“Who, after all, speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?”
(Inscribed on one of the walls of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.)
May 1, 1915
“Ah, Ali Riza Effendim, buyrun—Ah, welcome, Commissioner Ali Riza, to what do I owe the pleasure?” I ask, opening the door wider.
He removes his hat, and looks to the floor. “There are some orders issued from Constantinople, Mrs. Merditchian. I’m afraid there has been some trouble.”
“What kind of trouble, Commissioner?...Is my husband alright?” He glances up, one corner of his moustache twitching.
“Why do you assume it has anything to do with your husband?” He asks, an uncomfortable air lingering between us.
“Because you mentioned Constantinople and he is due there this evening.” I lie. “Have you received word from him?”
“No, we are searching for him; we need to ask him about a matter concerning firearms.”
“Firearms? Pastor Hovanness does not own firearms.”
“Certainly not, but perhaps he can guide us to the people who may know of their location.” His voice does not match the disquieting blackness of his eyes.
May 3, 1915
“Oh, God, please don’t let them find us!” My heart beats against my chest like desperate fists against a door. I slide behind the narrow shaft between the kitchen pantry and living room. Wedged between two walls, my constricted body stifles my breath. Only one thought keeps me alert and conscious: my four children. They are lying flat under faux floorboards throughout the house with only eighteen inches of vertical space between them and the foraging boots, only eighteen inches of air to breathe, only eighteen inches between life and death.
Crash! The door is kicked in and sounds of footsteps rush across the boards. Agitated shouts rise from the other side of the wall where I am hiding. I listen and count the sets of footsteps.
“Hiç kimse yok–No one is here!” A familiar voice growls. It is the commissioner. “They can’t get far…grab the gold from the rooms and anything else of value you find. Don’t forget the silver crosses on the walls. Hayde!”
The majority of my gold jewelry and all of our money is already in my shalvar pockets. I and my children are dressed in the costume of the Kurds.
“God, please give my children courage and wisdom beyond their years. Help them to be still...”
The door is left open and a blast of air bangs it against the small desk. An ill wind brushes across my ears as I try to listen for any scarce human sound. Nothing. Not even a breath from beneath the boards, where my four living, breathing children lie and wait patiently for their release. I catch my calf against a splinter of wood, and wince in silent agony.
Each board covering my children is held in place by a metal shim. I release the boards and my children leap like gazelles, silent and graceful from their wooden beds. None of us utters a word.
I grab the telegram from the British Consulate in Egypt, My husband’s instructions:
It has begun again. You must leave immediately.
There are some Kurds who will transport you safely to Russia.
I have wired money. Take the compass, travel north-east to Parmakez.
Wait at the corner of the Beyaz School.
There will be someone looking for you daily until you arrive.
Kiss the children.
God is our strength.
That very night we make our way to Permakez. We sing softly as we walk, encouraging ourselves as we take each step closer to freedom.
Slowly, our singing subsides. With each step, my children grow years beyond their age. We pass a Woman, surrounded by her husband and several of her children’s corpses. She is crying, without tears, without clothes, without hope. Her frame is bone and skin. By some miracle, she has a surviving infant in her arms, also skin and bones. The poor babe suckles her mother’s pitiful breast. There is no milk.
Death and atrocities beyond the human imagination pile upon my beloved children’s once cheerfully irresponsible minds. We walk towards freedom, yet with each step we leave a bit of our former selves upon the roads. We cling to God fiercely and to the world, a little more lightly.
We reach Russia, but we are not the same. We reach freedom, but would gladly give it up if we could turn back the clock of our beloved Armenians.
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