The sun won’t stay behind the cloud

Glendale, California — 1987

Varto arranged the last bottle of pills on the shelf and flexed her fingers. At eighty-one, she was just as strong on the outside as she was on the inside.

She wiped the sweat off her brow and huffed. She pushed back her silvery hair and settled on the chair behind the counter. The smell of pills and antiseptic pervaded the air.

Her eyes landed on the headline on the day’s issue of the Los Angeles Times: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down the Berlin Wall, Reagan Says.

Her lips twisted into a cynical smirk. “Ha! As if Gorby would listen!”

She pulled a drawer open and picked up her well-worn leather-bound Bible. Her wrinkled fingers stroked the gilded Armenian words on the cover.

With her spectacles perched on her nose, Varto crossed herself and turned to a dog-eared page. She clasped her hands in her lap and began muttering her prayers, but the sound of the front door opening interrupted her.

She lifted her gaze to find a twenty-something woman hurrying toward the counter. Her hood was up, her hands stuffed into the front pocket of her jacket. She hunched her shoulders as she glanced around nervously, scanning the shelves.

Varto flashed a welcoming smile. “Good evening. Can I help you find something?”

The woman handed her an empty bottle of sleeping pills and said, “This.” She swiped a hand under her hood, pushing it back to reveal disheveled brown hair hanging loosely around her tear-streaked cheeks. Her pallid complexion and dark circles marred an otherwise beautiful face.

Frowning, Varto rose from her chair and walked to the nearby shelf. The woman’s jittery behavior, the way her eyes darted, and that look on her face made Varto sense something strange.

Varto picked up an identical pill bottle and placed it on the counter. “And that will be—”

Before she finished her sentence, the young woman slid a crumpled twenty-dollar bill over the counter with trembling hands. She then grabbed the bottle and shoved it into her pocket. Without saying a word, she quickly retraced her steps. As she laid her hand on the front door, Varto called out after her, “Wait! You forgot your change.”

But it was too late. The woman closed the door and headed down the street.

Varto shook her head and mumbled to herself, “Youngsters these days.” She dropped the change into the register and retreated to the chair.

She replayed the scene over and over in her mind. The woman’s eyes… Those eyes contained a palpable fear, so much so, Varto felt it pulsing through her. She could only imagine what made the young woman so afraid. It then hit her. She recognized that fear from her own past. An all-consuming fear. Fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of life. If she was right, something terrible was about to happen.

Varto scrambled from the chair and rushed to grab her coat. She pulled it on and wrapped a scarf around her neck. She hastily hung up the Closed sign and locked the store behind her.

Outside, the icy wind billowed her scarf. She rubbed her palms together for warmth and scanned the street until her gaze landed on the woman walking down the sidewalk. Varto followed the woman at a distance, staying far enough behind her to avoid any suspicion.

The woman took a few turns and walked into a dark street. Varto trailed behind her as she made her way to a house. Soon, the door slammed shut.

Varto rushed toward the house. In the yard, a stack of envelopes overflowed from the mailbox. She picked one up from the ground and read the name on it: Hannah Smith. She stuffed it back into the box. Panting, she walked to the front door and knocked incessantly.

Within minutes, the woman opened the door.

Varto smiled. “You must be Hannah. Perhaps you remember me from the drugstore.”

Hannah furrowed her brows. “Yes, but why are you here? I already paid, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did. Err… you forgot your change.” Varto slid a hand into her coat pocket and fumbled to pull the change out.

“No need!” Hannah waved her hand. “I can’t believe you followed me to my house just for the stupid change.”

Varto craned her neck and glanced at the living room behind Hannah. The open bottle of sleeping pills sat on the table next to a bottle of liquor.

“Excuse me!” Hannah partially closed the door, blocking Varto’s view. “That’s none of your business.”

“You’re right,” Varto said. “I’m not here for the stupid change. I followed you to see if you are okay. I was worried about you.”

“I’m okay.” Hannah crossed her arms. Her inner torment was all too visible on her bitter face. 

Varto looked into her red-rimmed eyes. “Really? I don’t think so.”

Hannah clenched her jaw. “Leave me alone.” She gulped back sorrow her eyes could not hide. “I’m… I’m fine.”

Varto shook her head and said in a gentle voice, “No, you are not fine, dear. Please let me help you.”

There was a beat of silence.

Hannah crumbled to her knees. Tears welled in the bottomless blue pools of her eyes.

Varto lifted her up and pulled her into a comforting embrace. Slowly, Hannah led Varto to her living room, where her steps faltered. A foul odor hung in the air. Cigarette butts and beer bottles were scattered all over the place. Pots of withered flowers stood on the windowsill. Untouched newspapers and unwashed laundry sat on the floor near the drawn curtains.

The wind rattled the windows. The cold seeped through the thin walls. Varto helped Hannah settle on the couch and sat beside her.

Varto cradled Hannah’s hands in her lap. “What happened, dear? Tell me.”

Hannah stared at the table in front of her. “My boyfriend of five years had been cheating on me with my best friend for a long time. I discovered far too late that he was just using me for sex.” The color drained from her cheeks. “Two days ago, I found out I’m pregnant. When I broke the news to him, he called me a slut. He accused me of sleeping around and trying to pin the blame on him.”

She buried her face in her palms. “I’m estranged from my family, and I recently lost my job. My life’s a colossal mess!” Hannah hung her head in defeat. “I don’t have a reason to live anymore. I’d be better off dead.”

“Hmm…” Varto said, “So, suicide would solve all your problems?”

Hannah sniffed, wiping her tears. “That’s so easy for you to say. You don’t know what it’s like for my generation. Every day is a struggle.”

Varto took a deep breath. “Trust me, Hannah. I have seen enough grief to last a lifetime. I have seen it all.” She lifted Hannah’s chin. “I am not going to try to talk you out of whatever you have decided to do. Let me tell you a story instead. It will take only a few minutes. Is that okay?”

Hannah rubbed her puffy eyes and nodded.

Varto leaned back as the memories she had repressed for a long time flashed before her eyes. “I was born eighty-one years ago — long before you, your mother, or perhaps even your grandmother. I was the youngest, born after two brothers and a sister. My father was an apothecary in Eastern Anatolia, today’s Turkey. He named me Vartanoush. Do you know what that means?” She smiled as she took in Hannah’s blank expression. “It means ‘sweet as a rose.’ But my life was anything but sweet. Truth be told, it was as bitter as it could be.”

Hannah cupped her face in her palms and listened intently.

“I was barely nine when the First World War broke out.” A chill raced down Varto’s spine. “One uneventful day, gendarmes stormed into our house and arrested my father and brothers on false charges of treason. Our peaceful life turned chaotic overnight.

Days later, the rest of my village — including me, my pregnant mother, and my elder sister — were forced out of our homes. We abandoned everything we owned except our faith and dignity. The gendarmes lured us along the Euphrates River toward the Syrian desert under the guise of evacuating us to a safer place.” A warm teardrop trickled down Varto’s cheek. “It was too late when we realized we were being led on a death march. Terrorized and starved, we spent days without food and water. My mother picked through…”—she choked back the bile rising in her throat—“through feces to pull out grains to feed us.”

Hannah’s eyes bulged, and she stifled a sob.

“I am sorry.” Varto coughed before continuing. “But that was the harsh reality we endured. When my mother refused to sell my sister as a sex slave, the gendarmes”—her voice quivered— “they grabbed their bayonets and stabbed her through the stomach. Her… her womb split open. My mother died, and so did the baby inside her. They dragged my sister and me away from my mother’s body. The sand around her was soaked with blood.”

“Oh, my!” Hannah clasped her hand over her mouth.

Tears fell like rain from Varto’s troubled eyes. “I regretted my very existence. As days passed, bodies piled up and were left for the vultures to eat.”

A sudden coldness hit Varto. “Genocide. Cold-blooded genocide” The words she spat out left a sourness in her mouth. “That is what it was. There is no other word to describe it.”

Hannah raised her brow. “The Holocaust?”

“No, not the Holocaust.” Engulfed by anguish, Varto shook her head, anguish engulfing her soul. “Ours is a forgotten holocaust. Our tragedy was buried together with 1.5 million Armenians, who were slaughtered like sheep by the Ottoman Empire. The genocide no one remembers, let alone cares about.” Her shoulders drooped under the weight of the loss of her people. The open wound of her soul cried out for relief.

Hannah gently touched Varto’s hands.

“After being drained of all hope, I prepared for the inevitable.” Varto stared at the floor. “One night, after my sister slept, I ran to the riverbank. I wanted to end my misery. A few steps separated life from death. But—” She bit her bottom lip. “At that moment, a voice inside my head repeated an old Armenian proverb my mother taught me. The sun won’t stay behind the cloud. I discovered my strength in those golden words. It reminded me not to give in to life’s many challenges. Not to give the ruthless Empire what it desperately wanted — my death. I could not let them win. I listened to my inner voice and returned to my sister.”

She puffed her cheeks out. “A few days later, an American missionary rescued me and my sister. He smuggled us out of Turkey using his connections. When I came to this country as a refugee, things were different. New place. New culture. New everything. I was afraid of this big, strange land. Nevertheless, I fought my way through.” She touched the cross dangling around her neck. “After all, survival runs in the blood of every Armenian. Long story short, I found a job, got married, had a family. I brought my children into the world — people who would not have existed had I jumped into the river.” Her voice exuded a sense of longing. “Even though I made this country my home, I will never forget my homeland. All this time, I have carried my home in my heart.”

As Varto finished her story, Hannah let out a heavy sigh.

Varto cleared her throat. “At life’s crossroads, I had a decision to make. If I had chosen death, then those bastards would have gotten what they wanted. But I didn’t let them win. Now, it’s your turn to decide. Your life might not change — it could even get worse — but it’s up to you to choose between giving up and fighting back.”

Varto picked up the bottle of sleeping pills and shook a few into her palm. She pushed them into Hannah’s hands. “Like I said, I will not stop you.” She shot her a sidelong glance. “If you have made up your mind to die, so be it. I will leave flowers on your grave.”

“The decision is entirely yours, Hannah.” Varto pushed herself to her feet.

As Hannah narrowed her eyes at the pills in her hand, Varto walked out the front door.


Three Weeks Later

A relentless drizzle slanted down out of the sky, splattering the front window of the drugstore. Droplets of pearly water glinted in the afternoon sunlight.

Varto dusted her hands as she finished arranging the new stock on the shelf.

Just then, a familiar voice greeted her. “Good afternoon.”

Varto quickly turned toward the counter.

Hannah stood at the entrance, beaming. She proudly ran a hand over her stomach.

A chuckle escaped Varto’s lips. “So, no flowers, then?”

Hannah grinned and handed her a slip of paper. “I just had my first prenatal appointment. Here’s a list of the medications I need.”

Varto adjusted her spectacles and examined the prescription.

Before long, various health supplements were on the counter, neatly tucked inside a paper bag.

Hannah pulled out a wad of cash from her handbag.

“No, no.” Varto waved away her money. “This is my gift to you. From one mother to another.”

Hannah raised her hand in protest. “But—”

“No buts.” A caring smile lit Varto’s face. “I insist.”

Hannah uttered a silent ‘thank you’ and turned to leave.

* * *

Walking out the door, Hannah crossed a fresh puddle and heaved a sigh of relief. Deep inside, she wasn’t sure how she was going to raise her baby. Nevertheless, she steeled her nerves and looked at the sky. The clouds slowly parted to reveal the sun in all its glory.

“The sun won’t stay behind the cloud.” Hannah reassured herself with a nod. The sun smiled down on her, warming her skin.

It was a new dawn.

Her new dawn.

* * *

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.”

William Saroyan

Adrian David

Adrian David

Adrian David writes ads by day and short fiction by night. His work spans across genres including contemporary fiction, psychological thrillers and everything in between, from the mundane to the sublime.
Adrian David

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  1. Thanks Adrian for this beautiful but sad story. Almost everyone knows about Holocaust, but the Armenian Genocide not. Owing to you a lot of people will know what happened to Armenians those days.

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