Friday, May 08, 2015

Live from Holy Cross: Nancy Agabian reading Zabel Essayan

Nancy Agabian- photo by Khatchik Turabian

In the Ruins (excerpt)

Two children had gone off by themselves and were talking.
"Do you have a father?"
"A mother?"
"I don't have a mother or father, either."
"Did they kill them?"
"They killed mine, too."
A long, grief-stricken silence reigned, and then:
"Do you want us to be brothers?"
And they adopted each other.

That was the general tenor of the conversations of hundreds of children between five and ten. Sometimes, too, brothers and sisters found each other again and rediscovered, in one another's eyes, the hours of terror they had spent together and did not dare come closer, as if held apart by the awful memory of the corpse of a butchered mother or father. For, almost without exception, driven by an instinctive passion for life, they wanted to forget, wanted desperately, frantically to forget; thus they saw an enemy in anyone who tried to expose the passions of their bleeding hearts, or simply stirred up the memory of that hour by his or her presence.

One evening I expressed a desire to visit the children after they had gone to bed, and was ushered to their dormitory. A terrible, unforgettable sight met my eyes. In that spacious hall, on mats arranged in rows on the floor, was a welter of young, half-naked limbs. . . . Because there wasn't enough room for all of them, the children seemed to be piled up on each other. What with their breathing and all their other exhalations, the air was stifling and unbreathable. Something unnameable, something nightmarish and unsettling drifted through the semi-obscurity. The children's bodies were indistinguishable from the blackness of the sheetless beds; only the outlines of their limbs could be made out here and there, an arm, a leg. . . . Those rooms seemed as sad to me as desecrated, devastated graveyards.

Sometimes one of the children, prompted by a bad dream, would raise his head and look right and left, shuddering. One cry of his would be enough to throw all those shapeless, almost undifferentiated piles into agitated motion and, sometimes, uneasy heads would be lifted here and there. In the first few days, it sometimes happened that the ravings of one of the children rattled all the others sleeping in the same room; Still hall asleep, not knowing where they were, they would all jump to their feet screaming, in the belief that they were reliving the hours of the massacre.

Although I had resolved to maintain my sangfroid, I was deeply shaken by that throng of children, deprived of affection and a mother's love and care. ... I decided to leave so that we wouldn't disturb their sleep with our presence. Some were sighing, and all had woken up and were casting uneasy glances our way....

We were getting ready to leave when I noticed a little slip of a girl almost directly at my feet. Two bright, unblinking eyes were looking at me. Her blond hair was strewn over the pillow, and her emaciated neck and emaciated arms and legs spoke of such severe mental and physical suffering that I lost control of myself, and started to cry. And, although I managed to stifle my sobs, the children heard me and woke up. For an instant, a strange stillness prevailed: they were all holding their breaths; then heads were raised, and a child started to cry. At that, as if on a signal, all at once, hundreds of children overcome by a terrifying attack of nerves suddenly began sobbing, screaming, and weeping, twisting and turning their frail, strengthless limbs on their shabby straw mats and calling out to the parents they had lost...
It took us a long time to calm them down. When their tired heads at last came to rest on their pillows, the little girl's two bright eyes were still looking at me. Before leaving, when I stepped closer to see why she hadn't gone back to sleep, she stretched out a pair of arms toward my neck and held me close for a long time.... Before I left, I looked at all the children again. The room was quiet and peaceful. I was assured that now they would sleep soundly till morning. It seemed to me, however, that those children would dream unceasingly, with relentless insistence, of the days of horror they had lived
through, and that the nightmare would hover constantly over then dark-haired heads.


Translated by G.M. Goshgarian

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