Aunty Armenia

Aunty Armenia

A short story by Artavazd Yeghiazaryan initially featured in "The Stories from Armenia" book. The book was prepared in cooperation with the Delegation of the European Union to Armenia.

Translated : Nazareth Seferian    Illustration : William Karapetyan


“Why so sad, sister? Go into the museum and wander around until the bus gets here. I’ll tell you about Hayrapet the Short and you’ll learn something new about the people of Gavar.”

Anahit was reading a book on her Kindle, seated on a bench at the main square of the Geghargunik regional capital, and it was a while before she realised that the man with the three-day beard was talking to her. When she grew aware of this, she replied that she already knew a lot about Hayrapet the Short – when she was little, her grandfather had told her all kinds of real and not-so-real stories about that legendary wealthy man from Gavar. There no longer were any extremely wealthy people in Gavar anymore, or rather, there were some from Gavar who lived in distant places like Tolyatti and Frankfurt. There were no moderately wealthy people either – anyone even close to that status was in Yerevan, in the best case, and was probably thinking about emigrating to Tolyatti or Frankfurt. Over the past two days, Anahit had seen many of the locals who still remained in Gavar. In reality, she could have limited her trip to just a few hours, but she had decided to use the job interview as an opportunity to return to her village (which had actually long become one of the districts of the regional capital). It was a good thing that she could spend those couple of days in the two-floor house belonging to her grandparents, which had been standing empty and unused for a long time.

A Gazelle minibus wrestling with many inner moral and mental issues rolled lazily to the bus stop assigned to Yerevan-bound transportation. Anahit settled into the seat behind the driver and continued to read – there was another half hour to go before the minibus would set off. And before she got to Yerevan, it would probably be a good idea to figure out how she would explain her decision to Armen.

 

***

Only two hours after arriving in Yerevan, she sat with her girlfriends at one of the wine bars on Saryan Street (the third one already, because her friends liked to move from place to place during one evening). Their traditional Friday evening girl talk was supposed to help her relax a bit before her serious conversation with Armen.

“No, everything is much simpler,” Armine continued the argument that had begun in the previous restaurant on the best way to use the one life and limited time given to each of us. “You only do what you enjoy doing, and you only interact with the people you like. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past seven years, and my only regret is not realizing this sooner.”

“It sounds good, but it doesn’t work that way,” Lilith quoted an American President, biting into one of the tapas on the table. “Whatever you do, you can’t be completely independent.”

“Yeah?” Armine did not agree with Lilith’s disagreement. “Watch me and learn,” and she took a sip of her white wine.

“That means you shouldn’t have a job either, so that you don’t have anyone bossing over you,” Lilith would not give up, “And you should avoid talking to some of your relatives…”

“No, you simply choose a job that you enjoy, rather than only base your decision on the salary. Or even start your own company and be your own boss. Relatives are a bit more complicated, but there’s always a solution… Anahit? Anahit, are you here? You haven’t made a sound in half an hour.”

“Yes, yes, I’m here. I’ve been listening very carefully so that I can learn at least one thing from your intellectual debate,” Anahit explained.

“No, in reality, Anahit is trying to figure out how to explain to everyone that she has decided to move to…” Lilith played a drum roll on the table, as if preceding an important announcement, “…Gavar!”

Anahit’s glass hung in the air halfway to her mouth. The next thing everyone heard was the “WHAT?” of surprise that she produced. Anahit rolled her eyes and took out a pack of cigarettes from her bag.

“Yes, we’re losing her,” Lilith continued, “Little Anulik heard the call of her native region and is returning to her ancestral land.”

“Her ancestral orchard.”

“Don’t you make fun of my ancestral orchard,” Anahit declared, her tone more serious than joking, and she lit a long and slim Winston.

“Okay, okay, don’t hit me or anything,” Armine proposed a truce as she held her hands up with the palms facing forward. “If that’s what you need to do at this moment, then you’re making the right move. Do what I do, and don’t pay any attention to what anyone says.”

Anahit blew her liberally-minded girfrield a kiss.

“But seriously, An? Gavar?”

Anahit blew her liberally-minded girfrield a slap.

“You’re making it sound like I’m going there to grow potatoes or something. I’m going to do serious work – do you know anything about women’s rights? People outside Yerevan think it’s a swear word or something.”

“It’s not that different in Yerevan either,” Lilith remarked, “Here, let me take a picture of you, my heroine, my Wonder Woman, my Joan of Arc – the beacon of hope and support for the women of Gavar!”

Lilith picked up her camera from the table and immortalized the half-angry half-worried look on her friend’s face and the swirling puffs of smoke that twisted like the rays of the sun with the black curls on both sides of Anahit’s head.

“But, more specifically, what will you be doing?” Armine asked.

“There’s a European Union project there on women’s issues. The aim of the project is to involve NGOs in the regions and help them engage women in social and economic initiatives, to empower them a bit, basically. For example, helping them start their own business, so they don’t have to emigrate.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about this. I know a girl win Gyumri who launched her own startup, I think it was through an EU-funded project.”

“Yes, Women in Business and IT,” Anahit confirmed, “But it’s not just IT. They’ve helped a woman in Vanadzor start a business making handmade souvenirs, another women has set up a guesthouse in Alaverdi, and so on. We’re going to mobilise the women in Gavar this time.”

“That’s great. That’s exactly what I’m talking about – being independent and living your own life,” Armine remarked, “So why are you so worried?”

“Well…”

“I know the answer! I know the answer!” Lilith raised her hand like a third-grader and without waiting for the teacher to acknowledge her, went on, “Because she doesn’t know how Armen will react to this.”

“Oh…”

“Uh-huh…” 

There was silence for a while. Then the waltz from Amélie could be heard from the speakers and Anahit recalled the special way that she and Armen had met, in a trolleybus following an accident, accompanied by the surreal sounds of this very piece of music. And she felt guilty.

“I guess I should’ve talked to him first, then decided…” Anahit said, more to herself than her friends.

“Don’t feel sorry for yourself, Anahit,” Armine jumped in, “You need to talk to him about this, no doubt about that. You’re not moving to Gavar in secret. But if you really need that job and your ancestral land, then Armen will understand.” And then she added in a more threatening tone, “He better understand, at any rate.”

“And if a new branch of Gazebo opens up in Gavar, we can all move there together,” Lilith proposed.

The issue was no longer discussed for the following hour and a half, because Armine provided strict instructions – “Sleep over it, wake up, think about it with a clear head – you’re not in the right frame of mind at the moment.” She had a date with Armen the following day.

 

***

Armen and Anahit met at Gazebo and started by talking about everyday insignificant events. Anahit would say something about how the radio in the bus had played a song that she had last heard when she was seven, and Armen would talk about how he had seen the headstock of a guitar sticking out of a trash can near the Garegin Njdeh metro station and was still feeling sorry for the abandoned instrument and the forsaken aspirations of its previous owner. For Anahit, talking to each other about these little things created an atmosphere between the two of them that felt like the most intimate and cosy thing in the world. They attached more importance to the graffito saying “I’m tired” on the wall of the Gazebo building and the text added below it with a permanent marker – “Don’t sweat it, everything’s going to be great” – than to climate change, the Islamic state, or the surging price of butter. Because those things belonged only to the two of them.

“I’d gone to buy bread in the morning and there was a woman standing in line with an 8-9 year old boy,” Armen said, taking a slurp of coffee, “The boy hung his head low and was playing the air drums. He was so carried away… And then he stopped for a second, shook his head slightly, and started again. I guess he had a class yesterday and was practicing today.”

Anahit felt the warmth contained in the story. And she responded with one of her own.

“I was looking over the library at my grandmother’s house yesterday and came across an old copy of Heghnar Fountain. I opened it and saw that the title page had a bit of text in half-blurred ink – ‘To Amalik, from the David of Sasun cinema bookstore in Yerevan, 1947’. I guess my grandfather had brought it for her from Yerevan.”

During her youth, Anahit’s grandmother had dreamed of going to the city (i.e. to Yerevan) and to become a lawyer, but her family had not let her, saying that it was shameful to think that way – get married, Amal, and take care of the house. So she got married and took care of the house. And while taking care of it, she collected a library of hundreds of books. When she was little, Anahit read those books and felt sorry for the unfulfilled dreams that her grandmother had cherished even though things had ended in a happy and harmonious wedding with her grandfather.

“Aw, that’s sweet,” Armen confirmed, “But I can’t stand that book. It’s like a bad Armenian soap opera… Wait a second, wasn’t your grandmother’s library in Gavar?”

“Yes…” And so the conversation had come to the trip she had taken the previous day, “I’d gone to Gavar yesterday…”

“Really?” Armen was surprised, “That’s great! One shouldn’t abandon an ancestral home.”

“There was something related to this that I wanted to tell you,” Anahit turned away, but felt the warmth of Armen’s palms on her hands at the same time.

“Hold on, I’ve got something to say too. But not here. Let’s go to the Stork.”

“Where?”

Armen grabbed Anahit’s hand and almost ran out of the place with her behind him. There was a sky blue Vespa parked outside Gazebo, the kind of scooter that Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn had used to ride along the streets of Rome.

“I bought it on credit. I saw it and couldn’t say no,” Armen said with a smile that stretched from one ear to the other, “Climb on!”

For the next half hour, the sky blue Vespa rolled through the modest streets of Charbakh. Another forty minutes after that, the scooter stopped in front of the entrance to Victory Park.

“Don’t tell me we’re going for a ride on the carousel here,” Anahit sounded concerned.

“No, no, no carousels. Come on!”

The couple who had started their relationship in a trolleybus strolled through the crowds enjoying the decades-old amusement park rides and took the path on the right side, then turned right again, shifting left on to footpath that had been abandoned a long time ago and a few steps down… suddenly, they were face to face with Yerevan. Yerevan, Anahit, and Armen. But all under the watchful eye of Mother Armenia. This was the abandoned space of the café called The Stork.

“When I was small, I was afraid of the Mother Armenia statue,” Armen said after quietly looking out at the panorama of Yerevan for a few minutes. “I used to think that if I did anything to upset the girls in the courtyard of our building or in class, or even my mom, Mother Armenia would come with her sword and give me a sound beating. She has such a stern look on her face…”

“Right. A woman must either take care of things at home, or pick up a sword and fight side-by-side with men,” Anahit said sarcastically, “I never liked this statue because there was nothing feminine about it.”

“Oooh, I feel a trace of women’s rights sentiment in your voice…”

“No, seriously. Look, everyone says that women are sacred in Armenia, blah blah blah, but they only praise women who become soldiers or those who bear soldiers. A woman living a normal life is still considered quite unusual.”

“Okay, okay, fine, let’s not fight over this,” Armen tried to calm her down by placing a hand on her shoulder, but Anahit went on.

“We’re sitting here in our bubble, but almost nothing has changed for Armenians in the country. You know about the case that was being heard in a Gavar court last week? A young girl, probably my age now, had been married back when she was 17 and had two children. She wanted to get a job and feel a little more useful. When her husband and mother-in-law found out that she’d gone and got a job, they had beaten her up so badly that she had two broken ribs. And then they shut her up inside the house. Can you imagine? And when she refused to give up and took them to court, half the village had shown up to defend the husband.”

“That’s not good,” Armen expressed genuine concern, “But it’s a good thing that we’re in our own bubble here. Oh, and about our bubble. I mentioned I had something to tell you. What do you say we move in together and live in the empty place my family has in Charbakh? We need to do a little work on the place, of course, and improve it, but I think we’ll manage.”

Armen looked at Anahit with bright eyes. Anahit’s eyes were bright too – they always were when she was with Armen. But she recalled her job in Gavar at the same time. And she knew that she would never forgive herself if she did not do what she could to improve the lives of the women who lived outside the bubble.

“Armen, I’ve got a job offer to live and work in Gavar for a year. Actually, I was the one who applied, because I felt like it’s important work and I’m the one who should be doing it in our village. I applied and they made me an offer. They want me to start in a week.”

“Oh,” Armen pulled back in surprise, “In your ancestral village?”

“Please, no jokes about farming and agriculture…”

“No, no, no jokes. But…”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier, I wasn’t sure myself. But I went there yesterday and realized that I need to do something.”

Armen plunged deep into thought. Mother Armenia had her twenty-meter sword ready and would mete out the right punishment if he upset Anahit.

“About what you said – I would get my things together and move in to your uncle’s empty place in Charbakh right now, I’m serious. But a few days later, I’d regret not being in Gavar and not helping the girl with the broken ribs so that she could go to work without fear and feel economically independent and self-assured. And you would grow bitter and angry, living with an Anahit who was not happy with herself. Arm…”

Anahit put her hand on Armen’s, trying to understand what was going on in his mind. Armen suddenly looked up at Anahit.

“What if my Vespa and I come to your ancestral village. Would people find that really awkward?”

Anahit did not really understand what he was asking. Armen continued.

“I can work from anywhere. What difference does it make whether it’s your grandfather’s house or ours? And there’s always your grandmother’s library, isn’t there?”

Anahit could not believe what she was hearing, she thought Armen was making fun of her. She looked carefully into the eyes of the man she loved and only grew certain of the truth in a few minutes. The next moment, the two of them were locked in an embrace, twirling around the abandoned space of The Stork, as Mother Armenia gave a barely noticeable smile.

A week later, Armen’s sky blue Vespa rode into the central square in Gavar and parked in front of the black statue of Hayrapet the Short.

“Wow, who’s this?” Armen asked, “A local celebrity?”

“Yes, that’s Hayrapet the Short. Let’s go and see the house, and then we’ll go to the museum and you’ll learn something new about our village.”

“Whatever ya say, m’dear,” smiled Armen, trying to imitate the local accent.