My life, wind-bitten
I love with the ferocity
of a lioness.
From Wisdom Through Sorrow, Arman Agashian
Though he never took a course in anything, Papa had a natural sense of how to repair, while I just knew how to dismantle. Having fled the Armenian Genocide of 1916 in Turkey, he came to America and taught himself how to read and write. He owned nothing but the clothes on his back for the first two years. Suspicious of American women, Papa sent funds home to secure a virgin bride from a small village near the northern Iranian border. Princess arrived at sixteen with one suitcase, her thick black hair roped around her head like a fantastic crown. She smelled of heat and dust and knew only one sentence in English: "They are all dead."
Princess told fortunes, reading the swirls of tea leaves in the bottoms of cups. She accurately predicted the annihilation of her family. Soon, Turkish soldiers threw her relatives into a common pit, doused them with gasoline, and dropped a lit match in. She watched from behind a tree as they burned to death, pleading for their lives. Princess never told fortunes again, and some years later, took up crocheting, the hook flicking against wool late into every night of the twenty years I spent in this house with her.
The day my father sold his beloved 1952 Cadillac, he locked himself in the garage and wept. Later, Princess rocked herself up from where she'd been crocheting a lavender and brown blanket, large enough now to consume the living room floor, banged on the garage door, shouting in Armenian, "Your dinner has ice cubes floating in it!"
"I brought my children home from hospital in this car, I have gone to best friend's funeral in this car. I have celebrated twenty-two years of life in - this - car!" Papa shouted back, even louder.
After he'd sold the Caddy, he stood in the darkening street with the elder trees soughing to and fro like hula dancers and watched as the car's taillights disappeared. That evening, he sat staring at the crocheted car cover Princess had made, muttering "Bound for the scrap heap, I feel it, here." He thumped his chest. These feelings Papa did not ignore.
He had gone deaf in his left ear after four decades of working in the Detroit Ford factory. And though the money was decent, it ran out faster than he or Princess had anticipated once my sister moved back in. Her husband, that bastard, had given her another shiner. If she had married within the culture, say to Morayr Jorjorian, whose father owned the biggest casket company in the Mid-West, he would have treated Flora like a queen. Now she had left the bastard, using up the last of our parents' savings, and forcing my father to sell his beloved Caddy. Her purpling bruise covered by layers of pancake make-up, Flora announced that this time, her American husband could die in a gutter. And he did, choking on a gumball.
Flora then forgot all about her broken bones and threw a lavish party in his honor. Female relatives keened and Flora's cheeks glowed. There were lamb kabobs seared to perfection, bowls filled with eggplant and yogurt dips, trays of baklava dripping with amber-colored honey, and pot after pot of Armenian coffee. After the funeral party had bundled up their winter overcoats, pulled on their boots, air-kissed one another's cheeks and left, Flora collapsed on the sofa, teary again.
Mama sniffed, "That car, it get more attention than I do." She pulled the lamb's wool coat around her ample bosom, and, drawing the corner of her blanket to her, hooked her thickened fingers in their customary position and began to crochet. "Never mind, was beautiful funeral. Your brother brush his hair for once, everyone look beautiful, even that bastard."
"Mama, please, have some respect," Flora's eyes, darkened like a raccoon's from crying her mascara out, fixed on the remains of a ham pie. She flipped it onto a plate, and, gingerly stepping around Mama's enormous blanket, settled into the sofa in the same spot she had occupied since childhood.
Flora got pregnant at fifteen. Shamed by never having completed high school, she was eventually made customer service supervisor for an auto parts store the same day I received an N.E.A. grant for my contribution to the study of Arman Agashian, a little known Armenian mystic whom American youths had adopted as their own. I met him in Kashmir. Agashian's skin had leathered like a goat herder's and his beard had been allowed to grow until the tip almost touched his rounded belly. We shared a leather pouch of something strong and fermented, and we bonded. At the end of our visit, he placed a box of his life's work in my arms and said, "The time is right for this," and then vanished never to be seen or heard from again. Many believe I am the only one who still has access to him. I am not so sure.
"God, my American husband did look beautiful, didn't he, Mama?" Flora stabbed at her ham pie and began weeping anew. "Ach, what a bastard!"
I offered this to my sister: "Agashian said, 'It is the business of philosophers, students and practical men to re-create and re-enact a vision of the world. It affords us a clue to our possible advance out of chaos'."
"Shut up, Pete, what does a dead philosopher have to do with my husband's death?" Flora curled up, pulling her turtleneck sweater over her legs.
"Not much, just trying to offer some solace on a winter night," I replied.
I crept around Ma's shaggy circle of wool towards the front door. Flora held her head between her hands, the gnawed fingers spreading apart her rust colored hair and exposing the grey-black roots.
"Agashian is a fake. You dug him up knowing there was a whole bunch of drifters out there hungry for some kind of meaning in their lives You're just a means to an end."
Thus spoke the bitterness of the uneducated. We hated each other, and death had a way of bringing out the worst in the both of us.
It was time for me to leave.
Our house was full of Princess' happy mistakes. There were mismatched doilles on each sofa arm, lumpy mats under each vase, and a dozen pot holders hanging from nails in the kitchen. She even made a powder blue and orange cover with a flared frill around it like a poodle skirt for the spare toilet paper roll. As a child, I was the only one who seemed to notice that my mother had no color sense at all, while everyone else praised her handiwork as though it had been a gift from God Himself. Papa's Cadillac was the color of maple leaves when they turned. The interior was originally a buttery cream color, but years of kids clambering in and out had torn it. Papa patiently sutured the wounds together, and then threw a small crocheted blanket over the seats. None of the colors Mama chose for her handiwork matched. They never did.
"This car," Papa said as he rubbed turtle wax into the hood, "large enough for us to live in." I was a senior in high school then and already a scholar. He gestured for me to look inside where he had affixed a vase between the front and back doors, then placed one pink rosebud.
"For Mama's birthday, shhh!"
Agashian wrote in Wisdom Through Sorrow, a meditation on daily living, "It takes a whole person to feel keenly the absence of wholeness, and a mature person to feel keenly what is lost to life where maturity is never experienced," and I tend to agree. My parents' losses remained cavernous.
Flora reclaimed her room, slowly taking over corners of the house. She tossed the boxes of my old writing up in the attic. Papa's collection of hood ornaments vanished from above the fireplace. In its place, Flora put her glass frogs. Papa sat beneath his peach tree and repaired a short wave radio I had gutted ten years before and left to languish in a milk crate. I pulled up a stool and sat beside him.
"Hey Pop, there's a good Eastwood movie playing, you know, the guy you like. You wanna go?"
He twirled a screwdriver until the screw tightened, then shook his great shaggy head. "Naw, got work to do. Eastwood can wait, eh?"
"Papa, about Flora and the money--"
But he cut me short. "Here," I tried tucking a few hundreds into his pocket. My teaching job was going well, I could afford it. His eyes, a milky green hidden behind a ledge of graying brow, suddenly opened wide.
"No, no Pete, you don't give to me. Never. Never." He returned the bills to me then went back to tweaking the radio. Later, I saw him in the dimly lit garage, plugging in the radio. And damned if it didn't work with a whistling and blinking of lights. He tuned in what sounded like Radio Free Europe, then sat back to listen. In the living room, the air was smoky from a newly lit fire. Princess was lost behind a mountain of lavender and brown wool, and Flora fed herself diet candy as the television sputtered grainy images.
"What is true of the dog was easily shown to be true of man. Man can be conditioned to be a creature he is not by his original nature. He is not a creature who spontaneously stops his forward movement for a red light. Similarly, he can be conditioned to eat spinach and like it; to kill his fellow men and feel proud of it; to insult a minority race and feel justified in his discourtesy." Agashian translates easily, like blowing molten glass through a tube at just the right temperature.
"What happened to your cheek, Papa?"
"Nothin'," he turned away from me and kept staring at his hands, fingers laced, on the kitchen table. It was a month after the funeral, and he hadn't left the house once.
"No, really, it looks swollen."
"A box fall on me. No biggest deal."
Flora continued to chew on her diet candy, slowly, as though she might find something surprising at the center. Ma had fallen asleep listening to the Ararat Five Fingers Band.
"Flora, did you see Papa's cheek?"
"Yeah, I iced it for him. He refuses to see a doctor." She picked up a spoon to stir a lamb stew on the stove.
"How'd it happen?"
"You heard him, he said somethin' fell from one of them shelves. I'm always sayin, 'Pop, you gotta clean up this garage.' But he don't listen to me."
Papa smiled absently and continued staring at his hands. He was waiting, as he always did at this time, for his dinner. Once she had put a bowl before him, I forcibly guided Flora into another room and shut the door.
"Alright, what really happened?"
"Leggo, Peter, what is it with you guys, anyway?"
There's a safety board Pop nailed all along those shelves so boxes wouldn't come down, even in an earthquake."
"I told you--"
"You don't fool me. You're not taking any more of their money and you're not sending him to an early grave. Find another place to live and leave him alone."
"You can't boss me around. You go away. Mama hates it when you visit and so does Pop. They told me so. I'll take care of them." She shoved me aside. Just then there was a tentative knock and Papa poked his head in, holding out a plastic cup.
"Flora, water please."
"Yes, Papa, right away." She turned and looked triumphantly over her shoulder at me.
When I got a scholarship to U. of Michigan, Papa decided that I needed both a bedroom and a study. Flora was moved out of her room and slept on a cot in the living room. She took her meals outside on the back porch, stalking about the house with a pale face and in an oversized T-shirt. When her belly got too big to hide, Princess took her to a doctor and later forced the father's name out of her. The first baby, Zeta, grew up to resemble her mother, with a tawny complexion and sad basset hound eyes. She ran away at the first opportunity. The second baby was born with vague wandering eyes and only lived long enough to nurse from her mother once. I caught Flora one day weeping into an infant's nursery shirt. I didn't mean to walk in on her, and for some reason my sister didn't seem embarrassed. She simply continued to bury her face into the tiny shirt. I put my arms around her for the first time in years. "Such loss," she murmured, "such unnecessary loss. Be thankful you cannot bear children." I wanted to offer her more than a shoulder to cry on, but I hadn't yet learned the generosity of spirit needed to combat unadulterated grief.
"A mature person knows the important from the unimportant. He is courageous enough to say his say when it needs saying, but also wise enough to withhold his say when the matter is too unimportant to merit discussion."
I snapped the translation of Wisdom Through Sorrow shut and waited for Papa's response. He had closed his eyes, and only opened them after a long minute.
"Smart stuff, I like it, Pete."
"He didn't write it, Agashian did. Well, if you want my opinion, he wasted a lot of space to say something pretty basic." Flora sniffed, picking out a stuffed grape leaf with her thumb and forefinger from a bowl on the garden table and popping it into her mouth. It was spring time, a season before Papa's savings dwindled and he forfeited his car for his pride. I had finished translating Wisdom Through Sorrow and Mystic Press had already sent an advance that rivaled my father's salary for the first five years of foundry work.
"If it was so basic, why don't you tell us what you got from that last part?" I goaded Flora.
"What's basic is that Agashian seems to forget that women exist, too. He's always saying, 'Men do this' and 'Mankind does that.' Or maybe that's just the way you translate him, Pete."
Flora stood tiptoe on a chair and began picking green peaches and putting them in the bowl of her shirt.
"No, not ripe yet, get down!" Papa swatted all her bare legs, still pretty shapely after two kids and a decade of drudgery.
"Stop it, Pop, I like 'em green." Seated again, she bit into the small hard fruit, wincing from the tartness. At that moment, I envied Flora her simplicity, the basic-ness of her needs. What's more, I tacitly but silently agreed (for I could not give her the satisfaction) that the gender matter in Agashian's work was up for debate. It was only by virtue of the fact that so few American scholars knew Armenian text, and those Armenians who did were too far away to dispute my version of the translation. Unlike a lot of our poets who composed perfectly rhymed poems about the motherland or dark ditties about the blood-soaked earth, Agashian universalized his inquiry into human suffering to a level that anyone could relate to, not just those whole entire families had been wiped out. Not that poetry about such massive loss doesn't have an audience, but through me, Agashian's following was growing in leaps and bounds. If Wisdom Through Sorrow appeared directed more towards men than women, perhaps it was because those responsible for the evil perpetuated against the Armenians were men.
Flora pointed the tip of her sandal at the manuscript and asked, "How come I've never seen a picture of Agashian?"
"He refused to have his picture taken," I replied, annoyed.
"Was he afraid it would suck his soul out?" She sneered, then picked up the manuscript and held it gingerly. "May I?"
"You mean, the whole thing?" I asked in disbelief.
"Yeah, like over the next few days or something. I want to see what the big deal is about this guy."
Though I was reluctant to let anyone see it so close to the publication date, I was more pleased that my little sister, the one who bombed high school English, never to read anything more demanding than the TV Guide, actually showed an interest. As she sauntered through the fruit trees, manuscript in hand, Papa and I looked at one another incredulously. Maybe something was changing.
"I hope she doesn't get peach juice all over it," I said, more to myself.
"Don't worry, Pete, they're not ripe enough."
After Papa sold the Caddy, I put money into his account. When he found out, he hit the ceiling. But he didn't insist on my taking it out. Princess' eyes were getting worse; cataracts filmed her vision and made it difficult for her to crochet. She would need surgery. Flora helped her bathe, guiding her in and out of the shower. She took her to Nonny's Beauty Salon each Saturday morning to get her hair washed and styled. While the rest of her body relinquished its fight with gravity, Mama's hair had always been her best feature. After the salon visit, she would sit listening to the Armenian radio station, holding her head carefully in place so as to preserve the curls and gloss for as long as possible.
Flora took a lot longer than a few days to read my translation. I found her curled up in different parts of the house, mouthing the words as she read like I'd seen grade school kids doing in the library. She didn't seem to notice me around. In fact, the book came out in a stunning limited edition hardcover, with a deep blue cloth and faux gold embossed title. There was a large party at Ararat, an immense restaurant and dance hall in Glendale, where the press was located. My parents joined me, as did Flora. The hall was festooned with plastic flower garlands and large potted palms bracketed the doorways. A waterfall cascaded down one wall, lit from the sides by soft pink lights. The place looked in a permanent state of lounge party. Mama and Papa sat beaming, Papa with his hand protectively on my mother's shoulder. People came up to pump their hands as though they'd just delivered a child.
Although I had anticipated Flora behaving badly, she seemed genuinely at ease and content, particularly with all the attention our family was getting. The advance criticism touted the book as "pure lyric poetry," second only to Seamus Heany's translation of The Odyssey, and praised me for my scholarly tenacity in bringing Agashian's powerful talents out of obscurity.
From across the restaurant, I saw Michael Hagopian, an old rival of mine who had just gotten a slim volume of his own poetry published by a relatively obscure press in new Hampshire. He elbowed his way through the crowd to my table and descended before I had a chance to duck into the men's room. Flora was deep in conversation with a local real estate agent whose olive complexion yellowed in the overhead lighting. Michael slapped Wisdom Through Sorrow on the table and jabbed at it with barely concealed irritation.
"You know, Peter, I searched and searched for Arman Agashian in my library. I even wrote my friend, Vatche Dudkian at the Armenian Studies Institute in Van. He tells me he can find no trace of one Arman Agashian in his archives. Where did you find him, you old dog?" Michael leaned in, his breath heavy with the licorice smell of Ouzo.
"I told you at the Bread Loaf Conference last year, Michael, very few people know of him. I met him only once, before he vanished into the mountains of Kashmir. He gave me an armload of his writing, claiming to--" I said hurriedly. Flora glanced over to us, frowning at Michael.
"Yes, yes, we've heard the story a million times. It makes good press. 'The mountains of Kashmir', indeed!"
He laughed deeply and sarcastically, nodding to my father who scowled and turned his back on the man. Flora stepped forward, extended a manicured hand, and said huskily, "And you are?"
"Michael," she echoed, pumping his hand. "Flora, Pete's little sister. You know, I was wondering the same thing, and I finally decided that the mystery about Agashian was just perfect to build a following and boost sales. Thank you for coming." She seized my arm. "Come, Peter, I'd like you to meet Agop, he sells cute little houses right in this area."
On the plane ride back to Michigan, Papa and Princess fell asleep with their heads nodding together like soft old bookends. The cabin was quite. Some read, others watched Pachino in Dog Day Afternoon. Flora was on the last part of Agashian's book. I thanked her for saving me from Michael, although I didn't quite understand why she bothered. I was actually quite impressed with how she conducted herself on the trip. Flora returned to her reading. When she had finished, she closed and held the book to her chest and sighed.
"What do you think?" I asked her.
"You did a great job, Pete", she replied and smiled slyly. "You pulled it off, and no one but me knows."
"Knows what? What are you talking about?" I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
"Agashian is a total fiction, isn't he? That's why there's no existing photo of him, right?"
I looked at her in disbelief. She leaned over and from her bag, pulled a worn blue notebook of mine from my college days. From it Flora read, " 'Inventing a cultural hero serves two purposes: it will save me from a lifetime of academic nowheresville and give people a place to focus all that free floating -- ' "
"Where did you find that?" I tried to snatch the notebook away, but she held it above her head the way I used to do with her doll when I wanted to torture her as a child.
"In one of the boxes you left behind. Amazing stuff. You planned the whole thing from beginning to end, huh? I thought you were smart, but this smart? Wow!" Flora then opened Agashian's book and read, "A mature person is one who knows the important from the unimportant. He is courageous enough to say what needs to be said--"
"Flora, please." God, this was incomprehensible. I felt my throat suddenly go dry. All I could think about at that moment was watching my little sister at fifteen folding up her cot and struggling to shove it in an overcrowded closet, her swollen belly making it nearly impossible to perform the task without leaving her face wet with perspiration. I watched, never offering to help because I believed, then, she needed to be punished. How could I have been so foolish? She had every reason to expose me, and I wouldn't have blamed her a bit.
"Flora," I tried one more time, weaker, more resigned.
"Don't worry, Pete." She patted my knee and then fixed her eyes out the window where the sun had just broken through storm clouds. Suddenly, my moment in the sun paled and it was Flora who basked in its warmth.
I published three more volumes of Agashian's writing. My translation was then translated into other languages, and so a chain of communication was established amongst people with nothing more in common than a collective need for whatever it was that Agashian provided them. I started several times to ask Flora why she decided to remain silent, but I guess I didn't really want the answer. What light shines on one, Agashian wrote once, shines on all.
Papa passed away peacefully in his sleep, holding my mother's hand while Flora and I held one another on the sofa, our mother's massive crocheted blanket over us, still unfinished.
NOTE: All of Agashian's writing, except for the poem at the beginning of this story, is taken from The Mature Mind by H.A. Overstreet, W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1949.