Finding Mayram

Story by Mayram Tikoyan Artinian
Translation by Emma Artinian Soghomonian
Edited by Missak Artinian
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Of the eight children my parents had during their marriage, I was the first born, named Mayram in memory of my father’s mother, who he lost contact with at eight years old during the Armenian Genocide.  All eight of us kids were born in Aleppo, Syria in a community full of Armenians who were mostly survivors. My father, Setrak Tikoyan, was one of them. He once told me his story of survival. This is what he said, as I remember it:

“My daughter, I was only eight years old when the genocide was perpetrated on our people. I remember my extended family all lived in the Palu region of Western Armenia. When we sat down for dinner, there were 40 spoons scooping up food at our table. There were four brothers, their wives and children and grandchildren.

When the genocide began, we were driven out of our homes. My brother and I started walking with our mom to an unknown destination. I can hardly remember how long we walked when I realized I was separated from my mother. 

I managed to sneak away from the masses by walking through an alley and into a small village. At one point, I met a man who proceeded to take me to his home. He gave me bread and said I could stay with them and work as a shepherd to herd his sheep. I stayed there as long as I could manage. But I was determined to leave.

One day, I took some bread and escaped to another village. It certainly is a long story how I travelled from village to village, begging for bread or food.  I guess I had life in me strong enough to survive. It pains me to remember or talk about that period in my life. I just can’t bear reminiscing about those tragic times.

After several years I ended up in an orphanage. After some time, the orphanage was visited by American missionaries who gathered the orphans and transported them to Aleppo, Syria.  I was part of the group of orphans who travelled with them.  When I was there, I searched for my mother and younger brother, Marsoub, who was in my mother’s arms when we separated.  But regrettably I had no luck.”

Tears streamed down his face as he told this story, as painful memories flooded back into his consciousness. After wiping his tears, he took me into his arms, and said, “You’re just like my mother.” He spoke of her often, sharing memories he had of her from his childhood. “I remember one day, my father was building a house for us in Palu, and she worked right alongside him and the construction workers. Then through some freak accident, one of the walls that was built collapsed on top of her, but she came out of the rubble unscathed. From that day on, I knew my mother was invincible.”

“I will find her,” he once told me. “My heart tells me I will find her. She appears in my dreams so often. I don’t know where she is, or whether she is alive. But I will never give up.”

One summer in Aleppo, Syria, my father and I were sitting on our porch when our neighbor Lusig Nene was returning home from church.

“God bless you, Setrak,” she greeted my father.  “Today at church we were surprised by a visit of an elderly lady who was dressed in Kurdish attire. I asked her what she was doing at our church, and to our surprise, she started speaking Armenian. So I asked her where she came from. And you’ll never believe it. She said she was married in Palu and moved to Kharpert with her husband, who was the son of a priest.”

“Did she say her name?” My father asked.

“Yes. Her name is Anna.”

My father was stunned for a moment. He realized the description fit his long lost cousin from his father’s side. Excitedly, my parents got dressed. Lusig Nene said Anna was staying with a local family called Haroutioun.  A few hours passed, and my parents returned with an elderly woman accompanying them.

My father called all of us kids and introduced us one by one to the visitor. “This is my eldest daughter, Mayram, named after my mother. This is my eldest son, Thomas, named after my father.”

We each took turns greeting the elderly lady and kissing her hand in a welcoming gesture and called her grandmother, but my father corrected us by saying, “No, children, she is not your grandmother. You can call her aunt.”

After the introductions and initial discussions, my Aunt Anna, as we started calling her, delivered stunning news to my father. She said, “Setrak, your mother is alive! I saw her about a year ago in a village called Aslan Dashi.”  My father was beside himself with joy. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  He asked her for any details she could remember.

The very next morning, when I woke up, my father was gone. He had gone off in the early hours of dawn to track down his mother. Probably a week’s time passed as we were waiting for his return, when we saw a taxi pull up in front of our residence. We ran out to see our father helping an elderly woman out of the car.

I noticed that she was wearing a white head scarf and was dressed in Kurdish attire. My mother tried helping the lady, but my father informed her that her legs were broken and that she could not walk. Then my father picked her up gently from the car and brought her into our home where he sat her down.

For the following weeks, I remember our home became a revolving door of visitors wanting to see her and extol in the union of a mother and her son after 32 years. Friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances alike filled our home. The visitors had many questions for my father.

“How did you find your mother? How did you know for sure she was truly your mother after 32 years?”

My father would recount the events as they had transpired:

“When I got on the road that morning, I rented a car and drove straight down to Arab Punar, a small Kurdish village around 35 kilometers east of the Euphrates where I had some relatives. Before I continued on my journey I wanted to have security in case of any trouble. I asked around to find out who the village magistrate was. My relatives took me to the magistrate. I asked him if he would accompany me on my trip to Aslan Dashi to help me find my mother. He agreed.

Together we set off for Aslan Dashi via boat.  On the way there, I told him my story: ’When I survived the genocide, I was eight years old and was separated from my mother during the deportation. All these years I have searched for her to no avail. But recently I was tipped off that my mother may be residing in Aslan Dashi so I am going there to find her. My full name is Setrak Tikoyan, my father’s name is Thomas and I have a younger brother who my mom was carrying in her arms during the deportation. He was two years old, and named Marsoub. We are from the village of Palu. And my mother’s name is Mayram.’

The magistrate listened to me closely, and he said, ‘When we reach the village and find the woman named Mayram, I advise that you not enter her home. I will go in and ask her questions to determine if she is your mother. That way if she is not your mother, you are not involved.’

We arrived in Aslan Dashi and went around town asking the names of any elderly lady we came across. We asked if they knew anyone by the name of Mayram. For days we asked, but no luck. One day, the magistrate came across an elderly woman named Mayram. He brought her to me and asked if she was my mother. I took one look and immediately knew she wasn’t the one. I started feeling very depressed and disillusioned.  But nevertheless we proceeded with our search, asking passersby if there was a Mayram in town.

Finally, one villager we came across said she knew a woman by the name of Mayram who lives in a tent not far from where we were. We followed his directions and came upon the tent. The magistrate advised me to stay outside the tent. He went in and I heard him greeting a woman and asking her name. She answered, ‘Mayram.’ The magistrate then asked her where she was from. ‘I’m a Kurd’, she answered. He asked for her original ethnicity. She said sadly, ‘What does it matter?’

After persisting with more questions, finally she gave in. ‘I’m Armenian. A long time ago I had a husband from Palu. His name was Thomas.’

‘Did you have any children?’ the magistrate asked her.

‘Yes, I had two children. The oldest was Setrak. The youngest was named Marsoub. I lost my Setrak during the genocide. I was never able to find him. My youngest grew ill and died when he was a teenager here with me. I am now married to a Kurd. I can no longer walk anymore because four years ago I heard from a villager that there was a man named Setrak in a nearby village. I hurriedly got on a horse and raced to that village to find him. But in that town the horse got spooked when we came across cars and started jumping violently. I was thrown off the horse, fell and broke my legs. I was brought back home but nobody helped me. I remain in this tent because I cannot take care of myself or leave. This Kurd husband gives me a piece of bread every day to survive.’

‘If you were to see your son Setrak, would you recognize him?’ the magistrate asked her.

‘Yes.’

‘How?’

‘He has a mark on his wrist from an accident when he hurt his arm as a child.’

The magistrate finally called me into the tent. I was expecting to see my young mother as I remembered her 32 years ago, maybe somewhat aged. But I was shocked and heartbroken to see her handicapped and in such a dire situation. I went over to her, held her hand, and looked into her eyes.

She didn’t have to look at my wrist to recognize me. I kneeled down and scooped her into my arms, both of us weeping together, overjoyed at this unexpected and long-awaited reunion.

The magistrate finally interjected and asked my mother, ‘Do you want to come with us to live with your son? Do you want to see your grandchildren?’

‘With all my heart,’ she answered.”

Mayram Tikoyan only lived nine months at our house in Aleppo before resting in peace.  Before she died, she would randomly start singing a religious hymn, “Soorp Garabed volor molor.”  The visitors from all over Aleppo would leave our house weeping with sadness and heartache and cathartic joy for the reunion. Many thought she held onto her life only long enough to see her beloved son and his family and to bless them with her love and longing. I believed that too, but I also thought something different. I thought she lived long enough so she could finally rest in peace in an Armenian cemetery, where she belonged.

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Picture1
Mayram Kassabian Tikoyan, circa 1947

Picture2
Setrak and Mary Tikoyan with Mayram Tikoyan Artinian and her four brothers.

 

Midnight at Conrads

By Missak Artinian

Since moving to Glendale, one of my chief goals has been to make some new Armenian friends. But where, I wondered, did the young Armenian-Americans of Glendale congregate? Word on the street was anywhere that served hookah.

A quick google search brought up a huge list of lounges, and since I didn’t feel like driving too far, I picked the closest one to my apartment. Before leaving, I slung my laptop bag across my shoulder because I figured it would look really awkward just sitting at the hookah lounge all by myself. At least with my laptop, I could pretend to be working on something important and look less like a loser.

I sat alone in a corner table, surrounded by people who kind of looked like me. The waiter handed me a hookah menu with an overwhelming amount of flavor choices. I went with watermelon because it seemed healthier than the white gummi bear option. This wasn’t my first experience smoking hookah, mind you, but it was my first experience smoking hookah to the tune of contemporary gems like I Don’t Fuck With You and I’m In Love with The Coco.

After about an hour of abusing my lungs and accomplishing absolutely nothing on my laptop, I asked for the check, when, suddenly, an angel walked in. She joined her friends at the table across from mine. The waiter came with the check and I was like, “On second thought, I’ll have another beer.” I couldn’t leave yet. Not without talking to the alluring mystery girl first.

Carefully observing my surroundings, I noticed that even though the Armenian customers were separated by table, they were all connected in some way through school or work or something. Literally everyone in that hookah lounge was part of a greater social circle, everyone except me. But I was no stranger to being an outsider, and if I really wanted to enter their social circle, I had a few tricks up my sleeve.

My ticket in was these two guys playing a card game. I approached them and asked if I could show them something cool. They looked at me skeptically, but they agreed and handed me the deck of cards. I performed a few card tricks for them, and by the end of the third one, a mind-reading trick, one of them uttered the magic word: “Bro.” And just like that, I was accepted into the family.

By the end of the night, I had navigated my way through the social web until I was sitting at the table with the angel, whose name was not Arpineh, but let’s pretend it was.

“The hookah here sucks,” she said to the girl sitting next to her, who looked like her name could be Anoush or maybe even Hasmik. “You should try Vartan’s hookah. It’s literally the sickest. He makes like, the sickest hookah.”

In my mind, I was thinking, Really? That’s all it takes to impress you? A dude who knows how to stuff a bowl with tobacco? Okay, Missak. You got this. Just be confident.

“So you come here often?” I asked Arpineh, which, in retrospect, is a terrible way to start a conversation, but that’s what you get when you spend most of your youth learning how to do stupid card tricks instead of learning how to talk to girls.

“Sometimes.”

“I noticed a lot of people know each other here. You all meet at AYF or something?”

“No.”

“Oh, I see.” Come on, Missak. You’re losing her. Quick. Come up with something clever. “Do you like cheese?”

“I have a boyfriend.”

NOOOOOOO! Really, Missak? Cheese? That’s the best you could do? That’s your romantic tour de force? Cheese?

“Let me guess. His name is Vartan.”

She nodded her head.

“Just curious. His hookah, how sick is it, really?”

“The sickest.”

I was a little restless when I left the hookah lounge that night, so I went to the only diner intended for the insomniacs of Glendale: Conrads. There in a corner booth, I sat staring at a blank document on my laptop for about an hour when someone approached my table.

“Hi.”

“Hey,” I said, snapping out of my daydream. She was pretty, about my age, wearing a black t-shirt and gray sweatpants that seemed a little wide for her thin frame. Her forehead was covered by bangs similar to Anna Karina from Vivre sa vie and her eyes were framed by thick-framed glasses.

“I didn’t mean to bother you, but I feel like I recognize you from somewhere.”

“Really?” I said, thinking maybe she was confusing me with one of my celebrity doppelgangers. Such as Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum.

“Are you the guy who wrote that article about A Douchebag from Glendale?

“Whoa. You read that?”

“It was on my feed.”

“How’d you know it was me?”

“Don’t judge. But I kind of Facebook stalked you.”

“You know, I really think that’s an exclusively female privilege.”

“What? Being a creeper?”

“Without being creepy.”

She smiled, which I interpreted as a good sign, though I had to stop myself from getting too excited because I have a handicap when it comes to reading signs. That I’m actually able to obey any traffic law at all is a miracle.

“Are you Armenian?” I asked.

“What makes you think that?”

“Your bracelet.”

She was wearing one of those evil eye bracelets, which is based on a superstition that I believe was created by old Armenian ladies to make pinching the butts of little children socially acceptable.

“You’re an observant one.”

“Not really. This is Glendale. I had a one-in-three chance.”

“True.”

“What’s your name?”

“Michelle.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Missak.”

“I know.”

“Did you want to maybe have a seat?”

“You seem like you’re in the middle of something.”

I looked at the blank document on my laptop. Closed the lid.

“It can wait.”

She sat down across from me.

“So what brings you to Conrads, besides boosting my ego?” I asked in a cheeky tone.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I was studying.”

“For what?”

“Criminal procedure.”

“That’s cool. Is that the kind of law you want to practice?”

“Not sure yet. Still figuring it out. What about you?”

“I’m done with school.”

“I mean what are you doing here, besides staring at your laptop?”

“Oh. Nothing. Just thinking.”

“About?”

“I don’t know. Before moving out here, I was kind of excited about the idea of being surrounded by Armenians, you know? But the more I stay here, the more I’m starting to think I don’t have much in common with my own people.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, before I came here, I was at this hookah lounge and I was talking to this Armenian girl whose boyfriend makes like the sickest hookah. You don’t even understand how sick, okay? It’s literally the sickest.”

“Oh, God,” Michelle said, chuckling. “That accent brings me back to high school.”

“Did you go to high school here?”

“Yeah.”

“What was it like?”

“Ever see Mean Girls? Imagine that movie, but with the Kardashians.”

“Sounds awful.”

“I have stories.”

“Tell me.”

“No. I’m not good at telling stories.”

“Come on. You can’t just tease me like that.”

“Fine. But only if you promise you won’t write about it.”

“That’s a promise I can’t keep.”

“Then no deal.”

“Okay, I promise.”

“Now you’re lying.”

“Says the aspiring lawyer.”

She flipped the bird, a playful jest, I think, which I interpreted as a good sign, though I had to stop myself from getting too excited for reasons I explained earlier in respect to signs.

“If you think about it, no one ever really questions that stereotype,” she said.

“About lawyers?”

“Yeah. It’s weird. Why is saying ‘all lawyers are liars’ less offensive than saying ‘all Irish people are heavy drinkers’ or ‘all girls are bad at sports?’”

“I guess because those stereotypes are about race and gender.”

“Yeah, but why do we make that distinction?”

“I don’t think saying ‘all lawyers are liars’ is as offensive as saying ‘all Muslims are extremists’ or ‘all Mexicans are lazy.’”

“You’re talking about the content. I’m talking about the logic behind the content.”

“What logic?”

“It’s like this. If I said ‘all Armenians are reckless drivers,’ you would say that’s offensive, right?”

“Not really. That one’s actually on point.”

“I’m being serious.”

“Okay, sorry. It’s offensive.”

“But if I said ‘all blondes are dumb,’ would you think that’s equally offensive?”

“Probably not.”

“What I’m saying is they should be because we’re not asking enough out of ourselves if we think simplistically in those terms, no matter what those terms may be.”

She was right. I began to think about Arpineh from the hookah lounge and how I didn’t know anything about her. What does she study? What is her family like? Is she happy? I didn’t consider what her goals and dreams are or whether she had her own set of problems. She could be an incredibly complex human being, yet I had reduced her to an accent and painted her as an ethnic stereotype.

“What’s wrong?” Michelle asked.

“Nothing,” I said, snapping out of my daydream. “I just had never thought of it like that before. I actually do it all the time.”

“We all do it. I’m sure if you met me back in high school, I would have told you all Turks are bad.”

“What changed?”

“Before my great grandmother passed away, I asked her if she hated the Turks for killing her family during the Genocide. And what she said really stuck with me. She said, ‘Look, my child. There are bad Turks and there are good Turks. There are bad Armenians and there are good Armenians.’”

“Wow. What an amazing woman.”

“Bro, you don’t even know. She was literally, like the sickest, okay?”

We laughed. It was starting to get late, and we decided to call it a night. I walked Michelle to her car, which, for the record, was not a white Bimmer.

“Hey,” I said, before she closed her car’s door. “I want to ask you something.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you like cheese?”

She smiled.

“I love cheese.”

I smiled back nervously, contemplating whether or not I should reveal that I’m actually lactose intolerant. But it was a beautiful night in Glendale, and I didn’t want to ruin the mood.

A Douchebag from Glendale

By Missak Artinian

I have come to learn that being Armenian in a small suburb of Virginia (where I was born and raised) and being Armenian in Glendale, California (where I recently moved) is a vastly different experience. Here’s what I mean. Back home, when someone asked me about my ancestry and I said Armenian, I was automatically associated with mystery and intrigue. Here in Glendale, when someone asks me about my ancestry and I say Armenian, I am automatically associated with car insurance fraud.

Being Armenian in a small town had some advantages because it gave me the opportunity to set a precedent. How a stranger would perceive Armenians as a whole rested on the content of my character, for better or for worse. As the only Armenian within at least a 30-mile radius, I had a responsibility to make good first impressions with strangers because, unfortunately, in a world where people so easily make broad generalizations of any given race, ethnicity, or religion based on the actions of a few individuals, it’s especially important for those of us who belong in an ethnic minority to project a positive image.

For some residents of Glendale, however, the damage may already be done.

Take Diana, for example, an attractive Israeli girl who sells lotion at one of those kiosks in Glendale Galleria. A few weeks ago, she approached me as I was walking back to work, and asked if I had a girlfriend. Misinterpreting her icebreaker sales tactic for romantic interest (she must see something she likes, I reasoned), I was drawn into her net as an unwary sailor is lured unto rocks by a siren’s song.

She proceeded to sensually caress my wrist and compliment my complexion, which, according to her, would look even more radiant if only I were to purchase a four hundred dollar beauty package. Upon hearing this price, the expression on my face probably suggested, How reasonable! But in my mind, I was really thinking, where can I get me some of your crack?

Before I could come up with an excuse to escape her web, she gripped my shoulders, leaned forward, peered deeply into my eyes, and whispered, “But for you, I will sell for three hundred.” Moments like these don’t happen often, but when they do, I can’t help but think, Missak, you still got it.

Flattered as I was by Diana’s generous discount, I had to pass, as I was unable to convince myself that magic exfoliating potions and serums were a better value proposition than, say, a ton of cheese from Trader Joe’s. So predictably, the chemistry between us fizzled, but to repay her for boosting my self-esteem, I offered to buy the cheapest product she had (a bar of mud soap, twenty dollars). When I handed her my credit card, she noticed my last name, and said, “Oh.”

“What?” I said.

“You are Armenian.”

“That’s very perceptive.”

“Your people, you need to open your mind,” she exclaimed, as she tapped my forehead with her index finger. “Open.”

“Open my mind, or open my wallet?” I snapped back, grinning.

She laughed, and we made a connection then and there that was pure and genuine, though admittedly, I tend to embellish my memories as delusional people do, so maybe not.

What struck me the most about the transaction was the look on her face when she saw the –ian at the end of my last name. In her defense, I am ethnically ambiguous, which can be advantageous during job interviews and an inconvenience during TSA screenings. Nonetheless, it was that look on Diana’s face that left a lasting impression, a look that suggested; if only you were wearing a gold chain, I wouldn’t have wasted my time. Not that I blame the poor girl. Her job is to sell snake oil in a mall heavily patronized by Armenians – a group of people, mind you, who have mastered the art of selling snake oil!

A few weeks later, I met a young professional by the name of Thomas at Broadway Bar in Downtown, Los Angeles. We spoke for a few minutes, and during our conversation, I mentioned that I had recently moved to Glendale from the D.C. metro area.

“Why Glendale?” he asked.

“Close to my new job, mainly.”

“Careful, man. Lots of douchebags there.”

“Really? What do you mean?” I asked, though I had an idea of where this conversation was heading. Keep in mind that I introduced myself as Mike (my nickname), so as far as he was concerned, he was talking to some white guy.

“Armenians. Armenians everywhere.”

“That’s what I heard.”

“They drive Benzes and Bimmers like they got money, right? But actually, what they do is they pretend their kids are retarded so they get extra money out the government.”

“No way. That’s terrible.”

“Yeah, man. They’re just milking the system.”

By the end of Thomas’ tirade, I was sad. I was sad because I knew there was truth in what he was saying, that in this world, there are bad Armenians who do bad things. But more than sadness, I felt disappointment. Mainly in Thomas, whose apparent intelligence could not save him from falling prey to the trappings of prejudice. Before saying farewell, I offered him another round on me, and though he may never realize it, he unwittingly clinked glasses with a douchebag from Glendale.

On the drive back home (after sobering up, to be clear), I wondered why I didn’t school Thomas? Surely any self-respecting Armenian would’ve opted for a more confrontational approach, perhaps with a few obscenities mixed in for good measure. But that I said nothing and did nothing was concerning to me. Why did I conceal my identity? Why did I fail to defend my people? And most perplexingly, why did I buy him a drink?

“Because you’re a self-hating Armenian,” my shoulder devil whispered into my ear.

“That’s not true,” my shoulder angel jumped in, defending me. “Missak may hate himself, but not because he’s Armenian.

My shoulder angel had a point. I genuinely do believe that being Armenian has its positives. Let me count the ways:

1.

1

2.

2

3.

3

But growing up Armenian in a town where I felt like the only Missak in the world sucked. Because there’s no way you can ever be cool in school when your name alludes to male genitalia. That just doesn’t happen, not in a world teeming with Brians, Davids, and Matts. I sometimes wonder where some of my classmates are today, the creative geniuses who came up with increasingly clever ways to make fun of me by calling me names like Meat-sack and No-sack. I can imagine them working at some shady ad agency, coining product names like:

4

and

5

Like many first-generation Americans, I struggled with the same issues that are common in immigrant stories. Toula’s struggle to fit in with her American classmates in My Big Fat Greek Wedding comes to mind; or Woody Allen’s existential crisis when he attempts to give Catholicism a try in Hannah and her Sisters, shaming his proud Jewish parents. Even stories about Chinese moms and their assimilated daughters (see everything ever written by Amy Tan) were oddly relatable, even though I have no ovaries and I’m about as Asian as Frank Underwood is kind.

Like many of these characters, I spent most of my formative years being pulled in two directions, with my Armenian identity on one side and my American identity on the other. No matter how hard I tried to find the right balance between appeasing the expectations of my traditional Armenian family and assimilating to the culture of the country in which I was born, I always felt like I was stuck between two worlds.

And now that I live in Glendale, do I feel less like an outsider? Nope. And you know what? That’s okay. To be an outsider is to experience the world as a critic and an admirer. Glendale has its issues (I’m looking at you, you aggressive drivers), but it also has a lot of beauty. And whether people like Thomas agree with me or not, a lot of that beauty is due to the city’s decidedly Armenian identity.

The tri-colored Armenian flag is as ubiquitous here as rain is in Seattle. The Armenian alphabet is displayed practically on every deli, grocery store, and small business. The music is audible on the street, inside my car, from my balcony. The language is spoken in the unlikeliest of places, like the Wholefoods where a group of older Armenian women congregate outside during lunchtime and speak of politics in boisterous shrills. Hell, the view outside my office window features a large building with letters that read USArmenia, which serves as a daily reminder that I’m far from the small town whose identity was as uncertain as mine.

It is this celebration of identity, I think, that unites the Armenians of Glendale, and indeed, Armenians all around the world. They are a people who will show their friends the tiny country of Armenia on a map, will educate random strangers that Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, will speak out in class when their history books gloss over or skip the Armenian Genocide, and will protest Turkey’s ongoing denial of the systematic attempt to eradicate the Armenian culture, religion, and people from the face of the Earth.

Armenians are a people whose voices cannot be silenced, because for a small ethnic group that so narrowly escaped complete annihilation, to be silent is to dishonor the survivors, their enduring spirits, without whom, these very words would cease to exist.

Coming From Nothing

By Missak Artinian

“Who took the money?” baba yelled.

“I don’t know.”

“You stole the money from your mama’s purse, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

“No.”

“Don’t lie to me, Jirair.”

“I swear. It wasn’t me,” I cried.

“Who else is there? Tell me. Who?” he screamed, as he raised his hand.

“It was me!” David barged in through the door. “It was me. I stole the money.”

Baba turned his sights on David and dragged him by his ear into the other room, while unbuckling his belt. He shut the door. I could hear every grunt, every whimper, every cry through the thin wall. I could hear David’s pain. Pain that should have been mine.

David wasn’t afraid of pain. In fact, he had learned to accept it. Growing up, my parents always misinterpreted David’s passion and outspokenness for temperament and disrespect. He had no reservations speaking his mind and exposing my parents for the materialistic, self-entitled people they were, even if that meant adding a few more lash marks on his back.

Whereas I was terrified of baba and his heavy hand, David was never one to appease. If baba said the world was flat, I’d say, “Baba, you know best.” Not David. He’d say, “Baba, you’re an idiot.” But even at a young age, I knew my parents were much too deluded by an overinflated sense of pride to ever change.

That never stopped David from trying. He believed the best way to affect change was to hold a mirror to my family’s face and show them their flaws. He said as much one night at the dinner table. My mama’s response: “Go hold a mirror to the Turkish government, Mr. I-wanna-change-the-world.”

Yet despite his rebellious nature at a young age, nothing could have prepared my parents for what David was going to do after graduating from college. As far as they were concerned, he committed the most unimaginable sin a son could commit against a proud Armenian family. He married an odar.

Upon hearing the news of his engagement, and after multiple failed attempts to convince him to find a nice Armenian girl, he was disowned from the family. I was forbidden from ever seeing or talking to him again, in fear that his progressive views on love and equality would influence me to follow his example and shame the Boghossian name by marrying a non-Armenian as well.

Last I heard, he moved to Boston with Susan. I’ve only seen her in pictures. I think she’s pretty, but my parents are harder to impress. I overheard baba talking to mama one evening back when they were still engaged. He said, “David must be blind. Who does he think she is, Brigitte Bardot?” I wanted to retort and say, “Was mama Brigitte Bardot when you met her?” But I held my tongue, as usual.

If David loved Susan enough to marry her, I knew she had to be special. He had this ability to see through the surface, and appreciate the deeper complexities of a person’s character. In a letter he wrote to me back when he was still engaged to her, he said she challenged him to be a better person, and she understood him in ways my parents never did.

For my last birthday, David sent me a picture frame with a picture of him and Susan. I put it in my room as a reminder that one day, I’d be happy too. A few days later, mama threw the picture away and replaced it with a picture of her kissing me on the cheek at my birthday party.

I wanted to replace the picture. So I snuck into my parent’s room and found some old photo albums they kept in a worn-out cardboard box. One of them was full of pictures from the day I was born. My favorite in the album was near the end. It’s a picture of me as an infant gently wrapped around David’s arms. He was five then, but based on the way he was holding me carefully like an adult and smiling like a saint, he looked much older.

As I flipped through the dusty pages of the album, I saw younger versions of the people I used to call my family. They’re all there: mama, baba, my four uncles, three aunts, nene, dede, cousins, and some other people I didn’t recognize, all crammed in the tiny hospital room.

Most of them are still alive, except nene. She died three years ago from a brain tumor. Baba took her death pretty hard. Mama pretended to care at the funeral, but I knew she didn’t because when she got the news over the phone, she said hamdouleh after she hung up, which is Arabic for thank God or something.

Mama didn’t like nene because she was Halebtsi, among other reasons. Mama used to tell me and David stories of what nene used to say to her when she was first engaged to baba. Like, when mama tried to help nene and my aunts cook dolma, nene turned to my aunts and said, “Look, girls, the filth from Beirut wants to taint our food.”

The stories were always ancient history, but she’d tell them with such passion and vivacity, capturing the accents of her characters and pacing the action in a perfectly Aristotelian manner. If only the themes were as memorable as her performance, then maybe David and I wouldn’t have gotten sick of listening to her all the time.

Mama always said she couldn’t believe how she married into such a hasarak family. It took me a long time to understand why there was so much bad blood between her and nene. They were both ethnically Armenian, after all. But their issues with each other extended beyond cultural differences between Syrian and Lebanese-Armenians.

I think the real reason mama disliked nene, along with the rest of the people from my baba’s side of the family, was because she was jealous. Every birthday party, Christmas party, and New Year’s party was always spent with my baba’s side of the family, while all of mama’s side of the family was left behind in Beirut during the civil war. She only saw them once every few years when she flew back to Lebanon.

Nene, on the other hand, disapproved of mama because she married baba, which meant that baba had to move out of nene’s already packed house. Moving out of the house after marriage is not only expected, it’s encouraged. But because baba was the first of four brothers to get married, nene had a hard time coping with the idea that her eldest son would be eating another woman’s food. That baba married a Lipanantsi over a Halebtsi perhaps added more heat to the fire.

Nene died in 2005, the same year Lebanon’s prime minister was assassinated. That was the year Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon after twenty-five years of occupation. If you ask mama, God was responsible for both blessings — Lebanon’s independence and nene’s death.

The Syrian army drafted baba when he was eighteen. He doesn’t talk about what happened while he was on duty, but mama said he saw a prisoner tortured to death. After that, he abandoned the army and escaped to Lebanon with his family. That’s where baba met mama. When the civil war broke out in Lebanon, they immigrated to California, where David and I were born.

The best advice baba ever imparted to me and David was to live life in moderation. Given his immoderate food consumption, he never came across as a man who led by example. To cover his double chin, he grew out a thick, unkempt beard, which was a fine way to conceal his fat, until it wasn’t. After 9/11, I was embarrassed when he’d drop me off at school because a lot of kids said he looked like a fat Osama Bin Laden. He kind of did.

Mama is less than half the size of baba. She stays skinny because unlike baba, she doesn’t let food stay in her stomach long enough for digestion. It’s obvious to everyone but her that she also pays visits to the plastic surgeon one too many times. Her wrinkled neck is at odds with her plastic complexion. When she first met baba, she had beautiful black hair, which matched her dark eyes much better than the unnatural and ugly blonde color she has now.

David was actually born with blonde hair. Mama said he takes after her great grandfather, who had blue eyes and a fair complexion. His name was Manook. Among Armenians, he was a well-known political activist in the Ottoman Empire who fought for social equality for Armenians during the first World War, which is one of the reasons why he was of the first victims of the Armenian Genocide.

“Hey, you awake?”

“Yeah,” David whispered, as he turned over in his bed and faced me.

“Can I ask something?”

“Sure.”

“You promise not to tell mama and baba?”

David raised his head off the pillow. “I promise.”

“Is Santa real?”

“What makes you say that?”

“When I went downstairs to get some water last night, I saw mama wrapping the Power Rangers toy I asked Santa to get me.”

“Listen, Jiro. Maybe it’s time you started thinking of Santa like he’s a character in a story.”

“So he isn’t real?”

David paused for a lengthy moment, thinking how to answer me. Finally, he looked into my eyes, and said, “No.”

“But why would mama and baba lie?”

“Sometimes people invent stories to explain things that are unexplainable. That’s why in Church, they they tell us about Jesus and Moses and God.”

“You mean they’re not real, either?”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. What matters is what you take away from the story. Does it make you feel something? That’s what’s important.”

“Don’t say that, David. God will throw a rock on you.”

David smiled, as if the threat of an eternity in Hell meant nothing to him.“Have you ever heard the story of the shepherd and his sheep?”

I shook my head.

“Once upon a time, there lived a happy shepherd who tended his flock of sheep on top of the whitest mountain in the land. The shepherd cared very much for his flock, and protected them from harm. But at the bottom of the mountain, where it was dark, there lived a jealous wolf, who wanted the land on top of the white mountain for himself. The wolf, clever as he was, knew the only way to take the shepherd’s land was to first kill the shepherd. So one night, he climbed to the top of the mountain, snuck past the sleeping sheep, and ate the shepherd.

As the sun rose, the wolf put on the shepherd’s clothing, and he said to the sheep, ‘Follow me. I shall take you to Paradise.’ Mistaking the wolf for their protector, the sheep faithfully followed him down the mountain. After many days and nights of walking, one of the sheep said, ‘I’m thirsty.’ And another said, ‘I’m hungry.’ The wolf replied, ‘Paradise is only a little further. Food and water aplenty await you there.’ This gave the sheep strength to continue their march.

They marched and marched, until finally, the wolf led the sheep to a barren desert. Their legs weary, the sheep began to lose hope. ‘Where are we? Why are we here’ they asked. It was in this moment that the wolf took off the shepherd’s clothing, and said, ‘Welcome to Paradise.’ The sheep prayed to the shepherd for help and they prayed and they prayed.”

“And the shepherd came down from Heaven and saved them, right?” I interrupted.

David paused for a lengthy moment, thinking how to answer me. Finally, he looked into my eyes, and said, “Yes.”

I lost faith in God a few years after I stopped believing in Santa. As I learned more about the Armenian Genocide, I became convinced that God, if He did exist, was neither benevolent nor kind. And I surely would never worship an all-powerful entity that was indifferent to the pain and suffering of innocent people.

I never told mama or baba about my thoughts on God. They’d never understand, anyway. Mama was the kind of person who thanked God for everything. When she was cured of breast cancer, it wasn’t the doctor who got the credit. It wasn’t even advances in science and medicine that saved her. No. It was only by virtue of God’s grace that she survived.

Sometimes I’m not sure if my parents believed in God themselves. Church, for them, wasn’t just a house of worship. It was their social world. That’s where men talked about their jobs and the new car or entertainment system they just bought, while the women gossiped about who was getting married with whom and provided fashion critiques behind each other’s backs.

Everyone in Church seemed more interested in partying than praying. My parents hosted a party at our house twice a month. Everyone from Church was invited; except for the people my parents hated, which were a lot. It was always strange to me that the same people who took pride in the fact that Armenia was the first Christian nation could hold onto grudges as long as they did.

Back when my nene was still alive, she refused to speak to her brother. They saw each other in Church every Sunday – a place where they preached, “Love thy brother” – and yet they turned a blind eye and pretended they each didn’t exist whenever they were within proximity of one other.

I asked mama once why nene never talked to him. She said my uncle got fired from the family jewelry shop twenty years ago, a shop my nene’s brother happened to own. My uncle was about my age at the time and was accused of stealing cash from the register. I don’t know if it’s true, but if I had a son and he was accused of stealing money from David’s shop, my first reaction wouldn’t be to stop talking to David for twenty years.

It always bothered me when people who I barely knew, and who didn’t care about me or my parents came to our house, pretending as if they were all best friends just because they went to the same Church and could speak the same language. My parents never seemed to care that they were being used, that the only reason the guests came was for the free food. For them, the more people that came over to our house, the more they could flaunt their wealth and social status.

“Let this be a lesson to you, Jirair,” Baba said after beating David all those years ago, when I stole the money out of mama’s purse and flushed it down the toilet.

“Your mama and I, we worked hard for everything that you and your brother take for granted. We came from nothing.”

“And you’ll die with nothing,” is what I wanted to say. But I held my tongue, as usual.

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.

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.

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.