ELKOST International Literary Agency

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Excerpt from Khadijah (Notes of a Death Girl), translated from the Russian by Molly Flynn

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***

Spring was ending and it rained every day - big, heavy raindrops flowed down from the clouds. I went out onto the porch, stood under the canopy, put on my shoes and galoshes, and stared up at the clouds. That’s probably why I remember them so well. They looked like the clumps of sheep’s wool that Aunt Nadira use to take out of the mattresses to wash. She soaked the wool in a big tin basin, dried it with a sheet, and laid it out in the sunniest part of the yard to dry.  The wool would get tangled in the basin into lumps the size of a fist, and my aunt, my grandmother, and I pinched them with our fingers before returning them to their mattress covers and sewing them up again. The clouds that I watched that day seemed to me to be like soaking wet, dark blue balls of wool.

It was rare for it to rain so many days in a row in our village. I touched my palm to the railing dirty from the rain, and exhaled. My breath looked like torn-up clumps of wool too. It was cold, and I scrunched up my cold toes inside my galoshes.

That evening, Aunt Nadira pulled a big, folded, woolen shawl over her head and went to the spring for water. She tossed two tin pitchers over her shoulders. Sometimes, when the rain eased up a bit she’d take me with her and I’d carry some water back from the spring in an old enamel kettle with no lid. We walked along the road and returned home with galoshes all covered in mud.

When it rains in our village the ground gets soft and slippery. People lay down logs and boards on the ground to keep from falling. And when it’s hot the ground becomes so hard and dry that deep cracks start to form. I use to stare in to them thinking I might catch a glimpse of some light, or maybe even the eye of some other person looking through the same crack from the other side of the earth. The earth is round, you know.

They build houses from the mud we have on our roads - mix it with straw, kneed it with their feet, put it in wooden, rectangle frames and lay it in the sun. At that time there were lots of houses in our village built out of these homemade bricks. It was rare for someone to build a house out of stone – those slippery cobblestones that washed up on the banks of the rivers on either side of our village, both on the right side and the left. There was only one house made of stone in our village. It was the house of general Kazibek. When general Kazibek had only just built his three - floored house in the left lying outskirts of the village, everybody went to see it. Some people even came from the neighboring village. The general never lived in this house, he just came occasionally to get out of the city for a few days. His family came with him, his wife and children, and again the whole village would gather to get a look at them. Whenever his wife went to the spring she laid a towel on her shoulders under the handles of the pitchers because city folk can’t afford to be covered in water from the spring. Again all the women would come out of their houses with tin pitchers, and as she stood in the line for spring they stared at her silk scarf, her chiffon skirt, and the gold rings on her fingers. They say that the general’s city house is even bigger, and Grandpa said that they built the house in our village just to brag. Mama and I also used to live in the city, and then when my father died we moved to the village. Now, I’m already thirteen years old, and General Kazibek’s house isn’t the most beautiful anymore - some of our villagers have become so rich that in place of their old houses made of homemade bricks they’ve now got houses made of red and white bricks and with tall iron gates with a crescent and star painted on them in white or green.

We always lived in a house made half of wood and half of homemade bricks. Every summer, Grandma coated the walls with muddy clay. The ceiling was made of narrow tree trunks stripped of their bark. Over time they turned brown as if they had been painted with a thin layer of translucent nail polish. At night, I used to lie on a woolen mattress on the floor and stare up at them for a long time, listening to the crickets sing from the other side of the wall.  Grandma’s carpet loom was made from that same type of wood. It took up the entire wall in the living room. Whenever Grandma finished one carpet, and stretched a new set of grey woolen thread across the loom, I would run my fingers over the thread, it was tight and sang like Grandpa’s chungur. We had everything you need for making carpets at our house, most importantly, sheep, from which Grandpa sheared the wool with big sheep shears. Mama and Grandma used to carry the wool to the river in big baskets. They laid it out on big, wide stones, scooped a pail full of water from the river, and poured it over the wool. Then they threw off their galoshes and kneaded the wool with their bare feet. Then they collected all the wool and put it back into the basket and laid it out to dry in the yard at home. Grandma had a spinning wheel with a big round wheel, and in the evenings she transformed the pinched - wool into thick thread. Unlike other families, we never went into the city to get our thread dyed red or blue or green. Grandma dyes the thread herself, with a dye made by boiling water in cast-iron.

Grandma had promised she’d teach me how to weave carpets when I turned nine and I would need to start preparing my dowry - three bags and two carpets. I was waiting to be grown up enough to get to make even just one trip to the spring with the water pitcher. Sometimes I tried on the pitcher, and even when it was empty its handles hurt my shoulders. Mama only took one pitcher to the spring.

Mama was thin and weak, with delicate bones. She didn’t look like the other women in our village. She had small feet and narrow shoulders. It seemed to me that when she carried a heavy pitcher to the spring, she broke just a little bit. If we needed a lot of water at home, she’d go to the spring twice. Grandma never allowed her to lay a towel on her shoulders under the handle of the pitchers - she wanted her to get married again. Mama cried a lot after my father died. She didn’t visit friends. The only time she left the house was to go to the spring, and Grandma worried that people would think Mama was ill.

There was a lot of clay in our village. Sometimes with certain kinds of weather, women would go to the outskirts with shovels, dig up the clay, and bring it home to spread on the floor and the walls.  The road got so sticky from the mud that it would stick to your galoshes and each step coated your boots with a new layer of mud. When we walked to the spring, our galoshes got covered in so much mud we’d try and scrape it off on a tree trunk.

Our neighbor Sakina came out from the house next door, fenced off with fresh yellow logs. She got married last summer and gave birth to a little girl. Now she was pregnant again, and would keep having babies until she gave birth to a boy. Sakina was also carrying two pitchers on her shoulders. They said their hellos, my aunt gave Sakina a one-armed hug, as is the custom in our village, and we continued on the three of us. The spring is at the end of the village behind General Kazibek’s house. The women went to the river for water all winter because it got so cold that the spring froze. At the start of spring it begins to flow again, and the women start to line up beside it.

Young men also come to the spring after midday when the water that was brought home that morning has been used up. They stand to the side by the old nut tree, talking about their own business even though none of the men in our village have any particularly interesting business. Business was always somewhere far away - in Russia or in Baku. They went there to earn some money in the winter, and then came back in the summer to relax. Sometimes we could catch snippets of their conversations - they spoke loudly on purpose so that the girls wouldn’t think the men might be talking about them. We didn’t like conversations about women we didn’t know. The men would start to talk even louder between themselves, when they just pass a girl on the road. When my grandma was young, and a man approached a woman simply walking down the street, the woman was supposed to stop, stand with her back to him and wait for him to pass. Now women only lower their eyes and walk by, staring at the ground. It’s not acceptable for us to look at strange men.

Some man threw a quick glance at a neighbor’s girl. She was walking to the spring in a red dress and clean galoshes. A lot of young men choose their wives at the spring. But the boys and girls don’t talk to each other. The girl just waits for the boy she likes, and then he takes her to the matchmakers.

One by one each woman held her narrow high-necked pitcher under the wide foaming stream, filled the pitcher, skillfully lifted it and hung it over her shoulder. My aunt always filled the pitcher right to the brim, and water would splash out on to her back when she threw the pitcher over her shoulder. I shivered from the cold even though it wasn’t my back. Water from the spring is very cold. If you put your hand under the stream, you feel it immediately in the bones of your fingers. A few sips of water like that and it’ll even hurt your teeth. But my aunt had long ago gotten used to filling the pitcher to the brim. Someday I’ll be able to carry a pitcher, but at that time I was barely half a head taller than one.

Our village isn’t big. There’s only one street with houses on either side. The street curves to the right almost at the end of the village where there are a few more houses. And behind those houses is where the mountains start. On the other side there are also mountains. Our village sits in the hollow space between them. There is still plenty of open space and whenever there’s a wedding, the new couple begins to build in the surrounding area. Little by little our village is growing.

Our house is opposite the area where the general’s house is, and right outside our gate is the start of the cemetery. When Grandpa’s great grandfather chose the land on which to build his house, the cemetery was far away, but it’s gotten bigger and gradually spread all the way to our front gate. The new graves in the cemetery all have dates and names, and the crescent moon and star carved into them. Further out, beyond them begins the old cemetery - the old river stones covered in green moss.

In the past, when someone died, his family would go to the river and search for a suitable stone. The person was buried in the ground and the stone was stuck on top. There was never anything written on the stone, but every family knew their stone. In the old cemetery, river rocks grew up from the ground and relatives from the same family were buried side by side. These days it’s rare to walk to that side of the cemetery, the old stones are all crooked and covered with thick moss and at that time they seemed to me like big dragon’s teeth, out of which new people would grow someday.

I loved to walk among the stones, especially in the summer with fresh grass under my feet, and everywhere you looked you saw the twisted mountains. When I was little, I thought the mountains were covered in soft green wool, like the sheep. Then Grandpa explained to me that it’s not wool but the trees that grow so often and so far away that they seem to merge into a single shroud.

The cemetery was always extremely quiet, not counting the days of funerals. On those days men arrived carrying a rolled up carpet on their shoulders. The rest of the people walked behind them with their heads down. There were no women among them - ours don’t participate in funerals. The men lowered the carpet into a hole that had been dug in the ground, covered it with earth, stood around, stretched out there open palms and prayed quietly. I watched them carefully from our porch, and it seemed to me that they then whispered something into their hands. It turns out, as Grandpa later explained to me, that that’s how they talk to god.

“And where is god?” I asked grandpa

“There,” he pointed upward.

“If he’s above us, then why do they look down when they talk to him?” I asked.

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” he answered.


***

I remember how we started to prepare at home for my uncle’s wedding. First we went to the bride’s parent’s house - our relatives. They agreed to it. It was spring, and Mama and I had already been living in our village for almost a year, which means it had also been a year since the day my father died. I calculated the time until my uncle’s wedding - summer, autumn, winter… There should be a year between a matchmaking and a wedding.

As soon as her relatives brought the agreed upon bride home, Grandma started preparing. She went to the city on a truck and came back that night with a big leather suitcase. She stood the suitcase on the mat, unzipped it, and started to pull things out of it - long chiffon and nylon skirts, silk scarves and gorgeous sweaters with long sleeves. Mama brought a box of perfumes down from our room. They’d been given to her at her wedding eight years ago. Women are often given perfume as a present and then never use it. They save it for the grandmothers of brides or give it to someone else. Once there was a woman who saved some perfume that she’d brought back from a wedding in Turkey and then given it to the bride when her son was getting married. The bride opened it only to find the bottle empty - it had all dried up.

The bride’s grandma brought lots of towels from the city, cuts of cotton and nylon, and pieces of soap in beautiful red wrapping. I sniffed them through the wrapping and they smelled like marshmallows. Before my father died, I use to eat marshmallows - he bought them for me with his daily salary. My papa made good money. He had the best job ever.

I’d love to wash with soap like that, probably after that your skin would become so smooth. But grandma didn’t give it to me, no matter how much I asked. We’ll need those soaps and towels to give to relatives and neighbors who come to celebrate the wedding with us. And the suitcase full of things is for the bride. The bride’s grandma added five rings to the gold chain in the suitcase. She had been collecting gold for the bride her whole life, “It will return to the family anyway,” she said, hiding the gold in the suitcase.

When Mama got married, my father’s family only brought her two gold rings. Grandma said she felt so much shame she was embarrassed to even lift her eyes around our neighbors. But then Grandma’s sister came from the city and brought with her two more rings. Grandma put all four onto Mama’s fingers and sent her off to the spring so that everybody could see that our family wasn’t marrying into a poor family.

Grandma always said Mama and Papa were not a good match. His family never had a proper house nor home. And if his mother had gotten married in one gold ring, then Grandma didn’t need that kind of shame for her daughter because that is embarrassing.  Everybody in our village remembers how my father’s mother got married in one gold ring.

I haven’t seen my relatives from his side of the family since my father died, not once. I don’t remember my other grandmother very well. Whenever I thought about her I always remembered her long grey skirt with embroidered patterns and her pale blue eyes. When she looked at me with those eyes it felt as if cold water from the spring was dripping down my back. My father’s mother had twelve children, and she didn’t remember all her grandchildren.

My grandmother from that side said that if I had been a boy they wouldn’t have let me stay with Mama. According to our traditions the husband’s family can take the wife’s children if the husband dies. Luckily I was born a girl so I live with Mama now. When my great grandfather was killed in the war with Urus, his family kicked my great-great grandmother out of the house and took her cattle and carpets. My great-great grandmother could only take her clothes with her.  When a white horse with an empty saddle returned from Kumukha where Imam Shamil had lost the battle, all the women surrounded it and cried, “Hadji-Murad’s been killed!” They say that the horse also cried, that tears the size of coins dropped from his eyes, but I don’t know if I believe that or not. We’ve got a lot of horses in our village but I’ve never once seen any of them cry.

When my great-great-grandmother, saw my great-great-grandfather’s horse, she immediately tore off her dress because on that day she’d lost not only her husband but also her children. My great grandmother was three years old then and her brother was five. My great-great-grandfather’s relatives sent my great-great-grandmother back to her parents’ house, and kept the children for themselves. They say my great-great-grandfather had a big herd and lots of silver coins. All of that as well as the house was left to his son, but then he, my great-great-grandmother’s brother, also died after a few days. Grandma says that his uncle poisoned him in order to keep the money and the livestock for himself. Grandma says her mother saw him dying. He was crying and asking for someone to give him water from his mother’s teakettle, but my great-great-grandmother wouldn’t allow it. They say she came home to an empty house and that all the carpets, mats, bags, and the mattresses had been taken. She sat on the bare clay floor in front of the carpet loom with an unfamiliar carpet on it, and stared for a long time at the patterns of the carpet. She wanted to cry, but she would have been ashamed to in front of her husband’s relatives.  When her son was buried, she was allowed to visit his grave. She visited him often, but then her parents arranged another marriage for her, and she stopped going to the cemetery. My great-great-grandmother was lucky. She was really old when she was given away for the second time - she was already seventeen.

Sometimes, when I was in the old cemetery with the small gravestones, I imagined that my great grandmother’s brother was lying beneath them. I even cried beside this one stone, and when grandma wasn’t looking I brought a full, enamel kettle from home and poured water over the stone.

“Drink” I said, “It’s clean water, don’t be afraid.”


Our family has one more secret, but it’s kept in the old apple tree in my great grandmother’s parents’ garden. If there’s time, I’ll tell it to you.


There was a year left before the wedding, and Grandma had already begun knitting socks in the evening with two needles and the carpet thread. These socks looked like little embroidered floor mats - bright red with blue and yellow patterns. Sometimes leather soles were sewn to the socks to make them last longer. We needed a lot of these socks because Grandma was going to give them to the guests, and the whole village would be coming to the wedding and relatives from other villages. If anyone were not invited, they would be offended. A month and a half before the wedding, Grandpa started going from house to house delivering invitations. If he were to leave out even one house, the offense would last a lifetime and any friendly hellos would be over.

That year Eid ul-Fitr came at the end of April. Everybody celebrated by preparing chudu with meat and kurze with winterweed, and shepherd’s-purse. We collected the grass we had in the garden under the fruit trees. Naturally there were a lot of winterweed. We collected three tubs of grass, sorted through it, cut off the roots, and cleaned it well. Mama chopped it finely with a knife and added a raw egg and some crushed walnuts. Grandma rolled out the dough, cut out small circles from it with a glass, and we made dumplings with the grass.

“Only the Urus don’t know how to make kurze,” Grandma said, “They make pelmeni.”I didn’t know who the Urus were, none of them lived in our village, but I also couldn’t really make kurze. You have to connect the ends of the dough so that you get a little bit of a tail. The grass lets out some juice and makes the dough wet which makes shaping the dumplings even harder. I was afraid that if I didn’t learn how to make kurze, that I’d turn into an Urus. Grandma just laughed and said, “If you don’t learn, no husband will want you and you’ll end up like Nazhabat.

Nazhabat was our next-door neighbor. She was 28 years old. She was very old. When she was young, the young man from the house on the other side of theirs had proposed to her. It was a huge embarrassment for her parents because their two families had always been close. They shared a gate out in the yard.

“Those Ulubeks have no shame.” Grandma said, her fingers quickly working away. She could put together ten kurze in one minute. It was so disgraceful for Nazhabat that after that nobody else wanted to marry her.

If the two families hadn’t shared a gate, then Nazhabat’s parents would have been able to agree to the marriage. But the gate was there. When they were young, Nazhabat and this boy used to run through the gate and play in the yards together, and because of that he was like a brother to her. What a disgrace to marry a girl who was like a sister to you! What a sin! When the Ulubeks brought such shame to our neighbor’s family, their son had to leave the village because he’d been condemned by the elders of the godekan. Nazhabat hid her shame at home, and almost never went to the spring. Her brother scored the gate with nails and stopped saying hello to the Ulubeks.

Two years ago, that young man returned from Russia. He had become so rich there, that he also began building a brick house. He could have had any girl, and she would have happily followed him, but again he sent expensive gifts to the family next door. They say that among the gifts was even a ring with a big red stone. At that point the family agreed to the marriage, even though Nazhabat was already an old maid looking after her brother’s children. The elders at the godekan cursed and shook their heads in disapproval - why bring such shame upon our village? If people find out about it in other villages, they’ll laugh at us. What do we need that for? But Allah punished those Ulubeks, and made it right. A few days before the wedding that young man drowned in the river - he did right by himself. His brick house stood there only half-built. Nazhabat’s brother, once again stopped saying hello to the Ulubeks. These days, if they see each other on the street, they always turn and look to the side as if they’ve seen something very interesting there. And by Allah, I also look, but there is never anything interesting. Oh, how afraid I was of becoming like Nazhabat! I tried so hard to learn how to shape those kurzes. Mama was a miracle cook - she rolled out small thin circles, filled them with filling, placed another thin circle on top, pinched the edges, and fried them in a pan coated with oil.

Eid ul-Fitr is a big holiday for us so we had a lot of food and a lot of sweets in the house. Grandma brought a big box of spice cakes and half a bag of caramels home from the store. She left it all at the door, and the next morning when children from other houses came to ours with little bags in their hands, she filled them with candy and gave each one a spice cake.

“Go along with them,” she told me.

I also grabbed a bag and went out. It hadn’t rained for a long time, and the road was dry and beaten, as it tends to be - with traces of cow hooves, galoshes, and carts. Fresh grass was starting to appear on either side of the road, and the mountains were also becoming green.

To tell you the truth, I really don’t like to look at the mountains in the wintertime - they’re so grey and gloomy, just like Akhmed’s grandfather who sits at the godekan from morning ‘til night. In the winter they look like an old woolen hat with matted hair. That’s what Grandpa’s hair is like. I brush it with a comb and curl his hair around my fingers but it doesn’t become curly. It’s been too long since the sheep has been sheared, that’s why his hair has just grown together.

When the sun returns, the snow melts and the mountains bloom once again, it feels as though music is playing inside of me. I could just sing all day.

We knocked on doors, starting with our own. We didn’t skip a single one and we went through the entire village all the way to the general’s house. As soon as the door opened, we held our bags out in front of us and wished them a happy holiday. Cookies and candy poured into our bags, and occasionally a piece of chocolate would drop in among them. At the general’s house, his wife showered us with small bags of marshmallows. I sniffed them - they smelled like soap and I ate them all right away. There are a small number of such people who live so well that they have marshmallows. The general probably had that really good kind of work, I thought, just like my father had had.

In these few days, I ate so much I could barely carry my stomach in front of me. I ate and ate, because I knew that in the days to come, there wouldn’t be so many delicious things to eat and we’d have to eat only bread on churning day and khinkal with broth in the evening. It’s a really big and wonderful holiday - Eid ul-Fitr.


***

If I didn’t love sugar so much, Mama and Grandma wouldn’t argue so much. They still haven’t managed to make peace, and I’m the only one to blame for this.


***

That morning our neighbor Salkhi’s cow was screaming - she had a calf in her stomach that had turned to the wrong side and wouldn’t come out. There was a big pot of broth on the stove with thick steam rising from it. Grandma was rolling the dough for khinkal.

“Yes, go,” Grandpa told her. He was carving a wooden spoon with a small knife. We already had a whole sack of spoons like that. “Muslim already said twenty minutes ago, to slaughter her while she still hasn’t died.”

“Astagfirulla,” Grandma said, tying a scarf around her forehead. We were all sick and tired of listening to this cow scream. Grandma knew how to get her hands into the stomachs of sheep and cows. Mama picked up her rolling pin, and started to roll the circle of dough herself. They say that when Mama was giving birth to me, Grandma pushed her hands into her stomach too and pulled me out of there. Mama wasn’t as strong as Grandma. I touched my own stomach. What if I’ve got somebody in there too?

“Mama, how come you haven’t had any more children come out of you?” I asked.

Mama blushed, and Grandpa knocked me on the forehead with a spoon. I cried as if I were offended, and then forgot about it - it didn’t really hurt anyway.

“Kurbanov is coming tomorrow. You need to slaughter a sheep,” Grandma said, threw a look at Mama, and then left.

“Inshallah,” said Grandpa.

They were looking forward to the Kurbanovs. Mama didn’t want them to come over. I didn’t either, though I myself didn’t know why.

I cleaned the garlic. That was always my job. They ate khinkal, and I cleaned garlic. I peeled off the skin and crushed it in a big wooden mortar. I was so sick of it! I would rather have done anything else because my hands smelled like garlic every day.

“Go now,” Grandpa said to me, “Bring me my tobacco from the table over there.”

I climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor for the tobacco. I was just about to take it from the table and run down the stairs, but then someone called my name.

“Khadijah….”

I turned around. Nobody was in the hall, just a draft lifting the curtain on the door to Grandma’s room.

“Come on in,” a voice called from there.

At first, I didn’t want to but the voiced called me and called me.

“I’m not allowed,” I said, “Grandma forbid me from going in her room without asking first.”

“Come here,” the voice repeated.

Now I know that this was a demon. He made me do bad things. Grandma said that sometimes demons choose people who don’t behave themselves and then start to call their names. So, when you hear someone calling your name in an unfamiliar voice, do not answer, don’t even turn around. It’s a demon! That time I heard him calling me, “Khadijah, Khadijah!” Oh, I was so scared! What does he want from me?  Why is he after me? Grandma said he chose me because I ate the food that’s been left on people’s graves. But then why do they leave it there by the gravestone? I thought it’d been left there in order to be taken. When the demon called my name for the first time, I stopped taking food from the dead. Grandma gave me a small stone with rivulets its Mullah had had thwarted away the demons. When the demon calls your name, you have to touch this stone. A chapter from the Koran lives inside this stone. Demons are afraid of the Koran. I lost the stone the next day, but didn’t tell Grandma - she would have beaten me with a stick. Sometimes I walked among the graves and I saw how the ants eat the cookies and even the chocolates, but ever since the demon called my name I’ve never even touched that food. I thought he had left me alone long ago because I was behaving myself. I even forgot about him, truly. How should I have known that it was him who was calling my name from Grandma’s room?

Having pushed back the curtains, I went into the room. The bedding was on the floor. A large chest stood by the wall where Grandma hid all the cuts of fabric and the gifts for the bride. There was also a very beautiful crystal vase in the chest, and some bouquets of fake flowers. There was a big bed by the window, covered by a large bright bedspread with ruffles. Nobody ever slept in that bed, it was only there for show so that people couldn’t shame us by saying that our family couldn’t even afford a bed. We have the kind of neighbors who could say things like that. I dreamed of lying on that bed, but Grandma wouldn’t allow it so as not to mess up the bedspread. And I would never have lain on that bed for anything, if the demon hadn’t ordered me to “Lie down!”

I quickly lay down on the bed. It was so soft, I swayed back and forth a few times like a wave. We used to live in Makhachal, and Papa took me to the sea a few times. He took me in his arms and the waves rocked me gently, just like in Grandma’s bed. Oh, how unusual it was to lie down and be higher than the floor! Then I stood up quickly and straightened the bedspread so that nobody could tell. I wanted to leave, but I noticed one more curtain by the wall.

“Open it!” the demon ordered me.

I walked up to the curtain, and drew it back. There was a hole in the wall, and in this hole was a whole sack of sugar! So this is where Grandma hid it. The truth is, I didn’t want to take any sugar. By Allah, I am not a thief. It was all him, the demon. He made me do it.

I opened the sack, and grabbed a few big lumps of sugar, stuck them in my pocket and ran out of the room. Just in that moment, the cow fell silent. I blocked my ears with my hands and told the demon, “Don’t talk to me anymore! Get away from me! I don’t want you!” I shook my head quickly - quickly, so that his words would fall out of my ears. I grabbed Grandpa’s pouch from the table and went downstairs.

“Only you are sent for death, Khadijah,” he said and took his pouch with his yellow fingers.

Soon Grandma came back. The cow died. Our neighbors didn’t manage to slaughter her. All that meat just wasted.

“The calf didn’t turn itself around,” Grandma said, “Sakina says, Abidat cursed the cow. What eyes she’s got, by the way, not good,” Grandma continued, “Sakina says, they saw her yesterday on the street and Abidat said to her, ‘oh what a fat cow you’ve got, I envy you Sakina.’ I’m asking you, why didn’t she just say ‘mashallah?’ Uh huh, she didn’t say it on purpose in order to curse it. She should have taken that cow to the Mullah immediately. Remember how she cursed Alishkin’s daughter? Remember how she grew a hump? Well, that’s neither here nor there. I told Alishkin, don’t let her in your house. Oh, the eyes she’s got, that Abidat…. you’ll never see her step foot in my home.”

“Inshallah,” said Grandpa, who also never liked Abidat.

We ate on the floor around the floor mat. Mama scooped the khinkal out of the pot, put them on a big plate, and added oil and garlic on top. We took them from the plate with our forks and dipped them in adzhika.

“Do you remember how I told you I’d seen her there behind the cemetery?” Grandma dropped a big piece of meat with the bone on Grandpa’s plate, “What was she doing there, I ask you? And, by the way, that was the same day Kamal died, and she is not related to him. Then on the fortieth day, suddenly her father-in-law died. Astagfirulla, he was so healthy. What did he die from? What did he die from? I bet you I know!”

“From what, woman?” Grandpa asked sucking marrow out from the bone.

“Well, from the fact that…” Grandma answered, lowering her voice, “ she took the water that was used to wash the corpses, and kneaded it into the bread dough, and then fed it to her father-in-law, that’s all.”

“Astagfirulla!” Grandpa dropped the bone on his plate, “Woman, let me eat in peace! I have had enough of your gossip! Go gossip with the neighbors! You never shut your mouth even for a second. Ugh…” he took up his bone again. “Don’t use her as an example, better to be silent, like your mother,” he said after turning to me. “Always, blah blah blah, blah blah blah - with no end. Don’t be like that!”

“Grandpa, who lives in that house behind the cemetery?” I asked.

“Just look at her,” Grandma waved her arms, “when I was your age I couldn’t raise my eyes in front of my Grandfather, and she’s just chatting away! Be quiet, nobody’s talking to you!” Grandma slumped her shoulders and shoved a khinkal into her mouth.

I was so scared then to go into the cemetery. If Abidat went there, I wouldn’t go there for the rest of my life. And I would never take any bread from her. There was definitely a demon living inside her. I remembered the sugar in my pocket and touched it with my finger - four big lumps. Grandma will beat me if she finds out that I stole them.

“What’s that you’ve got there in your pocket?” Grandma asked. She sees everything.

“It’s the stone to protect against demons,” I lied.

“That’s right, carry it with you at all times. If you see Abidat on the street, touch the stone right away, and nothing will happen. Always repeat ‘Bismillyakhi rakhani rakhim.’ Only these words saved Akhmed’s Grandfather.”

“Grandma, why did they save Akhmed’s Grandfather?”

“Maybe that’s enough of these little stories” Grandpa said with disapproval.

“What stories? It’s true! It happened once - Akhmed’s Grandfather was asleep, and in the middle of the night there was a knock on the door. He opens it and the neighbor is there. ‘What is it,’ he asks. ‘Follow me, don’t speak.’ They set off together and go out to the street leaving the village behind. They cross the river and come to a clearing.  In the meadow there came a noise, an uproar, music, the whole village was gathered there as if the wrestlers had come. There was cloth spread over the ground with food on it, as much as you could want. Akhmed’s Grandfather took some bread and was just about to take a bite, but out of habit he said, ‘Bismillyakhi rakhani rakhim.’ And just at that moment, he wakes up and he sees that he is sitting alone in the meadow and he doesn’t have any bread in his hands, the bread is manure…. Uh huh, the demon brought him there like that, and praying saved him. So, that is what happened to Akhmed’s grandfather.

“Bismillyakhi rakhani rakhim,” I repeated to myself and touched the sugar. But what if it’s also turning into manure? Oh, I was so scared. I picked off a piece of the sugar unnoticeably, and then I pulled my hand out of my pocket and licked my finger - it was still sweet.

After the khinkal we drank tea with some little cakes. Grandma brought a bowl with finely chopped sugar and put it in the center of the mat. Why was she being so greedy? She has a whole sack of sugar in her room!

I reached out and took one piece, even though I had four big ones in my pocket. I drank two whole glasses, and grandma praised me for it.

She reached into the pouch that always hung at her waist, pulled out a pinch of tobacco and stuffed it into her nose. Her nose reddened like an unripe plum. Me and Mama always giggled when she sneezed.

“Shut your mouth when you laugh,” Grandma reprimanded, “A demon could fly in.” No one noticed anything…


***

But I do believe in Allah! I’m just asking him to turn Ike into stone! I’m always asking him about something. Sometimes he grants my wishes, and sometimes not. For example, I once asked him to help me not have to whip the milk anymore because my hand hurt from the pitcher. The next day he granted my wish, the cow didn’t give any milk and Grandma took her to the Mullah. Another time I asked for chocolate, and the next day, as it happens, our neighbor Abdullah died. He had cancer. He screamed for a whole month, worse than Salikh’s cow. Then he died, and they left a lot of chocolate on his grave. That day I ate until I was stuffed - Allah heard me. And if that’s not true, then why do we live next to the cemetery?

But, when I ask him to give me my father back, Allah doesn’t listen. I tell him every night, “You don’t have to give me candy, I can churn the butter every day, just please bring Papa back and we’ll go altogether to the city.” And in the morning I say to Allah, “If you think that I love candy more, you’re wrong. I don’t need that. More than anything I just want my papa back.” Oh, how I waited for him. Ike told me that in order for my words to reach him I have to say ‘Bismillyakhi rakhani rakhim’ a thousand times. I don’t know how to count, but there was one day when all I did was repeat those words to myself all day - more than a thousand times is even better, Allah would hear me even faster.

“Why are you so quiet today?” Grandma asked.

I couldn’t even answer her, I was saying to myself, ‘Bismillyakhi rakhani rakhim.’ You have to say it a thousand times with no break otherwise you have to start all over again.

“Say something!” Grandma said.

I just couldn’t.

“Blah blah blah, you see this, eh? I’m getting my stick!” She had the stick in her hands. Oh, how she hit me on the back. For me it was even better that she beat me, Allah would see it, how I suffered, and grant me my wish sooner. It’s true, I was glad she beat me that day. I thought Papa would suddenly appear and grab the stick out of her hands. He didn’t appear. I thought maybe he would come on a different day. I woke up in the morning thinking he was already sitting downstairs on the floor next to the mat, drinking tea with toffee. I ran downstairs so fast, and there sat Grandma alone on the floor with her repulsive wrinkled face, like an accordion - drinking tea from the teakettle. I was so hurt, if only you knew. Maybe I didn’t say it a thousand times? Maybe I said it less, because I don’t even know how to count! Even if I said it a few less times, Allah is still kind! Then I thought, ‘no, maybe Papa is chopping wood out in the garden, or maybe he’s gone to the neighbors. It’s been a long time since he’s seen the neighbors too.’

“Where’s Papa,” I ask.

“Ah, what Papa?”

“My papa!”

“He’s dead,” she says.

That made it even worse. It felt as if the boiling tea water was overflowing in my chest. So I screamed at Grandma. If it hadn’t been for that boiling water…I know that yelling at your elders is never allowed.

“No it’s you who died! I said, ‘Bismillyakhi rakhani rakhim’ a thousand times! You are lying! I’ll say it again and this time I’ll think of you dying! I don’t need you! I hope you turn to stone!” I dropped to the floor and started banging my head and legs. I felt no pain, but the boiling water didn’t stop.

“Aisha, Aisha!” Grandma yelled, “Khadijah is sick!”

Grandma covered me with her skirt, and I wanted to bite her on the hand. I don’t like it when she covers me with her skirt. She grabbed me with her skirt, and with my hands shaking like a small girl, I got up from the floor. I don’t like it when she hugs me to her chest - she always reeks of tobacco.

“I hope you turn into stone! You are lying! Don’t pour that boiling water on me! Don’t pour it! I don’t love you! I don’t need you! Die!”

“Aisha, Aisha, come here now, I say…?”

“Mama, Mama! Grandma poured boiling water on me! I’m telling you, it hurts!”

I don’t know why Allah didn’t listen to me when I asked him to bring my father back. Maybe he thought that I like living in the village more than in the city? I told him every day that I love living on a city block, that I love when you have to go in an elevator, when there’s hot water in the tap. You’ve just never lived in a village, and you don’t know how cold it gets here in the evening and in the morning. Especially in the winter! And all summer you have to drag in firewood from the forest for the stove. And it’s so hard to wash the dishes in cold water. You collect it in a bowl and pour it from the pitcher, which isn’t clean itself! You know, you’re hands just freeze!


***

It smells good in the house when Grandma makes khalva with flour, butter, and sugar. You don’t need to add anything else to khalva. Only, every cook’s khalva has it’s own taste. Grandma’s is the best. And don’t go thinking that khalva is easy to make, it’s not easy at all. First you put the butter in a hot frying pan - a big lump. Pour some flour in - only your eyes can tell you how much. Now stir it, smelling it the whole time. When the smell tells you that it’s time, add the sugar and keep stirring. It’s difficult to explain when you should add the sugar - nobody knows. You can only determine it by the smell. But, if you don’t add the sugar on time, the khalva will be like a stone, and khlava should have crumbly edges. Grandma’s nose always knows the right time, probably because she sniffs tobacco. Then you drag the khalva onto a plate, decorate it with shelled walnuts on top, and when it hardens, you cut it with a sharp knife.


Grandma made four plates of khalva because the Kurbanovs are coming over today. Grandpa slaughtered a sheep. I always leave the yard when Grandpa’s slaughtering sheep. A year ago, I had my own sheep. His name was Tamerlan. I used to catch him by his feet and brush his hair. Tamerlan loved grass. He was so cowardly - he would shake the whole time when I caught him. Tamerlan had blue eyes, and I have black ones. When the first snowfall came, Grandpa slaughtered him, because Tamerlan had the fattest rump. I cried so much. Tamerlan didn’t want to be slaughtered. He was such a coward. Why did he eat so much? If he were thin he wouldn’t have been killed.

“Will it hurt him,” I asked when grandpa was turning the handle of the yellow sharpening stone.

This stone stands in our yard. Yellow. You turn the handle and the stone turns. You put a knife to it and the knife gets sharpened. I loved to just turn it. In our house we’ve got a lot of housework to do, and a lot of knives.

“It shouldn’t hurt your Tamerlan,” Grandpa said and touched the knife to the palm of his hand. Grandpa has very hard skin on his palms.

“And it wouldn’t hurt you either, right?”

“Me, I’m not a sheep - I’m…a person. You can’t slaughter a person, but you’re allowed to slaughter a sheep. Sheep don’t feel a thing. Allah created them specifically for people to eat, so it doesn’t hurt them. When I say, “Bismillya” and turn his head toward Mecca, it won’t hurt him. “Uh huh, and that’s all” Grandpa said.

“Grandpa, if you turned a person’s head, would it be painless for him too?

“What are you talking about? Why would you slaughter a person?”

“Well, why Tamerlan? I love Tamerlan. Who am I going to play with now, huh?”

“Look at how many sheep we’ve got. Choose whichever one you want and go play,” Grandpa answered.

“I want to play with Tamerlan,” I said.

“And I want to eat Tamerlan kebabs. Look here, I’ll give you the best bit. I know which part is best from a sheep…you’re gonna like it.”

“Then why does a person feel it?”

“A person has a soul.”

“Tamerlan also has a soul, I know it.”

“How do you know? What did you see that’d make you say such a stupid thing?”

“I saw it! It’s the truth, I saw it!”

“Where did you see it?”

“It was sitting on his back.”

“Blah blah blah, what are you imagining? Only people have souls, animals don’t have souls.”

“Grandpa, don’t kill Tamerlan…”

“It’s a sacrifice to Allah. We’re giving it to our neighbor Sadaka. Allah wants us to make a sacrifice for him.”

“Grandpa, take some other sheep…”

“That’s all! Get out of here! Whining and whining in my ear! Aisha! Get away from here!”

Oh, what a coward Tamerlan was. Grandpa caught him, when he was coming back from the pasture, and dragged him by his feet into the yard. Tamerlan stood up, legs shaking and then fell to his knees. I ran away to the garden. Why does Allah constantly want sacrifices? Why can’t I play with Tamerlan, he has such beautiful blue eyes? Why does Allah take everything I love for himself? We’ve got a cliff in the garden. When you walk under the mulberry trees, apple, cherry, pear and apricot, the garden becomes dark - there are so many branches. After the apricots is where the cliff begins. It’s really steep, the river flows beneath it. I can grab the tree with one hand and bend down to look at it. You can go down to the river - you have to go through the whole village. The road goes down, all the way past General Kazibek’s house, pass by the spring, go just a little further, and there is the river. It’s not very high there, but just under your feet.

That day, when Grandpa slaughtered Tamerlan, I wasn’t afraid of anything. I walked straight to the edge and sat down right next to it. If I fall, then so be it. I didn’t want to return home. They don’t do anything I ask. What should I go back there for? I thought, I could leave and go to some other mountains. When we came here on the bus from the city, we passed over lots of mountains. Of course I’d have to walk a long time, but after a few days I could reach the city. I remember where our neighborhood is. Papa is probably waiting there.

I listened to the river. She has a voice like Grandma’s vase - glassy, round, and cold. One of the sons from our village fell from the cliff not long ago - right into the river. He broke his arms and he still isn’t able to move them even just a little bit.

I changed my mind about leaving for the city and went home. It was quiet in the yard. Grandpa had already left for somewhere. I stood under the mulberry bush. Something dripped on me from above. I touched my face - red. What is it?! And another drop. And a third! It’s-blood! Blood is dripping from the tree! Aman!

“Aman!”

“Khadijah, what’s happened?” cried Grandma from the house.

“Aman!”

Grandma appeared in the doorway. She caught a glimpse of me and clasped her wrinkled face as if she were drinking from a saucer. I don’t like that face she has.  She opened her mouth and laughed. They say that when Grandpa married her she was the most beautiful one in the village. I don’t believe everything that people say…Grandma pointed her old fingers up and then touched her stomach to keep it from hurting from how hard she was laughing. I looked up. Tamerlan was hanging from the branches with no skin. I ran to the gates and washed my face in the gutter. The water in the gutter is also very cold, especially in the winter.

That evening Grandpa boiled Tamerlan’s head. He sat on the mat, holding his head in his left hand as the fat dripped down his fingers.

“What a delicious cut” he said, and tore off the skin from the head with his right hand.

Tamerlan’s eyes were boiled.

“Come try some,” he tore me off a piece.

I took it and tried it.

“Grandpa, give me another piece.”

“I told you, Khadijah, I know the best piece of meat. And what pain, there’s no pain. Of course it doesn’t hurt him. Just as you say, ‘bismillya,’ Allah lulls him to sleep, and he doesn’t feel anything. You offered a sacrifice to Allah…Allah knows what to do…he created the whole world. We don’t decide such things. We don’t decide anything. We just observe the laws of Allah. It’s not for us to judge. You see - it’s delicious. Tomorrow we’ll make kebabs, and we’ll give some to the neighbors. I’ll sprinkle the rest with salt, and hang it up to dry…and you can play with any sheep you like. Look, we’ve got so many sheep.

I never ever played with the sheep again.

Translated from the Russian by Molly Flynn