Translated from the Kazakh by Zaure Batayeva
Art by Altoon Sultan
The story “The Orphan” is included in the collection Amanat: Recent Women’s Writing from Kazakhstan, selected and edited by Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega, forthcoming from Gaudy Boy in July 2022.
His real name was Nurseit. But his sisters-in-law called him Urseit, observing the Kazakh tradition of finding a cute nickname to avoid pronouncing the real names of the younger brothers of their husbands. His father, already old, mistakenly gave his nickname to the authorities and his official name became Urseit. His sisters-in-law joked that they were not allowed to call him by his official name and that they would call him Murseit from now on. Our mothers called him Murseit-qainaga and we, the children, called him Murseit-ata. He himself used to gently scold us, offended by the liberty we took: “Little rascals, why do you call me by my name? You are like my grandchildren.”
Urseit-ata’s hut was located close to the river Zhalbyz, which took its name from the wild mint that grew there. In spring, when the apple trees blossomed, his little hut would completely disappear in flowers. Passersby were stunned by this natural beauty. All summer we would swim in the river and steal the old man’s apples from his garden. As soon as the little apples appeared on the trees, we grabbed the unripe fruit, breaking the branches. We ate the apples as we picked them, ran back to the river and threw the cores into the water. Upset with our wild behavior, the old man would call to us: “You little bastards, why not wait until they’re ripe? There’s nobody at my house to eat them. I would give them to you anyway. Why are you so impatient that you need to break the branches? Why don’t you just pick the fruit?” But he always forgot quickly and became like a child himself: “Hey, you rascals! Let’s have a race! I will buy ice cream for the winner, the first to cross the Zhalbyz!” We were children and did not understand that he was lonely. But even adults would not understand why a white-bearded old man would play with children. Perhaps he was ashamed of his hunched back or had never played with his peers when he was a child himself.
One day he even swam with us. He played soccer with us. Then he braided my hair. He even wiped the nose of Satpaq’s whiny daughter and braided her hair as well. That day he did not call me “yellow girl” as usual, but asked my real name. He called Satpaq’s whiny little girl by her real name, Beibitgul. He asked each of us, “Hey, little rascals! What are your real names? I’m so old, I forgot them all.”
The next day he did not come to play with us. We heard that he had been taken to the hospital that night and died there. When the people of the village pooled their money and buried him, nobody really wept for him. People just said that the “poor old orphan” had been a nice man. “Can an old man be an orphan?” we wondered. Soon we children forgot about our oldest friend. Now, though, every time I visit our village and wash my face in the river’s water, I remember the hunchbacked old man.
Back then, the adults were always warning us that the weeds were full of snakes, and if we made too much fuss in the water, we would anger the snake king. One day we were playing in the river and Masaqbay’s boy Kokkoz, running away from another boy, hid in the weeds. The snakes, scared by a human presence right in their midst, came up to the surface of the water, entangled with each other. We were horrified. Kokkoz could not speak for some time. We rushed to the shore and ran without looking back. That was the first time we realized that it was the hunchbacked man who had always been there before, guarding us and protecting us from all kinds of trouble.
We did not swim in the river again for a long time. That left the way open for the children of the smaller, neighboring kolkhoz, the one called “Communism.” We were not happy about that at all. “Hey, you kolkhozes! What are you doing swimming in our river? Why are you crossing the border and coming into our village?” We attacked them with those words because the people of our village felt we were the real citizens. How could it be otherwise? As the biggest collective farm around, we were the ones who had a two-floor school, a House of Culture, a hospital and a park. “We are kolkhozes, but so are you! Did you forget where you live? Zana Turmys is a kolkhoz, too! Want us to remind you?” they shouted back. “We’re the kolkhozes? Us?” we raged, and Gopher showed them his little fist.
Why should we listen when they said the Zhalbyz belonged to both villages? We would never allow that. Angry with such unfair treatment, they made a new demand. “Your dead people lie in our cemetery! If we cannot swim in your river anymore, then you take away your dead bodies from our cemetery!” “We will! We will not allow our ancestors to stay in your cemetery!” we declared in chorus. “When? Take them today!” they threatened us. “What if we don’t? What else do you guys have in your village except for the cemetery? Your village has nothing cultural at all!” we argued back. “Hey, why are we fighting about the cemetery? We’ll all go there one day,” someone shouted.
We all fell silent for a while. The thin dark-skinned boy with broken lips smiled, happy that his words had affected us so much.
Zharabas, who got this nickname for his never-healing sores, broke the silence. “Hey, jerk, who told you that?” “My grandpa. My grandpa is a mullah!” said the dark-skinned boy, and licked at the greenish horse running from his nose. Zharabas, who immediately withdrew his claws after the dark-skinned boy’s answer, was bewildered, and scratched a sore on his elbow. Back then we did not understand the words on the cemetery gates: “We were like you, you will be like us.” I hated the dark-skinned boy. Whether scared by our silent reaction or scared that one of us would beat him, he sat down on the ground and started to cry. Nobody tried to console him. Nobody teased him either.
I still remember that day, how I cried myself, all alone, in the corn field. Afterwards, I tripped and fell on my face while I was running home frightened. I stayed like that for a long time, glued to the ground, afraid to get up. Exhausted, I came home only in the evening. My mom, already upset that I was so late, got even more worried. “Who beat you?” “She would not let anyone beat her! She is the one who beats others,” smiled my father. “Look, she’s been crying, and she hurt her face!” said my mom. “Did you really cry?” my father asked, surprised. “Papa, why don’t people live six hundred years?” I asked, and my father caressed my head with his big palm.
Ayagul Mantay (1983), a graduate of RUDN University in Moscow, is a blogger and fiction writer. She has published two collections of short stories in Kazakhstan and is a frequent contributor to literary magazines. Mantay writes in Kazakh.
Zaure Batayeva (1969), a graduate of Almaty State University and Indiana University, is a critic and fiction writer. Best known in Kazakhstan for her contributions to cultural and literary criticism, Batayeva has also written short stories. Currently she is working on a novel. Though bilingual, Batayeva prefers writing in Kazakh.
Altoon Sultan was born in Brooklyn not far from Coney Island. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College where she studied with Philip Pearlstein and Lois Dodd. Her work has been included in numerous exhibitions including at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Philbrook Museum of Art, Hood Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and it is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Fleming Museum of Art. Altoon is represented by Chris Sharp Gallery, LA.