By Tara Isabella Burton. First published in Babel Anthology, Summer 2012. Winner of the 2012 Sir Richard Hillary Prize
Why tell the truth? Nobody in Tbilisi knows my name. There is nobody to confirm my story, to determine my nationality, to correct my many-colored account of myself.
When I am bored, I tell the henna-haired woman at the chaikhana that I am a famous English poet come to wander bare-legged in the mountain grass. I have hinted to my landlady that I have tapped telephones in Abkhazia. My butcher thinks I have a Georgian husband. My grocer believes I am French. Sometimes I have coffee with an obnoxious English journalist in an air-conditioned English bookshop off Rustaveli Avenue: he believes that I, like him, have come to sport a hideous panama hat and colonize this city one courtyard at a time. I am too clever to compete with him; he has carved out his own uncertain kingdom among the shattered glass and smoky streets of Perovskaya, where the strippers live.
I stay in the labyrinth of the old town, into which I have wandered like a princess in a fairy-tale and from which I can never escape.
I could not go if I wanted to. The streets double back on themselves; gardens divert themselves into courtyards; alleyways go blind. Maps are useless in this part of the city; I have learned long since to follow the stray cats instead. I don't know street-names. Instead I find my bearings by wrought-iron mermaids and stone maenads and sightless gargoyles that stare down from me from the tops of windows.
I have named them all.
It is easy to tell lies here. I speak Russian to Georgians and French to Russians and English to the Dutch. Restaurants and chaikhanas open and close with terrifying urgency; two weeks ago they built a glass casino over the iconographer's house. They've opened a cocktail bar on the riverbank. My name and history change with them.
I told the truth only once.
It was Holy Week. I did not believe in God.
The city choked on its stillness; the streets smelled like incense and bitter herbs. I had been fasting for almost forty days; fasting made me feel like I belonged. That God did not exist was immaterial. That March I had decided that I would not be an Orientalist, oot a spy, nor an anachronistic explorer nor one of the washed-up aid-workers relishing cheap beer in slimy basements near the Philharmonic Hall. I would be a spiritual exile. It was as good a reason as any to be here.
I remember Easter Sunday. I woke early and watched the sun rise from the old fortress; when the mist cleared the earth was new and I felt the thrill of possibility. Today I was Angelica, an Orthodox convert with a disapproving husband whom I had left behind in Lincolnshire As Angelica I fastened the scarf around my neck; as Angelica my skirts trailed into the dust.
I went to Sioni Cathedral because it was far from my apartment and nobody could recognize me there. The men did not set their eyes on me, they did not grope me as they had done when I first arrived. Angelica was a respectable woman.
The women gossiped in the courtyard; the queue to buy candles extended almost to the river. I positioned myself near the back.
I pretended the chanting made me feel closer to God.
I did what Angelica would do. I genuflected; I gesticulated. When the other women threw themselves to the floor, prostrate before the empty-eyed, gold-flecked face of Christ, I imitated them. I pressed my forehead to the floor. I tried to weep.
I didn't feel anything, of course – but then again I never did.
I saw him then.
He was broad-shouldered and dark-eyed; he looked like any one of the men who played backgammon after midnight on my street. He'd halted at the threshold; the dust-filled light from the dome flooded over him; his eyes were red and filth-streaked and there was nothing picturesque about his ugliness. He cried without fear.
I told myself stories about him: he was a returning exile, a refugee from Abkhazia, a poet who spent summers reading Lermontov holed up in one of the Svan towers I had never dared see in person. I told myself that I was Angelica, who would spend the summer reading the Greek fathers at a monastery in Kakheti.
When he caught my eye, my stories collapsed upon themselves. He pressed his hands against the stone columns as if to break them down; I felt the weight of his gaze press me to the floor. He saw me – he was looking beyond me – I don't know. He kissed the wall and did not vary his stare. He wept and his tears ran down the stone like candle-wax.
For the first time I felt shame.
I watched him as he visited each of the icons in turn, as he pressed his lips against them, how he smeared his tears upon them. I watched him as he placed his feeble candle among so many tiny others on the candelabra and pressed his forehead to the floor before the altar. I watched him sob as I had never sobbed in public.
I wanted to speak to him, to reach out, to catch his sleeve and beg him to allow me entrance to his private history. I wanted to memorize what he said and use it in some other context, collapsed and reformulated, so that next time, next time, I could tell my story with his voice. I could take him into myself, subsume his mortality into my own, transsubstantiate myself into something solid, fleshly, real. To speak to him required an introduction. I shuffled through my litany of identities, through my catalog of identities. I exorcised them all.
I gave up and let him go.
There would be more cities. I would press eastwards against the frontier of my own consciousness, seeking someplace uninhabited by stories I did not know how to tell. I would take the night-train to Baku, perhaps the ferry to Turkmenistan, pushing back the fatal moment another thousand miles. I would forget Tbilisi as I had forgotten the others, or else tell stories about my walks up and down the Fortress, the samovar at the chaikhana, the polyphonic chants and the postcard-views of the old town. The service continued without him. We sang and I could not keep on key. “Lord have mercy; Lord have mercy; Lord have mercy.”