from “Tales of Italy” by Maxim Gorky
Translated by Rose Prokofieva
( ‘With my mum’ by Photo2002 )
Let us raise our voice in praise of woman, the Mother, inexhaustible fount of all-conquering life!
This is the tale of the flint-hearted Timur-i-leng, the lame panther, of Sakhib-i-Kirani, the lucky conqueror, of Tamerlane, as he was called by the infidels, of the man who sought to destroy the whole world.
For fifty years he trampled the earth, his iron heel crushing cities and states as the foot of an elephant crushes an ant-hill. Red rivers of blood flowed in his wake in all directions. He built tall towers out of the bones of vanquished peoples. He destroyed life, pitting his power against the poser of Death, for he was avenging the death of his son Jigangir. A ghstly man, he wished to rob Death of all his spoils so that he might expire from hunger and despair!
From the day when his son Jigangir died and the people of Samarkand met the conqueror of the evil Juts dressed in black and pale-blue, their heads sprinkled with dist and ashes, from that day until the hour in Otrav thirty years later when Death overpowered him at last, Timur did not smile. He lived thus with lips compressed, his head unbowed and his hear locked against compassion – for thirty years!
Let us sing the praises of woman, the Mother, the sole force before which Death humbly bows his head! Let here be told the truth about Mother, how Death’s servant and slave, the stony-hearted Tamerlan, the bloody scourge of the earth, bowed before her.
It came about thus: in the lovely valley of Canigula wreathed in clouds of roses and jasmine, the valley Samarkand poets named “Vale of Flowers”, whence the blue minarets of the great city, the blue cupolas of the mosques are visible, Timur-bek was feasting.
Fifteen thousand circular tents were spread out fanwise in the valley like fifteen thousand tulips, and over each tent hundreds of silken pennants fluttered in the breeze.
And in the centre stood the tent of Gurugan Timur, like a queen among the train…On the floor of the tent on carpets of unsurpassed beauty stood three hundred golden jugs of wine and everything meet for a kingly feast; behind Timur sat the musicians, beside him no one, and at his feet, his kinsmen, kings and princes and chieftains, and closest to him of all drunken kermani, the poet, who, when the destroyer of the world once asked him:
“Kermani! How much wouldst thou give for me, were I to be sold?” had replied: “Twenty-five askers.”
“But my belt alone is worth as much!” Timur had exclaimed in amazement.
“It is of thy belt that I was thinking,” replied Kirmani, “only of thy belt, for thou thyself art not worth of farthing!”
So spoke Kermani, the poet, to the king of kings, the man of horror and evil, and may the glory of the poet, friend of truth, be ever exalted above the glory of Tamerlane!
Let us sing the praises of poets who know but one God, the fearless, beautiful word of truth. That is their God for ever!
And so in the hour when the revelty and feasting, the proud reminiscences of battles and victories, were at their height… – at that wild hour the cry of a woman, the proud cry of a she-eagle reached the ears of Sultan Bayezid’s conqueror, suddenly cutting through the hubbub, like a streak of lightning through a thunderstorm. It was a sound familiar to him and in harmony with his wounded soul, the soul wounded by Death and hence cruel toward living men.
He ordered his men to see who it was that had cried out in joyless voice, and he was told that a woman, a mad creature in dust and rags, had come speaking in the language of the Arabs and demanding, yes demanding, to see him, the ruler of three cardinal points of the earth.
“Bring her in!” said the king.
And so before him stood a woman. She was barefoot and her tattered clothing had faded in the sun, her black tresses were loosened so that they covered her bare breast, her face was the colour of bronze and her eyes imperious, and her dark hand outstretched toward the Lame One did not tremble.
“Is it thou hast vanquished Sultan Bayezid?” she demanded.
“Yes, I have defeated him and many besides, and am not yet weary of conquests. And what saith thou of thyself, woman?”
“Hear me!” said she. ‘Whatever thou hast done, thou art but a man. I am a Mother! Thou servest death, I serve life. Thou hast sinned against me and so I have come to demand that thou atone for thy guilt. I have been told that thy device is ‘in justice lies strength,’ I do not believe it, but to me thou must be just, for I am a Mother!”
The king had wisdom enough to feel the power behind these bold words.
“Sit down and speak. I would listen to thee!”
She seated herself upon the carpet amid the intimate circle of kings and began her tale:
“I’m from the region of Salerno, far away in Italy, thou knowest not those parts! My father was a fisherman, my husband too, he was as handsome as only happy men are and it was I who gave him happiness! I had a son too, the loveliest child in the world…”
“Like my Jigangir,” the old warrior murmured.
“There is none as handsome and as clever a lad as my son! He was six years old when the Saracen pirates landed on our coast. They slew my father and my husband and many others, and they carried off my boy and for four years now I have been searching the earth for him. Now thou hast him. This I know, for Bayezid’s men captured the pirates, and thou hast canquered Bayezid and taken all his possessions. Thou must know where my son is and give him back to me!”
Everyone laughed and the kings, who always considered themselves to be wise, said:
“She is mad!” said the kinds and the friends of Timur, the princes and chieftains, and they laughed.
Only Kermani gazed at the woman gravely and Tamerlane looked at her in great wonder.
“She is mad as a Mother is mad,” the drunken poet Kermani said softly; and the king, the enemy of peace, said:
‘Woman! Hos hast thou come hither from that unknown land across the seas, the rivers and mountains, through woods and forests? How is it that beasts and men – often more savage than the most savage of beasts – have not molested thee, how couldst thou have wandered alone without a weapon, which is the only friend of the defenceless and which will not betray him so long as he has strength to wield it? I must know this in order that I might believe thee and that my wonder might not prevent me from understanding what thou sayest!”
Let us sing the praises of woman, the Mother, whose love knows no obstacles, whose breast has nurtured the whole world! All that is beautiful in man, is derived from the sun’s rays and from his Mother’s milk. This it is that imbues us with love of life!
“I encountered but one sea in my wanderings,” she replied. “There were many islands and fishing boats on it, and when one seeks a loved one the winds are always fair. And for one who had been born and brought up on the seashore it is no hardship to swim rivers. Mountains? I did not notice them.”
And the drunken Kermani said gaily:
“A mountain becomes a valley for one who loves!”
“There were forests, yes. I encountered wild boars, bears, lynxes and fearful bulls with their heads bent low and twice panthers looked at me with eyes like thine own. But every animal has a heart, and I spoke with them as I speak with thee, they believed me when I said I was a Mother, and they went their way sighing, for they pitied me! Knowest thou not that the beasts too love their children and know how to fight for their lives and freedom no less then men?”
‘Well said, woman,” said Timur. “And often, this I know, they love more strongly and fight more stubbornly than men!”
“Men,” she continued, like a child, for every Mother is a child a hundredfold at heart, “men are always children to their mothers, for every man had a Mother, every man is some mother’s sone, even thou, old man, wast born of woman, thou canst deny God, but this thou canst never deny!”
“Well said, woman!” exclaimed Kermani, the fearless poet. “Well said! From a herd of bullocks there will be no calves, without the sun flowers will not bloom, without love there is no happiness, without woman there is no love, without Mothers there are neither poets nor heroes!”
And the woman said:
“Give me back my child, for I am his Mother and I love him.”
Let us bot to Woman; she gave birth to Moses, to Mohammed and to Jesus, the great prophet who was put to death by evil men…
Let us boe to Her who tirelessly gives birth to the great! Aristotle is Her son, and Firdusi, and Saadi, as sweet as honey, and Omar Khayyam, like unto wine mixed with poison, Iskander and the blind Homer – these are all Her children, all of them imbibed her milk and She led each one of them into the world by the hand when they were no bigger than tulips. All the pride of the world comes from Mothers!
And the hoary destroyer of cities, the lame tiget Timur-Gurugan sat sunk in thought. After a long silence he said to those gathered about him:
“Men tangri Kuli Timur! I, God’s servant Timur, do say what must be said! Thus I have lived, for many years the earth had groaned beneath my feet, and for thirty years I have been destroying it in order to avenge the death of my son Jigangir, for extinguishing the sun of life in my heart! Men have fought against me for kingdoms and cities, but never has anyone fought me for man, and never has man had any value in my sight, and I did not know who he was and why he stood in my path! It is I, Timur, who said to Bayezid when I defeated him: ‘Oh, Bayezid, it must be that before God countries and men are nothing, for behold, he suffers them to be possessed by such as we: thou, one-eyed and I, lame!’ So spake I to him when he was brought to me in chains and could barely stand under their weight, so spake I, gazing upon his misfortune, and life at that moment was to me as bitter as wormwood, the weed of ruins!
“I, God’s servant Timur, say what must be said! Here before me sits a woman, one of myriads, and she has awakened in my soul feelings such as I have never known. She speaks to me as to an equal, and she does not beg, she demands. And I see now, I understand why this woman is so strong – she loves, and love has taught her that her child is the spark of life which can kindle a flame for many centuries. Were not all the prophets children too, and were not all the heroes weak? O, Jigangir, light of mine eyes, perhaps thou wert destined to kindle the earth, to sow it with happiness, I, thy father, have drenched it with blood and it has grown fat!”
Once again the scourge of the nations lapsed into silence, then at last he spoke:
“I, God’s servant Timur, say what must be said! Three hundred horsemen shall set out at once to all corners of my land and they shall find this woman’s son and she shall wait here, and I shall wait with her; he who returns with the child in his saddle, good fortune shall be his – It is I, Timur, who speaks. Have I spoken well, woman?”
She tossed her black hair back from her face, smiled to him and replied:
“Thou hast, king!”
Then rose this terrible old man and in silence bowed to her, and the merry poet Kermani spake up with great rejoicing:
What is more beautiful than the song of flowers and stars?
The answer all men know: ’tis the song of love!
What is more beautous than the sunlight at noon in May?
The lover replies: She whom I love!
Ah, beautiful are the stars in the midnight sky,
And beautiful the sun on a summer’s noontide,
But the eyes of beloved are lovelier than all the flowers,
And her smile is more gentle than the sun’s rays.
But the song most beautiful of all is yet to be sung,
The song of the beginning of all things on earth,
The song of the world’s heart, of the magic heart,
Of her whom on earth we call Mother!
And Timur said to his poet:
“Good, Kermani! God was not mistaken when he chose thy lips to extol his wisdom!”
“God is himself a great poet!” spake the drunken Kermani.
And the woman smiled and all the kings smiled and the princes, and the chieftains smiled, they were all children as they gazed upon her – upon the Mother!
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All this is true; every word spoken here is the truth, our mothers know it to be so, ask them and they will tell you:
“Yes, all this is the eternal truth, we are stronger than death, we who are for ever bringing into the world sages, poets and heroes, we who imbue man with all that makes him glorious!”
( Photo by Vyacheslav Ilyin )
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from World Press Photo
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Hawa Dzhansuyeva, 55 years old Chechen mother of the missing son Alikhan Markuev, 21.
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Prisoner of the Mountains, also known as Prisoner of the Caucasus, is a 1996 Russian war drama film directed by Sergei Bodrov.
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( Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia )