Crystals For Sale by Ben Stamp
This time he didn't say anything. After he walked around the car, his white, beach-themed shirt, dotted with transparent splatters, from the rain, he pounded the window three times.
Get out, that meant.
Should we? our faces asked each other. Then the two in the back—of the clanky, red, rusty van.
I guess so, the four of us shrugged.
The road to Ushguli's not a road. It's dirt, with holes and rocks. Puddles swell in its cavernous divots. Cows traipse across it dirty desolation. Vans hug the cliffs, or nudge rocks, sent tumbling to their icy river deaths, meters below, between slate walls rising, marking the millennial past. The permitted mode of transportation—the old, rusty van—is reminiscent of childhood: bouncing, jerking, whiplash, outside the supermarket, in a faded neon rocket or a black-and-red toy train, into which mom or dad shoves a few quarters. But when you get there, when you bounce around that final bend, and the earth parts, revealing those fairy-tale green hills, those natural skyscrapers, dusted with perennial snow, that rushing icy river, from the glacier up ahead—then, all the fear and hand-squeezing and silent praying—it's worth it.
Lunging out of the van's high sides, we overstep one of the now-flooding divots, and guide the two from the back on the same course. The planks of wood, bordered by another, larger—and longer—plank of wood, making something like a double-jointed ladder, are where we're supposed to climb over the fence. The driver: he's smoking a cigarette now, being slapped by friends on the shoulder, nudging them back in the pancreas, as we daintily dodge puddles.
A witchy woman, on the other side of the double-jointed ladder, apparently the proprietor of the wooden slab atop which sparkle a variety of crystals, hobbles out of the rotting wooden shack. (Does she live there? Is that her home?)
The Tower of Love, permanent marker on a piece of recycled cardboard welcomes us, with surprisingly accurate spelling. And below that: one lari for small crystals, two lari for big crystals, three lari for massive crystals. The drawings beside the prices are cartoonish, but much more informative than the Georgian hieroglyphs.
(As in the place she lives all year? But the winter—what does she do then? There's not even a door.)
But the wooden shack's not The Tower of Love. That's the medieval tower house. The one slowly eroding, down the hill, like the banks of the river, on one edge of which it emerges from a moss-smothered boulder. It’s something like a stone lighthouse. And the further out you trespass into this, until recently lawless, land, the more of these UNESCO-protected towers scout you from the tree-covered hills and lush valleys, bisected by zig-zagging rivers. Later, once the land's been parted, and we've reached those natural skyscrapers, a Ukrainian traveller will inform us of the dual purposes these towers served: living, and protection. Protection from revenge-thirsty tribes, out to exact their eye-for-an-eye justice system. Climb up to the second story. Pull up the wooden steps. Now you’re safe from the shovel- and pitchfork-wielding family whose son had his head bashed in by your brother.
And that was 20 years ago, in the 90s.
So this must have been her home. At some point. Had it been her family's? I asked. Yes, she nodded. The Tower of Love, now empty, now laden with moss and lichen. Now with the world changing and roads being built and people coming to see what used to be a home. Now.
The rain's starting to build up, in our hair, meshed with our clothes, droplets on our hands. The rotting wooden shack, with no door, the now-memorialized Tower of Love, the witchy lady, with rocks and a cardboard sign—all of it, dripping. Another van has stopped behind us, and person after person after person has asked the same question: "Do you have a bathroom?" They pull out their cameras. There's a flash, and then they hurry back to the van, hands shielding their heads. And she's standing there, in the rain, getting soaked, saying, Yes, and pointing, Yes, and pointing, Yes, and pointing. Trying to sell her crystals. One lari for the small ones, two lari for the big ones, three lari for the colossal ones. The cardboard's wet, too. The permanent ink is fading, bleeding.
So we buy one, and get back in the van, with the big Svan driver and his beach-themed shirt, us tossing around inside, praying for safe passage, on the road that’s not a road, to Ushguli.