THE ARMLESS SCARECROW
Translated by Meruzhan Harutyunyan
The water was purling through its thin bed as if tiny pebbles were rushing down from under the feet of a mountain goat. The grass blades of the brook bank were folding and unfolding in the water. And Haykaz’s face was folding and unfolding too, with the rhythm of the water. When it folded it had wrinkles, and when it unfolded the wrinkles remained. He was very old.
His neighbor was sitting on a round rock outside the fence, with his grandchild, who held a noisy toy in one hand, sitting in his lap. And the neighbor tapped the child’s hand that held the toy against his palm and softly sang a nursery rhyme. Though he looked as if he were sitting idly, he was watching the water that irrigated the gardens and was shared equally.
There was not much water. Only an hour, or two, or three … Haykaz stared at the blades of grass as they folded and unfolded, and he also stared at a frog that was jumping out of the water on to the grass and then back into the water. The cicadas were chirping incessantly and their shrill sound intensified the heat of the day. The shining sun had started to dance on the brook, but neither the water nor the sun managed to change the other’s temperature. Ripe yellow sunflower petals dropped on the water and glided away. Birds flew over the gardens. Their shadows did not have time to fold and unfold, as they disappeared so very fast. But the water caught their shadows, mixed them with the yellow sunflower petals, and carried them away. The donkey, browsing on the hillside and tired of the long sun, let out a long bray and broadcast its vulgar voice over the village, like church bells. Haykaz stood up. Then he dug up a piece of turf from a grass root and edged the root to another. He was watering. And again, an hour, or two, three, or four… He watched the thirsty soil drink the bubbling water, bursting the bubbles as it drank. He saw how the sky crossed over the brook without wetting its feet. He observed the donkey’s voice fuse, trembling, with the water and leaves. He watched his face folding and unfolding in the water. Then the brook grasped the mingled shadows and leaves, but his face remained, swaying over the rippled water. Then he suddenly began to complain about life: “How do you ruin a man’s life?” Then he heard a tap, tap, tap. He looked around. Yes, the water would keep purling, the cicada would keep chirping, the frog would keep splashing, the donkey would keep braying, the child would keep singing, and his toy and the scarecrow would remain as before!
The spread hands of the patchy scarecrow had rotted. And although there was no wind, for no reason at all they cracked, dropped, and fell to the ground. As they fell, unable to drop their weapons, they carried the two willow brooms with them. Their fall broke a few sunflower necks, but left the scarecrow’s head unharmed on its stick. The ugly face, with its ugly nose and mouth, had been drawn in machine paint, and the head was planted atop a stick, now armless and broomless, as if an emblem of disgrace. Haykaz stopped watering and rushed to the severed arms, which lay on the ground amidst the sunflowers, and picked them up. He was saddened. He respected the scarecrow. The fellow had stood there since the Communist days, for more than thirty or forty years: stood on duty, keeping watch over the sunflowers and scaring away the hostile crows. Haykaz had made the scarecrow, firmly tying its ugly head to the three-year-old poplar trunk with a piece of wire near where its nonexistent neck should have been. He had regretted cutting the poplar down. It had been tall, and on windy days it had spread cotton flakes and worms on the fruit trees. But he had had to: it was destroying the crop. For a long time, the poplar had served as the scarecrow’s handsome body and produced neither crop nor shade. It had always stood there, on a splendid elevation in the garden, and like God it could see everything, without interfering with anything. And for so many years it had neither spoken, nor hollered, nor threatened, nor punished. And it had always been there, and the birds were afraid of it.
First, Haykaz picked up the broken sunflower heads and laid them on the grass. He would give them to the neighbor’s grandchildren: they were from the city, and had to buy sunflower seeds in tiny cups. Then he picked up the arms. He had barely put his knee to them when the
straight stick that had served as the right qrm split in two. But the brooms were well preserved. He untied the wire and laid the brooms beside the sunflower heads. He would try, perhaps, to sweep the yard with them. He removed the scarecrow’s coat. It had been his, the one he used to wear when he was a driver, the black one with red stripes, made of good material. He had not worn it for more than three months. His friends used to ask him, mockingly: “Where did you get that majestic coat of yours?” It was not suitable for his job. He did not feel comfortable wearing it behind the wheel. So he had taken it off and put it on the scarecrow, which had worn a dress that belonged to his wife before that the dress she had burnt while baking bread. “Now, this female scarecrow has become a male,” he had said to himself while getting rid of his coat, and had laughed. “How everything in this world changes! There are people who change sex simply by changing their clothes.”
Now the coat was totally worn out and faded. One could not distinguish between the red and black. Beaten by rain and exposed to the sun, it had turned a kind of gray. The wind had scattered it with dirt and dust and it was covered with bird droppings, which looked like rows of medals and decorations. He tugged at its sleeves; they had not frayed too much. It had been made in Romania. Sadness covered his face when he recalled his life. He had been a well-known, skilled driver and worked for the government. He had been sent abroad. He had had the means to buy many precious things, enjoy himself, and relax on the beaches of Russia. He fervently pressed the coat to his chest. He happily remembered how he had looked for a present for his wife in a seaside-resort shop, with Russian girls hanging from his arms. In the end he had bought her a two-piece bathing suit. His mother had teased him until the end of her days: “You went to the end of the world and came back with half a pair of underwear. Why was my daughter-inlaw’s arse left hanging out in the breeze?”
He examined the coat carefully. God is great, he thought. The days were getting colder, the mornings bore the scent of snow, and he had no warm clothes. He shook the dust off the coat and examined it again. All the buttons were there and the lining was still good, not terribly worn. He checked the pockets: who knows? he might have left some money in them. He took a handkerchief; folded in four, with threadbare corners, from the right pocket. There was a hole in the other pocket, but he could not care less; he had nothing to put in it anyway; he had no need for a pocket. They had sold everything so they could survive this famous independence. They had only this tiny piece of land
and four walls left, but nobody would ever buy it. People were leaving their properties behind and going abroad to make a living. Who would pay good money for such shitty, barren walls? He continued to examine the coat. “What do you say! It’s still in good condition.” There were sparrow and crow droppings on the shoulders, which had dried in the sun and become completely petrified, like limestone, forming four- rageres, left and right, on both shoulders. It did not really matter. “A general of the vegetable fields!” He smiled at the scarecrow. He wiped the droppings off with his palm and scrubbed the ones that were more tenacious with his nails. Then he shook it out over the water. “It’s fertilizer; it’ll feed the gardens!” It did not make sense to buy a new coat in such impoverished times. His family had not received their pension for so many months. If it were not for grass and greens, they would have starved to death. For half the year they ate fresh greens, and for the other half they consumed dried grass, like animals. Life had not always been like this: war, famine, dogs, and officials who were worse than dogs. No joy or happiness. People attended weddings as if they were going to funerals, quietly and dismally. Who would notice or question why he was wearing this coat? Was this life? Going to bed at night and waking up in the morning! Three or four people in one bed, and before falling asleep they wondered which Armenian mountain would be sold the next day, and for how much. Others dreamed of a morning that would never dawn, so that they would not be bothered with the problems of life. “This is our daily prayer. What is left is only a void and an empty soul. And fortunately that is in the hands of God; otherwise we would have given it up too …” He stopped brooding. He shook the coat again and noticed that there were still dried droppings around the rims of the pockets. They looked like gray tears. “I got rid of them, didn’t I?” he said, as if satisfied. Then he thrust his thumb between his index and middle fingers and rudely planted his fist under the nose of the confused scarecrow stuck on the long rod, the nose at which the rain had spit continuously over the years, while sudden gusts of wind slapped at its head.
As he shook the droppings off the coat, he remembered his dying, consumptive godfather, who had become a skeleton. And he reflected that in a country where nature and the officials were equally cruel and the best food was water, living is harder than dying. Then he stared at the bare arms that had fallen off the scarecrow and asked himself, what if he were to bury them, just for fun. Then he imagined himself erecting a cross over the tomb, and smiled. Yes, and he would even carve an epitaph on it: “Here lie particles of the universe, the arms of a scarecrow, whose souls arc now with God,” 11c laughed out loud. He did not know why the scarecrow’s rotted arms and those of his dead, consumptive godfather seemed identical in his mind. And he devoted the utmost attention to the question of which would rot first, the coffin or the body it contained. And so he dropped the idea of burying the arms. He would place them under the stairs and keep them there to use as kindling at another time.
Then he looked into the running water of the brook and scrutinized his reflection from head to toe. He beat and shook the dust off the coat, then put it on. And as if standing in front of a mirror, he turned a little to the right, and observed himself in the water.
“It suits you well.”
The strange voice made him shudder. It was the postman.
“Believe me. It’s a wedding coat, the best,” insisted the postman.
Haykaz was delighted to hear the praise and said, “All right then, whenever you go anywhere important, I’ll lend it to you.”
“Thank you, my friend, but I have nowhere to go. I used to go to town once a year to collect the pensions, but they’ve stopped now.”
“Now, does your visit mean that you’ve brought them today?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“You haven’t brought any money. What use are you to me?” Haykaz took off the coat and placed it under his arm.
“I came to let you see that I want to do my work.”
“Take this,” said the old man and pulled one of the sunflower heads from off the grass, handed it to him, and laughed. “Now, let me retire you from service,” he smiled: “every time you come and go, you wear your shoes out.”
The postman took the sunflower. He removed the stamens from the flower disk, which had been a landing pad for the bees all summer long. But the bees had not taken all the pollen, and his palm was stained yellow.
“I’m just dying for fresh seeds,” said the postman, spitting out the shells through his teeth.
“Seeds or semen?” asked Haykaz jokingly, looking at his lips, which had turned black from the seeds. Then he held the postman’s arm firmly and whispered into his ear, “Is it true that you do it with your step-daughter?”
The postman stepped back, horrified.
“You’re mad. You come out with things and scare people to death,” Then he thrust his thumb under his wide belt, pulled it out loosely, and asked. “Now tell me, can a man like this, do it with a woman? Don’t you see? I put in a piece of clastic to keep it tight,” and he released the belt.
Haykaz went into the garden and directed the water into another bed, then led the postman to the gate.
“Do you listen to the radio? What’s going on in the world?”
The postman tip-toed carefully over the damp grass. “Oh, nothing special. The world’s doing just fine.”
“Do you think the U.S. wants to rule the world?” asked the old man, stretching out his leg like a pissing dog to let the water run off his shoe.
“Is it true that the U.S. has come to help … to give the pensioners flour and vegetable oil?”
“Yes, it is, but the flour is full of worms and the oil is rancid,” he said, and stepped out into the yard.
“And why so little?”
“I don’t know; they say we’re a third-world country.”
“And the first and second worlds?”
“Perhaps they are,” laughed the postman.
“Come on, go easy,” Haykaz tried to reassure the man: “We’re one of the first in God’s order. If they give out their aid parcels, bring the flour here. We’ll bake bread and give it to the dog, the wretched thing. It didn’t even bark when you arrived, did it?”
The postman looked at the stone doghouse where the dog was lying. Its ears were white and the rest of it was black. The postman said, “It’s so starved you can count its ribs. Never mind a friend, it couldn’t even bark at an enemy.”
The old man made wet footprints in the dry dust as he went over to the dog house and, groaning, dropped to his knees and untied the dog, “Why aren’t these animals herbivorous? Go now, take a little walk and catch rats and mice in the fields. But come home in the evening,” he advised the animal.
“It might better go down to the lake,” said the postman. “There was a terrible wind last night and the waves might have thrown frogs and fish on to the shore.”
The dog swayed like a newborn calf and sat down in front of the dog house. Haykaz worried, “Is it going to die?”
“Oh, no, don’t you worry,” said the postman, “It’s just not used to freedom.”
Haykaz’s old wife saw the postman’s head from under the tree where she sat and dropped the herb leaves from her lap. She was plaiting them together to dry for the winter. She was bent over by the salt in her joints and advanced age. She approached them, rubbing her calcified and warped knee joints. Before reaching the postman she decided that if he had brought her pension for the past two months she would go to the neighboring village and visit her sick sister. She even thought of the present she would like to take her: macaroni, but not Persian- that caused diarrhea.
“How is the little lady? Is her pressure up?” the postman asked politely.
“Pressure isn’t pension. It’s pension that doesn’t go up,” said Haykaz, and told his wife, “No money; he’s come to say there’s no hope.”
“What can I do?” asked the postman, shrugging. “It’s not a government.” He stopped for a moment. He did not want to be impolite in the presence of a woman. In his mind he tried to give his swear words a certain literary distinction and said, “All of them are bungling, greedy officials; they know nothing about law and respect.”
Haykaz stretched out his hand, picked out a few sunflower seeds, put them all into his mouth, chewed them, and swallowed his saliva.
“There’s only one comfort,” he said, briskly, spitting out the shells at his feet: “Every state lives longer than its self-appointed officials.”
“Now, even the brainless scarecrow governs an entire garden; they aren’t even scarecrows!’
“This very land,” said the old man, and stamped his feet, “has no lack of brains … intelligent people. But this land lacks honesty and has no conscience. For instance, an ass has no brains either, but it has a conscience before God and performs its duty honestly, carrying its load to the end. Take Hitler. Who can say he was stupid? Could a stupid man conquer the world? So you’re better off with an ass over you than a Hitler. At least you can ride an ass and go wherever you want. But them? There’s nothing worse than an evil man with brains; he becomes the Devil himself. It’s impossible to bring him up, or reform him, or make him honest; he should just be destroyed. Unfortunately you can’t fight universal evil with mere human power.”
“Now that you mention it, I remember our poor old veterinarian. How can they do such things?” said the postman angrily. “The man can’t stand on his feet. He’s dizzy and his knees tremble. Naturally, he has had no bread or sugar for years. Yes, and he’s going to die soon.” “And I’ve heard,” said the old woman horrified, “that the sons of our valiant soldiers in Yerevan have to steal and the daughters have to become prostitutes. There’s no other way to survive in this country.” “You don’t know the half of it, sister. Children are shipped abroad from the orphanages, as if they were gold bars. And there they’re taken apart like old machines, and aged millionaires buy their organs to replace their sick hearts or diseased lungs. And in Europe they make top-quality perfume from little boys’ testicles. Oh, my God, who would have expected this from Europe?”
“Oh, my Lord!” exclaimed the woman in utter dismay, and she covered her mouth with her hand.
“What a shitty world and what a shitty humanity,” said the postman, and he opened his arms wide as if to contain the world between them. “Even God couldn’t imagine such cruelty; He’d be shocked if He knew about it.”
They stood at the gate and grieved for the old veterinarian as if mourning one who had recently died. The old couple remembered how the old vet had taken care of their hen’s broken leg, bandaging it. And to express her gratitude the hen had laid a dozen eggs.
Then the postman said goodbye.
After he left, Haykaz put the coat back on, to show it to his wife. “I took it off our scarecrow; his arms were rotting and they dropped off like rotten teeth,” The old man laughed and patted the old, gray coat. “How does it look?” he asked.
The wife stared coldly at the figure of her husband wrapped in the weather-ravaged coat: “The shoulders sag a little, and your bones are rotten, too,” she said, as if discerning the passing of the years. “But it’s good; the scarecrow is ours and the coat is too, so there’s no shame.” Haykaz sat under the lilac tree for about an hour, smoking his raw tobacco. He almost choked on the bitter smoke a few times, and coughed hard. He wiped his watery eyes until the old woman, moaning heavily now and then, had finished plaiting the herbs.
A bee, its bum turned to heaven, poked its face and nose into the soul of a potted flower which was sunning itself on the ledge, digging and rubbing its feet on the petals. It needed nectar. Haykaz stared at the bee, thinking of life, until his wife finished her work. Then the couple put the herb plaits on their shoulders, carried them to the house, and hung them from the window handles. Then the old woman look some warm water and an old sock and wiped the filth from the coat. She washed the whole collar. Then she placed it on a chair. “It’ll dry by morning,” she said a few times.
In the evening they put some thyme in boiled water and drank it as tea. The wife complained that she couldn’t close her eyes at night. “My head is cold,” she said.
“Your blood doesn’t circulate properly; it must be upsetting you,” Haykaz concluded, and went into the kitchen. There he found an old tin box of candies, left over from Soviet times, and he also discovered some white vitamin A tablets. He used to give them to the sheep to prevent diarrhea. The expiration date on the bottle had passed. He brought it and a glass of water to his wife.
“It’s a sedative; it’ll make you sleep. Drink it; it’ll help your circulation.”
The wife swallowed the vitamin, gazing at her husband in gratitude. Haykaz took the glass back to the kitchen and returned, rubbing his hands to warm them. He was shivering. His bones were cold. Autumn was coming. The wind would frighten them again, beating against the windows; it would cry and whistle outside, tearing the leaves off the trees, and they would wrap themselves in blankets and drink boiled water to warm their frozen blood. And it was quite possible that on the coldest day of winter they would have no more boiled water, and all their wood, kerosene, papers, and books would have already been depleted. There would only be organic things left to burn: their own bodies, and passports-of the sickly citizens of the respectable Republic of Armenia.
He took the old carpet out of the closet and put it on his shoulders. Years ago, they used to spread it over the apple boxes to protect them against the cold. Then he went into the bedroom. On his way he clapped his hands in the air, killing a moth. Then he called, “There arc still four days to autumn, but it’s cold in the house, just like winter.”
“There hasn’t been any heat for years; what do you expect? And don’t forget the dampness from the lake,” cried the old woman from behind the steam of the herbal tea.
“And the floor is rotten. It stinks.”
He came back from the bedroom and drank the herbal tea, warming his palms by holding his cup firmly in both hands. Then he set the cup down carefully and exclaimed in a low hiss, “Sons of bitches! Who do they think they are, those bloody bastards, to humiliate me with my own stomach?” and with a majestic gesture he threw a little cloth bundle on the table. A few American dollar bills fell out of the package and a click was heard. It was a gold piece that made the click.
“I’m going to town tomorrow, for food,” the old man said.
The wife stared at him. Her eyes shone in the cold. “Did you borrow that?”
“From whom?” Haykaz swallowed back the swear word, and instead moved his lips angrily, “These bastards have turned the country into a land of beggars like themselves.”
The woman fixed her cold stare on him, as if on a void, like the autumnal skies.
“This is that money,” he said in answer to the woman’s frozen stare, as if holding the word that in the highest regard.
“That money?” the old woman repeated as she untied the bundle. “Our christening crosses! The money we got by selling the meat from the lambs that died in the cold stable! And we were keeping it for our funeral.” She stroked the content of the bundle. “But what can you buy with this? There isn’t even enough to buy two coffins.” She looked distressed. “To eat our eternal rest in a day and then run to the toilet! And… the crosses? The crosses aren’t just made of gold; they’ve been blessed. We can’t sell them!”
“There’s just one thing we can’t do at the moment. We can’t die. Whatever we have to do to stay alive is just fine.”
“Even sell articles that have been blessed?” The surprised old woman covered the money and the crosses with her palm.
Haykaz ground his teeth. “We have to.”
“We’ll manage without this,” said the old woman, who did not like the idea of giving up the shiny coffins and scented candles from Yerevan, the light of which attracted the angels. “We’ve lived well enough for eighty years; can’t we live a bit longer the same way? If we can’t put up with it, what will the children inherit? They haven’t had much of a life at all.”
“Your soul will live on, but what about your body? Don’t you see we’re very old?” Haykaz was persuading his wife, without looking at her eyes. “Do you want to end up like the old veterinarian, who can’t even stand on his own feet?”
“And do you want us to be like the old couple in the next block, taken away quietly in the middle of the night, with no coffins, and dumped into a hole and covered over with a bit of earth, like cat shit?”
“You don’t have to go that far. Let’s hope the Lord will be kinder when He calls us. He was when He brought us into this life.” The old man removed his wife’s wrinkled hand from the bundle, wrapped everything in the cloth, and put it in the pocket of his scarecrow coat, which was drying on the chair. A paper folded into four remained on the table.
“And keep our will in a safe place,” the old man said.
“In a pillow?”
“In a pillow or any other safe place.”
The old woman promptly put the paper in her pocket. “We shouldn’t leave the house to our boys,” she said. Will they leave their Americas and Europes and come back here to live among rocks, snakes, and scorpions? We should leave it to the old-age home.”
“The old people there have already lived their lives and earned their share of Heaven or Hell; they have one foot here and the other in Heaven. What good is our house to them?”
“But then our house will have no one to look after it. You know how hard we worked to put it up.”
“It won’t come to that, don’t worry. Our boys will come back home. A man can be fed in strange lands, but he can never be happy.” “But arc you sure they’ve gone there for happiness? They might be there to fill their stomachs, and that’s enough to live.”
“God only knows.”
“God has become poor, and so have we. How would He know?” “Okay, get on your feet now,” the old man replied, patting her on the shoulders to encourage her. “Let’s go to bed before it gets completely dark. It’s harder to move around in the dark.”
“The man from the electricity department says we have to pay at least a couple of dollars before we can have our electricity back.”
“A couple of dollars is a lot of money. We could buy three loaves of bread and some butter for that. Where are we supposed to find that kind of money?”
The old woman shuffled her old feet into the bedroom. While her husband went to the door, closed it with a loud bang, and locked it, she picked up the pillows from the bed, fluffed them to make them softer, and thrust them under the blankets without removing the cover.
“We roost with the hens,” she said jokingly. “And this damned insomnia. Thinking and thinking and thinking … all night long. I feel my heart rise in my throat until I can feel it in my mouth; it’s worse than dying.
“What more do you want?” said her husband seriously: “You have something in your mouth to chew on. And you won’t suffer from hunger.”
Haykaz slipped under the blanket without taking his clothes off. Then he bellowed: “Ouf!” God, it’s cold! Don’t take your clothes off either: let the bed get a little warmer; then you can undress.”
“Why undress?” The shivering old woman slipped under the blanket.
Haykaz, stammering from the cold, continued, “Life was as cold as this only when my mother died. The poor woman went out to the stable to water the animals and died there, at the manger.”
“She was very lucky,” said the old woman enviously, “to die living. And we live dying.”
“Oh, oh, take it easy!” Haykaz was shivering under the blanket. He blew into his palms for about half an hour, warming himself with his own breath.
The woman said, “I had a vision of my grandfather yesterday, exactly at midnight. He died young, as you know. I didn’t know if it was a dream. He was sitting in the yard, on the grass, and breaking apricot stones. He asked me how I was. I sighed and told him that we were barely managing to stay alive. Then he broke a stone, split it in two, gave me one half and took the other himself, and asked me to give his regards to the folks at home. And I wished him well.”
As if in answer to these greetings from beyond, Haykaz snored and snorted.
“Oh, Oh,” pronounced the old woman and, resigning herself to suffering through another sleepless night, she pressed herself tightly against her husband, hoping to get warmer. “Why did you untie the dog?” she asked. “It would be rattling its food bowl and making some noise, and I wouldn’t feel so lonely.”
In the morning Haykaz put on the scarecrow coat and his pointed shoes, which had trodden all over Europe. The pointed shoes were unbelievably narrow and long. They had been left behind by their young neighbor, who had married a woman from Moscow. The woman was five years older than he. When the young man came to say goodbye to his parents, he left his shoes.
“All Europe is wearing shoes like this,” said the neighbor, to justify their impertinent long-pointedness when he gave them to Haykaz. “They aren’t my size,” he added, “but they’re brand new; it’d be a shame to throw them away.”
Outside in the yard, the old woman noticed a few more bird droppings on the back of the coat.. She had not been wearing her glasses when she had cleaned it. She brushed them off. “Good!” She was pleased.
Haykaz put his hands in his pockets and walked to the gate. He was holding the handkerchief in the pocket and planning what he would buy for the cold autumn and winter. He looked satisfied. Then he turned his head and asked. “Have we got a kerosene can?”
The old woman, who was standing on the steps, nodded. Haykaz smiled and kept walking. After a while he stopped, turned around, and asked: “Have we got a safe place to keep the flour, away from the mice?”
“Yeah, yeah,” the wife replied, smiling. She watched him for a few minutes and decided to wave at him, as she used to, if he turned around again, but he did not. He took his wrinkled old hands out of his pockets, folded them behind his back, and walked on. He reached the gate. He pulled on the iron door to open it, but it did not cooperate. The old man stopped, took a deep breath, sighed deeply, and tried it again; it opened. Then he cautiously lifted his foot, passed through the gate, and left it open.
The old woman noticed how the sky was suddenly dotted by a flock of birds that thrashed the air over her head. She was worried for the sunflowers. Would the birds notice that the scarecrow had lost its arms? She stopped watching the sky and shouted after her husband: “Don’t forget the sugar!”
Without looking back, the old man lifted his hand as if in greeting, to signal that he had heard her. Then he kicked a stone with the tip of his shoe.
The old woman watched her husband walk away. She was saying the Lord’s Prayer to herself. She kept watching him and when she reached the words: “…for Thine is the kingdom,” she stopped and thought in horror: “Amen.”