OUR PRIEST’S DEMISE

It was Thursday, the day we elders had been waiting for with trepidation. The weather was dreary. Low-hanging autumn clouds obscured the sun as they scurried into the distance. The air smelled of rain, but dust still swirled on the roads. Flocks belonging to the Jamhasars were coming down from the mountains and heading for our fields. Armed Ubykh watchmen the night before had shot in the direction of the nomads who in return fired back at our guards.

Early in the morning, as I’d been told, I climbed the hill that had a scrawny tree on top of it, a hornbeam planted the year the Ubykhs arrived in Karinjovasy. Obviously, the soil wasn’t good for it so the pitiful tree grew with few branches. Under that stunted tree and deep inside a rocky niche was the hawk like Bytkha. I stood opposite the shrine, wondering whether to begin blowing the horn, whether I, my lungs already so weak, could blow hard enough so the clarion call could be heard by hundreds of people. But I had no choice. So placing my lips on the mouthpiece, I was surprised myself by the sound that came from the horn’s fiery throat. With regained confidence in my own strength, I continued blowing. At first I turned to face the east, then the west without taking the horn from my mouth. Soon my back was turned to the north and then to the south. I blew hard. I caught my breath and blew the horn once again. The blood rushed to my temples. The horn had sounded different in the mountains. There the mountains echoed its call, and the wind blowing from the sea kept it from being carried away. But here the horn’s appeal surged lazily upwards to the low clouds, and stayed there as if sinking into cotton.

Then it began to rain. I kept blowing, straining my lungs as sweat dripped down my face, mixing with the rain. The horn did not sing, but sounded more like a ship sending out signals of distress.

I was exhausted and sat down under the tree placing the horn on the ground to my right. The drizzling stopped and the sun peeked through the ragged clouds. The meeting was to take place at noon, so I could have gone home and come back in time. But I wanted to sit there by myself and think. So I stayed.

Did the Ubykhs hear the call of the horn? What are they thinking about now? And if they come at noon will they listen to Soulakh? My anxiety gradually gave way to a blissful sense of peace. I think I even dozed off. Through my half-closed eyelids I could see the mountains enveloped in morning fog. The sharp snow clad peaks shined a primordial white. Along the slope, through the lush green thicket, I could see the foaming surface of the Sochi River, falling in a cascade from the granite ledges. When it reached the valley it flowed more slowly and became transparent. The pebbles on the river bed reflected the sun. Where the stream was narrow and the banks were high the river was crossed by a small bridge. I stood on that bridge looking into the water, examining my young, beardless face. Suddenly I could hear the barely distinguishable sound of broken reeds. Looking back I saw three roes timidly going down to their watering place. What beautiful eyes they had with gorgeous long eyelashes. I had seen women with such eyes in mountain villages. I had my flintlock gun with me, but it seemed a shame to shoot so I pushed my weapon away from me. Why was it so cold? Oh, my Lord, it’s the horn. At that point I woke up. Before me was the yellow barren plain. The stunted tree, like God’s fool, whispered something to me with its wet foliage; I was gripped by fear. Where had I been but a minute ago? Could I have fallen asleep? No, no, I hadn’t even closed my eyes! But how could I have seen that dreamlike vision? Or can one dream with open eyes?

My thoughts were interrupted by a man coming toward the foot of the hill. I looked at the sky to see if the sun were already directly overhead. No, it wasn’t noon yet, so if the man was coming to the meeting he was early. He had nothing on his head, was wearing a light shirt and boots. I could already make out his features. I didn’t know him! He was tall, thin, and had gray-sprinkled hair brushed back from his forehead. When he got closer he smiled.

“Good day! Good luck to you, Zaurkan. You have no idea how happy I am today.” And he hugged me.

“I wish you all the best, stranger!”

“Why do you say stranger? We know each other very well! You shared your food with me when I lived in your home.”

Then it dawned on me:

“Tagir! I swear to sacred Bytkha, you’re my adopted brother Tagir!”

I took that graying man into my arms. It was hard to believe he had once been the child Mata and I over half a century ago had carried in our arms nearly the whole way to Osmankoy. He had indeed lived in our home until Shardyn, son of Alou, took him off to Istanbul along with his own son. Oh, how my mother had cried bitter tears when she saw off little Tagir! We couldn’t take our eyes off each other. The harder I looked at Tagir the clearer I could see the little Tagir in my memory’s eye. Yes, yes, that’s his nose, so straight, and those are his eyes, so blue.

“Well, this was a fine place to meet again—right in front of sacred Bytkha. This is truly a holy place,” I said.

The clouds were reflected in Tagir’s smiling, blue eyes:

“The Ubykhs’ sacred place is over the sea... Last night when I got back from Istanbul my wife told me about your resurrection. I didn’t want to bother you so late at night. I found out from Sit this morning that you were here. Then I heard the call of the horn. Yes, your aunt’s husband was right to say that if anyone ever rose from the dead it was our Zaurkan. If you had returned home after all that has happened to you and it were the good old days, the people of the Caucasus would have made up songs about you and sung them to the apkhiartsa. But just the same, to the Ubykhs who haven’t lost ties with their past, your return is a great event. You have brought them a reminder of the ancient parable: ‘When the mountains were burdened with sorrow they couldn’t bear the weight; when the people took over the weight they did not bend.’ The story of your life gives strength of spirit, teaches courage and patience.”

While he talked I looked at him with admiration. He had broad shoulders, a large forehead with only one wrinkle on it that looked more like a scar, and a long olive neck. His small mustache, barely covering his upper lip, was going gray, but his eyebrows were still black.

“I was glad to hear, Tagir, that you’re known as the people’s defender. That’s admirable! What’s the news in Istanbul?”

“Bad news, Zaurkan! No one cares about the Ubykhs. Everything’s in chaos in the government. I spent a month haunting government offices, but no one deigned to take seriously the complaints I was making. I accomplished nothing there. We are outcasts...”

It was almost noon.

“What do you think? Will anybody come?” I asked.

“The elders went from door-to-door telling people about the meeting. And everybody heard the horn. Some will come perhaps!” he replied as he paced back and forth on the mound.

“The Ubykhs have become orthodox Muslims.” Tagir nodded his head toward Bytkha. “They no longer worship it. What they need is a different shrine...”

“What do you mean?”

“Belief in freedom! But it has to be worshiped without kneeling and with weapons in hand.”

“How can a handful of people fight against a whole state?”

“A handful can’t, you’re right, but belief in freedom should be the religion of all poverty-stricken people. Communal hostilities are not due to human nature, but are contrived by those in power. A poor man will always under stand his own kind, no matter what language they speak. The masters of the land should be those who work hard on it. A better future, like children, should be born of harmony.”

“Apparently harmony’s not part of human nature. Wherever there is day, there is night; wherever there is wealth there is poverty. One man rejoices while another sheds tears; a newborn infant greets the world while a dying man says farewell! No, it’s not in our power to change all this, Tagir.”

“You’re right when it comes to life and death, day and night; but not when it comes to people. Or haven’t you heard that the czar has been deposed in Russia?..”

“I’m not deaf...”

“Revolution is no fairytale. The law of brotherhood is now in effect in Russia. Now it’s not ruled by the right of the mighty, but by the right of all peoples. Your mother’s people, the Abkhasians, have their own statehood. The head of the Abkhasian government visited Turkey just last year...”

You can imagine, Sharakh, what a state of shock I was in. I came to worship sacred Bytkha and suddenly I was listening to such things! No matter how hard I tried to picture the Abkhasia of my childhood as a prosperous, independent state, my imagination failed me.

“The echo of events in Russia can be heard here. The sultan’s power is hanging by a thread... The people here will go into motion, too, and then...”

“What then?”

“Everything will change, Zaurkan. Listen, I want your advice. Maybe when the people come together I could get up and give them my own opinion of what you and I are talking about...”

“It’s up to you, but I don’t think it’s appropriate here. I’m afraid you’ll only get yourself in trouble. There hasn’t been unity among the Ubykhs in a long time...”

When the sun was directly overhead people began coming in twos and threes. None of them were women. Apparently, Muslim custom, which forbade their presence, had taken root among the Ubykhs. Two young men were carrying a white kid that was hanging from a pole by the legs. They were followed by the elders led by the priest. Tagir and I walked off the mound because on the day of prayers no one had the right to be there but the priest. As I had expected, not many people came.

After praying, the priest stabbed the sacrificial goat. The young men didn’t know how to skin the animal so Tatlastan did it for them. Then he cut up the meat and put the pieces into a kettle to boil. In the good old days each kinship group was supposed to sacrifice a goat, but now all of Bytkha’s worshipers could barely scrape up enough money for one goat. In the old days the goat meat was eaten off wide, fresh plane tree leaves. But here, where there weren’t any trees for miles around, some people had brought corn husks.

The gathering was a sorrowful sight to those who had been fortunate enough to see the genuine prayer meetings of the past. Where were the handsome riders in their smart Caucasian dress? Where were the ceremonious conversations of the elders and the obliging conduct of the young? Where were the daring horsemen who after the prayer ritual would do their riding tricks in celebration? Where were the young women, braids to their feet, dancing slowly on tip-toes, their arms spread like wings while young men on horse back galloped around the dancers? Where were the zealous horses who waited impatiently for their riders, champing at the bit? There was just one shabby camel grazing in the distance. The people gathered were tired and worn out, and talked about everything but sacred Bytkha. Many who saw Tagir came over to ask him all about his trip to Istanbul.

But right then Soulakh, in his snow-white outfit, went to the top of the mound looking like a ghost. In his right hand he held the twig with the boiled heart and liver from the goat still steaming. The old men at the foot of the mound took off their hats and kneeled. I followed their example. To my surprise Tagir kneeled too. But he wanted to speak his own mind, I thought to myself.

Most of those present continued standing. Some even smoked.

“Oh, Almighty God!” began Soulakh. There was total silence. His voice unsteady and weak, the priest went on in a singsong: “Oh, sacred, hawk like Bytkha, our patron and defender! Bless us! Forgive the sins of the wayward and give us guidance. Do not condemn us for our humble sacrifice! Down on our knees we put our hope in you. Hear our prayers, most gracious Bytkha.”

Just when I began thinking that no wonder our ancestors worshiped almighty Bytkha, that it defended them and helped them, someone in the back row began whistling. Everyone looked back. A man wearing a faded army uniform was whistling with four fingers in his mouth. People tried to get him to hush up, but he boldly addressed the gathering.

“We’ve been praying all our lives, but what good does it do! Grandfather prayed to Bytkha, and Father kneeled in front of it like a paralytic, but what was the use? I spent three years for the glory of the sultan, rotting in the Balkans and sprinkling the land with blood. When I returned I had no father, no mother, no home. Tell me, honorable elder, why has the sacred Bytkha been so blind, so deaf, so helpless to take care of the innocent?” The man spat on the ground and waved his hand: “It’s all a big lie, nothing more!”

“Have you gone crazy?” shouted Sit, offended by the blasphemy of the former soldier.

“You can’t say a word in the mosque, and here you have to bite your tongue, too! We’ve had more than enough of this!” growled the soldier’s friend.

“Quiet, that’s sacrilege!” shouted the old man Daut. But the soldier and his buddy didn’t pay any attention.

“Bytkha is long dead and gone, and you, Priest, are wasting your time holding that goat heart and liver on a stick in front of it!” exclaimed the soldier.

His friend seconded him as he laughed:

“Or if it weren’t for Bytkha you wouldn’t know the taste of heart and liver?”

Everyone began shouting and the elders and the young locked horns.

“Did you conspire to break up this prayer meeting?” howled Tatlastan, waving his staff in the air as he faced the young people.

Tagir started up the mound. He must have thought the time was ripe for him to say what he had meant to. At that moment Soulakh the priest dropped the twig with the goat’s heart and liver. And like a sheet torn off the line by the wind, all in white, he threw up his hands and collapsed right in front of Bytkha.

The old man was picked up and carried home. That same night, without regaining consciousness, he passed away.