``YOU are a djigit !'' exclaimed the Circassian prince. ``What is a djigit?'' I assumed that the tall, stern man was scolding me for something, but I did not know what.
``In the Caucasus,'' began the exiled prince, ``a djigit is a trick rider. A brave and noble horseman, who rides the edge of the precipice and will race along and then lean from his saddle down to snatch a kinjal, a dagger, thrust in the ground. Or a gold coin. Not with his hands. With his teeth. At full speed. Then he rights himself in the saddle and whirlwinds away.''
It sounded wonderful, though I didn't see how the term applied to me. Nor did he explain.
``A djigit is a sort of cowboy,'' a Russian later defined it, seemingly with both admiration and disparagement. ``A daredevil. A fool.''
True, I did some rather foolhardy things, like climbing to the tipping top of the highest pine, and sailing under full spinnaker into a storm, and traveling alone through strange terrain.
But on horseback, I had not yet learned to jump. And, when I did, I learned the ignominy of falling off. Shall I confess it now: I love horses, but -- I am scared. Or at least: respectful.
I avoid capsizing sailboats, too, mostly. And have spent years trying to walk on eggs instead of on air.
About once a year over the years, the rare times I saw my Circassian prince, whose rugged face gradually resembled that of a silvering eagle soaring over the mountains, he would ask: ``Are you still a djigit ?'' And I would smile what I hoped was a suitably cryptic smile, and vaguely shake my head. And he would shake his head, as if to mourn my cowardice in many fields.
I realize now, that I've never seen him on horseback. Yet I have no doubt that he could sail over any jump, carrying a full glass of water on a silver tray, unspilled. Simultaneously strumming a one-stringed chunguri and even dancing a lezginka, too. All on the back of a wild black stallion balancing on a spider's strand stretched between the snowy peaks of the Caucasus, galloping between Mt. Elbrus and Mt. Ararat, leaning from his saddle to snatch silver kinjals from the clouds.
Rarely have I managed to ride since childhood. One gets busy, horses are expensive, riding is risky, risks are risky.
``. . . And she is not afraid to take risks,'' said the poet Henry Taylor some years later, concluding his introduction before I gave my first big poetry reading. I did not know what he meant but could only assume: She is not afraid to fall on her face, to make a fool of herself. Despairing, I stuttered into my poems.
Only later did I realize Henry had meant it as a compliment. But I fear I do not much live up to it. Nor to the term djigit.
But I have always been fascinated by the idea of wild horsemen racing across the plains or the steppes and performing incredible acrobatics in the saddle. As I stumble along on the old gray mare of caution.
Then last October in Tunisia, in the oasis town of Kairouan, we were invited to watch what our hosts called a ``Fantasis,'' a traditional display of horsemanship formerly reserved for the fanciest of wedding feasts and other celebrations.
We settled onto the rugs in the low tent, around long, low tables studded with platters heaped with couscous and baked lamb and squash, and bowls of grapes and pomegranates. But I had little time to eat. For the musician's tabla (drums) and long flutes or horns were already announcing the arrival of the horsemen through the date palms and oleanders.
A tall man splendid in crimson and gold rode out on a white stallion. He was the leader of the troupe, the grandfather of his clan, and performing with him were his sons, almost as splendid. But it was the grandfather whose dark sharp features seemed less those of a Tunisian Arab than of a Circassian, the eagle prince of my childhood.
I left the shelter of the tent, never mind the Saharan sun, and crouched as close as I could to watch without scaring the horses.
The horses circled faster in the desert dust before the tent, the musicians played faster and faster, the riders threw down a scarlet scarf and, as they whirled past, reached easily down to snatch it from the ground. Then coins in the dust, and a dagger, and they continued to gallop ever faster.
To give the horses a rest from their galloping, the leader stood on the high saddle of his white stallion, which was covered with a green, gold, and scarlet cloth. One son and then another climbed up to stand on the leader's shoulders. Then more gymnastics, acrobatics, as the horses reared on cue and lifted the configurations of riders on their backs as easily as if they were a flock of birds.
When the performance was over, I was told it was all right to approach the riders. Bearing a handful of rare grass for the horse, I came up to the leader and tried in tatters of several languages to congratulate him.
Next thing I knew I was up on the white stallion. And we were parading around, at an easy gait, no tricks, mind you, maybe prancing a bit. I was, of course, out of practice. Even if, on the previous day, I had ridden the white camel through the desert sands.
Then, on the leader's cue, the stallion reared and danced around on its hind legs. And we cantered off toward the desert -- and around -- and back.
Finally the Tunisian prince of horsemen took back the reins, and I slid off the white stallion, landing neatly on my feet.
``Djigit!'' the leader may have said. Or else, some word quite like it.