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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the September 2018 issue

Little Dipper

Naira Gelashvili eavesdrops on the beginning of a star-crossed affair


Listen to author Naira Gelashvili read this story in the original Georgian.

 

I entered the tower. I didn’t stop in the front room, but took her to the second room. Here, long wooden benches stood on the right and left, and along the middle wall—a wooden bench, covered in bedding. A window was cut out of the fourth wall.    

I was enveloped by a good mood, which I think came from her. I quickly turned to her, squeezed her cheeks, and asked:

“What’s your name, Little Dipper?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

"I’ll show you. Come here!”  I led her to the window, which opened out onto the surrounding area. I had her gaze toward the sky. Earlier, when I was looking, alone, I had first noticed the Little Dipper. It was still there now, twinkling all by itself.  “Look, do you see it?”  She nodded.

“And what’s this?” I touched her neck where earlier I’d noticed a small cluster of pale birthmarks. She lowered her eyes. I could feel her trembling.  

“What is it?” she asked quietly, her voice altered.

“What . . . it’s the Little Dipper. Didn’t you know you have birthmarks here?”

“I know, but I’ve only seen them in the mirror,” she answered, even more quietly. “How do you know?”

“It’s a secret. I feel bad you can’t see it. It’s nice to look at. An exact copy. Who would’ve imagined?” I suddenly bent down and kissed her on the neck. “I’ve been dreaming about this all my life, to kiss the Little Dipper. And look where I’ve found it.”

“You weren’t dreaming,” she told me quietly but emphatically (somehow she said a lot with these few words), and looked me straight in the eyes. Surprisingly, her expression melted. A kind of calm submissiveness was reflected on her softened face. I was fairly surprised at this, coming from someone who before had put up so much resistance. I sensed her anxiety, and she looked as if she were praying.

“What’s your name, for real?”

“Mertsia.”

“Mertsia . . . that was the name of our doctor’s child. They wouldn’t let her play with us, and always locked her up in the yard. I think she was ill . . .” 

“She was ill? With what?”

“I don’t remember . . . I haven’t heard the name since . . .” I was staring at her, “Mertsia, this is our cave, we are cavemen . . .We found a cave, and now we have to start living together . . . life, it’s good, isn’t it?”  I was casting about, so I wouldn’t stop talking, because I was anxious, too.

“It’s good,” she laughed, and suddenly became buoyant. 

“And yet, for this game, no, for this life, you have to forget everything,” I told her, and ran my hand over her hair . . .

“What do you mean, everything?”

“The city, the past, acquaintances . . . everything . . .”

“Oh!”  She waved her hand. “I’ve forgotten, too.”

“Very good  . . . What can you still remember?” I felt I was asking her something very specific with these words, because right then I remembered that I didn’t even know if she was married or not, or in general, who she was or who she had.

“What?  What do I know . . . ?”  She shrugged her shoulders. “I remember that . . . time passes . . .”

“Did you figure that out earlier, when you were sitting by the water, sad . . . ?”

“I don’t know,” she laughed quietly.

I took a dagger from the wall, then an old pistol, a “Berdanki” that used to belong to Aghato’s father-in-law, and put it on the windowsill. I raised the dagger, put my arm around Mertsia’s shoulder.

“My fortress, my land, my woman, my sword.”

“A fierce man from Shatili,” she laughed and moved away. I tried not to show that I noticed, but every time I touched her, she trembled. I thought she was probably very sensitive.

I set the dagger on the bench. Something was holding me back, and I didn’t know what. I hadn’t experienced this kind of confusion since I was a child, and I couldn’t explain it. It was all because of that joy . . . that she had followed me . . . as if she had no idea . . . but, why, what reason did she have?  I thought if I’d had a Maggie with me, we’d probably have slept together already . . . but I couldn’t understand what was happening to me right now. When I’d entered the tower, I had felt desire immediately. But now I was simply feeling good (and it had been a while since I remember being in this kind of mood), but I wasn’t experiencing the physical desire I had earlier . . . When she went to the window and looked outside, I approached her from the back, wrapped my arms around her neck, and kissed her first on one cheek, then on the other. I should have figured out that my business was over. This kiss had a completely different flavor. I was kissing her without passion, with love, the way you caress children. She turned around, put her hands on my chest, and pushed me away. I put my hands on her cheeks again and barely touched her pursed lips. Then I moved my hands toward her earlobes, locked my fingers at the nape of her neck, and she shivered.

“Do you want me to make you happy?” I asked suddenly.

“Yes, I do.”

I threw down my nabadi. I put a sword by my head. I put a gun next to me, and stretched out on my back:

“Here, I’m dead. Bury me. You do like burying people, and digging graves, don’t you?” I put my hands on my chest and closed my eyes.

 

            A lion lay in the tower,

            No one was superior to him,

            By his head, a stallion was tied,

            Pawing the ground with his hooves

            To the left stood a spear, its tip

            Piercing the sky

            To the right lay a sword, its edge

            Was diamond-sharp

            At his side sat his mother, crying

            Over her child

            And at his head sat a woman, her

            Tears falling into the sea . . .

            

She spoke in a low voice. I didn’t open my eyes. Then she fell silent. I sensed her approaching me. She knelt down next to me on the nabadi. Her knees were touching my shoulder . . .  She bent and barely touched my lips, and then she kissed my closed eyes . . . as if a butterfly had landed on my eyelids. Then she ran her hand over my forehead and temples . . .  I was spent. She ran her hand over my cheek, paused on my shoulder . . . and gently squeezed it:

“Open them,” she told me quietly.

I didn’t move.

“Open your eyes,” she touched my eyelids, and lifted them.

I closed my eyes more tightly.

“Wake up, do you hear me, wake up!” Her voice became desperate. She bent down and pressed her cheek against my cheek.

“Aha! I caught you!”  I shouted and put my arms around her.

She startled. I looked in her eyes, and it was as if tears were shining there.

“Eh! She believed it so quickly! She got into the mourner’s role so suddenly!”

She laughed.

“What were you reciting, ’Wake up, do you hear me, wake up?’ Do you know that poem?”

“No,” and she became sad again.

“It’s a poem by Gabriel Jabushanuri. He was a Khevsur. Vazha is wild about him. I think they’re distant relatives. He drives us crazy at work. Every time he walks by, he hurls out a verse, and the whole department knows it by heart. He was in love with a woman, Nzekali. She died young, and he has some good poems about her. I saw Vazha earlier. He was pretty drunk, stopped me, and shouted out the poem. ’Wake up, do you hear, wake up, right now,’ and he was rolling his eyes like a bullock. Do you want me to recite the entire poem?” 

“Yes, I do.”

 

Even I was surprised I knew this poem by heart:

            Wake up, do you hear, wake up, right now,

            I’m coming to you, and

            You need to greet me, alert,

            I’ve looked for you so long,

            I’ve called for you so long,

            I’ve spent so much effort,

            And you didn’t respond

            I can’t be without you anymore

            I have so much to tell you,

            If you only knew,

            I think it will take ten years or more 

            Of conversation;

            Wake up, decorate the coffin,

            Call me to your side,

            There’s room enough for both of us.

            You do know, I have abandoned

            People and the world,

            The sorrows of

            Passion and loneliness are trampling me,

            Wake up, do you hear, wake up, now,

            Aren’t you longing to be 

            With me?

“And that’s how he recited it. ‘God damn you, get the hell away from me,’ I told him. ‘I can’t stand this mourning and these songs about death. I can’t stand talking about the dead and death at all!’ What’s happened to you? Are you actually sad? Come on! You do understand I don’t hate this kind of stuff for nothing. What nonsense. You aren’t crying, are you?”

“It’s a harrowing poem,” she said, and her eyes glazed over.

“Of course it’s harrowing!”

“It’s a very good poem . . . he’s an amazing man.” And she added: “I love dead people.”

“Come on. I finally got you in a better mood and this poem’s ruined everything.”

“No,” she said and knelt down. She put her hands around my shoulders and kissed me. It seemed as if she were kissing me with great sorrow, with heightened feeling; as if her happiness were bordering on crying; as if we had little time left, and we had to make sure we managed to do everything. I was surprised again. I thought it was probably because we were in Shatili. 

She was lying against my arm . . . I was holding her chin with my other hand, and kissing her slowly. I should have figured that I’d get into a strange situation: I wasn’t in a hurry to do anything. I wanted it to last like this, for a very long time . . .

She sat up . . .

Her dress had brown laces from her shoulders to her elbows. I slowly untied them. She was sitting and had her hands on my shoulders. First one arm was exposed, and then the other, and her dress slipped down and bunched up at her waist. I embraced her without looking at her. She was wearing nothing above her waist. That’s what I thought on the bus, too. I sensed that she was following and not following me at the same time. In the last second, she completely distanced herself from me. When everything was over, I embraced her again and tapped her on her back:  “You, child, seem like you need tuning up in this business.”

She didn’t say anything. That meant I was right. This made me tense.

“Do you have a child?”

She nodded.

“One?”

She nodded again, silently.

“How old?”

She covered her face with five open fingers.

“A husband?  Do you love your husband?”

She shook her head, no. Then she said:

“I don’t have one.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just that,” she shrugged her shoulders.

“Did he die?”

“Uhhn.”

“Are you divorced?

“Uhhn.”

I was quiet. Something cold and unpleasant came over me. I lit a cigarette. I lay down on my back, put my free hand under my head. I felt her looking at me a couple of times. I extended my arm and caressed her head.

“Who’s the child with now?”

“My mother and sister. She’s usually with them. They don’t trust me with her,” she smiled.

“What do you do?”

“I paint.”

“Did you love him?”

“I liked him . . . he loved me.”

“Why did you break up? Stop shrugging your shoulders.”

“I couldn’t be with him . . . I realized I wouldn’t fall in love with him . . .”

“Why did you have a child?”

“Didn’t I have the right to?” she asked me, her voice cracking: she was irritated. Then she softened and added: “I couldn’t get rid of it . . . I had it . . . I’ll probably never be able to get rid of her . . . I hate her . . .”

“So then, you’re going to have a child every time?”

She laughed. She shrugged her shoulders again.

“I don’t know, I don’t know a thing . . . I don’t think . . . what I can’t do, I can’t do. I don’t think . . . I can’t do a lot of things . . .”

“What’s the child’s name?”

“Elene.”

“Does she look like you?”

“I think so . . .”

We were quiet. I felt distressed.

“I can’t imagine you pregnant.”

“I couldn’t imagine it before, either,” she laughed sadly, and, in a way that was somehow equally sad, kissed my shoulder. “Do you know when I saw you for the first time?

“When?”

“Last fall. At the end of November. I was at your workplace. I needed a book for a buddy, and thought Ida would have it . . .”

“Is Ida your friend?”

“No. She’s my sister’s friend. My sister told me to go to Ida, that she’d have it. Ida told me, ‘I don’t have it. Someone here has it, but I can’t ask him,’ and she nodded in your direction. You were sitting on a table, leaning against the wall, and looking out the window. You were smoking a cigarette . . . I don’t know why she couldn’t ask you. ‘He has such sad eyes,’ I told Ida . . . ‘Sorrowful?’  She asked me, and then mumbled under her breath, ‘Sorrowful, my ass . . .’ ‘Is he married?’  I surprised myself when I asked her this. She looked at me and answered: ‘A wife, children . . . and all in all, there’s nothing missing in his life.’ I’ve been thinking about you often since then.”

“What book did you want?”  For some reason I was interested, and at the same time, I repeated Ida’s words in my heart. ‘There’s nothing he’s missing.’

“It’s a book by some German author. I think it’s about an underground water supply, if I’m not mistaken . . . about underground rivers. He apparently has very interesting ideas. I forgot the title. My friend was telling me about it.”

“Yes, I know. I have it. Who’s your friend?”

“A girl. Her last name is Bouleishvili and we call her ’Boulei.’ She’s curious about everything on earth and she talks about it in a way that makes you crazy about it, too. ‘The connection between water and the planets is a great mystery,’ she told me once. She’s copied and gathered everything that anyone has ever said about water in this world.  For a while I was painting water all the time, and she kept telling me it was brilliant…”

“Yes,” I said to myself, “Water is everything, the beginning of everything.”

“Thales shares the same opinion,” she laughed.

I laughed, too. Suddenly her expression froze, then she opened her mouth. She even sat up.

“Wow!”

“What?”

“Don’t they say that Thales discovered the Little Dipper?”

“Huh?”

“I remember. I read somewhere that they believe he gave it its name . . . it’s so strange.”

“What’s strange?”

She lay down on her back, with her face toward me.

“I discovered the Little Dipper,” I said, and hugged her. I lifted her hair and kissed her neck. “And you can leave water alone, trust me, it’s not worth making your head hot about the stars, there’s no time for that now . . .”

“Really, yes?” she whispered, “And what is it time for now?”

“For this.”

I kissed her.

“For minutes. You have to collect minutes, at least a few minutes, so you can take them with you as a souvenir . . . when you up and leave this world. How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven. You’re forty-two, right?” 

“How do you know?”

“I asked Ida.”

“Where were you last summer?” I remembered Ida. 

“At the seaside. But I got sick . . . I was in bed for a whole month, and then in the hospital . . .”

“What happened to you?”

“I don’t know . . . I had a fever, and was weak . . . and then it passed. When I came to your work, I’d just gotten out of the hospital a couple of weeks before . . .”

No, of course, I was already in love with her. Maybe I was already in love with her on the way here. I have no idea; I don’t understand anything. I think my heart sensed something right away, when I looked at her for the first time . . . and that’s why I avoided her. 

The translator thanks Lia Shartava for her help in translating this story.  

© Naira Gelashvili. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Mary Childs. All rights reserved.

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