writhing in pain. He was my brother-in-law Garun, his forearms crossed and pressing hard on his stomach. His eyes were inflamed and his eyelids seemed burned. He was so thin his hooked nose looked even sharper and his unshaven cheeks were hollow. The once famous horseman who used to break in wild horses, a lucky and dare-devil man, now hovered between life and death.

Barely recognizing me, Garun tried to stand up to greet me.

“Oh, Zaurkan, forgive me for not having the strength to get up. Aisha went for water and will be back any minute.” His speech was interspersed with soft groans. Death was near. Half-dazed Garun obviously didn’t notice I was holding his son in my arms. Then suddenly he understood. Breathing heavily he spoke in a hoarse whisper, “If you’re a man, Zaurkan, kill me. Take me out of my misery! Aisha is dead and I’ll die like a broken-winded horse. But if I survive... No, I don’t want to... I’m older than you... I order you to kill me, shoot me! ..“

His face convulsed, his legs went straight, his head fell sideways, and blood foamed from his mouth. Forgive me, Sharakh, I guess I’ve depressed you. But if you want to hear more don’t complain if my story is like a bleeding wound that some evil soul has poured salt into. Our ancestors said medicine is never sweet.

Well, my brother-in-law Garun died, and I was left with the sick and hungry infant in my arms.

I set my nephew down on the plank bed and closed the eyes of my deceased brother-in-law. Then I went out to get Aisha’s body. I lifted her up carefully; her pitch black braids fell to my feet. Just remembering is terrible enough. Soon the dead couple was lying next to each other, side by side. My tiny nephew, whose name I didn’t even know, and who had been crying so hard just a minute ago suddenly fell quiet in his bed. The poor thing, whose life quivered like the wick of a candle in the wind, became silent. His little face was perspiring from the fever. When his eyes met mine I shivered because he looked as though he understood and was pleading for help. I brought some water from the river in the pitcher Aisha had dropped, gave the boy a drink and wiped his face with a wet cloth. The child sank into an uneasy slumber. What should I do? I thought as I stood near the deceased. Maybe cruel fate will at least spare the life of this newborn babe and I’ll be able to find him a wet nurse? But where? First, though, I had to bury the dead. According to custom they had to be buried and mourned by their family. But where would I find someone to report Aisha’s and Garun’s death to their relatives? Surely I can find someone in the area to help me? I thought I put a stick against the door of the hut to keep out the dogs and, grasping the last straw of hope, I went toward the seashore a little way and shot my pistol into the air three times.

“Hey there,” was the reply I heard in a little while. Three men and an elderly woman came toward me from the dusty shrubs. All of them were in terrible condition and could barely walk. The men held shovels over their shoulders and the woman dressed in black, had her hair down. I realized right away they were devout people who voluntarily became grave diggers doing the excruciatingly difficult job of burying those who had no family to do it for them. I told them about the death of my sister and her husband, and about my tiny nephew who was lying sick.

“Oh, my dear man,” sympathized the woman. “What happened to your noble relatives has happened to many others. Allah has turned his back on the Ubykhs. When we left our homeland we committed a terrible sin. And now we are paying for it.”

“We share your grief, dear man! We’ll help you bury your dead, but there’s nothing more we can do,” added the men as they dug their shovels into the earth.

I took them to the hut. We found the baby crying again, and making a sucking movement with his lips. He was choking. The woman picked him up, pressed him against her chest, and shook her head gravely:

“He’s not long for this world, either!

Rocking and trying to calm the baby, she walked outside. I took off my hood and began beating my chest in mourning. I mourned them for myself, for my mother, father, brother and sisters, and I mourned them for the orphaned land of the Ubykhs which was so near, yet so far away from us now. The sun was hiding behind the trees when we brought the dead out to the foot of the hill. While we were burying them the baby died too as though he didn’t want to live without his mother and father in this land of the devil. We buried the still unnamed boy next to his parents.

“Farewell, Zaurkan,” said the kind people who had helped me. “We hope nothing more terrible ever happens to you than what happened .today. We can do nothing more for you because each one of us is doomed. There’s no way we can escape death in the face of this pestilence.” Pointing to the new graves they said in envy, “They’re lucky! Our lot will be much worse. There will be no one to bury us. The ravens will pluck out our eyes and steal our bones. Pray for our souls, Zaurkan!”

When they left I remained alone in the silence of the graves. The sun, having blood-stained the horizon, finally went down. The sky turned dark and the shadows long. I decided to stay there and guard the graves the first night as my ancestors had always done to keep any animals from coming near and defiling the burial site.

When it got completely dark I lit a fire at the heads of the deceased. The flame was crimson red and showed me the visages of those who lay at its feet. Then the waning moon came out. The clouds looked like shrouds floating through the sky that was lighter than the land. Every muscle in my body ached with fatigue, my thoughts were muddled, and my eyes closed by themselves. I put my head down on my hood and fell asleep instantly. I dreamed of my grandfather. I never saw him in my life; he died before I was born, but my father often told me about him and so I recognized him in my dream. My grandfather was wearing a white Circassian coat, as white as driven snow. And his head was white, too. He was holding a huge black kettle in his hands and water spilled over the brim.

“Zaurkan,” he said reproachfully, “how can you sit idle when all your people have risen up to fight their predicament?”

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Are you blind? Look around you: the mountains are on fire.” Pointing his arm in the direction of the mountains he made an arc in the air.

When I looked where he was pointing I saw the mountains aflame. A terrible, shaggy fire rose up the mountain slopes like a herd of aurochs that had been skinned alive. The permanent snow on the mountain peaks bore its reflection. The clouds were tinged red and the sky crackled like dry brushwood in a huge bonfire. The sparks, as big as burning ships, flew skyward.

“What’s going on?” I whispered in horror.

“A visitation of God! God has deserted us and has decided to wipe all the Ubykhs off the face of the earth. Woolly snow had been falling the whole night; there was so much of it the mountains were no longer visible. And then, heaven knows how, but suddenly lightning struck and set it all on fire: the earth is being enveloped in flames. Run, Zaurkan, run, my grandson. Save the mountains! “ called my grandfather.

I grabbed the huge kettle of water out of the old man’s hands and rushed to put out the fire. It was then I woke up. At first I didn’t know where I was, but in the morning twilight, looking at the graves, I remembered everything. I heard whining behind my back. I turned around and saw a dog whose ribs stuck out so that each one of them could be counted. Covered with burs, with his tail between his legs, the dog was whimpering.

“Go away! “ I hissed and lifted my hand as though I was going to throw a rock.

The dog moved away frightened, then sat down and resumed his whining. I tried several times to chase him away, but it was no use. Each time the dog ran a few steps away and howled again. Maybe the dog belonged to the owners of the fisherman’s hut, I thought to myself. In that case he’s the host and I’m the guest.

The funeral, the nightmare, and the dog’s howling were all mixed up in my head. “Are the ones I left behind in Samsun still alive? And what if they’re not?”

I closed my eyes: everything seemed blood red as if I were looking at the sun. I got up and hurried off for home.