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Eye of the Beholder

 

Special to the Armenian Weekly

Fiction

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life”
Joseph Campbell

The winter snows had been light; now, the spring rains few and far between. Even a small garden would be a challenge to maintain this year, thought Aram Vartabed, the monk of the monastery in this unforgiving mountainside landscape. In truth, monastery was a generous description for the ancient, small chapel and its adjacent living quarters in desperate need of repair.

“He had never heard of anyone living here in his lifetime, and the whispers, rarely spoken, only hinted at a calamitous time long ago not to be discussed—or even remembered.”

On this day in June, the celibate priest was busy transferring the most recent baptismal records from the churches in his jurisdiction to the logbooks begun centuries before. How old, he could not say any longer, the aging pages too faded to read. As he paused to scan them, tracing the handwriting of his predecessors, he thought of the circumstances of each one—the quality of penmanship, the style of Armenian script, the torn and soiled pages marking times of turbulence. How would future generations see the pages of his time when the coming darkness was all too visible on the horizon?

Aram Vartabed was the most recent scribe of sacred rituals, toiling in isolation, preserving the precious family histories over centuries. With each new marriage, the task of affirming the minimum seven-generation separation of the newlyweds fell to the monk, a responsibility he took seriously.

As he sat writing, the sound of someone approaching stirred him to the glassless window. Cherchi Hagop, the local peddler, had come to pay a visit as he passed from village to village plying his trade.

Bowing his head and kissing the hand of the priest, the humble peddler gave the customary greeting, “Asdvadz oknagan, hayr sourp” (May God help you, holy father). With a gentle smile, he received the response, “Asdvadz bahaban” (May God protect you).

“What news do you bring today, Hagop”

“There is much trouble, Hayr Sourp. I am coming across numerous villages that have been emptied of Armenians. In the teahouses and on the streets, the Mohammedan makes no secret of his plans. You are no longer safe here Father. Please consider moving temporarily to the city where it will be more safe for you until this disastrous war comes to an end.”

“Dear Hagop, what would anyone want of me here? Our sacramental books hold no monetary value, and I am a simple old priest with no material wealth.”

“That may be true, Father, but you do not know these people and what they have become. The reasons are unimportant, but it is clear that no Armenian is safe. As soon as I am able, I will move my family. Where? I do not know yet, but there must be someplace that we can live as Armenians.”

“Go in peace, my son, and may God protect you and your family.”

***

In the valley, the district center was a chaotic scene of soldiers and townsfolk. Yet, nearly one-third of the houses were empty of their Armenian inhabitants. The change had come swiftly. In fact, so fast that the remaining Muslims had not grasped the implications. Gone were Chiftji Garabed and the five sons and twelve grandsons who had farmed his extensive fields and harvested his orchards. Gone was Nalband Misak, the blacksmith, and Najar Melcon, the carpenter. While some trades were taken over, the quality of work was not the same. The town had changed irrevocably. There was an undercurrent of greed and guilt – emotions never shared by the same people. It would come to pass that both greed and guilt would find their way into the hearts of their heirs in equal measure.

At a table in the back corner of the teahouse, two brothers huddled and spoke in whispers. Hassan, the older of the two, lamented, “that self-righteous bastard Abdullah, the head of the gendarmes, did not let us take the Armenians’ gold that should have been ours. Why leave it for others to take further on their path of death? Why should we be deprived while others become wealthy?”

“Dear brother, “Ali replied, “we cannot bemoan our lost opportunity. There still may be some riches to come by. On the hill is the hermit Armenian priest, and word is that the old church contains enough wealth for the two of us to be happy for the rest of our lives. It is there just waiting for the taking.”

“Brother, you are the clever one. Let us resolve our problem tomorrow.”

As the two brothers approached, Aram Vartabed was working in his small garden, trying to gather the last remaining vegetables of the season from the dry soil. As he looked up, Hassan menacingly addressed the priest, “Keshish, we came for the gold! Hand it over now, and we’ll go easy on you, otherwise…”

The aging priest, numbed and blunted by the exhaustion of carrying the grief of his people, responded “Do as you will… there is no wealth here—at least none that you would appreciate…”

“Are you taunting us old man?” And with one swift strike of fury, Hassan nearly decapitated the priest.

“No matter,” Hassan blurted, “we can find what we are looking for without his help.”

Feverish with greed, the brothers explored every nook and cranny of that ancient holy place. They dug up each corner, pulled stones from the wall, and even dug around the dwelling. In vain. Not even one coin could be found. Exhausted and frustrated, they left, never to return. Strewn on the floor, the precious books remained as silent witness to the presence, torment, and destruction of a people.

***

High on a hill overlooking the town, Ibrahim, a young shepherd, lazily watched his flock grazing. It was a beautiful summer day with just wisps of clouds occasionally blocking out the sun. As the sheep ascended, grazing ever higher, Ibrahim came face to face with the old abandoned stone structure.

Rumors of the evil done there persisted, of screams heard in the wind, of a little old man who haunted the hillside… still serving as the ever-watchful caretaker to a forgotten era.

Ibrahim was now too old to fear such things, and he wandered closer to have a look around. As he approached the remains of the church, he could see the walls were crumbling and countless stone fragments, large and small, were strewn around in a half circle near the entrance. As he cautiously advanced, a white, smooth object caught his eye just to his right, along the base of the wall. Looking closer, he jumped back as he realized it was a human skull, stripped of all flesh, empty eye sockets staring at him…

The initial shock quickly wore off, and Ibrahim approached the skull with the innocent interest reserved for the young. As he touched the bone, white powder came off on his hands. He thought, Why was there only the skull, what had happened to the rest of the body? How long could these remains have been here to be in such a state?

He had never heard of anyone living here in his lifetime, and the whispers, rarely spoken, only hinted at a calamitous time long ago not to be discussed—or even remembered.

As he entered the enclosure, the chaotic scene overwhelmed him. He picked his way through the rubble. Strewn here and there were a few books. They looked to be old indeed, covered in dust and dirt. Slowly he picked up and opened one of them, but the handwriting was illegible to him. Meticulously, he took each book and wiped the bindings as best he could before placing them in his knapsack. In all, he found five, and, combined, they were surprisingly heavy. Now it was getting late, and he needed to return his charges to the safety of home. Throwing the knapsack over his shoulder, he stood to rejoin his flock.

Pausing as he reached the door, his eyes once again fell on the fragile skull. Gently he cradled it in his hands. Shading his eyes from the sun, he spotted a lone beautiful old cedar tree a short distance away. Slowly, he approached the tree, dropped on his knees and placed the skull to one side. The soil was soft. In a short time, he was able to dig a small hole. There he buried the skull and said a prayer in hopes that the resting place supplied some measure of peace.

***

As Ibrahim returned home at the end of a long day of herding sheep, his mother, Meryem, was all but finished preparing dinner. As she looked at her only son, she felt something was different about him. Yes, he was becoming more like a man each day, but this was something more than that. She could not quite tell whether the look was one of seriousness, of something troubling her son, or maybe she was just being an overly protective mother, reading too much into simple exhaustion. Yet she asked, “Has something happened, Ibrahim?”

“Nothing serious,” he responded, “I was up on the hill, near the old Armenian church, and decided to look around. I found these old books in there… I do not recognize the language.”

A look of concern quickly passed Meryem’s face, “Did anyone see you there?” she asked, trying to sound casual.

“No, I was alone… Why would that concern you?”

“Never mind, just please put those away, quickly before your grandmother comes.” But it was too late, Meryem’s mother, Aygul, had just entered the room. Her eyes went from her daughter to her grandson and then to the books lying before him. She rushed toward them and clasping one tightly to her breast, she asked in a hushed voice, “Where did these come from?”

Her eyes closed, and in that moment Aygul was transported back a half-century, holding her father’s hand as they entered a room where an elderly monk sat, hunched over a stack of registers. The conversation between her father and the old priest had been short and difficult for one so young to understand, but the feeling of awe and overwhelming importance to both the place and the occasion still shook her, as did the resurging memory of her father.

Time serves as both villain and savior, robbing you of your most precious memories and suppressing the horror of timeless tragedies. In an instant, Aygul’s thoughts moved from a treasured memory to the day her life had changed forever. She would not now allow herself to think of that day—only that in the middle of the night, near death, she had been rescued by a kindly man and given the name Aygul, his little “moon rose.”

As she opened her eyes, brought back to the present, she could see the look of shock and concern on her daughter’s face and bewilderment on her grandson’s face. Pulling Ibrahim close, Aygul spoke softly, but forcefully, “We must preserve these books, but never mention their existence to anyone. Do you understand? These books have a value, a significance we cannot yet understand, but a day will come when their importance will be understood.”

“Yes, grandma, I understand. I will always protect these books for you.”

***

Jack Cherchjian had always wanted to visit his grandfather’s village. He had procrastinated for years. As an Armenian, he had no desire to set foot in Turkey. But at this stage of life, it was now or never. Age has a way of catching up with one overnight, and he wanted to make sure he could visit the mountaintop monastery that his grandfather had mentioned with such reverence and nostalgia.

Now that he was standing at the monastery, he wondered whether maybe he was in the wrong place. He had to smile to himself at the thought of his grandfather’s imagination. Yet, as he walked around, a deep sadness set in. This place had been too much of a focal point over centuries—for his family and the other Armenians of this place—to now be reduced to such a squalid condition. It was heartbreaking. One could almost imagine it as an old abandoned military bunker, not an Armenian monastery. Whatever importance it had once held, whatever luster had shone from this place, it now seemed gone.

Walking down the hillside, gazing at the village, he was struck that much of it was in ruins. It seemed the place had never fully recovered from the loss of its Armenian character. Approaching his grandfather’s birthplace, he noticed an old man watching him intently. As he got closer, the man came up to him.

“Where are you from?” he inquired.

“I have come from America.”

“What brings you to this place?”

“My grandfather was born here; I wanted to come as a way of revering his memory.”

“Who was your grandfather?”

“He was Armenian…”

“I see. Why did you walk up the hillside?”

“I wanted to see the old Armenian monastery.”

“And what did you see?”

“Its condition is sad to see… My grandfather spoke so fondly of it, and its importance to the Armenians of this place… and their descendants.”

The moment of silence that followed seemed endless.

“Would you join me for tea at my house,” said the old man, “I’d really like to hear more of your grandfather and his memories of this place.”

At first Jack was hesitant. Time was short, and the drive back to the hotel would take at least two hours. But seeing the pleading look in the man’s face, Jack agreed. As they walked, he asked the man’s name.

“My name is Ibrahim,” he said, “and I have lived here my entire life.”

Over the next hour, Jack would detail the history of the village as told to him by his grandfather, while Ibrahim would tell of the history he knew from his lifetime. They laughed at the stories only someone from this place would understand. In the end, as Jack was about to leave, Ibrahim pulled him close and, in an embrace, whispered, “I have something to give you.”

Jack protested, but Ibrahim went to the next room and returned with the five bound volumes of records. “I found these in the monastery when I was a young boy, and upon seeing them my grandmother implored me to keep them safe for a time when their importance would be understood and their value appreciated. It is clear you should be the one to return these books to their rightful owners. My grandmother would have wanted it this way. She had been a victim of the great crime and hid her Armenian identity. I am getting old now and can no longer guarantee their safety. I now entrust this responsibility to you.”

They were both close to tears as Jack moved to the door, the books clutched tightly to his heart, like Aygul’s so many years before.

3 Comments on Eye of the Beholder

  1. avatar Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian // September 29, 2017 at 3:45 pm // Reply

    Dear George,

    What a wonderful text. Thank you.

    It is because of your steadfast dedication and your most commendable research that the real stories about every “Aram Vartabed” are being presented to us and to future generations. Those of us who are so honored and so privileged to benefit from your on-going studies are all-too-aware that your “fiction” is all-too-close to the Truth about what took place in countless places and against countless individuals.

    I join your family and friends in wishing you the best of health and safe travels as you persevere in identifying our historical remains and then in validating the reality.

    In the Armenian Church, we use an expression when describing the remaining stones of a church, chapel, monastery and shrine: “I vaghouts shapatatsadz”, which means, “The holy place entered into a sabbatical rest a long time ago.” We can never say that the place has been “destroyed” (even when it appears that one stone does not remain atop another). Instead, we await an opportunity to “awaken” those places which are in a “sabbatical rest” at the moment because we know that the Spirit which once imbued those locations continues to inspire all of us.

    George, thanks to your tremendous efforts, we are able to identify and indeed to rejoice in knowing that there are many more places which are just resting, and awaiting to be reawakened in the conscience of our community.

    All my best, with all our collective thanks!

    George

  2. avatar Diane Kupelian // September 29, 2017 at 5:44 pm // Reply

    Thank you for this moving story. I know there are many Turks who are learning that they are part Armenian. I can’t imagine their pain. There is beauty, along with the pain, in this story.

  3. avatar Gregory Ketabgian // September 30, 2017 at 12:50 pm // Reply

    George Aghjayan, please continue writing. What a beautiful piece of work. We appreciate what you are accomplishing.

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