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By June 27, 2022One Comment


I never knew when Chinara would decide to come and visit me. Perhaps that’s one of the few privileges the dead still enjoy. I felt a hand shake my shoulder, cool fingers on my cheek, breath warm on my face. I opened my eyes, wondering what it was that Saltanat wanted in the middle of the night. But she lay next to me submerged in sleep, the duvet swaddling her and leaving me exposed.

The room was suddenly cold, as if we’d left a window open to admit the winter, and I could see my breath gusting white in front of me, the way horses plume their breath as the bitter weather sweeps down from the mountains, shrouding the land with snow.

I looked up at Chinara, who smiled down at me, her face more worn than I remembered, filled with a sorrow I didn’t recognise. Perhaps the dead still age, though not at the rate that we do.

I didn’t expect her to speak; she never did when she came to see me. Surprising for a woman who loved nothing more than to quote her favourite poets; Esenin, Blok, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky. They explained the universe to her in as complete a fashion as the physics she taught at school.  She always said, Akyl, you have to understand, it’s neither one nor the other, but both.

‘Why are you here?’ I asked, although I knew my lips didn’t move, that she read my thoughts the way the ones we love can do when we dream.

Chinara picked up one of the cushions by the side of the bed, held it to her stomach, then pointed to Saltanat. I realised she was referring to the pregnancy, felt sorrow overwhelm me at the thought of the child she and I had never had. Chinara shook her head, mimed wiping away tears, smiled and placed the cushion back on the bed. 

I watched, unable to move as she reached over and rested her hand for a few seconds on Saltanat’s stomach. She smiled, nodded approval, and then blew me a farewell kiss.

‘Stay, Chinara, or visit me again,’ I said, watched as she shook her head. And then she was gone, and I knew I’d seen the spirit of my dead wife for the last time. So I lay there, staring into the darkness, wondering at the complications and sorrows of my life while the woman carrying our child slept unaware beside me.

I’d never told Saltanat about my dreams. Perhaps it was because she was Uzbek, not Kyrgyz. We have a curious relationship with the world of the dead, and the meaning of dreams. Having been nomads for centuries, roaming with our flocks across the high jailoo mountain pastures, we came to accept the complete control that nature has over us. And so, when dreams come to visit us, we recognise their significance; a future foretold, a warning or an instruction, perhaps even an assurance that death only divides us in certain ways.

After Saltanat had checked my stitches and changed the dressings, I spent part of the next morning trying to get back into shape. She’d been eager to start our journey to Bishkek, but I persuaded her that having me at least partially fit could be a decisive factor in tracking down her uncle’s killers.

I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to run or even walk far any time soon. Fighting would be out of the question: the pain that seared down my right arm whenever I tried to make a fist would take care of that. I could still feel my missing finger; the shock of realising it was no longer there startled me every time I tried to use my hands to pick something up. Instead, I tried to recapture the one skill I thought I could regain. 

Even lifting a weapon at first brought a cold sweat dribbling down my back, as muscles and nerves screamed at me, like a cop shouting ‘Put the gun down!’ I could hold it steady on a target for only a few seconds to begin with, before my hand began to shake and the weight of the Makarov pulled my arm down. 

Over the next two weeks, I worked out three times a day, walking first across the room and back, then up and down the stairs, trying to recapture my balance and my co-ordination. My leg muscles burned, the damaged side of my ribs made me lurch and stagger, but I knew that I had to keep going. I didn’t know if my aim was any better, but my ability to hold my Makarov steady slowly improved. I didn’t know if I’d ever regain enough strength to use the Yarygin, heavier but with much more stopping power. If I had to use a lighter gun, I simply had to be more accurate.

A greater worry was my spleen, or rather, the lack of it. I knew it laid me open to opportunistic infections, but dying from pneumonia or meningitis seemed to be a lot less likely in the short term than a hail of bullets. I knew that once I was back in Bishkek, I ran the risk of Aliyev’s remaining supporters looking to revenge their dead pakhan, always assuming that the new regime hadn’t decided to take them out. There were too many possible suspects who might want me dead;  I sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t be easier to oblige. 

I would see Otabek only two or three times a week; I would wake up from a sleep fractured by pain to find the boy staring down at me in my bed, his eyes unblinking. Clearly he had mastered the skill to look unmoved by anything from Saltanat.

Sometimes, Saltanat would take off for the city, never telling me where she was going or why. Sometimes she would return with bruises on her arms, and once with a knife slash on her shoulder, crudely stitched. I was always glad to see her, in her line of work, there’s always the possibility you might not make it back home.

I tried to ask about the pregnancy, questions I hadn’t been able to ask Chinara since we had aborted our child as soon as we knew. I wanted to show Saltanat that I cared, was interested, involved. She mentioned that morning sickness had been a nuisance, an inconvenience that made her less than efficient. I’d expected more of a reaction from her, good or bad, elation or despair at the alterations her body was going through, at the way her future would change. And we never discussed if I had a part to play in that future.

One evening, Saltanat brought my new papers. An Uzbek passport, already half-full of stamps and visas, showing that I’d travelled around Central Asia and even made a couple of trips to Turkey. The passport cover was creased and stained, and it certainly looked genuine enough. My photograph looked like I should be holding a board with police booking numbers on it, but then, don’t all passport photographs? Saltanat had added five years to my real age, presumably on the basis that most people out of vanity subtract rather than add years. I wondered if this was a genuine passport that someone had ‘lost’, or if it was a clever forgery; I guessed I’d find out the first time I tried to use it. Comparing it to my face in the mirror, I couldn’t help thinking I looked almost as old as I felt. 

My days passed without incident; at night Saltanat and I shared a bed, but without any desire between us. I didn’t know whether my lack of interest was because of my wounds, or the memory of Chinara leaving me, or simply the terror at the thought of becoming a father. When we spoke, it was without meeting each other’s eyes, and I wondered if it was time for me to simply give up and return to whatever fate might await me.

And that’s how it was early until one morning, just before dawn, when the shooting began.

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