By Taleen Mardirossian
Based on a true story.
“Male or female, a lion is a lion.”
The only difference between my mother and father was one thing; my father did not fall prey to the expectations of society. At eighteen years old I had committed the sin of all sins, as my mother would say. I had rejected a man’s hand in marriage without good cause; a sin I repeated time and time again. And she rightfully blamed my father for my fervor and tenaciousness. Father raised me, his only child, as he would a son. While the girls my age were already married, I was committed to my books. They had all mastered the art of cooking while I had acquired the skills necessary to hunt and skin animals in the nightfall. I knew how to handle knives before learning to properly hold a spoon and preferred wild horses to tamed ones. To my mother’s dismay, I openly shared my views on topics that were off limits; politics, religion, and love. When other prominent leaders would gather in our home for dinner, father would seat me right across from him, at the head of the table.
And if my mother dared to question his intentions, which she often did, for teaching his daughter to partake in tasks inappropriate for a lady, he’d remind her, “Male or female, a lion is a lion.”
It was sometime in the spring of 1914 when father joined me in his library as he did every morning. He handed me a stack of letters, “Read these and speak of them to no one. I want you to be aware, always aware.”
So I read every single word of every letter, not once, not twice, but ten times. These words revealed the social, political, and economic conditions of Sassoun, a neighboring village where there were mountains upon mountains, where its people were often without food but never without arms. I immediately recalled father speaking so fondly of this place, “The only thing that stands taller than Sassoun’s mountains are its people.”
Freedom fighters had been protecting their lands from the Ottoman Government’s persistent desire to oppress, and eventually, occupy Sassoun. They had already twice resisted in the last two decades against Kurdish and Turkish invasions, marking them a threat to the Ottoman Empire. Mush is not any less of a threat than Sassoun. We must arm our fighters and our people.
Never had I read words crafted in such an eloquent and articulate manner. It was evident that while most men sought comfort in false naivety, this writer, whoever he was, found solace in confronting the enemy. I searched the letters for a name, but I found only a single letter, M.
“Father, who wrote these letters?”
I had never met Moushegh but I knew of him. The men in our village described him as the young man who did not know that such a thing as fear existed. He was orphaned at age six when his father was killed fighting Sassoun’s first resistance in 1894. “Just like his father, an untamed tiger disguised as a human,” father would add. And my mother, for some reason, always felt the need to make a point, “Unfortunately, a man who is willing to die for his people cannot make a good husband,” as though she had some kind of premonition.
The words in his letters and the words spoken about him told me one thing; this man was capable of striking with his words as meticulously as with his sword. If he cannot make a good husband, then who can?
If it is at all possible to fall in love with people you have never met and places you have never seen, then I was in love with a man named Moushegh and a place called Sassoun.
Several weeks had passed when I heard a knock on the door late one night. I had been cleaning father’s knives in my stained skirt, half of my curls still intact while the remaining half was flouncing out of my bun and onto my shoulders. I answered the door only to find a man with an unfamiliar face.
His skin was as white as the clouds in a clear sky and his hair as dark as a winter’s night. He was tall with piercing blue eyes and he looked like no one I had ever seen. He stood, staring at me, completely silent.
“Are you lost?” I asked.
He shook his head, no.
“Are you here to see my father?”
He nodded, yes.
“Is he expecting you?”
He nodded once more.
As he gently took my hand in his, he finally spoke, “Moushegh.”
I must have forgotten to breathe because instead of inviting him in, I stood there, my hand in his, staring into his eyes. My stomach was turning, head spinning, as I realized that this beautiful face belonged to an even more beautiful mind. I was at a complete loss of words and he wasn’t helping. The man who filled pages and pages with words, stared back at me and said nothing, that is, until father came to the door.
His presence filled our home as he spoke to my father with such grandeur. He was self-less, undeniably brilliant, and passionate beyond belief. Evidently, he was more than capable of carrying conversations, as long as they weren’t with me.
That year, he came and went often. We seldom exchanged words, mostly glances, which is why he caught me off guard when he followed me into the garden one night, grabbed my waist, and softly whispered, as though he was telling me a secret that even the flowers and trees were forbidden to hear, “Marry me.”
There was no ring, no priest, no one to witness that these words were spoken. And with my word in exchange for his, we were engaged. His hopes were now mine and my dreams were his. Our love was of the kind that despite belonging to someone, made you feel free.
Whereas other women viewed his fearlessness and daring nature as indicators of a man to admire, not marry, these unparalleled traits of his had quite the reverse effect on me.
Between the two of us, there existed no logic or reason or sensibility, only impulsively wild recklessness. There was not a regime in the world that we couldn’t overthrow, not a war we couldn’t win, together. We were inseparable, until we were forced to be apart.
I frantically woke from my sleep thinking I was having a nightmare, only to find that the screaming voices ringing in my ear were real. I heard the doors of the corridor opening and closing, footsteps barging in and out of rooms accompanied with deep voices yelling in Turkish. I knew it was just a matter of seconds before my bedroom door would swing open. I quickly pulled the blanket over my bed as if no one had slept in it, pulled my shoes over my feet and jumped out the window, closing it behind me. My window led to the fields behind our house where father and I had built a safe haven below the ground. It was in this small cellar where we hid our gold and weapons, along with a generous amount of walnuts and dried fruits. It was pitch dark inside as I silently climbed in, familiar with every centimeter of this confined space.
Study your surroundings and never attack with blind eyes, father had taught me. As I began to carefully pull out weapons, I was trying to make sense of what was happening while I counted the number of voices to determine how many men I would be going up against. I could hear commotion coming from inside the house but I couldn’t make out words until the voices came closer to where I was. And so I began counting, one, two, three, four.
“What am I being arrested for?” father screamed but there was no response. I could hear mother’s cries as I loaded the ammunition.
Four against one, I could do this.
“We want your daughter. Where is she?”
I brought my ear as close to the entry as possible. What do they want me for? And then I heard my sweet father’s voice speak with conviction.
“She is not here.”
“There is no need to lie. We don’t kill beautiful girls.”
Six voices. How many more of them could there be?
“We know better than to waste that kind of beauty. Where is she?”
“There are fifteen of you and only two of us. You think my daughter would be hiding if she were here?”
And it was in this moment that I buried my face in my hands, unable to control my emotions. Father knew exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing. He knew I could never leave him. He knew I was counting voices and he knew I would attack. And this was his only way of letting me know that there were too many of them and only one of me. He was indirectly asking me to stay in the cellar, pleading and begging for me to listen to his words instead of my heart.
As I was sinking in an overwhelming range of emotions, I noticed my mother’s cries stop at the sound of a gunshot. She was killed, gone in an instant, her life used simply to provoke my father and I. My father yelled and screamed, asking questions that would forever remain unanswered.
“Now, are you going to tell us where your daughter is?”
“She’s not here! God himself cannot make her appear.”
My father knew me all too well. He knew I would reach an uncontrollable point, that my impulsive nature would force me out of the cellar. And so, he was reinforcing my decision to respect his words, demanding me to stay put no matter what would happen next. I put down my weapons, covered my ears, and closed my eyes and felt the enormity of love I held for my father.
It was this love and utmost respect for him that kept me in that cellar while they slowly tortured him to death, hoping that I would emerge to save him. And God knows, I almost did. I fought with myself, eyes drenched in my own tears, as they cut each of his fingers. Those fingers that had held mine, that taught me to count and write, dance and pray, fell to the ground one at a time. How he screamed, how he screamed God’s name, how he called for God’s help.
And while he endured excruciating pain, he spoke his last words to me.
“Gyankud talar lini lao.”
These words were followed by silence, until a voice finally spoke, “She definitely isn’t here.”
But I was. I was below them, cowardly listening as my parents were killed and I couldn’t tell if I felt more shame or guilt.
I didn’t leave the cellar that night; partly because the footsteps and voices remained in the distance, but mostly because for the first time in my life I was afraid. My chest was moving but I couldn’t feel myself breathing. How could I find bravery within me to escape when I knew death was waiting for me?
I stayed in the cellar for four days, hoping that Moushegh would return for me. He had left to Sassoun the day before the attack; he should have arrived two days prior. Moushegh never came. As soon as the sun set on the fourth night, I climbed out of the cellar and witnessed a view that I could have never prepared myself for, an image that would never leave my mind. There laid two bodies, belonging to my parents, half-eaten by stray dogs and the remaining flesh rotten by the scorching sun.
I collapsed, unable to hear my own screams, unable to feel my legs, or trust my own eyes. I placed my bare hands into the dirt, digging graves for my parents. I dragged what was left of them, said my goodbyes, and buried them beneath the earth.
I returned to the cellar, cut my long locks of curly hair and changed into a set of father’s spare clothing. I took only as many weapons, food, and gold as necessary, before leaving the land that belonged to me. In four days, this sacred land had been turned into a roadside slaughterhouse. The prosperous population of Mush had become casualties. The corpses of children lay wherever I looked, their faces peacefully asleep, their bones protruded out of their skin. Wherever I looked, each glance was worse than the one before.
I dropped to my knees when I noticed three bodies hanging from afar. What if Moushegh is one of them? What if he had been hanged while I sat waiting for him in that cellar?
I picked myself up and ran towards the hanging bodies. I never knew that one could feel relief and pain simultaneously. Moushegh was not among these men but I knew all three, all prominent leaders and friends of my father who I had grown up with. These were the men who accepted me among them, who dined with us on our table, who brought me books, who asked me for my opinion before sharing their own.
With the little strength I had left in me, I cut the ropes that had suffocated the life out of them, and buried them alongside each other, paying my last respects to the immaculate men of Mush. They deserved at least this much, to become one with the soil that they had died to protect.
For my own sanity, I began to hide during the day and walked only at night, as I oddly found comfort in the darkness that concealed the devastating realities of this inhumane world.
Two weeks had passed before I spotted an elderly woman collecting berries just as the sun was rising. I watched her from a distance as she raised her hands to the sky and spoke words that I couldn’t make out, before bringing three clenched fingers to her forehead, then her abdomen, crossing her heart. I was in an unknown place with an unknown destination but I was able to breathe for the first time in weeks because this simple gesture told me she was an Armenian.
I desperately approached the woman, confiding in her that I too, was Armenian. She immediately threw her arms around my neck, kissing my cheeks, as if she had known me all my life. She introduced herself as Tello, while grabbing my hand and urging me to follow her. We walked through the shrubs of a nearby field where there sat two young women and a child.
“We found an Arab man who knows a shortcut to Syria. He will be fetching for us as soon as the sun sets. I have already paid him four gold coins, I will give him another and you will join us.”
“How can you trust him?”
“My sweet girl, tell me, do we have any other choice?”
We remained in hiding until the sun came down and silently began walking towards the olive tree, where we would meet the Arab man. But we all stopped in our tracks at the sound of Turkish voices.
Tello peeked through the shrubs and whispered to me, “That’s the Arab man.”
I put my finger over my lip, demanding that the others remain quiet while I took a few steps closer, intently listening to the words that were being spoken. Two Turkish soldiers were pressing the man for information, “Are you hiding Armenians?”
To my surprise, the Arab man denied every accusation, leading the soldiers to tie his wrists. I reached for my knife, thinking that it would be only a matter of seconds before the Arab man confessed and put our lives at risk to save his own. But he never did. His hands restrained, each soldier took out a knife and I knew his death would soon arrive. Although the world had lost its conscience, I still had mine. For weeks, I had been haunted by the screaming voices of my parents and I couldn’t stand idly by again. Muslim, Kurd, Arab, Turk, whatever this man was, whatever God he did or didn’t believe in, was irrelevant to me. He was a good man with a good heart who was risking his own life to save the lives of complete strangers. So I did what I knew I had to do, I attacked.
I killed two men that night taking two malice hearts to save a kind one, but even this justification didn’t change the fact that my hands were stained with blood, my soul tainted and numb, desensitized to human tragedy.
Soon thereafter, we crossed into Syria’s borders. I became a foreigner in this land and a stranger in my own body. This place was not Mush and I was no longer Manouchak.
While Tello and the others were healing in this so-called sanctuary, I constantly found myself suffocating; while both awake and in my dreams. Sometimes I was drowning in the deepest end of the ocean. Other times, I was back in that cellar surrounded by darkness that grew heavier and heavier on my soul.
I allowed myself to drown in my own misery, pushing away anything and anyone with enough buoyancy to possibly pull me up to the surface. All the help in the world can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
And so I started living in my own mind, where Moushegh and I were together, where father and mother were alive, and where I was still a human being. Tello would drag me to church on Sundays. And there I would sit, surrounded by a sea of people, people who had suffered the same black fate as me, yet I felt completely alone without him. While Tello helped at the church, and cooked for the orphans, trying to save the world around her, I selfishly cared about the well-being of only one person.
The fighters of Sassoun have been captured and killed, I heard over and over again. But I preferred to relive through the horrendous realities I had already come face to face with then accept the fact that Moushegh was dead.
A year came and went but nothing changed, except that the value of every second, minute, and moment of my life was depreciating. After rejecting seventeen suitors, Tello had decided to try another tactic, instilling guilt within me.
“You must marry, have children, and pass on your story. God saved you for a reason.”
“I never asked to be saved.” My loyalty was to Moushegh, not God. And if there was a God, I was afraid we had nothing in common.
“We have a guest tonight for dinner,” she casually mentioned one afternoon.
“Who?” I shot back, frustrated with her inability to give up on finding me a husband.
“A young man. He helped me at church today and I insisted that I prepare him dinner. But don’t worry, I didn’t tell him about you. He said he’s not interested in a bride, I asked.”
Of course you asked, I rolled my eyes.
My hair was finally growing back to the way it was before and my scars were finally healing but I was still far from possessing that bold personality that once belonged inside of me. I was missing Moushegh and mother and father. If I could only hear father’s voice say once again, Male or female, a lion is a lion.
There was a knock on the door. Lost in my own thoughts, I answered only to find a familiar face. My knees grew numb, my heart stopped, my eyes froze at the sight before me.
It was Moushegh, but I had fallen so deep into my profound thoughts that I couldn’t trust what my eyes were showing me. We were staring at one another, much like the first time we had met, until he put his hands in my hair, his lips on mine, and we both realized that this wasn’t another dream. He pulled me to him, as we both fell to the floor, entangled into one another.
But moments later he pulled back, as if he came to some kind of realization. And the expression on his face made me feel sick. Reluctantly, he grabbed my two hands and gazed at each finger as if he was studying every nerve, wrinkle, and cut while searching for something. As he finally looked up, I noticed the tears streaming down his face, witnessing vulnerability in his eyes for the very first time, as he finally gathered the courage to ask,
“Did you marry someone else?”
I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move.
Tello stood with her mouth cupped in her hands in disbelief, as she realized what had just transpired, “She turned away seventeen men and she waited for you. She’s been waiting for you.”
The untamed tiger came back to life with a smile on his face. He jumped to his feet, kissed Tello’s forehead before pulling me up to him. He carried me, walking hastily as we left the building, heading to church to be married then and there. He kissed every inch of my face, as I rested my head on his shoulder. I had been frail and broken for days, weeks, months, a year, and all it took was one moment, one person, one act of God, to bring back the person I once was.