Three Fates

Makes me feel better about the world, knowing it was always thus.

Tyler Stiem is a writer and photographer. He is currently at work on a book about breakaway states, and on a novel. His journalism, essays, and...

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Vadim Chichba Talks to the American Reporter

It is the autumn of 2010. Vadim Chichba wakes, as he always does, to a view of the Caucasus Mountains. Often he dreams of the sacred peaks; sometimes the transition from dreaming to waking is so elusive it lends a hallucinatory quality to the rest of the day. Today he feels unusually clear-headed. Without turning away from the bedroom window he reaches backward and registers his wife’s absence. There is no fat on his ancient body and the heat bleeds away from his back and buttocks. It is past six, to judge by the light. Pale stars still fleck the sky. If he squints—his eyes are still good—he can make out the path leading to the holy place, a run in the lacework of blue shadow cast by the tree line. The pilgrims have been arriving since the end of the war, and until a few months ago Chichba was strong enough to lead them up Mount Dydrypsh. Like a child, he tugs at the blanket until his large, bony feet appear. He wiggles his hairy toes. Strange how the shins have gone bald. As he is about to call out to his wife he remembers that it’s market day in the village. She will be gone for several hours. He resolves to enjoy the stillness of the morning.

In the yard, beneath the orange tree, sits a brand new Range Rover. A gift from the president, which Chichba will pass on to his daughter, Elena. She lives in Sochi, across the border. Their fortunes have changed since the war with Georgia, a war that set his people free, and which Chichba in all his wisdom believes was good. Not a necessary evil, but a good. He watches the little duck waddle under one of the cows and nip at her udder. The duck is called Elizabeth Bennet, after the intemperate heroine of his favourite book. His wife scolds him for being sentimental. As far as Chichba is concerned, being lavished with his wife’s affectionate scorn is one of life’s pleasures.

The old man thinks about his patrimony and frowns. He has no male heirs. No Chichbas who bear the vatic power to carry on the Old Ways. A boy was brought to him last year, but he has turned out to be a disappointment. The pilgrims come from Turkey, Syria, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and the boy leads them to the holy place, but he does not understand its power, does not believe in it as the pilgrims do, as Chichba does. A replacement will need to be found.

The shaman feels at such peace today that his worries are soon forgotten. He bathes for nearly an hour and returns to bed, his hair still wet, what remains of it. He runs a finger over the contours of his skull: the knobby temples, the hairline’s long semicircle, the glacial scars left by receding boyhood acne, the fissure where a fontanelle would have been, seventy-five years ago. He lies there until a horn sounds at the gate.

Slowly he dresses and wanders outside. Sitting in a Lada parked at the edge of his property is a young woman. She is accompanied by an even younger woman, her translator. Chichba introduces himself. He doesn’t catch the woman’s name, only that she is a reporter from America. He is curious, but too cordial to ask again. The translator is a tremulous little creature. She speaks Abkhaz the way all the young people do, uncertainly and with a Russian accent. As he fixes a tray of refreshments, Chichba remembers her telephone call from yesterday.

Over mandarins and coffee, the old shaman talks and remembers, remembers and talks. The journalist’s questions stir up memories of the Chichbas before him: his father, his father’s father, and so on. He explains how the Old Ways have survived Islam, Christianity, Stalin, Shevardnadze, how they are the secret spring from which his people draw nourishment. Talking about the Old Ways diminishes their power, he knows this, yet he feels none of his usual inhibition; he is as garrulous as a young man. He talks for an hour, two. Finally, with a mischievous grin, he says, I have told you my secrets. I hope you will guard them carefully.

But the interview is not over. A question is put to him about the war long ago and his role in a particular sequence of events. He can tell by the translator’s careful phrasing and the pretty journalist’s grave expression that offence is expected. As the words—surprising words, whose truth he has never before considered—pass his lips in reply, and his interviewers register their shock, Chichba has a presentiment of the reporter’s death, years from now, in an angry crowd far from here, and of his own, much sooner, in bed on a morning like this one, his eyes fixed on the sacred peaks, one hand reaching backward for his wife.

Shigeno Junichiro Disappears Under the Teahouse

In 1707 an earthquake hits Japan. The village of Aoishi, which straddles a tributary of the Tokai fault line, is destroyed. Shigeno Ai and her two children, Junichiro, aged six, and Yumiko, two, are trapped inside the wreckage of the teahouse where she works. The boy is lost to her in the dark. Ai calls out and hears no response, only the sound of cracking timber. Dust caresses her face. She sees a tiny gleam of light that in her confusion she mistakes for a faraway star. Tiny hands tug at her obi and she remembers the girl, whom she was scolding when the earth moved. The girl begins to cry and Ai looks where she is looking. She recognizes the customer by his shoes. A broken roof beam projects monstrously from his face. The jaw, ears, and scalp remain perfectly intact. Ai’s fascination is short-lived: with sober horror she realizes she will have to bury the corpse.

Again she calls out to Junichiro, but hears nothing over the girl’s sobs. Quiet! she says, pinching an ear, and the sobs become wails. The heat is stifling. Ai cries for help but, hearing the desperation in her own voice, goes quiet, as embarrassed as she is afraid. It occurs to her that her neighbours are already digging out the rubble, and she would not want to add to their distress with her hysterics. If you could just find my son, she says, too quietly, now, to be heard.

And so she takes refuge in tenderness. Yumiko is newly weaned, but mother cajoles daughter to take the breast. Cradling the girl like a baby in her arms, Ai discovers that she has a little milk to give. Half a day passes. A full day. Her own thirst is terrible. She drives her hands into the broken floorboards and sucks the moisture from the fistfuls of soil she pulls out.

On the second day she hears, or thinks she hears, Junichiro’s voice.

On the third, a section of the teahouse collapses. Ai carries her daughter out of the rubble into a brilliant summer morning. It is like being born again. She sees that the northern part of Aoishi is gone, swallowed by a rift in the earth, while the southern part smoulders. If there are survivors, they have gone. Mother and daughter camp in the forest nearby, drinking from a spring and scavenging food from the village. Every day they search for the lost boy.

Eventually they move far away. Proprietary in her grief, Ai speaks to no one about the disaster, not even her daughter, and slowly Yumiko begins to forget. As the years pass the images and sensations acquire the power of mystery. One day, as she sweeps the monastery where they have come to live, Yumiko squints against the sun and the prick of light between her eyelids fills her with a memory of animal happiness, snuggled against her mother in the sweltering starlight. She injures her eyes trying to trigger the sensation again. A few other memories live on inside her: the earth spurting through the floorboards as they splinter and steeple; a boy’s face in the darkness, inches from her own; and, impossibly, the cold of the soil in her mother’s hands, the mealy disappointment of it in her mouth.

Patrick McCarthy Imagines a Flying Boy

In 1880, during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the forces of Ayub Khan massacre a detachment of British soldiers near Kandahar. Among the captured few is the translator, an Irishman named McCarthy. In Pashtun and Farsi he pleads for his life and is spared the indignity of castration. He is beaten (small mercies, he thinks, as they break his nose, his ribs) and locked in a small cell with thirty other prisoners. Together they await execution. They are forced to sleep back to back, sitting up. The moans of the gelded make sleep impossible, but the close quarters are not unwelcome: No one freezes to death on the first night, or the second.

He gets to talking with a Sikh. The Sikh explains—rather too proudly, the Irishman thinks—that he has family in Liverpool. There are many of your people there also, the Sikh says, as though it is the Irish who are the third-class citizens. McCarthy imagines strangling him. Oh? he says. And what do you know of my people?

The Sikh grins. I know that your women are beautiful.

McCarthy has been in enough fights to know when one is being picked; this is a doomed man’s bid at friendship. So are yours, I’m sure, he replies. Christ, I could make love to a woman right now.

The Sikh, who is called Abnash, looks around the cell and says, Well, I think we are the only ones.

McCarthy laughs and his new friend laughs, too. Then they are silent. Looking around, full of remorse, they are relieved to discover that none of the other prisoners seems to have understood them.

Some of the men bleed to death. Others die of infection. Still others are walked out of the cell and never seen again. Soon there are fewer than ten prisoners left. Now, whenever another man dies he is replaced, so that their number remains steady. With so few bodies to warm the cell, the nights become intolerably cold. McCarthy, a veteran of Kashmir and Herat, recognizes the calculus of torture: they are being kept on the verge of freezing to death.

The Irishman watches the slow approach of clouds. They drift heavy-bellied over the distant mountains. Snow is coming, he says. He rejoins the shivering mass in the middle of the cell. Forget about a beautiful woman, he says to Abnash. I’d settle for a roll in the hay with the fattest bird I could find.

I am so cold, says Abnash. His eyes bulge from the depths of their sockets.

Better to freeze to death, says McCarthy, gamely, than to let these bastards do what they will.

The Sikh stares at his knees. McCarthy wonders whether the gallows humour is beginning to have the opposite of its intended effect, whether his friend has crossed that unseen threshold between living and dying, whether, given the ultimate fate that awaits them anyway, being marched out into the prison yard right now wouldn’t in fact be the better end. He persists: Here’s one. Do you know how the Vikings executed people?

Abnash looks up.

They’d bend two trees, tie the sinner to the branches, and let the trees spring upright. Split em in two.

The Sikh shakes his head. How is it that you know these things?

Makes me feel better about the world, knowing it was always thus. Evil in every man’s heart, isn’t it.

You’re a fool, Abnash says. The biggest fool I ever met.

McCarthy is quiet. I don’t know about that, he says, absorbing the sting of his friend’s reply. Then: We Irish have Viking blood, did you know? he says, hopefully.

The Sikh hugs his knees and doesn’t look up.

Abnash is replaced in the night by an old Tajik. Startled awake by the commotion, McCarthy mistakes the man’s cries for his own.

A week later McCarthy is escorted into the cold sun of the yard. Again he pleads for mercy. This time he convinces no one, not even himself. He is pushed limping and bloody into the village beyond the prison walls. Stakes are driven into the ground and his wrists and ankles are fastened to them. Stretched flat on the stony earth, McCarthy waits while the village women are rounded up. His jaws are forced apart, wide enough that he cannot swallow, and a piece of wood is propped between his teeth. One by one the shadows of the women pass over him. As he begins to drown, McCarthy hears a voice above the scrape of wind and feet: I’m telling you, the trouble that boy brings with his crazy schemes. I caught him trying to jump off the roof of the house. He made wings, I don’t know from what. All I could think was, God willing, he won’t break his neck. His father punishes him but I think secretly he is proud—

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