“Mr. Chairman! Mr. Chairman!”
At the crack of dawn we were woken with a start by a sudden stentorian voice booming. Someone was peering through the gate, which had been left ajar, at the suri, on which we – brothers and sisters – were sleeping in rows.
“I am coming!”
A while later, the weighty and resolute steps of my father could be heard approaching from the garden path.
Two men stepped in over the threshold to meet him. We recognized Fahriddin the shepherd as soon as we made out the long chakman he wore all year round. The other was a stranger. He was quite a young man, and looked wretched, easy to spot.
“What’s wrong?” asked my father, as he shook hands with them.
“I’ve brought this burglar to leave at your disposal,” said the shepherd, pointing out the fellow.
“Ah, is he a burglar?” said my father, smiling slightly.
We all pricked up our ears as soon as we heard the word ‘burglar’ as we watched – one of us squatting, another craning out of bed. Now we were wide awake. The fellow hung his already stooped head even more.
“The dogs’ barking woke me up last night, and when I went out, the same chaos rose in the sheepfold as well,” said the shepherd, telling the story in detail. “I grabbed a lamp and rushed over there. When I went in, the sheep were on one side and on the other was this swine, crouching in the corner. How can you persist in saying you’re not a burglar? If you’re not, what were you doing in the sheepfold in the hills at the dead of night?”
“I told you I was lost,” sniffed the culprit. “When I was going past the fold, your dogs started to chase me. I had to jump in through the first opening I found.”
“You needn’t make up a story for the Chairman, you ratbag!” Fahriddin snorted in anger. Then they began arguing. I couldn’t hear the rest of their dispute. It was the first time I had seen a burglar. Oh, yes, he was the first burglar to appear in our tiny village, built in the very heart of the desert so as to bring the virgin lands into cultivation. While we were watching them eagerly, my father snapped at them.
“Stop it at once! He has been caught, that’s that! A burglar or not – let the police decide. I’ll get in touch with headquarters now. Surmah!” he turned to my mother, who was coming in from the cowshed with buckets full of milk in her hands. “Put this lad in the big room.”
My father saw the shepherd off and walked towards the telephone. It connected only to the headquarters, and, except for an old bus that left early in the morning and travelled back close to dark, was our one and only link with the outside world. Usually, my father had left for the fields before we got up, but sometimes, if we were woken up unexpectedly early, like today, we could see him leaving.
We quickly washed our faces and came as fast as our legs would carry us, to the big room, where our burglar ‘guest’ was imprisoned. At first, we were a little frightened as we came in. However, our fear soon evaporated because of the warm, friendly atmosphere in the room. Our guest was at the far end, sitting cross-legged on a silky atlas mat, and my mother had already laid the table with some delicacies.
“Help yourself. Don’t be shy of your little brothers,” she said, moving this or that forward to him. “It’s a very long way to the region’s centre. You should eat enough.”
The burglar was not yet in his thirties. He had wretched clothing on, and it had been a long time since he’d shaved. Sitting all hunched up, he reminded me of a poor man in fairy tales. He hardly spoke and was timidly having his meal.
After a while my father came in. He looked irritated.
“The Centre say there’s no car. They told me to send him by bus and tell the driver to take him in, they’ll see him there. But our bus has been broken since last night.”
“How can you deliver him, then?” said mother.
“With the work in the fields in full swing, why would anyone want to bother with a burglar, of all things? Let them take him later if they want, but let him stay here for now,” told my father.
We were very glad the problem was solved in that way, as we didn’t want this strange event, so like a movie, to end so quickly.
In my tiny heart, there is a feeling of kindness; it is engraved on an image of my mother. I don’t know, maybe it is the same with everyone.
As soon as my father left, our ‘burglar’ guest was completely heaped with respect and honour. All day long my mother took care of him, calling him ‘my child’, and giving him my brother’s new checked shirt and old umber trousers to wear, instead of the clothes he had had on. And we were busy as well, treating him now to ayron, then to a melon.
Among us, only my big sister was different, a little petulant, I might say. She questioned my mother as she set about making pilav.
“Why are you doing this? You don’t have to show such courtesy to a burglar thing.”
“Don’t say that, silly,” my mother chided her slightly. “First of all, he is a human. Besides, he is a stranger here.”
My father came home at dusk as usual. By that time our guest was already in a soft bed. He must have either been very tired or didn’t dare to face Father Chairman.
The next day, those at the Centre gave the same answer as before: the bus hadn’t been repaired yet. No one knew when it would start running.
“How much longer can I keep you here?” said my father, turning to our guest. He had begun to warm to him because of my mother’s efforts. “You couldn’t be a burglar if you tried - you haven’t even managed to escape since last night. Listen, I’ll let you go, on one condition: never come back here again!”
“I won’t! I won’t!” our guest kept repeating the same words, nodding again and again, before he got up.
My father frowned at my mother, who appeared holding two loaves of bread and few things tied in a kerchief. However, he said nothing.
“Take these, my son, to avoid any problems on the way.”
He took them without saying a word, then quickly walked off towards the highway. I can still remember the words my mother whispered as she watched him leave.
“Thanks be to God for His summer. In winter it is hard for them. In any case may God give his relatives honest...”
When I thought about it later, I realized that we hadn’t even asked his name. But by then, he was for us neither burglar nor thief; he was just a human being, after all.
Translated by Munira NOROVA
Why did I promise them? I’m regretting it so much now. What was I thinking when I told my students I would write an essay too, and present it for discussion, just as I had told them to do? “Write a story on this topic for the next lesson” I think I must have been under the influence of that French film I’d just watched. In the film, a native language teacher used this very method. Then she wrote such a sad story... Yet you’d feel relieved if you read it. Yes, believe me, there is a kind of sadness that can bring relief too.
My self-portrait... What will it be like? Am I ready to delineate my own image in words, that is, to portray it? Will I be able to depict the deep sorrow – the reflection of my state of mind – which is in my eyes? What if the pain inside my heart is so obvious that everyone will see, since this portrait will be created in words?
Yet true creation must roam over the vastness of the soul, searching for and getting what we want to have. So, there must be another way...
… Here she is, the Artist of my imagination. Today she will play the role of Me. The day before she had told her students to paint a self-portrait and said that she would do the same, but today she has been feeling uncertain since the morning... However, a promise is a promise, and she had given a promise.
She looks in the mirror in front of her. There stands a pale woman, all in despair, staring thoughtfully, with a brush in her hand. Suddenly, she remembers the hero in Kawabata’s story and it feels like she’s just discovered something amazing – You can only see your face in the mirror. She will follow Kyoko’s discovery and portray herself on paper!
It was surprising how she had always dreamed of seeing the inner world of those she was painting. Had she been able to do that, she would have created masterpieces! But now she could see, with crystal clarity, both the inside and outside of the person in front of her with the naked eye. Yet she had never thought that it would be so hard for an artist to create their own self-portrait!
“This is not for an exhibition, after all. Not a commission, either. Just paint! That's it!” she told herself. Selfish, but the right solution.
The first draft of the portrait was ready by midday. A depiction of a woman with a woebegone look on an ecru background... Now it needed to be coloured. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe it’s much better to be black and white? Or might colours lend a brighter spirit to her sad image? This idea delighted the artist. This was much better, because the children in her class deserved more!
Now the Artist felt such a wonderful heat pour into her hands. Happier moments began to burst into her mind – beauty invaded her heart! Magic was rushing through her fingers. The brush began dancing delicately over the canvas. At first it lengthened the hair a little, giving it russet glosses like autumn rays. Then, involuntarily, she started to smooth some lines, here and there, in the face. First the lines on the forehead were erased, then the ones around the eyes. After that, she raised the corners of the mouth ever so slightly, making a little smile. A shade of blush appeared on the cheeks...
It isn’t bad to look a bit younger. After all, I am the creator here.
The last thing was to give life and sparkle to the eyes. More than anything, the passion of a human being can be seen in the eyes.
From inspiration’s visit, the gloomy studio had been flooded with more and more light; the walls around had widened more and more and joined the world. Doves began singing, and the singing became a melody. Her soul became a bird that dreamed of being an artist; flying up and over the stuffy city that imprisoned her, heading for the mountains that knew her as their own daughter. She flapped her wings over rocks and green valleys, villages with dreamy plane trees, joyful streams, whose water she used to gulp joyfully in her childhood. Vastness! Fresh air! Melodies! COLOURS!!! Youth, Passion, Love! By the Grace of God, all of these – one after another - began to settle on one face.
The door creaked open, but The Artist was still in another world, overwhelmed by the pleasure of bringing all these emotions together in one look.
The sound of steps was coming closer. Her daughter appeared by her side and stared at the portrait in astonishment.
“Awesome!” Her enchanting voice filled the room. “Exactly the same, mummy!”
The Artist’s heart fluttered. The girl leaned closer to the portrait.
“’Specially, my eyes.”
Translated by Munira NOROVA
Gulchehra Asronova is a Uzbek writer. She was born on march 29 in 1968 in Kyrgizistan. Now she lives in Marghilan city of Uzbekistan. She graduated from Tashkent Agricultural university.
She is a member of the Writers Union of Uzbekistan since 2018. She published several books such as “ The evenings of my father’s home”(2012) , “ A bird which found its sky”(2013), “ I am standing in front of you, World”(2019).