Anyone else want to take a trip to Jordan with me? I knew literally nothing about the country before Krissy sent me this photo from her own stop at the Temple of Hercules in the Amman Citadel. Now it’s on my list of places I want to travel!
One of the things I found the most interesting when researching Amman and its history was the Circassian people that live there. In the 1800s, they were given a barren piece of desert with some ruins and, from their efforts, that area began to prosper and flourish, becoming what is now the capital city of Jordan. Needless to say, my mind was blown reading about it, and I knew I wanted to write a story with a Circassian main character.
While there is certainly plenty of information about the Circassian people online, I feel there were some facts I could not find. Because of this, I apologize to anyone who knows more about this group and sees a blatant error.
Also, this is historical fiction and, as I’ve said before, that is not my strong suit. Actually, I feel like I say that about just about every genre… Maybe it’s because I want to set your expectations really low so the story has no place to go but up 😉
Here is, ‘By the Columns’
Tonight. By the columns.
Hetsatsa read the note once more as she stepped out onto the porch of her family’s wuna, her heart pounding wildly in her chest. The words put a smile on her face and a warmth in her limbs as she folded the note back up and stuck it in the pocket of her overdress.
With quiet steps, she moved down the porch and into the yard. She walked as if her family had no idea she was sneaking out of the house to meet Netya. The truth was, though, they all knew she was leaving and where she was going. Her uncle and Netya’s uncle had set up the tryst, a continuing practice from their homeland in the Caucasus Mountains.
It wasn’t far from her family’s home to the columns Netya spoke of. They were located in the ruins, a place of old stone and remnants of structures built long ago by the Romans.
Netya’s figure was easy recognizable by the bright light of the full moon as he leaned against one of the columns, his arms crossed over his chest, brown hair tousled by the wind. When he saw Hetsatsa approaching, he smiled broadly.
“I was starting to wonder if you were going to meet me,” he said, moving down the ancient stone steps that led from the columns to the ground.
“When have I ever stood you up?”
“Never,” he answered.
He offered his hand and she laid hers in it, letting him help her back up to the columns. They sat down, and caught up on the trivial news from the day. Through all of his normal words and topics of conversation, though, Hetsatsa could tell there was something more he wanted to say.
“What is it?” she asked when they had sufficiently covered the last gathering. Things like who had danced the most gracefully. Who looked like they hadn’t been tying the leather straps around their waists to enhance their figures.
“What do you mean?”
“Did you think I wouldn’t notice there was more to this meeting than spending time in my company?”
Netya gave a small, nervous smile as he fidgeted with a stone in his hand.
“Tomorrow,” he said, voice low, “I’m leaving.”
Hetsatsa didn’t have to ask what he meant. The war had been heavy on his mind since the Ottoman Empire had formed an alliance with the Germans.
“What will you do?” she asked, trying to bite back fear and disappointment.
“Zamudin says he is volunteering with the Turkish calvary. I will do the same.”
“Are you angry?”
“Not angry. Just scared.”
“Don’t be scared,” he said, scooting a little closer to her. “The Circassians are warriors. It’s in our blood. I’ll make you and our families proud.”
“I pray you are right.”
“It’s just that, the whole world seems to be in on this war. I don’t think I can sit idly by and watch. I have to take a side.” He adjusted and cleared his throat. “I wanted to ask, though. Before I go. I was wondering if you’d wait for me. If you’d marry me when I get back.”
Hetsatsa grinned as she playfully swatted his arm.
“Of course I will,” she said, her voice higher than she had intended with excitement. “You know I will!”
They were quiet for a moment, enjoying a simple kind of bliss that only two young loves could feel. When the conversation started again, it was about their plans for a future together.
The next morning, Netya came to say goodbye. Hetsatsa took in his appearance, almost awed by it. His tunic, dropping to his knees, was flawless. New. He had chosen his best leather belt to wear around his waist, one that was ornamented with gold finishes. In the belt, he had placed a pistol and his poniard, a small dagger used in close combat. There was also a sword at his side. His leather boots were shined to the point that they gleamed in the morning sun.
“How do I look?” Netya asked, observing her studies of him.
“Perfect,” she said. “I would like you to come back home in this same way.”
Netya smiled and said, “I will do my best. I’ll write as often as I can.”
Hetsatsa could do nothing but give an affirming nod, fighting back the tears that were threatening to spill over.
Netya leaned close and kissed her cheek. A goodbye and a promise. He then walked to his stallion, Sosim. A mighty beast, one whose lines could be traced back to the past famous war horses of the Cicassians when they still lived in the mountains. Hetsatsa silently pleaded with the animal to watch over her betrothed.
She watched Netya ride away until he was no longer in sight.
“I have finally received a letter.” Hetsatsa’s hand clutched at the missive in her pocket, as if she was clutching the very hand of Netya himself.
She was walking down the dirt road that led to the wheat fields along with her best friend Zuliy, the tools needed for a full day of work strapped to their backs.
“Finally!” Zuliy exclaimed as she re-tied her head scarf. “I was beginning to wonder if he ever intended to write. What did he say?”
“He is doing well. They have placed him along the Hejaz Railway outside of Damascus to protect against attacks there. He has seen some minor skirmishes, but nothing too serious. Mostly with Bedouin groups.”
“Not that British man?”
“Lawrence? No, thank goodness.”
“I’ve heard they’ve been calling him Lawrence of Arabia. The friend of the Arabs. Scourge of the Ottomans.” Zuliy frowned. “I wish him to suffer a long and painful death.”
Hetsatsa stopped and looked at her friend in surprise. Usually Zuliy was a peaceful and empathetic person.
“Why do you say such a thing?” asked Hetsatsa.
“I recently heard about how he and his men do their attacks. They blow up the trains or the tracks, then swoop in and kill those who are still well enough to fight. Those they don’t kill are left to a slow and painful death in the wreckage.”
Feeling shaken, Hetsatsa shook her head and murmured, “Terrible.”
What if that happened to Netya? What if he was left to die in such a horrible way in the wreckage of a train? Far out in the desert. No one to help him.
Not for the first time since her betrothed had left, Hetsatsa wished the Circassians hadn’t gotten involved in the war at all
The Circassians sided with the Ottoman Empire out of a sense of loyalty. When they had been cast out by Russia in the late 1800s, a number of them had made their way to the Ottomans, who gave them large stretches of land to settle on. That included the sparse, desert land of Amman where Hetsatsa lived. The Empire had treated the newcomers well. It only made sense that the displaced people would want to try and pay back at least some of the favor.
“The railway is a big target,” said Zuliy. “Too big. I hope that Netya is able to get away from the rail line soon.”
“Me, too,” Hetsatsa said. “Me, too.”
Hetsatsa couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move, or feel, or function. The newspaper hung limply from one hand, a letter from Zamudin in the other.
The paper told her that, in September, Lawrence of Arabia had struck again in one of his most successful attacks on the Hejaz Railway yet. At least seventy Turks dead. The paper made no mention of anyone else who may have been killed, but the letter did.
In his letter, Zamudin said Netya had been on that train. He said that Netya was unaccounted for. Gone. While his body had not been recognized, there were enough corpses damaged beyond recognition that it was very probable that one of them was his. Even if he had survived and gotten away from the train, the only thing for miles around was the desert. The odds he was alive were far below grim.
Crushing both of the pieces of paper in her hands, Hetsatsa threw them onto the floor. Standing, she walked to the wall where she had set her field tools and picked them up again. She had to keep moving. Keep working. If she didn’t she would completely and utterly fall apart.
On the way to the fields, she fervently prayed to the gods that hope was not entirely lost.
“Jerusalem has fallen,” Zuliy said, sadness in her face. She dropped down onto one of the pillows on the floor and shook her head. “Last month. It is now in the hands of the British.”
Hetsatsa tried to care, but she had been avoiding all news of the war since she had heard of Netya’s loss.
“We should never have gotten involved in this fight,” she said quietly.
“How could we not? We had to help the Ottomans.”
“They say the Ottomans incurred great losses in Jerusalem. I wonder if they will be able to recover.”
“We can only wait and see.”
Hetsatsa sat for the evening meal with her family and felt like pressing her hands into her ears.
“He would be such a good match for you,” said her mother. “So handsome!”
“And his family made a fortune helping out with the building of the Hejaz Railway,” added her father. “You would be comfortable your whole life.”
Ever since Kuba had begun to show an interest in her at the end of January, all she had heard from her family and friends was Kuba this. Kuba that. Don’t let Kuba get away. The one she detested the most was, ‘You can’t mourn forever’.
Who said? Who decided she wasn’t allowed to mourn forever? And it had only been five months since her betrothed’s passing, not an eternity as everyone seemed to think.
The next night at the gathering, Kuba stayed close be her side, trying to engage her in conversation. He was a nice enough man, and attractive. Nothing like Netya, though. She’d never see anyone the way she had seen Netya.
She tried to respond to the questions her new suitor asked, but trying to keep up with his course of conversation was beginning to make her head hurt.
During one of the dances, he went out and joined the other men. Her mother sidled up next to her and pointed out what a fine dancer he was. All Hetsatsa could think of was how grateful she was that he was temporarily sidetracked.
Kuba had proposed. Hetsatsa had asked for time to think.
As more time passed, she knew that Netya wasn’t coming back. It had been six months. If he had survived the attack, that would have been plenty of time for him to find help and send her news of his condition. But there was no news, and she was beginning to be swayed by her parent’s pleas that she move on and marry Kuba.
Marrying Kuba would be a wise choice. As her father had said, she would never want. Kuba was also kind, and would always take care of her. Other than feelings of love toward the man, there was nothing that would be lacking from their marriage.
“So, have you made a decision?” Zuliy asked when she saw her friend pacing along the edge of the horse corral.
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Zuba is a good man. I wish I was so lucky to have the attentions of someone such as him.”
“I know, you’re right.” Hetsatsa stopped her back and forth movements and turned to face her friend. “I still miss Netya, though.”
“You probably always will. That’s okay. Kuba knows that, too. With time, though, you will love your husband. I know it.”
“I can only hope.”
“Is that a yes to you marrying him?”
It had been a full year since Netya had gone off to war. Hetsatsa felt as if it had been much longer than that, while also feeling as if he had just left. She stared numbly down at her food, knowing she needed to eat, but a desire to eat evading her.
“This is delicious,” Kuba said as he looked up from his plate. “You have outdone yourself today.”
Hetsatsa made herself smile and thanked him, then took a bite from her own plate, swallowing past the lump in her throat.
After the meal, she excused herself for a walk. The indoors felt too cramped and overpowering. Kuba said he would go with her, but she quickly turned him down, telling him she needed time to mourn Netya.
Her steps took her to the columns where Netya had told her he was leaving and asked her to marry him. She had been avoiding those columns more and more over the past year, but that evening, she needed to see them.
As she drew near, she saw a horse tied to a large stone on the ground, and her pulse quickened. Maybe it was Netya’s. Maybe he had come back! On closer inspection, though, she found it was not Sosim, but rather one of the lighter and quicker horses the Bedouins used.
Though the Bedouins had resented the Cricassians moving into the area at first, staging attacks fairly frequently, they had become peaceful over the years. Attacks had become very rare, but that didn’t stop Hetsatsa from proceeding with caution.
From the bottom of the steps leading to the columns, she saw a man on the platform, dressed in the usual Bedouin garb of a long, white tunic with a sleeveless cloak over top. He hadn’t noticed her yet, his eyes out on the horizon, hands clutched behind his back.
“Hello,” Hetsatsa said.
The man’s dark brown eyes snapped over to her.
“You are Hestatsa?” he asked in an Arabic dialect.
Surprised, Hetsatsa nodded and answered back in Arabic, “I am. How did you know?”
“Netya said you would be here today.”
“Netya?” She gave a sharp intake of breath. “Did you know him?”
“I do know him.”
Hetsatsa place a hand over her mouth as a sob erupted from her.
“Where?” she asked through a wave of tears.
“He was taken in by my tribe.”
“We found him. He was very badly injured. We brought him back with us and tried to help him. He wanted you to know why he could not come back.”
“Why is he not here himself?”
A strange look passed over the man’s face as he answered, “He could not.”
“Why?” she asked, wiping at the moisture on her face with the back of her hand. “I know there’s something more. I can see it.”
The man sighed and said, “He does not want me to tell you.”
“That’s…” Hetsatsa shook her head in confusion. “That doesn’t make sense. Is he at least well?”
“Is he with your tribe now?””
Again, that look over the man’s face.
Frustrated with the lack of information she was receiving, Hestsatsa marched back down the steps and over to the Bedouin’s horse. She quickly untied the animal and jumped on its back.
“What are you doing?” The man ran down the stairs and tried to make it to his mount, but Hestsatsa nudged the horse in the side and it moved out of the Bedouin’s reach.
“You tell me everything, or I take off with your horse and strand you here. Oh, and I’ll tell everyone else so that you can’t snatch one of their animals.”
The man set his lips in a tight line, resolve etched in his face. He wasn’t going to tell her anything. He was a Bedouin. Tough, resilient, loyal. He would walk on foot back across the desert before he’d give up something which he was not supposed to tell.
“Fine,” she ground out.
She nudged the horse again and again until the animal was in a gallop across the course plants and sand leading away from the main road.
She had only gone about a quarter mile when she heard it. Someone yelling at her, and not too far behind.
“Stop!” she heard across the wind. The words weren’t Arabic. They were Circassian. “Hetsatsa, stop!”
Looking back, she saw another man in Bedouin garb on horseback chasing her down, but his face was far too light to be a tribesman, and his horse was all too familiar.
Pulling back hard on the reins, she brought the horse to a fidgety halt and waited for the rider behind her to arrive.
“Netya,” she said breathlessly.
He brought his horse to a sliding stop next to her. Quick, strong arms pulled her over onto his mount with him.
Hetsatsa threw her arms around his neck and began to cry, hugging him as tightly as she could.
After a few minutes of her tears and his soothing murmurs, she pulled back and looked up at him, wiping at her face as she did. That’s when she noticed the scars on his face. The largest one started close to his right ear, traveling down the side of his cheek to the top of his neck. There were other smaller ones across his nose, forehead, and left cheek.
“Are you ok?” she asked him, placing a hand to his face.
“Your face,” she continued.
“It happened when the track exploded, but I’m fine now.”
They sat there, studying each other, Sosim dancing under them.
“How are you?” Netya finally asked, his eyes searching her face, trying to assess her condition for himself.
“I’m fine. I missed you. We all thought…”
“I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t come back, though.”
Netya sighed and looked out toward the horizon for a moment, and then looked back down at her.
“I’m working with the Arabs,” he said quietly. “And Lawrence.”
“What? I thought you were fighting with the Turks?”
“I was, but the more I thought about it, the more it didn’t make sense. I agree with the Arabs that freedom from Ottoman control would be best. That only became clearer to me after I was taken in by one of the Bedouin tribes fighting for the British. Some of them were doing it for the money, but a fair number thought the way I do. I can’t come home. When our people find out what I’ve been doing, they’ll never accept me.”
His words were calm, but Hetsatsa could see how much of a toll that decision had taken on him. Even at that moment, she could see the inner war that was waging.
“You’ll leave again?” she asked quietly.
“As soon as we are done speaking.”
“I’m going with you.”
Netya looked stunned, his eyes widening in surprise.
“No you’re not,” he said, tone firm. “It’s not safe.”
“I’ll stay with whichever tribe you’re working out of.”
“Still, not safe.”
“Do you not want me with you?”
In response, Netya wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close again.
“Hetsatsa, I had to ask a friend to talk to you for me because I knew how hard it would be for me to leave again if I saw you. I’m not letting you come with me because of how much I care.”
“As long as you still want me, I’m going with you, no matter what you say. I’ll follow you into the desert if I have to. Look,” she leaned back and motioned to the animal she had taken. “I already have a horse.”
Netya smiled and said, “Muhammed’s going to need his mount back.”
“Ok, then, I’ll ride with you. I’m light. You know I won’t slow Sosim down much.”
“Will be fine.”
“You didn’t marry?”
“No, although Kuba put on quite the charm. He’s been coming over for dinner regularly, even though I turned him down. He’s at my family’s house now.”
“Kuba,” Netya growled, looking like he wanted to throttle the man.
“Netya.” Hetsatsa grabbed the front of his tunic with both of her hands. “Let me go with you. If you leave me here, I’ll just waste away. I’d rather be in danger close to you than safe far away.”
“I feel like you’ll regret this.”
A furrow appeared between Netya’s brows as he thought it over. He ran a hand across his face and gave a long exhale.
“You’ll have to apologize to Muhammed about taking his horse,” he said.
“I will,” Hetsatsa said, knowing she was winning. “I promise.”
“And it’s a long trip back to the tribe.”
“I’m Circassian. I’m resilient.”
“We may never be able to come back.”
“Maybe, but I think we will. I think when this war is over, everything will be different. There will be too much change to wonder who fought for whom.”
“You are absolutely perfect.” Netya placed a hand on either side of her face and kissed her.
“Only when I’m with you,” Hetsatsa said with a smile as they pulled away from each other. “Now, let’s go get your friend so I can apologize.”