Footsteps in Time

From a letter to a friend this summer. Some memories of the Caucasian Mountains, South of Russia.

Going to my friend’s, I had to climb a hill. The scent of lilacs followed me like a veil, with fragrances of late May permeating the air. I remembered myself being nine, visiting my paternal grandparents, and exploring the hills and mountain passes in the Caucasian Mountains, near Krasnodar and the Black Sea…How hot were the summers there, how lustrous the days!

My ancestors on my father side – Russian nobility of Cossack descent – used to ride horses in the Caucasian mountains on military missions for the Kuban Cossack Host in the 1800s (one of them Ataman in the 1860s). They were fighting against the Gorzy people– the Highlanders– one of whose descendants, Aslan Achmizov, had become my father’s childhood friend.

One summer afternoon, Uncle Aslan, his wife Serafima, and Zaur – their son of my age – took us for a day trip to the mountains. On the way, we were discussing the riddles of our names: Anastasia – Resurrection; Aslan – Tiger; Zaur – Pilgrim; Serafima – Angel of Flame…Every fibre of my being seemed to be on fire too, ignited by a boundless freedom in the Caucasian midday sun. In one of mountain passes we stopped to see a huge rock – the height of a three-storeyed building. It breathed with antiquity, absorbing whirls of dust and time like a massive grey sponge. According to a legend, this rock used to pose a challenge to young Cossacks who vied for the hand of Circassian Princess in the late 1700s. Her father would only approve the courtship of a man who could climb the rock on horseback. Those who failed would lose their head or perish trying…until a young man won the challenge, leaping high enough on his warhorse. It turned out to be the Princess who changed into a Cossack’s garb and won her freedom to choose a husband for herself.

Listening to the story in awe, I imagined the Princess waving to me from the summit, her eyes shining like black stars. Would I also have the courage to win love one day? I was already free to do so – Zaur blushing from my smile…

After a feast of potatoes and onions on one of the mountain tops, Uncle Aslan and Aunt Serafima were taking photographs of Zaur chasing lizards. When he thought that he’d captured one, it whisked into the grass, leaving its tail in his hand. Such was the lizard’s defence: shedding the tail in a dexterous escape.

My father and I wandered off into a pass. The cliffs stood tall in their grandeur; snow glimmering among the clouds which my spirit soared to reach. The rapids below foamed and sparkled, and joy streamed through my veins. I ran – invincible, imperilled, and rapturously unaware- over the edge of an abyss: a narrow lane of dust and thistle. My father watched in dread but did not call out to me. Had I been conscious of the danger, I might have fallen to my death.

“The spirits have saved you,” Aunt Serafima knowingly said.

On our way home, we stopped to take pictures of the rising moon. Rewarding our admiration, the moon illumined a huge dent in the Earth: an empty bowl from which a giant must have eaten.

“This was Ocean Tethys millions of years ago,” Zaur whispered, and a wave of goosebumps ran over me. I could almost hear the howl of the once-terrific ocean, echoing lamentably among the mountain passes. A symphony of ghosts – a chorus of eras – seemed to play around us. The microbe and the whale; a dust mote and Mars – visible on the clear sky like a smudged bloodstain – were eternally connected and essential to each other.

We found a treasury of trilobites following a path of moonlight. Those were footsteps of history: skeletal patterns of animals and marine flora. Collecting a few, we thanked the invisible ocean for flooding us with mirth.

I suddenly recalled the stories of our ancestral feuds – something my father and Uncle Aslan would never bring up. There were no lingering vendettas. Aunt Serafima – the “angel of fire” – was radiant beneath the stars watching her son and me. The trilobites in our hands, and the smiling moon above us observed all wars of humankind and retained their calm.

“1800s were yesterday – today – ten minutes ago,” I found myself thinking – feeling myself newly born, yet timeless as the universe.

Zaur was spellbound by the same realization…

A moment…and we burst out laughing.

The supreme oneness of that night was unparalleled in splendor.

Such memories returned to me today as I was walking up the hill. I was electrified with freedom and a sense of achievement long overdue. Then I burst out laughing from the wonder of it all – as if I were a child again, peeking over the edge of the Caucasian Mountains, expecting the clouds to catch me in case of a free-fall…All that’s missing today is a warhorse and a dark-eyed Prince to win over.

But who knows what next summer will bring?

Perhaps a trip to the Black Sea and the long-gone Ocean Tethys…

I wonder what Zaur is doing now.

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