Smoke in Beirut

By Missak Artinian

She leans against the rusted railings, peering
Down at the polluted streets from
 the balcony.

Her frail fingers clench the butt of a cigarette
Like a soldier clinging tightly to her own rifle.

A black smoke veils her mouth. She doesn’t talk.
Not about the Civil War. Never about grandfather.

I tell her smoking will kill her. She nods her balding head,
Takes one last puff before throwing the butt off the balcony

And lights another.

An Open Letter to the Armenian Diaspora

By Madinah Wardak Noorai  (Guest Contributor)

I am writing this to you as a twenty-something year old citizen of Los Angeles. As someone who gets confused for Armenian more than my own race, which I don’t mind, because I find your women to be among the most beautiful of the East. I am writing this to you as a neighbor of 10 Armenian families between the years 2000-2010. I am writing this to you as the best friend and second daughter to an Armenian family, the Arakelyans, as the schoolmate to countless Armenians in Van Nuys High School, and as a fellow victim of large-scale denial.

I remember meeting you in middle school. Wondering where Armenia was, then finding it on a map, and thinking, “so close to Afghanistan”. I remember first hearing the word, “genocide”, and the grief on your faces when you remembered. How shocked I was that this was not in our school books – not one page? I remember hearing that it was the Muslims who did it, and how guilty I felt, knowing the same melodic call to prayer that brings me peace, must bring you pained memories of your ancestral past. I remember (once) being called Turkish, not thinking anything of it, then being told this was an insult.

For 10 years, I lived alongside you in Van Nuys. My mother and her Armenian girlfriends smoked Parliaments in the halls of our building, spoke loudly in Russian, their language of communication, to each other over music, nostalgically remembering the Soviet days. I’ve attended your birthdays, your christenings, your weddings. I’ve eaten your food, drank your coffee, smoked hookah alongside you. My mother and I have marveled at how similar we are, even more similar than our Persian cousins – how easy it is to dance to your music, how I can pick up words in your language that are the same as mine, how I can eat your food and realize we have the same dishes.

And I have witnessed, every year, the deep seeded pain you all express, the anxiety you feel, the absolute grief and anger that rises from your souls and into your throats – the pain of denial. How frustrating it must be, that every year, you must make your case again, and again, to try and get recognition, some kind of acknowledgement, a sign of compassion, of the injustice you went through so many years ago. I see the tears and hear the facts, (that for some crazy reason must be presented as arguments – almost theories), I’ve witnessed the silent protests and Googled the pictures, in Izmit, in Bursa, in Der-Zor. I have seen the skulls in the Syrian Desert, your brightest intellectuals hung in the Turkish squares, the march into the unforgiving sands that took your children from you.

And it is in your eyes that I suddenly find myself, each year. 1.5 million of yours perished in 1915, exiled from your land, stripped of your culture, your religion, made to hide amongst the various ethnicities of the Middle East, made to forget your language, to assimilate yourselves for protection. How your trauma showed once again when Kessab was under attack, how open your wounds truly are. How generations later, you mourn the loss of your people.

My people have died – and are dying, too. They estimate roughly 30,000 in the past decade of war – but this is their statistic. History is written by the winners – don’t we both know it? When I see the skulls in Der-Zor, I remember the piles of men in Abu Ghraib. When I see the babies left in the desert, I remember the little girls being raped in Kabul. When I hear of the Armenians converting to Islam for protection, I remember the Afghans accepting Christ for theirs.

I am not saying this to prove that I understand you. Our pains are different, but in the end, aren’t they one in the same? My genocide is still occurring – they are calling it a War on Terrorism, but why is my family calling us with stories of the Americans barging in, rounding up our men, shooting them in the streets? Is this not what the Ottomans did to your youngest and bravest men? Wasn’t it both our women and children left to feign for themselves?

When I am welcomed into your homes, sometimes I am given pomegranates. You call them “Noor”, we call them “Anor”. And I see your Evil Eye charms on the walls, much like the ones hanging on mine. These pomegranates are symbols of the blood still on the hands of the Turks. These pomegranates remind my mother of a fruitful Afghanistan. It seems our charms didn’t work.

I will never fully understand your pain. But you are not alone. The Native Americans are with you, the Rwandans, the millions of hijacked Africans brought to America, the Tibetans, the Bosnians, the Jews, the citizens of Darfur; we are shedding tears with you. I know the pain you feel, being citizens of this country, but not getting the governmental recognition of your Genocide. They are not recognizing the Afghans, because they are perpetuating ours.

Centuries ago, the jewel of the Mughal Court was an Armenian, our beloved Queen Mariam Zamani Begum – who we, the Afghans, built Christian churches for throughout antiquity. Even now, in Lahore, we still operate the church in her name. Our King Akbar loved her, and we love you, and we have always loved you, even as we share the same religion of your oppressors. It is Humanity, not color nor creed, that matters in the face of Denial.

I am sorry that your wounds are still open. I am sorry that this day marks the beginning of the arduous struggle for you, every year, to make your case. I am sorry that your grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, remember their childhood and mourn for it. I am sorry you are still fighting.

I will pray for you. I will pray for your hearts peace, I will pray for the 1.5 million of your ancestors gone with the sands. We do not need governments to recognize our pain. For was it not governments who organized it?

Inshallah, God-willing, with the tenacity your people exhibit, and the fervor of your generation, one day, the Armenians will receive the Recognition they so deserve. For as long as they are Denied, the common heartbeat of Humanity will forever skip a beat on April 24th.

_

Madinah Noorai is a first generation Afghan-American living in Los Angeles. A UC Irvine graduate in Political Science, Madinah aims to bridge cultural gaps and create solidarity and unity through her writing. She is fluent in Farsi and Pashto, and hopes to pursue an MPH.

The Dead People’s Conspiracy

By Taleen Mardirossian

Lately, life has been something like a broken VCR player that in spite of missing the pause, rewind, and play buttons, is still very capable of fast-forwarding at an ever-increasing speed. A few days ago, I rolled out of bed after snoozing more times than I’m willing to admit and started what would possibly be one of the longest days of my life. Thanks to LA traffic, it took me over 30 minutes to travel a distance of four miles, causing my already impatient self to bite a nail or two. As I finally arrived in downtown and headed to an early meeting, I immediately contemplated whether to enjoy my short walk in the 15 minutes I had to spare or rush in a desperate attempt to grab a cup of much needed coffee. I chose the latter and began running in what proved to be a very uncomfortable pair of new wedges. Out of breath and completely out of shape, I finally arrived, and with my luck, the always-empty coffee shop was crowded with a line of people.

As an avid coffee shop go-er, I knew what was coming and dreaded the scenario that would soon take place. The barista will hold a black Sharpie as he asks for my name, expecting something simple, then I say “Taleen,” and he stares at me with a blank face, so I repeat it, before spelling it for him once, twice, and possibly a third time, until the cup is successfully claimed as mine. As someone who insists that her name be pronounced correctly, no matter how many tries it takes, you can imagine how a simple task, like ordering coffee, can be a tedious one. I would be lying if I said I’ve never been tempted to come up with a makeshift name, solely used for coffee purchasing purposes. Maybe Taylor, Tanya, or something closer to my name, Pauline perhaps. But every time I’ve considered this, I’ve instantly felt a surge of guilt rush through me, causing immediate dismissal of this thought. But today is different, I convinced myself. I don’t have time to waste. I have a long day ahead of me. I deserve a break.  

A part of me was shaking my head at the mere thought of foregoing my Armenian name, even if only for a few seconds, when Armenians had been suppressed of their language, culture, and identity for decades. I felt as though exchanging my name for an easier one would mean that I surrendered. Surrendered to this unspoken, unwritten, but vividly present notion that the once Ottoman Empire, now Turkish Government, expects us, the new generation, to forget our roots. Go ahead Taleen, do exactly what Talaat would want you to do, when you know very well that although the conspirators are dead, the conspiracy is still alive and well. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at myself for how pathetic this was sounding. As if it makes any difference to the teenager at the register whether my name is Tanya, Taleen, or Joe, for that matter. As if using another name for five seconds was going to make me any less Armenian. What difference does it make?

Then the moment finally came and my inability to surrender, even to a bunch of dead people, beat my desire to make life a bit easier, and I responded, “Taleen. T-A-L-E-E-N.” I was shocked at his ability to not only write my name correctly on the first try but also at his perfect pronunciation. As I pulled the cash out of my wallet, satisfied with this unbelievably smooth transaction, he went on, “That’s such a unique name. Way cooler than Denise or Kelly.” No offense to the Denises and Kellys of this world, but this was the start of a conversation that went something like this:

“Does Taleen mean something?”

“It’s actually the name of a village in Armenia.”

“You’re named after a village? Were you born there?”

“No.”

“So your parents were born there?”

“No, they were born in the Middle East.”

Confused look.

It’s complicated.”

He began making my coffee.

I’d love to hear, if you don’t mind.”

My great-grandmother named me. She was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. And the village she chose as my name is where many survivors from her birthplace, a village called Sassoun, relocated after the Genocide. It’s where they started all over again.”

So Taleen became the new Sassoun.”

“I guess you could say that. I don’t think anything compared to Sassoun for her but it must have come close.”

“Did she ever talk about it, the Genocide?”

“All the time. Her life was consumed by it, and how could it not be after watching her entire family beaten to death?”

“To be honest, I’ve heard of the Genocide but I don’t know much about it.”

“Long story short, the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million Armenians for being Christian, among other bullshit reasons.”

“When did this happen?”

“It’ll be 99 years this Thursday.”

“Geez! Thursday?”

“April 24. It’s the day they murdered Armenian intellectuals. That’s when it all began.”

“I had no idea. And Armenians still care about it after so many years?”

“How could we not? Based on the calculations of the Turks, I should have never been born. If that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.”

For a moment, he had no words.

“You know, they will face consequences someday. It’s never too late.”

“I know.”

As I always do, I silently thanked the Aries in me for my stubborn tendencies because on that day, it was the reason why one more person learned about the Armenian Genocide. As I made my way out of the coffee shop, I thought to myself, having an Armenian name isn’t what makes me, or anyone else, Armenian, so why does it matter so much? I drifted back to a moment from over a decade ago, still vivid in my memory. I was ten years old, sitting next to my great-grandmother, intently watching her eyes as she said to me, “If you don’t remember your history and embrace your culture, who will? And if no one remembers, then 1.5 million people will have died for nothing.” In that moment, I made her my first and only promise, and it remains a sacred promise I can never risk breaking. As I turned the corner, lost in my own thoughts and in disbelief at the turn my morning had taken, I noticed an older woman shivering, wrapped in what looked like an old bed sheet. She was sad, frail, helpless, and most likely, homeless. Her pale face and jewel-blue eyes reminded me of the very person in my thoughts, my great-grandmother. I walked up to her, wished her a good morning, handed her my unsipped cup of hot coffee, and witnessed a miracle in its simplest form, a smile.

Hate

By Melissa Lake

If my mother taught me anything growing up, it was that hatred is more often the poison than the antidote, and I’ve come to realize throughout the course of my life that she was right.

I think a lot of people harbor hate inside of them- they think that it will add buoyancy to their pain- but most often it serves more as a metaphorical anchor; it weighs their anguish down inside them, preventing it from dissipating and disappearing. When I was 13, I remember sitting at my kitchen table having my fortune read from the bitter dregs and coffee bean grinds of a thick and hot liquid I had to hold my breath to get down my throat. I hated when my aunt came over because that always meant drinking what may as well have been liquid dirt to me. As my aunt peered into the future through the bottom of my lip gloss-stained cup, I fumbled with the tablecloth wondering what tragedy would befall me now (for it seemed that my aunt was incapable of finding anything but tragedy in my future). As I heard her sharp intake of breath, I imagined what it could be- last week it was drowning, the week before it was poverty, the week before that the loss of something important.

“I see a wedding,” she said. I sighed in relief. What could be bad about a wedding? “But it is dark and filled with unhappiness”- immediate disappointment on my behalf. “Your family is all sad- I can see them crying. Something is wrong.” Great, I thought. My future looking dimmer with every word. She peered deeper and then gasped, the cup falling from her hands, black clumps of coffee grinds splattering across the table like speckles of mud. She looked up at me, completely serious, her eyes full of steel, her hands clenched together, when she said, “We will never forgive you if you marry a Turk.” I looked at her and said nothing. And my mother, who for her whole life had never been a silent woman, said nothing either. I swallowed, a task that was harder than usual due to the rising lump in my throat, and nodded my understanding. I was well informed about the Turks. For as long as I could remember my aunt had ranted and raved about them. My mother had been born and raised in Turkey but “always as an Armenian”, my aunt made sure to emphasize. I knew what the Turks had done to my people. I was not ignorant of the tragedy that had occurred, of the suffering my people had endured at their hands. But never had I heard my mother say anything against them. Never did she flash dirty looks at the Turks she met on the street. Never did she encourage me to hate. Never did she condemn an entire people.

When my aunt had finally left- after an hour long rant on the evils of Turkey and a solemn reminder for me to not trust the Turks- my mother sighed. While loading the dishes that lay on the table into the dishwasher, she turned to me and said in her broken English, “There is no purpose in hating anybody, even the Turks. Marry who you want, love who you want. The Turks did not kill our people, Turkish men with evil and hate in their hearts did.” And she was right. A woman that had lost grandparents to the evil of men knew better than most, that the acts of a few did not dictate the nature of all. She understood that it was hate that was the root of our tragedy and that more hate would not solve it. She grew up in Turkey. Her friends at school, her teachers, her neighbors- all would have been Turks and she found no cause for enmity towards them.

My mom was all too aware of the burden that hate adds to the soul, she knew what price came from bitterness. Of course she wanted vengeance, and of course there was some spite within her: spite for those who killed so many, spite for those who still denied the truth- but that hate was heavy enough.

The Perished Tracks

By Missak Artinian

I was hiding behind the cupboard in my father’s office, eavesdropping on a meeting with some important intellectuals from all over Anatolia back before the war started.  Back before the world split in half.

There was talk of an Armenian national liberation movement and a revolution and something else about the assassination of the Patriarch of Istanbul.  My father and his friends were using a lot of  big words that I didn’t understand at the time, which is why I didn’t really pay close attention until my father started talking about apricots, the fruit he grew in our backyard to support our family, the fruit I loved. He said the apricot had special significance to the Armenian people, that it was the one thing we could call our own, the one thing that originated from our land, cultivated for centuries by our ancestors, by their sweat and blood, and the one thing that no one, not even those Turks, who my father blamed for all that was wrong with the world, could ever take away.

“Is it any wonder their apricots are as hard as apples and as ripe as their women,” one man said, followed by a chorus of laughter by the other men who sat on the floor in a circle, smoking their pipes and combing their mustaches and beards with their fingers. “They should stick to stealing land because cultivating it isn’t exactly their forte,” another added. Still more laughter and rowdy noise erupted before the inevitable silence, which usually meant my father had that serious look in his eyes.  He was the only one in the room without facial hair, which punctuated his nose, a Tower of Babel of noses. Then, there were his dark eyes that had the power to control and mesmerize, which was quite a feat considering his other more prominent facial features. The look was all too familiar to me.

“My brothers, for far too long have we suffered as second class citizens in this wretched empire.”  I suddenly felt an urge to sneeze, but I squeezed my nose.  “Subjected unfairly to higher tax brackets, exiled from political office, forced to surrender our language, our culture, our religion, and for what?  It’s time that we –”

“Achoo!”

“Kaspar.”

I tried to remain silent, but I knew he could hear me breathing at a rapid pace.  There was no escaping my fate.

“Kaspar,” my father said again, this time raising his deep, abrasive voice, which was almost powerful enough to shake the cupboard.  Even at my distance, I could smell the vodka in his breath.

I slipped out hesitantly.

“How many times must I tell you to stay out of my office?”

“But Baba.”

One look in his eyes, and I knew exactly the message he was sending, the kind that said, Get out, before I make you get out.

I left the office and sunk into a chair in the living room where all the women were sitting, talking about gossip and cooking and whatever else women talk about.  I wondered if any of them were even aware of what their husbands were planning.  But they were smiling and laughing so casually, as if nothing in the world was wrong, as if their husbands were playing backgammon and card games like typical Armenian men.  If they truly were aware of the trouble brewing in the world, they knew how to hide it.

“Come on, Anoush, read our fortunes,” a woman I had never met before begged my mother.  The rest of the women – I didn’t really know any of them –  pressed her to agree.

“Oh, I don’t know.  What good comes from knowing the future?” My mother responded, even though she was going to give them what they wanted, anyway.  Her hesitation was just for show.

My mother’s fame in the Armenian community of Anatolia as a reliable fortune-teller, and a prophet to many, came with my uncle’s death when he and twenty-seven other armed members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation took over the Ottoman Bank to bring European attention to the Sultan’s crimes – the massacres of hundreds of thousands of our people since 1894.  I was only four years old when it happened and much too young to remember.  The story is well known, though, since word travels far, especially when it has to do with the death of an Armenian hero.

Just before the takeover, before anyone knew what was about to happen, my mother had a dream about a raging forest fire, followed miraculously by rain. Before the fire was almost put out, the wind blew the clouds away, causing the fire’s destruction to spread past the forest and into the villages.  She told my uncle about her dream, warning him that trusting foreigners could lead to disappointment, that Armenians must be self-reliant.  When her advice fell to deaf ears, she told anyone else who was willing to listen.  After my uncle and his men took over the bank, the European press wrote about their courage and bravery, but they didn’t send help and more Armenians were subject to the rifles of Ottoman officers.   This was enough to shake the entire Armenian community and word about my mother’s prophetic power spread like the fires in her dreams.

“Flip your cup,” my mother told the woman. She analyzed Turkish coffee cups that were flipped over the saucer so that the remaining coffee beans oozed down the sides until they dried and painted a black and white picture inside the cup.  Based on how jagged or round the shapes, she could tell anyone if their fortune was good or bad. Sometimes she’d see a mountain or a river and predict prosperity and wealth for a couple, while other times she’d see a face or a body amid the dark residue and predict the death of an elder.

“I don’t understand what a coffee cup can tell you,” one of the more skeptical women added.

“The same thing a window can reveal when the blinds are raised.  It tells you the truth, from the outside in,” my mother replied with a confidence that came from years of practice.

“So what do you see?” The woman whose fortune was in question asked.

There was complete silence because the women were anxious to hear my mother’s reading.  She turned the cup very slowly and looked into the black hole as if she were an astrologist interpreting the sky.  Her eyes widened and remained suspended in disbelief.

“What is it?  What do you see?” The women surrounded her, eagerly waiting.

Her hesitance wasn’t a show.  Not this time.

“I see a path.”

“A path?  A path.  What kind of path?”  The women whispered to each other.

“A path with no bumps or obstacles,” my mother said, finally blinking, with the fabricated conviction that must have also came with years of practice.  “There will be much luck and joy for everyone.”

A sense of relief consumed the room.

“Can I see?” One of the women asked, reaching for the cup.

“No,” my mother exclaimed, protecting the cup with a firm grip.  “We don’t want to reverse the fortune now, do we?”

Later that night, when all the guests had left, my father barged into my room.

“Come here, you insolent rascal,” my father yelled, pointing to the floor. He pulled the lamp shade off the lamp by my bed, pushed me against the wall, and shoved the naked bulb in my face, an interrogation technique he probably learned in the resistance army.

“What business did you have in my office?”

“I don’t know,” I cried.  I couldn’t concentrate because the smell of vodka in his breath was suffocating me.

“What did you hear in there?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t lie to me, Kaspar.  I hate liars more than I hate thieves. What did you hear?”

“I-I heard about the apricots.”

“What else?”

“Nothing.”

His grip around my neck tightened and he clenched his fist.  I looked at the gold watch on his wrist, counting each second as it passed by.

My mother rushed inside my room through the open door.

“Antran!  Leave the boy alone.”  She lowered his arm and he dropped me to the floor.  He flicked off the lamp and gently placed it on the floor, leaving me alone in the dark.

I couldn’t sleep that night because I could hear my mother’s shaking voice from the kitchen through the thin walls of our house.

“Antran, it’s over.”

“You have no reason to worry,” my father said.  I imagined him holding her in his arms, trying to comfort her.  He was always very gentle with her.  I wished he’d show me the same kind of affection.

“We’re going to make sure they can’t control us anymore.  Trust me,” he said.

“But I saw a path.”

“What path?”

“I saw it in Hasmik’s cup.  Here, look.  See the skulls?”

“Where?”

“Here, here.    Don’t you see the line?  The dead souls?”

“I only see a cup that needs to be washed.”

“Look here: the black eye.  Do you see it?  Do you see it, Antran?  It’s bad luck.  God have mercy on us.”

After my mother finally dozed off to sleep that night, I heard the front door open.  I ran to see my father with a rifle hanging over his shoulder.

“Baba?”

He walked out the door, jumped on top of the only horse our family had, and rode away through the apricot trees and into the sunrise without so much as a glance back.

***

Ten years later, in June of 1914, my family woke up to my mother’s hysterical scream. She trembled in her bed, warning my wife, Talar, and me about a storm looming.  This was nothing new.  We’d gotten used to her paranoia.

“The clouds.  The clouds, they’re turning grayer and grayer. And the water. It’s so red,” She cried, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Talar held her down and told me to take our son, Arpa, out of the room. I wrapped him around his blue blanket and picked him up from his crib. A few days later, news broke that Austria-Hungary’s heir to the throne had been assassinated and chaos consumed the Armenian community, and indeed, the whole world.  Of course, my mother didn’t get credit for her prediction because pessimists were predicting the end of the world and the optimists didn’t need a Turkish coffee cup to be convinced that the pessimists were right.

My mother’s illness, following the outbreak of the Great War, put a strain on Talar and me. She had a chronic fever and after months of treatment, nothing helped. Her sanity was deteriorating and she’d say nonsensical things, like how she could see Mount Ararat burning and Lake Sevan evaporating, even though her bedroom had no windows.

One day, I lost my patience with her hallucinations.

“Where, mama?  Where do you see Mount Ararat?  Show me where Lake Sevan is.”

She pointed her finger to the floor, as if she were suspended in the air, flying high above the clouds.

“It’s all in your mind.  It’s all in your fucking mind.  Don’t you see?  We have to rely on each other from now on.  You can’t just abandon me like this.  Not like him.”

I rested my head in her lap, crying harder than all those times my father had beat me as a child.  She then lifted my head and looked into my teary eyes.

“Don’t worry, my son.  We’ll all meet again,” she said, placing her wrinkled hand on my forehead.  “Soon.”

A few months after her funeral, Ottoman officers broke into my house on one April night in 1915. I knew what they wanted.  With the outbreak of war, there were rumors of a draft.

“What do you want from us?  What did we ever do to you?”  Talar screamed.

Arpa woke up and  started crying.

“I promise I’ll cooperate and serve the empire. Just please, leave my family alone,” I said.

Talar tried everything to stop them from taking me away, but they knocked her unconscious with the butt of their guns. I didn’t want more trouble. I just did as they told.   I let them assault my wife.  I let them take me away.  And that’s when I knew, I was no different.

I was thrown onto a train with other Armenians. One of them was an old man I recognized from my father’s meeting as a child, except his beard was much grayer. He was sitting in the corner of the cart.

“Hey.”

He appeared sick and didn’t reply; he was in no condition to fight. I shook him a little, to see if he was conscious.

“Did you know my father?  Antran Oyadjian?”

“Antran?” He finally replied, coughing.

“Yes.  He was my father.  Can you tell me where he is?”

“Antran has been dead for years, son,” he said, before closing his eyes.

“Dead?  Hey, wake up.  Wake up.”

Another man observing me tapped me on the shoulder.

“You’re Antran’s son?”

I nodded and let the old man go.

“Kaspar Oyadjian, right?  I read your essays advocating equal taxation and treatment for the Armenians, Greeks, and Jews.  Your father would have been proud.”

“What do you know about my father?”

“He was a great leader in Sassoun, always motivating us to push forward.  But we were outnumbered by the Turks.  There was no hope.  The Turks outflanked us and they massacred more of our people.  He blamed himself for it and one day some of our men found him hanging from a tree.”

I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about this news.  Angry?  Betrayed?  Happy?  I didn’t feel any of those emotions.  I simply didn’t care enough to feel anything.

“Any idea where we’re going?” I asked.

“I heard a rumor that this train is heading for Ankara where we’ll be trained for combat against the Allied Powers.”

We reached Station Ibrahim, where we were divided into two groups.  I’m not sure where the other group went, but my group was transported by carts to the city of Cankiri, where the military barracks were supposedly located. But then we were thrown into a jail. It didn’t make any sense. A few weeks later, we understood our fates when the Ottoman officers told us to form a line and face the wall.

As I stood there with a gun aimed to my head, I felt at ease.  I thought, I’m not like him.  I’m not weak. I’m not taking my own life. It was so quiet.  The men to my right and left didn’t say anything and neither did I.  We just stood there, waiting.

***

That’s when I heard the noise.  It sounded like a train’s whistle.  I didn’t see any tracks.  Just sand.  Miles and miles of sand.   I was no longer in a single line, but outside in a desert, surrounded by a mass of people waiting to escape the heat. Thick sweat dripped from my forehead down to my barren lips like sporadic raindrops.  I shut my eyes to protect them from the blinding sun.  When I reopened them, the train had already arrived and the conductor made the final boarding call.    I had a suitcase and an overweight luggage in each hand and I wasn’t sure where they came from.  As I entered the train, my hands trembled, causing my suitcase to rattle.  Perspiration oozed out of my pores like blood from a fresh wound.

People I recognized from my father’s meeting were here, among others, including women and children.  A small boy rested his head on his mother’s lap. Both were smiling, surely excited about their departure together. A reason to smile; I wish I had one.

I proceeded to open one of the overhead compartments and stored my luggage inside. The burden of an unfortunate life was almost off my shoulders. I gently tapped the side of my suitcase. Almost.

A man with a long, messy beard sat in the aisle seat across from me.  He peered over his newspaper, scanning in my direction. My eyes met his. He had a stern, uninviting countenance, as if my presence was a burden. I shut the compartment door forcefully, which shot vibrations through my body, intoxicating my senses. My careless gesture must have attracted his attention even more.

I glanced down at my shaking hand holding a boarding pass, straining my eyes to make sense of the blurred text. He must suspect something.  I was startled when the train conductor patted my shoulder.

“Please take a seat, Sir.”

I handed him my boarding pass, hoping he could lead me to my seat. He pointed in the direction of the man. Damn it. I looked back, feigning a smile. His eyes dipped under his newspaper like two black suns setting behind a mountain. I clumsily made my way through the narrow space between his thick legs and the seat in front of him and excused myself. He didn’t respond. I hoped my apology didn’t come off slurred or disrespectful. I didn’t want a hostile confrontation. Not yet.

As I placed my suitcase with caution underneath my seat and sat down, I caught a glimpse of his gold watch. My eyes strayed away from it before he suspected any ill-intent.

I looked over my left shoulder.  An elderly woman sat near the window. She had straight, white hair and her wrinkled hands were folded together calmly on her lap. Her skin was coarse. Even though her face was not visible from my angle, her presence comforted me.

“Why are your hands shaking?” the man probed with a voice that sounded like that of an interrogator, interrupting my brief sense of calm.

I tried to maintain strong eye contact with him, but I couldn’t help but notice his left arm was now out of sight, behind the arm rest. I hesitated to answer his question.

“I-I don’t know,” I finally replied.

His eyes were fixed on his newspaper, uninterested in my delayed response. He struck me as the kind of man who was only interested in reading headlines. Only interested in today. Only interested in now. Never of the past.

The train began to chug along, traveling through the forgotten desert.  I looked out the window and saw groups of people marching through the merciless heat, followed by a trail of skulls lining up from the edge of the blood-drenched river to the Holy Mountain.  The man flipped the page of his newspaper.  Sure, he could read the stories, but he could never understand the truth.

I shut my eyelids and tried to conjure up distant memories of Talar.  But all I could see was another woman who I didn’t recognize. She was famished, her rib cage protruding out of her thin skin. She had weak legs, scathed by the heat of the desert. She cried into a dirty, blue blanket, which she clenched in her disjointed hands.

I opened my eyes and, using my peripheral vision, I noticed the man was eating an apricot, examining me. His eyes were reading me the same way they were his newspaper: cold, indifferent, dead.

My fist tightened, and I felt the perspiration all over my body evaporate.  The unbearable heat, as if the train was now engulfed in an inferno, ignited my fist into a flame. I grabbed the man by his collar and dragged him to the floor.

“Why? Why did you leave us?”

No response.  His mouth was full.

“Answer me!”

He began choking and I pushed his chest so he could cough up the pit. I wasn’t going to let him go so easily.  Not this time.

“You know what I hate more than thieves?” he said, trying to catch his breath.

I looked into his dark eyes and tightened my grip around his neck.

“You, you insolent rascal.”

I felt his betrayal all over again.

My fist pounded the surface of his long and prominent nasal bone.  I exhaled, feeling a sense of relief over my meager body. This relief exponentially grew as I felt my steadfast knuckles enter his skull.

His black eyes widened before choking on his own blood. He stopped breathing. His eyes receded into his broken skull. His body dissolved into a blanket of dust, and swept through a window, leaving the watch behind. I picked it up, admiring its weight.  The clock’s hand was no longer moving. Useless.

I dropped it and turned to the woman by the window. She was captivated by something outside. We were in the sky.

I sat next to her and reached underneath my seat, pulling out my suitcase. I rolled the number lock and pushed the button. Click. Nothing but sand. I buried my hand inside the suitcase, cleansing the black blood, erasing it from history. No one would ever find out about the crime I committed. But then again, no one would care.

It’s history.

I sensed some motion from the woman’s skinny body. Her folded hands – which prior to this moment seemed frozen in time – invited me. I rested my head on her lap. Her angelic face, soft and beautiful, turned to mine.

Clouds parted and the peak of a familiar mountain, surrounded by a body of water, was visible from our altitude. The sun’s light pierced through the soft clouds and reflected off the mountain’s side, illuminating my face, recovering my equilibrium. A shimmer of light reflected off her hair, which cascaded down her shoulders like a golden waterfall – gently, majestically, infinitely. She placed her frail, coarse hand on my dry forehead.

John Mardirossian

Editor
LOS ANGELES, USA

John Mardirossian grew up working in the automotive industry, rising from a technician to a manager to a business owner in the South Bay area. He earned a BSBA in Marketing from California State University, Long Beach, and graduated Magna Cum Laude in his class. He has a stubborn commitment to solving problems, an endless drive to move forward, and a devotion to understanding the people around him. Outside of the automotive industry, he has assisted in psychology research at Yale University, written fiction works, and explored the music scene in every destination he’s managed to travel to in his 26 rather short years.

Melissa Lake

ML3BOSTON, USA
Melissa Lake was born and raised outside of Boston, Massachusetts.  She is a student at Seton Hall University, studying to be a Physician’s Assistant. Her passions include reading, spontaneous excursions into New York City, and cats.  

Missak Artinian

LOS ANGELES, USA
Missak Artinian is a professional Technical Writer originating from the Washington, D.C. metro area, where he majored in English Literature, with a concentration in Creative Writing.  Recently, he relocated to Los Angeles to pursue more creative opportunities. In his free time, Missak enjoys writing, watching films, and traveling.

Taleen Mardirossian

TM3LOS ANGELES, USA
Taleen Mardirossian will earn a Juris Doctor degree in May 2014, with a concentration in criminal law.  While in law school, she worked as a law clerk at the Orange County and Los Angeles District Attorney Offices, served as a legal advocate to children with disabilities, and, most recently, taught Street Law to junior and senior high school students.  Taleen has an addiction to coffee shops, books, and movies she’s already seen a dozen times over. She loves calmness and թաշխալա, consistency and spontaneity. Whether in the busy streets of Los Angeles or in a run down village in Armenia, she is home.

Nairi W.

TB3OXFORD, UK
Nairi W. is a graduate student in Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at the University of Oxford.  Prior to her studies in the UK, she lived in Armenia for several years as a Birthright Armenia volunteer, a Fulbright Scholar, and, most recently, a third through eighth grade English teacher at The Tsakhkunk Open School.  Originally from New Jersey, she learned Eastern Armenian by haggling at Vernisage, reading Vahan Derian, and watching a mafia soap opera called Life’s Price.  Today, her Eastern Armenian is good enough to purchase a Soviet stamp collection, recite «Հրաժեշտ,» and answer the phone like a gangster.  She runs, but is not a runner, and writes poems, but is not a poet. Nairi is a pretty awful cook, but a “homemaker” nonetheless, as she travels often and writes mostly about Armenia in America and America in Armenia.