He came home late. He was drunk. His face was pale and drawn. He leaned over his mother’s bed and kissed her.
"You know how you’ll be tomorrow,” she said.
He went into his room, undressed and lied down. It was hot under the covers and he tossed them off. The light coming in from the street bothered him. He was breathing heavily. His mother got up and looked at his white face. She checked his pulse. Opened the window a crack. Pulled the blanket over his back.
I wake in the morning. My head aches. My mouth is dry. In a few minutes my heart will start racing. I’m used to it. But soon will start that thing which I’m more or less acquainted with…
Mom must have opened the window. I’m cold but I can’t go to the open window – I’m afraid. Marina always laughs at this. I see nothing funny.
I’m looking at a toy lion. It’s been in that corner for a year. Its head has a slight bend in it. A little tilted down. It seems sad.
"The boy hasn’t lived here for a year.”
"The boy’s bed is empty.”
My bed is wide and the side where Marina should be lying is empty. Now the whole bed, including her side where I’m lying, seems like a person severed in two. From head to foot, severed down the middle.
It all started with my father. No, not with my father, with that man who looked like Mephistopheles – the man they called my grandfather. Why does everyone in my family seem to think all our grandparents are so wonderful?
"Temur,” someone is calling me. I know it’s no one. After each drink they call me. At least if I know I’m imagining it then I must not be crazy. I tell my mother to lock the window. I get up and look out at the street. It’s rude not to look out when someone calls to you. Even if no one’s there but an empty voice.
Mom says, "Kotika’s wife Lali called me yesterday and told me he’s in very bad shape. I just couldn’t go to see him. I guess Lali really wants me to see him die.”
"Leave me alone!” I shout.
"You know, you’re really crazy.”
"You’re the one who made me crazy!” I shout even louder.
Mom leaves the room. My whole body is shivering. I sit up on the bed. I can’t stop my feet from shaking on the floor. I wrap my arms tightly around my knees. They’ll stop soon. I dress and go up to the kitchen for my heart medicine, returning without looking at Mom.
"Temur!” someone’s calling me. I look. No one.
Now you have to leave the house because here you’ll just get worse – it’s awful here. Mom gives me the Seducsin and tells me she’s going away for two days on business.
"Did I shout too loudly at you?”
"As long as you don’t kill yourself I’ll have no problems.”
"How long does Kotika have?”
"Probably a week.”
I look out the window and think, I’d better not fall down in the street. Mom reads my mind.
"Don’t worry – you won’t fall down.”
"No, you’re fine now.”
I’ve fallen twice. I was walking down the street telling myself, you’re gonna fall now… you’re gonna fall now. Suddenly everything went black and I fell. Mom pulls the curtains wide open.
"You opened the window, didn’t you?”
"Yes, for some fresh air.”
I keep thinking I’ll jump. I don’t want to kill myself so I can’t go near the window. Some force will make me jump. Maybe it’s that old man with the Mephistopheles face. True, he’s dead, but still… the dead are always after me.
An old man picked up a five-year-old boy. A young woman was leaning against the wall. The old man looked at the woman looking at her own child. The boy sensed that his mother was very afraid of something. He started to cry. The old man stared at the woman like a snake. She pressed herself closer to the wall, almost like she was trying to break it down, she’d break it and fall through and wouldn’t see any more. She wanted to die and so she kept pressing harder and harder against the wall.
"Leave my son and you’ll never see this one again,” the old man said to her. The boy was crying, his face red with tears. He was very blonde.
The old man carried the boy over near the window. Opened it. Pushed the boy towards the window. The boy screamed. The old man looked at the woman.
"I’ll throw him, you know.”
The woman collapsed.
The boy often woke screaming that night. His mother was never sleeping, of course – when could she? She had to get up first thing and get herself and the boy out of there, someplace where they couldn’t be found. They couldn’t stay in that house any longer. There was some great sin abiding in the house, but the woman didn’t understand any of it, so distracted by her fear. "He’ll kill him, he says…” She couldn’t think of anything else.
My mother starts pulling up my bed sheets. "How many times do I have to tell you? I’ll take care of my own bed.” I grab the sheets from her and wrap them up. I see myself with the sheets in the mirror…
Dad was coming back from the sea with three-year-old Temur. He was holding the boy’s little white hand very tightly. He was a man of average height. His eyes were blue – very blue – the color of the sea. Temur looked so much like his father. He was laughing at passers-by. Dad’s name was also Temur.
"Will Mom be at home?” the boy asked.
"She’s home, Temur,” his father replied.
"So am I. Mom will feed us.”
The man laughed at his son, picked him up and quickened his pace.
All three of them sat at the table.
"Temur, two men were looking for you.”
"I don’t know, I’ve never seen them before. They said they were co-workers of yours.”
"From the construction site?”
"I don’t know, that’s what they said.”
"What did they want?”
"They said they’d come back later.”
"I wonder who they could have been,” he said. He thought and thought.
"Eat – it’s getting cold.”
He started eating the hot soup.
"Who could they have been?”
The men returned that evening. One of them showed an ID card.
"What do you want?” he asked them.
"You’ve got to come now.”
"What’s the problem?”
"You’ve hired someone we’re looking for.”
"I haven’t hired anyone.”
"We shouldn’t be talking here.”
"What’s happened?” the woman asked.
"I’ve gotta go to the site,” he said, lying.
"Is it the two men?”
"Yeah, yeah, I might… don’t worry.”
Mother and son stood in the threshold and watched as Dad walked out through the yard.
Three days later he returned. He didn’t look at anyone as he walked in, as if they weren’t in the room. Not even the boy.
His assistant at the site had hired a soldier from Vlasov’s1 army. Temur was questioned. Then released. But also fired.
"I should have known,” he said.
"What?” said the boy, climbing onto his father’s knee.
The man lied down. He turned towards the wall and for a week he didn’t speak. Sometimes he scratched at the wallpaper. A week later he got up. Ate a little. Still didn’t speak.
They brought a doctor to the house. Salt-and-pepper hair. Extremely clean hands with bulging blue veins. He and Dad were left alone in the room. The doctor spoke for some time to Dad, wrote a prescription and left.
"Don’t leave him unattended,” the doctor told the woman before leaving.
"Will anything help him?” she asked.
"He’ll be fine,” he repeated, having told her countless times already, and this only to help calm her. But he wasn’t even aware that he was saying "He’ll be fine” the same way people say "Hello” or "How are you?” without even thinking about it.
"Really?” the old man asked.
"The boy?” the doctor now asked, catching a glimpse of him in the little room. "Is he yours?”
"Yes,” said the woman.
The doctor looked at the boy for a moment.
"He’s a good boy – don’t leave him unattended. Good bye.”
For one year the house was silent. Whenever the boy was about to break the silence his mouth was quickly covered. Their many guests, well-read indeed, were also all doctors. And they came late, after dark. They would come alone and sit down slowly, like someone late for a wake, someone close to the family.
A year passed and he seemed to be recovering. He began to speak. It gave her hope.
He was fine. The boy was laughing out loud. Only the old man seemed grim and annoyed by the laughter. This lasted for eight months.
It was night. Everyone was sleeping. The woman dreamt she was drowning in the sea. She could swim but she was very tired and couldn’t see the shore. On the shore her husband and son were waiting for her, unaware that she was drowning. She was crying for help but no one could hear. Salt water splashed into her mouth, down her throat. She was falling asleep in the sea. She’d gather her strength and surface, and then the process would repeat itself.
She opened her eyes. In the darkness she saw her husband’s crazed expression as he closed in on her. She imagined she was still dreaming, but only for a moment – then her husband wrapped his fingers tightly around her throat. She screamed and barely managed to free herself.
The boy started crying and the old man got up. The man was laughing loudly.
The mother grabbed the teary-eyed boy and implored her husband, "Temur, it’s us, sweetheart, me and your son!” The old man was dialing for an ambulance. Now the man was laughing quietly. Then he wrapped his naked body in the bed sheets. He stood up on the bed, eyes roving this way and that, and quickly, nervously, he began:
"Dioscuria is a city at the bottom of the sea. Once it was full of life and there was no sea there. Then the Sea came and turned it into an island. As the Sea rose its waves broke down the white stone houses, then calmed for awhile, only to resume. At first the people rebuilt their homes. But the process kept repeating. Once the Sea left Dioscuria entirely for a time and seemed to have ended its rampage, but then the people began fighting – killing, exterminating, violating, annihilating. People destroyed their own families, defiling them physically and morally, consciously and irrationally, voluntarily yet uncontrollably.
"Do you hear me?” he yelled at his wife. She clung fiercely to the boy and shivered. Wrapped in the bed sheet, the man had a string of drool hanging from his mouth.
"Do you hear? They were killing their families on purpose, voluntarily and uncontrollably. It was horrible in Dioscuria. The Great Sea was angered, returned and swallowed the place completely.
"Now listen,” he continued, "no one knows why the sea rose up in the first place, why it was destroying everything, why it left or why it returned to swallow the city. I alone know – and you’re the only people I’ve told. The Sea created Dioscuria and gave life and goodness to its people. Then it wanted to test the goodness. It was a long test, for the Sea knows that a true test of goodness takes a long time. After leaving, it found that the people had fallen into sin. It returned and swallowed the white city. The Sea is all-powerful.”
The man stood stiff for a minute, then said, suddenly frightened, "Now everyone, put on your cassocks and long coats… please, I beg of you… please, please…”
Time passed. At times he was worse, at times better.
"You’ve got to get out of here – it’s not your fault… the boy deserves pity,” she was told by the doctor, salt-and-pepper hair, clean hands. Get away somewhere. At first she’d been sorry for her husband, but since the window episode she was on guard, distressed. And "He’ll kill the boy,” she kept thinking of the old man, her father-in-law. "He’ll throw him out – kill him.”
The medicine hasn’t taken effect yet. I’ll put the sheets on the bed. Dry out my mouth. I’ve got to leave the house quickly. On the white wardrobe in my room there are several wreaths carved in the wood. They’re beautifully cut, these wreaths of flowers, and they look like the kind people used to take to wakes. But they’re missing the banners – black and white banners with inscriptions, "We weep for Temur, whose time came too soon.”
I tell Mom it’s bad weather and she should come home by train. As I go out she looks at me from the window.
"Lock it,” I tell her. She locks the window and smiles at me. "We weep for Temur, whose time…”
I walk down our narrow street. Suddenly right in front of me there’s a rope. I dodge to one side and bump into the yogurt woman.
"What’s your problem?” she asks me. She’s dressed entirely in black.
She puts two jars of yogurt into a gray bag and ties the rope to it. The rope pulls the bag up to her client at the window above. "We weep for Temur…”
I was ten. It was snowing in Sukhumi, not a common occurrence. It snowed that day. I was running up the spiral iron steps. Dad was okay then.
We were supposed to meet up with some fishermen. Then we were going to stay up all night, setting to sea before daybreak. I was so happy that day – when it was snowing in Sukhumi and I was running up those spiral iron steps. That man they called my grandfather was not at home. If he had been home he’d have been in the front room with a newspaper or book, glancing up occasionally with a grim expression, never saying a word…
"Mom!” I called and went into the middle room. She wasn’t there. I tossed off my snow-covered coat and ran to the bedroom, eager to begin preparations for the night. I opened the door. In the center of the tall room my father was hanging by a noose, below him a chair on its side. I screamed something, ran over and jumped up on him. The rope held strong. I yanked hard in hopes of pulling him down but the rope was tied tightly to an unmoving iron hook in the ceiling. The taut rope swung this way and that. Then I saw his face, dead white eyes protruding from the sockets like some soap bubble blown but not yet set free into the air. Everything was too late. I let go of the rope and hugged Dad tightly, like he’d always hugged me. He was wearing a white shirt, I remember. The rope swung the two of us and I clung to his lifeless body with all my might. The rope swung, did not fall. Swinging the two of us in the tall bedroom, happy, the rope itself was life laughing at us with its strength. Who’s that on the nice swing with Dad?
"Now I’ll get some rest.” That’s the first thing I heard from that man they called my grandfather. He said it when he came into the room and saw Dad covered with a sheet. Before he entered the room he knew that Dad had killed himself. What had he been thinking or telling other people as he made his way there? I don’t know. But the first thing he said was, "Now I’ll get some rest.”
They brought wreaths to the wake and nailed them to the wall where they hung, just as my father had hung from the ceiling. Most of them bore the inscription: "We weep for Temur, whose time came too soon.”
Now I’ll walk down the street and not think about anything, just walk and not think. I’ll see the boys at work and not think.
Up comes a middle-aged woman in a faded coat. She’s carrying groceries. It’s clear from her expression that the bag is heavy. Either she’s just finished her shopping or she’s coming from a relative’s where they had guests and she’s being sent home with lots of leftover food. Yes that’s probably it – a woman in a threadbare coat like that wouldn’t have the money to buy so much. Or if she did she certainly wouldn’t be walking home uphill. And she’s just the kind of woman who would have rich relatives who like to entertain, sending her home with the leftovers in exchange for help with cleaning up and washing dishes.
She’s probably unmarried, either widowed or divorced, or possibly an old maid. Her kind of women are so pitiful – middle-aged, faded coats, exhausted women. I feel as sorry for them as I do for my own mother.
"Temur,” someone else is calling me. I look out.
"Marina has been gone for a year.”
"The boy’s bed is empty.”
"The toy lion is so sad…”
"Kotika will die soon…” The woman comes closer and we approach each other. If I weren’t so afraid of falling I’d take the bag and carry it up the hill for her. No, I can’t. I can’t.
"Ma’am, I’ll take your bag.” She looks suspiciously at me and puts the bag behind her.
"I’ll carry it up the hill for you.”
"You’ll carry it for me?”
"Thanks, young man, but I’ll carry it myself.” She seems no longer nervous that I might steal it.
"I’ll take it for you.”
She breathes deeply, stands and rests. I take the bag and look at her. "Let’s go,” she says after a minute or so. We both go slowly up the hill. The bag is so heavy I can hardly believe she was carrying it, but then I’m in a weakened state myself, that must be it. No, that’s not it. She’s got very kind relatives. All you relatives are so kind…
I tire and begin to feel like a woman myself, just like her, tired and beaten down…
We reach the top of the hill.
"Thank you very much, young man. Off with you now.”
"I hope your mother has many years with you.”
I’m going. Many years… many years… Her words follow me. Yes, ma’am.
There are countless people in the ticket line at the airport.
"Break it up!” the security guards are yelling.
"What happened?” ask all the newly arrived people. I’m one of them.
"Over there – there! It happened right there! He wanted to open the door and get on the bus but the driver wouldn’t open it,” a pretty young woman cries.
"Break it up, break it up.”
"You’ve got great timing,” one man says to the security officers.
"You want us to be psychic?” one of them yells back.
"He must have been chasing the guy for at least ten minutes,” someone says.
"Couldn’t you catch him?”
"He saw us and waved this big knife at us.”
"We chased him after he killed the guy.”
"What happened, what?” asks a pale woman.
"A guy killed another guy with a knife.”
"Cut him right down.”
"It all started when he couldn’t open the bus door.”
"Got him in the back.”
"Once the guy was down he jumped on him and stabbed him again.”
"Was he a Georgian?” someone asks.
"The guy who died.”
"Yeah, he was Georgian.”
"And the killer?”
"I forgot to ask his nationality,” someone jokes.
"Break it up now, don’t you have jobs to get to?”
"He was Georgian too,” says someone else, looking angrily at the comedian.
"Why, oh why,” says the woman.
"What are you doing here?”
I come to my senses. I’m standing by the ticket line at the airport, a short security guard in front of me.
"No, your twin.”
"So what business do you have here?”
"If you’re in the mood for jokes I’ll takes you to headquarters and we’ll have some laughs there.”
"No, I’m not.”
"Get out of here while you can.”
We’re all leaving. The guy was probably on his way to work, or to college, maybe to see his girl… or his mother… or maybe he was bringing bread home. What’s the difference? He got stabbed in the back. That must have been so painful. The last thing he needed. The bus driver didn’t open the door. If he had the guy would have sat behind him and stabbed him…
"Are you all right, young man?” some woman asks me.
Her lips move. I don’t get it. The street sprawls out in front of me. Sprawls forward with people like a train with passengers hanging out the windows.
Now I’m standing in front of Kotika’s place.
The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the top of the ambulance. Then I saw three people in white, one holding a needle.
"Felling better?” asked a young girl with bleached blonde hair.
I sat up in the gurney. The doctor must have been about my age.
"Lie down, lie down,” he said.
"No, thanks, I’m fine now. You can stop the vehicle.”
"I don’t think so.”
"Give me some Analgin or Dimedral if you’ve got it and let me go.”
"I’m not authorized to release you, but I will give you some Analgin,” he told me in a very medical voice.
I can’t stand when people aren’t "authorized,” but will do this or that. As if they’re doing you some favor. The nurse broke the seal on the Analgin and drew the medicine into a syringe.
"Not in the vein?” I ask.
I wanted to jump out of the ambulance. They kept treating me worse and worse.
"You never put this in the vein, sweetheart.”
"Yes you can – I’ve done it myself.”
They looked at each other in such a way I know they took me for an addict. I was glad. Doctors are afraid of addicts. I knew they’d let me go.
I grabbed the needle from the doctor and injected myself. He looked at me, astonished.
The ambulance stopped. We all got out in front of the emergency room. A Fiat screeched to a halt right in front of me. It was an old college friend of mine. I hopped into the car.
"Go!” I told Tamaz. We sped away.
"Thanks,” I managed to say.
I can’t stand those people in white, no matter how young and blonde they are. They may be able to bring you to consciousness but then they drive you crazy with their authoritative, proper tone of voice.
"What was that all about?” Tamaz asked me.
"Nothing. They’re friends of mine… Take me to Saburtalo.”
"How are you?”
"Fine… A guy was just killed on Zemeli Street.”
"What do you mean, so?”
"So what if he was killed?”
"I was with Keti last night, had a shot at her. The one who studied in the linguistics department. With the big bust. The one I was so nuts for. They were such babes, we had a blast.”
I looked at Tamaz as he watched the road, though I could tell he was clearly seeing his "blast” from the previous night.
There are those people who are far more aware than others that we only live once. They never skip any pleasures. They find lots of cash, do anything for it, and they’re always eager. They have gorgeous girls and always travel. They wear only the most expensive clothes. They try to have no regrets and to reach for it all. True, they’re missing some other qualities, but it must be great if you really have no regrets.
"A blast, eh?”
"C’mon over sometime, why don’tcha, we’ll have some fun. Ya wanna?”
"Gonna throw in the towel, forget about each other?”
"No way, man.”
"Yeah, so come over.”
"Stop here,” I say.
"So long - and come over.”
"Temur!” someone’s calling me and I look from the entryway. The Analgin helps – at least I’m not afraid of falling down now. I go into Kotika’s room. Lali is sitting next to the bed. Her eyes light up as she sees me. If you can call it light. Whatever brought those two orphans together?
"How are you?” Kotika asks from somewhere far away.
Even if I weren’t, I’d be ashamed to admit it to Kotika. It’s so awkward to say "I’m fine” to someone so gravely ill. I even hesitate to go to wakes for people I knew well. Especially if several of them have died in succession. You go in and the mother is lying dead. You go round the circle, shake hands, kiss and depart. You go back again, only this time it’s the father who’s laid out and you go through the same motions. You still have your mother or father, but they don’t anymore. Almost as if it’s your fault.
"It’s good of you to come,” Lali tells me.
I sit down. Kotika’s head seems to have grown long, his eyes sunken and dim, his blankets look like a mere extension of his long head, no real body underneath.
"You need a new coat. That old thing is falling apart,” Kotika says.
"Yeah, yourself – get a new one.”
"I will, Kotika, don’t worry.”
"I hate it when people humor me, you know that, don’t you?”
"You’re as white as a sheet.”
I mechanically put my hand to my face.
"I called you yesterday,” Lali tells me.
"I know – Mom told me.”
"You know, Kotika’s doing better today.”
"Stop it,” says Kotika.
"What else is new?” I force a smile at Lali.
"I don’t know.”
"Yesterday I was in such pain,” Kotika says.
"Today isn’t so bad, but it’ll get worse tonight.”
"No it won’t.”
"It will. If not for this pain I’d be doing fine, even be able to walk. I just have to get rid of the pain and I’ll be fine.”
"It’ll get better soon.”
"The human mind is remarkable. It refuses to believe it’s dying right to the end.”
"Don’t talk such foolishness.”
"If anything happens I want to wear the suit you gave me,” Kotika tells me in such a manner, it seems like he’s planning a trip somewhere. He doesn’t believe it himself.
Lali’s eyes fill with tears. I love her so much more when she gets teary.
"They don’t cry for the living,” Kotika tells her.
"I’m not crying,” she replies, shrugging as if surprised by the idea.
They do cry for the living. What do the dead need tears for?
"Temur!” they’re calling. I get up and head towards the window.
"Drink much yesterday?” Kotika asks. I quickly turn to face him. We look at each other. Then I smile at him. Kotika and Marina know I’m afraid, but the thing is that Kotika has never laughed about it.
"So that’s why you didn’t come,” Lali says.
"Yeah, that’s why.”
"I was so surprised,” Lali seems to be signaling something with her eyes. I can’t figure it out.
"Always drinking too much!” Kotika says.
"Not so much.”
"Too much. You should make up with Marina. Her kind of girl shouldn’t be treated that way.”
I’m quiet. I look at Lali, hoping to figure out what she was trying to tell me but she’s staring at the floor. I’ll go and phone.
"You two are meant to be together. You’ll see, you’ll be fine.”
"I’ll go now and come back this evening. Haven’t been to work.”
"Go on, go, but come over tonight.”
"Yeah, I’ll come over.” I head towards the door.
"I wish we were back in school,” Kotika says. I don’t turn back to look at him.
"Oh, yeah?” I say as if I have something to regret from school, and I hurry out of the room.
It’s cold outside. I wish it would snow. What was Lali trying to tell me? If I called now Kotika would suspect something. I’ll go to work and call from there. I’ll walk there to pass the time.
"Temur!” someone calls.
"The boy’s bed is empty.”
"Kotika will die.”
Cars are speeding past me. There’s a doll fixed to the front of the first car. I can’t stand weddings. How can anyone like weddings or wakes?
It must have been two or three months after my father’s death. Mom and I were returning from the cemetery one evening when the wind picked up quite suddenly, as it often does near the sea. We were following along the shore. The waves were still rather calm but black, and far off in the distance equally black clouds were rolling in to meet them. Everyone was rushing somewhere, even we hurried as we were able. The trees looked like mourner women with long hair. As we reached the house the rain began. I had always felt sorriest for Dad when it rained. There were several raincoats hanging in the entryway. Mom and I were surprised. Mom opened the door to the family room. It filled with light. At the head of a long table with a white tablecloth sat the old man who looked like Mephistopheles. On his head a red paper crown. A woman was sitting next to him. We could tell she was a woman because she was wearing a white wedding dress. Her graying hair was tousled, she was frighteningly thin and very dark skinned. Her chapped lips were thick with red lipstick.
Mephistopheles was more bent over than usual. He wore a black jacket. A diamond ring gleamed on his finger. There were several other men and women at the table, equally old and ugly. One man had a black ribbon on his shirt.
"Come in, please come in,” Mephistopheles cordially invited us. The old people seemed to be hiding their faces, burying them in their plates and eating with obviously great appetites. Mephistopheles removed his red paper crown, as if to signify something. The dark, lipsticked woman grimaced.
"What’s all this?” Mom asked.
"Surprise, daughter, surprise,” and he attempted to laugh. "Come in now, come in.”
He stood up, filled his glass and began:
"What am I supposed to do? I’m getting old and I need someone to look after me. Temur took my life from me and my soul is bitter. I can’t rid myself of it. You have your life now, but I need someone to care for me. Maro is a fine woman and we’ll be together now for as long as I have left. She’s my new wife.”
"Are you serious…”
"Yes…” He raised his head up and spoke boldly now.
"I’ve even been crowned, see! Ha ha ha!” It looked like the man with the black ribbon was about to burst with laughter for a moment, then he stuck his face back in his plate.
Mom put her hand firmly on my shoulder. We left the room. Neither of us said a word. We didn’t even turn a light on in our room, just sat there. She wept. Outside it rained endlessly, bitterly. The windows rattled from the wind and rain. Mom cried and the world was crumbling while they laughed hysterically, guffawed, quieted down again until someone said something and they’d burst out laughing again. My whole body was trembling. I had to do something. To save my mother from this terrible carousal and end her tears. I left the room. As I left I already knew my plan. The old man had sat the monster in the wedding dress on his knee. The red crown was back on his serpentine head, no doubt to the increased merriment of his guests. The women were giggling hopelessly, wiping tears of laughter from their eyes and shouting, "You old womanizer, you!” I went into the storeroom and began rummaging around looking for my father’s old rifle. I soon found it and checked the ammunition. It was loaded. I returned to the room with the gun.
Mephistopheles was laughing. Upon seeing me his laughter ended and his jaw dropped, drool dangling from his mouth. The guests followed and were all left with open mouths.
With my gun ready I went to the windows, opening them both quickly. I stood against the wall between the two windows and aimed at the table.
Rain was pouring in on the table, the wind howling, pelting the astounded old man’s face and mussing his hair. "What are you doing, Temur?!!” Mephistopheles shouted. "What are you doing?!!” shrieked the women, about to faint. The man they called my grandfather tried to stand up. I fired, hitting a plate and shattering it in all directions. The women’s shrieking intensified.
"I’ll kill you all!” I cried.
Again everyone froze.
I don’t remember how long I stood there, the gun aimed at the table.
Someone’s voice brought me back to the situation at hand.
"I’m dying, son,” one woman said. "I’m freezing to death.”
The groom’s red crown was lying soaked and tattered near the window.
"Get outta here!” I shouted and they all left, bride and groom included.
"He needs a good thrashing.”
"What a delinquent.”
"If he weren’t a minor I know what I’d do to him.” I heard the old people yelling in the street.
I was laughing and weeping at once. My mother’s tears had stopped, however. She kissed my wet face and said, "No,” to stop my tears. My poor, abandoned mother.
"Temur! Temur!” They don’t often call me twice like that.
I’m almost to work. I’ll phone when I get there. Maybe Kotika needs something. No maybes – he needs something.
"Temur!” they call again.
"The boy’s bed is empty.”
"Marina has left.”
"Kotika will die.”
A young man is walking towards me, his head wrapped in white bandages. His hand is on his jaw. Obviously his tooth hurts. He looks just like someone who’s just died, with new shoes, suit, clean white shirt and black tie, eyeglasses in jacket breast pocket. I begin to think this man with the bandages has just recently died. They probably bandaged the guy who was killed today too, just like they’ll wrap up Kotika. Then his relatives will dress him in a clean white shirt and buy him new shoes in an effort to make him look like he’s alive. Until then no one will do anything, until he dies… until he dies.
They wrapped up his face too, so his mouth would be tightly bound… tightly. A blonde woman – just like the girl in the ambulance with me - wrapped him up. The living bind the mouths of the dead so tightly, almost as if they’re afraid the corpses will speak and reveal secrets they kept during their lives. This way their secrets will be buried with them, the same secrets which brought their deaths upon them, and which will be their eternal regrets in the next world. We don’t want them saying after death that we were afraid, ashamed, or that we shamed the family…
The train pulled slowly up to the Tbilisi station and stopped. A woman and a young boy stepped out onto the platform carrying their luggage. They were both looking for someone. The woman knew whom she sought. The boy had never seen his father’s brother before. He’d only seen photos of him in the thick, ragged family album.
"There’s your uncle,” she said.
A young man of above average height approached, broad-shouldered and lean, handsome with chiseled eastern features. He wore a white jacket and black pants. His jacket was open, the wide collar of his blue shirt flapped outside the jacket collar. He walked towards them. Smiled. The boy stared at his blue eyes and sandy blonde hair, just like Dad’s, and thought the man coming towards them looked like Jesus. The boy’s last remaining hope was walking towards him in the flesh. His last refuge in childhood. He was coming, smiling. The boy saw the sun above his uncle’s head and thought that it was following his uncle, that maybe that’s why he reminded him of Jesus, and maybe now his uncle would be like Jesus for him.
"I couldn’t have seen him, that’s why I never came,” Guram said to her, speaking of his brother.
"I know,” she said.
"We’ll live together,” he said, and took the luggage.
"Let’s go,” he told his nephew.
"Did he really get married?” Guram asked her concerning his father.
"Yeah,” she replied.
"He’s gone wrong in his old age,” he said, smiling guiltily at the boy.
It was clear from the boy’s expression how he felt meeting his uncle, who himself only smiled and kissed him.
"Is that heavy?” he asked the boy, indicating the bag Temur was carrying.
"No. Give me a kiss,” said Temur, then suddenly embarrassed by what he’d said.
For a moment his uncle seemed surprised. He put the luggage down on the asphalt, picked up the ten-year-old boy and hugged him tightly. His uncle had the same smell as his father.
They live together. His uncle was thirty years old and his name was Guram. He had a wife named Mediko, and Temur thought there could be no woman nicer or more beautiful in all Tbilisi.
After Mediko’s lectures, when it was time for her to come home, Guram would look out the window to the street below and wait for her to see him, then walk down to the entryway, pick her up and carry her inside. Then they would go into the bedroom.
When the boy was at home, she’d often hear him outside the door. "Temur? It’s shameful,” she’d say quietly to her husband.
Temur knew what to do then, as all boys know. Red-faced and rather foolishly happy he’d leave the house. He’d also be very happy whenever he went out with them on the street. Passers-by would look at them and Temur always felt like telling them that the man they were looking at was his uncle.
Then Guram would put his strong, wiry arm on his shoulder. At such times Temur felt he was more than a father to him, so casually he would put his arm around him, he was both father and friend to Temur.
One Sunday Guram took Temur to the hippodrome and put him on a white horse. Guram led the horse by the bridle around the field. Then Temur jumped down and Guram took the saddle, first trotting carefully, then letting loose and riding for a long time…
He would often take him after that and soon Temur was comfortable with horses. "Pretty soon you’ll be better than me,” his uncle often said, and Temur would laugh loudly at these seemingly ordinary words. Time Passed. They all lived together and Temur was afraid because he was so happy. His fears were not without grounds, which is so often true of fears. Especially fears of happiness.
Happiness is like a sunny autumn day, and you’re afraid the sky will cloud over, everything will turn gray and dark, for you know that in the autumn the sun will soon die.
And so the sun died once more for Temur. Two years had passed since he had moved to Tbilisi and warmed his little body, and then it died. It went dark for Temur that day when he came home early from school and saw another man in his aunt’s bed instead of his uncle. The first thing he noticed was Aunt Mediko’s naked leg and strange man’s hairy paw.
"Guram!” the boy yelled and ran out of the house. "Guram!” with a predestined cry the boy yelled, tearing down the street, his hat flying off. "Guram!” the boy yelled, bumping into surprised passers-by, falling down at their feet, fighting his way back up and taking off again, followed by the gazes of the surprised people.
"You little brat! Idiot!” a young woman shouted at him, thrown against a wall after Temur had run into her. "Why you little…” came another voice, this time an old man whose walking stick Temur had knocked out from under him.
"You’ll get yours!” cried another woman whose bag of potatoes he spilled on the street, rolling slowly in all directions.
Everyone that Temur bumped into yelled at him, sending "best wishes” in his direction. No one stopped to think why the little boy was running so frantically, why he was calling "Guram” or who he was running from, what was wrong, where he was running to – or from – so desperately.
The torture lasted two months. Two months of speaking at best a few words each day. His mother went to the school and asked what had come over him. His uncle kept asking both her and his wife what was wrong with Temur, saying that he hardly seemed himself anymore.
Guram’s wife just nodded, but then what had she to say? Temur’s mother often wept. Once his uncle asked about the problem at the dinner table and upon hearing no reply he put his fork down and left. Later he returned and apologized, telling the boy, "You’re my son and brother too, and that’s why it bothers me so.” The boy then told him, "I’m in love.” Uncle Guram was delighted. "Why didn’t you say so, you little rascal! We’ve all been there ourselves, you know!” Later Guram quietly told Temur’s mother and his wife.
One night Guram came home drunk. No one was there but Temur. He entered and stood in the center of the room, looking Temur in the eye. The boy slowly got up from his chair and for the first time since the incident looked right at his uncle.
Guram, teary-eyed, was smiling.
"What?” the boy asked, giving his uncle a look.
"I know everything,” his uncle answered with an equally expressive look.
"Everything?” Temur wondered.
"Yes, everything,” his uncle answered.
Temur slowly approached his uncle and knelt in front of him, just like they do when praying in church.
Mediko left. Seven years passed. Temur was in his fourth year at University, doing a semester in Moscow. It was the end of July. Before coming back he went to the hospital to get Guram, in with liver problems and an ulcer.
"You mustn’t drink a drop or you’ll die,” the doctor warned him.
Die, thought Guram. He had died the day he found out. Even before. Mediko had left. Seven years had passed and Temur hadn’t seen his uncle sober since. Rarely would he cease his drinking binges.
It was July. Moscow was hot. Tbilisi was burning up with the heat but the Saribega Sardapi basement café was cool, and there were few people there. At one table in the corner sat a group of red-faced drunks. One was prominent with his pale complexion and bleary blue eyes, long hair and beard, and a pristine white shirt.
"Go on, drink, you son of a bitch” said one of the red-faces sitting next to Guram, filling his glass.
"Son of a bitch?”
"Go on, drink.”
"I’ve been known to refuse.” But Guram did drink another glass. "I’m drunk – I don’t want any more,” he then said.
"You think we want it?” Red-face answered, and he filled the glasses again.
"Let’s drink to the memory of our parents once more,” one of the others said
"All rise,” added Red-face. They all stood up, swaying with drink. Guram remained seated.
"Why don’t you stand up?” Red-face asked him.
"Does it really matter?”
"Stand up, man!” shouted Red-face, grabbing Guram and pulling him to his feet. They drank. Sat down.
Guram sat down too. He was smiling.
"You’re sure in a good mood.” Red-face kept at him.
"What are you smiling about? You laughing at me?”
"Leave him be,” said one of the others.
"What you got wrapped in that newspaper?” asked Red-face.
"The Eiffel Tower.”
"Cut the comedy.”
"I’m not kidding.”
"Leave him be, don’t bother him.”
"So you won’t tell me what you’ve got?”
"It’s a painting.”
"You selling it?”
"You’re a regular Pirosmani,2 eh?”
"A toast to our brotherhood!” one of the voices interrupted. They drank.
"Show it to me.”
Guram handed it to him. Red-face unwrapped the painting.
"Hey – this guy’s another Petrov Vodkin3 – fish, bread vodka bottle. Why’s the fish half-eaten?”
"I got hungry.”
Red-face seized the painting with both hands, then whacked it down hard on his knee.
"What are you doing?!!” cried one of the others, still seated.
Guram rose to his feet. He grabbed a full wine bottle and slowly walked alongside the steps to the basement café.
"He’s mad,” someone told Red-face.
"Oh, well. Congratulations, Guram, old boy.” He fumed as he heard no reply to his incitement.
"I heard your wife got married – to a pimp. Your money problems are over.”
"Really?” Guram asked.
"Like you didn’t already know?”
Guram stood for a moment thinking about something, not looking at anyone. "I didn’t know,” he said somewhat nervously. "That’s fine. Just fine.” He was clearly intending to leave.
"Fine, huh? I guess she’s no good anymore then.”
Guram went up to Red-face. Smiled right at him. Then brought the wine bottle down on his head. It was almost as if Red-face was waiting for it, as if the motion of the bottle and of Red-face pulling his knife from his pocket were one. He thrusted, pulled it out and struck again, in the stomach.
"He killed him! The rat killed him!” someone yelled.
"The boy’s bed is empty.”
"Marina is gone.”
"Kotika will die soon and they’ll be binding his jaw shut.”
"Temur…” No more, I can’t stand it any more. I’m tired. Leave me alone.
The plane landed at 3:30 in the morning in Tbilisi. As we started our descent I looked out on the city. Tbilisi was lit up and it seemed to give me hope. That hope left me when I got home. As soon as I saw that dark house it left me. I opened the door with my key and before I switched on the light I bumped into something. For some reason there was a wardrobe in the center of the room. I was puzzled. Mother should be at the hospital, I thought, and I didn’t switch the light on but simply sat down on the couch. The door slowly opened. I was afraid that maybe someone had died. I’d already imagined Guram might be dead – I guess that was my fear.
"Who’s there?” I asked.
She was a Kurdish neighbor woman who sometimes helped Mom.
"What are you doing here, Karine, in the middle of the night?”
"Guram is dying.”
"What happened, Karine?”
"Some lowlife stabs him in the belly, they do an operation. But he’s dyin anyway. So the doctor says, even if he didn’t get knifed, he woulda died in a year or two.” The Kurdish woman switched the light on.
"Why’s the room so messy, Karine?” I asked a few moments later.
"I was cleaning up, then I got sleepy.”
"Why were you cleaning?”
"Guram dies right? People come and the place gotta be clean.”
"Maybe he’ll survive. Why the big hurry? The place isn’t going anywhere.”
"Gotta be clean.”
Lousy. That word seemed to be the heartbeat of the city.
Dawned the lousy day.
"Who? Who?” Mom and the doctor were asking Guram, who couldn’t remember a name.
"My brother,” said Guram.
"He’s delirious,” said the doctor.
"No… wait a minute… Temur?” asked Mom.
I’d been standing at the door and I went in.
"Hello,” said the dying man.
"Hello, Guram,” I replied, bent down and kissed him. His face was drawn.
"What brings you home?”
"My teacher is ill,” I lied.
"Got the scarlet fever?” Guram smiled.
"How are you?”
"I dunno. Okay. And you?” I foolishly asked.
"The same. Get out,” he told Mom and the doctor. They left the room.
"Give me a kiss,” he said, just the same way I’d asked ten years earlier at the train station. I kissed him.
"You were the only one I ever had,” Guram told me.
"Don’t you leave me.”
"I guess I’ve been pretty hard on you.”
"What do you mean, Guram?”
"Since you’ve been following me around all these bars you’ve started drinking yourself.”
"I was drinking before that.”
"And all that running back and forth to hospitals.”
"You dragging me along.”
"Do you think I don’t remember?”
"You’re more than a father to me – and you’re my brother.”
He was quiet. Then he began breathing deeply.
"Do you remember?” he asked me, looking me in the eyes.
I shut my eyes and contemplated. I knew what he was recalling and I didn’t want him to think about it.
"I couldn’t kill myself.”
I was speechless.
"In such circumstances a man should kill himself. I couldn’t do it. Although I suppose there are two methods for suicide: suddenly, or gradually, as I’ve done, the way of the weak.”
"Why’d you start fighting?” I was trying to redirect the conversation.
"That’s got nothing to do with it. Just quickened the process.”
"Remember the horse?”
"How could I forget?”
"I want to ride,” Guram said and sat up in bed.
"Let’s go back there. Or let’s go somewhere in the country, once you’re out of the hospital.”
"I need air.”
I got up and opened the window. I wasn’t afraid, just opened it.
The doctor came in, accompanied by Mom and a nurse.
"I need air,” he begged the doctor.
"He needs air!” I cried.
"Open the windows,” said Guram.
"Open them,” I repeated.
"They’re open,” said the nurse, a bit confused.
"Leave us,” Mom told me.
"Don’t go, Temur,” said Guram.
"No, don’t be afraid.” He leaned his back against my chest. With his ice-cold hands he squeezed me tightly to his right side. They gave him an injection in the arm.
"You’ll calm down now.”
"Now you’ll feel better,” I told Guram
"Leave us,” Mom told me.
"You leave!” I shouted.
"All leave, please,” said the doctor, giving me a wink. "The patient needs rest.”
Guram squeezed me tighter.
"Get out!” I yelled at the doctor.
"What’s happening to me?” asked Guram.
"Quite common for someone in your state,” the doctor replied.
"A simple deficiency.”
"Simple…” Guram repeated, as if trying to convince himself.
"It will pass quickly.”
"Yes, it will.”
"What’s that blue cliff outside?”
"Haven’t you noticed it before?”
Of course, there was no cliff outside.
"It’s so beautiful,” I said.
"Yes, but blue.”
"The cliff’s gone… don’t let the smoke in, it’s hard enough for me to breathe…”
"It won’t come in, Guram.”
"What’s this?” Guram sat up and I sat next to him.
"You?” he very quietly asked no one, shock and fear in his eyes. Then his body fell limp and collapsed on my chest. The fear left his eyes and all that remained was a look of being taken aback. Guram passed away.
Mom was crying.
"Gauze,” said the blonde doctor so calmly, just like he’d say in any ordinary situation. The nurse gave it to him. He first closed Guram’s eyes, then wrapped the gauze tightly around his face, making sure the mouth was firmly bound.
He called from work and Lali told him that Kotika wasn’t sleeping.
"He says he wants you to go see Marina,” Lali said.
"I’ll go,” said Temur.
As he went through the hallway he wondered what she could possibly need, and wondering, greeted his co-workers. "I’ll go, absolutely, I’ll go,” Temur thought.
Now he was in the street heading towards Marina’s. If she refused to return, he’d force himself to kiss his wife’s feet, for she was the only close friend he had who would still be living in this world. Kotika would die soon and everything would end. Temur’s mother and son still survived but there had never been a time when Temur had understood his mother, or when she had seemed a true friend, or when even his own son had seemed one to him.
Marina survived, whom he loved more than his own son, more than his mother or Kotika, more than his own life, because she had chosen to leave him. Until then it had been her intent, when she was aware of it, to be a captive of his nerves, moods and states of mind.
She knew when he’d be in such states. She remembered everything. This was her misfortune, too, that she remembered everything she’d seen so well. People more easily forget the good days and always remember the bad, ever gnawing away at heart and mind, ever present, more real than anything in the world.
Of course, none of this was Marina’s fault and she fretted in vain through his moods and nervous anxiety. And he was okay with Marina, really okay, but she was so unaccustomed to dealing with such states that he was a bit surprised. Surprised that she could deal with it so well. "It’s probably nothing serious,” she’d say. "Probably just imagining it, or it’s psychosomatic.”
They lived together for three years, and once when their son finally responded to his father’s shouting in kind she warned Temur. "What am I taking it out on them for?” Thought Temur. "What have they done?” She warned him and held her breath. He kept thinking, "They have to leave me or else it will all start again, Marina and the boy will both die”
The next morning he let them both go. He dressed the boy himself. He packed Marina’s bag for her and sent her to her parents. "It’s better this way,” he told her. "For you both and for me as well, it’s better this way.” His voice seemed somehow different as he said this.
For a year they were separated from him. He more often came home drunk at night so that he’d fall asleep quickly and not remember anyone or anything.
Now he was in the street. He was headed for Marina’s and hoping they’d return to him. Somehow he had hope that things would start afresh and he’d be okay, maybe due to Kotika’s way of both scolding and encouraging him. He was so delighted with his resolution that he even forgot about Kotika’s illness for awhile, walking quickly and cheerfully, not afraid of falling and not hearing anyone calling his name.
Marina’s grandmother opened the door.
"Hello,” said Temur.
"What can I do for you, young man, for instance?” Marina’s grandmother spoke with a Megrelian inflection.
"Again? Tell me again what?”
Temur smiled. "Please let me in.”
"I can’t do that,” she replied in a more quarrelsome voice.
"Let me in.”
"We don’t need any psychos, nuts, loonies or drunks around here.”
"How bout a cleaner or packer then, for instance?” he said, doing his best imitation of her.
"That’s just fine if you don’t want psychos, nuts,” Temur was now using a mockingly feminine tone, "loonies and drunks around here, but you can’t forget about us ‘nuts’ entirely, for instance.”
"Leave at once. I’m talking to you!” she cried.
Temur put his hands on her waist, picked her up, "put her in her place” and went inside. He began looking for Marina and the boy.
"Marina is gone. What a lowlife, this one.” Said Marina’s grandmother, following close behind him.
"She’s gone,” confirmed Marina’s mother, rising from her chair.
"What do you mean, gone?”
"It’s a week, now.”
"Where did she go? Where’s the boy?”
"The boy’s out for a walk, but Marina’s been in Sukhumi for a week.”
"Why would she go to Sukhumi in the winter?”
"No reason.” She clearly felt awkward in the situation and went over to the window.
Temur approached her.
"Why?” he asked again.
"Marina,” – she was silent for a moment – "got married,” she finally managed.
"It’s true,” added the old woman.
"That’s not possible,” said Temur.
"It’s a week now.”
"No, it’s not possible.”
"It’s the truth, Temur.”
"Why?” Temur was asking himself. "It’s not supposed to be this way,” he thought and looked at the woman.
"It’s the truth,” she said.
"It’s all over,” thought Temur and looked out the window. It was snowing outside.
"It’s snowing,” said Temur.
The car was parked near the closed rail-crossing gate. Temur was sitting in the front seat. The train was late coming out. Temur’s driver had left the vehicle, smoking a cigarette and flirting with some woman who was sitting at the top of the steps near the control booth with a raised white flag in her hand. Everything was covered in snow. Next to Temur there was a second car looking at him. Temur was leaving Tbilisi for a doctor’s appointment.
When he had gotten to Kotika’s place Kotika was asleep. It was then that Lali had told him about some Bulgarian doctor in Tskaltubo they were going to bring for Kotika, that the guy could work miracles. Maybe he couldn’t cure all diseases but he could completely free you of your pain, give you some rest…
They were definitely going to bring that doctor, no matter what. But they needed some money. After having scrambled all evening to borrow it from anyone with no success, Temur had finally gone to ask his boss – at his boss’ home. He was a bit embarrassed, but had decided it was no time to be shy, that Kotika should not die in such pain if there were an alternative.
Temur’s night had been spent at the crossing. By morning another driver had managed to get by and now he was at the very front of the closed crossing gate. His driver was saying something to a Russian woman. Next to Temur was the other car. In it a girl was sitting and staring at him. Temur was gazing at the snow.
"Marina will never come back.”
"The boy’s bed will remain forever empty.”
"Kotika will die, but maybe it will be painless.”
Temur glanced over at the car next to him. He saw the girl.
How terribly she’s starting at me, he thought.
The train appeared.
Temur heard the sound of a car crashing into something. He looked behind. A car full of drunks had run into a pole. Somehow the driver was able to get the car going again and intended to race from the scene. The train approached.
Temur look at the girl. She was watching him with frightened eyes. Temur watched the drunks’ darting car behind him, then the train. The car hit from behind. Temur’s car jerked forward from the impact, broke the wooden gate and rolled over the rails. Temur saw the enormous light on top of him. He opened the door and jumped out. The train pushed his car far away. Temur was in the air and caught by the train pulling him sideways. For a split second he saw his reflection in the cabin window. He tried desperately to grab something but it was too painful. The train slowly stopped. The girl screamed. The confused engineer sounded the whistle. The whistle of the stopped train blew as if trying to tell the whole world what was happening.
"I’m cold,” Temur said to someone. That someone couldn’t reach Temur. Temur lay on the snow, the snow covered in blood.
"Help me,” he said, thrusting his hand out towards the someone. The someone shrieked and ran away. Then some others came and rushed Temur to the hospital.
He died on the way, his head leaned against a stranger’s shoulder.
"I’m so cold,” were his last words before death..
A half-hour later the road was opened. The drunks were arrested. The traffic cleared out. The people dispersed. There was nothing around at all but the snow.
The earth wore a white and bloodstained coat.