Soon after my arrest I was tried in Izmid. I don’t quite understand how, but some extenuating circumstances affected their verdict, which instead of the death sentence was life imprisonment.
The prison I was put in that time was in an old fortress, a somber and isolated tower standing on a mountain top. There were chasms on three sides of the prison, and only on the fourth side was there a narrow road leading along the mountain ridge to the iron gates. The fortress walls, fortunately, weren’t made of bricks, but of mountain rocks, so while they gave off cold they were always dry. Almost no one was ever released from that prison and so among the people it had the reputation of a death house.
My cell was made for one person, but someone else could be put there if need be. Light came in from a small window, or rather a hole the size of a child’s head. The edges of that hole were polished smooth by the prisoners’ faces who had been looking out of it for decades yearning for freedom and the free-blowing wind.
At first I kept count of the days and nights, but I finally lost track. If the walls of the cell had ears they could have heard such heart-rending shouts, curses, and words born of delirium or the fear of losing the gift of speech. Neither a mullah, guard, or relatives, but only those deaf walls were destined to hear the whispering of the dying, the last wishes that were never to be fulfilled.
There was only one joy, the little window with two dents on each side. The dents were formed by the palms of the captives who peered out of that cold cavity in the wall to look at the sun, feel its warmth against their bloodless lips and with the leisure of those who have nowhere to hurry, sift the fresh air through their weakened lungs.
But the main thing was to feast one’s eyes on the vast open spaces, watch, until one’s eyes hurt, all that was happening in the outside world. Young people, who are free, as a rule, do not know how to concentrate on objects and phenomena; they only see the surface of things. There in prison, even young captives developed the ability to notice such trifles as the flight of a butterfly or the birth of a flower in the crevice of the mountain. Like my predecessors, I whiled away the time by pressing my forehead against the upper edge of that barless window.
On fine summer days, in the afternoon when the sun hung over the top of the mountain, its beams came sympathetically into my cell, reflecting from one of the stones on the opposite wall. I would stand in that beam warming myself up as though I was in front of a fire. Then I would watch the sunset. It seemed that the sky over the mountain was where the vultures feasted devouring their prey.
On sleepless nights I talked to the stars glimmering over the mountain shrouded in darkness. Their sparkle changed from night to night, sometimes brighter, sometimes dimmer. And if a falling star would trace a line on the black sky, I could imagine the person whose soul left his body that instant. What a fine person that was, I would think to myself sadly, because I knew for certain that otherwise the sky would give no signal.
The militant movement of the swirling clouds reminded me of a detachment of vehement and daring men. The clouds were illuminated from within by bushy fire and the triumphant thunder they produced was reminiscent of cannonade. Sometimes the violent wind would hurl through the narrow opening a few drops of rain and, feeling them against my cheeks, with tears in my eyes I prayed:
“Oh Almighty! If you want the earth to swallow the human race, if you want to destroy it by fire, I beseech you, don’t do it anywhere else but here so that this fortress, from which there is no return, with all its torturers and tortured, disappears from the face of the earth.”
But the Lord was deaf to my prayers. If He forgets someone, it’s forever.
During my first days in prison I noticed that on the other side of the precipice, in the distance among scattered trees, there was a lone homestead. It consisted of a small house made of clay, a barn and a cow-shed. Soon I figured out that the inhabitants were a family of four:
a man around forty, two women, one younger and the other older, and a small boy. At the break of dawn the adults would get down to their endless chores, and the little boy, left to his own means, occupied himself as best he could.
As time went on I knew down to the last detail everything about the life of that poor family of Turkish peasants as though I lived invisibly under the same roof. If one of them didn’t come outside in the morning I was alarmed— maybe he or she was ill? I must tell you, Sharakh, I survived those many years buried in a stone cell because of that family. It was as if they brought me food and water, cheered me up, kept me from going mad from loneliness.
Watching the life of that family through my hole, I came to the conclusion that both the women were the man’s wives. Probably he had once been better off and could sustain two wives. I gave each member of that Turkish family an Ubykh name. In the Caucasus we had some neighbors and they had a family of four, too. And so I named my friends on the other side of the fortress after the family I had known back home. I called the head of the household Shmat, his little son Navei, the eldest wife— a lean and dark woman—Shamsia, and the young one— she had large breasts—Rafida. Rafida was Navei’s mother.
We Ubykhs had never allowed polygamy. A married man couldn’t bring a second wife into his home. If he did, the first wife wouldn’t stand for it for one day under the same roof with her husband. Her parents or brothers would take her in, and the husband would bring down the whole clan’s fury on his head; he’d be their mortal enemy.
When I first saw Navei he was around five years old. An active, restless child, he would play in the yard with a black dog, chase a red rooster or sit in the shade of a tree and make something out of twigs and rocks. The adults didn’t meddle in his games. If his mother went to fetch water he tagged along. He was mostly afraid of his step mother. If he’d start to cry after falling and hurting himself or getting stung by bee, all his stepmother would have to do is shout at him and he’d wipe his tears with his sleeve, and gradually quiet down.
One day he and his mother dressed neatly and went off somewhere, maybe visiting, maybe to town. You may not believe this, Sharakh, but I waited for them to return as impatiently as if I were Rafida’s husband and Navei’s father.
Shamsia always wore black and never smiled. She was obviously barren and that was the reason for her sorrow. After Shmat brought a young wife into his home, he became completely cold to the lean Shamsia, but she tried to show in every way that she was still the mistress of the house. That was evident from the loud arguments the family had on rare occasions.
Shmat lived a secluded life. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of days people came to his house to talk business or just bring news. They were probably neighbors from the village located a distance away and not visible from my window. I gathered that Shmat was not a talkative man. He had a grave, unhurried manner about him: he walked slowly, didn’t start work right away, and if he was chopping firewood, for instance, he didn’t rush. When he sat down to take a smoke Shmat always looked like he was thinking of something. Yet he worked from morning until late at night.
I remember once in early spring when the mountains were turning green, Shmat was preoccupied with something, he just couldn’t get started ploughing. I couldn’t help but severely criticize him for that. I wanted to tell him he was wasting precious time; he needed to start ploughing then and there. It turned out that the poor man didn’t have any oxen; he was waiting for the others in the village to finish their ploughing so he could begin himself. But when you plough cornfields too late the crop is rarely any good.
As winter approached Shmat would sharpen his ax and say goodbye to his family. Throwing his shoulder bags over his back, he left the house. He usually didn’t come back until spring. If there was heavy snowfall Shmat would come back for a day or so to clear the snow off the roof and in the yard, chop wood and prepare fodder for his only cow. Then he’d be off again. I speculated that somewhere over the mountain or further away there was lumber work to do and Shmat hired himself out there until spring.
Whenever Shmat and his wives were hoeing corn or planting tobacco, I was with them constantly. My nostrils were sweetly tickled by the smell of the soil and the blood in my veins speeded up its flow. I truly forgot I was in prison and would stay there till the day I died.
The years dragged by slowly, like a loaded cart going up a mountain. The day I was imprisoned my long beard didn’t have one gray hair in it, but when Navel began shaving, my beard seemed sprinkled with flour. I counted the years I was in prison by the way Shmat’s son kept growing. The boy was my calendar. The night guard sounded an alarm. I heard whistling, shouting, then shots. I thought someone had escaped.
In the morning when I went to the little window, I saw that some people were going into Shmat’s yard. Then I saw a mullah. My heart dropped; I knew something terrible had happened. Indeed, that night Rafida had died. Her son Navei, not holding back his tears, mourned his mother’s death. Had I been next to him I would have tried to find words to console him. After his wife’s death, Shmat looked years older. He would sit for hours in the shade, his hands on his walking stick, and his head hanging low. If he was called in to eat he would get up reluctantly and slowly shuffle over to the house.
One day when Shmat and Shamsia were alone in the yard, a horseman rode through the gate. The old man and woman bowed to him, but he just waved his whip and began yelling something. He seemed to be scolding them. Then he lost his temper altogether and moved his horse right into Shmat. The old man, barely able to stand on his feet as it was, fell to the ground. Shamsia started shouting something, calling for help, but there was no one around. “That son of a bitch!“ I cursed, as I paced the cell, clenching my fists. “If I were there with Shmat you wouldn’t see the light of day again,” I raged. I was so frustrated I beat my fists against the wall. Suddenly I recalled the incident when Shardyn, son of Alou, cracked his whip at Mata in Osmankoy and I sent him back where he had come from. I decided the horseman was some effendi’s manager. Most likely he was demanding taxes. But where would Shmat get the money when he could barely walk since the death of Rafida, I thought to myself.
Shamsia sat by the door sewing or patching up something. No one else was at home that day. Then four men I didn’t know came into the yard with Navel in the lead. Each of them had a rifle! Well, how do you like that, you have a gun already, young man! I thought in surprise, not knowing that Navei even knew how to shoot.
Shamsia invited them all in. The men stayed in the house a long time. I guess they were eating whatever was on hand. But what if those four are from some band of thieves and Navei is mixed up in it? I worried. No, I couldn’t believe that. The son of an honest peasant can’t turn thief. But another voice protested: it takes years to raise a human being, but only an instant to ruin him.
When the guests walked out of the house they said their goodbyes and left the place, not by the gate, but through a hole in the fence. Navei waited until his four friends were out of sight and with his rifle over his shoulder, he went back into the house.
What’s the meaning of all this, I wondered. I kept my eyes glued to that house, trying to understand what was going on there. My legs were tired, my hands supporting me on the wall were numb, the thin bean soup the guard had shoved through the door of my solitary cell, had become cold in the clay bowl, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Shmat’s home.
Once again I saw that same horseman who had run Shmat down with his horse. He rode into the yard and asked Shamsia a question. Maybe he wanted to know where the men were. Seeing that no men were home he turned his horse around, rode to the field where the family’s only cow was out to pasture. He got down, untied the rope that held the cow to a stick and, getting back into his saddle, whipped it to go ahead of him. Shamsia, raising her hands to the sky, begged him not to take the cow, but the horse man paid no heed to her cries.
At that moment Navei ran out of the house. He had a rifle in his hands. At first I saw a flash over the muzzle, and then I heard the shot. The horseman slowed down, let go of the rope and spurred his horse. Then I heard a second shot and saw the horseman press his head to the horse’s mane and gallop away. Navei tied the cow up to the stick again and, gesticulating energetically while he talked, he tried to calm down his frightened stepmother, who was wiping tears from her eyes. Then, through that same hole in the fence that his friends had gone through the day before, he headed for the mountains.
“Nice going, Son! You were great with that scoundrel! You’re a real man!“ I rejoiced, praising Navei out loud. You should have seen me. I was like an old eagle in a cage, imagining I was spreading my wings and ready to fly up into the free sky at least one more time. That’s what it does to a man’s waning spirit to see someone show courage. That’s the kind of power a “keyhole” to freedom has over a man...
After that Navei rarely came home. When he would visit his father and stepmother he got to work right away and as soon as he was through he disappeared at once. Whether he was chopping wood, weeding the cornfield, or cleaning the cow-shed he never let go of his rifle. It seemed such a short time ago that boy was building simple toy structures out of pebbles and twigs, but now he was a strapping young man in his prime, prepared to protect with a gun in hand his father’s home, father’s field, and his own dignity.
Sometimes Navei would come home with his friends, brave young men like himself. I couldn’t help but admire them. Those lads gave me new hope. More and more often I imagined one and the same scene: a group commanded by Navei would attack the prison guards, push them aside, and the doors of my cell would fly open.
“Come on out!“ I could hear Navei say. “Long live freedom!“ As I walked out of the prison I would embrace Navei. He looked a lot like my brother who had disappeared without a trace. Oh, sweet hope! There’s no place where hope is so dear as in prison.
If Navei had said: “Here, take this gun and come with us; we have the same enemy! “I wouldn’t hesitate to follow his lead even if I knew that the first enemy bullet would pierce my heart.
You Abkhasians, Sharakh, have a saying: “The soul of a drowning man, even at the bottom of the sea, mows the grass of hope.” And isn’t that the truth!
There was a period when at the same time in the dead quiet of the night, I could hear someone sighing, coughing and moaning loudly in the next cell. However, later, even when I put my ear next to the wall, I heard nothing. Probably the unfortunate lifer had died.
But then again one night when I had a terrible headache and couldn’t sleep at all, I suddenly could clearly hear a song of suffering. I thought I was delirious. Who could be singing the Abkhasian song of the wounded in this place? But I wasn’t imagining it. Absolutely shocked, and forgetting all about my headache, I pressed my ear to the cold stone and tried to hear what he was singing. My hearing got as good as a bat’s. No, it wasn’t my imagination; someone was really singing a familiar song in a muffled voice, quivering from pain. The song was sometimes interrupted by a deep and agonizing coughing or the prisoner fell silent, oblivious to the world, but later I would again hear the sad and courageous tune. I couldn’t catch all the words, but enough of them to know what my neighbor on the other side of the wall was singing about. I didn’t have a wink of sleep all night.
I passed the whole day waiting. When a distant star over the mountain began sparkling again I could hear the singing. I knew from my Abkhasian mother, even as a child, that a man sings this song when he’s mortally wounded. Duty and custom obligated me to come to his aid. But how? Appeal to the guard’s mercy? No guard in a jail for lifers would understand me, because even if he pitied the prisoner the best he could wish him would be death. It was the only way to put an end to suffering. A lucky prisoner was one who died quickly.
Song of the wounded... I thought about Tsebelda where my mother’s relatives lived. I was already a teenager when one of my mother’s brothers was wounded in the stomach and was dying. Every night his family and neighbors came to his death bed and sang the song of the wounded to him. Trying not to moan, he picked up the tune. My uncle died with this song on his parched lips. The suffering man in the next cell was not long for this world either, but by Abkhasian tradition I had to hear his last wish and when he died, close his eyes.
The next night when my fellow-convict finished singing I carried on for him in a tenor voice, and so loud that the guard came in and barked out: “What’s the yelling about?” Paying no attention to the guard, I sang the song of the wounded three times. Straining my memory, I recalled the words:
Waa-raida, he who can’t grit his teeth
To hide his suffering,
Is no man.
Waa-raida, he who moans,
Making his pain be known,
Is no man...
Gradually lowering my voice, I rested my ear against the wall. I sang the refrain three times when suddenly I could tell the wounded Abkhasian heard me. He picked up the melody. There was no doubt about it; he was singing with me. I was so happy! Isn’t it something, Sharakh, that a man singing a death song could be so joyful? I don’t think it had ever happened before. But my neighbor and I rejoiced at hearing one another. I would finish singing and he would begin; then he’d finish and I start again.
Our strength sapped, we fell asleep. That went on for many nights. But then one night my neighbor didn’t make a sound at the usual time. Poor man, his suffering has probably ended forever, I decided.
The next day we had our monthly walk outside. The inmates didn’t look like people, but shadows. We were forbidden to talk; anyone who tried couldn’t go out the next time. Nevertheless, one of those shadows took the risk of whispering to me:
“There’s unrest out there. Soon they’ll pack our flea- ridden cells with more men; we won’t be alone any longer.”
I could tell before that, from watching Navei and his friends, that some changes were in the air.
Just three days later my rusty door clanked open. Some guards brought in a wooden trestle bed with a straw mattress and then came back with a prisoner.
“Make your guest at home!“ joked one of them somberly.
In the dim light I made out a tall man whose head nearly reached the ceiling. Thick hair that had not a trace of gray, fell on his forehead and his hollow cheeks were overgrown with a prickly beard. Sharakh, have you ever seen a mountain lake near a peak crowned eternally with snow? They’re always sky blue. Well, that was the color of the eyes of that man who entered my cell. He was as thin as a rod and could barely stand up. But even though he was weak, he tried to stand up straight.
“Good afternoon!“ he greeted me with his palm against his chest. And then he added with sad irony, “True, there aren’t any good afternoons in prison. Tell me, my friend, were you the one who shared my pain and sang the song of the wounded? Are you an Abkhasian by any chance?”
I couldn’t believe what was happening. If I hadn’t been leaning against the wall I would have most likely fallen down.
“What a wonderful surprise this is,” I exclaimed. And wanting to make him comfortable, I suggested, “Come on, sit down. It’s hard for you to stand.”
He eased himself onto the edge of the bed and his face was right in the beam of sunlight from the window. My heart was gripped with sorrow: the black shadow of death lowered over that blue-eyed man.
“I’m an Ubykh, but my mother was an Abkhasian,” and, swallowing my tears, I put my arms around the doomed man in a burst of tenderness.
Then, as if startled by something, he began examining me closely:
“When I was a child I knew a man named Zaurkan Zolak. You look a lot like him. Only he’d be younger than you.”
Tears clouded my eyes.
“But I am Zaurkan Zolak! And who are you?”
“Oh merciful Lord!“ he whispered and sighed. “But they said you’d been hanged. Don’t tell me you’ve been here ever since Selim Pasha was killed?”
“I was a boy in those days, but I recognized your eyes.”
He couldn’t talk anymore. His cough was getting worse and choking him. I helped the poor soul get into bed and gave him water. When his coughing fit subsided and the youth felt somewhat better he asked slightly panting:
“Zaurkan, you haven’t forgotten Osmankoy, have you? One of your neighbors was a Sadz Abkhasian, Mzauch Abukhba. Remember, you and he were good friends. His son, little Shoudid, spent more time in your yard than in his own. And you made him toys, remember?..”
The unfortunate creature breathed unevenly and held his hand over his chest the whole time as if he were afraid that cursed cough would overcome him any minute.
“So you’re Shoudid? You’re Mzauch’s son, Shoudid?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, that’s right, Zaurkan.”
“My God, what time does to us!”
Mzauch Abukhba’s son was born in Turkey, in Samsun, and my father had given him his name! Shoudid was the name of a high mountain in Abkhasia. I could have expected just about anything, but that standing in front of me was Shoudid, the same boy I once held in my arms and made toys for—that was beyond my wildest imagination.
The bullet wound in his chest was festering. His whole body was gripped by fever, sapping his strength. Oh how gladly I would have given my life just to prolong his for a little while more. He knew he was dying and didn’t complain about his fate; he acted like a man. It wasn’t good for him to talk, but he didn’t care; he wanted to tell me all that had happened to him and his family after I got rid of Selim Pasha.
“My parents and I left Osmankoy and moved to the outskirts of Adapazara where the Sadz were soon joined by the people of Dal, Tsebelda, and Gum. Relatives helped us build a home there. I started going to school. I was a good student arid so after finishing the mekteb, I was sent to a Muslim college in Istanbul. I went there for two years, but I had to quit because my father couldn’t afford it anymore. In those two years, though, I managed to learn three languages and acquire some useful knowledge. In Istanbul I met Tagir, Hamida’s grandson. He was a teacher and after the Ubykhs were kicked out of Osmankoy he followed them. I corresponded with him. In some remote village he’s teaching Ubykh children how to read and write. He’s a fine person! And you know, Mansou, the heir of Shardyn, son of Alou, came to no good even though he grew up with Tagir: he has a penchant for drinking, cards and women, just like his father.”
Shoudid couldn’t get enough air and he was always thirsty. If you’d give him a pitcher full of water he’d drink it all. To make him rest at least a little I would talk myself; I told him all about my misfortunes, and I told him about the family I’d come to know, Shmat’s family.
Mzauch Abukhba’s son wasn’t the least surprised that Navei defended his home with a gun. He told me the country was in turmoil. The Turkish peasants, totally impoverished because of endless wars and heavy taxes, were resisting the authorities more and more often, and even engaging in revolt against the sultan’s government. In Russia, too, there was unrest. Shoudid told me his father had joined up with Kamlat Pasha’s troops just to get back home to the Caucasus.
“Before he left he told me: ‘Take care of your mother and don’t think I’m going to fight the Russians. Just as soon as we land I’m leaving Kamlat Pasha. And remember this, my son! Your homeland can forget you, but you must never lose your homeland in your own heart.’ Just as soon as the Abkhasian troops arrived in the Caucasus, my father ran away from Kamlat Pasha, taking a hundred men with him. We didn’t hear from him for a long time. Mother died before I got the wonderful news that he was still alive. I got a letter from him. The old man is living in Jgerda. He’s asked me to come there... But now I’ll never see my father again...”
Shoudid closed his eyes. I put my palm on his hot fore head. He asked for water. I brought him some and he drank greedily. A strange rasping sound came from his chest.
A little later he went on with his story:
“A week after I got the letter from my father, the Abkhasian emigres, sick of paying such high taxes and working like slaves, rioted and killed the manager of the Marshan princes’ estate. They were to be exiled to the desert or to Syria for that. The people decided to return home to Abkhasia. We wanted to hire a ship, but it cost a lot of money and we didn’t have it. In desperation we turned to crime. Our plan was to rob a mail coach carrying money from the state treasury. I was with the ambush party. As luck would have it, the coach that day had an especially heavy guard. Both sides opened fire. A bullet pierced my chest. Later I was tried. And so I’ll never see my homeland. If you ever see it, Zaurkan, bow to it for me. I really do believe you’ll be free one day! Waa-raida, waa-raida,” he began singing the song of the wounded in a barely audible voice.
Singing that song, he died in my arms. My eyes filled with tears, I sang along with Shoudid till his last gasp. Then I closed his eyes, not yet knowing his words were prophetic. Everything was changing all around and the insurgent spirit got the upper hand. The malicious Sultan Abdulhamid II was overthrown and the reins of government were taken over by the Young Turks. They declared a manifesto. Many people were released from prison. Because my crime had been committed so long ago, I was set free.