At 19, my grandfather was betrothed to the most beautiful girl in his aul. The date was set, and everything was arranged. Then, one week before the wedding, the bride ran away.
Rather, she'd been abducted. Not by savage and bloodthirsty criminals, no -- by her own family. It was all arranged. It was common practice, in those days, in certain delicate cases -- like, when the groom's family was too poor to afford the bride price. The bride would then be "kidnapped". But everybody knew the real truth.
Humiliated, my grandfather fled the aul. He returned just one year later, and he was not alone. He had a new bride with him. She was an orphan, a cripple, and half-blind. "Here," he said to his father. "I've chosen the ugliest girl in this whole district! She won't run away!"
And she never did.
Their life together is a long and bitter tale. In 1921, there was a terrible famine in Bashkiria. Thousands died, including their five small sons. Later, during the great war, she lost her husband as well.
She lived with us as I was growing up. She was fully blind by now, and I was her guide. Constantly by her side, I would lead her down to the shops, to visit with the other old ladies, everywhere.
She always said to me, "Be happy, my son. It was not me who you led today, it was you who was led through life" The saying sounds very harmonic in Bashkir, like a spell or incantation. I remembered it often, in moments of blindness, in moments on the razor's edge, every time I started a new phase of my life.
I don't know why my grandfather thought she was ugly. She told me many legends -- rather, she sung them. How many songs she sang to me!
My grandmother had one enduring passion (if it could be called that). She had me bring her pebbles from the river. Each one she kept for a couple of months, rolling it over and over in her hands as she sang long, rhythmic prayers. A thousand prayers for each pebble. By the time she was done, the pebble shone in her hands.
By the end of her life, there was a whole box of pebbles, all different patterns, all shiny with the polishing of her hands. "Cover my grave with them," she told us. Having absorbed the heat of her hands, and the long prayers, they would guard her peaceful sleep and the enduring remembrance of the dead.
Grandmother died while I was away in the army. When I returned to the aul, I hurried to her grave. I thought I'd see it covered with the familiar pebbles. But there was grass on it. A fine, light carpet of green grass.
I couldn't believe they'd forgotten her request! But then I looked closer -- no, the pebbles were there, covering the grave in a thick layer. So where had this grass come from? How could this have sprouted through the pebbles? What did it mean?
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