Mgrdich Yotnaghperian (and the birth of Vahakn)
October 23rd 1915, The Pink House, Ourfa, Armenia
The skies were in labour
The earth was in labour,
And so was the crimson sea.
And in the sea a small red reed
Was also in labour.
And out of the reed came smoke
And out of the smoke came flames,
And from the flames dashed forth
A blond youth
With fiery hair,
And a flaming beard,
And his eyes were two blazing suns!
“Don’t open it!” Ferida screams. She’s clutching her pilaff pot high, ready to hurl it as the frantic banging threatens to separate the back door from its hinges. “Don’t you dare open it or we’ll all be killed!” She raises the pot over her head and stands ready. Who she intends to hit is uncertain but the tone of her voice is enough to stop Khatoun halfway between kitchen table and thudding door. Suddenly, the banging stops. Khatoun looks at Ferida, her shoulders sprinkled with pilaff, pushes past her and presses her face into the peeling blue paint of the door. Another huge knock slams against her cheek. Ancient hinges screech at the force.
“So help me God- if you open that door I will brain you!” Ferida snarls. Too late. With a flick of her wrist, Khatoun undoes the heavy metal rod, slides it back and the door flies open. The stench of sweat and cordite and something large and bloody lands at their feet. Up in a flash, their intruder slides the bolt back into place and drags the dresser across the door, scattering dishes. Then spins round. Standing in front of them, face black with soot, is their old friend, Aram Bohjalian. Gone are the genteel specs, the French-cut boots and suits. Instead, a headdress tied across the forehead, rifle in one hand, Ferida’s meat cleaver in the other. And a smile. A jagged, ugly flap cut from ear to mouth, the whole left side of his jaw exposed.
Ferida screams at the sight and drops her pot. Khatoun dips her apron in a pitcher of water and holds it up to Aram’s broken face. He leans against the dresser and pushes his cheek back together with a sharp intake of breath.
“It’s over,” he slurs. “Mgrdich is dead.”
And just like that the noise outside stops. The bells vanish, the footsteps in the alley disappear, the high-pitched scream that has been constant this last hour falls silent. Grundug, convinced he’s done something wrong, slopes under the table, tail between his legs. And then the cacophony starts up again.
Khatoun pushes Aram into a chair and peels the apron from his face. “I can sew this up,” she says, inspecting the gash. “Hold it together for now.” She presses his face back into place, wipes bloody fingers on her dress.
The door to the workroom creaks open and Iskender’s skinny frame looms.
“Everything all right?”
“No.” Aram shakes his head, winces in pain. “It’s over. Mgrdich is dead. The Armenian Quarter’s in flames.”
“Oh.” Iskender stares into the kitchen, shifts from foot to foot.
“I’m going to stitch Aram’s face back together,” Khatoun says. “I need a sharp needle.”
“Good. Yes. I’ll get some drinks.” Iskender follows his wife down the corridor, returns moments later, flask in one hand, nest of glasses in the other. He hands a shot to Aram. “Oh. Sorry. Let me help.” He lifts the cup to Aram’s lips, tilts some of the dark liquid into the good side of his mouth. “From Scotland. My special reserve. It’ll be a long time before we see any more of this, so enjoy.” He throws down a shot himself and pours an immediate refill.
When Khatoun returns she finds Ferida out of her stupor, sorting clean rags out from a sack. The water is boiling. Pots on the stove hissing and spitting as if beans and lentils are all that matter in the world. Khatoun sticks a needle into the flame, settles down next to Aram.
“Drink some more.” She takes the flask, soaks a rag with alcohol, cleans the wound. Razors as much hair as possible from around the jagged flesh. She pulls a thread from her pocket, licks the end, threads her needle.
Ferida slides in behind Aram, holds his head in trembling hands, her tears slipping out her nose onto his headdress. Slowly, with precision, Khatoun inserts the needle, stitches him back together. “Talk now,” she says, snipping the thread at the end. “Won’t be able to later.”
“Yes, talk,” Ferida says intercepting Iskender’s cigarettes. She lights one, passes them to Aram. ”We haven’t seen you for months. Tell us what brings you here.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“Try the end.”
“He killed himself. Mgrdich. Put a bullet here,” Aram points to his forehead. “Here, where it’s written. And that’s it. It’s over. Mgrdich was the only person in Ourfa who could have saved us.”
“Trouble maker,” Ferida snaps. “That’s what he was.”
“Sht, let the man speak.” Iskender hushes his sister, turns to Aram. ”You were holed up in the Armenian quarter?”
“Yes. With Mgrdich and his men. Been there since September twenty-ninth. I was at a meeting, police came looking for Mgrdich. Knocked a hole in the roof and came in from above. First one down got shot in the head; soldiers outside went berserk and opened fire. Exactly what Mgrdich had been waiting for. The bird flew, church bells rang. That was the sign. We took the police hostage, kept their guns. Then the army surrounded us, sent in an envoy asking for calm; said the police had made a mistake. There would be no reprisals.
But Mgrdich had waited too long for this. Had us dig in, set up barricades. Next day the army attacked from many positions. We let them. When they were deep enough into the Quarter we retaliated. Caught them. Lasted a month. Until today.”
“And now the whole Quarter is in flames? With everyone inside?”
“You see!” Ferida shouts. “You resist, they fuck you!”