Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Crossing Point

The father of her people, the nomad Bakhytar, came from the southern mountains and, over time, his people prospered. Every year they cross many high mountains and many dangerous rivers. Now, her tribe of Bakhtiari, one of a dozen or so families that wander this trail, are returning to the most dangerous crossing point and here they know they will say farewell so some of their own, both goats and kin.

Inna stands by the water’s edge. The Bazuft River is swollen with spring meltwater that has turned the normally placid watercourse into an angry torrent. Two years ago she was only barely able to get across and was exhausted when she did. Last year she nearly drowned here and was only rescued when God sent the fallen tree to help her. The main task is to get the herd across. Without the herd they will all die, not just the old and infirm.

The men are loading the goats on to their shoulders. The women are making fast the bindings that will hold their children to them. The young boys and girls judged strong enough to cross by themselves have bundles: tents, cooking pots, a few possessions. They have fear in their eyes. All of them.

For fifty-four years Inna has crossed this river every spring. She can remember being a terrified three-year-old tied to her mother. She can remember carrying her own children. She remembers the mixed feelings on reaching the other side where the exhilaration is replaced with exhaustion, the fear is replaced with relief and the old are replaced by the surviving young. Today, another woman will replace her as Grandmother to the whole tribe. She knows that. She knows that there is no-one left or able to save her when the river claims her.

Should she try to cross and be drowned? Is it better to stay and, eventually, to starve? She does not want to repeat the fear of the previous two years. Better to starve. She stands back from the uneven join between water and pebbles. Her people understand.

Then, the crossing begins. The men are shouting and some of the children cry in terror as the water batters the breath from their lungs. To stumble is to die. To hesitate is to die. To carry even the smallest amount of ill-luck is to die. Only minutes later, at the other side, the first and strongest men are clambering out. Then the most resolute women with that fierce protection afforded to their infants follow them. But Inna can hear the crying. Not everyone has reached the far bank.

Her son waves a goodbye to her across the surging river. Then he turns away and walks off. She will never know that he had tears streaming down his face as he did so. Likewise the rest of her tribe, her family, her friends. Ten minutes earlier she was part of a fearful throng. Now she is alone with only a single, distant gesture to mark the change.

She has nowhere to go now. The Bakhtiari follow trails; they do not own land. Their kingdom is a thin thread across the landscape. It has no width apart from the odd wandering of a hungry goat, who will soon return to the herd. She has nothing but the clothes she stands in and no sound except the growling river.

Then she sees him.

Some way up the steep valley side he is sitting. Her need to talk to someone, anyone, is greater than her shyness and she walks over to him. She knows this man. They met as children and again later. He is from another tribe. Every once in a while the various Bakhtiari tribes will meet another.

He stands to greet her and bows slightly as he does. He is about her age, maybe a year or so older. His face is craggy and lined. He beckons her to share the tattered rug that he is seated upon. Demurely, she does so. He offers her water, gratefully accepted, and some dried meat, equally so. His meagre rations were handed to him as a final gesture of farewell by his daughter earlier that morning. He was also, this year, too old to cross the river.

With nowhere to go, they go nowhere. Their people are long gone and high up in these mountains where the Bazuft River hurls itself through the valley below they have no future. Miles from here, on the other side of the crossing point, their families will be making camp for the night. Warm fires, hot food and blankets to stave off the sub-zero temperatures.

As nightfall swept across the landscape, he and Inna shared their memories and the remnants of his food. With the sputtering fire to keep them awake they relived their separate, but achingly similar experiences. Eventually, sleep overcame them and, peacefully for them both, his hands holding hers, death.

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