“Did you get a good sleep, Sharakh?” the old man asked with such concern this morning that I was ashamed to tell him I slept like a log.
“It’s good when a man sleeps peacefully!” said Zaurkan. “Whenever I start thinking of all I’ve been through my memories lift me and carry me, like the waves of the sea, somewhere past sleep, as though past the shore. You know, my friend, what I was thinking about early this morning? While my guest, my maternal uncle, is here in my home, I don’t feel alone in the world. But what will I do when he leaves? I’ve been thinking about it every morning since you stepped over my threshold! But today I imagined that our elders—Sit, Soulakh and the others, who have long since left this world, told me not to worry about you leaving.
“ ‘When he goes, give him your soul,’ they instructed me. ‘Have him take it back to our homeland. All our souls went there long ago. Your old bones, just like ours, can de cay here; who needs them!’
“That’s what they said to me while you were sleeping and I wasn’t. And if they’re right, even if I don’t do it in time, if I don’t manage to give you my soul, it will follow you there anyway! And I guess it won’t have to wait long for that! This damned old age! Don’t be angry, but today I probably won’t tell you anything. I have to go somewhere and then when I return maybe I’ll fall asleep at last. Tired feet sometimes help the head go to sleep, even if it doesn’t want to.”
Zaurkan took his staff and left the house. Where? Perhaps he went to some old graves? Who knows!
Biram came as usual at noon, but when he saw that the old man wasn’t at home he didn’t ask where he was. He gave me my meal and left.
There I was, alone with my thoughts. What a pleasant surprise—a break when I could be by myself. When you’re taking notes you don’t have time to think. Zaurkan Zolak’s biography, his bloody past, extends over the whole tragedy of the Ubykh people, like blood oozing from a wound. I never ceased to be astounded by the centenarian’s memory. When I compared what he told me with historical dates, they almost always coincided. The Ubykhs left the Caucasus in 1864. If Zaurkan Zolak was 24 years old then—that’s approximately what age he was judging by his story—he was born in 1840 and therefore when he says now in 1940 he’s a hundred years old, he’s telling the honest truth.
“I was with the Ubykhs no more than five or six years after we landed in Samsun, counting the time we were in Osmankoy!” he explained. If that’s true then to avenge his sisters he killed Selim Pasha somewhere in 1869 or 1870. And after he was ushered out of prison and sold into slavery, according to him, “...for eight years day and night I stumbled through the African desert.” And disregarding the poetic form in which he told his story, if he was in Africa eight years then he probably did return to Istanbul in 1877 right around the time when the Abkhasians were forced to migrate to Turkey, which left an indelible imprint in his aged memory.
Afterwards he was a free man for some time. But it’s hard to ascertain from his recollections just when he was arrested again. When he was released from prison, however, is absolutely clear. The Young Turk revolution was in 1908; that’s when the blood-thirsty Sultan Abdulhamid II was deposed, the sultan the old man remembered with such loathing.
When Zaurkan Zolak spent all those hopeless years serving a life sentence the sparks of the first Russian revolution managed just the same to fly through-the thick prison walls of his cell where he was isolated from the whole world. Remember the story the old man told about the song of the wounded? How could the old Ubykh prisoner, watching the life of the Turkish peasant family for many years, through the tiny window in his prison cell, know that the young man he called Navei, like thousands of other Turkish peas ants, would rise up with arms in hand against the sultan’s oppression and that even the military men the sultan relied on so heavily as the foundation of his power, would suddenly turn out to be unreliable. After all, the old man had no way of knowing that twenty-eight Turkish officers had written a letter to the sister of the executed Russian revolutionary, the fearless Lieutenant Schmidt; a letter I have known by heart since college: “We swear to fight and if necessary, to die for sacred civil liberties, in the name of which many of our best citizens have died. We also swear that we will do everything we can to tell the Turkish people about the events in Russia so that by common efforts we can gain the right to live as befits human beings...”
How could Zaurkan Zolak see the connection between all these different events—between the 1905 Revolution in Russia, the execution of Lieutenant Schmidt, the letter written by the Turkish officers, the ousting of Abdulhamid II and Zaurkan’s own release from prison? No, of course, he had no way of knowing, but the traces of all these events can be seen throughout his story, even if they assume a sometimes strange and odd form.
So far we have stopped at this point, but I suppose that as he continues, the story of his life will not be deaf to the reverberations of history. After all, ahead are World War I, the 1917 Revolution in Russia, and the revolution in Turkey. I don’t know how yet, but I have no doubts that all these events affected the history of the Ubykhs and the old man’s personal destiny.
In one way I’m glad to have today’s break, but this unexpected delay in my work also bothers me. I’ll have to be leaving soon and it makes me wonder what I’ll have time to write down, and what I won’t.
When Zaurkan returned he didn’t say anything about where he had been; we had supper together, but he didn’t talk and went to bed earlier than I did. When he said tired feet help the head go to sleep he was absolutely right. I didn’t hear him get up in the night, and next morning, right after we woke up, he continued with his story as though he could sense my hidden fears.
Years of wandering awaited me after I got out of prison. It’s nothing more than a saying that once God gives you a day, He gives you food. You don’t get anything for nothing. No matter how frugal, or how hardy a man is, he can’t live without bread, isn’t that true, Sharakh? The dust of many roads covered my feet. I worked at just about every kind of job. I was a shepherd for the owner of fat-tailed sheep, was a longshoreman in Izmid, cleaned the shop of a wealthy merchant, and dug ditches on a railway construction site. Eventually I got to the village of Shat-Ipa where Abkhasian exiles lived. No close relatives on my mother’s side were alive by then, but a second-removed uncle by the name of Kansou gave me shelter; I lived with him for nearly two years. He showed me two graves in Shat-Ipa’s cemetery. One of them was my mother’s and the other my father’s. There were rough boulders at the head of each of them. The graves were overgrown with grass. I put fences around them and consoled myself that my mother’s and father’s last resting place was among their own kind.
You want to know, Sharakh, how my parents got to Shat-Ipa? After I killed Selim Pasha, Mata had to go into hiding. He was a bright young man and sensed right away that he had to get Father and Mother away from Osmankoy to save their lives. And so they moved to Shat-Ipa to live with my mother’s brother. Heart-broken because of the misfortune that had come to her daughters and because of my imprisonment, Mother lived less than a year. Five years later my father died.
After Father died, Mata decided to build a house and start his own homestead, but he was drafted into the army along with other Abkhasians from Tsebelda. His unit was sent to Arabia. No one has heard from him since.
And I have no idea what happened to my sisters, either. Selim Pasha’s relatives sold all his wives and concubines after his death and I was unable to establish where my sisters and Feldysh were, or whether they were alive at all.
You’re probably surprised, my patient Sharakh, that I should speak so calmly about the death and disappearance of the people I loved most. What can you do? A lot of water has passed under the bridge. Time dulls the pain, dries the tears, and gives the memory long-awaited oblivion. Time is a great healer. If it hadn’t been so, half of humanity would go mad. But then why stir up the past at all, why resurrect the shadows of our ancestors, you may ask? For a good purpose, my son, to keep others from making the same terrible mistake and having to bitterly repent later.
I would have continued living in Shat-Ipa, but I longed to hear the Ubykh language. And besides, I was no longer accustomed to living in one place. I was uneasy and wanted to be moving on. As they say: No matter how long a journey, the road must be covered twice. I was not in a hurry and hadn’t gone far when the land began looking more like ashes. The surface was like ash and under the white dust there seemed to be heat. No matter where you looked, everything around was bare all the way up to the horizon where the dome of heaven clings to the earth. The wind blew, picking up the dust and churning it in front of me. It was as though the whole world had died and I was left alone on this dark, unpopulated planet where the wind howled and where one was inclined to wail from loneliness and horror.
Suddenly, cupping my hand over my eyes to shut out the dust, I noticed some black spot through the rolling gray haze. At first I thought it was a vulture. Then the black spot grew, came closer, and through the grating and roaring of the enraged elements, I could make out a human voice. The voice quivered like an autumn leaf on a branch. Some one was singing a melancholy song much like weeping, a lament and a damnation at the same time. The wind would muffle it, sending it around me, then amplify it, moving it toward me. Soon I could see a man riding on a donkey. He was an old man, his face scorched by the sun and looking like the wrinkled land that he rode over on his small ass. Seeing another human being cheered me up. When the rider came up alongside me, I greeted him, placing my palm on my forehead. But he kept his blank gaze aimed at the pale sky, not noticing me and totally engrossed in his sad song. I even thought the old man was praying while riding his donkey, which is contrary to custom. But his song was unlike a prayer, although it was addressed to the sky. When he passed me by he didn’t even look around. It was as if he were saying, “Fellow traveller, I’m in a hurry. My song will tell you all about me.”
I watched him as he rode away. The wind, now blowing in my direction, carried to me the wailing voice of the old Turk. Urging on his tired animal, the rider sang about the fact that he had nothing left but the donkey and his old age. He was singing to his hardy, lop-eared friend:
Carry me where my anguish wills,
Through the distance in any of the four directions
Where my four sons went and remained
Forever, killed on battlefields.
My heart is one big wound,
My eyes are filled with bitter tears.
That’s why I curse the bloody sultan,
My cursing echoed in four directions.
The rider vanished into the distance, his sorrowful song getting softer and softer until it was broken like a thread. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I envied that miserable old man, because he at least found consolation in singing.
Oh, if only I could have sung like that lonely Turk about all I had endured, I would have moved even the coldest per son to tears. But I remained an Ubykh; an Ubykh cannot sing alone, except for the song of the wounded. No, to sing I need not only an apkhiartsa, but others to sing along with me, joining their voices with mine like glasses of bitter or honey-sweet wine do when brought together at a merry feast. In this respect we Ubykhs were like the mountains: when one would sing, others would echo.
“You lousy calf. I hope the wolves get you! You’ve just got to drink up all the milk to the very last drop!” a heavy set old man shouted as he brandished his stick and pulled a calf away from its mother’s udder. He grabbed the tail of the red-haired glutton with a white spot on its forehead, pulling it away from the cow. Kicking open the gate, he shoved the calf into the yard.
“The sun hasn’t even gone down but you’ve already come prancing home. Too lazy to chew the grass, you parasite!” the old man continued his tirade, now talking to the cow, whose eyes were like ripe plums dampened by the rain.
The old man’s ranting and raving was the most welcome greeting to me, because it was in Ubykh.
Perhaps if it had happened earlier I would have got dizzy from joy and tears of elation would have streamed down my cheeks, but now my soul wasn’t as susceptible to unexpected glee. My Lord, the Ubykh language! I hated to even think how long it had been since I’d heard it!
All I’m now telling you about took place in a remote village where I was seeking rest and a place to spend the night. A stocky old woman looked out the gate.
“It’s impossible to keep track of that animal! Just yesterday it managed somehow to get outside so nothing would be left for the milk pail. You’ll have to tie it up.”
Though the life of a vagabond made my skin as coarse as a buffalo’s, the sound of that voice sent shivers down my spine. I recognized the voice of my aunt Himzhazh, my father’s sister. And the old man, he’s Sit, her husband. How come I didn’t see that right away? I thought to myself.
I stood there smiling and musing how many years we hadn’t seen each other. But I was startled out of that state by a little mottled dog that jumped out of the yard barking loudly.
“Good afternoon!” I said.
The old man and woman looked at each other in wonder. They were surprised to hear someone they didn’t know speaking Ubykh.
“Welcome, traveller,” replied Sit, examining my face.
“Who’s this poor man?” my aunt whispered to her husband, not concealing her alarm.
“Judging by his rags he must be the czar’s son!”
She didn’t get the joke and inquired in confusion:
“What czar’s son?”
At that point I couldn’t hold myself back any longer and stretched out my hands to her:
“Aunt Himzhazh, my dear woman, don’t you recognize me? I’m Zaurkan!”
“Zaurkan?” she said under her breath and putting her fingers over her lips, as though she had said something wrong, she leaned back against the gate for support.
“Oh, Allah! Well what do you know!” gasped Sit and he began hugging me, crying.
“Who is he, Sit?” the old woman prattled again.
“You foolish woman, can’t you see that’s Zaurkan standing in front of you! “ He practically yelled: “Zaurkan! Your nephew!”
“Zaurkan! My nephew?” my aunt said as she moved toward me, but after taking a few small steps her eyes closed and her knees gave way.
I caught the old woman, began blowing on her face, but it didn’t help. She had fainted. I carried my aunt into the house and put her on the sofa. Sit dipped a towel in cold water and put it on his wife’s temples:
“If you decided to leave this world, Himzhazh, you picked just the right time for it. Your own nephew will help me bury you.”
Well, I wasn’t in any mood for jokes. If my aunt died I couldn’t bear the thought that I would be unwittingly responsible for her death.
“Don’t worry, Zaurkan. She’s not going to die. She’ll come to soon. It’s not the first time this has happened!” said Sit brushing it off with a wave of his hand. “Do you know how long you’ve been considered dead? You were mourned by your relatives, but here you are resurrected. Come closer, let me have a good look at you, my son. Time doesn’t flatter us, no it doesn’t. You’re all gray, and it seems it was not so long ago you were a young man. Had your mother and father known you were up and kicking they wouldn’t have been afraid of dying. Here, sit down and rest! I bet your feet are aching from your travels.” Then he nodded to his wife. “Don’t you worry about her. She’ll be just fine.”
Indeed, my aunt opened her eyes, groaned, sat up and, placing her feet on the floor, she called to me:
“Come and sit closer to me, my dear.”
She brushed her gray hair under her black scarf. I sat on a low bench next to her and she, tenderly stroking my head, kept sighing. She didn’t have the strength to talk, and tears streamed down her pallid face. Then she set the table. When we sat down to eat we poured out our hearts, remembering the dead as though we were at a funeral feast of unfulfilled hopes.
Sit’s house was under a flat roof and was made of manure briquettes like all the other homes in the village. The walls inside and out were plastered with clay. The house had two rooms. When I woke up the sun was already high. Out side I could hear voices—men’s and women’s—and they were saying my name. They must be neighbors, I speculated, who had come to congratulate Sit and Himzhazh on my return.
I got dressed quickly and went outside. Instantly all of them stood up, surrounded me and, greeting me warmly, hugged me from all sides.
“Hello, Daut! I heard you were away, Murat. Where to?”
“So you remember us, Zaurkan?”
“How could I forget such fine fellows!” I replied, barely able to recognize the very aged Hafiz and Hatkhv, who were brothers.
In the middle of the yard there was a kettle of boiling meat on the fire. I could tell by the smell it was goat meat. The generous host had apparently gone into debt to buy a goat in keeping with the ancient hospitality of the Ubykhs.
When all the men sat down at the table, I was seated in the place of honor. The women in veils stood outside the door of the room. Only Himzhazh stood inside the door, not taking her doting eyes off me. The neighbor women brought plates of food up to the door and passed them on to an efficient young man, who, in turn, put the plates in front of the guests. This was not part of Ubykh custom. Women never hid their faces and could sit with men at the table, sing songs and dance. Only young women served the guests, as a rule. As for the young men, they weren’t sup posed to sit as equals with the elders, let alone enter into their conversations. But those were other times, other songs, as we say. There were a few young men seated at the table in between the old men. They were talking loudly, laughing, and even dared interrupt the gray-haired men. In the old days meat was distributed among those seated at the table, depending on their station in life. The more honorable guests were given the best pieces, such as the thigh, blade, the head or half of the head. The person who was sup posed to distribute the meat acted according to custom and no one took offense. But at that meal the goat meat was cut at random and was lying on a large tray; each person took the piece he wanted. Cornmeal mush, the thought of which would make my mouth water, wasn’t on the table. Instead there was hard bread. Honey diluted in water, was the substitute for wine.
Sit started off the feast:
“Honored guests, friends and neighbors! Today is a great occasion in our empty home. Zaurkan is back! He’s back from the grave! I thank you for coming to share with us this unexpected joy. Do us the honor, my dear guests, and partake of everything you see in front of you. Don’t be offended if something’s not right! We’ve done our best. Bless us, Allah!”
Sit drank down the diluted honey and began eating. Everyone followed suit. The house was filled with loud talking, jokes and laughter. The young were the loudest of all; they shouted to one another and laughed without restraint. I looked at my old friends dressed in ancient patched up Circassian coats and thought to myself sadly, how time has changed them; what fine men they used to be.
I also thought to myself that if Sit were hosting guests in his own country everything would have been entirely different. He would have put the meat of a whole bull on the table and still excused himself for not having enough to express his respect for all those present. He would have sent around the table a wooden tray with a shot of vodka for a start; each person would have emptied it in one gulp. Then a toastmaster would have been chosen—the person with the most wisdom and honor. Toasting would have begun. People wouldn’t have filled up their stomachs as much as their souls. And when the time came they would have begun singing around the table. Then the lads would have jumped up to dance, putting their hands on their thin waists. Shy girls would have joined those dancing, moving gracefully. They would have invited the gray-haired elders to be their partners. And the elders would have shown everyone there that they still had a lot left in them.
In the land of the Ubykhs Sit was reputed for his eloquence and his sense of humor. He had a way with words. Now it was as though he was searching his pockets for words, but couldn’t always find them there. Once a dandy, he was now dressed in a well-worn, tattered, and patched up Circassian coat. All that remained of the old Sit, not spared by time or fate, was his kind heart.
Sit and his friends his own age could only live in the past. The young, however, who were born in Turkey, had no idea how mighty and able-bodied these stooped elders had once been. When Hafiz stood up and suggested singing an old drinking song, the young men didn’t even listen to him. They chomped their goat meat, and argued about some events that interested them.
“Hey, my friends, our ancestors didn’t behave like that,” Hafiz said, trying to outshout the disrespectful youths. “When a guest came, the heartiest of welcomes awaited him. His hosts would do everything to please him, putting all worry aside for the meantime. A guest should be entertained with songs and dancing!”
“Oh, come off it, will you! What do we care what our ancestors did!” said the young men ignoring Hafiz.
I’ve never seen any Ubykhs like that, I thought to myself bitterly.
But Hafiz, despite the bad manners of the young, began singing an ancient Ubykh feast song:
Wa-raida, let us sing
Of brave men who never failed.
Everyone is but a link
That unites the chain mail.
Two or three of the older people, including myself, began singing the familiar song with him. I was surprised myself, but my voice was carefree as though it had broken out of chains of silence.
Wa-raida, it’s time to rest.
But before the feast joy passes,
Young and old will honor the guests
By raising high their wine glasses!
It was just for an instant, but while we sang the young people stopped talking and listened to us—the last custodians of our native culture. We stopped singing just as suddenly as we had begun. Hafiz, wiping his tears away, smiled at me:
“Our days are numbered but thanks to you, Zaurkan, we feel as though we’re in our native mountains.”
The women, crowded at the door and covering their mouths with the ends of their scarves, looked at me in surprise. But it didn’t take long for us to come down to earth.
I stayed on in Sit’s home. His sons, who had gone off to war when they were still in Osmankoy, were reported missing in action, and so the old man gave me all his love and care.
My dear Sharakh, if you walk south it would take about two weeks to get to Karinjovasy from where we are here. The name of the village means ant valley. It’s quite likely that before the Ubykhs came nothing but ants inhabited the area. It was a bare, narrow strip of land... It was like a dog’s tongue and the tip of the tongue pointed to the north. The base of the tongue to this day rests on a swamp infested with malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the tip ends in a rocky plateau. As a rule the heat of summer is suffocating. If you don’t water the fields not one blade of grass will grow. But in the winter it’s just the opposite: chilly and windy, and practically no snow. You couldn’t find a worse place to live. Only a demon on black Friday could give the Turks the idea of resettling the Ubykhs in that wasteland. I suppose they figured if the Ubykhs survived they’d be lucky and if they didn’t, who cared. And so that’s where the Ubykhs were moved.
When a man is caught in a storm out at sea and his ship sinks he must first rely on his own courage, the strength of his hands grasping the oars, and only later on God. The Ubykhs selected the edges of the valley where the land was less scorched and set up their farms. They built thirty villages of flat-roofed windowless houses made of manure briquettes. Can you imagine, Sharakh, living in such houses? It was as though fate were laughing at them. After all, at one time when an Ubykh was building just a simple hut he wouldn’t even use poles from nut trees, but from aromatic rhododendrons; an Ubykh didn’t use alder, but made rafters out of chestnut wood; he wouldn’t cover a roof with fern leaves, but with golden straw or resinous shingles. And no Ubykh would dig a well; he always quenched his thirst in life-giving springs. But in Karinjovasy the Ubykhs had to bore through the dead land almost a hundred feet deep just to get to some muddy water. How could anyone blame the young people who had been born and reared so far away from the rhododendron groves and the soft murmuring of mountain springs, for not being able to sing Ubykh songs, break into dancing to the tune of a ceremonial drum and ride horses the way their fathers once had.
You know what I’ve dreamed of all my life here, my dear Sharakh? My most cherished desire has been to spend at least one night in an Ubykh patskha. Oh, what marvelous dreams one has under its roof! No matter how hot it is in summer it’s never too stuffy in a patskha. Its walls made of thick branches let through the breeze and you feel as though you’re under the wing of a bird fanning the air! At night the light of the moon peeps through the walls and you can even feel it on your face. Outside cicadas sing lullabies. It’s heavenly!
And the fireplace! Not one Ubykh could imagine a home without a fireplace. We worshiped the fire in our hearths and would never allow it to go out. There was no curse more terrible than, “May your hearth collapse and be swallowed up by the earth!” It seems as though someone damned all the Ubykhs to that fate, because that’s exactly what happened. In Karinjovasy the Ubykhs dug a hole in the middle of the earthen floor and that’s where they made their fire, where they cooked their food and baked their bread.