Glendale, California — 1987
“And that’s about it,” Varto sighed as she arranged the last bottle of pills on the shelf. She was looking after her son’s drugstore while he was away.
She pushed back her silvery hair and settled on the chair behind the counter. The smell of medication pervaded the air.
Looking for her Bible, she pulled a drawer open. 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 shuffled the newspaper aside and picked up the well-worn leather-bound Bible. Her wrinkled fingers lovingly stroked the gilded Armenian words on the cover.
With her spectacles perched on her nose, Varto 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 disrupted her.
She lifted her gaze to find a twenty-something woman who hastened toward the counter. Her hood was up, her hands stuffed into the front pocket. She hunched her shoulder as her weary eyes scanned the shelves.
Varto flashed a welcoming smile. “Good evening. Can I help you find something?”
The woman extended an old, empty bottle of sleeping pills and said, “This.” She scraped a hand through her hood, pushing it back to reveal disheveled brown hair, which hung around her tear-streaked cheeks. Her pallid complexion and dark circles marred an otherwise beautiful face.
Varto rose from her chair and walked to the nearby shelf with a frown. The woman’s jittery nerves, the way her eyes darted, and that look on her face made Varto sense something odd.
Varto picked up an identical bottle and set 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 meeting Varto’s eyes, 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. Varto 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 head. She hastily hung up the ‘Closed’ sign and locked the store behind her.
Outside, the icy wind billowed her scarf. She rubbed her palms and scanned the street until her gaze landed on the woman a short distance away. Varto followed her with quick footsteps. Unlike most women her age, her limbs hadn’t failed. At eighty-one, Varto was just as strong on the outside as she was on the inside.
As fate would have it, a passing truck blocked her view of the woman. With an irritated huff, Varto shook her head and scanned the street, hoping the young woman would appear in her line of sight again.
Varto noticed a middle-aged cop striding toward her with a concerned look on his face. Once he was a few steps away, he said, “You seem to be in a hurry. Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Well—” Varto frowned and pointed in the direction where she last saw the woman. “A customer forgot to take her credit card back. She was heading that way. Too bad I missed her.”
“Hmm.” The officer rubbed his chin. “I’ve finished my shift, and since I’m headed home that way, I could offer you a ride if you like.” He motioned to his car.
Varto flashed a polite smile as he opened the door to the passenger seat. They drove a few blocks and reached a dark neighborhood lined with brick houses. Varto looked out the window and heaved a sigh of relief.
The woman stumbled past a tree and unlocked the door to a house.
Varto signaled the officer to stop and he pulled over. After getting out of the car, she thanked him and he proceeded to drive off.
She rushed toward the woman’s house. In the yard, a stack of envelopes overflowed from the mailbox. Varto picked one up from the ground and read the name on it: Hannah Smith. She stuffed it back into the box. With bated breath, she walked to the front door and rang the doorbell.
Varto stood on the porch for so long, she contemplated returning to the store. As she was about to leave, 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.
“No need!” Hannah waved her hand. “I can’t believe you followed me all the way 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 glass of liquor.
“Excuse me!” Hannah partially closed the door, blocking Varto’s view. “That’s none of your business.”
“You are right,” Varto said. “I am not here for the ‘stupid change.’ I dropped by to check if you are okay.”
Hannah crossed her arms. “I’m okay.”
Varto looked into her red-rimmed eyes. “Really? I don’t think so.”
Hannah clenched her jaw while tears threatened to break free. “Please leave me alone,” she croaked. “I’m… I’m fine.”
Varto shook her head and gently said, “No, you aren’t, dear.”
There was a moment of silence.
Hannah crumbled to her knees and broke into tears.
Varto lifted her up and pulled her into a comforting embrace. Slowly, she led a reluctant Hannah into the living room. 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.
Varto helped Hannah settle on the couch and sat beside her. Cradling Hannah’s hands in her own, she asked, “What happened, dear? Tell me.”
With teary eyes, Hannah stared at the table in front of her. “My boyfriend cheated on me with my friend. He was just using me for sex.” She gulped back a sob. “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 with someone else and trying to pin the blame on him.”
She buried her face in her palms. “I’m estranged from my family and have a minimum-wage job. My life’s a colossal mess!” Hannah hung her head in defeat. “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.”
Varto tilted her head. “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.” She took a deep breath. “Let me tell you a story instead. It will take only a few minutes. Is that okay?”
Hannah rubbed her red, puffy eyes and nodded.
Varto leaned back as the memories she had harbored 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. “Sweet as a rose. But my life was anything but sweet. Truth be told, it was as bitter as it can be.”
Hannah leaned forward and listened intently.
“I was barely nine when the first World War broke out.” A chill raced down Varto’s spine as she relived the painful memory. “One day, gendarmes stormed into our house and arrested my father and brothers on false charges of treason. Our peaceful life was thrown into chaos overnight.”
“A few days later, the rest of my village—including me, my pregnant mother, and my elder sister—were forced from 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. “When we realized we were being led on a death march, it was too late. 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 widened, and she stifled a sob.
“I am sorry.” Varto fought back tears before continuing. “But that was the 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, splitting open her womb. She 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.”
Hannah clapped her hand over her mouth and gasped, “Jesus Christ!”
Varto’s lips parted in a melancholic smile. “Jesus Christ was nowhere to be found in the desert. I cursed Him for forsaking me. For my very existence. As days passed, bodies piled up and were left for the vultures to eat.”
A sudden coldness hit Varto. “Genocide.” The words she spat out left a sourness in her mouth. “That’s what it was. Cold-blooded genocide.”
Hannah raised her brow and asked, “The Holocaust?”
“No, not the Holocaust.” Varto shook her head, anguish engulfing her. “Ours is a forgotten holocaust. The tragedy was buried together with 1.5 million Armenian victims who were slaughtered like sheep by the Ottoman Empire. The genocide no one remembers, let alone cares about.” She frowned, her shoulders drooping under the weight of the loss of her people.
Hannah gently took Varto’s hands in hers.
“After being drained of all hope, I prepared for the inevitable.” Varto’s eyes found the floor. “One night, as 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 as a child. The sun won’t stay behind the cloud. It reminded me not to give in. I discovered my strength in those golden words. Not to give the ruthless Empire what it desperately needed—my death. I couldn’t let them win. I listened to my inner voice and returned to my sister.”
She blew 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 to fit in.” Her eyes glinted with a sense of longing. “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 and continued my story—people who would not have existed had I jumped into the river.” She stared at the ceiling. “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 choked back a sob.
Varto cleared her throat. “At life’s crossroads, I had a decision to make. If I had chosen death, then those genocidal 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.”
Bending forward, she picked up the bottle of sleeping pills. As she shook it, a few blue pills landed in her palm. Varto 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 at your grave.”
Varto pushed herself to her feet. “The decision is entirely yours, Hannah.”
As Hannah narrowed her eyes at the pills in her hand, Varto walked out the front door.
Three Weeks Later
A slight drizzle landed in silvery beads on the front window of the drugstore, lending an eerie glow to the world outside. Varto ticked off medicines from the list as she arranged the new stock on the shelf.
Just then, a familiar voice greeted her. “Good morning.”
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 over 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. “But—”
“No buts.” A warm smile lit Varto’s face. “I insist.”
With a reluctant nod, Hannah uttered a silent ‘thank you’ and turned to leave.
Walking out the door, Hannah crossed a fresh puddle and let out a sigh. 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 as 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.”