Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    a dark hallway filled with ceramic pots


    In this story set in 1990s Armenia, survivors of war find a reason to go on living.

    By Narine Abgaryan

    January 26, 2024
    • Victoria Poland

      What a heartbreakingly beautiful story to represent truly what being a Christian is all about. Aleksan reminds me of my Mother, who, throughout her entire life, has taken care of those around her. Family, friends, neighbours, her husband, and us, her children. If we could have just one tenth of her caring and compassion, we would consider ourselves the luckiest people in the world. As a child/teenager, I would say, "When I grow old, I want to look like my Mother." She is a beautiful woman. Now in my second half of life, I will say, "When I am older, I want to be like my Mother." Hopefully, I can, as I have been taught well. Thank you for this beautifully, haunting story and for the sympathetic translation. Thank you

    Nemetsants Aleksan lingers in the cellar to feast his eyes on the fruits of his daily labor: the broad-necked clay pots, whose aroma gives away their contents even with the lids closed: this one has pickled cabbage, the ones over there have marinated beets, chervil, and purslane, all nestled up next to homemade cheese of every variety – fatty brynza, mildly brined chanakh, stringy chechil, ripe sheep’s milk cheese with herbs. Through the dark glass of their pot-bellied jars, honey and clarified butter emit an incandescent glow. The big storage bin is tightly packed with bags small and large containing various sorts of flour, dried fruit, nuts, and grain; the smaller bin, with peas, beans, and wheat. The ceiling is hung with smoked meats: ham dressed in a thin layer of fat, links of homemade sausage, fiery-hot pork-belly roulade trussed snugly with twine. The shelves are crowded with jars of winter preserves: fruit jams and jellies, compotes, stewed meat, baked and stewed vegetables. The potato pit is filled to the brim with choice tubers layered with dried river sand; carrots, beets, and cabbage lie packed in wooden boxes with ventilation holes to keep the vegetables fresh. Clusters of grapes and husks of dried corn hang from the sturdy beams; apples and pears sit waiting for their designated hour; persimmons, sun-colored and sweet, are slowly ripening; quince glisten, buttery-yellow underneath their delicate fuzz. Watermelons, lined up in a row, rest against the wall with their striped sides, daydreaming of summer.

    Nemetsants Aleksan and his wife, Arpenik, have a big farmstead: two orchards, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, an apiary thirty beehives strong, a rabbit hutch, a barn big enough to house three cows and eight sheep, and a pigpen. While Aleksan is out breaking his back over the harvest, his wife takes care of the house and the animals: she does all the washing, cleaning, and feeding, and takes the cattle out to pasture. From dawn till dusk, she bustles about in the kitchen, baking, frying, sautéing, boiling. Making winter preserves is painstakingly hard; ghaurma alone takes so much effort – first, the meat has to be braised with spices over low heat for almost twenty-four hours (to the point of fainting, Arpenik likes to joke), then it has to be packed into jars with scalding hot butter and canned immediately before it cools. The canned meat goes a long way in the lean winter months – just fry it up with eggs or add it to any soup or porridge. Aleksan lends his wife a hand whenever he can steal a moment from his own work: he’ll fire-roast the eggplant-tomatoes-peppers here, purée the raspberries with sugar for jam there, or grind the roasted wheat into pokhindz (a course flour used for porridge, khavits, in the winter) in the stone mill – Arpenik doesn’t trust the new electric grinders and prefers to use the old intractable contraption she has inherited from her great-grandmother. Arpenik is reluctant to accept her husband’s help and keeps trying to convince him to take a quick nap instead – get some sleep and give your arm a little rest. He obliges, but after tossing and turning for a few minutes, goes back to her. She shakes her head disapprovingly but doesn’t say anything. What can she say – at their age, insomnia is the norm.

    a dark hallway filled with ceramic pots

    Photograph by ün LIU/ Unsplash.

    They send some of what they make to their adoptive daughter, leave a small portion for themselves, and sell most of it at the farmers’ market where the townsfolk go to stock up on market days. Aleksan is unfailingly polite and patient with them; townsfolk are like kids – they know nothing about fruits and vegetables and can’t even tell salceson from ham. He explains, in detail, which apples to buy for now and which for storing, expounds on how and with what to eat the cured meats, offering samples that he cuts not in little translucent slices but in generous big pieces. Some of the customers gratefully accept his advice, others politely cut him off – thanks, we’ll figure it out. He never insists – my job is to explain, the rest is up to you. Some of the customers are so unpleasant that he wonders how the earth carries them – condescending and rude, they buy from him as if doing him a favor. He treats the fact of their existence with resignation: say what you will, every herd has a bad sheep. What good would it do to get worked up over something you can’t change?

    Ask Aleksan what his biggest fear is, and he’ll answer without hesitation: hunger. Pain can be soothed with medicine, cold can be spooked off with warmth, fear can be chatted away. But nothing can placate or cheat hunger; it hovers overhead in a cloud of infernal darkness, taunting you and killing every shred of your humanity. Aleksan is intimately acquainted with hunger; he lived with it for two endlessly long years, for twenty-five terrifying months: the winter when, never imagining that Berd would soon be under siege, people carelessly cleaned out their winter preserves and found themselves with nothing to eat in February; the spring when they were bombed during peak sowing season, preventing people from working in the fields; the summer when the entire sky was blanketed by smoke from the torched wheat fields; the fall when they couldn’t even make it to the forest to forage for wild fruits; the winter when a tiny trickle of aid – grain, powdered milk and eggs, and tea – finally started getting through the mountain pass that was under constant enemy shelling, so that at least the kids could hold out until the arrival of warmer weather, while the grown-ups, and especially the elderly, departed one after the other; you’d wake up in the morning to find Grandma dead already, and Grandpa would be barely breathing and gone by sunset; the following spring when, desperate enough to ignore the enemy fire, the people went out into the fields to till, and not everybody came back – some were cut down by bullets, others taken hostage, but there was no other alternative: war or hunger, it was all the same death; the summer when hail the size of human fists destroyed everything, literally everything, except the potatoes, which the people hoped would last them till spring; the fall when the harvest began disappearing from fields and orchards, and they all suspected each other at first until they discovered that it was the townspeople; it turned out they were starving too, but didn’t know how to live off the land, so they were stealing from the villagers. Aleksan found this upsetting but he couldn’t help pitying the townsfolk: How could you hold a grudge against people who had been driven by despair over the treacherous mountain pass to scavenge food for their families by theft?

    a woman picking brussel sprouts

    Photograph by Ales Krivec / Unsplash.

    “Nothing can be more frightening than hunger,” thought Aleksan, and he knew exactly what he was saying because he had stared hunger straight in the face. It had come to him in the guise of an emaciated old man with sunken cheeks, a thread-thin line of bloodless lips, and papery skin stretched taut over his sharply protruding cheekbones. “If you weren’t careful, you could cut yourself running your finger over them,” randomly flashed through Aleksan’s mind. It was as if the old man could sense his thoughts; his translucent eyelids, under which a slight movement of his dark pupils was detectable, flickered, but he couldn’t muster the strength to open them. He was lying on his side, his neck awkwardly twisted and his left arm splayed on the other side, his chin pointing up, and faint traces left by dried tears ran from the outer corners of his eyes toward his temples; in a senselessly repetitive motion, he kept clawing at handfuls of frozen soil with his right hand; his pants had slid down, revealing his sunken stomach and the flabby funnel of his belly button; his leg had turned black and was bleeding where the trap had snapped around it, crushing the bone to a pulp. He was silent the entire way as Aleksan drove him to the hospital, and only grimaced slightly when the car hit potholes. As he was being moved to a gurney, he clutched Aleksan’s hand and pulled him down. Aleksan, leaning over to make out the words through the old man’s raspy, labored breathing, went pale, and then mouthed: “Just give me the address, I will handle the rest.” The old man mustered the strength to tell him the address.

    From the hospital, Aleksan headed straight to Musheghants Tsolak’s house. Tsolak was out back, chopping wood. When he saw his guest, he set down the ax and went to greet him, ready with a smile and a handshake. Aleksan made a tight fist and punched him once, then a second time right in his smiling lips. Dodging a return blow, he ducked and, without taking his eyes off Tsolak’s face, felt for a log. Wincing from the pain that shot through his crippled left arm, Aleksan clobbered Tsolak in the stomach with all his might. Tsolak went down with a sob. Aleksan stood over him for a bit, waiting for his rage to subside, then spat and rubbed his saliva into the ground with his boot. Then he plopped down and helped Tsolak turn over onto his back.

    “Why did you set a bear trap on your plot?” demanded Aleksan, still short of breath and stuttering. “What were you hoping to catch?
    A jackal?”

    “What trap?”

    “Don’t play dumb,” Aleksan spat out angrily.

    “Who got caught in the trap?”

    “An old man. A refugee.”

    “So if he is a refugee, then it’s fine for him to steal?” Tsolak sat up, swung around with unexpected adroitness, and slapped Aleksan across the face. Aleksan neither dodged the blow nor tried to return it. He swallowed, feeling the unpleasant taste of his own blood.

    “He’s definitely going to lose his leg. That’s if he pulls through. He has a great-granddaughter in town and nobody else. He lost everyone else in
    the pogroms.”

    Tsolak got up, picked up the log that Aleksan had used to clobber him, and tossed it back into the mound of chopped firewood without looking. The log landed at the very top, got caught on another log by a chipped piece of bark, and hung suspended in the air.

    “So my kids aren’t kids, then?” he hissed in a whisper. “Half of my relatives are not refugees, right? It’s OK to steal from me, right? Because I’m a pansy and not a man, right? And I don’t have a right to eat!”

    Aleksan also got up and dusted off his pants.

    “Anyway, I’m off. You are in charge of the old man.”

    “Off where?”

    “To get his great-granddaughter from town. He says she hasn’t eaten for five days.”

    It was a long ride to town, four hours over a road torn and gutted by shelling. The town struck Aleksan as oppressive; it looked exactly like the border villages – just as deserted, forlorn, and steeped in gloomy darkness and cold. Every house, every street, every window exuded desperation and loneliness. He had no trouble finding the old man’s apartment in a dank neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, on the first floor of a ten-story cement construction, whose windows, down to the last one, were hung with blankets on the inside in a desperate effort to preserve whatever scant warmth there was. The girl’s eyes, as it turned out, were of two different colors: one green, the other hazel. Aleksan’s great-grandmother would have called it the devil’s mark, which he made sometimes so that people wouldn’t forget about his presence. Aleksan offered the girl a handful of dried prunes, which she accepted after some hesitation, and not before thanking him. She ate slowly, with dignity. When she was finished, Aleksan told her to pack all of their belongings, hers and her great-grandfather’s, and she complied without complaining or asking questions. They made it back to Berd around midnight. They raced through the mountain pass so fast they risked missing a turn or plummeting off a cliff, but there was no other way – car headlights make excellent targets for sharpshooters. Mercifully, they made it home without incident.

    a cellar filled with barrels and flasks

    Photograph by v2osk / Unsplash.

    The old man passed away that very same night – his heart couldn’t take it. Aleksan buried him next to his own parents. The girl cried all the time, didn’t answer any of their questions, was afraid of darkness and closed doors, and screamed if someone shut the door to her room. It took a while for Aleksan to figure out what it was she feared, but it finally occurred to him to take the door off the hinges, and she calmed down at once. Her name was Anna, and she was twelve, although she looked barely nine: small, frail, quiet. She ate very little, tried not to leave the house if she could avoid it, and if she went outside, she didn’t go past the yard. Once, she wrapped her arms around Aleksan and told him, in a terrifying whisper, that once upon a time everything used to be wonderful in her life, that both of her grandparents were schoolteachers in Baku, that her father built houses while her mother raised her younger brother, but how one day they were all gone because some people stormed into their apartment and killed everyone except Anna – at the last moment, her grandmother had shoved her underneath the sofa and told her to stay put no matter what, but she didn’t have time to also hide her four-year-old grandson, and Anna saw how someone’s dirty boot tripped him as he was trying to run away, how he fell, banged his face against the floor, and started crying, and how the same dirty boots landed full force on his back, jumping on it until the boy stopped moving. Her great-grandfather smuggled Anna out of Baku in a suitcase – he made holes in the sides to make sure she didn’t suffocate before making his way through the pogrom-engulfed city. Before shutting the suitcase lid, he asked for her forgiveness in case they both got killed.

    Ask Aleksan what the purpose of human life is, and he’ll say without hesitation: caring for others. For relatives, for loved ones, for all the ones who remain.

    “But we didn’t get killed, as you can see,” she concluded, raising her wondrous varicolored eyes to Aleksan. “Please don’t be mad at him, he used to be a scientist and didn’t know anything other than his science. When we got here, he found a job as a night guard, but they were holding back his pay. Nobody would lend us money because we were refugees. We had to make rent for the room because the landlady kept threatening to kick us out, I kept crying all the time because I really wanted to eat, and my great-grandpa put up with it for as long as he could. Then he said he couldn’t stand to see my tears and went to find us some food.”

    Ask Aleksan what the purpose of human life is, and he’ll say without hesitation: caring for others. For relatives, for loved ones, for all the ones who remain. Of all his kids, only the youngest survived the war. Now he lives in faraway America and only visits once in a while. He keeps asking his parents to go live with him, but they won’t budge – the graves of our forebears are here, and this is where we will lie as well. Anna has long moved to the big city and become a journalist; now she travels all over the world writing clever articles. Everyone seems to have found a place in life, so Aleksan and his wife can finally breathe a sigh of relief and live for themselves. But there is also Yepime, the sunshine girl, the daughter of Aleksan’s sister who died in childbirth. Aleksan and Arpenik visit her every Sunday, both to see how she’s doing and to remind her of them – she’s got a bird-like memory and only recognizes people whom she sees regularly. When the time comes, they will have her come live with them. Life has meaning for as long as you have someone to take care of, Aleksan likes to say. Arpenik doesn’t disagree – what’s the point of arguing if he is completely right: life only has meaning if you have someone to live for.

    Translated from the Russian by Margarit Ordukhanyan and Zara Torlone.

    Contributed By NarineAbgaryan Narine Abgaryan

    Born in Berd, Armenia, Narine Abgaryan is the author of a dozen books including Three Apples Fell From the Sky (Oneworld, 2020).

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now