Excerpt

Hard by a Great Forest

Leo Vardiashvili

February 1, 2024 
The following is from Leo Vardiashvili's Hard by a Great Forest. Vardiashvili moved to London with his family as a refugee from Georgia when he was twelve years old. He studied English literature at Queen Mary University of London.

“Where’s Eka?” We must have asked a thousand times.

Our mother stayed so we could escape.

See, war trumps most things. You’ll find that a volley of AK‑47 rounds fired right down your street will override almost any other concern. We heard gunfire by night and saw brass twinkling on the pavement in the morning, as though it had rained shell casings all over Tbilisi. Sounds manageable so far.

But when a stray tank shell breaks the sound barrier by your bedroom window, screams on, and deletes the corner grocery shop and the entire family living above it, you’ll begin to make plans. Our parents, Irakli and Eka, made plans to get us all out, divorce be damned.

Getting out of the country meant shady bribes, stolen travel stamps, and counterfeit certificates. What money the family scratched together was barely enough for one parent and us children. Eka didn’t even have a passport. Together we couldn’t leave the country.

Meanwhile, the civil war was warming up, bullet holes in familiar places and people no longer a surprise. We had to go. Eka stayed and we escaped with Irakli.

That’s how we became motherless, Sandro and I. I was eight and Sandro was two years older. At that age, the difference was a whole ocean of experience. Even so, Sandro had no inkling of what motherless meant, and neither did I.

There was no fanfare upon our arrival on the capitalist shores of the UK. They put us straight in a refugee shelter in Croydon. In that cold warehouse of bunk beds, communal toilets, and food tokens, nervous faces haunted the hallways.

Eventually, somewhere deep in the guts of the Home Office machine, gears clicked, a screen flickered to life, and we were granted refugee status, with “Tottenham, N17” printed on our case file.

In those early days we floundered in a city we didn’t know. Tottenham in 1992 wasn’t the London we’d imagined. There were no top hats, no smog, no Holmes, no Watson, no ladies, no gents, and no afternoon tea. Not for us.

We lived in a different London. In our London, people swore and spat, drank, quarreled, and laughed in fretful bursts. They spoke strange words in accents we couldn’t parse. They walked bowed by the weight of mouths‑to‑feed, bills‑to‑pay, and how‑many‑days‑till‑payday?

Our da walked among them. Our Irakli—a man out at sea without a compass, searching for a woman he’d managed to lose twice. First, he lost Eka to a divorce shrouded in mystery. Then, to a civil war that reunited and parted them in one breath.

“Where’s Eka?”

“Soon, boys. We’ll get her back,” Irakli would say. A promise not yet a lie.

He broke his back trying to buy Eka a way out. He picked fruit, painted walls, stacked shelves in warehouses, sweated and toiled in nameless, windowless factories across North London.

Those jobs wore him down in subtle, vital ways. We watched him erode. Once, he fell asleep at the table, spoon halfway to his mouth. We laughed and laughed. Sometimes you have to laugh at a thing to strip it of its power.

It’s hard to save thousands by pounds and pennies. It’s harder to send what you’ve scratched together to a country on fire. Georgia was eating itself alive—no banks to speak of, no working postal system. Those of us who’d escaped were not exactly keen to go back to a war zone.

Somehow, Irakli found someone willing to fly back there, for a fee. He was a tall, skinny man with earnest eyes. He looked honest and said the right things. Held his cigarette just so. He ate our food and drank our drink. He took the pounds and pennies meant for Eka and left, smiling and shaking hands. For a while, we stopped asking where Eka was.

I don’t remember the honest man’s name, but in my dreams he’s died a thousand deaths by my hand. Eka never got the money and we never saw the honest man again. Irakli drank, and one night from the bedroom we heard him break the coffee table. The next morning, we found the table glued back together and Irakli gone back to work.

His efforts to buy us a mother turned frantic. Tense telephone conversations, sometimes Georgian and sometimes broken English, muffled by a closed door and often cut short by the angry boom of Irakli’s voice.

We found strange clues around the house. Phone cords ripped from sockets, strange dents in the plasterwork, red bank letters ripped up and stuffed under the sofa, and the faint shrapnel left behind by crockery smashed and hurriedly cleaned up.

“Clumsy Da” was all he’d say. “Clumsy, clumsy me.”

We didn’t understand it then, but we do now. Irakli was trying everything to buy Eka’s freedom. And he was failing.

“Where’s Eka?” We didn’t want to ask, but we couldn’t help it. “I’m working on it, boys.”

Almost a year after our arrival in London, we started school, and that cost money. The old washing machine broke that same winter and that cost money. Irakli dropped a cinder block on his toes and for a lean two months he couldn’t work. That cost a lot of money. Some money did make it to Eka, but never enough. Things back in Georgia cost money too. And so it went.

Over the next six years, we lost Eka piecemeal. We lost her to gas bills and groceries, bus passes and pencil cases, books and school uniforms.

Irakli’s promise slowly curdled until we finally got the call on a sunny January morning. Eka’s dead. We breathed a guilty little sigh of relief. There was no need to ask anymore. Irakli could stop promising us lies. As we inched our way through a clammy, snowless British winter, someone turned the volume down on him. He’d drift into the room, look around, and leave without saying anything. He’d watch TV with disconnected eyes, coffee mug grown cold in his hand. The crockery stopped disappearing.

Our da aged a decade that winter, right in front of our eyes. Relief spiked with guilt shocked all his hair gray. We never once saw him cry, but he often rushed out of the room on some sudden errand.

“Ever been struck by lightning, my friend?” he’d say if you met him back then.

Crazy Eastern European, you’d think—a fever glint in his eyes and an odd accent you couldn’t place.

“There’s more chance of being struck by lightning than meeting a Georgian outside of Georgia.”

Maybe you’d offer a polite laugh.

“Did the calculations myself.” He’d tap his temple. “You’re very lucky, my friend.”

His eyes would gleam.

“But you’re ve‑ery unlucky too.” He’d wait for you to ask why.

“Because the odds of winning the lotto are much better. You could have been a millionaire, my friend. Instead, you met me.”

He’d laugh, loud and from the heart. You would too. “Let me pour you a drink, to apologize.”

After that call about Eka, it was hard to find the right words about her and even harder to say them aloud. So we made an unspoken pact to never mention our mother.

That pact served us well for eleven long years. But last year, Irakli started to break the agreement. He’d talk about places he’d been with Eka, the parks and cafés where they spent time, the trails and paths they cut through Tbilisi. Day by day, he lost interest in the future and his eyes filled up with the past.

He often looked at flights to Tbilisi. A couple of times he bought tickets, but didn’t use them. He didn’t even pack a bag. He seemed scared.

“Those people hold grudges past the grave.”

He wouldn’t tell us what he meant by “those people.” We assumed he meant old friends or acquaintances we’d slighted by escaping when they couldn’t.

On his next doomed attempt, Irakli packed a suitcase. He even left the house. He came back a few hours later, shamed and subdued. When they announced his flight, he admitted, he just stayed in his seat and watched everyone else board. When they called him by name on the Tannoy, he walked out.

Yet with every attempt, he edged closer, until one day he left for Heathrow and didn’t return. We didn’t hear from him until he landed in Tbilisi. His early reports from Georgia rambled with nervous energy, as though he had no way to get his heart around it all.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I just can’t believe it,” he told us on the phone.

Exactly what he couldn’t believe, he struggled to explain. Sandro and I left him to it for two months. We were both in our twenties, with our own lives, and felt no great urge for a long‑lost homeland.

Meanwhile, Irakli’s calls and emails began to falter, but we weren’t paying attention. His last email forced us to:

My boys,

I did something I can’t undo.

I need to get away from here before those people catch me.

Maybe in the mountains I’ll be safe.

I left a trail I can’t erase. Do not follow it. I love you, best I can.

Irakli

The email made no sense. Something ill hid among those words. “Those people”? Who was chasing Irakli? What trail? As for mountains, most of Georgia is a damn mountain.

We called and emailed, over and over, and got no response. Sandro spent weeks harassing the Tbilisi police, the British embassy, and anyone else who’d listen. He even convinced a charity for the homeless to put up posters around Tbilisi. The posters had Irakli’s picture on them and a message asking him to get in touch.

Missing‑persons posters have that unmistakable air of crying over spilled milk, but I didn’t say anything to Sandro. Looking for Irakli was taking all of his time. Maybe Irakli saw the posters, maybe he didn’t.

Maybe he’d left Tbilisi by then and maybe he hadn’t. There was no way to know, not all the way from London. And that’s exactly where Sandro’s thinking went—charge to the rescue, as usual.

He decided to go to Georgia himself. Not a soul left back there to help him—our family had gone extinct over the seventeen years we were absent. Grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, and cousins blinked out like cheap Christmas lights. We missed all their funerals. Refugees returning to the country they’ve escaped raises eyebrows. By the time of Eka’s death, there was no family left to gather at her grave. We’re not even sure who buried her, or where exactly.

Grief without closure has a way of fucking with you. There’s an ancient, bone‑deep instinct we all share: when those we love die, it’s important that we see evidence. That’s what funerals are. They’re for our own good.

Maybe some ancient, hateful creature put a curse on our family. Maybe not. Either way, Eka’s side of the family—the Sulidzes—they died out fast. Irakli’s side—the Donauris—were already decimated before we even escaped Tbilisi. Those are the two halves of me. I’m half Eka and half Irakli. Just like my name—Saba Sulidze‑Donauri.

With that need for closure left hungry, I lived my life in London constantly thinking of the dead. I’d wonder what they were doing of an evening, what plans they had for the weekend. Then I’d remember they were gone—a snow‑globe miniature of the first time I heard the news. Bite‑size heartache.

I became obsessed with them. I caught glimpses of them in strangers’ faces, heard their voices cut through the din on the Tube. In the sly gaps between my thoughts, the dead came to life. And I liked it.

I’d imagine what Lena might say in a given situation, or Eka, or Anzor, or Surik. Soon enough, their voices crept into my head. I spoke to them when I needed to and soon they spoke back:

Anzor, my superhero uncle, who taught me everything useful I know. He donated two fingers to the Socialist Cause via the painful method of a faulty hydraulic press in a Soviet car factory. His was the slow, calm voice of logic.

Lena, my spartan grandma. Two world wars, a steady diet of Stalinism, Communist Pioneer camps, and being shot at by German soldiers turned her spine to steel.

Eka, the mother who stayed behind to let her children escape. Both our hearts broke when we spoke.

Surik, our drunkard neighbor and my first friend. He was like a big brother to Eka and always managed to make me laugh, no matter what. Surik spoke to me whenever he felt like it.

Nino, the keeper of my darkest secret. My sister in all the ways that matter but blood. Her voice the hardest to quiet.

I knew it was cruel to keep these crude caricatures alive, their deaths forever pending. Eventually, one by one, I silenced them for good. It hurt me as much as it hurt them.

Anyway, the point is there would be no welcome party waiting for Sandro at the airport. But he could never leave Irakli out there alone. Nearly thirty by then, Sandro was rattling around in a hollow, deadend department of the civil service. Nothing to his name but books and a rented apartment. So, one day, he paused his London life, packed a bag, bought a one‑way ticket to Tbilisi, and left.

At first, we spoke daily. He told me about the hassle he was having trying to track Irakli. With his Sulidze-Donauri surname now stamped in a shiny British passport, the Tbilisi police wouldn’t help him much.

Irakli was also on a British passport, and it was soon clear the police wouldn’t lift a finger unless pressured by the British embassy, and the embassy wasn’t keen on doing a job that the Georgian police should have handled.

“Sometimes people just disappear,” the detective told Sandro and smiled. Something off about him, Sandro told me.

He started his own search where we used to live, in the dusty maze of Sololaki, adrift among its ramshackle streets and crumbling buildings. He heard someone matching Irakli’s description had been seen in shady neighborhood bars. But nothing came of it.

Sandro put up more posters. Still nothing. He found a hostel owner who recognized Irakli’s picture. Maybe he stayed at the hostel, months ago, or maybe not. Another dead end.

Then there was the shopkeeper who definitely remembered Irakli, but only because Irakli had burst into his tiny shop looking for camping gear.

“Man looked unhinged,” the shopkeeper told Sandro. “Looking for tents and sleeping bags where I sell cigarettes and magazines.”

Sandro started talking about coming back to London. He’d been out there for weeks, all alone, looking for traces Irakli might have left in Tbilisi months ago. He seemed desperate for a clue, a hint, anything to keep him going. And I guess he found it, because things took a turn.

Sandro’s emails started to shrink just like Irakli’s had. He wouldn’t talk on the phone. He sold his laptop and would only write from internet cafés. Even then, just a few words at a time.

The last email I got from him said this:

I found Irakli’s breadcrumb trail. At his old flat in Sololaki. No time to explain.

I’ll email when I know more.

Sandro

And that’s it—I haven’t heard from Sandro since. Weeks have sailed by. My frantic emails and calls to the Georgian police, the British embassy, and Tbilisi hospitals got me no further. The whole time, I knew what had to be done. I just didn’t want to face it. . . .

__________________________________

From Hard by a Great Forest by Leo Vardiashvili published on January 30, 2024 by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 Leo Vardiashvili.




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