One morning, Ashot puts his wife and two children on an airplane and sends them away from their landlocked valleys to the seashore of the neighbor to the north. Although he does intend to gift his family with a restful week-long holiday, really, he is yearning for uninterrupted time with his lover, in the absence of the need to cut short yet another tryst and return to the family he’d never wanted. Ashot drives away from the airport, his left hand on the steering wheel, the right holding a cigarette, shifting gears, once in a while smoothing his beard, slightly tugging at the hairs on the chin where they always seem to be too long. Just as Ashot makes a turn for the city, the airplane explodes over mountains somewhere in the Caucasus, and his wife, along with their fifteen-year-old son and five-year-old daughter, burn to ashes, and return to the earth.
A year later, Ashot’s lover, Ani, finds herself in the throes of a most terrible labor, and after many hours of agony, she pushes her daughter into the world. When the midwife holds the too-small child up in the air, Ani hears someone exclaim, “Leyla was born!”—just before everything, including the midwife who is still holding the child up, disappears into a bright light. And that’s how Leyla gets her name. The namesake, who had buried her face in her mother’s bosom when the airplane had started to rattle, must have been eager to finish living. Ani doesn’t think twice about giving her daughter the name of the child her lover had not laid to rest for lack of a body to claim. Who knows how Leyla’s path might fork, were her mother to say, “No, child, go back. Rest in peace. Now go.” After all, what’s in a name, but a soul?
The midwife lifts Ani’s arms and wraps them around the child, who is now lying on her chest, typically distraught to have discovered this cold, noisy world outside the womb, wailing as if it were all too much to bear. When she is cleaned and wrapped, too tightly, she quiets down as suddenly as she had begun to holler. A few hours later, Ani stands still, gently pressing her nose to the glass that separates her from her daughter, and marveling at how slender Leyla’s fingers are. She hadn’t thought that in the first few hours of her life, her daughter would be lying in an incubator, as all four pounds of her fought to arrive. She had always imagined that she would see her lover in her child’s eyes, but she sees nothing of him in the shapes and features of her daughter’s frail body. It’s like he had never been there at all. So, nothing is as Ani had thought it would be, although she hadn’t exactly known what to expect.
When Leyla is carried away to begin her life in an incubator, Ani lies in bed and weeps. She walks down the hall to look at her daughter, then finds a quiet corner to smoke, and a nurse who will look the other way, on account of Ani’s father filling her pockets with rubles during each visit, payment for the kind of care every woman should receive after giving birth, but few ever do. Each time he slips notes into the nurses’ and doctors’ palms and pockets, he leans in and says, with a smile and a wink, “Whatever she needs, you hear?”
He isn’t a brute, like some of the other men with money. Everyone knows him from the stage and the films, and so everyone knows that the money he gives hasn’t been stolen from the people. He is an agreeable, kind man, madly devoted to his daughter’s happiness, especially now that it is being so vigorously threatened by her lover’s choice. He asks nurses about their own children, compliments their smiles, gives them tickets for premieres, and sinks into despondence each time he hears that his girl is still lacking in spirits. So, the nurses think if his daughter needs to smoke, they will find her a quiet corner and a cigarette. The poor girl barely sees the child, anyway.
As they tend to the needs and whims of this and that mother, the nurses eavesdrop on the gossip that snakes around the maternity ward. The women choose not to whisper because they feel entitled to this indignation that they, women of virtue, most of whom have toiled to love the men who fathered their children, should convalesce from this most sacred ritual in the company of a woman made of a fiber of loose morals, who has chosen to bear a child in sin. “Did you hear she’s not even nursing the girl?” they say, and whoever speaks such words at any given time can count on the others to click their tongues and shake their heads in agreement. The nurses do whisper when they start their own whirlpools of inquiries into whether it is true that Ashot Stepanian himself fathered the granddaughter of Azat Simonian, and how it all came to be the way that it is. “The child knows something isn’t right. Have you seen how she turns her head away from her own mother’s bosom?” one likes to say, as if the child’s refusal of her mother’s milk is a statement against her choices.
Ani hears the insults and wonderings because most of the women mean for her to know that, according to the gods and demagogues they worship, she has erred her way into eternal judgment. And so there is nothing to do, but smoke cigarettes and sit by the window, looking down at the crowd of men, also smoking, craning their necks to speak with the wives peppering the façade of the building, which might be mistaken for a prison were it not in the very center of town. Eventually, words become enmeshed and Ani strains to discern which voice belongs to which bearded man. She can’t see the wives, but imagines that their faces are glowing, like those of the women with rosy cheeks, who adorn responsible motherhood pamphlets published and distributed by the Party. She doesn’t need to know anything about the other mothers to be certain that she is the only one who hasn’t wed to bring life into the world. Nonetheless, to avoid unwelcome inquiries common in places where privacy doesn’t reside, she has worn a gold band since the pregnancy was confirmed. Ani is both pleased and deeply sad to know that she is nothing like these women.
Ani tries nursing Leyla, but the girl won’t take her mother’s breast. Each time Leyla turns away from her mother’s bosom and scrunches her tiny face into a mass of wrinkles, Ani kisses the top of her head, runs a finger down her cheek, hushes her, rocking her awkwardly in arms that don’t feel like a mother’s. On the fourth day after Leyla’s birth, while Ani is struggling to relieve her swollen, throbbing breasts, three of the nurses intervene to persuade her that, as frail as her infant is, she needs mother’s milk to survive. Ani would have agreed even without the collective plea, so she says nothing, gets up, walks past a few cots, stops at the one closest to the sink, and lowers her infant into the arms of a woman who is taking a break from knitting a blanket. This woman never joins the gossip, never speaks to anyone besides the nurses and her newborn. Ani has seen how she cradles her own son, coos in his ear, feeds him as if she has never known a greater joy. Silently welcome into the other mother’s embrace, Leyla latches onto her breast and drinks greedily, milk dripping down her chin and resting in tiny puddles in the folds of her neck, the woman and nurses teasing and laughing.
Ani crosses the room and sits by the window at each feeding. She isn’t waiting for Ashot. She knows he won’t come. She just can’t bear looking at her child, who has already learned to shun her, already knows how to make her feel unloved. She is her father’s child, after all. So Ani sits by the window, gives into the churning in her breasts, almost as sharp as that in her heart, and watches as the milk pushes its way through her robe and falls in drops on her knee, her hand, the floor, anywhere but where it is meant to flow, until one morning, twelve days after her daughter is born, there isn’t a drop left. On this same day, the doctors send Ani and the girl home, and as she pulls her daughter away from the mother who has sustained her, Ani wishes, for the first of many times, that she hadn’t given Leyla this life.
Ani’s father comes to the hospital accompanied by his son Davit and a friend, each bearing bottles of cognac and bouquets of peonies, carnations, irises and roses for every nurse, midwife, and doctor. Azat shakes hands with everyone, leaving behind a trail of smiles, as Davit carries Leyla into her first sunlight on a glorious day in early June. Ani is quiet in the car and only speaks the few words etiquette requires her to say to her relatives and the neighbors who have poured out onto porches and out of windows to see her and this child she has brought into the world without approval or an invitation. Does the girl look like him? Will he come to ask for Ani’s hand in marriage? Better late than never, after all.
Ani’s parents and brother go about their lives as if they haven’t suddenly become the subject of every conversation over coffee and halva. They never tell her anything about how she should have known better, and how the last thing the family needs, being in the public eye as they are, is this scandal. Leyla opens her eyes and ears to a family that wants her like she has been sent, and everyone embraces her. Except her father. But she doesn’t know this because Davit holds her close and cradles her, presses his prickly cheek against hers, smiles every time she looks into his eyes the way infants do when they have so many things to say, but don’t yet know the words with which to say them. It is no surprise when Leyla looks up at her uncle one sunny summer morning soon after her first birthday, and says, “Papa.” No one corrects her. So it is that she comes to be called by another’s name and call another’s father her own. But this doesn’t burden Leyla because what she doesn’t know can’t harm her, and all she knows is being held in strong, safe arms, passed around like a bowl of water in the desert—from mother to uncle to grandfather to cousin to aunt, and always, back to her grandmother.
Ani has just begun to build a nest for her child under the wings of her own parents, when one hot July afternoon, a woman comes by to visit. Although she has never met her, Ani recognizes her instantly as Ashot’s mother. Because Ani’s parents are made of noble cloth, the woman is asked to stay for tea and jam. No one says much, as there isn’t much to be spoken between the mother of a wronged woman and the mother of the man who has wronged her. After shifting on the chair and fumbling in her purse, the woman reaches for her wallet and walks up to the woven basket where Leyla is lying, eyes and mouth wide open, awaiting the bottled substance that isn’t her mother’s milk. The woman holds up a faded photograph of an infant next to Leyla’s face, which she has neither kissed nor even noticed since she has arrived. She looks at one infant, then the other, until she is convinced that she is indeed the grandmother.
She returns to the table, slips her son’s photograph back into her purse, and says to Ani, “You and the girl can come live with us, dear. No matter that Ashot doesn’t want to be a father. We are still a family. And a good woman knows how to change a man’s heart.” Ani looks at her own mother, then at this woman, and says, “Excuse me?” Moments later, the woman is gone, and everyone knows that she will never return.
Ani spends night after night sitting on the balcony, the only time when she is certain of her solitude, of being free from eyes and tongues. She smokes cigarettes and looks at the stars, never realizing that this ocean welling up inside her, threatening to gush forth and tear down everything in its way, is nothing more than a spec of dust in an infinite universe. She writes. She imagines calling Ashot to ask how it could have ever been called love, this thing that has given life to a grief that might only be rivaled by a death that claims a loved one. Sometimes she imagines that he will come for her; surely he must someday long for her, as he always had, and so much more deeply now that she is the mother of his child. But she never calls, and he never comes. “It’s just as well,” Ani says to her daughter. “It’s just as well,” she hears her own mother saying to Azat a few times. Perhaps it is; perhaps not. Who is to know how life might be, had it all unfolded otherwise?
All that is left of Ashot are some letters Ani has kept without ever deciding to and a black and white passport photograph, the unequivocal and only confirmation of Leyla’s kinship to her father. Here is this piece of paper that fits in the palm of Ani’s hand, attempting to contain all that this man had been to her, but instead only projecting the image of a man who could be anyone. Black suit, black tie, black hair, and a thick black beard. Two holes, one poked through each eye. Who could blame Ani for stabbing the photograph with a needle, when she herself is slashed from head to toe? The photograph was a talisman from a rare outing in daylight, when Ashot had given Ani one of the four passport photographs, after a rushed trip to the studio on Lenin Avenue. He had teased that, if he were ever to be arrested, she could pine over him with the photograph pressed against her bosom. The photographer had asked the couple if they would like to be captured together as well, but they had both declined, looking at their shoes because to look at each other would have meant to confess that theirs was a love that would leave nothing behind. Looking at the photograph now, Ani comes close to shredding it, but doesn’t because some things are worth saving even after hope has gone. So she opens the shoebox and tucks the photograph between envelopes and loose pages. Some are letters Ashot had penned before he had grown to pity her; others she has written herself, but hasn’t yet found a reason to post.
Also inside the shoebox is a note folded into fourths, Russian cursive in blue ink lining a page hastily torn from a notebook, as if it hadn’t been meant for a purpose that merited a clean cut. “Forgive me if you can, Ani,” it says. “Please, forgive me… Goodbye. Armenia, 1977.” A nurse had carried this note up to the maternity ward where Ani had been struggling not to wonder what her lover might say if he would only see their girl. She had read the note again and again, for many hours. Then, she had folded it, tucked it into the pocket of her robe, wiped the tears from her face, and made the one promise she would never be tempted to break—that she wouldn’t shed another tear for this man. She looks at the folded page now, and keeps the promise she had made to herself at the hospital. She wonders why the note is still here, as if it isn’t in her hands to let it go.
A year after Ani gives birth to Leyla, another woman finds herself pregnant by Ashot. This woman’s brother isn’t as forgiving as Davit, who has not even spoken to Ashot about his intentions because he doesn’t think it is his place to tell another man what is right or wrong. The other woman’s brother threatens Ashot with words and steel in a dark alley on the outskirts of town, and so Ashot asks for her hand in marriage, pulling the last splinter of possibility out of Ani’s heart. Ashot had responded to the news of Ani’s own pregnancy by looking out of the window, and letting out a sigh sharper than any word he could have spoken. Ani had known since this moment that she would raise their child alone. But when the news of his marriage and the impending birth of this child he has chosen to father creeps its way to her through the grapevine, it etches his absence into her being, irreversibly, like ink etched into skin.
Whether Leyla should have been born or not and whether or not Ani had ever truly wanted to become a mother, the child is here now, and Ani’s newfound purpose in life is to wrap her arms around her and keep her safe from harm. Ani always expects that Leyla might be hurt, and in truth, her fears are not entirely unjustified. One evening, the woman Ashot has chosen to marry calls to ask Ani, “Is your little bastard child dead yet?” The two women have never met. In each phone call that follows, and there are many such calls for many years to come, the woman assures Ani that it is only a matter of time until harm befalls her cursed child. All her life, Ani suffers from a recurring dream, in which she opens the door of the freezer and finds Leyla there, an infant, frozen to death. If another mother might shrug off her child’s injuries, so driven not by callousness, but by the wisdom that life is full of falls, then Ani interprets each of her child’s scrapes and scabs as the fulfillment of prophesies that doom children who are cursed.
Ani’s room, or royal chambers, as her mother prefers to call it, opens up onto a balcony. One sunny morning, when Leyla has just begun to indulge in the thrill of putting one foot in front of the other, Ani sits at the red round coffee table with her friend Julia, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. In the few moments she takes her eyes off Leyla to answer the telephone, her daughter leaves the room, walks out onto the balcony, follows the cat through the railing, and begins to walk along the outer edge. She is holding on, making small steps, her tiny bare feet holding firm on the six-inch concrete protrusion.
Ani becomes acutely aware that if she makes a sound or moves in Leyla’s peripheral vision, her daughter might be startled and let go of the bars. Instead, she positions herself like a panther preparing to leap, throws herself from her seat to the rail, grabs Leyla by the waist, and pulls her over to safety. Her mother’s sobs and shaking make Leyla holler, as Ani holds her too tightly on the balcony floor and weeps. So it is that Ani learns that mother is different from woman in that she derives a lion’s strength from the fear of her child’s hurt—the possibility alone of harm to her child makes mother a creature of instinct, fierce, by default.
When Ani leaps to her daughter’s rescue, she is not only saving Leyla’s life. She is fighting a battle of wills for the right to be the master of her own destiny. For no one should have a thing to say about how her own life will unfold. She has lost everything to give this child life, even clawed out of her soul the seeds of things yet to sprout into being. Leyla is all there is now, and nothing is going to happen to her, even if this means that Ani’s sole purpose will be to ensure her daughter’s safety. And so she protects the girl fiercely from any harm, real and imagined.
Ani’s own mother has never imposed affection. When her daughter was pregnant, Hasmik didn’t sit on her bed, stroke her hair, and ask if the pain Ashot had planted in her was all right. She didn’t show her own sorrow or speak of Ani’s. She only took her daughter home, and raised her granddaughter, as if there were no other way. Ani leaves to her mother the myriad of duties one must perform to sustain a child’s life. It is Hasmik who washes the bottles, stirs the formula, warms everything Leyla eats and wears, sings to her, and tells her hundreds of stories. She cleans, washes, swaddles, feeds, and cradles the girl to sleep. As Leyla grows older, Hasmik teaches her to embroider and bake, seal jars of preserves, and whip wool with a stick to get it ready for the sewing of winter blankets.
Hasmik has spent her life raising her two children, then theirs, taking care of each, and the friends they all bring to her home. She is soft, in word and deed. All the family ever knows of any longing she might have for a different life are the rare occasions when she allows herself to lament never having used the degree she had received with high honors in journalism, and forfeited for a destiny as the wife of one of Armenia’s most renowned actors. She does host a weekly television program, in which she shares her lauded recipes and homemaking wisdom with other housewives.
Her only daughter, Ani, is of a different cloth, a woman, who does not cook or sew, or bow her head before a man—because her own destiny is to defy anything that might strip her of her voice, her ways, a life of her own choosing. It isn’t that Ani doesn’t tend to her daughter, but that hers is a pragmatic kind of love that fuels her to make arrangements, appointments, lists of books to read to Leyla, requests through this and that channel for the best doctors, tutors, and schools. Nothing is wrong with this, nor with being unwilling to resist the allure of youth, which beckons her to this and that exhibition opening, premiere and gathering of friends, all of whom are quickly learning that to remain friends with Ani they need to relinquish their thoughts on choices she could have made, and those she still has a chance to make.
Quite soon after her daughter is born, Ani finds a way to be in the world, not too different from how she had lived before she had become a mother. If anything has changed, it is that she feels nothing for most people and things, which occurs to her every now and then. At first, realizing that she is devoid of feeling chills her spine; with time, she begins to greet each moment that should be filled with awe or empathy or desire by raising her shoulders and dropping them in resignation. If she spoke English, she would shrug and say, “Whatever.” But Armenian doesn’t contain such unbearably light words, and she is unwilling to bear the weight of the language it would take to make sense of what has happened to her. She hasn’t a clue that each time she encounters a thing she doesn’t aspire to feel, this emptiness crystallizes into another massive boulder until one day all roads leading to happiness have suddenly become impassable. For Ani will never again know what it means to be happy, not because happiness has of its own accord become an impossibility, but because she has chosen to shroud herself in sharpness to conceal what is truly within, which is an unrelenting pain. She is cherished in her home, adored in the circles of town that matter, and still wanted by many men, albeit mostly ones who have wives they would never leave. But she suffers in silence, where it is safe for sorrow to grow until it has veiled her soul like a climbing ivy.
But now motherhood has come, and Leyla is all there is in Ani’s world, all there will ever be. Each time the girl breaks into one of the frequent feverish spells that come to define her shortly after her second birthday, Ani fusses about spreading mustard and butter on Leyla’s chest, covering the mess with newspapers, then a shirt and a sweater, giving her a pill, singing a song, making hot chocolate with cocoa, butter, egg and milk, letting her eat too much or not at all, smoking cigarette after cigarette while she speaks on the telephone with friend after friend, sounding alarm, as if the girl were battling an illness that is threatening to take her life.
In the complete absence of faith in God or anything of divine nature and bolstered by her staunch belief that superstitions are for the uneducated, Ani scoffs at suggestions from neighbors and friends to bring the girl to a priest or a curse-chaser. Instead, as if she weren’t a daughter of the mountains, she turns to medicine to explain her daughter’s fevers and pains. But each doctor says the same: There is no sign at all of any illness. No one is able to explain why Leyla ails so often and so fiercely. Still, Ani refuses to speak aloud of this thing she comes to embrace over the years, despite her utmost efforts to reason with herself: Her daughter has fallen victim to at least one pair of evil eyes.
At night, Ani lies awake to make sure Leyla is breathing, although she has never had a reason to stop. When Leyla catches onto this habit of her mother’s, she begins to feign death. As Ani lies next to her, Leyla holds her breath so her chest won’t rise and fall under her mother’s palm. Ani shoots up in the bed, grabs her daughter by the shoulders and shakes her, and Leyla pretends to awaken from a dream. Sometimes, Ani is frightened enough to cry, as she strokes Leyla’s hair to ease her back into sleep. Each time her mother panics, Leyla feels something of a strange concoction of mockery and thrill, not because she is unkind but because she has begun to identify her mother’s hysterical trepidations as love. And what child doesn’t long to feel loved?
Despite her mysterious ailing and the overwhelming presence of her mother, Leyla is a happy child. She has her mother’s flair and tongue, and as her mother has never been like other women, Leyla is nothing like other girls. Despite Hasmik’s tireless attempts to lure her granddaughter into wearing the countless skirts she keeps sewing from fabrics and trimmings she picks out herself, Leyla fights with the boys, plays soccer, and bikes her knees into scabs, always hollering until a woman, often the midwife who had held her up in the light, hangs down from a window and shouts, “Ay Leyla jan, why are you the only child I hear, eh?”
The family hosts endless dinner gatherings, dish after dish being carried out of the kitchen to laughter, toasts, and singing to a lone guitar. Leyla grows up surrounded by actors, artists, opera singers, and ballet dancers. When she isn’t at school or out and about with her friends, she spends afternoons at the Theater of Opera and Ballet where Ani directs public relations. She sits on a stool backstage, or watches the ballerinas donning their costumes in cluttered dressing rooms. She spends summers at resorts in Armenia’s mountains, where she and Davit’s son Hayk walk along cliffs picking berries until the bucket is full, then run back, once chased by a wild boar, to give the berries to Hasmik. She simmers them with sugar on a low fire, and the children eat the jam with bread and butter the following morning.
Leyla knows nothing of her father. In fact, until one day when she is seven years old, she doesn’t even know that she doesn’t have one. She and Hayk have had the kind of day that, combined with other such days, adds up to a happy childhood. They have played outside, eaten Hasmik’s animal shaped pancakes, watched the shrewd rabbit exhaust the chain-smoking wolf into defeat with his ingenious shenanigans in a renowned Soviet cartoon, and not been involved in a single brawl with each other all day. As if all this were not enough, Davit comes home bearing two over-sized brown paper bags, each stuffed to the brim with toys. The children are already in bed when he comes in, but he turns on the light, and they sit up in their beds, glaring at the bags. Davit lets the children rummage through the toys, and they shriek, flailing their arms at each discovery of a toy they hadn’t expected to receive until New Year’s Day. They don’t want to test fate by asking for a later bedtime, so they put the toys back in the bags, hand them to Davit, and reach up to be embraced.
A few minutes later, Leyla lies in bed, tired, but still tickling with excitement about the soccer ball and badminton rackets with which she will play in the morning. She thinks about how kind and generous Davit is, how he would do anything at all to make his children happy. She smiles, in awe of her love for him, of how much more wonderful he is than any other father she knows.
Suddenly, everything submerges into a silence she has never known—Hayk’s muttering about his nunchucks, the sounds from the television always pouring into the bedroom through the folds of the French doors, the voices of the older children still playing outside, bound to keep her awake longer than she cares. All Leyla hears now are sounds within her own body—a gentle swooshing in her veins as blood rushes here and there, the beating of her heart in her temples and neck, steady and present, like the beat of a drum that bears news. “Papa,” she thinks, but then, “My papa? How can he be my father? He is Hayk’s father; not mine. Davit is my uncle.”
So it is that Leyla realizes something she should have been told years ago: She is a fatherless child. How could she not have known? How could they have never told her? Just as these thoughts have flooded her mind with no regard for whether they are welcome, so does her body take Leyla out of the bedroom. Entirely despite herself, she enters the living room, where Hasmik, Ani and Davit are watching a film. When she walks up to the armchair where Davit is sitting, he raises his eyebrows and smiles, as if it were a great surprise that Leyla should be awake only ten minutes after he had tucked her in. Leyla should laugh; papa’s faces always make her laugh. But she walks up to him, her right hand hardened into a tight fist, and punches his face with all her might. Davit doesn’t say a word, nor take his eyes off his daughter’s face, nor rise from his seat. He only wonders why this wasn’t one of the many ways he has imagined the moment Leyla would find out that he isn’t really her father. Tears gush from Leyla’s eyes. Her knuckles ache. Her body shivers as if it has suddenly become terribly cold, when only a few minutes ago, she had welcomed the breeze waltzing into the bedroom through the balcony door.
“You have been lying to me,” Leyla says to Davit. “You are not my father.”
She turns and walks away, out of the living room and back to her bed, as if marching in an invisible procession of mourners, somehow older, carrying her first growing pain. Little does she know the rock that is crushing her chest as she counts her steps is only the seed of the anguish that will grow until it occupies all the space in her soul. She doesn’t look at her mother and grandmother, and if they were to say anything, she wouldn’t hear them. No one follows her into the bedroom. Ani does not rush to console her daughter, if only to hold her and let her speak of this thing that has come and taken away all she has ever known. Ani is disappointed that Leyla knows because this knowing is bound to change everything. So she goes out onto the balcony and lights a cigarette.
Leyla is most furious with herself—for having taken ten years to infer something so evident. She is too smart, she thinks, to have been so fooled. “They had no right to lie to me about my father,” she says to herself, and resolves that, by next sundown, she will get answers to the many questions swarming in her head.
The next morning, Leyla refuses to go to school, and Ani surrenders to her daughter’s will. Leyla threatens dreadful consequences should her mother leave without first answering the questions that had kept her up all night. She sits down on the floor in the foyer and watches her mother scurrying, as she prepares to leave for work. First, Leyla speaks her questions softly, almost in a whisper, the way she speaks rarely, only when she feels as though unclenching her throat might unleash tears from her eyes. She is too proud a child to cry. Then, she shouts and hurls first one slipper, then the next, past her mother, intending not to strike her, but to be heard. Ani ignores the whispers and the slippers, as if doing so might take her daughter back to the moment before she had discovered that she had been born and raised in deception. She says a strained goodbye and closes the door still facing her daughter. As Ani’s heels click down the stairs and carry her away, Leyla shouts through the door that she will wait until her mother is back from work.
Every twenty minutes or so, all throughout the day, Hasmik emerges in the foyer and begs, several times through tears, once with flour caked to her hands, that Leyla go inside, sit on the sofa, eat a little, at least drink some sweet tea. But Leyla tells her grandmother that she, too, is guilty, and that she will not get off the floor until someone gives her an explanation. Hasmik won’t tell Leyla anything; can’t, she says, because the telling is her mother’s to do.
At three-thirty in the afternoon, Leyla hears a key turn in the lock. Ani walks in, carrying two grocery bags, not at all surprised to find her daughter sitting where she had left her seven hours before—because she had called from work several times during the day, and also, because she knows her daughter. Leyla is sitting on the floor, leaning against the wardrobe, legs and arms crossed, back straight, seething in an anger Ani will grow to know well.
“Tell me who he is,” Leyla demands.
Ani walks past her daughter without looking down at her or slowing her pace.
“I will tell you when you turn sixteen,” she says.
That is all.
Leyla turns her head as her mother disappears into the living room. She wants to throw herself to her mother’s feet, grab the hem of her skirt, pull her down to the floor, and fight for her right to know who she is. But she only sits there, trying to make sense of the secret she has uncovered, and this callousness it has unleashed in her mother. The door swings behind Ani, and a small breeze rushes toward Leyla, carrying the scent of her mother’s perfume.
In the living room, Hasmik has begun to plead with Ani to do something about this child—hasn’t eaten all day, won’t talk, wouldn’t even watch The Three Musketeers, only keeps crying, heart thin like paper. Ani does not respond to her mother’s pleas, nor speak a word to anyone at all until Davit joins her for a cigarette on the balcony and tells her that the time has come to tell Leyla the truth. Ani storms out, as if he, too, has betrayed her, as if he could have helped being discovered for who he is.
In the evening, the family sit down around the dining table, bare but for the red-and-white polka dot tablecloth and a crystal vase with chrysanthemums that have begun to wilt despite Hasmik’s relentless efforts to keep them alive. Davit tells Leyla her father’s name, explains that he is a writer and that he is married. Hasmik adds that Ashot has served short sentences here and there for criticizing the Party. Leyla knows enough to understand this means her father is a rebel. Hasmik leaves the room and comes back with a shoebox. She opens the lid to reveal some clippings of newspaper articles and a few photographs. Ani raises her eyebrows, rolls her eyes, and lets out a sigh that resembles a grunt. She doesn’t feel the need to conceal how displeased she is that all these years her mother has been collecting relics of a man she should have been wishing dead. Leyla is intrigued enough to forget her wrath, if only for a moment, when she hears that her father is so brave as to take a vehement stance against the Party, when even a child knows this could mean death, or worse yet, life in exile. Hasmik says Leyla can read the articles on her own, perhaps in a few years, when she is able to understand them better. She says that most are by Leyla’s father and that the few that were written by others condemn his questionable ideas and liaisons, all but accusing him of treason.
Leyla looks at the photographs, evidence of this new self she has uncovered. She thinks the man looks familiar. Then, she thinks he looks like every other bearded man. She wonders what she is supposed to feel now that she knows who her father is. Suddenly, she feels terribly other, as if she no longer belongs with the only family she has ever known. She can’t speak with them, can’t believe they have authored this pain that is making it difficult for her to breathe. She has just learned that she has a father and who he is, and yet for the first time, she is fatherless because the man who has raised her is now someone whose name she needs to learn to speak.
As if they were on opposite sides of a negotiation table, Ani makes an offer to her daughter—that Davit will take her to Ashot’s workplace, so that she can meet her father, if she would like. Within hours, Leyla has gone from knowing nothing of this man’s existence to learning his name, looking at his photographs, and now being asked to decide if she would like to meet him. Each moment fills her with a thousand questions that echo in the space within, where solitude has come to live. What would she say to this man, her father? What should she wear? Should she address him with the formal or informal you? Should she speak Russian or Armenian? Where had he been all these years? Leyla poses these questions to no one but herself.
“No,” she says to her grandmother, as if it weren’t her mother who had made the offer. “I don’t want to meet him,” and to Davit she says, “You are my father, and if I may, I’d like to continue calling you papa.” Davit says, of course, it is; he would have it no other way. He holds his daughter, so she can let the tears fall. Ani says nothing, and lights another cigarette.
A few days later, Hasmik succumbs to her granddaughter’s relentless questioning. She tells Leyla that her father had had a wife and two children, and that she was named after her five-year-old half-sister who had lost her life in a plane crash. From this day forth, each time Leyla looks in the mirror, she sees someone she doesn’t know.