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 –”
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?”
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?”
“Don’t lie to me, Kaspar. I hate liars more than I hate thieves. What did you hear?”
“I-I heard about the apricots.”
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.”
“I saw it in Hasmik’s cup. Here, look. See the skulls?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.