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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the April 2015 issue

Wide Shot

A small piece of land, a hole dug by a blind mole and a mound of clay soil pushed out by its snout—pity the small coriander garden that has settled itself here, pushing aside some pretty bad things. I close my eyes and she digs at her bleeding wound with her soil-stained fingers. A branch of sorrel has cut into her leg and has got stuck in her flesh, but the wrinkles on the old woman’s skin do not wince in pain. Why don’t old people die? I open my eyes as she collects coriander seeds, her leg bandaged. There are eighty years of ardor on her face, which also reveals a tendency to gossip, the number of sacks she has carried, the number of husbandless years, hunger, devoutness, and a lost child. I look at her, and my stomach churns at her forsaken knotted hands: I hate her black veins—the years of suffering, the very word “forefather,” tradition, the Fatherland, the concept of a hearth and generations, because everything will continue down the crooked road of genetics, because I resemble her—I am her—because her ancestral discontent is already bubbling in my blood, and my face is already crinkling with the wrinkles of her, her father, her grandfather, and her grandfather’s mother… I have already begun to preach. And her ancestral home, which is a concept at the highest level of Armenian philosophical thinking (as my friend’s father says), is visible before me in all its odiousness. A herd of a family living among cows and their dung, with a bunch of snotty children plodding their way through difficult days, while she sells the bread her mother bakes, all because her father said, “If you go to the city and study, you might feel good about yourself, but who will take care of your seven sisters and my son?” Oh Father… what a man he was! But there was someone among them who was different, a certain Neso…he was always different. He liked to sing more than to suffer and would sit absently on a mound. He went to the fields at the beginning of spring, and when the ox refused to work he made up a shepherd’s song, which floated its way down to the ears of the villagers and then moved to their lips. They sang it in their neighbors’ homes and then in other villages, and soon a folk song came forth. This song was why Maral fell in love with Neso. But she was afraid to tell her mother, so Neso took Gyulnaz as his wife. There was nobody at home. Gyulnaz had sex on her mind (a very vulgar thing to say in one’s spiritual home), and Neso was sitting on a mound in the yard. Gyulnaz took him some water, feigning shyness, but Neso had the shepherd’s song in his head and did not see Gyulnaz. Nevertheless, the home filled with children over the years and Neso did not write any more songs.  Poor Neso—he fell there, pushing aside some pretty tasteless things as a hopeless coriander garden.

My grandmother is collecting the coriander seeds—she won’t die next year either, she’ll plant the seeds in the same spot and will keep coming and going, tending to them. A few bushes of parsley will have grown next to the coriander—she’ll collect them and dry them separately, irritated by the sweat that will drench her face. She’ll think about her mother and father, unable to imagine that they were just as loveless as she is—the work that they did was not for their children or to make a living, nor even for themselves. It was work and someone had to do it. Well, that con man Karo had already made so much in just one day…

“Roll the cut grass around, boy. That rain ruined everything… What will they say?”

Her grandchildren have already rolled the grass around a number of times, without waiting for her to tell them. But there is no escape from my grandmother’s pessimism, endless prayers and work. There is no escape from my grandmother. She is already within my mother and—oh, my poor unborn children—you will see how my grandmother breeds this unpleasantness within me.

I met him at a popular place. He complains of the same things—he doesn’t like the profitable obsession with frequently spewing out the word “Fatherland” and bristles at the thought of newly inducted dashnaks. As I drink my coffee in the wood barn, I think of him and a sweet smell emerges as I yearn for him. But wait…the smell of wood does not make me yearn for him, it makes me miss the other one—the naïve one, who loves me an awful lot, the one like a child. He has soft lips, which he rubs against my skin, ending up with goose bumps along his arms. Then he gets a dreamy look in his eyes and his pupils dilate with love, as he begins to breathe heavily. My heart trembles for him, because he knows about the man I met at that popular place, but he loves me anyway. I drink my coffee and think about both of them. I realize that trying to accommodate both of them in my life would be uncomfortable and insecure, but I need to rest now and breathe in the smell of wood and clay pots. I close my eyes and think of what has exhausted me in this way. There are so many things.

Sasha the Wad is a friend of my grandmother’s. A few times a month, poof, he appears before my grandmother’s bespectacled eyes. He is a short man, small even, with eyes of a color between green and gray. He has brought over the Russian Nina from Chita. I ask him whether she can speak Armenian and Sasha’s eyes sparkle—“She can read coffee grinds and tell your fortune in Armenian.” His youngest son went to work abroad as a laborer. He had given a thousand dollars to delay his military service by a year, but he was in fact exempted on health grounds: his stomach had been cut open in a large cross-shaped wound during an operation after his appendix had burst. They had left their work for a month to sit by his side in the small village hospital. Each doctor had written a separate prescription. They had sold their cow and had money on their hands. It was the year that the currency changed. He gave 10,000 rubles to each of the doctors and nurses, but the bottom of that pile of money still seemed far away. Their cow had been very fat. As Sasha collected each of the crumbs on the table one by one and spoke with his eyeballs hiding behind his lids, my grandmother brought the iron that no longer worked, her broken eyeglasses, and some tools. Sasha sat under a lamp, starting his repair work. My grandmother looks around for a 1000-dram note, “Armen, do you have a thousand drams? I have a five-thousand-dram note. Margarit, I need a thousand drams, I had a note under the bread tray, what happened to it?” My grandmother speaks very loudly, because she doesn’t hear well. She shouts down to her grandchildren from the second floor. Sasha has begun to sweat under the lamp. He is juggling a piece of candy around in his mouth and has finished repairing the items. He nervously twists the eyeglasses in his hands, waiting for my grandmother to offer him money, so that he can refuse it and act embarrassed that he was being offered money, embarrassed to be in this awkward situation. He would be embarrassed to refuse and not know how to reply to my grandmother’s insistence. Perhaps my grandmother would not find the thousand drams. Oh, but she did. I had taken out my camera to take a picture of Sasha when he asked, “What is that?” My grandmother replied, “It’s a milk separator.” His Russian wife Nina always says, “Saran, give me your broom, I will sweep the house and bring it back.” (Sweeping doesn’t mean just rubbing the floor with the broom, my grandmother says.) They can buy a broom with a thousand drams, they can even buy two.

The bride who had come to the house with the straight roof is getting a divorce. She has taken her children and gone to her father’s house because she is the daughter of a carefree mother and she wanted a quiet life, not a mother-in-law who was disabled or a husband who was a drunkard. She is lighthearted, she cannot even begin to imagine what the evil eye can do when inflicted by a neighbor like my grandmother. No, she just wants to live a quiet life, but she is casting a stone at her own fate, because thousands of young women in thousands of homes are waiting for husbands, but she is a lady—she took the man’s children and left. Who doesn’t want a quiet life? Her father was an idiot. If he hadn’t taken her in, she would have known better. She had nowhere to go. She wasn’t going to stay on the street. She’d have come back to her husband. My grandmother can’t seem to settle down, she sits out in the yard to clean the cracked wheat. She is waiting for a passerby to whom she can express her anger. Arev could see her through the kitchen window as she worked on the canning chores that the bride had left unfinished.

I tell my grandmother that I have two lovers and want to keep them both. She bats her eyes through her thick glasses, as the clean cracked wheat mixes with the rest, and asks, “Do they agree?” I say, “I don’t know.” Someone approaches in the distance as Arev looks through her window, and my grandmother arranges the wheat first one way, then another. The lens covering her unseeing eye has fogged over.

Is it difficult to take a loathsome bath in a tub, liter by liter, then pour out the water and slip on the cold floor once every three days? I would say that it is difficult to simply give up the tub and leave. He kisses my body, tortured by tub after tub, and I think, “I need another bath now.”

The naïve one dreams of bathing me. He has read somewhere (it’s probably Coetzee) about how the hero bathes the heroine and imagines himself in that role. He runs the wet and foamy sponge over her gasping body and she gets goose bumps below the shoulders. The cold drops run down her hair, over her chin and jaw as the water rolls over moles and along veins, pooling along the legs. His knees are frozen. He is confused, he is too weak to kiss, he cannot bend over. His feet are shivering and his hands have gone numb as the windows are covered in the hot vapor.

His love is huge, larger than the world. His love is higher than the clouds. But the person taking a bath is not his. She isn’t anyone else’s either, but she is not his. Beyond the body, she is not his, beyond the soul, she is not his. Even her sex is sometimes completely absent in her eyes—it frightens him. If there is no woman, then there is nothing. A man loses himself in this situation, her sexless eyes are enough to kill a man. And he understands that he is not the only one being killed, he might be the second, maybe even the third. As a consolation, the first in this case is not really number one, the loveless woman was nobody’s. You can see it in her eyes: she can belong to no one because she is not here, she does not exist even within herself. Everything is possible for her, and for that reason, it is terribly impossible. She sees the existence of everything and divides herself among each of the existing. She herself does not exist, but he loves her terribly, because he has given her everything. But she has not been there, she had not existed within herself.

Every morning, the sunlight lowers itself foot by foot, settling like dust on the tangled gas pipes in the village center while, on the ground, streams of sun-colored urine run parallel to the gas lines. The herd walks up through the village as cows, cows, and more cows join in at each intersection it crosses. The sides of the streets are lined with sleep-ruined women, standing with switches or buckets in hand. In their rooms, their warm beds are quietly cooling, while in some Russian city or other their men have probably already started their day with the cheapest Armenian cognac, buckets of mud and a few words in Russian. The herd reaches the old cemetery and Margarit turns back to sweep the stable and run to school. She is the headmistress. She has to collect the dung in a bucket, bring it over, heap it up in a large pile and pocket the egg she needs for her breakfast omelet. She must take out her earrings from her pocket—she had bought them in Paris—and put them on with one hand, while using the other to fill the tank with milk. Her boys are already up. The thirteen-year-old goes to school, the fifteen-year-old is a laborer at a construction site. Today is her mother-in-law’s birthday, her five wizened sisters and four old daughters will be coming. Sigh.

The Armenian home is a virtual space, a mysterious matrix, where the emptiness is not filled by numbers, but rather by green words that sing of a joy and love that do not exist. It is a place where a toast is extracted from each cup of drink–—an imitation, or parody, of well-being. If my mother had not been so hard on herself, if she had not wanted to be the mother of an Armenian home—an exemplary one like my grandmother—she could have separated from her husband and become the happy wife of another man, with whom she would have had happy children. It is the home that preserved this country as a state and the home that released the smoke of responsibility into the sky, disguised as happiness. Love and desire were squashed under the weight of the commandments. And now the home has come to me, it wants to condemn me to damnation so that my country may live.

I am twenty-five years old, he is twenty-four. I was twenty-two when we met. He is a nice boy, but he loves me a lot. He has loved me a lot for three years. I don’t know where we’re going with this. I don’t know what he’s thinking. I’m sure he wants to cause me pain. There is no other reason to love someone like this. Or maybe there is.  He hung a pair of earrings on my ears once, he liked them a lot. Now he often says, “You’re pretty. You’re original, in a beautiful sense.” And he also says, “It’s beautiful, when you’re not afraid to be ugly then that in itself is beautiful.” He hopes that we will marry and have children. I hope that if it turns out badly, we will divorce.

We are in the cemetery. My grandmother’s whole family is here, under stones big and small, with names that have long been effaced. My grandmother remembers that her father and mother lay next to Sanasar and Vacho. Sanasar was a shepherd, his gravestone had a flock etched on it. Tony is running ahead, very excited. He raises his leg and urinates on the stones, then theatrically flings soil on them with his hind legs as he searches for the gravestone with the flock engraved on it. My grandmother takes turns stopping at various faded mounds, “Vayyy, my dear Nazo. Put in a good word for me up there, Nazo. Oh, Anushavan, ungrateful Anushavan. Oh Uncle, how are you?” White snails carrying their little houses have climbed up thin reeds, getting closer and closer to the sky. The blades of grass, unable to bear the load, bend over. The thicker ones are still standing their ground and look beautiful. I am suffering in the middle of the cemetery, trying to focus on a snail and take a decent photograph. My camera is trying my patience because focusing is not its strongest feature. My grandmother and mother have already found the grave where my grandmother’s mother lies. My grandmother waits for me to take her picture. I am taking photos of snails while she keeps standing in different positions with a mournful look on her face and ordering my mother to cry. Tony is sitting on the gravestone of the school principal, resting with his tongue hanging out. Tony is very dear to me. I choose to photograph the most interesting gravestones, the ones with brief poetic epitaphs or engraved pictures of how the deaths occurred. One says “10,000 volts” with a lightning bolt engraved on top of the number and reads, “I had not blossomed, so young when I died / My parents in pain and anguish cried.”  The cemetery is a fine place to take good pictures. My grandmother has convinced herself for the umpteenth time that her parents no longer hear her and gives up on the thought of receiving any news about when she must join them. Down and disillusioned, she walks through the narrow paths between stones, as the underbrush attaches its willing pollen to her disenchanted skirt. Tony drags her walking stick and brings it to her. I stand on the final gravestone to take a wide shot of the scene.

© 2009 by Anna Davytan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Nazareth Seferian. All rights reserved.

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