Digging Out Potatoes

By BESIK KHARANAULI
Translated from the Georgian by ILAN STAVANS with GVANTSA JOBAVA

“We should dig out potatoes tomorrow!”
you told me,
pulling the chair close to the bed
where you were planning to place your clothes
after switching off the light.Acknowledging your words,
I turned my face
toward the wall;
I made it clear
I had other plans,
things to do next day.
I was fifteen years old.
The next day was Sunday
and I had my own projects.
Still, you made it clear:
we had to dig out potatoes.
Ready to sleep,
you turned your face
toward the wall,
and you went on,
attempting to convince me:
“A lot of work still needs to be done.
The weather is ripening.
Should the rain come fast enough, the potatoes will rot.”
Like a bedtime kiss
and pat on the head,
you murmured:
“Aren’t they good in winter,
toasted in ashes?”
Perhaps you meant to add a thought
or even offer a caress,
and not like the way
you joked with me—as if I were a kid—
while I was facing the wall.
Still, we silently agreed
on everything.

This happened long ago,
in Tianeti,
at this exact time of year,
mid-October.
The scene
returns to me just now,
in Tbilisi,
at midnight, while lying in bed
as I switch the light off,
and turn my face to the wall.
That evening, I was in desperate need
of a good night’s sleep.
Yet as soon as I remembered,
my wakefulness was set
and I was overwhelmed by insomnia,
as usually happens to me
whenever I travel early the next day
or some kind of job awaits me.
All these years
and I still can’t learn
how to put myself to sleep.
So now, wide awake, I write
with a pen given to me as a gift
by my own fifteen-year-old son
at a birthday party that never happened.
He too should get up early tomorrow,
although it’s wishful-thinking
since only a rough shake
can rescue him from his morning sleep—
only yoked oxen can drag him
out of his slumber,
and only a herder
as damned as I am. 

Our yard is less than half a hectare.
At one point, we planted potatoes on half of it
and corn and green beans on the other.
Only a small meadow in front of the house
remained for cattle, with a path
to guide the herd from cowshed to barn.
Oh, I still remember
how the cattle would graze the corn
near the hay
while my mother and I, at that time
strict guards,
moved them around twice a day.
After the war, the potato area shrank,
and we went back to planting yeast.
Mother convinced me that potatoes were like figs.
Then and after,
we would barter for onions or peaches
for a long time
with people from Kakheti.
Now, especially in the last few years,
we plant such a small amount of potatoes
that a person could till the whole field
in exchange for a bottle of liquor.
Still, digging out potatoes grants me a unique feeling:
accomplishment, discovery, joy.
It’s easy to harvest when two people work together—
a shared venture:
one uses the spade,
the other pulls them out. 

As my mother digs out the potatoes,
dusting the mud from the surface,
finding them hidden under the sand with her magician’s fingers,
I lean on the spade’s handle
and tell her a story.
Later, it’s my turn to dig a new hole,
and she is the one to tell a story.
Back and forth, we go for several hours,
just the two of us,
alone under the sun.
To keep our spirits,
neither will say anything embarrassing,
we just enjoy each other,
basking in the light and sensing the wind.
We will dig out our past,
finding pieces of gold,
and airing them under the sun,
admiring them and letting them soothe us for four or five hours,
before burying them back until next year. 

Yet sometimes we face moments of crisis in life,
for example,
when I receive a letter from mother,
in which,
with a teacher’s stern tone,
she asks me to visit her.
I am busy with other tasks,
or simply prefer to go elsewhere—
to a parallel Georgia
with vineyards,
figs and chestnut trees.
But no, I have to dig out potatoes.
I react angrily,
protesting and dispensing blame.
Is all this really important?
Is it not enough what we have already?
Two sacks for the whole year.
Is it worth the suffering?
In spring, you write to me
that we must seed the soil;
in autumn, that we need to dig them out.
In spite of my rebellion,
I finally give up,
grab my possessions
and leave for Tianeti.

Last fall,
my son and I visited her.
It was my son’s first business-like trip.
Mother was overjoyed:
the descendants were back.
She was so feeble in her joy,
more than she had ever been in her difficult life.
She ran aimlessly, up and down the stairs.
She rambled,
looking like a mischievous girl.
She had almost forgotten
we needed to dig out potatoes again.
Only a hundred seeds remained
but it didn’t matter.

Half an hour later,
my son was lured away by friends.
Before leaving our yard, he glanced at us
and asked to go.
We told him it was fine. He is only fifteen.
Alert, his conscience
almost made him hesitate. 

As soon as we finish storing the potatoes,
my mother and I
wash our hands
and shake off the dirt from our clothes.
As soon as she hurries into the kitchen,
evening arrives. It is cold.
I will huddle in something warm
and sit down on the front yard,
under the big apple tree.
The best view of our pasture is from there.
It reminds me of the land
that used to lavishly feed us
—I remember it all!—,
sacrificing, as if being our parents.
But at present, the yard has only one role left:
to entertain us
during those incomplete few months
when we travel from Tbilisi to Tianeti.
I begin thinking of our apple trees,
their past
their lives there…
The leaves are still hanging on the stems.
But the wind is on its way already.
I was thinking of the wind,
which has blown me away like a leaf.
At this very moment,
the entire universe entered the gate of the yard,
locking itself between fences,
and dressing itself in local clothes.
For a long time,
I played with the universe,
discussing, arguing,
until my son’s cheerful, vigorous
calls ceased to be heard
from beyond the gates.

They scared the ghosts.

Our supper was once again sentimental.
“It’s good to have dug them out,”
mother said.
“We didn’t put off doing it.
If the rainy season begins soon, the soil will be drenched,
which would have rotten the potatoes.”
I drank a couple of glasses of homemade liquor
and started convincing mother
that all was well in my personal life,
that I would come back next spring
so that we, you and I, could sow potatoes again.
Small beyond her age,
she listened to me
—to my nonsense—
and was about to respond, saying something vital,
when she changed her mind.
She had swallowed that thought with saliva.
She knows she can’t talk lightly
about the earth,
life,
winter,
spring,
bread,
or potatoes.
Everything feels difficult:
arduous and muddled. 

 

Besik Kharanauli (b.1939) is one of Georgia’s most influential and decorated poets today. His books include Epigraphs for Forgotten Dreams (2005) and The Chief Gamer (2012).

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books.

Gvantsa Jobava works for Intelekti Publishing, in Tbilisi, Georgia.

DoostiDigging Out Potatoes

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