Most of the soldiers marching down our street speak Russian, but some speak in dialects unknown to me. It is said that when God distributed the languages to the people, he stopped in the Caucasus, exhausted, and his bag spilled out, spilling the remaining languages into the region.
It was winter. The Black Sea was throwing back the starlight on the shrapnel-lit banks. Mount Elbrus was observing the actions of the men with its usual phlegm. And I, as usual, was stealing bread from the soldiers on the market stalls.
I don’t understand what the men say to me when they insult me. Only the gestures and laughter of the children are familiar to me. The children of Chechnya are blessed. There is a saying here that if God were to come down to earth, it would be to stroke the head of a child first.
I fly over the military road from Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz. The ghost of a prince of Kabardie waves a white flag above my beak. I go along the cordon of fortresses which goes from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. In the valley of Sounja, a shepherd nods to me, and the women milk the goats a few meters below me. They put their beautiful copper jugs next to their hips. A few kilometers away, above the grain fields, I see the silhouettes of the sickles falling in the moonlight. It won’t be long before the early morning comes to earth. In a small hamlet, women are making all sorts of things. Their husbands have left to fight the Russian soldiers. Carpets, alpaca, cashmere… The wives of the resistance fighters cut the horsemen’s capes in a thick felt.
He is a former engineer of the Grozny petrochemical factory (« the dreaded one »). He begs in the main street of Grozny. He lost everything at the beginning of this war. How did I meet him? I was looking for bread crumbs in Grozny, when he handed me a dime. I liked his frankness, and the doughnut tasted good. I like this man, even if he smells of strong alcohol.
Sultan’s rifle is rusty, but he keeps it by his side « in case a Russian steals what I’ve been begging for » he tells me. His head is shorn, but the tufts of hair grow back on both sides of his head. He wears a hastily patched linen shirt and red pants with holes in them. The buffalo leather of his shoes is worn out and allows water to pass through. His black cap becomes gray in places.
I fly in the early morning above the white mosque. The gardens of the mosque are of a brilliant green on which the white marble of the religious building is reflected. The building resembles the blue mosque of Istambul. Its four minarets look up to the clouds. I see a woman leaving the Islamic library. I follow her into the streets of Grozny. She sees me and gives me a sign. The student even smiles at me.
We have become friends, she and I. I rest on her shoulder before going to meet Sultan. She lives in the mosque district, behind the white mosque. She lives with her father and her maternal grandmother. I don’t know what her name is, but I have a plan. I want Sultan to fall in love with her.
I made this plan the day he told me about his wedding day. He had asked his brother to go and see the girl. After several courtesy visits to the bride, the two families had agreed to the union. Several ceremonies had taken place. He tells me about the brightness of his bride’s eyes, the matte of her complexion, her smile. I listen to him while flying around him. His fiancée will not return. I do not know what to answer him. Perhaps being listened to is enough for him? He speaks to me about the belt of his fiancée, which tightened strongly the size to him. On the day of the wedding, his belt, he tells me, was made of golden silver, with precious stones, and turquoise, symbol of purity. The belt, he added, had been imported from Georgia. He had not been able to afford a gold belt from Dagestan. But, he said, the belt was almost as beautiful as his fiancée. Only the Russians had interrupted the wedding and beaten Sultan like a plaster.
Is this marriage a dream that Sultan makes every day, a lie that he serves me so that I forget his pitiful state? I do not know.
The war is raging and the men have deserted the streets of Grozny. A Russian soldier spat on Sultan’s black coat. He made a shoulder movement, but did not answer the soldier.
The student followed me today. We walked the streets of the city like two old friends, I the bird, and she the girl.
Her red shirt is decorated with multicolored embroidery. She has two braids wrapped with a black ribbon. She wears large glass earrings sewn near her ears. Her felt boots mask the sound of her steps. She has put on a fur (perhaps mink?). On her belt, one guesses the pattern of a deer’s antlers.
The Russian army is exercising in our street. Horses are marching at full speed. We hear gunfire in the distant fog.
Today she came back. She brought my master a Kalmyk tea, a tea cooked for a very long time in which milk, chillies, red pepper and butter are added. She also left some corn bread and a salted cheese. I pecked at some and then flew off on the nearest wire.
Was I right to introduce them? Sultan seems to be watching for the student’s arrival every day that Allah does. I swirl between the dense clouds, watching their ride every Monday. The student approaches the dome, in which she makes a coin ring. Sultant, who was sleeping, raises his chin and contemplates her. She smiles, they discuss a moment while I interrupt my flight to look at them. The student leaves, not without leaving us some bread or boiling tea in a bottle. I swoop down once she’s gone to sit on Sultan’s lap.
Today, he spent all the money of the week to buy a jacket. It is winter and the jacket does not protect him from the cold. Tonight, after my flight, I couldn’t find Sultan. He came back several hours later clean-shaven.
Was I right to introduce them? This week, the student did not come. I flew to the White Mosque and saw her through the window of her house. She was serving tea to her future mother-in-law. I feel remorseful, I shouldn’t have introduced her to Sultan, but I have only the brain of a bird. I went back to fly beyond the city limits to atone for my act. When I came back, Sultan’s face had taken on a purplish hue. He was shivering. I landed on the empty dome, and flew away again. But who could help a bird whose master is dying? I walked several miles to find the student, but the shutters of her room were closed. I tried to meet the imam of the white mosque, but he wanted to kill me by chasing me. Who can help a bird lost in a country at war? A Russian soldier pointed his gun at me and fired, I can still hear the sound of his weapon in the fog. I returned alone.
Chechens bury their dead in the « sun cemeteries ». The old and the sick used to retire freely to a place lit by the supreme star to breathe their last. Today, the sun points slightly on our sidewalk. I fly over the skull of the immobile Sultan. I know that no one will bother to bury him, to put brandy and bread in his grave as is the custom, so a tear runs down my beak and falls on the tar. Yesterday, the graves of the fighters for the faith were decorated with a wooden blade bearing a white or red flame. I know that nothing like that will be done for my master. I look at Sultan, he is not breathing.
A cleric passes by with a rosary and stares at us. He makes a movement of the chin, and continues his way while praying aloud. No one speaks Arabic or understands the Koran here, but everyone performs the Muslim rites. Is there a pious soul to help me? The cleric finally turns around. He kneels down next to Sultan and intones a prayer for the dead. The sun springs up on his neck and envelops all three of us.