|Oct/Nov 2013 Spotlight|
In the days after we settle into our apartment on Araqishvili Street, Alan, sleeping on a sheet draped over a red velvet sofa in his makeshift bedroom, finds himself waking every morning to the faint sound of jazz piano. If you're near a window it seems to come from outside, but from the middle of the windowless dining room it's clear that the piano is right overhead. Alan sings along with Oscar Peterson's version of Summertime as he makes breakfast. Even though my interest in jazz is nil, I can tell that the guy upstairs is good. The swing comes through the ceiling along with the thump of the pedal.
The invisible pianist slaps the keys in a few places to clear the air, then starts a new piece. Alan looks up from the stove and smiles. "Dave Brubeck, Blue Rondo á la Turque. Tasty. And you know what else? His piano is in tune! Our upstairs neighbor has the only in-tune piano in all of Georgia!" It's true. To a musical ear, one painful consequence of the post-Soviet collapse of the Georgian economy is that pianos everywhere have slid, then fallen, then plunged out of tune. No one can afford to pay a tuner, so the tuners now do other, more necessary work, like selling cigarettes on street corners. It seems to be universal; even the piano the Rustavi Ensemble uses in its rehearsal room sounds like a honky-tonk after the shootout. But the piano upstairs is right on.
A week or so later, I come back from an early evening photographic stroll around Tbilisi, trying to catch the Old Town's ornate wooden balconies at sunset, and find a short note on the dining room table:
Gone upstairs to visit the piano player. Come join me.—A.
Carl returns from his own wanderings at about the same time, and together we go upstairs and knock. The door is opened by a slim, well-dressed, red-haired man in his forties, quite drunk. "Aha!" he shouts in strongly accented English, "the friends of Alan!" We find Alan curled up in an easy chair in the living room, able to smile broadly but not do much more.
Alan has been here a couple of hours already. When he first showed up at the door, he and our host, Tengiz, established their bona fides by running through some jazz duets together. After the roaring success of Summertime, and the revelation that Alan lives in Toronto, home of "my teacher, Oskar Petersoni," Tengiz brought out a bottle of chacha—homemade brandy from the village, double- or triple-distilled from grape skins.
At the mention of the word "chacha" in Alan's slurred report on the evening so far, I glance with alarm at the table and am relieved to see that I got here just in time: the bottle has only one round left in it. That's good for me but bad for Alan: half the bottle is already inside him. Worse yet, Tengiz's wife and five-year-old daughter are away visiting relatives in western Georgia, so there is nothing to eat in the house. For the last two hours Tengiz and Alan have been eating walnuts and cheese puffs. The coffee table is heaped with broken shells, and the only thing left from a large bag of cheese puffs is the bright orange powdery residue on their fingers.
One glance at Alan is enough to make clear that if the three of us are going to do what we do best (and what a Georgian drinking party requires), we'd better sing a song fast, while Alan can still help. As we sing—a simple Mravalzhamier, whose entire text means Long life, long life, good health to you—Tengiz's eyes widen further and further. These are not just three Americans who know a common Georgian song, these are The American Singers from TV! Fortunately, he doesn't spoil the fun by turning respectful. Instead he starts laughing and can't stop: the idea that three media babies have been living downstairs from him all these weeks and are now sitting around his coffee table singing, and one them is about to pass out!
Tengiz is a physicist. Academic life in Georgia having been turned upside down along with everything else in the last few years, he now teaches physics at four different technical institutes, scrambling for any work he can find. Serious research is impossible: there is no money for equipment, no money for travel to conferences, no money even for journal subscriptions. So Tengiz has gone back to his first love, jazz piano. He tells us he learned English listening to Willis Conover, the host of a jazz program on Voice of America.
At this point Alan wakes up, turns green, and mutters between clenched teeth, "Take me home." As Carl and I maneuver Alan down the stairs, Tengiz, standing at his doorway looking even pinker and more exuberant than when we arrived, cries out after us, "You are all my friends! But Alan is my highest friend, because he heard music and knocked on my door!"
In early September, soon after Tengiz has moved out and the new owners have begun the noisy demolition of his apartment, he telephones us and invites us to go on a trip to Kakheti, the easternmost region of Georgia. Great, we say: steep gas prices, unreliable gas supply in rural areas, and terrible roads everywhere have prevented us from seeing as much as we would like of the country outside Tbilisi. And it's the right place at the right time: Kakheti is wine country, and the grape harvest is going on now. Tengiz says we would be joining his friend Vazha and a few of Vazha's friends. Fine, we say; we've met Vazha, another physics teacher, and he's good company in the same way Tengiz is: easy-going, dry sense of humor, interested in the world. Sounds great. One thing though: can we extend the invitation to our friend and translator Maia? Tengiz hesitates and then signs off abruptly.
The answer comes from Maia herself, speaking over the phone with some urgency: "Stuart, listen to me, this man Vazha called me, I don't know him, by the way, and he told me you're not going for the grape harvest, you're going hunting!"
Hunting? Hunting what?
"I don't know! How should I know what people hunt? Wild animals! Also, he told me it will be very hard, you will sleep on the ground and maybe stand up to your necks in the river." Translation: no girls.
Alan, Carl, and I debate the proposal in this new light. Carl thinks it sounds like a macho joyride, and he wants out. Alan thinks most of what Vazha told Maia was just made up to scare her off (it worked). Alan and I both think that Tengiz and Vazha wouldn't be involved in something completely Neanderthal; they're too sophisticated and too self-aware, and neither of them could be mistaken for an outdoorsman. I say, "It's just a weekend hunting trip. How bad can it be?"
Both Alan and Carl stare at me. "But, Stuart, you're a vegetarian!"
It's true, I am. It seems like that ought to present an ethical problem, but after self-examination I find that I can't locate the problem. After all, I don't prevent other people at table with me from eating meat. "Oh well," I answer cheerfully, "on the extreme off-chance that I find myself actually pointing a gun at a live animal, I can just miss!"
In the end, Alan and I opt to go, and Carl opts to stay behind—but not to let Tengiz know in advance, to avoid having his arm twisted. So Friday noon Tengiz pulls up in the street outside our windows and honks, and Alan and I go out, and Tengiz says, "Where is Carl?" and we say, rubbing our stomachs, "He doesn't feel well."
On hearing this, not only does Tengiz turn pale, but Vazha gets out of the car and turns pale with him. "Very bad, very bad. Only two, you cannot sing." I'm wondering if their task was to produce the American singers, and two out of three doesn't count, but Tengiz explains tragically: "If you don't sing, no choice: they will make us to hunt." Tengiz and Vazha sink back into the car with very long faces, and Alan and I, in the back seat, have plenty of time to digest our fate as we drive east out of Tbilisi.
In broad terms, Georgia occupies the groove between two roughly parallel mountain ranges: the Northern Caucasus, along which runs the border with Russia, and the lower and less linear Southern Caucasus, separating Georgia from Turkey and Armenia. It's a narrow space: from some points near the southern border, on a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks along the northern border. The long east-west lowland is broken into almost equal halves by a north-south range of hills. To the west the rivers run to the Black Sea; to the east they run into Azerbaijan and finally, below sea level, into the Caspian Sea. Moist air off the Black Sea makes western Georgia humid, fertile, even in places swampy, but the central north-south range of hills casts a rain shadow across the east. Eastern Georgia is dry, and drier the further east you go.
At first we drive through grape country—acres of gnarled vines stretching away from the road and up the slopes of isolated, irregular hills. The leaves, and even the thick clusters of grapes, are all the color of dust. Lines of tall poplars divide the fields, and the dry, rocky creek beds and gullies are marked by majestic walnut trees. We pass horse carts carrying firewood and ox carts loaded with cut vines. When I ask, out of curiosity, where we are going, Tengiz answers sadly, "I don't know, Vazha don't know." Then, because he can't fight his sense of the absurdity of our predicament, he adds, "Too late to ask where we go. Now we only go. And we hunt." He throws up his hands: "Ara ushavs!"—an expression lying at the intersection of "no problem," "never mind," "could be worse," and "heigh ho!"
It turns out that our physicist friends have directions only to a rendezvous point, a featureless crossroads in the fields. Waiting for us there on the shoulder is a Soviet military jeep with blotchy green camouflage paint. Inside it sit four men. Three of them are wearing camouflage fatigues that allow them to blend perfectly into the jeep. All three have terse little Sandhurst moustaches and, though they all appear to be in their early thirties, distinguished streaks of silver in their hair. Alan immediately names them "the Grecian Formula gang." Zurab, his brother Gia, and The Driver (a man never named in my hearing) are members of the border patrol police, and they seem to have borrowed quite a list of office supplies for their weekend trip, starting with the jeep and several Kalashnikovs. The fourth and only un-camouflaged man, Tamaz, a tall, lean fellow in a black tank top, with his tonsure of silver hair, his deep-set, searching eyes, and his deliberate calm, looks like a model for an Orthodox icon. He is in fact a painter; the muscles in his shoulders suggest that he could wrestle any number of Abstract Expressionists to the studio floor.
These men are not Vazha's friends, but rather friends of his friends, not known to him. After greetings all around, we set off again, with them in the lead. The jeep has no windows or roof, just a canvas top stretched over rods, so from our car we have a good view of Tamaz and one of the Grecian Formula brothers in the back seat. Long silence in our car as we contemplate our weekend companions. Finally, after carefully recasting the verb agreement in my head, I say in Georgian, "They are already real hunters." Tengiz almost goes off the road laughing. Then we all take turns singing out recklessly, "Ara ushavs! No problem!"
We drive another hour east and southeast, through land ever drier. Vineyards have given way to nondescript yellow scrub. Only a few trees hang on here, and even the bushes by the road seem discouraged. Finally we come to the sleepy town of Dedoplis Tsqaro: Queen's Spring (known of course as Red Spring during the Soviet era). As in many country towns in Georgia, the life we see as we drive up the main street consists mostly of tiny dusty pigs. The humans are hidden in courtyards that lie behind high iron walls painted pastel blue, green, or pink, and from the street we can see the tops of grape arbors, fig trees, and pomegranate trees peeking over the walls. We pull up outside one house, and the jeep honks until someone comes out to swing open the gate so we can pull in and park under the grape arbor. Here we meet the last carload of our party.
A smooth, chubby little man in a nice knit shirt bustles forward to greet us with a gravelly voice: "My daahlings, what an extra, ordinary pleasure!" He seems to have the remarkable ability to boom through his nose with a voice and an intonation that make Alan and me stop and stare: is he for real? He is. His name is Mikha, he is the English teacher in Dedoplis Tsqaro, and he is trembling with nervous energy because we are the first native English speakers he has ever met. Even after two days together, when we are entirely used to him and he himself has calmed down, it's still hard for us to believe that this is not a put-on—that Mikha really teaches English to small-town grade-schoolers in remote eastern Georgia in a hyperactive, campy, smooth-as-honey self-mocking style that suggests Jim Belushi doing Robin Williams doing Marlene Dietrich doing Touchstone the Fool on Broadway.
The other men from Dedoplis Tsqaro—one old and two young—certainly don't seem surprised by Mikha's behavior; if anything, they demand it. He is the licensed town clown, brought along by the serious hunters for his entertainment value (rather like those singing Americans). The older villager is a grizzled little man with a mock-fierce manner whose form of conversation with foreigners is to grip them firmly by the hand for minutes at a time without a word. The two young men, whom Alan and I dub "the Gung-ho Hunters," seem as shy of the big-city people as they are of the foreigners, and they mostly keep quiet.
The last of our party is a man Alan and I have met before, at a supra at Vazha's house; he is the only person Vazha himself knows here. Tall, thin, serious, dressed in a shabby button-down shirt, Vakhtang looks and acts much more like my idea of a village schoolteacher than the clown Mikha does. In fact, Vakhtang is a lawyer and a politician and, best of all, the author of the new Georgian Constitution. What he is not, however, is a citified academic indoorsman like Tengiz and Vazha; Vakhtang and his beautiful ten-year-old son, who is also along, spend all their free time on the trip carefully cleaning and polishing their shotguns. (From the easy friendship Vakhtang has with the other men from Dedoplis Tsqaro, I assume that he's the Member of Parliament for this region. Only several months later, after the national elections, do I discover he was actually the representative for my own district, Vaké, an elite neighborhood of Tbilisi. I say "was" because by the time I find out, at yet another supra with Tengiz and Vazha, Vakhtang has lost his seat. Vazha was his campaign manager, and the supra is a defeat post-mortem—but not a solemn one: Tengiz announces to everyone that it was my fault, since I failed to vote in my neighborhood.)
The hunting party has gathered at the home of one of the shy young men. His family spreads out an astonishing feast as an afternoon snack, and I face the delicate moment of explaining to a dozen hunters that I don't eat meat. As the young man's grandmother bears down on me with a platter of kabobs I murmur to Tengiz, "You remember that I'm a vegetarian?" He nods and says matter-of-factly in Georgian to the table at large, "This one eats no meat"—a sentence I am perfectly capable of myself; it's nerve I lack. The men around the table stop talking and look at me for a second, then, in unison, scan the dishes nearby for vegetables to send my way. Since the Georgian custom is to serve each food in many small dishes scattered around the table, I soon have three dishes of fried eggplant, four dishes of roast tomato, and a pile of cucumbers in front of me. (As a rule, it is infinitely harder for Carl to get away with refusing wine than for me to decline meat; there are few things more important to Georgian culture than food, but wine is one of them.)
When the meal is over, under a golden late-afternoon sun, a jeep and two cars head southeast carrying thirteen men, a boy, two dogs, more than enough shotguns and submachine guns, an assortment of guitars and a three-stringed Georgian lute called the panduri, about a quart of water, and a thirty-gallon keg of wine.
We cross an uncluttered landscape: no trees, no bushes, nothing but brown grass and sunflowers in all directions. At dusk we pass through the last habitation we will see: a line of crumbling cement huts, home to the ethnic Azeris who used to work on the collective sunflower farm and at this hour haul water from the village well in buckets, herd geese with a stick, and watch us drive by. We are headed for the easternmost place in the country, Shavi Mta, Black Mountain, "the last mountain in Georgia."
The road, always bad, turns into a track, a pair of wheel ruts dug by farm machinery, that climbs up and down through the sunflower fields. A couple of times we all have to back up a hundred yards or so to a fork after we find that the track we were on ends in the middle of a field. As darkness comes on, the car from Dedoplis Tsqaro blows a tire. That would not normally be an insurmountable problem, but in this case the flat tire is already the spare: we stopped once earlier to change that tire.
All three cars now stop at the crest of a small rise. There is just enough light left in the sky to see that we are surrounded, all the way to the hills on the horizon, by the stubble of harvested sunflowers. The wheel comes off the crippled car easily enough, but the tire resists being pried from the hub—which it must be to get at the inner tube. Lots of advice, arguing, and hammering in the gathering dark. Finally the wheel is placed flat on the ground, and The Driver, with plenty of hand-waving and hollering help, maneuvers one front wheel of the jeep onto the flat tire, off center: the plan is to use the weight of the jeep to pop the tire off its hub. As if this activity by itself weren't odd enough, Mikha, the schoolteacher from Dedoplis Tsqaro, dances around singing, in his Gypsy Kings—Jacques Brel—smoker's rasp, "What's the buzz? Tell me what's a-happenin'! What's the buzz? Tell me what's a-happenin'!"
The brute-force method of tire repair not only fails to work but further cracks the low-grade rubber of the flat tire and probably warps the hub too. Now, with the whole party clearly stuck here for the night, the division between real hunters and hangers-on is formalized. The hunters pile into the jeep to go hunt for dinner; the rest of us wait at camp. Gia, one of the border guards, is delegated to stay, armed with a Kalashnikov, to protect us from the brigands known to lurk in remote sunflower fields. The hunters run a wire from the jeep's battery to a big hand-held spotlight, roll back the canvas roof so they can stand up and aim the light in all directions to spot game, and drive off bristling with guns.
The roar of the jeep engine fades slowly to a murmur and then to nothing. For a while we can still see the searchlight bobbing up and down as the track alternately climbs and descends through the sunflower fields. Then even that disappears and we are alone. On a blanket spread over trampled sunflower straw, we set out the condiments to go with the eventual dinner: unleavened bread, hard salty cheese, tomatoes, tiny onions, coarse-grained salt, and wine (that thirty-gallon keg). A full moon rises from Azerbaijan. Mikha, tuning his guitar, stops and looks up at the shining sky. He calls out, "Gentlemen, daahlings, listen!
"We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!—yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever.
"Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'Mutability.'" Mikha looks away and strums a quiet chord on his guitar.
Alan and I are momentarily silenced—I couldn't have dredged up a single line of Shelley, to say nothing of a whole stanza, much less something apposite—but while Gia the border patrol guy asks Mikha to explain what he said in Georgian, Alan whispers to me, "You know, he kinda creeped me out at first, but this Mikha is turning out to be good value."
Around ten o'clock we give up waiting for the hunters and sit down to eat what there is. We have no fire: early in the evening, experiment showed that a lit pile of dry sunflower stalks generates no more than a wan glow and turns to ash within a minute. But the food is wonderful, and so is the wine, though we have to share the few wooden cups. Before we drink, however, we must have a tamada, a toastmaster. At a Georgian table, wine may be drunk only in response to a toast. (Our blanket spread on the ground counts as a table, since the Georgian synecdoche for banquet, supra, actually means "tablecloth.") But not anyone who pleases may propose a toast. Instead, the tamada makes the toasts, and the rest of the company speaks only in response to what the tamada has said. Many traditions, including an elaborate order of toasting subjects, surround this most characteristic of Georgian rituals, and a foreigner at his first Georgian supra may feel as if he has stumbled into an unfamiliar church service and doesn't know when to stand, when to kneel, and when to say "Amen."
At home, the host of a supra will either take on the role of tamada himself or choose an honored or especially eloquent guest to replace him. Out here in the fields, nobody can claim to be host. Before we drink the first cup, Tengiz tells the other Georgians the story of Alan following the mysterious music upstairs to his door, ending with the chacha and the walnuts. Amid some gentle laughter at Alan's expense, Tengiz nominates Alan to be tamada.
During our several visits to Georgia we have listened to countless tamadas at numberless banquets—often with Maia leaning over and quietly translating the proceedings for us while adding her own sarcastic commentary to the high-flown sentiments wafting over the table once the tamada has had a few—so Alan knows what to do. He makes the necessary toasts in pretty much the required order: to our meeting, to friendship, to music—the music that brought about his friendship with Tengiz and indeed our very presence in Georgia—to the bonds between Georgia and America, to love. He speaks in English, and Mikha translates. As Alan pushes further down the list of mandated subjects, his toasts get shorter and Mikha's translations get longer: he is using Alan's words as a mere sketch, a hint of what really ought to be said. Eventually he begins to interject remarks in English while Alan is speaking: witty examples, nice turns of phrase, telling analogies to help Alan give the toast some weight before Mikha himself embroiders it in Georgian.
Sometime later, the hunters return empty-handed. They decline offers of food and wine and go straight to bed. It's nearly midnight, and they want to be fresh for an early morning expedition, but I think pride is also a factor: these weekend hunters want to live off what they kill, so if they don't kill they won't eat. Instead, almost without a word, they roll themselves up in blankets on the stubbly ground around us. The Parliamentarian's ten-year-old son beds down with his shotgun cradled in his arms. But the moon is high now, flooding the land with soft light, and the wine is good, so for the rest of us the party goes on.
Gia is certainly a real hunter, and his job guarding us is done now that the rest are back, but he's been inspired and doesn't want the night to end. He is determined to speak to the Americans. He could use Mikha to translate, but he wants no middlemen, so he finds something he can say using the little Georgian we know. He points west: "Georgia." He points north: "Azerbaijan." He points east: "Azerbaijan." He points south: "Azerbaijan." We are in the easternmost finger of Georgia; he should know—he's a border guard. He spreads his arms to indicate the space around us. "Here, there is no water. This is the Shiraki Plain."
Alan and I sit up at once. "The Shiraki Plain?" Mikha jumps in to amplify in English: the Shiraki Plain is a flat area at the eastern tip of Georgia, surrounded by low hills and therefore not watered by the rivers (the Alazani and the Iori) that flank it to north and south. But Alan and I are not interested in geography right now—we know this name from a poem we have half-learned. "Shirakis velze mivdivar," I say haltingly: "I am traveling in the Shiraki Plain."
Gia chuckles and picks up his panduri, and then—softly at first, for the sake of the sleeping hunters, but gradually louder because it's irresistible—he sings:
shirakis velze mivdivar,
ukan mabrunebs kario.
tsin shemeqara pepela,
tsitlad uchanda mkhario
saqvarlis kabas vamsgavse.
ghmerto, damtsere jvario.
I am traveling in the Shiraki Plain.
The wind tells me to turn back.
I encounter a butterfly,
The red of whose wings
Resembles my beloved's dress.
God, You marked me with the sign of the Cross.
"Marked with the sign of the Cross" in this case means marked for death. It's a great melody, fast and light like that butterfly, and Mikha quickly tunes his guitar like a panduri (turning a six-stringed instrument into a three-stringed one) and joins Gia for the next verse and the verse after that. Alan and I don't know the rest of the words, but there's a good oo-ing bass part. Tengiz leans over to me and says, "You want to learn Georgian songs. This is where real Georgian songs are, not in Tbilisi. You should have your tape recorder here."
"I do," I say, and point to my head. I am indeed taking it all in to remember: Gia's high, sweet tenor and the way he sings to his left hand so he can watch the fingerings; Mikha's husky, honking rasp—sounding, after several hours of drinking, less like Marlene Dietrich and more like Louis Armstrong—and the way he strums his guitar high up the neck to reduce its resonance and make it sound more like a backwoods panduri; Alan swaying slightly, eyes closed, as he tries to sing and catch a little nap at the same time; one of the hunters stretched out nearby giving up on sleep and sitting up groggily to join the party; and over us all the moon.
When it's time for the next toast, Alan is discovered to be fast asleep. Tengiz and Vazha wake him so he can do his job as tamada. He mumbles something about travelers everywhere, and then drifts off again while the rest of us drink to travelers everywhere—"May they all find what they seek," to travelers caught outside by nightfall while their loved ones await them, to travelers marked with the Cross. Mikha is inspired to recount for us all, in English and in Georgian, a long and thrilling Jack London story about a traveler in distress. What story exactly, I don't remember; I am drifting off intermittently myself by now. At four a.m., with the story over and Alan unwakeable, the party suddenly ends. Most of the men just lean back and fall asleep where they have been sitting, but I, not eager to lie on sunflower stubble, follow Tengiz to his car. He drags the back seat out onto the ground for himself, and I get in and use the reclined front passenger seat as my bed.
Any night so close to Heaven must be followed by a morning near Hell. I wake at eight, still drunk, in time to see the hunters—including some who got up in the night to party until four—gather for an expedition on foot. Vakhtang the Parliamentarian mischievously wakes Vazha to ask if he wants to go, and together they wake Tengiz for the pleasure of hearing his cries for mercy as he curls into a ball on his car seat. Then the hunters, armed with shotguns and dogs, set off walking across the sunflower fields, and the rest of us fall back to sleep.
It seems that in the heat of independence from the Soviet Union, in 1991, some politician (not, of course, the Constitution Writer), insisted that for Georgia to stay in the same time zone as Moscow was a form of Russian hegemony. This remarkable individual actually went on a hunger strike until the rest of Parliament agreed to move Georgia, chronologically speaking, not one but two hours to the east. The result is a kind of permanent double daylight savings time: the sky is light until eleven in midsummer (though Tbilisi is at the same latitude as Rome), and, at eight a.m. in the middle of September, when the hunters rise and head off into the sunflower fields, the sky is only just beginning to think about getting pink.
By nine, however, the sun is well up and as huge and close as the moon was all night, but a thousand times brighter. I stagger out of the car, no longer drunk but hung over, desperate for water and shade. There is no water—the quart we brought is long gone—but there is still plenty of wine. As for shade, a couple of other early risers have discovered a nearby line of low, sparse bramble bushes separating two sunflower fields. Together we crouch under this mostly imaginary cover, picking thorns out of our necks and trying to get our tongues to move in our parched mouths.
Gia and The Driver get ready to drive the jeep back to the Azeri village with the crippled wheel of the other car. Before they leave, however, Gia decides it's time to wake the remaining sleepers: Alan, Tengiz, Vazha, and Mikha, stretched out in the blazing sun, their heads wrapped in towels or coats. Gia hands me his Kalashnikov, first carefully setting it to single fire. I admire the ingenious hinged butt that folds away to make the gun handier in tight corners. Then I aim into the air (but not straight up!) and pull the trigger: BLAM! The sleepers sit bolt upright, blinking and cursing.
The jeep drives away, and all of us now take cover under the brambles, whose shadow-casting power, anemic to start with, diminishes noticeably as the sun climbs higher. The near-silence that follows for the next couple of hours is the product of no water, no food, no shade, no sleep, and pounding headaches. There is, of course, food—more of the same condiments we ate last night—but the unspoken understanding seems to be that for the non-hunters to eat again while the hunters are away would be bad form. So we huddle under the brambles, shifting every few minutes to adjust for the sun's movement, croaking feebly when we settle on new thorns. Once or twice we hear the hunters' guns faintly in the distance, and everybody grunts approval. Then we lapse back into our own thoughts: I will never drink again... I will never leave the cool shade of my home again... What kind of sick culture produces grown men who drive off for a weekend in the wilderness with a single quart of water and thirty gallons of wine?... I will never drink again...
The hunters finally return, bearing three partridges and two quail. I won't learn the English equivalents of the Georgian names until I get back to my big dictionary in Tbilisi; all I can be sure of now is that these five small, limp birds will have their work cut out for them to feed a dozen men, most of whom ate nothing the night before. While the rest of the party retreats to the shade of the brambles, one of the young Gung-ho Hunters from Dedoplis Tsqaro plucks the birds—reducing their bulk even further, so that the largest now fits neatly in the palm of his hand.
Then he borrows the Parliamentarian's cigarette lighter and sets fire to the matted sunflower straw that forms the road. By repeated applications of the lighter, he gets scattered patches of the road to smolder long enough for him to singe the last feathers off the birds. The old man meanwhile gathers dry sticks from the bramble bushes with his bare hands—a job which the rest of us watch with respect and no great urge to jump up and help him—and prepares a real fire of the only thing around here resembling wood. The young man guts and spits the birds and gives them to the old man for grilling. The young man's hands are covered in blood when he's done, and there is no water, so he kneels while someone else carefully tips the thirty-gallon keg and pours out a thin trickle of wine, in which he washes his hands.
As the smell of cooking bird spreads in the hot, still air, Mikha finally wakes up enough to get back into first gear. "Fee, fie, foe, fum," he rasps, "I smell the blood of an Englishman." The jeep returns with the repaired wheel for the crippled car, and when the wheel is in place it's time to eat. Someone has the bright idea that, since Alan was tamada yesterday, I should be tamada today—all day. Mikha may have reached first gear, but he's clearly not turning over fast enough to connect the dots for me in translation, so as we gather around the jeep's khaki tarpaulin, spread on the ground as a tablecloth, I make a mental checklist of what needs to be said in a low-key setting like this. Holding with no great eagerness the day's first cup of wine (first cup of anything), I scan the food to see what I can eat: the same as last night, naturally—beautiful quartered tomato, tiny raw onions, day-old puri flat bread. I drink a toast to the hunters for all their work. As I speak I feel as if my salivary glands are producing pickle brine.
It takes only a couple of minutes for a dozen men to eat those five tiny birds, so we are on our way as soon as the wine keg can be loaded onto the jeep. Our course appears to proceed less and less along even the doubtful tracks we have followed up to now, and more and more straight across country. The jeep tears along happily, but those of us in the two cars following it feel the sunflower stubble scraping along the undercarriage and hear the engine gasping as we climb straight up yet another hillock. Nosing our way gingerly down one steep slope into a gully, we can see the equally steep ascent ahead of us. Hoping to get some momentum, Tengiz floors it, and we roar downhill past the village car and the jeep. We make it less than halfway up the other side, however, before Tengiz's proud little Moskvich grows tired. Vazha, Alan, and I get out and push, and the jeep and the other car climb past us, jeering. After a few repetitions we become resigned: barrel downhill, whine uphill, get out and push, walk to the top where Tengiz waits for us once the lightened car has gained escape velocity. Throughout this performance, Tengiz—liable at any time while driving to slap the dashboard and cry out, "Moskvich! Best car!"—maintains a distant and dignified little smile, like an explorer in a palanquin borne by clumsy natives.
Speeding downhill past the jeep, Tengiz suddenly leans out the window and shouts "Ivan Susanin!" and gets blank stares in return. He turns halfway to the back seat and asks Alan and me, "You know Ivan Susanin? Enemies of Russia, Polish maybe,"—here Vazha interrupts to suggest it was the Mongols.—"No, Polish."—"Mongols." We get out to push again, and the jeep and the other car pass us again. When we are all back in the car, Tengiz picks up the story. "Enemies of Russia, nobody know who, ask Ivan Susanin to lead their army to tsar. If he refuse, they kill him. So Ivan Susanin lead enemies far into forest, deep, deep, deep into forest, with many turns. 'Where is tsar?' they ask him. 'Soon, soon, over this hill.' But in fact they are lost, he lose them, they never find tsar, they all die in forest, and Russia is saved from Polish—and Mongols."
"And what about Ivan?" I ask. "Weren't the Polish and the Mongols a little upset with him when they found out?"
"Ivan Susanin die, but Russia saved." Tengiz gets a quaver in his voice as he does his best to pretend to care about the fate of Russia. Then he points ahead at the jeep. "Up, down, up, down. They are Ivan Susanin, leading us in circle."
When we get back in after pushing the car up the next hill, Alan, who knows his opera synopses, says, "Isn't that the plot of Glinka's opera, A Life for the Tsar?"
Tengiz does a little dance in the driver's seat. "Oho, bravo Alan! Bravo Glinka!" This time as we pass the jeep he leans out and shouts in English, "You, you are all Ivan Susanin! But we will not be fooled! We have education, and we know Glinka!"
The loyal little Moskvich does its best to save us, absolutely refusing to go up the steepest, longest ascent of all—which turns out to be Shavi Mta itself—and overheating to make its point. We sit for an hour, drowsing in the afternoon heat, listening to a soccer game from Tbilisi on the radio, while we wait for the jeep to lead the other car up and come back down to tow the Moskvich the last practically vertical mile, to the top of Shavi Mta.
At the exact top—where the land drops away smoothly on all sides and, if not for the dusty haze, you could see for miles in every direction, because Shavi Mta is the highest thing around—at the top sits one building, a decrepit hunting lodge. The layout inside is simple: two rooms full of beds, one room full of firewood, and a chicken-wired porch with a cement hearth and a big table, around which all waking activity takes place.
The fenced yard holds a few turkeys, a few chickens, half a dozen cows, and the Hound of the Baskervilles—a mongrel dog with the size and build of a St. Bernard and the teeth and temper of a wolverine—whose job is to guard the cows when they go outside the yard to graze, and at other times to attack anything that moves. Strangely, the dog wears a six-inch-wide hand-beaten metal collar, as if to protect him from the jaws of predators. If there are any bears left in Georgia, they are surely hiding in the remotest folds of the high Caucasus, not on this treeless knob surrounded by sunflower fields, so maybe it's just vestigial armor.
A couple of young men occupy the lodge: the caretaker and a long-term visiting hunter in army fatigues. Neither one seems to have bathed this year, and the hunter's thick hair, packed with grease and dust, stands several inches high, Eraserhead-style: like Eduard Shevardnadze in his luxurious compound high above Tbilisi, these men live at the top of a hill without water. I refer to one of them as the caretaker, because he behaves like someone temporarily responsible and not rooted here, but he might well be the owner. The about-face from a communist economy, in which the state owned all property and occupants paid a nominal rent, to an economy of private ownership was accomplished with bold simplicity: whatever you occupy at this magic moment, you own. It's as if the whole country went co-op overnight but the apartments were free. If you were living in a beautiful pre-war penthouse in the heart of Tbilisi, it's now yours, and you can sell it to a foreign embassy and move to France on the proceeds if you want. On the other hand, if at the magic moment you had the bad luck to be occupying a crumbling cement hovel without power or water on a windswept hilltop at the extremest tip of Georgia, it's yours too, and if you can't find a sucker to sell it to you might spend the rest of your life there.
While some in our party set about boiling beef for dinner over a wood fire on the hearth, and The Driver and Zurab, the elder of the Grecian Formula border patrol brothers, take the jeep down to a stream to refill the lodge's water containers, others settle down at the long table for a loud game of dominoes. Tamaz, the quiet painter who looks like an icon, sits surrounded by the slamming down of dominoes and the shouts of triumph and protest, completely absorbed in a dog-eared paperback. Tilting my head, I slowly decipher the stylized Georgian script on the cover: Rojer Akroidi's Murder, by Agata Kristi.
As I am stepping off the porch to go take a leak, the caretaker stops me and puts into my hands a seven-foot-long wooden pole that stands by the door. "Bad dog," he says in Georgian while he makes the motion of swinging the stick in a vigorous arc around him. Fortunately just the sight of the stick is enough to discourage the dog, and he stays at a safe distance, barking savagely, as I pick my way past the cow pats, and the waist-high thistles growing out of the cow pats, to a suitably distant corner of the yard—only to find that this spot, hidden behind a solid bank of thistles, is already crowded with nervous, shuffling turkeys.
When we all sit down for a five o'clock meal, I realize that the water fetched by the jeep was intended for washing and cooking; as long as there is wine, no one plans to drink water—and there is still plenty of wine, now partly decanted into a teakettle for ease of pouring. But, as I am reminded as soon as we sit down, I am still tamada. Rank has its privileges, and I thereupon order a large chipped enamel cup to be filled with water. I don't care what lives in this water or what defecated upstream of its collection point—it's water, and will never turn to wine. I drain the cup, feeling the water flow to all parts of me in an instant like adrenaline, and then I order up another round in the same cup (the only one not already full of wine) for Alan.
There is not a fork or spoon to be seen, and the only knives are the men's personal hunting knives. Chunks of boiled beef are pushed onto flowery china dessert plates with the same stick that was used to stir the pot, and then we all eat with our hands. The food options for me, however, remain the same as ever: tomato chunks, little onions, and old puri—unless I want to try a piece of the large round loaf of bread that sits inscrutably in the middle of the table throughout our stay, its crust almost invisible under a furry carpet of mold. Soon enough, however, my hunger for anything not a tomato is smothered by the familiar buzz of wine, especially after the caretaker insists on drinking a vakhtanguri with me. He is our host, and as tamada I am right now our party's representative, so I can hardly refuse this ritual of friendship. We stand up, entwine our drinking arms, and each drain a full cup of wine, shaking the last drops onto the table to prove it done. The caretaker then solemnly kisses me on the lips.
It's another short meal: the hunters are eager to be off, and they push back the benches and pile into the jeep. But I didn't come all this way and drink all that wine just to sit around the lodge listening to the dog bark. I walk out to the jeep. "I want to go hunting," I say in Georgian to nobody in particular. "Is it possible?"
The jeep, which is only a hair bigger than its American equivalent, holds at this moment eight men, one boy, two dogs, and a lot of guns. Everybody turns to look at me, even the dogs. Tengiz and Vazha, who have settled down with a backgammon board across their knees, and Alan, who is on his way to the back rooms for a nap, all stop and stare at me as if I have lost my mind. The hunters, however, recover in a moment from their surprise, squeeze in tighter, and offer me six inches of unoccupied seat. I climb on board. Somebody looks around and realizes there is no English speaker along to translate for me. They all turn and shout, "Mikha!"
Mikha, still seated at the table, happily tuning his guitar, looks up with such an expression of horror that I say, "Ara ushavs, ara ushavs!"—no problem! And off we go.
We barrel down the mountain on a different track from the one we came up. I have been placed toward the middle of the rear seat (there are five of us sharing it, including the boy) so that the hunters along the outside can have an unobstructed shot. Next to me is Aliko, the stiff-haired hunter from the lodge, who I now learn used to be in the Soviet Army, stationed in East Germany. That he is also a crack shot I soon discover. A flash of color arcs over the jeep and disappears in a field of knee-high sunflower stubble. Before The Driver can hit the brakes, Aliko leans out and fires his shotgun into the field. A pheasant breaks into the air, flapping, then drops. Aliko jumps out, followed by the black retriever from Dedoplis Tsqaro. (Since the dog has to bound out from under the feet of half a dozen men with cocked firearms, it's remarkable that no one shoots himself.) Aliko brings back the pheasant, which is unharmed aside from a broken wing, and gives it to the boy, Irakli, to hold on his lap.
The road winds always downhill, and soon we leave behind the open sunflower fields and descend into a region of steep eroded gullies and scrubby forest. The pheasant's iridescent feathers are astonishingly beautiful, and Irakli strokes them gently. The bird sits motionless, except for the rapid pounding of its chest. The road gets worse and worse, and The Driver switches to four-wheel drive and downshifts to first gear to negotiate the ridges of dry mud where the road crosses and re-crosses washed-out creek bottoms. After half an hour Irakli relaxes his grip for an instant, and the pheasant breaks for freedom. From one moment to the next, before Irakli can even cry out in surprise, the jeep is suddenly filled with flapping bird—in our faces, at our feet, against the windshield, over the back seat, into our laps again. Both dogs lunge for it, but it is Zurab, laughing, who grabs the pheasant by the wing, hugs it tight to his chest, and wraps it in twine, still alive. He stashes it under our feet.
The gully opens out onto a broad treeless expanse overlooking the Alazani River. "Overlooking" is the problem: we are on a bluff a hundred feet above the water, and nobody seems to remember the best way down. So we drive parallel to the river for a few miles, nosing the jeep experimentally down every break in the plateau, but each attempt ends eventually at a sheer drop, laughter, and exasperated I-told-you-so's.
Where the plateau is wide and flat enough, it has been turned into watermelon fields. A debate on whether to stop and pick some is ended by the sight of a truck piled high with watermelons, parked unattended in the shade of a tree. A couple of hunters jump out of the jeep, climb the sides of the truck, and start heaving down watermelons. They stop when we have about ten rolling around at our feet along with the dogs and the pheasant. A few hundred yards farther, The Driver sees a track down to the river that he thinks he can negotiate, but there's enough of a chance that he'll flip the jeep on the way down that he makes the rest of us dismount and walk. Then he creeps down the track in first gear, watermelons rumbling forward as the slope increases.
At water's edge Zurab takes out his fancy foot-long hunting knife, opens a watermelon, and hands out slices. Vakhtang the Constitution writer, meanwhile, strips down to his underwear and goes in for a swim. Tamaz the artist unrolls a net and wades in to go fishing. I myself am content to touch this river. A famous Georgian folk song, Gaprindi Shavo Mertskhalo, mentions the Alazani, so it's a name I have known since long before I spoke a word of Georgian:
Fly away, black swallow,
Follow the banks of the Alazani.
Bring me news of my brother
Who has gone to war.
I went along the Alazani,
I saw red grass.
Fly away, black swallow,
Down the banks of the Alazani.
So here I am on the banks of the Alazani. I can easily picture the sparse, dry, foot-high grass around me stained red with blood, but I see no swallows, though it seems like a perfect place for them. The opposite side of the river, which is about the width of a six-lane highway, is a sheer hundred-foot-high cliff of crumbly sandstone, with countless eroded hollows suitable for nesting. Gia thinks so too, and he begins firing his Kalashnikov at the cliff to bring out whatever birds are hiding there. We're standing at the apex of a tight bend in the river, and the cliff throws the gun report back at us from three sides. No reaction from any birds, but Tamaz, standing knee-deep in the river and casting his net like some Disciple in Galilee, shouts at Gia to cut it out before he scares the fish away.
After all the weaving around we did to get here, it's a little hard to pinpoint exactly where we are, but according to the map in my head, as well as the map I consult when I get home, this stretch of the Alazani forms the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. That doesn't keep Zurab, one of the three border patrol officers present, from proposing to everyone (and explaining to me with gestures and well-placed Georgian words) a walk upstream to a fording point. Apparently the piles of fallen rock at the foot of the cliff on the other side are a likely place to find foxes. I'm not familiar with mela, the word for "fox," but Zurab's pantomime—big ears, high tail, and wicked eye—is so much fun to watch that I'm briefly tempted to pretend I still haven't guessed it so that he won't stop.
No one else thinks much of the plan, but I follow Zurab and Aliko, the high-haired hunter who bagged the pheasant, upstream away from the group. If anybody is going to do some serious hunting, it's these two guys. It's about eight p.m., but that's Georgian time, so the sun itself has only just set behind the bluffs southwest of us, and the sky is still bright blue. Ten minutes of scrambling over pebbled banks takes us around another bend in the river, where the Alazani narrows to the width of a city street. This is the crossing point. Zurab walks out fully dressed into the river, holding his shotgun over his head as he wades toward Azerbaijan. (I assume that, as a border patrol officer, he knows what he's doing; maybe the fact that the base of the cliff is inaccessible from the Azeri side makes it okay.)
Before Zurab gets halfway across, the water is up to his waist. He pauses, bracing himself against the current, which is naturally much stronger here at the narrows than where the river spreads out again below. He notices that the cartridge belt across his chest is in danger of a soaking, so he tries to gather it up and sling it around his neck. In the process, his very best hunting knife slips out of its sheath on his cartridge belt and vanishes into the river. Groans of sympathy from Aliko and me on shore. Zurab gives us a wry smile, shrugs his shoulders, and wades back out of the river on the Georgian side. The foxes are safe.
The three of us walk uphill, away from the river, through a swathe of thorn bushes. At first Zurab and Aliko move quietly, alert for game, but as dusk approaches and the chances recede of spotting an animal in the darkening underbrush, Zurab—still soaking wet up to his armpits—drops back to chat with me in my brand of simple declarative Georgian.
He and his brother live in the city of Telavi (not near a border, so I assume they serve rotating field duty). His wife is an English teacher, but he speaks no English. He would like to learn English, and he would like to live in America someday. Where do I live? I live in New York. Manhattan? No, Brooklyn. Ah yes, Brooklyn; Zurab nods knowingly. (Because of the huge Russian-speaking émigré community in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn is known to millions of people who have never heard of the Dodgers.) And what work do I do? From my very first Georgian lesson, Ivdit has prepared me with the vocabulary to answer this common question: I work as a film editor. But the next question is one I am not prepared for. Zurab stops at the edge of another thorny patch and asks, "How much money in one day?"
My first impulse is to lie, but Zurab seems so open, so hungry for communication, that I find I can't do it. What's the use of sharing an experience like this trip with someone if you can't be honest with him? Since I can't lie to him, but I'm not ready to tell the truth yet, I begin stalling. "Me?"
"Yeah. Your job. How much money in one day?"
I wave my hands to illustrate the cost of living. "Apartments are very high."
He nods, not distracted. "How much does your job pay?"
"Food is very high. One loaf of bread—"
Laughing, he holds up a hand to stop me. "I know. Your job, how much in one day?"
I'm going to have to tell him the truth, and I don't have the vocabulary to qualify it with ideas like "freelance" or "months in a row without work" or "self-employment tax." I take a deep breath and tell him the truth, an amount measured in hundreds of dollars per day.
Zurab flushes deep red; he's angry that I would try to mock his credulity—or maybe he's embarrassed for me for having told such a flagrant whopper. I'm embarrassed too, because I know that, though, as a member of a military force, Zurab probably makes more than the common government salary of three dollars a month, he certainly makes much less in a year than I do in a day.
After a few seconds Zurab can see that I'm not joking. His eyes narrow and he stares into the distance, trying to picture that much money and my consequent life of decadence. He repeats the figure I just gave him. I nod. He turns on his heel and leads the way uphill without another word. I should have lied.
When we finally reach the plateau at the top of the bluff we find ourselves in the same watermelon field we crossed in the jeep. Aliko is already hard at work, circling back and forth in the gathering gloom, tapping watermelons. The three of us fan out, crouching to tap, shuffling to the next, crouching to tap again. Aliko finds a ripe one and, without taking the time to cut it off the vine, opens it with the only knife we have left. The bright red flesh is warm from the sun, but anything with the word "water" in it presents a still badly needed chance to rehydrate, and I eat until I'm bloated. Aliko walks a few feet further and opens another one, and then another, and we eat only the sweet centers, leaving a wake of disemboweled fruit.
A dilapidated farm vehicle with one uncertain headlight bounces slowly toward us. It's the owner, I think, wiping my mouth; now there'll be trouble. It is indeed the watermelon farmer, but no trouble follows. He gets out wearily, greets us, and accepts a slice of watermelon from Aliko, and we all stand around in the dark, eating. Collective farming was as hated in Georgia as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, but the new concept of private ownership is not yet strong enough to overcome the old understanding—ingrained by decades of habit—that everything worth anything belongs to the government, which is to say to nobody, and therefore nobody will miss it. Even the farmer helping us eat his own watermelon thinks he's getting away with something.
The jeep, still ballasted with its own haul of watermelons, climbs up from the river to meet us. On the ride home the day-at-the-beach atmosphere disappears, and the hunters get serious again. Like last night, the canvas roof is rolled away and tied so that two men can stand up in the back seat. Zurab holds the searchlight and scans the ground on either side as we go, and beside him Aliko follows the beam with his shotgun barrel. Except for the boy Irakli, fast asleep against his father, everyone is alert, leaning out into the dark, ready to loose both barrels at anything that moves. We see nothing at all until we climb out of the wooded hollows onto the high, open sunflower fields. There a few night birds, owls probably, flit across the spotlight beam, and everybody tenses for an instant before looking away.
Then, only minutes from home, as we are about to head up the slope of Shavi Mta, there is suddenly motion at the pale extremity of the light beam: a hare, at least a hundred yards away across the fields, already spooked and bounding away from us, no more than a bouncing dot of pale fur against the night sky. Hopeless, I think. Aliko fires. Another bound; the next will take the hare over the crest of a gentle rise and out of sight. Aliko fires the other barrel, and at the same moment Gia, in the front passenger seat, fires one round out the window from his Kalashnikov. The hare flips over in mid-air and falls.
The Driver turns the wheel and aims the jeep straight across the bumpy sunflower field. If it was Gia who hit it, there will be nothing but raw stew out there. But the hare proves to be intact and still twitching when the spotlight finds it. We pull up beside it, and Irakli, wide awake now, is dispatched to get it. He stands over the hare and watches until the last tremor has passed, then brings it back to the jeep, holding it at arm's length by the ears with two hands.
The roving spotlight and the general alert routine resume as we drive on up Shavi Mta, but the pressure is off: we have dinner. Back at the lodge, while the meat is cooking, the caretaker turns on the television, which requires starting up an outdoor generator that seems to have no other purpose. For one hour of Tbilisi television, one liter of gasoline.
When we sit down to eat I discover that Tamaz, who knows I won't eat pheasant or hare, has put his entire catch—half a dozen finger-sized fish—on my plate. Nobody will accept my offers to share, so I eat all the fish (seriously bony and tasting remarkably of hare) myself—with my fingers, of course. But it's after midnight of an incomprehensibly long day, and though by strictly enforced house rules I am still tamada I can barely keep my eyes open. Fortunately Mikha is well rested and happy to spin my aimless mumblings into recognizable toasts in Georgian. Tengiz, fresh from hours of backgammon, says, "You see? This is what happen when you go hunting. Are you hunter? No. You are singer of Georgian folk music."
Alan, who has not forgotten that he is indeed a singer of Georgian folk music, has spent his evening profitably quizzing Mikha for the words to additional verses of the Shiraki Plain song. They perform it together, Mikha with his guitar, Gia with his panduri, and Alan with his notebook of lyrics. Whenever Alan stumbles over the fast-moving, unfamiliar words (nonsense to him), he raises his hand to claim the error like a well-trained choral performer at rehearsal, a superfluous nicety here—since he's the only one who doesn't know the words by heart—that earns him a roar of approving laughter.
At the moment when I can't keep my head up any more and am about to commit the kind of breach—the tamada quitting the table for bed—that only a foreigner could get away with, the serious hunters rise from the table as a group and make their excuses in a good-night toast. I'm not the only one who's tired, I think, but no: leaving the table, they pile into the jeep and drive off, at one a.m., to hunt some more. As for me, I ponder the likelihood of lice for about three seconds before collapsing fully dressed onto one of the half-dozen trough-shaped beds in the back room.
The noise that wakes me at eight the next morning is the sound of those same hunters climbing into the jeep to go out again. That they really did go hunting last night is confirmed when I wander outside and almost step on the guts and severed heads of two more hares. Breakfast is watermelon, and the old man and I, armed with the anti-dog stick, walk to the eastern edge of the yard to blow seeds and admire the sun rising over the snowy ridge of the Caucasus, twenty-five miles away: a ten-thousand-foot-high wall that stretches unbroken across our entire field of vision, crowned with a jagged frosting of pink-edged white. Between us and the mountains, under morning mist, lies the valley of the Alazani River. The old man doesn't have Zurab's patience in constructing a Georgian conversation that I can share. He breaks our companionable silence only twice. The first time he points down into the valley with a watermelon rind and announces "Azerbaijan." I nod. A few minutes later he points over the snow mountains. "Chechnya."
"Very good," I answer.
Having bonded, he and I walk back to the lodge and join a game of dominoes. The rules are a lot more complicated than I remember from my childhood. We play in teams of partners across the table, like bridge, and whenever the dots on the tiles at the playable ends total a multiple of five there is a lot of shouting and Vakhtang the Constitution writer racks up the score on the abacus. There are other rules too, but I don't worry about them because the old man and I are playing as one person. He has the easy job: deciding what tile to lay down where. My part is much more challenging: I have to hold all our tiles in my hand the approved way, stacked edge to edge between fingers and thumb at just the right pressure. Too little, and they collapse into a pile in my palm. Too much, and they fly across the porch and the chickens rush over to peck at them.
The skinned bodies of the two hares, hanging to drip blood into a pan, attract a party of bees. Mikha, who has been watching the dominoes game, suddenly flaps his hand and shouts, "Aaaah! Sting, stung, stung!" Still extracting the bee from his finger, he explains. "In Georgian a bee bites you, like a dog." He points at Irakli's cocker spaniel, which did not go hunting this morning: "Bite, bit, bitten!" Back at the bees hovering over the pan of blood: "Sting, stung, stung!" Back to the mystified dog: "Bite, bit, bitten!... Sting, stung, stung!"
The hunters return with three more pheasants, which are left intact for taking home. Tamaz, who has spent the whole morning with his nose in his Agatha Christie, jumps up and gets The Driver to take him on a short mystery expedition that turns out to be a special fishing trip for me. Meanwhile the rest of us gather in the yard for a shooting contest. The target is a ceramic insulator on top of an electric pole across the yard. Thanks to Lenin and Peace, Land, and Rural Electrification (a slogan that always struck me as too perfect an illustration of bathos to be real), power once reached to the top of Shavi Mta—or at least the poles got this far. There are no wires to be seen between any of the poles marching down the mountain toward Tbilisi; maybe the wires were part of a different, less fully achieved Five Year Plan. The men lining up to take turns with Gia's Kalashnikov—men who grew up surrounded by Soviet shabbiness and are now living through the collapse of even that rotten infrastructure—obviously don't believe that in their lifetimes this pole will ever serve as anything better than target practice. Several bullets, including mine, land loudly in the pole itself, but nobody hits the insulator until Mikha, showing unexpected concentration, takes the white ceramic knob cleanly off the pole with one shot. He dances around the yard, flapping his arms and crowing, "I am the Greatest!" in a tone designed to tell the rueful hunters he could beat them any day at their silly hunting games if only it were worth the bother.
They get their revenge at lunch. The old man is tamada today, and halfway through the meal he stands up and begins a toast to Mikha. The toast goes on and on, and since Mikha is being addressed he can't turn aside to translate. After tuning out for a while (as one must occasionally do in these cases or go mad), I am brought back by a long, slow wave of laughter and by the old man, with an absolute poker face, declaiming something that sounds remarkably like "Sting, stung, stung!" pronounced in a singsong like an American child's parody of Chinese. The Georgians at the table, including Mikha, are weeping with laughter, and I have to shake Tengiz to get a translation.
"This old man say Mikha never speak to Americans before. He... congratulate him for speaking with you. He say he love to see Mikha talk to you and Alan these last days, talking-talking-talking and you understand everything he say, and he understand everything you say, even you talk fast. He say it's a great, happy thing for Dedoplis Tsqaro to have such a good teacher of English."
Tengiz has said all this in a tone that suggests the other shoe is about to drop. I prompt him. "Yeah? But?"
"Then he say nobody in Dedoplis Tsqaro speak English as good as Mikha. All his life nobody understand him. He has nobody to practice English. So he go to the... the place where pigs are kept. He speak to pigs in English. He teach them English. He say, 'Sting, stung, stung!' And pigs answer him, 'Sting, stung, stung!' Together they have English conversation. Pigs are his friends."
The old man, having come to an end without once cracking a smile, kisses Mikha on both cheeks and drinks with him. The meal is almost over, and the tamada turns his attention to Alan and me. Fortunately he goes easier on his foreign guests than on an old friend, thanking us for our singing and our cheerful company and drinking to the next time we all meet and go hunting.
When several people are the subject of a collective toast, it's normal for one of them to respond for all; Alan quickly elects me, and I get to my feet. What to say? Toasting is inescapably a branch of the higher blather, and nobody is on oath about matters of mere fact when the point is to let the heart speak, but when I can I still try not to tell bald lies. A future repetition of this magic time seems like a vanishingly remote possibility—and not even a self-evidently good idea. But what to say? From the other end of the table Mikha watches me closely, ready to translate, and if necessary invent. I take a deep breath and begin, with no idea where I am going.
"Gentlemen, who knows if we will ever be together again? Alan and I live far from Georgia, and many of you live far from Tbilisi." While Mikha translates that much, I finally see where I am headed. "But there is a way we can always be together: in a photograph. I can send you a copy from America and you can stick it right here,"—I slap the sooty wall behind me—"and you can see that we are together each time you come up here. I want everybody outside for a group picture: every man, every dog, every shotgun, every Kalashnikov, every guitar, every panduri, everything!"
With a roar of approval, my wish is carried out to the last detail—except the part about every dog: the caretaker's monstrous watchdog is wisely not invited, and in fact is kept at bay with the pole.
We take a different road back to Dedoplis Tsqaro. Only once do we meet a hill so steep that we have to get out and push, and only once does the other car get a flat tire. After we all part ways, one of the morning's pheasants winds up in our car, rolling limply from side to side in the back as Tengiz maneuvers around potholes on the road back to Tbilisi. The final event of the weekend, when we pull into the courtyard of our apartment building, is the struggle over the pheasant. Tengiz quietly tries to add it to the luggage Alan and I are unloading. "For Carl," he says when I stop him.
"But we don't know how to cook it."
"Your housekeeper knows."
"But it's Sunday, which is our housekeeper's day off, and this bird must be cooked today."
I have him, but he still wriggles. "I also don't know how to cook it."
"But your wife knows." He's beaten, and the pheasant goes back in the car: a tiny win for the visitors in the never-ending Georgian hospitality wars.
In my lesson the next day Ivdit makes me tell her the whole story of my trip. At first she insists that I tell it in Georgian, which handcuffs me considerably, but after a while she stops objecting to my lapses into English and just listens. At the end she says, "My husband often goes hunting, but he never told me about it." She shakes her head in amazement. "So this is what men do!" Then, remembering her job, she gives me as homework the task of writing out my story in Georgian.
With my dictionary in front of me I am able to eke out a bald three-page account, but it takes me all my homework time for a week to do it. The title of my essay is The Watermelon Hunters. On the day that it's finished, I leave it open on my desk when I go out, to remind myself to recopy it neatly before tomorrow. When I come back and sit down to my manuscript in the evening I discover that every verb conjugation—the one thing my dictionary can't help me with, since it gives only infinitives—has been neatly corrected in faint pencil. Lia, our housekeeper, came in to dust my room while I was out, saw my work, sat down to read it (or more likely stood, since she would feel like a trespasser sitting down), and couldn't resist fixing my errors.
I incorporate Lia's corrections in the clean copy, but the next morning, when Ivdit gets to the first difficult verb and exclaims at my excellent grammar, I tell her what happened, assuming that she will find it as sweetly funny as I did. Instead Ivdit flies into a righteous temper and intercepts Lia as soon as she walks in the door: "How dare you? Who is teaching these boys Georgian grammar—you or I?" Lia apologizes meekly, but later, when I slip into the kitchen to get some lunch during Carl's lesson, she does a fine imitation at the stove of Ivdit carrying on and wagging her finger while in danger of bursting out of her tight clothes with outraged dignity.
A month passes. Late one evening a few days before Alan leaves to go back to Toronto, Tengiz drops in unannounced. He's already pretty drunk, and he's carrying cans of German beer that he must have bought at a sidewalk kiosk on his way here. He sits down at our table, invites us to join him, and opens one beer, which he pours carefully into glasses for all of us.
He lifts his glass and then purses his lips, struggling to find the right words in English. Finally he says, "My good friend Alan is leaving. Soon all of you will be gone away. We had good friendship. What will happen then?" Alan promises to write, but Tengiz waves that away. "What is a letter? It is not your friend. A friend is here." He grabs hold of each of us in turn. Alan responds that we will come back, but again Tengiz waves that away. "You say you come back, but who knows? Many things happen. Your life is there, my life is here."
Carl answers, "But our life is here, too."
Tengiz murmurs something in Georgian, snapping his fingers with frustration at his inability to translate it. Then he says, "Bring me your Georgian writing notebook." I fetch mine, and right after the homework I have just finished Tengiz scrawls two lines in pencil. "Ask your teacher what says this. She can say it in English. I cannot." He reads the lines to himself, murmuring the words in Georgian and looking sadder every moment. Then suddenly he looks up and cries, "But why so sentimental? Ara ushavs!" He clinks each of our glasses vigorously, knocks back his own, and is up and through the door and gone before we have time to rise and see him out.
At my next lesson, Ivdit carefully examines the words pencilled after my homework and declares them to be illegible. "Was your friend drunk?"