(excerpts from a novel)
by Donald Harington

~ O N E ~

EKATERINA YOU WERE, and you were not at all. You were from a land faraway, once upon a time and upon no time at all, where stories always begin, "There was, and there was not at all...," as if to confute truth or affirm invention, in celebration of the imagination's freedom to transcend the stubborn facts of "reality": you were, and still are, Ekaterina: all of this is real, and not a word of it is true: you escaped the clutches of a sadist named Bolshakov (a real name) who could not separate truth from fiction, and you came to America.

There was and there was not at all a great city in an eastern state, a city devoted to the manufacture of a hard but malleable metal commonly used in straight pins, a hilly city at the confluence of two rivers of Indian names and the beginning of a third, a city that, like you and I, gave up smoking -- oh, why do I have to shield its name? You did not choose the city, except to whatever extent it may have been chosen for you by your guardian angel, Anangka, and you suspected that Anangka was still half asleep from jet lag, or, at best, becoming frustrated and grim in her efforts to provide a destiny for you.

No, you were sent to this city involuntarily, under the aegis of the Fund for the Relief of Russian Writers and Scientists in Exile, whose New York (a real name) office had met your plane, had interviewed you (in both Russian and English, noting that you were not sufficiently fluent in the latter, and making you a gift of a purse-size paperback, Akhmanova's Russian-English Dictionary), had given you in dollars the equivalent of 176 rubles, enough to last out that month of December, and had put you and your pasteboard suitcase (containing one change of clothes, basic toiletries, and a few souvenirs from "camp") on a bus for the ride of 365 miles to the city of your referral. "Wait," you'd said in English to your agent from the Fund, before he put you on the bus. "Am I Writer, or am I Scientist?" He had laughed, thinking your question in jest, and had made no move to answer it.

The bus ride passed through some snow-covered farm country where the people, called Amish (a real name), still wore old-fashioned clothing, and the women wore black bonnets. You were wearing a black scarf wrapped around your head like a bonnet, or babushka, knotted into a bow beneath your chin. It covered all of your hair -- or rather, your lack of hair, which was just beginning to grow back from the last time it had been shaved in camp. None of your fellow passengers seemed to make anything of your headgear; maybe they thought you were some kind of Amish.

You were, and you were not at all, at least not any longer, Svanetian. It was nothing like Amish: rural and old-fashioned, yes, but not deliberately so, and not particularly religious. Just as the county in which I spent my last years, and our ultimate destination in this story, was and is the most remote of all the seventy-five counties in that (unnamed) state, Svanetia is the most remote district, formerly principality, of the rugged mountains of the Southern Caucasus in Georgia, once part of a communist confederation called the Soviet Union, now independent again but anxiously so. You had not been home for three years, since they sent you to camp, at the age of twenty-four, and that was a dozen years ago from now, and you still have not been home...except in some of your splendid writings.

Just the other year, and not any year at all, the people of Georgia, making a bold move to assert their independence from the still-existing Soviet Union, established as their president the self-same Zviad Gamsakhurdia who had been your mentor and friend, and whose arrest as a political prisoner by the Communists had led to your arrest. Zviad (your stringing of consonants is going to give me some trouble, although we ghosts are multilingual) was not a Svanetian, but a native of Tbilisi, or Tiflis, the capital, and a son of the writer, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, whose work you admired, and Zviad was a lecturer in English (American Literature) at Tbilisi University when you taught there (not, alas, in English). He had published your first poems in his samizdat journal Okros sacmisi, which means in Georgian "Golden Fleece," and you can remember when you fantasied being Medea to his Jason, you were twenty-three and he was thirty-six, and in his fifties he became president of the whole country, something you couldn't have comprehended in those days when the Kremlin still had all of you under its iron fist.

But you hadn't gone to jail for Zviady. You had gone to jail for Georgia, and for Svanetia, and for the honor of the royal name you carried, Dadeshkeliani, and for human rights everywhere: after Zviady's arrest you became co-chair of the Tbilisi Watch Committee, to observe and protest the violations of human rights that were occurring all around you. By then you had stopped writing poetry. No one, as I discovered myself some years ago, reads poetry.

~ T W 0 ~

STANDING ON THE SIDEWALK below the mansion, you studied again the slip of paper in your hand, to verify the address. You had expected perhaps one of those singular dwellings you had seen so often from the bus, what we call "suburban ranch-style": one-story, low or flat roof, cozy, convenient, conventional. But this was urban, and miles from the nearest vestigial ranch. This was a castle, nearly, larger than the ancestral manors of the Dadeshkelianis in Etseri and your own village of Lisedi, manors that had been broken up into apartments when Svanetia along with all of Georgia was collectivized by the Communist Soviets. This castle had no tower looming over it, but it was made largely of dark stone, and with enough busy classical details in wood to decorate it like certain town houses of Tbilisi. You looked up and down the avenue to see that there were other mansions of similar size if not similar style in the neighborhood, and, in the distance, the soaring gothic tower of the city's university.

"Im, imte, imetchu, Anangka?" you addressed in Svani your unseen purveyor of Providence. "Have you got in mind for me to live here?" Surely these Elmores were very wealthy capitalists, with servants.

The door was answered not by a servant but by a comely youth: a smiling lad of twelve years who instantly struck you as a synthesis of your Islamber and your Dzhordzha: he was tall for his age and skinny, like Islamber, with the Svane's slightly hood-lidded eyes which made him look sleepy or sly or oriental, depending upon whether he looked straight at you or sidelong, but he seemed to possess Dzhordzha's quality -- aura or emanation -- of makap, precocious sexuality, of being what your fellow writer and near-compatriot, Nabokov (a very real name, of whom you had not yet heard), called (coined and minted) a faunlet: the male equivalent, if there is one, of his immortal nymphet.

Ivasu khari, Anangka!" you said aloud, which is to say: Thank thee, Anangka. The boy stared at you, and his smile was uncertain. You were tempted to give him his first lesson in elementary Svan on the spot, or even to introduce him to your invisible companion, but instead you announced, "I am Ekaterina Vladimirovna Dadeshkeliani."

The boy made a sound, like "Whew," and then he said "How do you, like, spell all of that?" but he giggled (Islamber's vulgar giggle!) to let you know he didn't really require you to spell it for him. And then he said, "You must be the die sinner."

You attempted to repeat the words, "Die sinner?" and your hand instinctively reached for the dictionary in your purse.

"What Mom calls you," he said. "I'll go get her." He turned to leave you on the doorstep, but turned back, remembering what little manners he had: "Hey, come on in." And he motioned to a spot in the spacious foyer where you could stand and wait for Mrs. Elmore.

But in Svanentia one never crosses a threshold without express invitation from the male head of the house, and, unless this pubertal youth was already as mature as you hoped, he was probably not the head of the house. So you remained standing outside the door, the cold air at your back (mild, even balmy by Svanetian standards) rushing through the open door.

You brought out the dictionary. You were sure of die, but checked it anyway for other meanings: singular of dice; to desire greatly, as if pining away; stamping device; but also possibly just di-, prefix meaning twice, double, or two as in dicotyledon. Of course! Sinner you did not know at all, and found it quickly: one who sins. Sin: any offense, violation, fault, or error.

You were meditating upon the idea of double sinner, and the fantastic chance that these people already knew about both Islamber and Dzhordzha, when the hobbledehoy returned, saying first, "Don't you understand 'come in'?" and then, "Mom's upstairs trying to, like, help Professor Ogden. I think that old sinner is dying! Anyhow, she says for me to, like, fix you a drink and she'll be down in a minute. I hope you don't drink, though. Do you?"

Still you hesitated outside the door, searching for the English word for baba (Svanetian), mama (sic, Georgian), otyets (Russian), and remembering it without having to look it up: "Your fadder. Is home?"

"Dad? No, he's at the Hillman." (I ought to shade the library's name, as I'm taking pains to shade so much else, but I like the real name, being a hillman myself.) "Hey, if you're not coming in, we'd better shut the door." The faunlet put one hand on the doorknob and the other on your coat sleeve, and began tugging each, to see which would move first. You reluctantly entered the house.

The entrance hall was enormous, with a floor of marble, and all the walls covered with mirrors. Throughout the house, you would discover, there were mirrors everywhere, as if the original builder of the house were either extremely vain (he was) or inspired by Louis XIV. In Leningrad you had seen buildings which had many mirrors, but not like this, and in Svanetia there were several houses which had no mirrors at all.

You glanced at yourself in one. At a rest stop on the bus route, because you had noticed that some of the other women on the bus had been wearing them, you had taken the one good pair of dzhinsy out of your suitcase and had put them on: they were comfortable and kept your legs warm, and you saw now how they matched almost identically the pair of dzhinsy that the boy was wearing, just as faded. But your coat, the prison-issue palto, was shabby, grimy and patched, and, with the black babushka around your head, made you look like a peasant.

Reading your thoughts, the boy held his hands as if to pinch your shoulders and invited "You wanta take that off?" and helped you out of your crummy coat. Then he gestured to the left: "This is our apartment" and led you through some slid-open sliding doors into a suite of rooms, one flowing from the other, each layered with more mirrors, and with shelves and antique furniture festooned with bric-a-brac and lace.

He led you to a polished buffet truly covered with bottles of all sizes and shapes. "'Name your poison,'" he said, and giggled again, and you knew he was quoting his elders, so you did not bring out the paperback to look up 'poison'. His fingers began to hop from bottle-top to bottle: "Rye... Scotch... rum... bourbon... gin..." His hand stopped and lifted a bottle. "I guess you'd want this one. Vodka. There's hundred proof Smirnoff and eighty-six proof Popov."

You thirsted. The night of your leavetaking from camp, the other women had pooled their rations of tea to brew a quantity of chifir, a powerful drink, black and thick, invented by inmates, which requires fifty grams of tea leaves, and, in flagrant violation of regulations, they had toasted you with it and helped you consume it, enough of it to make all of you quite tipsy. The chifir had given you your first real high since your arrest and your last one until the possibility that now lay before you.

"But like I say," the boy was saying, setting the Smirnoff back down. "I hope you don't drink. You're, like, too pretty to drink. I could give you a soft drink, I mean, you know, some pop, coke or stuff." Your fingers were groping for your purse, for your paperback. But you did not resort to it, waiting, and trying to understand him: one of his strange words had seemed familiar: Coke.

"Coke?" you said.

"Oh, cool!" he exclaimed. "I'll get you a Coke from the fridge." He turned to go, but turned back. "Because, you know, everybody in this house, and I mean everybody, is, like, getting fried all the time, you know?"

While he was out of the room you looked up "fried," without much success.

~ T H R E E ~

"THAT KENNY!" the woman said, flapping her hand in dismissal, then snatching the aluminum can out of your hand. "He doesn't have the manners of a billy goat! I'm Loretta Elmore, and I'll bet you'd like some vodka, right?"

"Mayst thou be victorious," you said in a fairly good English rendering of the common Svanetian greeting.

"Do what?" said Loretta Elmore. She held the bottle of Smirnoff above a crystal glass, raising one eyebrow in expectation of your approval, and when you nodded she splashed a couple of jiggers into the glass. "Ice?" she said.

It sounded nothing like the Svanetian kvarmal nor the Russian lyod. "I am having much problems with the English," you said. "How spells 'ice'?"

She took the lid off the ice bucket and lifted out a palmful of cubes. "I see ee," she said. She dropped the cubes into another glass, upon which she poured some of the amber liquid from another bottle, as if in demonstration. She held it up, said, "Bourbon and branch on the rocks. Can you say that?"

You were always good at mimicry, at repetition. You repeated her exactly, with just a slight misinflection.

"Very good," she said, and pointed her glass at you and said, "Cheers," and drank most of it in one swallow.

You drank your vodka, without ice, in one swallow. It was the real stuff, as we say, and the first you'd had since the days in Tbilisi when you spent too much of your university salary on a daily dose of it.

Loretta refilled your glass, and asked, "Don't you want to take that scarf off your head and sit down?" When you hesitated, she pantomimed removing the scarf and sitting.

"Sit, ya," you agreed. "But 'scarf,' no. I am having no hair."

"You don't mean to tell me!" she said. "Now that's terrible. Is that what they did to you? Did they cut it all off?" She scissored together her first and second fingers and you nodded, and she said, "That really sucks! How long were you in the die sinner's slammer?"

"Pardon. What means 'die sinner'?"

"What you were. Weren't you?" She spelled the word for you and it did not spell exactly as she and her son had spoken it.

You brought out your paperback, showed her the cover, and apologized, "I am having to use."

"Use," she said. "Go right ahead."

You looked it up: one who dissents, as one who refuses to accept a religious doctrine. Your finger moved a short distance down the page, to another, better word. You tried not to sound didactic, let alone superior. "I think," you told her, "thou want other word, dissident, not dissenter."

"Yeah, that's right!" she said. "That's the word Kenneth -- Big Kenny, who's Pa -- that's the word he uses. I just got it mixed up. You're not a die sinner. You're a dissident!"

You smiled. And that was your first awareness, dear Kat, that all of us have problems with English.

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(From the novel EKATERINA © 1993 by Donald Harington. Published by Harcourt Brace. Available in bookstores in trade paperback. ISBN 0-15-600047-4.)

Comments to dharingt@comp.uark.edu

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