Some months went by. One night, in the darkest hour before dawn, Ismene is woken by a hurried, anxious knocking on the door.
Strangely enough, she is not alarmed. She is sure it is a woman out there knocking. “Some unfortunate soul wandering around at this hour, a fugitive or a prostitute,” she thinks, knowing both categories well, and she cautiously opens the door.
There appears before her a bundled up ghost, face concealed by a veil, a bundle of rags and tatters from which emerge two hands of a strange colour that even Ismene, with her vast experience, cannot recognise. “Are you Ismene the Greek?” asks the ghost in a whisper that is hardly louder than breath and, at Ismene’s nod, slips hastily in and leans back against the door, panting.
“Who are you?” Ismene asks brusquely, but the woman doesn’t answer, just wraps herself tighter in her rags and asks hurriedly, “Perhaps it is you who has my son?” Ismene immediately thinks she must be one of the orphans’ mothers, who has somehow survived and discovered she still has a child. It has happened, sometimes. And she answers, “Come into the warm, you can have some bread and milk, and tomorrow we’ll see whether your son is here among our children.”
But the woman doesn’t seem to hear, and she repeats her question, waving her hands around. And Ismene realises that those hands aren’t dirty, as she’d first thought, but are covered with light blue tattoos, lines and circles, winding round the fingers, and she remembers that Bedouin women in the Syrian Desert are tattooed like that. But this woman is speaking Armenian, so she must be a fugitive who has escaped, taking advantage of the end of the war. She must have been taken in, as a slave, by a Bedouin family.
With a quick flick Ismene removes the veil from the face. It is a young woman, plump, with a strangely sharp-featured face that is also covered in bright blue tattoos. Someone must have married her and turned her into a Bedouin woman. But this woman doesn’t wear her tattoos with pride: her eyes are expressionless, staring, and she keeps rubbing her hands over her scarred cheeks–an unnatural, mechanical gesture.
Ismene begins to feel a bit worried. There must be a husband somewhere who is probably looking for her, and Ismene doesn’t want any trouble. She has to put the children’s welfare first. “Well then, how did you get here? Who sent you to us?” Ismene and Isaac are content in Smyrna-the-Beautiful, the authorities leave them in peace and, above all, this is certainly not the right time to make the wrong move.
The woman seizes Ismene’s hands and repeats, “Have you got my child? He’s very small but, you know, he’s robust. He’ll make it.” And bending over she makes a cradle with her hands and begins rocking back and forth, singing a lullaby with a bitter, heart-rending melody that Ismene has never heard before.
“You see?” she said. “He hasn’t lost that much weight. But I have no more milk.” And she suddenly bursts out in a loud wail, and Ismene looks again at her face and under the tattoos recognises Vartuhi, the blonde girl, the one who was saved by Shushanig, when she offered the famous ruby to that Kurdish leader in exchange for the girl he was trying to kidnap, right at the start of the deportation.
But Vartuhi was too blonde, too beautiful. A few days after she so narrowly escaped being kidnapped she was raped by a group of soldiers and left pregnant. And then they lost touch with her: Shushanig, Azniv, Veron, and the children were too caught up in their own struggle for survival to have time to look out for others in the caravan. Vartuhi gave birth, alone, in a bush, and no one noticed her, and no one waited for her. So she joined another caravan when it passed nearby a few days later and arrived in Aleppo, with all the other poor women, but it was unlucky, and was one of those forced to continue the long journey to its final destination, Deir-es-Zor, in the Syrian Desert. Vartuhi squeezed her breasts to find a little milk, but she’d been eating only grass, and the child died on the road. She continued to cradle and sing to her baby long after he’d starved to death, and they had to tear him from her arms.
A desert Bedouin chose her, and saved her life, but not her reason. Throughout the war years Vartuhi was wife and slave to this man, who had her tattooed to make her more safely his, because he was a good man, and wanted to give her other children, who would erase the memory of her first. Vartuhi worked a lot and was totally under her husband’s control. But she needed to be allowed to sing her lullaby. When she sang she was transformed, she saw her child, and the Bedouin family would, respectfully, leave her a space, and let her sing her song with the children of the tribe joining in.
Until one grey November day in 1918, when a travelling merchant brought news that the war was over, adding: “So now the Armenians can go home.”
“Who, the dead ones?” asked the head of the household, nodding towards his wife who seemed, however, not to have heard.
But that same night Vartuhi got up furtively, and as lightly as the ghost she was, gathered up a few rags, a water bottle, and some bread, and disappeared into the darkness.
And now, along those mysterious paths known only to the innocent and the mad, she has arrived at Ismene’s in Smyrna. And when she recognises her, Ismene says: “Sing for me, Vartuhi. Sing me your song.” And Vartuhi crouches down on the ground, lifts the veil from her face, and begins to sing the “Lullaby of the Deportees”(1) in a loud voice.
When she gets near the end of the song her voice becomes more subdued, and more anguished: “I have no more milk to give you,” she sobs, “only blood runs out of my eyes.” And Ismene takes her in her arms and, rocking her gently, repeats the words of the song with her. They stay like this for a long moment, rocking each other.
Vartuhi never leaves. Hers is a calm madness, and Ismene knows how to deal with her: she has to be kept busy and allowed to sing every now and then.
Vartuhi peels potatoes, chops onions, stands stirring the soup with a spoon for hours, cleans the latrines, washes sheets, always with the same corrugated face in constant movement: and the lines and circles of the light blue tattoos on her cheeks and around her eyes move too. The children watch, entranced.
On some, rare days, she gathers them to her and lets them touch her, trace the blue designs with their fingers, and she hugs them frantically, gathers up three or four in her arms and launches herself into a radiant, voluptuous dance. Then putting them down, she kisses them one by one, allowing them to smell, on her, the perfume of the mother they have lost.
But more often she glares at them with icy, acrimonious eyes, and shoos them away, flapping her hands, then rubbing them repeatedly over her face. Then she runs to wherever Ismene is and, crouching down in front of her, lays her head in the older woman’s lap while plaintively repeating her very first question: “Have you got my son?”
Ismene never answers. She takes those restless hands into her own, and lifts them to her face as if to transmit calm and acceptance; and then she hugs her, whispering curses, commands, and charms in the ancient language of the professional mourners until Vartuhi, exhausted, falls asleep in a lake of tears.
But most of the time Vartuhi is an invaluable assistant and, for their part, the children love her, this derelict mother with her haunted face, and they feel she is their suffering Mother Armenia. They attach themselves to her like stray animals, a reference in their upside-down universe, where they have had to manage to survive alone, where they will always have to bear the burden of being survivors, forever laden with memories of mothers and grandmothers, and of all the women who disappeared along the roads of deportation, each taking with them the warmth of their own small worlds.
So wherever she goes, Vartuhi is always under the watchful eyes of two or three children who make sure that she doesn’t hurt herself, that she doesn’t put a knife too close to her face and that she doesn’t shout too loud in her moments of desperate confusion.
And then there is always another child, who will make sure she eats, because if left to herself she will forget for whole days at a stretch, and then her lips turn as blue as her tattoos and her eyes are even more crazed.
The reward is the song, the lullaby of the deportation, which everyone has learned from her and which they want to convince Isaac to include in the programme for the next concert.
One day the children are all there together, in the courtyard, sitting on the ground around Vartuhi who is rocking back and forth and singing her lullaby. She is coming to the end of the song, the point at which she usually reaches a peak of pathos with the cradling and the terrible words (“You were tired, tired of crying,/drop by drop you’ve slipped away,/I have no more milk to give you/only blood pours out of my eyes”). But just as she is singing the last line of the mother’s lament for her dead child, she lifts her face and stops on the word “blood,” drawing it out and holding it in a stifled scream. The children turn as one and remain stock still too, as if hypnotised, looking at a veiled lady with a blue parasol standing at the entrance of the courtyard, next to a plump gentleman wearing a bright red fez.
At first they don’t understand why Vartuhi is so shocked. But there, standing right behind the inoffensive couple, is a gigantic desert Bedouin, wearing an ample silk girdle into which are tucked two pistols and a large curved knife. All the children think it is Vartuhi’s husband who has come to take her back, for they have often heard the story, and they instantly scatter in all directions.
Ismene is in the kitchen, busily bargaining with Yussuf over the price of a crate of aubergines. The children surround her, tugging anxiously at her clothes, and pull her along behind them. Yussuf, curious, follows. But when they get to the courtyard, the scene has changed. The lady with the blue parasol and the man with the red fez are standing off to one side, just watching with detached interest, as if they were at the theatre.
The Bedouin has meanwhile crossed the courtyard and taken Vartuhi by the arm, and she–in no way intimidated–is smiling almost coyly. The children have all disappeared and some exhausted soldiers are now standing, rather menacingly, at the entrance gate. Clouds seem to gather in the sky, everyone is still, suspended, and they all seem to be trying to work out what sort of unholy mess they have just landed themselves in.
And for a moment Ismene thinks, “Here we go! They’ve come back to finish up with the Armenians and start on the Greeks.” But then with an impatient gesture she brushes away these pessimistic thoughts and swings round, boldly, to face the strange little group. “First of all, understand,” she thinks, “but even if you don’t understand, just pretend you do, be aggressive and decisive.”
So she goes over and removes the Bedouin’s hand from Vartuhi’s arm, and with an imperious gesture orders her to go into the house.
She turns to the man and, equally imperiously, shows him where to sit, then, in a loud firm voice, bids the lady and the man with the fez to sit down, too. Then she turns to Yussuf (she knows he will be there behind her) and orders him, still in a loud voice, to go and fetch a bit of bread and cheese “for those good people standing in the doorway.” Yussuf, relieved, does so.
And everything starts up again. The soldiers, cap in hand, advance into the courtyard, and an officer pushes forward through them. Now Ismene recognises them, from their flashes, from the little flags that have appeared in their hands. “Éllines iste, you’re Greeks!” she yells, she can’t believe her eyes.
Suddenly the sun shines brighter and suddenly all the bells in Smyrna start ringing, and a wind springs up from nowhere, perfumed with jasmine and freshly baked bread.
For every baker in Smyrna is at work, a mass baking, so as to welcome the soldiers by offering fresh bread and salt. The Archbishop Chrysostomos has put on his Easter vestments.
At last, after so many years, the war is really over for the Armenians, so long gone to ground, deep in their neighbourhoods, At last, they can lift their faces to the sun, open the doors of Santo Stefano (Saint Stephen’s), their beautiful cathedral, and those of the wall that protects it.
In the twinkling of an eye, the women put on their festive finery, stalls heaped with all sorts of delicacies appear, and ever-closed windows open, revealing smiles. Coins rain down from a balcony and an ancient Grandma, Heghiné, has herself put into an armchair and gets out the silk shawl and velvet slippers the Sultan in person gave to her mother so many, many years ago.
In her courtyard, Ismene the Greek waits before abandoning herself to joy. For the moment, she will celebrate in a more genteel manner with these unexpected guests. Then, she will celebrate with her children. It has been discovered that the couple with the blue parasol and the red fez are the aunt and uncle of one of the children. Relatives from Constantinople, who have finally found out what happened to her sister (“Poor, poor Zaruhi,” sitting down, the lady closes the parasol and weeps gracefully into a monogrammed handkerchief, “I always told her not to marry someone in the provinces”) and the whole family of her brother-in-law, kindly Garabed Andreassian, dealer in grains and producer of exquisite figs. It seems that a nephew aged about ten has survived, and they have traced him to Ismene’s orphanage.
And the Bedouin really is Vartuhi’s husband; but he couldn’t have chosen a worse moment to appear. Now that the city has changed its rulers, he risks undergoing a fast change in status too, from husband to tormentor.
So after some rapid explanation and discussion with Ismene, he is allowed to see the woman and put the present he has brought to persuade her to return with him onto her wrist. It is a delicate bracelet of woven gold threads with a smooth tablet in the middle on which is written, in large Armenian characters, “A gift from Arshvar to his favourite, Kariné, 1884.” Who knows from what ancient or modern loot the bracelet has come, the man doesn’t know; in any case, he can’t read and thinks the letters are just another decoration; he has no idea of the blood and pain these elegant golden threads have absorbed.
His first wife has persuaded him to come and look for Vartuhi (“Wherever else are you going to find someone so downtrodden and stupid, more a slave than a woman? She’ll never take my place, and, even more, she can have children…”), but the man has to be satisfied with Ismene’s vague promises: “Can’t you see the Greek soldiers are coming? And you, in Syria, who will you end up with? Let’s do this, when everything is over, and we poor rags are no longer being blown hither and thither, come back and see her. You seem to be a good man, and she might want to go away with you.”
Hastily, Ismene returns to the courtyard feeling vaguely irritated. “I wonder which child those two snobs have come to take away. Will they know how to treat him?” she asks herself, while forcing a smile, answering questions, and continuing to offer refreshments.
But the woman’s stare makes her uneasy, she begins to get tangled up in her explanations, so she suddenly stops and asks brusquely, “What’s your nephew’s name?”
With a slight, but well-controlled start, the woman answers: “I don’t know, there were two brothers very close in age, and I can only remember the name of one of them, Hagop.” But the surname is Kuyumdjian. You must have a register with a list of the children you have in here.”
Ismene says nothing, but her heart is beating wildly. “Can it be the Hagop who has just married Sylvia?” is her first thought. “But there are two Hagops here; perhaps it’s the other one, the little one…”
But, in reality, she knows perfectly well that it is the bigger one, and that now she’s in real trouble, and so is Isaac. They have allowed two minors to marry, having already, imprudently, allowed them to be together and fall in love. She could start shouting; she knows how to put her foot down. But now she is a priest’s wife and the priest is poor old Isaac, innocent and, always, confusedly oppressed by a sense of guilt and, even more, Hagop is Isaac’s best soloist.
“Would you mind checking?” the woman insists. “We are in a hurry, my husband’s business affairs you know,” and she nods at the man who, bathed in the beautiful light, has fallen asleep, and the sun glints on his lenses.
“Family is family, you know, and we must do the right thing and take care of this child,” repeats the woman almost complaining, and looking with some annoyance at Ismene. Ismene makes a lightning decision. “I’ll go and get the register, but I’ve understood who your nephew is,” she says brazenly, then runs off before she can repent. She must give orders to Yussuf, fast, and make sure the children stay out of sight.
But she has just come back, clutching the huge notebook with its marbled cover, where she and Isaac haphazardly record everything: names, bills, benefactors, plans (in any case, only Isaac can write, Ismene can only just about read), when, as always at the wrong moment, Isaac arrives.
He looks in at the door that opens in from the street, waving his arms and shouting, “The Greeks are here! They’ve come: think Ismene, we’re free! No one will ever threaten the children again!” Ismene fixes him with an icy glare, but Isaac doesn’t notice, and he heads towards her, walking fast. His eyes are glittering and his breath smells of wine.
“How many toasts have you already drunk, you old fool?” she remonstrates, hoping that Isaac will understand from her tone that there is an emergency, and will shut up. “Soldiers have come here too, and they are in the kitchen!”
But Isaac takes no notice. He is locked deep inside his personal happiness, and still lost, enchanted, amidst the images of brightly-coloured saints carried in procession, of Easter eggs painted in every possible colour, of music echoing in the open air, and of celestial choirs. The splendour of the sun has made him drunk, he sees gold everywhere, sees warriors with the sign of the cross galloping towards Bolis, the city, lost Constantinople, which opens blue to the sea–and becomes Greek again. He sees shiny enamels, sparkling mosaics, golden icons and frescoes, Saint Saviour in Chora and the Panagia of Heavenly Mercy: and he, Isaac directing the Court Boys Choir, with their short green and white tunics and golden stockings.
When the threatening note in Ismene’s voice finally does get through to him, Isaac instantly drops back into his usual humble state of mind, except that this time he has been drinking, and is galvanised by the arrival of the Greeks.
After many centuries, Ionia is ours again, after so many humiliations, always living flattened to the ground, trying not to be conspicuous, now Greek soldiers have disembarked, here we are masters… Isaac can hardly breathe, he simply can’t believe it. Thus, just for once, he reacts to Ismene’s words by deciding for himself: “I’ll run and get the children, they must celebrate this day with us.” He dashes off, only to reappear, a moment later, with the whole flock of children behind him, gathered up from the Armenian class, the Maths class, and from the rubble-filled inner courtyard where they have been basking like lizards in the sun, as inactive as always, except when obeying an order. He finds Hagop and Sylvia talking in the corner where the brooms are kept, and tells them the great news.
So, fifty children, aged between seven and fourteen, run into the courtyard, only to stop short when they see Ismene sitting with strangers. The reflex reaction of fear and anguish to anything new, to any change, is still very strong in them.
The smaller children hide behind the bigger and the bigger ones who stand there, sad, wretched adolescents, with heads shaved because of lice, badly fed, bundled up into too-big clothes, in skimpy jackets, and with immense, wide-open Armenian eyes where faces, houses, families are reflected like in stagnant, dead pools. The only ones who are smiling and holding hands are Hagop and Sylvia: they are in the front line, and they catch the eye of the women from the City.
“What have those two children got to smile about?” she asks Ismene, somewhat petulantly, “I don’t think there is anything to laugh about in their situation.” Then she screws up her forehead and rubs her eyes: “Come here, you,” she says to Hagop, without even deigning to look at Sylvia. Ismene realises the danger, and, luckily, so too does Hagop. He has recognised that awful aunt who once came to see them in the village; she wasn’t satisfied with anything, wouldn’t eat their food, and made his mother serve her as if she were a princess, treating her like a maid.
“This one’s here alive and well, and my mother was killed along with my newborn brother,” Hagop sobs silently to himself, “and my father disappeared one morning, together with the other men and my other brother. But I’m happy here, and I’ve got Sylvia.”
Well trained in survival, Hagop reacts in a flash, and before the lady can get out her lorgnette and fix it well he has disappeared, pulling Sylvia with him even though she resists, as she is curious. Hagop is frantic, and drags her off. The two of them hide behind the other forty-eight children and then disappear into the kitchen, where they know how to hide. The woodpile is behind the kitchen sink, it is full of mice, and no one goes there willingly.
So Hagop and Sylvia say goodbye to their salvation: but they will live together for all of the life they have left to live? And Ismene, reassured, finds the other Hagop. He is nine years old and remembers virtually nothing, so after having given him a long lecture on what to do and what not to do, she solemnly passes him over to his Aunt and Uncle: “This child has suffered enormously,” she tells them in an aside, “treat him very gently, and don’t question him.” She shows them out hurriedly, feeling no pangs of guilt about having misled them.
Then, immensely relieved, she claps her hands and orders Vartuhi to fetch pistachios and grape juice and some red wine, too, and continues the celebrations with her children and the Greek soldiers. Yussuf has slipped silently away.
And on that miraculous night everyone is dancing, tracing circles and sinuous patterns on the earth, drawing shapes in the air, drinking and eating their fill.
The rhythm of the children’s cloth slippers weaves in and out of the thudding of the soldiers’ heavy boots; in from the neighbourhood, one by one, come the old seed sellers. Isaac calls in the blind violinist who usually begs in the square, and Mrs. Berdjouhi, with her permanently terrified daughter, hurries to the orphanage to find news and comfort.
And that night Ismene distributes comfort and illusions. Everything seems to be so right: the Armistice, the Turkish Army defeated, and now the Greeks have come, Asia Minor is returning to her motherland, back to the rich lands of Ionia, of the ancient cities and the port of Smyrna-the-Beautiful.
But glittering angels cross sparkling swords above that clear sky, intercepting the light of the stars of Ionia. They are protecting an illusion, and weep for the bleak destinies that still await these trusting beings.
1 The “Lullaby of the Deportees” is a song written during the deportation that has been handed down by the survivors, often in different versions. The most complete version is:
We are marching towards Deir-es-Zor weeping/in the midst of fire, in pain/there is no hope, there is no light/I sing a lullaby to my baby/I sing it and he sleeps./Sleep, sleep, sleep/don’t think about the long, long road/and your innocent heart won’t be hurt./We are exiles and we have no home,/we are deportees and we have no place,/we don’t even have a God as judge,/ our sentence has no end./You have cried, cried, and you are exhausted,/drop by drop you have shrivelled/nursing my dry breast,/your pure spirit was shaken/you were tired, tired of crying,/drop by drop you slipped away,/I have no more milk to give you/only blood pours out of my eyes.”
1918-1922. The re-grouped Turkish Army, under Kemal, is slowly closing in on the Greek invaders who, three years after their victory, are about to be pushed back out of Turkey. Back in Armenia, in the Little City, where some Armenians have returned to live, the French garrison are preparing to leave, and the French Commander’s mistress, Jeanette, is organising a party.
The charming Madame Jeanette’s party is a farewell party, though she does not know it yet. The Armenian ladies have, for the umpteenth time, spent the day frantically deciding what to leave and what to take with them from the house that they have only just repaired, re-painted, and set in order, and have sadly contemplated their vegetable patches and their small well-tended gardens. Now, they are arriving at Jeanette’s house, with their hats well brushed, and posies pinned in their cleavages. They are smiling.
Their husbands follow, austere and somewhat ill-at-ease. And while the young robust waiters, engaged just for this occasion, pass and re-pass bearing trays piled with delicious oriental delicacies, and while the cook in the courtyard takes up his big knife to carve the spit-roasted piglet and, with a flourish, distributes the steaming slices on the lavash bread laid ready on the table in front of him; in the rear courtyard, deep in the shadows, silent figures softly come and go.
The traffickers have returned on time and the group of beggars is ready. Bundles prepared for loading onto the camels are being stacked in the derelict house behind the courtyard, where people are moving briskly, but always unhurriedly, back and forth: everyone knows what has to be done; theirs is a centuries-long experience of moving as a group.
The families Nazim contacted have done everything well, even the money is ready in their roomy pockets. Once the camels are loaded the caravan will move off, away from the city, in the direction of Smyrna. The families will follow, before dawn, in the depths of the night, when the party is over.
Clothes and hats are going to be quickly put away, old and young taken by the hand, and everyone will gather, ready to leave, in the large open clearing behind the fortress.
There is no immediate danger, but everybody is remembering those terrible days of the 1915 deportations, the deceit, the desperation, of that deadly summer.
The faces, looks, and smiles of a whole population that has vanished float up from where they’ve been buried in the deep, still waters of memory. Everyone is gazing around, confused, re-living that other departure and asking themselves just what perverse stubbornness had made them return in the first place.
That morning, Father Michael had celebrated Mass for everyone, then carefully packed an old cloth bag with the new vestments (given him the year before by the community, in a moment when a fragile feeling of optimism seemed to prevail), the dented chalice, and the cross, both found amidst the ruins when he and some French soldiers had been excavating there. One of them, Jeannot the Breton, white-faced, had dug them out from beneath a heap of burnt bones.
But the priest isn’t there when they meet that night. “He’s stayed behind,” says someone. “He wants to make sure we are all here, and he’ll follow on tomorrow,” says another. But Nazim has understood. He sees Aris’s wife and children standing, silently, beside a camel, but he can see neither Aris, nor the priest.
For a moment he contemplates going back and joining them in doing something, an audacious action, one which will give vent to the silent fury that permeates all these lost, shivering souls, trembling in the night, entrusted to the care of dark angels: beggars and traffickers. An action that will be a violent, spectacular finale to this disastrous attempt to return, one that will indelibly scar the memories, the tales, of those who are going to inherit these golden plains, this paradise; those who are of the right race, of the right religion.
But Nazim is both sceptical and wise. “A beggar who attracts attention is a dead beggar,” he says to himself, and then ably applies himself first to calming the fears of the women, and then to organising the traffickers. He gives them part of the sum agreed and suggests they move the camels off now, in the dark, so as to be as far away as possible before daybreak.
So the Armenians leave the Little City for the last time; no one accompanies them on this Calvary, no one listens to the melancholy rhythm of their beating hearts repeating: “Forever, forever, this time, forever.” The castle and hills have drowned in the dark and, luckily, there is no moon: the only noises are of some child or other crying, some woman or other sighing, and of Aris’s wife grumbling and dragging her feet: she’s had to leave the cart and her furniture behind, and even her bed, her bridal bed, that she’d so struggled to bring with them from Damascus. And, although she bites her lip and will not admit it, even to herself, this does seem a very bad omen.
Aris promised he would join her very soon, along with the two adopted boys; her own children are with her. They, too, would’ve liked to have stayed behind with their father, but their mother insisted, and now she is dragging them along behind her, reluctant and sulky, even though the novelty of this night-time walk soon placates them. This isn’t their country, they were born in Damascus-the-Splendid, but followed their father into this adventure that’s now ending with a strange, nocturnal flight, and they are excited at the thought of a new journey, and a new city.
“Are we maybe going back to Damascus?” the older child is just asking his mother when, suddenly, they hear a distant explosion, followed soon after by a much larger one. A quickly-suppressed cry and a rustle of anxious whispers run through the entire caravan. The men in front stop, slowly the camels stop too, and then the whole caravan grinds to a halt. In the dark, heads turn to look at the city, illuminated now by flames that are spreading from within, spreading rapidly.
“Holy Mother protect us,” whispers one woman, and others echo her.
“What is burning down there, what’s happened in the city?” is the question on everyone’s lips but, certainly, no one is going to go back to find out. And a subtle feeling of satisfaction begins to spread, half-whispered in undertones, softening their anger and pain. So the caravan sets off again, and the men run down the lines advising everyone to speed up. “Whatever exploded down there, it’s not a good sign, and it won’t take the cavalry long to catch up with us.”
Nazim comes up silently beside Talin and the children, words are burning his lips but–prudently–he says nothing. He understands, yes, he so understands.
Father Michael and Aris have been spending long hours confabulating in the last few days; and he has seen them in the evenings, helped by the older boys, carrying large bundles of wood, planks, broken furniture, and any other wood they can find into the ruined cathedral, moving quietly, well out of sight of Talin who, the moment dinner is over, locks herself inside the house with the children. And Nazim has seen other things, too. A rectangular box, obviously very heavy because it needed four to carry it, being placed in the middle of the church, behind the newly-restored altar, and carefully hidden under an embroidered tablecloth; and he’d once met Father Michael with a huge spool of wire on his shoulder and, with a slight smile, he’d asked him what it was for.
The priest had gabbled something, and hurried off. And Nazim had never asked him anything again. He’d well understood the despair, the suppressed fury, that had possessed the two Armenians, their need to make a clamorous gesture that would redeem them all, and in some way at least, demand reassessment of the image of a flock without hope, a pitiful, helpless mass of humans, the image left imprinted on the Armenian people by massacres and deportation.
Thus the priest, the merchant and the two boys, who’ve proudly re-assumed their Armenian names, work hard gathering wood and piling it up around the walls inside the cathedral. A couple of street children arrive with the news that they know where to find ammunition and explosives abandoned by the retreating Turkish Army in 1918. Another has found a huge spool of wire, fuses, matches, and other parts for detonators. And Father Michael seems to have gone mad; all he does is stroke the beautiful square slabs of honey-coloured stone, the delicate decorations (or at least those that remain) and the gigantic stone cross with the big baptismal font. On the day of the last church service, as the church fills up, his heart stops beating, but he is sure that Avenging Angels are peering through the gaps in the broken windows.
That evening, when all his flock has left and Aris, too, has sent his family on its way, the two men and the two boys frantically join wires, check connections, and move flammable planks into specially-prepared corners. The group of street children sits quietly smoking butts in the courtyard.
At last Father Michael lights the fuse at the entrance, and Aris lights the one at the back, where the wall has collapsed. A sheet of flame shoots up, another answers, the flames race along the network of cords running around the perimeter of the church, they find the petrol-soaked planks and reach the box hidden under the altar. The tablecloth that covers it burns instantly and, for a moment, the huge Angel embroidered on it rises up and dances in the air as if in blessing.
Then everything explodes. Flames are everywhere. The wood burns fast, and a pleasant, sharp scent fills the air, the echo of a long-ago party in the woods: and a certain happiness fills them, and they join hands and dance with the flames while the ammunition joyfully explodes. The city is silent, immersed in a sinister darkness. Even the French soldiers prefer to hear nothing, to see nothing, say nothing, and just pretend they are no longer there (indeed they are leaving the next day).
“And if we were to roast ourselves a lamb? I know where to find one,” says Hratch, the leader of the street children, at a certain point. He must be about fourteen; but he is small and very thin. No one knows where he came from, his expression is dark and febrile, and his pockets are always full of food. This time he has surpassed himself, the lamb is already there, chopped into chunks, and the spit is ready, too. They light another gentler, more familiar fire in front of the still-burning church and the odour of roasting meat mingles with that of the seasoned planks burning within.
They eat together, as if at a wake, as if they were celebrating the end of all Armenian towns and cities, sacrificing to the gods, spilling the blood of the lamb, throwing the stripped bones, one after another, into the huge brazier of the church, until there is nothing left.
But all around them, in the outer darkness, eyes are watching. Patient, they lurk in the concealing darkness, staring at the Armenians and their frugal banquet. Only Hratch notices the wild beast that has survived in the woods: ever-watchful from habit, just as he is throwing his last gnawed bone into the fire he glimpses glittering eyes, shouts in alarm, and dashes off, fast, to one side.
The others watch him lazily, intoxicated with the food and the wine that has been flowing freely; suddenly they realise, but it is too late.
The eyes have come out of the shadows. A group of men, armed with knives and axes, followed by their women, who are screaming curses and whose ample skirts flutter in the flickering light of the fire. People who have squatted the Armenians’ houses, and seized their possessions, people who were afraid, at least for a while. They are led by the butcher and by Nazim’s son; they hadn’t dared attack the group that had left with the traffickers, those people wouldn’t have been so easy to take by surprise (also Nazim is attentively watching over them, and his son does not want to be seen). But now these people have decided to eliminate at least those who’ve stayed behind, and who are daring to celebrate. They also want to avenge the death of the judge’s son.
Aris and Father Michael shout out in vain and in vain they invoke the Virgin Mary, the Saints, and the Angels. The mysterious door opens for them amid shrieks of agony and despairing moans but, once over the threshold, all is light and silence and the freshness of green pastures, and everyone feels the infinite peace of the lost Land.
The next day, at dawn, riding on a stolen donkey, Hratch catches up with the caravan of refugees. He finds Nazim and, impassively, tells only him about the end of the church, of the priest, of Aris, and of his own companions. He doesn’t speak of the great weight pressing on his heart, that it was he who had led them to their death, he who’d always been so proud of his sense of initiative, his abilities, he who’d found the lamb and suggested the party, he who’d once been the leader of the band: his boys are all lost, too.
Nazim looks at him and understands. Understands, too, the hope for death that now fills those watchful eyes, the yearning for death. Nazim, too, is grief-stricken. After these years of shared life, losing Aris and Father Michael is like losing his first companions all over again, Isaac and Ismene, the two people who’d allowed him to forgive himself; as for his Validé Hanum Shushanig, he is certain that she’s gone, she’s now with her beloved Sempad, and so no longer needs him.
Nazim and Hratch look at one another for a long time and seal a wordless pact. Nazim knows he must not hug the boy, who needs all his strength and control, and so limits himself to squeezing one shoulder; Hratch solemnly hands over Aris’s knife, which he’d been holding in his hand when the massacre started.
And together they set off on the road to Smyrna.