Homelands, spinning solar triangles, potential sex toys, hallucinated fathers, kolkhoz, Soviet coloring books, homemade vodka, small kittens, nettle patches, zombies, the anti-anti-Christ & Georgia.
I saved us some seats,” Mindia tells me in Russian. “Lots of people going to the village today.”
He takes me through rows of covered food stalls on our way to the main bus station; they’re mixed through with kiosks selling icons, spinners and potential sex toys. Disinterested women hold donation buckets for sick children. Guys in sweatpants try selling me sweatpants. Chocolate-pushers assure us of local quality and character and I am offered every conceivable type of sneaker. Lots of people going everywhere.
I’m lucky that Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, used to be Soviet and everybody understands Russian. Otherwise I’d have to learn Georgian, a language resembling approximately nothing else on the planet. Alongside the blocky Cyrillic letters I’ve been getting used to these past few years, Georgian text curves like roots or fish hooks. There’d be no way I’d get anywhere without help.
A fool is king. A fool doesn’t need anyone, can laugh at everything. That’s what makes him king.
But I’m not without help, and by the time we find the minibus there’s already a small platoon of villagers arranging themselves across the more comfortable seats. We step through a variety of limbs and settle onto a small bench, our feet resting on a growing pile of what’s either wheat, flour or small vegetables in dirty white sacks. I can’t tell Mindia’s grandmother from the others until she creaks upright and vaguely motions toward a can of petrol they have nestled under our seat. Having grown up in the mountains, she speaks only Georgian.
The middle-aged ladies peddling Soviet colouring books eventually step off the minibus and we lurch out onto the road. The doors seem to close in afterthought. Locals debate the virtues of leaving the windows open. My friend takes a book from his small bag and flips through it. “I like the psalms sometimes,” he says, eyeing his grandmother, “and the gospels. Especially John. But not all the psalms. Some fall flat.”
He’s dressed entirely in deep crimson. “I used to like blue, but red’s better. It’s not my favourite; my favourite’s yellow. I love yellow. But I get too excited, so I don’t wear it much. I feel okay in red.”
“What about gold?”
“No good.” He grabs at a raggy curtain above our heads and tugs it to the side. It’s almost September and temperatures still crawl up past thirty degrees Celsius. “Why do you think the sun’s round?” He leans onto a rice sack and nearly smiles. “I mean, what if it’s triangular and constantly spinning?”
“But then why three sides? Why not five, or seven?”
He scratches a knee. “Three appears a lot in nature.”
Alongside the blocky Cyrillic letters I’ve been getting used to these past few years, Georgian text curves like roots or fish hooks.
I ran into him on the street one day, or in a park, exactly the way foreigners fantasize about meeting locals in cities like Tbilisi. He invited me right away to get out of the city for the weekend, his family’s village, Davati, being in the mountains. They still have a house and he goes there periodically with his grandmother when there’s work to be done, which is pretty often. I wonder, not for the first time, if he was looking for extra hands. How many other foreigners he’s brought up here. If he’s scared any off.
He was quick to list facts: he spent time in Odessa, Ukraine, not long ago. He had a breakdown on that trip and hasn’t been the same since. He likes cherry ice cream in the summer. The minibus, a haphazard, post-Soviet contraption known as a marshrutka, shambles up to Davati twice a week. If things take a turn for the weird, it’s at least a two-hour walk down to the main road.
I look at his grandmother. Mindia tells me to call her Babushka. She’s outlived her husband and has the house to herself. No electricity. They bought the place for a thousand rubles—a cheap buy even then. She lives with relatives in the city, but comes out when she can.
“Do you think she looks sad?” he asks, and I start thinking in clichés. Like if she perceives things like sadness like we do. If she feels too old for that. To what extent resignation is a defense mechanism or a way of having control. I learn later that her name is Baliko. That in the Balkans, a thousand kilometres away, the word “davati” means “to give.” Or, more precisely, “to be giving.”
He cuts easily through the yard, feeding chickens, forgetting to knock.
Mindia shifts deeper into his seat, putting his legs up on a crate of unidentifiable chopped roots. “Who do you think would live in the sun?”
“Who would live in the sun?”
We compare answers. A fool, maybe. Why? Only a fool would. A fool is king. A fool doesn’t need anyone, can laugh at everything. That’s what makes him king.
The curtains keep falling back over the windows and I can’t see anything. I reach around to pull them back again and tell Mindia my dad used to drive trains for a living. My siblings and I got to ride for free. There was a car in the middle of the train with a big dome where you could sit and see the mountains through a plastic ceiling.
Mindia asks what I want in life.
I ask him what he wants.
He doesn’t hesitate: “I want to make the world better.” He looks out the window and through the foliage. “There was a time in Odessa when I looked at the sun and I saw a man sitting on it. There was like a wall between us. He stood up and started walking down from it, like walking down stairs. I don’t know if he was good or wanted to help, but I felt powerful, powerful energy. Coming right to me from the sun. I want to help make life better for people.”
W e start with clearing the tall grass.
The house has one room with three beds tucked against the back wall. Mine sags in the middle and the blankets look thick and handmade. There’s an extra room accessible from outside; it was an old kitchen, but now is used as a shed. It’s full of corrugated tin sheets and garden tools; I find a single glove and start grabbing at shrubs.
We work in rhythm at first, pausing for water or when someone brushes against nettles. When I travel, I do work exchanges pretty often; this isn’t my first time doing labour for a stay. Tilling or cleaning up outside. I don’t normally feel a sense of ownership, but here I like that we make a path to the door. That it’s necessary. I look at the plot and can’t help wanting to make it pretty. Prettier.
I’ve done this enough to know the feeling will be short-lived: tomorrow I’ll have that familiar, slightly panicked feeling I get when I work with my hands too long. The difficulty finding meaning in long stretches of physical work. Wanting to be stretched, but not overly so.
The place is mostly quiet. A pile of food inside on the table: tomatoes, cucumbers, plums, bread. Local cheese in a nearby cupboard. Everything’s set out, and every time we go in, we eat the same thing. I begin craving exactly this. If anyone gets hungry between meals, we go up to one of the trees and pick nuts, cracking the shells with a rock until our palms are full.
I grab a chair and head out to the plum tree and pluck as many as I can reach, stowing the fruit in my upturned shirt. Most of the low plums aren’t ripe yet, so I step down and shake the trunk. Everything that’s ready to come comes abundantly.
M india has three small tattoos at the base of his neck: three vertical bars above a small sun or blossom, and a cross below both that looks recognizably Christian. He says they’re from a civilization long gone.
A man comes in through the back gate and introduces himself as Valera. The name’s clearly Russian, but nobody expects me to remember their Georgian ones. He cuts easily through the yard, feeding chickens, forgetting to knock. Visits are expected, and expected a few times a day. This kind of thing, for me, usually sounds exhausting. But opportunities for socializing are limited.
Valera’s brother originally built the house, but had to sell it off. Young people disappear. Old people disappear, only to be found in Tbilisi with their extended families. Valera’s brother’s legs disappeared from gangrene and he couldn’t take care of the place anymore and sold it to Babushka. His sister’s got a house somewhere around here, but she’s gone too.
He stands under the tree and talks with Babushka. Her eyes relax as he complains about how things were better back when they had the kolkhoz, Soviet collective farms. Everyone had a job, something to do. If anyone loafed or looked for trouble, they’d be nabbed by the ear and given a livelihood. “And now look,” he says, “there’s no one. Nothing to do.” He talks babies, cousins, starting a war with Putin.
He asks if we’d like to drink with him tonight.
I get used to Mindia speaking in platitudes with a straight face. His sense of irony, when it shows, is underdeveloped. He strongly identifies as a spiritual person and describes the experiences he has. Voices he hears. One voice told him to invite me here for the weekend. Oddly enough, this puts me at ease.
He leans towards the gnostic—gnosis being a Greek word for the kind of knowledge given to the elect. Secret knowledge, hidden histories and whatnot. He says there’s a Creator and that its power is found among the worthy.
“What about everyone else?” I ask.
He laughs, “They’re zombies.” It’s raining and he stands in the doorway with a cigarette. “I’m not my body.”
“What’s that feel like?”
“Like being a soul in a box.”
He brushes nutshells from his hoodie. I pick at tomatoes and cheese.
“Why do you think the sun’s round?” He leans onto a rice sack and nearly smiles. “I mean, what if it’s triangular and constantly spinning?”
“I can be friends with anyone,” he continues. “And I like people. But people don’t understand who I am. I want to be tender; I want to love. But I have to protect myself from people who want to cheat or use me.”
He describes communing with nature, the peace that comes with it. He describes talking to trees, having conversations, the connections underneath our architecture and noise. I tell him I like cities. Concrete and cracks.
For him, they’re hives for zombies. Zombies can’t see the world for what it is. They were born that way and they’re never going to change.
I tell him I can’t agree, because I’ve changed. That I’m probably not finished changing.
Mindia steps outside, pokes a stump with his shoe. “I feel called to a higher reality and leave this one behind. But I’m scared.” He looks at his gloves. “I won’t be able to connect with people after I go. I’m not ready to lose people yet. I don’t want to be alone.”
This place has rhythms. Babushka and Valera are long used to Mindia the way he is. There are no expectations on me as a guest. We work as we go and rest as it happens. Pick fruit and nuts. We find a piece of hard plastic from the storage room and put it under a tree as a stool.
Babushka doesn’t let me wash the dishes. Sometimes there’s something else I can do, and that makes me feel better. After the second or third day, I stop looking at the time.
Sometimes I sit and watch them work and sometimes they sit and watch me pull at the grass. With my one glove. Chickens edge in close and clamour over the toe of my shoe. Chickens in the yard. Chickens coming into the house when Babushka’s on her knees in prayer. I step inside to wave them away and Babushka strains her whole body pretending she wasn’t just sleeping. I act like I don’t notice.
I wonder, not for the first time, if he was looking for extra hands. How many other foreigners he’s brought up here. If he’s scared any off.
I walk with Mindia to the shop for more cigarettes; the only store’s inside a small shed on the far side of the village. We skirt a small gorge to get there, the domestic animals on the way skittish as we pass by. Particularly the dogs. When we get there, it’s locked up. Someone shouts at the neighbours until a short, middle-aged woman comes out with a key. Other than smokes, they have ramen noodles and ice cream. Babushka chides Mindia for smoking and, when she’s back inside the house, he gives half his pack to Valera.
When it gets dark we come inside, eat potatoes. I study a bit or read something by candlelight. We talk metaphysics. Chickens hop up the stairs and jump aside when I get too close. Mindia strokes their feathers and wonders if they, in a meaningful way, really do exist. Valera takes a giant rock and pummels an old stump from its place. I pray, squatting out behind the house, that I’m not crouching over a nettle patch.
A small kitten circles Mindia on a smoke break. It won’t come near at first, but eventually its desire to be touched overcomes the fear of being kicked. We call him Chester.
It rains most of the evening, but nobody seems to mind.
Babushka finds it too cold and heads to a nearby relative’s to sleep. I give up asking who’s grown up together and who’s actually related. We’ve been boiling everything with a propane burner. Mindia heats water so we can wash the day off. Chester mews from outside and we let him in to dry off and steal some cheese. The candle’s burning low and we lose sight of him in some corner, and the backs and sleeves of our hoodies are stained with fallen plums.
He talks about getting lost in Odessa, six months ago. He went because he knew some people, but things didn’t work out. He was in a hostel at first, but ended up on the street. Retreated in on himself. He talks about it like awakening to something he always felt, to the world as it is. Something coming alive. The voices were clearer than ever.
People came and took him to the hospital and said his brain wasn’t working right. He told them it was just fine. Maybe better than ever. They brought him to a dirty room with a dirtier man who didn’t talk to anyone. Mindia crouched beside him and waited until the man reached out with his arm.
The man started crying like an animal, then like a child. He rocked back and forth and called Mindia his father. And Mindia said, “Yes, I am your father. No one’s going to hurt you.” The next day, they took the man away and Mindia asked to be let free. They told him that they couldn’t do that, but he ended up walking out the door that same day.
I’ve done this enough to know the feeling will be short-lived: tomorrow I’ll have that familiar, slightly panicked feeling I get when I work with my hands too long.
I zip my books into my bag and he goes to the door to smoke. I feel terribly, mercifully small.
He asks what I want.
I ask what he wants.
“Power,” he says, “to change the world. To take control away from the zombies.”
“I was a zombie.”
“You weren’t ever a zombie.”
“There’s still lots of me that’s zombie.”
“You were never a zombie. Real zombies are born and die that way. They can’t change.”
“What would you do with them, if you could?”
“I’d destroy them,” he laughs, “but not the way you’re thinking.”
He pauses and doesn’t speak for a while. “I don’t think you understand people. There are things you haven’t seen.”
“I could say the same.”
Everything’s set out, and every time we go in, we eat the same thing. I begin craving exactly this.
“You go to the mountains to camp. But hundreds of years ago they killed baby girls there because they’d eventually need dowries to get married. A big piece of land. They’d keep the boys instead, and nothing’s changed. If someone’s too different, then someone else threatens to kill their family or burn their home. Christ was forced on people here by a king.”
He leans against the door. “I have a great respect for Jesus. I don’t believe all the things they said about him after, but his character”—he takes a pull—“he was real. I…”
He looks outside, taps at his cigarette and rubs his sleeves. He hasn’t changed his clothes all weekend. “I don’t think I’m the anti-Christ.”
I zip my books into my bag and he goes to the door to smoke. I feel terribly, mercifully small.
He says Babushka’s leaving for Tbilisi tomorrow morning; it’s almost Monday. I tell him I’ll be leaving too. He asks if I’ll come back, and I don’t answer.
We hear Valera before we see him, tracking mud up the stairs, a bottle of homemade vodka under his arm. Mindia and I cut vegetables to go with it and the older man says something about cheese guarding our minds from running to drink.
Valera toasts the first round to our homelands—rodina in Russian. He nods to me for Canada, to Mindia for Georgia. He notices me sniffing for alcohol content and asks if I really do love my rodina. Mindia says he loves Canada because it’s just as much his as mine. He says we’re not from any nation, our rodina being the Earth. We drink.
I raise the second toast to hospitality, to soil and the ones buried in it. To folks who accept strangers. We drink.
Mindia raises the third toast, but hesitates. As if he’s thinking about how to phrase things, about what compromises are worth making to stay connected to people. To not seem as odd as one is. The choice between alienating others with your truth or isolating yourself in it. In the end, he asks the Lord to keep us safe this night. To water the fields. To keep food on the table. To protect everything we’ve come to love, if love’s your thing.
I wake early the next day and realize, as I reach over to check the time, that my hands are full of Chester.
Josh Nadeau is a Canadian writer currently based in Russia. When not writing or organizing events, he may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in some kind of shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.
Lead image: Brooke Cagle