Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Sakartvelo’s proudest city,
Built from granite grey with age,
The ramparts of medieval walls
Challenge all with stern gaze
Replicated in the eyes
Of every man met therein:
This is their way of taking measure,
To see if strangers can stand tall
And return that gaze direct, as equals.
Centuries of war against
The Infidels of the Black Religion
Forged their kingdoms character;
Like molten steel on blacksmiths anvil,
Cooled, then melted down again,
Folded in five hundred layers,
Then on grindstone hone the edge.
Every man a warrior, proud,
Never have they known defeat.
The women also rightly feared
For skill in whittling down with knives
A foe of even thrice their size.
But to a stranger bearing doves
Their honour impells to respond in kind;
All good people they regard as kin.
Of all the time-marked monuments,
One commands the searching eye,
Its haunted history yearns to cry;
Alone among oaks across the river,
A fortress and its single spire
Matted in ivy, the parapets empty,
A screech-owl stands as last, lone sentry.
This is the Castle Surami:
Two hundred years ago, the king
Whose dynasty then wore the crown,
Decreed a line of twenty forts
Be built to check the Turkish hordes.
For ten years the masons laboured
To fulfill the rulers edict.
Reports arrived- nineteen forts
Their work had then completed.
One bastion, this one, Surami,
Alone defied its consummation.
The mortar, as if only sand,
Crumbled, and the walls collapsed.
Seven times the men rebuilt it,
Seven times it tumbled down.
The king, perplexed, suspected witchcraft;
No other explanation could be found.
Fate writes laws that supercede us,
And Justice follows crooked paths.
Surami Castle became the victim
Of a betrayal in another land.
In Adzharia, lawless northern country,
A baron held a man and maid enslaved.
For his pleasure, he would make them dance
To songs about lovers who once defied
They whirled like cuckoos, forced to court,
Stumbled and pinched each others toes,
Their only desire to flee from each other,
Goblins disgusted by what the mirror
Their master starved and whipped them
Their only solace the bed they shared,
Where like dogs they sought relief
Then turned their backs, their rutting
One day she ran to him with news:
Liberation’s bell chimed at last!
Our master grants you freedom-fly!
Or his guards will hunt you like a jackal
And roast you on a spit, alive.
What of you? I will not leave
And abandon you, my only friend.
Idiot- they’ll kill you here;
Don’t break my heart with noble lies.
Then go I must, but remember this-
Someday, to buy your freedom I’ll return.
I pray it were so, but this I know;
No man wants a slave as bride.
Out in the world live many girls,
You dream of them when I’m in your arms.
Drunk on freedom, you’ll forget my name,
I, who you only love from need.
May Heaven strike me dead, or mad,
If to you I turn my back.
As sure as I was born of my Mother,
I swear I’ll never marry another.
You avow it, before God in Heaven?
I’ll keep-safe your promise in my ruby locket,
And lose the key, ’til you come back
Victorious, riding through fields of ripe wheat.
Then out into the hills he went,
A witless sheep let from the pen.
He twists his ankle on a crag,
Now swollen as a purple egg.
He hobbles as a dust cloud rises,
Hills resound with hunting-horns,
The sun blazes high above the horizon.
Now a caravan comes into the valley.
Merchant, save this wretched man,
Before freedom’s fruit snatched from my hand.
The dogs’ mouths foam, they thirst for my
Deliver me from the evil one.
I risk my head to hide you in my tent.
But don’t fear, I’ll wrap you in this dress.
Now hide your face behind this veil,
Sit here and keep a silent tongue.
You knights, what means this rude intrusion?
You ruin my carpets with dust and clamor.
No refuge here for slaves or bandits,
I pay my taxes and obey Gods laws.
Tribute you want? Here, take this purse.
Thieves covet less than you.
No- my wife is not for sale or trade.
Her customs forbid her from speaking to men.
The swine have left, you must stay with us.
Be an honored guest in my tent.
I’ll never be able to repay this debt;
I’ve no money, no family, no trade, no home.
My skin barely conceals my bones-
I wish to their swords I’d bared my neck.
In my youth, I, too, groveled, a slave.
My master’s sword forced me to renounce
My country and religious faith.
My Mother shared my servile squalor,
We ate stale bread and slept on straw.
She trembled with palsy, and I with hate.
To entertain some noble guests,
My Mother and I had our bent necks yoked
Like cattle, to a plow and forced
To plow in circles while the guests joked.
My Mother withered, like a plant in drought
Died in my arms. I found a rock
And like a leopard, lept in fury,
Split my master’s head and fled in shock.
My cord to faith and country severed
I wandered, a criminal, fugitive.
A kindly merchant took me in,
Taught me how to work his trade.
And now I pledge to do the same
For you, so much like me, my friend.
And to you my wisdom give:
Woe to he who, for wealth and money,
Forsakes the God that set him free.
Our bodies are a vessel only:
The Spirit alone all things provides.
The Love that flows from it we should return.
As father gives knowledge to his son
And son continues that tradition,
So with these two, and all considered
The young man worthy to trust in business.
Soon ships he owned, a merchant fleet,
He dressed in robes of ermine and silk,
Entertained nobles, threw lavish feasts,
Received gifts of gold and concubines.
And so he married, and bore a son
With a woman he did not truly love,
For love was truly foreign to his heart.
And his son’s hair shone like yellow flax.
His son’s face glowed with light of angels,
His playmates adored him like a saint.
He found great joy in sacrifice,
To piety and service devoted his life.
But as the merchant grew fat as pork
On gold and goods and other riches,
His face turned pinched, his eyes green,
He spat and cursed and vented spleen.
For hours daily, locked himself
Inside his vault, with a kerosene
Lamp that stained the walls with soot.
He muttered, and swam through coins all
If wife or servants interrupted
He shrieked, a gnome pierced by sunbeam,
Flung gold bouillon at their heads,
Flailed his arms and wished them dead.
So, daily, dimmer his lantern glowed
Until it ceased to shine at all.
The entrance to his vault he sealed,
Food and water slipped through a hole.
Twenty years, the slave girl waited,
To see her lover re-appear
On a handsome stallion, on the horizon-
She cried herself to sleep for twenty years.
Finally, her master died,
And on the rock-strewn road they drove her,
Her blouse ragged, her purse barren,
The pebbles jagged beneath bare feet.
To a crone she went, a fortune-teller,
In a grotto carved into a cliff.
Grandmother, will the angels still accept me
If I go to meet them hanging from a tree?
The ancient seer peered into
A silver bowl of water, leaned;
Three words chanted, then she keeled,
Her throat rattled, that was that.
The hag’s maid and servant wailed,
Cajoled the slave girl to replace her.
“You’ll pick it up quite fast,” said they,
“Tell people what they want to hear.”
So she donned the robes and veil,
Became renowned throughout the land,
Even to Sakartvelo’s lord.
Ambassadors he sent to her,
With sacks of gold and silver
To barter for a remedy
To the curse of Castle Surami.
Deep into enchanted water gazed,
Her breath shallow, her eyes glazed-
The king’s men held their breath and waited,
Then out of trance she sprang and answered:
If you would build fort Surami,
In its foundation you must bury
A sacrifice, whose heart is willing,
His hair must shine like fine-spun gold.
Back to the king they rushed this news;
The king sent out across the land
A call for a sacrifice to come forth,
Give his life to build the wall.
For fame and honour legend bestows
On such a martyr, and outlives us all.
A young man lived, you will remember,
Who heard the call, his hair of gold.
The merchant’s son, the handsome page,
Gave up his life in saintly gladness
To be buried deep beneath the foundation
And break that vexing Surami curse.
The former slave girl- turned soothsayer
Never knew the fate of her old lover,
But in her heart she never ceased
To curse him for his black betrayal.
Who can guess what games Revenge
Will play with those who break their pledge
And use Love’s holy name in vain?
Better to love none, than bear such shame.