The Most Precious Gift: A Short Novel by Vazgen Sargsyan
Poghos Sahakyan is sick. He has only himself to blame; at the age of seventy five he acts like a twenty five year old. He drank cold water when he was digging the garden covered with sweat, he was told that he would get sick, he laughed: "On 1949 in Siberia when I was crossing the river the ice broke and I fell into the water. I hardly came out of the river; I did not do anything but outpoured the water from my boots and continued my way. What happened to me…"։
Poghos Sahakyan is the rare type of a sturdy man. He is very attached to his land, with an extraordinary will and power and at the same dainty and optimistic. The optimism is especially astounding; well, he had a very hard life. There were hideous times when the person could lose his life for naming the black color black. Poghos Sahakayan is the victim of those times. He had spent best years of his life in prisons and exiles. He has gone though many things. But still he never called the black color white. He still has not learned to call the black white. And he has never regretted for his bad life. He never feels aggrieved. He is only a little bit jealous of us as a father: "You live in good times." He reproaches as well: "You have gone too far, way to go. Only you have gone up and moved away from our lands, you do not want to take care of them." His take on life is approximately the following: "The churchеs that we are now worldwide proud of were being blown up. Our feet in the warm tandoors we would pronounce curses the ones blowing up the churches; Ghazaryan Tsolak leaned his back against the wall of the church, he stood there and said those that think they are men let them touch the church. The church preserved its existence. Before long Tsolak was taken away. When he was leaning his back against the church he knew he would be taken. Tsolak came to this world, left it and the church is still standing. But it could have been the opposite way..."
It is a pleasure to listen to Poghos Sahakyan. He tells stories in an interesting way, without overcoloring, without detailing, he does not give advice, he is telling and you can understand as you wish. Now he is sick in bed. The doctor has forbidden him to smoke. He is smoking and telling quietly.
As if they got up from the ground. I was twenty-twenty one year old. There was famine. I had taken glasses for lamps to the upper villages, had exchanged them with wheat and was returning home. They surrounded me like a horde of wolves. They were highwaymen. I had heard about them a lot, it did not matter to them whether you are a human being or a chicken, and I knew that. They stripped me off within a minute: weapons, clothes, and boots. And now they are deciding with each other whether to kill me or no. It was cold, freezing cold; I was standing on the snow with a thin shirt on and waiting. In my mind I had already met my death and had no fear. Even if they did not kill me, the wolves would devour me.
«Kill me,— I said,— what are you waiting for?». It was like the cat's game and the mouse's death; they had pointed the gun at my forehead: «Who are you? Where are you from?»,— they started to inquire me: «I am from Artsvanist, I am the son of Tigran,— I said,— I am Armenian, I am giaour, kill me». At that moment one of them asked: «Ohan's Tigran». A hope shone inside of me. Then my hope changed for fear. «Yes, — I faltered— I am Ohan's grandson. «Return him his clothes and the horse»,— the highwayman turned to his friends. They started a war of words with each other. «My» highwayman was strong and firm. He was not their leader, but he was firm on his words. My belongings and my horse were returned to me. «If your grandfather is alive,-said the highwayman, - tell him Nabi has not forgotten his act of kindness». And just like they appeared like a dream, they disappeared the same way. Nabi's face too I remember very vaguely, he had a tired face, but when the war of words among them began, his face became acute and his eyes shone. Had his friends not abated, blood would be shed…
My grandfather died three years ago from that incident, and so it remained obscure to me what act of kindness could have done my grandfather to highwayman Nabi, that he had not forgotten… The only thing that was certain to which I'd adhere till death was the following: nothing happens without a reason, nothing. That is the way I lived my life. Then thirty years later from that day something happened and I was convinced that I had lived right…
Uncle Poghos lit a new cigarette. He does not wait for us to ask what happened. He knows that it is interesting for us and he continues:
… I had been waiting for that decision since 1936. We had been waiting. So many people had been waiting. How we had been waiting. Our eyes became stiff from waiting. Our hearts became stiff. Our souls became stiff. We were waiting… When the war started I was happy, can you believe it? I was happy. I was either going to die in a humane way or would return home with the title of a hero. Certainly. I was not taken to war. They did not trust me. In 1947 I was freed with many other, I thought that is it…in 1948 I was exiled again; I was still «untrustworthy».
I could not wait anymore but I was waiting. So many people died while waiting… Then when I was freed I was still waiting. And now I go down the stairs with the decree of Supreme Court in my hand and still cannot believe; I am justified. From 36 to 55 I had never doubted that I am fair and forthright, but now I want to cry over this piece of paper… It turns out I am fair, I have been fair for nineteen years, I had suffered fairly… I wish they declared me guilty, I wish they had made the decision; Poghos Sahakyan you carried your sentence fairly now God be with you live the way you want. What am I supposed to do with this paper?...Put it on my mother's tomb?… For the last time, I am thinking for the last time I hurry to leave the court. How am I supposed to know what has fate prepared for me?…
There is a man standing in front of the court building with a help seeking face that looks like… No I am thinking is it him with such a sleazy appearance, it is not possible. But, well the same eyes, the same lips, he has grown thin, but the facial features are the same. I had beaten this face in my mind thousand times, how can I confuse him with somebody else? «Galoukyan?», — I said and could hear the beating of my heart. He lifted his eyes and recognized me at once: «Poghos? Hello Poghos…». When you take out the hot iron from the furnace and put it in the cold water can you imagine the hiss of it? I had the same hiss inside me. Galoukyan was standing in front of me and was shaking my hand smiling. I took him by his arm to the nearby beerhouse. There was nobody in the beerhouse. We sat opposite each other. I ordered beer. Before they bring the beer let me tell you who Galoukyan is…
For the first time I met Galoukyan in 1947 on the second or third day after returning from the exile, in the special department of the regional centre. He was thirty five-forty years old, short; he was an ordinary person for those times. The sons of bitches were the living images of each other. You would say my child is at death's door they would say long live to the May revolt. I did not exist for him. He read my case thoroughly and decided that «the owner of the case has no right to live among people…».
So that was how I ended up in a remote nameless village which was not even a village, only four houses were inhabited by Kurds. As if they came down from the blue and laid their hands on the ruins. They were aware of the events in the country as much as I was aware of the moon. The members of the mentioned four houses and I were keeping thousand four hundred sheep. There was a plan, there was a provision, there were births and shearing of sheep; we did not have a single free second. It was like an exile. The only consolation was that once or twice a month at night I would go, see my mother and return. God forbid, if Galoukyan learnt about it. Especially when we saw him a lot in our village.
He did not miss me; there was good hunt in the mountains, and I was his personal hunter. He would give me the rifle and sleep. Then he would wake up, take the hunt and leave. One day he came and said.«Poghos get ready, I am taking you to town»։ «What's up?», —I asked. «You'll learn about it there, — he said, — collect everything you have». I collected my belongings. We went down. He was on the horse following me; I was on feet with my belongings on my shoulder. I was taken once again, why and for how long, would I return or no? It was not clear. They were taking me. The railroad station was next to our village. «Galoukyan, — I said, — you know I have an old Mother, let's go in for a minute, I'll see her and then we'll go». «It'll be too much for you», — he said. «Galoukyan, — I asked, — just for a minute, who knows if I ever see my mother or no… You are a human being after all; you have conscience, let's go in together and then leave». «No,— he said, — Mr. Poghos. Isn't it the way you turn to one another?».
The son of a bitch was making fun of me. I was tolerating him. But my feet did not; my feet were taking me towards the village. Galoukyan got mad. He rode the horse on me and pointed the gun at my forehead. I looked at his eyes; they did not say anything, there were pieces of cold lead. I understood he would shoot; he was looking for an occasion. «To prevent the escape» and he would be increased in his rank at the least. He had the cross and the Bible in his hands; he could do whatever he wanted to do. I still had a faint hope. In the town, I was thinking, in the town, who knows?… In the town I was told. «So you are saying you have no talking to do with the working shepherds, the working shepherds are ignorant?...Well, then go and talk to smart people…».
For the first time I was taken for talking, and now I was taken for not talking. In 1955 when I returned from the exile, everything was settled down, but as per the old custom people were still avoiding me in the village. As I had not lived among them for a long time, I could clearly and sharply feel how coward and slavish they had become. It was unbearable. How much time was needed for the people to get rid of the slavish way of thinking… My acquittal, they needed my acquittal to be written on a piece of paper. People had become so addicted to papers. …And now, in the autumn of 1958 I am sitting in the beerhouse with the decision of the Supreme Court in my pocket. Guess with whom, with Galoukyan opposite each other, eye to eye, breath to breath; now it is the time to throw the paper to Galoukyan's face, to destroy his teeth.
I am sitting still. I have so much to say, that the words have come to my throat, have blocked it and they will not explode. I am out of breath. Galoukyan started the conversation. «So, Poghos, what is up?». «I was justified Galoukyan, — I said, — this is the decision of the Supreme Court, and this is a notice that I will receive money, they will also help me to build a house». After reading the decision, he returned it to me. He uttered a moan. «Well!, — he said, — Well!… As to me, Poghos I am devastated. I have been terminated both from my work and the party. Now they have started legal action against me. Please help Poghos, for God's sake…». «Do you already believe in God Galoukyan? — I said». «Well, it is just a word for saying Poghos jan, he flattered, — please, I am begging you help me, give evidence at the court that I treated you well back in the years…».
Looking in my eyes he was shamelessly asking as if he was true, as if it would have been meanness of me not to help him. During that same conversation I came up with a suitable tone. «Well!,— I said,— Well!… Things are not going well for you. Galoukyan do you remember the good hunt in our mountains?». He got surprised. «I remember,— he said,— Poghos you were a great hunter». «Well,— I said,— well!… We were making barbeque from the hunt meat, eating and drinking, having fun, do you remember Galoukyan? And the working shepherds were so skilled, so talented. Don't you remember?… How can you remember Galoukyan? You have done so many kind things for so many people, that you cannot remember all of them…».
He did not say a word. He put his hand on the glass of beer. I held his hand. «Wait,— I said,— do not hurry, you can still drink. I want to ask you a question Galoukyan, you will know; does a person become a whore, or is he/she born as one?…». He did not answer, but deep in his mind he was cursing the day when he did not put the seven bullets in my head. Let him curse, he was the same Galoukyan, now he has become a mouse, but once he sees the water, he will become fish again.
I drank the beer. «Galoukyan,— I said,— I also remember the day when you were taking me to town. You said Poghos you have an ill mother, let's go in, see your mother and then we will go». «I did not say, Poghos,— he mumbled,— you said. I could not have allowed you, I was on duty, you understand…».
The bomb inside me exploded. I poured all the vitriol accumulated for years on Galoukyan. But I did not feel relief, there was still bitterness inside. Galoukian was silent. He was silent as the wall on my side. He was not even standing up to leave. Well, where was he supposed to go, even if I hit him with a glass, he still would not go. He had a problem and still had hope for it. He sat for a while and then said. «Poghos let's forget about it, all these stories are in the past».
His words were like mixing the nest of the beetles with a stick. «To forget what Galoukyan? I burst out. That Aram had been dead for two days and not buried yet. The coffin maker did not risk to make a coffin, there was no one to dig a tomb. For two days nobody opened their door, who would dare to? You had made Aram Vachyan «betrayer of the nation». Of course you were the saviors of the nation, before long you would have drawn all of us to Siberia: abundant lands and waters, you were the saviors and Aram Vachyan was the betrayer. You were going to take him in the middle of the night, so he decided to die in his own house; he hang himself on the tandoor ceiling. Forget Galoukyan?… Do you know who this street is named after?… Go out, go and read. Did you know?… You have called him the betrayer of the nation as well, forget, Galoukian?» What do you think he answered: «Poghos,— he said— don't scrabble your soul in vain. All those things are in the past. Who needs your recollections? You better think about yourself Poghos…». I could not tolerate him anymore. «Out,— I shouted,— get lost son of a bitch, out…»։
Galoukyan left the beerhouse. In the meantime the girl in the beer house brought two glasses of beer; she put them in front of me and left. I did not ask for beer, how she knew that I was burning inside. I drank the beer and approached her to pay. I was taken aback. She was crying. She smiled through her tears. She did not take the money. «Please,— she said,— father it is not a big thing, consider it as a treat from me, consider whatever you want». I was looking at her surprised. Suddenly she started to cry: «I will think that my father drank them… I apologize but I heard your conversation. You did a good thing, that person did not deserve to sit at the same table with you… My father was taken the same way and he never came back…».
The girl could not continue…During the nineteen years of exile I have never shed a tear. I left the beerhouse and my eyes streamed tears. And I felt so relieved. It was the saddest and the happiest day of my life at the same time. The two glasses of beer are the biggest presents in my life …
Four days later I received a letter. I opened it and was surprised; it was the decision of the acquittal and the notice for money; I had forgotten and left them on the table in the beerhouse…
It is a pleasure to listen to Poghos Sahakyan. He tells stories in an interesting way, without overcoloring, without detailing, he does not give advice, he is telling and you can understand as you wish.
Source: Vazgen Sargsyan, "The beginning and the continuance of the story."