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from the March 2021 issue

The Southern Mammoth

Archil Kikodze's The Southern Mammoth, originally published in Georgian in 2017, takes place in a single day in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as a filmmaker leaves his apartment to make way for a friend with a date, to wander freely through his city and his memories. 
 

Armed with long poles, the policemen are busy at the Ortachala 1 hydro station. It seems they are the only ones on this sunny wintry morning who have something to do. They push as hard as they can, nearly succeed in moving the corpse. They aren’t trying to get the body out of the water. They just want to push it hard enough to budge it. We stare at the scene with gaping mouths. We don’t understand what’s going on. Only later, Tazo, loyal to his ways, finds out the story behind the scene we witnessed. But that morning, on our way from visiting prostitutes, we were dumbly watching the policemen’s futile efforts. We had spent the night in a house that was lost in the old quarter of Kharpukhi and now, looking at the curdled waters at the hydro station, we would have given anything to erase our memories, to forget all we’d seen . . . Asking around in the winding, narrow streets of Kharpukhi, we eventually find the brothel in the most inappropriate house and knock on the glass gallery, referring to an acquaintance of Tazo’s. Stepping in from the dark street, we momentarily freeze in the hall, long enough for our eyes to adjust to the light. The surrounding is a sight indeed . . .  Dents on the ceiling and walls left by different caliber bullets, blunt stares from the corners, cast by eyes that don’t like anyone . . . As if we are characters in a Western who have just blundered into the worst town in the world. “They don’t like strangers, do they.” God bless the scriptwriters of the old movie dialogues. “They like no one.” It’s obvious that we won’t find love here. On the balcony, a generator roars offbeat . . . We aren’t looking for trouble, we are unarmed . . . Tazo is fiddling with his hat, the one he never goes without. Under his warm coat he has his only sweater he has been wearing for the last ten years. It’s a shapeless blue one, knitted from thick wool, with a diagonal red strip in front . . . He squints at the light bulb, then smiles at the surroundings for no apparent reason. He just can’t help it—his smile is always kind of inappropriate. Now it’s clear to everyone that we aren’t going to shoot or threaten anyone with a gun, and suddenly it becomes interesting. Are you brothers? A speck of interest appears in their lethargic eyes . . . No, we’re not . . . We aren’t going to hit them, either, during sex or later, when we get sober and are overcome by the urge to puke—not so much on account of them, but on account of ourselves. What’s more, Tazo might have enough strength to smile at them in the morning . . . Then we’ll leave . . . Go down the cobbled slope without talking to each other, in silence, cross the deserted square without a single car, won’t even notice the valiant Petre Bagrationi brandishing his sword, in the same way we never pay attention to other mounted historical heroes across the city. We’ll get on the Ortachala dike and share the only cigarette. We don’t have enough to buy the ones with filters, but will get some without filters later on, as soon as little kiosks in our respective blocks open. But it’s a long walk to the familiar grounds . . . In the meantime, we want to cast the first and final glance at the city from this vantage point . . . But why final? It was final for me, but surely Tazo came back. Otherwise he wouldn’t have found out about the corpse . . . 

The stagnant Mtkvari with grassy banks and gulls . . . The Isani policemen, ever so hungry for petty bribes, are trying to push the corpse. With the long poles, they are shoving it to the right, swearing and getting into each other’s way. The dead man is floating on his back. He is wearing a pale jacket, the hue of the river, and a pair of jeans, just like us. Hard to say if he was killed or has committed suicide, but it doesn’t matter for the policemen anyway. Very soon Tazo will discover that it’s a common thing, that the Ortachala hydro station is a haven for Tbilisi corpses: those who jump of their own accord or are thrown into the river sooner or later gather at the dike. Down the Mtkvari, in Samgori, the policemen have lots of long rods and poles prepared for the same purpose. “You’ve got to act fast in this city”—depends on who is smarter and adroit in shoving the dead bodies to the other side. In Samgori and in Isani the policemen work with gusto to prove who is smarter. But that winter morning, Isani was definitely faster, which means Samgori got a fresh homicide case, or possibly a suicide . . .

Next to me, Tazo shivers. He might be thinking the same. The water’s too cold . . .  Suddenly, he starts talking about his dream. "Don’t tell me you were able to sleep last night." He did and dreamt he was swimming in a vast stretch of water. He swims with strong, well-calculated strokes, heading for the horizon. He’s got quite a distance to cover, so he saves his energy. The horizon seems too distant, practically unreachable for even such an expert swimmer as Tazo, but he persists, quite stubbornly. He doesn’t really know why he is swimming or where to, but he feels there is something extremely important waiting for him ahead, or something vital is going to happen to him. Indeed, something appears against the dull horizon, pushing Tazo to keep going. He is exhausted but hasn’t lost faith in his own strength, not for a second. He is sure he will reach the end. His aim nears, consequently gets larger. It’s an inscription. Tazo can’t read it yet but he can clearly see that it is mounted on a huge metal construction, something similar to the old Soviet structures erected in the most improbable places, carrying the message “Forward to the bright future!” Or the enormous Hollywood sign on Mount Lee. Tazo waves his hand in a vague gesture to describe the inscription that he nears after swimming tirelessly in the vast sea and now he can discern it. Apparently, that was his target . . . The word “cunt” covers the entire horizon like a verdict and Tazo writes in the air with his hand, this time the letters are easily recognizable. There is no sea around us but I readily visualized the word written by Tazo's hand hanging over our city, somewhere above the dammed-up river and the old quarters across it. Insane, isn’t it? We stare at each other. He drags at what’s left of my cigarette, shrugs his shoulders as if saying it’s not his fault he dreamed such a weird dream. He fights back laughter. He flicks the butt into the river and we even hear a brief hiss as it hits the water and then we burst into laughter. We just can’t stop. The Isani policemen, who have nearly managed to shove the body into the Samgori jurisdiction, stop and look at us, trying to guess if we have found their efforts comical. Oh, no, not at all! Whatever you’re doing this morning, no doubt it’s for the good of our city and the whole country. We laugh our heads off. They give up on us, having their own problems. Still laughing, we leave the dike. We’ve got to walk all the way to our homes and the kiosks where we can get cigarettes without filters on credit . . . 

*

I open my eyes. The ice cubes haven’t melted in the glass yet. I must have nodded off. The computer screen shows the same picture: somewhere in the Near East, Nelly is patting a cat. I look at my watch. Nearly nine. My visitor will be here any minute now. He hasn’t been for years. Mum’s funeral doesn’t count. It was more out of duty, personal and social. But he called yesterday and somehow, awkwardly, with lots of pauses, finally said what he wanted to say. Even across the distance I felt he was afraid of being laughed at. Something that never occurred to me. I listened and agreed, as if it were an honor.

But nine in the morning is too early. Is it a date he’s got or a hangover breakfast?

My doorbell rings. Couldn’t wait till nine. I go to open it, but halfway down the hall I suddenly think he mustn’t see Nelly. I go back to the computer and close the picture, then the whole album. The doorbell rings again—this time more persistently and a bit impatiently. My daughter hasn’t appeared in the chat for some time. It must be late there and most probably she’s asleep. I leave the chat room, order the computer to go to sleep, and head for the front door.

I hardly have time to look at him. Tazo doesn’t so much step over the threshold—he jumps over it as if he’s looking for shelter from the rain. He moves inside, into the depths of the flat as if it were a sanctuary. His insistent calling hasn’t been insolent at all—he was seeking asylum. He drops heavily into an armchair by my sofa and scrutinizes the bookshelves as if it’s his first time at my place.

“Were you asleep?”

“I nodded off. Was looking at the computer and dozed off. Actually, I woke up quite early . . . ”

He takes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lights one. His manner hasn’t changed: he smokes with the greed of a teenager, a novice, with long drags—one, two, three and the fag’s burned to the butt.

I also take my cigarette from the table and light it. He watches me impatiently. I can’t enjoy mine, crush it out and get to my feet.

“Tazo, come with me, will you?”

We go into the bedroom. Zoia, my cleaner, hasn’t been in. Usually, it’s Zoia who changes my bedclothes. Come on, help me!

 

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I had stripped away my own bedclothes earlier, before I dozed off at the computer. We are funny to watch. I shouldn’t be thinking about it, but what we do has the makings of a movie . . . Two men over forty are awkwardly changing bedclothes with dead serious faces, stuffing pillows into pillowcases. Do you want a thinner blanket? I don’t think we’ll be cold, it’s quite warm already . . . I don’t believe even for a moment that Tazo doesn’t appreciate the cinematographic value of the absurd scene. I can’t help thinking that now, just like in the old times, we are going to look at each other and guess we’re thinking the same. Then we’ll have a good laugh . . . But no—Tazo hasn’t glanced at me even once. We’ve been working in silence. We’re tired, but here you are, the bed’s ready . . .

I remember something. I go into the sitting room, open a sideboard, take out a half-empty bottle of brandy and two glasses.

“A glass or two has a great effect on me . . . In this case . . . you know what I mean, don’t you?” I’m angry with myself because I realize I’m carefully choosing my words when talking to Tazo.

He eyes the bottle, as if he doesn’t see it, as if he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. “Are you going out in that tracksuit?”

Tazo isn’t rude or impudent, and can never be such. He is just impatient to get me out. He is nervous and, I sense, he finds the whole situation highly embarrassing. I smile. “I’ll change in a second and I’ll be gone.”

In the bedroom I change quickly, like a soldier. I usually don’t need long. I shove my tracksuit into the wardrobe. I’ll change into the jogging shoes in the hall. I might need to walk quite a lot. Cigarettes, keys, phone in the pocket. What else?

In the sitting-room Tazo is looking at a photo behind the bookcase glass. Bent low, he seems to be trying to remember something.

The photo is black and white, I believe taken by his dad and developed in their bathroom under the magic red light. It has been behind that glass since the times when we didn’t need to stoop to see it. The National Museum yard, the two of us standing in front of the skeleton of a prehistoric elephant. I’m wearing a jumper knitted by Mum. Both groomed and in our Sunday best. Probably ten at the time. In the background the elephant in a huge glass box hardly fits into the frame. But its front legs, tusks, and part of its forehead are clearly visible. I even remember what the inscription was on the box. Here it is, if you don’t believe me:

Archidoskodon Meridionalis—the southern mammoth, found in Taribana Valley.

Tazo slips his hand behind the glass and takes out the photo, bringing it closer to his eyes. He squints and I think his eyesight is getting poorer. Might already need reading glasses.

“I always imagined Taribana Valley to be a mysterious place, with mammoths roaming freely. But the other day I was at an exhibition and there was this photo—a bare field with a single tree. It was a strangely beautiful place. It said Taribana Valley. I wanted to buy the photo but it had already sold.”

“I’ve been to the valley,” Tazo replaces the photo. “My office sent me to insure the harvest. Someone’s wheat. Nothing special about the place . . . ”  

Tazo has been to Taribana Valley. He insured someone’s wheat crop. Time for me to go. Here, take the keys. Just in case . . . When you’re ready, call me and I’ll come back. If you don’t wait for me, leave them on the sideboard in the hall and shut the door . . .

He nods and sees me to the front door. I put my jogging shoes on. And go down the stairs with the thud of a man who’s got nothing to hide. Let the adulterers sneak around furtively! I look up to wave him goodbye but he’s already closed the door. Fine with me . . .

Before stepping out into the street, I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror. I haven’t shaved but that’s all right. Money, phone, keys . . . Nothing left behind, no need to go back. Mediko’s mirror tells me that besides a shave I’m in sore need of a haircut. I might get one if I plan my day properly. I smile—what planning am I talking about if I’ve got nothing to do? But even if I have to, I know all too well I won’t do it. I don’t even recall a time when I woke up or left home so early in the morning. Getting cigarettes and mineral water doesn’t count. I mean leaving home properly, purposefully. I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror once again, then one, two . . . two and a half, three and I’m in the street.

The entrance is strewn with cigarette butts.

At nighttime our entrance becomes a refuge for young couples. The door doesn’t lock. I know other similar entrances along the street with similarly broken locks, but ours is particularly popular. I believe it’s the mirror that is largely responsible for it . . . They can sit on the steps and see their reflections at the same time. The mirror is witness to their caresses and the proof that they have each other. They might even be sizing each other up. Mediko’s mirror has the shape of a vertically upturned enormous eye. The human eye isn’t a perfect instrument. At close quarters, it can easily lose focus, so you start seeing the dear eyes in patches, or a blur of the necklace around the dear neck. At that point you can furtively glance at the mirror to steal a different angle and who knows, the mirror can show you something that will make you smile . . .

The problem is they throw cigarette butts into the vestibule.

I step into the sunshine. I cross the street and look at my house from the opposite sidewalk. No one is watching me from the windows. The curtains aren’t moving. But is my flat really suitable for a first date? Tazo was so nervous I’m absolutely sure it’s the first. He’s got a job and salary, insures someone’s harvest in Taribana Valley. He could easily afford a hotel room but still opted for my place. Preferred my humble digs to an alienating, impersonal king-size hotel bed, to relaxing on it, watching a French movie. After all these years he preferred a homelike atmosphere . . . Apart from the photo behind the glass panel, what else is he going to find that will seem familiar to him? Books? I have several books on the floor by the bed. I wonder if he’s going to have a look at them. Will he get interested in what I’m reading? What else . . . A couple of paintings by Tengiz Mirzashvili on the walls, hanging there as a sign that mine, just like Tazo’s house, is part of a city within another city that the artist has left in abundance as selfless gifts . . . Maybe the woman Tazo’s waiting for is from the artist’s city too. Loneliness is unbearable in both cities, isn’t it? She is soon going to walk into my flat and look around timidly . . . What else will meet her eyes? Another huge photo of a city, or rather of a settlement . . . It’s Mom, leaning on a walking stick in the ditch that took years to dig in that archaeological site. She’s looking determinedly into the lens, refusing to accept that she had spent decades digging the monument that hadn’t yielded anything valuable . . . Also, a poster of my film, which I had no courage to ask Tazo to see, nor have I asked if he’s seen it. What else? Innumerable snapshots of my daughter stuck to the fridge with magnets. I forgot to tell Tazo to look inside, but if he does, he’ll find plenty of snacks suitable for a single man . . . On the other hand, he came with a plastic bag, which he stuffed between the armchair and the sofa. Apparently, he’s brought something himself . . .   

Mediko comes out of our entrance and waves to me. I wave back from across the street. A casual meeting of neighbors in the morning. But she’s going to work while I’ve got no idea where I’m heading. "Is everything all right?"

“Yes. I’m out for a walk.”

“Your face says something’s up.”

“Not really. I just woke up very early and thought I’d have a walk.”

“Fancy walking in this direction?” She points toward Republic Square.

I shake my head and suddenly I feel the urge to shout that Tazo’s in my flat.

“Can we have a lock installed on the front door? Look at the mess.”

Smiling, Mediko turns back.

“By we you mean me, right?”

I chuckle and raise my hand in a goodbye gesture. I walk in the opposite direction, toward the Blue Monastery. From there I can walk straight into Vere Park and smoke a cigarette in peace and quiet.


© Archil Kikodze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2021 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.

Archil Kikodze will be in conversation with author and journalist Wendell Steavenson as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 28, 2021, and available to watch afterwards.

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