The Last Man to Speak Ubykh

John Burnside

The linguist Ole Stig Andersen was keen to seek out the remaining traces of a West Caucasian language called Ubykh. Having heard that there was one remaining speaker he set out to find the man and arrived in his village on 8 October 1992. The man had died a few hours earlier.

At times, in those last few months,
he would think of a word
and he had to remember the tree, or the species of frog,

the sound denoted:
the tree itself, or the frog, or the state of mind
and not the equivalent word in another language,

the speech that had taken his sons
and the mountain light;
the graves he swept and raked; the wedding songs.

While years of silence gathered in the heat,
he stood in his yard and whispered the name of a bird
in his mother tongue,

while memories of snow and market days,
his father’s hands, the smell of tamarind,
inklings of milk and blood on a sunlit floor

receded in the names no longer used:
the blue of childhood folded like a sheet
and tucked away.

Nothing he said was remembered; nothing he did
was fact or legend
in the village square,

yet later they would memorise the word
he spoke that morning, just before he died:
the word for death, perhaps, or meadow grass,

or swimming to the surface of his mind,
that other word they used, when he was young,
for all they knew that nobody remembered.