Love in a Time of Dying
By Andrew Yuen
Right past Kaheti, the mountains of great temperate range, where all men learnt to ride on horseback: I lived further down south.
We lived in the old town, Father, Mother and I, and, in the mornings, Father would take the metro down past the city square where the statue of Narimanov stood, charcoal black and proud. That Narimanov that old men in cafes would speak of respectfully in hushed tones, of his courage standing up for the Soviets.
In the evenings, after work, Father would go to the old jazz bar, next to the old chess club with the picture of Kasparov, and listen to the beautiful Roya who had all the boys' eyes and rabbits' teeth, her mouth open like a secret invitation which made it all the more arousing as she swore - swearing right into the silence to punctuate the ends of long sets, when the club was quiet except for the clinks of silverware. Groaning out of wooden chairs, men stumbled home to their wives. We loved our jazz. Some called it nostalgic, or, more harshly, decadent. They, too, called Narimanov decadent. We loved our jazz like we loved him.
We were both so very young then. Then, everything was a prelude to violence. We had headed six hours out of town, to the valleys under the snow-tipped peaks of the Caucasus. Settling in the valley after the rain, we cleaned our rifles. The wet smell of gun metal forged onto oak stock reminded us of the freshly greased bikes we rode through the city in summer. Before love and yearning tangled our hearts and stole our naivety, simple things sustained us and made us whole. How we giggled like schoolgirls!, as we flipped through Father's English dictionary, pointing out vulgarities to each other. Later, we had brought the thick book, its spine curved open like a seagull, to Grandpa, and pointed at things for him to read aloud and mangle.
Before the Bolsheviks marched into the old town of Baku, folklore was passed on orally. A story passed from one generation to the next by mouth. Slowly, though, the tales were distorted by memory. Creatures in the ballads and myths took on the personalities of their human tellers: Trolls became as conniving and snide as the elders who channelled them; dwarves grew to be as hardworking as the Baku masons or miners who found employment in Borchali.
With the Bolsheviks came the ideological assault, the expunging of the old myth for new. The revolutionaries sponsored their own Totemic values of collective good and bondage to your fellow man. The town's creatures began to change. Trolls, once cunning but good-natured, twisted into pantomime villains - selfish, greedy and irredeemably evil. Their malicious schemes were thwarted by the dwarves, whose success lay in banding together. Stories morphed into propaganda, trumpeting the merits of mutual dependence. Such is truth.
War meant the possibility of being an extra hand, perhaps in battlements far from the city.
Summers no longer held our attention. We no longer bought wrapped candies from the shops, but cigarettes which we smoked while perched on our bicycles. We were bored. But not bored enough to do anything about it.
Mikhail and I would spend the afternoons cycling past the riverbank, past houses in which children planted candles in rows before dark. We would shadow traincars to the slopes overlooking the city, riding until it became too steep to do so. Then, we would push our bikes uphill, past slanted houses and asymmetrical red doors. At last, we would stop, facing the city spread beneath, studying its squares and twisted spires of buildings in the distance.
Sometimes, we would stop our bikes outside Parliament House and marvel at how imposing it looked. The many arched windows on its facade made the edifice seem porous. Like a thousand glass eyes glinting in the sun. Long enough, and you could see hurried movement in the windows; silhouettes flickering this way and that.
Mikhail was always hoping for a revolution of sorts. He had been orphaned at an early age. Every morning, he and other children sat in rows on the bus which passed through the wrought-iron gates of the orphanage and took them to school. On the way, they would pass a square, grey building; grass grew in unfettered clumps in front of it. The sight of that building would make him, inexplicably, feel like escaping from the bus and running away as far as he could. Years later, ironically, he would end up living in that grey building - an apartment block.
Just off the Alpine tundra, across northern slopes, we made camp between birch and pine.
We huddled together in terrified silence, formless men under heavy cloaks. Our rifles jutted out from beneath our cloaks to rest on our shoulders, or leaned on the trunks of nearby trees. On our way to the latrines, mud from the worn paths squished beneath our leather boots. The rations were running out. We shivered, from cold and fever.
The sickness came slowly, disguised as hunger. It slowly circled our bones, and made itself at home. It manifested as a relentless ache in the calves and feet. Miserable, we retreated within ourselves, our stony visages masking the delirium within. Perhaps, we were just afraid to seem vulnerable in the eyes of the others.
Later, moving along the mountain trails, our saddles clinked in unison. I thought of Father, and the many trips we took together when I was a child. I realised I had no one here to share this memory with. We rode on in silence; Father's visage accompanied me in my head - unsettling, painful. The problem with pain is that it is often vague in its terror, making one feel even lonelier.
Yet later, when we dismounted and made camp, we searched for something soft in our packs to rest our heads on. Our dreams were vivid and bittersweet - dreams being nothing more or less than a soul searching its own contours; contours carved deep and raw by life itself. We did not dare cry out to excise our pain. And so the night passed, and in the morning, the light cut through the trees, making long oblique shadows. Hunger replaced pain, for a while.
We managed to out-wait the Bolsheviks hidden at their posts.
They had ran out of rations, thrown down their weapons and emerged with hands raised above their heads. Eight of them.
Our point men called out and marched them down to us. There was a flurry of activity: our men jolted back to life, each desperate for a few minutes of action to distract themselves from the wretchedness of their conditions. Someone laid a hand on my shoulder and told me to fetch some hemp rope carried by one of our mules. I stood up, nauseous, and looked at the man who had given the instruction. Worry flickered across his face, but he said nothing and handed me a knife.
I made my way to the clearing where we kept the mules. The mules stood dumb and silent where we leashed them. I approached one grazing at the edge of the clearing and steadied my hand on the green pack it carried. I cut the rope lashing the pack to the mule and brought the pack down carefully. Then, picking up the rope, I returned to camp.
A few paces away from camp, someone called out to me: Hey! Move up the clearing to where Garegin is. The man gave me a cloth bag and told me to conceal the rope. I walked to where Garegin stood with his men in a line, holding three of the prisoners at gunpoint.
Tie their hands to the posts, ordered Garegin.
Even now, I remember the slip knots I used to bind them. I remember making the knots taut in the same way I would have tied a horse to a tree. One of the prisoners had ruddy, bruised hands. Dirt, blades of grass and tiny pebbles stuck to his palms. At the touch of my fingers on his wrists, he flinched.
Now, ask the guards to bring the other prisoners up, said Garegin to me. Go on.
My mouth was dry and sour with fear. I dared not speak. It felt as if all of us were actors in an old play or miming a ceremony - one in which some unspoken force has been unleashed, so that all men must obey. All that separated the condemned from the undamned were a few paces, green grass and nothing else. Yet, we had no choice but to conduct this fatal dance.
I turned to leave, and the trio of prisoners begin to cry, then wail. Their screams blended into a single shrill note, a terrible symphony of inhumanity, as they were stabbed. I kept walking. Walking.
I walked until all I could hear was my blood pulsing in my ears and the leaves rustling underfoot.
This is how we see what was once beautiful and pristine: in fleeting glimpses from the back of a truck, taking us to the next place we needed to fight in. Looted shophouses, their broken display windows filled with naked mannequins. Mundane things - a cooking pot here, a bowler hat there - tamped into the dirt. Cobblestones.
The young soldier in the truck with me let an empty bottle drop from his hand onto the street moving rapidly behind us. A casual, hopeless un-movement. The bottle shattered. A consequence remembered rather than witnessed - among rubble.
The soldier looked at me and shrugged.
What's one more bottle, he said. What's one more man.
Andrew Yuen was born in Singapore on 30 December, 1991. From an early age, he would steal books from his father's bookshelf to read. A dilettante by nature, Andrew has dabbled in photography and public speaking. He is a qualified accountant. His interest in writing started when he was given a vintage typewriter. He now write stories about human nature, alienation, chance, life and the struggle with meaning.