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from the December 2014 issue

Counting Out

I’ve got a surprise for you, she said. We came out onto the main road, the empty main road. I gave a blank reply: a surprise? Get a move on! Nintso sounded impatient. We’ve got stuff to do and I want to show you my surprise. OK, I said. But on one condition. Fine, she said, tell me later. Why are you going this way, I asked. They’ll see us. The other way takes longer. Nintso, I said, they’ll see us. Fine. Nintso looked at me wide-eyed. Fine. We went round the other way. Check both ways, I said. There’s no one around, said Nintso. I climbed over first, then Nintso did. I made it over easily, she found it harder. We opened the broken lock carefully and crept in. It took a few moments for our eyes to get used to the dark. It was a dark house. We never even thought about opening the curtains. Come over here, said Nintso, I want to show you something really cool. You’ve been here before, I asked. When? I dunno, a couple of days ago, said Nintso. Kvernadze broke the lock. He’s a troublemaker, that one, I said. Nintso burst out laughing: Oooh, Pip, don’t use rude words like that, God’ll strike you down! Cut it out, I said, and shoved her with my shoulder. We went into the bedroom. Nintso opened the cupboard. Look, this is what I was telling you about. Big deal, I said, half-heartedly. Big deal? It’s a CD player! And CDs! See? They must have missed it, they left it behind! And look, Nintso said enthusiastically, it works! Look at all these CDs, there are loads of them. How cool is that? Turn the volume down, will you, I said. It must be Datuna’s. Yeah, it must be Datuna’s. You remember Datuna? Nintso’s eyes were shining. Datuna! He was cool. Really cool. Always so serious! You don’t remember him, though, do you? It’s not like you ever looked at guys, is it? You’re still a kid! Little pipsqueak! Nintso snorted. But this place is so cool, isn’t it? Yeah, I said, but turn it down a bit. Nintso sprang up. Come on, pipsqueak, let’s dance, come on, for me? I don’t want to, I said. Oh Jesus, come on. Nintso didn’t wait. She started to dance. This is amazing, Nintso said, holding her head high and swaying from side to side. So what was the surprise, I asked. The surprise? Hang on. Here’s your surprise. Actually it’s more like a miracle. Nintso pulled a packet of cigarettes from her bra. Where did you get those, I asked. What’s this, twenty questions? Nintso stopped dancing. She turned off the stereo. What’s with you, Pip? I don’t know who you are anymore. Why are you being like this? Is it because of the baby? I felt sick. Tell me where you got them from! The guy with the blue eyes gave them to me, said Nintso, looking away. Nintso! I said. Nintso! Are you crazy? What were you doing with them? I wasn’t doing anything with them, thank you very much—I was just minding my own business, taking some plantains over to Lamara, so calm down. He was on his own at the guard post. He called me over so I went. Nintso, I said. What? I just thought I could cadge a couple of ciggies from him, so I asked him if he had any and he gave me the whole packet. As a present. A present! Nintso, I said. You know how dangerous it is to hang around with them. What if one of our guys had seen you? I felt sick. I don’t give a crap, Nintso said, he’s really cool. He’s got amazing blue eyes, and you should see his body . . . I swear he likes me. You should’ve seen how he was looking at me. Oh, and this is so cool, he said he’d seen me around with a little girl—he meant you! I told him you were my kid sister. She opened the packet. You idiot, I said. Why did you have to lie to him? Well? Well, she said, ’cause I really would have looked like an idiot if I’d told him we were the same age—he’d never have believed me! Nintso looked down at her chest. You’re a cow, I said. And then what? Then nothing! She gave me a cigarette. I gave him a smile and I left. Nintso lit up. He smiled back, you know. He blew his smoke at me. You’re a cow and you make me feel sick, I said. Nintso gave me such a dirty look that I stopped right there. I didn’t say another word. I lit my cigarette.

***

Something stinks round here, I said, and stopped. It really stinks, said Nintso. It’s coming from the ravine, I said. We looked at each other. Let’s go and have a look, said Nintso. You've got to be kidding, I said, I feel sick enough already. She didn’t wait for me, though. She ran off down the slope. I stood there for a moment. I couldn’t decide whether or not to follow her. Pip, shouted Nintso, and her voice sounded weird. What’s wrong, I called, and set off down the slope. I could see her blue skirt through the trees. The smell was getting stronger and stronger. Look, she said and turned toward me, covering her face with her hands. Straight away I put my hands over my nose. Urgh, I said. What’s that white stuff, said Nintso, turning her head away. I don’t know, I said, brains probably. I’m gonna throw up, said Nintso. I kept my hand over my nose and went a bit closer. He’s not one of ours, I said. How do you know, said Nintso, taking a step back. God, all these flies! What do you mean, how do I know, I said. Look at his uniform. Oh yeah, said Nintso, it’s one of theirs—that’s why he hasn’t been buried. Let’s go, Pip, said Nintso, I don’t feel so good. But he’s not buried, I said. What, Nintso said, you want me to bury him? I’m a girl! For some reason she put her hands over her ears, then turned round and ran off up the slope, bent double. I followed her. We can’t just leave him lying there like that, surely, I said when we got to the top. I don’t know, Pip, but what do you want me to do about it, said Nintso, and sighed. You want me to bury him just ’cause there are no men left to do it? I can’t. We could tell Kvernadze, I said. Fine, we’ll tell him, she said, but do you think he’ll do it? I don’t know, do I, I said. The people who live by the ravine should bury him, really. Well there you go, said Nintso, nobody does live by the ravine anymore, do they, all the houses round here are empty, so it’s not like the smell’s bothering anyone. Come on, she said, and started walking more quickly, come on, let’s get a move on, I feel sick. I feel sick too, I said. We hadn’t gone more than a few steps when we bumped into a group of children. There were four little boys hurrying toward us. They can’t go down to the ravine, said Nintso, they’re just kids—imagine if they saw that body. She stood in front them. Where are you going, boys? Down to the ravine, one of them said, the oldest one. He was probably about eight. You mustn’t go down there, said Nintso, there are mines down there. No, there aren’t, said the boy. There are mines in that ravine, said Nintso, bending down, spreading her arms out to block their way, so you can’t go down there. There really are mines, boys, I said, so you mustn’t go down there. There are no mines down there, said the eldest, but there is a dead body—he looked right into my eyes—and I’m taking these guys down to see it. I didn’t know what to say. I looked at Nintso. Nintso just stood there, stunned. The boy turned away from me and called back to the others: Come on, guys! And they started following him, looking up at us sulkily. By the time they reached Nintso she’d already moved out of the way. You’re really pale, she said quietly. So are you, I said. At least have the decency to bury him, you little bastards, Nintso called after them. They never even heard her. The last thing I saw was the youngest one heading off down the slope.

***

The car pulled over. One of them got out and said, do you live round here? Yes, I said. Should you be out on your own? What are you doing walking around out here? I’ve just been to my auntie’s to get some milk. He looked back at the car. Just give it to her and come on, said a voice from inside. What’s your dad’s name? Boria Gardavadze, I said. Why are you hiding that milk behind your back, you think I’m going to steal it from you? He called back to the car: She says she’s Boria’s kid. Well, came the reply, just give her the envelope so we can get out of here. Here, he said, three of your men have been killed, these are the papers. The what? I said. Don’t be scared, he said, three men from your village have been killed, these are the notifications. Do you know, Merab, Merab Gotsadze? Take this to him, and he’ll see to the rest. Take it to him now. OK, I said. His fingernails were dirty. Give it to Merab, he repeated, and don’t open it. Come on, came the voice from the car, let’s go. Don’t look so worried, your dad’s not one of them. You’re Boria’s kid, right? Yes, I said. Well, he’s not in there. It’s three other men. Don’t open it, don’t look at it, do you hear? Give it straight to Merab. It’s no business of yours who’s been killed. OK, I said. He got back into the car and they drove off. I stood there until I couldn’t see them anymore. When I put the envelope into my pocket the bottle of milk almost slipped out of my hand. And I think: I’m standing here, and I’ll count how many steps it is to that tree, and if it’s even I’ll open it and if it’s odd I won’t. It was 48 steps. I stopped by the tree, then walked round to the other side and sat at the base of the trunk. I opened the envelope, took out the sheets of paper, folded them neatly and put them one by one onto the ground. I looked at them for a while. I started sorting: eeny meeny, miny, moe . . . I landed on the middle one. That was the one I unfolded first. I did the rhyme again. This time I unfolded the one on the right. Then the left. I sat there for a while. There was a field in front of me. It was a big field, just a big field. A field full of mines. I could hear the chirruping of crickets and it was so hot. Then I remembered my brother. I stood up, picked up the bottle and the sheets of paper, and instead of going toward my house I went in the opposite direction, toward the bridge. I bumped into Natela, Nintso’s neighbor. Where are you going, child, she called. To the bridge, I said. What in God’s name are you going to the bridge for? There’s something I’ve got to do, I said. What do you mean, something you’ve got to do? It’s nearly three o’clock! They could start bombing any minute. They won’t start yet, I said. Oh, you know what time they’ll start, do you? Get off home and make yourself useful. I am making myself useful. Look, I’ve been to get milk. I showed her the bottle. What kind of milk is that, she said. Goat’s milk, I said. I got it from Mrs Jalaghanidze. And that’s OK for his allergies, is it? she said. I don’t know, I said, we’ll see. She’s dried up then, has she? Poor woman . . . and poor child too—I don’t know which one to feel more sorry for, she said. Well, she’s dried up, anyway, I said and went to leave. Pip, dear, come here, I’ve got something to say to you. Natela lowered her voice and bent down. Come here. What is it, I asked. Come over here and I’ll tell you, she said. I went over. That friend of yours, she said, lowering her voice even more, the one who goes around half-naked, tell her to get her act together, will you? What, she thinks just because there’s a war on we don’t see what she gets up to? What’s she done wrong? I asked, holding the bottle of milk tight in my hand. Some of the little ones saw her hanging around with the other side. It’s not right. If our side find out, they’ll beat her to within an inch of her life. If you’re really her friend, you’ll tell her to stop, and if you’re not, you should stop hanging around with her. Mind you, how can you stop her—after all, her mother was no angel and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree . . . OK, Auntie, I said, I’ll tell her, and I took a step back. But mind you don’t tell her it came from me, said Natela, raising her voice. I won’t, I said, and turned round. Listen, child, she called after me, everyone’s saying they’re going to bomb the bridge, so make sure you’re well away from there in good time. I didn’t answer. I hurried off. I went out onto the bridge. I put the bottle down. I leaned over the rickety handrail and looked down at the river. It was flowing peacefully. It was all just so peaceful. I took the sheets of paper out of my pocket. I folded one into a paper plane, then a second, then the third, and launched them, one after another. For a moment they flew, they flew. I ran across to the other side of the bridge and watched them from there, too. The current carried them away. I stood there until they disappeared from sight. Your dad’s plane was the prettiest, Nintso. Your dad’s plane flew the longest of all.

Copyright © Tamta Melashvili, 2014. Published by Bakur Sulakauri Publishing, 2014. Translation rights arranged by Rachel Gratzfeld, Literary Agent for Georgian Literature, Zurich.

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