The Salamander — Mikho Mosulishvili, Translated by Ani Mosulishvili
Originally published in Georgian in Mikho Mosulishvili’s book The Mercy Stone (2011) published by Publishing House Siesta.
A note: Salamanders have been associated with the fire since early times. The legend of salamanders tells of them being created from flames and this gave the animal its name. As they tend to dwell in logs, when these logs are placed on fire salamanders escape the log and survive.
1. Tears dropping into the soul
Salamander was sitting in a house with the lights off next to a grimy glass lamp. He was smoking. As the last litre of kerosene had run out the day before, he was sitting, hungry and frozen in complete darkness. He could cope with this but he despaired for his wife and children?
He regretted that he had not gone with Jugo, Black and Leko. “They went away,’” he thought “and left me here to face this life.”
He felt like crying with bitterness but could not. His tears were dropping into his soul.
Salamander also had troubles with sleeping. Many of his dreams were haunted by images of corpses floating in the sea. In these dreams human-eating pigs waited for hours for the corpses, then grabbed them at the shore and ate them.
2. The smell of the barracks
When he started serving in the newly established military organization he was an ordinary man who worried about his country with its constant shortages of essential goods, hunger and the endless arguments on these issues within his family. He had gained the rank of officer from his university.
And so he started service as a minor officer in the main division. In this place there were officers who had served in the military forces of the former empire and those who were senior to them – “Street Colonels.” These were tough men who came to the service after fighting in the war and who had gained the rank of Major.
Most nights Salamander had to be on duty with one of the Majors where they protected a building. They always laughed when he revealed that his wife told him he smelled of barracks.
When Salamander was wearing the uniform he found he compared himself to Japanese Samurais, especially to those from Akira Kurosawa’s, Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior).
3. The Weeping
One Sunday night Salamander was on duty. He was talking with his gray-haired senior officer, who had served in several different wars, when he heard a loud noise. The two men ran through the hall and rushed into a room where a young Captain was sitting at the table. He was holding a screw in one shivering hand. His other hand shook and in it was an explosive diffusing smoke into the room.
He explained, his voice trembling. “My superior gave me this mine and ordered me to defuse it. He wanted me to report how it was made. I removed the clock mechanism. I took off the wires and separated the explosive, and I was just about to start working on the starting mechanism when it blew up, so we can’t find out how that part was made.”
Transfixed, Salamander stared at the flat round mine. It would explode in two and a half hours from the moment activation. Even if the Captain removed the timer and clock mechanism, the main charge would still be be active. The mine would explode.
Salamander had seen this kind of mine before. He knew the son of the Captain’s superior (a short but bold Colonel) had served in a mine-clearance unit in the Abkhazian war. The enemies had thrown a mine with the same mechanism from a plane. The son thought that it would not be dangerous if it did not explode when it landed, but the bomb exploded and his body was turned into bloody pieces.
“Leave it alone,” Salamander told the Captain. “It has a self-destruct mechanism; there is nothing you can do.”
“No! It does not matter; I will work it out anyway!” the Captain replied. The fear began to leave his face and the muscles around his mouth relaxed.
At night, Salamander could not sleep at all. He recalled the Colonel. After the explosion that killed his son, he locked himself in a room and wept crying, “Dato, my son, Dato…” all night long.
4. With a nickname Pipe
One day Pipe told Salamander about the time he and his friends lay on thorns in a swamp. They were trying to make their way through volleys of bullets. After covering several meters Pipe realized that his Parabellum was gone. So he crawled back through the thorns and eventually found his pistol Parabellum in the mud. He made his way back through raining bullets. None touched him. Pipe told Salamander that he believed this was because he was convinced he would not get shot… He had to get the Parabellum because it was a gift from his friend who had exploded a bomb on his chest rather than be taken alive by the enemy.
5. With a nickname Reconnaissancer
A Reconnaissancer told Salamander that one day he was returning from a reconnaissance trip and was crossing a cornfield when he encountered the enemy. Three soldiers were with him and the enemy had two.
Both sides were preparing their weapons to go into battle. Just before the shooting began the enemy called, “hold it, don’t shoot!”
“In that case, put your weapons on the ground,” the Reconnaissancer shouted back.
“You too!” returned the enemy.
So they did.
Although they were “the enemy” the other soldiers took some vodka and cans of meat to the unit.
The Reconnaissancer’s group had some bread.
Together they sat, ate and drank.
Afterwards they returned to their places. When each party had crossed the cornfield they sent shots into the air to signal they were in a safer place.
6. Refugee painter from Abkhazia
The military sheltered a refugee painter from Abkhazia in one part of a building. They used to share their meals with him for free. In the morning they ate tea and jam, in the afternoon soup and spaghetti, and in the evening tea and jam again.
The painter was blind in one eye but he still kept an easel in his tiny space where he painted.
Many times he told Salamander about the wonderful studio he had left behind in Abkhazia and how well he used to live with his wife. She had refused to travel with him and had stayed in Abkhazia.
The painter was a former partisan in Belorussia. Before the war started he would visit Salamander and tell him stories about Abkhazia and his partisan life, also about Sukhumi – a city of Abkhazia which Salamander loved very much.
These stories were a fusion of truth and lies. Salamander could not tell which were true and which were not.
He showed Salamander his work, newspaper articles from Belorussia about him. These articles also featured his paintings. As he spoke he cursed the initiators of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and cursed the separatist leaders. In the end he would cry bitter tears.
7. With a nickname Heel
Salamander served with an officer Heel who, before being transferred to his division used to work in one of the military units. He supported communism and had graduated from Baku Party School (an extremist communist school). He often said that if they were still under communist rule he would have his own office where everybody would think twice before knocking and he would decide whether he would let them in or not.
“During the battles before Abkhazia fell and refugees crowded into the country I was in the war,” Heel said to Salamander.
“So?” Salamander said.
“I got shot,” he replied.
“I accidentally stepped on a newly thrown cartridge fired from a cannon. It burned my boot and fried my heel. Within seconds my heel swelled and doctors said it would be a miracle if they saved me,” said Heel.
“So they saved your heel?” he asked.
“Yes, the heel. What is so funny?”
“The heel does not count as a serious wound!…”
8. With the nickname Seven
He told Salamander that as a child he played football as number seven. That was how he got his nickname. Before the war seven trained with the national team. After returning home from the division somebody shot him in his head. He tried to return fire but soon lost consciousness. As far as Salamander recalled, seven had told him that he was floating in blood.
Seven used to stutter. He was already in Abkhazia during the war when a band of criminals captured him and accused him of arresting their members. Street justice prevailed and they shot dozens of bullets around his feet making him jump nonstop for an hour. Then, unexpectedly the boss of the band appeared and let him go.
9. Kukusha from the grave
Kukusha told Salamander that he was once a part of the brother-killing-brother war in which the entire western Georgia was moving to occupy the East.
During the same conversation he said, his voice filled with regret, “I was a student at the faculty of Physics. Einstein and Nils Bore were my brothers. In my spare time I listened to Duke Ellington and John Lennon. Remember his great song, Imagine? Do you think I was a guy to shoot my fellow countrymen…?
“Those in higher positions had excuses for not having to fight…things like sore throats, sore backsides and other things. They managed to return to the capital,” Kukusha said.
“Our superiors sent us on a mission to secure the arms warehouse. When we were doing that the former president’s supporters attacked us with heavy artillery…
“We were held at gunpoint and I told my men to drop their weapons. We were instructed to take off our uniforms and then marched out. Just as we left, the entire building was blasted in the air.
“Next thing I remember I was running through the cornfields followed by the sound of gun volleys. They could have killed me but I guess they felt sympathy for me in the end… and let me go free.
“Here, in Tbilisi my family considered me dead and when I opened the door of our house everybody thought I was a ghost raised from the grave.”
He smiled and murmured, “That was a happy moment.”
10. With the nicknames Hyena and Hood
Hyena was a Major and Hood was a Colonel.
Legend has it that Hood could enter any vehicle from the hood so quietly that nobody would notice. Once inside he would disconnect the wires from the batteries. He would then take the stolen cars to Hyena who would dismantle them until they were in many pieces and distribute the parts to safe sellers in the market. This was all done so fast no one could catch them.
Later, they both found themselves in this war.
Another of their fellow soldiers had the nickname Antenna. He was guarding a warehouse full of arms when Hyena and Hood blew him up for not giving them the drugs they had ordered but wanted to pay for later. They just did not forgive him for refusing…
Despite the fact that Hood was an addict, he used to fight so well that he gained the rank of Colonel.
Hyena also turned out to be a good fighter, but he was more ruthless than Hood. If he caught the enemy in one-on-one combat there was no chance the enemy would get away alive. Hyena had different ways of killing them.
Afterwards he would cut off their ears and add these trophies to his smelly necklace.
Both of them returned alive from the war and formed an air assault troop.
After the war Hyena took a blonde woman with him. She had big hips and she claimed she was a sniper. He kept her in the unit as an instructor of snipers.
Salamander wondered what kind of people Instructor-Snipers were after seeing the entire landing-attack battalion beat the officer from the check-up unit for no reason. The only excuse they gave was that he looked at their instructor of snipers in an inappropriate way. They beat him so hard that the officer got brain damage. However, the ex-criminal Commander of the unit took their side. He said Hyena had fought by their side and knew they would not tell a lie. So he refused to investigate.
Later, when this officer was in the hospital Hyena was arrested. Hyena stumbled upon Hood having sex with their Instructor-Sniper and shot them both in the bed.
11. A bee on the grave
Salamander was standing next to a grave. “Here lies Jugo,” the epitaph said. Jugo was his friend.
Jugo had a very difficult life. Every month he struggled to earn enough to feed his three kids and elderly mother. When he established a firm with several friends, of which Salamander was one, things started to improve. The business was successful and they started to see profits. He and his friends were starting to celebrate their success. But then the war started… When Salamander was out of the city Jugo persuaded their three common friends to sell the firm. They used the money to buy guns and other materials they needed and fled to Abkhazia.
When the passenger plane reached the Abkhazian airport, the enemy blew it up. A few very lucky people escaped alive, the rest were burnt in the plane.
When they asked Jugo’s wife to identify him among the corpses, she could not. There were so many burnt and mutilated remains. Later, they identified him using the army ticket in the belt of his trousers…
Jugo loved cake very much. Whenever he could he ate one or two pieces of cake. If he did that he could drink all night.
“After that I don’t get drunk,” Jugo used to say.
A bee sat on the cake which Salamander brought to Jugo’s grave and started to suck the nectar.
“Here comes Jugo’s spirit,” thought Salamander.
12. Coffee prepared in Abkhazian way for the doctor
The doctor got shot in his head and was immediately transferred to the capital.
There were many stories as to what happened. Salamander recalled one that said the Doctor was standing on the balcony when the bomb hit the house. The explosion sent a shock wave through him and propelled him on to the asphalt covered ground. Luckily he fell on a small piece of ground left for flowers.
Salamander laughed every time he heard that story. He believed another version which said the Doctor got drunk while drinking medical spirits. When he wanted to pee he first opened the door of the wardrobe. His friends shouted that it was a wrong place so he went out to the balcony and while standing there lost his balance.
Even after the war they used to drink the medical spirits in the Doctor’s tiny room and the Doctor kept thinking they were in Abkhazia. First of all he would hear the sound of the waves, then the seagulls and only after that would he order a coffee prepared in the Abkhazian way from the waitress that only he saw.
13. The woman with hair the color of straw
Salamander often had to go to the office of the secretary of the division. Not once could he leave without drinking the coffee prepared especially for him by the lady officer with the hair the color of straw.
“She likes you,” all his friends said.
Salamander was convinced by them.
He recalled how she had once complained to him that her husband was always drinking. She wondered if anyone would still like her.
One night when Salamander was on duty the lady officer brought some food and a bottle of whiskey to him…
The next day Salamander stood for a very long time in the shower trying to remove the smell of the lady officer’s perspiration. He cursed himself many times for being so easily seduced.
Salamander could not carry on his military life. The memories from the war haunted him. Some of these were his own memories but many were also the memories of friends. The smell of the dead came to him often. At times it felt as if it was a physical garment or presence he could touch….
At one point he blamed the way he carried these memories on his friends and started drinking until he lost consciousness. There were many days when Salamander could not remember how he got home the previous night.
Pipe was responsible for the warehouse, so he used to provide a supply of respirators and air-masks, which were later sold on the market with some assistance from Doctor. With the money they would buy a half liter of vodka, some fish and if lucky, bacon.
After they had their supplies they gathered around these and drank until they became unconscious.
When the drink was gone they wandered the streets – Salamander, Pipe, Seven and Kukusha. Their destination was the same – the market. They would go through the lines of the saleswomen and raided their merchandise. The salesmen never dared to speak up as they had loaded guns with them.
One morning Salamander woke up. He stared at all the things that were on his night table – thirty thousand Russian Rubles, two bottles of beer, dozens of packets of chewing gum and various chocolates. Salamander asked his wife who these things belonged to.
His wife started crying. “Who knows what you did last night?! One day someone will kill you or you’ll end up in jail…” she wailed.
For a long time Salamander tried to remember what had happened the night before. All he could recall was some shining place like a bar. Then he remembered shouting at the saleswomen for selling over-priced goods.
“Everything is too expensive,” he yelled.
Next he had a foggy recollection of a tall man leading Salamander out of that bar. He showed Salamander the ticket from the Ministry of Security and made him promise to leave the place and not stand in the way of their operation.
Salamander cursed him and his operation.
“I will cancel the operation but you will die in jail I promise!” the stranger said.
Salamander retorted with a threat and put his gun between the stranger’s legs. The stranger started to tremble. He knew Salamander would not hesitate to shoot him.
No matter how hard he tried, Salamander could not remember what happened next.
He checked his gun. It had not fired a shot. This meant he had not shot the man. Salamander thanked God for that.
15. “How are you brother?”
One year after Jugo was burnt in the plane, Kukusha’s brother, Black, was shot in his own car.
Black did not do “business” in this city. He used to force people to bring shares from various cities. His life was easy: he bought a new apartment in a better location, updated his car and built a summer house at the seaside. He was even helping his relatives.
But one fine day two black Mercedes blocked his car – one in the front and the other behind him.
Two men with machine guns got out of the cars. They were not even wearing masks.
That day Black had left his two favourite pistols, a Smith & Wesson and Beretta, at home. He had decided it was stupid to risk being arrested for carrying a gun.
“These sons of bitches will kill us, brother,” were the last words he said to his driver.
As far as Salamander could recall the story of four mask-less young men shot the car for fifteen minutes filling it with lead. But the weird thing, from Salamander’s perspective, was that the car did not burst into flames.
After those fifteen minutes the four of them opened or to be more exact, took the door off Black’s car and shot a final round into both Black and his driver’s heads. After that they disappeared in different directions…
Salamander could not visit Black’s grave any more. Even when he was walking in the city alone he had a feeling that Black’s car would stop beside him and from its window Black would ask, as he always had, “How is it going, brother?”
16. Flame reflected in the glasses
Salamander was attacked and beaten. He was lying down next to one of the poet’s graves and he rested his head on the pavement trying to get relief for his aching head.
A stranger with glasses leaned over Salamander and held his hand. Flame reflected in his glasses as the stranger lit the fire between salamander’s fingers.
“What the hell are you doing? Are you burning me alive?” shouted Salamander as he regained consciousness.
He hit the stranger in his jaw. The stranger fell down.
Salamander leapt to his feet and as he did, kicked the stranger twice.
The stranger shouted in reply, “I was not burning you. I was trying to help you return to consciousness by lighting between your fingers as that is a very sensitive area. I knew you would get a fright but I was still trying to help you.”
“Who knocked me out? Did you see which way they went?”
As Salamander recalled, the stranger explained to him that some guys had asked him to light a cigarette and then hit him from the back. Salamander fell and hit his head on the pavement and passed out.
The stranger was unable to tell him who his attackers were or where they went. But Salamander still remembered that he saw the flame reflected in the stranger’s glasses even though the lighter he held was no longer burning.
Salamander was so exhausted and tired he felt lost. He bribed a doctor with a small amount of money to get released from service for a few days.
He found he had no interest in anything – not in the books he used to love to read or in his music. He tried to listen to his favourite CD’s, looked through his albums of art work. None of them interested him anymore.
Salamander tried to recapture the dreams he once had as a child and to recall his childhood memories in an attempt to find himself. But the desperate person he had become was not allowing him to do so…
His soul was sick and so was his spirit.
The thing that stunned Salamander the most was that he had been in so many miserable and dangerous situations that it was amazing he was still alive. None had proven to be fatal. Why, he wondered was he being punished?
Several times he tried to commit suicide and failed each time…
18. A transparent man
One night Salamander had a dream. In it he was at the same market he and his friends had frequented. Some of those friends were now dead – Doctor, Pipe, Seven, Kukusha and others. They were all selling produce in this market – chocolates, chewing gum, cigarette, beer, vodka, fish….
Salamander wanted a chocolate.
Shamans dressed in black walked around the market and made some of the salesmen vanish. As the salesman near the chocolates had already been made to disappear Salamander stole a “sneakers” bar. He was afraid the shamans would see him and make him vanish too. But he really wanted the chocolate.
Then Salamander saw a shining and transparent man who led him outside the market and showed him a long hall. Salamander was standing in this hall with his back to the future watching his light-gray past life.
Then he looked forward and saw a brighter place – illuminated cities, houses, trees, people, seagulls, sea…
“Here is where your friends have gone!” the transparent man told Salamander.
Salamander had a childhood friend – Wolf. He had been living abroad and during one of his short returns home Salamander paid Wolf a visit. Before Salamander could tell him anything about his life, Wolf started beating him on the bank of the river Mtkvari. They were surrounded by the city noise and the sounds of seagulls. Wolf kept beating Salamander and repeating, “Are you tough for raiding the saleswomen? Try to beat me! Dare to shoot me…”
After three weeks when Salamander’s black eye and broken lip had healed Wolf and Salamander walked up a narrow street that took them to a small church. Wolf demanded that Salamander make a confession to Wolf’s priest.
As he confessed a stream of light came through the window and fell on the priest. Salamander wondered if this same light had shone on his and Wolf’s school friend, Leko. After all he received communion three times before he died.
“So what did the priest tell you?” Wolf asked looking down at their flight tickets. He wanted to take Salamander away with him…
“He told me to go and live in the monastery with desert monks,” Salamander replied.
Later Wolf returned Salamander’s ticket without saying anything more to him. Before he left, Wolf said, “Don’t you think I am not coming back, don’t you ever think that…”
As Salamander made his way to the Desert Monastery he felt that a huge load had been lifted from his shoulders. He was thinking that before he went to the priest they would need a helicopter to lift his heavy soul and take it to hell. Now that would not be necessary.
He hoped that his dreams of pigs waiting for corpses floating in the sea so they could drag them to shore and eat them would go…
20. The mercy stone
After spending several months in the Monastery, Salamander kept having a dream where he saw Father Davit Gareja who on his way to Jerusalem, telling the parish to go on without him as he would never dare to step in the same land where his God used to walk.
Every time, in the dream the parish worshippers left and Father Davit continued praying on his knees with eyes full of tears. He did this for a very long time. Then he would put three stones from Jerusalem into his little basket and start making his way back to his homeland.
On the night before Father Davit left the entrance of Jerusalem the Patriarch of Jerusalem had a dream in which God’s angel informed him of Father Davit’s visit to the Holy Land. The angel told the Patriarch that Father Davit was taking all the mercy of Jerusalem in the three stones that he had picked up outside the city. The angel described Father Davit as an old man dressed in torn clothes holding a basket and ordered the Patriarch to send someone after him and retrieve two of the stones. Father Davit had to be told he was taking away the mercy of the Holy Land in his three stones. God wanted him to leave two and take one to the desert in his homeland.
In Salamander’s dreams the Patriarch of Jerusalem would obey the angel’s order and Father Davit would return home to the Desert Monastery with his mercy stone. This was to the delight of the monks serving there.
Mikho Mosulishvili is a writer and a playwright. He graduated from the faculty of Geography-Geology and the scriptwriting as a secondary faculty of Tbilisi State University. He has a working experience as a geologist, as well as in various newspapers and magazines. More than twenty books of his stories, novels and plays have been published in Georgian language. His plays are being staged in different theatres, on television and radio. His work has been translated into Latvian, English, German, Armenian and Russian. Mikho’s main works are The Big She-Bear (2013), My Redbreast (2012), and the biographical novel Vazha Pshavela (2011). Mikho’s motto is “everything started by a word and a word will end it all.”
Ani Mosulishvili (translator) is the daughter of the writer Mikho Mosulishvili. She graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of Georgia and obtained two Master’s Degrees from the Institute of Social Studies, the Netherlands and Lund University, Sweden. Ani grew up in Georgia and currently lives in Colombia working with the UN Peace Mission. She is fluent in Georgian, English, Spanish and Russian languages. Her translations into Georgian include Casino Royal by Ian Fleming (2006), Oxford Science Encyclopedia (co-translator, 2005), and Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (2003).