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

Meskhi vs. Meskhi

The human embryo has a special status because of its potential for development to a stage at which everyone would accord it the status of a human person.

—The Warnock Committee (U.K.), Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology, 1984

 

Children born by artificial insemination will also be problematic, for their lives have developed as a result of the destruction of numerous embryos.

—Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia, Christmas Epistle, January 2014
 


Listen to Teona Dolenjashvili read "Meskhi vs. Meskhi" in the original Georgian


Marika dreamed the dream only a few times, but it always seemed to coincide with the most important periods of her life, and eventually it became for her a special sign, an intermezzo punctuating her existence. She would only become aware of this much later, however—after the first time, all she is left with are a few dreamlike images and a strange mood that follows her around for a few weeks, hanging in the air like a child’s swing rocking back and forth between sleep and the reality of the day.

The first time Marika has the dream, she is married and full of renewed hope. She is sitting beside Irakli in the car, and they are making their way hurriedly toward Mtskheta. It is a few days before Christmas, and Saint Gabriel has appeared in a dream to an elderly nun called Mother Paraskeva, promising that anyone who visits his grave before Christmas will be granted three wishes. And so, one more story begins with a dream. In this case, though, not exactly a dream, but a vision; a vision that has sent almost the entire country on a frenzied dash to Mtskheta, with the result that the narrow road from Tbilisi to the ancient royal capital is now clogged with a long line of cars filled with worshippers and dreamers.

Irakli and Marika, in their black Land Cruiser Prado, are part of the caravan. It’s been eight years since they started trying for a baby, and they have taken the nun’s dream as a sign that the Pool of Siloam has received its yearly visit from an angel of God. It is said that when the angel comes down and disturbs the waters in the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, those who bathe in it will be blessed with fertility.

They were among the first to leave Tbilisi, but it’s now the fourth day since their exodus from the city began, and they are still on the outskirts of Mtskheta. What’s more, nobody seems to know how many more days they will be stuck there. They crawl along the road at tortoise speed, buying food from roadside restaurants, wiping down their bodies with dampened handkerchiefs, and changing their clothes in the back seats of the car. An unending line of jeeps and sedans stretches out before and behind them. The wind is bitingly cold, and it occurs to Marika that they are like characters in Cortazar’s story “The Southern Thruway.”

When night falls, the curious dream comes to her. In the dream, she exists in another space and time. She sees a long, desolate road, illuminated by moonlight yet unfamiliar to her. A group of lepers and invalids is walking along the road, swathed in black cloaks. She realizes she is one of them: a beggar close to death. The dream is eerily silent, as if the sound blasting out from an ultrasensitive Dolby speaker system in a movie theater had suddenly been cut off. The wretched battalion plods slowly onward, heads bowed. All Marika can see are the soles of the feet of those walking directly in front of her. At the end of the road stands a cattle shed. She hears a disembodied voice shouting an order to enter, and she steps inside with the others. In the cattle barn there is a manger, and in the manger lies Christ the healer. He has the soft, gentle face of a child, and with a smile, he lays his hands on the head of each of them in turn, curing them of their ills.

When she opens her eyes, the highway really is illuminated by the light of the moon, although the silence is broken by the whistling of the cold December wind and the sirens of police cars on patrol. Marika’s neck hurts from sleeping awkwardly in the car. Images from the dream linger, preventing her from making a complete return to reality. For a moment or two, she stares vacantly at the line of cars packing the narrow moonlit road ahead of her. Then she shakes Irakli awake and tells him about her dream. She tells him she has seen Jesus. She tells him she’s sure it’s a sign that if only they can reach Saint Gabriel’s grave, they will for certain be blessed with a child. Irakli, exhausted from lack of sleep, nods his head, turns over, and mutters something unintelligible. He has never looked less like a potential father. 

Marika doesn’t have to wait long for the first part of her premonition to come true. The very same day, Irakli spots an old classmate of his, Father Vasili (or Vaska, as he was known before his ordination). Vaska has a set of keys to the locked cemetery, and he opens it up and lets them sneak inside in the middle of the night. Unlike everyone else, Marika has the grave to herself for the entire night. She is completely alone. She feels special. She lies down on the grave, flat on her stomach, plants her face in the soil, and listens to her heart—or maybe it is Saint Gabriel’s heart—beating through the warm earth. It’s cold. Freezing cold. The big silver moon shines down on her head. There is magic in the night air, and Marika thinks she feels—no, she knows she feels—Saint Gabriel’s immaculate hand rising up from the grave and stroking her frozen fingers.
 

***

A long time passed after the night Saint Gabriel held Marika’s cold fingers, weakened body, and wavering soul in his hand, but the second part of her premonition never did come true. And the reason for that, in Marika’s opinion, was Irakli’s lack of patience, or more accurately, his lack of faith. Their long-awaited child had yet to make its appearance on Earth, and now no one knew if it ever would. After their divorce, Marika and Irakli were left with an embryo they had had fertilized in vitro and preserved in a test tube. It was the mother’s fervent wish that this embryo would one day become a living being; the father’s that it would never see the light of day. The decision was to be made by the court.
 

Marika

Marika opens the curtains to reveal a panorama of the city, long since wide awake. The uneven mass of apartment blocks, all with different numbers of floors, the original lie of the land underneath, and the old quarter, spread out like an amphitheater around the Tbilisi Basin, give the city a muddled appearance, as if it had lost its way at some point in the flow of time. It is a bright, warm September afternoon. Some of the city’s residents have yet to return from their vacations, while others are still being carried along by the light, carefree buoyancy of the summer just gone.

Someone on the floor above is trying to make her way to the end of Bach’s concert variations for piano. Marika’s neighbor, whom she has never actually set eyes on, gives private piano lessons to pupils from the music school from around one in the afternoon, and this is the time when Marika starts her day. Unskilled hands crashing down on piano keys and classical pieces full of mistakes have become her alarm clock, and they work every time. She opens her eyes, sits up, pulls up her knees until her feet are flat on the divan, and stares at the walls of the room absentmindedly, reluctant to leave the other world. The walls are white and completely bare except for a single photograph of Marika standing on a veranda, her elbows resting on a wooden railing. She’s wearing a short, flowery dress, her hair is down, and she’s laughing. High mountains form the landscape behind her. The shot has been set up so that her full body is visible against the backdrop. She isn’t shaded by the background, and you can even see the tops of the mountains. In short, it’s a successful photo,s all the more so since it was taken by Irakli rather than a professional photographer. Irakli is on the other side of the lens, the invisible string puller. If he hadn’t been there, the photo wouldn’t exist. It wouldn’t be hanging there on the wall, and Marika would probably be a completely different person than the one she has turned out to be. This snapshot of Marika’s past, and Marika herself in that space and time, smiling and happy, are Irakli’s creations.

The photo is also an accurate representation of Marika’s current state, for Irakli, the creator of her past, continues to govern her everyday life behind the scenes. The spot on the wall where the photo hangs is constantly in Marika’s line of sight, and every single time she catches a glimpse of it, she feels a twinge in her heart. It’s like a kind of self-consciousness, a constant awareness of something heavy and immutable, as if someone were whispering, “He left you, remember?” and “Don’t forget how unhappy you are!” over and over in her ear as a sort of personal memento mori.

“I’m so unhappy,” thinks Marika as she walks into the kitchen and puts the kettle on the stove. She pours some coffee into a cup, takes some cheese out of the refrigerator, and chews indifferently on a croissant she has warmed up in the oven. Her cat jumps onto the table out of nowhere and peers into the fridge.

After she separated from Irakli, Marika went out and bought herself an American Keuda kitten, and because the kitten immediately reminded her of Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, Bastet is what she called her.

Irakli hated pets. He thought they made their owners look like those childless couples who, resigned to their fate, substitute an animal for a human child and expend all the parental warmth they’ve stored up over the years on some primitive creature with pointy ears instead. Poor Bastet ended up on the receiving end of not only Marika’s stored-up tenderness, but also the whole drama of the divorce and its aftermath. It was Bastet who looked on with sympathetic eyes as her new owner sobbed for hours and Bastet who purred soothingly while licking away Marika’s hot tears from her wet fur.

The musical theme coming from the floor above has changed, and the melancholy Chopin melody being played now is like a river of viscous bile that quenches fiery passions and washes them downstream, soothing troubled hearts as it flows along by coating them in sticky resin. And yet the thought that occurs to Marika as she stands under the shower, namely that sooner or later all this will pass and become meaningless, brings her sadness rather than relief. How depressing it is that in the final game of love even hatred dies, leaving the players numbed, with nothing left to do but doze away the days in a soft, indistinct fog of unhappiness. And that’s when the forgetting begins. But Marika doesn’t want to forget. She doesn’t want to relegate Irakli to the past and wait for someone new. How could she ever be with someone else, someone strange and unfamiliar, when for as long as she can remember she has been with Irakli? When she has sacrificed so many years to her love for him. When their child already exists, fertilized in a test tube and frozen indefinitely at the preembryonic stage, a zygotic string of genetic code, in which sex, eye color, skin tone, hair color, facial structure, body shape, susceptibility to disease and even temperament are already set in stone. A tiny microchip storing a wealth of information. A life that came into being with Irakli’s participation and is now duty-bound to be born to save his and Marika’s love from being forgotten and vanishing without trace.

As Marika dries herself, she looks at the brightly colored decoration on the bathroom wall, carefully arranged to imitate the aesthetic of a Klimt painting. She and Irakli chose the decor together in a pretentious interior design shop where everything was supposedly laid out on the principle of coexistence between everyday life and art. The shop owner was dressed up like the curator of a gallery, and the salesgirl chatted as if she were a lecturer in the faculty of art history at some famous academy. In an obvious attempt to attract the nouveau riche, the product manufacturers had selected only the most famous works of art, the culmination of which was perhaps a toilet bowl decorated with Van Gogh’s sunflowers. That was the moment when Marika finally understood the true meaning of the slogan “Art for the Masses”: the freedom to make feces look refined by painting toilet bowls beautiful colors. After all, what could be more human than art that prettifies the banal process of defecation?

Irakli didn’t like the toilets. He didn’t think much of the bathtubs adorned with Chagall’s flying lovers either, and he barely glanced at the Picasso-style cubist mirrors and window glazing. The only thing he wanted was Klimt: still colorful, but not quite as brash as everything else, and much more suitable for everyday use. It was without doubt the most sensible choice.

A tune with a quick tempo is being played on the piano now. Marika doesn’t know who the composer is. It might even be an etude. The performer loses the rhythm, stops the melody somewhere in the middle, and goes back to the start. Another wrong note is followed by a short pause and then a renewed attempt at creating harmony. 

Bastet has licked her plate clean and is sitting on the windowsill. The sound of the clock ticking in the living room reminds Marika that she is due to meet her lawyer in an hour. She pulls out a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt—practically the first things she lays her hands on—from her wardrobe, laces up her white canvas shoes, combs her tangled hair, and stares in the mirror at her face, with its baleful eyes and sunken cheeks, as if it belonged to someone else. Her clothes make her look like a little girl, but appearances can be deceiving, for her body has already started to decay and die. As if it weren’t bad enough that her womb is incapable of carrying an embryo to term, her cells are now gradually producing less and less estrogen. She’s already thirty-eight years old. Menopause may still be relatively far off, but her reproductive years are nearly over. She has four or five left if she’s lucky. Falling in love again (if such a thing is even possible) takes much longer than that.
 

Irakli

Irakli is sitting in the foyer of the fertility clinic and writing a petition.

Petition by citizen Irakli Meskhi . . .

Lying on the table in front of him is a pile of application forms that people fill in to request the assistance of the clinic in passing on their genes to the next generation. He filled in one of those forms a while ago, but now he wants the clinic to disregard his previous request and put a stop to the whole process.

In front of him are a sheet of paper and a cardboard cup full of coffee. Behind him stands a row of giant fridges filled with frozen prezygotic embryos in test tubes. Human lives, some destined for birth, some not. Irakli thinks it’s a bit similar to being in a morgue full of dead bodies. Some destined for heaven, some not.

It’s utterly banal and utterly absurd at the same time. Humans are primates lost in an anthropological maze, who have been given an impenetrable genetic jungle to find their way through in place of the right to determine their own desires. A couple of hours in this large-scale industrial womb is more than enough to convince Irakli of that. Take this lesbian couple here, for instance, who have just walked in together with their surrogate: if their attempt at in vivo fertilization ends in success, three women, one man, and a test tube will have played roles in the creation of the child born in nine months’ time. And what about this widow here, face racked with grief, deliberating with the doctors on a preferred date for the birth of a zygote she has created using one of her eggs and her dead husband’s sperm and entrusted to the care of the laboratory to be stored in liquid nitrogen and frozen to minus one hundred and ninety-six degrees?  If that zygote turns into a baby, it will have been created with assistance from the next world, no less.

Irakli feels sick. He wants to get out of this place as fast as he can and forget it even exists. Come to think of it, how the hell did he end up here in the first place? What on earth was he thinking, giving in to Marika’s nagging and willingly handing over his blood, sperm, and genes to this madhouse? He’s already convinced any child born by this method could never turn out normal. It would lack an eternal soul, like a creature created by a different god. Instead, it would have a plastic heart, and the ice-cold stare of a glass-eyed doll.

I hereby request that the embryo created through in vitro fertilization by myself, Irakli Meskhi, and my former spouse, Marika Meskhi, on June 30 of last year be removed from cryopreservation and . . .

He signs his petition and waits for the doctor. He still has a few questions. For example: has a surrogate already been appointed? If he wins the court case, how long will it take for the verdict to be put into effect? Will all the embryos be destroyed without exception, leaving no chance for the plaintiff to come up with some ruse and use his sperm to produce a child somehow or other somewhere down the line?

Irakli already has a real child. It is in Tatia’s belly, and more and more often these days, Irakli can feel it kicking as it pushes against the walls of its mother’s womb, saying hello to its daddy. It’s a miracle he has waited a long time for. It is his legacy—confirmation that he will live forever.

“There’s nothing more important in life than the desire for self-preservation,” thinks Irakli. “That’s what makes people fall in love with each other—the need to produce descendants. If not that, then what else?” Irakli recalls Schopenhauer and his Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes, and how it’s all just pure egoism—the meditation of the genius of the species on the individual who is made possible only through this man and this woman.

Anyway, Schopenhauer put it much better himself . . .

There is something quite peculiar in the profound unconscious seriousness with which two young persons of opposite sex who see each other for the first time regard each other, in the searching and penetrating glance they cast at one another, in the careful review which all the features and parts of their respective persons have to endure. In the meeting and fixing of their longing glances there appears the first germ of the new being, the individual striving with the greatest vehemence to enter the phenomenal world.

That’s exactly how it was for Irakli too: a meeting and fixing of longing glances on that beautiful evening when he first met Tatia. He remembers every detail of that day: it was August, Gega’s birthday. He was on his own, without Marika. Tatia arrived with her girlfriends. She sat on the other side of the table, directly opposite him. She smiled at him, running her fingers through her hair. She was perfect for him: ten years his junior, large breasts, smooth skin, healthy-looking white teeth, healthy-looking all over, in fact.

“A Gurian pear so ripe it would burst on a rock,” Irakli thought, remembering the line from Lebanidze’s poem as he led Tatia to dance and touched the soft flesh of her waist for the first time. A pair of wide, rounded hips curved out below her waist, and her golden hair (dyed, but so what?) tumbled down over her shoulders. She was a real goddess of fertility, and sure enough, in the glances they exchanged appeared the first germ of a new being, an individual possible only through this man and this woman.

Their relationship progressed easily. Marika didn’t suspect a thing. Irakli messaged Tatia whenever he felt like it. They spoke on the phone, went to the cinema, and spent evenings together. Every time Irakli laid eyes on her, his whole body tensed as the age-old alchemy set to work and large doses of endorphin and cortisol flooded his brain, rendering him momentarily speechless and thoughtless. Which was all as it should have been, of course, for what was growing between them was precisely that yearning for each other—that magnetic attraction—that was required by the future individual they were destined to create.

Had it been like that with Marika too? Irakli can’t even remember anymore. When they got married, they were practically kids. It all happened according to ritual: getting to know each other, meeting the parents, meeting the wider family, getting engaged, the wedding day, decorating the apartment, buying a car, visiting friends, days and nights, nights and days, one blending into the next. And no child. No new life, nothing to disturb the quiet and not much else to enliven their stagnant routine. He was comfortable with Marika, but he found her boring—she would never throw even a single pebble into the tranquil waters of their everyday life to break the surface, speed up the flow, and just occasionally generate a little turbulence in the mundane course of their existence. Tatia, on the other hand, was playful, restless, lively, emotional—cheerful half the time and sullen the other half. Her mood rose and fell like her chest when she was agitated and changed as quickly as the weather in March. Cloudy, stormy conditions would make him scared he was going to lose her, but that would only drive her into an even greater rage. Sunny days would inflame new passions in him, making him feel dizzy and drunk. When he was with Tatia, it was impossible to forecast what was going to happen. Nothing was clear. Nothing was obvious.

In bed, meanwhile, she was passionate, hot, wet, and lustful.

It wasn’t long before they found themselves in bed, although to Irakli it felt like an age between that evening in August when he had first caught glimpses of her suntanned body and the September night when he was finally allowed to view it in its entirety and put it to the test, taking her breasts between his hands and making her moan in several keys. He told Marika he was going drinking with the guys that night, and he was telling the truth, but Tatia and her girlfriends were there in the club too. They drank and danced, danced and drank, and Irakli felt like his entire body was about to explode, so intense was his desire for this woman. As he watched Tatia dance, he started to suspect all the other guys of wanting her as much as he did, so they left the club early. He walked her to her apartment block and then walked her upstairs to her door, and then she just happened to mention that there was no one else home.

They went in. Tatia poured glasses of wine. Irakli kissed her. Then he took off her bra, revealing her spectacular naked body. Irakli had lived with Marika for so many years he had no idea when she had last had an orgasm, or if she’d ever had one at all, for that matter. With Tatia, everything was different: her orgasms were as resonant as a nuclear explosion, as prolonged as the rainy season in Macondo, and as recurrent as the lives of a calico cat.

Marika had still been intact, but not Tatia. Irakli would never have countenanced falling in a love with a woman who was no longer a virgin, but Tatia told him it had broken during a minor surgical procedure she’d undergone as a teenager and explained that her mother had witnessed the whole thing and obtained written confirmation from the doctor. Irakli still had his doubts—he wasn’t stupid—but it’s much easier to believe what you want to believe than to betray your own principles or change long-held opinions.

Irakli looked over the written confirmation before they were married. It had been issued by a clinic in the provincial town where Tatia was born and grew up. Irakli could have gone to look for the clinic, if indeed it did exist, and even the doctor himself, despite the illegible signature on the certificate, but he wasn’t the type of man to stoop to such underhandedness. And besides, if Tatia had really wanted to deceive Irakli, she could simply have had her hymen sewn back up, but Tatia wasn’t the type of woman to stoop to such underhandedness either.

And so he was her first. He was the sculptor, the creator of her femininity and her sexuality, and under his direction, her body blossomed, opened up, and prepared itself for motherhood. It was only a few months later when she uttered those two magic words to him: “I’m pregnant.”

Tatia said the words as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. More precisely, she called them out from the toilet as she looked down at the strip included in the test kit and saw the two red lines confirming her pregnancy. When Irakli had still been with Marika, she had always been going on about how she thought she might be pregnant, and they would often go out to buy a pregnancy test and then sit together, waiting with their hearts in their mouths for the result, but the appearance of those two red lines was a miracle was never bestowed on them. Tatia, on the other hand, didn’t say anything about her suspicions, or when she’d bought the kit, or how she knew what to do with it . . . And then she announced the result as if it were nothing special, so nonchalantly that at first Irakli couldn’t believe that this great event—for which two mortals, Cupid, and all the gods in the universe had put in so much effort—had actually come to pass.

He was the happiest man in the world. He finally understood what it meant to be in seventh heaven. He wanted to let the entire world know that he was going to be a father, that soon his child would be born, his own child, with his genes and his surname and his facial features.

He left Marika as soon as he found out. It wasn’t easy—there were tears, fainting spells, histrionics . . . It was tough for him to get through those days, but he would have endured anything to have his pregnant Tatia by his side.

He and Marika divided up their assets fifty-fifty. He left the big apartment to Marika, and because the idea of a holiday home was especially attractive to a couple expecting a child, he kept the dacha for himself, along with a smaller apartment they also owned. The only thing they couldn’t sort out was the embryo they had created together. It never occurred to Irakli even for a moment that the procedure he had undergone for Marika’s sake—and to finally put an end to her constant whining—was also a future life, not just a mixture of sperm and eggs to be forgotten about whenever he felt like it.

On this issue, though, Marika was cold and insistent: she refused point blank to have the embryo defrosted. Nothing worked, neither entreaties nor threats. His attempt to pay her off also ended in failure. By nature, Marika had always been gentle and submissive, but now she turned into a real demon, replete with tail and horns. Irakli came to hate Marika and their shared past. He didn’t want to have to worry about whether a child of his was being brought up right under his nose, in the same city, and in the end, feeling he had no other choice, he decided to take the matter to court.

And now here he is, writing a second petition, this time to prohibit implantation of the embryo in the womb of a surrogate mother. He is in the camp that does not regard an embryo as a life. And anyway, it’s not even a proper embryo yet; until it sprouts hands and feet and sparks into life, it will remain nothing but a simple ruse, just one more experiment in a modern-day anthropological laboratory.

It’s getting dark now, but it’s still hot. There is no breeze to rustle the leaves on the poplars and spruces in the garden of the clinic. Irakli raises his head and looks out through the window. Beams of light from the lamps in the garden shine on the panes of glass, flickering on and off like fireflies, like unknown souls of the future on tracks of DNA. Soon the doctor will come back and take his petition from him. Irakli hopes they will accept this petition as quickly as they did the first one, so that he can be forever free of this place and the nightmares created here.
 

Marika

Marika is sitting in a café with two friends after meeting with her lawyer. Of her two girlfriends, one is married with kids, the other in love and happy, but they have arranged their faces into sad expressions in sympathy with Marika’s plight. She needs her friends now more than ever. Over dinner, they analyzed in excruciating detail the multifarious dimensions of Irakli’s contemptibility and Tatia’s sluttiness, but Marika isn’t interested in that. She doesn’t feel the need to insult and vilify her ex-husband and his new wife, and that wouldn’t bring her any comfort. All she wants is to secure her future, and for that, the support she needs from her friends right now is of the intellectual kind. She tells them all about her meeting with her lawyer and asks them how they think she should act in the courtroom, what she should say and what she shouldn’t say, but her girlfriends don’t really know how to reply. The only thing they know how to do is talk. They talk constantly, endlessly, and yet they never say the words Marika needs to hear.

“The most important thing to think about is what to do with the surrogate,” says Marika. “As well as the fee for the pregnancy itself, I’ll have to support her financially. She’ll need high-quality nutrition. Medical care. There’s no way I can do it on my salary, so I’m thinking I’m either going to sell the apartment and buy a smaller one or move in with my mom and rent the apartment out. That way, my mom can help with the baby, too.”

“Are you crazy? Don’t sell your apartment! You don’t really want to move in with your mom, do you?” asks Natalia, lighting a cigarette.

“I don’t know . . .”

“Yes you do. You know it would drive you nuts. And how would it help? Your brother’s there all the time with his wife and kids. I don’t think they’ll be very pleased to hear you’re moving back in.”

“And on top of everything else, you’ll have the surrogate with you! There’s no way Lasha will stand for that. He must have been furious when he heard about the whole thing.”

“Yeah, well, my brother has never understood me. Even less so now . . .”

“And does this surrogate woman really have to live with you?”

“It depends on the terms of the contract.”

“Anyway, surrogacy is completely weird,” says Sopo irritably. “How could you carry someone else’s child in your own stomach?”

“I know!” shouts Natalia in agreement. “How could you carry a child for nine months and then just hand it over, like a business transaction?”

“I’m sure it’s not easy, but it’s a very noble thing to do,” says Marika, trying to defend surrogacy. “It’s like taking someone else’s child into your home and giving them shelter. Looking after them and feeding them.”

“But they must start having maternal feeling toward the child at some point, though. After all, it’s living inside them.”

“The surrogate is just the vessel. Nothing more.”

“Oh, come on, Marika,” says Sopo, unable to conceal her exasperation. “I’ve been through pregnancy and I know all about it. You’re not just a ‘vessel.’ The child lives inside you. You are one and the same body. The surrogate’s genes might even get mixed up with the child’s. You better make sure you find out who she is and where she comes from.”

“Genetics has got nothing to do with it. All that happens is the embryo develops and grows in the woman’s womb until it’s ready to be born.”

“Why don’t you have another try yourself? One or two failures don’t mean anything. I know women who kept on going even after five or ten rounds, and eventually one of the embryos stuck.”

“The doctor said there’s no chance,” says Marika sadly.

The girls fall silent. And in the silence, they switch allegiance from Marika to Irakli. Compassion for Marika can still be heard through the silence, but only compassion, nothing more. Natalia and Sopo, like everyone else in the entire world, it seems, are supporters of “correct, decent, and natural” methods, and not the perversion of the natural order that Marika desires.

Messages arrive on phones, one from Sopo’s babysitter and one from Natalia’s boyfriend, and the girls excuse themselves, leaving Marika alone. She orders a coffee and observes a group of elderly ladies sitting at the table in front of her. It looks like the usual type of get-together. They probably started with a stroll in the park, and now they’ve come to the cafe for ice cream and cakes. They clear their plates wordlessly, gobbling down their cream cakes bite by bite and swallowing their soft, white ice creams with silver spoons. They jealously guard their desserts like children, prolonging these rare moments of pleasure with hedonistic zeal. Even if nothing is yet seriously wrong with them, they are old enough to be troubled by insomnia, colitis, weakness of the joints, and high blood pressure, at the very least. As compensation, they receive a tiny pension, comprehensive health insurance, and the false compassion of their younger fellow citizens . . . But what does it matter, anyway? In this country, being young and getting old are as miserable as each other—the only difference between them is the order they come in. First your parents care for you, then you care for them, and to make sure you don’t break the chain, to keep the cycle going, you must have a child. A child whom you will raise and who will be obliged in turn to repay the debt it owes you.

Marika recalls her most recent conversation with her mother. After that conversation, Marika realized her mother was ashamed of her. She didn’t reproach Marika, but Marika could tell she was hurt that things have turned out this way; that her daughter will not be able to repay her debt and complete the mission for which she was born.

“That’s the whole point of being a woman, isn’t it?” she asked, sounding almost heartbroken. “Why did it have to happen to you?”

They were sitting in the kitchen. Marika was drinking tea while her mother prepared dinner. A pie her mother had just baked was resting on a large, oval plate, still warm, filling the air with the scent of apples and cinnamon. Her mother’s sorrow—her lamentations to God and fate for making her daughter the weak link in a previously unbreakable genealogical chain, a defective link that has been poorly forged, a girl molded with too little fire and steel—was as much a part of her love for her child as the pie.

They really did have an impressively strong genealogical chain, which was not only made up of vague, dust-covered memories of ancestors’ names, half-remembered by Marika’s parents at random intervals, but also concrete visual proof that Marika had seen with her own eyes. In her grandfather’s large house, on a wall in a reception room on the second floor, was a drawing of her family tree, with numerous branches, boughs and twigs climbing all the way up to the nineteenth century. As a child, Marika would sit for hours under the tree, flitting through the shadows of the past . . .

She reads that Nikoloz had two children: Mikheil and Natalia; and Mikheil three: Margalita, Markoz, and Davit. Markoz became a monk, so his branch is short, but Davit produced five descendants, two girls and three boys. Of the patrimonial lines belonging to the three boys, Mikheil, Konstantine (that must be the Kostya she has heard so much about!), and Andria, only Kostya’s and Andria’s offspring are listed, the reason being that Mikheil’s wife Elizabed only gave birth to girls. Marika’s fingers wander between the branches to the start of the twentieth century. Plague, typhoid, famine, child mortality . . . Many of the branches on this part of the tree are leafless and bare. Marika tries hard not to overcomplicate things and lose track of her own direct line, and before long she finds her great-grandmother Agrapina, who bore her great-grandfather seven children. This must have been around the time of the Great Terror in 1937, for here the tree becomes noticeably thinner and the names of those who were exiled or shot have been written in faint pencil marks, although some unknown surviving family member has come along later and filled in the names thickly with a pen. Then it’s the Second World War, and here too, many branches have been chopped off midway. Lower down, some of the names are people Marika remembers. At last, the line reaches Marika’s own little life, and at this point, Marika, stupefied after coming all the way through this enormous genetic mystery in which she is so intimately involved, starts again from herself and works her way back up. Now she gives the names faces, clothes, voices and mannerisms. She imagines their lives, loves, and deaths, creating individual stories for each of them. It feels like resurrecting the souls of the dead, calling them up from their long-since-sealed coffins. And here they come! Some are skeletons, some have turned to dust, and some have no form at all, but still they come, each of them whispering the names of their children.

It is no surprise that among the multitudes of whisperers in this mass séance, Marika hears only male voices, for this is a patrilineal family tree on which daughters are listed only by their first names. It’s as if they never even existed, as if they were worthy of note only until they were baptized, and the moment that was over, they were hidden away with their chastity and purity, the barely audible swish of their long skirts and the veils covering their faces, and left to be forgotten. In this country, only men continue the family line. Only they have the right to bring forth new people and new eras.

Perhaps that was why later, after Marika had grown up, she began to think the gigantic patrimonial family tree resembled a giant phallus, a towering, erect phallus, hard as an oak, that has impregnated two centuries’ worth of women. The primary creative force, whose spermatozoa, shooting out by the billion, dropping like the leaves of the tree and scattering over the ground, have sired an entire family, an entire clan, the whole of mankind.

“And why you?” asks Marika’s mother repeatedly, sounding almost heartbroken as she sorts through a bowl of raw peas. Marika understands why her mother is so sad. A defective, faulty child reflects equally as badly on the mother, after all. It was probably a problem with her mother’s genes and chromosomes that caused the whole thing in the first place. Even so, she wishes she would shut up. Doesn’t she realize it’s just like those peas she’s sorting through? Most of them have smooth skins, but some have a dominant gene that has made them wrinkly and ugly. And yet her mother won’t shut up.

“Salome’s expecting her third. The Patriarch is going to be the godfather, but they’re in a hurry because he’s not well,” she says, pouring the peas into a pan of boiling water.

Who’s not well?” asks Marika, confused.

“The Patriarch. He baptizes all third-born children, didn’t you know? They really want to make it in time so they can have a child baptized by the Patriarch too.”

“What do you mean, make it in time? They’re worried he’s going to die before he baptizes their kid?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“What’s Jesus Christ got to do with it?” Now it’s her mother’s turn to be confused.

“Nothing, nothing at all,” Marika says quietly and then falls silent. She doesn’t bother pointing out that her mother’s tale has far less to do with the love of Christ than egocentric crowd-following. Her mother continues talking, mostly in half-muttered tones, and Marika can’t really blame her. Pregnant women and newborn babies are tantalizing topics for her, and she loves talking about them more than anything else. An endless stream of words pours out of her mouth, but all the while there are only two words written on her face.

“Why you?”
 

© Teona Dolenjashvili. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Philip Price. All rights reserved.  

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