A schooner that smelled of flowers

Lika Tcheishvili

Illustration by Dianna Xu

I sailed to my country again on the Daland
And under the moon my heart woke, afflicted;
I wandered the old roads. Where was my homeland?
I couldn’t remember. Had I had her, had she existed?
—Galaktion Tabidze, translated from the Georgian by Christopher Michel

He who looked like a world-weary dandy was waiting for his schooner to arrive. I worked as a shipment inspector at the time but did not stay in the job for long. Well, to be precise, they did not let me stay. But that is another story.

Dawn was breaking when we finished loading oil and I was about to go home. I was walking down the stairs when I noticed him at the dock, wearing a white suit. He had just stepped onto the platform. It was early in the morning but he had gone to the trouble of putting on a white hat. What particularly struck me was the white lily attached to his lapel. There are no lilies here in Bandar Abbas. I had only seen them once. I asked the man for a cigarette. He handed me a cigarette case. I stood next to him and we started up a conversation. He said he had been waiting for a schooner called Daland for three days now. I had never heard of the schooner. I told him it was unlikely that the schooner would dock at our port. He disagreed, saying that it was certain to come. He's kind of waiting for his Godot, isn't he, I thought, but said nothing. I couldn’t be bothered to continue the conversation so I just nodded my head and went on my way. As I bought a traditional Bandari sandwich at the corner of the street I remembered about the lily. Come to think of it, it also seemed to be freshly picked—how odd. I tore the wrapping paper off the sandwich as I walked up the stairs and before I reached my flat, I had already devoured it. I went back to get another one and, while the seller wrapped it for me, I looked toward the harbour. He was still there, smoking and looking out to sea. He was there the next day too, and the day after. I walked up next to him, asked for a smoke again, and waited with him for the sun to rise. "It hasn't arrived then, has it?" I asked. "No," he said, shaking his head. "How about if you board another schooner?" I said. I do not normally meddle in other people's affairs. Had the sailors heard me saying this they would not have approved—I passed by them every morning without uttering a single word. But the white lily troubled me. Flowers, butterflies, and silver cigarette cases just did not fit with the bleak oil-induced clouds over Bandar Abbas, the chilling horns of the schooners and the constant fuss that porters made. "When it does arrive, you are very welcome to come along with me," he told me, tapping his cigarette. This sentence made my blood boil—I do not look queer. I only dress in colourful summer T-shirts when I am in high spirits, which does not happen often. To be honest, he did not look gay either. I swore at him like a proper sailor and strode toward the warehouse as fast as I could. As soon as the warehouse keeper arrived for work, I returned to look for the man but he had already gone. I bought my Bandari sandwich at the corner and headed back to my place.

As I entered the building, a young man came face to face to with me. He seemed to have emerged from nowhere.

He was wearing a blue uniform and a sailor's T-shirt, but his epaulets seemed to have been torn off. A medium-built man, he had a large face with a big black moustache. “Dear sir,”—this is exactly how he addressed me—“Mr. Mahe will not tolerate humiliation from anybody and he asks you to send him your secondant as soon as possible,” he said, and slipped something into my hands before leaving the place. What he didn't do was nod his head, the way people do in these sorts of circumstances. It was a business card he had given me.

I realized whom the man was referring to. That was quick, I thought. Now I had to find a secondant to witness the duel that this man wanted to have with me.

As I entered my flat, I turned on the AC, entered some data into the computer and sent it to the central office. Then I lay down on my blow-up mattress and leafed through my notebook.

I lost all my friends, alongside any belief in the very concept of friendship, a long time ago. Nevertheless, nobody would deny me a final goodbye if I died. And everybody likes a free spectacle. So I chose Wahid. We had worked together for a bootlegging business in the past. It is true that I refused to keep a package of beers in my office, but he never held it against me. He was surprised when I told him the story. He said if the man wanted indeed to kill me, the best thing would be to follow him at night, kill him first and then dump him into the sea. I refused to entertain his suggestion and he didn’t push. I gave him the man's business card. Mr. Mahe seemed to be a military doctor, probably retired. And he lived at the docks.

Wahid arrived in the evening, holding a pistol he had wrapped in a cloth. He said we needed to leave immediately as the man's schooner was about to set off that night. I left my teaspoon in the bowl of yogurt I was eating, got up and followed him. We took a shortcut to get to the coast. The damned schooner was there, dimly lit. It was oozing a scent of flowers. I suppose it specialized in flower shipping. I thought that I was about to die for a flower man but then was there any other flower man out there who could tempt me to stay on this side of the world? I had never held a pistol in my life. Knives are another matter. We quickly walked past the port, then a reed field and some muddy waters before reaching a graveled road. He was there, standing by a broken electricity pole. The moonlight made him fairly visible. As we approached, he handed over his pistol to the doctor standing nearby, who in turn handed it over to Wahid. Wahid looked at it, fiddled with it for a moment before handing it back. Wahid nodded to me to confirm that the pistol was similar to ours. Then he handed our pistol over to them. Wahid owns weapons but his tend to be modified hunting rifles. He would sell these alongside beer, which is why I withdrew from the business. Heineken goes better with smoked ham. "Dear sir," the man said, "if you apologize to me for making your insulting remarks, I am prepared to withdraw my challenge and offer you the chance to travel with me on the schooner Daland." This proposition again! But I suppose it was not what I thought it was. I remembered the scent of flowers that enveloped us as we passed the schooner. I had registered it, just as Wahid probably had, too. I thought why the hell would I want to have anything to do with the Daland. I don't remember if I said it aloud though. But I do remember his grinning expression. I also remember Wahid and Mr. Mahe marking a barrier, Mr. Mahe and I throwing dice and counting steps. I remember Mr. Mahe's bullet blowing my hat off and the next minute we were looking at his face smeared in blood. Wahid was shaking me and shouting at me to run immediately. I nodded and we fled. It did not feel particularly pleasant to kill a person for no apparent reason, then turn your back on him and leave, but don't tell me you wouldn’t do the same in my shoes. I felt Wahid punching me in the back, his hands enveloping my shoulders as he dragged me along. We ran like gazelles galloping into a welcome morning breeze, but it was not morning and we were no gazelles. As we ran into the port, we heard the man's schooner sounding its horn, as though calling after him. It was now all lit up and ready to depart. By the time Wahid and I grabbed the railing, the boarding plank had already lifted. We stood there and watched it slowly disappear into the darkness, like a yellow sun vanishing beyond the clouds, slowly narrowing. The scent of flowers also slowly disappeared until it was completely gone. We kept watching until the schooner was completely out of sight. Then we turned away and went our separate ways.

I didn't go to work that day. I sat on my blow-up mattress at home, shivering and sweating heavily.

I didn't go to work the next day either. And then, the day after, I went back to the office. I heard daily reports, loaded and unloaded ships, bought Bandari sandwiches on my way home and occasionally played snooker. Every morning I sat on my mattress, shivering and unable to close my eyes. Then I was transferred to Chabahar, where I resigned and moved to Kerman. I only returned to Bandar Abbas two years later, in May. It was so hot that the sea seemed to boil as I went swimming every morning. From there I would go straight to the Sharair household. Old man Elias said only my prayers would heal his shivering arms and legs. One day, Wahid met me at their place. He had brought a bottle of Skyy vodka for Elias' wife—his aunt. He was happy to see me. We opened the bottle in the summer house. We drank it all without his aunt even seeing it. I asked him if he ever saw the schooner again. "What sort of schooner?" he asked. "The Daland," I replied. "I do not think a schooner with that name ever docked here," he replied. I told him I was referring to the flower-scented schooner of the man we killed. "No, that schooner never returned," Wahid said, grinning and filling my glass to the brim. "But the doctor was looking for you," he added. I put my glass down and told him to take me to the man. We left. Wahid walked a bit before finding the house. It was a two-storey wooden house, quite unbefitting a doctor. He did not look surprised. It was as though he expected us. He did not invite us in, telling us to wait a bit. He disappeared behind the door and soon reappeared holding a little box. "Mr. Mahe left this for you," he said, and closed the door in front of us. I opened the box at home, over a pile of books. There was a lily inside. I turned it over and put it in the pocket of my shirt. I planned to stay another two weeks in Bandar Abbas. I thought I would throw away the lily when it withered in a day or two and keep the box. I thought he had probably asked his friend to do this so that I would not forget him but I would never have forgotten him anyway. I also thought the two of them must have a lily fetish of some sort—how else could the man get a lily so fast?

What really happened, however, was that I threw away the box but the lily refused to die. I did not give this too much thought. I just kept moving the lily from shirt to shirt every morning. Once, well past midnight, I was awakened by a schooner’s horn, insistent, as though summoning me. I jumped out of bed impulsively, got dressed and ran towards the harbour. It was the schooner, sounding its horn and slowly departing, leaving that flower smell behind. I jumped from the wooden platform into a small boat, unmoored it and rowed with great effort. The schooner was still sounding its horn and gaining speed as I rowed even more vigorously. But I still could not catch up. Soon it disappeared altogether. I found it increasingly harder to continue rowing, yet I followed the fragrance and listened to the sinister sound of waves breaking against the sides of my boat.

translated from the Georgian by Ekaterine Chialashvili and Alex Scrivener