Monday, November 08, 2021

Lorne Shirinian: First nights

For my brother George

this is the way my father remembered his boyhood - 
            a series of removals 
                        and first nights

his eyes opening with the rising sun
and the animals stirring
then the odor of bread baking and his mother singing
as she prepared coffee letting it rise three times
before filling the small cup for his father
he watches him sip the rich dark liquid
and wonders when he will be able to taste it 
sitting next to his father
mother places her warm hand on his head
go wash your hands and face
and pours him warm milk
the world seemed a fine place
there was a sense of order and expectation
after he would feed the chickens 
and wait for his father to hitch the horse to the cart
then climb up and sit beside him 
as they went off on their rounds delivering charcoal
to the homes in the village
at noon when they returned
he would wash standing beside his father 
before the basin in front of their house
splashing water all over to get the black dust off
mother put out plates of bread, tomatoes, cucumbers and cheese
and the family ate together
later he would watch his father load the wagon again
for his deliveries
he felt his eyes get heavy
mother smiled sleep now my boy
he would unroll his rug and put his head down 
while his father left for his deliveries
he lay listening to the comforting sounds of the horse’s
hooves on the dirt road and the creaking of the wagon 
a lullaby that closed his eyes 
and sent him off to a peaceful sleep

one morning, days or months later
he heard new noises, strange and angry
his father rushed into the house breathing heavily 
and told him and his mother
to gather as many of their things possible 
roll them in your rugs and come outside
he remembered his mother, her head bent
why are you crying why
he did as his father asked then put the chickens
in the living room and poured bags of grain
on the floor for them
his father put his arm around him
then locked the door
we have to go now 
they climbed on to the wagon and joined the line
being led away by soldiers with long rifles
and bayonets piercing the sky
he looked around and saw his uncle and aunt up ahead 
where are they taking us, baba
they bounced along the dirt road for days
some said under their breath 
they’re taking us to Sultania
no another insisted further south to Konia 
without food and water many collapsed and were dragged away
             into the tall grass
                        never to be seen again

don’t say anything his father whispered 
just look straight ahead
he leaned tight against his mother and kept silent

when it was too dark to see 
the column stopped
his father fed the horse 
while his mother placed their rugs under the cart
we don’t know where they’re taking us 
don’t eat too much we have to save what food we have
sip the water slowly 
when you’re finished close your eyes and sleep
his confusion troubled him
who will feed the chickens
who will deliver the charcoal tomorrow
he heard his mother sobbing 
as he wrestled with his thoughts 
                                        this first night
                                                    away from home

every night there was yelling and screaming 
followed by a frightful painful silence
he kept his eyes shut tight but imagined what was happening in the dark
several days later when the soldiers forced them to rise
he searched for his aunt and uncle
where are they he wondered
his father brushed away tears 
look straight ahead my son
several days after that he asked his mother 
where his father was
he saw the fear in her eyes
he’s gone to look for uncle and aunty
no noise now look straight ahead
and he spent the first night without his father
a few days later deep into the night there was rustling around their wagon 
and the sound of someone being dragged away
through the sleep in his eyes he looked for his mother
but she wasn’t there 
all his life he would hear her calling for help
in the morning when the sun rose he looked around
but mother the horse and wagon were gone
his world had disappeared 
there was only the starving deportees
being prodded along ahead of him
he called for his mother
an old woman came to him
come with us now my boy
she took him by the hand and started walking with him
following the line that seemed to grow 
like a voracious serpent
as other lines joined other groups on the way
he spent the first night without his family
where could they have gone
why did they leave him all alone
then the old lady who was looking after him
he went from grandmother to mother
whoever would look after him
he would gather grass to boil for soup
no one could tell him where his parents were

in the unending heat his throat burned for a drop 
of water
his stomach was knotted in pain
he saw many things that would haunt him forever
he learned the importance of silence but observed everything
he understood what was necessary to survive
only later would he realize the cost
four years later people who spoke a different language 
came and took all of the young children 
who were wandering through the countryside away
you’re safe now we’ll look after you
he didn’t know what they were saying but they smiled
and were kind 
in the camp they shaved his head 
washed him and bandaged his wounds
gave him new clothes bread and soup to eat
there was a large room with many beds where he slept 
along with hundreds of other young boys
who asked every day 
where their fathers and mothers were
but no one could tell them
I want to go home he said but was told
I’m sorry my boy it isn’t possible
he remembers his first night in the orphanage
as he did in all the other orphanages
Changelkeuy near Istanbul
Erenkeuy also near Istanbul
the Lord Mayor’s Fund of London’s orphanage 
in Corfu

and then after the final voyage away from his home
over the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
he arrived at the Georgetown Farm Home 
for Armenian orphans in Ontario Canada
he knew he would never again see his parents 
or his home 
he would become someone else
with the remembrance of all the first nights 
wondering where are my mother and father
where’s home

June 25, 2016

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