FIRST PARTUncle Sempad
Uncle Sempad is only a legend, for us—but a legend that has made us all cry. He was my grandfather’s younger brother, his only uterine brother; their mother, Iskuhi, the little princess, died at nineteen giving birth to him. My great-grandfather then remarried an “evil stepmother,” who bore him many other children; my grandfather couldn’t stand her, and so, at the age of thirteen, he requested and was granted permission to leave the little city and go to Venice, to study at Moorat-Raphael, the boarding school for Armenian children.
But Uncle Sempad was much sweeter and more easygoing than his brother, and he loved his little city, his lazy, sleepy province, the café chats with his friends, the fierce games of backgammon, the hunting. He went off to Constantinople to become a pharmacist, but always knew he would return home. At the university, he read the papers, joined a political party, dreamed like others of the rebirth of the ancient Armenian homeland, kicked up his heels a little, and kidded himself. Back home, he made his peace with the stepmother, amused himself by coddling his little brothers and pulling his sisters’ braids, and began to think of marriage.
Every so often he went riding, with a friend from the Laz country. Together they felt like crusaders and knights, imagined heading off to battle in the direction of the sun, like Alexander, free men with swords at their sides. Goodbye to exhausting negotiations for every permission, to imperial bureaucracy, to the necessarily servile deference of the Armenian, of the merchant, of those who make requests that are easily denied and have no weapon but the vassal’s tricks. And yet: to be riding toward the East, the conquered, but to be men of the West, the conquering. To speak French, to subscribe to the Revue des deux mondes
, to visit Paris . . .
They often spoke of Paris, or of Italy, a friendly country, where Yerwant was making his fortune. But Sempad had no desire, his promises notwithstanding, to go visit his brother: he was timid and Eastern. If only his brother would come home, if only he would bring his Frankish* wife with him, and their children Yetwart and Khayël, and introduce them to their family. He had left with honor, and with honor he would be welcomed back. But in his heart of hearts, Sempad feared that this would never happen; Yerwant had gone away for good, and his sons—despite their names—did not speak the ancestral language and had been educated in German or Italian schools. Anatolia, for them, was a far-off fairy tale.
“Perhaps,” thought Sempad, “one of my sons will find his way to Yerwant, and perhaps we will all trade this place, a few at a time, for places where we’ll no longer be afraid.” But he didn’t really want that. Many were leaving, it was true. From the most dangerous regions, the boldest youths, the brightest, the most intrepid, those who couldn’t bear the strict confines of the Ermeni Millet—the Armenian administrative unit—within the Empire, were flowing out in a continuous stream.
For Europe, for the coveted culture: to become doctors, dentists, architects, poets—or for America, to become utterly new, to forget. His half brother, Rupen, lived in Boston and was quite content. But Sempad, in his simple heart, understood Rupen’s solitude and sent him a fine wooden backgammon set, with a decidedly affectionate inscription engraved all around it in Armenian characters, the same set he had at home. He never would have imagined that that set—relic or icon from a terrible shipwreck—would for two of his children be the only sign, aside from a solemn ceremonial photograph, of their father’s lively existence.
Sempad loved his pharmacy. He was a slow-moving man, not particularly witty, and profoundly good. As a boy he protected his younger sisters, Veron and Azniv, from their tumultuous, harassing brothers, Rupen and Zareh. And he loved to send telegrams.
“The pharmacist,” he used to say, “ought to be equipped to send and receive telegrams. There could be an urgency
Everyone teased Sempad, both at home and at the pharmacy, for the elaborate way the word urgency rolled off his tongue. How it resounded in his mouth, that Westernism: symptom of progress, symbol of haste, of the shaking off of Eastern indolence.
“People,” he used to say, “are not going to put off death so that we can finish our card game. We intellec- tual Armenians need to set an example, of precision, of modernity, of punctuality: for both the average Armenian and the average Turk. Why else did we bother studying?”
But he himself no longer studied anything; he observed the holidays and stroked his mustache—counting his seven children. He barely glanced at the paper with the news from Constantinople, though he was proud that the Armenians up there were beginning to gain respect; some had even become delegates, and Krikor Zohrab, poet and delegate, played tavli
—the Turkish version of backgammon—with the supremely powerful minister of the interior, Talat Pasha.
! His friendship with Talat had become, for the gentle, daydreaming Armenian people, an omen of good fortune, a symbol of the new day of prosperity and progress that was about to dawn with the political collaboration between the Young Turks and the Armenian millet. A powerful, disarming symbol: “He goes to his home, he’s received like family, they drink tea together.” For Sempad, and all the others like him, it was literally inconceivable that a man could deceive—much less kill—someone with whom he drank tea in his own home
: a guest!
For Sempad and those like him, worldliness included neither duplicity or deception; it was grounded, rather, in the application of a careful mercantile etiquette of earnings, profits, and losses, calculated generously and with due respect to the community’s poor. And moreover, the pharmacist had a moral code to uphold. He was practically a doctor and practically a man of letters: the guardian of health, the keeper of poisons, the bearer of newspapers, the telegram man—a pillar of the community.
Everyone knew that Shushanig, his boisterous and fertile wife, though she professed to have nothing to do with her husband’s affairs, happily controlled him down to his last whisker, as the proverb says. And he happily allowed himself to be controlled, even when, with her tacit consent, he ran off in a wretched pair of leather pants with his Lazian friend, rifle over his shoulder, proudly returning with a couple of hares. Sometimes one of his sons accompanied him.
The eldest, the tight-lipped Suren, dreamed of Europe, and was on the verge of departure. But he adored his simple father and had no desire to leave him. His preference would be perversely respected by destiny.
Suren read a lot, and thought a lot. He smelled blood in the air, caught the scent of evil. But who pays attention to a boy of fourteen, who speaks rarely and grudgingly, who cries alone at night, dreaming of a woman’s lap, a maternal refuge in which to disappear and hide?
Garo, the second son, also spoke little and thought even less. He acted out of a loving instinct, without reflecting, with a perfect economy of gestures. He could calm any crying, whining, or shrieking baby; his fleeting presence alone lulled and soothed a helpless, insecure community, for which each day might take a bad turn, where the elders tell stories not of witches and ogres but of the slaughters of twenty years before, or ten, counting as a kind of rosary the list of massacred or vanished relatives.
The third son was Leslie the Brit, who was “conceived on a stormy night,” according to Sempad; it was “a calm night with a full moon,” joked Shushanig. His parents claimed not to know why he had always been called the Brit. “Did the name come first, or the nickname?” their friends would slyly ask, recalling Sempad’s epic binge. He was typically a very restrained drinker—at most, alcohol made him a bit sad—but once an American missionary gave the pharmacy a bottle of medicinal Scotch, resulting in Shushanig’s being chased around the courtyard and winding up, indecorously, in the henhouse, the outcome being, of course, Leslie.
It was pleasing, that liquid, sibilant, exotic name, written in white letters on the bottle that the contrite parents kept as a souvenir. (An old soldier, a veteran of the Balkan wars, later built a magnificent sailing ship inside it, even providing it with a nostalgic cartouche that recalled Nelson’s battles and his own dream of sailing the open seas; but he would be among the first to die, in May 1915, surrounded by his smashed ships.)
The bottle on top of the cupboard—that beautiful Italian walnut that Yerwant sent from Italy on the birth of his first nephew—and Leslie beneath the cupboard. Leslie grew up alone: fought over at first like a doll by his two older brothers, he was quickly forgotten at the birth, ten months later, of a cute, sweet, and very normal baby girl, Aunt Nevart, who would later live in Fresno, who did not care for children. Leslie laughed all the time, asked if he could play with the others, was not offended when the answer was no: he just went under his cupboard, back to his secret lair.
Then the rest: Arussiag, Henriette, and Nubar, two girls and a little boy dressed as a girl. Along with Nevart they are the numb survivors who will, after escaping Aleppo, come to the West. These children now look out at me from a snapshot taken in Aleppo in 1916, one year after their rescue, just before they embarked for Italy: their grave, childish eyes are turned mysteriously inward, opaque and glacial, having accepted—after too many unanswered questions—the blind selection that has allowed them to survive. They are wearing decent orphan clothes, but they seem dressed in uniforms of rags, and at a quick glance the eye sees prison stripes. Their dark Eastern eyes, with their thick brows tracing a single line across their foreheads, repeat four times, wordlessly, the fear of a future that will be inexorable and the hidden nucleus of a secret guilt.
* From the country of the “Franks”—a typical term for Westerners.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Skylark Farm by Antonia Arslan. Copyright © 2007 by Antonia Arslan. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.