كاين اللي يبكي على زهره
كاين اللي هيبكي فوق قبره
كاين اللي شاخ في صغره
كرهنا م هاد الحيات
Souad Massi, "Le Bien at le Mal"
Even so, one step from my grave,
I believe that cruelty, spite,
the powers of darkness will in time,
be crushed by the spirit of the light.
- Boris Pasternak, from "Nobel Prize"
The last thing Teyfuq Mustafayev expects, as he puts the coffee on and slices bread and cheese for his still-sleeping wife Ayshe on a morning still with the promise of the Hot Season that will soon crackle his farm dry, is an American girl with a crumpled pile of hyrvina bills in her hands that he knows at a glance are worth more than his son Murat earns at his engineer’s job in Sevastopol, perfect Moscovite Russian in her mouth, and death in her eyes. Her Russian words are perfect but carry a heaviness to them, every syllable as if tied down to rocks.
“Подсо́лнечник,” sunflower, she calls. She stands at the outer fence of his property, and with his bad vision Teyfuq has to hunt for his glasses before he can walk out to see her at the gate.
“How much would you charge for your sunflowers?”
The question trips him up a bit. Teyfuq knows exactly how much he would charge for the sunflowers that stretch over his entire holding- but by the ton, by the kilo, in dealings with companies that truck the flower heads off to be processed into oil and halva. He has a feeling this girl does not want to buy an entire kilo of sunflowers, only an armful.
He looks down. Thick soles heavy Vet-Tech patented material, dark. Solderi’s boots, not workingman’s boots, not farmer’s boots, and when he was a child his father told him to fear those with soldier’s boots, a lesson learned through generations at gunpoint. It’s a lesson that has served Teyfuq well over the years in keeping his farm and family out from under the treads of tanks, and here is an American with money in her pockets now held out in her hands, and he feels nothing but for the sorrow in her eyes, and he asks her “how many do you want,” and when she says a bouquet, an armful, he tells her that it will cost nothing at all, and not to leave without a cup of strong dark tea and toast. She does not seem inclined to follow him, makes a comment about the time, about where she has to be, but he asks please, humour him, it has been so long since he and his wife have had company, fresh faces, and they miss their son who is her age most terribly but he these days in the city, and finally says yes, for a short time. Ayshe is awake when they walk in and she rushes to put more coffee on and then make the girl pancakes with melted butter and sour-cherry preserves, and the girl’s Russian is fluent, perhaps ridden through with words and cadences that Teyfuq would associate with stuffed-up local politicians trying to imitate the youth and falling by decades than someone her age, but it must just be that’s the sort of person who’s taught her russian, but the moment that really stuns them both is when she responds to Tatar, Tanışuıbızğa şatmım, a sudden OH, Tatarça söyläşäsezme? From Ayshe, an äye, azraq gına.
Why have you come to Crimea? Ayshe asks, more curious than probing, and the girl swirls the remains of her coffee with a small spoon and says, for my grandmother.
Your grandmother was from Crimea?
A very, very long time ago. She was very old. We took her back to her homeland before she died. She had lost a lot of her memory. We- the family- we wanted her to look at her oldest memories. Horses. The wind here. The fields.
There are tears at the corner of her eyes, and Teyfuq suddenly feels he has done a terrible evil by inviting her in for breakfast when she has so very much to grieve, but she must eat, and as heavy as the words are, she eats readily, and must have been hungry.
For indeed it is to Allah we belong, Teyfuq quotes, and is surprised when the girl joins him, finishes the ayah, and it is to Allah we return.
Thank you, the girl says. You have been very kind.
Oh sweetheart, Aysha both sighs and smiles, and Teyfuq knows she is thinking of her own mother, the funeral a year and a half ago and still fresh in their hearts, it is our pleasure to meet such an interesting stranger who speaks such good tatarça, and our sadness as to what has brought you to Crimea. May God smile with mercy upon your grandmother’s soul.
Teyfuq goes out into the sunflower fields that run all the way up to the farmhouse to cut the most generous bundle of flowers the girl can carry easily, knowing now, without her saying, that they will go above a freshly dug grave. He offered to drive her back into town, but she strongly refused, said she could walk back to her grandmother’s land herself. He finds the tallest stalks and cuts them generously, then wraps the stems in damp and then dry newspapers and rubber bands. Makes sure the girl knows his and Ayshe’s holonumbers and address, should she need anything again. In grief all strangers are kin, he says, and even in life, we are not meant to walk alone.
Thank you, she says, you have been too kind.
Ayshe wraps a chunk of the good sunflower-seed halva they made this year for her for the road. Here, she says, taps the holophoto of Murat, you must be our son’s age. School picture, curly hair neatly slicked back, class of 2067.
Yeah she says, he’s a year older than me. Her eyes catch at a different photo on the shelf, one of a grandmother an uncountable number of greats back posed with some foreign soldiers during a war, and he’s about to answer her, talk about the miracle of this woman’s survival, when she swallows heavily and thanks them again for their kindness and walks out the door again.
She carries so much time on her shoulders for someone so young, Ayshe says.
Nile returns with sunflowers, a yellow smear like a drop of paint against the mud-brown landscape.
(Amsterdam, 2039, and they’re boxing up the Van Gogh museum and the rijks as the city’s prognosis in the face of rising waters tends more and more clearly towards the fatal. Nile and Andy engage in a bit of classic breaking and entering to see the museum, complete and full as it will be for the last time, hopelessl out of date flashlights in their hands as the walk past trove after trove of Van Gogh’s paintings. Nile’s first great art love, back when she was five and collected postcards and loved the look of the colors, and there’s definite streaks of grey in Andy’s hair now, and they’re shipping out tomorrow to do a jazzy bit of threatening a CEO on a yachting vacation off Calabria who is literally boating over the rising tide, and Nile cannot stop for one moment or she will be swallowed herself by all the grief of the world, but for now takes a minute to breath and take a look at what remains beautiful in the world.
“Hey kid,” Andy says as the rush across the marshy ground in as the first light of morning breaks out over the city, “I thought you’d like this.”
T shirt from the gift shop, Van Gogh’s self portrait, 1889, and on top of that in blocky cartoon wrapping, Gogh For It, which entertains Nile deeply even though she’s known since she was nine years old and watching PBS that that’s not how you pronounce “Gogh,” and she wears the damn shirt proudly for the next decade until it’s gone grey and irreparably whole-y and the pun is no longer legible, and she buries it with the rest of that cycle of clothes outside Lagos.
Andy thoughtfully also stole her the shopping bag it came with and Nile shoves it in her pocket and forgets about it until she fishes it out of her cargo pants halfway through the Appalacian Hell Mission, the first set of ops that are fully and completely organised, planned, plotted, and run by Ms. Nile Freeman, and the site of the bag in the half-exposed shed that is their current digs is such a sudden breath of fresh air that Nile breaks out laughing when she sees it, all thing plastic that is absolute shit for the environment and the image of van gogh’s sunflowers printed on, and she uses it to wrap up enough explosives to tear several buildings apart and a bunch of Nicky’s sniper ammo, duct tapes the the whole thing shut from the damp and puts the sunflowers back in her backpack like a beating flame she can carry with her, and Andy looks her in the eyes and tells her, “You’ll do this job better than I ever did.”)
Quynh is gone when she returns to the farm house, but Quynh is often gone, and even as they are all drowning in their own grief none of them can pretend to understand Quynh’s, so all they can do is make sure there is food on the table and a clean bed and open arms when she returns. Just because you can’t die doesn’t stop you from feeling like you have when someone you love does. Booker is there, though, and he wordlessly takes the flowers from her and unwraps the newspapers and puts them in water. He’s making coffee and pours her a mugfull, and has mud up to his waist. Out the window she can see Nicky and Joe out in the field, back at the digging, and knows she must also take per place. She takes her light jacket off until she’s down to an old pair of trackies and a sports bra and picks up a shovel and joins them, halfway down into the earth themselves.
(Nile never asked her direct questions about her past, especially once her memory started going and she couldn’t always recognise her or Nicky or Joe, although she never ever forgot Quynh’s face, but sometimes the past came bubbling back up, tied, maybe, to the six thousand years stacked upon the landscape, and this was one of the things she and the others could pin to the past, one of the few things historians and archaeologists had ascertained about the ancient peoples to whom Andy had once belonged, been born into- a few had even hypothesized naming the seminomadic pastoralist culture that spread from the Eurasian steppes and into Europe five and a half thousand years ago after the burial mounds they left behind. Sometimes Andy’s memories strayed to people, places, a horse she’d owned, another she’d stolen, and those were harder to pin down, but Joe and Nicky and Nile printed out photos of the kurgans and graves, ever more being found in Russia and Kazakstan and China with the melting permafrost, things frozen for thousands of years thawing for the first time, and Andy’s eyes lit with recognition, with oh yes, I made the arrowheads for her funeral, she was a warrior, he was a king, we slaughtered many horses for him to take into the next world.)
Booker cuts her a coffin from pine boards, and Nile and Joe and Nicky dig the burial chamber from the earth and line it with ash, and they place her within it. They gather the grave goods. Nicky, perhaps, is the one with the most knowledge of funerals, or at least, giving the rites for them, long, long ago, but they all agreed without speaking that they would do their level best to give her a funeral of her people and her own faith even if she walked the earth five thousand years past any of the rest of them, for that is the last grace you can give a survivor.
Gold jewellry, which Joe collects and shines and organises neatly against the earth, earrings mainly, the jewellry she preferred because it didn’t get in the way, but a few necklaces, pendants, most collected across the centuries and buried in caves around the world, some gifts, some offerings to keep a goddess on one’s side, studded with rubies and pearls.
Weaponry. Arrows, quivers, bows, a crossbow. Arrows from across the millenia, arrows that saw all kinds of battles and took all kinds of lives, cleaned on a kitchen table with a careful rag. A rifle. Several rifles.
(“Lyudmila,” Andy suddenly remembered to Nicky, “Pavlichenko.”
He’d taken her into the city where the medical equipment was more reliable, and it wasn’t Volvograd, where they’d both laid down their own deaths by the dozen, but something sparked behind her eyes, and on the ride back into the country memories of one of the wars they’d fought on these lands rose up again.
“Yes,” he says slowly, “I fought with her too.” The strains of a Woody Guthrie song, and suddenly they’re both singing.
They have fought many wars here in this cradle of a land, and seen it washed with blood time and time again, a land, like so many others, sticky-gray with ghosts.)
Crimean war and world war two and far more modern. Even the latest model, holoscopes and lazer precision. War getting more exact by the decades.
An axe, on top of it all.
Quynh reappears. “You do not know how much I wish it was both of us,” she’d screamed into the night, and Nile wraps her in her arms as strongly as she humanly can when she reappears out of the misty horizon, trying as hard as the world will let her to pin her to this life, even though she knows very well that no one person can do that.
Quynh adds four bottles of vodka, a tray of local pahkhava, and some of the finest weed the Netherlands still has to offer. “It was in the research papers,” she offers as explanation, and they don’t question it. And then slowly unties the necklace that went back around her neck for a few more decades after they were for such a short snatch a sort-of-family again, and lays that carefully down as well.
Booker is there. Booker has a copy of Don Qixote and a guilt the size of the ocean and the knowledge she carried the scar of his bullet for the rest of her goddamn life, and the knowledge that the only thing he can do to atone is keep going, better than this time, and Booker drops his forehead to the coffin and cries.
Nile has her sunflowers. She places the gold in the grave and she knows that perhaps her God is newer than whatever Andy once believed and incomprehensible to the woman older than the dirt beneath her feet, but she also knows her God is real and true and full of mercy.
“Goodbye,” she whispers to the wind, in one of the tiny snippets of the language Andy had been born speaking, that she taught to Nile, and Nile alone.
They arrange the objects. No one knows the ceremony to follow- time and ice have preserved the objects in kurgans, but no one can bring back the words that were not written down, the gestures and songs that were performed to honor the dead. No psalters or books of prayers, none of the known rituals that Nile or Nicky or Joe or Booker still associate with honoring the dead. Nile wears black anyway. Joe has on a white shirt. He recites a poem he wrote her, starting off with shouting to the wind, line after angry line about she who walked upon this earth in goodness and in fear and saved life on life on earth, she who has now been taken, but halfway through his voice cracks and he falls knees to the ground, sobbing loud and wet into the earth.
In the end, this is how it is- five broken people and their grief, the soft sound of the wind, and their silence.
Nile looks at Quynh and Quynh looks at Nile. The oldest and the youngest, the youngest and the oldest, the two that have shared being the boss for years now, shared calling the shots and the end. Quynh nods infitisemly, and Nile lightly kisses her fingers and then the top of the coffin and picks up a shovel and slowly returns to work, returning dirt to the earth. It wont’ quite be a full kurgan- it isn’t big enough, they won’t have enough time- but it should be noticeable, a hill on a flat, flat field, and the others quickly join her, packing on dirt as the noontime heat builds. She prays the grass will grow over green and strong before the Hot Season comes on truly and fries the plants in its wake. A villager or two sees them as they, probably writes it off as some satanic ritual. Booker wanted to seal the whole thing in a titanium lock box in the event of grave robbers.
Afterwards. After. It is not like the funerals Nile has been to, mostly, although in her immortal life she has been to many, across all faiths, and knows many modern rites well. But it is not like the ones from her mortal life. There is no community, no round of hugs and embraces and no potluck afterwards in the church hall with covered trays of meatloaf and mac and cheese and cut fruit and cookies. Only a plastic bag of piroshki gone cold and clammy and a cold house. She tries and fails to eat one, her a sour sharpness at the back of her throat, and the stifling heaviness hangs over them all, the “what now” of it all. Lies on the couch and stares at the ceiling.
Her phone rings that afternoon. She answers it.
“Nile, baby?” she hears her mother say, and Nile breaks down without saying a thing more, and her mother hears the words through her tears and understands.
Between the two of them, it’s Liza Duquesne-Freeman, not Andromache of Scythia, who has the last laugh, her mother still going strong to her bingo group and water aerobics and grandchildren’s baseball games and piano recitals, and even her church group that all got arrested after they all handcuffed themselves to the bike racks in front of the city hall to protest the new round of austerity cuts the city keeps trying to implement.
“Yeah, mama,” she says. “It’s me.”
“Come home,” her mother says, and Nile does.