The following short story (Այինկա) by famed Armenian writer Krikor Zohrab was written back in 1892 and was included in his 1911 collection Կեանքը ինչպէս որ է [Life as it is]. It has been translated from Western Armenian by first time Weekly contributor Armine Marukyan.
In Yokar, a hill district with narrow windy streets in Mahalle, the air of toneless whispers was foretelling a fight against the inspectors who were coming to search the houses.
The crowd of women was growing thicker and thicker. They were emerging from the corners, from the holes, from the cavities, flocking to the front of a log house and hindering the crowd’s movement with their bulging baggy trousers. It was a dense, almost monotonous mass in which the bloody red lines of the Rezhi* uniforms were mingling in a wicked, sinister manner.
The grievance of this female rabble burst out rising like a restrained moan in the stifling air of the summer afternoon. The seemingly uncertain uproar was becoming more and more clear, and one could hear a distinct and definite word, a word in a foreign language that everybody in this crowd understood and threw at each other’s faces. That word sounded like a huge trumpet reaching out to the long narrow street of the distant town.
– Ayinka**! Ayinka!
The Rezhi officials were consulting before using force, measuring the strength of this feebly-formed crowd, which they had to break through in order to reach that log house. Rumor had it that a good trophy of tobacco was waiting for them in that house. With their nerves stiff and their eyes sparkling from the venal excitement of the forthcoming reward, they were trying to make way through the crowd with their shoulders, to get a bit closer to the front door which was now only ten feet from them. And the crowd, completely out of patience, was shrinking back; there was a mutual need to put an end to this uncertainty. The old tension and undisguised hatred between the two sides seemed to be something traditional, something fatal that was rising now with a harsh frankness.
The memories of the previous tobacco searches and requisition were coming to add to the everlasting hostility; at this very moment the scars of the wounds inflicted upon each other in previous fights were open again with their smell of pus and fresh blood that was arousing the need and the bitter craving for retribution. Besides, all the tobacco of Yokar, Mahalle — everybody’s fortune and the living earned for the coming year, was kept in this ramshackle log house. And the crowd was counting the amount of tobacco taken from them by now; the pain of that loss was redoubled for every single one of them with the heavy burden of fines and long imprisonments.
The stream of whispers, fleeting words and commands to hurry were passing through the mob and creeping into the house.
– Hurry up, Hakobos! Hurry up!
The hasty crowd was trying to get into the house. From the inside one could hear footsteps, numb efforts to move the furniture and the stored tobacco product, hasty movements on the roofs and in the attics. The narrow street was now enveloped in a strong tobacco smell. In a desperate effort to not let all these women disperse and the plunder slip their hands, the Rezhi inspectors were making the legal formulations before breaking into the house while the police became more provident.
The uproar full of anger was intensifying like a warm and copious light coming from the sun’s disk, like an outcry in which the same word was waving endlessly, coming and going all the time.
– Ayinka! Ayinka!
Hakobos, the head of the tobacco smugglers, was the elder of two brothers, a black-eyed, black-haired young man who always kept on his honeydew linen potur*** of canvas-like rough fabric that had resisted many dagger stabbings. During the day, he would wander around the market of Izmit with a lazy, unhurried gait of a powerful man. Son of the mountains, a narrow-minded peasant, Hakobos had never been able to understand the circumstances of the situation with Rezhi. Trusting his natural instinct he had been fighting Rezhi for already ten years and instead of hiding himself as an outlaw, he was fighting his rival openly. He was the renowned head of the smugglers and the hero of bloody brawls. He was the man who, once being called to court as a witness, was asked his profession, and answered in a careless tone:
– Tobacco smuggler.
Now everybody, from the thief in the mountains to the stableman in the road, knew Hakobos and loved the dagger on his back which he had bought in Constantinople. The flexible Damask iron never showed its shiny blade in vain.
The trees remembered this dagger well because many times, in instances of boredom and vexation, Hakobos had carved on their trunks the letter H, the only remembrance of his past school years. The transportation of tobacco around the town was always trusted to his vigilant and skillful protection and he had never lost the product entrusted to his bravery. Like an experienced strategist, he combined his quick wit with courage and never failed. Hakobos was to get engaged soon. Who would give his daughter to this mountaineer? And yet, there were many girls waiting impatiently for his return through the darkness of the night.
– Good evening, Hakobos. When did you come?
– Last night.
He always came at night for an uncertain time, from strange distant ways that nobody knew except him, even his brother Sahak who served in Rezhi. Sahak, the younger brother of this dreadful smuggler was now an officer with a good salary, a young daring man; but Yokar, the block of his kinsfolk, did not smile at him, girls were not waiting for him in the front yards, even the ugly one was laughing at him, and Pertchuhi — his brother’s bride ignored him.
Why had this boy left his own people? Did he hate them so much to take up arms against them?
And it was him now who was leading Rezhi through this narrow street, towards the shabby house, the home where he had grown up. Everybody was surprised, and could not believe their own eyes, they were whispering to each other;
– Is it Sahak who has led those here?
The distant zigzag line, endlessly cutting and breaking the horizon and grinding its teeth in the boundless blue of the sky, was a mountain chain which runs to the North. The forests stretched over its rocky slopes with a thick night darkness, an impenetrable blackness, a twilight green that shone in the moonlight like a lake of a dense liquid.
Miles away was the bay of Izmit where the sea was shrinking and contracting until its waves were calming over the coast. The moonlight leaked from the sky and without losing its brightness and lucidity, plunged into the humid blue of the sea. It resembled pieces of a broken mirror with the small swinging waves that came together but soon moved away and dispersed in their never-ending movement.
Right there, along the paved road, a string of horses was moving with barely audible steps, which sounded even softer because of the clothes wrapped around the horseshoes. It was a whole caravan moving tobacco from the neighboring villages and about ten young men walking next to it, with rifles over their shoulders and pistols on their backs. The moonlight was falling right on their heads, illuminating this group of smugglers who couldn’t protect themselves against this dangerous overflow of light. And they were walking at a smooth pace, foreboding of disaster, careful to catch every rustling of trees, every whisper of leaves. But soon they got used to this bright light that gave them a feeling of joy and they started chatting softly to each other.
– What was the weight of baccy taken from Mahalle?
– Where is Hakobos?
– He’s ahead of us.
He was always ahead, alone against any danger, his hand on the handle of the dagger on his back, thinking over the possible encounter with his own brother on the road. At this thought his heart was seized by sorrow, by a stinging pain that suddenly took him by the throat and started suffocating him.
For a moment he thought to leave this world, this trade of everlasting peril that was now full of the horror of fratricidal fights, and his bride who could be left a widow at any moment without even becoming his wife. Hakobos was walking with his head hanging down, forgetting the caravan that was following him, entrusted to the protection of his small dagger and his big heart. He was to enter the forest, and the moon was sliding down the sky into the bosom of the woods. It was sliding over the thin branches rising from the leafage of the trees, which pierced into its disk, as if it wanted to commit suicide by throwing itself to the sharp tops of the trees that would soon engulf it into their darkness.
Far away, waters coming from the mountains were softly purling in the pond, and croaking frogs were disturbing the tranquility of the night. For a moment Hakobos thought of yesterday’s loss, about the tobacco confiscated from them and regretted that they hadn’t been able to fight them back. In the darkness of the night his thoughts passed on his brother and he clenched violently the dagger in his hand.
That night Sahak saw Pertchuhi down the church in Meydan and approached her without giving her a way out.
– You are bitter over me.
– Why did you ignore my greeting? Greeting is the word of God.
The girl didn’t say a word and wanted to go.
– Wait! You used to love me once before getting engaged to my brother. Don’t you remember the words you whispered to me at the fountain?
– Don’t talk to me! I’m your brother’s bride; I’m a smuggler’s daughter!
Sahak wanted to take her hand but the girl drew back.
– Am I so disgusting to you? If only you knew that just a single word from you could make me open my heart with this knife… my love is as strong as this steel, and yours… Your love is a thin twig of tree warping from the younger brother to the elder, turning from Sahak to Hakobos.
Pertchuhi let him take her hand. The voice of her former lover touched her and she saw a teardrop running down his sun-scorched cheek over the sooty moustache.
– Who asked you to become a Rezhi officer?
– Only for you…
– I’m a smuggler’s daughter.
They got closer and closer in the twilight shadows and the old love returned wrapped in the mist. Sahak wanted to go, but this time the girl stopped him.
– Wait! Stay a bit longer…
And they couldn’t resist staying, though they knew that they had to part; people passing by would be tempted to see the smuggler’s bride with this man from Rezhi at this late hour. The fear was stronger, and they parted.
Now he was walking to the mountain still bearing the charm of his once-lover who had become his brother’s bride; and his love, revived after that few-second conversation was horrifying him. The distant downhill houses of the town gave him an impression of a topsy-turvy ruin. He continued his way, plunging into the forest where the trees were awakening in his mind the memories of his joyous youth. And the majestic peace of the woods made him angry. Silver rays were coming from above through the gaps in foliage and lying on the grass and moss of the ground like countless stumps of snow-white transparent trees. As if there were two woods passing through each other, one rising from the earth like the shadows of thick curly hair and the other coming from the sky like a diamond comb of numberless rays plunging into the darkness of that hair.
And the path of lines changing every second from dark to light, from solid to immaterial, along which he was walking now, was reminding him of his own life. The meeting with Pertchuhi a few hours ago was the last light line before the kingdom of eternal dusk; she was his brother’s bride, soon his wife… The gloom which had captured his mind was getting thicker and thicker, and he couldn’t hear or maybe didn’t want to hear the voice that shouted from the faraway depth of the woods.
– Stop! Don’t come ahead!
He continued his way laughing carelessly and indifferently at the command which came from the darkness. Suddenly the same voice thundered again sharply and abruptly.
The forest echoed the command in its deep, rich voice trying to awaken Sahak, who was still careless about the peril threatening him. Then he suddenly recognized his brother’s voice which was stronger now.
Ten guns shot at the same time; the bullets darted through the air, covering the opaque darkness with lines of red. Sahak leaned his back against a trunk, bored like a gambler in a dull game watching the paltry bullets that fell around him making him laugh. To die… Had he ever been afraid of death? And those bullets coming from his brother were promising him a death of escape. What a pleasure it was to be killed by his own brother…
– Fire! — commanded the smuggler’s voice, repeating and echoing in the silent, gloomy depths of the woods.
What a joy it was to meet his brother’s bullet, but Pertchuhi …
And Sahak fell on the ground, shot in the chest.
Rezhi assigned a monthly pension to Sahak’s family for he had died in the fight against the smugglers, a pension that was received by Hakobos for more than a year, since their parents died from the pain of loss.
Pertchuhi was a girl who would always wear black and never get married. She broke off her engagement: no one knew the reason why.
Rezhi — a French company having the tobacco monopoly in Turkey
Ayinka — tobacco tax
Potur — men’s trousers, usually made of stiff black cloth, baggy at the hip and narrower at the bottom