Azat is standing in front of a sandbox full of thin candles, all but two having melted into their own amber tombstones. One flickers as if a shiver is going down its spine and lets out a miniature cloud of smoke, its last breath. Only three candles are left standing, and they, too, shall soon surrender to time. No more will be lit this evening; it is too late now. The only other people in the church are a man who has come in as he does every evening on his way home from work (perhaps to ask for comfort for his dying mother, perhaps for an end to his own pain; one can only assume), and the woman who sells candles. She is counting the money in the small, dented tin box when Azat walks in and past her, without buying candles or stopping to cross himself when he faces the altar. Now, he is standing at the sandbox under the painting of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her arms. He doesn’t have candles to light, for he has no money, nor any idea what money or candles are for.
Azat had always chosen the sandbox under the Virgin Mother icon, no matter the church, and here he is now, as if it doesn’t matter that he has no memory of all the times he had lit his own candles, always three at a time, the first a plea that God keep his family safe and away from harm, the third for peace to the souls of those who had perished at the hands of the Turks. The second was the wild card, reserved for whatever most urgently needed divine intervention in the moment the candle was lit. When he wasn’t asking the light of the second candle to deliver a favor for a friend or a member of his family, Azat would simply say grace. He had always been grateful, not only because he had come away from the great slaughter and exodus unscathed, but because he had been too young to be ensnared in the horror, which he knew no story he had been told could ever impart. But if he is grateful now, he doesn’t know it. He remembers nothing, so perhaps there is nothing for which to be grateful.
“Da-da, ta-ta, ha-ra-ra, da-da,” he says, looking down at the candles, then up at the painting.
He has walked here through snow, gusts of cold wind pushing him forth because otherwise he wouldn’t have known where to go. This year, winter didn’t wait for December’s call. It arrived before anyone had a chance to seal the window frames and take coats and boots out of storage, and has now blanketed the land with snow so white as if all is about to come to an end. Azat is wearing nothing but a bathrobe and slippers. His shoulders hang low, like shoulders do when they can no longer carry despair. The light from the few remaining candles forms a halo around his slight frame. His silhouette is trembling. He raises his hand and speaks loudly, demanding God only knows what, then lowers his head and mumbles something that wouldn’t have been understood anyway. Suddenly, he begins to touch the hardened pools of amber wax, then the few flames, and weeps, as if he can’t bear to see any more light go out. When the second man leaves his prayer and returns to the space he shares with others, he notices Azat and stops to look, not because he is unsure of what to make of a man wearing a bathrobe in a church, uttering syllables that don’t add up to words, but because he has never seen a more beautiful prayer.
An old, frail woman covered in many layers of black walks in with a bucket and a broom. She will slowly circle the church, starting with the sandbox to the left of the entrance, then on to the next, then the next, until all the wax has been weeded out of the sand, and the bucket has grown heavy. She uses her fingers to extinguish the candles still fighting to stay ablaze. Each time she does this, she asks God to forgive her for putting out someone’s prayer, hoping that He understands that she is only trying to clean out the sandboxes and sweep the church, so she can make it home through the storm. Night descended hours ago, as it does in winter afternoons, with no regard for how much of the day has yet to unfold. The woman has just finished preparing dinner. The priest, deacons and altar servers are now eating her chicken stew in the little house across the courtyard from the church, where she spends her days baking communion wafers, cooking for the staff, mending doilies for the altar, and ironing shawls for women whom she refuses to let into the church with their heads uncovered.
She turns the corner to walk towards the last few sandboxes, then suddenly stops, as if she has seen a holy ghost. Because the bucket is heavy and Hayastan is short, it doesn’t fall over when it drops from her trembling hand. But it makes a thud that explodes against the walls and echoes through the church, always still and silent but for the sounds of the organ and of prayers that must be spoken aloud. It is especially quiet now that the believers have retreated into the lives about which they had come to pray. Both men are startled by the deafening noise. Azat shakes his fists and speaks more loudly until he makes out the woman with the bucket by her side. Hayastan is weeping now, and she runs toward Azat, whom she had recognized before he turned to face her—from the blue robe and the hair on the back of his head, white and thinning from all the hours he spends with his head on the pillow.
Hayastan clasps Azat’s hands in her own, touches his face, and whispers praise to Jesus for having guided him to a safe haven in the storm. He doesn’t fight back, like he usually does when someone tries to comfort him. Instead, he calms down a bit at the sound of her voice and the sight of her eyes, as full of tears as a bottomless well. It has been over a decade since Azat has been able to distinguish his sister from strangers. But he is relieved to see her now in this cold, dark church, where he would be surprised to find himself, if anything surprised him any longer.
The man offers to help Hayastan as she loops her brother’s arm and walks him toward the exit. But Azat elbows him, his frown and fists saying far more than the sounds he utters. Hayastan assures the man that she is all right and thanks him for offering to help, then looks up at her brother and tells him, like he is a child, that the nice man was only trying to help. Azat looks back after every few steps, still speaking angrily, but calms down again, as the figure of the man shrinks until it is altogether out of sight. Hayastan stops at the counter where the woman, who has finished counting the money, is sitting with hands folded in her lap, waiting for the clock to strike eight, so she can leave her post. When she sees Hayastan leading a man in a robe out of the church, the woman stands up and leans on the counter, her posture asking what she can do to help because no words seem to come out of her open mouth. Hayastan hasn’t decided yet what she is going to do next, how she will get her brother home.
Words are exchanged, Azat’s unheeded and unanswered, until the pastor and deacons cover him with a thick blanket and rush him across the courtyard into their quarters. There, they dress him in layer after layer of black robes. A deacon puts his own coat, hat and scarf on Azat, the men help him to the car, and the pastor drives the siblings home in snow that renders the wipers useless. In the car, Azat is quiet. Although he spends his days in the apartment, he isn’t trying to catch sight of the parks and buildings, the occasional people and cars, as if it were all the same whether they are there or not. Hayastan holds his hand tightly in her lap, lest he might decide to flee. Again and again, she thanks the pastor for all the help and for the ride, and each time he tells her it is no trouble at all. She weeps, thanking God for the miracle that brought her brother to the church of all the places where he could have wandered. What if he had fallen on a quiet street and frozen because no one was there to see him? What if a car had hit him, or he had walked all the way out of town? The pastor says God is good and He wouldn’t let anything bad happen, but because they are descendants of the genocide, they both know that this isn’t true. Besides, not many things worse than losing his memory, speech and bearing can happen to Azat. Hayastan kisses her brother’s hand, touches his face every few minutes, and whispers that she is here now and everything is fine. She tells him she is only crying because she is happy that he had gone to the church. If it weren’t true that Azat can’t understand what his sister is saying, it might seem that his nodding is not at all involuntary.
They haven’t left him alone in years, not since he began to speak his own language and was no longer able to tend to his most basic needs. His wife and daughter are both home on this stormy November evening, when Azat comes out of the bedroom, walks to the foyer, and leaves in his bathrobe and slippers. Hasmik feels the draft in the kitchen, where she is preparing dinner. When she sees the front door open, she runs into the bedroom and finds her husband gone. She rushes across five rooms to get to her daughter’s—because she isn’t a woman who raises her voice, even to ask for help. She arrives, panting, drying her silent tears with the hem of her apron, and says, “Ani jan, your father is gone.”
Ani lets out a bestial shriek, puts on her coat and boots, and runs into the street. But because she couldn’t have guessed that her father’s feet might have taken him to church, she runs in the opposite direction. She roams the streets for hours, dragging her feet in the snow, fighting against the wind, asking passerby if they have seen a man in a blue robe. No one has. Someone says, “Aren’t you paron Simonian’s daughter? Can I help you find him?” Ani wails, “Akh, papa jan, oor es, where are you?” and walks away as if she hasn’t heard the man. Soon, she can no longer feel her toes and fingers, and there isn’t a corner left to turn. This time, when a taxi stops to offer a lift, she doesn’t tell the driver that she has left home without a purse, knowing that any real man would drive a woman home free of charge, even if there weren’t this blizzard.
Now, she is home, smoking endless cigarettes, and phoning everyone she knows, speaking to each friend briefly, in case someone should find her father and phone to disclose his whereabouts. It doesn’t cross her mind that they wouldn’t know the number to call since her father doesn’t even know his own name. In moments of desperation, even the most cynical of souls look up to the sky for miracles. Hasmik is sitting on the sofa, stroking her granddaughter’s hair as the latter cries with her head in her grandmother’s lap. “He will be all right, you will see,” Hasmik tells the girl, who had rushed downstairs, skipping too many steps, when she had heard her mother’s screams from the neighbors’ home, where she had been playing with the two girls who might as well be her sisters. She had thought her grandfather had died, and was almost as frightened to discover that her mother’s screams had instead heralded his disappearance.
Twelve years ago, when his only daughter came home pregnant by a man who did not want her child, Azat scowled at the mention of the man’s name, and took his daughter in like he had longed for a second grandchild and she had given him a gift. He gave Leyla his name, as if a little girl was meant to carry the surname of her maternal grandfather. Azat’s memory began to fade soon after Leyla was born. Some tales suggest that Azat lost his mind because of his daughter’s sin; others say that his madness was his daughter’s redemption. Although he hasn’t been able to speak since Leyla was two years old, the girl is often by his side, sitting on his bed or in a chair next to his on the balcony, telling him about her day, and asking about his. He listens to her and she to him, even now that she is old enough to understand that she will never make out what he is saying. Sometimes, she lies next to him in his bed and reads aloud until they both fall asleep. Now her mother is smoking and weeping, the neighbors are fussing about as if they were in their own homes, and Azat papeek is gone.
About a dozen women are in the apartment now. Although some had to bundle up and cross the yard through the blizzard, they arrived within moments of hearing Ani’s screams. They had been on the march, ready and set to go hunting for gossip or something to do in this godforsaken weather. Most women are there to comfort Azat’s wife, but Hasmik is quiet and still but for the hand that is stroking Leyla’s hair. She doesn’t believe in God, so she isn’t praying for her husband’s safe return, unless hoping for something with all one’s might is a prayer. Azat’s daughter is convulsing in hysterical sobs. One woman brings her valerian drops and a glass of cold water, another a sweater and a cup of sweet tea; a third holds a cold, wet towel to her forehead, as Ani puts out a cigarette and lights another, saying “Papa jan, please come back,” weeping, like she has just learned that her father has died.
More than ever before, Leyla wishes for Ani’s brother Davit, whom she calls papa because he carried her home from the hospital and raised her like his own. She tells her grandmother now that papa would have already found Azat papeek and brought him home. She says that Azat papeek probably wouldn’t even have left if papa were still here. Hasmik smiles and says, “Funny that you should say that. I was just thinking maybe your grandfather’s gone out to find his son.” The doctors would assert that Azat has no way of knowing that his son left for America a little over a year ago, but no matter how much the mapping of the brain is altered, a parent’s heart knows when his child is gone.
Davit doesn’t think he will see his father again, so being away from him is far more difficult than not being near his wife and teenage son, who are now awaiting their own turn to ask the other side for political asylum. It is only a matter of time until they, too, are gone. Then, Leyla will not have Hayk to tease and taunt her and look after her like she is breakable. He is only three years older, but has grown years in the fourteen months since his father left. Hayk spends most of each week in his grandmother’s home because the food is better here, there is always someone at home to look after the children, and he has more friends in this neighborhood. But this evening, he is with his mother, who is not the kind of woman who would move in with her in-laws, although she has always quite liked them and is grateful for the apartment her father-in-law gave her and Davit when they got married in the very church to which, unbeknownst to the family, he has gone tonight in search of God knows what.
Nora misses Azat now that he isn’t the person he used to be when he had made her throw her head back and laugh every time they had seen each other. He was the funniest man she had ever met, and she teased Davit that he was too glum a soul to be his father’s son. Now, her father-in-law is a man she doesn’t know, who doesn’t know her. Her husband is gone, and her son has suddenly left his childhood and entered adolescence where mothers aren’t welcome. He has begun to spend more time in his grandparents’ home, which she admits is more welcoming than her small apartment, if only for her mother-in-law’s baked goods and homemade preserves, and her way of effortlessly forgiving Hayk the kinds of trespasses that would never be tolerated in Nora’s own home. She hasn’t shared with Hayk that his aunt has phoned with the news of Azat’s disappearance, so she is living through it alone, stirring her tea until it’s too cold to drink, and nodding absently to the few things her son says.
If he were in his grandmother’s home this evening or if he heard the news now, Hayk would run out into the streets to look for his grandfather, even if everyone begged him to stay out of the dark and the snow. Unlike Leyla, he remembers playing with Azat papeek, hearing him say toasts at the dinner table, sitting by his side in the living room. His memories are slight and few, but they fill him with longing, especially since his father has left, and he and his grandfather are now the only two men in the family. No one has been able to convince the boy that his grandfather will never speak. He and Leyla even got into a brawl a few weeks before, when Leyla began to shout that she is tired of hearing Hayk say, “Who knows? Maybe he’ll get better someday. All sorts of things happen.” On the couch, with her head in her grandmother’s lap, Leyla wishes for her grandfather to return from what must be a walk to admire the magical snow. She wishes for her papa to return from that strange place, curiously named the Big Apple, which always beckons without making itself known in any meaningful way. She wishes that at least Hayk were here because being the only child in a home where women are wailing and fussing about over a missing grandfather doesn’t seem fair at all.
Leyla and Hayk are the third generation to have settled in their grandfather’s home. The Simonians’ apartment sprawls from one end of the building to the other. Years ago, the Party had allocated the building to those in the realm of the arts, and so its apartments are filled with families of actors, opera singers, painters and sculptors, as if they need to be quarantined from the rest of society, although the stated rationale is that they are the cultural elite of the land, and so they deserve their separate quarters in the most pleasant part of town, with views of a park with a lake that is home to swans, just moments away from Yerevan’s Theater of Opera and Ballet. The year Leyla was born, after the death of the old painter who had been living alone across from the Simonians, Azat made several deposits through handshakes under tables in this and that bureaucrat’s office. So it was that, just in time for Leyla’s arrival, the family acquired the adjacent apartment, took down a wall, and ended up with a home with enough rooms for everyone, and three balconies that were the envy of the neighborhood.
It is no wonder that the women, especially the ones who live in the dilapidated houses across the yard, seek out reasons to visit the Simonians. Hasmik is famous the land over for her dolma and jams, her meat pies and raspberry-filled pastries. She is welcoming and kind, always prepared for guests. Now that the son is in America, there are sure to be stories about life in New York. Maybe that young man will come by again to visit Ani this evening, and they can get a close look at him without fetching their theater binoculars. They might run into one of the family’s many important visitors—government officials or Azat’s colleagues from the theater, who still come by sometimes to pay their respects to their friend and give their regards to his wife. And what will happen to Azat? Will he return home safely? Will he catch pneumonia from all these hours in the blizzard? One would rather be in the Simonians’ home than anywhere else, what with so many possibilities and questions, and so the women stay, while a few of their husbands and sons venture out into the blizzard in search of poor Azat. Hasmik and Leyla set a table of tea, halva and honey cake and engage in small talk with the women because one might as well drink tea while waiting for news that can’t arrive soon enough. Ani sobs in the background, smoking, and refusing to be consoled.
Just as Hasmik lifts herself out of her chair to return to the kitchen for more tea, the front door opens and in walks Azat, black robes covering his feet and trailing behind him, sprinkled with snowflakes that have begun to melt and weigh down the cloth. He is leaning on Hayastan, who is a foot smaller, weak and frail even without the happenings of the evening. The pastor is behind them. Ani runs to her father and throws herself on the floor at his feet, clutching at the hem of the robes, and begging him to never leave this way again. One woman falls on her knees and kisses the floor; another crosses herself and praises the Lord; a third steps forward and says, “Good evening, paron Simonian. Good evening, Reverend Father.” Others rush to help Hayastan out of her coat and scarf, saying, “Hayastan jan, aree nestee, come, sit down, you must have gone to Hell and back.”
Three women tend to the old woman, as she shivers and cries and thanks Jesus for bringing her brother home. Ani demands to know why her aunt hadn’t phoned to let her know that her father was safe. Hayastan is too lost in prayer to mind her niece. It wouldn’t lessen Ani’s rage to hear that her aunt had tried calling home four times before she had gotten in the car. Ani is weeping, not because she is concerned about what had happened to her father or to her aunt, how they might be feeling now, or what they might need, but because what has transpired this evening is her suffering, her cross to carry. She has a sick father and a demented aunt and a daughter she’s raising alone and a brother who up and left her to her own means. What has it come to that the neighbors are scurrying around like they’re nurses in a ward full of wounded patients?
After she thanks the pastor and sees him to the door, Hasmik makes her way to her husband through the neighbors huddled around him in a circle. He looks down and mumbles inaudibly, and it looks as though he is asking his wife to forgive him for this evening, for all of this. Hasmik takes his face between her hands, kisses his forehead, and says, “Let’s say goodnight to everyone and go get you some dry, warm clothes.” He nods and replies, “da-da, ta-ta,” as he does to everything she says. They disappear into the bedroom behind the French doors, trailed by their granddaughter, who is carrying a stack of freshly ironed towels still holding warmth in their folds.
In the bedroom, Hasmik slowly changes Azat out of the pastor’s clothes. She has kindly declined help from everyone who has offered, and only Leyla is in the room with her grandparents. She hands her grandmother whatever is requested, first towels, then undergarments, then sleeping wear, and finally, a comb. All the while, his wife and granddaughter listen to Azat’s stories about his earlier excursion. The two laugh and sigh and shake their heads, as Azat raises his eyebrows and his tone, then whispers, then puts his hands over his head and dances.
Someone turns on the television in the living room. The glass on the French doors vibrates, as a sea of voices belonging to members of the army choir ushers in the Soviet anthem:
Soyuz nerushimiy respublik svobodnykh
Splotila naveki velikaya Rus’!
Da zdravstvuet sozdanniy voley narodov
Yediniy, moguchiy Sovetskiy Soyuz!
Great Russia has welded together forever
An Indestructible Union of free Republics!
Long live the united and mighty Soviet Union,
Created by the will of her peoples!
Azat pushes himself up from the edge of the bed and stands erect with his right hand on his heart. Hasmik and Leyla laugh so loudly that they are joined within seconds by Hayastan, Ani, and the three women who are still here because they would have come even if Azat hadn’t disappeared into the night. As they see Azat’s tribute to the Union they know he had loathed, they, too, begin to laugh, slapping their thighs, bending over, wiping the corners of their eyes, and saying, “Vay, Azat jan, vay.” Even Ani is laughing. Her father hasn’t spoken a coherent sentence in a decade. He doesn’t know his name, where he was born, or how many children he has. He has lost everything, except this way he still has, even though it seems he has nothing left at all, to turn the ground beneath his feet into a stage. Perhaps the grief he has worn like a cape all his life has nothing to do but push him forth onto the stage, where he can ride away on waves of others’ laughter, albeit still and for always tethered to this island in his mind that is the past.
Until he had married Hasmik and become a father, Azat hadn’t known a greater joy than making people laugh and cry, being invited into their homes for lavash, cheese and toasts, of which he had been a true master. But being admired by audiences hadn’t filled Azat with nearly as much pride as having married the most beautiful girl in all the land, who had been sought after by Party officials and poets alike. Hasmik had overlooked his poor Russian and laughed at his jokes even when they hadn’t been as witty as she would have liked them to be—because his eyes were kind, and his actions even kinder. When her friend had given birth, Azat had made calls to the hospital to ensure impeccable care for mother and child. Another friend’s brother had died in a car accident, and Azat had arranged for the funeral service and paid for the post-burial meal. She had loved him for these acts of kindness and the way he had held her up as if she were too good to walk this earth. Azat had often declared that getting Hasmik to marry him was the greatest achievement of his life, and never minded when his friends teased that he had much better taste than Hasmik. Under her legendary hospitality, the Simonian home became the headquarters for Azat’s acting troupe, as well as visiting actors from all corners of the Soviet world and all the places where artists served the Communist cause. She set tables for them before and after performances, between trips to other towns and villages. They ate, drank, sang and danced, night after night for many years.
And then one day, this illness came and took Azat away, slowly, like it was more interested in watching him suffer than seeing him go. He began to rage about everything, demanding to know why there were only two packs of butter when he had bought five, refusing to accept that it had been used in the family’s kitchen, hiding spoons under the mattress and old newspapers in his sock drawer, standing on the balcony and hurling insults at people passing by. He accused his wife of infidelity when she took too long to return from the bazaar, and even when she didn’t. He questioned her about whether Ani and Davit were his children. He did all this while Hasmik cried silently, mostly at night, so her tears would trouble no one.
One morning, she woke up next to her husband to find him mumbling something she couldn’t understand. By the end of the week, she had come to terms with her husband’s new language, and almost prayed for forgiveness when she realized she was relieved that he would no longer use his words to cut her. Hasmik knew she had lost her husband long before the team of doctors working together in Yerevan and Moscow explained that he was gravely ill. She knew it long before rumor spread through town that Azat Simonian had lost his mind. With or without a mind, this man was her husband. So, just as she had done before Azat had fallen ill, Hasmik rolled her eyes at his quirks, albeit now involuntary, ironed his clothes, and sat by his side in the evenings.
On the morning after Azat ventures into the blizzard and returns in priestly attire, he doesn’t rush to rise from bed with the sun. He doesn’t move when Hasmik comes in to take him to the bathroom for his morning ritual. Ani tries to help her mother, but they aren’t able to lift him from the bed. His body is limp and awfully heavy, although just last night Hasmik and Leyla alone had dressed and helped him lie down for the night. Azat lies on his side, facing the French doors, spooning his right cheek in his palm, eyelids as heavy as his breathing. What worries Hasmik isn’t that her husband is refusing the trip to the bathroom or the cup of tea, but that he doesn’t speak, doesn’t frown, doesn’t elbow them to tell them to leave him alone. It is as though he wishes to rise, but is much too weak to try.
Hayastan has left for church because she knows that her brother will fare well in Hasmik’s hands, and because Jesus needs her even more. Leyla has gone with her great aunt, as her mother doesn’t allow her to go anywhere unaccompanied by an adult, even if all the neighborhood children do walk to school together every morning. Ani says that her father is probably exhausted from last evening’s adventure, and that it wouldn’t be surprising if he were coming down with a cold. She tells her mother to let him rest and to call her should his condition worsen. When the front door slams shut behind Ani, Hasmik lies down next to her husband, puts her left arm around him, holds his hand, and buries her face in the nape of his neck.
She hasn’t held him this way since they were young, too many winters ago to count. Soon, her breathing falls into rhythm with her husband’s. She doesn’t heed the telephone and doorbell, or care that Ani has probably alerted everyone about her father’s listlessness, and they are now phoning and coming by to inquire how he is. She sings softly to her husband, recites some of his monologues, and asks, laughing coyly, if he remembers this or that time. Sometimes, she pauses and joins him in silence. Three hours later, Hasmik feels her husband’s last breath against her heart. She kisses his neck, lets go of his hand, and gently closes his eyes.
After many failed attempts to speak with her mother, phoning home first from her office, then from the printing house where she will spend hours supervising the production of banners, tickets and programs for Carmen, Ani finally phones her sister-in-law. She is out of breath, incoherent, crying, saying again and again, “Something has happened to papa.” Within moments, Nora is dressed and out the door. When she arrives at her in-laws’ apartment, she finds the living room and kitchen empty, and walks to their bedroom, where she sees the couple lying in bed, still, like lovers who refuse to be parted. She sits on the bed, lowers her body to hold Hasmik, and touches Azat’s face. Both women cry silently, neither says a word. What is there to say when a man walks out into the blizzard, goes to church, and comes home to die?
Hasmik sits on the sofa, then washes her face, then stands by the window, then buries her face in her husband’s blue bathrobe, then walks out onto the balcony to get away from the crowded rooms and breathe in the cold air. She nods and lets herself be kissed and held, but doesn’t speak. She has lost track of who has come and gone, who is in charge of which step of the arrangements required to lay a body to rest. A young relative offers to drive to the printing house to inform Ani of her father’s passing and bring her home. Hasmik looks up at him and nods.
“Huh, Vahan, incha eghel?” Ani says, “What happened?” Of course, she already knows. What would her cousin have come here to announce but the thing she has been dreading all day long?
“Papat, An jan,” he says, your father. Ani falls on the concrete floor of the basement and weeps. In the car, she rolls down the window, lets the wind onto her face and sobs, gasping for breaths of fresh air, grieving the losses—words unspoken, minutes absent, moments on stage together, vacations, outings, his humor, always having been his girl. She lets herself fall into the arms of neighbors and friends who are now crowding the entrance to the building, the stairwell, the foyer and living room, spilling out onto every one of the three balconies, despite the cold, to smoke, to remember, to say, “Eh, Azat jan, what a good man you were.” She walks up three flights of stairs, her body heavy and reluctant. She sits down on a step to cry, then pushes herself up, saying no to hands reaching to help her up.
Upstairs, she holds her father’s hand, still warm, comes out only to make sure that Leyla has eaten and isn’t too frightened by her first experience of a loved one’s death. She sits by her father’s side, then on his empty bed, then by his open coffin for two days and two nights. On the second night, Ani realizes that she has just become a woman, and thinks it is curious that this should have happened not when she had first found love, nor when she had become a mother, but the night she spent holding her father’s hand, as he lay in a coffin on a table in their living room.
On the third day, at three o’clock in the afternoon, six men, distant cousins and close friends, carry the coffin downstairs and out into the yard, hold it up and turn it slowly three times, as the zoorna wails in mourning. Ani gasps for air between bouts of grief, shouting, “Vakh, papa jan, aakh, chem oozoom, papa. I don’t want to say goodbye.” Hasmik cries softly, holding onto her sister-in-law and her grandson on either side. Leyla walks arm-in-arm with Hayastan, who has grown smaller and weaker in the three days since her brother’s soul went to Jesus. The procession moves out of the courtyard, around the corner and down onto the main street, slowly, on account of the ice and slush. People hang down from windows and balconies, shaking their heads, wiping away tears, saying, “Poor man, suffered so much.” Held up to the skies in an open coffin, Azat is carried out of the heart of Yerevan, where he spent the seven decades between the great April slaughter and the November blizzard that took his life.
When it is time to get into the cars to drive to the cemetery, Leyla tries her last chance at joining the mourners, but again Ani says no, as if the burial might fill her daughter with greater fear and sadness than her grandfather’s empty bed or the silence on the balcony. Leyla stays home with the women preparing dozens of dishes to be served to mourners upon their return from the cemetery. Many more people are at the grave than the family is expecting to host for the post-burial meal, but there is sure to be enough food for everyone—this is Azat Simonian in the ground, after all. The pastor who drove Azat and Hayastan home the night of the blizzard blesses his soul for a safe return to His Father. Hayastan whispers that the Lord should have taken her first. Hasmik wipes away silent tears hoping the lamb won’t be dry. Ani digs her hands into the hardened, frozen soil and wails, “Cheh, papa jan, no.” Davit is not there to lay his father to rest; it will be two more months before he is able to leave America with a return ticket.
Hasmik is relieved to discover that the table is set and the khashlama is just right. Although their relatives and friends keep telling the women of the family to stay at the table, to rest and remember, the four are back and forth between the kitchen and dining table, replenishing, pouring, picking up breadcrumbs from the tablecloth. There are far more people at the table than it can comfortably fit, and more and more people come in as evening turns into night. Somehow, there is always room for another plate, and always another serving of lamb and potatoes. Azat’s friends, colleagues and neighbors say toast after toast during the dinner that extends late into the night, as dinners always do in the Simonian home. Some of the toasts lament the loss of a father and husband, an artist, a friend, a good man, who had suffered too long before leaving this earth. How helpful he had been, how humble, how kind. Heads nod, silence descends.
But it is difficult to remember Azat and not to think of the times he had filled a room with laughter. An acting partner with whom Azat had spent years on this and that stage tells of the time he had come by for a visit, just as Azat was insisting that Hasmik wash and hang out on the laundry line the pickled vegetables that had accidentally been doused with kerosene. Azat had always objected to jokes that portrayed people from Van as tightfisted, as if such a thing shouldn’t be cause for laughter. If he were here now, he would protest fiercely to the suggestion that this incident was proof of his people’s miserliness. Another friend recalls all the times Azat had fainted when a doctor had given one of his children a shot. Hasmik tells the story of the night Azat had come home in character and spent the evening speaking only lines from King Lear. There is so much laughter that, if one were to eavesdrop from behind the door, one might think that people have gathered to celebrate the birth and not the death of a man. For, in the end, we are but stories left as talismans for those who stay behind, while it is their time to remember. The rest is just silence and ashes.