Three months had passed since Juna left. It was as though she had disappeared into thin air. Sometimes Shardyn, son of Alou, conveyed greetings from her supposedly through friendly letters he got from Selim Pasha. Then one day the postman came with a letter for us. No one had ever written to us, so we figured right away it was from Juna. She didn’t know how to write herself, so we thought someone else had written it for her. None of us could read, and anyway the letter was written in Turkish. We asked Mzauch Abukhba for help. Juna said she was doing just fine, was happy with her life, but- missed us all very much, especially her dear sister. “It would be wonderful if Kuna would agree to come to Izmid. She could stay with me a week or so, would have a good time and would cheer me up too.” The letter was brief, like a summer night, but it put us all at ease.
Soon afterwards a fancy carriage, carrying two women dressed in black, drove up to our gate. Their faces were hidden behind veils. The women entered the house, bowed and said:
“Peace to this home! “Then they introduced themselves: “We’re your daughter Juna’s servants! Our benefactress and mistress sends you her love and kind wishes. Thank Allah she’s doing well and her radiant beauty illuminates the whole palace, to the joy of all those near her. Only one thing makes her sad: her separation from you! If you don’t want us to be the victims of her anger, we beg you to allow Kuna to visit her sister. Our magnificent mistress deserves such joy.”
At this point the coachman brought in a large box.
“These are presents from our lady.”
The unexpected visit by Juna’s servants and their confirmation that she was doing well, made us extremely happy. As for Kuna, our dear Kuna, she began asking our parents to give her permission to see her sister.
With heavy hearts, Mother and Father gave in to her pleading and, having dressed in her best clothes, Kuna left with our sister’s respectful maids. How could we have known that her departure would be so disastrous.
Days went by, then weeks, but Kuna did not return. We became desperate.
“My God, maybe something terrible has happened to her and you three men are sitting there doing nothing,” said Mother challenging us into action.
Father, consumed by worry, went off to Shardyn, son of Alou, but was met with a reproachful tirade:
“You’re making a fuss over nothing, you old rooster, as though your daughters are drowning in the open sea or are lost in a primeval forest! They’re having a great time in the white marble palace where their every wish is met, and here you are ringing an alarm. So what if your Kuna has stayed a few days longer than expected! Why shouldn’t she when the sisters are so busy entertaining themselves they don’t know whether it’s day or night outside! It would be better if you performed your ablutions first thing in the morning, and prayed to Allah in thanksgiving that he sent us Selim Pasha. Have a look at the presents he recently sent to my wife! The carpet you’re standing on was his generous gift. And that vase on the golden tray— also priceless. Go on home and relax! I’ll be visiting our relative Selim Pasha soon and will personally bring back your treasure, Kuna, safe and sound. And your sons shouldn’t forget that it was with Selim Pasha’s help I was able to keep them from being drafted. Go on! Go home!”
Shardyn, son of Alou, did everything he could to stress his close relationship with Scum Pasha. It paid off because some would try to be in his favor to get protection from the Ubykh leader, and others, who were simply afraid of him, did exactly what he said. It was out of the question to file a complaint against such a person, or disobey him in any way. Yet the secret ambition of Shardyn, son of Alou, was to rise higher than even Selim Pasha. Ever since Haji Kerantukh receded into the background keeping a low pro file, Shardyn, son of Alou, became the main spokesman on behalf of the Ubykhs. He was wealthy, but what was his wealth compared to the countless treasures of Selim Pasha? And he didn’t have the power that the Izmid governor had. Therefore, the high-born emigre carefully looked for a round-about path to the summit of his power.
The first year we were in Turkey Shardyn managed to make the acquaintance of the sultan’s mother. I already told you, Sharakh, that she was an Adighe. You have to give credit to Shardyn, son of Alou: he was able to get this woman to like him and she helped secure land for the Ubykhs in Osmankoy. Shardyn, son of Alou, had a good sense of smell, like a merchant who could always smell a change in prices long in advance. He could instantly size up everybody’s ups and downs at court and quickly, like an echo, respond. He took advantage of the envy that plagued the sultan’s court favorites, their selfish interests and intrigues. Without batting an eyelid, Shardyn, son of Alou, would have pawned all the Ubykh exiles just to move one step higher. Selim Pasha knew his Caucasian friend was ambitious, but he still didn’t know that Shardyn was hoping, no matter what, to surpass him. Shardyn, son of Alou, went to Istanbul more and more often. Sometimes he would stay in the Turkish capital for months at a time visiting the sultan’s Adighe mother. He charmed this important woman whose beauty had not been dimmed by time. Shardyn, son of Alou, introduced her to his wife and sister Shanda. The first step is always the hardest.
Afterwards his wife and sister were invited to every affair given at the palace. The first time the Sultan’s mother saw Shanda she was enamored by the beautiful features of that Ubykh girl arid even scolded Shardyn, son of Alou:
“Why did you, honorable Shardyn, so ungraciously conceal from us the wondrous beauty of your sister?”
When a woman praises aloud the beauty of another woman, even if she’s younger, there must be something in it.
The sultan’s mother welcomed Shanda, was affectionate toward her, gave the young maiden a ring from her finger, and chose for her the flattering nickname “Diamond of the Caucasus”. Shanda, I must admit, not only had heavenly features, but earthly ones too: she never forgot to be modest, meek and pious at the appropriate times. Shardyn’s sister was now a frequent visitor to the palace. She went for walks with the sultan’s mother, listened courteously to her when they were embroidering, and sang her Ubykh songs.
When the new sultan Abdulaziz ascended the throne he was able to put down the conspiracy by his enemies at home— the Young Turks—and, despite the fact that a war was on, he enjoyed life to the utmost. In contrast to his late father, the country’s new ruler did not like to chatter with his courtiers about world events, was too lazy to read books and got bored when his advisers were long-winded. Oh, if only he could get the vizier to take care of all the affairs of state, all he’d ever do is watch cock fights, ride horses, hunt, and enjoy the company of women.
His grandmother’s new confidante, Shanda, was appreciated by the sultan and soon became his third wife. That turn of events was like an enchanted dream to Shardyn, son of Alou. As the brother-in-law of the Turkish sultan he no longer felt it was befitting for him to live in such a god forsaken place as Osmankoy. So the favorite of fortune, along with all his relatives and reliable people, moved to Istanbul. Strike while the iron is hot, as the saying goes.
Abdulaziz was blissful as he was discovering the virtues of his new wife. Everyone knows that husbands are never quite as pliable, compliant and generous as they are during the honeymoon. Shanda didn’t have to try hard to persuade the sultan to make her brother an officer and give him a large salary. The reality that was like living in a dream continued. The grand vizier himself read out the sultan’s commission conferring Shardyn, son of Alou, an officer’s rank. I have to give my foster uncle credit—he was clever and sly, and had a glib tongue. With one hand on his fore head and the other on his heart, Shardyn expressed his gratitude to the sultan and in the same breath, for everyone to hear, he said he wished to immediately join the war effort.
“That’s commendable and exemplary,” said the grand vizier approving the decision.
Shardyn, son of Alou, realized he couldn’t depend on his sister’s charms for long, especially since Abdulaziz wasn’t the most faithful man when it came to women. Besides, there had to be a way to make the envious courtiers bite their tongues and stop saying that Shardyn’s achievements were won by his sister Shanda on her marriage bed. That’s why his willingness to shed blood or even die in the service of the sultan was a good trump card in a big game. And so, Shardyn, son of Alou, went off to war.
However, it was just his luck that he arrived at the advanced positions of the Balkan front right before a battle in which the Russians drove the Turkish troops out of a big city. The staff officers were racking their brains to figure out how to report this unpleasant news to Istanbul with the least repercussions. It’s easier to charge the enemy, scimitar in hand, than to bring the sultan bad news. It’s only a saying that a messenger is not responsible for the news he brings. Whoever brings unwanted news might not leave the palace alive. Finally, someone came up with the idea of Shardyn, son of Alou. Oh, what a wonderful thought— the sultan’s brother-in-law! He tried to get out of this most unpleasant assignment, but it was useless. This was war and a refusal could mean being killed with your own men’s bullet. What will be, will be, he decided, and went off to Istanbul.
When he arrived in the capital, Shardyn, son of Alou, didn’t go to the palace, but hid in the home of a friend— the owner of a coffee shop—and through him was able to summon his sister. They decided that Shanda would find a scapegoat who would bring the bad news about the defeat to the sultan before Shardyn, son of Alou, appeared. The unfortunate messenger barely got out of the palace alive, while Shardyn, son of Alou, who followed him into the palace walking on soft carpets, came in as a consoler, as someone rubbing balm on the wounds. Many among the courtiers hoped that the Ubykh would be beheaded and his body thrown out of the sultan’s reception room. But their hopes were in vain. On the contrary, the sultan walked out of his room with a sad, but brighter face, holding the hand of his brother-in-law dressed in full uniform, and said to the nobles bowing to him:
“Because our valiant Shardyn, son of Alou, survived heavy battle unharmed, I have awarded him an order for bravery!”
Not so long ago the sultan’s following had been calling him an “upstart”, “vagabond”, “alien”. But now people were even afraid to speak ill of him behind his back, especially since the minister of the police made him his adjutant.
I don’t know how accurate my account is, Sharakh. I can’t say for sure, because I’m just telling you what I myself heard about Shardyn, son of Alou, after he went to Istanbul.
The Ubykhs who remained in Osmankoy had different interpretations of the friendship between Shardyn, son of Alou, and the sultan. Some believed it was a sign that things would get better for the Ubykhs.
“If something happens we can go right to him. He won’t let any evil befall us!“ they insisted.
“Call a hawk an eagle and he’ll disown his own parents. You’d better pray we’re not all destroyed because of that Shardyn,” warned others.
My father was concerned about his foster brother and missed him; I personally was glad Shardyn had left. I would have been happy to never see him again!
In the mornings I would study the Ubykh language with the old man, Zaurkan, and in the afternoon I would write down his story. That’s how the work went at first. But now that schedule was upset: Zaurkan got so carried away that he would continue with his story whenever he wanted, sometimes starting right in the morning.
I am fortunate, of course, to have this invaluable teacher. Although the story of his life is fascinating, I still manage to find time to add to my Ubykh dictionary that I started when I first arrived. Yesterday and the day before I wrote down the kinship terminology. Today I’m recording the names of household utensils. More than I suspected in the past, I’m finding that the roots are the same as in other related languages of the Northwest Caucasus.
Zaurkan was in a bad mood this morning; he’s perturbed about something and is smoking a lot. In the middle of breakfast, for no reason at all, he came down hard on Biram and, not finishing his meal, he got up from the table. At noon he didn’t take a nap as he usually does, but paced up and down the yard. When he noticed Biram was leaving the house, taking his bowls and spoons with him, he suddenly admonished Biram. But Biram made no response.
Zaurkan continued walking back and forth in the yard, hut when I was already thinking I shouldn’t disturb him today, he suddenly sat down and called me over.
I sat down next to him and got ready to write. But he couldn’t begin for a long time, and kept rubbing his wrinkled forehead with the palm of his hand as though he was trying I o gather together everything in his memory.
When he began talking, unlike his usual manner, he darted from one subject to another. Something deep down was bothering him and so Biram had to take the brunt of it.
But I still managed to get something written down. Zaurkan talked about how imam Sakhatkeri was replaced by another mullah, a Turk by the name of Orhan. At first he seemed to get along with the people, who even called him a true servant of Allah! But then, gradually, he found subtle and sly ways to follow his own line. Weddings and Funerals couldn’t be organized the way the Ubykhs had been used to since time immemorial, but according to the strict rules of Islam. The mullah called the people to the mosque more and more often and taught them how to say the prayer: “Allah always hears the voice of one who praises him! “ When a child was born a name could not be given without Orhan’s approval. All women had to wear veils. And anyone who missed going to the mosque, even once, had to pay a fine. And before entering the mosque the Ubykhs had to take off their weapons and hang them up outside.
Zaurkan would quiver each time he pronounced the name Sakhatkeri, he loathed the man so much. At the same lime his attitude to the other mullahs was that of derisive indifference; he didn’t talk much about Muslim rites and, apparently, didn’t know them very well.
“I don’t believe any of those who in Allah’s name live in clover without lifting a finger. My dear Sharakh, if people could really get anything out of prayers then my Father would have gotten rich faster than anyone else. I leaven knows he prayed enough. But there was not a man more unfortunate!“
Recalling his father, the old man hung his head, was silent for a long time, and then suddenly began talking about all the troubles the Ubykhs met up with after they emigrated to Turkey. He said they had much less fertile land than in Ubykhia, but paid much higher taxes! He complained that it was so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter that the Ubykhs, like the other peasants in the area, had to coat their homes with clay or manure, which would have been shameful in Ubykhia.
He was even more critical of the fact that grapes could be grown here, and the Ubykhs would have gladly cultivated them, but only currants could be made out of grapes because wine was strictly banned in Turkey. Anyone caught with wine was forced out of the community.
“Whoever saw an Ubykh live without wine; what kind of hospitality could there be without wine! Just as a tree can’t be separated from a vine twisting around the trunk, so too wine can’t be separated from one’s life. What Ubykh had celebrated the birth of a child without wine? Could there have been a wedding without wine? Who had hosted company without wine? Even when an Ubykh died the others had raised their glasses at the wake. But now that was no longer possible. It’s amazing what people can get accustomed to! You may not believe this, my dear Sharakh, but if you’d give me an auroch’s horn full of wine I don’t think I’d be able to say a proper toast, just like I don’t even remember the taste of wine! “
That was the last of his complaints that day. There is where we ended our conversation until we picked it up again the next day.
...It was a Friday. Our men, after hanging their weapons up on nails outside the mosque, went in for their prayers. Our new mullah Orhan declared:
“There’s no God but Allah... Bless us, Lord! Give us guidance! Don’t leave us alone!
“Amen! Amen!“ responded the worshipers.
“A true believer must set his hopes on Allah, the kind and merciful! It’s enough for one who believes to say: ‘Be it so!’ and the holy wish will come to pass!”
I noticed someone in a tall Astrakhan hat standing outside the mosque’s open door. If he didn’t come into the mosque he must be a stranger here, I thought to myself. But his face looked familiar. When the service was over and I was putting on my dagger, I heard someone say:
“Good day, Zaurkan!
The words were spoken in pure Adighe. I turned around:
“Muhammad! What brings you here?”
Standing before me was one of my grandmother’s nephews! Remember I told you my grandmother was Adighe? Well, I. hadn’t seen Muhammad all the time we’d been in Turkey. People said he had settled somewhere near Izmid. Father and Mata joined us. They were happy to see Muhammad, hugged and kissed him.
“Why are we standing here! Let’s get on home quickly,” said Father excitedly.
“I was at your house already and saw Nasi. She told me you were here,” he explained pensively, without looking up. I had the feeling Muhammad wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries at the table. “I don’t have time. I have to get back home tonight... Maybe it’s all for the best that we can talk in private. What I have to say is for the ears of men...”
Each of us understood: Muhammad had the unpleasant task of reporting bad news.
“I beg you to take this bravely!”
“What happened?” whispered my father barely able to move his lips.
“Selim Pasha has made Kuna his wife!”
We literally recoiled as though a cannon fired nearby. But Muhammad, with his face full of sorrow, continued.
“I’m one of the guards at the palace of this cursed pasha. One day your sisters secretly called to me and choking with tears begged: ‘Even if it means your head, our dear relative, tell our brothers our life here is unbearable. They shouldn’t believe that we’re living in luxury. We were deceived, dishonored. If our brothers can’t get us out of this house of sin then may they at least come to say their last farewell to us!
If Allah does exist, how could he allow this to happen? I thought wrathfully standing outside the mosque.
“You can count on me!“ said Muhammad.
Then he told us how to find him in Izmid, and left. I saw red. Oh how I wanted to turn into lightning and burn down the mosque because Allah no longer existed as far as I was concerned.
When we got back home we called all our relatives together and told them what we had just found out. They were all sympathetic and as aggrieved as we were. My mother put her daughters’ clothes on their beds and mourned them both.
An Ubykh man would never marry two sisters. And if that had ever happened the community would have considered it incest and anathemized the culprit.
Mata and I decided we’d rather die than look people in the face if we didn’t take revenge for the disgrace that had befallen our sisters.
Our father went looking for help from Shardyn, son of Alou, and his sister Shanda. But it’s true what they say: trouble never comes alone. Father returned from Shardyn’s estate with nothing for his pains. Shardyn, son of Alou, was at the Balkan front at the time. His wife and son were touring France, and Shanda, the sultan’s wife, was about to have a baby so she wasn’t seeing anyone. All our father’s hopes were blighted, so we had to rely on ourselves. The main thing was not to sit on our hands. My brother and I decided to go to Izmid. We left home at the crack of dawn. I kept looking back at my father and mother until the road made a curve and I couldn’t see them anymore. Mother stood there wrapped in a black shawl and leaning on a staff. She was as thin as the blade of a knife. My father, with his arms folded, leaned his back up against the gate as though his legs would not hold him. I was terribly depressed—could it be that I would never see them again? A bit of smoke rose above the roof and seemed to be frozen there as though sensing that our hearth would soon go cold forever. Walking along the dusty road, our boots, clothing and faces became one color. Oh how I regretted I didn’t have my hot-blooded Bzou. What a horse he was! The half-wild three-year-old had been broken very well. He would have got me to Izmid in an instant and once we reached the home of that lustful Selim Pasha, he would have jumped over the fence just like that.
In the good old days, when we lived in our homeland, even the poorest man would always ride his horse wherever he went; whether going to a feast, a funeral, or what not, one would either arrive on horseback or in a cart. Brides were carried in carriages driven by six horses of the same color. When a boy was born a colt was raised so the boy would learn to ride as soon as he could. When a man would die or be killed in battle his horse, carrying his weapons, would stand near the body and his family would mourn him. It’s no wonder, dear Sharakh, our ancestors said that human blood flowed in the veins of a horse. They also said:
The soul of a man
And the soul of a horse
Are the same
And have always been thus.
In this foreign land we were without horses. A donkey took the place of a horse. A man with a donkey was considered wealthy.
We had been staying a whole week at the home of Muhammad, the Adighe, who lived on the outskirts of Izmid by the bazaar. Every day we wandered around the palace of the thrice cursed Selim Pasha, but we couldn’t send word to our sisters that we were nearby. Just before we arrived in Izmid someone had robbed the harem. The women were forbidden to take walks and security had been tightened. In desperation Mata suggested:
“We should just go to the pasha and ask him to give us back our sisters!”
“Just like that?” Muhammad smiled ironically. “You can put a dog’s tail under a press, but you won’t make it straight no matter how hard you try! Do you really think that man will give you justice!”
I had only one regret: that we didn’t think of murdering Shardyn, son of Alou, when he was still in Osmankoy. No enemy could have done to us what our relative had. I was more and more convinced that he had sold my sisters to Selim Pasha in exchange for some favors. In Ubykhia he would have never dared to do such a thing!
We were depressed by being idle. The days were going by, but we hadn’t done anything toward our goal. Finally Muhammad found a way to whisper to our sisters that we were in Izmid. They asked him to tell us that Juna had not written any letter to us and that she had not sent the women who tricked us into letting Kuna go to the palace.
We also found out that Juna blamed herself for her sister’s ill fortune and tried to commit suicide by cutting her throat with a piece of glass.
It was spring and the city was unusually warm for that Lime of year. Muhammad came home telling us that the next day the sultan’s wives were to be allowed to take a walk in the garden. The circumstances were right for us: Muhammad was going to be the door-guard that morning. We already knew that at noon Selim Pasha sat in a chair by the fountain in the shade of the magnolias while his concubines entertained him. We decided that just before noon I would enter the garden. Mata would hire a cab and would be waiting for me on the lane nearest the gate. I would try to get my sisters out the gate and then we’d take them away. If I couldn’t take them out unnoticed then I would have to fight, covering their flight. Muhammad was supposed to get away with us because remaining in Izmid would be dangerous. A boat was waiting for us on the shore to be rowed by a former smuggler we had hired earlier. After getting about ten miles away from Izmid we would hide in the mountains. Mata and I were vendetta- seekers whose time had come.
The spring garden looked like it was shrouded with fluffy white clouds—the trees were in full bloom. “How can this garden rejoice in the coming of spring when my sisters are crying their eyes out here? How can the nightingales sing as though they’re deaf to my sisters’ moaning? Why hasn’t lightning turned Selim Pasha to ashes yet?” I complained bitterly about the indifference of nature as I sneaked along the garden wall.
Muhammad opened the iron door a crack to let me in.
“Stay on that path,” he whispered to me as I went past him.
I walked as though hunting, quietly, practically not breathing, looking between the branches. Far inside the garden I could see the white three-story palace. It seemed abandoned to me: not a voice could be heard from the windows and no one came outside the doors. When I was near, I hid in the bushes. To my right I heard water splashing. I could tell a fountain was nearby. Suddenly a door opened and two elderly men walked out; one of them looked like the head eunuch. They exchanged some words, then walked in different directions and disappeared from sight. Soon afterwards young women came out. They walked alone or in twos along the marble stairway and into the garden’s shade. They were obviously the pasha’s concubines. All of them were young and pretty, although their pallid faces reminded me of plants that grow in dark caves. I didn’t see my sisters among them. Two of them who passed me by were talking in a language I had never heard before. then I turned to look at the third young woman walking alone behind them. My eyes went blank, my heart froze: It was Feldysh. My voice sounded strange, even to me, when I called, “Feldysh.”
Seeing me so unexpectedly made her speechless. She looked at me dumbstruck, her mouth wide open. That lasted for just a second and then without showing any joy in seeing me, as though she wasn’t even surprised I was there, she asked:
“Is that you, Zaurkan?”
“Feldysh, don’t be frightened, I’ll save you!”
“I’m not frightened; I stopped being afraid a long time ago. You’re probably looking for your sisters? Juna is still weak after trying to slit her throat with a piece of glass. Kuna doesn’t want to leave her alone... We’re the victims of the same demon.”
“Oh Lord, why are you here?”
“I’ve been here for four years now. A sapling sold in a foreign land is not planted where it prefers to grow.”
I placed my hands on her shoulders and put my face close to hers, saying in a firm voice:
“It’s my duty to take you and my sisters out of here!
“I’ll tell your sisters I saw you. But it’s too late to rescue me...” And hanging her head she wept bitterly. “I am already dead. You’re too late! Don’t touch me, I’m worse than a leper. Goodbye Zaurkan!”
Covering her face with her hands she turned around, and taking quick steps, headed toward the women walking some distance away.
My body suddenly went limp. Holding on to a twig I stood there in a trance. Gradually I began to notice that servants were darting to and fro between the palace and the fountain. I hid myself among the thick of the trees and saw a fountain rising from a carved stone bowl. There was a rainbow above the dancing spurts of water. Near the fountain, under the cover of trees, some servants were putting down a shag rug, laying cushions on it, and placing a soft chair in the middle. Then they brought out some low tables that had viands on them and silver pitchers.
Soon Selim Pasha came accompanied by two servants. I recognized him right away because I had seen him once at the manor of Shardyn, son of Alou. He was a sturdy little man, with a thin beard and almost no eyebrows which made his heavy eyelids look like a turtle’s. His head, as bald as a pumpkin, was covered by a red fez. The man was advanced in years, but his body was sturdy. He took small but fast steps as he walked up to the chair and plunked himself into it. Two servants, probably his most trustworthy, stood on each side. One of them unfolded a piece of paper and began reading it to the pasha who rested I head on the back of the chair. He held amber beads, with the hand that lay on his fat stomach, and he pulled at his goatee with the other.
The longer I watched him the more I was filled with hatred.
The servant finished reading the paper and bowed. The pasha made some comment and waved his hand. The man who had read the paper folded it up and went back into the palace. The other servant picked up a pitcher, poured the contents into a glass, and handed it to the pasha on a small tray. But the pasha, reclining in the chair, was sweetly dozing. The servant put the glass on the table. Some crazy impulse pushed mc forward. In one instant I appeared before the pasha like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky. Astonished by the presence of an armed man in his palace, he squirmed in his chair and stared hard at me. His face went pale and began to sweat.
“How dare you roughneck come in here?” cried the pasha unable to hide his fear.
“I’m not a roughneck; I’m the brother of the two girls you have disgraced! If you don’t want to die let my sisters go, Pasha!”
His eyes darted in fear and he noticed that my hand was resting on the haft of my dagger.
“Help!“ he yelled.
The servant who stood by him shouted as though he’d been hit over the head and ran to the palace doors.
I realized that the palace guards would come soon. The pasha eased himself sideways out of the chair and began moving toward the pool around the fountain. He left me no choice. I grabbed the pasha by the throat and jabbed my Caucasian dagger into his chest all the way to the haft! The old man wheezed as I threw him into the water where gold fish were swimming. The water turned crimson and for some reason reminded me of the sea, of those terrible days of exodus, and the corpses of Ubykh exiles washed up to the shore. The sounds of people shouting came closer and closer. I didn’t care anymore. Total indifference overcame me. The bloody dagger fell from my hands and I didn’t try to pick it up. I probably could have fled, and got away with Muhammad’s help, but for some reason the thought didn’t even occur to me. I was surrounded by the guards. I didn’t resist. And so with my hands tied and at gun point I was taken to prison.
Today is the third day I’ve been working over my notes. Zaurkan is resting, although I don’t really think he wants to rest. He hasn’t even told me about half of his one-hundred-year life. A few times in the two weeks I’ve been with him it even seemed to me he was afraid to die before telling me everything he had stored in his memory. Of course, when you compare his story with one or another historical date, you realize that he sometimes gets things mixed up and says something happened earlier when it actually happened later and vice versa, but just the same his memory is phenomenal, his mind is alert, and emotions are still high in his centenarian, but still powerful body.
I have the feeling that no one but Biram has entered Zaurkan’s house in a long, long time. Maybe it’s also because he lives in seclusion that neither modern times, nor modern words even exist for him. He lives as though in a cemetery and wanders through his past along a narrow path amidst the graves, alive amidst the dead...
We’ve already arranged that tomorrow morning he’ll continue his story; this evening I finally got most of my notes in order, ending with the bitter tale about the Ubykh women. My wrist is aching from writing. I’m sitting here shaking out my numb fingers, but my thoughts are far away, back home in Abkhasia. Zaurkan’s story about the Ubykh women made me recall all the more clearly today our Uard school, which is now a white stone three-story building. When I started the first grade it was a small, wooden, two-room school, small like we pupils were then—thirty boys and girls from my village.
Now the school has 500 children. I remember how last year Karbei Barchan, the current principal, but once a first- grader with me, told me that figure and he was so proud. We got together for the 15th anniversary of our graduation. Not all of us, of course, but many: two agronomists, three school teachers, one mining engineer from Tkvarcheli, me—a linguist, and Natasha Louba, the main celebrity among the alumni, the first woman pilot in all of Abkhasia. Of course, it takes strong character to be a pilot, especially since Natasha’s father, Islam, was coincidentally one of the most devout worshipers of our village shrine Kiach. Our shrine was considered as miraculous as the Ubykh’s Bytkha and, as Islam said he saw with his own eyes, it sometimes would fly into the air at night at particularly historic moments and would return to its holy place. But a flying shrine is one thing, and a flying daughter, quite another, especially one that was nearly expelled from her air club when she flew a U-2 and landed in our big field on the edge of the village in the middle of the day when we were having a big outdoor meeting. For a long time to come evil tongues claimed that Islam had hastily mistaken his own daughter for the shrine Kiach on another of its flights. I think it was just idle gossip at the old man’s expense; our people in Uard like having a good laugh, especially when the joke’s so obvious. For a long time after that, whenever they’d see some plane over the mountains they would tease Islam, call him out saying: “Hurry, hurry up and see the shrine flying!
I wonder where Natasha Louba is now? She didn’t answer my last letter from Leningrad. She was at some aviation exercises. I can’t write her from here; fate has taken me too far in my search for the Ubykh language, so far it even frightens me to think of it.