We could hear the dry coughing of our landlord, Khuta Kursua, through the partition wall, and Mother’s eyes were wide with fear. I was ten, my own lesions had barely healed, and now we were neighbors of tuberculosis again. Our landlord was a handsome, thin man, all smiles with his paying guests but ferocious with his wife, although, actually, I was not too interested in the people around me. I had seen the sea for the first time that year and spent the rest of the month savoring the experience. During the day I would paddle by the shore, even though Mother had taught me to swim almost the day we arrived, and at night I still dreamed of splashing about in the salt water, and the recollection was even more delicious.
Autumn usually saw my mother succumb to a fever of domesticity, pickling, drying, boiling, and on this occasion her urge had materialized in the form of a plywood suitcase she had commissioned from a trader in the market. He spent a long time trying to explain that suitcases were not made as large as the one she wanted, and that she would be better off with two smaller ones, but Mother dug her heels in and had been rewarded with this gigantic suitcase. Set on its end, it reached to her shoulder. Admittedly, she was not very tall.
The suitcase was for pears, which mother and I adored. In late August, Gudauty, a village in Abkhazia, was pear paradise. Mother loved pears that were within an inch of decaying, so that your fingers left indents and, when you bit into them, thick honeyed juice flowed out, summoning every wasp for miles around. The pears had a scent that carried as far as a train whistle.
The rail track, incidentally, ran between the town and the beach, right next to the sea, and a happy trinity has lodged in my childhood memories of the sea, new and young, because I had only just encountered it, the train traveling above the beach, and a pear dissolving in my hands. All this was contained in a world where Mother was still alive, eating pears one after the other before running down to the sea to wash away the juice that had dripped between her breasts. These filled her woolen American swimsuit, which I wore as a hand-me-down in my teenage years.
The day before we were to leave we went to the neighbors’ orchard. Mother had already negotiated with the owner, who had promised to pick Beurre winter pears for us.
Mother brought the suitcase and laid it ceremoniously in front of the owner.
“There. The pears won’t get squashed, will they?”
“My pears are hard as stone, but they will be sweet as honey, believe me.”
They really were rock hard, with a greenish tinge, heavy backsides and slender necks.
“Beurre-Duchesse. Nobody else has pears like these. My grandfather was a prince’s gardener and planted them himself.” She gestured majestically toward the orchard, where earnest Caucasian children were hard at work picking our pears. A boy of about fourteen in a red shirt was up a ladder unscrewing a pear from its branch with a delicate circular movement as if removing a spent light bulb. He handed it to a girl of my own age with whom I had been exchanging glances from behind the fence for the whole month without our having got round to saying hello.
The mistress of the pears carefully wrapped each one in a quarter sheet of newspaper and placed them individually in the bottom of the suitcase. We helped.
“Are you staying with Kursua, then?” She knew very well we were staying with Kursua, but this was only a formality, like the introduction to an old folk tale. “You shouldn’t go renting an apartment from Mengrelians, they’re a dirty people, completely uncivilized, hill people . . . but the Abkhazes are even worse, completely wild. When they have a funeral they don’t sing–they howl like jackals. Their food is more revolting than the Svans’. You haven’t met any Svans? Well, I hope you never do. Gangsters, all of them, robbers . . . worse than the Chechens . . . ” She bent over the suitcase, a package wrapped in newspaper in her rough hands, her pear-shaped butt wagging. “But the Chechens aren’t around any more. They were all deported, thank God. I wish they would deport the Armenians, that would be good. They haggle, they are always haggling. They’re rich but they keep on haggling, they can’t stop. Such a greedy people those miserly, pickled Armenians. No Turks here to sort them out.” Her face suddenly lit up with a smile and she gestured dismissively. “We have Azerbaijanis, they are just like the Turks, bad-tempered, lazy. Thank God we don’t have many of them living here–thieves the lot of them, worse than gypsies . . . and so full of themselves, tfu! Especially the Baku Azerbaijanis, as surly as dogs . . . worse than dogs . . . I’m telling you the truth, I swear by my mother! And the Armenians who come from Baku are no better than the Azerbaidjanis . . . and as for the Armenians from Tbilisi . . .”–she gestured despairingly and straightened the apron stretched over her belly–“I wouldn’t let them into the house, I’d rather have Jews . . . Last year I had Jews living at my house, you wouldn’t believe it, I don’t know where people like that come from . . . worse than the locals they were . . . And Georgians I had, what a mess they made, cooking all the time, frying. Two women, never out of the kitchen, one of them plucking a chicken, feathers flying everywhere. And singing . . . what did she need to do that for?” She frowned, trying to think what to say next. “The Imeritians! What’s to be done with them? Peasants, right? No sophistication, they trampled the grapes with their dirty feet. And what an opinion they have of themselves.”
Mother and I exchanged glances, Mother biting her lip, her cheeks bulging as she tried not to burst out laughing. The suitcase was half full but there was no sign of the proprietor running out of vituperation, or pears, or peoples of the Caucasus.
Dangly red coral earrings tinkled in her ears and she seemed old to me. Maybe forty, or sixty? And scary: she had big eyes set in her dark, leathery face–and gold teeth.
“And what about the Georgians?” she continued. “They are dust in your eyes! Smoke! Vai! Vai! All just a lot of hot air! A bunch of wastrels! And it’s not just the Georgians, there’s the Adjars as well in Batumi. Well, they are a complete joke, not a people at all! They live worse than anyone else, eat nothing but Mamalyga porridge, and also think they’re God’s gift to the rest of us!”
The last rows were filling up. She put one layer of pears bottoms down and the next tops down. The tribes of the Caucasus–Avars, Ossetians, Balkars, Ingushes, and others we had never heard of–were ranked in descending order with each one mentioned even worse than its predecessor.
The pears ran out at the same time as she ran out of peoples. It was impossible to lift the suitcase off the ground. The handle came off straight away. A rickety two-wheeled trolley was rolled out from a shed and Khuta, who had been standing by the fence for a long time looking as though he just happened to be there, was called upon to help lug the suitcase, which by now counted as a trunk.
Mother had a heavy price to pay for her weakness for pears, and was made to suffer greatly by that suitcase before we got it to the station, dragged it into a carriage, and inserted it in a reserved compartment packed with other holiday makers who, just like us, all had suitcases full of fruit. Ours was the tsar of them all.
It lay on its side, taking up all the space between the lower bunks, and mother apologized to our fellow passengers for the inconvenience, embarrassed and even a little obsequious.
In Moscow we were met by Father, who had a few things to say to Mother. He and two porters hoisted the suitcase into the boot of our old Moskvich and she too pushed from one side.
The pears slowly ripened on top of our cupboards, wrapped in newspaper in an unknown Caucasian tongue, and right through to winter the room was redolent of pears. They gradually matured to perfection, and even after New Year’s Day a few beauties remained.
To this day the taste and fragrance of pears reminds me of that narrative of the friendship of the peoples of the USSR. We never did discover the nationality of the woman of Gudauty who told us in such detail all we needed to know about the Caucasus.
First published as “Gudautskie grushi.” Copyright Ludmila Ulitskaya. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Arch Tait. All rights reserved.