It all started because of a jacket that Gio's friend Artyom stole while they were at a soccer game. It was a brown leather jacket, way too long for the small, skinny Artyom, and when he proudly showed Gio its detachable fur collar and "Made in America" label as they were leaving the stadium, Gio told him that a real man would beg before he stole. Speaking one's mind was an example of vashkatsoba, a word that had recently taken on a great deal of significance in Gio's life. But when Artyom asked him to hold on to the jacket while he looked for a buyer, Gio nodded and wordlessly stuffed it into his schoolbag. Standing by your friends, regardless of their moral character, was vashkatsoba too. He brought the jacket home, stashed it under his bed, and promptly forgot the whole thing because Georgia was in the middle of a civil war and everybody was stealing everything. Armed men roamed the streets of Tbilisi, stray bullets flew into dining rooms, and Gio's sister was getting married tomorrow and he had other things to think about.
The matter was not, however, forgotten by the owner of the jacket. That evening, a battered Soviet-made GAZ truck wound its way through the potholed streets of Gio's neighborhood. The truck coughed and backfired every few minutes, and its passenger-side door sported a constellation of rust-edged bullet holes. Two men sat in the cabin. The driver had the hulking physique of a weightlifter in decline, thick muscle covered by even thicker layers of fat. His dull, beady eyes and the way his head jutted forward from his neck gave him the appearance of a mean, pugnacious hog. The man next to him was tall and thin, all knees and elbows. He had a long, hungry face, with a large nose and hooded, predatory eyes. A Kalashnikov assault rifle lay across his lap.
The truck came to a stop in front of an old woman selling tomatoes from a muddy crate. The driver rolled down his window and asked if a Giorgi lived in the neighborhood.
"Half of Tbilisi's named Giorgi," she snorted. "There's a dozen of them around here."
"So there are," the big man mused. "This one's about fourteen or so, and his last name is Melua, or something like that."
"Giorgi Meladze," the woman said. "He's just a kid. What do you want with him?"
At this, the man turned to his companion and gave a big, slow wink.
"He lost a jacket at a soccer game, ma'am, and we intend to give it back to him," he said. "It's a matter of vashkatsoba."
The old woman pointed to a nearby corner. The truck gave a few coughs, backfired dramatically, and lurched forward. It turned down Gio's street and disappeared.
That evening the Meladze home was full of nervous, excited women. Aunts, cousins and future in-laws had come from all over Tbilisi to help prepare for the wedding, which was going to be held in the spacious apartment of a downstairs neighbor. Gio, who had been running around all evening fetching food and plates and chairs, sat in a corner of the living room, bundled up in a coat because the city had no heat that winter and watching stolen Russian channels on television.
He was a long-limbed, serious boy, quiet and intense. His friends looked up to him, sought his judgment in their squabbles, and generally considered him their leader. His mother and sister adored him, but were afraid for him too, because they saw in Gio a recent preoccupation with vashkatsoba that was excessive even for Tbilisi, where vashkatsoba was discussed as often as the weather.
"All of that's fine when you're a kid," his mother would tell him. "But one day you'll run into someone that takes vashkatsoba more seriously than you do. And if you're smart, you'll step out of their way, because vashkatsoba isn't worth getting killed over."
Gio nodded during these speeches, but in his heart he wondered what exactly his mother thought vashkatsoba was. To him, the word was still a wet piece of clay that he molded and remolded daily. Literally, it meant manhood; but it also stood for honor and respect, for chivalry and honesty and the defense of the weak and many other things that stirred Gio's heart. And it had another meaning beyond that, one that he felt more than thought about. Vashkatsoba was a warm fire at his back, a firm, fatherly hand on his shoulder, guiding and reassuring. The idea that it could turn around and bite him like a snake was beyond his comprehension.
Tonight, though, honor was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he was thinking about a gun that Artyom found lying in a drainpipe a few hours before, wrapped in an oilcloth together with an oblong box of bullets. Guns were no big deal—they were one of the few things that could be easily had in Tbilisi. This, however, was no ordinary gun, but (Artyom claimed) a .44 Magnum, the exact same kind that Clint Eastwood had used in Dirty Harry. Gio had told him that the gun couldn't possibly be a Magnum—it was too small, and besides, what idiot would leave one in a drainpipe? But all day, he had pictured himself at the dump, where the boys were heading right now, holding the gun in the classic Dirty Harry pose and saying "Go ahead, make my day," before squeezing the trigger.
He sat motionless for another minute, going over the quickest route to the dump in his mind, then all at once sprang and started for the door. Inevitably, his mother chose that moment to emerge from the kitchen, red faced from the heat of the stove, her hands and forearms white with flour. She asked him if tonight, of all nights, it was absolutely necessary for him to go out, and he told her it was. Then she kissed him and said not to be late, and Gio went out of the apartment, down his building's staircase and into the street.
It was cold and damp outside. Streetlamps, their bulbs and circuitry ripped out long ago, stood rusting on the edges of the sidewalk. The scant light from the few apartments lucky enough to have generators illuminated the street with a faint, ghostly glow, like artificial moonlight. Gio pulled his coat tighter around him and walked on. There was a truck he had never seen before standing on the corner. This was strange enough, as the army had commandeered every available truck, but in the faint light Gio could see something else—what might have been a spray of bullet holes on the passenger side door. He walked over to it and ran his fingers over the cold metal.
"Yes, they're bullet holes," said a voice behind him.
Gio yanked his hand away from the door and spun around. There were two men standing in front of him, close enough to touch. In the darkness, all he could tell was that both were bigger than he was.
"You like my truck, Gio?" the taller, skinnier of the two asked, and Gio wanted to answer but all he could think about was the metal door his back was pressing against.
"Why aren't you wearing it, boy? Not good enough for you?" the same one said, and this time Gio did have an answer, the only answer that anyone in Tbilisi would give a stranger who called him "boy," but at that moment the other one hopped forward and sank a knee into his stomach.
Gio doubled over on the pavement, his throat opening and closing, unable to draw air. Two pairs of army boots filled his field of vision.
"That's my secret move," said a phlegmy voice from above. "Gets them every time."
Gio, now breathing in tiny gulps, felt a hand grab the back of his collar. A rifle barrel appeared in front of his face.
"You see this?" asked the tall one, and Gio nodded. "You try anything and I'll shoot you right in front of your own house."
They put his arms behind his back and yanked up his sleeves. Gio felt cold metal clicking into place against his wrists. The truck's engine sputtered to life and its body shook. As he was lifted off the ground to be tossed into the trailer, he caught a momentary glimpse of the yellow light of his second-floor window. Then he was flying through the air, into darkness.
The pain was excruciating, otherworldly. Gio had landed inside the trailer on top of his bound hands, and the edges of the handcuffs digging into his spine felt like a live wire jammed between his vertebrae, making his legs twitch as if he were being electrocuted. When the ache subsided to a dull throb, he realized it would hurt less if he rolled onto his stomach, and it did, and the cool floor felt good against his face. After a while, all that was left was a tender area where the handcuffs had bit into the bone. Gio's thoughts, which the pain had scattered every which way, began to emerge from their hiding places and regroup.
He moved his fingers and toes. They all worked. His spine wasn't broken. He was handcuffed, in the back of a truck, in darkness so thick it felt like velvet. Some distant part of him wondered if he was scared, and he was, but not as much as he thought he would be. Underneath the haze of fear, he was still Gio, the same Gio who had been sitting in his living room just a little while ago, and somehow this recognition of himself gave him a lift, as if he'd met a friend in a strange place. But on its heels came the memory of his lighted window glimpsed moments before they had locked the doors, and of his mother standing in her flour-covered apron, asking him not to go out tonight. They would be cooking and baking until dawn, and with every hour, she would look at the clock and tell herself that he had stayed out that late before. And then the hour would come that he hadn't stayed out until, and then she would start to really worry, quietly and to herself at first but eventually she would have to tell someone, and the panic would spread among the women until they sent their husbands out into the streets to look for him, and his mother would wail I lost my husband, please not my son too . . .
Gio took a deep breath, willing himself to be brave, willing himself to think.
Why aren't you wearing it, boy? Not good enough for you?
It was about the jacket, then. The jacket that Artyom stole that afternoon, at the soccer game. Artyom, who never fought because one of his legs was shorter than the other, whose family lived in a shack that overlooked a sewage canal, who stole often and well but only from outside of his neighborhood and never, never from the house of a friend. Artyom, his friend since kindergarten, who several years ago stood up at the funeral feast of Gio's father, not ashamed of his threadbare shirt and Armenian accent, and in a cracking adolescent voice said a toast that made grown men wipe tears from their eyes.
Even if I'd never heard the word vashkatsoba, I would die before I ratted Artyom out, thought Gio.
The truck came to a sudden stop. The cab's doors creaked open and shut, and he could hear muted voices outside, discussing. Then the trailer doors opened and someone clambered inside. Gio felt a presence over his shoulder.
"Sorry about the rough ride, little brother. I guess big time gangsters like you are used to riding in limousines."
Before Gio could answer, he felt himself being picked up by his belt and half dragged, half carried out of the truck to be dumped on cold, moist ground.
The first thing he saw were the scant lights of Tbilisi scattered over two hills several kilometers away. The landscape around him, illuminated by a pale full moon rising in the west, was a dark, featureless silhouette. Gio heard the gentle lap lap of water somewhere nearby, and he realized where he was. It was the Sea of Tbilisi, a Soviet-built reservoir on the outskirts of the city, the place to go if you had a particularly willing girl—or, so the legends said, if you had to bury a body.
His two kidnappers were leaning against the truck, smoking, in no hurry. Gio thought of the worst thing that could happen to him tonight and was surprised when the notion of dying brought no fear; not because of any bravery on his part, but because dying still seemed impossible.
It'll be a beating, Gio thought. He would keep telling them he didn't know anything, and they would beat him till they got tired, and he would show up at his sister's wedding with a black eye or a broken nose. And the minute the wedding was over he would find Artyom and give him the beating of his life.
But I'll be there, he thought. I'll be at that wedding. There's no doubt about that. The main thing now was not to cry or beg or do anything he would be embarrassed about tomorrow.
The two men flicked their cigarette butts into the wind and gave each other a sideways look, like workers getting back on the job after a break. As they ambled over to him, hands in their pockets, Gio struggled to his feet.
"Look at that," the big one said. "He stood up."
"Yes he did. Maybe he'll tell us the truth, and we won't make him sit back down. Maybe we'll just settle this like men and let him go home."
"Maybe," the other sighed, as if that would be a real shame.
They moved closer, crowding him. Their faces showed the sleepy cruelty of boys about to rip the legs off a frog.
"Were you at the soccer game today?" the skinny one asked.
Gio said he was.
His questioner gestured to his partner as if to say "you see, so far so good."
"Where did you sit?"
Gio thought for a second.
"R32. Near the Fanta sign."
"I was near the Fanta sign too. R38. So we were practically neighbors."
"But one of us wasn't such a good neighbor," the big one chortled.
"No, one of us was a bad neighbor, a thieving, shitty neighbor. I'm going to ask you a question now. For your sake, I hope you tell us the truth." He bent down till he was nose to nose with Gio. "Did you take a jacket from the back of a seat?"
Gio looked into the man's eyes.
"I didn't take anything," Gio said, tensing up, expecting a blow. None came. Instead, his questioner nodded, as if this is what he expected to hear.
"You didn't take anything?"
"And you don't know anything about a jacket?" He went on to describe it, not forgetting to mention the "Made in America" tag.
"I don't know anything," Gio said.
The man nodded again. With slow, exaggerated movements, he took a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket and put one to his lips. The wind was beginning to blow off the water, and it took him three or four tries before he got it lit.
"Let me explain something to you," he said, his voice taking on the breathless quality of a man launching into a speech he's been wanting to make a long time.
"You probably think that this is all about a jacket, right? You think that was my only jacket, and I need to get it back so I won't be cold at night, don't you? Ah, my little friend, you're wrong. I have enough money in my pocket right now to buy ten jackets like that. Shit, they'll give me the jackets because they know who I am. That's right, this whole city knows me, and they know that stealing from me is suicide. You ever heard of something called vashkatsoba? Well, learn that word, 'cause this is what it's about. It's about honor! It's about respect! I'm a man, and nobody takes what's mine!"
This last was shouted so loud that his voice crackled across the empty plain like a rifle shot. He backed off, breathing hard.
"I've been up north, in the fighting," he said. "I've killed people over a loaf of bread. Look in my eyes, you'll see it's true. Now I'll ask you one more time. Did . . . You . . . Take . . . The . . . jacket?"
And suddenly, Gio understood how easy it could be. Even at his age, he had met this type of character on the street, and was familiar with how these things were usually settled.
No, I didn't, but I know who did, he was supposed to say. If he knew it was your jacket, he wouldn't have taken it. Give me a day, and I'll make sure he returns it to you. Forgive me. I didn't mean any disrespect.
That was how it was done. But the man's tirade had ignited something in Gio, something that started as a spark and a wisp of smoke deep inside his chest and began to smolder, then blaze, then finally spread throughout his nervous system, traveling along dendrites and jumping synapses until his entire body was being consumed from inside.
Forgive me. I didn't mean any disrespect.
He was supposed to apologize? They hadn't approached him, man to man, but grabbed him off his own street the night before his sister's wedding, kneed him in the gut and almost broke his back. And now they wanted to settle it like men? Why should he give up a jacket that Artyom could sell for more money than his family saw in a month? Did they think that Giorgi Meladze could be beaten at their leisure, like a bad wife? Remember! a voice inside him trumpeted. Remember vashkatsoba!
Gio felt the anger flowing through him, congesting his throat and lungs, beating in time with his heart. What he was about to do seemed more than right; it was the fulfillment of a destiny, something that his honor, his very genetic code demanded. He lifted his head up so that his chin pointed at his kidnappers.
"You're a real big man when you have a fourteen year old boy in front of you with his hands tied," Gio said. "And as for vashkatsoba, that word shouldn't even be in your mouth, you fucking faggot."
There was a moment of absolute silence, and then Gio saw the looping right hand coming from the corner of his eye and managed to lean backwards so it only glanced off his temple. It was enough to knock him off balance, though, and he fell on his back, flailing his legs to keep the men away.
They came at him from the sides, where his legs couldn't reach. Gio curled up into a ball, but with his hands bound, there was only so much of himself he could protect. A kick to the ribs sent a sharp pain shooting from his chest all the way to the heel of his foot. More kicks landed on his kidneys, his stomach, his legs. Then the skinny one knelt down by his head and Gio saw his hand go up and come crashing back down, once, twice, and the third time something in Gio's face gave way and after that there was no more pain, just a feeling of dull impact every time a foot or fist made contact. It went on and on, and after a while he felt nothing at all, and his mind floated up above him in a kind of bubble. He knew what was happening to him, could even count the blows as they fell, but at the same time he was in another reality that was no less actual, one where he easily slipped between past and future. He saw his sister, except she was younger, a little girl, and Artyom, who would be much taller in a few years. He saw himself as an infant, reaching for something hanging above his crib. And he saw the neighbor's apartment where the wedding was to be held tomorrow. There was a giant banquet table in the living room, food piled high, but the chairs along it held no guests, because there would be no wedding tomorrow, and there would be no Gio. The thought made him sad, but the sadness was quickly replaced by a tremendous hate that dwarfed everything else he was feeling, an earthshaking, thundering hate that ascended in Gio's heart like a black sun rising over the horizon.
This will be the last thing I feel before I die, Gio thought, and let the feeling permeate his being as he waited for what must inevitably happen.
But it did not happen. The other world grew dim and vaporous, and this one, where Gio was laying on the ground on a cold, clear night by the Sea of Tbilisi, came into sharp focus. One of his eyes was gummed shut, but the other one opened to a slit, and he saw the big man squatting, breathing hard and rooting in his breast pocket for smokes. His partner sat next to him, opening and closing his fist. Both men were watching a pair of headlights coming over a crest a few hundred meters away. As they approached, the headlights flickered on and off several times.
"That's Nugzar's signal," the skinny one said.
"So it is."
A few minutes passed in silence as the car rode the hills towards them, sometimes disappearing from view as the ground dipped only to appear again, its headlights brighter and its motor louder, until it pulled up next to the truck, flooding everything with whitish-yellow light.
The car was a beat up Mercedes with half its radiator grill missing. A rear door opened, and out stepped a short man dressed in tiger stripe camouflage. He was white haired and pot bellied, and he grimaced when his eye fell on Gio.
"What the hell's going on here?" he asked.
The larger of Gio's kidnapper's stepped forward, managing to cringe and appear insolent at the same time.
"Had to teach the younger generation a lesson, Nugzar," he began.
"You shut up, you fat pig," he said. "I was talking to you, Badri. You two should be on your way to Gori by now. What are you doing here?"
"We got a little held up, Nugzar," the skinny one, Badri, said. "Had to deal with this little thief before we left."
"What did he steal?"
"Wasn't actually him," the big one cut in with a lopsided grin. "His friend stole Badri's jacket, but we couldn't find out where he lived. We were hoping this one would get scared and tell on him."
Nugzar kneeled down to look Gio over, and was met by a one-eyed stare as flat as the gaze of a wounded animal. He straightened back up, folded his arms and was silent for a long time.
"It's because of bastards like you we're losing the war," he finally said to the two men. "Get those cuffs off him and start heading for Gori." He turned back to Gio. "Didn't tell them a thing, did you? Ah, there's vashkatsoba for you. You'll walk away from this, you'll see. I've been a lot worse."
Gio wished he could see who took his handcuffs off. He wanted to see them one more time, up close. Instead he lay still, listening to the motors fading in the distance, then to the steady lap lap of the water.
It was almost afternoon when he woke up. The air had turned warmer towards dawn, and the morning that followed was mild and spring-like. The rays of the sun woke him, and he lay in them, his mind a complete blank. After the sun had passed its zenith, he slowly sat up, then got to his knees, and finally stood.
He was badly hurt. One side of his face was heavy, as if filled with ball bearings, and when Gio touched it he recoiled, not in pain but in disgust at the unrecognizable thing his fingers felt. There were a dozen pains in his sides and back, great and small, and he was sure that one of his wrists was broken. His legs were fine, however, and they carried him to the road. He started off for Tbilisi.
What he had could not be called a plan; there was very little to it, and it had appeared all at once and fully formed, a hard, smooth stone of an idea that his mind wrapped itself around immediately. The most important thing was that he remembered one of their names—Badri, the skinny one. He would rest and gather his strength, and when he felt better, he would get a gun. Anyone could get a gun in Tbilisi. And then Badri, and his friend, and whoever else stood in his way would learn the true meaning of vashkatsoba.