ASTAN ZOLAK

“Is there anyone left in the Zolak kinship group?” I asked Aunt Himzhazh the day after I arrived in Karinjovasy.

“There’s only one and he’s like the mule that when asked, ‘Who’s your father?’ answered, ‘My mother is a horse.”

“Who is he anyway?”

“You must remember him, although when we came to Turkey he was a young boy. His name is Astan. He’s the grandson of blind Sakut, the apkhiartsa player. His grand father, bless his soul, died back in Samsun. But the grandson is still alive...”

As you remember, Sharakh, Sakut did die back in Sam- sun, but I forgot to tell you that Sakut was a Zolak. In those days I still had a lot of close relatives. But in Karinjovasy there were only two Ubykhs from the once large Zolak kinship group: myself and Sakut’s grandson Astan. News travels fast, so he must have known about my arrival there. Although he was younger than I, he didn’t hurry to Sit’s home saying: “My only relative, I’m glad you’ve re turned.” However, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. It was summertime and the sun was not yet blazing as usual when I went to visit Astan. The peach tree branches with their amber fruits, peering through the foliage, rested against the fence. Smoke from the hearth rose up above the ramshackle mud hut. In the distance I could see the cow-shed and a pile of manure nearby waiting to be cleaned up. An elderly, thin man with prickly gray eyebrows was sitting under a tree sharpening his ax on a grindstone.

“Good day. I’d like to see my relative Astan Zolak,” I said in a loud voice in Ubykh.

The old man, putting his palm up to his forehead to shade his eyes, took a good look at me. Even if someone he didn’t care for or an enemy walked into the yard, custom dictated that he must stand up at once, but he did not.

“Hello! If you don’t mind, I’m Astan Zolak! And who, may I ask, are you?” he inquired in Turkish.

“You don’t recognize me? Then search your memory and see if you remember a man by the name of Zaurkan among the Zolaks?”

Astan put down his ax and looked around to check if anyone could hear our conversation:

“Zaurkan you say? Yes, there was such an outlaw, I remember ... an odd type... He got all worked up because some pasha abducted his sisters and so he murdered the seducer. The fool was executed!”

“If he was executed then I’ve been resurrected because here I am, your brother!”

“Stop joking! I haven’t got any brothers or sisters. They all died...”

“So you really don’t recognize me? You think I’m an imposter?”

“The dead are not reborn. Just the infidels imagined their prophet Jesus was resurrected.”

“I can show you a document saying I was released from prison under the sultan’s manifesto. Come on, look closer. You’re not blind like your grandfather Sakut. If you want

I’ll recite the song he sang when we were leaving Ubykhia. You were just a boy then, his guide.

Let’s look back at our mountains,
They don’t know where we’re going.
Let’s look back and leave them our song
To wander like an echo
From one mountain to another.
If a child leaves its mother,
The mother is to blame.
But is she really to blame?
Is she really to blame?
“Why are you leaving, children?
What have I done to you, children?”
Our land is crying;
Our land is asking.
Forgive us unfortunate ones,
Forgive us!
We have no power to stay.
We can leave you
One thing only: our souls.
We are leaving forever.
Forever, our souls remain.

“Lord bless the soul of the man who created that song. May he rest in peace under the lone hornbeam tree near Samsun.”

Astan’s face seemed to soften. I even thought he’d jump up and embrace me. But I was mistaken. Astan continued sitting in front. of his grindstone as though nothing had happened.

“I’ve never heard of a man condemned to death staying alive. Congratulations, Zaurkan, but don’t be offended I can’t take you in... Where are you staying now?”

“With Sit, although according to custom it’s your duty to give me shelter, even if I were a fugitive from justice.”

“Old customs are like old clothes you discard when worn too long.”

“If I had been executed you would’ve been obliged to avenge my death.”

“Where have you been? I didn’t even seek revenge for my father’s death. Maybe I won’t go to heaven for that, but all I care about is being left alone while I’m still alive. I don’t owe anybody anything.”

“Don’t worry! I don’t want anything from you. I just wanted to see you. After all, we’re not strangers, you know...”

When he heard I wasn’t going to ask him for anything, Astan gave a sigh of relief:

“You’re lucky you can still work. If you ask nicely maybe you’ll get some land. Then maybe you will be better off and breathe more freely.”

“We’re the last of the Zolaks. It would be a shame for our family to die out.”

“I threw my name to the devil,” said Astan, “and took my Sharual wife’s name.”

“How do you like that! Since when does a man take his wife’s name?”

“That’s nonsense. A man’s like a pumpkin and his name’s like the seeds. When you clean out the pumpkin to make a ladle you throw out the seeds.”

“Don’t be blasphemous, you fool!”

The Ubykh who had changed his name laughed, but with no humor in his voice:

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, that’s just false pride. It was all right to show off when we were in Ubykhia. I remember back home if people saw a squash that had lost its stem it was thrown to the cows for feed. Meat left over from a feast was not served to company the next morning. If an Ubykh married a girl from a family below his status he would either have to get rid of her or resign himself to being an outcast along with her. It didn’t matter if we had to go hungry all year round, as long as we served our guests the best food. We Ubykhs took up just a tiny part of the Caucasus, but our arrogance was infinite. And what did we get for it?”

“You’re just making excuses for yourself! I’m an elder standing in front of you, and yet you haven’t even asked me to sit down.”

“There’s plenty of room for you to sit down wherever you want!” he waved his hand in a semi-circle around the yard.

“What gorgeous peaches are hanging over your head, but you haven’t even offered me one, you miser.”

“If you want peaches, pick them off the tree. Help your self.”

“I have to stand out here in the yard to talk to you. You won’t even invite me into the house.”

“It’s hot in there... And anyway I would imagine in prison you had enough of sitting between four walls.”

“You should at least introduce me to your wife!”

“I have two of them. Both are Sharuals.”

“Where are they?”

“At home. They’re doing the housework and bickering, as usual.”

“How can you possibly afford two wives?”

“At one time I could; not anymore. But I still have the wives. You want me to introduce you to them, but do you have any presents for them?”

“Isn’t meeting a relative better than any gift?”

“Isn’t fresh air better than a stuffy house?” he ridiculed. Then he added with conciliation, but still feeling he was in the right, “Sit down a while. My wives will bake bread, make coffee, and I’ll call over my neighbor, old Mahmed. There’s a time for everything.”

“Do you have many children?”

“Two of them, a son by each wife.”

“And their names are their mother’s or yours?”

“My new name—Kazanci-oglu... It sounds good to Turks and keeps us above suspicion...”

“So where are your Kazanci-oglu sons?”

“I haven’t heard from one of them for over a year. He got mixed up with a gang of thieves, the fool. Maybe he’s in jail, or maybe he’s been shot, who the hell cares. The other one is all right. He lives in Konya and works for a shop owner. He works hard for a living. He’s married, but I’ve never seen his wife or children.”

“What a pity you don’t have your grandchildren here. If they were running around this yard you wouldn’t be so lonely in your old age.”

“Oh, Zaurkan, taking care of children, worrying about how you’re going to feed them is one big headache. I just couldn’t afford it. They’re better off where they are. If fate wills it they’ll grow up, and hopefully become wealthy people.”

“How do you make your living?”

“I herd geese for our lord, Husein Effendi. Three of us work for him taking turns every three days.”

“What’s a man doing herding geese! Herding sheep or horses is a different matter, but cackling geese?”

“You certainly are arrogant. Haven’t you ever eaten goose meat? You should try it; it’s delicious. Just thinking about shish kebab made out of goose meat makes your mouth water. And the feathers aren’t like straw. Husein Effendi makes a lot of money off his geese. It’s not easy taking care of the stupid fowl, but I’m used to it now.”

Astan began telling me about the geese the way a horse- keeper talks about his charges. While he was talking a woman in a veil came out of the house. She picked up a small armful of brushwood from a pile in the yard and, without saying a word, went back inside.

I watched her as she walked and asked Astan:

“Don’t you think it’s strange, Astan, that you and I, two Ubykhs, are talking in different languages: I’m talking Ubykh and you’re speaking in Turkish? Have you forgot your native language?”

“You might say that. I understand everything you’re saying and I even think in Ubykh, but it’s easier to speak in Turkish. And my wives talk and fight in that language. I can’t just talk to myself like some kind of an imbecile. Sometimes when Husein Effendi wants a good laugh he asks me to speak Ubykh. All I have to do is start talking and he doubles up with laughter: ‘It’s like bird talk,’ he says. ‘Come on, keep chittering.’ That dagger you’re wearing on your belt: it’s probably become dull and rusty, just extra weight you’re carrying around. It’s the same with our language. So don’t judge too harshly.”

I took my dagger out of its sheath. It sparkled menacingly in the sun. The whole yard and Astan himself fit easily on its mirror-like blade. Everything around me seemed so small compared to what that blade, cold as a snow-capped mountain, symbolized now. My heart beat fast like it did in the African desert in the mid-day heat when there was no air to breathe. I realized I had to get away from there at once; my head was throbbing.

“Don’t forget, Astan, that we are of the same blood and if you ever need me you can find me in Sit’s home. Drop by, my brother. So long for now!”

“Goodbye,” he nodded, and picking up his ax, he resumed sharpening it.

It wasn’t with that ax, but with another, invisible ax, that Astan chopped down the tree of our fraternity. The woman wearing a veil and whose name he used, could throw the dead twigs of that felled tree into the crimson fire of their hearth.

Yes, the Zolak family, a family of bold horsemen and warriors famous, throughout Ubykhia, had died, and be cause of Astan it had died without glory, and even in shame. They say everything depends on circumstances. If that’s the case then it would be silly to blame Astan alone. He was a victim, and the circumstances were the ax over his head. Anyway, what good had I done? I had no family, no children. I was just drifting through life and was like a moss covered oak tree struck by lightning: it doesn’t burn; it smoulders. In the end nothing remains. The Zolak family will disappear without a trace as though it had never existed. But how could it be; how could a whole tribe vanish? How could a language, spoken for so many centuries, cease to exist? A language in which people praised and criticized each other, sang lullabies to their children, talked about ways to make a living, made oaths, chattered idly, cursed and prayed! Was this fate preordained or was it the result of someone’s destructive mistake? Could such a thing happen to our people if its sons were all like Tagir? No, if they were all like he was we would not have come to ruin, was my conclusion.

My thoughts rushed haphazardly through my head like a man stumbling through an unfamiliar thicket. I felt so thoroughly lost and confused that I don’t even know how I ended up in front of a small house at the end of a dusty lane.

The only place I could get the answers to those nagging questions was in that quiet, humble, white-washed mud hut built by Tagir.