“Only Georgia can destroy Georgia,” he said. “Two Georgians together can make a country. Three Georgians united make a world.”
Image by Annie Lapin, Various Peep Shows (Through), 2013. Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery,
Photo Brian Forrest
In the beginning, when God was distributing the land to all the nations, we Georgians missed the meeting. The next morning we looked around and realized we were homeless. “Hey!” we shouted to God. “What about our land?”
“Where were you last night?” He asked. “You missed the meeting. I already gave away all the land.”
“We were drinking!” we cried out. “We were toasting Your name!”
God was so pleased with us that He gave us all the land He was saving for himself. That’s why we are supposed to relax and enjoy the beauty of God’s earth.
The Armenians say, “We missed the meeting too, and all He gave us were the rocks He was saving for Himself.” That’s why their land is so strewn with stones, and also why these days they are always hogging up our beach.
We lived on God’s land for thousands of years, enjoying its beauty and its bounty, always carrying a hoe in one hand to sow and reap the wonders of His holy dirt. But, because of our neighbors, in the other hand we had to carry a gun.
One day God came to see how everyone was doing. He visited each country in the neighborhood. First, he went to Armenia and asked, “How are you doing? Are you enjoying everything? Sleeping well? No complaints?”
The Armenians said, “Everything’s well. We’re living very nicely on these rocks You gave us.”
God said, “I’m so pleased that you are living so well. This puts Me in such a good mood, in fact, that I’ll grant you any wish you make.”
“Well,” the Armenians said. “As we said, we’re content. But…”—and here they paused and started thinking very demonstratively, tapping their temples with their fingers—“if we were to think of something, our only wish would be that You destroy Azerbaijan. Those guys are always trying to steal our lake.”
So God went next door to Azerbaijan to see how well they were holding up. “Hello!” He called. The Azeris were busy boating and fishing on the Caspian Sea and eating up all the caviar. “How are you doing down there?”
“Normal. Praise God.”
“Well, what do you people wish for?”
“We’d really appreciate it if You decimated Armenia. They are bothersome neighbors, always trying to usurp one of our wheat fields.”
Then God came over to Georgia.
“Victory to You! Galmarjos!” we cried out when we saw Him, thrusting high our sheep horns filled with wine. “We kiss You.” We were already so pleased with His bountifulness that when he asked what we wished for we said we needed nothing more. We told Him, “We don’t ask for anything. Just grant Armenia and Azerbaijan their wishes.”
That’s how the story goes.
It was August 19th, the last day of season, also known as The Day of Turning, when everything changes—the day that the sea begins slowly to cool. Everyone was trying to blacken their bodies before the weather changed. Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, and even Russians hefted toward summer, deep and late. Like an overladen table, the weight of summer groaned.
We hadn’t had any regular electricity for eleven years. And we hadn’t had any at all for the past eight days.
The weathermen were predicting plummets in temperature. On TV that morning, News Nostalgia had reminded us what happened a decade ago on the 19th of August, the day of the failed coup d’état in Russia, the day that our elders say in a voice thick with nostalgia and remonstrance, “Our country went from red to black.”
Literally black. We hadn’t had any regular electricity for eleven years. And we hadn’t had any at all for the past eight days. Sporadic all summer, it only sparked intermittently in the stairwell. The government said the hydroelectric dam didn’t have enough water to run the turbines, but when we saw the reservoirs at their highest capacity we remembered that—as with everything—what we witnessed was exactly opposite to what the government said.
My best friend Malkhazi was standing with Gocha Abashidze in the main square, under the stone monument to Gocha’s great uncle, our city’s godfather. Godfather was supposed to remind everyone what a true Georgian man looks like, how he is a noble man and must constantly maintain his dignity. But Gocha hadn’t inherited this expression at all. Instead, dressed in his new black silk shirt from Thailand, his “image,” he would chase anyone who stepped on his little piece of lawn, Batumi’s new peewee golf course.
Malkhazi, standing beside him, looked like a character from one of my sister Juliet’s Victorian novels, doomed and romantic, except for his gigantic nose. When Malkhazi swims in the sea on his back, the beachgoers point at his nose and shout, “Watch out! A shark!” He resembles the Armenian Little Red Riding Hood who says to the wolf, “Oh, what a big nose you have,” and the wolf replies, “Well, look at yours.”
Malkhazi was wearing the new pair of jeans he had bought the previous week at the Turkish market, and also his GEORGIA TECH t-shirt. Looking down at his boots, rocking back and forth, he seemed to be propelled by the weight of something he was considering. Malkhazi could stand like that all afternoon; it was his main form of amusement. He looked like the South American peacock bass I’d seen in Batumi’s former dolphinarium, with brown and rust markings, never meant to be domesticated, languidly swimming back and forth. And then up go his fins and in one split second he eats the little gold fish; and then back to his languid ways as he spits out the scales. Malkhazi has the same jaw.
I whistled and when Malkhazi saw me he said goodbye to Gocha.
“Gocha offered me a job working for Herbalife,” Malkhazi confided as we walked down Seaside Boulevard toward the sea. “But I refuse to work for a Russian company. Those guys drive around Georgia in their Volkswagens, preaching about herbal remedies, but herbal remedies their mother! Georgians were writing poetry when they were still living in the trees. We should be driving around Yekaterinburg promoting wine and hazelnuts!”
“Good idea,” I said. “Because right now one kilo of hazelnuts is the same price as an ice-cream cone.” I had just come back from the village, where I had spent a week harvesting the now-worthless nut.
“Sheni deyda!” Malkhazi said. “Your mother!” He reached in his shirt pocket for some matches. If Malkhazi’s lips were an art museum, the cigarette was the permanent installation.
We climbed through the boulders to the frayed hem of the surf. Malkhazi scrutinized the water, as if he were its protector. The waves crackled over beach rocks and groveled at his boots. The Black Sea didn’t look very romantic right now, so I looked across it, trying to see the other side, where I wanted to be. A breeze blew, some water arced up, and a thin layer of crude oil spattered onto Malkhazi’s jeans. He tried to wipe it off with his handkerchief but only smeared the stain. I thought about the Black Sea spiny dogfish population and how it was going extinct because of this crude oil, which congregates on top of the sea like a municipal meeting of politicians.
“What about the Italian ship captain?” I asked Malkhazi. “Have you heard back from him?”
At the end of June, an Italian ship captain had told Malkhazi to send him a letter detailing all of his job experience. Malkhazi had written: “barn builder, farmer, toastmaster at village weddings, bodyguard, casino employee.” But no, Malkhazi hadn’t heard back, and now when he told me he acted annoyed as if he wanted me to shut up about it. I realized that Malkhazi, the mountain dreamer, was turning into one of those typical Georgian men who huddle together on the street near the bus drivers, forming their own private junta, making too many deals with Gocha in the Boulevard.
“The Italian probably tried to call but the telephone didn’t work,” I told him. “Did you give it to the postman yourself, or put it in the postbox? They haven’t been emptying the postboxes.”
“I emailed it,” he said.
“Oh,” I said and threw the stone I was holding, aiming for the middle of a jellyfish. “What if you had the chance,” I asked, “to leave Georgia, to work on a ship, but you could never come back?”
Malkhazi didn’t answer. He only became more village-heavy, gloomily glaring at the sea. Under his breath, Malkhazi quoted our poet Alexander Gomiashvili:
Among these mountains I was born,
Their songs and legends made me strong
After that we just sat silently and stared at the sea.
“I don’t think I could leave Georgia forever,” Malkhazi said finally. “It’s better to see what will happen here.”
“But what is this place? It’s practically destroyed,” I said.
“Only Georgia can destroy Georgia,” he said. “Two Georgians together can make a country. Three Georgians united make a world.”
“The only problem is,” I said, “these days, it’s almost impossible to unite three Georgians.”
“Listen Slims, today I met a foreigner, an Englishman who is working at the port. He’s a geologist, a pipeline specialist. I think he’s a very valuable man.”
“And what do you want to do with him? Kidnap him?” I had stolen his thunder.
“I am not afraid of the electric chair,” Malkhazi replied. We have no electricity.” It was an old joke.
“Don’t be a donkey,” I told him. “You can’t get any money from the English government. Someone already tried that last year when they kidnapped the soccer player.”
“Not money from the government. From Shalva.”
“Which Shalva? The policeman or the optician?”
“The policeman. He said he’d give me his car.”
“There’s a chicken living in his car.”
“We can eat the chicken and fix the car. You know how our police don’t have any respect? People just use them to borrow a light? Shalva said he’d give me his car if I kidnap this Englishman so he can rescue him with television cameras, so that people view the police more heroically.”
“Why would Shalva rescue him? It’s always the police who kidnap the people.”
“Pipeline workers can’t be targeted. That’s their rule.”
“It doesn’t sound practical.”
Malkhazi raised the curved sword of his eyebrow. “Show me a man with his feet planted firmly on the ground, and I will show you a man who can’t put on his trousers.”
“Where did you hear that?” I asked.
“I read it in Juliet’s book of famous English quotes. But seriously,” he said, arms crossed over his mighty chest, inflamed cheeks incongruent to his little ears, “ask anyone what the name ‘Makashvili’ means. Everyone knows the Makashvilis are famous dreamers.”
Malkhazi’s uncle, so intent on making Malkhazi self-sufficient, once tore down his barn so that Malkhazi could learn to build it back up.
Even though Malkhazi and I have the same last name, he is not actually my blood cousin. Malkhazi lost his mother when he was born. I don’t know all the details except that she was young; the local hospital hadn’t opened yet; the midwives were at the cattle festival. No one could believe his misfortune when, three years later, Malkhazi’s father was shot by Turkish snipers as he tried to cross the border to Turkey to avoid being sent to Afghanistan. After the funeral, Malkhazi’s uncle took it upon himself to teach Malkhazi all the Georgian traditions: how to hunt game, how to make wine, or at least how to know through smell alone which variety of grape the wine came from, and how to make the proper Georgian toast. Malkhazi’s uncle, so intent on making Malkhazi self-sufficient, once tore down his barn so that Malkhazi could learn to build it back up. Perhaps he overcompensated.
“Our name is not written about in the history books,” I said. “Probably no one outside of the beer factory district knows we’re famous.”
But Malkhazi was right. The Makashvilis are dreamers, and we used to dream of noble things. Now, mostly, we dreamed of getting a job at the port, working for an air-conditioning company, or a Swedish appliance manufacturer, a postal service, anything reliable.
“What about getting your job back at the casino?” I asked him.
“Nugzar, the owner, said I milked too many buffalo. He said that’s why the cards always slipped out of my hands.”
“What about the job you were offered in the forest?” I asked him.
“I don’t want to be a woodchopper!” he said. “I am tired of selling our trees to Turkey so they can build up their towns.”
“But I will never get a visa to leave this country if they find out I aided in a kidnapping.”
“I told you, it’s better not to leave. Anyway, the Englishman doesn’t speak Georgian so I need your English.”
“But I’m tired of criminal activity,” I said. “I was robbed again today.”
“Again?” Malkhazi said. He had a strange habit of blaming me every time I was robbed.
“Anyway, the Englishman’s name is Anthony. He is having problems with the pipeline. I explained to him how the pipeline is set to run through our village, how we could help him out. He already agreed to come to dinner tomorrow, for the Feast of the Assumption.”
The wind over the sea was now building in strength, and the rain began to plummet. We ran home along the water’s edge, cutting through the schoolyard before the floods moated our neighborhood.
We live in the beer factory district, in a block of concrete flats built in the 1970s. Although, because the beer factory closed down after the Soviet Union collapsed, it should really be called Oil Train District because all the oil trains screech and bang together in our backyard in the middle of the night. We are located in Row 8 Building 7, but we don’t really have an address. If anyone wants to find us he can just call out, “Makashvili!” And again, “Makashvili!” Everyone knows where we live.
My mother turned to me. “Slims,” she said. “When you were in the village did you repair the corn lofts?”
“Yes, Deyda,” I said.
“When your father was alive,” my mother said huffily, “the corn lofts never needed fixing. Oh! If only your father were alive he would have harvested the corn long ago. This one just doesn’t like to work.” She was pointing at me. “O! Nightmare, nightmare, they don’t like to work,” my mother said. “And then she stuck her spoon in the plum jam and drowned a bee.
“All right,” I told Malkhazi quietly, so that my mother couldn’t hear. “I’ll help you kidnap the Englishman.”
My little brother Zuka was asleep on the sofa. “Get up,” I said. “You make the chaadi and I’ll try to fix the electricity. God is sending us a foreigner,” I added so he would wake up a little faster. “We need to give our guest some unforgettable moments.”
Zuka ripped open the sack of chaadi flour, threw some handfuls into a bowl, added water from the water bucket and squeezed it through his hands. “It doesn’t have to be exactly eighty times,” Malkhazi always tells him, impatient with housewife superstitions. While Zuka rolled the balls of batter back and forth in his palms, I spliced wires together in the electrical box and sang the new song I’d heard on the radio, “I’m tired of getting stuck in the elevator. I want electricity.”
Irakli Khorishvili, the neighbor from downstairs, stopped by to watch what we were doing. Finally, insightfully, he remarked, “Ha! Two men cooking. Where’s your sister?” Juliet had been reading so much English literature for the last ten years, she had been trying to become an independent woman. But I didn’t know how to explain this—the neighbor was from an older generation and didn’t understand such things. The consequence of my sister’s philosophy was that now Zuka and I had to do all the cooking. It was Malkhazi’s job to fix the iron, but the iron never broke.
I sharpened the knife on the bottom of a saucer and quartered the potatoes, and then fried them with the garlic and a fistful of coriander. My mother returned from the garden holding a cluster of beets, her hands black and her feet black, and she asked why we never had any napkins and she must always wipe her hands on the pages of English grammar books.
When Juliet came home and heard that we were going to have an English guest, she stood in front of the mirror by the door, tucking stray strands of her dark hair into a lump under a new hat—some sort of black, velvet, English-teacher outfit that looked like a piece of Victorian furniture.
Shoving on his rain jacket, Malkhazi said, “I’ll go find some wine.”
Now that I wasn’t, for the moment, thinking about the hazelnut harvest, my mood was cheerful. To have a guest, our lives became a holiday. But I would have to stay focused. I would not drink from my grandfather’s drinking horn, made from the hollowed-out horn of a famous bison. Otherwise, I might become distracted, start endlessly toasting to Georgia, and forget about my plan, which was that after Malkhazi kidnapped him, I would ask the Englishman for a visa invitation.
When Malkhazi came home, he plunked down two glass jars of Kakhetian wine on the dining-room table. “Were you able to steal some electricity?” he asked me.
“Even the third line is out,” I told him.
Unable to steal any electricity from the mayor’s line we decided to use the rest of our gasoline on the generator. When Malkhazi got the generator going, he yelled to me above the noise, “This Englishman works for an oil company. Maybe he can get us some more gasoline.”
We heard a little rap on the door. We knew it must be the foreigner because no one knocks on the door anymore. They only shout.
My mother looked at all the food we were cooking and shouted at Malkhazi. “Where are all the guests?” Malkhazi shrugged and said no one was home.
Zuka yelled, “He didn’t invite anyone else! He wants to hog the guest all to himself!”
“Call Zaza. Call Guliko. Call the Bishop,” said my mother.
“Something is wrong with the phone,” Malkhazi said.
“Then shout out the window,” my mother said.
Irakli, the neighbor, still watching us cook, called all the neighbors to come join us.
We heard a little rap on the door. We knew it must be the foreigner because no one knocks on the door anymore. They only shout.
Anthony, the foreigner, stood in the doorway, wielding a flashlight and an umbrella. “You’ve got some wires that are sparking down there in the stairwell,” he said.
“That’s normal,” I said in English.
He looked like one of the illustrations of the hoopoe bird from our reader in third form. He wore an olive-colored tie and had brushed his blond hair in a lopsided swath behind his ears. He was thin and would have looked jaunty in the English manner, except for his brow, which was furrowed and grim. His brow resembled that of the American President Bush when he was trying to think of something to say, but his boot was stuck in the mud and a combine harvester was heading his way.
My mother stared at him and turned to Juliet. “Ask him how old they must be in England before they marry? Seventeen? Tell him as soon as you marry, I can go back to the village. Tell him the water is purer there.”
“Deyda,” Juliet said, her face crumpling, “I told you. I have a good job. You don’t have to wait for me to marry if you want to go back to the village.”
“Oh, how I miss the village,” my mother started complaining.
I quoted a Georgian proverb: “The mother said, ‘I will die.’ The wife said, ‘I will marry,’ and in the meantime the house is full of dirt.”
My mother shrugged. “Take him into the living room with everyone else. The generator is too loud in the kitchen.”
Irakli Khorishvili, his wife, and the local alcoholics from the entrance were already seated in a parliament-like seating arrangement. They had saved the baize velvet chair for our guest so he could feel like a king.
“Please sit here,” we all said together in a medley of English, Russian, and Georgian.
Juliet lit the candles on the table while Zuka piled onto it plates of farmer’s cheese, tomato wedges, and green onion. A pan crisped the edges of the khachapuri my mother was making and the smell spread through the kitchen. I set out the jade cups and emptied five liters of white wine into three clay jugs.
In Georgia our buildings are always falling down; we pile plates on top of each other like a last hope.
At the table, thin ribbons of Sulguni cheese marinated in bowls of butter still browning from heat. Platters of eggplant, rolled in garlic and nuts, sat atop the wild turkey. In Georgia our buildings are always falling down; we pile plates on top of each other like a last hope. Irakli’s wife had brought a humble mound of goose pâté from the import store. Dishes of sweet carrots, as well as roasted red peppers, stuffed grape leaves, and olives, vied for a place. There was a potato and beef stew, also from Irakli’s wife; a chicken and tomato soup from another neighbor; a mutton pilaf; mashed liver; a beet salad layered with cream; fried forest mushrooms, and crepes flavored with pepper. Malkhazi had caught a trout from the river, and had slit it open for the eggs. Someone else had brought a soup made of knucklebones. Banana liquor for the ladies, and vodka for the men at the far end of the table who were quietly toasting themselves. Anthony picked up his fork. “This looks like some sort of Roman feast,” he said, “that you see in those religious paintings.”
“Tell him to eat,” Malkhazi said in Georgian to Juliet.
“Tell him that if he doesn’t eat we have no choice but to kill him,” Zuka pronounced, also in Georgian, thankfully, looking to Malkhazi for approval.
I gave Anthony my grandfather’s drinking horn and told him to hold it still while I filled it with wine.
Malkhazi was tamada, our designated toastmaster. After all the glasses had been filled, solemnly Malkhazi stood up. “Even though there is war, we always desire peace,” he pronounced. “And this is not only peace between brothers, but peace between nations. The Armenian border guard may stand like this.” Malkhazi crossed his ankles. “The Turkish border guard may stand like this.” Malkhazi crossed his arms. “The Georgian border guard stands anyway he wants to because he’s a Georgian, but we are all Caucasian people and we understand the truth of nature.”
When I tried to translate this toast to Anthony into English, it sounded sloppy, like someone stumbling over his shoelace. I told him, “Even if you cannot understand this toast, you cannot sip. It is necessary for you to drink to the bottom.”
My mother brought from the kitchen a Georgian blood pudding fragrant with hazelnut oil, a recipe passed down through the Makashvili family for eight centuries. “How long will you stay in Georgia?” I asked Anthony.
“It’s always impossible to know,” Anthony said, balancing a strip of browned village cheese on top of the corn flour bread, and then dribbling wild plum sauce with garlic and the suneli-kuneli spices on top of that. “Usually,” Anthony said, trying to fit his corn bread building into his mouth, “British Petroleum gives a frantic call in the middle of the night and says, ‘There’s a problem. Please take the next flight over.’” A purple rivulet of plum sauce curled round his wrist. He looked for a napkin and Juliet got up to get a cloth one, which she had embroidered with yellow butterflies. “Thanks,” he said, winking at her. “It’s not inconvenient because I live so close to Heathrow. British Airways now has direct flights. This is delicious. Did you make this?” he asked to Juliet.
“Tell him you don’t cook anymore,” Malkhazi said to Juliet.
“So I fly out to Tbilisi and they drive me over to Supsa, to the port up north,” Anthony said. “It’s always the same thing. I say, ‘Yes, indeed there is a problem,’ and then I fly home. I tell BP again and again, ‘If you want the pipeline to withstand the pressure of the river you’ll have to dig it three meters deeper. They shake their heads and say, ‘Three meters? That’s expensive!’”
“Very expensive,” solemnly declared Irakli Khorishvili, who had been listening in on our translations.
“I told them it would be much easier, of course, if they built the pipeline over the river, especially since this new pipeline will have to make a hundred and fifty river crossings. But they say they can’t do that or else the villagers will tap holes in it. Once our firm even offered to pay twenty-five dollars to every villager who found a leak in the line.” He took another bite. “But then we discovered them out drilling new ones.”
“You are like number two,” I told Anthony.
“Beg your pardon?”
“One guy is digging a hole and the other guy is filling it back up. ‘What are you doing?’ calls a neighbor. ‘Well, I’m number one and he’s number three. Number two isn’t here to lay the pipe.’ So… welcome to Georgia!”
He stood up and started pacing around. “This country is not easy. It’s damn hard here, beg your pardon. I’ve been to many developing countries. India. The Middle East. Even in Mexico the infrastructure works better than here.”
“We are not developing,” I told him. “We are—well, we are undeveloping.”
“The pipeline here is going to bring your much needed economic development, that’s for sure. Oil flows more smoothly through cash-starved republics than through shaky mideast regimes. No tricky negotiations here. The main trouble we’ve had so far is clearing the minefields left over from that Armenia-Azerbaijani conflict. And then we also have to worry about pipeline sabotage by your rebel groups. But if we finish this thing we estimate we’ll be seeing a million barrels a day. Georgia will receive what, fifty, sixty million dollars in transit fees. In a country where every person lives on less than a few dollars a month, that’s no small change. I think it’s higher than your gross national product. So why the villagers are sabotaging it is beyond my comprehension.”
“You think we will see this money?” I asked.
“I think you already have. Before I came, I never imagined that you would be singing, and toasting, and eating all this!”
“See that house up on the hill?” I asked, pointing through the window behind his head.
Anthony turned around. “What house?” he said. “I don’t see anything.”
“You can’t see it because we just ate it,” I said.
He didn’t understand.
“We just sold it to pay for this meal,” Juliet explained.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s a Georgian joke,” Juliet said.
“Oh,” Anthony said.
“Just please don’t tell anyone how much we eat,” Juliet said. “Or else the International Food Aid fund will stop sending us money.”
I wanted to tell Anthony that if he really understood the generosity of Georgians he would cry all day. Or maybe for a week.
“That is also a joke,” I said quickly. I wanted to tell Anthony that if he really understood the generosity of Georgians he would cry all day. Or maybe for a week. Our generosity during our feasts is really not reasonable behavior.
One of the men from the other side of the table stood and held up his glass. “Even though everyone knows that London is the greatest city on earth, we hope that you will see a little of the greatness of Georgia too.”
I also stood up. Georgian wine was already invading me and turning me hospitable. “I have always loved the name Anthony. If I have a son, I will name him Anthony. Or, if I have a daughter.”
“Hush!” yelled our neighbor Irakli, from the other end of the table. “Have any of you any idea of this woman’s goodness?” he asked, pointing to my mother. “Have you? Do any of you know her difficulties?” He started banging the table with his fist, trying to attract Anthony’s attention, forgetting that Anthony didn’t understand Georgian. “Her husband died nine years ago,” Irakli continued, lamenting in Georgian. “He left her with three children to raise all by herself. Ah, the suffering of the Georgians.”
To Anthony’s plate came stewed plums in butter crust, baklava, and three kinds of tortes. Malkhazi brought to the table the meat he’d skewered on walnut branches that had marinated all evening in wine and salt.
Anthony leaned toward me and said, “That man just put the meat on top of the dessert.”
“That’s because in Georgia we like to live backward,” I said.
Malkhazi, now cavorting with the men at the far end of the table, was pouring wine on his bread, yelling: “This wine is for my father and for Slims’s father. It is Coca-Cola for them in heaven.”
“In the end the earth unites and makes as one the king and slave,” Irakli recited.
“Anthony, aleverdi!” Malkhazi shouted.
“That means it’s your turn to toast,” I told Anthony, urging him to finish his wine.
He held up his glass, though somewhat meekly. “What’s wrong with the women?” Anthony whispered to me. “They look a little bored. This is a toast to the ladies,” he said. Everyone nodded.
I looked over at the women. They were eating their slices of cake in silence. “Have you heard about the man who went to the insane asylum because he thought he was Napoleon?” I asked Anthony. “The doctor asked, ‘Why do you think you’re Napoleon? He’s been dead a long time.’ ‘No, not that Napoleon. Napoleon the cake,’ said the man.”
At the far end of the table the men were becoming louder, more obtuse.
“Turn off the generator,” my mother yelled. “It’s too loud in here.”
“GalmarJOS! GalmarJOS! GalmarJOS!” the men were singing as the generator went quiet and the light went out.
“What are they singing about?” Anthony asked me.
“They are singing, ‘Long live,’ I told him.
“Long live what?” Anthony asked.
“Just long live. I don’t know. Long live their song.”
He shook his head. “How is it possible? I don’t understand how you all survive, or at least how you don’t all pass out.”
“It’s called the Great Georgian Mystery,” I told him. “Everyone wants to know the secret.”
“My conclusion,” Anthony continued, a little riled up, “is that the only way a country like Georgia can exist is because God sustains it.”
“Or because everyone is a criminal,” I suggested.
“Of course,” said Malkhazi, ignoring me, and commenting again in English. “God sustains every country,” and he bit into a spoonful of butter.
“I believe that here, absolutely I do, but I can’t believe it any place else, not when I’m in London.”
I raised my glass. “Let’s drink from our hearts to peace between our two nations! Galmarjos!”
Though Malkhazi’s plan was to kidnap the foreigner, I decided to prescribe to the more modern Georgian way to treat a guest: get him drunk, disarm him, and then ask him for a visa invitation.
“Nope, it would never work,” Anthony told me. “To get a work visa you need a business organization to sponsor you. I’m a private contractor. The only kind of visa a private individual can get for you is a fiancé visa.” And then he winked at me.
“I’m not gay!” I cried out. And then I realized he had been winking at Juliet.
“Well. Do you have a sister?” I asked him.
Anthony shook his head.
“A cousin?” I asked.
He shook his head again.
“Your country is very rich but poor in virility,” I said.
I filled up the drinking horn again, handed it back to him and said, “If you can’t get me the visa, then at least you can allow me to poke a hole in the pipeline!” I pointed to our gas canister. “For heat, that only lasts for three days. That pipeline is going to run through my mother’s village. I can pay you in roses. Our village is famous for its roses. We can’t sell them anywhere anymore because of our transportation problem. But if you provide the petrol, I can arrange to send you a lifetime supply of roses.”
Anthony stood up. He was still holding the drinking horn but it looked like he was ready to depart. Malkhazi yelled at Juliet. “Tell him he must drink to the drinking horn he is holding. It’s older than his country!”
“Don’t insult his country,” Juliet said.
“I just meant he should not set it down. It’s not time for him to leave.”
“How about a mother? Do you have a mother?” I asked him. “Even Armenians have mothers. I can send her a lifetime supply of roses.”
“Let me tell you something,” Anthony said. “No one will ever invest in your country if your people continue to poke holes in the pipeline.”
“I think you underestimate the power of the rose,” I said.
Suddenly the electricity came on.
“Ah,” everyone at the table said in unison, pointing to the lit-up chandelier.
“A sign,” Malkhazi said.
At that moment, Shalva, Batumi’s most popular policeman, kicked in the door with his boot. Behind him was a crew of cameramen from our local television station. While the cameramen filmed a close-up of Shalva’s boot, Shalva told us in Georgian, “Sorry about the door.” He then perused the table and, finding Anthony awkwardly holding his drinking horn, ran to him and shouted in English, “Are you fine!” It was more of an announcement than a question.
Perhaps Shalva would have pretended to handcuff Malkhazi. The television cameras were already directed at him, but at that moment my grandfather forged through the door. “An Englishman?” my grandfather was shouting. “An Englishman in this home? I have this cherry liquor. See here? For three years it’s been sitting on my shelf waiting for a special occasion.”
Even though Shalva longed for his mighty deeds of saving a foreign pipeline worker from a kidnapping to be written up in the newspaper, custom dictated that he listen to my grandfather’s toast first.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me we were going to have an English guest? I would have caught a fish,” my grandfather said as he poured cherry liquor into tiny crystal glasses and distributed them around the table. “Oh, we’re so lucky to have an English guest!” he said to Irakli. He raised his glass to Anthony. “This is to you,” he said. “May everything be good for you. May you marry a good woman. May your life be full of happiness. This next toast is to your family, your brothers and sisters and parents. And to your ancestors. Let’s never forget our ancestors. Christopher Columbus. You remember him? Why did he have to bring us the corn! Fuck you, Christopher Columbus! I hate working in these damn cornfields. Why couldn’t he bring us cocoa or coffee beans or some more interesting crop? Oh, why didn’t anyone tell me earlier that an Englishman was coming? I would have killed a sheep!”
After this the evening concluded slowly, languidly, and after our guests had left, everyone was unsatisfied in his own way. As we say in Georgia, “When the guest visits it is like the sunrise. When he leaves, it is sunset for his host.”
Malkhazi sulked that his plan hadn’t worked out. He sat in the kitchen and brooded, leaning back in his chair, uttering the name of Georgia, how much he wanted to go explore her regions in a car, as if she were his long lost unobtainable girlfriend, a sufferer on top of a hill taking care of the goat herd, who knew how to chop firewood but also looked great in a dress, a girl who knew him better than he knew himself. “Sakartvelo,” he muttered—this is our country’s real name—and looked protectively toward the mountains.
I made my way down the dark stairs into the dark courtyard in search of some oil coupons for the generator, which had run out as soon as everyone had left. I sat on an empty oil cistern in the yard, looked up at the cold stars coming through the sky like fax messages. I waited for someone I knew to walk by, but I just heard the complaints again.
From my little brother Zuka: “The electricity went out and I only got to watch half the movie.” From my mother: “Why does only the governor get electricity?” From Juliet: “There’s no light by which to read at home, so I prefer to stay at the university.” From our neighbor, Sadzaglishvili: “My daughter’s boyfriend is stuck in the ski lift, so we’ve lost our chauffeur.”
How is it possible to think deeply about solving the problems of our country when instead we are always thinking about electricity?
A few years ago a Western aid organization came to town, like a circus troupe in a novel. They called their organization Al-Anon and opened an office in Batumi to help all the wives and sisters of alcoholics. They always said the same thing: “Let go. Let God,” which was a very funny phrase. Al-Anon lasted for about three weeks before shutting down because they realized that we already live that way. Everyone lets God do everything.
What about individual problem solving? I asked myself. What about having faith in our efficacy? But how is it possible to think deeply about solving the problems of our country when instead we are always thinking about electricity? Always wondering: If I leave the house I may miss the hour of electricity, and then I will have lost my chance to fill up the water bucket. If I leave the tap open, will I return in time so that water doesn’t overflow onto the floor and drip through the ceiling of the downstairs neighbors? Should I take a vacation to the ski resort on Mt. Kazbegi even though I might get stuck in the chairlift when the electricity goes out? Since there was never an electricity schedule we had to plan our day from moment to moment, and never more advanced than that.
I raised my head and announced to the great Toastmaster in the sky, “I’m tired of thinking about electricity. It’s a very boring subject. I will try to put forth individual effort. And if that doesn’t work out, then I will just give up for good, and toast Your name.”
Excerpted from Waiting for the Electricity (The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.), forthcoming on June 26, 2014. Copyright © 2014 by Christina Nichol. All rights reserved.
Christina Nichol was the recipient of a 2012 Rona Jaffe award. She grew up in the Bay Area and studied at the University of Oregon, then received her MFA from the University of Florida. She has traveled widely, worked for nonprofit film companies, and taught English in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and—of course—Georgia. Waiting for the Electricity is her first novel.