նյույորքյան The Brooklyn Rail հանդեսում
Առաջին հրապարակումը՝ Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2018
When the Europeans came to see the girl, they were still naïve because the driver hadn’t told them yet: “When we get there, we’ll be offered strained yogurt. Folks in these parts eat strained yogurt with rose-petal preserve and that’s the best. When’ll we get there? In about twenty minutes, when the highway ends and we turn right. Then we’ll take the first side road. It’s about fifteen minutes long, after which . . . No, we won’t come to the village, yet . . . but it will be closer. When we get off the first side road, we’ll turn left and get on the second side road, which is twice as long as the first one, so we’ll be on it for about half an hour. And then the village will be even closer. Once we get off the second road and keep going straight, we’ll get to an incline, after which . . . Yes, we will be closer to the village. But not quite there . . . We’ll have to go up the incline . . . If we make it, we’ll reach the mountain’s jaw. You’d think the village would finally appear because it has nowhere else to go. And it will, of course, but not right away. If we make it up the incline, we’ll reach the path that’ll take us—it’s three kilometers on foot—to the cliff, which we’ll have to climb . . . It’s worth the suffering . . . Strained yogurt with rose-petal preserve . . .”
When the Europeans came to see the girl, they were still naïve. The driver hadn’t told them any of this yet, and he wasn’t really inclined to. For the moment, he was just mumbling a song: There’s no one else with me in this place but God. The car was dancing over the stones. Sometimes, when the driver braked suddenly, the passengers in the back would be thrust forward, banging their stomachs against the backs of the front seats; this would bring up the food they had eaten seven days ago. The driver warned them, pausing his song: “Tell me if you get sick–don’t vomit on my neck.” The visitors took it as a joke, laughed heartily, and thought they’d arrived as soon as the car turned off the highway. One of them kept steadying the camera hanging on his chest. He hoped to photograph weeping rocks and mountains cracked by the sun, to impress his technocratic countrymen with nature’s ways. But when the car turned off the highway, two kilometers in, after passing over rocks as sharp as Satan’s nails, the thick American tires were shredded and the passengers now had to carry the car instead of the car carrying them. And when they reluctantly got out of the car and looked at the world of stones around them and the steep incline ahead of them, they whistled in surprise and fear. They began sweating in the sun and had no choice but to push the car, ripping their shoes and pants on the sharp rocks. They were still naïve because they thought the hardest part of what was left for them to do to reach the village would be going up the incline, because it was impossible to imagine a higher and steeper place than that. But . . . there was a steeper place—it had simply been impossible to imagine. So when the Europeans finally came to see the girl, they were exhausted, beaten by the rocks, shoes and clothes torn. But at the moment they were still not there. They were still naïve. They sang the national anthems out of despair, encouraging each other, moaning, pushing the car, and spitting dust and stone. And when they reached the top they saw that there was yet another unimaginable, rocky incline, with rocks blacker and sharper than Satan’s nails, with the glimmering, coiling vein of the gold mine between the nails–and one of them cursed and wept, removing his hands from the car and beating his head. The car rolled back, almost crushing everyone else. Panic-stricken and shouting, they drove their feet against the ground, ripping their soles and heels. Red in the face from all the tension and howling foreign words, they somehow stopped the car. Even then the terrified Europeans were still naïve. The driver kept looking at them with pity, he wanted to say something to comfort them and alleviate the cruelty of the stones and the sun. He said, “The sky is so close here that it rains when angels weep.” Then he looked at them and added: “But that happens in October, when the mountains are covered in snow and dreams can’t find their way to the sky.”
When the Europeans finally reached the village hidden in a hollow at the top of the mountain, they were still naïve. Swallowing the sun and scorched air, bleeding and with clothes torn like the persecuted escaping from Hell, they had already lost hope that there was such a place that could be reached. As they dragged their bodies past a pile of stones — staggering, hungry, sweaty and cursing and still naïve, the old men weeding behind a stone fence straightened their backs, and one of them wiped his soiled hands on his shirt and, squinting his right eye against the blinding sun and with the other eye examining the foreigners, he asked, “Who are the visitors this time?”
“Europeans,” answered the man next to him, smirking at their tattered clothes, the cameras hanging from their necks, and their sweaty backs and legs weak with exhaustion.
“And where is Europe?”
“Oh, thousands of kilometers away!”
“U-u-uh,” the first old man, who was weeding bean beds, drawled indulgently.
* * *
When the Europeans came to buy the girl, they were naïve, because everyone knew that she’d already sold her body once at sixteen.
It was her father who brought the buyers from Yerevan. To be precise, he brought the second buyers. The first ones came by helicopter . . . It was August when they came. The sun had burned the mountains and the peaks looked like grief-stricken souls. The small and large stones had covered themselves with moss so as not to crack and their singed skin smarted underneath the moist roots of moss. It was an ordinary summer, and the helicopter, together with its passengers, melted and dripped down on the cliffs. The father met the second group in Yerevan and brought them to the village on a lame donkey that had been attacked by a pack of wolves a few months ago and had lost its right hind hoof. The visitors took turns sitting on the lame donkey, respecting one another, granting the privilege to moan and groan to the elders, tormenting themselves, and admiring the height of the mountains, and the closeness to God. They suffered, but did not complain. They said: “At this height, the entrance is easier for heavenly beings than for earthly men.” From that day on they’d boast that they had taken part in the building of the Tower of Babel because they’d reached the knees of God and gotten tangled in his beard. Praising nature, getting sunburned, envying those who lived in this pristine place, they arrived in the village to buy the girl. These were polite Russian men who kept kissing the women’s hands from the moment they arrived until their departure. In the village, they called such men castrates. Hiding behind trees and rocks, the village children followed the visitors and laughed at their hand-kissings, their “sorrys,” and “thankyous.”
The father slaughtered a lamb born in the fall (it had been coughing and might have been sick). They put the table outside, somewhat away from the scarecrow, where the sunflowers had thrust their heads so high up into the sky that the angels might have thought the birds flying around them were spies.
The guests ate the steaming lamb stew with great appetite, throwing the gnawed bones to the cats gathered under the tree.
“Which one of your daughters are you going to sell?” the Russian asked, taking a piece of lavash from the youngest girl’s hand. The host pointed his index finger at Noem, who was washing greens in the spring to bring to the table.
“I like this one better,” the Russian said, picking up some more lavash and eyeing up the youngest. “The one you’re pointing to is a bit faded and pale.”
“Nonsense,” the father disagreed. “Wait till night falls . . . You haven’t seen such a wonder. No one has ever seen such a wonder!”
Noem had known for a few months that they were coming to buy her and that she would have to get undressed. She even tried to get undressed in front of the mirror, and her mother made her do it twice in front of her brothers and sisters, so that she’d get used to the idea and not make a scene in front of the guests. But she felt nervous now that the buyers were here.
At around eleven at night, when the mountain exhaled the moon from its mouth, the mother came to fetch her.
“I feel ashamed,” whimpered Noem.
“You have no conscience,” the mother reproached her. “Your father nearly killed himself going back and forth to the post office and sending letters. He spent so much money, slaughtered a lamb . . . What are you ashamed of? You have undressed in front of your brothers so many times! What’s to be ashamed of?”
“My brothers are ten years younger than me. I see their naked bodies too when I bathe them, but these . . . a bunch of old men,” Noem sat huddled on the edge of the sofa, crying. “I don’t need any money.”
“I don’t either,” her mother said. “But we aren’t talking about just any money—it’s a lot of money . . . You can build a church with that kind of money. What’s to be ashamed of? Imagine you have gone to the doctor, say, your chest hurts or you’ve broken your leg. Aren’t you going to show it to him? Aren’t you going to let him examine you? But it’s all right if you don’t want to,” she said, sitting down on the edge of the sofa and sighing. “Your father’s knee? Let it hurt. The bones get soft like chalk anyway. He has lived healthy for fifty years–he can live with a little pain now . . . There are people who are born sick, what about them? We aren’t fascists after all! We don’t want to torture you. If you don’t want to . . . although what’s there to be ashamed of? Men become sexless with age like angels. And your father . . . Well, you’re of his flesh. Are you ashamed of your hands, your legs, your eyes, your heart? You would’ve saved us if you’d agreed. We’d have gone to live in the city. Everything is made for people there—for their convenience. You call this life? But it’s alright, you don’t have to,” she stammered tearfully. “We’ve lived on the edge of this mountain for a hundred years, and we’ll live on it a hundred more . . .”
The Russians were standing by the door and listening to the sound of tumbling stones mixing with the breath of the mountain, greedily sniffing the air and the sky, waiting for Noem to come out from the back door of the house.
“My God,” gasped one of them, seeing the girl running through the garden, “What a marvel!”
“A living moon,” another said eagerly.
“Didn’t I tell you?” the father boasted, “You didn’t believe me. What’s the moon compared to this? They say it’s artificial, made by extraterrestrials to keep an eye on Earth, while this here is all natural, created by God.”
Noem ran through the rows of sunflowers and stopped near the scarecrow. The scarecrow stood proud and tall with its straw hair piercing the sky’s eye, like a thorn. Its three-meter-long dress made of varicolored rags reached to the ground, hiding its body, made of boards. It had no arms because it was only a scarecrow and its straw hair was enough to terrify the birds. A rusted iron pail hung from its neck, which was now just above Noem’s head. The children believed that stars would fall into the pail at dawn, but her mother dutifully cleaned it once a month, emptying the bird droppings under the trees. The girl clutched with both hands onto the scarecrow’s dress gown stiff with dirt.
“Come home, you’ll catch cold,” her father shouted in the direction of the scarecrow.
Noem pulled the scarecrow’s dress. It slipped down. The girl took it from the ground, wrapped it around her naked body and walked home through the rows.
The charmed men were sitting in a room, and their eyes burned when Noem entered. The oldest, with blue eyes and a beard, resembling a kindly sorcerer from a fairy tale, approached Noem.
“Can you lie down somewhere, say, on the couch or the table? Wherever you like.”
“Of course she can,” Noem’s father responded instead of her.
“Please, go outside,” said the other man, “We don’t need you anymore. We’ll take it from here.”
The father left the room and one of the men locked the door after him in order not to be disturbed.
Shivering, Noem laid on the couch. The men encircled her. One of them turned off the light.
“Forgive us,” said the old man, bowing over Noem. “Due to the specificities of your body, we have to carry on in the dark,” and he carefully pulled down the dress from her chest. One man carefully moved her toes, another man started examining her chest, leg, and then her arm with a microscope . . . Yet another pinched her thigh, and another made a scratch near her elbow with a needle.
“Can you please bend your knees? The position you’re in isn’t convenient for us . . . we have to see everything and ascertain everything. You see, my girl, it’s sacrilege for a man of my age to touch a woman of your age, but I must examine you–that’s my profession. We can produce any effect now with the help of medicine and chemistry. We’re going to spend a large amount of money to acquire you, so we must examine everything” The old man switched on his small flashlight, shining it in the girl’s face, brushing her hair to the side, feeling a spot on her neck, and rubbing it with a wet cotton ball. Leaning down, he breathed on her face for a few minutes without removing his gaze from her neck, then he rubbed her with the wet cotton again, breathed on her face some more, and finally, satisfied and victorious, mewed under his nose: “Wonderful! Excellent!”
They each approached, looked curiously at her neck, breathed anxiously on her face, not believing, and each in his own turn rubbed her neck again, slightly to the right or left of the original spot. They waited, took the microscope, and examined her cell by cell, all coming to the same conclusion: “Wonderful! Excellent!”
Then they turned on the light. Two of the scientists approached Noem, one held her arm while the other said: “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt,” and he pushed the needle into her vein.
* * *
“There is no deception,” said the blue-eyed old man, coming out of the room, “Everything is all right, everything is perfectly natural . . .”
“I know,” replied the father smoking by the window, “the local doctor says that seventy percent of her body is phosphorus. That’s why she glows like that at night.”
“It’s possible,” said the old man. “But it’s a fact that she’s a wonder.”
They drank wild apple wine, sitting in the garden beneath the heads of sunflowers. The lawyer, papers and stamp tucked under his arm, kept tapping the glass to get rid of the bubbles in the young wine.
“My girl,” he said, taking Noem’s hand, “regardless of what your parents think, you must know everything before signing the papers. I’d like to tell you the most important things you need to know before selling yourself . . . We are Christian Armenians, after death we have to be buried in the ground and go either to heaven or to hell. There are no other options. You must know that after this transaction you’ll lose all of that. You won’t have a grave or a gravestone in the form of the ancient Armenian cradle and your parents won’t come to your grave to burn incense for you. After death, all of your relatives and neighbors will be buried in the village cemetery, but you won’t be there. After death, your body will belong to science. Scientists will study you, in order to understand why some people, like you, can emanate light like the moon does, while others can’t. By study, we mean that after death you won’t be buried, that they’ll break your body, cut it into pieces, dissolve, decompose, boil, treat it chemically and with high temperatures. They must mutilate you, my girl, to understand why you aren’t like everyone else. Do you consent to this?” he asked. “If we sign the contract now, the government will immediately pay half of the sum, while the rest will be paid to your parents after your death, after handing over the raw material, so to speak. Think about it, my girl, do you consent to this?”
Everyone was anxiously waiting. Her brothers, sisters, and neighbors had gathered near the scarecrow, and even the cats had left the bones under the tree and joined them.
“A psychological study could also produce some excellent results. It wouldn’t hurt to discuss that as well,” one of the members of the group suggested to the blue-eyed old man, while Noem was thinking.
“I wouldn’t advise it,” said the lawyer, who’d been invited from Yerevan, leaning forward. “Armenian women don’t open their souls completely even to God . . . That’s going to be an unnecessary expense–a loss of time and money.”
“I wouldn’t have agreed anyway,” said the father, taking the plate with sliced fruits from his wife’s hand and setting it on the table. “Despite everything, only God may touch my daughter’s soul. Humans are unworthy of that.”
The group of scientists left early in the morning. It was so early that the rooster hadn’t called yet, but the stars in the cool mist around the mountains had already disappeared. The guests said thank you for everything—for the hospitality, for the generosity, and for signing the contract.
“We really enjoyed you. We’re very interested in you,” the old scientist said, shaking Noem’s hand. “Until our next meeting! We’ll be waiting . . . for your death,” he joked.
“We will too,” laughed the father.
* * *
They hadn’t even spent half of that money when the Soviet Union collapsed and the ruble was devalued. Armenia declared its independence from the Soviet Union and entered into a new partnership with the European Union.
When the Europeans came, they were naïve because they didn’t know that the Russians had been there before them. The Russians, who’d come before the Europeans, came after the Ottomans. The Persians, who’d come before the Ottomans, knew that before them and after the Seljuks came the Tatars and the Mongols, and even before that—the Arabs, who came, it seems, after the Greeks. They had come at the same time as the Egyptian pharaohs, before the Romans, who had come before the Byzantines, who came after the Assyrians, who came after the Khuris. But even before that—Noah had passed through here and he had stopped, because God himself had passed through this place. And Noah was the only one who’d left something instead of taking something away. Otherwise, it would’ve been impossible to know that God had passed through here. And then the Europeans wouldn’t have come.
Translated by Shushan Avagyan
First published at Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2018
Կարդալ նաև այստեղ