Do you know, my dear friend, Sharakh, what’s the difference between one’s memory and a woman? I see you don’t know. And don’t even try to guess. It’s really very simple: a woman can only betray her husband when she’s young, but the memory can do so when it’s old. Don’t be surprised, my son, if my memory begins to betray me more and more often.
The year Mustafa Kemal was stripped of his title as pasha we had a big cotton harvest. It would have been cause for great joy, but times were bad; there was a war on and all the roads to the bazaars were cut off by the hostile armies. On one side was the sultan who had either gone into debt or sold himself out to the British, French and Greeks, each of whom had taken over a big piece of Turkish land, and on the other side were Kemal’s rebels who had sworn they would liberate the country. Black marketeers, like jackals, went around the provinces buying up cotton for a song and selling it behind the lines for three times the price. There was no one to complain to. Husein Effendi himself was making a lot of money off speculation in cotton. He was not exactly the person you would turn to for justice. According to the rumors, the sultan in Istanbul, a hostage of the foreigners, had almost no power. He condemned Kemal and his comrades to death by default, but every night in the capital there were fires, explosions of powder magazines, ammunition ships burning up by the Galata Bridge and there was gunfire near the sultan’s palace. The soldiers sent by the sultan to attack the rebels often went over to the other side led by the man condemned to death in Istanbul, but the ruler in Ankara. The country was like a two-headed monster. Karinjovasy was like one big inn. Everybody came through our village—the French, Greeks and the sultan’s cutthroats, and all of them were lost to shame. Anyone who spent the night expected to be fed and given a bed in the house, even if the owner had to sleep outside! Then our Ubykh youths had to get into a brawl over a game of backgammon. One thing led to another and they were at each other’s throats. Blood was spilled. One of them was left with a scar on his face. He was from the arrogant Nagua family. The relatives acted as though the man had been killed, they were so offended:
“An eye for an eye! We won’t forgive anyone for that scar! We want revenge!”
The fellow who had made a scar on his former friend was named Farhat. He was from the Chyzmaa family. His relatives, sensing they were in for protracted blood revenge, didn’t back down. They rejected the idea of reconciliation.
“If we start trying to make up with them those cowardly Naguas will think we’re weak,” warned one of them who was fond of making predictions and had a reputation for always finding a mare’s nest.
“We should send Farhat away to the Sharuals where he will be under the protection of Husein Effendi!” advised another who had brains, people sarcastically said, the grand vizier Tevfik Pasha would envy.
And so Farhat was sent off to the Sharuals. I’d like to explain to you, Sharakh, that any fighting among the Ubykhs gave Husein Effendi great pleasure. He welcomed Farhat like a son, dressed him up in uniform and assigned him to the guards that protected Au Hazret Pasha’s property. Armed and riding a raging horse, and with the brains of a bird, Farhat was no different than the thievish and clamorous thugs who, like Husein Effendi himself, were capable of killing a defenseless person, without giving it anymore thought than when slaughtering a chicken. An emir’s dog is worse than the emir himself. The cutthroat gang Farhat was with came from time to time to Karinjovasy. Each time it was like a raid.
I once saw Au Hazret Pasha at a distance in the estate of Mansou, son of Shardyn. When he came to our village I recognized him right away. He was sitting on a black Arabian stallion and holding one hand on the pommel as though he was afraid of falling off the saddle. Next to him, on a white gelding was a French general, tall and thin as a pole and wearing a peaked cap that looked like a magpie’s tail. Behind them was a whole cavalry retinue. The mukhtar emerged from the throng, went up to the horsemen, took off his hat and bowed, but the pasha, prancing about, didn’t pay any attention to him. The pasha turned to the crowd:
“I do not believe that you, the people of Karinjovasy, have broken your vow and refuse to support the sultan,
Allah’s representative on earth. I do not believe you want to break the heart of your esteemed fellow-countryman— Anzavur Pasha, who is close to the sultan. It is not Turkey’s fault that it suffered such terrible losses in the world war. Taking advantage of the situation, criminal types who claim military leadership, are sowing discontent. But the sultan will have their heads. And he is not alone. You see, next to me is a French general. This courageous military commander has come with his army to help out the grand sultan, the country’s legitimate ruler. And not only French troops are giving us a helping hand. The British and Greeks are also the sultan’s allies. Who can hold out against that kind of strength? Brave Ubykhs, don’t forget that in your time of trouble the Turkish government gave you refuge and be stowed on you all sorts of favors. The despicable rebels want to slander you; they’re spreading rumors that you’ve refused to serve in the great sultan’s army.”
Sit came out of the crowd, went up to the horsemen, put his hat under his arm and bowed:
“Gracious Pasha, you’re right that we are not against the sultan, but where will we get the soldiers for his army? Just a handful of men are left! Almost all our young men have been killed in battle...”
Ali Hazret Pasha impatiently interrupted Sit:
“It isn’t becoming, old man, for you to deceive me. Mukhtar, give me that list of draftees.”
The mukhtar ran up to the pasha with knees bent and took out of his coat a piece of paper that rustled in the wind.
“You see, old man, how many names there are here. Everyone on this list must report for duty at the appointed time. Anyone who ignores this call will be court-martialed. I see that some of you are trouble makers who are agitating the people to rebel. Hey, Mukhtar, what are you doing, in dulging the enemies of the nation? Why didn’t you report that the enemy’s men are stirring up trouble here?”
Trembling with fear, the mukhtar kept bowing to the pasha as he mumbled:
“I told Husein Effendi!”
“Oh, yes, now I remember, of course. Some learned man is kicking up a dust...”
“Yes, that’s it, Sir! A learned man by the name of Tagir!”
“Where is that traitor?”
“He’s no traitor, Pasha. He’s a well-respected man among the Ubykhs,” protested Sit, putting on his hat.
“So where is he?”
“He went to Istanbul.”
“To complain about Husein Effendi.”
“Oh, so that’s it!”
“It’s all according to the law, and he’s gone not just anywhere, but to Istanbul.”
“I hope,” said the pasha, addressing the people, “that the brave Ubykhs will once again be happy to serve with honor for the cause of the sultan and caliph.”
You ask, Sharakh, what came out of our meeting with the sultan’s pasha? Nothing. The pasha left; he had many other matters to attend to, not just the Ubykhs. Before drafting procedures began, many of our young men vanished. Some unlucky ones, however, were taken into the army, those who didn’t get away in time. But that’s the way it is when you’re unlucky: you’re either too early or too late...
One morning when the sun had already risen a horseman appeared on the road in a cloud of dust. He rode bareback and shouted:
“Hey, everybody! Our shrine is gone! Bytkha has disappeared!”
“What do you mean it’s gone? Where could it be?” was the common astonished response.
“Go to the hill and see for yourselves! Go on, you’ll see.”
The terrible news flashed through the village like a spark carried by the wind. People rushed to the hill with the lone tree. Sit was ill, but when he heard Bytkha had vanished, he forgot all about being sick, got dressed and, supported by his staff, headed for the hill. I could barely keep up with him. We approached to see that a crowd had already gathered there as in the old days when the faithful still prayed to their shrine. When the elders got to the top of the hill they were horrified to see that the young man who had aroused the whole village was telling the truth. The stone niche that held the hawk like Bytkha was destroyed. And the lone hornbeam tree, like a murdered guard, lay nearby; it had been chopped down. The people were silent. Sit examined the rock fragments, the traces the ax had left on the trunk of the crooked tree, touched the withered foliage, then stood up, looked at the crowd and spoke:
“A villainous act has been committed! Someone has stolen our shrine. And it wasn’t today or yesterday. It’s been long enough for the leaves to die and the ax mark to grow brown.”
There was a humming in the crowd. Most of the people there no longer observed the old faith, but they were offended by the blasphemy just the same. At that moment the memory of common blood reminded them of who they were and united them in anger. It was like after a long quarrel when relatives are reunited by the sorrow of a funeral.
Believe me, Sharakh, I felt as though someone had offended me to the quick. If at that instant I had seen the person guilty of that crime, I would have been the first to wring his neck.
“Who could have committed such blasphemy. Oh, Almighty Bytkha, turn into thunder and lightning and strike that evil soul! May all his family be forever cursed,” thundered Tatlastan, removing his hat and raising his trembling hands to the sky.
Many in the crowd chimed in:
No Ubykh could have done that, I thought to myself, but I was actually talking out loud and someone shouted:
“That’s right, Zaurkan! It was one of our enemies!”
But a bald, scrawny, one-eyed man, Tagir’s neighbor, whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, grinned and protested:
“It’s always easy to blame someone else! But what if it was one of our people?”
“Come off it!” exclaimed gray-haired Daut.
“Why didn’t you notice before that Bytkha was gone?” asked a woman wrapped in a dark shawl. Her question was recrimination against all the men in the village.
As if to say the elders were not to blame, Daut turned to the youth:
“Why are you so surprised? Everyone knows the Ubykhs are used to turning their backs on their own gods and worshiping someone else’s. It’s no wonder people call us drifters. Not so long ago you were all deriding our priest Soulakh, bless his soul!”
The bald man spoke once again:
“Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Why look for the thief in another village when he’s right here...”
The people looked worried.
“Come on, tell us who you suspect!” demanded someone in the crowd.
“It’s not enough to point the finger at someone, we need proof!” warned Sit.
“There are witnesses...” retorted the bald man.
The people came closer together.
And at that very moment someone shouted:
“Let me through!”
The people cleared a path for Rahman and his son. Rahman was dressed all in white and had a watch chain dangling over his stomach. He had been in commerce for a long time and was known for his dealings in the market. He wasn’t exactly a merchant himself, but he would often get to know the people in a caravan going by and take assignments from the leader. In general he knew which way the wind was blowing and always took his son along with him; he wanted the boy to learn the ropes young.
“Oh, just and Almighty Bytkha,” implored Rahman as he kneeled and put his straw hat in front of him, “if I’m lying, may your wrath strike not just me alone, but my only son as well. Strike me dead on the spot if one word I say is false.”
“Look who’s solemnly swearing to tell the truth,” said Tatlastan.
“We saw him with our own eyes!” said Rahman’s son.
“Tagir stole Bytkha!” exclaimed Rahman reluctantly, as though the information was being pulled out of him.
The crowd became silent.
“That can’t be! It’s a lie!“ shouted Sit raising his staff with a threatening motion.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but those are the facts.”
“Look, you’ve gone just too far! Throw him out of here!”
“It’s easy enough to say: ‘Get out of here!’ But maybe he knows what he’s talking about!” someone shouted from the crowd.
“Anything is possible,” the bald man spoke again. “Even the mullah’s daughter is capable of sinning! Let’s hear out Rahman and his son.”
“My dear friends, our stolen shrine, wherever it is, has the power of revenge. If I’m falsely accusing Tagir, let Bytkha punish me instead... Ten days ago my son and I joined a caravan going to the city of Konya. When we finished our business there we decided to buy ourselves something for the trip home. While we were walking down a busy street we happened to pass a shop that sells expensive articles made of stone, glass and ivory. Suddenly Tagir walked out of the shop. We called to him, but he didn’t hear us, or pretended he didn’t, and disappeared in the crowd. There are always many people on that street. We knew before we left
home that Tagir had gone to Istanbul with a complaint against Husein Effendi, so we were surprised to see him in Konya. Just out of curiosity my son and I went into the shop that Tagir had come out of; it was a very expensive place. We went in and saw three salesmen examining our hawk like Bytkha on the counter. We couldn’t believe our eyes!”
A deep oooooooo went through the crowd, and Rahman, like a Muslim praying, put his hands together in front of him and went on:
“Bytkha’s basalt body seemed to have darkened, its golden eyes flashed fire, and its claws seemed to have blood dripping from them!”
“‘It looks like that Circassian pulled a fast one over on us,’ said one of the salesmen as he looked Bytkha over. And another one patted him on the shoulders and laughed, ‘Don’t be upset! That thing isn’t so valuable, but it is rare. We’ll make a profit off it anyway.’
“My son and I got down on our knees in front of Bytkha right then and there, but the salesmen ran out from behind the counter and threw us out.”
“Why waste any time! Now we all know who the thief is! Tagir had better give us back the shrine or we’ll tan his hide!” shouted the young man who, at the last prayer meeting the day Soulakh died, had been the first to speak up against our faith.
The people were torn between the desire to kill Rahman on the spot, and to go to Tagir’s house to raise hell.
“You can cut me up into pieces, but I don’t believe that wheeler-dealer! I trust Tagir like I trust myself!” shouted Sit.
“You can’t force everybody to keep their mouths shut!” yelled the bald man. “We’ve had enough of your talk. The man’s a real snake in the grass. Tagir said he was going to Istanbul, but actually went to Konya!”
A few other people and I knew that Tagir had actually gone to Ankara to talk to a representative of Soviet Russia there about our problems. We had heard rumors that the representative had come to see Kemal Pasha and Tagir wanted to know if now, after the revolution, the Ubykhs who wanted to could return home.
But it was dangerous to tell everyone about Tagir’s true whereabouts: there had to be someone in the crowd who was one of Husein Effendi’s men and the information would be reported instantly. And that murderer wouldn’t think twice about putting Tagir’s family under arrest.
I went to the head of the throng:
“Those liars should pipe down! You’ll all see for yourselves soon that everything Rahman said is a lie! He’s mistaken if he thinks we’re asses. Tagir was not anywhere near Konya!”
The bald man darted over to me and squealed as though someone had hit him in the place that distinguishes a man from a woman:
“You’re in on this with him! You’re in on this! Birds of a feather...
I drew my dagger out of its sheath:
“I’ll tear out your guts and wind them around your neck.”
The bald man dashed off, stumbling down the hill. Rumors have wings, and this one took off and spread all over the Ubykh villages. One man lied, another embellished on it; and a third one got it all jumbled. That’s the way a person is: he blows hot and cold at the same time. Those who were hailing Tagir yesterday and believed his every word, now swallowed the lies about him, called that noble man a thief and wanted his head. Everybody in and around Karinjovasy was talking about the theft of Bytkha. Tagir’s friends and I couldn’t wait till Tagir returned to find out who had really stolen Bytkha and who put Rahman and the bald man up to telling the lie.
But Tagir didn’t come back when we expected him, so one night Daut and I decided to talk to Rahman ourselves. We went into his yard: there wasn’t a soul there; the chickens weren’t even clucking. We asked the neighbors:
“That same evening we found out Bytkha had been stolen he and his family packed up all their belongings, loaded them on a cart, hitched up a cow and left.”
“Where did they go?”
“Who knows? Farhat Chyzmaa came to see him the night before.”
“Oh, so that’s where it all started,” we thought, but unfortunately we didn’t know really how far back it had started...
If it isn’t one thing it’s another...
Ali Hazret Pasha had failed to get the Ubykhs to serve in the sultan’s army. The pasha’s mounted messengers went in vain through our villages agitating the people to fight for the sultan.
As I already told you, Sharakh, they managed to recruit only a few Ubykh men.
We heard that when Mi Hazret found out about all that he went into a ranting rage. Oh how he swore at the Ubykh people! If only that had been the end of it. But the pasha sent his thugs around to our houses, who took everything they liked in sight, stole our cattle, raped our women and if they found any young men, ill or pretending to be ill, they shot them on the spot as deserters.
“There’s no God but Allah! Long live the sultan!”
One can do evil in the name of God, and one can commit lawless acts in the name of the law.
“Help us, Allah!“ prayed the people.
They realized the pasha and his men would make their life a hell on earth if they stayed on in Karinjovasy. They had to move somewhere, but where? Moving, all the time moving! It was as though evil fate was always following us Ubykhs.
It never rains but it pours... Tagir returned, not having reached Ankara. Everywhere there were sentry boxes, cordons, guard posts, road blocks and guards at bridges and crossings: in short—it was war. It was late at night when Tagir returned home and was met by his poor wife Gulizar. She threw her arms around him and the tears rolled down her cheeks.
“What’s the matter?” asked Tagir.
Gulizar told him how he was accused of stealing Bytkha. She had barely finished the story when someone outside called him.
“Is the man of the house at home?” said someone in Ubykh.
“Don’t go outside! Hide!” pleaded Tagir’s wife.
“Don’t worry; it’s one of our people!” he said reassuringly, and went to open the gate.
A shot was fired and Tagir fell to the ground.
Four armed men got off their horses, grabbed Gulizar, who was trying to call for help, gagged her and tied up her hands. Awakened by the commotion, the frightened sons were also tied up. After the intruders threw the children and their mother over the saddles, they set the house on fire and rode away.
When Sit and I got there, Tagir’s house was just a frame of black smoking boards. Crimson sparks still flew from the dwindling fire. Smoke, ashes and the smell of burning were carried by the wind. Tagir, covered with blood, was lying face down in the yard. At first I thought he was dead, but he wasn’t. He was fatally wounded and when he came to, he asked in a barely audible voice where his wife and children were.
“They’re all right,” I told him, not knowing what to say and suppressing a strong urge to howl in sorrow.
But Tagir didn’t believe me. I realized that when I saw a lone teardrop rolling down his cheek.
“Who shot you?” I asked as I lifted his head.
People began gathering around the place. All those who had loved Tagir, who had placed their hopes in him, were present and distraught with grief. The wounded man was put under a tent constructed in haste. I looked at the face of that dying man so dear to me and had a terrible feeling of helplessness, a deep anguish. Tagir was dying, and every thing he had devoted his life to had perished in the fire. No one would ever write the history of the Ubykh people; no one would ever write a primer for Ubykh children.
Tagir barely moved his lifeless hand as he whispered:
“Go home! Go back to the Caucasus... All of you... Go home!”
Those were his last words, his last will and testament. Tagir died before the sun rose. Nearly everyone in the village came to mourn him. Even the mullah came, the man who had not so long before called Tagir an infidel. Rah man’s mysterious flight and Tagir’s assassination were proof beyond doubt that he had nothing to do with Bytkha’s disappearance. And those who had believed Rahman’s story were now deeply ashamed, cried and asked forgiveness of the dead man.
“Uaa, nan, my Tagir,” wailed Aunt Himzhazh, her hair hanging loose, as she sat at the head of the deceased. “Look how many wonderful people have come to pay you their last respects!”
The women wept and the men sighed deeply.
Mansou, son of Shardyn, came to bid farewell to his childhood companion. He whispered to the people standing next to him:
“I feel so sorry for him! He was a real scholar! It’s a shame he destroyed himself and his family. I warned him... He wanted to make a hole in a stone wall with his little finger... What a dreamer...”
An elegant carriage drove up and stopped a small distance away. Before he got in, Mansou, son of Shardyn, walked up to us elders:
“I wish you luck! I will not forget the work you did for me. Thank you! We probably won’t ever see each other again. I’ve sold my estate and am moving to France, to my wife’s country. As they say, let bygones be bygones, but I must tell you that you really offended me when you had Husein Effendi give the people’s last shrine away to Ali Hazret Pasha. Did you think I wasn’t worthy of such a gift? Were you trying to buy his favors, or what? Surely you realize you can’t make deals with such scoundrels. It would have done more good if you had given your support to the sultan! But no matter what you think of me I haven’t forgotten that my father was an Ubykh. Yes, my honorable fellow Ubykhs, I haven’t forgotten that. So you know what I’ve done? I bought your gift from Ali Hazret. And I paid him a good price for it, too. I’ll take Bytkha with me; maybe it will bring me happiness in an alien land. Farewell and bear me no grudge!”
Mansou, son of Shardyn, got into his carriage and in no time he was lost in a cloud of smoke kicked up by the horses’ hoofs.
Nearly all of us who came to say goodbye to Tagir were of the older generation and in mourning him were mourning our terrible fate. Through our tears we could see what he had willed to us—our unforgettable homeland so far away and named Ubykhia.
We buried Tagir on the mound where Bytkha had once been. The setting sun illuminated the new grave with its departing rays.
No one was in a hurry to leave. People stood with heads lowered and deep in sorrowful thoughts. I went to the top of the mound and stood next to Tagir’s grave, holding the ancient horn in my hand. I put it to my lips and filled the desert with the moaning of the Ubykhs’ brass horn. The horn wept over Tagir’s fresh grave and thundered against his enemies. It was a call to return to the land of the Ubykhs, to our homeland! “Put the sick on stretchers, the infants in saddlebags, and attach axes and daggers to your belts,” the horn bellowed. “So what if the way is bloody; you must be on your way no matter what. You have nothing to lose; he who loses his country loses all.”
And so the horn continued its mournful plea until I had no more strength left to blow it and hold it in my hands.
Darkness enveloped the whole area; only a few stars twinkled in the sky as though the heavens were mourning us with cold tears. It was the last night of the Ubykhs on a land where life was no longer bearable.